days the color of a monkeyface eel

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Unsure why this is currently rotting in the sun, but life is full of mysteries! (Picture does not accurately capture the flies or the smell. You’re welcome.)

A week and a half ago we asked our boss if we could purchase 1,000 carrion beetles. My coworker had found a monkeyface prickleback carcass and was interested in harvesting the delicate bones. Obviously, beetles were the way to go.

That was a week and a half ago, but it feels like a different epoch. It is hard to write about what’s happened since. Not because the summation is difficult but because words feel inadequate. Because clustering syllables and letters together into neat little phrases removes all the sinew and splinters from the past week. And I need you to feel the color of it all. I need you to taste the scent.

Here’s what life feels like now: you’re in the ocean and a wave comes out of nowhere. One moment you are above and there is sun, and the next you’re below in a water world, and you’re tumbling head over feet, head over feet, and you lose all sense of direction, of what is up, and you know you’ll surface soon, you know this is only temporary, but god, your lungs hurt and you are panicking, and you are this small, fragile creature in a whirlwind of water and everything is a million shades of blue.

That’s what this feels like.

Camp is empty now. The kids have been gone for weeks. Full-time staff are now working from home. And us, the seasonal crew, we are peeling off one-by-one, like bark from a eucalyptus tree. An abandonment both sudden and slow. That’s what this feels like.

I have gotten very good at goodbyes these past couple of years. Goodbye dinners, goodbye hugs, goodbye letters. Even for the messier seasons there has always been closure. But it’s different now. Now it feels like I just got dumped with no warning, and all sense of closure is lodged in my throat, feelings leaking out like a poorly corked bottle. What do I do with all this future dripping from my hands? These plans, these hopes, these wild dreams? Where do I go from here? What happens next?

It is easy to be melancholy and sad these days. It is easy to tell you that the monkeyface prickleback is sealed in a ziploc bag, festering in the sun, and that we have no carrion beetles to remove the flesh, and that it will probably stay in that bag on the ground for a long time. It is easy to be heavy handed with the metaphors.

And these days, sometimes everything feels like monkeyface prickleback rot. But not always. Some moments it is watching dolphins at sunset from our own back porch or singing happy birthday as someone plays the accordion. Sometimes it is Spam musubi and coffeechocolatehoney crepes and lavender plucked from outside the dining hall. It is sea anemones that still curl inward when I poke them and will never do otherwise. It is all that and more. And those moments of beauty, of community, of resilience are there if you are looking. Because there is always hope and light for those who search.

I hope you too are finding the sun.

tips for surviving the end of the world

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a picture of Sirius i took on my night skulk last night. it was foggy and damp and the wind was angry. i walked and walked and then sat down and tried to find Orion through the clouds as i listened to lo-fang on repeat. Orion is lower in the sky than it was a couple weeks ago. time is passing. things are changing.

First off, it’s not the end of the world.

Secondly, let me tell you a little about me. I’ve woken up with a headache every day this week from stress. My anxiety is this hazy, inarticulate thing that clouds my senses, leaving me lying in bed curled up in my sleeping bag, worrying about my campers in Cape Cod. I am good at many things and one of them is worrying. There are no shortage of things to be worried about at the moment, and I’ve done a truly stellar job of worrying about them all.

So you are not alone in whatever you are feeling. That rising, bubbling panic. That hopelessness. The hand-wringing frustration of what can I do, what can I do. I get it. I am that way too.

The last time I remember feeling this thundercloud anxiety was back in 2016 after the elections. The world felt dark that November. There was so much fear and rage and uncertainty, and I remember pacing around my apartment, music shredding through my speakers, wondering what happens next, where do we go from here.

I was busy that winter. I organized postcard writing parties. I called my senators. I tracked legislation bills and wrote letters of outrage and drove to DC to protest.

Yvoun Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, says that the best cure for depression is action. He is so right.

So in the midst of this global pandemic where shadows loom large, here’s what I’ve been doing. Maybe some of these things can help you too.

