Category Archives: Goals

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?

 

 

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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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For Whom the Bag Tolls

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Seattle and Vera Bradley do not belong together. Look at that map trying to leap out of the pocket from embarrassment.

As the flight to Indiana from Seattle (via Las Vegas) landed, I was momentarily mortified by my choice of carry-on bag, a giant, pink and green quilted Vera Bradley tote that I inherited this  last year. It both delights and repulses me, and I’m not sure what to do with these conflicting emotions.

 

Hint: this blog post is not really about the merits or demerits of Vera Bradley, but let’s start there.

 

On the pro side:

  • Best carry-on bag ever. It has pockets in spades and helps me be more organized than I deserve to be. Everything I might need is within easy reach and is easy to locate. Also, it is not a bag you forget or get mixed up with someone else’s at a taxi stand. Queen Elizabeth wears bright colors so people will be able to see her easily in a crowd, and that’s pretty much the modus operandi of anything made by Vera Bradley. It will be seen.

 

On the con side:

  • Everything else.

 

I am a person who spent one of my first paltry paychecks from the public library on a leather field bag from Banana Republic because I needed that bag to be the truth of my life. In reality, I was wearing stirrup pants, oversized sweaters, and a headband while I checked out romance novels to the inhabitants of my hometown, but in my mind, I was an adventurer, a writer, a sojourner. The bag looked like something Hemingway would have carried, and though I didn’t love Hemingway, I loved the romance of the way he lived his life: the travel, the passion, the skirmishes. Even, God help me, the bullfights.

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Ernest _wishes_ he had a field bag so fine.

In the almost 30 years since I bought that bag, there have been a lot of others, but they’ve mostly been a variation on a field bag theme: a shoulder strap, a flap, pockets in which to keep pens and notebooks. Most have been canvas since that first purchase because it turns out that leather is heavy and my shoulders ache.

 

My life never did get bullfight-y. I’ve traveled some, but I don’t camp out. I don’t usually carry binoculars. I’ve never tied a kerchief around my neck or had cause to start a fire upon which to roast a trout caught with my bare hands. But the dream lives on.

 

This pink and green bag is not the dream. If I still lived in the Midwest, I could carry it and I’d fit in because half the female population of Indiana carries one of these things since the Vera Bradley headquarters is in Fort Wayne. I’d blend right in. These bags are usually bright and floral and thick with padding. They look like a quilt on your great grandmother’s bed, if your great grandmother had been dropping acid when she stitched it together. You can spot them a mile away. Without binoculars.

 

You don’t see these bags in Seattle. I would never carry it out of the house unless it was to get in a rental car and drive to some other, less urban place. It’s too bright for Seattle. Too feminine.

 

And truth be told, I no more fit the Vera Bradley mold than I do the Hemingway field bag mold. Women who carry Vera Bradley have children, go to church, make casseroles, vote differently than I vote. When I carry this bag I feel exactly the way I felt when I went to a friend’s Sangeet several years ago and a Mehndi artist tattooed my hand with henna. I loved the design and the way it curled from my wrist and across my hand and up my index finger. It was beautiful, and looking at it made me happy because it had been a happy night of celebrating her impending wedding.

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Poser. Posing.

But also, it felt wrong on my skin. Like I was playing at something that didn’t belong to me. Not my culture. Not mine. Not “me.”

 

So as the plane taxied to the gate in Indianapolis, I had my pink bag sitting on my lap and though it was not an accurate representation of who I am, I was okay with it. Here, no one was going to look at me oddly or know I was a poser. I was home and this homely bag that I love and hate was at home too.

 

Except that for the duration of the flight I’d been watching the woman across from me who was very busy, juggling a laptop, an iPad, and her phone while she did some sort of work that looked interesting. (Read: it didn’t seem to involve spreadsheets.) I was a little dubious of her because every one of her toenails was painted different colors and with different designs, like tiny nautical flags, and she was wearing drawstring camo pants and high-heeled sandals that were similarly camo.

 

That is: it was not a look I aspire to.

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Ahoy, matey!

But also: she seemed to have this golden light emanating from within. I can’t explain it. She wasn’t tan, really, but her skin was honeyed, and her hair was blonde, and though it may have come from a bottle, it looked more like hair angels would have. She gave off the vibe of money and the flight attendants flitted around her whenever she requested something as if she were somebody, all of which seemed kind of a weird for a Southwest flight. Nobody is first class on Southwest. It’s steerage all the way.

 

So while we were waiting for the jet bridge, I noticed how attractive her backpack was. It was black or dark grey and kind of sleek. It had a subtle design on it that I couldn’t make out, and I was suddenly obsessed. If I had this bag, I was convinced that I would somehow be myself. No. If I had this bag, I would become a better version of myself. I would have the golden light, the honeyed skin, the angel hair. I would be able to juggle three devices on a flight as I did Important Work, while simultaneously commanding the attention of the attendants. I’d be younger, more successful, thinner, and richer. I even suspected that if I had this bag, suddenly the nautical toenails and camouflage clothing would make perfect sense.

 

Clearly, it was a magic bag.

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It looked more impressive on the plane.

I looked at my hand-me-down Vera Bradley, sitting there on my lap like a giant, quilted watermelon, and I wanted to cry. How had I gotten this flight so wrong? How had I gotten my life so wrong? What stupid, stupid choices I’ve made that led me to this place where my Midwestern-sized ass was squished into a plane seat and I had the quintessential Midwestern bag perched on my doughy Midwestern knees. I was meant to be somebody. Doing something important.

 

It was 90 some degrees out and I was already red faced and sweating. And old. Somehow, I’d gotten really old on this flight.

 

As we stood up to deplane and she threw her magic backpack over her shoulder, I asked her what kind it was. It wasn’t too late! I could still transform my life!

 

She wasn’t impolite, but she looked me up and down, making note of my bag, the worn Keens I had my air-puffy feet stuffed into, my big wide white and red splotched face, and she tilted her head and gave a little smile that wasn’t really a smile but more of a “Lady, you couldn’t afford it.”

 

Then she said, “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

 

I didn’t blanche, though it surprised me because usually Louis Vuitton’s primary feature is self-referential design so you notice the giant LVs before you even see the accessory. It is a brand I have loathed for a long time because it’s always so pleased with itself. But this bag was subtle. Tricky. I told her again how lovely it was. And she said, “Yes, it’s an investment piece.” The implication being that she’d really splurged on this and wasn’t it shameful. Another head tilt and this time a conspiratorial smile.

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I wonder who the manufacturer of this handbag could possibly be?

This made me like her momentarily because it reminded me of that leather Banana Republic bag I couldn’t really afford but splurged on anyway when I was 22. It was a dream I wanted to be true. I can understand trying to buy a lifestyle. She was a kindred spirit.

 

She then picked up her purse and I saw it was Louis Vuitton. As was her oversized belt. As was the shopping bag she pulled out of the overhead compartment.

 

Kindred spirit, my eye! She was a junky. A Louis Vuitton addict. I was not disappointed to see her disappear into the airport, and when I looked up the backpack in question online and saw that it cost almost $3,000, I laughed out loud. You can fly to Zimbabwe for less than that.

 

What’s more, if I get a scuff on my 30-year-old field bag, it’s character. It’s a story. If you scuff a $3,000 Louis Vuitton backpack, your “investment” is in tatters.

 

I’d rather go to Zimbabwe than have a $3,000 backpack I might leave on a train. Not that it’s an either/or proposition. I suppose you could take a backpack so expensive to Zimbabwe, but why would you?

 

I don’t really know what the moral of the story is if there even is one. I’d like to tell you that I’ve embraced that psychedelic bag and my Midwestern essence completely, but that would be a lie. I’m still not carrying this thing out into the streets of the city. Call me superficial.

 

Or it could be something about not judging a book by its cover or a woman by her accessories. In these dark days when tribalism is wrecking the world, it’s one of the worst things we can do—not getting to know someone but instead making assumptions about them because of their bumper stickers or the color of the their skin (or ball cap). But. It can be a useful shorthand that makes it a bit easier (and sometimes safer) to navigate life and find the people with whom you can breathe more easily when you are exhausted from the hard work of trying to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

I could write another six paragraphs about how I wish I were more like Z, who knows exactly who he is and doesn’t have these wardrobe crises every six months like I do. He marches out of the house every day in his Crocs and frayed jeans and if anyone judges him for it, it’s their problem, not his. But he’s a man and it just isn’t the same, is it? So I’m giving that a miss too.

 

Maybe all this really is is a plea to Vera Bradley to please, in the name of all that is good and righteous, make your multi-pocketed tote bag in material that blends in in the Pacific Northwest and doesn’t advertise a person’s ability to make casseroles.

 

If that bag were grey or khaki, I’d be in business.

 

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There’s a giraffe out there somewhere. Zimbabwe, 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developments on the Northwestern Front

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There are new developments here on the Pacific Northwestern front.

 

Veins in my forehead.

 

I don’t mean like I’m angry and you can see the contours of a vein sticking out of my forehead in a telltale sign that I need to do yoga to de-stress. I mean I just looked in the mirror and thought I had a newspaper ink smudge by my hairline. Only I wasn’t reading a newspaper. Nor have I been canoodling with a chimney sweep while Z is at work.

 

And it’s not a good delicate blue-vein-on-a-milky-forehead Michelle Pfeiffer style circa Frankie and Johnny. No. It just looks like I need to go wash my face.

 

I was calm about this because another recent development is that I started meditating almost two weeks ago. I’ve been an avid Not Meditator for years. While I acknowledged that it’s likely a beneficial practice, it seemed an impossibility because focusing on my breath makes me hyperventilate, and I’ve always had an aggressive resistance to someone—anyone—telling me what to think (or not think). But a friend said the Headspace app changed her life, so I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say it has changed my life yet, but there is something so soothing and pleasant about the speaker’s accent that I find I look forward to my “daily practice.”

