Category Archives: Memoir

A Cup of Kindness

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Icicles at the Stimson-Green Mansion, Seattle.

At the day’s writing session, V. greets us from 2022 and she reports to the rest of us, still stuck in 2021 for the next few hours, that so far so good on the new year. No one in Australia has broken it yet, she says. My sensitive intuitive writing friends and I laugh at the joke, and talk about our plans and non-plans for the year. We discuss the value of goals, the pressure of goals, and some of us have lists of things we hope to accomplish and others have come up with more of a mission statement to guide the days that follow midnight. All of us are grateful that we’ve had this past year together while we create something out of nothing.

Normally at the new year, I’m equal parts hopeful (that it will be a good year, that I’ll be a productive person, that the wind will remain at my back yadda yadda yadda) and nostalgic for the year that was. Not so much because any given year was so remarkable that I don’t want to let go of it, but because it is now known in its entirety, has been survived, and seems like a tamed creature whose behaviors–in retrospect–were predictable even if they weren’t. (If you’d told me last January that even after vaccines there’d be new variants of our unwanted guest, we all probably would have been in tears. Omicron? Really? Weren’t the first several iterations enough?) It’s the difference between a book you are looking forward to reading and that book finished and how it did or didn’t live up to your expectations, how it surprised you but is no longer a surprise, and you wonder how much of it you’ll remember a week from now or five years from now.

This year I’m not looking back on 2021 with any particular fondness or hatred. It’s the first year that trying to label a year as good or bad seems a ludicrous proposition. There’s value in sifting through the artifacts (and debris) of a year and assessing how you wish it had gone, what worked well, where you’d make changes if you got do-overs, but after a lifetime of believing there was something special about January 1st or my birthday or a Monday of any week–as if it held magical properties– I’m done with that.

This past year changed for me in the middle of a week in mid August when I found out the vaccine hadn’t quite worked for me, and then–after moping around for half a day and feeling suddenly very vulnerable–I finally thought, okay then, what are you going to do with yourself since you won’t be living your life outside of these walls anytime soon? And I drew up some plans for things I’d like to get done by the end of the year: eat better, exercise more, read more, write more, submit more (writing, not to Z…I’ve never been good with submitting to anyone and there was no ‘obey’ in my marriage vows, thank you), and I did almost all of the items on my list for the first time ever in my life. Normally, 364 days after I make New Year’s resolutions, they suddenly just look like wishful thinking written by someone who doesn’t understand anything about how my brain works.

There was nothing magical about the day in August. There was no ceremony to my deciding–I didn’t light a candle or burn sage (we signed a lease where open flames are forbidden). I didn’t wait for a new moon or meditate. There’s a good chance I didn’t even have a shower that day. But I came up with some goals…or maybe “guidelines” is a better word…and the next day I kept working towards those things. And the next day, and the next day, and now here we are…on the brink of 2022 and the only thing I didn’t accomplish was getting a new website up and running. (Mainly because I’m terrified and keep putting it off, so I’ll have to face my fears and get a website up by the end of March. I’m adaptable!

We had some snow this week, which was perfect for my need for winter weather. It got really cold (for Seattle) and has required hats and scarves and gloves and given me that taste of winter I need every year to feel like myself. Z and I went out on our daily walks and it felt like a real score when we saw actual icicles on the Stimson-Green mansion up the street. Icicles aren’t usual here, or at least haven’t been for the last several years. For that matter, neither are snowmen, and we were delighted yesterday to find a few of these little mini ones that would fit into a purse like a Yorkshire Terrier. We’ve also enjoyed seeing a variety of neighborhood dogs in some truly jaunty winter coats and sweaters. Yesterday there was a black Lab in what I can only describe as a fisherman’s turtle neck Aran sweater, and he looked delighted to be wearing it instead of mortified. I imagine him at his apartment this evening drinking hot toddies with his humans by a fireplace with some soft jazz playing in the background while he waits for the new year.

As for me, I will spend the remaining hours of 2021 doing a jigsaw puzzle, hanging out with Z, and filling in the first 12-weeks of my new fabulous planner that will give the impression that I’m actually organized and know exactly what I want 2022 to be. It’s going to be whatever it wants to be and none of us can change that, but I’m hoping I can keep nudging myself towards doing the things that please me and make me feel like I’m living my life instead of life just happening to me. The problem with the last two years has been how we’ve all had to come to terms with how little control we have, perhaps.

Thank you for reading my blog this year. I hope 2022 brings all of us more of the things we want, less of the things we don’t. Fingers crossed for good sense, good health, and good fortune.

See you next year!

The Benevolence of a Sock Monkey

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Do you know how sometimes you find yourself in a mood, clutching your childhood sock monkey and weeping because you feel guilty about that time when you were four and her rhinestone eye fell out and you put the errant “eye” in a Kleenex for safe keeping and your mom, thinking it was just a snotty tissue, threw it out, and so then Monkey had only the empty eye socket? And then you keep crying because of the “scar” on Monkey’s arm—a tear that was stitched up with black thread, leaving a garish mark? And then you cry some more because Monkey has been there for you your entire life, a gift from your retired-nurse-babysitter and come to think of it, Monkey never felt like all of your other stuffed animals. They were your babies and required you to mother them and not show favorites (though you had favorites, oh yes you did), but Monkey in her cap and red-checked dress has always felt more like Mary Poppins in sock monkey form—an adult. Even though you recently had to ask your mother for Monkey’s pedigree and hadn’t remembered that Grandma Sowers, the unrelated retired-nurse-babysitter (who got hit by a car crossing the street when you were two, RIP), gave her to you, it makes sense that Monkey has had that role in your life of watching out for you and was the only of your original stuffed animals to make the trip across country when you moved 12 years ago. And yes, you were 42 when you made this trip and maybe you should have come with no stuffed animals but Monkey was the only member of the family you could get in your suitcase.

