Category Archives: melancholy

Lady of Shalott Considers Success Rate of Group Projects, Stays in Tower.

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Old stone tower  in cemetery, Celtic crosses, River Shannon in distance.
Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland

After the nurse calls to tell me that the vaccine four months ago didn’t take, I do yoga.

Despite having the vaccine in April, I have no Covid-19 antibodies to protect myself, had none when I thought I did and went on a cross country trip with Z to see my family, had none on our daily walks sans masks out doors in Seattle when we got back, or when we had friends over…finally, or when we had houseguests again…for the first time in our new space.  Suddenly, I feel like a lone, limping kudu on the veldt surrounded by a pride of hungry lions.

At the moment, my doctor and the fine scientists on the case are trying to figure out what’s next for people like me who have wonky immune systems. I fall into a weird category that isn’t yet covered by directives from the FDA or the CDC. Because I had the J&J vaccine, it’s not time for a booster yet. I can’t officially cross-vaccinate though that has some promise of working. I could lie to some pharmacist somewhere and try one of the other jabs, but I’m a terrible, terrible liar and don’t think I should have to in order to protect myself. But there is nothing I can do at this moment, so I pull down the blinds and tie-up my hair and chew on the side of my mouth.

For what it’s worth, I can’t really do yoga either. I am 54. I am round. I’m standing on the rubber mat I ordered seventeen months ago when the pandemic started, which I have used exactly three times since then. Twenty years ago, I took 3/4s of a yoga class in a claustrophobic studio in Richmond, and then September 11th happened and though yoga would have probably been the right response to deal with the grief and the fear, I chose instead to sit at home, watch CNN Headline News on a loop, and stress eat. I wanted to be alone with my feelings, not stretching in a room with 20 strangers. A few years later I bought a DVD of Megan Garcia’s that taught yoga to the non-lithe, and I did it periodically on my own but only ever really excelled at Corpse pose, which was at the end of the routine when New Age music came on and you were meant to lie there, dead to the world, not thinking anything.  

But today, after the call, after I shake the dust from my purple mat, I, do the poses I memorized from the DVD all those years ago. I’m not good, but instead of critiquing myself, I think about how I’m safe in our apartment, how I can take care of my body in this way even if there’s nothing else to be done other than stay home for now. Again.

I start with sun salutations, which I do, but as I stretch upward, I think about how half of those states we drove through in July—me finally, joyously seeing the world again—were places where a lot of people don’t believe in wearing masks, barely believe in the virus, and absolutely won’t be getting the vaccine even if their names are entered in a lottery. If I’d known in June that I had no antibodies for the virus, we would have stayed in Seattle, I wouldn’t have gotten to see Mom, my family, a few friends, or the country between. Because I didn’t get sick and have no report that I made anyone else sick inadvertently, I’m glad I was ignorant. Ignorance really is bliss. It was a good month that reminded me of what normal might look like at some future time. Maybe this is what it is like for the people ignoring guidelines and arguing against mask mandates. Just press on with your regular life until you are either on a ventilator or your fabulous immune system sees you through. Maybe if I hadn’t answered the phone I could still be living like this, free-breathing and not wanting to stab people who cough on me or Z or anyone else I love.

When we got back from our trip, I was just starting to embrace the idea of the city again. The Delta Variant hadn’t yet kicked up, I thought I was fully vaccinated, and suddenly it seemed possible to walk in strange neighborhoods, to take a Lyft without worrying that I might end up on a ventilator, to hop in a car with Providence and Hudge and go to Camano Island for the day and picnic by the Sound. I was no longer envying people in suburbs with yards or in the country with acres or even people in the city with their own cars who could drive safely in their auto-bubble and feel like they are still part of the world. It was a relief to feel cautiously optimistic about rejoining society. 

But it’s a month later, Delta is everywhere, my defenses are apparently down, and I’m back on the 9th floor peering down on First Hill as I Cat & Cow my way toward isolated health.

As a caveat, I feel like I should tattoo on my forehead, Lucky. I know how lucky I am that I don’t have to leave the house to work, that I have healthcare, that I happened to be in a study checking into the viability of the vaccine with people who have immune systems like mine which allowed me to find out that I needed to take extra precautions in the first place. I’m lucky I live in the city I do and in the country I do where vaccines are available. Twenty years ago—not long after that yoga class—I bought an air freshener for my car that said “LUCKY” in Celtic letters over a four-leaf clover. I never win the lottery, but I’ve felt lucky for a long time. I even feel lucky that I’m an introvert and so being “stuck” at home isn’t the worst punishment in the world.

Four-leaf clover design on cardboard with LUCKY printed over top, hanging from car rearview mirror.
Faded, but still true.

But after the phone call from the nurse, it is not until I am slumped into Child pose—legs pulled up under gut, hands stretched forward, palms and face pressed against the mat, my breath making me hotter than I already am—that I have a flash from elementary school. It’s something I haven’t thought about for decades. The lights snap off, and the usually pleasant Mrs. Murray barks, “Bury them!” and all of us know we have to make a fortress with our arms that covers our faces because she’s sickened by the sight of us.

When we are forced to bury our heads, there’s been a real transgression. It is different than the days when everyone is a little too chatty and she has us put our heads down for a few minutes so we can calm down. When we are commanded to bury our heads, it feels a lot like she hates us. Like she would be perfectly happy if we disappeared inside our own arms and were never seen again.

