One of my favorite memories of childhood is when I would get to go swimming with my Great Aunt Clara in the little oval-shaped in-ground pool behind her in-laws ranch house in a respectable-but-not-rich subdivision in Richmond. Her husband’s family was from Kentucky, her father-in-law had worked in a coal mine and had lung problems because of it, and their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren were often there, eating ham and beans or fried chicken, talking about history and politics and current events, and swimming. I learned to swim in that pool, and members of this family—a family that felt like my own but wasn’t quite—stood around the water-soaked cement deck and cheered me on as I swam the length of the pool, a real rite of passage if you wanted the privilege of going into the deep end.
Aunt Clara always wore a navy one-piece suit, nose-clips, and a swim cap festooned with flowers. She liked swimming, but more often than not, you’d see her on one of the plaid floating air mattresses, dangling a hand in the water. She’d order me to push her around, into or out of the sun, and after a particularly restful float, she’d sigh and say, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight.” Then she’d pinch the clips onto her nose and roll off the raft and into the water to cool herself.
Aunt Clara wasn’t being snobby—it wasn’t her pool—she was playing a caricature: Eva Gabor in “Green Acres” or one of the Beverly Hillbillies’ snooty neighbors. When she said it, you could imagine a cigarette in a long gold holder and a gloved hand dripping with diamond bracelets.
We’d laugh but we also knew that this was our own stroke of good fortune that we were able—just for that moment—to pretend we were the sorts of people who had their own pool. People who could walk through a sliding door into a backyard of some manse—probably surrounded by palm trees and drenched in California sun instead of maples and a cloudy Indiana sky—into their own massive pool. This borrowed pool and the kindness of others is also why I was able to learn to swim.
Usually after a day at the pool Mom and I would go back to Aunt Clara and Uncle Clay’s, where the air conditioner would be roaring. I would inevitably have a sunburn—it was in the days before we fussed with sunscreen—and she’d put my favorite striped percale sheet on her blue sofa and I would stretch out on it, the coolness of the material a balm, and I’d fall into a deep and delicious sleep. Come to think of it, it is the quality of these post-swim naps at her house that I still chase after and never quite find all these years later.
I’m not sure why I’m telling you this except I got a sunburn on the roof deck last weekend, and it’s made me think about the nature of that nap, the softness of that sheet, the coolness of the air, and that sense you really only get in childhood when some adult person has a salve or a treat that is exactly what you need.
This last weekend, Z and I finally lifted our post-vaccine-self-imposed isolation and had friends over on three different days. Our first guests at Oh La La! We headed to the 18th floor roof deck where we scored our favorite table, spread out a table cloth, and then piled a picnic feast Z had put together onto the table. The views were stunning—sky so clear we could even see Mt. Baker in the distance—and I kept wondering how it was that this time last year we were in our 1920s apartment with the ancient, stained linoleum, peering out of windows that hadn’t been recently washed, and now suddenly we’re on top of the world. It was very much an Aunt Clara sort of day even without a pool, though we had the good taste not to ask each other, I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight? We’re still not sure how we got so lucky to be in this space, but we’re enjoying it while it’s ours. And though there are things I loved about the old apartment, we ran into our cheerful and talented former maintenance man who said he’d had a recent report of rats in the old building, so maybe it’s just as well we had to move. Before the rats arrived.
I don’t know if this is scientific or not, but I suspect you burn more easily when you are 18 stories closer to the sun. Z thinks my science is off—does anyone know? Surely the red cheeks of those K-2 and Everest hikers aren’t just because of the cold. Regardless, I might need to invest in a parasol. As it stands, I now have a leather chest and arm that I may never be able to moisturize back to middle-age.
A midsummer interlude of happenings:
The crane by the lakefront that threatened to build a building that would block our view has been dismantled and the new building is low to the ground and I can still see the sailboats and float planes landing on Lake Union. All the winter worry was wasted energy.
We’ve finally ventured into an Amazon Go and discovered the joy of shoplifting. Funds are automatically deducted from my account when we put them in our bag, so there’s no need to check out. Our record so far for a snack fix was 58 seconds in the store. Sadly, it will take much longer to work those purchased Cheetos off my hips.
Angus the Robovac has finally been given free rein in the apartment without my constant clucking and correcting. He’s a good boy. (I need a dog.)
Speaking of which, there is a new baby French bulldog puppy in the building who wears a pink sweater and snorts like a pig. She’s DELIGHTFUL.
A film crew was using the historic Stimson-Green mansion as a location a couple of weeks ago and the street was blocked off and big trailers were pulled in and there was all sorts of hubbub. I later found out that it was for season two of “Three Busy Debras” which is on Adult Swim and a former student of mine is one of the producers, so that was exciting.
We’ve been trying to learn to communicate with our cooling system. It seems to come on at random times whether we need the cool air or not, and we may have to bring in an interpreter from the UN. But even in its most badly behaving times, I keep rejoicing with the knowledge that when it does get hot for those five days or when the forest fires in California wreck our air quality later in the summer, we’ll be able to breathe. Woo hoo.
My TikTok addiction is still raging. Z says he never knows what’s going to come out of my mouth. The other day, I said, “This Irish witch I follow said, ….” I’m learning all sorts of things about van life, dancing, fashion for the mid-life set, Celtic witchery, Quakerism, mandala painting, body acceptance, and all the reasons I likely have ADHD.
Z and I are finished with classes for a while and are contemplating a road trip. I’ll keep you posted if we happen upon the World’s Biggest Ball of String.
