Neighbors from the Seattle University art department.
Recently, I started my Writing for Procrastinator’s class at Hugo House—a favorite of mine to teach—and I’m finding myself in the unfortunate position of not having taken my own advice for the last three months. I’ve written at least five partial blog posts, but then I make the mistake of reading the news and my mind gets funky. Like a lot of us, I sit and stew in the news’s aftermath and wonder what the point of any of it is. And then I distract myself with writing, or reading, or watching the hummingbirds that come to our window daily like well-dressed drones, peering into our windows.
Me telling you about my new glorious votive candle seems trite in the face of war, disease, pestilence, etc. Who cares if I’ve discovered the perfect chocolate bar and pen when we’re all clearly in a hand basket headed straight for hell.
But also, who wants to read—let alone write—more words about how rotten the world is at the moment? Maybe it’s the muchness of information that exists in all of our lives now, but at the moment, it feels like there are enough people writing about the horrors out there, enough people reminding us that we shouldn’t be enjoying X because the Ukrainians can’t or because people suffering Long Covid can’t remember that a chickadee is their favorite bird or whatever. There were enough people weighing in on the Oscar slap heard ‘round the world that I really, REALLY don’t need to add my two cents.
Also, I’m reading Coll Thrush’s 2007 Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (highly recommended for anyone who lives or knows Seattle, and for anyone interested in blasting away the myth that the indigenous people of what would become the United States disappeared and weren’t a part of the shaping of urban centers). With practically every page I turn I’m reminded that what we’ve been living through the last few years is just life. I’m only halfway through the book, but it’s all pretty relatable: the virus in question is small pox, the clashes are between cultures, yes, but also different ways that “the Bostons” (aka settlers) envisioned the future of Seattle, etc. There really is nothing new under the sun, something it would do me good to remember when I close my eyes and ignore the news.
Let’s call the above five paragraphs what they are: me finding fault with the things that occupy my mind so you will be less inclined to find fault with me and how I’m writing about the frivolous instead of the important.
The Big News on the Beth-n-Z frontier is that I won the lottery and get to have the Evusheld shot next week that will bring my wonky immune system up to something more akin to “normal” and thus—with precautions—I can maybe see a friend or two, maybe visit my beloved Elliott Bay Books for more books by local authors or on local history. Also, there is a breeder of the rare and delightful Glen of Imaal Terriers in town and she has invited me over to meet her first litter of puppies to see if they can woo me away from my Scottie love. By now, I suspect the puppies are all spoken for and Z is not in a pet-ownership mood yet, but it’s coming people. It’s coming. I’m tired of looking at people around the city with their cute dogs and badly behaved dogs and bedraggled dogs and well-dressed dogs, and wondering when I’m going to be adult enough to say, this…this is what I want in my life. Once I have this magical shot, visiting a stranger who lives on Queen Anne to see some puppies can actually happen and though nothing will come of it, it’s a step closer to me stamping my foot and pointing out the faulty logic my mother (in the 1970s) and Z (in the 20nows) have both presented me with re: the impracticality of having a dog in an apartment.
In case you are unfamiliar with the breed, here is one of the wee beasties—Jill–that I follow on Instagram. In at least half the posts she has a stick twice her size jammed in her mouth, and it astounds me that someone else’s dog—and a dog that lives on the other side of the world at that—delights me so much.
Last month, Chickpea sent me a package that was the fabulous surprise of not only the perfect Scottie dog pen but also a Saint Stevie Nicks votive candle, and I see that as a positive sign about better days ahead. Or at least the days right in front of me that I—right this minute—can enjoy as they present themselves.
Stevie is now living in the “Lady Magic” corner of my desk where I keep my inspirational baubles and reminders that though I was raised in a patriarchal religion it’s okay if I have touchstones with the Eternal Feminine. You’ve been introduced to some of the relics there and others might be new to you. At the moment, those items include: three different containers full of my favorite pens and paint brushes; a photo of Bailey, the first Scottie dog I truly loved; another of me, aged four, typing away on my mother’s Olympia typewriter despite having only a few spell-able words in my brain and no idea what a narrative arc was; a third photo of my parents in 1966 when I was still baking and they were young, happy, and looked exactly like younger versions of themselves; a prayer card of Joan of Arc, believing in her visions and ready for battle; at least one set of prayer beads draped over a shrine I’ve made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help; a wooden file box with index cards in it for places to send my work and notes about what is circulating and what has been rejected.
