Category Archives: Travel

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?

 

 

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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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Anti-Malarial Dreams Part I: Homecoming

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Zim Tally

  • 3 planes taken across 3 continents in 2 days of travel
  • 12 hours of layover in Heathrow
  • 2 items purchased at the Cath Kidston store in Heathrow
  • 1 camera charger left in Seattle
  • 2 travel games left in Seattle
  • 1 Fitbit lost
  • 1 cold caught
  • 3 mosquito bites received (despite excessive precautions)
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This is traveling light for us. Also, those identifying stickers I carefully slapped on our luggage didn’t make it out of SEA TAC.

So, I’m in Zimbabwe in the middle of winter in the middle of the first post-Mugabe election in the middle of a study abroad program that Z is leading and this is what I’m obsessing about:

 

My Headspace meditation app, which has been recording my meditation streak—63 days, people! I’ve never done anything good for me for 63 consecutive days—decided to reset at Day 1 for reasons known only unto itself. Perhaps it’s some sort of Mr. Miyagi “lesson” that I shouldn’t puff myself up with pride about meditating for two months straight or acceptance or everything is change, but the end result is the same: I’m outraged. How dare they rob me of the daily satisfaction I see with the number following my meditation sessions? How dare they make me do math to figure out how many days I’ve “really” meditated instead of their fake lesser number? But most importantly, how dare they remove the impetus for me not to break the streak? Now when it’s 11:30 p.m. and I realize I haven’t yet meditated for the day, how much am I going to care? How much easier is it going to be to say, “Eh. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

 

“Doing it tomorrow” has pretty much been the modus operandi of my life, which might explain the sorry state of my kitchen floor and why I’m wearing my “big jeans” right now instead of the slightly smaller ones. The thing about tomorrow is it never comes around.

 

Maybe the meditation is making me more aware of the present moment though. Certainly during the two-days of travel from Seattle to Zimbabwe, I was the calmest I’ve ever been. On the trans-Atlantic flight I was only mildly frustrated with the Russian seat kickers sitting behind me and during the trans-Africa flight, I was only slightly embarrassed that three years of high school French, a year of college French, and a year of French in grad school did not prepare me to speak en français to my seatmate, a young father who, with his son, had to sit on the opposite side of the plane from his wife and daughter. He seemed good-naturedly distressed by this—as if somehow at the end of the flight she and their daughter might have disappeared—and so he kept popping up, prairie dog style, to see if she was still there, to offer a wave, and then to speak to his son reassuringly, Elle est toujours lá. Not that I would have known if that’s what he was really saying because all I could remember from my extensive French study was how to say, “The beautiful cows of Normandy.” I couldn’t even remember excusez-moi when I sat on his jacket, despite having spent my childhood watching Steve Martin in bunny ears saying just that.

 

Quel dommage.

 

After a little in-flight meditation, a lot of movie watching (I, Tonya is way better than I imagined), and about five hours of sleep, we land, collect our bags, and then leave Robert Mugabe International Airport with Z’s brother. I feel nothing but glad to be back. Normally, on the first and second day of any trip—even to places I am desperate to get back to like home (Richmond) or home (Seattle) or the home of my heart (Ireland)—I often grumble and want to cry or shout because I’m not in my own bed or eating familiar food or smelling familiar smells. I’m like a toddler that way. I blame sleep depravation, but it might just be that it takes me 48 hours to adapt to change. And yet as we leave the airport road, I feel joyous. It’s been five years since I’ve been here and it feels like five years too long.

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Zimbabwe feels different. It could be my imagination or wishful thinking, but something in the air feels lighter, more hopeful than before after too many decades and too many troubles under one leader. Harare is buzzing. There are more stalls selling wares lining the streets. There is more traffic congesting the pot-hole filled roads. People seem busier and more purposeful. It’s election season, and though that brings it’s own anxiety because of past experience—fear, violence, crooked elections—this time, people seem anxious, yes, but also optimistic that Zimbabwe is on its way up.

 

Z and I sit in the garden of my brother-and-sister-in-law and catch up, while we re-hydrate ourselves and enjoy the feeling of not being cramped against prairie dog strangers on a flight. We scratch behind various dog ears and talk about the shortage of cash that has Zimbabweans unexpectedly on the verge of being a modern, cashless society whether they want to be or not. American dollars are the currency here, but they are in short supply. We’re warned not to flash ours. Even if you’ve got thousands of dollars in your bank account here, you’ll be lucky if you can draw out $50 when you go to the bank. And if you are lucky enough to have some dollars you are willing to spend, you’ll get preferential treatment in gas lines (there is a fuel shortage) and you’ll get a better rate when you buy things with U.S. greenbacks instead of Zim bond notes, or EcoCash (“Zimbabwe’s Mobile Money Solution”) and swipe cards, which transfer invisible funds from one bank account to another. In the days to come, we won’t have a conversation with anyone during which the cash shortage doesn’t come up. We are never the ones to bring it up because we know when we leave in a month we’ll have easy enough access to our cash. But for people living here, it is a worry.

 

After our visit, Z and I climb into Z-ma’s truck and point it southwest to head towards his childhood home where Z-ma awaits us. I’ve forgotten how bad the roads are, how Z has to maneuver around dongas (potholes), hoot his horn at the badly behaved drivers. I’ve forgotten the look on his face as he sees his home after he’s been away too long, and it makes me happy to see how happy he is.

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The traffic has really gotten awful in five years. The familiar police roadblocks are all but gone, which has emboldened unlicensed drivers in vehicles that aren’t roadworthy. Z follows the speed limit as cars and trucks zip past us, going lightening fast. As the city flattens out and the countryside rises up—rocks and hills and grass—I note the changes that have appeared. Mr. MaPlanka’s lumberyard has been replaced by a petrol station. There are more houses that have sprung up as sort of bedroom communities to Harare. The Lion and Cheetah Park is now just the Lion Park because the cheetah died.

 

Z and I talk and don’t talk as we take it all in. He was here last in December, so the changes are not new to him. He says, “Well done, Babe” when I name the things we pass that I remember: the old snake park where there is a petrol station, the Somerby Caves where a dog once acted as tour guide to Rick and his family, the farm—still mostly fallow—where family friends lived and worked until they were forced off their land and into a new life in Nigeria.

 

Finally, I see the grain bins in the distance and know that Z-ma’s house is two turns, three rumble strips, and a honk at the gate away. Z points out the changes in his little hometown as we bounce our way to her house. The convenience store attached to the petrol station has changed its name from La Boutique to Bonjour. The car wash—a bucket and a sponge behind a fence—has been moved. There is a building site near the shops and we wonder what the finished product will be. There are big, new churches. Z laughs because a road that was being “fixed” in December is still impassable.

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We’re almost there!

I’m pleased to see that Florence Nighting Girls School is still in business.

 

Like that, we’ve arrived. Z hoots the horn. Eunice opens the gate and greets us warmly. We drive into the yard, past the roses Z’s dad grew, past the cacti, the bonsai, the fruit trees. Skampy stands on the porch behind the gate, temporarily incarcerated until the car comes to a stop, his tail whipping around so much his whole body waggles. And there is Z-ma, walking with a cane now when she’s on uneven terrain because a mysterious dropped-neck ailment has thrown off her center of gravity. But she’s very much herself, bright eyes, big smile, warm welcome, and still walking faster than I do. It’s been too long since I’ve seen her.

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And here I am, in yet another of my homes.

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For Whom the Bag Tolls

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Seattle and Vera Bradley do not belong together. Look at that map trying to leap out of the pocket from embarrassment.

As the flight to Indiana from Seattle (via Las Vegas) landed, I was momentarily mortified by my choice of carry-on bag, a giant, pink and green quilted Vera Bradley tote that I inherited this  last year. It both delights and repulses me, and I’m not sure what to do with these conflicting emotions.

 

Hint: this blog post is not really about the merits or demerits of Vera Bradley, but let’s start there.

 

On the pro side:

  • Best carry-on bag ever. It has pockets in spades and helps me be more organized than I deserve to be. Everything I might need is within easy reach and is easy to locate. Also, it is not a bag you forget or get mixed up with someone else’s at a taxi stand. Queen Elizabeth wears bright colors so people will be able to see her easily in a crowd, and that’s pretty much the modus operandi of anything made by Vera Bradley. It will be seen.

 

On the con side:

  • Everything else.

 

I am a person who spent one of my first paltry paychecks from the public library on a leather field bag from Banana Republic because I needed that bag to be the truth of my life. In reality, I was wearing stirrup pants, oversized sweaters, and a headband while I checked out romance novels to the inhabitants of my hometown, but in my mind, I was an adventurer, a writer, a sojourner. The bag looked like something Hemingway would have carried, and though I didn’t love Hemingway, I loved the romance of the way he lived his life: the travel, the passion, the skirmishes. Even, God help me, the bullfights.

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Ernest _wishes_ he had a field bag so fine.