In 1973, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was not the reason we were forced into this solitary confinement made of our own flesh though my natural instinct was initially to assume that it was my fault. I was not a goody-two-shoes particularly, nor was I pleased with myself that I behaved the way we were supposed to. It is in my nature to want things to be calm and easy, and the hijinks some of my classmates got up to never held much allure. If there were going to be negative consequences, why do a thing?

Let’s face it. I was kind of a boring kid. I wasn’t what you’d call dynamic or even all that energetic. I was interesting the way a turtle is interesting: you spend a lot of time waiting for it to make a move and then it pulls into itself and you forget that it’s a creature and not a stone.

Copper box with with copper turtle, beads and glass balls surrounding it.
A turtle trapped in a box–souvenir from my MFA in Maine.

I hated it when we had to bury our heads because it meant I couldn’t read or doodle or stare out the window at the single ancient tree that was outside the window. As it was, school bored me and to have these things that made it tolerable removed from me caused an almost physical pain. Even now, when I’m watching a show and some prisoner gets sent to solitary, I can remember my own exhalations ricocheting off the desk, finding no real space to escape in the tomb of my arms, and bouncing back onto my face convincing me that if I didn’t die of boredom I would likely suffocate. I could probably handle solitary as long as I went in with some books and a journal and a little radio. But all that nothing? Save me.

I was quiet on the outside, but oh, was I dramatic in my own head.

We had a very soft-spoken social worker who would periodically come to our class to do presentations. I was privileged enough to have lived my life without needing or knowing what a social worker was and because her appearance in our classroom was so rare and seemingly arbitrary, I couldn’t quite figure out what the point of her was. Everyone in the elementary school world had a specific purpose—librarian=books, nurse=temperature being taken, secretary=the gateway home when the temperature taken was too high, and so on. But I couldn’t figure out why Mrs. Cobine would very occasionally show up or what I was supposed to do with the information she shared since there would be no follow-up, no quiz, no adjacent reading or art project.

She had salt and pepper curls, beautiful blue eyes, and a soft voice. I recognized her as a benign, caring force in the universe, and she certainly wasn’t going to shut off the light and instruct us to disappear ourselves. But still, why had we been ushered into the library—surrounded by books I wanted to read—to have these soft conversations about feelings.

I was particularly dubious about the box she brought with her that held a dolphin puppet, a tape recorder, and some drawings to illustrate the story being told on the recording. Because she seemed so kind, I wanted to like those lessons, but they were not Scooby-Doo caliber. They were, instead, one of those activities that adults force upon you so you can learn a lesson. I didn’t blame her for these educational interludes—I could tell from the box she carted around that this was something that had been foisted onto her the same as it was being foisted onto us. I wanted what she was selling us to be true, but I was a child who doubted things.

On two of my remaining braincells, I’ve kept the song from one of these lessons. Instead of repeating in my head “inhale…exhale” as I contort myself on the yoga mat, I start to hum the song.  This one was about teamwork and involved a sort of goodwill pirate that Duso the Dolphin visited who was trying to get his ship loaded or unloaded or in dry dock or something, and the song was this:

“Come down here and help,”

said Blooper to his crew.

“You can do things in a group

you can’t do just with you!”

Back then, I remember looking at my classmates who were incapable of going a week without doing something bad that forced the whole class to sit in the dark with our heads folded into our arms on our desks. It seemed unlikely that the group of us could achieve anything together other than a decent kickball team at recess. Even as a first grader I could see that we all had our own agendas, our own weaknesses, our own proclivities that meant it was unlikely we would ever get whatever prize promised to be at the end of just “working together.” It sounded easier than it was.

Unless you are moving or throwing a pitch-in or you are Amish and there’s a barn raising on your calendar, I’ve never really believed that many hands make light work business. Many hands mostly make work subpar and everyone leaves thinking it would have been better if they’d been in charge except the person who is sleeping under a tree and hasn’t done anything at all. (He’s usually pretty happy with how things turn out, I guess, even if the result is a C-.) 

Whoever heard of a pirate called Blooper anyway?

Generation X is, perhaps, especially inclined to cynicism, and I am genetically predisposed to it. I also have these occasional Pollyanna moments. I like Fox Mulder, I want to believe,  and the two duke it out. When the pandemic first started, I was imagining us all banding together like people did during World War II for the greater good. Victory gardens and cheerful rationing and women giving up stockings for parachutes and learning how to rivet stuff.

And there for a while when the pandemic started, it seemed like everyone was making masks and banging pots and clapping for healthcare workers and being careful of each other while we waited for a vaccine, so I was hopeful. But, of course, it wasn’t everyone, it just seemed that way because I was stuck in an apartment on a liberal street in a liberal city where people value science and kind of value other people.

Sign on city street of red boxing glove punching Corona virus.
These signs were encouraging when this thing started.

During the yoga session, I work through other poses whose names I can now only guess at and instead of wondering if my form is even close to what it is supposed to be (it is not), I think about how this is the first time since I was diagnosed eleven years ago with that wonky immune system that I’ve genuinely felt the weight of my condition and how I am at the mercy of others.

I still hate group projects. I’ve got no faith in every one holding up their end of the deal.

Instead, I hold a Plank pose for five long breaths for the first time ever and remind myself that this will be temporary—both the pose that my arms are shaking through and this incarceration. I prefer doing yoga this way to that stuffy room in 2001. Good thing I am an introvert. Eventually, one hopes, there will be a vaccine cocktail that works or the virus will get bored and go wherever old viruses go to die, and I can come down from my tower with a better outcome than the Lady of Shalott. (I thought my youthful fascination with this Arthurian character was all about unrequited love, but I see now it was practice for 2020 and onward.)

