Category Archives: Other People’s Children

Unfrozen: The Birthday Blog

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Hoosier Hinterland

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless, it was a poor, poor choice.

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

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

It was harsh.

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

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

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

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

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

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Z travels with a birthday sign at the ready.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Happy Birthday to Elsa. Happy Birthday to me.

Two Dreams Diverged

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Z is hounding me that October is almost over and I haven’t written a single blog this month. Not a word about my two weeks back in Indiana in September, Mom’s three week visit to Seattle, nor a week-long interlude with July, who we haven’t seen since this time last year when we descended on her cozy home in Wales. Nor have I mentioned Z’s birthday this week.

I also haven’t coughed up a sentence about how this is pretty much my favorite time of year from mid-September through my own birthday in January, and how though I generally find Pacific Northwest autumns subpar when compared to Indiana, it’s been stellar out here this year.

Nope, you’ve gotten bupkis from me. I’m beginning to feel guilty at night when I look over and see Z re-reading old blogs of mine, refreshing his browser, as if his wife in an alternate universe—the wife who is more productive, less anxiety-ridden, more inclined to clean and have a regular skincare regime—might have produced a nugget or two for him to read. (I just know that alternate-universe wife of his has a VERY popular blog that has a bajillion followers, just signed a three-book deal, and would not have banished half of his Zimbabwe-inspired art to his office. I also suspect she makes her own pie crusts, uses one of those plastic exercise balls to keep herself Olympically limber, and never takes a bad pic. I hate her.)

Even when I’m not blogging, I email Jane regularly about my joys and concerns of the day. She is the kind of friend who actually listens to me and tries to help me figure out what my really real (read: multi-dimensional/fully sensory/non-grainy) dreams mean, but her hot water heater is busted and I don’t want to bother her right now while she’s bathing with bottles of Aquafina and wet wipes.

So instead, I’m going to tell you about my dream analysis problems. Lucky, lucky you!

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Last night, I dreamed Sandra Bullock had died and somehow I had gained custody of her son Louis. In the dream, he was just a toddler. In the dream, I didn’t know Sandra Bullock any better than I do in real life, which is to say not at all. I’m not sure how the kid ended up in my arms. I like her as much as everyone else in the world does. A couple of her movies are my favorites, but I’ll probably never watch Speed or Miss Congeniality 2, so I’m not like a Kathy Bates style #1 fan. A few months ago I was happy enough to read a cast-off People about how she loves being a mother to Louis and his new sister, but it’s unclear why her “death” featured in my dream or how I got saddled with her little son.

For the record, I did feel terribly sad that she’d died because she seems like a genuinely decent human, and I was relieved to wake up and realize she’s still out there raising her kids and donating her millions to worthy causes.

Anyhow, I was carrying Dream Louis around the house, wondering what to do. He was upset and I was upset: poor Sandra, poor kid, poor me. Even dream Beth seemed to know she wasn’t equipped for instant motherhood. There is no What to Expect When You Suddenly Become the Guardian of Sandra Bullock’s Toddler for sale on Amazon, so I couldn’t bone up on what to do. I was wiping away his tears and shoving food in his mouth and jiggling him around in a manner meant to be soothing. But also, I was pacing because I knew Child Protective Services was headed to the house and if it seemed like anything about me wasn’t legit, then they’d take this kid away from me. Despite concerns about whether I could rear him appropriately and how his presence was going to alter my daily life, I suspected that I’d be a better mother to him than some arbitrary person. Particularly a person who may or may not love While You Were Sleeping as much as I do. (Seriously, y’all can have your White Christmas and your It’s a Wonderful Life, but if I don’t get to see While You Were Sleeping every December, I feel like a major strand of lights has gone out on the tree.)

In the dream, I was frantic to paint a picture of serene maternity as the authorities pulled up to the house. I wanted to look capable, confident, and like Louis and I already had a unique bond. So I asked Dream Louis what he wanted me to call him— like a special nickname between us—and he said quite clearly in his little toddler voice, “Carrington.”

I’ve never written “WTF” in a blog before because I like to keep things halfway wholesome in the public domain, but surely this is an instance that deserves it.

WTF.

Just as I was thinking, “This kid does NOT look like a Carrington. He’s got to come up with something better,” Z’s alarm went off, so I have no idea how it all turned out. Was I allowed to keep Louis/Carrington? Did I rise to the occasion like Sandra Bullock in Blind Side and make sure my young charge graduated from high school and went on to college? Would there be any money rolling in from the Bullock estate to help me raise this kid or was he going to have to get used to a lower standard of living, maybe eating the off-brand cereal and having a homemade Superman costume instead of a real one this Halloween?

Elements of the dream possibly worth exploring: motherhood, babies, Carrington.

Though there have been points in my life where I hungered to be a mother, this is not one of those times. There are a few small children I’m personally smitten with, but on the whole, I’m quite happy with my child-free life and the easy access I have to my non baby-proofed electrical sockets and cabinets full of poison.

So I don’t think this is about babies and the impending fossilization of my own womb.

In the mid 1990s during my “depressive” stage, I was briefly obsessed with Dora Carrington when the movie about her starring Emma Thompson came out. I read books. Studied her art. Felt cross that she wasn’t quite in the inner sanctum of the Bloomsbury group despite loving Lytton Strachey quite literally to the death. (One of the only times I haven’t liked Virginia Woolf was when I read something in her diary about Carrington that lacked compassion.) Two books about Carrington are sitting on the shelf by my desk here in my studio, but they are in the extra dusty upper reaches and are never taken down.

I suppose I did sort of date a guy in high school who turned out to be gay, but I wouldn’t have killed myself over him a la Carrington and I’ve never worn jodhpurs like her, so I don’t think this dream was about Carrington either.

I’m at a loss. It was all so real. Louis’s breath in my ear was kind of sweet and snotty because he’d been crying so hard and my arm hurt from the weight of him. My subconscious might have given me one of those “real” dreams to help me with something I’ve been struggling with (writing, geography, existential questions), but I’m not Robert Langdon and thus can’t decipher my own personal Da Vinci Code.

Hopefully Jane’s water heater will be fixed soon.

In the category of dreams becoming reality, it’s Z’s and my 10th anniversary of love today. If you’ve read this blog before or come within a mile of me, you already know our story, but it’s my favorite and all roads seem to lead to it eventually. (And why shouldn’t I prefer it to all others?)

Because it’s close to Halloween, I’ll tell you the extra eerie, woooooooo elements I sometimes leave out.

We met in the fall of 2001 when he was new faculty where I was teaching. We were at a faculty party, I saw him, felt the love instantly in a way I previously thought was entirely made up, and drove straight to Leibovitz’s house to say, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” Over the following weeks, I gave him a battery of personality tests and listened carefully for him to say something that would put me off him forever, making special note that his delicious accent might well make something truly intolerable sound acceptable. He only ever said delightful and funny things though, and when he went home to Zimbabwe for the holidays, he left a message on my voicemail: “I’m just calling to say ‘banana,’” because I’d told him how much I’d miss hearing him say that while he was away. I played it for any friend or relative who would listen: all agreed, his accent was exquisite, and surely he must be flirting back to leave such a message.