In the almost 30 years since I bought that bag, there have been a lot of others, but they’ve mostly been a variation on a field bag theme: a shoulder strap, a flap, pockets in which to keep pens and notebooks. Most have been canvas since that first purchase because it turns out that leather is heavy and my shoulders ache.

 

My life never did get bullfight-y. I’ve traveled some, but I don’t camp out. I don’t usually carry binoculars. I’ve never tied a kerchief around my neck or had cause to start a fire upon which to roast a trout caught with my bare hands. But the dream lives on.

 

This pink and green bag is not the dream. If I still lived in the Midwest, I could carry it and I’d fit in because half the female population of Indiana carries one of these things since the Vera Bradley headquarters is in Fort Wayne. I’d blend right in. These bags are usually bright and floral and thick with padding. They look like a quilt on your great grandmother’s bed, if your great grandmother had been dropping acid when she stitched it together. You can spot them a mile away. Without binoculars.

 

You don’t see these bags in Seattle. I would never carry it out of the house unless it was to get in a rental car and drive to some other, less urban place. It’s too bright for Seattle. Too feminine.

 

And truth be told, I no more fit the Vera Bradley mold than I do the Hemingway field bag mold. Women who carry Vera Bradley have children, go to church, make casseroles, vote differently than I vote. When I carry this bag I feel exactly the way I felt when I went to a friend’s Sangeet several years ago and a Mehndi artist tattooed my hand with henna. I loved the design and the way it curled from my wrist and across my hand and up my index finger. It was beautiful, and looking at it made me happy because it had been a happy night of celebrating her impending wedding.

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Poser. Posing.

But also, it felt wrong on my skin. Like I was playing at something that didn’t belong to me. Not my culture. Not mine. Not “me.”

 

So as the plane taxied to the gate in Indianapolis, I had my pink bag sitting on my lap and though it was not an accurate representation of who I am, I was okay with it. Here, no one was going to look at me oddly or know I was a poser. I was home and this homely bag that I love and hate was at home too.

 

Except that for the duration of the flight I’d been watching the woman across from me who was very busy, juggling a laptop, an iPad, and her phone while she did some sort of work that looked interesting. (Read: it didn’t seem to involve spreadsheets.) I was a little dubious of her because every one of her toenails was painted different colors and with different designs, like tiny nautical flags, and she was wearing drawstring camo pants and high-heeled sandals that were similarly camo.

 

That is: it was not a look I aspire to.

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Ahoy, matey!

But also: she seemed to have this golden light emanating from within. I can’t explain it. She wasn’t tan, really, but her skin was honeyed, and her hair was blonde, and though it may have come from a bottle, it looked more like hair angels would have. She gave off the vibe of money and the flight attendants flitted around her whenever she requested something as if she were somebody, all of which seemed kind of a weird for a Southwest flight. Nobody is first class on Southwest. It’s steerage all the way.

 

So while we were waiting for the jet bridge, I noticed how attractive her backpack was. It was black or dark grey and kind of sleek. It had a subtle design on it that I couldn’t make out, and I was suddenly obsessed. If I had this bag, I was convinced that I would somehow be myself. No. If I had this bag, I would become a better version of myself. I would have the golden light, the honeyed skin, the angel hair. I would be able to juggle three devices on a flight as I did Important Work, while simultaneously commanding the attention of the attendants. I’d be younger, more successful, thinner, and richer. I even suspected that if I had this bag, suddenly the nautical toenails and camouflage clothing would make perfect sense.

 

Clearly, it was a magic bag.

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It looked more impressive on the plane.

I looked at my hand-me-down Vera Bradley, sitting there on my lap like a giant, quilted watermelon, and I wanted to cry. How had I gotten this flight so wrong? How had I gotten my life so wrong? What stupid, stupid choices I’ve made that led me to this place where my Midwestern-sized ass was squished into a plane seat and I had the quintessential Midwestern bag perched on my doughy Midwestern knees. I was meant to be somebody. Doing something important.

 

It was 90 some degrees out and I was already red faced and sweating. And old. Somehow, I’d gotten really old on this flight.

 

As we stood up to deplane and she threw her magic backpack over her shoulder, I asked her what kind it was. It wasn’t too late! I could still transform my life!

 

She wasn’t impolite, but she looked me up and down, making note of my bag, the worn Keens I had my air-puffy feet stuffed into, my big wide white and red splotched face, and she tilted her head and gave a little smile that wasn’t really a smile but more of a “Lady, you couldn’t afford it.”

 

Then she said, “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

 

I didn’t blanche, though it surprised me because usually Louis Vuitton’s primary feature is self-referential design so you notice the giant LVs before you even see the accessory. It is a brand I have loathed for a long time because it’s always so pleased with itself. But this bag was subtle. Tricky. I told her again how lovely it was. And she said, “Yes, it’s an investment piece.” The implication being that she’d really splurged on this and wasn’t it shameful. Another head tilt and this time a conspiratorial smile.

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I wonder who the manufacturer of this handbag could possibly be?

This made me like her momentarily because it reminded me of that leather Banana Republic bag I couldn’t really afford but splurged on anyway when I was 22. It was a dream I wanted to be true. I can understand trying to buy a lifestyle. She was a kindred spirit.

 

She then picked up her purse and I saw it was Louis Vuitton. As was her oversized belt. As was the shopping bag she pulled out of the overhead compartment.

 

Kindred spirit, my eye! She was a junky. A Louis Vuitton addict. I was not disappointed to see her disappear into the airport, and when I looked up the backpack in question online and saw that it cost almost $3,000, I laughed out loud. You can fly to Zimbabwe for less than that.

 

What’s more, if I get a scuff on my 30-year-old field bag, it’s character. It’s a story. If you scuff a $3,000 Louis Vuitton backpack, your “investment” is in tatters.

 

I’d rather go to Zimbabwe than have a $3,000 backpack I might leave on a train. Not that it’s an either/or proposition. I suppose you could take a backpack so expensive to Zimbabwe, but why would you?

 

I don’t really know what the moral of the story is if there even is one. I’d like to tell you that I’ve embraced that psychedelic bag and my Midwestern essence completely, but that would be a lie. I’m still not carrying this thing out into the streets of the city. Call me superficial.

 

Or it could be something about not judging a book by its cover or a woman by her accessories. In these dark days when tribalism is wrecking the world, it’s one of the worst things we can do—not getting to know someone but instead making assumptions about them because of their bumper stickers or the color of the their skin (or ball cap). But. It can be a useful shorthand that makes it a bit easier (and sometimes safer) to navigate life and find the people with whom you can breathe more easily when you are exhausted from the hard work of trying to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

I could write another six paragraphs about how I wish I were more like Z, who knows exactly who he is and doesn’t have these wardrobe crises every six months like I do. He marches out of the house every day in his Crocs and frayed jeans and if anyone judges him for it, it’s their problem, not his. But he’s a man and it just isn’t the same, is it? So I’m giving that a miss too.

 

Maybe all this really is is a plea to Vera Bradley to please, in the name of all that is good and righteous, make your multi-pocketed tote bag in material that blends in in the Pacific Northwest and doesn’t advertise a person’s ability to make casseroles.

 

If that bag were grey or khaki, I’d be in business.

 

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There’s a giraffe out there somewhere. Zimbabwe, 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developments on the Northwestern Front

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There are new developments here on the Pacific Northwestern front.

 

Veins in my forehead.

 

I don’t mean like I’m angry and you can see the contours of a vein sticking out of my forehead in a telltale sign that I need to do yoga to de-stress. I mean I just looked in the mirror and thought I had a newspaper ink smudge by my hairline. Only I wasn’t reading a newspaper. Nor have I been canoodling with a chimney sweep while Z is at work.

 

And it’s not a good delicate blue-vein-on-a-milky-forehead Michelle Pfeiffer style circa Frankie and Johnny. No. It just looks like I need to go wash my face.

 

I was calm about this because another recent development is that I started meditating almost two weeks ago. I’ve been an avid Not Meditator for years. While I acknowledged that it’s likely a beneficial practice, it seemed an impossibility because focusing on my breath makes me hyperventilate, and I’ve always had an aggressive resistance to someone—anyone—telling me what to think (or not think). But a friend said the Headspace app changed her life, so I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say it has changed my life yet, but there is something so soothing and pleasant about the speaker’s accent that I find I look forward to my “daily practice.”

 

Before you get wildly impressed with me, please know I’m only doing it five minutes a day and suspect ten minutes a day will be my limit because, well, it’s kind of boring. But still, me doing anything nine days in a row that I know is good for me but am only marginally interested in is quite an accomplishment.

 

Other developments in the PNW: I’ve become obsessed with watching packing videos on YouTube. That’s right. I willingly give up 5-to-10-minute increments of my day to watch people pack clothes into a carry-on suitcase for three-week European vacations. It is mesmerizing. I rarely learn anything new. I’ve been mastering the fine art of packing and rejecting the mantra less is more for decades now, so I don’t watch to learn anything. But, oh, is it satisfying to watch someone take a heap of clothes, fold them up, and shove them into a suitcase. I’m also curious to see what items people deem necessary for such travel. Please note, usually these suitcase packers are young women so petite that they could fit their entire wardrobe inside an empty box of saltines.