This whole post-vaccine situation still seems foreign, doesn’t it? Suddenly people here at Oh La La are holding the door open or smiling or letting you pet their dogs. We aren’t crossing the street to avoid every human we pass on our evening walks, and even though it makes me feel like I left the apartment without my pants on, I’m walking in the evenings without a mask. What a weird time. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think it was that one day we would wake up and the virus would be gone and there’d be bells peeling and rejoicing and ticker tape in the streets like at the end of World War II or something, but of course it won’t be that way. Of course it’s going to be slow and odd and our brains are going to have to adjust.
Obviously, everybody’s pandemic experience has been different, based on where you live, if you know someone who was ill, if you lost someone you cared about, or if you were adjusting to life in Montecito away from Buckingham Palace. But I am curious about the choices that people will make about their lives and how they will live them going into the future. Who will decide to change nothing? Who will change their lives completely? Quit doing a job they hate? Leave particular relationships behind? Quit trying to buy happiness? Turn over some new leaf? After the last pandemic of this magnitude, we had the Roaring Twenties—women went wild, ditching their corsets and doing the Charleston, demanding the vote. Jazz took off. American literature and fashion design, interior design, and architecture—all of that changed significantly. Despite Prohibition there was an excess of drinking, an excess of everything.
There are going to be some interesting stories that people will tell about how their lives changed because of the pandemic. I look forward to hearing them, to reading them, and maybe to living my own. I can’t quite narrow down how things have changed in my own head, though I know they have. I’m writing more. I’m reading more. I’m busier during the day in a good way. I want to keep that going. But also I hope that we will all be recognizing more of those individual moments—a dip in a borrowed pool, a nap on the perfect sheet, a conversation with friends and loved ones that involves a lot of laughter—where we count ourselves rich.
Despite the pandemic and despite the fact that Z and I just became bona fide re: being released back into society post vaccine, we so far have been living exactly as we were pre-vaccine. And now that we’ve hit the three-week mark we’ve stopped worrying that every headache is a telltale sign of some Johnson & Johnson vaccine shenanigans. So far, so good.
So what I’ve done to prepare for a future wherein I might actually be around other people is wear my “real” shoes on a walk (and by “real” I mean “Danskos” so don’t go picturing Jimmy Choo anything) and my reward was that in the middle of the night I had a muscle cramp in my ankle. Which is a new thing I didn’t know could happen and was clueless about how to get it to stop.
Because my hair was starting to look more and more like the witches at the beginning of MacBeth, Z and I cut it. It’s now an imperfect bob, but I don’t care. In eleven years I’ve never bothered to find a hair stylist here because I prefer getting my hair done in Richmond when I go home. I would fly to the moon to get my hair done with my person, the aptly named Joy, if it meant I didn’t have to make small talk with a stranger. I’ve been going to her since I was 22 and have no intention of stopping now. Until I feel safe climbing on a plane and getting to Richmond, you’ll have to excuse the straggly ends and the grey strands that apparently Joy’s been covering for awhile without telling me.
At the moment, I’m in the process of purging all non-natural fibers from my wardrobe. I realized one of the reasons I’ve been so comfortable for the last 400 days is because I have not worn anything with structure, have not worn anything that does not grow naturally on the planet, and have not had a zipper anywhere near my person. Eventually, I will transition back into what my friend calls “hard pants” so long as they are cotton, silk, or linen (really just cotton—I’m not that fancy), but today is not that day.
Also, because I hang on to clothes forever, I’m looking carefully at the pieces I’ve been wearing for 20 years or so and considering that probably these are the pieces I’m happiest in and should just keep enjoying them or find replacements. Steve Jobs had his black turtle necks—why can’t I have a signature style?
I’m looking at you black hoodie from L.L Bean circa 1994. You’ve been with me through both good and bad times, have been on three continents with me, and you’ve held up well. Thank you.
My next move is to figure out what three or four make-up essentials I’m unwilling to give up and then just refuse to be lured into any more “this will make you look magical” ad campaigns. No Snake Oil for Me in the Post Pandemic, thank you. From this point on, I’m probably going to look my age. I had a good run for a lot of years—a benefit of having extra adipose tissue, hating the sun, and not having children and thus avoiding worry lines. But eventually age catches up with us all unless we go to extreme measures, and I’m just not extreme. I am going to have jowls and dark circles and bags under my eyes. Used to, I would never go anywhere without make-up and my belief that it hid all of my flaws. At the very least, I’ve always been an eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara girl. But can we just admit that mascara is a pain—it’s messy and if it’s not messy you have to rub chemicals on your eyes at the end of the day to get it off. Also, it has never made me look like I have more than 23 eyelashes despite the promises so why bother. I don’t have the upper eyelid situation I used to have, so why keep powdering them with color only to have the color disappear into the recesses of my face folds? (I will cling to my eyeliner, but it is on short notice.) I have always looked ridiculous in lipstick and so I’m just going to own that now and slather my lips with Chicken Poop (really, it sounds gross, but it’s good lip balm) and be done with it.
Basically, I think I’ll just spend the rest of my life pretending that I’m walking around under Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility and it’s going to free up a load of drawer and closet space.
I didn’t mean to be talking about this. Sorry. I’ve distracted myself because of two badly timed advertisements on social media. Instead, I meant to tell you about the houseguest we had for the last two weeks: Our first houseguest at Oh La La.
My cousin’s second grader sent his buddy Flat Stanley to stay with us to be shown around Seattle. About eight years ago we did the same for two other family members, but back then we weren’t sequestered on First Hill, and so we got the expected photos of Flat Stanley at all the tourist spots: on a ferry, at the base of the Space Needle, walking around Pioneer Square, shopping at Pike Market, sauntering along the beach on West Seattle, etc.