I also recently added Crow Oracle cards (designed by Seattle artist MJ Cullinane) that I use to start writing sessions by selecting a card and seeing if it gives me a new way to look at my work. Today’s card: Anomaly—a depiction of a white crow—sits on my computer so I’ll see it throughout the day and ponder the notion of differences, of what is “normal” and what stands uniquely alone.
Stevie will be at home here. All that is missing is Blue Pearl incense, which I can’t burn because of Oh La La’s policies against open flames and because Z and I have lungs that do not appreciate incense of any variety. Even so, I took a chance and briefly lit the Stevie votive in the bathroom with the fan on because I had a great grandmother who believed that unlit candle wicks were bad luck, and I’ve adopted it as my own superstition. It was lit just long enough to blacken the wick and not long enough for the smoke detector or Deputy Z to notice and report me to the management.
It’s good to have things to rebel against when you light a candle—oh so briefly—to a rock goddess.
Look at her. Nobody can wear a hooded cape or red lipstick like Stevie. And I’d like my 13-year-old self—who was always on the lookout for backward masking and Satanic symbolism on my LPs in the early ‘80s—to take note that that pentagram on her chest is not upside down and therefore not shaped like a goat’s head and therefore nothing to be concerned about re: Satanism. Stevie has been many things but the reason she scores a place in the creativity corner is because she has such confidence in her lyrics’ right to exist. And nobody dare question her fashion choices.
You need someone like her in your corner when you are a woman of a certain age who has erred on the side of caution re: expressing yourself. Stevie has never erred on the side of caution. She has written the tortured love songs (which, I posit, no one truly understands—least of all Lindsay Buckingham) and they have been hits.
There’s another new development in Lady Magic Corner: a bottle of Waterman Encre Bleu Sérénité ink.
As a messy person, I’ve never taken to fountain pens in the past. The ink always ended up all over my hands and seemed too fussy when a person can just use a ball point or felt tip pen. Also, their tendency to scratch was a problem for me and sometimes they seemed too show-offy. If I don’t have on a top hat and spats when I go to an (imaginary) board meeting in a room paneled in solid walnut, then I have no right to such a fancy writing implement.
That single semester I was an art major in college was marred by a first assignment that involved three of my least favorite things: outdoors, a blistering sun, and a scratchy drawing utensil. As a class, we had to go to a farm and draw something there that inspired us in pen and ink. The only thing that inspired me was the promise of the end of the two hours and a trip back to campus, but I scratched out a massive scene of a rickety shed and some rusty farm implements. An aunt who would to support my art, had it framed and hung it over her sofa for years. When she died, the drawing returned to me, and even now I can’t look at it without feeling my nerves made electric and raw from the feeling of that pen on the paper.
So me having a bottle of blue ink on my desk is somewhere near anomaly, but when a friend’s artistic teenager suggested a fountain drawing pen, I bought the pen and the ink and then I fell in love. Not with the pen—though it is smooth and nicely weighted—but with this gorgeous blue ink and the glass bottle it came in.
See that bright, cobalt line on the outer edge of the bottle if it’s held up to the light? I can’t get enough of it. This particular color has been my favorite my entire life, so while it is unlikely I’ll start writing in my journal with a quill, just looking at the blue ink sloshing around inside the glass makes me feel all the feelings. It’s the exact opposite of that scratchy pen I had to use in Drawing 101 when I was 18 while I slapped at mosquitos in a hayfield. I can feel something akin to those same nerves crawling up the back of my neck, but it’s the good kind of hair-raising electricity.
None of these descriptions are saying what I mean. Let me try again. To see cobalt blue—whether it is my engagement ring when it catches the light or the ancient jar of Vicks VapoRub from a time when it was still in glass—is to leave my body and float above it, clutching my sides in ecstasy much like Snuffles from Quick Draw McGraw cartoons:
Also in the color department, for my birthday in January, Z got me the Cariuma OCA sneakers that Helen Mirren has been seen in. When I put them on for a daily walk I get another little thrill. Until I saw them, I had no idea that I hoped to one day wear something that Dame Mirren has been spotted in (excluding her costumes from Excalibur in 1981), but here I am. Ecstatic about rubber-toed Kelly-green tennis shoes and shocked that droves of people aren’t stopping me on the street to find out where I got them. I know it’s a kind of fashion blasphemy, but they are prettier than Chuck Taylor’s and they plant some trees with every order.
