Category Archives: Random Conversations with Strangers

The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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There’s someone who sometimes puts on a rubber cat mask and plays French music on an accordion down by the market, appropriately in front of Left Bank Books and to the left of a florist that has big displays of exotic looking flowers. It’s probably only because the music reminds me of the movie Amélie, or maybe it’s because the “cat” plays with such gusto, but I love seeing it.

 

Somewhere, I have a fuzzy photo of it that I snapped for you, but I can’t find it, and since you can’t see it moving jauntily in time to the tune, hear the music, smell the flowers, dodge the tourists headed to Pike Market, it wouldn’t make much of an impression anyhow.

 

So just believe me when I tell you this accordion playing cat is comic, yes, but also kind of glorious, and if you are ever in Seattle, you should try to see it and drop a buck in its accordion case.

 

Oh, wait. Z is invested in your understanding the glory of this cat (even though he is allergic), and found this photo online:

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

But down on the waterfront there’s this other person who wears a rubber unicorn head and bangs the hell out of some upturned buckets and shakes his head wildly as he pounds out a beat, and I find it completely—and irrationally—terrifying. As in I grab Z’s hand if I’m not holding it, and if I am, I squeeze it harder, and try to hurry us along.

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

The sun might be setting, but it is still daylight. The unicorn is all wrapped up in the music and likely bears none of us ill will, plus there are plenty of people around even if it did. And still, I get chills that I can only equate to my first irrational fear, which was the Lincoln-Mercury TV ad that had a cougar that would rest on top of a sign and then let out a fierce roar as the announcer said, “At the sign of the cat.” I was a toddler, and the first time I saw that commercial I burst into tears. This may well be one of my first memories.

 

I can still hear the jingle Lincoln-Mercury  leads the way and get chills.

 

I ask you, is this not terrifying? Watch until the very end of the video.

 

My parents thought my overreaction to this ad was either hilarious or adorable, and so when the commercial came on—and it was always on—they would say, “Look Bethy! It’s the kitty!”

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

Eventually, I got used to the commercial but would sometimes feign terror in an attempt to recreate their original delight, though I didn’t have to feign much because just now when I was sifting through clips of those commercials to show you, I was, let’s just call it, uneasy.

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

Last night Z and I were doing laundry in the building’s basement. It is not a horrible laundry room—I’ve been in much creepier ones, specifically two in Chicago that were reminiscent of murder scenes in a horror flick. It is bright blue and well lit and has cameras in it. In general, I’m not afraid to be down there by myself. Even so, last night Z stayed behind to collect our items from a sluggish washer and sent me upstairs with the dry clothes to commence folding. I had the laundry bag in one hand and the doorknob in the other as I was leaving when he called after me because he needed another quarter. He was the only other person in the room. I know his voice. There was no chilling music playing. We hadn’t been talking about anything creepy or watching a police procedural with a serial killer. He said a very non-threatening, “Babe, I need another quarter.”

 

And yet I screamed. He might as well have been Freddie Krueger or the Wicked Witch of the West saying, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

I have an hyperactive amygdala, which accounts for the shrieks and squawks when I’m surprised, but I also have an overactive imagination which accounts for my inability to sort my fears into tidy categories like: irrational, rational, and rational but improbable. To me, everything is a possibility because I can imagine it is. So while I know everyone has to deal with the fears they might have about losing loved ones, jobs, health, new or strange situations, global nuclear annihilation, etc., I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population doesn’t worry about unicorn drummers chasing them down the waterfront. They don’t worry that a sewer rat is going to pop out of their 2nd story toilet on a Wednesday afternoon. They don’t worry that if they get rid of that one ugly sweater they really don’t like anyhow that one day they’ll be in a situation in which they have no sweaters and desperately need that ugly one to keep them warm.

 

They don’t—I’m guessing—fear talking to a stranger because they will never be free again to have their own thoughts but will instead spend the rest of their lives listening to this stranger chunter on.

 

Which brings me to the Silent Reading Party at the Sorrento Hotel. I love the Sorrento, which is near our apartment building. It’s loaded with old world charm—a dark lobby with a fireplace, wood paneling and deep sofas that harken back to a Seattle I wish I’d known. While it doesn’t seem like a quirky place, on the first Wednesday of every month it hosts said silent reading extravaganza and people wait in line for a place to sit and crack open a book. I’ve been meaning to go to it for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but I never have because it seems like such a weird thing to do: sit in a room full of strangers a block from your actual apartment and read in a dimly lit room in silence.

But also, like that accordion playing cat…how glorious. Every month I mark it on my calendar. Every month I “accidentally” forget to go.

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Aside from the weirdness, here are the main reasons I haven’t gone:

 

  • What if there are rules you have to follow that I don’t know and am then chastised for not following?
  • What if I hate it?
  • What if I meet someone there who ropes me into becoming part of their book club or writing group or cult and I’m never free again?

 

These are pretty much the fears that have shaped my life:

  • not knowing rules/breaking rules I didn’t know existed/being chastised for breaking said rules
  • hating something/being bored by something that I’d previously thought I would enjoy (ex. calling Z from the restroom at intermission of Wicked and begging him to phone in a bomb threat so I wouldn’t have to watch the second half) and still having to sit through the rest of the event
  • getting trapped by other people because I don’t know how to excuse myself or say no

 

 

A college classmate of Z’s who I know emailed to see if I’d be interested in going to the silent reading with her. We were both English majors and the few times we’ve seen each other, we’ve talked about books. This seemed like a win because I wouldn’t have to go to the Sorrento alone, she had been before and thus knew the rules (don’t talk between breaks or you might get shushed!), and we would be there to read so were she inclined to try to get me to join a cult she’s in*, she’d be shushed when trying to hypnotize me. Likewise, if some stranger tried to rope me into their pyramid scheme, she would shush them and save me from having to shill Amway for the rest of my life. So we agreed to meet.

 

Our first attempt was a failure because despite arriving almost 40 minutes before it started, the place was packed. We tried again the following month, and I arrived an hour before it started and was ushered to a long, communal table in the back to wait for my bibliophile partner.

 

I was disappointed. I’d imagined us across from each other in two solitary wingbacks by the fire in a room—I will admit—that was virtually empty, save for a lone man with a newspaper and aroma-less pipe in a similar wingback on the other side of the room. Instead, the reality was that we would be sitting at a long table reading across from strangers who I imagined to be 87% smarter, cooler, and more literary than I am. What’s worse, I had no idea what the etiquette was of talking to people at the communal table before the actual reading began. Was it encouraged? Expected? Mandatory? Rude to attempt?

 

I felt like I was at some reading cafeteria on the first day of junior high. What to do?

All around me people who seemed to know each other buzzed and chittered and seemed thrilled to be there, and all I could think about was how soon I could order a cocktail and how soon after I finished it I could escape.

 

The woman across from me asked if I’d been there before, and admitted that she wasn’t even from Seattle but had read about the event and thought it was too weird not to attend. She was exactly the kind of stranger I’m happy to bump into because she was friendly without immediately assuming that I wanted to spend the rest of the evening listening to her talk. A man came up and sat at the corner of the table between us, and asked about her cocktail so he’d know what to order. He had been to the Silent Reading Party before and said that he invites friends but then tells them he won’t save a spot for them because it makes him uncomfortable and seems unfair since, at this point, people were lined up outside hoping to score a spot to perch so they could read. I decided I liked him too. He was similarly undemanding and pleasant.

 

My friend arrived and we ordered appetizers and drinks and passed time before the witching hour by talking to each other and asking our new neighbors questions. The woman was from Brazil and had been traveling for the past 18 months to see a bit of the Americas. There were only two stops left on her trip: Chicago and New York, and she wondered if we had any suggestions.

 

I have many, many opinions about what is best and least best to do in Chicago, but on the spot, I could think of nothing outside of taking the architectural boat tour on the river, which may not even run in March. She looked at me expectantly since I’d just blathered on about how it was my favorite city in the U.S. and I had nuthin’. Ride a boat in what will inevitably be a Midwestern deep freeze when you are there. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

 

The man said he loved to read but had no time to read, so once a month he came to the Sorrento for himself. He’d been reading the same Ruth Rendell novel for months. I admired his backpack. He admired the novel I was reading, Here We Lie, by my friend Paula Treick DeBoard, and took a photo of it so he could read it whenever he finally has time to finish the Rendell. I forced everyone to look at my name in the acknowledgements and congratulate me as if I had written the book myself. (It is really good. You should probably read it. And also, admire my name.) The piano started playing and the silent reading began. (Note: it is silent in that no one talks, but there is delightfully unobtrusive piano music. At one point I heard a very classical version of what I think of as Darth Vader’s theme song, The Imperial March.)

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All of Paula’s books are my favorite, but right now, this one is my most favorite.

Despite the fact that Paula’s book is riveting, I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, I was horrified because what kind of city advocate am I if I can’t even cough up five things someone should do in a place that I love? I ripped a page out of my journal and started listing things she should do in Chicago, views to admire, buildings with architecture I adore, the miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, which line of the L to ride for the best vantage, which bus would cart her up Michigan Avenue, etc. I passed the list to her. She read it and smiled. I read Paula’s book and stuffed focaccia bread in my mouth. Soon she shoved a piece of paper across the table and whispered, “We’re like school girls, passing notes.”

 

Here’s her note:

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I was already in awe of Jacqueline because of her solo traveling adventure, but I was further in awe because she clearly enjoys interacting with strangers and finding out their opinions about what is worthwhile to investigate. She wasn’t worried I was going to try to get her involved in a pyramid scheme or join a cult. She was just enjoying humanity.

 

There was a break and she packed up the journal she’d been writing in and asked the server for the bill. The Ruth Rendell man said he’d like to pay for her drink and the food she’d ordered. She thanked him, but said no, and though my superior intuition and his excellent backpack had figured him for a safe bet, I realized that if I were traveling alone, I wouldn’t want arbitrary people buying treats for me no matter what they were reading. He said, “I insist. You are our guest here.” She thanked him, thanked us for the travel advice and told us to have a good evening, and then left.

 

I don’t know what it was about that wording of his, but I could feel my eyes get full and my face flush. You are our guest. There were two things there that I liked: the notion of a visitor to the U.S. as a “guest” but also the way he used that “our.” As if he were including me, my friend, all of us at the communal table—even the people at the end so far down we couldn’t talk tot hem or even see what they were reading, everyone in the Sorrento, everyone in Seattle, everyone in the country…and saying, we’re glad you came!

 

After Jacqueline left, I leaned over and thanked him for buying her meal and drink. It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind to do it, though I had considered asking if she had a blog so I could spy on her travels. I told him that I appreciated it because of Z and how he’s feeling these days about this country he loves but doesn’t always feel welcome in anymore, and about how good it was for me to remember that this is what I love about Americans—that at our best we’re friendly instead of suspicious, generous instead of showing everyone the holsters under our jackets.