This is not the wooooooo part, fyi.

He wasn’t flirting. For the next two years we were together almost every day—after work, having dinner, going to movies, shopping—but I made no headway and was choking on my love. Finally, a few days before he left to go back to Zimbabwe for good, I screwed up my courage and told him how I felt, vowing that I didn’t care where he went, I wanted to be with him.

(Note: I’m hoping this vow is not legally binding because we once stayed at a truly deplorable motel at Plymouth Rock and if he decided to take up residence there, we’d probably have to live apart. It was disgusting and the smell of the moldy carpet is still living somewhere in one of my olfactory receptors.)

He was kind when he said he didn’t feel the same way and that he’d always consider me his friend.

Later that day, I had a spiritual experience that I’m not recounting here because believers will say how could you ever doubt that you’d end up with him eventually after that? and cynics will say your brain simply invented that so you’d be comforted. Suffice it to say, while I had a sort of knowing that Z and I would end up together eventually, I was also full of doubt. Over the years, my brain has concocted a considerable amount of bullshit that did not ever come to fruition, so while I hung on to the possibility that maybe eventually we’d be together, I was pragmatic enough to know I needed to get on with my life in the meantime.

The next day, I dropped Z off at the airport, unsure when or if I’d see him again. I sniffed his neck when I hugged him goodbye and sent him on his way. I cried all the way home, stopped at the reservoir to collect myself and was greeted by a gaggle of goslings, waddling up the hill, which seemed to speak to all sorts of hope.

But none of this is really the weird, other-worldly part.

When he was teenager, he was an extra in a crowded market scene in that Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone “masterpiece,” King Solomon’s Mines. We’d watched it one night in his flat, and he pointed out the two very brief shots where he is in the background. He is playing the role of “European riffraff” and when there’s a kerfuffle in market scene involving the stars, the camera pans the crowd and there is Z—brows furrowed—as he looks to see what is going on.

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Z and friend, on set but not scowling.

The night he left for good, I went home and moped around the house like you do. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but if the movies are to be believed, I probably cried and ate a carton of ice cream. What I do remember is that I couldn’t get to sleep that night, so I turned on the TV. What was on the exact channel the TV was tuned to? King Solomon’s Mines. Whose face was staring at me a second later, brow furrowed?

Until I’d met him, I’d never seen the movie, and I have never seen it airing on cable since. But there it was, and there he was, peering at me from the big screen, daring me to try to forget about him.

But wait, there’s more. Woooooooo.

Two months later, my brother and I went to Ireland to celebrate his 21st birthday. It seemed a good way for me to distract myself from the terrible ache of life post Z. We saw nearly the whole of the Republic in something like six days and we had a good time. He was several years younger than me and, I could only assume, not that interested in the quality of his big sister’s broken heart. I wasn’t inclined to point out to him that I’d just passed a hamburger joint with Z’s first name in neon just as I was thinking of him, nor did I mention the irony of the rugby poster above our heads in Temple Bar that said “Ireland vs. Zimbabwe” just as we were having a conversation with a couple about rugby. My brain was filled with the photos and stories Z had shared about his own rugby days, but I didn’t say a word. Surely to goodness these were all signs from on high that Z was back in Africa, realizing he loved me.

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Stevie Nix & I keep our crystal visions to ourselves. Unless one of us decides to blog.

The night of my brother’s actual birthday, he was deep in his cups at the pub and I was tired and didn’t want to bring down the mood, so I left him dancing with a Scandinavian woman and went back to our hotel room where there was little to distract me from my thoughts. There was a tiny TV with bad reception that had sound on only one channel. Sadly, the channel with sound was playing a spooky old black and white movie starring one of those cadaverous actors like Peter Cushing. I was not interested in the plot but the company was nice and distracted me from the idea of Z. As I settled in to lose myself in a mindless scary movie, in his creepiest voice, Peter Cushing said Z’s very obscure and completely rare last name in reference to a developing situation with the occult.

I’ll grant you, the hamburger joint with his first name was just wishful thinking on my part. And the rugby poster with Zimbabwe written on it was probably a coincidence. But Peter Cushing in a movie I would NEVER have watched had there been even one other working channel on an otherwise soundless TV saying Z’s surname that if Googled produces only results for Z and a guy from Sweden?

Imagine some eerie music right here, would you?

If, three years later, Z had not come to his senses, then these would just be unfortunate coincidences, but because he did, I can only see it as messages from the divine or as an unbelievable plot device should I ever turn this into a novel.

All this week I’ve been forcing Z to remember how I arrived in Seattle right before his birthday in 2006, reminding him where we ate meals, where we walked on Alki Beach and badgering him about why he didn’t say right then how he felt. “Shame you slept on that foam egg crate all those nights in your living room and left me by myself in your bed,” I’ll say. And then I’ll pester him about why he let almost all the days of my visit go before he told me his feelings had changed.

Poor, poor Z. When I declared myself in 2003 (after two years of suffering in obsessed silence), IF ONLY he had gotten on board with my plan for his future he would have saved himself all of this future grief, wherein I force him to remember all of that wasted times. Total strangers on the interwebz would not be reading about his hesitancy. My friends who marvel at the quality of our rightness together now would not say to him, “What were you thinking? Why the delay?”

I’m insufferable on this count, and he’s a trooper. He’s put up with the teasing and the ribbing for a decade now. Though please note, he never will say, “You were right, Baby. I was SO wrong.” Instead, he says, “Things happened as they were supposed to.”

Possibly if he said he was wrong I might relent. Or possibly not.

Anyhow, today is the anniversary of the night we went to the Quarter Lounge around the corner from his apartment (and which you can see for yourself in the opening episode of Man in the High Castle—a First Hill claim to fame) and we had too much to drink and we were both being more honest than perhaps we had previously been, and soon enough he said what he said about us needing to be together, and I slammed down my hand on the table and said, “I KNEW I was right!” in a truly insufferable way (and so unlike how Sandra Bullock would respond as a romantic heroine).

This was not a cinematic climax to a love story with ocean waves breaking over rocks in the background as he wrapped me in a passionate embrace. Instead, something like “Play that Funky Music” or “Back in Black” was on the jukebox and I excused myself to the women’s room where I looked in the mirror at my red, bleary face and then did an honest-to-God happy dance with my arms raised in victory. Probably you will never see the story of our love on the big screen because of these details.

I may be incapable of deciphering my dream about Louis Bullock, but this Z dream of mine? The visions? The coincidental placement of rugby posters and hamburger joints? The late night TV programming of both America and Ireland? All those signs pointed to “yes” and that has made all the difference.

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A Horse with No Name

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

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Okay. Here’s a point.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

My first and favorite office.