Don’t tell Z, but now I’ve got my eye on another pair in an exquisite shade of Periwinkle. Somewhere in his future is a wife who has a different color of sneakers for every day of the week that she puts on in the morning to walk a dog.
These are silly things. Maybe signs that I’m just a consumer or my belief system is problematic. Or in finding joy in plastic Scottie pens and new shoes and the color blue I’m kind of…shallow. But when you find things that delight you when there are so many arrows, bells, and exclamation points calling your attention to the ugly, to the battlefields, islands of plastic floating in the Pacific, and the sick or dying, I like to remind myself that while these things are true, so is beauty, so is delight, so is love.
Normally, this time of year I’d have some stories to tell about Mom’s annual birthday trek to Seattle, how much I love fall, how I dragged Z to an orchard though he doesn’t understand the appeal since you can buy cider at the grocery, big plans for Z’s birthday, etc. But like last year, Mom had to give the trip a miss because of COVID threats and because her offspring (that’d be me) may or may not have immunity to the virus after receiving a second try at getting vaccinated. I’ve been nowhere except to get said vaccines and I’ve only seen Z in the flesh and everyone else via Zoom since mid-August. This was Zs second boring Pandemic Birthday, where we stayed in, watched TV, and he washed his new birthday socks. Woo hoo.
Also, I’m avoiding the news because it’s rarely good, so unless you’d like to hear me talk about Squid Game, the Great British Bake-Off, and whether Noodle the TikTok pug is having a Bones or No Bones day, what you’ll be getting this month are random thoughts and questions I’m wrestling with at the moment.
Z and I have trash bags full of our freshly laundered clothes layered with lavender-scented dryer sheets because I read moths don’t like lavender. We’ve been dealing with a moth infestation for months, which wasn’t so strange at our old place with windows that didn’t close tightly and that seemed like they had been in the apartment longer than we had, maybe even since 1923 when the place was built. But it is very odd here at Oh La La because we’re basically living in a non-spherical biosphere.
We’ve made our apartment as hostile an environment for them as possible, short of installing the moth-equivalent of those non-roosting bird spikes that I hate to see on eaves around the city. Those seem so mean-spirited, but apparently if pigeons moved into our apartment, I’d be installing spikes everywhere because my compassion doesn’t extend as far as holes (or pigeon crap) in my woolen Irish acquisitions: two woolen blankets, an Aran sweater, my favorite winter coat, and a pair of forest green cashmere gloves that I bought in Waterford in 2006 and wear so rarely that they are still like new but just knowing I have a pair of cashmere gloves makes me feel like a grown-up (even if I got them on a clearance table at the history museum there). No. There I draw the line.
I’m reading Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon wherein he tells the true but partially fictionalized story of two grieving fathers—one Israeli, one Palestinian—who are friends and working towards peace. The format he uses is with numbered cantos (sort of like this) that add up to 1,001, as in The Thousand and One Nights. Some of the sections are meaty narrative. Others are a single sentence. Some are just photos. Some are all about the main story of the two fathers and their dead daughters and their conviction that with communication and recognition of the Other as human, peace can be attained. Some cantos talk about birds or slingshots or François Mitterrand. I like miscellany and McCann’s style, so for the most part the structure works for me.
At other times I wonder if all the numbers and pauses and details don’t get in the way of the story. Also, the beauty at the heart of the story doesn’t have anything to do with McCann and so much more to do with these two men, Rami Elhanana andBassam Aramin, and the stories that conflict forced onto their families. So, I go back and forth on this issue about whether it’s a great book that everyone should read or if I’d be as moved had I read an article about the men. I have no idea where I’m going to land on this once I’ve finished the book.
A thousand-and-one numbered sections seems like a lot. Is it genius? Is it arrogance? Is it something in between?
Also, I’m beginning to question why I believe I must land on one or the other.