 

He waved me off. He said he’s traveled a lot and people have always been welcoming to him and he likes to welcome other people. But just the same, I thought it was such a lovely gesture that the memory of it warmed me all week, as did the memory of Jacqueline investigating the Americas and deciding that something as quirky as a silent reading party was worth her time.

 

I’m never going to prefer solo travel, though I’ve done it and would again if the only alternative was staying safely at home. I’m never not going to squawk and screech when something gives me a fright, even if it’s my own husband asking for a laundry quarter.

 

Most of us are inclined to fears of some sort, and we have to figure out how to best navigate them. I would argue—with myself, with you, with the world—that life is going to be more fulfilling if we focus on the accordion-playing cat moments, and—even if we do have to race past the rubber-headed unicorns banging drums—we shouldn’t let those moments shape our days, influence our interactions with strangers, make us isolate ourselves completely for safety’s sake. The world is too big and weird and wonderful to cut ourselves off from that. It’s kind of glorious.

 

*She is very nice and very rational and not cult inclined. This is just hyperbole.

 

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On Fonts, Style, and Albus Dumbledore

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The catalog of ways my writing gets derailed is as large as the Oxford English Dictionary though the pages with entries for “email that must be sent” and “drawers that must be organized” are the most dog eared. Currently, I have a thumb injury caused by a knife in the dish water, and I’ve bandaged that thing up so it looks like the oversized digit of hitchhiking Sissay Hankshaw/Uma Thurman in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It has slowed my typing down considerably even though it turns out the only thing you use your thumb for when typing is the space bar.

 

But even before the thumb situation, I had a font-related writing derailment.

 

I saw a snarky T-shirt on Broadway hat said, “I bet you use Helvetica.”

 

I use Helvetica.

 

I’ve been using Helvetica since 1994 when I got my Mac Performa and determined Helvetica the best font of the six or so on offer back then. Clean lines. Easy to read. Classic. Once I settle on a “good thing” I usually don’t revisit it, but that T-shirt unnerved me.

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You have no idea how much time I can spend googling things like Why does Helvetica suck? Or what are the best fonts?

 

I find myself at a crossroads in my life wherein I must either change so I don’t seem quite as old as I’m beginning to look, or I must commit to my idiosyncrasies and admit that I no longer care to be current. Not that I’ve ever been on the cutting edge of anything, but my goal, in as much as I have one, is simple: avoid being a laughingstock if possible.

 

It may be a battle I’m destined to lose regardless of my age. I’ve always been out of step, and now is no different than any of the other decades of my life. I was a fussy, prim teenager who was incapable of being carefree or rebellious, and now that I’m middle aged, I’m behaving the way I should have when I was 17. While the style mags all indicate I should embrace re-purposed furniture from a thrift store and add some spikey plants, a see-thru chair, and a bookshelf full of globes (where the books should go), I hanker for the ambiance of some television small town judge’s family room circa 1955. Heirloom furniture and deep armchairs with actual arms. I’m no fashionista, so though my drawers are stuffed to the brim, I basically wear the same uniform every day—a cable-knit hoody sweater, Levi’s, and a pair of  UGGs with hide laces that look like something Daniel Boone might have worn. (If it is warm out, I wear as little as possible accompanied by a snarl.) There is nothing about my “look” that is cultivated. It’s comfortable and serviceable and, hopefully, non-descript. Best of all, when I’m wearing it, I feel like myself.

 

Which is how I’ve always felt about Helvetica.

 

If I were a more confident person, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the judgey anti-Helvetica T-shirt disrespecting my font and moved on, but I’m not confident. I almost always assume that there are cool kids at a lunchroom table somewhere in the universe who are deciding right now that 90% of what I have and do is all wrong. Why these imaginary brats hold sway in my head is a question I can’t answer.

 

Plus, I started thinking about the judgments I’ve made against people for their font choice or their tendency to trends. Typewriter fonts are too precious and those peek-a-boo shoulder shirts aren’t really working for anybody and make me worry about shoulder melanoma. (Also, I’ll confess that though a hundred different style guides tell me that Chuck Taylors are always a good choice, I never see them on adult, non-basketball-playing humans over 22 without thinking they should try a boat shoe instead. We all have our opinions.)

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Maybe I’m only thinking about things like “classic” and “style” because for Christmas, Mom got me this gorgeous little book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. I’m probably not the target reader (see above description about my fashion choices), but I love the watercolor sketches of the things Schelter and a few style icons she’s interviewed offer up as their classic go-tos. It’s got me thinking about that old William Morris adage “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and now I’m looking at the stuff in my closet and dotted around our apartment and finding some of it dubious.

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Beyonce waiting for her Cinderella story to unfold.

For instance, I’ve been giving Beyonce, the metal chicken that sits in our living room (and  who is named after The Bloggess’s significantly larger metal rooster) the side-eye. She’s not really beautiful. We knock her off her perch regularly and she dents up the wooden hand-made Shaker nesting boxes she sits on. On the other hand, we got her as a companion to the metal rooster, Bob Johnson, who sits on the other side of the room and I do find him, if not beautiful, then at least aesthetically pleasing, and he makes me smile, thus covering the “usefulness” category as well. Somehow, it seems wrong to deprive Bob and Beyonce of their love just because she’s less attractive and I got her on markdown in the Meijer garden department. Bob was liberated from a gallery and thus was a more pricey, graduation gift from Z that we found in New Mexico. She can’t help it that she doesn’t have the breeding of Bob, and I admire him for overlooking this.

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Beyonce is still waiting for this guy to put a ring on it.

There are other things on the side-eye list too.

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Why would anybody need these? What does it all mean?

I’m not sure why I’ve been collecting these little Wade ceramic doo-dads out of Z’s tea boxes. I don’t really like the colors and it seems kind of weird to have a tiny space shuttle, old-timey scuba helmet, White House, and pine tree/arrowhead sitting in my windowsill, but each time he opens a new box of tea it reminds me of the childhood joy of getting a prize in a box of Fruit Loops. So there they are, looking down on 9th Avenue in all their tiny, muted glory as if they are prized possessions.

 

I don’t know what to do with the 28 tote bags I have. They’re useful, but will I ever have need for 28 at one time? Shouldn’t I thin the herd? Thumbs up to the Winter is Coming direwolf and Andy Warhol soup can totes and thumbs down to the free London Review of Books one I got at a conference?

 

I keep thinking I’ll come up with a system for these wooden file boxes that will make them useful, but instead, I throw things in them like the notecards of a would-be screenplay that seemed like a good idea one night at midnight and less of a good idea once the sun was up. They’ve been in one file box for ten years and I’ve never looked at them. Mostly I dust the boxes when guests come and thus they  serve as tiny coffins for story ideas that have never re-animated.

 

I could go on like this, but you get the idea. That once again, instead of doing the business of writing, I’m avoiding it by bandaging my thumb and worrying about fonts, and speculating about how classic or unclassic my “style” is. Because that’s what really matters in my life. Sure it is. (Well, wound care matters, I guess, in that if I lose my thumb to gangrene, all of my words will run together what with no digit to operate the space bar.)

 

Classic Style has sent me down a memory lane I wasn’t planning to traverse too. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was an impressionable 13 year old, I got my hands on a copy of Lisa Birnbaum’s satirical Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was satire. Instead, I used it as a bible. I wanted to be preppy. I don’t mean I wanted to wear Izods with the collars up. I mean I desperately wanted my family to transform over night into one of those country-club-belonging east coast families that went sailing and attended Ivy League schools and summered on Nantucket. It wasn’t the money I cared about, but I cared about the class, the breeding, the well-readness and the well-educatedness. Since I couldn’t rearrange my Midwestern reality into that, I read the books Birnbaum said were non-negotiable for preps (Love Story, Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp), I fretted about whether my monogram should feature the “E” of my given name or the “B” of my everyday “Beth.” Somehow, I managed to get a pair of Tretorn tennis shoes and tried to wear away the right toe as if I dragged my toe when serving a tennis ball (instead of actually, you know, learning to play tennis and getting the Preppy Handbook required roughed-up toe legitimately), and I crammed my maturing body into little boy’s polo shirts because they were cheaper than those made for women, and they fit my nearly non-existent budget even though they didn’t really fit me.

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So as I read Classic Style, I find myself reverting to my 7th grade girlhood. I feel the envy and the inability to measure up to those satirical guidelines. And I’ll admit it, I’m kind of hating on Schelter—an honest to goodness prep—for forcing that on me. True, I now have my own set of required L.L. Bean Boat & Tote bags, but Kate Schelter, one assumes, has actually used hers for boating and toting instead of for storing half-read Poets & Writers magazines under her desk. You can’t buy preppyness (or class) it turns out.

 

But please note:  Schelter’s illustrated questionnaire of the creative director, Stephen Keefe, listed Helvetica as his favorite font, alongside his vintage Persol sunglasses and Gucci loafers!

 

As I bundled up to meet Z and Hudge for happy hour on Monday, I was thinking about Schelter and her perfect style as I wrapped my rainbow-hued scarf around my neck, tugged on my rainbow-striped gloves, and pulled my rainbow knit cap down over my ears. These items don’t match, in case it sounds like they do. The colors are all of different hues, I just like the spectrum even though I would never have dressed this way in 1981. The useless strings that dangle from the earflaps slapped against my chin as I thought about how no one with real style would leave the house dressed as I was unless it was Pride week.

 

I climbed onto the #2 bus and as I was putting my wallet into my bag, the guy across from me—an Albus Dumbledore look-alike who appeared to have fallen on hard times—complimented me on my obnoxious hat.

 

I touched the hat and thanked him. He swayed and shifted in his seat in a way that indicated to me he was probably already half-lit. Then he leaned across the aisle and presented a banged-up blue plastic lighter and said, “Want to trade it for this lighter.”

 

I did not and said so politely. It seemed rude to ignore him, so I gave him more information than he needed—that Z and I got these hats—Z’s a more “manly” forest green—right before we got married and so I have a sentimental attachment to it (and therefore, nothing against the lighter he had on offer).   I restrained myself from telling him that I secretly believe the hat to have magical properties because a few days after I bought it and a few days before our wedding, I face-planted on an icy sidewalk and instead of ending up with the bruise or concussion I should have had, the hat made my head bounce so I was able to get married without stage make-up.

 

The guy shrugged and leaned back in his seat, arm along the back as if he were driving a 1970s Cadillac. As if to say, he liked the hat, sure, but it was nothing to him if I couldn’t see the benefits of his proposed trade. He flipped his maroon and gray striped scarf over his shoulder jauntily.