Anyhow, you don’t really know why you are crying on Monkey’s red checked dress. Nothing is particularly wrong and you almost never cry anymore anyhow (thanks, Lexapro), but you can’t stop yourself and don’t want to anyhow. So you cry about her scars (her less vibrant eye, a replacement your stepmother made so Monkey didn’t have to wear an eye-patch the rest of her life), how her dress is beginning to split, how you used to love the rainbow colored pom-poms on her hat and wrist, but those disappeared after a moth frenzy of some sort years ago. And then because you feel like you are not done crying, you grab at anything you can think of that will keep the tears flowing: how you miss home in Indiana, how you miss Zimbabwe and Z’s family, how you feel like you might die if you don’t get to Ireland soon. Then because the tears are starting to dry up, you move on to more global things: the people sick and dying of Covid and other terrible things, the homeless encampment down the street that you feel ill-equipped to do anything about, how you sometimes don’t hear Z’s stories because you get distracted by a bird flying past the window or some rambling thought about Medieval castle living or an imagined conversation with someone and have to say to him, “What was that?” Why don’t you listen better? And on and on and on.

You have those days, right?

When I originally wrote the above, it went on for four more paragraphs in excruciating detail…all the things I seemed to not be crying about, and then even I got sick of myself and deleted it. The tears dried up eventually that day, but I was still flummoxed about what had caused them. Monkey was there looking on while I was at my desk writing, not bothered at all by my storm in a teacup. Her smile which is three-parts love and one-part encouragement and benevolence as she watches over me, which in turn reminds me the two holy cards I keep on my desk: one of Joan of Arc (listen to your intuition and strength to your sword arm and all that) and the other of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who is always in my line of sight when I write, perpetually helping.

One of my favorite things of the Pandemic (aside from embracing a new hairstyle reminiscent of a combo between Endora on “Bewitched” and Marge Simpson without the blue) has been the group of introverted intuitive feelers I write with daily on Zoom. We just had our one-year anniversary of meeting each other. Every day we Zoom for a couple of hours, talk for awhile about our lives, our shared personality aspects, our creative work, and then we spend an hour creating together but separately. We call ourselves the NFers because we are all introverted, intuitive, feelers. All of us write in one form or another, but we also do other things individually: craft, paint, compose and practice music, or, if we are feeling tired, one of us might choose to read.

I’m not usually a lover of group activities or even this much group chat, but there is something magical about the combination of us. I can even imagine a day when I’ll be grateful for this weird time in the world because it brought us all together virtually. I’ve grown. I’m writing more. I’m taking better care of myself. And twice now despite my inability to do most practical, sensory activities, I have channeled my maternal grandmother and fixed two lamps that quit working after they were mishandled by movers last year when we came to Oh La La. (My next project is to entirely rewire a lamp, but Z is dubious and thinks we might need an electrician to do this! Or firefighters standing by.) Change is afoot.

Also, I’ve fallen in love with all of these women. We feel our feelings and share the things we’ve been thinking about or something we just learned or a book we happened upon. We share bits of our selves and allow ourselves and each other to be the kooks we were born to be. If someone doesn’t show up, we worry a little. When we’re all in attendance, there’s an extra layer of excitement. There’s no commitment—other than time—and yet I feel fully committed to these five people I didn’t know 13 months ago. I want their projects to go well, I want their relationships to flourish, and I want them to live in contentment.

After the sock monkey induced weepies, I mentioned to this group that I’d been a bit sad, and V who has kept the Zoom candle lit for us the last 12 months—getting up before even the roosters in her part of the world—suggested that the reason for the sadness and the clogged up creativity might just be that I’d been in a holding pattern for awhile and it’s hard to work towards the next thing when you are hovering between places, between here and there. And it’s true. I’ve been waiting on some things. Some test results. An “all clear—you can visit other humans again!” message. Next year’s lease at Oh La La where rents have been hiked. Some writing that’s circulating out in the world looking for a home. And so on. Just life stuff. But still…a holding pattern.

In one form or another, all six of us are in a holding pattern for one reason or another, and when you get right down to it, everyone (who believes the Pandemic is real) is in a sort of stuck place between Before and After. No wonder people are out of sorts, behaving oddly, and generally not mentally well.

Though I’ve flown a lot, I’ve been stuck in only two holding patterns that I remember, both times circling over New York. The first was only memorable because a small plane wasn’t communicating with the tower and they had to keep the commercial flights away from it until they made contact. Later, it would have seemed scary, but because this was pre 9-11 it was just an annoyance. All I remember is that we circled around and around and the only reason I knew we were going in a circle was because I kept seeing the same school bus on the ground. In my memory now, it isn’t a small plane causing trouble with the control tower but that the school bus was some how holding up our landing.

The second holding pattern was on a flight destined for London for a layover on my first trip to Zimbabwe with Z to see his homeland. There was a blizzard that shut down Europe between our take-off from Detroit and when we got over the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s the only time I’d ever been bumped up to first class on an overseas flight. Z and I had just had a fancy meal with wine and were settled in for a pleasant flight with the big earphones instead of the crappy earbuds back in coach. We had the free internet, the real flatware, a leg rest and an ability to recline significantly, comfy blankets and, I don’t know, maybe there was caviar and slippers or a small pedigreed lap dog to keep us company (there wasn’t), but it felt like we’d won the lottery.

And then the pilot’s announcement that we weren’t actually going to our destination because Heathrow and Gatwick had both been closed and Paris wasn’t far behind. JFK had agreed to let us land there, but only after we burned off the bulk of the fuel so the landing would be safe. So we circled. For five hours. Despite our accidental luxury in first class, the flight got increasingly more uncomfortable as we circled and circled, changed altitude multiple times, and the engine slowed down and sped up.

Though I didn’t want the oceans befouled, I started thinking, “Just dump the fuel already and let us land!” I found it impossible to sleep. There was nothing we could do to arrange some other flight that would by-pass Europe and get us to Harare for Christmas while we were still in the air, but our brains wouldn’t quit spitting out possibilities of us spending the holiday trapped in an airport, eating peanuts and trying to build a sleeping fort out of our carry-on luggage. My feet puffed up. My stomach turned with each shift of the plane. Five minutes felt like an hour.

Finally we landed and, though it took an age to get re-booked on a flight that went straight to South Africa and then on to Zimbabwe on Christmas Eve, we managed it. But now we suddenly had three days to kill before our departure. For two nights, we were in an airport hotel in one of the only rooms left and for a third night, we stayed with Z’s cousin in Connecticut. One day we took the train into Manhattan and after a lifetime of wanting to see NYC at Christmas, I finally got the chance.