This time we were limited. Flat Stanley spent a lot of time on our roof deck looking longingly off into the distance at all of the things we would have shown him if only we weren’t on the short leash or had a car or hazmat suits. (Covid-wise, Seattle is in the Red Zone again and the governor is likely going to move us back to Phase 2.) One day we did venture across the Rubicon that is the Pike-Pine Corridor because I was sure we’d find a decent view of the Space Needle from there without actually going downtown. Like last month when we ventured two blocks beyond our self-imposed boundary, you’d have thought this walk to a neighborhood next to our own was tantamount to trekking to Tangier. I kind of felt like we should have been carrying our passports even though two and a half years ago I taught an afternoon class for procrastinators at the library two blocks over.
It turns out a lot of the thru-streets that used to have a vantage of the Space Needle no longer do because buildings have gone up. When we finally spied our goal, it would have been a perfect shot with the late afternoon sun highlighting the Olympic Mountains in the distance. Except a crane had been erected and kind of blotted the view in a pre-cursor to the final blotting that will take place when whatever monstrosity they are building now is completed.
I know. I know. I now live in one of those monstrosities and my building is no doubt blocking the view that someone else used to have of Lake Union or Elliot Bay. How can I complain? I’m not sure, but I can. At this rate, Frasier Crane’s condo has probably lost its view.
On our walk back home, we passed Neko Cat Café and decided that in all likelihood, that particular type of establishment was surely peculiar enough to Seattle that a bunch of second graders in Middle America would be fascinated, so we snapped some pics there where a cat napped in a hammock. This felt like a real win, like it would make up for all the other fuzzy, crap photos I’d taken of things in the distance.
I typed up the letter that will accompany Flat Stanley on return to Indiana via USPS. My brow was furrowed as I clicked away, as if I had a big presentation I had to put together for the Board of Directors at McMahon & Tate. Z seemed a little frustrated that I wasn’t letting him weigh in and that I was hyper-focused on what was only ever meant to be a Post-It amount of info about how far Seattle is from Flat Stanley’s home and what people wear here and one or two photos.
Z shook his head.
I was in it to win. Please note: there is no competition. I will not be awarded a crown and sash as Flat Stanley’s very best travel facilitator. My name will not be included in any Community Notes section of the local newspaper, and there are no cash prizes. In all likelihood, I won’t see this child until next Christmas at which time Flat Stanley will be some old assignment that is now long over, so it is unlikely that even he will come up to us, shake our hands, and tell us how much he appreciates that we tried to show his buddy the best time we could.
There’s something ugly bubbling inside of me that makes me want to do things the best—I’m not sure if I want a gold star for effort or if I am competitive and want to win, even if it is for something unwinnable. I suspect the former because when I do “win” at something I feel bad about the people I beat, but my maniacal expression while I work towards a finished goal probably looks like it’s all about the competition. You’d have to ask Z.
As for him, he was finally allowed to help me insert a variety of photos and write a sign-off to the class. We folded the letter with photos and Flat Stanley—now folded in on himself—into an envelope, put three Gwen Ifill stamps on that baby, and mailed it. I went back to my doodling and TV watching and promptly forgot the high stakes hosting tournament I’d enrolled myself in minutes before.
I’ve missed having house guests. Stanley didn’t require much of us—I didn’t even have to change sheets on the guest bed—but it was nice to have someone around. He was a very easy guest. I’m looking forward to having a three-dimensional visitor in our new space and see how it goes. I’m still fantasizing about cook-outs on the roof and game days in one of the conference rooms with the Big Table. Possibly if we do that, I will be trying to win. Or maybe I’ll just be trying to play the best game.
One development: some obsessive brain cell of mine had me Googling “cat cafes in Winchester, Indiana” and it turns out there is one there. Those second graders will NOT be impressed with our fancy, bit city notions of how we have things other parts of the country do not.
I wish there were do-overs. They’ve probably never been to a Pinball Museum.
Today is the first day my age group with co-morbidities has opened up for the Covid-19 vaccine in Washington State. Woo hoo. Finally, carrying around the bonus weight of a 12-year-old is paying off! I knew it would eventually—thank goodness I didn’t choose to spend the past year improving my diet and working out! Z and I have our names in the hopper, but we aren’t optimistic that it will happen anytime soon. I’m guessing by August 2022 maybe we’ll finally be able to get an appointment.
I’m okay with that wait because right now I’m not sure I’m ready to merge back into society. I know lots of people are thrilled at the prospect of wearing real clothes and going out to restaurants, but the thought of having to put on a bra and give up my fleece clogs (which have seen better days) and climb back into a pair of pants that zip seems equivalent to you telling me I have to learn to speak Portuguese because business will no longer be conducted in English. It’s daunting. I’ve gone feral without realizing it and am hoping someone puts together some TikToks or maybe a TEDTalk on how to return to polite society.
Some of us have been living inside this pandemic more than others. While Instagram alerts me to people who have zoomed off somewhere for Spring Break and feel they are doing their parts because they wear a mask over one ear, others of us are just sitting still, waiting for the All Clear.
When we do go out for our daily walk, we leave the house after 6 when First Hill is quieting down and we’re less likely to run into a lot of people. We stay within an 8 block radius, double-mask, and don’t linger over the chip aisle at Bartell when we pop in to pick-up prescriptions once a month (and treats to keep us in the co-morbidity category). This evening on our walk, we approached a man walking a dachshund who looked like a jovial creature, but the man wrapped the leash around his hand two extra times just as Z and I darted into the street to give them a wide Dr. Fauci sanctioned berth. As we passed, the little devil started barking with a fury and the man looked at us sheepishly and shrugged. I guess we’re all feeling kind of territorial and testy these days.