 

My instinct then was to run down the checklist perpetually in my brain of “was it bad of me that I just did this selfish thing of wanting to keep my own belongings to myself?” (The curse of a self-aware only child is the need not to behave the way people expect you to.) I looked at the guy while he was looking out the window and was happy to see that his coat looked warm, gloves jutted out of his pocket, and his scarf was long enough to cover his head if the temperature dropped. He didn’t need my magic hat; he just liked it. And I didn’t need his lighter, which appeared to have no magical qualities at all, (though the ability to carry potential fire in your pocket is a kind of magic). Things were even enough between us that I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty for not being more generous.

 

He saw me eying his scarf and leaned forward again, rubbing the ends between his fingers, and pointing out to me that the colors are the same as those of Oxford University’s Christ Church (or Gryffindor’s, I thought). Then he mumbled some things about Oxford and it seemed to me that he said he’d studied there and maybe that’s where the scarf had actually come from, though I can’t be sure because his monologue was low and zipped from topic to topic. There were kernels of sanity and sobriety in what he said, but there were enough words I didn’t catch that I also don’t know if he was a fabulist or if he’d had some academic life that went awry.

 

He talked. I smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t agreeing to some other trade that wouldn’t suit me. I am known for agreeing to things I don’t want because I nod my head when I don’t understand someone and the next thing I know I’m having a meal I didn’t order or hideous fake nails glued to my own natural ones.

 

I looked at him more closely. His hair was wild. He was carrying what looked like a freshly laundered mattress pad in a see-through tote. He was picking bits of fluff of the knee of his trousers fastidiously, and he was definitely striking a pose there on the #2 as we bumped up Seneca. He flipped the scarf over his shoulder again and looked out the window as if we were on a weekend leisure drive in Oxfordshire. He might have initially looked like a homeless Dumbledore to me, but as I often discover about my fellow bus riders, there was more to him than met the eye. And the man had style.

If he has cause to use Helvetica, I bet he does it unapologetically.

 

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Just two crazy middle aged kids enjoying Puget Sound in their magical knitted hats.

On History and Mystery

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Do you see the missing piece?

 

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

 

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

 

 

What I’ve actually been doing:

 

  • genealogy

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane, County Galway

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

 

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

 

Jesus again.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Great Great Grandmother Ellen

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

 

Other early 2018 Mysteries of the City:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

God bless us every one.

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

 

Santa’s Helper

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Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis

It’s late and I really want to post a Christmas blog for you (kind of like Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day TV broadcast), so be forewarned: this entry is going to be less elaborate and twisty than usual because I’ve given myself a deadline of blog post by sunrise on Christmas Eve.

 

Have you ever had one of those December evenings when you find yourself chasing a stranger girl wearing a Santa hat through the aisles of Meijer insisting that she let you help her?

 

No?

 

Midwinter has been weird this year for me, so it wasn’t that surprising. The night before I was sitting at a Quaker meeting house, learning about meditation from a Buddhist wearing a gorgeous blue meditation blanket while I tried not to fall asleep and tip over onto my former shrink who had invited me to attend. A few days before that I was hugging a guy who was homeless in downtown Indy (I’m not really a stranger hugger, fyi, so this is abnormal behavior for me). Before that, and this is probably what should have alerted me to the fact that it was not a normal December, at the airport, I said goodbye to Z—who would be leaving for Zimbabwe for a month the next day—and I DID NOT CRY as I headed off to Indiana solo. I miss him like crazy, but for the first time in 16 years, I said goodbye to him at an airport without feeling the need for a sob. You know, like a grown-up.

 

Also, I usually start rocking out to the Christmas tunes the minute the Thanksgiving dishes have been cleared, but since I got to Indiana, the only CD I’ve listened to in my car is Jethro Tull’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood. It’s been on a continuous loop. I haven’t listened to it this much since my senior year of college when I had a crush on a Tull fan at the exact same moment that I found six Tull albums at Goodwill and believed at the time that this meant he and I were destined to be together. This time of year, I am usually found in my car, zipping past the Christmas lights of Indiana and belting out songs from Dean Martin’s Christmas album, but instead, I have been singing “Jack in the Green” over and over at the top of my lungs and feeling urges to go to a Renaissance Festival and give Z a pair of leather breeches and deer-hide boots for Christmas.

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(This photo rudely stolen from Wikipedia.)

I missed Z more than usual at Meijer today when the young girl in the Santa hat appeared beside me with a wide, vacant stare, and said, “I can’t find my mom.” Z is stupendous in a crisis. I believe this is because in my youth while I was reading confessional poetry written by women who would later commit suicide, Z was learning to lifeguard and how to perform CPR and generally be an upstanding citizen instead of someone who feels her feelings every second of the day. He’s not exactly MacGyver, but I have no doubt that in a crisis he could figure out how to land a plane, defuse a bomb, or set a compound fracture. He’s that guy.

 

Who I am, though, is the person who looked at this poor kid—Santa hat bobbing as she twirled her head from side to side looking for her mom—and sighed deeply before saying, “Let’s see if we can find her.” I don’t know what the proper response should have been exactly, but the fact that that sigh was so deep is pretty damning.

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Who doesn’t love a Me Christmas?

After the sigh, I briefly felt pretty pleased with myself that this kid had recognized in me a helper, someone who looked trustworthy and good at locating missing parents. But it pretty quickly became apparent that I was just the first warm body she bumped into.

 

Everything about Santa Girl was vacant, God Bless her. She couldn’t answer my questions about where she’d seen her mom last, how much time had passed, or what her mom had been shopping for at the time they were separated. Had Z been with me, he would have had the store on lock down, hunkered down next to the girl so he was looking directly into her lusterless eyes, and come up with a plan to reunite her with her parent. Instead, she was stuck with me. My plan, when I realized she wasn’t going to be helpful in tracking down her mom, was to find a store clerk who could take care of this problem for both of us. We walked through a few aisles, her hat bobbing from side to side, and then I spied an older guy wearing the requisite Meijer gear.

 

He looked benign, but I didn’t feel right about dumping a little girl off with a strange man in case it scared her or he was a serial killer, so my plan of a quick escape was nixed.

 

He was a guy who had clearly been through this drill with someone else’s kid before, because he knew what to do. He asked Santa Girl her mom’s name, and thankfully, she knew that. Then he paged the woman. The minute he said Santa Girl’s mother’s name over the loudspeaker, the child looked horror stricken for a second and then she took off running away from us, away from what was likely to be a crabby reunion with her mother, and away from the spot where he’d directed her mother to meet us.

 

I’m not much of a runner unless a bear is chasing me. Fortunately, Santa Girl wasn’t a runner either in her fleece boots, so I was able to keep her in my line of sight as she darted in and out of aisles, looking frantically for her mother. Part of me wanted to shrug and say, “Oh well. She’ll sort herself out,” but the louder part knew that it was important she not dart out the door and into traffic and that she not be terrified, running haphazardly through the frozen foods section. The store clerk who had made the announcement was right behind me, and then somehow in front of me, and though Santa Girl would not listen to my pleas to return to me, when the clerk spoke to her with a kind but authoritative voice, she stopped dead in her tracks. When he called her to him, she came. When he put his arm around her shoulders lightly to direct her back towards the rendez-vous point, she transformed from one of the wild horses of Chincoteague into a tamed creature on a lead. It was amazing.

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I don’t have any horse photos at the ready, so here, look at our wedding cake topper from 8 years ago.

In the time it would have taken me to weigh the pros and cons of putting my hands on a stranger child, this guy instinctively did exactly what she needed to calm down. The way Z would have.

 

It would be so nice to have useful skills like these.

 

We rounded the corner and her mother spied us. There were other kids in and around the car. It was probably two, but it has multiplied in my memory to at least five. I feared Santa Girl would get hollered at, or maybe even smacked, but instead her mother said dryly, “Well, well, well. Who do we have here? It’s Katelyn.”

 

Not Santa Girl. Katelyn. Katelyn who possibly needs one of those child leashes when going out in public.

 

Godspeed, Katelyn.

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Blue Christmas.

What I haven’t told you about this interlude is that I had on sort of loose fitting jeans. And apparently I had on malfunctioning underwear, because somewhere between Katelyn darting off at the sound of the loudspeaker and us doing the perp walk with her back to her mother, my underpants had somehow rolled themselves down to my knees, forcing me into a sort of waddle.

 

After my brief charge was returned to her mother, I considered the possibility that I should trudge the half a mile to the women’s toilets to readjust whatever had sprung itself loose in my Levis, but it seemed so much easier to waddle to the checkout, waddle to my car, and drive myself home to take care of all the unfortunate bunching.

 

Had Katelyn’s mother been friendlier, I might have offered advice about how mis-sized underpants could be used to keep her young fugitive in check.

 

This is not the blog post I planned as a holiday token of my affection for you. I had big plans for a richly woven tapestry of Christmas angst, long-time friendships, my 8th anniversary spent alone, Z in the “new” Zimbabwe, and homelessness. In the end, I realized that present would have been more about pleasing myself and less about entertaining you.  And frankly, it would have been kind of depressing.

 

So instead, you get underpants.

 

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Mom’s tree, which is 10,000 more spectacular up close but my camera won’t cooperate.

 

Whatever you are celebrating this solstice season, I hope you are celebrating well with people you love, festive headgear, the music of your choice, and foundation garments that don’t roll down.

 

 

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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Reasons you should not move to the city in middle age:

 

  • Cities are by definition full of young people. You will, thus, by default, seem ten years older than you actually are simply because you aren’t 23 and because you sometimes hobble a little when you stand up abruptly and make your way to the loo. And you (and whomever you are with) will be the only person in your age group at Stout’s happy hour.
  • While you could be reaping the benefits of having worked all your life and thus living in a house with modern conveniences (like a washing machine you don’t have to feed quarters into), you will be living like a college student with one closet the size of a coffin and less square footage than your parents have solely in their living room.
  • There is a lot of walking in a city and some days you are tired.

 

But really, this reason:

 

  • When you find yourself on a sidewalk yelling at a man in the car that almost ran you over you aren’t sure if it is:
    • righteous indignation
    • calluses built up by urban life that make it impossible for you to feel the embarrassment you would feel were you screaming at a stranger in your small Hoosier hometown
    • hormonal

 

Earlier in the month, Z and I were walking around St. James Cathedral, which is surrounded by trees on a block that is relatively quiet and peaceful and gives the illusion of the posh neighborhood that existed there a century ago. (We once saw a man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting on the Cathedral grass with a white goose on a leash, and so I never walk past that lawn without hoping to see him and his goose again, without hankering for the pastoral. I still don’t know if the goose gets daily walks or if they’d been attending mass.) It was a good evening. The heat of the day was gone, Z was still on vacation, and we were about to leave for a three-day beach holiday, so we were in good moods.

 

As we went to cross the quiet street, a car came barreling down on us, much faster than it should have been driving in the neighborhood. It seemed like a high probability that the driver would run the stop sign at the four-way stop and it seemed like a possibility that he’d run us down even though we had the right of way. I grabbed Z’s arm to slow him from the car’s path because he has a tendency to think his fiercely wrinkled brow will stop traffic violators in their tracks. (I think I told you I once saw him shake his umbrella at a car that had driven too far over a crosswalk before stopping.) We skittered out of the guy’s way to safety.