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Today’s development was that I left my card in the ATM without realizing it until 20 minutes later and then nearly had a full-fledged anxiety attack at the drug store when I reached for my card and realized it was gone. Ironically, I was waiting in line to pick up my anti-anxiety meds (that I’m always anxious about not being allowed to have—it’s a snake chewing it’s own tail this anxiety thing, let me tell you). I did not want to appear twitchy in front of the pharmacist lest he alert my doctor that I shouldn’t be allowed anymore of these pills, but once they were in my hand, I hightailed it back to the bank where I was assured the card would be accessible but I had to wait a few minutes for the banker to fetch it for me.

 

This is a weird thing to say about a bank, but I find ours a soothing place usually. The tellers are always friendly, it feels local even though it isn’t, and they’ve always got Dum-Dums out in a bowl so you don’t even have to pretend you’ve got a kid outside waiting with your husband to score one, and no one looks at you sideways if you root around for a strawberry or ginger ale one. But for reasons inexplicable to me, the anxiety that kicked into gear at the drug store did not dissipate even though I’d been assured the card would be returned to me very soon. I got hot. My heart pounded. A lady was hollering at a teller about the bank not treating her right, ratcheting up my stress. I started to worry about bank robbers (something I haven’t actively worried about since about 1977). I worried about how I was going to get packed before my 5 a.m. flight to Indiana, if I could stand being away from Z for two weeks. (This last one I do every time I have to be away from Z, so it was not abnormal, though perhaps abnormal to be twitchy in the bank lobby as I worried about it.) So what I know now is that even with 52 total minutes of meditation under my belt, it did not soothe me.

 

Finally, the woman brought my card out.

 

She’s helped me before—mostly with laundry quarters, but once because I’d made a math error that meant my account was empty for the exact 15 minutes the bank thought it should not be and slapped me with an overdraft fee that she kindly reversed. I like her. She’s thorough and friendly and I think of her as a contemporary though she’s probably in her twenties. I felt better as soon as my card was zipped back into my wallet. I was a little uncomfortable, however, because while all I needed for her to do was use her magic banker key to open the ATM and get my card, she somehow managed to pull up my information and decided she had some products to sell me based on the numbers she saw in our accounts. If it had been another teller or banker, I might have been annoyed, but I like her, so I asked her some questions. She answered them.

 

Why I often feel obligated to apologize to bank staff that I am not good enough with my money to be a millionaire is beyond me, but I do. For all I know, this woman has four roommates, has her credit cards maxed out, and lives on ramen noodles. Why do I assume that someone with a bank nametag on is automatically more fiscally responsible than I am? No idea, but this is how I am. So I said something like “ha ha, I’m not so good with financial stuff.” I loathed myself for saying it. It’s the same voice I use if someone has to change my tire or unclogged my sink, “ha ha I’m such a dolt I can’t manage to master basic gettin’-through-life skills ha ha ha.”

 

What I loathed more was what she said to me with a very kind smile on her face. What she said was this:

 

“Oh, that’s okay! That’s how my parents are too!”

 

Her parents? HER PARENTS? She thinks I’m the same age as her parents?

 

I probably am the same age as her parents, but it pains me that this is the correlation she made. Instead of recognizing me as a fellow apartment dweller who must suffer the slings and arrows of the communal laundry room, she sees me as an aging parent who never got her banking crap together so she could move on up to a condo downtown with the washer and dryer right in the unit.

 

I’ve kind of gone off her now.

 

What else is new on First Hill? Our trees out front bloomed. More construction went up around us. Belle visited from Indiana and she and I had some writerly adventures, including her guest appearance in my Writing for Procrastinators class. I edited three dissertations, attended Hudge and Providence’s dissertation defense (congratulations!), picked up a new coaching client, helped Z index his book (which will be out in July—expect to hear shouts of joy from our vicinity!), and taught a session on reflective writing to some of Z’s students.

 

Oh yeah. And we booked airfare for a month in Zimbabwe this summer. So excited to see Z-ma , Z family, Z friends, and Skampy. And a cherry atop that triple-layer cake: we’re going to “swing by” Ireland on the way home for ten days.

 

Also, when I wasn’t meditating, watching packing videos, or having public anxiety incidents, I logged a lot of hours watching the Royal Wedding. A lot of hours. Before the wedding. During the wedding (which started at 2:30 a.m. out here). And after the wedding.

 

The thing I hate most about a Royal Wedding after you put all that time in and the happy couple drives off in their horse drawn carriage is the realization that you haven’t been invited to the reception and you aren’t getting any cake.

 

So, this isn’t much of a post, but I’ve got to go pack my bag, adjust my thermostat for Indiana’s humidity, and spend my last remaining hours of May with Z.

 

Summer is upon us, friends, and what that means is there is a 78% chance my next post will be complaining about the heat.

 

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

 

I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blue: A Shoe Obsession

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Because I was raised on Yogi Bear cartoons, I like to think I’m smarter than the average bear. When it became increasingly more evident that some of the ads I was seeing in 2016 on Facebook had actually originated in Russia, I preened a little bit because I hadn’t fallen for any of those. I’m one of those annoying people who, when someone posts something mostly ludicrous online, I quickly check Snopes and then tell them they’ve made an error because I don’t want them to embarrass themselves. A few months ago, Mom graciously sent us some potholder-sized square pieces of stretchy plastic that she’d ordered online because the reviews insisted it was less annoying than Saran Wrap and better for the planet, and she knew I’d like that, but when it arrived and I tried it, I discovered that the reason it was less annoying than Saranwrap is because, unlike Saran Wrap, it sticks to nothing at all.

 

Just as I suspected.

 

So it is with great shame that I tell you a few weeks ago I became obsessed. After a barrage of shock-and-awe advertisements I’d seen for these too-expensive turquoise-soled flats that were guaranteed to change my life, I was left quivering with want. My life, I was sure, would not be complete without them. They were guaranteed to give my wardrobe some panache and make me look at least 70% more pulled together.

 

I’ve never paid so much for a pair of shoes. (That’s a lie. I did once, but it was only because I was in Ireland at the time and failed to do the currency conversion correctly.) But the hype surrounding Tieks is phenomenal. Not only are the advertisements slick, but the customer reviews (of which I think I read every one) are almost all raves. Women swear they’ve never had a more comfortable pair of shoes, never had such pain-free feet when walking on the cobblestoned streets of Europe, never needed to wear a different pair of shoes since their Tieks arrived because they are so amazing, never pay for checked luggage when they travel now because you only need one pair of these things to meet all of your fashion needs. They spoke of them with the enthusiam of the recently converted or the newly in love. Most admitted that the price was a little steep, but if you crunched the numbers, the shoes paid for themselves in no time because you’d basically never need another pair of shoes again. Ever.

 

It was hard not to believe.

 

The women who love and wear these things not only love to write rave reviews about them while wearing them, but they also like to post images on Instagram of the shoes, them wearing the shoes, them getting a new pair of the shoes and unboxing them, them admiring the flowers and ribbons that decorate the Tiffany colored boxes the shoes arrive in (so small for a pair of shoes, but the shoes fold up, like small precious foldy-uppy things!), and them (or at least their feet) doing both exciting and mundane things in their new shoes. Both the women and the shoes are photogenic. The shoes come in a rainbow assortment of colors, like Fiestaware for your feet, and the women who wear them appear to be 32 or younger, a size four or smaller, and have beautiful children, husbands, dogs, houses, vacations, and yoga practices. I have yet to see an ugly—or even average—woman photographed in a pair of Tieks, though admittedly, often the women in the photos don’t have heads. .

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I suppose this woman could be wearing a bag on her head because she’s aesthetically challenged, but I bet she isn’t. (Photo from Instagram #tieks)

 

God help me, when I saw these ads multiple times a day, I started to believe that if only I had a pair, all of my shoe problems and wardrobe failures would be solved. I also started to believe that I too would be 32 or younger, 117 pounds or less, and have a beautiful, beautiful life. It’s not the first time I’ve been obsessed, but this was a bad case.

 

I suspect that Z already knew how this experiment would end, but he is a great supporter of my enthusiasms, so after I got paid last month, he said, “I think you should order those shoes you want.”

 

I did tell him how much they cost, but he misheard by $50 and I didn’t correct him. Not because I was trying to put one over on him, but because I was so deep in my obsession that I was too busy to tell him as I poured over the website and the photos and tried to decide what color I should order. Black was the most practical of course, but those fruity flavors and jewel tones looked good too. Mom and I had not one but three phone conversations about what color I should order. I forced Jane to read paragraphs of email about which pair would best suit my Inner Beth and feed my soul. (Jane noted that sometimes when talking about the turquoise soles of the shoes, I spelled it “soul” as if I was starting to believe the shoes were living creatures that were ultimately Heaven bound.)