My first and favorite office.

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

 

Things I know I am not:

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

 

So that’s where I’m starting.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

 

Of Minutiae and Lack of Momentum

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Ethan Currier’s rock art, Bainbridge Island, WA

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Graffiti encouragement, Seattle

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Space Needle, Seattle

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We’ve seen the surface of Mars.

 

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

 

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

 

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A girl and her duck.

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

 

Peace be upon us.

 

RGSthesound

Puget Sound

 

 

 

 

 

Hoosier Ecclesiastes

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For the last ten weeks, I’ve been in Indiana, sleeping in the bedroom of my girlhood home while my mother recuperated from a stem cell transplant. It’s a pretty scary and significant medical ordeal if you are unfamiliar with it, but she was in good hands at IU Health in Indianapolis. The day my stepfather and I brought her home with her brand new immune system I felt like I got a teensy inkling of how nerve-wracking it must be to bring a baby home from the hospital for the first time. Everything seemed like a danger. I got on Facebook and threatened to taze anyone who stopped  to see her or even thought about breathing their germy breaths on her. I fielded all calls because she didn’t have the energy to answer. (A bath would require a two-hour nap afterward, so there was no bonus energy for entertaining even her favorite people.) I stayed away from everyone myself—even perfectly healthy friends—because I was afraid I’d catch some bug  and give it to Mom.

 

I did my best to assure her that she’d feel like herself again eventually—as the doctors had promised—even though I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and Mom clearly knew it. Also, the Domestic Arts are not really in my skill set. I rubbed all knobs and switches with antibacterial wipes as if I were sprinkling the house with holy water. I had to try to figure out what food would taste good to her, and then felt like a failure (but also slightly relieved because it required no cooking) that the main thing that she could tolerate was Cherry Garcia. There was the ER trip after she broke out in hives for no good reason and the ensuing fear that she was rejecting a platelet transfusion. There was the frustration of her not acting quite like herself—no interest in TV, in conversation, in reading—and worrying that my “real” mother would never come back. There was the night my step-dad ended up in the ER and then the hospital for a few days and I felt torn between which parental unit I should be with—there’s the true curse of the Only Child…there’s only the one of you to go around.

 

Then there was the date of my return ticket to Seattle at the end of three weeks and my sense of impending failure: what sort of daughter leaves her mother to answer her own phone, fend off visitors, and go to a germy grocery to buy her own Cherry Garcia? I’ve never completely come to terms with the normal guilt I feel from moving to the other side of the country, but now? Ugh. At night when when I was alone in the bedroom of my teens, I’d feel cranky with myself that when Z and I got engaged eight years ago I didn’t at any point think that I could say, “Yes, of course, I’ll marry you, but I’m not leaving Indiana. We’ll buy a house with more square footage than any apartment we could ever afford in Seattle and we’ll learn about things like caulking and lawn mowers together and I’ll teach you to hate Daylight Savings Time, appreciate Mellencamp lyrically,  and to be more tolerant of the 14-haired mustaches so popular here on  Hoosier youth.” But I didn’t say any of those things then, hence the post-transplant-impending-flight-back-to-Seattle frustration.

 

Fortunately, Z is always clever, thoughtful, and clairvoyant about my feelings. He called one night to say he thought I should stay in Indiana awhile longer and since his sabbatical would be starting soon, he’d join me for a few weeks in Indiana. (Right now we will not discuss the state of my feminism—weak, apparently—and how I needed him to make this decision instead of me making it for myself. I’ll save that for some later blog post when I’m feeling more self-fulfilled and we can all just laugh at silly, silly Beth and her inability to name the thing she wants. Ha ha ha. But let me tell you, there were tears.)

 

Z arrived and went with me on my regular trips to restock ice cream and we all watched reruns of “King of Queens” every night. Mom started to laugh more and to want to eat things not made by Ben and Jerry’s. After she got the okay from her oncologist, we’d go out for dinner and I quit looking at her as if she were a toddler about to put a bobby pin in a light socket. Z and I took a road trip to Minnesota to see a friend get married. I texted Mom photos of every state line we crossed, interesting roadside attractions, a church where Laura Ingalls Wilder attended, landscape photos so she and I could try to scientifically determine if the flatness of Iowa was equal-to-or-greater-than the flatness of northern Indiana. She seemed interested in the world. When we got back a week later, there was a massive stack of books next to the sofa; she’d read every one of them while Z and I were away. Suddenly, when we’d enter the room, she’d be peering into a book through the $1 bright green reading glasses we stuck, as a lark, in her Easter basket.

 

I don’t know how you parents do it—not crowing about every achievement your child has made—because I was telling complete strangers, “Mom is reading again!” while they looked at me with confusion. Seeing her stack of recently read books is one of the sweetest sights ever. She was back. I won’t say it made it easy to leave her a week later, but it definitely made it easier.

 

It was a weird trip home. One of those strange moments in time where great joys (a mother on the road to recovery, the announcement of a cousin’s new baby, good health news from Zimbabwe about Z-ma who had been living under a potentially very dark medical cloud, another family friend whose post-cancer surgery scan was all clear, young people counting down the days until their driver’s licenses/ graduations/weddings) bump up against terrible sadness. There was a lot of drama and loss in the local community while I was home, and it was not lost on me that while I got to leave on the happy note of a mother who was nearly herself again , some of my cousins were called in to be with their own mother who is critically ill.

 

It was two-and-a-half months full of all the things that make being human glorious and terrible.

 

So now I’m three days back in Seattle, and I’m suffering my usual culture shock. Monday morning I was lying in my old Indiana bed, looking out the window at the long shadows of the trees in the backyard that were stretching west towards a cornfield, listening to birdsong, and feeling amused by a cheeky cardinal who desperately wants in my parents’ house and hangs on the screen, peering in, flapping his wings. This morning in Seattle, I woke to the bus out front that idles there during rush hour, waiting to dump off a host of workers at the neighboring hospitals. Outside my screen, there’s been one domestic altercation, one woman weeping because something unfortunate happened to her backpack, and at least five sirens. And let me not forget the early morning leaf blowers because at some point cleaning the street and sidewalk with a near noiseless broom became passé and you apparently aren’t really cleaning anything if you don’t have a leafblower strapped to your back causing a racket before the more artistic types among the citizenry are ready to get out of bed (ahem). Since I’ve moved here, there’s never not the sound of traffic, dogs, humans. There’s never not something unfortunate in the street to step over: trash, dog crap, or someone passed out in a doorway. If a bird were tweeting here or pecking at the window, I’d never hear it.

 

This is not to say I hate the city. In a week or two, I might like it again. No doubt the next time I leave it, I’ll feel a little blue about being parted from its company.