We met friends of Zs at Union Station, had a meal with them at a diner where I learned about an egg cream, and walked around looking at the windows at Macys and the other stores I’d only ever seen in old movies. When they took their young daughter home, Z and I continued poking around the city, seeing Rockefeller Center all lit up and skate-y, peeping into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, trying to pretend the light sweatshirts we were wearing for summer in Zimbabwe were big winter coats warding off the freezing temperatures. It was chilly, but magical.

We were still stuck in the holding pattern—between leaving home for a holiday in Zimbabwe. We weren’t anywhere we’d planned to be, we weren’t dressed for it, it wasn’t really comfortable, but still, there were moments in those three days of waiting that I wouldn’t change (including my putting bubble bath in the jacuzzi in our room and Z having to rescue me by flushing bubbles down the toilet before the entire bathroom was overrun).

That’s us on the Jumbotron in Times Square at about 11 o’clock. Z is waving!

The thing about a holding pattern is you never know when it’s going to end. That’s why they’re so tedious. You could be circling for five minutes or five hours or forever (or, you know, at least until you run out of gas).

Oh La La is right on the flight path to SEA TAC (an airport I’ve never had to circle). So when I’m writing in the office—which juts out of the building and hangs above the sidewalk nine floors below—I feel personally connected to the planes and the crows and the clouds and the distant boat traffic on Lake Union. On days when the writing isn’t going well if the planes are especially low, I check the tail fin to see if it is a commercial flight or if it is headed for the even closer Boeing Field where cargo planes land. At night with the blinds up in our teeny bedroom, I watch the late night flights arrive and wonder who is coming home and who is arriving for business and who is brave (or stupid) enough to be a tourist right now.

Though it’s been two years since I’ve been on a plane, I can imagine being in one that is passing by our building, waiting for the landing gear to drop down, checking to see if it’s raining, wishing I’d gone to the bathroom before we’d been restricted to our seats, and mentally de-planing long before wheels down. I imagine being greeted by people who love me as I get off the escalators in baggage claim, collecting my suitcase, standing in line for the taxi or Lyft that will bring me into the city. I even imagine that moment on I-5 when you crest the hill and see Seattle in the far distance, lit up and sparkling like Oz. I’m here, and yet I’m a little homesick for that sight.

It’s snowing today. It won’t stick in all likelihood because snow rarely sticks here, but it’s a happy sight on a Midwinter day. It feels like 34 out and I’m wrapped in the shawl that G knitted for me this fall. Monkey is watching me from the guest bed with her one good eye, smiling encouragement while I write, wondering when this post will land.

What am I circling around? I don’t know. A little self-compassion. A lot of compassion for everyone who is struggling because of the virus or separation or the season or because they feel stuck. Some joy because winter can be cozy: a stack of books, a cup of cocoa, a few days off from work, a little chocolate and though I didn’t arrange any this year, a dollop of maple candy that melts in your mouth and is too sweet by half—even for me—but that tastes the way magic must taste. (It comes right out of a tree! How could it not?)

And hope. Hope that all that is wrong in the world might get righted, that all that is wrong in a head or a heart might get soothed, that there will be more light than darkness, more love than hate, and some goodwill. These are the things I need to believe in to make any holding pattern tolerable. The winter solstice seems like a good time to tap into that.

My wish for you is that your solstice–however you celebrate it—is exactly what you need. Whether that is a tree blazing with lights with family gathered around it or a benevolent sock monkey from childhood helping you through the doldrums, may it bring you, and thus the world, a little bit of peace.

Thirty-three Attempts at a Book Review

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Camono Island, last days of summer. 2021.

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.

1.

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.

Trash? Moving? Moths?

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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. 

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

You can plan all you want, but you never really know what you are going to get in this life.

9.

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.

10.

The lifespan of a female moth is around 30 days.

11.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Camano Island, WA

12.

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.

13.

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

14.

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.

A rare moment when Cat is facing Puppy

15.

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.

16.

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.

17.

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.

Kinnitty Castle, Ireland

18.

I miss Isabella.

19.

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.

20.

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.

21.

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?

 22.

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.

23.

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.

24.

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 judgmental neighbor perhaps.

25.

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.

26.

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.

27.

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.

28.

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.

29.

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.

31­­­­.

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.

32.

I never know if there are real connections where I see them or if I just need to believe they exist to manage life.

33.

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.

Amen.

Special Delivery

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.

In It to Win It: An April Blog in May

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Paper cutout of boy with mountain in far distance.

Despite the pandemic and despite the fact that Z and I just became bona fide re: being released back into society post vaccine, we so far have been living exactly as we were pre-vaccine. And now that we’ve hit the three-week mark we’ve stopped worrying that every headache is a telltale sign of some Johnson & Johnson vaccine shenanigans. So far, so good.

So what I’ve done to prepare for a future wherein I might actually be around other people is wear my “real” shoes on a walk (and by “real” I mean “Danskos” so don’t go picturing Jimmy Choo anything) and my reward was that in the middle of the night I had a muscle cramp in my ankle. Which is a new thing I didn’t know could happen and was clueless about how to get it to stop.

Because my hair was starting to look more and more like the witches at the beginning of MacBeth, Z and I cut it. It’s now an imperfect bob, but I don’t care. In eleven years I’ve never bothered to find a hair stylist here because I prefer getting my hair done in Richmond when I go home. I would fly to the moon to get my hair done with my person, the aptly named Joy, if it meant I didn’t have to make small talk with a stranger. I’ve been going to her since I was 22 and have no intention of stopping now. Until I feel safe climbing on a plane and getting to Richmond, you’ll have to excuse the straggly ends and the grey strands that apparently Joy’s been covering for awhile without telling me.

At the moment, I’m in the process of purging all non-natural fibers from my wardrobe. I realized one of the reasons I’ve been so comfortable for the last 400 days is because I have not worn anything with structure, have not worn anything that does not grow naturally on the planet, and have not had a zipper anywhere near my person. Eventually, I will transition back into what my friend calls “hard pants” so long as they are cotton, silk, or linen (really just cotton—I’m not that fancy), but today is not that day.