 

I got agitated and anxious. What if I made a poor choice?

 

Finally, Z looked at me and said, “I think you want the blue. You love blue.”

 

The man knows me so well.

 

My love affair with blue began basically the moment I was able to distinguish colors but before I had words for them. My favorite toys were blue: a stuffed cat—Mewy—whose button eyes had been removed because Mom was afraid I’d choke on them, an extra large hollow plastic spoon sized for a giant that for reasons I’m still unclear on was designated a bath toy, a blue magnetic chalkboard with dubious-looking plastic magnetic children and domestic animals included to stick into the middle of my drawings, and the backside of my Candyland board game that I found infinitely more pleasing to look at than the messy maze of gumdrops and candy canes on the other side. What these blue items had in common is that they were all the perfect shade of blue: a deep, rich cobalt.

 

I had a well-meaning and generous aunt who regularly gave me blue things to please me, but what she didn’t know was that any blue that wasn’t cobalt didn’t even register as blue for me, and alas, her own preferred palette was a pastel one. I’d thank her and demonstrate how much I appreciated the sweater, the blanket, the wall hanging, all the while staring at the blue star sapphire she wore on her right hand and thinking, now that’s blue. (And bless her, when she feared her days here were numbered, she asked if there was anything of hers that I wanted, and I greedily said, “Your sapphire!” and she got a wry, pleased smile on her face, pulled it off her finger, and gave it to me.)

 

A more recent exampleof my blue inclinations are the napkins that Z and I put on our bridal registry 9 years ago that we use almost every day. I like the green fine, but the blue makes me smile every time I see it. Because we re-use the napkins if we’ve had a meal that wasn’t too greasy or crumby, Z uses a green one and I use blue, so we’ll remember whose is whose. On the few occasions when laundry needs to be done and he’s used one of MY blue ones, I’ve felt very territorial about it and have to remind myself that I love him and it’s good to share. (And also, his using it is temporary.)

 

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You can come over to dinner, but please don’t touch the blue napkins.

 

So I ordered the cobalt Tieks, was promised delivery in two days, and I became a woman even more obsessed. Z got hourly updates from me re: where they were now in transit because I kept hitting refresh on my web browser to see where USPS said they were now. And now. And NOW. When I wasn’t stalking them, I was fantasizing about what I’d wear with them. How I would slowly start weeding things out of my wardrobe that wouldn’t go with them. I started re-watching “New Girl” because Jess has a tendency to wear bright blue flats. I wondered if I should have Mom ship my blue, rabbit fur wedding purse from Indiana so I could start carrying it to events around the city. (It was vintage, so I didn’t feel too guilty about it being rabbit—by the time I bought it, the rabbit would have been dead of natural causes, and I believed this would make it mostly acceptable in sensitive Seattle.) On day two of waiting, I tried to balance my cobalt blue Leuchtturm notebook on my foot so I could better imagine how fabulous the shoes would be.

 

There is no way those cobalt Tieks were going to live up to my expectations.

 

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How could whatever is inside of this box NOT be life-changing?

 

When I got a text from the building manager saying a package had arrived, I raced downstairs faster than I’ve moved in a decade. She handed me a decidedly un-shoe-like pacakge, and when I opened it, it was a book someone had sent me. I was happy to have the book, but it was a bit like getting a call in high school from your friend when you were expecting the voice on the other end to be a boy asking you out on a date. Fortunately, a similar text later in the day resulted in shoes.

 

Those reviewers had been right. The packaging was scrumptious, even if it wasn’t my shade of blue. (Though I’ll admit I felt one reviewer had let me down by implying that the flower on the box would be the color of the shoes. I wanted a cobalt flower and instead I got a pink one.) The box was so compact and the shape so un-shoelike, that it enhanced the sense I had that these shoes were better than mundane footwear arriving in a foot-sized oblong box.

 

And inside:

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Look at how precious and foldy-uppy!

 

Oh, that color! Hello Mewy. Hello Giant Spoon. Hello Magentic Chalkboard. Hello Backside of Candyland, Sapphire Rings, Leuchtturm Journal, and Rabbit Purse. Hello every jar of Noxema I ever tried to love the smell of just because of the cobalt container.

 

I wouldn’t let myself try the shoes on immediately. First, I unpacked the box and discovered a handwritten notecard, wishing me great happiness in my new shoes:

 

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Look at all those thin, leggy women and their colorful footwear!

 

The shoes also come with both a teensy bag to stuff the shoes into so they take up no space at all in your purse or luggage, and a bigger bag to carry your high heels in when you switch them out mid-day for cloud-inspired Tieks.

 

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Since I don’t wear high heels, I imagined I would use this to carry flowers and organic fruit home from the market.

 

Because I am a practical woman, I washed my feet before I tried these on because I didn’t want any evidence of myself in the shoes should I need to return them. But I was fairly confident that God would not disappoint me and make these shoes uncomfortable. Yes, that’s right. Instead of considering the possibility that there might be a designer error (them) or an orderer error (me), I just went straight to the Big Guy and assumed He cobbled them Himself, specifcally for me, so all of my cobalt dreams could come true.

 

I’d done my research, so I knew the shoes would stretch, that often when they first arrived, they were tight. But they WILL stretch, the beautiful women told me, and so I walked around the house in them, and after a few hours I realized that they’d have to stretch a whole size in order to be wearable.

 

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but almost as soon as I ordered the next size up and started the (remarkbly helpful and easy) return process, the obsessing began again. Z started getting USPS delivery status updates from me while he was at work. I wrote a review for Jane and called my mom to tell her the news, as if we’d just tried out a puppy and had to return it to the breeder after discovering it was a biter but not to worry because a non-biting puppy would be filling our lives with joy soon. I fantasized about all the ways the new, larger size would be perfect.

 

When the second pair arrived, I went through the same ritual and was just as delighted with the packaging and the handwritten note as I’d been the first time. I slipped the shoes on and they felt better than the original pair, though now if they stretched, I wondered if they’d be too big. I walked in circles around the living room, I tried on some skirts to see how they looked. I sent Mom photos, and started imagining my new life in them and how soon I’d be younger, thinner, and more photogenic. I wondered how soon it would be before the beautiful toddler, international travel, and Labradoodle would show up.

 

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Suddenly, our casino-style rug looks muted and disappointing. I wonder if Z will go for a new Tieks-matching carpet?

 

And then I realized this other thing: my toes were throbbing because the leather was so tight across the top of my feet.  And the bottoms of my feet  weren’t very happy either. I was promised that the shoes would feel like wearing sneakers, but I didn’t really even want to walk down to the laundry room in them, let alone up and down the hills of Seattle.

 

Let alone on European cobblestones for a summer spent abroad with the toddler and the Labradoodle.

 

I kept the shoes for a day and berated myself for not having younger, more accomodating feet or a body so light that shoes with no visible means of support could be considered a good idea. I spent an hour looking at sensible shoes on orthopedic websites and saying mean things to myself about how this was clearly what I was destined for if I couldn’t make these blue wonders work. I propped my feet up on the coffee table and considered how they really were lovely and I should keep them to wear when I’m sitting around the house, even though we have a no-shoes-in-the-house policy for ourselves.

 

And then I realized that even sitting with my feet propped up, my toes–which had plenty of room length-wise–were killing me. In fact, I could feel every heartbeat in each big toe, and because I’d just had my blood pressure checked and discovered it was (surprisingly) perfect, I had to admit that this toe-throbbing was not a fault of mine. My toes are not fat and unhealthy.  This was not a sign of an imminent stroke. The shoes just didn’t have enough room in them. Maybe they would  stretch as promised by the Tieks devotees, but in the half century I’ve spent breaking shoes in, I’ve never had to break in a toe box.

 

Also, there was this niggling thought in the back of my head that I’d never talked to any actual women in the real world wearing Tieks. I’d seen ONE pair in Seattle on a woman running to catch a ferry a few weeks before I ordered them (the only way I would have known is because of those turquoise soles), and frankly, I had a feeling she would have been more comfortable in a pair of Adidas or Columbia hiking boots. I started to equate the obsesion and enthusiasm I had for the shoes to earlier iterations of things you can’t buy in stores and must order from “parties,” items made to separate women from their paychecks: basket parties, jewelry parties, candle parties, home decorating parties. I remembered the vague sense of being at those parties and feeling simultaneously like I didn’t really need a $34 basket to keep a bedside flashlight in but certain that if I didn’t have one, my life would be incomplete. And I might stub my toe in the dark.

 

Was it possible that I’d fallen for the organized online enthusiasm that my mom fell for with her  Saran Wrap alternative? Was I no better than the marks who believed what they read about Hillary Clinton running  a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor?

 

Maybe. I don’t know. It was such a great shade of blue though.