 

But today is not that day, and the news that Prince just died—thus sealing the door on the vault of my youth forever—isn’t helping. Other people who knew the intricacies of His Purple Majesty’s guitar licks and the nuances of his lyrics will be writing about him for the next weeks with passion, but I was never more than a middling-level fan who knew his major hits, his full name, can quote a line or two from Purple Rain, believed his Super Bowl halftime show to be the best in memory, and who still feels happy if one of his songs comes on the radio. But I don’t deserve to say much about him because I haven’t put the time in. I never went to a concert. Never read an unofficial biography. Never really “got” his movies. Didn’t follow his Princetograms. I’m glad that his music was playing as part of the soundtrack of my life, and I’m glad that when I hear one of his less-played, more raunchy songs, I still get the devilish thrill I did when I was a teenager as I sing along, that I’m still waiting for my mother to say, “Beth Lynn!”

 

And I’m glad that I never go to a wedding without mentally finishing the officiant’s “Dearly beloved…” with Prince’s “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

An electric word, life.

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The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part V: A Welsh Interlude

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And then there is Wales.

 

Other than a deep love for Gavin & Stacey, which is set in Wales and that I watch at least twice a year and quote daily, I leave Shrewsbury with no idea of what to expect. This trip has been so ill-planned that I haven’t had time to do my usual research before leaving, wherein I’d meant to read up on the history, immerse myself in some Dylan Thomas (including re-watching one of my favorite Christmas movies, the depiction of his poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”), study the guidebooks carefully so I’d arrive in Wales ready to feign a previous acquaintance. Z has been in Wales once on a rugby tour, though his memory of where he was and what he did there is too hazy to offer much insight other than an amusing anecdote about getting spooked in a graveyard of movie-quality mist and eeriness, a quality custom-built into Wales I’m beginning to suspect. We sit on the platform at Machynlleth in the dark, waiting for our connecting train, huddled together in the cold as we try to figure out how a person should say “Machynlleth.” The woman next to us mentions her stop at Aberdovey, and it sounds like Abu Dhabi, and I wonder exactly where this train will be taking us.

 

I’m not being dramatic: as we sit there in the dark with the moon the primary source of light, I fully expect to be attacked by werewolves. I’ve needed the toilet for the last twenty minutes, but my brief attempt to find it on the other side of the station where it is even darker left me scurrying back to Z, convinced that I should hold it until I get on the next brightly lit train that will be taking us to Barmouth, a seaside resort on the Atlantic, and Z’s family friend, July. I snuggle in next to Z and feel very content despite my full bladder and our impending evisceration by werewolf. The Abu Dhabi woman tells us that the next leg of the journey is the best, most beautiful bit, but because it’s so dark, we’ll miss the mountains, miss the descent across the estuary, and into Barmouth. Ah well, Z says. Next time. I like hearing this. I am not a person who easily goes to a place just the once. I like to return.

 

We are no sooner off the train than July envelopes us in bear hugs. We haven’t seen her since our wedding five and a half years ago (which was also when I met her), and I love the sensation of instantly being cared for. For the next five days I won’t be in charge of what we see and do. With July, you know you’ll have a good time and it’s nice to have her at the helm. I can’t say I know anyone like her. I suspect she’s never met a stranger and she’s never said no to any sort of potential adventure. Though she is English, she became a part of Z’s world when he was a teenager and she was teaching with Z-ma in Zimbabwe before heading off to work in Botswana, while Z-ma and Z-pa looked after her children who were in school. She was working in Libya when she got the notion to open a tea room in Wales, and she’s been ensconced in Barmouth now for twenty years, though she has retired to travel. It is no surprise to look at Facebook on any given day and see that July is some place on the globe you’ve heard little about, always with a new set of friends she’s made.

 

And also, she wears purple every day, and it’s really hard for me not to like a person who has that particular signature color.

 

She drives us around the few streets of Barmouth to her place in the upstairs of a 300 year old building on the main drag. Because the place is “listed” (in the U.S. it would be on the historic register), when she remodels or makes structural changes, she has to get permission and is sometimes denied, so the front of the building will remain pink indefinitely. The space couldn’t be more delightful. It is crooked and leany and has low ceilings in some places and high gabled ceilings in others. Black crossbeams go across the ceilings and I suddenly want to write on parchment with a quill pen. The trek from the bedroom we are sleeping in to the bathroom requires that we duck so we don’t conk our heads.

 

In short: it’s exactly the sort of place you want to stay when you are in Wales.

Thank goodness for the English translations

Thank goodness for the English translations

July has gone out of her way to be an excellent host. We’re greeted with a basket of fruit and a bowl of crisps (behind which is sitting the children’s book my mother illustrated). Towels are laid out for us like we are staying in a guest house, and before we lug our suitcases (our blasted, blasted suitcases) up the stairs, she is making us late-night eggs since we had wrongly assumed there’d be dinner to be had on the train or at the werewolf-infested train station. While she talks to Z in the kitchen, I poke around her space, looking at the stacks of books I have either read and loved or want to read, admire her artwork, imagine my life if I were living it here. Her decorating sensibility is geared to entertaining and comfort. Though her living room and dining room is shared, she’s chosen furniture that can expand and retract as needed based on the number of people present. In one corner, there is a reading chair that she tells me sits on a ley line. I’ve never fully understood ley lines, but when I sit there, I do feel strangely content.

 

Ley line or not, my favorite spot in the whole space is the cushion in the wide, deep-set kitchen window where you can look down on the happenings of Barmouth while talking to Z and July.

 

While in Wales, I have my first experience with the British National Health Services because a couple of mosquito bites have gone wonky. My left hand is so red and swollen that I remove my rings before they get stuck. When Z says, “I don’t like the look of that,” I agree to see the doctor because the last time Z said, “I don’t like the look of that” and I ignored him, I ended up with a scorching case of shingles and a threat of hospitalization. July explains that because people go too frequently to the doctor—which is paid for by the state for everyone—there is a new rule that unless it is an emergency, you visit your local pharmacist first to have your ailment assessed, and then you are told whether going to the doctor is necessary. For whatever reason, I feel more ridiculous stretching out my hand to the too-young pharmacist so he can survey my bites than I do actually going to a doctor. Surely this poor man has better things to do like dispense drugs. He suggests the bites are on the verge of being infected, and if it isn’t better in a day or so, I should go to the doctor. The next day, it is no better, is maybe worse, so we make an appointment. We do a little sightseeing before the appointment, me periodically checking in on the redness and swelling, and then, as we drive to the doctor’s office my hand suddenly looks nearly normal. My rings fit easily on my finger. The redness has shrunk down so it’s just around the two bites. By the time the nurse looks at my hand, I feel like a fool. I am one of the idiots who has jammed up the National Health Services with a mosquito bite so people with real conditions now have to see a pharmacist first.

 

July, who never has to pay for healthcare, is outraged when they charge me 30 pounds because I’m not a taxpayer in the UK. Z and I look at each other as we do the calculation with the sub-par exchange rate that makes the UK expensive for Americans and realize that even so, this is the cheapest doctor’s visit I’ve ever had.