Last week, Z and I felt like we were living on the edge when we took a long walk and went further west than 9th Avenue. How far did we walk, you ask , that it made us feel so reckless? Why, we walked to 7th Avenue! Two blocks closer to Puget Sound than we normally go, though it was still a good eight blocks or so from the actual waterfront. That’s two blocks closer to downtown than I’ve been since last March. We walked through Freeway Park, peered into the Washington State Convention Center (a.k.a. the place with the escalators that in the Before Times would bring my tired ass halfway up the hill towards home if we went downtown), and then we circled around to see the monstrosity of buildings that have sprung up and are now towering above poor Town Hall. Then we skedaddled back to our own territory as if we’d let ourselves step into some radioactive Forbidden Zone and had to get home and have a Silkwood-style shower to rinse off the contaminants.
It was nice to see the trees in the park which are in bloom. It was eerie to see the Convention Center all locked up to keep passers-thru like us outside. It was disappointing to see that their flowerbeds were dormant when they normally have plants no matter what season. But mostly, it made me antsy and aware of all the things we haven’t done for over a year.
Normally, nestled in our nest at Oh La La we are taken by the things we now see out our windows—an eagle family soaring over the neighborhood and over Lake Union, a hummingbird that peers into our apartment periodically to check on us, the weather systems blowing across the vast expanse of sky that’s now available to us. Mostly, I’ve appreciated this past year and how these small things hold the weight of something monumental. We see the eagle family and one of us shouts to the other one as if Ed McMahon, fresh from the grave, just showed up at the door with one of those big cardboard checks from Publishers Clearing House. But there was something about seeing the locked doors at the convention center that suddenly made me aware of everything we haven’t been doing. How long it’s been since I’ve shopped in City Target, gotten flowers at Pike Market, seen a movie in the theater with the “good” seats, been in a car, driven out of the city. I hadn’t been missing any of those things, but now I am.
Let’s be honest, the thing I’m most looking forward to though is the possibility that I might have something interesting to write about again on this blog once I’m riding a bus, drinking tea in a cafe, having an adventure to one of the islands, flying back to Indiana. I can only make up so many stories about those eagles and what they’re up to.
Since we didn’t fall off the edge of the earth when we widened our walking route by two blocks I have no real stories to share this month. The eagles are aloft. The crows are cawing. The neighborhood dogs are barking. The vaccine appointments are full. Try again tomorrow.
Oh, I do have this story to leave you with and it involves this squonky tree.
For the last several months, this poor thing was standing in a pool of running water that we’d see on our evening—after-hours-fewer-people-to-navigate—be-masked walks on our 8 block leash. We couldn’t tell where the water was coming from—it seemed to be burbling up from underground and pooling on the sidewalk and in the street. Several times a week we’d leap over the standing water and stare at the tree, wondering why no one was throwing it a life preserver. Why wasn’t the city stopping the leak? Why weren’t the owners of the commercial building that sat next to the tree alerting the people who fix such things? We’d tut tut and continue our walk. Over and over again. And then one day, I looked at that tree and felt fed up that no one was coming to rescue it. I’m no arborist or plumber, but it was clear this wasn’t going to end well. I’d had enough.
So I went home and sent off an email to the Seattle Department of Transportation and pointed out to them that it was a waste of water, a waste of a tree, and that someone could slip on the waterlogged sidewalk and sue the city.
I’m turning into that lady.
Maybe they thought I was planning to slip on the waterlogged sidewalk and had a lawyer lined up because they wrote me back in two days and said that they checked into it and were getting to the bottom of it. I’m happy to report that sidewalk and the base of the tree are now dry and the tree is budding.
With all the first responders working tirelessly the past year, I can only assume that I won’t be getting a key to the city or a good citizen award for my work on behalf of one neighborhood tree, but it does feel like this pandemic has made me feel more proprietary about that 8 block radius Z and I have been covering for the last year. Here’s to a longer leash in the future.
I’ve discovered that swiping through TikTok videos in the morning is the perfect way to stay cozy in bed. I give myself ten minutes and then look at the clock and a half hour or hour has passed, which is disturbing, but I keep telling myself this is just winter behavior. It is cold. The flannel sheets and Z snoozing next to me and radiating heat are too inviting for me to willingly bound out of bed the minute my eyes open.
One drawback (of the many) to beginning the day this way is the frequency with which some videos use earworms to highlight whatever antics are going on in the video. For three days now I have had a few bars of Beyonce’s “Halo” stuck in my head on a loop. It. Will. Not. Go. Away. Yesterday, I thought maybe if I listened to the entire song instead of just those bars it would finally exhaust itself but all it did was make Z start humming it too. There are worse songs, but I’d like to move on in my life now.
My recent desire to stay in bed an extra hour was exacerbated by the Big Snow we had that lasted a couple of days. We’re in much better shape than the rest of the country in this regard—now it feels like spring is afoot—but for those two days of snow, the city felt magical and Z and I were thrilled with our new perch here at Oh Là Là, looking down on snow-covered streets and not having to go out on un-shoveled sidewalks. We did venture up to the roof deck and threw a snowball and attempted a snowman with snow that would not pack, but for the most part, we just stared out the window like a couple of kids who had never seen snow before.
Oh, and I did a jigsaw puzzle because snow days are perfect for that and I still miss RBG.
During the snow days, I got unnaturally concerned with the well-being of a neighbor who lives across the street. Please note (and believe): I am not a peeping Tom. I am not hoping to see any fights, naked bodies, or assess whether my neighbors wipe their noses on their sleeves. Still, when you are living in the sky and working at a window, occasionally your gaze will fall on the neighbor who has a lovely big St. Bernard thrilled with the snow or the neighbor whose cat peers down from the 12th floor as if everything on First Hill belongs to him.