 

When Z and I had our walk around First Hill that evening, I told him I thought I needed to send them back. But maybe not–those fantasies of me skipping around Montmartre like a Technicolor Audrey Hepburn hadn’t quite died. I did’t know what to do, I said.

 

“I think you know what to do,” he said. “You just don’t want to do it.”

 

He’s always sensisble. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of which is tell him that he’d mis-remembered the price and I hadn’t corrected him.  Z isn’t the sort of guy who would boss me up and say, “A HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTY-FIVE-DOLLARS! THAT’S RIDICULOUS! YOU DON’T NEED THOSE!” but having spoken it out loud to him, even I had to admit it was ridiculous to be considering non-magical shoes that were that pricey. Especially when Z’s current chosen footwear is a pair of Crocs I got for him at Ross for $18.99. (He also has a pair of $40 “dress” Crocs he wears to more formal occasions.)

 

When I got home, I boxed up the shoes and started the return process. The exchange was friendly and efficient.  Within a week, I had my refund.

 

What I’m left with–aside from a blue shoe sized hole in my wardrobe–is an overwhelming sense of my own ridiculousness. Suddenly I’m more aware of the items social media is flashing in front of me. (That sling bag really does look revolutionary, and that kickstarter ultimate suitcase seems like it might have some answers to my problems!)

 

We’re all just targets. I’m no smarter a bear than the average one. Especially if the bait is blue.

 

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Imagine getting intern credit for fancy card writing.

The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

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

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

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

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

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

 

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

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Here’s her note:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Santa’s Helper

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Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis

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

 

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

 

No?

 

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

 

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

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(This photo rudely stolen from Wikipedia.)

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

 

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

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Who doesn’t love a Me Christmas?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Godspeed, Katelyn.

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Blue Christmas.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So instead, you get underpants.

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Hope Wrapped in Plastic

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At this moment, my writing studio has been overrun by men in hi-viz construction garb who are installing supports in the apartment above ours to earthquake proof the building. Or, more precisely, to fix a bad earthquake proofing that happened a few years ago. It’s frustrating when you live in 900 square feet and are told you have to move all of your earthly possessions five feet from the south wall and five feet from the west wall. And when you are booklovers, it is possibly worse.

 

I spent last weekend moving the hundreds of books I own and love and the hundreds more I own and have never read. They are now in unreachable piles, covered by a plastic tarp, while sawing and hammering make them jump.

 

When will this fresh hell be done?

 

Oh, they can’t tell us. It could be by the end of the week or it could be in two months. It just depends on how the work goes in the apartment above. And based on a conversation I overheard (while eavesdropping and peering out the peephole), there is some worrisome shaking in the apartment above or below, so it’s possible that when I get back tonight all of our belongings will be living in the apartment underneath ours.

 

Added fun: we can’t be in the apartment from 9 to 5, which would be fine if I didn’t work from home, but I do, and so it’s hard not to feel put-upon and a little homeless. And in case you are wondering, no, no we don’t get a reduction in rent for our inconvenience. We’re getting a “gift certificate” for our trouble, which we’re pretty sure will be a $10 card to Starbucks, and neither of us drinks coffee. When we complained about this injustice, we were sent a copy of the contract we signed years ago at which point we agreed easily to this arrangement because we were imagining “maintenance” as “person in your apartment for twenty minutes trying to fix leaky pipe” not “gang of workers cranking up your heat and reducing your square footage while you are cast outside.”

 

There are worse things in the world, and we both recognize that people who live in their own houses also occasionally have to put up with tarps and construction dust and strange men peeing in their toilets. A friend of mine just found out part of her house is sinking and will have to be jacked up, for instance.

 

But when you rent, it feels a little like you don’t have control over your life. You realize this space you call home isn’t really yours at all, and the owners could boot you out on a whim in order to raze the building to erect a 30-story condo on the site.

 

When I first got out of college, I had a job I loathed at a public library. I thought I’d love it, because books, but instead, every morning when I shut the door on the free world and trudged to the front desk, a little part of me died inside. Patrons yelled at me when they couldn’t get their hands on the latest John Grisham book immediately, books were returned smelling foul (and forever changed how I feel about getting books out of the public library, hence the large collection of books I had to move from my south and west walls this weekend), and it was mind-numbingly boring because we weren’t allowed to read at the front desk during slow periods. Because it wouldn’t look “professional.” In a library. Reading. In a library.

 

Also, my immediate supervisor had some mental health issues that unfortunately took their toll on us as well as her. We were sympathetic to her condition, but when her chemistry was off-kilter, we all suffered. On her best days, she was a control freak, but it was magnified a thousand fold when she was not. The worst day I remember was an early morning staff meeting she’d called to tell us about her new policy on vacation days. We could ask for them, we could be granted them, but if there was a staffing emergency, we could be called in and must immediately abandon our free-time plans. Like we were ER nurses. We could be at the airport ready to fly off to Bora Bora, and if there was a need at the circulation desk, too bad.

 

We were outraged but also felt powerless. Jobs were not easy to come by right then, most of us were at the library because we were uniquely unqualified for other types of non-bookish work. We whined and kvetched and slammed books onto the re-shelving carts, but mostly what we felt was that we had no control over our own lives. We were at the mercy of the forces of the universe and our micro-managing boss with the super tight penmanship.

 

Not long after this incident, I decided to go to graduate school. My mother was worried that I was giving up a job with a paycheck for not-a-job-and-debt, but I knew if I spent much more time in that place, bad things would happen to my head and my heart.

 

So that’s where Z and I are right now. We’d like to flounce off and announce Cartman style, “Screw you guys! We’re going home!” Except this is home and by the time we might find another one we can afford in America’s 3rd most expensive city, the flounce will have lost its dramatic effect.

 

Also, in light of world events, what we have going on here is a hangnail. So I’ll just stop whining now. At least about that.

 

Here’s something else that is concerning.

 

Though I’d vowed never to take another stupid online quiz like “What Hogwart’s House Do You Belong In?” or “What’s Your Power Animal?” (I can answer both of these with no test: Ravenclaw and Indiana Box Turtle), a former student posted a link to the “What Murderous Villain Are You?” quiz, and I was drawn to it for reasons I can’t explain. The quiz itself seemed to be a semi-legit personality test with thoughtful questions and I gave thoughtful answers, and so I was fully expecting to discover I am most like some socialist/communist folk-hero-turned-bad-by-power-and-greed. Somehow, that seemed a tolerable sort of “murderous villain” to be—one who had originally imagined a world where people were equal and working together for the greater good before the corruption and mass executions and full-time-wearing-of-fatigues commenced. I could rationalize that this would not be a bad comparison. I could imagine a world in which given the chance to be a dictator, I’d be a benevolent one.

 

But then I pressed “send” and the computer spun its little wheel for several seconds before giving me my result.

 

 

Hitler.

 

Granted, there was no way I was going to “win” this game. Even if I’d given Mother- Theresa-style answers on every question, I was still going to end up with a murderous villain dopplegänger.

 

But Hitler? You don’t really get worse than that one. It’s not a piece of party trivia you can pull out, like announcing to people you just met that you and Richard Nixon are both Capricorns or that the wife of Jim Jones—the Kool-Aid-making lunatic who killed his followers in Guyana in the 1970s—was from your home town. If you have any connections to Hitler, you keep them to yourself. (Unless, of course, you don’t, but that’s a whole other faction of humanity I don’t particularly want to identify with, thanks.)

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And look at that chart. Just look. According to the experts at Individual Differences Research Labs, I’m only slightly more warm-hearted than Hitler. I never imagined him any amount of warm-hearted, did you? And I’m more brooding. In fact, I’m off the charts with the brooding.

 

Oh dear. I’ve got to go brood about this.

 

I was so disturbed by the results of this test that I took another one at IDR Labs based on the Big 5 personality test that not only tells you your personality but also shows you which president you most align with. On this test, I got Thomas Jefferson, which I was okay with. Yes, he made some dubious moral choices, but it was a different time, I told myself (my white self). He loved books, he was a Renaissance man, I could picture myself easily living at Monticello with him and being happy while he tinkered in the other room with his inventions.

 

But according to the breakdown of this test, Thomas Jefferson was more conscientious than I am and he had slaves. Human people he actually owned (to say nothing of Sally Hemmings, who wasn’t free to say “no”). How? How was he more conscientious than I am? Me, who is not complaining to the building manager about our current living conditions because I know it isn’t her fault, she just works here.

 

You might want to take this opportunity to consider whether you want to keep reading a blog written by a woman who has similar psychological make-up to Hitler and America’s most famous presidential slave owner. (See how conscientious I am, warning you off?)

 

Speaking of dictators and people with poorly-functioning moral compasses….