 

Barmouth Estuary

Barmouth Estuary

After our short, five-day stay with July, if you asked me what is in Wales, in no particular order, this would be my list:

 

  • more sheep than I’ve ever seen anywhere (and I’ve been to Ireland seven times)
  • the lushest, greenest pastures and hillsides I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to Ireland seven times)
  • charming villages and towns
  • castles
  • tea rooms and cafés at every turn
  • The Little Trains of Wales
Barmouth

Barmouth

Every night, it rains; every morning, we wake up to a drizzle. Miraculously, by the time breakfast is finished and we’ve made our way to the car, the rain has dried up and we have nary a shower to impede our sightseeing, almost as if the tourist board has made an arrangement with Mother Nature.

The green, green hills (and pastures) of Wales

The green, green hills (and pastures) of Wales

And the rain is put to good work. As we careen around mountains and down into valleys, I begin to worry that when we get to Ireland Z will be unimpressed because this is truly the greenest, most verdant landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s also worth noting, the roads are some of the most narrow too. At one point, we come face to face with a driver on a narrow mountain pass and we have to inch slowly past each other with our side of the road being the one most likely to deposit us down the mountainside. I momentarily think, We’ll die today, and then quickly amend, At least it will be beautiful death.

Thistle

Thistle

July is a master tour guide. Each day is the perfect mix of driving, sightseeing, and stuffing our faces with scones and lemon drizzle cake in some stately home she’s been going to for years, the proprietor of whom is a personal friend or at least familiar with July. In one place in the mountains, the owner’s children offer to show us their chickens and rabbits. In another—the space where July’s daughter got married—renovations have been made that July is not entirely sure she approves of. In another, the server teaches me how to say “Mabinogion”, the name of the earliest prose literature of Britain.

Penmaenuchaf Hall

Penmaenuchaf Hall

My favorite of the spots we go, Penmaenuchaf Hall, is the sort of house I feel certain I must have lived in in a former life (admittedly, probably as a scullery maid who was oft chastised for her poor quality work) because each room is so comfortably and beautifully appointed. While we wait for our tea—served on dishes I find photograph worthy—I sneak into the adjoining library and peer at the books.

Look at those little flowers. How could the tea not be delicious?

Look at those little flowers. How could the tea not be delicious?

After tea, we wander around the formal gardens, sniffing the lavender, getting a lesson on the different types of heather from July. I try at length to take a picture of the hydrangea that line the driveway—a pantheon of color the likes of which seem unwilling to be captured in a photo. I want to live here. Or maybe at least sell a few essays so we can stay for a few nights and have meals served to us on that china.

Penmaenuchaf Hall Hydrangea

Penmaenuchaf Hall Hydrangea

As we travel around, we weave in out of some of the most picturesque villages I have ever seen, most of which could easily be inhabited by hobbits or other characters from some mythical tale, so charming are they. July has to give me pronunciation lessons at each one, as the string of consonants run together make no sense to my brain or tongue.

Waiting for Frodo Baggins to cross the bridge.

Waiting for Frodo Baggins to cross the bridge.

One day, we make our way to Portmeirion, a tourist village/resort that was fifty years in the making and has been used as set for TV shows and movies, most notably for The Prisoner, a series from the 1960s. It is the quirkiest, most brightly colored place I’ve ever seen—it is reminiscent of Main Street at Disney World, only this is even brighter, looks more like something on the Italian Riviera, and has a jumble of items salvaged (or created) from around the world.

Portmeirion, where all is not as it appears

Portmeirion, where all is not as it appears

Trompe l’oeil is used to trick the eye into believing a mural on the side of building is a bank of windows on a villa. Small statues, cleverly used paint, and forced perspective make buildings look larger (or sometimes smaller) than they actually are. There is a huge golden Buddha sitting under a loggia, a town hall despite the fact that this is a resort with no actual residents, ornate doorways that lead nowhere, a ship in the harbor that is really a retaining wall. As Z and I walk around, wrinkling our brows and occasionally mouthing “what is this place?” to each other, July (and everyone else we talk to) is clearly delighted by it. Eventually, we settle into the fantastical kookiness, though perhaps the most surreal moment for me is when I walk into a bookshop in one of the brightly colored “village” shops, and the clerks are speaking Welsh to each other, reminding me again that I am not in some fairy tale Mediterranean village at all but instead clinging to the coast of Wales.

 

There is no light in the Portmeirion lighthouse

There is no light in the Portmeirion lighthouse

 

In every guidebook, in the tourist literature, and on many of the road signs we are pointed to one or another of the Little Trains of Wales. At first, when July refers to them as such, I think it’s a term of endearment that she’s coined, but it turns out this is what they are called. They are the narrow gauge railways built to transport slate that have been repurposed for tourism. Because we have a notion that the trains will be full of the badly behaved children we were surrounded by at the Tower of London and because we still haven’t quite recovered from that experience (seriously, the kids were horrid and left me feeling like the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” without an oven to shove them in), we opt not to ride one of the national treasures.

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The affection with which everyone speaks of the trains and of the different scenery each line affords, however, leaves me wondering if we’ve made a mistake. But then we start touring castles and I no longer care about trains large or small.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

All of the castles we visit were part of Edward I’s “iron ring”, an impressive collection of castles around Wales, built within about a three-year period during the 13th century, meant to keep the Welsh in their place, let them know who was in charge, and sure, also ward off foreign invaders. But mostly, they were about the Welsh. Because of the time frame, the four castles we see are all reminiscent of each other so when Z asks which one I like best, it’s inevitably whichever one I’m standing in front of. That said, they are all amazingly unique. Our first, Harlech, is the closest to Barmouth, and the thing that is most striking to me is that we’re driving down the road and then boom, there it is in front of us, high on a hill letting the whole world know it is not to be trifled with. When it was built, the sea likely brushed up against the rocks on which it sits, but now the village of Harlech has expanded beneath it.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

Later, as we stand on the ramparts looking down, I see a school, people going to shops, living their lives completely unfazed by what must have, when the castles were inhabited by English nobility and soldiers, made the Welsh either quake in their boots or feel seriously pissed off about the liberty-taking invaders. Though it is a ruin, the castle is in remarkable condition; the walls and towers stand nearly to their full height. Z and I walk along the ramparts, feeling a little dizzy as the wind whips us around. I try to snap a shot of the be-dragoned Welsh flag and discover later that it is nearly in tatters from that vicious Atlantic wind. This castle is my favorite.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

The next castle we visit, also my favorite, is Conwy, which still has the medieval wall surrounding the village it is attached to. As we approach from across the bridge leading into the village, it strikes me that Conwy looks like the castle most of us try (and fail) to build at the beach. It sits majestically by the water and I can’t wait to get inside. Unlike Harlech, this castle was “slighted” during Cromwell’s time, which means some of the structures were partially demolished so it couldn’t be used again as a fortress. As Z and I walk around inside while July has tea in a nearby café, I can’t help hating Cromwell for this (as well as some other sins committed against Celts here and across the Irish sea).