Occasionally, my eye lands on the woman whose blinds are never closed, who sleeps on the sofa with the lights on instead of under her Marimekko duvet in the bedroom. After the first quick glance months ago, I’ve wondered about her. What’s the deal with the sofa? Did she have a bad break up and can’t face her bed alone? Why the lights on at night? Is she afraid of something? Has someone threatened her?
So the other day when I did my quick morning glance before settling into work, I saw her lying on the floor, and my pulse quickened. What had happened to her? I glanced again and the position she was in was really awkward, so I worried that she’d hurt herself. Or, horrors, someone had hurt her.
I instantly started thinking of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, wheelchair bound and stuck in his apartment, passing the time by looking at his neighbors with a telephoto lens. When he sees what he believes to be a murder take place, no one will listen to him.
Recently, a pair of eagles have been flying over our building, so my mini-binoculars were on the desk. I have never used them to look in anyone’s apartment and when I do use them, I make over-exagerrated motions so anyone peering at me can see that I am only looking up at the sky and not trying to peer into their living spaces. It occurred to me that if this woman was compromised, I might be the only person knew it, so I allowed myself to fake look for the eagles in the sky above Lake Union and then do a slow but continuous spin in my chair and briefly train the binoculars on her apartment.
As it happens, I did not have to call 911. The body on the floor was not hers. In fact, it was not a body. In fact, it wasn’t even on the floor. It was an oversized knitted blanket stuffed into and spilling out of a basket.
I haven’t had my eyes checked for a year and a half. It might be time.
PART THE SECOND
Because Z himself is also magical and amazing like snow in Seattle, the number of times I’ve had a crush on a “celebrity” since we got together is almost nil, but I’m finding myself disturbingly attracted to the bobble-headed @therealindiandad. Initially, I didn’t know why. I mean, his cartoon head is handsome, I guess, but other than the fox in Robin Hood I don’t make it a habit of crushing on cartoon characters. But then one day Z was bossing me up (in a very loving, comical way) and we were laughing, and I realized it’s because watching @therealindiandad joke-chastise @sheenamelwani while Z is still sleep is the next best thing to having Z awake. They remind me a lot of each other, though I’m relieved Z doesn’t have a bobble head. Z was disturbed by this news until I pointed out to him that his bobble headed doppelgänger is not the father of the woman he chides but the husband and the two of them are laughing so much and having such a good time that they feel like good company these days, particularly when so many posts are full of rage or sadness.
When I finally do shut off TikTok, drag myself out of bed, and head to the study, I’m immediately greeted with annoyance because this is the last space in our apartment at Oh Là Là that has refused to organize itself since our November move. I seem to just keep moving the same items in a circle around the room. A stack of things on the ottoman gets moved to the Napping Cloud and sits there for two weeks, and then I move the items on the bed to the floor so I can nap. Then it’s time to run Angus the robotic vacuum so I pick the stuff up off the floor and put it on the ottoman. I think the problem is I haven’t found a home for these final bits of our life: photos, art, and frames we aren’t using right now, stacks of paper I don’t know where to file, knickknacks in the windowsill, tote bags full of projects I have yet to finish, etc.
And in the center of this still messy space is The Desk: the black hole that sucks in and spews out chaos threefold.
This isn’t a new subject for me—I’ve always had trouble with organizing the place I write and teach. I could clean it up for a photo op, but no sooner is the pic posted than the mess starts building again. It’s one of the things that annoys me most about myself: not just that I can’t be neater but also that I can’t fully embrace my messy tendencies without chastising myself. And because the desk is an exact replica of the inner workings of my mind, I’m also annoyed that after all of these years I also can’t just embrace the rich alphabet soup that is my thought process and instead am convinced there must be something wrong with me.
My desk is really a 6 foot cherry dining table with one tiny drawer and a faux drawer with a keyboard ledge in it. When I ordered it two decades ago, I’d just read a book about how people with my brain type were no good with things that were put away and we just need to see everything in front of us in stacks. The book’s premise was that creative types have different brains and were fighting a losing battle in trying to make traditional 1950s-office-systems-with-filing-cabinets-and-in-and-out-trays work for them.
The theory was a good one—and remains true…if my house keys are under a piece of mail, say, the keys cease to exist for me and I start to make plans about how I’ll have to live the rest of my life without locking the door. But when I embraced this new way of organizing, I imagined myself being tidier than I actually am. I was picturing a soft focus desk with a stack of three books, a cup of tea (even though I don’t drink it that often), and an artful lamp so I could write until the sun came up. I imagined a vast expanse of empty desk, glossy wood grain encouraging me to put only beautiful words on the page.
Alas. It never looks like that.
There is never an empty space where I could suddenly do a project or a puzzle. Instead, there are layers. If I dig down, I’m reminded that a month ago I was really interested in learning how meditation can be different for women than men, I was organizing things to put in a scrapbook, and I was planning to frame a couple of pictures. If I dig further still, I’d discover a gift card for Elliot Bay Books and a receipt for something I bought Z for Christmas. A jar of pickled onions, I think.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to the Poet Friend on the phone and told her how frustrated I was, and she—a tidy Virgo—suggested that I get an empty box, put everything on my desk in the box, dust and oil the surface of the desk, and then put back only the things I use. For two days, it was the desk I imagined it would be when I bought it. But now, I have this box of “essential things” on the floor:
And the desk is now looking like it’s former, messy self.
I’ve taken very little out of the box of essentials, so what I did was find more/different “essentials” to fill the surface. Nature and Beth abhor a vacuum.