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Photo credit: _The Telegraph_

 

 

If you’d asked me in 1982 what the likelihood was that I’d marry a man whose home country was in the midst of a not-a-coup coup, I’d have laughed in your face. The odds of  even meeting someone whose home country is coup-inclined in Richmond, Indiana, are not high. And yet there I was two weeks ago, watching social media with a weird mixture of hope and concern for our people in Zimbabwe (and for Z who would soon be headed to Zimbabwe for the holidays) and watching Z watching the remarkable news from Harare as it unfolded.

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That’s not just a car ride to Cincinnati.

Also, I have to tell you, until you are married to someone whose home country is on the verge of a bloodless revolution, you have no idea how truly tedious and self-absorbed the U.S. news outlets are. We were searching frantically for any information from a trusted news source, but instead they were re-hashing various sex scandals in U.S. politics over and over and completely unaware or uninterested that the world had shifted on its axis south of the equator and across the Atlantic. We finally gave up and relied exclusively on social media and texts from friends and family “on the ground.”

 

I loved the look on Z’s face while he watched fellow Zimbabweans in the streets of Harare as they draped themselves in flags and danced and sang. He was leaning forward towards the screen with a smile, clicking between different sites to see what the latest was. Shaking his head in disbelief.

 

If he could have teleported to Zim, I’d have been sitting on the sofa by myself. But the truth is, I wanted to teleport with him. I wanted to see in the flesh those people  draped in flags, dancing in the street, hugging each other regardless of race or political affiliation. It was heady.

 

It has been a weird year for me. For us. We’d never protested before in our lives, and yet for the last 12 months we’ve been more politically active than the all the other years of our lives combined—we’ve marched, spoken up, altered behavior, discussed things we never imagined needing to discuss like what we might  do if Z isn’t allowed to live in America anymore, and so on. Z does it because he says he’s not letting what happened in his home country happen in his adopted one. I do it because I believe in the idea of America, and right now, America is falling short of its own idea of itself. But also, we both do it because this is the only control we have: what we do with our own bodies, our own behavior, our own vote (or at least my vote since Z is not yet eligible).

 

What a weird sort of synchronicity that our year of protest wrapped up with a march we were too far away to participate in, so we had to just sit on the sofa and watch. Z dragged out his Zimbabwean flag and hung it in our front window, and that night we had friends over and he cooked a traditional Zimbabwean meal (Huku ne Dovi, sadza, muriwo and also garlic rosemary chicken for me because I am picky and not that adventurous), and we warmed ourselves with hope for better tomorrows everywhere.

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Mushrooms of the Eleventh Hour

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Tiny Buzz Lightyear searching (possibly for a blog topic) on Alki Beach

I’ve jinxed myself. Earlier this month, I was crowing to Jane about how pleased I am with myself that every month of 2017 I’ve written a blog post as promised. It’s been a real learning experience to set a goal so small that it is almost impossible not to meet it, and it feels really satisfying each month to think, well, at least I kept that promise I made to Z and myself on December 31st. Look at me! There might be stacks of laundry waiting to be put away on the table for a week or I might have forgotten to submit five pieces of writing each month (a goal I made, but not a promise, which, it turns out, is key for follow-thru for me), but by golly, I would get my monthly blog post written. Twelve for the year. Not impressive, but maybe next year I can promise two a month. Baby steps and all that.

 

Here it is, people, 5:30 p.m. 6:55 p.m. 7:22 p.m. 9:42 p.m. on October 31st, and I’ve got nothing. It’s Z’s late night to work, and I promised him when he got home at 10:30 that there’d be a bouncing baby blog entry for him to read, but right now, all I’ve got inside my head are the Mary Tyler Moore lyrics and there just isn’t very much I can do with those. I think that line “who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile” was giving me hope about an hour ago, but now it’s just taunting me. I’ve already rewarded myself with a Twinkie (well, two, because they come packaged in pairs and I didn’t want the one to feel left out) and a phone chat with Mom. Now it’s just me, the blank screen and an even blanker mind.

 

Why wouldn’t you want to read this blog? It’s riveting!

 

It seems pointless to write a Halloween post since by the time you read this, we will have started that best of all American holiday seasons, ThanksChristGivingmas, but I do have a question for those of you who are roughly my age or older. Do you remember in elementary school when we were taught to write out Halloween and it was spelled with an apostrophe? Hallow’een. Yeah. What happened to that apostrophe? When did we give it up? Who decided? Was it some consensus from the collective unconscious to do away with unnecessary punctuation marks or was there a presidential decree making it so during the Carter Administration?

 

Get back to me on that asap, would you?

 

October has been a month of celebration and grief, and I think these contrasting emotions are why I’m feeling so stuck. I don’t particularly want to write about the grief—which was grief felt for others who were grieving more than it was my own, so it isn’t mine to write about—but it also feels in poor taste to sit here chomping gum and wise-cracking about the lunatic I sat next to on the bus yesterday or how I was lamenting with Mr. Han at the bodega down the street our similar lack of Halloween plans tonight when I stopped in to buy my Tuesday night bag of ice and Twinkies.

 

Last week, in response to an honest post my friend Anaïs made on Facebook about feeling a little blue, some ass-hat chided her for “casting a wide blanket of sadness” that would be, apparently, contagious to her friends if they read it on their feed. For days I had that phrase stuck in my head—wide blanket of sadness—and that woman’s superior tone and her follow-up post about how we all have hard lives and how basically Anaïs should check herself before whining publicly about her life and making other people miserable.

 

The thing is, Anaïs is no whiner. She never complains. This year has kind of kicked her around, but at no point did she kvetch about the lot that was dealt her. So for this “friend” of hers to chide her for admitting on one random Monday that she was feeling a little down? It’s unconscionable.

 

Frankly, I’m disappointed Facebook hasn’t unveiled a punch-in-the-face emoji so I could direct my hostility toward this stranger visually. (I also want to suggest to Mark Zuckerberg that a feature be developed post haste that allows you to unfriend a friend of a friend who you believe not to be worthy of your friend’s time or wall space. A sort of Better Friendships By Committee option.)

 

So anyhow, in the interest of not spreading a wide blanket of sadness to you, Dear Reader, instead of telling you about the sorrows and fears of October, and in the interest of not making you wild with jealousy for the bits of my month that were stellar, I will, instead, tell you the story of a mushroom.

 

Z and I often have conversations about what things are called. I suspect this happens in a lot of cross-cultural relationships. Sometimes it’s about pronunciation—he’ll spell a word and ask how I say it and then we’ll argue about how wrong the other’s pronunciation is. Other times, he’ll say something like “what do you call the thing you push around the store and put items in that you want to buy?” and I’ll say, “cart” and he’ll say, “hmmm.” (This is actually a bad example. Z has had me calling that thing with wheels a “trolley” since about 2002. ) Some of his words I’ve had to just adopt as my own: biscuit (cookie), braai (a barbeque), brolly (umbrella), robot (stoplight), takkies (sneakers), muti (medicine), chongololo (millipede), and so on. Please note: I draw the line at pronouncing aluminum with an extra syllable and I will not concede that the name Shari should be pronounced any differently than the name Sherry.

 

In Z’s case, he’s lived in America for so long now that there’s the added fun where sometimes he can’t remember if a quirk of his language is unique to Zimbabwe, unique to Minnesota, or unique to him alone.

 

So last week, he showed me an emoji on his phone and said, “What do you call this?” This was the emoji:

 

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“Mushroom,” I said.

 

Z raised an eyebrow.

 

“Or toadstool,” I added. “They’re the same.”

 

He was indignant on this point and insisted they are NOT the same. Not at all. A discussion ensued. We had a similar argument several years ago about turtles (my word for any sea-going or earth-walking reptile that carries its home on its back and also my Power Animal) and tortoises (Z’s word for earth-walking terrapins only). I love the word “turtle”—the sound is superior to “tortoise” with the repetition of the t’s and I grew up with Indiana box turtles and I will not give in to tortoise. I will NOT. He is wrong.

 

Finally, while I wouldn’t agree that he was correct and a toadstool and a mushroom were different, I did say, “The truth is, I don’t even think those red and white ones even exist. Aren’t they more mythical—like unicorns?”

 

On this we could agree. Alice in Wonderland might have eaten a toadstool, but there were no toadstools in the real world, just as there are no March Hares with pocket watches or grinning Cheshire Cats lounging on tree limbs. Those mushrooms people ingest for fun, we were both certain, are the boring brown variety and they only think they are red with white spots once they are high.

 

We both left the conversation certain that we were correct and the other person was wrong, wrong, wrong about the word choice— but we were also glad there was a middle ground on which we could agree: it was stupid to argue about a thing that only existed in the fantasy world, video games, and on our respective phones.

 

When I say we were each certain we were correct, you should probably know that the next day I called my mother and asked her if I was right. Mom knows everything. She’s always my definitive answer-giver about things in the natural world, things in the art world, and things in history. (I do not ask for her assistance with technology.)

 

I described the object to her and she said, “Oh. That’s a toadstool. That’s what I would call it. But I don’t think they really exist.”