The summer JFK Jr.’s plane went missing on a trip to Hyannis Port for his cousin Rory’s wedding, I got asthmatic bronchitis. Going upstairs to my bed was overwhelming because I had so little breath and even less energy. Once I made it up to my bedroom, I’d climb in bed for a nap and thought I wouldn’t ever go downstairs again because of how awful it was to gasp for breath trying to do something I’d been able to do just fine a few days before as if there would always be plenty of air to breathe.
I spent a lot of time thinking about these mythical creatures—the Kennedys—while I convalesced. I had learned about them as a child in the same way I learned about Snow White, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, my great-great grandmother, Amelia Earhart, and Jesus. They were all equally cartoon-y and real to me and people whose stories were worth studying.
Mom had a book of photos of JFK’s life, and I would study the ones of him with his arm around his daughter, playing with his kids in the Oval Office, some fuzzy images from the Zapruder film, and that iconic photo of his toddler son saluting his casket.
It was hard to believe that that toddler was now missing at the prime of his life. Because I loved Arthurian Legends, there was part of me that had always believed JFK Jr. was the Boy Who Would Be King, never mind his main political overture had been starting a magazine about politics for people who didn’t know much (or care) about politics.
I also felt weirdly mournful for Rory too, and how her wedding day had been wrecked and how it’s not the kind of thing a bride can complain about without seeming like a selfish whiner: that one time my cousin ruined my wedding by going missing. At the time, I knew nothing about her, but with my new computer, I asked Jeeves to tell me all about her, and discovered she was the youngest of RFK’s children, a year younger than I was, and so young, in fact, that she had never met her own father because he was assassinated six months before she was born.
I didn’t believe in things like curses though the tabloids were regularly talking about the “Kennedy curse” whenever a Kennedy died in a tragic way. But when you added up all the sadness that one family had it seemed unlikely that they’d find John John’s plane parked in a hangar somewhere while he, his wife, and his sister-in-law were grabbing a lobster roll at a roadside stand on a whim.
On my last outing into the world, Providence, Hudge, Z and I went to Camano Island for a picnic. We sat under tall pines, listened to Puget Sound licking the shore, annoyed occasionally by the noise of a boat or seaplane that passed, and we rejoiced that at last we could all be together, have our masks off, and share a meal. It was such a magical day that I even had a rare Scottie dog sighting when an older man walked his pup near us. A friend refers to those heady days this past summer when it felt briefly like COVID was behind us as “Hot Vax Summer.” This day had all those hallmarks: it was beautiful and so nice to be reminded of all the things I love about the Pacific Northwest and have seen so little of for the last year and a half.
Is it worth noting that I am reading Apeirogon with my eyes on my iPad and listening to it on my phone simultaneously, which may be why the book works for me? McCann’s Irish accent and use of the pause makes it sound more like poetry than it might if I were only reading it on the iPad and hearing the words with my eyes. In fact, I wonder if I had the book in my hands if I’d be annoyed by the structure and the weight of so much extra.
There’s a new puppy across the street who has his own little patio-kingdom to explore. When he first arrived, I thought he was a Lab. Then his hair got longer and he seemed more like a Golden Retriever. Then the fur got curlier and Z and I speculated that it was some make or model of a Doodle. Now that I can see his paws, I’m wondering if he’s going to be a Pyrenees. It feels like all of those possibilities still exist in him though—the different breeds, the different personalities. He is adorable no matter what he turns into.
Unless you are the calico cat who lives with him.
We are still ordering groceries and having them delivered. Z is a good husband. He really wants to get back to QFC in person so he can squeeze mangos and check eggs for cracks before he puts them in the cart, but he wants to keep me safe until we find out what my antibody status is.
When the groceries arrive it’s always a bit like opening a grab bag to see if you “won” something good or if you got a dud item. Yesterday, the guac got replaced and we were sad, but then when he pulled it out of the bag, we discovered it had been replaced with a bigger tub of guac, which felt like a win. Other items feeling less like a win: the sale grapes ($2.99) being replaced with grapes that must be magic because they cost $9.99. Somehow, we ended up with three loaves of bread. And the mystery we can’t quite solve is why we ended up with a huge brick of cheese (HUGE) when cheese hadn’t been on the order at all. Maybe the shopper thought gobs of real cheese was a great replacement for the fake cheese I have to eat that the store rarely has, or maybe he thought since we had almost ten-dollars-worth of grapes, we needed cheese as an accompaniment.