Current essential items on desk:
glass desk lamp filled with my mother’s childhood marbles
Row of “must have near me” writing books held in place by Scottie dog book ends from Poet Friend
clock with big numbers so I always know how late I am to a Zoom appointment
Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls tin can now containing pens, scissors, letter opener from elementary Swedish penpal Cecilia, and two beaded Roses from Zimbabwe
1972 Christmas present clipboard from my maternal grandmother given to me because of my love of drawing but now used for class notes and other things I want to remember but eventually forget about and discard
On a six foot desk, this seems like a reasonable amount of items and all you really need for a desk to function, but I’m not done yet.
An anatomically correct metal bulldog with spiked collar and butt door that raises for insertion of a tea light candle if Oh La La allowed candles and I wanted to illuminate a metal bulldog
An ashtray from a bar bearing my surname purchased on eBay 20 years ago even though I don’t smoke
a two-handled tea cup/soup bowl which I use on different days for:
my prayer beads
clean watercolor water
a vaguely royal looking red box in which I intend to keep bits of paper with notes jotted on them of things I don’t want to forget but that currently holds only a Serenity Prayer key chain of indeterminate origin and a postcard of Wales from a boy I never met but with whom I tried to hae a romantic online relationship in 1994
a handmade Scandinavian-looking pottery gnome holding a warm pie next to a toadstool because she looks capable and happy
a shallow light blue dish with my grandfather’s rosary in it. I’ve had the beads for almost twenty years and still haven’t learned all the components of the rosary because the 50% of me that was raised Catholic never got to those lessons
a chicken timer named Erma to keep me writing
a series of gemstones the names of which I can never recall and must then dig in The Box to read the leaflet that came with them reminding me what each crystal is good for. My favorites so far: amethyst and tiger eye
a deck of Farber-Zerner tarot cards because I like the art and like to use them for a focusing practice before I write even though I don’t really know that much about tarot and don’t want my future told. (I’m in it for the metaphors.)
three books on tarot because why have one when you can have three?
my new set of prayer beads (sodalite to encourage intuition, focus, and creativity)
my old set of prayer beads (cobalt blue glass, made when I found out my father was sick, the color of which calms me)
a rock that fits perfectly in my palm that Z found for me on San Juan Island
a Bluetooth speaker
a statue of a pig with a quote from Winston Churchill about the superiority of pigs, which reminds me daily not of Churchill or of pigs, but of my college mentor, Gibb, who loved pigs, particularly his boyhood pig, Jipper, who would meet him after school when the bus dropped him off
a tiny painting I painted last year of a young girl squeezing through the Eye of the Needle in a church ruin in Dingle
an envelope that likely contains a home colorectal screening test that I have been ignoring for a year but because I’m partly a responsible person and thus haven’t thrown it out but I keep thinking Tomorrow Beth will take care of it and do the responsible thing
a Venus of Willendorf statue
a holy card of Joan of Arc
class notes, printed readings, and dogeared pages of book passages I want to share with my students
a paisley beanbag from my childhood with a tag hand stitched on it that says “Wayne County Historical Museum Richmond, Indiana” that I like to play with while I’m lecturing and have had since I was about five
So where exactly would I put the stuff in the box (notebooks, ShellE the stuffed turtle, my hairbrush, various pics, notebooks, small clipboard, empty box of chocolates with my last name on the lid, to-do list notebook, notebook from my Swedish penpal circa 1978, an Apple box for my AirPods because Apple boxes are just too good to get rid of, a wooden file box that has half a screenplay written on notecards inside that I started with a friend twenty-five years ago and which I keep meaning to put elsewhere and use the box for some other important non-computerized filing, and a variety of pottery dogs.
I need an intervention.
Lately I’ve been writing every morning with my newly discovered family of fellow INFP/J creatives and we often spend time talking about how our brains work, how differently we are wired from most of the population, and what the insides of our heads look like. We’ve talked about how when we are writing or drawing or doing some other kind of creating, we are out there just loosely tethered to earth and when Ground Control calls us back down to have a conversation about cornflakes or the funny meme they just saw, it’s really, really hard for us to make that adjustment. It’s hard to acclimatize back to earth’s atmosphere.
In my life, I’ve had what I would classify as two and a half visions. One was holy. One was comforting. And then this one from my childhood when I was staying with my grandmother that until now I’ve never been able to interpret.
It was just the two of us together on a Saturday morning, and I was lying upside down on the davenport, my head nearly touching the floor as I took in the new perspective of the acoustic tile and how the dropped ceiling into the hallway would make a stair step if her pink mobile home were upside down. (I’d been exposed to The Poseidon Adventure at a young age and was fascinated by how normal things would be transformed if flipped upside down. Please note, Gene Hackman was an early celebrity crush. A man who was convicted that he could get you to a place of greater safety—what was not to like? Even better than @therealindiandad.) As I hung upside down, Grandma was across from me in the kitchen, where she always was. I never saw the woman sit down until I was a teenager.
Then suddenly, without planning it, I was on the ceiling. I don’t know if this would be classified as an out-of-body experience or a vision, though probably most people would say it was just the fancy of a child, but I felt myself floating in this upside down landscape—the only thing keeping me earth bound was the ceiling—and my grandmother was frantically reaching up towards me, kind of hopping up and down trying to grab ahold of me, and pull me back towards earth as if I were a balloon that had escaped. It was so real. Then I came back to myself and my real grandmother was asking me which cartoon I wanted her to put on the TV because I wasn’t hovering above her after all but was lounging on the sofa expecting her to serve me by turning the channel to Scooby-Doo. We grandchildren were so spoiled.
The vision was weird and for years I’ve wondered what it was, what had or hadn’t happened, and then it just sort of folded into my life like the time I was stung under the arm by a bee or the time I fell out of a tree and had the wind knocked out of me and thought I’d killed myself. It was just an event in my life: that time I was floating on the ceiling and Grandma pulled me back to earth.
But now? I think the universe was trying to give me a metaphor for how I’d spend the rest of my life, trying so hard to listen to step-by-step instructions or remember a list of five items to pick up at the grocery or to stay engaged in a conversation or stay focused on my non-creative work, but always, I find myself somewhere other than where I’m supposed to be living between my own ears. Then I come back to myself and the other person hasn’t noticed I was gone. Or, if they are Z, they have noticed and they think I’m a bad listener or lackadaisical worker or a bad bet if they want me to pick something up for them at the store. But they love me despite my human frailties.
It’s been a real boon to know 60-90 minutes a day I’m going to be getting together with these people I’ve never met in real life (and were it not for the pandemic would never have met on Zoom) and they get it. One of us will say, “Have you ever…?” and everyone else will nod in agreement and the conversation will flow. And then we write. And when the host tells us it’s been an hour, most of us are startled because we’ve been out there on our own individual tethers. But also, together.
Goodness knows what the totality of 2021 is going to hold for us. I don’t even want to guess about the future (I told you those Tarot cards are not about knowing the future), but my goal for this year is to embrace my quirks, to work around whatever ear worm has burrowed into my head, and if my neighbors appear to have been murdered, to check in on them even if I feel foolish (or criminal) afterward when I realize their knitted throws were never in any danger.
In the remaining ten months of 2021, let us all be kind to ourselves and laugh whenever we find cause.
Or is that a jinx? Am I meant to be saying something like whatever the new year equivalent of “break a leg” is? Also, can you even say Happy New Year when it’s the first of February? Shouldn’t the greetings be over by now?
So far, I haven’t been that impressed by 2021, have you? It’s felt like a worse version of 2020 with an added layer of insurrection. Normally, I don’t put much stock in years being “good” or “bad”—it’s all just the peaks and valleys of being alive—but so far, I am of the mind that the successful coup has been that 2020 is still in office and we just don’t realize it yet. Every morning Z and I look at our phone messages and then ask the other with dread what the news is from our home and from friends. Used to, I’d be whining because the Seahawks were dispatched from the playoffs so quickly or a neighborhood party was loud, but now any day that doesn’t require a sympathy card or new additions to a prayer list feels like a win.
It doesn’t help that in addition to the new beautiful views out of the study at Oh La La that I’m always crowing about, there is also a straight line to an elderly care facility. About half the time I look that direction—directly down the street from my own now bi-focal needing eyes —there are the lights of ambulances flashing out front. On my best days, I say a quick prayer wishing them well, wishing them a lack of fear, wishing them people in their lives who love and care for them. On worse days, however, I angle my chair so I can’t see it at all. It’s a little too close to comfort, the home for the aged. Fiftysomething seems younger now than it did when my grandparents were in their fifties or when my great grandmother was wearing those old-timey clothes, but the days are zipping by. Even if we survive the pandemic, we are, as Alanis Morissette said, temporary arrangements.
When I was in high school with my penchant for English and art, I had friends—all male, please note—who liked to remind me that careers with words and art weren’t that lucrative. These boys were good with science and numbers. My father, also good with numbers, felt my chosen major in college—English without the education degree (because I took one ed class and was bored)—might turn me into a pauper and so I should consider a business major despite the fact that I had been a disaster at selling Girl Scout cookies and only loved his cast-off briefcase because it held my art supplies. Though my professors insisted we could do a lot with an English degree, they never handed out lists or offered us much advice beyond “go to grad school” which was, after all, what their own experience had been. Still, I loved words on a page whether mine or someone else’s, and nothing else felt like a good fit.
There were plenty of times—especially during the “spinster librarian” phase—when the mystery of my life was why I hadn’t tried harder to get myself on one of those more lucrative career paths. Or, at the very least, a career path that was less nebulous. On the early morning drive to work, I’d stare at construction workers and think about how much more straightforward and useful their work was: the world needed places to live and roads that weren’t riddled with potholes and so their jobs were to solve those problems.
What exactly was I solving at the library? How to convince someone that if they didn’t pay their fines before checking out another book the entire library system would crumble? Even I didn’t believe that one.
One day you wake up, and it’s your birthday, and a few days later multiple friends near your age start talking about their retirement plans in six years or so, and if you are me, you think, but wait a minute, I still haven’t completely figured out what I want to be when I grow up—who wants to retire? And then you realize that while you were trying to figure out what to do with yourself, you were actually living your life.
If I had to have business cards printed right now, I still don’t even know what they should say. “Writer. Teacher. Ponderer” is closest to the truth, but I don’t have a contract from St. Martin’s or tenure, so “ponderer” seems to be the most accurate measure of how I’ve lived my life but the pay is not so good.
Usually on January 6th what I’m pondering is the miracle of my own birth with a very small side order of the arrival of the magi at the manger to visit the infant Jesus. (I do this primarily because it seems wrong to have a birthday on Epiphany and not acknowledge that before it became my birthday it had other, greater significance. That said, the quality of my pondering is often along the lines of wondering what Mary thought when these fancy men rolled up with their expensive jars and boxes of treats for a baby. Because I’m pretty sure what I’d have been thinking is Do you mind if I return this? We’re still living in a manger here and we need some onesies and a Diaper Genie.)
This year, however, I didn’t get to ponder Epiphany or the last five decades of my life because just as I was finishing a morning writing session, my cousin texted that the Capitol had been breached. So Z and I spent the rest of the day thinking about the fragility of democracy, the importance of critical thinking, and how in 1980 my youth group members and I were practically strip searched before we were allowed in the Capitol but somehow the masses were able to break in and run rampant.