 

Before you get wildly impressed with me, please know I’m only doing it five minutes a day and suspect ten minutes a day will be my limit because, well, it’s kind of boring. But still, me doing anything nine days in a row that I know is good for me but am only marginally interested in is quite an accomplishment.

 

Other developments in the PNW: I’ve become obsessed with watching packing videos on YouTube. That’s right. I willingly give up 5-to-10-minute increments of my day to watch people pack clothes into a carry-on suitcase for three-week European vacations. It is mesmerizing. I rarely learn anything new. I’ve been mastering the fine art of packing and rejecting the mantra less is more for decades now, so I don’t watch to learn anything. But, oh, is it satisfying to watch someone take a heap of clothes, fold them up, and shove them into a suitcase. I’m also curious to see what items people deem necessary for such travel. Please note, usually these suitcase packers are young women so petite that they could fit their entire wardrobe inside an empty box of saltines.

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Today’s development was that I left my card in the ATM without realizing it until 20 minutes later and then nearly had a full-fledged anxiety attack at the drug store when I reached for my card and realized it was gone. Ironically, I was waiting in line to pick up my anti-anxiety meds (that I’m always anxious about not being allowed to have—it’s a snake chewing it’s own tail this anxiety thing, let me tell you). I did not want to appear twitchy in front of the pharmacist lest he alert my doctor that I shouldn’t be allowed anymore of these pills, but once they were in my hand, I hightailed it back to the bank where I was assured the card would be accessible but I had to wait a few minutes for the banker to fetch it for me.

 

This is a weird thing to say about a bank, but I find ours a soothing place usually. The tellers are always friendly, it feels local even though it isn’t, and they’ve always got Dum-Dums out in a bowl so you don’t even have to pretend you’ve got a kid outside waiting with your husband to score one, and no one looks at you sideways if you root around for a strawberry or ginger ale one. But for reasons inexplicable to me, the anxiety that kicked into gear at the drug store did not dissipate even though I’d been assured the card would be returned to me very soon. I got hot. My heart pounded. A lady was hollering at a teller about the bank not treating her right, ratcheting up my stress. I started to worry about bank robbers (something I haven’t actively worried about since about 1977). I worried about how I was going to get packed before my 5 a.m. flight to Indiana, if I could stand being away from Z for two weeks. (This last one I do every time I have to be away from Z, so it was not abnormal, though perhaps abnormal to be twitchy in the bank lobby as I worried about it.) So what I know now is that even with 52 total minutes of meditation under my belt, it did not soothe me.

 

Finally, the woman brought my card out.

 

She’s helped me before—mostly with laundry quarters, but once because I’d made a math error that meant my account was empty for the exact 15 minutes the bank thought it should not be and slapped me with an overdraft fee that she kindly reversed. I like her. She’s thorough and friendly and I think of her as a contemporary though she’s probably in her twenties. I felt better as soon as my card was zipped back into my wallet. I was a little uncomfortable, however, because while all I needed for her to do was use her magic banker key to open the ATM and get my card, she somehow managed to pull up my information and decided she had some products to sell me based on the numbers she saw in our accounts. If it had been another teller or banker, I might have been annoyed, but I like her, so I asked her some questions. She answered them.

 

Why I often feel obligated to apologize to bank staff that I am not good enough with my money to be a millionaire is beyond me, but I do. For all I know, this woman has four roommates, has her credit cards maxed out, and lives on ramen noodles. Why do I assume that someone with a bank nametag on is automatically more fiscally responsible than I am? No idea, but this is how I am. So I said something like “ha ha, I’m not so good with financial stuff.” I loathed myself for saying it. It’s the same voice I use if someone has to change my tire or unclogged my sink, “ha ha I’m such a dolt I can’t manage to master basic gettin’-through-life skills ha ha ha.”

 

What I loathed more was what she said to me with a very kind smile on her face. What she said was this:

 

“Oh, that’s okay! That’s how my parents are too!”

 

Her parents? HER PARENTS? She thinks I’m the same age as her parents?

 

I probably am the same age as her parents, but it pains me that this is the correlation she made. Instead of recognizing me as a fellow apartment dweller who must suffer the slings and arrows of the communal laundry room, she sees me as an aging parent who never got her banking crap together so she could move on up to a condo downtown with the washer and dryer right in the unit.

 

I’ve kind of gone off her now.

 

What else is new on First Hill? Our trees out front bloomed. More construction went up around us. Belle visited from Indiana and she and I had some writerly adventures, including her guest appearance in my Writing for Procrastinators class. I edited three dissertations, attended Hudge and Providence’s dissertation defense (congratulations!), picked up a new coaching client, helped Z index his book (which will be out in July—expect to hear shouts of joy from our vicinity!), and taught a session on reflective writing to some of Z’s students.

 

Oh yeah. And we booked airfare for a month in Zimbabwe this summer. So excited to see Z-ma , Z family, Z friends, and Skampy. And a cherry atop that triple-layer cake: we’re going to “swing by” Ireland on the way home for ten days.

 

Also, when I wasn’t meditating, watching packing videos, or having public anxiety incidents, I logged a lot of hours watching the Royal Wedding. A lot of hours. Before the wedding. During the wedding (which started at 2:30 a.m. out here). And after the wedding.

 

The thing I hate most about a Royal Wedding after you put all that time in and the happy couple drives off in their horse drawn carriage is the realization that you haven’t been invited to the reception and you aren’t getting any cake.

 

So, this isn’t much of a post, but I’ve got to go pack my bag, adjust my thermostat for Indiana’s humidity, and spend my last remaining hours of May with Z.

 

Summer is upon us, friends, and what that means is there is a 78% chance my next post will be complaining about the heat.

 

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

 

I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blue: A Shoe Obsession

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Because I was raised on Yogi Bear cartoons, I like to think I’m smarter than the average bear. When it became increasingly more evident that some of the ads I was seeing in 2016 on Facebook had actually originated in Russia, I preened a little bit because I hadn’t fallen for any of those. I’m one of those annoying people who, when someone posts something mostly ludicrous online, I quickly check Snopes and then tell them they’ve made an error because I don’t want them to embarrass themselves. A few months ago, Mom graciously sent us some potholder-sized square pieces of stretchy plastic that she’d ordered online because the reviews insisted it was less annoying than Saran Wrap and better for the planet, and she knew I’d like that, but when it arrived and I tried it, I discovered that the reason it was less annoying than Saranwrap is because, unlike Saran Wrap, it sticks to nothing at all.

 

Just as I suspected.

 

So it is with great shame that I tell you a few weeks ago I became obsessed. After a barrage of shock-and-awe advertisements I’d seen for these too-expensive turquoise-soled flats that were guaranteed to change my life, I was left quivering with want. My life, I was sure, would not be complete without them. They were guaranteed to give my wardrobe some panache and make me look at least 70% more pulled together.

 

I’ve never paid so much for a pair of shoes. (That’s a lie. I did once, but it was only because I was in Ireland at the time and failed to do the currency conversion correctly.) But the hype surrounding Tieks is phenomenal. Not only are the advertisements slick, but the customer reviews (of which I think I read every one) are almost all raves. Women swear they’ve never had a more comfortable pair of shoes, never had such pain-free feet when walking on the cobblestoned streets of Europe, never needed to wear a different pair of shoes since their Tieks arrived because they are so amazing, never pay for checked luggage when they travel now because you only need one pair of these things to meet all of your fashion needs. They spoke of them with the enthusiam of the recently converted or the newly in love. Most admitted that the price was a little steep, but if you crunched the numbers, the shoes paid for themselves in no time because you’d basically never need another pair of shoes again. Ever.

 

It was hard not to believe.

 

The women who love and wear these things not only love to write rave reviews about them while wearing them, but they also like to post images on Instagram of the shoes, them wearing the shoes, them getting a new pair of the shoes and unboxing them, them admiring the flowers and ribbons that decorate the Tiffany colored boxes the shoes arrive in (so small for a pair of shoes, but the shoes fold up, like small precious foldy-uppy things!), and them (or at least their feet) doing both exciting and mundane things in their new shoes. Both the women and the shoes are photogenic. The shoes come in a rainbow assortment of colors, like Fiestaware for your feet, and the women who wear them appear to be 32 or younger, a size four or smaller, and have beautiful children, husbands, dogs, houses, vacations, and yoga practices. I have yet to see an ugly—or even average—woman photographed in a pair of Tieks, though admittedly, often the women in the photos don’t have heads. .

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I suppose this woman could be wearing a bag on her head because she’s aesthetically challenged, but I bet she isn’t. (Photo from Instagram #tieks)

 

God help me, when I saw these ads multiple times a day, I started to believe that if only I had a pair, all of my shoe problems and wardrobe failures would be solved. I also started to believe that I too would be 32 or younger, 117 pounds or less, and have a beautiful, beautiful life. It’s not the first time I’ve been obsessed, but this was a bad case.

 

I suspect that Z already knew how this experiment would end, but he is a great supporter of my enthusiasms, so after I got paid last month, he said, “I think you should order those shoes you want.”

 

I did tell him how much they cost, but he misheard by $50 and I didn’t correct him. Not because I was trying to put one over on him, but because I was so deep in my obsession that I was too busy to tell him as I poured over the website and the photos and tried to decide what color I should order. Black was the most practical of course, but those fruity flavors and jewel tones looked good too. Mom and I had not one but three phone conversations about what color I should order. I forced Jane to read paragraphs of email about which pair would best suit my Inner Beth and feed my soul. (Jane noted that sometimes when talking about the turquoise soles of the shoes, I spelled it “soul” as if I was starting to believe the shoes were living creatures that were ultimately Heaven bound.)

 

I got agitated and anxious. What if I made a poor choice?

 

Finally, Z looked at me and said, “I think you want the blue. You love blue.”