You can plan all you want, but you never really know what you are going to get in this life.
I had a mild reaction to the second vaccine that left my nose dripping, my head aching, and me sleepy. One night I fell asleep listening to Colum McCann narrate Apeirogon and I dreamed I was having an intense conversation with a handsome man I was trying to woo (Z did not exist in this dream—forgive me Z) as he stocked shelves and racks at a high-end men’s store. It was the kind of store I never go into and he was the kind of small-boned man with overly gel-ed hair- that I never had interest in. In the dream I realized why. He wouldn’t quit flitting and he wouldn’t quit talking. My sense was that he was always this way, but on this occasion of me following him from display to display and trying to get a word in edgewise, he wouldn’t shut up about the tensions between Israel and Palestine. I’d try to ask a question or add my own thoughts on the matter, and he kept droning on and on as if I weren’t there.
I have never felt so unseen. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t a ghost.
When I woke up, I realized it was just Colum McCann reading his own novel into my ear to put me to sleep, clueless that anyone was on the other side of his recording trying to have a conversation with him in her dreams. I turned off Colum and went back to a more peaceful slumber.
The lifespan of a female moth is around 30 days.
Because it was still technically summer when Providence, Hudge, Z and I went on the picnic, I wore sandals. I was imagining a beach with sand that we might walk on, but instead, when we headed to the water after lunch, I discovered the beach was covered in golf ball and baseball sized rocks that were nearly impossible for my shoes to manage. The three of them in their more sensible shoes moved up the wrack line, and I sat on a log and watched the waves of Puget Sound. To be “alone” in nature for a time was blissful. Spiritual even.
Though I was ecstatic inside, apparently my outsides weren’t satisfactorily expressing this, because a man who walked by with his wife jolted me out of my moment with a shout, “Smile! It’s not that bad!” I looked at him and he was so pleased with himself for having dumped a load of his brand of sunshine on my otherwise delightfully grey day.
Even though I’ve been a feminist since birth, when a stranger man—and it’s always been men because women never tell other women to smile—has commanded me thusly, I’ve felt that I was failing to present myself in a pleasing way, as if that were my job, though I am not a model nor am I in the hospitality industry. The line I hate the most is, “It can’t be that bad!” There are two reasons I hate this.
I was born with a resting melancholic face, and I always look kind of the way I imagine Jane Eyre looked when she had to leave Thornfield Hall because the man she loved and nearly married had failed to mention his current wife’s existence in his attic.
How does the speaker know the person hasn’t just had a terrible day or gotten devastating news? They never say, “Oh my goodness! You look so sad. Is there anything I can do to help? Would you like half of my Snickers?” No. They say, “Smile!” as if your face is theirs to shape to their liking.
And now, the Crone years are upon me and I long for a sword that I could brandish in the faces of the offending parties and tell them to move along and accost no frowning woman ever again or I will hunt them down and teach them what chivalry really is.
After searching our apartment thoroughly—opening drawers, flipping through our hanging clothes, carefully inspecting pillows and the underside of three wool rugs—I finally discovered that the moths had been living rent-free in the vacuum that we keep in the coat-closet-slash-“laundry room.” The very vacuum I’d just carefully run all over the rugs to suck up any moths keen to set up a homestead. Also, it turns out, after cleaning up our previous apartment last November before we turned in the keys, we brought this very vacuum to the new apartment and promptly forgot to change the sweeper bag. Or rather, I thought I changed it but did not. And then we got our loyal robovac, Angus, and kind of forgot about the old upright anyhow because we haven’t been so concerned about deep cleaning since we aren’t having guests in.
Basically, we let the moths gestate in the closet for nine months, and now we are reaping what we accidentally sowed.