Also, because I hang on to clothes forever, I’m looking carefully at the pieces I’ve been wearing for 20 years or so and considering that probably these are the pieces I’m happiest in and should just keep enjoying them or find replacements. Steve Jobs had his black turtle necks—why can’t I have a signature style?

I’m looking at you black hoodie from L.L Bean circa 1994. You’ve been with me through both good and bad times, have been on three continents with me, and you’ve held up well. Thank you.

My next move is to figure out what three or four make-up essentials I’m unwilling to give up and then just refuse to be lured into any more “this will make you look magical” ad campaigns. No Snake Oil for Me in the Post Pandemic, thank you.  From this point on, I’m probably going to look my age. I had a good run for a lot of years—a benefit of having extra adipose tissue, hating the sun, and not having children and thus avoiding worry lines. But eventually age catches up with us all unless we go to extreme measures, and I’m just not extreme. I am going to have jowls and dark circles and bags under my eyes. Used to, I would never go anywhere without make-up and my belief that it hid all of my flaws. At the very least, I’ve always been an eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara girl. But can we just admit that mascara is a pain—it’s messy and if it’s not messy you have to rub chemicals on your eyes at the end of the day to get it off. Also, it has never made me look like I have more than 23 eyelashes despite the promises so why bother. I don’t have the upper eyelid situation I used to have, so why keep powdering them with color only to have the color disappear into the recesses of my face folds? (I will cling to my eyeliner, but it is on short notice.) I have always looked ridiculous in lipstick and so I’m just going to own that now and slather my lips with Chicken Poop (really, it sounds gross, but it’s good lip balm) and be done with it.

Basically, I think I’ll just spend the rest of my life pretending that I’m walking around under Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility and it’s going to free up a load of drawer and closet space.

I didn’t mean to be talking about this. Sorry. I’ve distracted myself because of two badly timed advertisements on social media. Instead, I meant to tell you about the houseguest we had for the last two weeks: Our first houseguest at Oh La La.

Paper cut out of boy snuggled in bed.
Stanley was an excellent sleeper.

My cousin’s second grader sent his buddy Flat Stanley to stay with us to be shown around Seattle. About eight years ago we did the same for two other family members, but back then we weren’t sequestered on First Hill, and so we got the expected photos of Flat Stanley at all the tourist spots: on a ferry, at the base of the Space Needle, walking around Pioneer Square, shopping at Pike Market, sauntering along the beach on West Seattle, etc.

This time we were limited. Flat Stanley spent a lot of time on our roof deck looking longingly off into the distance at all of the things we would have shown him if only we weren’t on the short leash or had a car or hazmat suits. (Covid-wise, Seattle is in the Red Zone again and the governor is likely going to move us back to Phase 2.) One day we did venture across the Rubicon that is the Pike-Pine Corridor because I was sure we’d find a decent view of the Space Needle from there without actually going downtown. Like last month when we ventured two blocks beyond our self-imposed boundary, you’d have thought this walk to a neighborhood next to our own was tantamount to trekking to Tangier. I kind of felt like we should have been carrying our passports even though two and a half years ago I taught an afternoon class for procrastinators at the library two blocks over.

Paper cut out of boy on high rise roof deck with city and sunset behind him.
He was a good sport about having to experience the Olympic Peninsula from the roof deck.

It turns out a lot of the thru-streets that used to have a vantage of the Space Needle no longer do because buildings have gone up. When we finally spied our goal, it would have been a perfect shot with the late afternoon sun highlighting the Olympic Mountains in the distance. Except a crane had been erected and kind of blotted the view in a pre-cursor to the final blotting that will take place when whatever monstrosity they are building now is completed.

Paper cut out of a boy with Space Needle, crane, and mountain range in far distance.
On second look, maybe what the crane will be blocking is the mountains.

I know. I know. I now live in one of those monstrosities and my building is no doubt blocking the view that someone else used to have of Lake Union or Elliot Bay. How can I complain? I’m not sure, but I can. At this rate, Frasier Crane’s condo has probably lost its view.

On our walk back home, we passed Neko Cat Café and decided that in all likelihood, that particular type of establishment was surely peculiar enough to Seattle that a bunch of second graders in Middle America would be fascinated, so we snapped some pics there where a cat napped in a hammock. This felt like a real win, like it would make up for all the other fuzzy, crap photos I’d taken of things in the distance.

Paper cut out of boy in front of scooter next to a sign reading "Neko A Cat Cafe" with cat lounging in window.
Riding the cat might be easier than the scooter.

I typed up the letter that will accompany Flat Stanley on return to Indiana via USPS. My brow was furrowed as I clicked away, as if I had a big presentation I had to put together for the Board of Directors at McMahon & Tate. Z seemed a little frustrated that I wasn’t letting him weigh in and that I was hyper-focused on what was only ever meant to be a Post-It amount of info about how far Seattle is from Flat Stanley’s home and what people wear here and one or two photos.

Z shook his head.

I was in it to win. Please note: there is no competition. I will not be awarded a crown and sash as Flat Stanley’s very best travel facilitator. My name will not be included in any Community Notes section of the local newspaper, and there are no cash prizes.  In all likelihood, I won’t see this child until next Christmas at which time Flat Stanley will be some old assignment that is now long over, so it is unlikely that even he will come up to us, shake our hands, and tell us how much he appreciates that we tried to show his buddy the best time we could.

There’s something ugly bubbling inside of me that makes me want to do things the best—I’m not sure if I want a gold star for effort or if I am competitive and want to win, even if it is for something unwinnable. I suspect the former because when I do “win” at something I feel bad about the people I beat, but my maniacal expression while I work towards a finished goal probably looks like it’s all about the competition. You’d have to ask Z.

As for him, he was finally allowed to help me insert a variety of photos and write a sign-off to the class. We folded the letter with photos and Flat Stanley—now folded in on himself—into an envelope, put three Gwen Ifill stamps on that baby, and mailed it. I went back to my doodling and TV watching and promptly forgot the high stakes hosting tournament I’d enrolled myself in minutes before.