 

Though we didn’t yell at him, we did both fire dirty, dirty looks in his direction once we were safely on the sidewalk. Then we went on with our walk, and just as we had started to continue our conversation, the driver did a U-turn and pulled up beside us. I assumed (oh, naïve Midwestern me!) that he was pulling up to apologize to us, but instead, he had made this extra effort just to berate us for not looking before we crossed the street. (We had looked, plus we had the right of way even if we hadn’t.) With all the wisdom bestowed on him from his man-bun and a beard so large birds could nest in it, he let us know that we were horrible people without the intelligence to cross a street properly and he questioned our political leanings (though we debated later about what he was implying those leanings were). Z briefly engaged him and then quickly disengaged when he realized the sort of person he was dealing with.

 

But I—oh, Reader—I had a fit of pique. I stamped my foot and screamed as he pulled away from us. “You are a DOUCHE!” I shouted. (In my mind, my fist was shaking in the air righteously, but that may be an embellishment my brain has added to the memory.)

 

I don’t like that word, but sometimes, no other word will do, and the combination of his superiority and his choice of hair fashion made it the only appropriate retort. I was seething with rage. Shaking, red-faced. The whole bit. As we went to cross the next street (on the way to the drugstore to pick up my prescriptions for chronic indigestion and “nerves” that city life necessitates), he pulled in front of us, blocking our path, and said, “I guess you’ll have to look now!” He sat there for several seconds before moving forward so we could cross. It took all the willpower I had not to kick his fender, and for an hour afterward I kept replaying it and wishing I had both martial arts training and either a handgun or a sword like Michonne’s on The Walking Dead so I could teach him a lesson. Maybe not kill him, but at least scare the bejeezus out of him. I felt violated and there needed to be retribution.

 

For a week afterward, I had a partial chorus of Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” going through my head, and I hate and I hate and I hate… without ever finishing the line with her more benign elevator music, the way we fight and focusing instead on the various people I pass on the street—in cars, on bikes, on their feet—who are not nice. Who would, if given a choice without legal consequences, do me and others harm because they don’t like the cut of our jib or, well, whatever it is that makes one human seem worthy of your ire. And I hate them for their hatred.

 

While I feel strongly that this was rational urban acting out on my part—the yelling at the be-bunned motorist who taunted us—Mom has been here for three weeks and when I’m juxtaposed against her, I realize that I’ve been hardened in new and awful ways since moving out here. I am not as nice as perhaps I once was.

 

A few weeks before she got here, Z and I passed a man on the street slumped so far over in his wheelchair that his head was nearly touching the sidewalk and didn’t even notice because there are so many folks on our little elevated hunk of Seattle who are in various states of drug-addicted slumber. It wasn’t until we got further down the block and heard a woman behind us say to the man, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?” that we realized perhaps that was the more human response to another human in crisis. (In our defense, if Z did this every morning on his walk to work, he’d be late for class because the numbers of these people are so many, and I am often in a fog of imagination and internal thought that makes the outside world somehow less real than what’s happening in my brain. I’m as likely to walk past Eddie Vedder’s blue, blue eyes without noticing as I am someone asking me for a buck, so it’s not that I’m predisposed to ignoring those in dire circumstances. I’m an equal opportunity ignorer.)

 

But Mom. Mom is a good person. She is not an extrovert nor is she someone who seeks out people in need so she can feel good about herself for helping them, but somehow, people gravitate towards her. In the 1990s, she would sometimes accompany me to book readings at Books & Co., in Dayton, Ohio, where Jane would drive up and meet us. Jane and I would have a delightful time chatting with authors who were reading, while poor Mom would get pressed against atlases and encyclopedias as someone with the inability to read social cues would share with her their life story or some mundane personal problem.

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Mom (with yet a new friend).

(She isn’t just a kook magnet. She’s met some interesting people. She befriended a South African in England in 1992 who still calls her on her birthday every year, for example. She knew a woman who was good friends with Judy Garland and would offer Mom reports on Liza Minnelli’s latest news. On this trip, when Z and I picked her up at the airport, she’d made a new Brazilian friend who was unsure where her B&B was on West Seattle, so we drove her there and then later spent a rainy day with her in Edmonds, having lunch, a walk, tea and a chat—learning about Brazil, the woman’s life, her art. I love it when Mom meets someone with whom she shares a connection and someone who seems to recognize that Mom is special herself.)

 

But then on other days during her visit, I’m mostly aware of how much the city has bent and twisted me. Mom and I walked past the door of the apartment building and a supposed delivery man was trying to get inside. Mom, who was behind me, said, “What do I do? Do I let him in?” and I snarled, “Keep walking! We don’t know him!” (In my defense, I probably would have let him in six months ago because he looked benign and he did have an Amazon Prime package in his hands, but the building manager recently installed cameras and I don’t want to be caught on tape letting in the fellow who robs the people in #201.) Mom smiles at people I don’t even notice on the street. She chats with the store clerks I usually only thank. She engages people with small children, cute dogs, interesting handbags.

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So this week when we took the ferry to Bainbridge and then had a “comfort break” in the facilities once we docked, I saw the older, barely-moving woman come into the restroom with help of a ferry worker before Mom did. The woman was making teensy steps with her wheeled walker. She shooed the ferry worker away and then started yelling into the echo-y restroom. As I was washing my hands, my only thought was escape. It seemed to me she wanted to know where the handicapped stall was, so I told her at the end of the row and then darted around her into the lobby. It wasn’t until two-minutes later when Mom still hadn’t come out that I realized what must have happened.

 

It seemed unlikely that they’d gotten embroiled in a conversation because from my vantage, the woman was the sort who barely made sense when she talked. That meant Mom was likely helping her back her wheeled walker into the stall. Poor Mom, I thought. Maybe I should go help, I thought. And then I instantly thought of twelve reasons I shouldn’t, including the smallness of the stalls and how Mom is better with people than I am.

 

Eventually Mom came out pulling the walker as the woman barked at her to go faster even though faster seemed as if it would make the woman topple because of her teeny steps. Mom could have looked at me and rolled her eyes (which is possibly what I would have done—a sort of “solidarity with the sane” move), but she didn’t. Instead, she asked the woman which way she was going. This was a slow process; those steps the woman was taking were teeny, and instead of feeling sympathy for her, I felt annoyance that she was interrupting Mom’s birthday vacation adventure. When we got outside, a woman in the tourist kiosk came over to help so we could get on with our day.

 

As we walked away, Mom said not only had she helped the woman into the stall but because the woman had no feeling in her hands, she had to help her pull her pants down and then up again. This is something I might do to help a loved one or someone under four, but after that, it wouldn’t cross my mind. Good luck with that, I’d think, as I walked away. Underpants are a private business.

 

The thing is, Mom isn’t nurse-like. She doesn’t enjoy this kind of help the way I think some nurse-y types do. She’s like me. We’re both kind of body abhorrent and would prefer not having to think about our own bodies, let alone someone else’s. We don’t really like being in service to other people—it’s not our forte. We’re good at giving directions, making suggestions, and then getting out of the way for someone more inclined to know what to do in a crisis.

 

But Mom has a stronger sense of duty to help other people than I do. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Maybe it’s a Virgo thing. Maybe it’s an her thing. I can still remember a time when I was very small and we were getting gas and a man asked Mom if she could drive him to the hospital. She looked at me in the car—the person for whom she was responsible and around whom her world was forced to revolve—and then she looked at him and told him she couldn’t. For the rest of the day she felt guilty, worried that he hadn’t gotten to the hospital, worried that it was an angel in disguise and she’d just dissed said angel because she, a single mother, was trying to keep her daughter safe from a potential Ted Bundy, who was feigning the need for medical attention. She lamented that she had no spare cash to give him so he could call a taxi, but in 1972 we were lucky if there was enough money to put gas in the tank so we could drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s where they would feed us, let us watch their color television, and where I’d spend the weekend in the country with my cousins and the cows, a wonderful respite for someone who then thought her town of 38,000 made her the City Mouse from the children’s story. There is a freedom from others and their needs in the country that doesn’t exist in the city, though in the city there is more anonymity, so if you must, you can say no to someone, pretend not to hear, drive away from the gas station while they ask someone else to help them to the hospital.

 

I have adopted similar worries to Mom’s. It bothers me every time I scroll past another plea for money on Facebook or side-step an aid worker collecting for Save the Children in downtown Seattle, or tell someone asking that I have no cash on me. (I’ve quit carrying cash so, at the very least, when I say this, it isn’t a lie. And also, Z and I are clinging to our little bit of rented real-estate in a city that has recently been designed to cater only to 23-year-old tech workers and their somewhat larger paychecks.) But I do do those things, those side-stepping and not-hearing things, and the longer I am in Seattle, the more it feels like second nature because the want is so much here. If I were home in Indiana, there is no way I’d walk past a man slumped over in his wheelchair. I’d help an old lady into the Meijer bathroom (though I still probably wouldn’t pull down her pants), and if someone told me they were driving through town and had run out of gas, I’d probably believe them, and if I didn’t believe them, I’d tell them I only had a $5 but they were welcome to it just so I could end my interaction with them more quickly.

 

On our return journey from Bainbridge, as we were disembarking, a fellow in front of us was sort of spinning in a circle. His hair was wild, his pants were down well past his butt, and I growled at Mom under my breath, “DO NOT ENGAGE HIM!” Mom looked startled at my command, but then when we got closer it was clear that he wasn’t deranged or begging but just talking on his phone after having made some poor fashion choices earlier in the day. We made our way home and once I’d locked the door on the city, I felt my guard come down. I felt like myself.

 

But then there is this.

 

Our goal on Bainbridge was to go to the historical museum there to see the exhibit of Ansel Adams’s portraits of law-abiding Japanese Americans who were detained in Manzanar during World War II to “keep America safe.” Forget their citizenship. Forget due-process. They looked like the enemy, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, and the “threat” was done and dusted.

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The museum is small and packed full of tidbits from island life, and you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into someone’s attic where everything has been carefully labeled, so you can skip over the bits of little interest and stare at the bits that fascinate you.

 

When we arrived, there were two women sitting at the front desk. We told them we were there to see the Adams portraits, and they both seemed delighted, and made us feel as if no one else in the history of the museum had come in to see them or gave two hoots about the Japanese internment. We went into the room with the portraits, looked at the ephemera from that time—tags that had been tied to coats and possessions with names and thumbprints (even though these were law-abiding citizens), photos of people going to the ferry and leaving their homes for an uncertain future (some were afraid they would be exterminated), family portraits, letters from the camps to family or neighbors, explaining the conditions, etc. We settled into folding chairs and watched a documentary made by the National Parks Service about Manzanar, and when it was over, one of the two women from the front desk came in.