Given how addicted I am to the National Zoo’s current “Cheetah Cam” maybe I should ask if it’s possible to set up a Moth Cam
The cat across the street periodically comes onto the patio and sniffs around, and inevitably, the puppy discovers the cat is not in the apartment and comes bounding out, searching for it, and then barks at it. The bark could be anything from a joyful attempt to get the cat to play to a territorial reminder that the patio is his. What I do know is the cat braces herself for the onslaught. She turns her back to the dog, even if it means she’s facing the brick wall, and her body—though it doesn’t move—appears to be in her best facsimile of a you-don’t-exist-to-me stance. I am mostly a dog person because I’m allergic to cats but I feel badly for her and think about how her life must have seemed ideal before the puppy arrived, took over her territory, tried to tell her how to behave. I keep hoping I’ll look out one day and they’ll be curled around each other in inter-species companionship.
The neighbors probably think I’m spying on them, but it’s really all about their animals. They could be doing naked fire dances in their living rooms, and I’d only be interested in whether or not the dog’s tail was getting too close to the flame.
That’s a lie. There are new human arrivals five floors up from the puppy and the cat. It’s a woman and man who have modern but stately furnishings, like real grown-ups and not people who picked a room at IKEA and re-created it in their own apartment. I have this feeling that it is a mother and son, even though that seems so unlikely. The son could be 16 or 26 and she could be 24 or 64 from my vantage, but her hair is nearly white or platinum blond and short and she’s always buzzing around cleaning things up while he stands eating over the sink. Usually, she has a phone crooked on her shoulder. Does anybody do that anymore who is Gen X or younger? Crook a phone? Talk on a phone? It doesn’t matter, but we so rarely see people our age or older in these buildings because they all headed for the suburbs years ago.
In 2005 I was at a writer’s retreat at Kinnitty Castle in Ireland, and Colum McCann led a session on the work that goes into one of his novels, where story ideas come from, the writing life. At the time, he was telling us about the research he did with the unhoused population in a major city, how he spent some nights with them under a bridge, the conversations he had.
Women were swooning as if George Clooney were suddenly in our midst.
That night he danced in the castle pub with my friend Isabella who was in her 70s at the time, and I was charmed by their flirtation, by the way he treated her with respect and as if this dance was just as important as some dance he might have had in his youth when he was hoping to score. He was enchanted by her just as so many of those in our group were enchanted with him. I loved him a little for that because I too was enchanted with Isabella. She and I spent a lot of time together at the castle, and I invited her to go to Galway with me for a couple of days at the end of our week-long workshop. At the time, I was feeling old and unwoo-able at 38, she told me—using her psychologist’s authority, her warmth as a new friend, and her New Yorker’s no nonsense—“If you lived in New York instead of Indiana, you’d just now be thinking about settling down, finding a partner, starting a family if you wanted. You’re young.” Then she proceeded to tell me about the man she’d most recently had a fling with. She’d always mourn her husband, she said, but there was a lot of marrow to be sucked from life yet for her and thus, by default, for me.
It doesn’t sound like much of a message, maybe, but I quit worrying about my age quite so much that day and when I think of the kind of older woman I want to be, Isabella is one of the people I think of.
I miss Isabella.
Since the summer of asthmatic bronchitis and search and recovery missions, I’ve had pneumonia. I can’t really distinguish between the two conditions except to know that I hope to never get either again. Both of my grandmothers were on oxygen, one because of emphysema and the other because of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. My father and his brother died of lung cancer. I worry about lungs. My lungs. The lungs of people I love.
Because my pulmonary system is related to people who have bad luck with their own, I’ve locked myself in my tower while I await the All-Clear signal from the CDC or the Fully- Vaccinated-with-Antibodies signal from my doctor.
Around the time of my self-imposed quarantine, a two-person parole board in California recommended Sirhan Sirhan for parole. In a statement decrying this recommendation that was written by Rory Kennedy and five of her siblings, they address not just the loss of their father that shaped their family but the loss to America. My mother hadn’t had books about RFK’s life and assassination to fascinate me as a child, so I’d never considered how the country—the world—might have been had he lived. He inspired the daughter he never met to make documentaries about people marginalized for one reason or another. What else might he have inspired if he’d been given a chance?
What might anyone who has died unnaturally because of violence or their own or someone else’s bad choices have accomplished if only they’d been able to live their lives fully?
The busy woman in the modernly furnished apartment looks like she’d make a good pie. I worry that she’s lonely. Or has an unhealthy obsession with freshly washed windows.