 

The man knows me so well.

 

My love affair with blue began basically the moment I was able to distinguish colors but before I had words for them. My favorite toys were blue: a stuffed cat—Mewy—whose button eyes had been removed because Mom was afraid I’d choke on them, an extra large hollow plastic spoon sized for a giant that for reasons I’m still unclear on was designated a bath toy, a blue magnetic chalkboard with dubious-looking plastic magnetic children and domestic animals included to stick into the middle of my drawings, and the backside of my Candyland board game that I found infinitely more pleasing to look at than the messy maze of gumdrops and candy canes on the other side. What these blue items had in common is that they were all the perfect shade of blue: a deep, rich cobalt.

 

I had a well-meaning and generous aunt who regularly gave me blue things to please me, but what she didn’t know was that any blue that wasn’t cobalt didn’t even register as blue for me, and alas, her own preferred palette was a pastel one. I’d thank her and demonstrate how much I appreciated the sweater, the blanket, the wall hanging, all the while staring at the blue star sapphire she wore on her right hand and thinking, now that’s blue. (And bless her, when she feared her days here were numbered, she asked if there was anything of hers that I wanted, and I greedily said, “Your sapphire!” and she got a wry, pleased smile on her face, pulled it off her finger, and gave it to me.)

 

A more recent exampleof my blue inclinations are the napkins that Z and I put on our bridal registry 9 years ago that we use almost every day. I like the green fine, but the blue makes me smile every time I see it. Because we re-use the napkins if we’ve had a meal that wasn’t too greasy or crumby, Z uses a green one and I use blue, so we’ll remember whose is whose. On the few occasions when laundry needs to be done and he’s used one of MY blue ones, I’ve felt very territorial about it and have to remind myself that I love him and it’s good to share. (And also, his using it is temporary.)

 

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You can come over to dinner, but please don’t touch the blue napkins.

 

So I ordered the cobalt Tieks, was promised delivery in two days, and I became a woman even more obsessed. Z got hourly updates from me re: where they were now in transit because I kept hitting refresh on my web browser to see where USPS said they were now. And now. And NOW. When I wasn’t stalking them, I was fantasizing about what I’d wear with them. How I would slowly start weeding things out of my wardrobe that wouldn’t go with them. I started re-watching “New Girl” because Jess has a tendency to wear bright blue flats. I wondered if I should have Mom ship my blue, rabbit fur wedding purse from Indiana so I could start carrying it to events around the city. (It was vintage, so I didn’t feel too guilty about it being rabbit—by the time I bought it, the rabbit would have been dead of natural causes, and I believed this would make it mostly acceptable in sensitive Seattle.) On day two of waiting, I tried to balance my cobalt blue Leuchtturm notebook on my foot so I could better imagine how fabulous the shoes would be.

 

There is no way those cobalt Tieks were going to live up to my expectations.

 

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How could whatever is inside of this box NOT be life-changing?

 

When I got a text from the building manager saying a package had arrived, I raced downstairs faster than I’ve moved in a decade. She handed me a decidedly un-shoe-like pacakge, and when I opened it, it was a book someone had sent me. I was happy to have the book, but it was a bit like getting a call in high school from your friend when you were expecting the voice on the other end to be a boy asking you out on a date. Fortunately, a similar text later in the day resulted in shoes.

 

Those reviewers had been right. The packaging was scrumptious, even if it wasn’t my shade of blue. (Though I’ll admit I felt one reviewer had let me down by implying that the flower on the box would be the color of the shoes. I wanted a cobalt flower and instead I got a pink one.) The box was so compact and the shape so un-shoelike, that it enhanced the sense I had that these shoes were better than mundane footwear arriving in a foot-sized oblong box.

 

And inside:

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Look at how precious and foldy-uppy!

 

Oh, that color! Hello Mewy. Hello Giant Spoon. Hello Magentic Chalkboard. Hello Backside of Candyland, Sapphire Rings, Leuchtturm Journal, and Rabbit Purse. Hello every jar of Noxema I ever tried to love the smell of just because of the cobalt container.

 

I wouldn’t let myself try the shoes on immediately. First, I unpacked the box and discovered a handwritten notecard, wishing me great happiness in my new shoes:

 

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Look at all those thin, leggy women and their colorful footwear!

 

The shoes also come with both a teensy bag to stuff the shoes into so they take up no space at all in your purse or luggage, and a bigger bag to carry your high heels in when you switch them out mid-day for cloud-inspired Tieks.

 

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Since I don’t wear high heels, I imagined I would use this to carry flowers and organic fruit home from the market.

 

Because I am a practical woman, I washed my feet before I tried these on because I didn’t want any evidence of myself in the shoes should I need to return them. But I was fairly confident that God would not disappoint me and make these shoes uncomfortable. Yes, that’s right. Instead of considering the possibility that there might be a designer error (them) or an orderer error (me), I just went straight to the Big Guy and assumed He cobbled them Himself, specifcally for me, so all of my cobalt dreams could come true.

 

I’d done my research, so I knew the shoes would stretch, that often when they first arrived, they were tight. But they WILL stretch, the beautiful women told me, and so I walked around the house in them, and after a few hours I realized that they’d have to stretch a whole size in order to be wearable.

 

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but almost as soon as I ordered the next size up and started the (remarkbly helpful and easy) return process, the obsessing began again. Z started getting USPS delivery status updates from me while he was at work. I wrote a review for Jane and called my mom to tell her the news, as if we’d just tried out a puppy and had to return it to the breeder after discovering it was a biter but not to worry because a non-biting puppy would be filling our lives with joy soon. I fantasized about all the ways the new, larger size would be perfect.

 

When the second pair arrived, I went through the same ritual and was just as delighted with the packaging and the handwritten note as I’d been the first time. I slipped the shoes on and they felt better than the original pair, though now if they stretched, I wondered if they’d be too big. I walked in circles around the living room, I tried on some skirts to see how they looked. I sent Mom photos, and started imagining my new life in them and how soon I’d be younger, thinner, and more photogenic. I wondered how soon it would be before the beautiful toddler, international travel, and Labradoodle would show up.

 

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Suddenly, our casino-style rug looks muted and disappointing. I wonder if Z will go for a new Tieks-matching carpet?

 

And then I realized this other thing: my toes were throbbing because the leather was so tight across the top of my feet.  And the bottoms of my feet  weren’t very happy either. I was promised that the shoes would feel like wearing sneakers, but I didn’t really even want to walk down to the laundry room in them, let alone up and down the hills of Seattle.

 

Let alone on European cobblestones for a summer spent abroad with the toddler and the Labradoodle.

 

I kept the shoes for a day and berated myself for not having younger, more accomodating feet or a body so light that shoes with no visible means of support could be considered a good idea. I spent an hour looking at sensible shoes on orthopedic websites and saying mean things to myself about how this was clearly what I was destined for if I couldn’t make these blue wonders work. I propped my feet up on the coffee table and considered how they really were lovely and I should keep them to wear when I’m sitting around the house, even though we have a no-shoes-in-the-house policy for ourselves.

 

And then I realized that even sitting with my feet propped up, my toes–which had plenty of room length-wise–were killing me. In fact, I could feel every heartbeat in each big toe, and because I’d just had my blood pressure checked and discovered it was (surprisingly) perfect, I had to admit that this toe-throbbing was not a fault of mine. My toes are not fat and unhealthy.  This was not a sign of an imminent stroke. The shoes just didn’t have enough room in them. Maybe they would  stretch as promised by the Tieks devotees, but in the half century I’ve spent breaking shoes in, I’ve never had to break in a toe box.

 

Also, there was this niggling thought in the back of my head that I’d never talked to any actual women in the real world wearing Tieks. I’d seen ONE pair in Seattle on a woman running to catch a ferry a few weeks before I ordered them (the only way I would have known is because of those turquoise soles), and frankly, I had a feeling she would have been more comfortable in a pair of Adidas or Columbia hiking boots. I started to equate the obsesion and enthusiasm I had for the shoes to earlier iterations of things you can’t buy in stores and must order from “parties,” items made to separate women from their paychecks: basket parties, jewelry parties, candle parties, home decorating parties. I remembered the vague sense of being at those parties and feeling simultaneously like I didn’t really need a $34 basket to keep a bedside flashlight in but certain that if I didn’t have one, my life would be incomplete. And I might stub my toe in the dark.

 

Was it possible that I’d fallen for the organized online enthusiasm that my mom fell for with her  Saran Wrap alternative? Was I no better than the marks who believed what they read about Hillary Clinton running  a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor?

 

Maybe. I don’t know. It was such a great shade of blue though.

 

When Z and I had our walk around First Hill that evening, I told him I thought I needed to send them back. But maybe not–those fantasies of me skipping around Montmartre like a Technicolor Audrey Hepburn hadn’t quite died. I did’t know what to do, I said.

 

“I think you know what to do,” he said. “You just don’t want to do it.”

 

He’s always sensisble. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of which is tell him that he’d mis-remembered the price and I hadn’t corrected him.  Z isn’t the sort of guy who would boss me up and say, “A HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTY-FIVE-DOLLARS! THAT’S RIDICULOUS! YOU DON’T NEED THOSE!” but having spoken it out loud to him, even I had to admit it was ridiculous to be considering non-magical shoes that were that pricey. Especially when Z’s current chosen footwear is a pair of Crocs I got for him at Ross for $18.99. (He also has a pair of $40 “dress” Crocs he wears to more formal occasions.)

 

When I got home, I boxed up the shoes and started the return process. The exchange was friendly and efficient.  Within a week, I had my refund.

 

What I’m left with–aside from a blue shoe sized hole in my wardrobe–is an overwhelming sense of my own ridiculousness. Suddenly I’m more aware of the items social media is flashing in front of me. (That sling bag really does look revolutionary, and that kickstarter ultimate suitcase seems like it might have some answers to my problems!)