Paper cut out of boy on stool with statue of two life size bear cubs playing.
Hopefully the bears of First Hill are set on “gentle”.

I’ve missed having house guests. Stanley didn’t require much of us—I didn’t even have to change sheets on the guest bed—but it was nice to have someone around. He was a very easy guest. I’m looking forward to having a three-dimensional visitor in our new space and see how it goes. I’m still fantasizing about cook-outs on the roof and game days in one of the conference rooms with the Big Table. Possibly if we do that, I will be trying to win. Or maybe I’ll just be trying to play the best game.

One development: some obsessive brain cell of mine had me Googling “cat cafes in Winchester, Indiana” and it turns out there is one there. Those second graders will NOT be impressed with our fancy, bit city notions of how we have things other parts of the country do not.

I wish there were do-overs. They’ve probably never been to a Pinball Museum.

Paper cut out of boy on hammock.
Even paper house guests like a hammock and skyline.

Ground Control to Major Tom

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PART THE FIRST


I’ve discovered that swiping through TikTok videos in the morning is the perfect way to stay cozy in bed. I give myself ten minutes and then look at the clock and a half hour or hour has passed, which is disturbing, but I keep telling myself this is just winter behavior. It is cold. The flannel sheets and Z snoozing next to me and radiating heat are too inviting for me to willingly bound out of bed the minute my eyes open.

One drawback (of the many) to beginning the day this way is the frequency with which some videos use earworms to highlight whatever antics are going on in the video. For three days now I have had a few bars of Beyonce’s “Halo” stuck in my head on a loop. It. Will. Not. Go. Away. Yesterday, I thought maybe if I listened to the entire song instead of just those bars it would finally exhaust itself but all it did was make Z start humming it too. There are worse songs, but I’d like to move on in my life now.

My recent desire to stay in bed an extra hour was exacerbated by the Big Snow we had that lasted a couple of days. We’re in much better shape than the rest of the country in this regard—now it feels like spring is afoot—but for those two days of snow, the city felt magical and Z and I were thrilled with our new perch here at Oh Là Là, looking down on snow-covered streets and not having to go out on un-shoveled sidewalks. We did venture up to the roof deck and threw a snowball and attempted a snowman with snow that would not pack, but for the most part, we just stared out the window like a couple of kids who had never seen snow before.

Man on snow-covered rooftop deck next to snow-covered table--skyscrapers in background and visible snowflakes falling.
Z on the roof deck about to be pelted with a snowball (of sorts).

Oh, and I did a jigsaw puzzle because snow days are perfect for that and I still miss RBG.

Finished jigsaw puzzle of Ruth Bader Ginsburg image in front of American flag with text written at bottom that says "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made."
Nobody ever looked so good in a lace collar.

INTERLUDE

During the snow days, I got unnaturally concerned with the well-being of a neighbor who lives across the street. Please note (and believe): I am not a peeping Tom. I am not hoping to see any fights, naked bodies, or assess whether my neighbors wipe their noses on their sleeves. Still, when you are living in the sky and working at a window, occasionally your gaze will fall on the neighbor who has a lovely big St. Bernard thrilled with the snow or the neighbor whose cat peers down from the 12th floor as if everything on First Hill belongs to him.

Occasionally, my eye lands on the woman whose blinds are never closed, who sleeps on the sofa with the lights on instead of under her Marimekko duvet in the bedroom. After the first quick glance months ago, I’ve wondered about her. What’s the deal with the sofa? Did she have a bad break up and can’t face her bed alone? Why the lights on at night? Is she afraid of something? Has someone threatened her?

So the other day when I did my quick morning glance before settling into work, I saw her lying on the floor, and my pulse quickened. What had happened to her? I glanced again and the position she was in was really awkward, so I worried that she’d hurt herself. Or, horrors, someone had hurt her.

I instantly started thinking of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, wheelchair bound and stuck in his apartment, passing the time by looking at his neighbors with a telephoto lens. When he sees what he believes to be a murder take place, no one will listen to him.

Sky and clouds with two eagles in the far distances. (Arrows drawn on photo to highlight eagles.)
They were both much closer than this but not when I had my camera.

Recently, a pair of eagles have been flying over our building, so my mini-binoculars were on the desk. I have never used them to look in anyone’s apartment and when I do use them, I make over-exagerrated motions so anyone peering at me can see that I am only looking up at the sky and not trying to peer into their living spaces. It occurred to me that if this woman was compromised, I might be the only person knew it, so I allowed myself to fake look for the eagles in the sky above Lake Union and then do a slow but continuous spin in my chair and briefly train the binoculars on her apartment.

As it happens, I did not have to call 911. The body on the floor was not hers. In fact, it was not a body. In fact, it wasn’t even on the floor. It was an oversized knitted blanket stuffed into and spilling out of a basket.

I haven’t had my eyes checked for a year and a half. It might be time.

St. Bernard dog standing in a snowdrift on a city sidewalk.
Sans keg of brandy for snow rescues.

PART THE SECOND

Because Z himself is also magical and amazing like snow in Seattle, the number of times I’ve had a crush on a “celebrity” since we got together is almost nil, but I’m finding myself disturbingly attracted to the bobble-headed @therealindiandad. Initially, I didn’t know why. I mean, his cartoon head is handsome, I guess, but other than the fox in Robin Hood I don’t make it a habit of crushing on cartoon characters. But then one day Z was bossing me up (in a very loving, comical way) and we were laughing, and I realized it’s because watching @therealindiandad joke-chastise @sheenamelwani while Z is still sleep is the next best thing to having Z awake. They remind me a lot of each other, though I’m relieved Z doesn’t have a bobble head. Z was disturbed by this news until I pointed out to him that his bobble headed doppelgänger is not the father of the woman he chides but the husband and the two of them are laughing so much and having such a good time that they feel like good company these days, particularly when so many posts are full of rage or sadness.