I imagine our neighbors peering into our apartment and feeling relieved that we appear to be moving with our many bags of clothes stacked in the living room. We are not a blinds-down people and sometimes in the morning we are not a pants-wearing people either. Sometimes our coffee table has books and papers and bowls of fruit stacked on it. Sometimes there are random things slung into the arm chair so we can never sit in it. We watch a lot of TV in relaxi clothes and I imagine they don’t approve of our lifestyle.
People are less interested in us than you think they are. Z says this with authority, as if it is a truth universally acknowledged. But that doesn’t explain why I care about the ages of my neighbors, why the dog barks at the cat, and why I believe that the across-the-alley neighbors put up curtains shortly after we arrived. There is disapproval and dislike in those curtains.
A word of advice: never ask someone who has just lost a family member to a lung ailment if that person was a smoker. The only purpose it serves is to make the speaker—almost always a nonsmoker—feel safe. At least I won’t die of a lung ailment because I’ve never smoked, they must think while the person they’ve asked is fighting the urge to growl in their general direction.
What I didn’t admit and what shames me a bit is this: I smiled at the man on the beach when he commanded me to do so. Even now, I smiled.
I found out Isabella died on her birthday when I went to check her page on Facebook to see what she was up to. We hadn’t had a real conversation in five years, just periodic check-ins over email, but I felt gutted and played that old, tiresome game with myself of self-blame about all the ways I take love and friendship for granted, as if it will always be there for me.
In an effort to avoid any real controversy, my high school U.S. history class spent more time on Tammany Hall and the Teapot Dome Scandal than on anything that happened after the Great Depression. Thus, we avoided much of WWII, all of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. So I didn’t learn anything useful about who Bobby Kennedy was or what he might have done or who killed him and why.
From my post-parole hearing “research” (thank you, Google), I learned that Sirhan’s mother believed he was traumatized in childhood by the Israeli-Arab conflict and by his brother’s death, which was caused when a military vehicle swerved to avoid gunfire, and that in 1989, the New York Times quoted Sirhan as having said his only connection to Robert Kennedy was Kennedy’s support of Israel to the physical detriment of Palestinians.
Lately, when I want to ask if some recently dead-by-COVID person had gotten the vaccine, I try to fight the urge. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but I am daily trying to remind myself to err on the side of compassion. People make bad choices. I have made plenty myself.
Now, I’m slowly emptying the bags of clothes and reinstalling them in drawers that I sprayed so thoroughly with lavender oil that I coughed the rest of the day. I have no idea what moth lungs look or feel like, but if the hangers-on know what’s good for them, they’ll fly out the window or sit on the coffee table and watch Hulu with us instead of noshing on our fibers.
I never know if there are real connections where I see them or if I just need to believe they exist to manage life.
We were an odd band of writers at Kinnitty Castle. It wasn’t a group I should have felt comfortable with—a man who was on the Forbes 100, a Countess, various people with second homes, a woman who lived near me in the Midwest but was dismissive for reasons that had to do with either her recent MFA or the fact that she’d been born in Ireland—I knew instinctively that she was not going to warm to me.
Still, I fell in love with some of those people who were so different from me.
During one workshop (and days before Colum McCann showed up and danced with Isabella), there was a dust-up when a piece being discussed could be construed as anti-Semitic. Because I loathe discord, I can no longer remember specifically what it was or whose piece it was, but I do remember Isabella’s raised voice, the tears that welled in her eyes, as she pointed out the injustice of how the writer had characterized a Jewish character or the nonchalance with which the person had written about the Holocaust. She had lost family in the Holocaust. She herself had come to America as a refugee when she was a child. Later I would learn—because I hadn’t ever had to consider it before this because of the luck of my birth and place in history—how difficult it was to be a refugee in America. How difficult to be Jewish at a time when America hadn’t exactly put out the welcome mat for people who were attempting to escape the Nazis.
I was just an observer. It wasn’t my trauma. And yet, seeing how it affected Isabella all these years later—an ill-worded passage in someone’s novel manuscript . . . Even now, I have no words for the effect it had on me. But it made me wish I could always only see the humanity– the layers of sadness and joy and wisdom and wonder—in every person whose path I cross.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
When we crossed the state line into Indiana on I-74 is the only time I felt teary about my return.
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.
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.
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.)
Figure out a few belongings still residing in Indiana that could make the journey back to Seattle since we had a car, including:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.