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She was soft spoken and didn’t want to intrude on our museum experience, but she wanted us to know that she had been seven when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order was signed and the notices that people who were of Japanese descent would be removed. She and her family were sent to Manzanar. She told us about her experiences, how the residents of Bainbridge were the first to go in the country, how half of them came back, how some had neighbors and friends who were good enough to pay their taxes and run their farms so they had something to come back to. (Others lost everything.) She showed us where she was in the ferry dock photo in the sea of people headed off to the unknown. She showed us her sister’s doll—one of the few possessions that she was allowed to take—in a display case. Then she directed me to the old Bainbridge Gardens sign that was visible—if I understand correctly—as you entered the ferry. Then she had me walk behind it and see a message there that had been scrawled on the back by neighbors, one of the first thing the internees saw when they returned. It said, “Welcome Back.”

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This read “Welcome Back” but it was in a corner & this was the best shot I could get in tight quarters.

Not all the stories were good for those returning. Not all people are good, but as the woman talked to us, she kept coming back to this idea: it was a bad time, but not everyone was bad. There was good. There was this sign. There was the local newspaper that had kept everyone back on the island updated on the happenings of their Japanese-American friends.

 

There were good neighbors.

 

I’m not sure where this leaves me and my internal battle with my city armor. I’ll spend the rest of 2017 trying to find that sweet spot between being a good neighbor and being a doormat who gets yelled at by a man under a bun for some imagined pedestrian infraction.

 

Good fences may make good neighbors, but when you live in the city, you have to make those fences on your own, in your mind, in your behavior. And then you have to make peace with the choices you’ve made.

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Veering Toward Wonderment

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Z and I were once on a bus after returning a rental car and a guy got on selling batteries that we suspect he’d just lifted from the drugstore behind the bus stop. The bus was crowded and it was one of those days when I was feeling very much that metro buses are not that far removed from the ones you see in the movies, creaking through the mountains of Central America, packed full of people, their luggage, and a host of chickens and goats. I like a quiet bus and as such, was hoping the guy would realize no one was interested in purchasing his wares and sit down.

 

And then suddenly, this man said to the battery guy, “Lemme see those?” and the next thing you know, the two are shooting the bull and the man is digging in his wallet to pull out some bills to give to the battery guy. It was like a very public drug deal only without the drugs. Z and I looked at each other, fascinated by the notion that business transactions like this were happening on the #21. What makes you sell batteries on a bus? What makes you realize you need batteries while on a bus? The mysteries of life are many.

 

When I’m my best self, this is the attitude I’ve found most helpful when riding the city bus: instead of annoyance, veer toward wonderment. A woman gets on the bus with a stack of books and a hamster in a cage? Do not worry about the hamster getting loose and crawling up your rain coat. Instead, ask yourself if the woman often takes her hamster on jaunts, if she reads the books to the hamster. Really ponder the questions. Then consider using her for story fodder.

 

But often I am not my best self. Perhaps I’ve complained to you about my Bus Feelings before. I am not anti bus. I’m all for my taxes paying for a metro system that allows people to transport their carcasses around the city, but my enthusiasm for the bus is one of a belief that other people should ride it and Z and I should not. My greatest joy would be to move my car, Hildegarde von Bingen, from my folks’s driveway in Indiana so we could leap into her at any given moment and drive wherever we want. In this fantasy the roads are miraculously traffic free because all other humans are using public transportation.

 

My reasons for hating the bus are varied, but by and large those reasons can be boiled down into two categories:

 

  • Control: I have none. Will I have a seat? Will it be crowded? Will it be really hot or really cold? (It’s never 68 degrees.) Will music be pouring out of someone’s earphones at Metallica levels? Will someone be cursing and threatening a brawl? Will someone be shouting into their phone like it’s a walkie talkie? HOLD IT UP TO YOUR EAR. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO HEAR BOTH SIDES OF YOUR BORING CONVERSATION. Will someone’s dog be licking my foot? Will a baby be screaming or thwacking my leg with a sticky lollipop? There’s no way to know the quality of the ride you’ll have until you get on the bus at which point you’ve lost autonomy.

 

  • Germs: I do not want any. People are dirty. Some by preference and others by necessity of their hard lives. They cough without covering their mouths, they dig into their noses before pulling the stop-request cord, they rest their greasy heads against the windows. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m this close to instituting a policy wherein Z and I both have to wear “bus pants” like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory because I don’t want our pants that have been on the bus sitting on our sofa. Especially after I read the article about how rarely people—even people with relatively good hygiene—wash their blue jeans. We’re talking six months. People brag about this as if it’s normal. It’s not normal. My most recent pair of Levi’s encouraged me not to wash them with any regularity lest their structural integrity be damaged. (Doesn’t this mean you aren’t selling a very good product if by using it the purchaser increases the likelihood that said product will fail to perform as expected? Also what’s with the the passive-aggressive way the label implies if the jeans fail to withstand regular laundering it will be all my fault.) WASH YOUR JEANS; BUTTS ARE DIRTY.

 

Bottom line: I do not love the bus. On the days I ride the bus, I often get off thinking less of humanity and their bad habits and worse hygiene.

 

Nevertheless, it is a necessity of city life, and last week I found myself on a bus trundling up Broadway because of a recent unfortunate eye incident of mine.

 

I’ve got weird eyes and have had since I was in 7th grade. One is so near-sighted I can’t read the big E on the eye chart and the other is minimally far-sighted. Over the years, I’ve treated this ailment with glasses and a single contact, both of which I wore haphazardly until my ophthalmologist and I agreed it was pointless. I can see fine so long as no one tall sits in front of my good movie eye at the theater and I can read a book so long as there is good light over the shoulder of my book eye. (There was an unfortunate incident in grad school caused by my low-quality depth perception when I drove over an entire bale of hay because I thought it was just a little straw in the road, but I like to think that was a one off.) The eye doctor even assured me that this would be an advantageous eye situation when I hit middle age because I basically have eyes that already work like bifocals. And sure enough, for the last several years as my friends had to pull reading glasses out of their purses to read the menu at Cheesecake factory, I could squint just right and read the fine print.

 

But apparently I’ve hit some point of no return now because when I go to the bookstore, no matter how I contort myself, I cannot browse titles. It’s all a blur. While I can read fine, that middle distance is a killer, so I’ll often pull off a brightly colored book from the shelf, pull it close to my eyes, and then discover it’s a book on squirrel mating habits or the gross national product of Papua New Guinea when what I had in mind was a collection of Joan Didion essays or a Marian Keyes novel. Usually when I go to the bookstore now, I just browse through the journals with all of their nonthreatening blank pages and think about the words I would write there if the journal were mine. It’s much less frustrating to do this.

 

I finally went to an ophthalmologist here and she told me what I need now is a pair of “computer glasses.” She explained that all-day glasses for my wonky eyes would do me no good, but I should be wearing something for that middle distance when I’m in a bookstore or working on my laptop.

 

Because they aren’t glasses I will wear all day, it seemed like a good opportunity to try my hand with a style that is fun. Over the weekend, Z and I looked at some frames and I settled on a bright red squarish pair, though we decided I’d come back later in the week because the shop was so busy and we had a weekend life we wanted to live instead of standing in line to place my order.

 

Thus my bus ride a few days later.

 

There were only about ten of us on the bus, and at a stop not far from my house, a guy got on in a rumpled red track suit. He had on Coke bottle glasses, big earphones that were plugged into a phone he was carrying in a long narrow box. In the box were some tatty DVD cases, signs that said “restrooms  for customers only,” and a small board with coat hooks screwed onto it. He himself had a permanently startled expression and a back pack that had crawling out of it’s pockets and zips a ruler, an electrical cord, a big spray can of air freshener, and a golf umbrella without a handle.

 

It was a fascinating conglomeration of items, though I was particularly drawn to the coat hook board for reasons I can’t explain. Had he pried it off the wall somewhere? What kind of space would he be hanging it up on? Did he have a coat to hang on it? Did he have a home in which to hang it?

 

I had a lot of questions about the coat rack.

 

I’m easily overwhelmed by the sadness I perceive in other people’s lives sometimes, and I was on the verge of having to look away so I didn’t end up weeping on the #60 because of the sorrowful plight I’d imagined for this guy. He wasn’t dirty and he didn’t seem to be responding to any voices in his head, so I’m uncertain why I determined his life was a misery except for his expression and the fact that his shoelaces were mismatched.

 

An older man in a ball cap started to exit the bus and stopped in front of Track Suit Guy and told him what a good-looking coat rack he had there in his box. The guy couldn’t hear the older man because of the earphones and I thought to myself, “Just move on, old man. Don’t engage him. He’s probably nuts.” Track Suit Guy pulled off his earphones and the older man repeated himself. Track Suit Guy looked down at his coat rack and said, “You can have it” in the softest, sweetest, most sane voice. “Take it,” he said.

 

For half a second, I felt a flash of shame. If someone on the bus admires anything of mine, my inclination is to say a cool thank you and then pull the item closer to me for protection. Even with a mismatched bunch of junk like this guy had, I can only assume he had imagined some use for it or he wouldn’t have been carting it around the city, and yet he seemed almost eager to part with it in order to please a perfect stranger.

 

Frankly, I felt a little indignant on his behalf when the older man said, “Well, thank you,” picked up the coat rack and walked off the bus.  I come from a place where people offer you things and you have to say “no” about six times before you can comfortably accept their offer of a cool drink, yet in a single second, goods changed hands, and the two parted company with no protesting or no sense from Track Suit Guy that his offer had been polite but insincere. The coat rack out of his possession, he went back to fiddling with his earphones and reshuffling the remaining items in the narrow box.

 

Wouldn’t the world would be an interesting place if we carried around arbitrary items and handed them to whatever person admired them or had use of them? Not that I’ll be doing that anytime soon. I like my things. But it would be a fascinating way to live your life.

 

People are glorious amazing.

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Though not IN the bus, we see this guy around town doing what we believe might be Mt. Rainier worship. He is always pointed towards the south and he’s always in the middle of the crosswalk.

 

I have some decision-making deficits that tax Z because I often stand gawping when he asks something simple like “what do you want for dinner?” or “what do you want to watch?” Even so, I felt very good about the prospect of marching into the eye place, plunking the fun red glasses on the counter, and saying, “I want these.” I could do this without Z standing next to me, nodding his approval. I was sure of it.

 

The place was deserted except for the two women working there, and they devoted all of their attention to me. The red ones were nice, they said, but they were a little tight on the bridge of my nose. How about these?

 

I probably had on 60 pairs of glasses in the span of 90 minutes. They were very patient with my indecision and didn’t try to overwhelm me with their opinions. Yet after an hour, I succumbed to their coos of approval when I put on a pair of purple tortoiseshell glasses. The glasses did look stylish and fun, I thought. They did bring out the green in my eyes because purple is a natural complement to green. The shape seemed right for my face, neither too square nor too round, though it was not a shape I could have identified in my 10th grade geometry class.