 

The next evening Z and I were strolling by St. James Cathedral, which sits high on a bank so the ground under the trees and bushes is at eye level, and there, plain as day, was a crowd (a flock? a menagerie? a murder?) of red-and-white dotted toadstools. It was so out of the ordinary that I half expected Mario or Luigi to hop from one to another, or for them to start swaying and tittering. My brain tried to make sense of it quickly. It must be an art installation, I thought. But then just as quickly, that seemed unlikely since who would go to the trouble? The massive size of these things was also improbable. The largest one was bigger than my hand. We stopped and studied them and finally had to agree that they were 100% real.

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We were giddy for the rest of the walk with the notion that the city—in all of its filth and congestion and electric light—could manage to delight us like this. Later, when I did a little investigating online, I discovered they aren’t rare at all, are plentiful in places with pine trees, and are both slightly poisonous and mildly hallucinogenic (the latter of which might explain why the next day they were all mostly gone).

 

Z and I (and Mom) had been wrong. Maybe you already knew this and think we are dolts, but in our respective parts of the world they aren’t known to us. But they are real. Even the knowledge that we were the idiots who knew less than we thought we did about the fungal world couldn’t wreck the magic of having spotted them there two blocks from our apartment.

 

I’ve tucked into my pocket for some other, rainier day the notion that the world can still surprise me in colorful and mysterious ways. I won’t pretend to believe that the memory of discovering some toadstools can protect me or anyone else from our own blankets of sadness, but I hope…I hope, I hope, I hope…that the knowledge that there are still things out there—things that are new to us, mysterious, things that will mesmerize and pull our attention from the regular to the irregular—that will help us keep our eyes trained on the horizon instead of at our feet.

 

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Who knows? Maybe gnomes are real too. (Sculpture by Rita Jackson http://www.ritabunny.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little 3rd Grade Classroom on the Prairie

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Future tree-ring counters: me, Mrs. Turner, Cher-a-lyn Ford, Kevin Mathews (Photo from The Palladium-Item)

 

I was an introverted only child with high sensitivities, so everything about elementary school disagreed with me. I hated the noise, the feel of the cheap gritty brown paper we had to draw on, using the lockless bathroom at the back of the classroom where any unthinking dolt might ignore the octagonal sign that I’d flipped from “go” to “STOP” thus flinging the door open to expose me sitting there on the child-sized porcelain. I hated the near daily lectures about how badly behaved “we” were, and worse, the moment when the teacher would inevitably flip off the lights and snarl “BURY THEM!” and we were meant to not only put our heads on our desks but hide our (horrible, badly behaved) faces in our arms. (I spent those ten to twenty minutes each time it happened wondering a) if the teacher realized I was good and not one of the criminals in question b) if legal intervention could be used to right the injustice of all of us being punished because of one or two bad eggs and c) if it was possible to suffocate from having your nose buried in your own elbow crease.) I hated the smells in the cafeteria, the smell of the paste in the big jar, and the smell of the red rubber ball as it smacked into my face when we played Dodge Ball. There was much to hate.

 

In the mornings, Mom would have to work hard to cajole me out of bed. On more than one morning, she dressed me as I performed what I now recognize as the passive resistance moves people use when cops are trying to drag them away from a protest. Some mornings I would whine, “Why do I have to go?” I felt I wasn’t learning anything she hadn’t already taught me or that I wasn’t gleaning from the stack of library books on my nightstand. School seemed stupid and I didn’t mind groaning about it before 8 a.m. I probably deserved a swat on the backside or the pursed lips of disapproval, but instead, Mom would good naturedly answer my tedious query with, “Because you’re the principal.”

 

Good Lord, elementary school was boring. Aside from the things I outright hated, it was so repetitious and slow. I’d leave every day with a Little House book tucked under my arm so I could disappear into Laura’s pioneer life as soon as I finished my assignments, and if I didn’t have my nose buried in a book then I was staring out the window wishing for the sweet release from my incarceration when the final bell rang. I could draw from memory the views from each classroom because everything on the other side of the glass looked so much sweeter and alive than anything that was happening inside the four cinder block walls of my various classrooms.

 

But then third grade happened. Jessie Turner was my teacher that year at Finley Elementary, and suddenly Mom didn’t have to try to jam my uncooperative foot into a sock because I was up, washed, dressed, and ready to go before she’d had time to get ready herself. What a glorious year that was.

 

Since Mom called me to tell me a few weeks ago that Mrs. Turner had died, I’ve been thinking a lot about her and the classroom she created and what magic she wrought that made 1975-1976 the best academic year of my life and shaped the person I wanted to become. I can’t separate the individual from her classroom environment or from her lessons, but what I do know is that it was evident she was enthusiastic about her job, invested in her students, treated us like humans, allowed for zero dull moments, and required only that we be kind and curious. I can’t remember a single instance when we were barked at to bury our heads or treated like miniature convicts. On the very worst day—one of our members had decided to cut the strings on the loom where we were learning how to weave, thus ruining our joint tapestry—she sat at the front of the room, not looking up at us, fiddling with a book in front of her with tears visible in her clear, blue eyes, and said, voice cracking, how disappointed she was. Though I hadn’t been the guilty party, I wanted to throw myself at her feet and apologize, and I suspect the rest of my classmates felt the same because we were subdued for the rest of the day. Having disappointed her mattered to us because she mattered to us.

 

 

Mrs. Turner’s classroom was a study in stimulation. The walls were filled with posters, artwork, handicrafts, charts. There were a series of “stations” lining the room where we would read or weave or investigate the caterpillar that nibbled on leaves while we waited for it spin its cocoon. She rarely sat, but if she did, it was in front of us—not behind her desk to keep herself protected—but at a long, low table on which were piles of books and magazines and a mesh cage that contained a praying mantis and the egg mass we were waiting to see hatch. There wasn’t a spot in the room where our eyes would land on a blank space. I never had an urge to stare out the window and wish I were free while I was her student because we were so busy inside those walls.

 

She was never hemmed in by those walls either and saw the classroom not as a physical space. She frequently took us outside, marched us around the neighborhood—the oldest one in Richmond—and showed us living history: a side street where bricks hadn’t been covered with pavement, the star brick sidewalks that had been there for over a century, the old street names (Market & Marion) embedded on the corner of a house from a time before the streets had been boringly renamed 6th and C and those names written on ugly green signs on poles. She walked us past the old German cottages and Italianate houses and had us count out every seventh row of short bricks to help us identify buildings from a certain time period. She taught us to read and draw maps that we carried with us, and when we weren’t having history lessons, we were observing insects, wildlife, learning to count the rings of a tree trunk, and then expected to speculate about what might have been going on in the world when we got to that centermost ring where the tree had begun its life. She took the entire class to Camp Clements and there we hiked and made dioramas and had a campfire before falling into damp sleeping bags on stiff bunks. It is, perhaps, the only time in my childhood when I wasn’t homesick on an overnight, and I suspect that is because I was too busy to realize I missed my own bed. Plus, why would you want to make yourself miserable when you were so happy to be in Mrs. Turner’s presence?

 

My Little House long-dress-and-sunbonnet-wearing dreams were fulfilled because it was America’s Bicentennial. I regularly went to class decked out like Laura Ingalls Wilder (missing the irony that Laura hated her sunbonnet and would have never voluntarily worn one). In addition to our regular studies and the nature studies Mrs. Turner included in our curriculum—we did a host of activities to celebrate America’s birthday. We wove on a loom. We ground corn on a Native American grinding stone borrowed from the museum (and, sadly, returned broken because of too vigorous grinding) and then made cornbread after our hard work, which we slathered with butter we had churned. We carded wool, learned about spinning, and made nine-patch quilts. At her insistence, we memorized a poem called “Indian Children” that forced us to think about who had lived where we were now—and she told us when we were 50 we would still remember it. (It is the only poem I’ve ever memorized and she was right, I can still recite it.) She made me keep my first journal and taught me how to bend language to my will in order to create a cinquain (a sort of elementary-friendly haiku) that instilled in me a love of puzzling out the best words to use and where to use them.

 

She was a whirlwind in the classroom, moving from one space to the next in a cloud of the eucalyptus cough drops she sucked, and we were sucked into her vortex. We followed her where she went and had little opportunity to let our minds wander.

 

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Mrs. Turner as I knew her and in her youth, looking all Sundance-y!

At her memorial service, I was looking at old photographs of her and realized my fascination with the women of the Sundance Catalog likely stems from her influence 40 years ago. Though she wasn’t inclined to prairie skirts and cowboy boots, she dressed like a woman who, if she hadn’t been teaching 3rd graders the importance of ecology in east central Indiana, would have been hiking in the mountains or investigating cacti on some mesa somewhere. She was often in pants and shoes that wouldn’t hinder trekking, maybe a vest, and she regularly had on turquoise jewelry, which looked exactly right on her.