I realize it’s not all about me, but I’ve spent my life knowing my birthday so close to Christmas was a pain for people, that it was a high holy day, a birthday I have to share with E.L. Doctorow, Rowan Atkinson, John DeLorean, and Vic Tayback. But now, oh joy, it is a date that will live in infamy. I can hardly wait for next year’s Facebook memes reminding me to “never forget.”
What is wrong with people? You love democracy so you break it’s windows and smear excrement in its hallways while carrying a flag with a man’s name on it as if he’s a king? This is not what I learned about Democracy and the Constitution from my School House Rock cartoons. (Hint: you don’t get to revolt because your person didn’t win. I learned it in grade school and was reminded of it again during both the 2000 and the 2016 elections when I had to lick my wounds without the solace of fur pants and Viking helmet.)
What have we become?
After several hours of watching the news and feeling gloomy about the future, Z and I finally went up on the roof. We were going to go on a walk, but Seattle being Seattle, there were some demonstrations we weren’t interested in getting caught up in when tensions were so high, so instead we let the wind on the rooftop whip us around a bit. We watched the sunset, looked at Mt. Baker which made a rare appearance in the distance, and had a false sense momentarily that all was right in the world. It was beautiful. Later, I was feted by Z and a Zoom version of my folks and opened presents and ate cake. I did, however, forget to put on my tiara.
From my new vantage at Oh La La I can see the chimney tops of the Stimson-Green Mansion. First Hill used to be flush with mansions but we’re now down to about four, and the Stimson-Green is something special. It’s Tudor Revival, looks like something from a storybook, and is even more delightful inside with each room decorated in a different style. I’ve written about it before. Though all I can see are the chimney and the roofline, I know what sits under it and had the good fortune to tour it, so when I see those chimneys, I’m able to imagine this area in the early 20th century when horses and wagons were making deliveries to the fancy houses, and the residents therein all knew each other and had, for whatever reason, decided they’d rather make their fortunes in the Pacific Northwest instead of Back East. They were not, I assume, English majors.
Next to the mansion is the small, just renovated First Hill Park, and there has been an addition to the old foot print of a bronze, three-piece sculpture of two bear cubs playing on a wingback chair and ottoman. The sculpture was created by Georgia Gerber who also created the famous Rachel the Pig at Pike Market that I’ve rarely gotten close to because it’s always covered with tourists. This new one is a whimsical sculpture that invites you to sit in the chair with the bear cubs frolicking nearby, and it might seem random, but it isn’t.
The young daughter of the mansion was giving a pair of newborn black bear cubs by her father’s foreman when they were orphaned because their mother was killed in a logging accident. She named the cubs Johnny and Irish, and for the first ten months of their lives, she raised them, played with them, and, one assumes, loved them. (She preferred animals to people.) The upper verandah of the house was their playpen and she regularly walked them around the neighborhood without a leash.
Z has a fit when he sees a dog off leash on our daily walks. Can you imagine if we’d been bumping into little Dorothy with Johnny and Irish? Oh my goodness.
When I think of the bears, I try to focus on the early days of their lives when they were living in the mansion, tumbling over the dragon andirons by the big fireplace, roaming the neighborhood. Before they got so rambunctious with greeting people—not aggressive, apparently, just a little too enthusiastic in their attentions because they were no longer little bears. So they were taken to Woodland Park Zoo where they lived all their remaining days. I wonder about the drive to the zoo. Were they treated like beloved family pets who got to ride shotgun, taking in the city as they neared their new home? Did Dorothy go with them and was it a tearful goodbye? (How could it not have been?) Was their enclosure at the zoo spacious and humane or was it like the tiny wire cage the bear at the park where I grew up had to live? I spent my childhood wanting to see the animals at the park zoo and then feeling instantly sick and sad because they were in small cages and not living the lives they deserved to live. Dorothy would apparently visit them and she pointed them out to her own daughter. She might have been a practical person, but I’m guessing she longed to take them back to the house on Minor Avenue and let them romp on the furniture.
Less exciting neighborhood ponderables:
• This tree. It’s on a mini traffic circle and seems not to realize it’s January. All the other trees around it are naked, but this one is still dressed for a ball. I can’t decide if it’s some kind of sick that means it forgot to drop it’s leaves or if it’s just showing off.
• Why our fabulous trash chute is suddenly not working and we now have to carry our garbage down the elevator.
• Why I have quit seeing Toast the corgi in the lobby. Has he moved?
• Also, WHY ARE THERE NO SCOTTIES IN THIS BUILDING?
• Finally, why is there a guy playing a baritone on the corner across the street all weekend long, every weekend. And why does he seem to prefer Simon and Garfunkle tunes? At first it was a fun reminder that we live in a city, but after a few weekends like this, I’m grateful I got AirPods for my birthday.
Everything is so depressing these days.
When I’m looking at the old people home in front of me, behind me is Swedish Hospital where two of our favorite little girls—Pippi and the Imp—were born. Before Christmas a client dropped off a gift when I handed over a manuscript I’d been editing and she pointed to the hospital with a fond smile and said, “That’s where my boys were born.”
The last few weeks, I’ve twice seen a bald eagle soaring past our building, where normally we only see crows and seagulls. Who knew an advantage of living on the 9th floor of Oh La La would be bald eagle sightings?
And finally, yes, the Capitol was breached but it wasn’t successful. Our elected officials went back to work and the building and grounds crew righted what was wronged. And when I think about the whole event, I’m struck by how it was words that instigated the riot and words—written all those years ago, imperfect but with the intention of becoming more perfect—that allowed us to get back to the business of living. Maybe words really do matter after all.