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

Inside, you can see arches on what would have been the chapel windows, you get a sense of how grand the royal apartments might have been, how horrifying the drop into the prison cells below. It seems a tragedy to me that it wasn’t maintained. Z and I are also impressed with the small signs that give us just enough information without distracting us from the views (there are no piped in animal or battle noises here, like at the Tower of London!). In this space, it is not difficult to imagine a Guinevere or an Arthur living a life. When we leave, July drives around the narrow streets that weave in and out of the village walls. It’s a place where I wouldn’t mind returning.

 

The narrow roads of Conwy

The narrow roads of Conwy

 

We are too castle-greedy on this day, and when we finally make it to the famous Caernarfon Castle in another walled village, the castle has closed.

Caernarfon Castle after hours

Caernarfon Castle after hours

I’m a little disappointed because this is where the Prince of Wales had his investiture in 1969, and I’ve seen photos of that ceremony. It is formidable with it’s large polygonal towers, and it is no surprise that this is where Edward I determined to make his son the first Prince of Wales, to remind the Welsh that they were no longer their own people. It is so odd to me that if I see castles in England, they seem romantic—fortresses to protect that sceptered isle set in a silver sea. But in Wales, I can’t shake the feeling that the English were just thumbing their noses at the people they’d conquered. If you are Welsh, living in 21st century Wales, do you see those castles as a national treasure, or does it chafe a little all these centuries later?

 

I have an idea how I’d feel.

 

The last castle, Beaumaris, I am sure will be my favorite. The guidebooks I’ve barely cracked mention that it is the most technically perfect castle in all of Britain. It is symmetrical, a sort of castle within a castle, and July agrees that it really is gorgeous. I can’t wait. We save seeing it for our last day because it is on the Isle of Anglesey—the place Prince William and Kate Middleton lived right after they got married—and we’ll be headed to the ferry that will carry us to Ireland. Because we are running a little late, we only do a drive-by of Beaumaris. The road to it is twisty and you can’t see around the bends, so at each turn, I’m sure I will look up and there it will be, this example of castle perfection. The anticipation is almost more than I can stand. And then suddenly, there it is, and all I can think is:

 

huh.

 

It has a lovely moat, gorgeous round towers, I can imagine what it looks like on the inside because I’ve seen an aerial view in one of my books. But it is so short. There is nothing about it that is formidable. Earlier in our trip to the ferry, July decided to drive by some standing stones near her house. I was expecting Stonehenge, but when we got to a rugby pitch, there at the side of it were stones no higher than an average fourth grader. I was instantly reminded of the miniature Stonehenge created for the band in This is Spinal Tap when the band mistakenly commissions an 18 inch replica instead of the 18 foot one they were imagining. This stone circle would have been perfect on the grounds of the vertically challenged Beaumaris. July offers to stop and Z and I wave her on. Maybe next time we don’t have a ferry to catch we can be wowed by the technically perfect interior and I’ll issue a retraction so Beaumaris can become my favorite too.

Beaumaris, how small you look!

The road flattens out in front of us. The trees become short and scrubby and the mountains can only be seen in the rear view mirror as we get closer to the ferry port. I have mixed feelings about leaving Wales and July. It’s been such a wonderful respite to be with her and this gorgeous little country has exceeded my expectations. But Ireland has owned me since I first stepped foot there in 1999, and while we make the final stretch to Holyhead and the ferry, all thoughts of English royalty, castles big and small, and the Little Trains of Wales dissipates.

 

The pipes, the pipes are calling.

 

Ireland is out there somewhere

Ireland is out there somewhere

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2

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In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.

 

As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.

 

This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.

 

At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”

 

Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.

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Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)

 

In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.

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On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?

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While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.

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On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.

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I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.

 

But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.

 

Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.

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Girls Growing Up

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Dear diary.

Dear diary.

If it weren’t a sin to make additions to the Bible, I’d probably implore the folks at Zondervan to include a verse that reads something like: Woe unto the adult woman who happens upon her junior high diaries and reads them, for she will be sorely mortified.

 

I found the red calico receptacle of my seventh-through-twelfth-grade thoughts on the bookshelves while I was back home in Indiana babysitting Mac the Wonder Scottie. I tucked it into my suitcase before I returned to Seattle, anxious to see what messages I had had for Future Beth. Because I had no such biblical warning and because I was a bookish girl who was overly concerned with grades and my future, I assumed that I would discover raw genius on the pages. I also suspected that early 1980s Beth had a clearer perspective on who her essential self was before she was shaped and twisted by the outside world. I settled in to read these nuggets of teen wisdom with anticipation.

 

Sadly, what I discovered was that aside from having truly atrocious handwriting, the only thing in my head was apparently boys. Pages and pages about my feelings for and the merits of this boy or that boy. Boys whose names no longer can bring an image to my mind. Boys I barely knew. Boys who likely didn’t know me at all. Sentence after sentence of heartfelt evaluation of the various boys in my school, in my youth group, boys I had known for all of 15 minutes when we were visiting family friends out of town. I had a vivid and completely imaginary romance with a mortician’s son from one of those trips. In one entry, I marveled that I had not gotten depressed when Mom and I went to the wedding of “S”—“S” was the son of a friend of my mothers who was about six years my senior and with whom I had never once had a single conversation. It is a mystery as to why it seemed likely his nuptials would have made me blue.

 

It was hard not to be retroactively disappointed in myself. Z suggested I should be kinder to the younger Beth because she was just behaving age appropriately, but it took me a good two days to get over the shock of realizing that I hadn’t been some writerly savant. I was no Anne Frank. No junior Virginia Woolf. No teenage girl Pepys. I sure wasn’t writing pages about my career dreams or my hopes (outside of boys) for the future, which disturbs me greatly because I know in 7th and 8th grade I was obsessed with getting a 4.0 GPA, I learned to play string bass because the orchestra had no bass player, I took piano lessons, played a flute, loved art, read, thought regularly about college, and wanted to know everything about the world and the people in it. But none of that is recorded. No one would ever know from the evidence before them in the red calico journal that I had a brain in my head or aspirations beyond convincing the boy I liked to like me back instead of hitting me on the arm so hard I’d have bruises.

 

(What was that about? Who was I then that I’d let a guy sock me in the arm and not flatten him. I blame his dreamy blue eyes but am thankful that after about three weeks of the daily arm slug, I determined that he “wasn’t really the guy for me.” Ya think?)

 

The whole time I was reading my journal, I kept texting my oldest friend, Leibovitz, to tell her what 1980something me was concerned about, what she’d been up to, who was annoying us in 7th grade.

 

“You just danced with J.T!” I’d text, to which she would reply, “Oh, don’t remind me.”