 

I was particularly entranced by the synchronicity that surrounded a silver ring she wore on her finger because it bore her initials; she explained one day that it had belonged to a good friend who had had the same initials until she got married, and then the ring made it’s way to Mrs. Turner. (I was so entranced by the meaning of that ring—the initials, the connection to another—that the following year I wore a ring with an “M” on it that I’d found in a bag of junk jewelry that someone else was casting off. I was, apparently, a weirdo even as a child as there was no “M”, lowercase or uppercase, in my name, but I wore the ring happily, and determined that I’d marry a man with an “M.” While I don’t think I chose Z because his surname begins with an M, it does make me feel a little 10-year-old-girl giddy that a ring I haven’t seen in years was prophetic. That’s nearly as good as having a friend with your initials share her ring with you.)

 

Mrs. Turner shared herself with us. She told us about the year she and her husband and children had lived in Alaska, how they’d have to bring the car battery into the house at night if they had any hope of the car starting in the morning, how beautiful and cold and empty it was. She spoke of the Eskimo people there and brought in a pair of goggles made from caribou hooves or antlers with tiny slits used to prevent snow blindness. She told us about the children’s novel her husband had written, The King Bear, about a boy growing up on a homestead in Alaska, and she lent me a copy so I could read it myself. I was in awe: an actual human person I knew married to a real live author. She talked about her children, talked about her childhood, told us about the wider world. One day she told us about the years when she and her family had lived in the mountains of Colorado, how beautiful it was, how much it meant to her, but how she wasn’t sure—again, her eyes damp, her voice cracking—that she would ever want to see it again because so many people were moving there and ruining that natural world she loved so much.

 

I’m not sure if before 3rd grade I’d ever been allowed to see my teachers as humans with loves and frailties, but it made a tremendous impact on me, and affected the way I saw the world. Made me notice when some of my less exotic bits of Indiana were bulldozed for parking lots, made me long to see distant places like Alaska and know more about people past and present from all walks of life.

 

She was the most compassionate teacher I had in elementary school. She saw us all as individuals and tried to meet our needs. In the spring, we wove baskets and she encouraged us to give them to our parents for Easter, but my parents were divorced, so she let me weave a second so I didn’t have to choose. One day she had gotten to the chapter in By the Shores of Silver Lake in which Laura’s bulldog Jack dies, and she asked me if I would read it to the class for her because the dog’s death upset her. I sat at her place at the long, low table, read solemnly and considered for the first time the possibility that though I was an introvert, it actually felt good to be at the front of a classroom. She recognized that a few of us needed more stimulation, and so she gave us tasks to perform: backdrops for the Christmas pageant that needed painting, seasonal decorating for the showcase window by the door, a play based on one of the Little House books (written, directed, and starring yours truly). There were other activities custom crafted for students with other likes and talents too, and I don’t think a single one of us felt ignored or left out. We trusted her because we knew she had our best interests at heart.

 

She was inspiring and we were inspired. Because she treated us with respect and expected us to be interested in the world around us, we (mostly) were respectful and interested. I left her classroom wanting to be a teacher, wanting to write, wanting to study history, and wanting to be as curious about the world as she was daily.

 

I was lucky in that my mother worked for the school system and so Mrs. Turner wasn’t lost to me completely the day I left her classroom. Though I didn’t see her with any regularity afterward, there were occasions when I’d be lucky enough to re-enter her orbit. In particular, I remember a visit to the beautiful brick Federal where she lived and as soon as I walked into it I was inspired because it was filled with bits and pieces of things that were of interest to her and her family. There were items I recognized as things she’d brought in to share with the class (those Alaskan snow goggles!) but also books, antiques, old family photos, an abandoned hornet’s nest. Her house was like her classroom with the added bonus of a ghost named Lydia who occasionally wreaked havoc. I closed my eyes and tried to soak up Lydia’s vibes, but couldn’t keep them closed because there was so much to see, so much I wanted to remember. Like her classroom, I felt charged by her living space. It was electric with ideas, with history, with feeling.

 

Though I hadn’t seen her for ages, when I got engaged eight years ago, I knew I wanted her at the wedding so I sent off an invitation. It was a cold December evening, she was now walking with a cane, and I can only imagine there were other ways she would have preferred spending a Saturday night, but she had her daughter bring her and the night was all the happier for her presence. I was glad, too, that she got to meet Z.

 

That’s the kind of teacher she was: one who would come to your wedding 33 years after you were her student and make you feel like your life event—your happiness—mattered deeply to her. Still.

 

My senior year of high school after friends and I had gone to see The Breakfast Club we suggested to a teacher there who was in charge of the National Honor Society that she should see the movie because it explained so well what it felt like to be a teenager in the 1980s. She shook her head, visibly cowered, and said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to have to see that. I don’t want to know.” My public school education was adequate. I had other excellent teachers who shaped my worldview and inspired me, a couple of whom I stay in touch with and consider friends. But during the thirteen years I was in school, I had more teachers like the one who visibly shrank at the idea of having to understand her students better. They wore armor to protect themselves from us. They coasted through class sessions so they could get to the after-school coaching gigs that had drawn them to teaching in the first place. They saw us as would-be criminals who had to be contained, herded, de-toothed. We were a generation that was not delighted in. Many of them just wanted us to bury our heads so they wouldn’t have to look at us, see our faces, recognize us as individuals.

 

But not Jessie Turner.

 

She changed my life. I’m sure she changed more than mine. While I wouldn’t want to paint my little elementary school as bad or rough, we were—most all of us—poor. Of the elementary schools in Richmond, mine would have been one with more kids on free lunch, more kids that experts would predict would end up incarcerated because of “statistics,” more kids who weren’t going to be on track for college, more kids who no one expected to amount to much. If she saw us that way, she didn’t let on. For that single, glorious year, we were important and we were treated as if we were the same as everyone else.

 

Though I wouldn’t like to call it luck because the lucky thing would have been if she’d lived another 86 years, I was relieved that her memorial service happened to fall at a time when I was back home in Indiana so I was able to go, able to say goodbye, to introduce myself to her family and tell them what they already knew: how special she was, how much she mattered, what a difference she made to all of us. I loved looking at the photos from her life, reading a snippet from a journal that her children had put out, seeing a quilt students had made with messages written on it about how she’d changed their lives too. There was even a letter I’d written her twenty years ago out on a table for the world to read. It was a thank you that I’d written after an exercise in The Artist’s Way had forced me to name the person—outside of family—who had shaped me most. In the funeral home, the Bee Gees were playing in the background. There were flowers, balloons, bubbles. It felt like she was there and I could see her in her children. Certainly, she should have been there, celebrating and being celebrated.

 

A few days before the memorial service, I had lunch with C, a favorite former student of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for ten years. I recognized on the first day of her first class with me that C was different. Her energy and enthusiasm were catching. The world and the people in it fascinated her and she was hungry to gobble up all the knowledge she could. Now, she’s ten years deep into being a public school teacher. She’s done some inspiring things with students to get them to give back to the community, to the world at large, to respect people who are just like them but different.

 

Our lunch was a sort of lovefest. We both have great appreciation for each other, so we sat there laughing, eyes getting damp as we tried to express gratitude, faces red with embarrassment and heads shaking off praise heaped on by the other. The truth is, I am in awe of C. She is the kind of teacher I dreamed of being but don’t have quite enough energy or complete lack of cynicism to be. Even so, she insisted that she was inspired in my class, that she learned a lot, that she tortures her students with things I taught her or nuggets of information I passed on to her. It was humbling, and I don’t record it here to toot my own horn. I’m a good teacher. I can own that. But I’m not great. I’m not the teacher I planned to be back in third grade when I was learning at the feet of the master. I am plagued with demons of self-doubt, procrastination, discombobulated thinking on any given day. My lesson plans are as likely to be written on the back of an envelope as in a notebook and there will never be PowerPoint slides to accompany a lecture. It is unlikely that I’ll ever dedicate my free time to ushering students around on field trips or to conferences or to perform public service. I would never take them camping. I’ve got limitations.

 

Before meeting her end on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the teacher Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future. I teach.” Because she was so publicly and heroically dead, I didn’t roll my eyes like I wanted to the first time I read that line. It seems like something that is so full of itself that it should be too embarrassing to think let alone cross-stitch on and hang above your desk. I would certainly never say it about myself. In retrospect though, I suspect I was applying it to the average teachers I’d had. The ones who inspired me only to be good and get my homework in on time because I didn’t want to be hollered at. When I read McAuliffe’s quote, I wasn’t thinking about the few stellar teachers I’d had.

 

I sure wasn’t thinking about Jessie Turner.

 

Here’s the thing: anything C was praising me for while we had lunch? That was some quality, some nugget of wisdom, some way of teaching that I learned from Mrs. Turner (or a teacher who came later who had her qualities and thus I flitted around like a moth). I didn’t become Mrs. Turner. I couldn’t. No one could. But whatever magic it is she worked back at Finley Elementary certainly helped me be a conduit so a few of my students could carry the best bits of her towards infinity.

 

How lucky are we?

 

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