Then finally, the long-awaited Corpse pose. I close my eyes and relax. The yoga is done. I can tick it off my list. I am in my own home, surrounded by books, paper and pens, a laptop, a view, and Z, and no one is shutting off the lights and shouting, “Bury them.”

At least not right now.

Teapot, full teacup, pastry on a flowered plate.
My last visit to the cafe at Elliot Bay Books in January 2020.

Return of the Hoosier: There and Back Again

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Somewhere in Montana

My first camera was a hand-me-down Instamatic from my stepmother when I was 13, right before I went on a week-long trip on “God’s Nightcrawler” with my youth group. The Nightcrawler was a former school bus that had been tricked out with bunks and a few bench seats that turned into bunks and it drove all night so we could wake up in the morning having arrived at some destination: St. Augustine, Washington, D.C., Hershey, Disney World. We’d spend the year earning money to pay for our trip and then that week would rush by as we bounced from one destination to another. Because I was 13 I often didn’t pay a lot of attention to the destination (I still couldn’t tell you what Bok Tower looks like, for instance) because the journey with my friends, and, let’s be honest, the boys I was finding increasingly more interesting, was what mattered. 

I’d love to show you all the pictures I took on that first trip, but the truth is that because no one had told me that you have to stop walking and stand still to get a clear shot, most of my Disney World photos look something like this:

Blurry UMYF Heart Throb inside Blurrier Dinosaur, Disney World 1980

Fortunately, I remember those ten hours at Disney World very well and can still picture the tickets we had to use then for various rides, the rides themselves, the meals we ate, the hijinks, the attempts to arrange yourself in the line in such a way that you would “accidentally” get to ride Space Mountain with a preferred someone, and the sweat and grime we slept in that night when we tumbled into the suffocating bunks with very little fresh air to breathe. Now, it sounds like more than one of the circles of hell to be stuffed into what amounts to a tin can on wheels with minimal windows with a bunch of hormonal teenagers, but at the time, it seemed magical. It was easy to imagine that our adult lives would unfold as a series of road trips as we saw sites across America, though—we theorized (at least some of us)—that we would be doing it at some point in a car with air conditioning and someone we loved sitting next to us. The adult versions of us would stop where we wanted, eat what we wanted, and no one could tell us we couldn’t swim after dark like our neurotic youth pastor would arbitrarily declare.

I bring this up only because Z and I traveled six days from Seattle to Indiana (and another six days back again) so we could spend three weeks visiting my family in Indiana. Triple C, the white Toyota we rented and named, literally, Cross Country Camry was promptly filled with more than we needed because I seemed to think we were wagon-training it back to civilization, so insisted we take two big jugs of water, a roll of duct tape, bungee cord, some carabiners, and a First Aid kit the size of a shoe box. Even now I can’t tell you what sort of disasters I was imagining in which duct tape, a keychain-sized carabiner, Shrek Band-Aids and bag of m&ms would be the only thing standing between us and certain death, but it made me feel safer so Z found a place to shove it all in the trunk. Our stuffed turtle ShellE who goes on all of our travels perched on the dashboard and we were off.

Because I’m not a photo journalist, I have not documented in this shot the packed-full trunk, the cooler on the backseat, or the stuffed turtle on the dashboard, but trust me, they are all there.

When Z and I decided to drive from Seattle to Richmond, my time optimism allowed me to dream of many fabulous road-side stops, photo ops, and a chance to explore places we’d never been before like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana. I reasoned that if we left early enough in the morning and got in five or six hours of driving, we’d have entire afternoons to explore Yellowstone, or see one of the various largest balls of twine. Though I have loathed people with selfie sticks at various tourist sites in the past (especially odious at the Tower of London in 2015 on the parapet above Traitor’s Gate where you could get a good view of Tower Bridge—man, I loathed the selfie-stick users bumping us out of the way to get their shot for social media), I ordered one, and packed my “real” camera too because I was imagining at least five Instagrammable photos per day. I imagined us having picnics in roadside parks and briefly considered taking our Bocce set because I imagined us needing to stretch our muscles, and in the stretching I imagined us dressed like a preppy couple in the 1960s: wicker picnic basket, gingham blouse & espadrilles for me, something linen with penny loafers for Z, and maybe an Airedale terrier joining us. In the end, I settled on two card games (Quiddler and Lost Citiesso we could relax at night in motels across America. Instead of hotels by the interstate, I imagined us at 1950s-style motels with quirky dinosaur or giant cow statues out front and delicious old-timey diners sitting right next to them. I imagined going back to the populuxe motel and writing a blog post of the day’s events and then sending postcards along the way to document our journey and to alert friends and family in Richmond that we were on the move. In at least one fantasy, I imagined us pulling an Airstream camper behind a woody station wagon. In another, we were riding some horses.

I imagined the entirety of our trip would look like different versions of the Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In the end, the trip did not look like any of these things. For one, the selfie stick was a big pain to set up. For two (and reasons that are still mysterious to us), it took two hours longer to get to each evening’s stopover. We never did leave earlier than 9 or 10 a.m. and we were on the highway and only stopped at rest stops or for food and fuel. The name brand hotels were the only ones we trusted for our overnights as the quirky antlers and patterned bedspreads of the “quaint” ones were not as inviting as I’d imagined. When we arrived at our interstate lodging, we would inevitably drag ourselves to whatever chain restaurant was walkable from the hotel, and then we’d spend the rest of the evening trying to find the hotel for our next night’s lodging. We never left enough time to play those games we brought. Being an indecisive pair, hotel searching could take the bulk of the evening as we weighed the merits of one hotel over another as if we were buying the entire franchise instead of renting a room for a single night. Then ultimately at the last minute we’d go with one that wasn’t the cheapest but was the cheapest of the mid-range prices. Ever since we stayed at the World’s Worst Motel in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with squishy carpet, dubious bedding, and the aroma of 1972, we’ve been wary of anything too cheap.