 

I snapped a selfie to show Z later, plunked down the money, and ordered those frames. The woman helping me also ordered the green frames that weren’t in the shop because she said I might like those even more, and she could switch the lenses out if I do. I felt really thrilled with my glasses experience and the nice women who had so helpfully led me to the most attractive pair.

 

I strutted down Broadway to meet Z, quite pleased with myself for making a choice without him. I popped into Dick Blick to get some markers and thought how I’d soon be able to hold my own with all the art students there because my glasses are so hip. I stopped in the bookstore to look at the blur of books one last time before I return next week with glasses that will make each title readable. I met Z at the drug store and told him about my adventure and showed him the photo I’d taken.

 

He took one look at it and laughed a short, hard laugh. It was the kind of laugh he could not have held in if he’d tried. It was like a sneeze. I don’t know that he actually said this with his mouth, but even if he didn’t, the message was clear:

 

Girl, you look crazy.

 

I wanted to be cross with Z for not saying what I was expecting which was either “You look cute!” or “Good choice, Sausage!” but with the evidence in front of me after I’d grabbed my phone back and stared at the photo, how could I be mad? He was not wrong.

 

I looked unstable. The glasses were huge. They looked black instead of purple and thus way too dark for my pale, pale Irish-American face. Also, apparently my face is crooked or my ears are uneven, and thus the glasses were sitting in a way that made my eyes look off-kilter, like something Picasso would paint. Looking at the image on my phone, I was reminded of a mentally handicapped girl in my hometown when I was in my twenties who wiped off trays at McDonald’s with great pleasure and authority. I always loved her enthusiasm and her sweet nature, but it is not a look I’ve aspired to all these years.

 

My thoughts returned to Track Suit Guy and how possibly I’d misjudged him and his life circumstances when I’d been racked with that wave of sadness earlier on the bus while studying the junk in that narrow box. Maybe there was nothing wrong with his life outside of his unfortunate glasses and his mismatched shoelaces. Maybe he was just a guy getting through his day, being pleasant to strangers and not being judgmental when one of them took him up on his offer. Maybe I should try to be more like him.

 

Maybe my new glasses, hideous as they will no doubt be, can help me remove these filters so I see things more honestly and with less judgment.

 

Though I seriously doubt that they’ll make me enjoy the bus.

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Get on the bus.

 

 

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

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour Part VIII: Connemara, A Castle, and Cromwell’s Barracks

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A better person would have taken a non-reflective photo for you.

There’s an old travel poster hanging above our bed back in Seattle that says Connemara “Ireland This Year”, and since we got married, it has been a daily reminder that this wild and wide-open hunk of Ireland has been on our to-do list. Kerry’s landscape might be green and lovely, and the lush mountains and charming villages dotting the countryside of Wicklow might make it a big tourist destination, but Connemara haunts my dreams.

 

It is moody in places and feels desolate in others, I often don’t know if I’m looking at rocks or sheep, but it stirs my soul and calls to me every couple of years. Once I’m out there, I don’t even necessarily know what to do with myself, but I’m happy to be looking at bog cotton and the barren mountains and little thatched cottages that look like something from a dream of Ireland instead of the real thing. As Z guides the Galway Hooker along the narrow road, he says, “It’s a lot browner than I imagined,” and I’m so in love with where I am, that I don’t feel like I have to apologize that there are fewer of Johnny Cash’s forty shades of green here than in other parts of the country.

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Connemara and a few of Johnny’s 40 shades.

A decade ago, I spent a week at a castle with a group of writers with ties to Aspen Words. We were at Kinnitty Castle in the Midlands and though it was lovely there and I had one of the most enriching writing experiences of my life—studying under novelist/memoirst Hugo Hamilton and spending a day and evening with novelist Colum McCann—I felt let down not to be in Connemara. When I arrived at the castle, which had been in existence in one form or another since the 13th century, I felt off my game. It was not in the Ireland that I was most familiar with, and the others in the group were all older than me and richer than me. We had in our midst, amongst others, a couple on the Fortune 400 list and a countess. The first night, alone in my four-post bed, staring out the Gothic window, I was near tears and ready to head home because I felt so out of place. But then my cousin Mary called me to see when I’d be coming “home” to County Galway, and suddenly, I felt not so alone and more than a little spoiled that I would let myself get into this low state when I was staying in a castle in very princess-y accommodations. Never mind I didn’t have a second home (or even a first one) and hadn’t been a major donor to a presidential campaign.

 

That week at Kinnitty was grand. Hugo Hamilton’s writing workshops changed the way I led my own, I realized that despite the size of their stock portfolios the people in this group really were just people, and I made a few friends. The owner of the castle chatted with us one night in the dungeon pub about the various ghosts in residence, and he seemed a little too pleased that a ghost hunting show had come to the castle to film paranormal activity. Later though, talking to two different members of the wait staff, the tales of haunting seemed more legitimate. One server said she refused to go in the banquet hall alone and reported that someone down in the Dungeon Pub had seen a hooded monk there. It felt like the perfect setting for a murder mystery like Ten Little Indians, where one by one, various guests are picked off.

 

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Kinnitty Castle, 2005

With Kinnitty as my only Irish castle experience, I’m not sure what to prepare myself for when Z and I pull off the N59 in Clifden looking for Abbeyglen Castle Hotel where we’ll be spending the night. As we wind our way up the drive and spill into an overflow parking lot, the buildling is impressive enough there on the hillside overlooking the little town and the estuary that eventually spills into the Atlantic. It’s more Victorian than I’d imagined, and with its helipad and tennis courts it seems more like a stately home. It’s too early to check-in, but when we enter the lobby it’s clear that it is more 19th century than actual archers-in-the-turrets castle like we were clambering around in Wales. Though it is much bigger, it gives me a sense of Fawlty Towers at first glance, perhaps because there is a parrot near the reception desk that says, “Goodbye” whenever guests walk past.

 

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Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, complete with throne to greet you and a piece of our luggage.

 

Mary has recommended the castle restaurant for our evening meal where, it seems, you eat what is being served for the night instead of ordering from a menu. I am a picky eater with the palate of a four-year-old and the delicate stomach of an octogenarian, so after we walk back into town to kill time, we phone the front desk multiple times to see what will be on the evening’s menu so we’ll know if we need to make alternate plans. Every time we call, we’re told to call back later because the chef hasn’t decided yet what he’s serving. On the last call, the receptionist says brightly, “Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be lovely. It always is!” We decide that a better plan for us might be to have an in-room picnic, so we walk to the nearest Clifden Gas-n-Sip and piece together the makings of a meal, and then head back to check in. Later, when we finally get the final word on the menu, it was the correct choice (for me anyhow–I am not a duck confit kind of person).

 

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Abbeyglen Castle grounds looking towards Clifden

Our room is massive with a canopy bed, a fireplace, wing-back chairs, and a bathroom that our living room in Seattle would easily fit into, complete with a claw-foot tub where I spend an hour soaking and pretending my lady-in-waiting will be ushering me into a velvet robe when I get out.

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The bed I’ve been looking for my entire life.

We watch rugby in our room, sitting in the worn wingback chairs by the fireplace, our feet propped on the single bed that randomly juts into the sitting area, and nosh on our meal. Z says, “This place is an interesting combination of ‘posh’ and ‘worn’, isn’t it?” It is. But I feel strangely pleased by this combination and by our dining choices. It is comfortable, and I don’t feel haunted or homesick at all. Also, there is supposedly a tie in our family lineage to Eleanor of Aquitane, so that canopy bed is feeling like my divine right even if we are in Ireland instead of England or France.

 

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Abbeyglen Castle room with bonus single bed.

What does make me homesick, however, is the lack of room wi-fi. After dinner, we head to the lobby to check our mail. Though I know it is “ugly American” behavior, I feel indignant that I should be staying in castle where the website boasts fine amenities, but then I have to sit in the lobby with all the other guests glued to their screens. I grumble. It feels like an airport, as if we’re killing time on Facebook before our planes take off to their disparate destinations. That said, I am wearing my glorious green cape, which makes it feel slightly more glamorous than the all Internet Call Shops I used to have to frequent on my Irish trips.

 

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My kingdom for a hotspot.

We leave early the next morning for the teeny town of Cleggan and the ferry that will take us to Inisbofin, an island hanging off the western coast and a favorite spot of mine since I went there ages ago with another group of writers and poets Mickey Gorman and Gerry Donovan. Because we’re so early and the ferry doesn’t leave for a couple of hours, we wander into a pub next to the field where we’ve been directed to park, ask if they mind if we sit with our luggage, which still seems too huge despite John and Mary having reduced our load by half. We sip early-morning-appropriate beverages, eat crisps—the only food on offer at this time, write postcards, and wander outdoors to introduce ourselves to the neighbor donkey. While I sit there, I think about my fantasy of living in a small village and how idyllic it would be, but then simultaneously realize how much I’d feel like I was in a goldfish bowl with everybody down the pub knowing your business. There’s no pleasing me.

 

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Cleggan welcoming committee.

Finally, we roll our bags down to the dock to catch the ferry. A decade ago when my mother and I made this same trip, we stood at the back of the small boat like a pair of lunatics, getting soaked from the waves that splashed us, and cackling with glee as the boat heaved and ho’d through the icy Atlantic. I’ve been telling Z that the ride will be rough, but when we arrive at the dock, the boat is much larger than last time and it turns out we’ve had rougher rides on the sedate Washington State Ferry System than we will on this one.

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ShellE, regular stowaway on all my journeys, enjoys the Inishbofin ferry.

We opt to sit out front and look at the mountains, the craggy cliff faces, and eventually as we nose our way into the island’s harbor, Cromwell’s barracks from the 16th century, where supposedly Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen, once lived. (Grace O’Malley seems to have lived a great many places in the west of Ireland!)

 

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I prefer thinking of this as Grace O’Malley’s castle instead of Cromwell’s barracks, but suspect there is more historical accuracy in the latter.

 

On my other two trips here, I’ve stayed at the Doonmore Hotel, high up on the hill, partly because it was the only hotel on the island. On one of the rainy, gloomy days Mom and I were there, the power was cut while repairs were made to the cable that brings the electricity to the island, a relatively recent development: the island wasn’t electrified until the 1980s. So Mom and I poked our noses into the hotel lounge to see if it was a place where we could pass some time, and as luck would have it, the owner, Mrs. Murray, was there. She ushered us in, commanded someone to bring a pot of tea and biscuits, and we settled in for the rest of the afternoon, getting to know her and learning about the island hotel life. It was one of those delightfully happy accidents that happens to me only in Ireland. Because of this fond memory, I can’t say what made me book our room at the newer, closer-to-the-docks, Inishbofin House Hotel, but I did. Nearly as soon as we arrive there, who do I spy but my cousin Brendan (Catherine’s brother), who has been working at the hotel for the summer. Another happy accident I wouldn’t have had the benefit of if I’d been true to the Doonmore.