 

Possibly, my texts were annoying. Her oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school but I was so immersed into the early 1980s–wondering if I’d be more appealing to the boy of the week if I asked for a pair of Bass Weejuns for Christmas—that I couldn’t even fathom a Little Leibovitz existed at all, let alone talk coherently about her high school graduation. It was as if the last thirty odd years never happened (and it may explain why this weekend I bought a pair of Tom Mcan tasseled mocs for $12.99 on a K-mart clearance rack even though, my mother pointed out, I made fun of her for wearing the same in 1998). I did not need a DeLorean to go back to the future; I was wedged in it.

 

Plus, I admit, I did not like the way Little Leibovitz had recently made me feel ancient. While I’d been home, I took her out to dinner—something I did more regularly when she and her sister were little and I was still living in Indiana. She’s beautiful and seems supremely confident in ways I could not have mustered at her age (or now). Maybe she doesn’t feel like she has the world on a string, but it seems like she does. We chatted about school and her summer and college plans. After we were finished eating, I offered to take her out for dessert or to the mall or something. She shook her head and said no thanks, and then it hit me: Little Leibovitz had been humoring me. She didn’t need me to drive her around town: she has her own car, a rich collection of friends, a busy social life. My offering of taco chips and boring old-people questions about her future plans was not the draw it might have been a decade ago.

 

The thought of her in a cap and gown made me feel old and I wanted to keep on feeling like I’d just seen Urban Cowboy for the first time. (One advantage to not having children of your own is that you can more easily live with the delusion that you are ageless.)

 

A few days after reading my journals, I started reframing what I’d read there. Yes, I did talk obsessively about boys, but on a second thought, it was not random, mindless chatter. I was analyzing and evaluating them like I was a detective or a zoologist: what were the subject’s good qualities? Bad qualities? Did those qualities mesh with mine? What was the likelihood of our future contentment? I was picky and dis-inclined to flirt. As my detecting progressed, I moved more quickly reached the “not the guy for me” evaluation and moved on. I seemed to know exactly the sort of person I wanted in my life and I was willing to wait for him. Which is a good thing since it took Z a few plane rides and three decades to arrive on the scene.

 

If I had the superpower of time travel, I’d put a Post-It in that diary for 12-year-old Beth to read that said something like, “Honey, calm down. It’s going to be a few years before you find the right one. Why not jot down some current events while you wait?”

 

 

I'm certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

I’m certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

 

 

Saigon Keeps Falling

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Forty years ago today, I remember playing with my Barbies on the braided rug of our living room with our little black and white TV blaring in the background. I was oblivious to whatever was on the screen, so the reports that Saigon had fallen and the Vietnam War was over must not have come during afternoon cartoons. Mom left the living room, stood at the kitchen sink, and sobbed. The newscaster’s announcement was less real to me than whatever drama was unfolding in front of me with the dolls, but the sound of Mom crying was different and distressing enough to halt my play.

 

I followed her into the kitchen and asked what was wrong, and because we are not the sort of women who can beautifully and coherently talk while crying, the only words I remember her eeking out were that the war was over. Though I think of myself even now as a child who had always secretly been an adult, the richness of her sobs momentarily had me convinced that the Vietcong would soon be coming to Indiana because we’d lost the war. I was terrified. I can’t remember how she comforted me: if I was a nuisance interrupting her grief or a welcome distraction. I only remember the sobs and the confusion I felt; surely the war being over was a good thing, so why the tears?

 

My father wasn’t in the military. None any of my uncles went to Vietnam. Though there may have been Vietnamese refugees who ended up in my hometown, none were at my school. I can’t say the war affected my life, but it was the background noise of the first eight years of it. My mother lost high school friends and one of her best friends lost her fiancé. I can still remember standing near his grave, kicking clods of dirt with my canvas shoes, not entirely understanding the level of adult sadness on such a beautiful day with flags snapping in the breeze. It was no more real to me than my GI Joe doll with the missing foot, who had, in my mind, been to Vietnam; he perpetually wore fatigues because he was too muscle-y to fit into Ken’s leisure suits–a good guy but so world-weary only the lesser Barbies with missing limbs or brown hair would date him.

 

So no, it didn’t influence me directly, and I’m not entirely sure why I spent a portion of this morning weeping over forty-year-old news footage of people clamoring onto helicopters, remembering something I didn’t understand when it was unfolding live. But it did give a melancholy flavor to my Gen X childhood, perhaps a weird obsession with China Beach when it aired twenty-five years later, a distrust of military actions, a strange mix of both respect for and wariness of the men my mother’s age who wore bandanas and fatigue jackets and looked down and out.

 

The catalyst for today’s tears was an on-the-scene interview with a man who had tried but failed to help his college friend and family—a friend he’d  met at Washington State University—escape Saigon in those last hours. He was reduced to tears. The reporter tried to suggest that maybe his friend would be okay, but the man stood there, choking back sobs and shaking his head saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I tried this afternoon to figure out some magic way to use Google that would answer the question of whether that man’s friend survived or not; I failed.

 

It’s the same melancholy I felt talking to my old  students returning from the Gulf or from Afghanistan, trying to make sense of the lives they were now supposed to assimilate back into. How I feel when I talk to Hudge about her military career and the affects, both positive and negative, it had on her life. How I feel when I think about the non-military personnel in faraway places just living their lives, trying to get by, while men with money and power–and some with questionable ideals–make decisions that will affect whether those people’s homes will become a battle zone.

 

I wish now–my Barbies packed away lo these many decades–that my over-read, over-reflective brain could make sense of such events. See some pattern, some unanticipated benefit, some reason for pain and suffering so I could say something wise about the disruption of lives that might have been otherwise lived, so I could feel more positive when my cousins’ sons consider joining up, feel more hopeful when they ship out.

 

But I don’t know. I don’t know.

 

 

 

 

Our Fake Life

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A week ago, Z and I embarked on a road trip from hell to get to southern Oregon to celebrate the 90th birthday party of a family friend of his. Forty-five minutes in, I had a skinned knee, we’d had to return one rental car in need of engine maintenance for another, and we’d been in a high-speed fender bender on I-5 that could have been deadly but instead was just nerve-wracking. It was pouring with rain and while a shaky Z pointed the car to downtown Tacoma so we could grab lunch and collect ourselves after the incident, we considered the possibility that we weren’t meant to make the journey. We both wanted to go home and pull a blanket over our heads and send our apologies to the Birthday Girl.

 

I’d been looking forward to the trip ever since we’d made plans, but after this start, I’m honestly not sure what made us climb back in the car and keep driving south other than a shared belief that you need to get back on the horse that threw you. Well, that and a desire to fulfill some fantasies.