Big Sky Montana Through Windshield

And the photos I took? Not the beauties I’d planned. In fact, I set my camera on the “action” setting and took the bulk of pics out the car window. There weren’t as many “scenic view” stops as there are on the way down to Georgia or down the Oregon coast even though the scenery is there—just not places to pull over—so it was easier to click a string of pictures and hope for the best. Some are better than they should be, but most look about like the guy inside the dinosaur in that blurry Disney World pic from 1980 at the beginning of this post.

Photos aside, the drive out was delightful. Because we’d isolated ourselves so thoroughly during the pre-vaccine portion of the pandemic, it felt like a marvel to be in car without a mask driving away from First Hill, driving away from Seattle, driving away from Washington state. Mostly we talked as we drove—some conversations serious, some ridiculous, and occasionally there was companionable silence. We listened to a little music and several episodes of the Scene on Radio podcast“Seeing White” series, which I highly recommend if you are feeling too patriotic. It will rattle your sense of U.S. history in all the ways we should be rattled. We did not get tired of each other. Z has taken to calling me Green Bean Monkey or GBM for short because of a favorite green bean snapping monkey on TikTok and because he is a rascal (Z, not the OG GBM).

Every morning as we peeled out of the latest hotel parking lot, I would be struck by the “On the Road Again” earworm, and as we drove across Montana, Z got “Home on the Range” stuck in both of our heads for the two days we were in Big Sky country. Then we’d start looking for license plates to add to our list. We made it to 38 and if we hadn’t given ourselves stringent rules about collecting them only when we were in a moving car and the car with the desired plate was also moving, we would have acquired the coveted Hawaii.

Sunset by I-90, Missoula, MT

I used to be really good at planning a trip. I had things I wanted to see and I’d map out ways to see them. I’ve led multiple people around Ireland by the nose, demanding that they adore all the same things I adore, for instance. But during the pandemic while other people were losing their senses of smell, I lost my sense of travel planning. What this meant for our trip is that we did not alert friends along our route that we were coming until a day before we got to them. I chose our first stop—a hotel in Missoula, Montana, only because a friend had once purchased a shirt for me that said on it “Missoula, Montana: a Place. Sort of.” I’d like to be able to report its merits like a proper travel writer, but when we woke up the next morning instead of heading into downtown Missoula to get a sense of this college town, we looked at the misty, grey sky and the rain splattering onto our car, looked at each other and shrugged: maybe on the way back. More likely, we’ll just look photos up online.

See you some other day, Missoula.

We have friends in Billings, so our next stop was there, but what we failed to factor in was that it was Father’s Day. We went out to eat with them at a place with lots of steak, antlers, and men wearing big belt buckles. It was busy so we stood in line for almost an hour while we waited on our table, and it was our first real no-holds-barred restaurant experience. No one was masked up so we pretended they were all vaccinated along with us and thus it was just another Sunday night. We haven’t been with that many people in a public space since February 2020. It felt a little surreal, but also completely normal to be visiting with friends and their delightful, picture-drawing seven-year-old who thrilled me when I asked her what was inside her locket and she opened it and showed me two pics she’d cut up of various cast members from Harry Potter. (Oh, my heart! I was further charmed by her when I found out that on her play dates she and a friend schedule in time for reading because books are just that important to them.)

While we drove through Montana, we were intrigued by how above whatever town you are driving through you’ll see a big first initial of the town’s name carved into the mountain There’s probably a reason for it, but I chose to think of it like the water towers that dot flatter landscapes with the name of an entire town or village painted on it. And then I get amused because in Fountain City, where my high school was, for a time the water tower was spray painted so it read “Fountain City Hell Raisers.” You can’t do that with a mountain initial.

Let’s call this one Montana, but it could be western North Dakota

Z and I had been planning to spend our next evening in South Dakota near the Badlands/Deadwood/Mt. Rushmore (even though I’m not currently speaking to three of the four presidents on that particular monument and Lincoln is on thin ice himself). But we quickly discovered that basically every second person in America is traveling there this year and the hotels were outrageously overpriced. Like over $400 for a Holiday Inn. A Holiday Inn. I always loved their advertisements with the catch phrase: the best surprise is no surprise, meaning you could count on their sameness, but let me tell you, $400 was a surprise to us. So at the last minute with the advice of our friends in Billings, we decided we’d skip South Dakota and drive through North Dakota where apparently no one wanted to be because all the highway hotels were reasonably priced and thrilled to see us and there was non-existent traffic. We ended up staying in Bismarck though I can’t tell you anything about it except the Red Lobster in our Fairfield Inn & Suites parking lot was adequate.

It’s shameful how we traveled, I suppose, and would horrify people who suck the marrow out of every place they go, but we had limited days and getting home to the Midwest became increasingly important as the land flattened out.

Since our route had changed, we decided to stop by the Twin Cities and see the friends there that I inherited when I met Z who had acquired them himself during college and grad school, and then we moved through Wisconsin, and Illinois before we hit the banks of the Wabash and pointed the car towards Richmond on the eastern part of the state. We promised each other that on the drive back to Seattle we would plan ahead, have our overnights mapped out before we ever left Indiana. What’s more, we said, we’d let friends know a week in advance before we showed up in their town so they could block out an hour or two to visit instead of emailing two hours before we arrived to see if they were free for dinner.

Z and I are masters of planning to plan. It’s the follow-thru we have trouble with. So don’t be surprised to learn that when we left Indiana three weeks later we hadn’t even booked a hotel for the first night and had to pull over at a rest stop to do it. When we left Richmond, we weren’t sure yet if we’d take another crack at South Dakota, choose a more southerly route, or return the way we came. This time we were trying to dodge heat and wildfire smoke more than over-priced Holiday Inns. It drove my retired truck driver stepfather nuts that we didn’t have a route in mind when we pulled out of the driveway to head back.

A big cow in New Salem, ND

What we saw in all of those states on the way to Indiana were basically things through the windshield with the camera set on “action”—so nothing worth an article in Travel and Leisure, but even so, here are some highlights:

  • The world’s biggest cow (statue)
  • The world’s biggest sand crane (statue)
  • The world’s biggest buffalo (statue)
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park only because I-90 goes right through it
  • Road signs pointing to other national parks we hope to one day visit when they aren’t so crowded by people who have been locked up for over a year. And also when they are less likely to spontaneously combust.
  • Billboards for cheese, pornography, and anti-choice legislation—not sure what those three things have in common, but there were a lot of all three of those in Wisconisn in particular.
  • Scenery. A lot of gorgeous scenery of mountains, streams, cows, oil derricks, rock formations, trees, license plates of various states (39), and, alas,  deer carcasses (31). 
North Dakota started looking more familiar give or take an oil derrick or two.

What surprised me aside from my inability to plan a trip now or my crap photography skills?

  • The desert in eastern Washington that we’d never seen because we basically only exist west of the Cascade Mountains. It was bleak and gorgeous on the way out but on the way back this week with the haze of the Oregon wildfire hanging in the air, it looked more like something from a Mad Max movie and I kept waiting for Charlize Theron to roll up beside us in her big rig or Tina Turner to burst into “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
  • How beautiful that little finger of Idaho is and how much I’d like to see more of the state. Everything appeared to be made by faeries and we saw not one potato crop.
  • How much of Montana’s varying landscape looks exactly the way I have imagined Montana (which is to say similar to how I felt several years ago in New Mexico when I discovered the Coyote & Roadrunner cartoon landscape actually exists minus an ACME anvil or two).
  • Sight of the massive grazing land in Montana. We’d see herds of cattle but there was no sense of a farm being nearby. There was very little sense of farm houses or ranches at all. It was beautiful but also not my place in the world.
  • That I missed buffalo. I’m not sure how you can miss what you never saw and don’t know personally, but I felt their loss. On the return trip, I squinched my eyes whenever I saw rocks or tree stumps and pretended it was buffalo (I know, not the same thing as bison, but buffalo is a better sounding word) but even with my imagination I couldn’t picture the millions that were here before they were slaughtered with the dual purpose of making way for cattle grazing and removing a food and income source from the indigenous people in the hopes that they too would disappear. The longing for buffalo made me regret every hamburger I’ve ever eaten.
  • How North Dakota looked like neither the bleak landscape of a Willa Cather novel OR the sort of tumbleweed-strewn emptiness I’d always imagined, but instead was my first taste of the Midwest I’ve missed so much. In the 18 months we kept ourselves safe in Seattle, stuffed into our glass box in the sky, I wouldn’t let myself think too much about “home” or even what I mean when I think about home. No good could come of thinking of any of those places I’ve referred to with that distinction from March of 2020 until this trip. I’d get sad. I’d start to feel trapped. I’d start devising plans to fly home in one of those old-timey scuba suits with the big copper helmet in order to stay safe/not poison anyone else. It was better just to pretend that I didn’t want to be home, or that home was on Mars (because it might as well have been), and so I didn’t go as stir crazy as so many people did during the worst of the pandemic. Somehow—possibly my new anxiety medication—made the stuckness feel acceptable. But in North Dakota I could feel a subtle shift in my body. Like something in me was unfurling. I never expected that particular state to feel like a gateway to home.

As we drove further and further east across North Dakota and then into Minnesota, I felt more and more relaxed. Like I was in a place I understood, one that spoke my native language.  The farms started to look more like the ones I’m used to, though bigger. Suddenly the rest stops had vending. (Midwesterners would revolt without it.) The names sounded more familiar.

Because of construction in downtown St. Paul, we managed to find the cheapest lodging of our journey at the St. Paul Hotel. It’s gorgeous and “Old World” and gave us a false sense of our own fanciness. The lobby alone made us feel like we were living in a different, more opulent century, but the room was well appointed too. I don’t know that Fitzgerald did anything there, but I wouldn’t be surprised—it’s not far from the house where he wrote This Side of Paradise. Because Z has many friends in the Twin Cities from his time in college, it seemed like the perfect stop for us, and then the hotel was so cheap and fabulous that we decided to stay a second day.

St. Paul Hotel: Z’s Crocs were never so out of place

The first night there, we had a friend over and ordered in barbecue from Famous Dave’s, which Z thought was local but our friend announced there’s actually one in Seattle if we ever wanted it again. Before she arrived but after the food had been delivered, Z discovered that what he thought was a microwave in the room was actually a little microwave-sized safe. Cold barbecue and fries and beans didn’t sound that appetizing, so like a good Zimbabwean wife I made a plan and got the hair dryer and spent the next ten minutes blow drying the plastic containers to keep the food warm. A couple of sides got a little melted because I was over exuberant, but on the whole, it worked and it felt decadent to be gnawing on corn on the cob in this fancy room.