When I finally do shut off TikTok, drag myself out of bed, and head to the study, I’m immediately greeted with annoyance because this is the last space in our apartment at Oh Là Là that has refused to organize itself since our November move. I seem to just keep moving the same items in a circle around the room. A stack of things on the ottoman gets moved to the Napping Cloud and sits there for two weeks, and then I move the items on the bed to the floor so I can nap. Then it’s time to run Angus the robotic vacuum so I pick the stuff up off the floor and put it on the ottoman. I think the problem is I haven’t found a home for these final bits of our life: photos, art, and frames we aren’t using right now, stacks of paper I don’t know where to file, knickknacks in the windowsill, tote bags full of projects I have yet to finish, etc.

And in the center of this still messy space is The Desk: the black hole that sucks in and spews out chaos threefold.

This isn’t a new subject for me—I’ve always had trouble with organizing the place I write and teach. I could clean it up for a photo op, but no sooner is the pic posted than the mess starts building again. It’s one of the things that annoys me most about myself: not just that I can’t be neater but also that I can’t fully embrace my messy tendencies without chastising myself. And because the desk is an exact replica of the inner workings of my mind, I’m also annoyed that after all of these years I also can’t just embrace the rich alphabet soup that is my thought process and instead am convinced there must be something wrong with me.

My desk is really a 6 foot cherry dining table with one tiny drawer and a faux drawer with a keyboard ledge in it. When I ordered it two decades ago, I’d just read a book about how people with my brain type were no good with things that were put away and we just need to see everything in front of us in stacks. The book’s premise was that creative types have different brains and were fighting a losing battle in trying to make traditional 1950s-office-systems-with-filing-cabinets-and-in-and-out-trays work for them.

The theory was a good one—and remains true…if my house keys are under a piece of mail, say, the keys cease to exist for me and I start to make plans about how I’ll have to live the rest of my life without locking the door. But when I embraced this new way of organizing, I imagined myself being tidier than I actually am. I was picturing a soft focus desk with a stack of three books, a cup of tea (even though I don’t drink it that often), and an artful lamp so I could write until the sun came up. I imagined a vast expanse of empty desk, glossy wood grain encouraging me to put only beautiful words on the page.

Large desk that is tidy--laptop, neat stacks of books, photo, journal, clock, and glass of water. (Not messy)
The dream.

Alas. It never looks like that.

There is never an empty space where I could suddenly do a project or a puzzle. Instead, there are layers. If I dig down, I’m reminded that a month ago I was really interested in learning how meditation can be different for women than men, I was organizing things to put in a scrapbook, and I was planning to frame a couple of pictures. If I dig further still, I’d discover a gift card for Elliot Bay Books and a receipt for something I bought Z for Christmas. A jar of pickled onions, I think.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to the Poet Friend on the phone and told her how frustrated I was, and she—a tidy Virgo—suggested that I get an empty box, put everything on my desk in the box, dust and oil the surface of the desk, and then put back only the things I use. For two days, it was the desk I imagined it would be when I bought it. But now, I have this box of “essential things” on the floor:

And the desk is now looking like it’s former, messy self.

I’ve taken very little out of the box of essentials, so what I did was find more/different “essentials” to fill the surface. Nature and Beth abhor a vacuum.

Current essential items on desk:

  • glass desk lamp filled with my mother’s childhood marbles
  • Row of “must have near me” writing books held in place by Scottie dog book ends from Poet Friend
  • clock with big numbers so I always know how late I am to a Zoom appointment
  • laptop
  • Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls tin can now containing pens, scissors, letter opener from elementary Swedish penpal Cecilia, and two beaded Roses from Zimbabwe
  • 1972 Christmas present clipboard from my maternal grandmother given to me because of my love of drawing but now used for class notes and other things I want to remember but eventually forget about and discard

On a six foot desk, this seems like a reasonable amount of items and all you really need for a desk to function, but I’m not done yet.

Other “essentials”:

  • An anatomically correct metal bulldog with spiked collar and butt door that raises for insertion of a tea light candle if Oh La La allowed candles and I wanted to illuminate a metal bulldog
  • An ashtray from a bar bearing my surname purchased on eBay 20 years ago even though I don’t smoke
  • a two-handled tea cup/soup bowl which I use on different days for:
    • my earphones
    • my prayer beads
    • clean watercolor water
  • a vaguely royal looking red box in which I intend to keep bits of paper with notes jotted on them of things I don’t want to forget but that currently holds only a Serenity Prayer key chain of indeterminate origin and a postcard of Wales from a boy I never met but with whom I tried to hae a romantic online relationship in 1994
  • a handmade Scandinavian-looking pottery gnome holding a warm pie next to a toadstool because she looks capable and happy
  • a shallow light blue dish with my grandfather’s rosary in it. I’ve had the beads for almost twenty years and still haven’t learned all the components of the rosary because the 50% of me that was raised Catholic never got to those lessons
  • a chicken timer named Erma to keep me writing
  • a series of gemstones the names of which I can never recall and must then dig in The Box to read the leaflet that came with them reminding me what each crystal is good for. My favorites so far: amethyst and tiger eye
  • a deck of Farber-Zerner tarot cards because I like the art and like to use them for a focusing practice before I write even though I don’t really know that much about tarot and don’t want my future told. (I’m in it for the metaphors.)
  • three books on tarot because why have one when you can have three?
  • my new set of prayer beads (sodalite to encourage intuition, focus, and creativity)
  • my old set of prayer beads (cobalt blue glass, made when I found out my father was sick, the color of which calms me)
  • a rock that fits perfectly in my palm that Z found for me on San Juan Island
  • a Bluetooth speaker
  • a statue of a pig with a quote from Winston Churchill about the superiority of pigs, which reminds me daily not of Churchill or of pigs, but of my college mentor, Gibb, who loved pigs, particularly his boyhood pig, Jipper, who would meet him after school when the bus dropped him off
  • some coasters
  • a tiny painting I painted last year of a young girl squeezing through the Eye of the Needle in a church ruin in Dingle
  • an envelope that likely contains a home colorectal screening test that I have been ignoring for a year but because I’m partly a responsible person and thus haven’t thrown it out but I keep thinking Tomorrow Beth will take care of it and do the responsible thing
  • a Venus of Willendorf statue
  • a holy card of Joan of Arc
  • class notes, printed readings, and dogeared pages of book passages I want to share with my students 
  • a paisley beanbag from my childhood with a tag hand stitched on it that says “Wayne County Historical Museum Richmond, Indiana” that I like to play with while I’m lecturing and have had since I was about five

So where exactly would I put the stuff in the box (notebooks, ShellE the stuffed turtle, my hairbrush, various pics, notebooks, small clipboard, empty box of chocolates with my last name on the lid, to-do list notebook, notebook from my Swedish penpal circa 1978, an Apple box for my AirPods because Apple boxes are just too good to get rid of, a wooden file box that has half a screenplay written on notecards inside that I started with a friend twenty-five years ago and which I keep meaning to put elsewhere and use the box for some other important non-computerized filing, and a variety of pottery dogs.

I need an intervention.

Large desk with laptop on stand, stacks of books and notebooks, binoculars, clock, prayer beads, pottery creatures, etc. (Messy)
My desk and mind are kind of like the Hotel California.

Lately I’ve been writing every morning with my newly discovered family of fellow INFP/J creatives and we often spend time talking about how our brains work, how differently we are wired from most of the population, and what the insides of our heads look like. We’ve talked about how when we are writing or drawing or doing some other kind of creating, we are out there just loosely tethered to earth and when Ground Control calls us back down to have a conversation about cornflakes or the funny meme they just saw, it’s really, really hard for us to make that adjustment. It’s hard to acclimatize back to earth’s atmosphere.

In my life, I’ve had what I would classify as two and a half visions. One was holy. One was comforting. And then this one from my childhood when I was staying with my grandmother that until now I’ve never been able to interpret.

It was just the two of us together on a Saturday morning, and I was lying upside down on the davenport, my head nearly touching the floor as I took in the new perspective of the acoustic tile and how the dropped ceiling into the hallway would make a stair step if her pink mobile home were upside down. (I’d been exposed to The Poseidon Adventure at a young age and was fascinated by how normal things would be transformed if flipped upside down. Please note, Gene Hackman was an early celebrity crush. A man who was convicted that he could get you to a place of greater safety—what was not to like? Even better than @therealindiandad.) As I hung upside down, Grandma was across from me in the kitchen, where she always was. I never saw the woman sit down until I was a teenager.

Then suddenly, without planning it, I was on the ceiling. I don’t know if this would be classified as an out-of-body experience or a vision, though probably most people would say it was just the fancy of a child, but I felt myself floating in this upside down landscape—the only thing keeping me earth bound was the ceiling—and my grandmother was frantically reaching up towards me, kind of hopping up and down trying to grab ahold of me, and pull me back towards earth as if I were a balloon that had escaped. It was so real. Then I came back to myself and my real grandmother was asking me which cartoon I wanted her to put on the TV because I wasn’t hovering above her after all but was lounging on the sofa expecting her to serve me by turning the channel to Scooby-Doo. We grandchildren were so spoiled.

Tree-lined city street covered in snow. One person walking in street. Snow-covered cars.
On terra firma.

The vision was weird and for years I’ve wondered what it was, what had or hadn’t happened, and then it just sort of folded into my life like the time I was stung under the arm by a bee or the time I fell out of a tree and had the wind knocked out of me and thought I’d killed myself. It was just an event in my life: that time I was floating on the ceiling and Grandma pulled me back to earth.

But now? I think the universe was trying to give me a metaphor for how I’d spend the rest of my life, trying so hard to listen to step-by-step instructions or remember a list of five items to pick up at the grocery or to stay engaged in a conversation or stay focused on my non-creative work, but always, I find myself somewhere other than where I’m supposed to be living between my own ears. Then I come back to myself and the other person hasn’t noticed I was gone. Or, if they are Z, they have noticed and they think I’m a bad listener or lackadaisical worker or a bad bet if they want me to pick something up for them at the store. But they love me despite my human frailties.

It’s been a real boon to know 60-90 minutes a day I’m going to be getting together with these people I’ve never met in real life (and were it not for the pandemic would never have met on Zoom) and they get it. One of us will say, “Have you ever…?” and everyone else will nod in agreement and the conversation will flow. And then we write. And when the host tells us it’s been an hour, most of us are startled because we’ve been out there on our own individual tethers. But also, together.

Goodness knows what the totality of 2021 is going to hold for us. I don’t even want to guess about the future (I told you those Tarot cards are not about knowing the future), but my goal for this year is to embrace my quirks, to work around whatever ear worm has burrowed into my head, and if my neighbors appear to have been murdered, to check in on them even if I feel foolish (or criminal) afterward when I realize their knitted throws were never in any danger.

In the remaining ten months of 2021, let us all be kind to ourselves and laugh whenever we find cause.

FIN

Blue mala beads in a teacup on a desk.

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

In the Bleak Midwinter

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Seattle. December 23rd, 2020. (Please note the “12” in the building lights mid photo.)

So this is Christmas. And what have you done?

What I’ve done is make the study smell like a dead sheep.

In 2003, my brother and I went to Ireland to celebrate his 21st birthday and on our last day there, I discovered a sheepskin that I really wanted to buy because it reminded me of the bed Mac, my beloved Scottish terrier friend, slept on at his parents’ house. But the thought of buying an animal pelt repulsed me even though I’d been eating meat and wearing sensible leather shoes on the trip. Still, I couldn’t quit thinking about that sheepskin and how much my own dog would like it—once I got a dog. It seemed like the logical step to the dream I’d been building for myself—a full-time teaching job, a therapist, a new car in which I could see the world (or at least the drivable bits) with a backseat in which both a dog and car seat would fit should I acquire a child and/or a dog in the process. (I wasn’t picky at that point—dog, kid, both…whatever.)

It being our last night in Galway, Steve and I “took some drink” and the amount of drink it took for me to have zero qualms about buying that sheepskin was three pints of Guinness. You’d have to ask my brother, but I have a vague memory of him shushing me at one point, so it’s possible that I was louder than I needed to be when I went to the sheepskin selling shop and bought a fine large fluffy one in case one day I acquired a fine, large dog who might want to sleep on it. I’ve taken comfort over the years when I bury my feet in that pelt that I was not 100% in my right mind when I purchased it.