 

We’re all just targets. I’m no smarter a bear than the average one. Especially if the bait is blue.

 

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Imagine getting intern credit for fancy card writing.

On History and Mystery

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Do you see the missing piece?

 

This weekend, I should have been doing one or more of the following:

 

  • fixing up the writing studio post earthquake proofing
  • creating a syllabus for my next class
  • writing lesson plans for my next class
  • working on a website to sell my wares to the wider world
  • writing this blog
  • cleaning in general
  • cleaning specifically:
    • birthday confetti off the carpet from the first part of the month
    • cobwebs I keep discovering on the ceiling
    • a fan that is more dust than blade at this point
    • the bottom of the kitchen trashcan (Z and I keep hoping “our man” will do it, but it turns out, we haven’t hired a man and thus it’s down to us and we’re each hoping the other will cave first)
  • putting industrial strength patches on the thighs of my favorite jeans
  • figuring out where to get rid of the books I’ve weeded
  • actually getting rid of the books I’ve weeded once I’ve decided
  • preparing for a presentation at a conference in three weeks that Z talked me into and at which I must appear to be knowledgeable and quick-witted though I am feeling neither of these things
  • using the new Panda Planner that has promised to change my life

 

 

What I’ve actually been doing:

 

  • genealogy

 

Probably I should be apologetic about why I am doing this since I have no children with whom to share this ancestral knowledge, but the truth is, I don’t care. I don’t care if my niece and nephew are interested. I don’t care if my cousins are. I see Z’s eyes glaze over when I tell him about some new relative I never knew I had who was a Quaker or a Puritan or a dentist, but I don’t care if it bores him—I tell him anyway.

 

I’m doing it because I’m curious and because history fascinates me, in particular, personal histories that overlap larger, human history. There are good stories there and I like a good story. So every night I open up Ancestry.com and introduce myself to some new person who contributed to the cocktail that is me. God bless them every one.

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A set of my great-great grandparents, their brood, and one awesome tricycle.

While the men’s histories are the easiest to access—them being regularly afforded their own names and the bulk of the attention in Quaker meeting minutes and newspaper accounts—what thrills me most is imagining the women’s stories and what might have been happening between the very few official mentions they get. A long space between children often means some grief, for instance. There’s all sorts of speculation I do about the teenagers who marry older men, the women who audaciously manage to work their maiden names into a first name for one of their children. If I happen upon a photo, I try to peer into the eyes to see if there’s any evident happiness or misery, and if the photo is of a tombstone, I’m curious to see if it is simple or grand, and if she warranted any sort of adjectives: beloved wife, devoted mother, etc.

 

This weekend I discovered that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother, Ellen, emigrated from Ireland in 1849. I’m familiar enough with the stories of my great grandmother Bridget who sailed away from Ireland as a teenager near the end of the 19th century with a blackthorn walking stick in her hand that now belongs to me. I know she married a man much older than she was who had a young son of his own. I know her middle son gave up a future in the priesthood when her husband died so he could earn money to help support her and his baby brother, my grandfather. I’ve met her nieces and nephew in Ireland, skulked around the farm where she was raised and that her great nephew now farms, stayed overnight with her niece and great niece, and stood over the graves of her parents and grandparents. So Ireland was no surprise.

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane, County Galway

But 1849? As soon as I saw that year on the screen, I said a very non-blasphemous Jesus under my breath and my eyes filled up and threatened to spill over the dam. You didn’t come to America from Ireland in 1849 because you wanted a change of scenery or were ambitious. You came because of the Famine.

 

I checked to see if there were children older than my great grandfather and discovered there were two: one born in New York, where they must have landed and tried to earn money enough to head west, and another, before that, born in transit on the Atlantic.

 

Jesus again.

 

Can you imagine? Your first child born in the hull of an overcrowded famine ship, not entirely sure what would be waiting on you when you arrived, except of course, that it wouldn’t be family—or anyone else—with open arms?

 

There’s the added knowledge that while she was pregnant for my great grandfather in West Virginia, her husband did the unfathomable and died at a young age, so there she is, a woman in coal-mining country with two pre-schoolers and a newborn to raise on her own.

 

So she did what you did if you were a woman in those straits and she married almost immediately. No time for a lengthy mourning before looking for a new spouse. No time for a long courtship to make sure the fellow is kind or clever. No chance for pre-marital counseling to make sure you have compatible dispositions. There are mouths to feed and your whole adult life you’ve been running from the Hunger.

 

No wonder I get panicky when there’s no peanut butter or Lucky Charms in the cabinets. No wonder I’ve had a passive-aggressive relationship with food my whole life (it being passive and me being aggressive). That hunger stuff has to get written on a person’s DNA at some point.

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It’s not _really_ Irish, but it is the perfect breakfast food.

So anyhow, that’s where my head is at and may explain why none of the above items on my ticking-off list have been ticked off. It might also explain why this afternoon while I was attempting to re-assemble the writing studio from earthquake-proofing-shambles and listening to The Drovers—an old Chicago Celtic rock band—I heard the opening stanzas to “Kilkelly, Ireland” and before it was all over I was having a loud, snorty cry as I re-hung pictures and stacked books.

 

To be clear, I’ve been listening to The Drovers since I first heard them on the Blink soundtrack in 1993, I’ve seen them in concert in Grant Park on a warm Chicago evening, and I’ve never, NEVER, heard them sing this or any other piece that is so maudlin. Their music is sometimes haunting, but mostly it makes you want to spin around like a dervish, maybe stick it to The Man. So I was blindsided when I heard those opening stanzas. It’s a song I intentionally took off of my Irish playlists because uncontrollable sobbing is not an activity I enjoy.

 

Have you ever heard it? I defy you to listen to it and not have some feelings. “Danny Boy” might make the masses tear up, but those are cheap emotions compared to the ones this song elicits. Supposedly, it is based on a set of actual letters from a father in Ireland to his son who has emigrated around the time of the Famine (the years are a little off, and this bothers me, but once the music swells, I allow for a little poetic license) and it spans several decades. For me, the tears start when the father begins his letter explaining that he’s had Pat McNamara “write these words down.” (As if the longing for loved ones you’ll likely never see again isn’t enough, I’ve the added weep-material of illiteracy.) By the time it works it’s way round to the immigrant’s brother writing the final lines to his brother that the father has died with a “He called for you in the end/Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit/We’d all love to see you again” I’m a mess. It’s like the old-timey Irish version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

Please note, a decade ago I once purposely traveled from Waterford to Kilkelly specifically so I could feel the feelz of this song, only to realize when I arrived that I was not actually in Kilkelly but in Kilkenny, which is, it turns out, a whole different place. Instead of walking around mournfully and reflecting on my (then only imagined) Famine-affected relatives, I spent part of the afternoon in a Radley of London shop trying to justify an expensive leather bag with a Scottie dog logo. (I did not win that justification and am still sans a Radley handbag, fyi.)

 

Aside from the stories and extra fierce musically induced weeping because of those stories, the thing I like about this genealogy business is how much it’s like doing a puzzle. It’s the kind of detective work I was born to do because at no point is anyone going to hold me at knifepoint and tell me to quit snooping or else. (Though things did look a little dodgy at the Seattle Public Library yesterday when I was on my way to the genealogy department, so I s’pose it could happen.) It’s amazing the things you can find with a little poking around: a break with the church, a scandalous marriage, an illegitimate child. Sometimes, I’m guilty of assuming that anyone that predated me and my immediate family were just sitting around in long dresses and wearing stovepipe hats and working the land and reading their Bibles, but it turns out they were living real lives and making some desperate (and sometimes dubious) choices.

 

I’d have made a terrible historian though because I get caught up in my flights of fancy. I’ve hit a brick wall with Ellen and can’t find where she was born, who her parents were, and she’s starting to morph into Nicole Kidman in Far and Away, a high born woman who falls in love with a poor country yoke (and Scientologist) and makes her way to America, for good or for ill. She’s become amazing in my mind. Fierce, feisty, kind and generous. But for all I know, she was none of those things. She might have been a stern, humorless mother and who could blame her? She might have always been nagging her second husband to wear his hat and scarf to keep himself well, and who could blame her?

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Great Great Grandmother Ellen

Since January, I’ve been solving a lot of little puzzles. First, I’ve done actual jigsaw puzzles as I like the satisfaction I feel in those five minutes after I’ve completed one and before I realize what a complete waste of time it is since the picture is right there on the box and I didn’t need to actually put it together to see it. But the mystery to be solved here is how is it that the last two puzzles I’ve done have been missing a single piece? They were both new. Where did the rogue piece go? Was it never put in because there’s some malcontent at the puzzle factory who gets joy out of the notion of wrecking some obsessive’s sense of self-satisfaction? Has someone (read: Z, not me) dropped a piece and it’s bounced into a crevice in our crooked apartment? Am I sleepwalking and hiding a single piece to sabotage myself?

 

Other early 2018 Mysteries of the City:

 

 

  • Who is the man who coughs until he throws up EVERY DAY right outside our apartment?
  • How is it that I felt warmer in 8 degree temperatures in Indiana than I do in 42 degree temperatures now that I’m back in Seattle? (The cold out here gets right into your bones.)
  • How is it that despite having weeded almost 100 titles, it has been an impossible feat to get my books back onto their rightful shelves. They’ve reproduced like rabbits and somehow the Irish authors that used to fit neatly into one of 36 tidy IKEA cubes have breached their confines and now require an additional two cubes. Clearly, I need to build a border wall.
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Look at those Irish books, trying to sneak onto other shelves without proper documentation!

  • On a similar note, how is it possible that our south wall was moved in a foot because of the earthquake proofing and suddenly the furniture doesn’t seem to fit now? A foot is nothing really. If you were in one of those trash-compacting rooms in spy movies (or the original Star Wars) and the wall moved in a foot, you wouldn’t really even notice yet that you were in danger of being squished. And yet, what the writing studio looks like now is an implausibility of Wildebeests in one of those “bad” zoos with too-small enclosures. It’s all chair legs and coffee tables and bookcases overlapping each other and it hurts my eyes and heart.
  • If the Parks Department has to paint permanent suggestions on the park suggestion board about what activities people like to do there because the chalk option meant a lot of rude comments and a few dubious artist’s renderings, shouldn’t you just maybe forego the suggestion board and have a mural instead?
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Note: there are no actual roses in this park.

  • Why do drivers in Seattle—a city made of hills comparable only to San Francisco’s—insist on riding other people’s bumpers?
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If my car were in Seattle, it would be sporting this.

  • Do city officials really think they are tricking us when they make real estate developers “save” historical properties and this is how they do it: a shell of old bricks encasing the lower two floors of a boxy steel and glass monstrosity? We aren’t fools.
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Historic preservation Seattle style.

  • Does the new Seattle soda tax of almost 2 cents an ounce (which doesn’t sound like much until you buy a case of Coke) mean that the city really DOES want us to move away? Z is not happy and is now considering the merits of life in Indiana where no government officials pretend to care that much about your health.
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Not pictured: Z, weeping

  • Why do I think every year that a new planning system—no matter how intuitive and inspiring—is going to make me a better person? It hasn’t yet, but hope springs eternal, I guess. When I told Z that I was getting a Panda Planner he laughed out loud. He knows that by March—despite my best laid plans—I won’t be able to find it because it will be hiding in the recesses of a bag I quit carrying in February. (The joke may be on him this year, however, because I brought the bright “cyan” for an extra $4 and it might be more difficult to lose.)
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Precious.

Periodically, Jane and I have discussions about who’s more introverted. This isn’t really a contest because being Most Introverted does not come with a crown or prize money. Despite the likelihood that Jane IS more introverted than I am, she will keep getting herself embroiled in book clubs and social groups that make me feel twitchy when I imagine signing up for something similar. All those people you don’t know, asking boring things like “what do you do for a living?” and “have you read All the Light We Cannot See yet?” (as if not reading it is not an option). But then when I do something like invite near-strangers to stay with us for a week, it’s hard not to argue that I am perhaps slightly less introverted than Jane.

 

Last week I read an article in Irish Central about an Irish woman living in America who has started an immigration awareness campaign of creating buttons for people to wear that say things like “I am an immigrant” and “I’m the daughter of an immigrant.” I liked the idea of this—a sort of political performance art that makes folks recognize that more of the people they pass on the street have connections to immigrants than they realize. So I found her on Facebook to see how I might get one of these buttons for myself since I’ve a real live immigrant sleeping in my bed, and I promptly discovered she lives in Seattle. We messaged back and forth and made tentative plans to get together for drinks because I love Ireland and she and her husband are fond of Zimbabweans.

 

I had to admit to Jane that this is a real conundrum of my life: that I supposedly love being alone and value quiet, chat-free expanses of time so I can live in my own head without interruption, but then I talk to a new person and realize my solitary life behind the walls of my imagination is not enough. Maybe I’m an introverted extrovert. Or vice versa. I need other people—people dissimilar to me sometimes—to make life richer, more intriguing, more thought provoking. It’s one of those things that makes me glad I’m in this city on the edge of a country that—despite everything—still recognizes that it’s richer because of its diversity, not in spite of it.

 

God bless us every one.

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FYI: Immigrant Awareness on Facebook can hook you up with your very own button

 

Mushrooms of the Eleventh Hour

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Tiny Buzz Lightyear searching (possibly for a blog topic) on Alki Beach

I’ve jinxed myself. Earlier this month, I was crowing to Jane about how pleased I am with myself that every month of 2017 I’ve written a blog post as promised. It’s been a real learning experience to set a goal so small that it is almost impossible not to meet it, and it feels really satisfying each month to think, well, at least I kept that promise I made to Z and myself on December 31st. Look at me! There might be stacks of laundry waiting to be put away on the table for a week or I might have forgotten to submit five pieces of writing each month (a goal I made, but not a promise, which, it turns out, is key for follow-thru for me), but by golly, I would get my monthly blog post written. Twelve for the year. Not impressive, but maybe next year I can promise two a month. Baby steps and all that.

 

Here it is, people, 5:30 p.m. 6:55 p.m. 7:22 p.m. 9:42 p.m. on October 31st, and I’ve got nothing. It’s Z’s late night to work, and I promised him when he got home at 10:30 that there’d be a bouncing baby blog entry for him to read, but right now, all I’ve got inside my head are the Mary Tyler Moore lyrics and there just isn’t very much I can do with those. I think that line “who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile” was giving me hope about an hour ago, but now it’s just taunting me. I’ve already rewarded myself with a Twinkie (well, two, because they come packaged in pairs and I didn’t want the one to feel left out) and a phone chat with Mom. Now it’s just me, the blank screen and an even blanker mind.

 

Why wouldn’t you want to read this blog? It’s riveting!

 

It seems pointless to write a Halloween post since by the time you read this, we will have started that best of all American holiday seasons, ThanksChristGivingmas, but I do have a question for those of you who are roughly my age or older. Do you remember in elementary school when we were taught to write out Halloween and it was spelled with an apostrophe? Hallow’een. Yeah. What happened to that apostrophe? When did we give it up? Who decided? Was it some consensus from the collective unconscious to do away with unnecessary punctuation marks or was there a presidential decree making it so during the Carter Administration?

 

Get back to me on that asap, would you?

 

October has been a month of celebration and grief, and I think these contrasting emotions are why I’m feeling so stuck. I don’t particularly want to write about the grief—which was grief felt for others who were grieving more than it was my own, so it isn’t mine to write about—but it also feels in poor taste to sit here chomping gum and wise-cracking about the lunatic I sat next to on the bus yesterday or how I was lamenting with Mr. Han at the bodega down the street our similar lack of Halloween plans tonight when I stopped in to buy my Tuesday night bag of ice and Twinkies.

 

Last week, in response to an honest post my friend Anaïs made on Facebook about feeling a little blue, some ass-hat chided her for “casting a wide blanket of sadness” that would be, apparently, contagious to her friends if they read it on their feed. For days I had that phrase stuck in my head—wide blanket of sadness—and that woman’s superior tone and her follow-up post about how we all have hard lives and how basically Anaïs should check herself before whining publicly about her life and making other people miserable.

 

The thing is, Anaïs is no whiner. She never complains. This year has kind of kicked her around, but at no point did she kvetch about the lot that was dealt her. So for this “friend” of hers to chide her for admitting on one random Monday that she was feeling a little down? It’s unconscionable.

 

Frankly, I’m disappointed Facebook hasn’t unveiled a punch-in-the-face emoji so I could direct my hostility toward this stranger visually. (I also want to suggest to Mark Zuckerberg that a feature be developed post haste that allows you to unfriend a friend of a friend who you believe not to be worthy of your friend’s time or wall space. A sort of Better Friendships By Committee option.)

 

So anyhow, in the interest of not spreading a wide blanket of sadness to you, Dear Reader, instead of telling you about the sorrows and fears of October, and in the interest of not making you wild with jealousy for the bits of my month that were stellar, I will, instead, tell you the story of a mushroom.

 

Z and I often have conversations about what things are called. I suspect this happens in a lot of cross-cultural relationships. Sometimes it’s about pronunciation—he’ll spell a word and ask how I say it and then we’ll argue about how wrong the other’s pronunciation is. Other times, he’ll say something like “what do you call the thing you push around the store and put items in that you want to buy?” and I’ll say, “cart” and he’ll say, “hmmm.” (This is actually a bad example. Z has had me calling that thing with wheels a “trolley” since about 2002. ) Some of his words I’ve had to just adopt as my own: biscuit (cookie), braai (a barbeque), brolly (umbrella), robot (stoplight), takkies (sneakers), muti (medicine), chongololo (millipede), and so on. Please note: I draw the line at pronouncing aluminum with an extra syllable and I will not concede that the name Shari should be pronounced any differently than the name Sherry.

 

In Z’s case, he’s lived in America for so long now that there’s the added fun where sometimes he can’t remember if a quirk of his language is unique to Zimbabwe, unique to Minnesota, or unique to him alone.

 

So last week, he showed me an emoji on his phone and said, “What do you call this?” This was the emoji:

 

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“Mushroom,” I said.

 

Z raised an eyebrow.

 

“Or toadstool,” I added. “They’re the same.”

 

He was indignant on this point and insisted they are NOT the same. Not at all. A discussion ensued. We had a similar argument several years ago about turtles (my word for any sea-going or earth-walking reptile that carries its home on its back and also my Power Animal) and tortoises (Z’s word for earth-walking terrapins only). I love the word “turtle”—the sound is superior to “tortoise” with the repetition of the t’s and I grew up with Indiana box turtles and I will not give in to tortoise. I will NOT. He is wrong.

 

Finally, while I wouldn’t agree that he was correct and a toadstool and a mushroom were different, I did say, “The truth is, I don’t even think those red and white ones even exist. Aren’t they more mythical—like unicorns?”

 

On this we could agree. Alice in Wonderland might have eaten a toadstool, but there were no toadstools in the real world, just as there are no March Hares with pocket watches or grinning Cheshire Cats lounging on tree limbs. Those mushrooms people ingest for fun, we were both certain, are the boring brown variety and they only think they are red with white spots once they are high.

 

We both left the conversation certain that we were correct and the other person was wrong, wrong, wrong about the word choice— but we were also glad there was a middle ground on which we could agree: it was stupid to argue about a thing that only existed in the fantasy world, video games, and on our respective phones.

 

When I say we were each certain we were correct, you should probably know that the next day I called my mother and asked her if I was right. Mom knows everything. She’s always my definitive answer-giver about things in the natural world, things in the art world, and things in history. (I do not ask for her assistance with technology.)

 

I described the object to her and she said, “Oh. That’s a toadstool. That’s what I would call it. But I don’t think they really exist.”

 

The next evening Z and I were strolling by St. James Cathedral, which sits high on a bank so the ground under the trees and bushes is at eye level, and there, plain as day, was a crowd (a flock? a menagerie? a murder?) of red-and-white dotted toadstools. It was so out of the ordinary that I half expected Mario or Luigi to hop from one to another, or for them to start swaying and tittering. My brain tried to make sense of it quickly. It must be an art installation, I thought. But then just as quickly, that seemed unlikely since who would go to the trouble? The massive size of these things was also improbable. The largest one was bigger than my hand. We stopped and studied them and finally had to agree that they were 100% real.

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We were giddy for the rest of the walk with the notion that the city—in all of its filth and congestion and electric light—could manage to delight us like this. Later, when I did a little investigating online, I discovered they aren’t rare at all, are plentiful in places with pine trees, and are both slightly poisonous and mildly hallucinogenic (the latter of which might explain why the next day they were all mostly gone).

 

Z and I (and Mom) had been wrong. Maybe you already knew this and think we are dolts, but in our respective parts of the world they aren’t known to us. But they are real. Even the knowledge that we were the idiots who knew less than we thought we did about the fungal world couldn’t wreck the magic of having spotted them there two blocks from our apartment.

 

I’ve tucked into my pocket for some other, rainier day the notion that the world can still surprise me in colorful and mysterious ways. I won’t pretend to believe that the memory of discovering some toadstools can protect me or anyone else from our own blankets of sadness, but I hope…I hope, I hope, I hope…that the knowledge that there are still things out there—things that are new to us, mysterious, things that will mesmerize and pull our attention from the regular to the irregular—that will help us keep our eyes trained on the horizon instead of at our feet.

 

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Who knows? Maybe gnomes are real too. (Sculpture by Rita Jackson http://www.ritabunny.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfrozen: The Birthday Blog

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Hoosier Hinterland

I promised Z and myself that I would post one blog a month (with a plan to post more, but the one a month was non-negotiable). The only vows I’ve ever kept—other than the Girl Scout promise to try to serve God, my country, and mankind—are my wedding vows, and I am determined that I will increase that list of vow-keeping by one. All this to say, I can’t promise you that this blog will be polished, pretty, or politically palatable to you personally, but I will squeak it in under the wire so 2017 won’t be a total failure.

Our three-year-old friend Pippi has been learning about the good and bad choices a person can make and the negative consequences of said choices, and so periodically will announce to her parents with whom she is annoyed, You made a poor choice. Since hearing about this new mantra of hers, I’ve been thinking in those terms myself. Often, I apply it to other people and the poor choices they’ve made like cutting in line  or playing their music too loud in front of our buildling. But even more regularly, I apply it to myself. For instance, in yesterday’s poor choice category, I decided to put approximately 200 towels in the dryer and was surprised 54 minutes later when they were all still wet.

Z and I spent the holidays in Indiana. It was a better trip than I anticipated, in that I was worried about navigating my liberal self around my extended family and friends who have differing political views. (In case you haven’t looked up from the puppy videos on YouTube lately, this election has been so hard on relationships.) Luckily for me, magic happened on the flight to Indiana. While I was worrying the details of how I would actively attempt to maintain harmony but also not swallow my own voice, I walked through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport passing strangers and suddenly my heart was full to the brim with love for humanity. Usually, in an airport, I’m navigating people like they are traffic cones, but on this day, it was as if every person I passed had a light shining on them straight from heaven. Sure there might be a serial killer here somewhere, I thought, but on the whole, I love these people, even that guy there in the Patriots jersey.

 

And so the visit home went. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement amongst all concerned that we loved each other, wanted to do our best to maintain that warm regard, and so would avoid heated topics. In my case, I further distracted myself from the impending apocalypse with

  1. a) pain pills because of a inflamed nerve in my jaw
  2. b) grief over Carrie Fisher’s passing
  3. c) desolation at the thought that 12 days after Christmas (a.k.a. Epiphany), I would be having a birthday of a somewhat rather BIG number
  4. d) fudge

Z and I flew back to Seattle on the eve of my birthday. Though I’d been in a good enough mood while in Indiana with my mother and step-father, soaking up as much of my beloved Hoosier landscape and all the comforts of my real home, on the morning of this flight—the morning before my somewhat rather BIG birthday, I made a poor, poor choice.

I’ve got a little anxiety thing. I don’t know if it’s really a condition. It’s more of a little claustrophobia thing. A little incapable-of-calming-the-hell-down-sometimes thing. This is a middle age development that I blame on my overactive amygdala. Sometimes Z will startle me by unexpectedly rattling a potato chip bag, and I’ll let out a shriek. He’ll shake his head and tell me to calm myself and I say, “I can’t. It’s my amygdala.” It’s getting worse with age, and as such, I have to sometimes pull over into an alcove when I’m downtown because the people behind me are talking too loudly or walking on my heels or a seagull flies too close and I get agitated.

It’s a really interesting way to live your life, dodging personable seagulls. I can’t believe I used to ride roller coasters and watch scary movies for fun.

My poor choice on the day before my somewhat rather BIG birthday was when I was at the airport and consciously decided not to take one of the physician-prescribed relaxi pills that I occasionally need to quiet my mind and—since an overcrowded plane on the way home from my St. Thomas honeymoon—that I always want on any flight. (You may not be aware of this, but a plane is really just a tuna can hurtling through the sky.)

There are reasons I made this choice mostly involving a rental car at the end of our journey and a lighthearted debate that Z and I were having about who had to drive when we landed (and my desire not to be under the influence of relaxi pills since I was not the winner of the debate).

Regardless, it was a poor, poor choice.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the flight. It was a new airbus with cathedral-esque ceilings, the illusion of roominess, and fellow passengers who were well-behaved. But there wasn’t an entertainment center on the back of my seat to distract me from the tuna can nature of our travel, and the lavatory had the exact dimensions of a coffin.

And then there was an uncharacteristic set of ugly words between Z and me (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), which left me for the rest of the flight with my ostrich pillow pulled tightly over my eyes while I cried and listened to a voice in my head on a loop that said, “your life hasn’t amounted to anything someone your age should have accomplished so much more you are a terrible wife you are a bad daughter you are hardly an adult you are an ungrateful person you’ve wasted it all”

It was harsh.

There was the added proof that I was a horrible person in that when we’d gotten on the plane, we were joined by a large tribe of people who were mentally handicapped and were on their way to Hawaii, and my first thought was not, “Oh, I’m so glad these people are having an adventure!” but instead “Oh, God. Why?” I was imagining all sorts of problems and noise and chaos during the flight. Instead, the fellow sitting across from me who had Down’s syndrome helped me find my seat belt and was chatting quietly with his seatmate, and it heightened my sense of what a shitty human being I can be.

We landed, climbed into our rental car with me behind the wheel, and within five minutes a woman had honked at me, shaken her fist, and ultimately flipped me off as she drove away in a huff, all because I had the audacity to go the speed limit and stay in my lane. As we drove up I-5 with Seattle looming on the horizon like Oz, all I could think was, I hate this place. I don’t want to live here. I hate everything about it. But then instantly I had competing thoughts of You don’t belong in Indiana anymore. You’re too liberal to fit in there. You’d have to constantly stifle your voice.

Also, You are almost quite literally a woman without a country.

There was some other inner ugliness that I will spare you, but suffice it to say, it all culminated with me trying to park a very small car in a very big parking space and failing. Z tried to give me directions, and instead, I threw up my hands, started sobbing, and said, “I can’t do this.”

I think by “this” I meant “park,” but I might have meant “live in this crowded, crowded city” or “live in Trump’s America” or “be a woman who is about to have a somewhat rather BIG birthday.” (Despite my earlier bad behavior, Z patted me and sent me indoors to crunch ice while he parked the car. And because he is fabulous, he waited until my mood lifted to point out that the rental car had a back-up camera I could have used while I was trying to get the small car in the big space.)

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Z travels with a birthday sign at the ready.

I fully expected to wake up the next day on my birthday in a similar or worse state. Now officially old. There is no way to pretend this somewhat rather BIG age is anything akin to youthful or that you have your finger on the pulse of anything (except maybe your own if it’s racing because of a seagull dive bombing you). So I anticipated waking up on January 6 with “this is the beginning of the end of my life” in my head.

Instead, there was more magic. I felt this incredible lightness. The sadist on the loop in my head had exhausted himself. (It was definitely a “he” saying all those horrible things to me the day before, fyi. It’s always a he.) It was as if the clock had ticked past the moment of my birth lo those many decades ago, and I was liberated. When you turn my somewhat rather BIG age, the truth is no one is watching you. No one really cares what you have to say. No one is trying to market anything to you except maybe term life insurance or some pharmaceuticals. No one notices that you’ve gotten rosacea and look as acne-stricken as you did at 13 mainly because no one is looking at you, full stop. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, how you look, what you think, and how you behave is of very little consequence.

This is not a bad thing. This is, maybe, one of the top ten most glorious things to ever happen to me. If no one is watching you or listening to you (or reading your blog), then my goodness, you can live your life by your own moral compass. You can say and do whatever you want . We celebrated my achievement of advanced age by spending two nights at our favorite place on Whidbey Island.

I ate pizza and we played Banana Grams and I got a cold, and it was all fine and lovely, even, in some ways, the cold.

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Almost two weeks later, Pippi’s mother had a new baby sister for Pippi: Elsa. Z and I were the first people to meet Pippi, and so we were invited to be on the first-day-of-Elsa’s-life welcoming committee. She was tiny and lovely and so completely calm in her daddy’s arms while her mother recounted the unpleasant experience of bringing her into the world. I was in awe of Elsa and how unfazed she seemed to be to have been born into this insane world at a time of uncertainty and rage. I was in more awe of her mother. I thought to myself, this is why the nations rage to control women: because women can do this thing that is more amazing than anything a man can ever do.

 

Sorry guys. It’s true. Z can open all the jars of jam in the world that I can’t unscrew myself and that is its own kind of amazing, but Pippi and Elsa’s mother? Z’s mother? My mother? That thing they do where they decide to bring life into the world and then they do it? You can’t top that.

Z and I left the hospital with big smiles on our faces at having been invited to share in the beginnings of a whole new person. A few days later, I scribbled Pippi’s and Elsa’s names—alongside the names of all the little girls and young women I love—on the back of my Princess Leia inspired sign and I took to the streets with Z beside me, waving his own sign promoting my rights. We did it for them. We did it for me. We did it for the women who came before us who should have had all of the best things and none of the worst. No matter what the critics say, we did not make a poor choice. We know this in our hearts and minds.

Happy Birthday to Elsa. Happy Birthday to me.

A Horse with No Name

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Today, I came into my writing studio, cracked open my laptop and flexed my fingers, ready to roll. Yesterday, in my notebook, I’d jotted down a genius idea at the bottom of a list of things I’m thankful for and I was sure that genius idea was going to make the words flow at record speed. I scrolled down the list anxious to be reminded of what had inspired me and made me feel so confident. Those words:

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

 

Well, that was disappointing. I thought it was something better than that. Something that maybe actually made sense.

 

I am not a horsey person. I read one horse book when my adolescent friends were six books deep in that series about the wild horses of Chincoteague. I inherited a ceramic horse collection from someone who had outgrown it, but I never went through a horse phase like a lot of girls do, unless you count my beloved rocking horse, Charger, who betrayed me by getting too small to ride.

 

I’ve ridden exactly one non-plastic horse, a pony really, and I did not feel like we were of one mind. I did not feel whatever it is that horse people feel. The view was nice and I wished I had one, but that was largely about transportation because I was six and a horse could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

 

What a horse could not do, however, was make itself comfortable in a one-bedroom upstairs apartment.

 

I’m in awe of people who ride horses regularly the way I’m in awe of people who ski. It looks like fun at some level, but skis and horses have always struck me as situations you only think you have control over, and so I’ve given both a miss. Life is precarious enough in my mind without me putting my body on something that could gallop me over a cliff or skid me into a pine tree.

 

For these reasons, I don’t think of horses as metaphors when I’m writing because they mostly just aren’t in my consciousness. They’re lovely and powerful and I like the way they smell when I have occasion to smell them once every five years when I find myself in the horse barn at the Great Darke County Fair. But I’m more of a dog and cow person. Maybe a monkey person if I’ve had caffeine.

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

My first cousin once removed would ride her horse from her parents’ farmhouse down to my great-grandmother’s when I was a kid, and it seemed to me, the equivalent of Glinda the Good Witch of the North arriving in her giant Oz bubble. It was the stuff of fairy tales—much more magical than my boy cousins driving up the gravel road in a motorized child-sized car (also amazing, but incomparable). We played hide and seek once and none of us could find Carol because she was hiding in the barn with her horse. Perhaps it was shadowy enough to keep her hidden in that old barn that leaned so far to the south that it had to be propped up with a pole (we were warned repeatedly not to go into it and repeatedly we went in anyway), but I think it was something else. Carol and her horse were like one entity. We could not find Carol because there was just one creature in that barn and it was “horse.”

 

Around the same time, a friend of a friend told me the sad story of having to say goodbye to her horse. (She was moving or the horse had to move, the specifics I have forgotten, though—because she was a rare creature like I was in the early 1970s, which is to say a child of divorce—I blamed her loss of horse on her parents’ failed marriage). Her horse was long gone when I met her, yet she spoke of how on the last day with it, she sat in the saddle wearing some special riding hat, maybe covered in flowers, and her friends stood around her and sang. Her longing for the horse was still palpable. It’s been decades since this vicarious heartbreak, but still, I imagine her there, sitting on a horse I never met, weeping because her other half was taken from her.

 

Leibovitz recently did a photo shoot with her beautiful 16-year-old daughter in a beautiful, ethereal dress on a beautiful chestnut horse. Though it pained me to see Baby Leibovitz looking all grown up, it pleased me more to see her—at this age, as she’s just figuring herself out—on one of the horses she’s loved since she was a  tiny girl and she was looking very much herself.

 

Also, I just watched a Martin Clunes documentary on heavy horses (watched largely because I like Martin Clunes and not because of the horses), so I can only assume this “genius” phrase of mine was inspired by these two recent equine-related occurrences—a photo of a favorite kid and a documentary narrated by “Doc Martin”—but goodness knows what I thought I’d do with Horses aren’t arbitrary when I wrote it down. It doesn’t really inspire the Great American Novel. And clearly “blog about horses” isn’t even possible since right now I’ve said all I have to say about horses and we haven’t moseyed down the trail towards anything close to a point.

 

Okay. Here’s a point.

 

I’m stuck. My non blog-writing has been refusing to shape itself into anything resembling coherence. I sit (sometimes) at my gorgeous desk with my city view surrounded by all of my helpful books about writing and other books full of writing that inspires me, and yet I am stuck.

 

Also, there is a perpetual reel of conversation in my head (maybe you’ve noticed) of how I miss home and the city makes me nuts, but then when I consider leaving the Pacific Northwest, I feel unhappy too. Leave this weather and Puget Sound and the mostly snow capped mountains? Why would someone want to do that? I’m zinging between wildly happy (Z inspired, largely, though I’ve read some good books, written chunks of things that please me, and just discovered that Mom has the doctor’s thumbs-up for a visit to us) and angry and/or weepy. (Last week I yelled at a total stranger who was walking like a sloth while reading her phone, serpentining along the sidewalk in such a way that no one could get around her. Her obliviousness enraged me and made me feel trapped, so I growled as I finally stormed past her, “Either walk or read your damn phone!” Z just laughed at me. The woman passed us further up the street, still seemingly oblivious, but her phone had been tucked away. I am not a yeller at strangers unless I’m in my car with the windows rolled up tightly. Yelling is not the Midwestern way! The city is turning me into an animal!)

 

I spend too much time looking backward instead of forward even though if you asked me (you’re asking, right?) I would tell you that this moment right now and the moments surrounding it are absolutely the happiest period of my life.

 

Also, fall is approaching. I’m three years out of teaching. While I don’t miss lecturing, obsessive faculty meetings, or some administrators who will remain perpetually in my Little Book of Hate, I miss my students. God I miss them. I miss talking to them about their writing and how to make it sing. I miss watching them take some truly deplorable crap and sculpt it into something beautiful. I miss them popping into my office to talk about their ideas or ask for advice. I miss hearing their thoughts about some piece of literature, telling them mine, and all of us seeing the text in a new way. I miss recognizing people in some other major during  first year comp and knowing they were meant to be in my classes, and then later having the satisfaction of them stopping by my office to say they’re thinking of switching majors to English. And later still, seeing them in their last semester, finishing up a creative writing portfolio or an Honors Thesis that exceeds both of our expectations. I even miss having those dreaded conversations during advising sessions about the uselessness/utility of an English degree.

 

My first and favorite office.

My first and favorite office.

In short, I don’t really know who or what I am these days. It might be a midlife crisis. Or it could just be something I ate.I’ve always been better at knowing what I’m not than I have been at knowing what I am.

 

Things I know I am not:

  • inclined to work with numbers, in sales, or with bodily fluids
  • an extrovert, an athlete, or a savant
  • a lover of noise, reptiles, or clowns
  • likely to eat vegetables, follow trends, or brush my hair on the regular

 

So that’s where I’m starting.

 

It occurs to me that the reason I’ve remembered these horsey stories for forty years is not because I particularly wanted a horse myself, nor is it because I wanted to be like my idol mystery-solver/horseback riding heroine, Trixie Belden. I don’t even want to climb upon a horse for a photo op (largely because I’m unsure that horses really want to be climbed upon in the first place).

 

No. The reason I can still see my cousin on her horse or imagine the friend of a friend weeping on a horse I never met is because I quite liked the idea of being a horse girl.

 

Horse girls always know exactly what and who they are. Their heads are full of horses and there is no dissuading them or convincing them that an Irish Wolfhound is nearly as big and just as good. They love their horses so much they don’t mind mucking out a barn, swatting horse flies, or doing those 800 things you have to do to keep a horse happy and healthy (things I used to know when I was reading Trixie Belden). There’s no question there. They want to be on the back of a horse, or standing next to a horse with curry comb, or in a house that is adjacent to a barn in which a horse resides.

 

Even now, when I run into my cousin at Meijer or see a Facebook post from that friend of my friend, the first thing I think: horse girl. And the second thing I think: I wish I knew myself as well as you always have.

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

 

Of Minutiae and Lack of Momentum

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Ethan Currier’s rock art, Bainbridge Island, WA

 

I’ve been waiting for a day when the news isn’t so horrendous that I can blog about frivolous things without feeling superficial, but it’s becoming apparent that I could be waiting a very long time for that day to dawn. In the interest of not letting the terrorists, racists, misogynists and general practitioner haters “win,” I’m just going to write. Just going to go right on as if in the midst of the world ending it’s perfectly reasonable to be talking about things like houseguests and having to pretend the trolley system in Seattle is a viable means of transportation and how my friend Jane nearly ruined my life by forcing me to read The 12-Week Year. Forgive me.