After a late breakfast the next day with another friend, Z and I attempted to walk along the Mississippi and through an old neighborhood with gorgeous old houses, but it was ridiculously hot. At one point we were standing behind the Science Center where we once saw artifacts from Pompeii on display. On this trip, I felt like I was one of the unfortunate souls being swallowed alive by lava. Minnesota might be covered in snow regularly when it’s winter, but summers are brutal. I was a red-faced mess when we got back to the hotel and did not look like someone who should be staying there. I was done for the rest of the afternoon.

View of St. Paul Cathedral from our hotel

For about two minutes I felt guilty that we weren’t taking advantage of the city to visit Z’s old alma mater or visit Paisley Park and that infamous elevator, but on minute three as I looked around our fine hotel room I realized we were doing exactly what I’d been wanting to do on this trip: sit around a nice room with good AC in minimal clothing, chomping ice and reading. That night, we had another meal with our friend MacGregor at an Italian restaurant that may well have served the best spaghetti Bolognese I’ve ever had, or, at least, the strongest Long Island Iced Tea that gave me the belief that it was the best spaghetti I’d ever had.

The next morning, we packed up our items—looking more and more like the Beverly Hillbillies at each stop as our suitcases and piles of things got more and more unruly—and hit the road, driving through Wisconsin (terrible drivers, beautiful scenery) and Illinois (windmills abound).

Be still my heart.

When we crossed the state line into Indiana on I-74 is the only time I felt teary about my return.

Seriously, my heart is doing double-time.

Before long, we were crossing the Wayne County line, and soon after that the Richmond city limits, with the big castle-like courthouse looming over the Whitewater River gorge.  In no time at all, we were headed north of town hugging the banks of the Whitewater River a fork of which ran through both my maternal grandparents’ farm and the campground that my paternal grandparents stayed at every summer during my childhood, a fact which gave me a sense that everything was weirdly unified in my life even if it wasn’t.  

Wayne County Courthouse, complete with un-used hanging gallery and Cinderella-style staircase.

And then we were heading into the driveway where Mom and my stepdad were waiting for us with balloons and a sign. It was an excellent reunion. Who cares if we didn’t get to see the world’s biggest ball of string on our journey—they were really what we’d driven all those miles for.

The human greeting was even better but the pictures were worse.

In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t have to navigate the last year and a half of the pandemic wondering things like  whether I was masked up tight enough to talk to Mom and Val through a screen door in order to keep them safe, or whether we could maybe have a picnic and not contaminate each other, or whether Corona Virus takes a holiday on Christmas so we could have gotten together. There were no dilemmas for me about who I could or couldn’t see because Z and I had hard and fast rules and lived 2,321 miles from the bulk of my familial temptations and 9,822 miles from his.

On the other hand, that was a lot of months and weeks not to see the faces I love so much with no opportunity to, even through triple-paned glass. I’d like to say the reunion was worth that wait, but I’d rather not waited. Time feels way too precious to be spending as much as we have watching Netflix. But still, the reunion was sweet.

Ways the trip did not look like I envisioned? The list I had of Things to Do While Home and what I was actually able to accomplish off of it. The original list:

  • Spend time with my family and friends. (Approximately 35 people at the top of my list.)
  • Get my hair cut and colored for first time since December 2019
  • Get shoes fixed at the shoe repair shop in Richmond, more for the joy of it than because I love the shoes.
  • Get my eyes checked at my beloved eye doctor because I fear he’ll retire
  • Sit on the patio with Mom and enjoy the non-citied outdoors
  • Paint with Mom
  • Sift through my items in the attic and figure out what it’s time to let go of (Billy Joel concert sweatshirt 1988? Jethro Tull sweatshirt 1991? A purple keyboard that no longer works? Etc.)
  • Write
  • Figure out a few belongings still residing in Indiana that could make the journey back to Seattle since we had a car, including:
    • Art work
    • Art projects
    • A yardstick I inherited that I like because it’s square that won’t fit into a suitcase.
    • A full-size umbrella with a map of the Tube on it that won’t fit into a suitcase.
  • Visit a dog friend who is terminally ill
  • Meet the dog of a former student with whom I have become obsessed on Facebook because he has the face of Walter Cronkite (that is, he looks like he knows more than you and will deliver bad news to you in somber tone if necessary)
  • For reasons known only to my subconscious, I really, really wanted to visit my cousin’s donkeys and press my forehead against one of their foreheads and commune with them.

It seemed do-able to me in three weeks, but with the heat the first week was a wash because we just sat around sweating and talking and feeling so glad to be together. The second and third weeks didn’t go much better in terms of accomplishments. It seemed like we were busy all the time, and yet I can’t really account for all the hours that passed while we were there. I got the errands done, Mom and I sat on the patio most mornings, we saw ten people out of the 35 or so I’d planned to see, I had one moment where I felt a psychic connection with a rabbit I believe I convinced not to trespass into the neighbor’s garden because he prides himself in his garden and he has a gun. I got to say my farewells to Leibovitz’s ailing dog, I ran some errands. But other than that, I failed on most other tasks including introducing myself to canine Walter Cronkite.

This could have been a much more artful shot, but it was too hot to get out of my lawn chair.