 

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Inishbofin, heather and sheep/rocks.

 

Our room has a view of the harbor, and it’s glorious out. Possibly the most beautiful day I’ve ever seen on all of my visits, and therefore I cannot explain what compels me to leave my camera back at the hotel when we venture out. I have no photographic evidence of how sunlight hits every surface in a perfect, magical way, and scenery looks like it was fabricated by a Hollywood prop department. But it’s true. Everything sparkles and shines.

 

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Inishbofin, view from our room.

I grew up with access to the country—spent summers frolicking in the cow pasture at my grandparents’ farm, played with kittens in the hay mow at my aunt’s farm—but until I am on Inishbofin, it is a quality of freedom that I forget ever having had. (Possibly, because there are no parental units here warning us off of a particular walk or activity, it is actually more free than those childhood rambles.) If you asked me what there is to do on the island, I would be honest and tell you the truth as I see it: absolutely nothing. And it is glorious.

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Inishbofin

There are cars on the island, but they aren’t really a worry and the drivers seem to know that tourists will be gawping in the middle of the road. (Plus, Irish drivers are at least 80% more careful and polite than in the US, even on the mainland.)

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The narrow roads of Inishbofin.

So we walk. We talk to cows. We watch sheep scuttling across a distant hillside as a dog nips at their heals. We stop at an old cemetery and marvel at the Celtic cross gravestones marking the resting places of centuries of island dead. When we get to the water I’m shocked by how the best descriptor for its color is sapphire. It’s windy and too cold to comfortably wade, so we find shelter next to a tall rock, eat a packet of crisps, and try to soak up all the beauty. We’re on island time and the ocean air relaxes us better than any drug could. We eat supper in the hotel restaurant and sleep well.

 

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On the island, we sleep like babies, but fortunately not like this one, found lashed to a post on one of our rambles.

The next day I’m determined to see the seal colony on the other side of the island. On the last two trips here it has been a failed goal due to weather or lethargy, so Z and I pack our lunch, grab the map that has little on it other than three trails we can take. I pick the one with “seal colony” written along the far coast and we start walking. On the way, we pass the public school, where the children have painted murals depicting the history of Inishbofin, including the 1927 Cleggan fishing disaster that is mentioned in all of the island literature because it was so devastating, the island getting electricity, and a mysterious panel from the 1960s called “The Cocoa Years” that leaves me hankering for a café and an explanation, neither of which is forthcoming.

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The Cocoa Years predated the Electricity Years. Which would you pick?

The ground on our walk is uneven, rocky most places and then surprisingly spongy when we reach the bog—from which turf is cut to heat island homes. There in dark peat someone has spelled out with small rocks, “Aisling, will you marry me?” and someone, one hopes not Aisling, has spelled out beneath it a rocky “NO.”

 

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Maybe next time DON’T propose in the bog?

We reach the seal colony, and there they are, waiting on us, bobbing up in greeting. I peer west and pretend to see America. We settle down on a rock, ready to tuck into our picnic when the midges start biting. We move. They follow. We move again. There’s no getting away from them unless we keep moving, so we have a walking picnic instead, munching and traipsing across the hillside. It’s not part of my magical dream and we’ve walked about six miles so I had been looking forward to sitting down for a while, but I can, on occasion, still tap into my inner Girl Scout and adapt to changes of plan.

 

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Amerikay is out there somewhere.

The place is covered in sheep and thus, sheep crap, but it is my idea of heaven. We run into very few people, so the walk is desolate (other than the sheep). I spin in circles with my arms outstretched, Julie Andrews style, and sing the first few bars of “The Hills are Alive” and Z just shakes his head.

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Steep hill, sheep crap, midges–yet I couldn’t be happier here.

I love being out here with no place to be, no one pushing us along to the next tourist site, no sense that I should be dong something better with my time. In the front of my journal, I have written “You are here; this is now.” It’s meant to remind me not to live in the future or the past, but I daily fail to live up to this goal and distract myself from the present with some memory or plan. Even if we are at a beach somewhere lovely, I often find that I’m troubled because I feel if I close my eyes for a nap or pick up a book to read, that I am somehow not fully taking in the moment. But on this day, hiking around these sheepy hills? This day, I reach my goal.

 

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Inishbofin.

 

As we walk along the edge of the island, we can see the derelict buildings on Inishark in the distance, an island that is no longer inhabited. We hear the water crash against the rocks below us. A colony of big rabbits has threatened to take over the island, and I’m happy to see so many of them only because I’m not an islander and don’t have to deal with the havoc they are wreaking.

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A Bofin Bunny.

As we make our way back towards civilization, we pass the Doonmore and I say hello to it and think good thoughts about Mrs. Murray. By the time we make our way back to the hotel, we’ve hiked twelve miles and we’re both in need of Advil, but this day will be one of my favorite memories of this entire trip. In the evening, a traditional céilidh band is playing, and I nudge Z away from the room and towards the music for what to me is the cherry on the top of a perfect day.

 

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Inishbofin cottage

Before we arrived, I assumed I could comfortably make this my last trip to Inishbofin in lieu of future trips to other islands I’ve never investigated, but after today, I’m not sure I’ll ever be done with this outpost. And what I don’t know yet but learn the next day when we leave the island is that Mrs. Murray has just died and as we are sailing back to the mainland tomorrow, her body will be returning to the island one last time. This is no “happy” accident, but even so, I feel weirdly lucky to have been on Inishbofin, thinking of that afternoon tea with her eleven years ago, when her own island story was ending. It’s a melancholy thing, but it warms me.

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The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VI: A Little Irish Anxiety

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Before Z, there were other loves. Z and I do not speak their names because he is a jealous husband in the best kind of way, and though I am perhaps more curious, he knows at heart that I am wickedly jealous myself. He is a Scorpio (“jealous” being one of the main descriptors in your better astrology books) and I have a Scorpio Rising and a Scorpio Moon (“double jealous,” I guess), so it is an arrangement—burying our heads ostrich-style to the pre- Beth & Z past—that works well for us. It probably works best for me because Z does not write personal essays or keep a blog where he occasionally feels an urge to mention some former object of his affection. He is also not confessional by nature, whereas I, well…you’ve read me. I might not tell you all my details over lunch, but somewhere, they are being typed into an essay or post.

 

There is one photo of him going to a formal dance in high school with, he tells me, “a family friend”, and I’ll admit it, I hate that girl whenever I see that photo. She’s probably a lovely person and could now, easily be my daughter, but I can’t help myself. (Frankly, when he tells the story about the six-year-old twins who used to fight over who got to carry his school bag when he was in first grade, I don’t much like them either.) So I’m not really sure how Z handles it when I accidentally mention an apartment in Chicago I used to frequent in my twenties where my art-student boyfriend lived or how Z felt the night we watched a documentary about the famous-ish brother of my high school boyfriend, and there, in the middle of the show, said boyfriend appears looking uncomfortable in front of the camera, staring through dark sunglasses right into our living room.

 

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat's Lido Deck.

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat’s Lido Deck.

But this is all old news. Z and I are all about being in the present moment, and the present moment has Ireland on the horizon. As Z and I board the ferry in Holyhead and the horn sounds as our three-and-a-half-hour journey across the Irish Sea commences, I have butterflies in my stomach. My palms are sweaty. I get ratty with Z while we try to find the Club Class area that we paid extra for so we’d have free wi-fi and complimentary snacks. Z looks at me bewildered. We’ve had a lovely trip so far in England and Wales with none of the tiffs or dramas other couples might expect, and we’re about to start the last two-week leg of it—the part certain to be the best from my Irish-American perspective—and I’ve turned into a shrew. I bark at him as he (ineptly, I think) reads the ship map to try to locate this Brigadoon of spaces on the ferry, a place no elevator nor staircase seems to want to take us. I stomp around. Roll my eyes. Huff. We can’t get to Ireland fast enough and somehow it seems he is impeding our progress, even though he is not piloting the ferry. In the end, his “inept” reading is correct and he ushers me into the quiet, sparsely populated club room, and we settle into a comfy booth at the front where a vast bank of windows gives the impression that we are at the world’s best drive-in movie. I take a few deep breaths. It doesn’t take long into our three-and-a-half hour journey before a grey silhouette of Ireland comes into view. My eyes fill.

 

I met Ireland for the first time when I was 32. My college friend, Anaïs, and I booked a week there without knowing much about it other than we both had some vague family ties there, both listened to U2 and Sinéad O’Connor, and had read Ulysses together in a college Modernism class, taught by a bore of professor who refused to let us read any female writers because he didn’t believe any women had written anything worthy of being studied. We also both liked the idea of Guinness. At the time, I’d recently begun writing letters to my paternal grandfather’s first cousins in County Galway who farmed the land where my great grandmother grew up, and the only real itinerary Anaïs and I had, other than a vague plan to go to Dublin and Belfast–the only names on the map we really knew–was to get ourselves to Galway to meet my kin.

 

I don’t know when I fell in love with the place exactly—whether it was love at first sight or if it took a couple of days, the whole week. Nor do I remember the catalyst: did the light hit it just right when we were riding on a bumpy bus through Connemara or was it the smell of my first peat fire or the sound of the voices? Regardless, I fell deeply, madly in love with the place. I’d spent the whole of my adult life thinking what was missing was the perfect boyfriend or an acclaimed writing career, but what had actually been missing was an entire country where for whatever reason, I felt most myself. On that first visit, I stood in the ivy-covered quadrangle at the national university in Galway and vowed that I’d take classes there, and two years later, I did: studying Irish poetry, scribbling  some halting poems of my own, but mostly, loving Ireland up. Two years after that, I brought my half-brother over to celebrate his 21st birthday, then my mother, then I attended a writing workshop at a haunted castle, a spring break with my friend Belle, and so on.

 

I was hooked, body and soul. I studied the history, read the literature, taught classes on it, carried Edna O’Brien’s suitcase through the Denver airport after an Irish-themed writing festival in Aspen and thought—all the while trying to make clever conversation with her—“this suitcase is going to Ireland”(only it wasn’t: Edna O’Brien lives in London). The only way I could talk about Ireland was with the over-exuberant language of the infatuated, which shamed me because it made me seem like just another American with an idea of Ireland in her mind (leprechauns and rainbows and Aran knit sweaters) who could just as easily be talking about any vacation destination. Like a teenager whose parents believe she just has a crush, I wanted to stamp my foot and shout, but you don’t understand—this is real! Even so, if I heard a commercial for the Irish tourism board come on, I stopped what I was doing and stared at the television, haunted that it was playing “our” song by the Cranberries. I listened to heart-wrenching Celtic music and wept for no real reason. I refused to wear any perfume but the sweet Irish lavender I special ordered, and every day when I dabbed it on, I’d be transported to what felt like the life I should have been living.

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Irish Ferries ferry

As Z and I watch Ireland get closer—stuffing our faces full of free fruit, muffins, and Jacobson’s crackers—I am conflicted. On the one hand, I cannot wait to be reunited with my beloved. On the other, Z is my beloved now, and I am afraid he will not share my affection, will not like the idea of Ireland as a sort of sister-wife in our marriage, afraid he will point out all the ways it is sub-par (the showers are almost always more complicated than they need to be for starters), afraid he’ll see me differently after meeting the place: who is this woman with the irrational obsession with a somewhat grey and rainy landscape?

 

And also, my last tryst with Ireland was not my best. Six months before Z and I got married, I spent a summer residency for my MFA program in Dingle. I was without my normal klatch of friends and with, instead, a group of people I didn’t know. I’d just said goodbye to Z for the entire summer, and I was so homesick for him that every morning in the half-light before workshops started, I’d walk half a mile to a phone box to call him in Zimbabwe for a few minutes just to help me get through the day. Furthermore, though I kept it to myself, I was having issues with shortness of breath and vague chest pains that I now know from a slightly disgruntled nurse were not “mini heart attacks” but panic attacks about the impending nuptials and move across country. In other words, I was not fully present for Ireland, and Ireland knew it. After the residency, I met my cousin and her daughter at the Shannon Airport to introduce them to the country I loved, but something was off. None of us were as bouncy and excited as I imagined we’d be, swilling Guinness at trad sessions, traipsing through monastery ruins, standing over the bones of our great great grandpeople. We were glad to be together, but we all had our own internal wars being waged though on the surface, all was well.

 

I was relieved to get back to America after that last trip, and I don’t even remember saying a proper goodbye to Ireland or any promises to return soon. The best I can compare it to is a romance that you know is faltering and you aren’t sure if it is worth fighting for or if it should just become a shoebox full of memories. Maybe my time with Ireland was over. Maybe my head had been turned too much by Z, by the mystery of Zimbabwe that was now on my radar.

Dublin from the Irish Sea

Dublin from the Irish Sea

As Dublin gets closer, Z squints and says, “But where are all the buildings?” A week ago, we were in London with a skyline so bizarre and full of both tall buildings and cranes making more tall buildings, that Dublin’s low-to-the-ground profile must be a surprise to him, and I feel instantly defensive of it, but also disappointed that it is disappointing him before we’ve even landed. The only thing we can really see are the twin smokestacks of the Poolbeg power station, but already my brain is seeing the Liffey as it moves through the docklands and goes under O’Connell Street, the country as it stretches west towards the place that is always my destination: Connemara. My gut clenches. If Z is disappointed before we’ve gotten off the ferry, how is he going to feel about the rural bits I love where there is nothing much but sheep, rocks, a pub, and the random “Up Galway” banner? I send a sort of prayer across the remaining expanse of water directly to Ireland: Please be good to Z, I implore. I need for him to love you a little. For me, that is what is on the line here: if we have a bad time, if Z does not take a fancy to Ireland, this could conceivably be my last trip to a place that has felt like my heart’s home for nearly twenty years.

 

When the ferry docks, it takes forever for us to be let us off the ship, and the anticipation and anxiety builds. Finally, we work our way through customs, as usual, a process that is quicker for me with my U.S. passport than it is for Z with his Zimbabwean one but even so, within fifteen minutes we’ve gotten our passports stamped, our luggage collected, and a taxi hailed. I sit forward and peer out the window, like some kind of over-eager Labrador retriever. As the cab moves through the docklands, I look for the spot where ten years ago Mom and I walked in the dark of the night with a Swedish woman we’d just met to U2’s recording studio; this unlikely trio of groupies stood outside until nearly midnight, hoping to get a look at the band. We heard them recording songs for the next album, saw Bono’s wife drop someone off (not Bono), and caught a glimpse of the top of Edge’s knit cap when he stuck his hat out the door, but that was the extent of that night’s adventure. Now, the docklands look quite different. They seem more vertical than the last time I was here, less tatty. As we move into the city center, I have to ask the cabbie the name of the two new bridges that are crossing the Liffey: one, the Samuel Beckett Bridge, which is lovely in that it looks like a harp but strikes me as something a little too Irish for Beckett himself to approve of, and the Rosie Hackett Bridge, which is named for the founder of the Irish Women Workers Union and which pleases me more even though the bridge itself is no work of art. Z peers out the window; it’s all new to him.

 

I ask the cabbie, “What else has changed in Dublin in the last six years?” (How can six years have passed since I was here?). He sighs at the traffic jam we’re tangled in because the semi-final for the Gaelic football game just ended in a draw—fans pour into the street, most wearing Dublin’s light blue, but a few in the red and green jerseys of Mayo, both sides celebrating, sure their team will win the re-match in a week—and he chuckles, “Nothing much.” The Angelus bells start to play on the radio, which he turns up and we sit quietly there in traffic, penitently waiting as each bell strikes, despite the cacophony outside the cab as the revelers revel. After the last bell chimes, he turns the radio back down and explains that he’s going a roundabout way to our hotel to try to get through the crowd, and it pleases me that I am familiar enough with this little hunk of the city to know he’s not padding the fair and is getting us there as best he can.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Our hotel sits on Bachelor’s Row, just across from the River Liffey, and the city tugs at me before we’ve ever checked into our hotel. In the mere day and a half we have in Dublin, I’ll drag Z to my favorite spots—touristy, all, but I will be an unapologetic guide. I march him up to the General Post Office (GPO) and force him to admire the bullet holes still in the façade from the 1916 Easter Uprising that—in an overly simplified blog-sized history lesson—was the beginning of the Irish Republic. (Think July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, only with gunfire and men shortly to become martyrs for the cause of independence.) I never come to Dublin without buying stamps here, even though there’s now a machine outside built into the building façade where you can make your purchases. I like being inside, imagine the noise and the barricades and the smoke and people willing to die for a little freedom.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

From there, we head to Trinity College, another of my regular pilgrimages. The campus is beautiful—a walled respite in the heart of the city—but the real reason I’m there is to see the 800 A.D. illustrated gospels depicted in the Book of Kells on display there. Every day, a page is turned, so though I’ve seen the scrolled letters and intricate knotwork that decorate it six or so times, I’m always seeing something different. What is always the same, however, is the disorganized crowd of people around it, all jockeying for a prime spot right in front of it. It’s a frustrating labor of love when it’s just me, but because Z is here, I want to push people out of the way so he can have a few precious minutes admiring the craftsmanship. Finally we, push our way into position and refuse to give up ground until we’re satisfied that we’ve properly admired it.

 

My annoyance with tourists around me (always “they” are tourists, whereas I see myself as having some divine right to be there) disappears as we climb the stairs that spill us out into the Long Room of the Old Library. It smells of books and knowledge and mysteries unsolved. Though it takes my breath away, I normally walk through it quickly after a few cursory photos that simply cannot capture the vastness or atmosphere of the place because I am gift-shop bound. But on this trip, Z and I are not in the market for trinkets, so we linger over each case, read the placards hanging up for the display about myth and folk tale through the ages. We sit on a bench and soak it all in, and it is, no contest, my best ever visit to this library because I am just there and not anticipating our next move or the Book of Kells tea towels and key rings calling out to be purchased downstairs.

The Long Hall

The Long Hall

We do the other things you do when in Dublin: we wander down Grafton Street, which is a shopping area where buskers are often attracting attention with their songs or puppet shows; we try to pick our favorite of the distinctive Georgian doors on the townhouses that surround St. Stephen’s Green; we meander through both St. Stephen’s Green and Iveagh Gardens in the rain, exclaiming about the beauty, the dampness, the half-breed Scottish terrier that defies description in that it is equal parts cute and hideous.  In Iveagh Gardens, we traipse around a hedge maze, though the hedges have not yet grown much higher than our knees, and we are perplexed when we get to the center and find a sundial, which seems a useless thing to have in a shady park in a climate that tends toward cloud. We search for an ATM that isn’t opposed to Z’s bank card to no avail, and then briefly wonder what the rest of our trip might look like without cash in hand. I convince him—as I have convinced others—that’s there’s really no need to go to the Guinness Storehouse because it’s gotten too chic and sophisticated since my first visit, when it still felt kitschy. We eat Mexican, Italian, and a full Irish breakfast. We saunter around the Liffey, stand at the peak of Ha’penny Bridge and watch the night lights dance on the water.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Both nights there, I drag Z through Temple Bar looking for the Ireland v. Zimbabwe rugby poster I had seen in a pub there in 2003 that felt cosmically placed specifically so I’d remain focused on him despite the fact that my confession of love had fallen on his somewhat clogged ears just a month before. I had visions of taking a photo of 2015 Z standing next to the poster as a sort of triumphant conclusion to my earlier, more forlorn and very single trip, but alas, the poster is nowhere to be found lo these twelve years later, and though the most likely reasons are the pub in question has redecorated or I had taken too much drink the night I saw it because it was my half brother’s 21st birthday and only ever imagined it, I’m convinced it was one of those weird synchronicities that only Ireland delivers where you see the thing or meet the person or hear the bit of information that you most need at that very moment. And certainly that poster and a few other of these mystical occurrences on that 2003 trip kept me hot on Z’s trail even though he’d tried to gently put the kibosh on my love.

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

I regret that we have budgeted only two nights in Dublin. Though Z has professed to like Ireland, I hear an unsaid “so far” in his voice that worries me. As me make our way to Heuston Station with our mountain of luggage so we can head to the western edge of this country I love, I begin to worry again. What if after Dublin, the rest of Ireland will pale in comparison? What if he doesn’t fall in love with Galway’s twisted streets and Spanish Arch and raging Corrib River? What if he sees Connemara as a rocky sort of wasteland? What if he doesn’t like my cousins? What if, what if, what if…?

 

Like the ferry ride two days before, as the train lumbers through the Midlands towards Galway, my anticipation of arriving in my favorite bit of Ireland begins to override my fear that Z will not fall in love. My throat constricts as soon as we are out of the city and the countryside and villages speed past the window. As the fences surrounding the rolling pastures begin to change from wire to stone, as the sheep become more plentiful, as the train stops are names more familiar to me: Ballinasloe, Attymon, Athenry, it seems likely that I will come unhinged with excitement. I will never understand why Ireland affects me this way, and still does after all of these years, but I am glad for it. I want Z to love this place as much as I do, but as we pull alongside the estuary that spills into Galway Bay, I begin to believe that even if he hates it—and why would he anyhow?—my ardor hasn’t dampened. It is still mine and I can love it enough for the pair of us.

Iveagh Gardens

Iveagh Gardens

 

 

 

 

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.