Fast forward nearly two decades. It’s been living on the floor of the guest bedroom since I moved my things in with Z eleven years ago. Periodically, it would get a bit matted, and I’d fluff it up with the vacuum or rake it with my fingers until it looked respectable again. Though Mac’s mother regularly washed his because he was sometimes a dirty little dog who would get it muddy or full of burrs, I had never washed mine. But every since we moved into Oh La La, it has looked decidedly dingy. The wool was sort of matted together in places and I was thinking even a dirty dog probably wouldn’t want to curl up on it, so why would I want it on my floor.

I asked Mac’s mom how she had cleaned his, and she sent me easy directions (“put it in the washer”) and so I put it in the washer.

What came out was a mess. Despite spinning it twice, it was still sopping wet. (Sheep are really absorbent.) I put it in the dryer for 20 minutes (the super smart dryer suggested it would need to go for at least 95 minutes, so it was in no danger of shrinking) and then I hung it up. It dripped dryish for two days. Z hit it with a hair dryer. It had developed dreadlocks. There was no fluff to it at all. It reminded me a lot of my first disappointing Irish sheep sighting. I was expecting little cotton fluffs on the hillside, but instead, the flocks of sheep were spray painted so farmers would know which ones were theirs, and they inevitably had bits of grass and mud and dung stuck to their coats.

Two days ago, I bought the fleece it’s own brush and started the arduous job of brushing the wool. It was hard work and reminded me of why we don’t yet have a dog (so much work) and it reminded me of carding wool in third grade for the Bicentennial when we were all in training to be modern-day pioneers. After several minutes at my task, it also reminded me that one of the things I learned from carding wool in 3rd grade is that I am allergic to wool. My hands got itchy and red, my eyes started watering, and I wished I’d never started the project.

Also, the bathroom where I was brushing no longer smelled like lovely fruity soaps. It smelled like wet sheep. I sprayed some Opium in the air. Now it smells like a fancy wet sheep.

 I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with myself this Christmas because I wasn’t home in Indiana (or in Zimbabwe with Z and his family) for the first time in my life. When it first became apparent that we’d have to stay in Seattle for the holidays, I thought of things we should do so I wouldn’t get too blue. I vacillated between doing lots of things (make cookies! get a live tree! make a paper chain for said tree! make popcorn balls! play Christmas music every night!) and doing nothing at all. Z was not on board with the latter, but I considered just hiding in the study—the one that now smells like a dead sheep—while he listened to carols and walked around with too much joy in his heart.

We had snow for 15 minutes.

In the end, we had that big move in November and we’ve spent all the days since then trying to get our living space in order. I started writing every day with a group of women from around the world on Zoom. Z and I have both been busy with work too, so there hasn’t been a lot of time to get worked up about Christmases past and where this one is or is not being spent. Instead, we sit at our computers. I race to the study every morning to see my new online writing friends in Australia and England and San Diego and Chicago and other parts of the planet, commiserate with them about being sensitive souls, and then get down to the writing. (Yesterday, one of our members took us out on her parents’ veranda so we could hear the early morning birds in Queensland.) Z writes emails and makes plans for his department. Later in the day, we have our non-work routines—our walks, our projects, our shows, and we check in with friends and family, we say prayers for those who aren’t doing well, and clap our hands when new babies are born and new puppies adopted (not us, we are still sans dog and the toddler down the hall who burns off energy by slapping our door at night as he races the hallways is as much kid as we are up for in our dotage). 

Yesterday we got the news that a close family friend of Z’s had died. She was 95, behaved like she was half that age, and she and her husband were the first Americans to welcome Z to the US when he arrived from Zimbabwe to attend college. Though she and her husband had only just met his parents by happenstance when they were in his hometown, she made sure that when he arrived in Minnesota he had the sheets and towels he would need there. Later, they invited him to their home in Washington State for Christmas. Later still, when he happened to get a job in Seattle, she invited him up to spend weekends and welcomed his new girlfriend  (that’s me) to Thanksgiving, and so my first introduction to Z’s family was his American family-by-proxy.  We were both sad to see her go, but we also feel so lucky that Z got the job here that allowed him to have more time with her over the years, that we were able to celebrate her 90th birthday with her, and that just days before we got this news, her Christmas letter arrived in the mail and was a hoot and demonstrated her spirit and way with words. 

Last week on a clear night, we rediscovered the roof deck here at Oh La La. We hadn’t been up there since the first day we toured the building.  We went up as the sun was setting, and we were shocked by how far we could see. We can see both mountain ranges, we can see Lake Union and Puget Sound, we can see Smith Tower and the Field Formerly Known as Century Link where my beloved Seahawks play. We can see Z’s school and just make out the park on the edge of which Hugo House stands. The lighted TV tower on Queen Anne that is shaped like a Christmas tree stands off in the distance, and various church steeples dot the horizon. We can see the traffic lights on I-5 in the distance, and the planes that are bringing in all of the germy people who just will not stay home like they are supposed to. The apartments and condos near us have lights up, and it is fun to see which ones stand out.A tugboat pulled into Elliot Bay and a ferry pulled out. It was so beautiful. (Except for the germy travelers.)

Today I dared to listen to the most melancholy of Christmas music—some of my favorites, including  “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Bing Crosby was from Washington and the flip side of that record when it was released was “Danny Boy”—a twofer for the pensive listener and proof enough that Bing had Irish grandparents) and “In the Bleak Midwinter”, and I thought about how I love Christmas and how it is so much like the rest of life. There are things to be truly grateful for, to be excited about, and to get weepy over. Life is hard. The world is hard.

But also, it’s impossibly glorious. And this is what I love about this season—that you can be miserable on the darkest night of the year yet celebrating because the days are going to start getting longer. That you can be enjoying your loved ones and missing your other loved ones. That you can be as thrilled with “Silver Bells” as you are songs that remind you the world isproblematic like “Happy Xmas  (War is Over)”. That you can keep a dreadlocked sheepskin that fills you with revulsion because your imaginary dog enjoys sleeping on it. That you can be sick of the city and then walk out on your newly acquired roof deck and see it for all of its imperfect beauty.

You just don’t get that in any other season.

May God bless us every one!

Zen and the Art of the Stalled Engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry for doubting you, Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m trying to focus on the but alsos.

**ADDENDUM**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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