One of the other un-recorded plans I had was to take a lot of photos while I was home of different views—across the cornfield, on certain roads with particular vistas, of various people I love, of rainstorms and farm animals and moonlight streaming into my old bedroom—because during those long months when I couldn’t get back to Indiana I thought often of those people and places.

Even so, those things are sharper in my mind’s eye than they would be in any photo.

ShellE on the road again.

The Bears of First Hill

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Statue of two bear cubs playing on wingback chair and ottoman in park setting.

Happy New Year!

Or is that a jinx? Am I meant to be saying something like whatever the new year equivalent of “break a leg” is? Also, can you even say Happy New Year when it’s the first of February? Shouldn’t the greetings be over by now?

So far, I haven’t been that impressed by 2021, have you? It’s felt like a worse version of 2020 with an added layer of insurrection. Normally, I don’t put much stock in years being “good” or “bad”—it’s all just the peaks and valleys of being alive—but so far, I am of the mind that the successful coup has been that 2020 is still in office and we just don’t realize it yet. Every morning Z and I look at our phone messages and then ask the other with dread what the news is from our home and from friends. Used to, I’d be whining because the Seahawks were dispatched from the playoffs so quickly or a neighborhood party was loud, but now any day that doesn’t require a sympathy card or new additions to a prayer list feels like a win.

It doesn’t help that in addition to the new beautiful views out of the study at Oh La La that I’m always crowing about, there is also a straight line to an elderly care facility. About half the time I look that direction—directly down the street from my own now bi-focal needing eyes —there are the lights of ambulances flashing out front. On my best days, I say a quick prayer wishing them well, wishing them a lack of fear, wishing them people in their lives who love and care for them. On worse days, however, I angle my chair so I can’t see it at all. It’s a little too close to comfort, the home for the aged. Fiftysomething seems younger now than it did when my grandparents were in their fifties or when my great grandmother was wearing those old-timey clothes, but the days are zipping by. Even if we survive the pandemic, we are, as Alanis Morissette said, temporary arrangements.

Urban tree-lined street with distant red ambulance light, power lines.
Not thrilled with how those power lines seem to connect me with distant sadness.

When I was in high school with my penchant for English and art, I had friends—all male, please note—who liked to remind me that careers with words and art weren’t that lucrative. These boys were good with science and numbers. My father, also good with numbers, felt my chosen major in college—English without the education degree (because I took one ed class and was bored)—might turn me into a pauper and so I should consider a business major despite the fact that I had been a disaster at selling Girl Scout cookies and only loved his cast-off briefcase because it held my art supplies. Though my professors insisted we could do a lot with an English degree, they never handed out lists or offered us much advice beyond “go to grad school” which was, after all, what their own experience had been. Still, I loved words on a page whether mine or someone else’s, and nothing else felt like a good fit.

There were plenty of times—especially during the “spinster librarian” phase—when the mystery of my life was why I hadn’t tried harder to get myself on one of those more lucrative career paths. Or, at the very least, a career path that was less nebulous. On the early morning drive to work, I’d stare at construction workers and think about how much more straightforward and useful their work was: the world needed places to live and roads that weren’t riddled with potholes and so their jobs were to solve those problems.

What exactly was I solving at the library? How to convince someone that if they didn’t pay their fines before checking out another book the entire library system would crumble? Even I didn’t believe that one.

Toddler with brownie hat crying on floor.
You might like to eat cookies, kiddo, but you’re never going to be good at selling them no matter what hat you wear.

One day you wake up, and it’s your birthday, and a few days later multiple friends near your age start talking about their retirement plans in six years or so, and if you are me, you think, but wait a minute, I still haven’t completely figured out what I want to be when I grow up—who wants to retire? And then you realize that while you were trying to figure out what to do with yourself, you were actually living your life.

Who knew?

If I had to have business cards printed right now, I still don’t even know what they should say. “Writer. Teacher. Ponderer” is closest to the truth, but I don’t have a contract from St. Martin’s or tenure, so “ponderer” seems to be the most accurate measure of how I’ve lived my life but the pay is not so good.

Usually on January 6th what I’m pondering is the miracle of my own birth with a very small side order of the arrival of the magi at the manger to visit the infant Jesus. (I do this primarily because it seems wrong to have a birthday on Epiphany and not acknowledge that before it became my birthday it had other, greater significance. That said, the quality of my pondering is often along the lines of wondering what Mary thought when these fancy men rolled up with their expensive jars and boxes of treats for a baby. Because I’m pretty sure what I’d have been thinking is Do you mind if I return this? We’re still living in a manger here and we need some onesies and a Diaper Genie.)

This year, however, I didn’t get to ponder Epiphany or the last five decades of my life because just as I was finishing a morning writing session, my cousin texted that the Capitol had been breached. So Z and I spent the rest of the day thinking about the fragility of democracy, the importance of critical thinking, and how in 1980 my youth group members and I were practically strip searched before we were allowed in the Capitol but somehow the masses were able to break in and run rampant.

I realize it’s not all about me, but I’ve spent my life knowing my birthday so close to Christmas was a pain for people, that it was a high holy day, a birthday I have to share with E.L. Doctorow, Rowan Atkinson, John DeLorean, and Vic Tayback. But now, oh joy, it is a date that will live in infamy. I can hardly wait for next year’s Facebook memes reminding me to “never forget.”

What is wrong with people? You love democracy so you break it’s windows and smear excrement in its hallways while carrying a flag with a man’s name on it as if he’s a king? This is not what I learned about Democracy and the Constitution from my School House Rock cartoons. (Hint: you don’t get to revolt because your person didn’t win. I learned it in grade school and was reminded of it again during both the 2000 and the 2016 elections when I had to lick my wounds without the solace of fur pants and Viking helmet.)