 

Aside from all that ails the world, here is my list of beefs today:

 

  • It’s supposed to be in the 80s next week and you know how much I hate heat.
  • Hudge invited us to an outdoor movie tomorrow night, which sounded like fun, except I pretty much can’t be outside in the evening anymore unless I go in full-on beekeeper garb to ward off mosquitos; I am the sad combination of delicious and allergic.
  • The high-rise across the street from us is putting in new windows. Did you know that installing new windows requires a buzz saw at 8 a.m.? Me neither. Also, at the rate of two-windows-per-day, it’s going to be a loud, peace-less summer here on First Hill.
  • The election. The mean memes. The idiots.
  • People on Twitter are shouting that little Prince George should be sent to jail because in his just-released 3rd birthday photos, he appears to be feeding his dog Lupo some ice cream. He’s 3. His parents aren’t idiots. I’m guessing if it was intentional, then it’s probably a vet-approved iced doggie treat, but even if it wasn’t and Lupo licked that lump of ice cream, dogs eat truly terrible and disgusting things on a daily basis. The likely result will be either nothing or a single puddle of dog crap that someone (who is not the Duke or Duchess) will have to clean up. This is NOT animal cruelty. (What do people get from this online righteous indignation? I imagine them walking around all puffed up and proud of themselves after posting their “wisdom” but they’re really just self-satisfied idiots who can’t read a situation. Kind of like the warriors who “liberate” dogs trapped in cars even though the dog in question is not in distress—because it’s November—and the owner has been gone all of two minutes.)
  • A mouse is trying to move into our apartment.
  • Why DID Seattle try to sell us on the perfection of above-the-traffic monorail travel at the 1963 World’s Fair but then choose in the 2000s to cast their lot not with the monorail—a futuristic and therefore superior mode of travel that shows up in virtually every sci-fi movie ever made—but instead with a nod to yesteryear and a streetcar that holds fewer people than a bus and is stuck in the same rush hour traffic that all the cars and city busses are in, except on a track so it can’t even navigate obstacles? Mind the gap.
  • Someone washed and dried what appears to have been the innards of a hamster cage in the communal machines in our basement and didn’t bother to clean out the woodchips, animal fur, and chocolate chips. (I’m pretending they are chocolate chips. Please don’t tell me they aren’t chocolate chips.)

 

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Graffiti encouragement, Seattle

 

Jane, who is one of my oldest friends from college, suggested that I should read Brian P. Moran’s The 12-Week Year, and it is exhausting me. The principle behind it is good: most of us put off goals and projects until the 11th hour, so instead of giving yourself a long time to get something done, give yourself a short time and impress your friends and neighbors with how much you have accomplished.

 

In theory, it agrees with me. I am a procrastinator by nature and almost anything I’ve ever accomplished in my life—from a master’s thesis to stacks of student papers graded—happened in that magical eleventh hour when suddenly my thoughts, my energy, and my ability to solve problems would somehow work together to get me across the finish line just before the due date arrived.

 

In practice, I’m having to make out goals and lists of tasks, and then do those tasks to accomplish the goals, and then assess my progress on the tasks and the goals both daily and weekly. It is seriously cutting into my relaxing time. I’ve never been particularly good at anything close to a long-range plan, which explains in large part why I forgot to have children and have never really achieved the perfect capsule wardrobe.

 

The fatal flaw in my embracing of the 12-week year, however, was my idea that Z might like it too since he isn’t teaching this summer.

 

Z is much more task oriented than I am. He gravitates toward routine and is a creature of habit. The salad days of our summer are now over because of my stupid suggestion. No longer do we stay up until 3 and sleep until noon. No longer do we lounge on the couch watching episodes of “The New Girl” we’ve already seen twice. No longer do I have graham crackers and beef jerky for breakfast, because he’s got me on an oatmeal and banana system to help with the 12-week goal of “better health.” Do you know how much less fun this breakfast is than Pop-tarts or a bowl of Lucky Charms? (If he were writing this, he would tell you that the oatmeal has to be nuked so I’m basically eating an oatmeal cookie and we’re sharing the banana. Also, he would want you to know that I am very dramatic.)

 

After the banana, when I’m just starting one of my eight-page emails to Jane or a witty Facebook update, he ushers me next door to the writing studio, where he sits down and instantly goes to work.

 

Mac used to have to scratch his bed for five minutes and then turn in circles three times before settling down to sleep, and I’m similar with writing. Only I’ll spend about an hour putzing around online or reorganizing my paper clips and Post-it pads. Often, I have to re-read something I’ve already written years ago and consider its merits and failures, or read something someone else has written to get in the right frame of mind. And then I have to sit and think about what I want to write.

 

I could spend DAYS doing this. It is hard, hard work, the trying to write, and the results are inconsistent. Sometimes, while I’m trying, I actually do write something. But sometimes, at 6 o’clock, Z will slam shut his laptop and say, “I’m done” and he’s accomplished 15 things and I’ve still only written two sentences. Correction: two sentences I hate. Maybe I’ve also doodled a picture of Virginia Woolf in my notebook if it’s a really good day. He’ll ask me what I’ve done with my time, and I have absolutely no idea. No. Idea. I sat down. I started thinking my thoughts and now it’s 6 p.m.

 

Until we started this program, Z had no idea how much time slips through my fingers. He’d come home from work, ask what I’d done all day, I’d say, “I wrote” and because I had no goals written down where he could see whether they had a check next to them or not, he was none the wiser. Possibly he was suspicious since in the three years since I quit teaching and started working for myself he has never come home from work and had me place an entire manuscript into his hands. But now, for sure, he knows he is married to the least productive person in Christendom.

 

Last week I was reading a novel in which two women accidentally killed a man (he wasn’t very nice, so it was no great loss) and they had to clean up the mess and hide his body before the lady of the house returned home. It was set in the 1920s, so there was no Roomba or Dyson sweeper, no Lysol wipes, and I can only assume neither of them were doing Crossfit, so the heavy lifting had to be hell. Yet somehow, through sheer determination and hard work, they moved his carcass out of the parlor and into the alley, cleaned up all evidence of scuffle and bloodshed, and hopped into bed pretending to be asleep when Madame returned an hour later.

 

As I was reading it, I did not think what a tragedy it was. Nor did I feel fearful about what would happen when the cops discovered the body. I didn’t even worry about the bits of bloody apron that got buried in the ash pile, just waiting to be discovered. Instead, all I could think was, I must never kill anyone because I wouldn’t have the energy to clean up the mess.

 

A good life lesson, perhaps, but probably not what the author was going for.

 

And since I’m confessing all of my sins of laziness and haphazard lifestyle choices, let me add that last night I got an email from the Seattle Public Library requesting volunteers for homework help with school-age kids who are speaking English as a second language. As soon as I saw it, I realized that I probably ought to volunteer because I don’t do much of anything for the local community except complain to the parks department when they make bad projected plans for existing green space or steal parking spaces, paint them blue, and pretend it’s a park.

 

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Ridiculous “park” five feet from real park with trees and water fountains.

So it is with great shame that I confess to you now how relieved I was to discover at the bottom of the email that the closest library within walking distance was not participating in the program. It was like the most glorious snow day radio announcement of the 1970s and ‘80s liberating me from a day of school: all the free time I thought I was going to lose was suddenly mine again!

 

Other joys this week: aside from recommending books that are quality-of-life-ruiners, Jane and her family flew cross country and came to my noisy, congested, but sometimes glorious city for a few days. In another life, I should have been a tour guide. I love offering people suggestions about what to do, leaving helpful maps on the coffee table, having some candy bars in a dish waiting for them. I love introducing my people to new places.

 

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Space Needle, Seattle

Mostly though, I just loved having them here. I may be six years deep into this Seattle experiment, but it feels so good to have people around who know me in the context of my natural habitat, where there is no need to explain myself, apologize for my Midwestern-sized butt or Midwestern values or the way I say “pen” and “pin” so they sound like the exact same word.

 

I don’t have to work so hard to hold back my essential self, in other words.

 

It felt good to talk to them. To see their offspring growing and thriving. To take them on the Bainbridge ferry and stand on the bow of the upper deck and look down at a woman with dreadlocks holding her pet duck up so it could enjoy the sea spray. To have mutual friends from college over for a dinner that was nicely cooked and presented by the Great and Talented Z, so the whole lot of us could sit around reminiscing about life when it seemed less violent and ugly. It was violent and ugly then too, but we were young enough to believe that with Bono’s three chords and the truth and our own starry-eyed optimism, things were going to get better.

 

Some things did get better. When I went to college, Apartheid was still a thing. LGBT students on our campus had to keep themselves closeted or could be kicked out and they certainly had little hope of having rights equal to their straight classmates once leaving campus either. AIDS was still a death sentence instead of a chronic condition. When we graduated—we women of Anderson University—we’d be making 65 cents to the dollar that our male classmates were making, and now we’re up another thirteen cents (though we’re spending most of that on waxing). If people are being harassed by anyone because of the color of their skin, gender, the uniform they wear, their accent, etc., we’ve often got access to video coverage, shining a light on injustice and sent out over the internet while it happens. We’ve had our first black president and our first female presidential nominee.

 

We’ve seen the surface of Mars.

 

It’s easier (and sadder) to look back at all the things we were too naïve to know then: that the Challenger wouldn’t be the worst televised national tragedy in our lifetime, that terrorism would become real to us, that we’d get mired in a 15+ year war that shifts geography but shows no signs of stopping, that something as magical as the internet would highlight some of our ugliest human tendencies.

 

We didn’t even know what a Kardashian was or that they’d be trying to weasel their way into our homes on a daily basis.

 

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A girl and her duck.

When asked if the glass is half full or half empty, I’m inclined to recognize that what you have in your hand there is half a glass of something to drink, which is better than nothing but not quite as good as full-to-the-brim. But with the company of Z and good friends, my glass was full this week, even with buzz saws across the street, hamster cage dumpings in the washing machine, and the realization that I’m too lazy and discombobulated to clean up a crime scene.

 

Peace be upon us.

 

RGSthesound

Puget Sound