 

Though I grew up content to be the only child in our little apartment, I was fascinated by larger families and some of my favorite TV viewing included families where there were more than the American Dream recommended 2.5 children: “The Brady Bunch,” “The Waltons,” and “Eight is Enough.” There was something about all that noise and hubbub and ability to disappear in a crowd of siblings that intrigued me. Because it was just Mom and me coasting our way through the 1970s, we often found ourselves staying with friends and living on the periphery of other people’s lives. While I was never disappointed to return back to our quieter, more peaceful existence, when we were staying with family friends, I loved observing what life in a larger sort of family might be like. One of the more fascinating qualities to me was that the larger the family the more able it seemed to incorporate additional honorary members. In our little apartment of two, if we had a guest, it was an Event. But we once spent an entire summer with family friends and while we were staying with them, two other people were also summer guests and seemed to barely affect the functioning of the family other than the number of chairs that had to be pulled up around the table. I consider these expeditions into a larger tribe to be a highlight of my solitary childhood.

 

When I married Z and moved to Seattle into another apartment of just two, I wasn’t thrilled about the loss of easy access to “my people”—my cousins, my friends, and those above-mentioned family friends. I did, however, inherit family friends of Z’s who at the time were living near Seattle. A few decades earlier, the Birthday Girl and her husband had been staying in Z’s hometown as part of a service group—think Doctors Without Borders—for retired professionals, where her husband was offering his knowledge to the local paper mill. Z was soon to leave for college in America, so when Z-ma found herself playing bridge with this American woman, she had a lot of questions for her. A friendship was forged and the Birthday Girl and her family provided Z with the sheets and towels he didn’t have room to bring in his suitcase. Later, they hosted young Z on his first trip to the Pacific Northwest, where he met the family. It seemed fortuitous a few years ago that Z got a job in Seattle that put him in close proximity to these family friends.

 

My first Thanksgiving away from Indiana—when I was weepy because I missed home but insisted it was only because I couldn’t find the box-mix of gingerbread I’d been eating since I had teeth—was spent with the Birthday Girl and part of her family.  I was happy to feel connected to someone out here. We all sat around a huge round table with a large Lazy Susan in the middle of it, spinning helpings of food around to each other. I looked at the members present and imagined the life they’d had together and apart in this other hunk of the country, and because I was on the outside looking in, all I could envision was something akin to a more contemporary Norman Rockwell.

When we would visit the Birthday Girl, I’d ask her about her life as a young woman, a young mother, a grandmother. I was itching to hear her stories about going to work at Oak Ridge when the US government was piecing together the atomic bomb, how they’d lived in Mexico for a time, how she, who had done a lot of volunteer work for Planned Parenthood, had ended up with an astounding number of grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’d study the artist’s renderings of the various houses the family had lived in that hung along her stairwell and look fondly at the wedding photos of all her children that hung above the piano.   I loved her house and the way I felt cared for there while looking out at Puget Sound. I even loved the spread of magazines on her coffee table: National Geographic, The Atlantic, and Smithsonian that made me feel better informed just by being near them.

 

A few years later after her husband had died, she relocated to Oregon to be nearer her daughter. Z and I felt a little bereft. It’s not that we saw her daily or weekly, it’s not that we talked to her with any regularity, but knowing that she was nearby made us feel connected to something beyond our small city life. Not long after she left we found ourselves driving near her house and it was almost more than we could bear to know she wasn’t inside, having a cocktail and reading those magazines.

 

I-5 South thru Oregon

I-5 South thru Oregon

So, despite the accident, we headed south and both of us had some mini-version of PTSD wherein we felt certain that every car and big rig was about to careen into our lane and sideswipe us. The traffic was slow. The rain never let up. Fog set in, and though we should have been at our destination before the sun went down, the trip took two hours longer than it should have, so I was steering the dented car up and down mountains in the dark. It wasn’t “unsafe” in that the traffic by then had thinned out, but it was unnerving because the wipers were sub par and the unfamiliar road with twists and turns offered no view into the distance so we could anticipate where the road was taking us.

 

Eventually, we reached the Birthday Girl and her family, where we were greeted as if we were part of the clan instead of interlopers. We caught up with various family members, watched its newest members tumble around on the floor, talked to the most recent crop of young adults about their plans for the future. It was chaotic and loud and fun. We stole a couple of hours with the Birthday Girl herself and were happy to see her looking healthy and willing to talk about the books she’s reading and her bridge games and specific memories we asked about. It might not be our family, but it felt like a real gift to be included in this one’s big milestone celebration. Our only regret was that Z-ma wasn’t able to be with us so the pair of them could see each other again.

 

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

We were the only residents our first night in the TouVelle House B&B, a gorgeous Arts & Crafts mansion decorated with period furniture and trimmings. Normally, wherever I stay, I feel like my room is “mine” and the only time I’m in a lobby or shared living space is when I check in or check out or, if in Ireland, someone is feeding me a big Irish breakfast. But this place was too beautiful to go scurrying up the steps to our suite. Z and I came in from the rain, shook off our raincoats in the huge entry hall, made hot drinks for ourselves in the darkly paneled dining room, and then settled down on the Stickley-esque furniture next to the fire in the expansive living room. I’ve always admired Arts & Crafts houses but felt it would be too difficult to live a modern life in one while making it look the way it was meant to. But this night was our chance to try it on for size. The fire crackled while we talked about politics and world events and the annoyance of the drive down. Neither of us were making a mad dash upstairs to our screens… in fact, it was as if we were living in a pre-screen era. We refilled our mugs and talked some more. In the flickering light, it was easy enough to pretend it was our house and this was any ordinary Friday night for our more sophisticated alter egos.

 

The next morning, we shuffled downstairs to the gourmet breakfast and chatted with the owner, who looked entirely too young to own a house so grand. I peppered her with questions so I could better understand what a day in the life of an innkeeper is like, and because I’m always curious about how people ended up where they are. She was friendly and we felt well cared for as she made suggestions for the day’s activities and offered to make us a to-go breakfast for the next morning since we hoped to be headed home before the regular breakfast would be served.

 

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

Other than the potential nightmare at the beginning of the trip, the weekend was a dream. A sort of fantasy. Because the TouVelle House was not ours, I didn’t have to think about how the property taxes would get paid or how much it cost to heat such a big space or whether any of the beautiful artwork might “accidentally” end up in a guest’s suitcase. (There was a clock there I really wanted to bring home!) I only had to sit by the fire and slide into the 400 count sheets and pretend it was mine. I could pretend the owner was our friend who was feeding us not because we paid her but because she wanted us well-fed and happy. I could pretend that big, unwieldy family a few blocks away was my own without having to jockey for time to myself or ferry someone to a doctor’s appointment or look at the breadth and depth of the family history and wonder what my place in it was. I could just let it all wash over me and for a minute try on a different sort of life.

 

When we come back to Seattle, I’m always a little indifferent. If I’m with Z, then that is home, but there are other places that call to me and so I don’t often walk into the door of our little apartment with the same exhalation of relief that I do when I return to my folks’ place in Indiana, for example. Even though the drive back was kinder than the trip down to Oregon, when we crested the hill on I-5 and saw Seattle splayed out before us, I felt a little flutter beneath my ribs.

The spell was broken, but I didn’t mind.

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR