Category Archives: Travel

Lady of Shalott Considers Success Rate of Group Projects, Stays in Tower.

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Old stone tower  in cemetery, Celtic crosses, River Shannon in distance.
Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland

After the nurse calls to tell me that the vaccine four months ago didn’t take, I do yoga.

Despite having the vaccine in April, I have no Covid-19 antibodies to protect myself, had none when I thought I did and went on a cross country trip with Z to see my family, had none on our daily walks sans masks out doors in Seattle when we got back, or when we had friends over…finally, or when we had houseguests again…for the first time in our new space.  Suddenly, I feel like a lone, limping kudu on the veldt surrounded by a pride of hungry lions.

At the moment, my doctor and the fine scientists on the case are trying to figure out what’s next for people like me who have wonky immune systems. I fall into a weird category that isn’t yet covered by directives from the FDA or the CDC. Because I had the J&J vaccine, it’s not time for a booster yet. I can’t officially cross-vaccinate though that has some promise of working. I could lie to some pharmacist somewhere and try one of the other jabs, but I’m a terrible, terrible liar and don’t think I should have to in order to protect myself. But there is nothing I can do at this moment, so I pull down the blinds and tie-up my hair and chew on the side of my mouth.

For what it’s worth, I can’t really do yoga either. I am 54. I am round. I’m standing on the rubber mat I ordered seventeen months ago when the pandemic started, which I have used exactly three times since then. Twenty years ago, I took 3/4s of a yoga class in a claustrophobic studio in Richmond, and then September 11th happened and though yoga would have probably been the right response to deal with the grief and the fear, I chose instead to sit at home, watch CNN Headline News on a loop, and stress eat. I wanted to be alone with my feelings, not stretching in a room with 20 strangers. A few years later I bought a DVD of Megan Garcia’s that taught yoga to the non-lithe, and I did it periodically on my own but only ever really excelled at Corpse pose, which was at the end of the routine when New Age music came on and you were meant to lie there, dead to the world, not thinking anything.  

But today, after the call, after I shake the dust from my purple mat, I, do the poses I memorized from the DVD all those years ago. I’m not good, but instead of critiquing myself, I think about how I’m safe in our apartment, how I can take care of my body in this way even if there’s nothing else to be done other than stay home for now. Again.

I start with sun salutations, which I do, but as I stretch upward, I think about how half of those states we drove through in July—me finally, joyously seeing the world again—were places where a lot of people don’t believe in wearing masks, barely believe in the virus, and absolutely won’t be getting the vaccine even if their names are entered in a lottery. If I’d known in June that I had no antibodies for the virus, we would have stayed in Seattle, I wouldn’t have gotten to see Mom, my family, a few friends, or the country between. Because I didn’t get sick and have no report that I made anyone else sick inadvertently, I’m glad I was ignorant. Ignorance really is bliss. It was a good month that reminded me of what normal might look like at some future time. Maybe this is what it is like for the people ignoring guidelines and arguing against mask mandates. Just press on with your regular life until you are either on a ventilator or your fabulous immune system sees you through. Maybe if I hadn’t answered the phone I could still be living like this, free-breathing and not wanting to stab people who cough on me or Z or anyone else I love.

When we got back from our trip, I was just starting to embrace the idea of the city again. The Delta Variant hadn’t yet kicked up, I thought I was fully vaccinated, and suddenly it seemed possible to walk in strange neighborhoods, to take a Lyft without worrying that I might end up on a ventilator, to hop in a car with Providence and Hudge and go to Camano Island for the day and picnic by the Sound. I was no longer envying people in suburbs with yards or in the country with acres or even people in the city with their own cars who could drive safely in their auto-bubble and feel like they are still part of the world. It was a relief to feel cautiously optimistic about rejoining society. 

But it’s a month later, Delta is everywhere, my defenses are apparently down, and I’m back on the 9th floor peering down on First Hill as I Cat & Cow my way toward isolated health.

As a caveat, I feel like I should tattoo on my forehead, Lucky. I know how lucky I am that I don’t have to leave the house to work, that I have healthcare, that I happened to be in a study checking into the viability of the vaccine with people who have immune systems like mine which allowed me to find out that I needed to take extra precautions in the first place. I’m lucky I live in the city I do and in the country I do where vaccines are available. Twenty years ago—not long after that yoga class—I bought an air freshener for my car that said “LUCKY” in Celtic letters over a four-leaf clover. I never win the lottery, but I’ve felt lucky for a long time. I even feel lucky that I’m an introvert and so being “stuck” at home isn’t the worst punishment in the world.

Four-leaf clover design on cardboard with LUCKY printed over top, hanging from car rearview mirror.
Faded, but still true.

But after the phone call from the nurse, it is not until I am slumped into Child pose—legs pulled up under gut, hands stretched forward, palms and face pressed against the mat, my breath making me hotter than I already am—that I have a flash from elementary school. It’s something I haven’t thought about for decades. The lights snap off, and the usually pleasant Mrs. Murray barks, “Bury them!” and all of us know we have to make a fortress with our arms that covers our faces because she’s sickened by the sight of us.

When we are forced to bury our heads, there’s been a real transgression. It is different than the days when everyone is a little too chatty and she has us put our heads down for a few minutes so we can calm down. When we are commanded to bury our heads, it feels a lot like she hates us. Like she would be perfectly happy if we disappeared inside our own arms and were never seen again.

In 1973, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was not the reason we were forced into this solitary confinement made of our own flesh though my natural instinct was initially to assume that it was my fault. I was not a goody-two-shoes particularly, nor was I pleased with myself that I behaved the way we were supposed to. It is in my nature to want things to be calm and easy, and the hijinks some of my classmates got up to never held much allure. If there were going to be negative consequences, why do a thing?

Let’s face it. I was kind of a boring kid. I wasn’t what you’d call dynamic or even all that energetic. I was interesting the way a turtle is interesting: you spend a lot of time waiting for it to make a move and then it pulls into itself and you forget that it’s a creature and not a stone.

Copper box with with copper turtle, beads and glass balls surrounding it.
A turtle trapped in a box–souvenir from my MFA in Maine.

I hated it when we had to bury our heads because it meant I couldn’t read or doodle or stare out the window at the single ancient tree that was outside the window. As it was, school bored me and to have these things that made it tolerable removed from me caused an almost physical pain. Even now, when I’m watching a show and some prisoner gets sent to solitary, I can remember my own exhalations ricocheting off the desk, finding no real space to escape in the tomb of my arms, and bouncing back onto my face convincing me that if I didn’t die of boredom I would likely suffocate. I could probably handle solitary as long as I went in with some books and a journal and a little radio. But all that nothing? Save me.

I was quiet on the outside, but oh, was I dramatic in my own head.

We had a very soft-spoken social worker who would periodically come to our class to do presentations. I was privileged enough to have lived my life without needing or knowing what a social worker was and because her appearance in our classroom was so rare and seemingly arbitrary, I couldn’t quite figure out what the point of her was. Everyone in the elementary school world had a specific purpose—librarian=books, nurse=temperature being taken, secretary=the gateway home when the temperature taken was too high, and so on. But I couldn’t figure out why Mrs. Cobine would very occasionally show up or what I was supposed to do with the information she shared since there would be no follow-up, no quiz, no adjacent reading or art project.

She had salt and pepper curls, beautiful blue eyes, and a soft voice. I recognized her as a benign, caring force in the universe, and she certainly wasn’t going to shut off the light and instruct us to disappear ourselves. But still, why had we been ushered into the library—surrounded by books I wanted to read—to have these soft conversations about feelings.

I was particularly dubious about the box she brought with her that held a dolphin puppet, a tape recorder, and some drawings to illustrate the story being told on the recording. Because she seemed so kind, I wanted to like those lessons, but they were not Scooby-Doo caliber. They were, instead, one of those activities that adults force upon you so you can learn a lesson. I didn’t blame her for these educational interludes—I could tell from the box she carted around that this was something that had been foisted onto her the same as it was being foisted onto us. I wanted what she was selling us to be true, but I was a child who doubted things.

On two of my remaining braincells, I’ve kept the song from one of these lessons. Instead of repeating in my head “inhale…exhale” as I contort myself on the yoga mat, I start to hum the song.  This one was about teamwork and involved a sort of goodwill pirate that Duso the Dolphin visited who was trying to get his ship loaded or unloaded or in dry dock or something, and the song was this:

“Come down here and help,”

said Blooper to his crew.

“You can do things in a group

you can’t do just with you!”

Back then, I remember looking at my classmates who were incapable of going a week without doing something bad that forced the whole class to sit in the dark with our heads folded into our arms on our desks. It seemed unlikely that the group of us could achieve anything together other than a decent kickball team at recess. Even as a first grader I could see that we all had our own agendas, our own weaknesses, our own proclivities that meant it was unlikely we would ever get whatever prize promised to be at the end of just “working together.” It sounded easier than it was.

Unless you are moving or throwing a pitch-in or you are Amish and there’s a barn raising on your calendar, I’ve never really believed that many hands make light work business. Many hands mostly make work subpar and everyone leaves thinking it would have been better if they’d been in charge except the person who is sleeping under a tree and hasn’t done anything at all. (He’s usually pretty happy with how things turn out, I guess, even if the result is a C-.) 

Whoever heard of a pirate called Blooper anyway?

Generation X is, perhaps, especially inclined to cynicism, and I am genetically predisposed to it. I also have these occasional Pollyanna moments. I like Fox Mulder, I want to believe,  and the two duke it out. When the pandemic first started, I was imagining us all banding together like people did during World War II for the greater good. Victory gardens and cheerful rationing and women giving up stockings for parachutes and learning how to rivet stuff.

And there for a while when the pandemic started, it seemed like everyone was making masks and banging pots and clapping for healthcare workers and being careful of each other while we waited for a vaccine, so I was hopeful. But, of course, it wasn’t everyone, it just seemed that way because I was stuck in an apartment on a liberal street in a liberal city where people value science and kind of value other people.

Sign on city street of red boxing glove punching Corona virus.
These signs were encouraging when this thing started.

During the yoga session, I work through other poses whose names I can now only guess at and instead of wondering if my form is even close to what it is supposed to be (it is not), I think about how this is the first time since I was diagnosed eleven years ago with that wonky immune system that I’ve genuinely felt the weight of my condition and how I am at the mercy of others.

I still hate group projects. I’ve got no faith in every one holding up their end of the deal.

Instead, I hold a Plank pose for five long breaths for the first time ever and remind myself that this will be temporary—both the pose that my arms are shaking through and this incarceration. I prefer doing yoga this way to that stuffy room in 2001. Good thing I am an introvert. Eventually, one hopes, there will be a vaccine cocktail that works or the virus will get bored and go wherever old viruses go to die, and I can come down from my tower with a better outcome than the Lady of Shalott. (I thought my youthful fascination with this Arthurian character was all about unrequited love, but I see now it was practice for 2020 and onward.)

Then finally, the long-awaited Corpse pose. I close my eyes and relax. The yoga is done. I can tick it off my list. I am in my own home, surrounded by books, paper and pens, a laptop, a view, and Z, and no one is shutting off the lights and shouting, “Bury them.”

At least not right now.

Teapot, full teacup, pastry on a flowered plate.
My last visit to the cafe at Elliot Bay Books in January 2020.

Return of the Hoosier: There and Back Again

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Somewhere in Montana

My first camera was a hand-me-down Instamatic from my stepmother when I was 13, right before I went on a week-long trip on “God’s Nightcrawler” with my youth group. The Nightcrawler was a former school bus that had been tricked out with bunks and a few bench seats that turned into bunks and it drove all night so we could wake up in the morning having arrived at some destination: St. Augustine, Washington, D.C., Hershey, Disney World. We’d spend the year earning money to pay for our trip and then that week would rush by as we bounced from one destination to another. Because I was 13 I often didn’t pay a lot of attention to the destination (I still couldn’t tell you what Bok Tower looks like, for instance) because the journey with my friends, and, let’s be honest, the boys I was finding increasingly more interesting, was what mattered. 

I’d love to show you all the pictures I took on that first trip, but the truth is that because no one had told me that you have to stop walking and stand still to get a clear shot, most of my Disney World photos look something like this:

Blurry UMYF Heart Throb inside Blurrier Dinosaur, Disney World 1980

Fortunately, I remember those ten hours at Disney World very well and can still picture the tickets we had to use then for various rides, the rides themselves, the meals we ate, the hijinks, the attempts to arrange yourself in the line in such a way that you would “accidentally” get to ride Space Mountain with a preferred someone, and the sweat and grime we slept in that night when we tumbled into the suffocating bunks with very little fresh air to breathe. Now, it sounds like more than one of the circles of hell to be stuffed into what amounts to a tin can on wheels with minimal windows with a bunch of hormonal teenagers, but at the time, it seemed magical. It was easy to imagine that our adult lives would unfold as a series of road trips as we saw sites across America, though—we theorized (at least some of us)—that we would be doing it at some point in a car with air conditioning and someone we loved sitting next to us. The adult versions of us would stop where we wanted, eat what we wanted, and no one could tell us we couldn’t swim after dark like our neurotic youth pastor would arbitrarily declare.

I bring this up only because Z and I traveled six days from Seattle to Indiana (and another six days back again) so we could spend three weeks visiting my family in Indiana. Triple C, the white Toyota we rented and named, literally, Cross Country Camry was promptly filled with more than we needed because I seemed to think we were wagon-training it back to civilization, so insisted we take two big jugs of water, a roll of duct tape, bungee cord, some carabiners, and a First Aid kit the size of a shoe box. Even now I can’t tell you what sort of disasters I was imagining in which duct tape, a keychain-sized carabiner, Shrek Band-Aids and bag of m&ms would be the only thing standing between us and certain death, but it made me feel safer so Z found a place to shove it all in the trunk. Our stuffed turtle ShellE who goes on all of our travels perched on the dashboard and we were off.

Because I’m not a photo journalist, I have not documented in this shot the packed-full trunk, the cooler on the backseat, or the stuffed turtle on the dashboard, but trust me, they are all there.

When Z and I decided to drive from Seattle to Richmond, my time optimism allowed me to dream of many fabulous road-side stops, photo ops, and a chance to explore places we’d never been before like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana. I reasoned that if we left early enough in the morning and got in five or six hours of driving, we’d have entire afternoons to explore Yellowstone, or see one of the various largest balls of twine. Though I have loathed people with selfie sticks at various tourist sites in the past (especially odious at the Tower of London in 2015 on the parapet above Traitor’s Gate where you could get a good view of Tower Bridge—man, I loathed the selfie-stick users bumping us out of the way to get their shot for social media), I ordered one, and packed my “real” camera too because I was imagining at least five Instagrammable photos per day. I imagined us having picnics in roadside parks and briefly considered taking our Bocce set because I imagined us needing to stretch our muscles, and in the stretching I imagined us dressed like a preppy couple in the 1960s: wicker picnic basket, gingham blouse & espadrilles for me, something linen with penny loafers for Z, and maybe an Airedale terrier joining us. In the end, I settled on two card games (Quiddler and Lost Citiesso we could relax at night in motels across America. Instead of hotels by the interstate, I imagined us at 1950s-style motels with quirky dinosaur or giant cow statues out front and delicious old-timey diners sitting right next to them. I imagined going back to the populuxe motel and writing a blog post of the day’s events and then sending postcards along the way to document our journey and to alert friends and family in Richmond that we were on the move. In at least one fantasy, I imagined us pulling an Airstream camper behind a woody station wagon. In another, we were riding some horses.

I imagined the entirety of our trip would look like different versions of the Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In the end, the trip did not look like any of these things. For one, the selfie stick was a big pain to set up. For two (and reasons that are still mysterious to us), it took two hours longer to get to each evening’s stopover. We never did leave earlier than 9 or 10 a.m. and we were on the highway and only stopped at rest stops or for food and fuel. The name brand hotels were the only ones we trusted for our overnights as the quirky antlers and patterned bedspreads of the “quaint” ones were not as inviting as I’d imagined. When we arrived at our interstate lodging, we would inevitably drag ourselves to whatever chain restaurant was walkable from the hotel, and then we’d spend the rest of the evening trying to find the hotel for our next night’s lodging. We never left enough time to play those games we brought. Being an indecisive pair, hotel searching could take the bulk of the evening as we weighed the merits of one hotel over another as if we were buying the entire franchise instead of renting a room for a single night. Then ultimately at the last minute we’d go with one that wasn’t the cheapest but was the cheapest of the mid-range prices. Ever since we stayed at the World’s Worst Motel in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with squishy carpet, dubious bedding, and the aroma of 1972, we’ve been wary of anything too cheap.

Big Sky Montana Through Windshield

And the photos I took? Not the beauties I’d planned. In fact, I set my camera on the “action” setting and took the bulk of pics out the car window. There weren’t as many “scenic view” stops as there are on the way down to Georgia or down the Oregon coast even though the scenery is there—just not places to pull over—so it was easier to click a string of pictures and hope for the best. Some are better than they should be, but most look about like the guy inside the dinosaur in that blurry Disney World pic from 1980 at the beginning of this post.

Photos aside, the drive out was delightful. Because we’d isolated ourselves so thoroughly during the pre-vaccine portion of the pandemic, it felt like a marvel to be in car without a mask driving away from First Hill, driving away from Seattle, driving away from Washington state. Mostly we talked as we drove—some conversations serious, some ridiculous, and occasionally there was companionable silence. We listened to a little music and several episodes of the Scene on Radio podcast“Seeing White” series, which I highly recommend if you are feeling too patriotic. It will rattle your sense of U.S. history in all the ways we should be rattled. We did not get tired of each other. Z has taken to calling me Green Bean Monkey or GBM for short because of a favorite green bean snapping monkey on TikTok and because he is a rascal (Z, not the OG GBM).

Every morning as we peeled out of the latest hotel parking lot, I would be struck by the “On the Road Again” earworm, and as we drove across Montana, Z got “Home on the Range” stuck in both of our heads for the two days we were in Big Sky country. Then we’d start looking for license plates to add to our list. We made it to 38 and if we hadn’t given ourselves stringent rules about collecting them only when we were in a moving car and the car with the desired plate was also moving, we would have acquired the coveted Hawaii.

Sunset by I-90, Missoula, MT

I used to be really good at planning a trip. I had things I wanted to see and I’d map out ways to see them. I’ve led multiple people around Ireland by the nose, demanding that they adore all the same things I adore, for instance. But during the pandemic while other people were losing their senses of smell, I lost my sense of travel planning. What this meant for our trip is that we did not alert friends along our route that we were coming until a day before we got to them. I chose our first stop—a hotel in Missoula, Montana, only because a friend had once purchased a shirt for me that said on it “Missoula, Montana: a Place. Sort of.” I’d like to be able to report its merits like a proper travel writer, but when we woke up the next morning instead of heading into downtown Missoula to get a sense of this college town, we looked at the misty, grey sky and the rain splattering onto our car, looked at each other and shrugged: maybe on the way back. More likely, we’ll just look photos up online.

See you some other day, Missoula.

We have friends in Billings, so our next stop was there, but what we failed to factor in was that it was Father’s Day. We went out to eat with them at a place with lots of steak, antlers, and men wearing big belt buckles. It was busy so we stood in line for almost an hour while we waited on our table, and it was our first real no-holds-barred restaurant experience. No one was masked up so we pretended they were all vaccinated along with us and thus it was just another Sunday night. We haven’t been with that many people in a public space since February 2020. It felt a little surreal, but also completely normal to be visiting with friends and their delightful, picture-drawing seven-year-old who thrilled me when I asked her what was inside her locket and she opened it and showed me two pics she’d cut up of various cast members from Harry Potter. (Oh, my heart! I was further charmed by her when I found out that on her play dates she and a friend schedule in time for reading because books are just that important to them.)

While we drove through Montana, we were intrigued by how above whatever town you are driving through you’ll see a big first initial of the town’s name carved into the mountain There’s probably a reason for it, but I chose to think of it like the water towers that dot flatter landscapes with the name of an entire town or village painted on it. And then I get amused because in Fountain City, where my high school was, for a time the water tower was spray painted so it read “Fountain City Hell Raisers.” You can’t do that with a mountain initial.

Let’s call this one Montana, but it could be western North Dakota

Z and I had been planning to spend our next evening in South Dakota near the Badlands/Deadwood/Mt. Rushmore (even though I’m not currently speaking to three of the four presidents on that particular monument and Lincoln is on thin ice himself). But we quickly discovered that basically every second person in America is traveling there this year and the hotels were outrageously overpriced. Like over $400 for a Holiday Inn. A Holiday Inn. I always loved their advertisements with the catch phrase: the best surprise is no surprise, meaning you could count on their sameness, but let me tell you, $400 was a surprise to us. So at the last minute with the advice of our friends in Billings, we decided we’d skip South Dakota and drive through North Dakota where apparently no one wanted to be because all the highway hotels were reasonably priced and thrilled to see us and there was non-existent traffic. We ended up staying in Bismarck though I can’t tell you anything about it except the Red Lobster in our Fairfield Inn & Suites parking lot was adequate.

It’s shameful how we traveled, I suppose, and would horrify people who suck the marrow out of every place they go, but we had limited days and getting home to the Midwest became increasingly important as the land flattened out.

Since our route had changed, we decided to stop by the Twin Cities and see the friends there that I inherited when I met Z who had acquired them himself during college and grad school, and then we moved through Wisconsin, and Illinois before we hit the banks of the Wabash and pointed the car towards Richmond on the eastern part of the state. We promised each other that on the drive back to Seattle we would plan ahead, have our overnights mapped out before we ever left Indiana. What’s more, we said, we’d let friends know a week in advance before we showed up in their town so they could block out an hour or two to visit instead of emailing two hours before we arrived to see if they were free for dinner.

Z and I are masters of planning to plan. It’s the follow-thru we have trouble with. So don’t be surprised to learn that when we left Indiana three weeks later we hadn’t even booked a hotel for the first night and had to pull over at a rest stop to do it. When we left Richmond, we weren’t sure yet if we’d take another crack at South Dakota, choose a more southerly route, or return the way we came. This time we were trying to dodge heat and wildfire smoke more than over-priced Holiday Inns. It drove my retired truck driver stepfather nuts that we didn’t have a route in mind when we pulled out of the driveway to head back.

A big cow in New Salem, ND

What we saw in all of those states on the way to Indiana were basically things through the windshield with the camera set on “action”—so nothing worth an article in Travel and Leisure, but even so, here are some highlights:

  • The world’s biggest cow (statue)
  • The world’s biggest sand crane (statue)
  • The world’s biggest buffalo (statue)
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park only because I-90 goes right through it
  • Road signs pointing to other national parks we hope to one day visit when they aren’t so crowded by people who have been locked up for over a year. And also when they are less likely to spontaneously combust.
  • Billboards for cheese, pornography, and anti-choice legislation—not sure what those three things have in common, but there were a lot of all three of those in Wisconisn in particular.
  • Scenery. A lot of gorgeous scenery of mountains, streams, cows, oil derricks, rock formations, trees, license plates of various states (39), and, alas,  deer carcasses (31). 
North Dakota started looking more familiar give or take an oil derrick or two.

What surprised me aside from my inability to plan a trip now or my crap photography skills?

  • The desert in eastern Washington that we’d never seen because we basically only exist west of the Cascade Mountains. It was bleak and gorgeous on the way out but on the way back this week with the haze of the Oregon wildfire hanging in the air, it looked more like something from a Mad Max movie and I kept waiting for Charlize Theron to roll up beside us in her big rig or Tina Turner to burst into “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
  • How beautiful that little finger of Idaho is and how much I’d like to see more of the state. Everything appeared to be made by faeries and we saw not one potato crop.
  • How much of Montana’s varying landscape looks exactly the way I have imagined Montana (which is to say similar to how I felt several years ago in New Mexico when I discovered the Coyote & Roadrunner cartoon landscape actually exists minus an ACME anvil or two).
  • Sight of the massive grazing land in Montana. We’d see herds of cattle but there was no sense of a farm being nearby. There was very little sense of farm houses or ranches at all. It was beautiful but also not my place in the world.
  • That I missed buffalo. I’m not sure how you can miss what you never saw and don’t know personally, but I felt their loss. On the return trip, I squinched my eyes whenever I saw rocks or tree stumps and pretended it was buffalo (I know, not the same thing as bison, but buffalo is a better sounding word) but even with my imagination I couldn’t picture the millions that were here before they were slaughtered with the dual purpose of making way for cattle grazing and removing a food and income source from the indigenous people in the hopes that they too would disappear. The longing for buffalo made me regret every hamburger I’ve ever eaten.
  • How North Dakota looked like neither the bleak landscape of a Willa Cather novel OR the sort of tumbleweed-strewn emptiness I’d always imagined, but instead was my first taste of the Midwest I’ve missed so much. In the 18 months we kept ourselves safe in Seattle, stuffed into our glass box in the sky, I wouldn’t let myself think too much about “home” or even what I mean when I think about home. No good could come of thinking of any of those places I’ve referred to with that distinction from March of 2020 until this trip. I’d get sad. I’d start to feel trapped. I’d start devising plans to fly home in one of those old-timey scuba suits with the big copper helmet in order to stay safe/not poison anyone else. It was better just to pretend that I didn’t want to be home, or that home was on Mars (because it might as well have been), and so I didn’t go as stir crazy as so many people did during the worst of the pandemic. Somehow—possibly my new anxiety medication—made the stuckness feel acceptable. But in North Dakota I could feel a subtle shift in my body. Like something in me was unfurling. I never expected that particular state to feel like a gateway to home.

As we drove further and further east across North Dakota and then into Minnesota, I felt more and more relaxed. Like I was in a place I understood, one that spoke my native language.  The farms started to look more like the ones I’m used to, though bigger. Suddenly the rest stops had vending. (Midwesterners would revolt without it.) The names sounded more familiar.

Because of construction in downtown St. Paul, we managed to find the cheapest lodging of our journey at the St. Paul Hotel. It’s gorgeous and “Old World” and gave us a false sense of our own fanciness. The lobby alone made us feel like we were living in a different, more opulent century, but the room was well appointed too. I don’t know that Fitzgerald did anything there, but I wouldn’t be surprised—it’s not far from the house where he wrote This Side of Paradise. Because Z has many friends in the Twin Cities from his time in college, it seemed like the perfect stop for us, and then the hotel was so cheap and fabulous that we decided to stay a second day.

St. Paul Hotel: Z’s Crocs were never so out of place

The first night there, we had a friend over and ordered in barbecue from Famous Dave’s, which Z thought was local but our friend announced there’s actually one in Seattle if we ever wanted it again. Before she arrived but after the food had been delivered, Z discovered that what he thought was a microwave in the room was actually a little microwave-sized safe. Cold barbecue and fries and beans didn’t sound that appetizing, so like a good Zimbabwean wife I made a plan and got the hair dryer and spent the next ten minutes blow drying the plastic containers to keep the food warm. A couple of sides got a little melted because I was over exuberant, but on the whole, it worked and it felt decadent to be gnawing on corn on the cob in this fancy room.

After a late breakfast the next day with another friend, Z and I attempted to walk along the Mississippi and through an old neighborhood with gorgeous old houses, but it was ridiculously hot. At one point we were standing behind the Science Center where we once saw artifacts from Pompeii on display. On this trip, I felt like I was one of the unfortunate souls being swallowed alive by lava. Minnesota might be covered in snow regularly when it’s winter, but summers are brutal. I was a red-faced mess when we got back to the hotel and did not look like someone who should be staying there. I was done for the rest of the afternoon.

View of St. Paul Cathedral from our hotel

For about two minutes I felt guilty that we weren’t taking advantage of the city to visit Z’s old alma mater or visit Paisley Park and that infamous elevator, but on minute three as I looked around our fine hotel room I realized we were doing exactly what I’d been wanting to do on this trip: sit around a nice room with good AC in minimal clothing, chomping ice and reading. That night, we had another meal with our friend MacGregor at an Italian restaurant that may well have served the best spaghetti Bolognese I’ve ever had, or, at least, the strongest Long Island Iced Tea that gave me the belief that it was the best spaghetti I’d ever had.

The next morning, we packed up our items—looking more and more like the Beverly Hillbillies at each stop as our suitcases and piles of things got more and more unruly—and hit the road, driving through Wisconsin (terrible drivers, beautiful scenery) and Illinois (windmills abound).

Be still my heart.

When we crossed the state line into Indiana on I-74 is the only time I felt teary about my return.

Seriously, my heart is doing double-time.

Before long, we were crossing the Wayne County line, and soon after that the Richmond city limits, with the big castle-like courthouse looming over the Whitewater River gorge.  In no time at all, we were headed north of town hugging the banks of the Whitewater River a fork of which ran through both my maternal grandparents’ farm and the campground that my paternal grandparents stayed at every summer during my childhood, a fact which gave me a sense that everything was weirdly unified in my life even if it wasn’t.  

Wayne County Courthouse, complete with un-used hanging gallery and Cinderella-style staircase.

And then we were heading into the driveway where Mom and my stepdad were waiting for us with balloons and a sign. It was an excellent reunion. Who cares if we didn’t get to see the world’s biggest ball of string on our journey—they were really what we’d driven all those miles for.

The human greeting was even better but the pictures were worse.

In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t have to navigate the last year and a half of the pandemic wondering things like  whether I was masked up tight enough to talk to Mom and Val through a screen door in order to keep them safe, or whether we could maybe have a picnic and not contaminate each other, or whether Corona Virus takes a holiday on Christmas so we could have gotten together. There were no dilemmas for me about who I could or couldn’t see because Z and I had hard and fast rules and lived 2,321 miles from the bulk of my familial temptations and 9,822 miles from his.

On the other hand, that was a lot of months and weeks not to see the faces I love so much with no opportunity to, even through triple-paned glass. I’d like to say the reunion was worth that wait, but I’d rather not waited. Time feels way too precious to be spending as much as we have watching Netflix. But still, the reunion was sweet.

Ways the trip did not look like I envisioned? The list I had of Things to Do While Home and what I was actually able to accomplish off of it. The original list:

  • Spend time with my family and friends. (Approximately 35 people at the top of my list.)
  • Get my hair cut and colored for first time since December 2019
  • Get shoes fixed at the shoe repair shop in Richmond, more for the joy of it than because I love the shoes.
  • Get my eyes checked at my beloved eye doctor because I fear he’ll retire
  • Sit on the patio with Mom and enjoy the non-citied outdoors
  • Paint with Mom
  • Sift through my items in the attic and figure out what it’s time to let go of (Billy Joel concert sweatshirt 1988? Jethro Tull sweatshirt 1991? A purple keyboard that no longer works? Etc.)
  • Write
  • Figure out a few belongings still residing in Indiana that could make the journey back to Seattle since we had a car, including:
    • Art work
    • Art projects
    • A yardstick I inherited that I like because it’s square that won’t fit into a suitcase.
    • A full-size umbrella with a map of the Tube on it that won’t fit into a suitcase.
  • Visit a dog friend who is terminally ill
  • Meet the dog of a former student with whom I have become obsessed on Facebook because he has the face of Walter Cronkite (that is, he looks like he knows more than you and will deliver bad news to you in somber tone if necessary)
  • For reasons known only to my subconscious, I really, really wanted to visit my cousin’s donkeys and press my forehead against one of their foreheads and commune with them.

It seemed do-able to me in three weeks, but with the heat the first week was a wash because we just sat around sweating and talking and feeling so glad to be together. The second and third weeks didn’t go much better in terms of accomplishments. It seemed like we were busy all the time, and yet I can’t really account for all the hours that passed while we were there. I got the errands done, Mom and I sat on the patio most mornings, we saw ten people out of the 35 or so I’d planned to see, I had one moment where I felt a psychic connection with a rabbit I believe I convinced not to trespass into the neighbor’s garden because he prides himself in his garden and he has a gun. I got to say my farewells to Leibovitz’s ailing dog, I ran some errands. But other than that, I failed on most other tasks including introducing myself to canine Walter Cronkite.

This could have been a much more artful shot, but it was too hot to get out of my lawn chair.

One of the other un-recorded plans I had was to take a lot of photos while I was home of different views—across the cornfield, on certain roads with particular vistas, of various people I love, of rainstorms and farm animals and moonlight streaming into my old bedroom—because during those long months when I couldn’t get back to Indiana I thought often of those people and places.

Even so, those things are sharper in my mind’s eye than they would be in any photo.

ShellE on the road again.

Ground Control to Major Tom

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PART THE FIRST


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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERLUDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART THE SECOND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas. It never looks like that.

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

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

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

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

Current essential items on desk:

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

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

Other “essentials”:

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

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

I need an intervention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIN

Blue mala beads in a teacup on a desk.

The Bears of First Hill

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Statue of two bear cubs playing on wingback chair and ottoman in park setting.

Happy New Year!

Or is that a jinx? Am I meant to be saying something like whatever the new year equivalent of “break a leg” is? Also, can you even say Happy New Year when it’s the first of February? Shouldn’t the greetings be over by now?

So far, I haven’t been that impressed by 2021, have you? It’s felt like a worse version of 2020 with an added layer of insurrection. Normally, I don’t put much stock in years being “good” or “bad”—it’s all just the peaks and valleys of being alive—but so far, I am of the mind that the successful coup has been that 2020 is still in office and we just don’t realize it yet. Every morning Z and I look at our phone messages and then ask the other with dread what the news is from our home and from friends. Used to, I’d be whining because the Seahawks were dispatched from the playoffs so quickly or a neighborhood party was loud, but now any day that doesn’t require a sympathy card or new additions to a prayer list feels like a win.

It doesn’t help that in addition to the new beautiful views out of the study at Oh La La that I’m always crowing about, there is also a straight line to an elderly care facility. About half the time I look that direction—directly down the street from my own now bi-focal needing eyes —there are the lights of ambulances flashing out front. On my best days, I say a quick prayer wishing them well, wishing them a lack of fear, wishing them people in their lives who love and care for them. On worse days, however, I angle my chair so I can’t see it at all. It’s a little too close to comfort, the home for the aged. Fiftysomething seems younger now than it did when my grandparents were in their fifties or when my great grandmother was wearing those old-timey clothes, but the days are zipping by. Even if we survive the pandemic, we are, as Alanis Morissette said, temporary arrangements.

Urban tree-lined street with distant red ambulance light, power lines.
Not thrilled with how those power lines seem to connect me with distant sadness.

When I was in high school with my penchant for English and art, I had friends—all male, please note—who liked to remind me that careers with words and art weren’t that lucrative. These boys were good with science and numbers. My father, also good with numbers, felt my chosen major in college—English without the education degree (because I took one ed class and was bored)—might turn me into a pauper and so I should consider a business major despite the fact that I had been a disaster at selling Girl Scout cookies and only loved his cast-off briefcase because it held my art supplies. Though my professors insisted we could do a lot with an English degree, they never handed out lists or offered us much advice beyond “go to grad school” which was, after all, what their own experience had been. Still, I loved words on a page whether mine or someone else’s, and nothing else felt like a good fit.

There were plenty of times—especially during the “spinster librarian” phase—when the mystery of my life was why I hadn’t tried harder to get myself on one of those more lucrative career paths. Or, at the very least, a career path that was less nebulous. On the early morning drive to work, I’d stare at construction workers and think about how much more straightforward and useful their work was: the world needed places to live and roads that weren’t riddled with potholes and so their jobs were to solve those problems.

What exactly was I solving at the library? How to convince someone that if they didn’t pay their fines before checking out another book the entire library system would crumble? Even I didn’t believe that one.

Toddler with brownie hat crying on floor.
You might like to eat cookies, kiddo, but you’re never going to be good at selling them no matter what hat you wear.

One day you wake up, and it’s your birthday, and a few days later multiple friends near your age start talking about their retirement plans in six years or so, and if you are me, you think, but wait a minute, I still haven’t completely figured out what I want to be when I grow up—who wants to retire? And then you realize that while you were trying to figure out what to do with yourself, you were actually living your life.

Who knew?

If I had to have business cards printed right now, I still don’t even know what they should say. “Writer. Teacher. Ponderer” is closest to the truth, but I don’t have a contract from St. Martin’s or tenure, so “ponderer” seems to be the most accurate measure of how I’ve lived my life but the pay is not so good.

Usually on January 6th what I’m pondering is the miracle of my own birth with a very small side order of the arrival of the magi at the manger to visit the infant Jesus. (I do this primarily because it seems wrong to have a birthday on Epiphany and not acknowledge that before it became my birthday it had other, greater significance. That said, the quality of my pondering is often along the lines of wondering what Mary thought when these fancy men rolled up with their expensive jars and boxes of treats for a baby. Because I’m pretty sure what I’d have been thinking is Do you mind if I return this? We’re still living in a manger here and we need some onesies and a Diaper Genie.)

This year, however, I didn’t get to ponder Epiphany or the last five decades of my life because just as I was finishing a morning writing session, my cousin texted that the Capitol had been breached. So Z and I spent the rest of the day thinking about the fragility of democracy, the importance of critical thinking, and how in 1980 my youth group members and I were practically strip searched before we were allowed in the Capitol but somehow the masses were able to break in and run rampant.

I realize it’s not all about me, but I’ve spent my life knowing my birthday so close to Christmas was a pain for people, that it was a high holy day, a birthday I have to share with E.L. Doctorow, Rowan Atkinson, John DeLorean, and Vic Tayback. But now, oh joy, it is a date that will live in infamy. I can hardly wait for next year’s Facebook memes reminding me to “never forget.”

What is wrong with people? You love democracy so you break it’s windows and smear excrement in its hallways while carrying a flag with a man’s name on it as if he’s a king? This is not what I learned about Democracy and the Constitution from my School House Rock cartoons. (Hint: you don’t get to revolt because your person didn’t win. I learned it in grade school and was reminded of it again during both the 2000 and the 2016 elections when I had to lick my wounds without the solace of fur pants and Viking helmet.)

What have we become?

After several hours of watching the news and feeling gloomy about the future, Z and I finally went up on the roof. We were going to go on a walk, but Seattle being Seattle, there were some demonstrations we weren’t interested in getting caught up in when tensions were so high, so instead we let the wind on the rooftop whip us around a bit. We watched the sunset, looked at Mt. Baker which made a rare appearance in the distance, and had a false sense momentarily that all was right in the world. It was beautiful. Later, I was feted by Z and a Zoom version of my folks and opened presents and ate cake. I did, however, forget to put on my tiara.

Distant snow-covered mountain on horizon. City in foreground.
Welcome to my party, Mt. Baker.

From my new vantage at Oh La La I can see the chimney tops of the Stimson-Green Mansion. First Hill used to be flush with mansions but we’re now down to about four, and the Stimson-Green is something special. It’s Tudor Revival, looks like something from a storybook, and is even more delightful inside with each room decorated in a different style. I’ve written about it before. Though all I can see are the chimney and the roofline, I know what sits under it and had the good fortune to tour it, so when I see those chimneys, I’m able to imagine this area in the early 20th century when horses and wagons were making deliveries to the fancy houses, and the residents therein all knew each other and had, for whatever reason, decided they’d rather make their fortunes in the Pacific Northwest instead of Back East. They were not, I assume, English majors.

Tudor style mansion covered in snow.
Stimson-Green Mansion after a snow fall last year.

Next to the mansion is the small, just renovated First Hill Park, and there has been an addition to the old foot print of a bronze, three-piece sculpture of two bear cubs playing on a wingback chair and ottoman. The sculpture was created by Georgia Gerber who also created the famous Rachel the Pig at Pike Market that I’ve rarely gotten close to because it’s always covered with tourists. This new one is a whimsical sculpture that invites you to sit in the chair with the bear cubs frolicking nearby, and it might seem random, but it isn’t.

Women with mask sitting in bronze chair of statue with bronze bear cubs in small park.

The young daughter of the mansion was giving a pair of newborn black bear cubs by her father’s foreman when they were orphaned because their mother was killed in a logging accident. She named the cubs Johnny and Irish, and for the first ten months of their lives, she raised them, played with them, and, one assumes, loved them. (She preferred animals to people.) The upper verandah of the house was their playpen and she regularly walked them around the neighborhood without a leash.

Z has a fit when he sees a dog off leash on our daily walks. Can you imagine if we’d been bumping into little Dorothy with Johnny and Irish? Oh my goodness.

When I think of the bears, I try to focus on the early days of their lives when they were living in the mansion, tumbling over the dragon andirons by the big fireplace, roaming the neighborhood. Before they got so rambunctious with greeting people—not aggressive, apparently, just a little too enthusiastic in their attentions because they were no longer little bears. So they were taken to Woodland Park Zoo where they lived all their remaining days. I wonder about the drive to the zoo. Were they treated like beloved family pets who got to ride shotgun, taking in the city as they neared their new home? Did Dorothy go with them and was it a tearful goodbye? (How could it not have been?) Was their enclosure at the zoo spacious and humane or was it like the tiny wire cage the bear at the park where I grew up had to live? I spent my childhood wanting to see the animals at the park zoo and then feeling instantly sick and sad because they were in small cages and not living the lives they deserved to live. Dorothy would apparently visit them and she pointed them out to her own daughter. She might have been a practical person, but I’m guessing she longed to take them back to the house on Minor Avenue and let them romp on the furniture.

Less exciting neighborhood ponderables:

View out high window of street scene with leafless trees and one green, be-leafed tree in the middle of the street.
Show-off.
•   This tree. It’s on a mini traffic circle and seems not to realize it’s January. All the other trees around it are naked, but this one is still dressed for a ball. I can’t decide if it’s some kind of sick that means it forgot to drop it’s leaves or if it’s just showing off. 

•   Why our fabulous trash chute is suddenly not working and we now have to carry our garbage down the elevator.  

•   Why I have quit seeing Toast the corgi in the lobby. Has he moved? 

•   Also, WHY ARE THERE NO SCOTTIES IN THIS BUILDING? 

•   Finally, why is there a guy playing a baritone on the corner across the street all weekend long, every weekend. And why does he seem to prefer Simon and Garfunkle tunes? At first it was a fun reminder that we live in a city, but after a few weekends like this, I’m grateful I got AirPods for my birthday. 

Everything is so depressing these days. 

Except.

When I’m looking at the old people home in front of me, behind me is Swedish Hospital where two of our favorite little girls—Pippi and the Imp—were born. Before Christmas a client dropped off a gift when I handed over a manuscript I’d been editing and she pointed to the hospital with a fond smile and said, “That’s where my boys were born.”

The last few weeks, I’ve twice seen a bald eagle soaring past our building, where normally we only see crows and seagulls. Who knew an advantage of living on the 9th floor of Oh La La would be bald eagle sightings?

And finally, yes, the Capitol was breached but it wasn’t successful. Our elected officials went back to work and the building and grounds crew righted what was wronged. And when I think about the whole event, I’m struck by how it was words that instigated the riot and words—written all those years ago, imperfect but with the intention of becoming more perfect—that allowed us to get back to the business of living. Maybe words really do matter after all.

young girl in woman's lap with Dr. Seuss book being red to her.
Words were easier when they were just Dr. Seuss

In the Bleak Midwinter

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

So this is Christmas. And what have you done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had snow for 15 minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God bless us every one!

Zen and the Art of the Stalled Engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry for doubting you, Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m trying to focus on the but alsos.

**ADDENDUM**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Hands Injures Her Neck

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They don’t make skies like this in Seattle.

It’s Mom’s last day in Seattle after a three week visit, which was preceded by a 5 week visit of mine to Indiana, so I’m starting the morning with my “Fall Décor” lights set on high-beam, two strong cups of tea, and some Lizzo so I won’t feel the sadness that I will likely feel tomorrow when we point her towards her gate at SEATAC and wave goodbye.

 

Stupid Lizzo.

 

Thanks to Lizzo’s contagious upbeatness, I spent the last three days in phone hell instead of enjoying Mom’s presence here. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that if I drank tea in the morning, sprayed myself with the Aveda Pure-fume that is supposed to open up my 5th chakra of communication, and listened to a Lizzo playlist on my way to class that I was transformed into the instructor I’m meant to be. That is, this magical elixir makes me as extraverted as I’m capable of being AND able to come up with near-perfect examples, analogies, and author and book titles when class discussion goes down a twisty path.

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Autumnal energy booster.

In fact, the magic lasts even after class and so that is why on Tuesday, “Truth Hurts” blasting into my ears as I walked home with a bounce in my step, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to pick up a plastic Coke bottle that someone had tossed on the ground.

 

This is not something I normally do. Normally, I look at litter—which enrages me because it’s so senseless—and think, they really need to clean this place up.

 

They.

 

Earlier in Mom’s visit we’d been to the Convention Center to see the Northwest Water Color Society’s exhibit and while we were there, the youth of the world were out marching in protest of the deplorable state of the environment. Mom and I stood peering out at them a few streets away as traffic backed up, spewing exhaust into the atmosphere, and I felt a little teary as I watched them. A woman walked up to see what the fuss was and said something that could have been supportive or sarcastic and Mom said something sagely back like, “Why shouldn’t they be protesting? It’s their world.”

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It doesn’t look that impressive from this distance, but we were impressed.

When you don’t have children of your own you sometimes forget that you are not “young people” or “the youth” that you have always felt you were. It’s a surprise to realize that your own mother doesn’t see the world as yours anymore, so much as she sees it as something for some younger generation.

 

It’s also shocking to wake up one day and realize that the children of the world aren’t just mad at the people you were mad at when you were their age but they are actually mad at you. And you’ve got no leg to stand on because you were pretty Gen X apathetic and emo through most of the 80s and 90s and aughts and only got very marginally woke when you moved to a city with a plastic bag ban and curbside recycling and composting. (And don’t tell these children or the city Trash Sheriff, but you don’t compost because you live in 500 square feet and hate fruit flies and justify this failure of yours with the knowledge that you have no car, have not filled the landfill with the diapers of your imaginary children, are unfashionable and thus keep your clothes for decades instead of sending them to a landfill, and fly somewhat less than the average upwardly mobile Seattle.)

 

Later, on that bright, caffeinated, Lizzo perky day, while I was walking down the street, saw that plastic bottle and thought this they would finally do something and pick it up and throw it away, I felt good about this choice. I was a block from home and so I could  wash my hands and thus the germs of whatever cretin had last touched the bottle, and I knew that if I put it where it belonged, it would not roll ten blocks down the hill into Elliott Bay and choke a baby Orca. It was a win for the environment and a win for my belief in myself as a decent human being.

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The Orcas beneath this ferry are NOT choking on at least one plastic bottle because of me.

 

And then my ancient, petite iPhone jumped out of my pocket when I bent over and skittered across the sidewalk. The screen spider-webbed and only 1/10th of the display worked—and not the helpful bit of display wherein I could turn Lizzo off or check my text messages but instead the part that showed my battery was at 86%.

 

On the plus side, I was in such a good mood that I dealt with it. I threw out that bottle, made an appointment to get it fixed, and then used powers of reason to deduce that paying $70 (or more, if fixable) for a six year old phone that had been slowing down anyhow was perhaps not the best use of money. I even maintained my calm when I discovered that the fabulous replacement phone I’d been fantasizing about for six months would cost what a new MacBook Air would cost. (Things have changed in the six years since I bought a phone.)

 

With optimism, I got online and ordered a pre-loved older phone that was a couple of generations newer than my old one and by all reports online was “the” old phone to get. (Added benefit: a few moments of sanctimony as I thought about how much better I was for reusing someone else’s phone and not depleting the world of extra minerals for a brand new one. You’re welcome, Earth!)

 

I was even surprisingly perky about living two whole days without a phone and spent time reflecting on life before 1992 when I got my first “car phone.” It was in a giant carry-on sized bag that sat beside me on the seat in case there was a roadside emergency. I stood at the bus stop listening to music in my head—still Lizzo— and pondered how back in my day you’d just go out into the world untethered to technology and it never occurred to you that it wasn’t “safe.” If you had car trouble, someone would probably rescue you or you’d walk somewhere and borrow use someone’s phone and help would come.

 

It was a different world. Now if I forget my phone and walk five blocks from the apartment, Z growls at me and makes me feel like I’ve been juggling the kitchen knives again.

 

I maintained the good humor until the new, “pre-loved” phone arrived. It’s lovely and does all the things I want it to do even if it is 4 generations behind whatever is the hot new powerful thing. But it is also giant and every time I pick it up, all I can think about is Donald Trump needing two hands to drink that normal-sized bottle of water. I’ve always thought I had big hands for a woman, but I guess not. I can’t balance the thing in one hand and text—it’s a two-handed situation now and it won’t fit in the wallet I bought for my money and my old phone three weeks ago, and since I currently don’t have a case for it, I’m carrying it in a protective recycled pencil pouch from a women’s cooperative in a developing country and refusing to take it out unless there is carpet and soft furnishing underneath me.

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New phone for giants next to cracked, reasonably sized phone.

Yesterday, I peppered my Millennial students with questions about how they manage their giant phones, some gianter than mine, and they looked at me the way I used to look at Great Aunt Clara when I had to explain that you could now get money right out of an ATM and didn’t have to talk to a bank teller or anything. Apparently you just hold it and appreciate that the movies you’re watching on Netflix are easier to see than they were on that old 5c. What a stupid thing to complain about, their expressions said while their mouths said, “I know” as they nodded their heads to humor me.

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Self-explanatory.

 

While I was in Indiana, I had dinner one night with Leibovitz, Little Leibovitz home for a week before starting grad school, and Baby Leibovitz home from her first year of college. It’s been awhile since I’ve been with all three of them at once, and it still surprises me when I visit Leibovitz’s house and the girls aren’t there, so I was glad the planets aligned. Frankly, their having grown up still jolts me. I spent a lot of time with them when they were little, then Z arrived on the scene and distracted me somewhat, and I woke up one day and L.L. was no longer begging me to “do projects” and B.L. was no longer carrying her pink blanky, and so on this particular night it was still surprising to be sitting across from these creatures I met on the day they came into this world and now they are beautiful and clever and have lives of their own that I know nothing about. They are wise in all the ways I remember being wise when I was 20 only they seem to be going places I never was.

 

On this occasion, they tried to convince me their cauliflower crust pizza was just as good as a real pizza crust and even though I know it is categorically untrue that anything made of cauliflower can be as good as bread, I want to believe. We laughed, talked about school and the winding down of summer, while I sat there and tried not to behave creepily while I admired their perfect skin, particularly the bit under their eyes that is unlined and bagless. Was my skin ever that smooth and un-aged?

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You know what’s better than cauliflower? Sweetcorn fresh from my aunt’s field.

 

At some point, their mother told me that she’d water skied for the last time this summer. She realized it wasn’t worth it—she doesn’t have the back for it anymore, etc. and in a brief second I saw this look pass between the girls and I heard my mother and her friends two decades ago talking about new aches and pains. I too, had probably glanced at whatever of my contemporaries was nearest and gave that look. That look that says, Here we go again with the aches and pains talk. Older people are so single-minded and unaware.

 

Suddenly, I felt like a wizened crone, and so decided to to lay some truth on the girls: “You think you’re always going to be the age you are right now, but one day you are going to wake up and you’re going to be this age and it’s going to shock you because inside you’ll still feel 20 but your body won’t feel 20 at all.”

 

And even that sounded like something I know I heard my mother say 20 years ago. They laughed and said they knew, but of course they don’t know. You can’t know when you are young that you won’t always be young. The future feels so far away.

 

On the drive home, I was on a hamster-wheel of thought that went How’d I get here? Why aren’t they still in diapers? Weren’t Leibovitz and I just putting them to bed early so we could talk about real life stuff without havng to spell it out? Weren’t Leibovits and I just their age?

 

It seems fitting to me that the first 45 record I ever bought was Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and oh, how those opening lines about time slipping into the future fascinated me as a ten year old even though I didn’t quite understand. (And yes, Steve Miller, but it could have been worse—my 3rd grade friend’s first 45, bought at the same time as mine from the now defunct Elder-Beerman department store, was “Muskrat Love”, a song that has blessedly fallen from radio playlists for a reason.)

 

Other than the phone, the other distraction while Mom has been here in Seattle, which has kept me from being fully present and focused on her is that before I left Indiana, I injured my neck.

 

I’m saying I “injured” my neck because that will make you think I was working construction, building something important, and there was an accident with some rebar and I was damaged and now am collecting workman’s comp. The truth is, I slept on it funny. Or turned it too quickly. Or shrugged my shoulders too vigorously when someone asked me where I wanted to go for dinner. I don’t even know what happened, but one day I was in agony and I stayed that way for two and half weeks.

 

I had a couple of massages that briefly helped, but then the muscles would turn themselves back into a Celtic knot after a few hours and I’d be popping Advil, some Class A narcotics I had from kidney stones of yesteryear, and none of it touched the pain. It was the kind of agony that is not so bad that you have to go to a room to be by yourself to whimper in peace, but it was the kind where when you are with other people you can’t really focus on their words or make plans for Big Fun in the City, and you talk over much about the number of pain you are in on that inane pain scale when your husband asks how you feel. All you can focus on is your body and how it used to work so nicely and now is wrecked and may never be the same.

 

After a visit to the doctor, I was sent to physical therapy up the street where a nice therapist called Laurel (who I highly recommend) has worked on the muscles and made me do exercise.  Though it still twinges at times, I finally feel normal again but I may never backpack across Europe, and, frankly, I could do without her telling me how all of my muscles are connected because I don’t like to think about anything under my skin all that much.

The upside: my posture hasn’t been this good since I saw that episode of “Brady Bunch” as a kid when Marcia  was walking around with a stack of books on her head.

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Dear Street Artists: please don’t force me to think about my own inner workings.

 

Because Seattle is a young city, most the people at this therapy joint are young and are having muscles iced and heated and manipulated that they clearly strained while free climbing or running marathons. They’re in appropriate, attractive athletic wear and even though injured, they are doing vigorous stretches and strengthening exercises. Meanwhile, I am sitting in a chair in a cardigan tilting my neck from side to side and holding it for 30 seconds at a time and Laurel is saying, “That looks great!! Keep it up!”

 

I’m ashamed of myself for how pleased I was the day I saw a woman there who appeared to be older than I was, sitting at a table sorting beads from one bowl to another, and I thought with some satisfaction, “At least I still have my fine motor control!” As if this is all some kind of competition—who is oldest, who is strongest, whose hands are big and dexterous enough to hold their phones and regular sized bottles of water that they’ll fail to recycle.

 

So now I am here with a brain no longer addled with pain or obsessed with what phone is most cost effective and environmentally friendly—and which case will protect it best when it slips from my tiny, ancient hands—and it is time for Mom to leave. We are spending our last day together here painting, considering that maybe we should shower and dress before Z gets home from work, and with her worrying her suitcase won’t zip or will be too heavy and me insisting that it will all be fine even though I don’t know for sure, but I think—in my “youth”–that I know more than she does about the weight of things.

 

At some point, Z will come home, will get out the luggage scale, and will find out if she’s good to go or if we have to find a second suitcase for her to lug home a few books she got for her birthday that cost less than the fee for an additional bag.

 

Hopefully the truth won’t hurt. But it usually does.

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To Tiny Buzz Lightyear, even my tiny phone would be too much to deal with.

Finding True North

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Z surprised me this weekend with an overnight to the Suquamish Clearwater Resort & Casino, which is a ferry ride away from the city and which was a delightful break from noisy, dirty, summer Seattle. We go there periodically on day trips for a little flutter on the penny slots and try our own weird ways to convince the machines to relinquish the dosh, but our systems are largely based on faulty logic and even faultier intuition so we never leave much richer than when we arrived and often leave $40 poorer. But this trip over was even better because he’d booked a room for us in the resort with a water view and we arrived with just enough sunlight left that we were able to drink it in.

 

I forget every year how sometimes it feels like the city lives right in the apartment with us when the windows go up: the bus idling, the dustups, the barking, the leaf blower racket all curled right up on the couch with us.

 

Earlier in the week I had walked to work and in the course of my journey passed three separate men who were talking loudly and angrily to no one visible—one of whom was the most pitiful creature I’ve ever seen, howling like the hounds of hell were coming for him—and, after saying a little prayer of God-please-help-them-find-peace, I marveled at how even if you have your faculties in tact and aren’t under the influence it’s a kind of insanity to walk past such people as if it isn’t happening, as if you are traveling in a triple-paned pod that somehow keeps you removed from the curses and the cries (and what I think was a three block rant about Jeff Bezos and how he’s ruining the city).

 

So I was glad to find myself looking out over Agate Passage Sunday evening. We watched an eagle that may have been nesting in a pine tree in front of us (or may have been a series of eagles that we wrongly referred to as “The Eagle” and “him”) and some sailboats. It was peaceful. Because we were inside—it was warm and mosquitoes were outsidewhatever noises were out there, we were oblivious. I could feel the city lifting off of me.

 

We wanted to maximize our view, so we decided to stay in the room until the sun went down, which meant we missed dinner at the restaurants and had to eat at the 24-hour deli in the casino. And then we played our $20 each on the casino slots.

 

They did not pay out. They do about 10% of the time, and never in the big way we plan for them too. But still, we live in hope, which is half the fun—spending our imagined riches before we ever step onto the casino floor.

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This is from a different casino, but this post was looking text-heavy, so here’s a fancy light and some sticks!

The next morning, I woke up early and while Z was still sleeping I sat on the balcony. No matter what I do on a vacation, I feel I’m doing it wrong. If I’m on the beach, I’m sure I’m missing a view from a ridge. If I’m reading a book, I’m sure I’m missing a heron or a certain shimmer of light. On Monday morning, it was no different. I wanted to write Jane because it had been too many days and I twitch if I go too long without sending her a recap of my week or my latest thoughts on the Enneagram, whatever I’m reading or watching, and the general state of the world. (Jane is very generous in acting as my journal. I need an audience.)

 

After forcing myself to sit there for several minutes, I finally determined I could write her while ignoring the screen and looking at the view in a sort of multi-tasking-with-nature scheme. I did with some success, and it must have looked appealing to the woman on the balcony next to me, because not long after I opened my computer she sat down her coffee, padded into her room, and returned with her own computer.

 

I described the view to Jane, thinking that would keep me rooted in the spot even if technology was sitting on my lap. I told her about the houses you could barely see across the water on Bainbridge Island because the pine trees are so thick, the rocky beach below where a couple of dogs were loping, the way the sky and land around Puget Sound is always pastel in a way that makes my heart do a little flip. This isn’t a view I have daily, and yet I feel I’ve been looking at it enough on our periodic jaunts for the last 13 years that this is the thing I would miss most if we ever left the Pacific Northwest. I would miss the palette here the way I still miss the clean line of an Indiana horizon at sunset.

 

The problem with me getting enraptured with beauty is that beauty and angst reside very near each other in my brain. So while I was looking at the expanse of trees and water and sky in front of me, I was also thinking about all the ways we’re wrecking the planet. I was thinking about the beautiful, historic photos of the Suquamish people—a woman with a basket, a group shot of handsome football players from the early twentieth century, a child in a canoe—that were hanging around the hotel. I had feelings about what was done to them and what the world might look like if they’d been left to their own devices and all the garbage the casino was generating that day alone and about the people inside who were maybe not sticking to the $20 limit that Z and I have.

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I don’t know why my finger is in this photo or why it looks like a snapshot instead of huge portrait hanging above the desk, but this woman’s face is one of the most gorgeous and haunting things I’ve seen. I wonder if she would mind her image plastered around the resort.

It piles up on you, all the worries and ugliness, but the benefit of being somewhere lovely when you think about horrible things is that you can do some deep breaths, watch an eagle make a pass across the water, and push it out of your head for a time.

And I was able to do that until an older (than us) couple settled under one of the umbrella tables beneath the balcony. The be-hatted man bellowed across the lawn at another man, “Which way is north?” The man seemed not to hear him. The be-hatted man and his wife talked loudly between themselves about which way was most likely north as the wife pointed south and said she was sure that was the direction they hoped to locate. I considered yelling down to them but it was early and didn’t seem nice for the people still sleeping in the rooms around us, so I let them fumble with their map and ask a few more people, and then I began to suspect they didn’t really care about the direction they were facing so much as they enjoyed having something to talk about.

 

I started giving Jane a (riveting) blow-by-blow of what the couple was doing. How they ensnared another, equally loud, couple with their query about directions despite the fact they both had fancy phones that probably had compasses, despite the fact that they said to the couple they came regularly and stayed on Sundays and then offered tips of places where they could dine, despite the fact that they lived due north of the resort and surely knew which way home was having just driven south to get where they were.

 

The be-hatted man yelled at a young woman walking nearby, “Nice earrings!” though it was unclear to me how he could see them. She dipped her head and touched her earrings and hurried into the lobby.

 

I hated them. I hated them for their morning chipper. I hated them for their loud voices. I hated them for their need to connect to other humans. What was wrong with people that they had to be so loud all the time, I asked Jane. Why must they fill every silence with words? Did they have no unspoken thoughts?

 

And then I told her that I thought those homophobes who are always suggesting “the gays” should be sent to an island where they could be with each other and not bother “us normal people” had it all wrong. It was the extroverts who should be sent to the island. They could sit at umbrella tables and drink Mai Tais and make loud small talk with strangers all day long. They’d be happier. Introverts would be happier. Surely that would be a win-win!

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I feel certain the fire hydrants on Extrovert Island will look like this. Olé!

I’m sure Jane was thrilled to get my email. I’m always such a beacon of light and happiness.

 

Finally the couple left, Z woke up, we had some tea, and my mood re-brightened. We determined we didn’t want to leave and attempted to secure a room for another night, but the only one available was the $600 presidential suite and our bank account was not presidential. We decided to check out, eat breakfast, come back to the grounds we were overlooking and pretend we were still guests. We commandeered a table under a willow tree right by the water, and set up shop. Z did some work and called Zma. I worked on my too-long email to Jane and made a mental list of all the work I’d tackle when I got home when our mini vacation was officially over.

 

A family with too many ill-behaved kids showed up behind us, and I started type-grousing to Jane. I was particularly disparaging of their rat tail hair-dos and said “’rat tail’ pretty much tells you all you need to know about the parenting style of this family.” They were so loud. The father was bellowing playful orders at them as if they were in their own yard and no one else was around. I started to hate them more than the be-hatted directions guy.

 

Children. Hate.

 

I told Jane I thought maybe I’d hit an age when I was ready to start going to adults only resorts, but then I wondered would that mean we’d be surrounded by a bunch of single Millennials bent on hooking up? Loudly? Around us?

 

“I’m starting to think what I’m really hankering for is a retirement community,” I typed to Jane.

 

Then I looked back at Agate Passage, heard the eagle, and I’d forget to be annoyed by the Loud Others again. And then they left.

 

This is what I think is difficult in the city: there are fewer places of peace and beauty to distract yourselves with when the mongrel hoards are nipping at your heels. It is inspiring and exciting and fascinating, but when someone is screaming in your window you can’t do deep breaths, look at a spot of beauty, and forget that some stranger is encroaching on your peace of mind.

 

Z and I sat out there, inadvertently getting too much sun even though we were in the shade, for over three hours. It was so relaxing. At one point, the Rat Tail Boys returned but Loud Dad wasn’t with them, and they were talking quietly to each other about the bugs and rocks and bits of nature they were seeing like junior scientists. And I thought how lovey they were to be so interested in the world around them.

 

Those few hours on the green with the water lapping gently beside us were the best part of the trip and we weren’t even technically guests of the resort any longer. Maybe that was why it felt so sweet.

 

Maybe we finally figured out a way to game the system.

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Not a bad office for the day.

The Bug-Eyed of Notre Dame

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Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.

 

She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.

 

As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”

 

So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.

 

I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.

 

Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.

 

And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.

 

Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.

 

The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.

 

And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.

 

We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.

 

I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.

 

That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

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Maybe its beautiful if you’re a bee. Or a cyborg.

I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

 

I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.

 

I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.

 

Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.

 

Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.

 

Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.

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King Street Station, Seattle

A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.

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A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle

Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.

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I wanted to steal one of each of these.

What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.

 

In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.

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Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!

Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.

 

Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.

 

I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.

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A serviceable river. I do love those little bridge turrets!

Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.

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My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.

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At least there’s one thing I can tick off my bucket list.

 

Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”

 

This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)

 

I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.

 

I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.

 

I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.

 

Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.

 

Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.

 

I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?

 

It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.

 

It’s all illogical. But it’s my heart.

 

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Union Station, Portland

Anti-Malarial Dreams III: A Procrastinating Adventurer Realizes She’s on an Adventure

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Last month here in Seattle we had a couple of weeks of freakish winter weather that made me feel like I was back in Indiana. Two nights before it was scheduled to come, Z and I went to the grocery and we found bare shelves and a crazed herd of humans, preparing themselves for what we were both certain would be four-hours of snow-covered streets that would soon melt.

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The cupboards were bare.

We were wrong.

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Like some African animals, Seattle snow is not easy to photograph.

I know it doesn’t look like much, and were I in Indiana with my Indiana boots and my Indiana coat and my flat, flat Indiana horizon, I’d have been out in it, dusting off my car and driving to work. But the thing about snow in Seattle is that we have something like 7 snowplows and steep inclines in all directions. The few times I ventured out in my shoes that are fabulous for rain, I discovered they were not fabulous for snow and ice and I slid all over the place, felt ancient, and locked myself into the apartment afterward vowing not to go out until the snow melted.

 

Even since it’s melted, it’s been unseasonably cold. No one else here seems to notice. They’re running around in lightweight jackets or no jackets at all, but even bundled up in hats with earflaps, scarves, and mittens, Z and I feel like the wind whipping up the hill off the water is made of knives.

 

Apparently we’re a spectacle. One night we were having a walk and some 20-year-old snarked to his friend, “They’re ready for winter.”

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These people are prepared for Snowpacalypse, but the guy in the hoodie looks like he might be snarky.

My vow to stay indoors until the snow melted should have, perhaps, also included a clause about staying in until the complete disappearance of know-it-all hipster youth too.

 

 

I had the big plans last summer to write regular installments during and about our trip to Zimbabwe (with an Ireland chaser), and then I got waylaid with pneumonia and a variety of other events and moods that I recognize now as excuses. So far, I haven’t continued Anti-Malarial Dreams because I don’t feel like I can do that trip justice. Whatever I write will disappoint me, could annoy Zimbabweans I know and love, say too much about the students we were traveling with, say too little about the people we encountered, be dishonest by not telling you the things that troubled me on the trip or be too honest by over-sharing.

 

In the realm of fight or flight responses, I have chosen neither and instead have just been frozen, a white tail dear in the high-beams of an SUV.

 

I’m teaching Writing for Procrastinators this term, a class I designed precisely for people like me who have a lot to say and some ability to say it, but who scare themselves into silence. One of the students last week said he’d been writing a lot since taking the class, but he was too nervous to send his work to me for comment. I told him he shouldn’t do that to himself because in this particular class and with this particular instructor (me), the stakes are pretty low. He nodded and said he’d try to find the courage to send me something this week, and I realized maybe I ought to practice what I preach. The stakes here are pretty low. If you jeer and throw rotten produce at me to demonstrate your displeasure, it’s just going to hit your computer screen anyhow, right?

 

 

* * * * * * * *

 

Our first day in town with the students after visiting Z-ma’s school, we go to Sacred Heart Cathedral for a tour, a tour I suggested Z take us on because I love a good cathedral. It’s not as grand as St. Patrick’s in New York, or even St. James, which is up the street from us in Seattle, but it’s lovely. Thomas, our guide, gives us a quiet tour and when he isn’t talking we stroll around, looking at the statues and artwork. The Catholic students in our group spend a few minutes in prayer. There’s no smell of incense, no real statuary, no Stations of the Cross, and for these reasons and maybe some others, it feels almost like a church that was built for one denomination in the distant past and has recently been taken over by another. But I’ve read the history and know it’s always been Catholic, it has multiple services—some in English, some in Shona, and one in French/Portuguese.

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So peaceful.

Providence, Hudge, and I stand in the balcony and look at the artwork above the high altar, and Providence notices that almost all of the images in the church are of white people, which I can’t really work myself up into any sort of righteous indignation over because when it was built, it was built for white people who weren’t really planning on inviting congregants of color inside.

 

What’s more curious to me, however, is that the artwork has remained the same since independence.

 

Another curiosity: a small brass plaque on the wall where one of the Stations of the Cross would be in any other cathedral. It says only “The Five Irishman,” and we’re left to wonder who they were, if they put up the plaque because they dedicated something to the church or if they are being remembered here, likely by other people long gone. For some reason, I picture them as New York style firefighters or cops, immigrants who ended up in Africa instead of the Americas, who would be played by Denis Leary or Aidan Quinn.

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Well, okay then.

Z tells me that his aunty and uncle, both from Italy, had their funeral services here, and because I knew Z when his aunty died, suddenly I have my own fabricated memories. I can picture a service in this church. I can picture Z’s relatives there, mourning the loss of a woman I wish I’d had a chance to meet. I can picture Z walking behind her casket, even if he didn’t. The mostly empty cathedral comes alive in my mind with prayer and ceremony and sadness.

 

I wish I could ask his aunty if she knew the Five Irishman.

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Later in the day, we go to Harare Gardens where I’m slated to teach a lesson to the students about reflective writing, a task I’m not that excited about because it’s been awhile since I’ve taught 20-year-olds, and also because Z, Providence, and Hudge will be there to hear what I have to say, and the jig will be up. It turns out the Imposter Syndrome from which I sometimes suffer travels with me.

 

On the walk to our meeting place with the students, Z tells Providence, Hudge, and me about how the park looked when he was a child. It was a showplace. He points towards where a playground was, the restaurant that sounds like it would have been Harare’s answer to Tavern on the Green, he notes where fountains were, how lush it was, how well manicured. When he was a child, it was a destination.

 

Now, it is overgrown. It’s still lovely in that way that anything green in the midst of concrete is lovely, but now it’s wild and uncontrolled. The benches are broken, the paved pathways are crumbling, there is litter everywhere. There are people everywhere. Men and women in suits and dresses who seem to be headed to meetings, mothers with children, people who appear to have fallen on hard times, who remind me of the homeless people back in Seattle who populate our parks.

 

The park feels like a metaphor for Zimbabwe. It’s a place of wild beauty that has seen better days, has seen worse days, and the people inside it are getting on with their lives while we Americans look at it with our western eyes and pass judgment in one form or another.

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My pictures of Harare Gardens are subpar, so here, have an orchid from Z-ma’s garden.

We find our way to a clearing with a rickety bench where I perch myself next to Providence, and the students find places on the grass to sit with Z. I give a little talk and try not to worry that what I’m saying is obvious and too simplistic for these sophisticated Seattle students, or that Providence and Hudge, who recently paid me to edit a project of theirs won’t wonder what they were thinking handing their words over to a poser like me. I give the students a writing exercise before I talk some more.

 

A little boy with huge eyes sizes us up, comes over, and puts his hand out. He wants money. It’s early in the trip and the students—all women—are trying not to interact with people as if they themselves are ATM machines, though it’s clear that this one is hard for them. The kid is, possibly, the most adorable boy in all of Zimbabwe. He’s maybe five, seems to be on his own, and he’s got this casual nonchalance that is charming. There’s nothing desperate or angry about him. Instead, he looks like he’s got the world on a string and no real cares. A few of the students shake their heads no at him apologetically, and he stuffs his hands in his pockets and looks like he’s going to whistle, it’s no big deal to him they don’t want to part with their money. Then he spies Providence, who must look like an easy target, and he tries his hand with her. She tells him no but offers him a breakfast bar that she’s fished out of her backpack, and he seems happy with it. We assume this will be the end of it and he’ll wander off, but instead, he finds a spot on the grass with the students and sits down, as if he’s part of the class. It’s distracting. The students smile at him, snap some photos, ignore their writing assignment. But also, his presence there seems somehow more important than anything I could say to them about using descriptive language.

 

He stays with us until the session is over and we dust ourselves off and talk about where we’ll have lunch. The boy wanders off towards a group of people who are either people he knows or his next marks. He turns to us and waves goodbye, big smile. The students talk amongst themselves about their concerns for him, wonder why he isn’t in school, where he sleeps at night, if he’s starving. Z, ever the voice of reason, points out that his clothes are clean, his shoes are in good condition, he himself is clean, and that someone clearly cares for him, even if it’s unclear why he has free reign of Harare Gardens at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. Somehow, I don’t feel worried for him. There are other kids—older kids—who have clearly been forced onto the streets that we see begging at intersections, sitting around in small herds, barefoot, dusty, cold, and those kids make my heart ache. This one? He’ll be okay, I tell myself.

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The bench I taught from was 68% more rickety.

Z sends the students off to find lunch and we make our way to Not-Tavern-on-the-Green, the Parkview Restaurant. Before we get to the door, the students have rejoined us. Where they were feeling adventurous the day before in the confines of the elementary school, it’s easy to see that the muchness of the city is overwhelming to them. I would be overwhelmed if Rick weren’t leading me around, and we’re happy enough to have the students with us.

 

Though the restaurant had been fancy in its day—which you can see from the large, now be-curtained windows that used to look out on the park, the architectural elements on the interior, the plastic plants where real ones no doubt used to reside—it is a shadow of its former self. Initially, we wonder what we’re getting ourselves into—is the place clean? will the food be edible? are we going to regret this choice?—but the server is friendly, at least half the tables have other customers, and though the restaurant serves primarily Zimbabwean dishes, when we look at the menu we see that the vegetarians in our group can find something to eat, and my four-year-old’s palate will be happy enough with some chicken and French fries.

 

Before our food is brought out, the server comes over with a bowl, some napkins, and a sort of red plastic watering can so we can wash our hands. I’ve eaten out in Zimbabwe before but always at places that are more “modern” (read: Western, read: places white people are comfortable), and because I’m still meditating and trying to live in the moment, I don’t let the weirdness of this—a stranger standing over me, pouring a stream of water onto my hands while I rub them—affect the look on my face. I tamp down the questions that are humming in the back of my head like, “How clean are hands without soap?” and “How long has that water been sitting out and where did it come from in the first place?” and “Is it rude, once you’ve washed your hands like this to then get out your hand sanitizer?” Later, I ask Z if this is something that he is used to that I’ve somehow missed out on during previous trips, and he explains that this is a traditional Zimbabwean restaurant and this is the custom, but no, this isn’t something that is normally done at the restaurants where we’ve frequented.

 

It’s one of those moments when I realize that though this is my third time in Zimbabwe, what I know about the place could fit on about five grains of sand. Later in the trip, Z and I will eat at an “Italian” restaurant in the Chinese mall where the menu offers SNAIL A’LA FRENCH (we get spaghetti instead) and when the server comes over with the little pot of water and bowl for hand washing, I feel victorious and slightly less like a big, anxiety-ridden American.

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When we leave the restaurant and head off to our next activity on the Avenues, where various embassies are, we see our little friend from the earlier who waves at us again, smiles, then skips off in the direction of an adult who may or may not be connected to him.

 

On the Avenues, Z gives the students an assignment—to find and take pictures of political posters for the upcoming election. It’s part of a bigger discussion they’ll have later about the media, but also Z’s attempt to send them off on their own for awhile so they aren’t trailing after him like he’s a mother duck. Part of the experience of a short study abroad class like this is to force the students into situations that make them a little uncertain, a little uncomfortable.

 

Ritual pre-lunch hand washing has been enough uncertainty for me though, so I stick with Z, Providence, and Hudge as we investigate a couple of pharmacies, looking for some supplies that got left behind in America. At one, Providence asks about a brightly colored package of what appears to be gum by the cash register—what’s the flavor? is it tasty? some question like that—and the cashier momentarily looks embarrassed and then says, “They’re condoms” and we all, together, burst into laughter.

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My photos of the tree-lined streets of The Avenues are similarly bad, so here, have a bushman painting from Lake Chivero.

We kill time while the students do their homework by walking along the tree-lined streets, looking at the barbed wire and other fortifications around the U.S. Embassy, and notice, suddenly, that Z has sent the students out on a fool’s errand. There are no political posters in this area. Security is much tighter because of the embassies in general and the U.S. Embassy specifically. In the rest of Zimbabwe, there’s not a pole, tree trunk, fence, or rock that hasn’t had a poster of one sort or another pasted or nailed to its surface. The students are tenacious enough, though, that they venture a bit further afield and find a few. While we wait with them for our G-taxis to take us back to the “compound,” we’re tag-teamed by multiple people asking for money. They are as tenacious as the students despite our wan smiles and head shakes, and we’re all relieved when we climb into our taxis and head home, where, behind bars and high walls we can feel like ourselves and not have to navigate the difficulties of a new culture, of poverty, and of being identifiable as dopey, stingy Americans with bottomless wallets that are sealed shut.

 

That night, Z and I have dinner with his brother and sister-in-law at Vali’s (more of those delicious meat pies!), and it is one of my favorite evenings because it is so laid back and there is no having to “extrovert” with students or guides or strangers. Though it’s chilly, we sit outside under one of the propane heaters and talk easily. The proprietor and my brother-in-law know each other, and start ribbing one another. My sister-in-law and I talk about the kids and the dogs and complexities of figuring out the best way to pay for things in a country that has a shortage of paper money. In retrospect when I try to figure out why this is one of my favorite memories of the trip, what I come back to is that we had nothing but time stretching in front of us. The class had just started, their house was within walking distance of our little compound, and so we didn’t have to pack a year’s worth of conversation into an hour. It was one of those moments like I have in Indiana when I get a taste of what our lives might look like if we didn’t live so many miles away from family, moments when there isn’t a clock ticking down in the background.

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A sky that would make Magritte envious.

The next day we leave Harare behind for a few hours and with two hired SUVs and drivers, and Z, Hudge, and me in Z-ma’s ridiculously high truck, we head for a game drive at Lake Chivero. This is a place I’ve been before a few times and one that is important to Z’s family because his father and aunt both had their ashes spread there, not far from the bushman paintings. The paintings sit between the lake and the picnic ground, where we eventually gather with students who reject the Zimbabwean fruit Z has on offer because though it might taste sweeter than anything in America it does not look perfect, like it would in a market in the U.S. Z shakes his head and loads the fruit back into the truck for us to eat later. They’ll be forced to pee in the bush because the public toilet is out of commission and so many years removed from when it was working and useful that it is preferable to be showing the world your backside than to be in that dark, spider-infested facility. They’ll snap photos by the lake and demonstrate interest and warmth towards Z as he sprinkles rose petals on the spot where his aunt’s ashes were sprinkled and then on the lake itself where his dad’s were sprinkled three years before I met Z.

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I love a flightless bird. So much easier to get a snap.

But before any of this, when Z, Hudge, and I are rocking and jerking along the uneven road, trying to spy game, while the newer SUVs eat the trail of dust we leave behind us and where they stop for photos when we throw our hands out the windows to point to an ostrich or a zebra they might have missed, I have this moment of complete contentment and pleasure. It’s a perfect day and these minutes feel like the sort that get filed away in some scrapbook of Perfect Moments that you drag out on rainy days and remember happily. It is sunny, the windows are down and blowing my hair, Z’s capable hands are on the steering wheel, our conversation is easy, swelling and silent depending on the proximity of the animals we want to see.

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Waterbuck, the most unfortunate of the African buck because it comes with a target right on it’s backside.

And there is a voice inside my head, laughing, you are in Africa, you are in Africa, you are in Africa. The sheer impossibility of a girl—who wept her way through Girl Scout Camp, who avoided new experiences whenever possible, who went to college an hour away from home because anywhere further afield would have pulled that tether too taut, who has envied nearly every person she’s encountered who has lived a more adventurous life—riding in this truck with this man and that friend on a continent I assumed I’d only ever see in movies or reruns of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, it was… magical.

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I find giraffe to be one of the hardest animals to spot, which is counterintuitive since they just stand around eating leaves with those giant necks of theirs.

It helped that of the three of us, I was the best game spotter. It pleased me because I remembered our first trip to Lake Chivero eight years before when a giraffe would have to be nearly flicking its tail in my face before I could see it, and now I was seeing . . . everything. (And I didn’t even have my glasses on.)

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If you ever see a job listed for photographers of animal backsides, please let me know. (I was pleased that I spotted this rhino though–they look a lot like rocks.)

A Tally of Creatures Spotted on Game Drive

 

  • warthog
  • ostrich
  • fish eagle
  • sable
  • tsessebe
  • waterbuck
  • impala
  • rhinoceros
  • giraffe
  • zebra
  • baboon
  • wildebeest
  • cheeky monkeys
  • one man’s shoe, abandoned and forlorn

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These shy creatures can be similarly difficult to spot in the wild.

The following day is similarly excellent to me. The students are out on a solo project, interviewing vendors at the local flea market (more handicrafts than the used goods you might expect at an American flea market, though there are booths with clothes, books, video games, etc. as well), so Z, my sister-in-law, and I find ourselves headed cross town to another pharmacy that has promised to have the needed supplies we failed to get earlier in the week. My sister-in-law hangs between the seats, giving Z directions, and pointing out where she used to pass time while waiting to pick the kids up from school, the lovely property where she grew up, a new restaurant she heard was good. She’s got an infectious laugh, and I feel similarly lucky to have these moments that feel something akin to carefree, something akin to what it might have been like if I’d happened to be in Zimbabwe three decades ago, when we were the age of the students on the trip.

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And then the weekend comes, the students fly off to Victoria Falls, and the four of us climb into Z-ma’s truck and point it towards her house. We stop on the way to get petrol and because we’ve got crisp American dollars we get to go to the head of the queue and I think wryly of the old American Express slogan, membership has its privileges. The line for those who are paying with Ecocash snakes out the drive and towards the highway, longer than any fuel line I’ve ever seen. Though six months later, we’ll see video footage of lines that twist and turn around city blocks, hear stories of people who wait out all night to get petrol and when they arrive at the pump discover they can only have a few liters. Z and I will be tucked back into our carless, Seattle life before there are riots and gunfire over these shortages and other concerns that will plague the country. But for now, we have a full tank, and so we head home to Z-ma.

 

As the wind whips my hair while we drive down the Bulawayo Road—passing the balancing rocks, the man holding aloft puppies for sale, the rocks and trees and fences plastered with political posters, the goats running to or away from home, the combis pulling over to let riders off, the school children meandering home in their uniforms, the women in business dresses and housedresses with briefcases in hand or babies strapped to their backs, the pylons whose wires carry electricity from Lake Kariba to Z-ma’s house—my head is still singing: you are in Africa, you are in Africa, you are in Africa.

 

And I am.

 

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