What have we become?

After several hours of watching the news and feeling gloomy about the future, Z and I finally went up on the roof. We were going to go on a walk, but Seattle being Seattle, there were some demonstrations we weren’t interested in getting caught up in when tensions were so high, so instead we let the wind on the rooftop whip us around a bit. We watched the sunset, looked at Mt. Baker which made a rare appearance in the distance, and had a false sense momentarily that all was right in the world. It was beautiful. Later, I was feted by Z and a Zoom version of my folks and opened presents and ate cake. I did, however, forget to put on my tiara.

Distant snow-covered mountain on horizon. City in foreground.
Welcome to my party, Mt. Baker.

From my new vantage at Oh La La I can see the chimney tops of the Stimson-Green Mansion. First Hill used to be flush with mansions but we’re now down to about four, and the Stimson-Green is something special. It’s Tudor Revival, looks like something from a storybook, and is even more delightful inside with each room decorated in a different style. I’ve written about it before. Though all I can see are the chimney and the roofline, I know what sits under it and had the good fortune to tour it, so when I see those chimneys, I’m able to imagine this area in the early 20th century when horses and wagons were making deliveries to the fancy houses, and the residents therein all knew each other and had, for whatever reason, decided they’d rather make their fortunes in the Pacific Northwest instead of Back East. They were not, I assume, English majors.

Tudor style mansion covered in snow.
Stimson-Green Mansion after a snow fall last year.

Next to the mansion is the small, just renovated First Hill Park, and there has been an addition to the old foot print of a bronze, three-piece sculpture of two bear cubs playing on a wingback chair and ottoman. The sculpture was created by Georgia Gerber who also created the famous Rachel the Pig at Pike Market that I’ve rarely gotten close to because it’s always covered with tourists. This new one is a whimsical sculpture that invites you to sit in the chair with the bear cubs frolicking nearby, and it might seem random, but it isn’t.

Women with mask sitting in bronze chair of statue with bronze bear cubs in small park.

The young daughter of the mansion was giving a pair of newborn black bear cubs by her father’s foreman when they were orphaned because their mother was killed in a logging accident. She named the cubs Johnny and Irish, and for the first ten months of their lives, she raised them, played with them, and, one assumes, loved them. (She preferred animals to people.) The upper verandah of the house was their playpen and she regularly walked them around the neighborhood without a leash.

Z has a fit when he sees a dog off leash on our daily walks. Can you imagine if we’d been bumping into little Dorothy with Johnny and Irish? Oh my goodness.

When I think of the bears, I try to focus on the early days of their lives when they were living in the mansion, tumbling over the dragon andirons by the big fireplace, roaming the neighborhood. Before they got so rambunctious with greeting people—not aggressive, apparently, just a little too enthusiastic in their attentions because they were no longer little bears. So they were taken to Woodland Park Zoo where they lived all their remaining days. I wonder about the drive to the zoo. Were they treated like beloved family pets who got to ride shotgun, taking in the city as they neared their new home? Did Dorothy go with them and was it a tearful goodbye? (How could it not have been?) Was their enclosure at the zoo spacious and humane or was it like the tiny wire cage the bear at the park where I grew up had to live? I spent my childhood wanting to see the animals at the park zoo and then feeling instantly sick and sad because they were in small cages and not living the lives they deserved to live. Dorothy would apparently visit them and she pointed them out to her own daughter. She might have been a practical person, but I’m guessing she longed to take them back to the house on Minor Avenue and let them romp on the furniture.

Less exciting neighborhood ponderables:

View out high window of street scene with leafless trees and one green, be-leafed tree in the middle of the street.
Show-off.
•   This tree. It’s on a mini traffic circle and seems not to realize it’s January. All the other trees around it are naked, but this one is still dressed for a ball. I can’t decide if it’s some kind of sick that means it forgot to drop it’s leaves or if it’s just showing off. 

•   Why our fabulous trash chute is suddenly not working and we now have to carry our garbage down the elevator.  

•   Why I have quit seeing Toast the corgi in the lobby. Has he moved? 

•   Also, WHY ARE THERE NO SCOTTIES IN THIS BUILDING? 

•   Finally, why is there a guy playing a baritone on the corner across the street all weekend long, every weekend. And why does he seem to prefer Simon and Garfunkle tunes? At first it was a fun reminder that we live in a city, but after a few weekends like this, I’m grateful I got AirPods for my birthday. 

Everything is so depressing these days. 

Except.

When I’m looking at the old people home in front of me, behind me is Swedish Hospital where two of our favorite little girls—Pippi and the Imp—were born. Before Christmas a client dropped off a gift when I handed over a manuscript I’d been editing and she pointed to the hospital with a fond smile and said, “That’s where my boys were born.”

The last few weeks, I’ve twice seen a bald eagle soaring past our building, where normally we only see crows and seagulls. Who knew an advantage of living on the 9th floor of Oh La La would be bald eagle sightings?

And finally, yes, the Capitol was breached but it wasn’t successful. Our elected officials went back to work and the building and grounds crew righted what was wronged. And when I think about the whole event, I’m struck by how it was words that instigated the riot and words—written all those years ago, imperfect but with the intention of becoming more perfect—that allowed us to get back to the business of living. Maybe words really do matter after all.

young girl in woman's lap with Dr. Seuss book being red to her.
Words were easier when they were just Dr. Seuss