1. Get outside
Good news! You can socially isolate and be outside! I’ve been running and taking walks and trying to appreciate all the small wonders that abound. The ice plant here is turning red and it reminds me of autumn leaves. I saw two rogue cows on my hike the other day and it was terribly exciting. The world is a beautiful place and it is still right outside, waiting for you with open arms.

2. Create stuff
Yesterday I spent the entire afternoon tearing up old art books and making collages. It was nice to do something tangible. To have my hands busy. To let my mind focus on matching patterns instead of analyzing COVID-19 testing data. I have some writing projects I’ve put off for literal years, so hopefully I can crack into those as well. Make some stuff. Put your thoughts and feelings into words and paints. And maybe share it and let others connect with it so they can go, yeah, me too.

3. Stay in touch
I’ve been hovering closer to my phone these days. For the instant news alerts, yes. But also for the text messages I’ve been sending and receiving. The check-ins from friends. The offers of you can stay with me if you need it. I’ve been reaching out to others more because I often think I invent my own aloneness, and I have to remind myself that other people care and that certain friends will be there for me no matter what.

4. Read more
This feels pretty self-explanatory. I anxiety-binged Rilke the other day and that was a power move. A good crisis never fails to unearth some breathtaking art (especially poetry), and I’ve read some really moving, inspiring, insightful stuff lately. (If you have any, send it my way! Pleasepleaseplease!)

5. Physical touch is good
Did you know rabbits don’t carry COVID-19? So snuggle away! I’ve done some A+ bunny cuddling the past couple days and have accepted any and all head scratches that have been offered to me. 10/10 recommend

6. Mindset matters
It could be worse. It could always be worse. Yeah, I’m bummed that future plans have fallen through. Yeah, I’m anxious that my job is tenuous at best and I’m looking at a quality chunk of unemployment. Yeah, I’m frustrated that this dream season on the coast will end early and end in chaos. But there’s so much to be thankful for and it’s going to be OK. You know that, right? That we’re going to get through this. That there is light up ahead. That we will be tested in dire circumstances now and in times to come and we have to figure out how to survive, how to find strength and help those around us. In times of crisis, the polarized sides of humanity shine through and I am always amazed at how much good there is in the world, all the people willing to help one another.

Sometimes I wish I were a lighter person. A person less burdened with ideas and reality and a wedge-shaped core of darkness (it’s a Woolf reference, you’re welcome). Because I want to be—I am—optimistic about the whole ordeal, but there is going to be a cost and we are bearing this cost because of our other failures. The lack of affordable and accessible health care, the absence of job and financial security, the overcrowding in underfunded places like prisons and homeless shelters, the list doesn’t end. This pandemic is showing how gnawed, how hollow the bones of our system truly are.

So once this passes, which it will, what happens next? What are you going to do with this broken failing system? How can we inspire and change and empower so we are never faced with this bleeding gristle again?

Dark times make me think of Lord of the Rings (bless my coworker who played the score yesterday on the piano and made me tear up in a very happy contented sort of way), and all the hopeful gems that embed the dark mesh of the story. I’ll leave you with this one:

“For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing; there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” – The Return of the King

night walks

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I have zero pictures of my nighttime outings, so here’s a picture of a sea anemone.

I’ve been taking a lot of night walks lately. Skulking, I call it. Disappearing into the Californian night, leaving my messy room, messy mind behind. I walk without light as often as possible. Sometimes I run.

The town I live in is a wealthy geriatric place, million-dollar homes landscaped with succulents and neatly polished rocks, sculptures of dolphins and otters watching over the plant beds. There are no streetlights, no sidewalks. I rarely see another person on my nightly jaunts, except on Thursday evenings when people roll out their trash cans, and at nine o’clock when an older woman emerges from her garage to let her dog piss on the undeveloped property across from her house.

Night is always different. Sometimes, when the moon is almost full, the air is glittery darkness, the stars washed out by the lunar brightness, everything draped in a glowing shade of black. And other times it is womb dark. Fog rolls in, and it feels like a nightmare, like a dream, like another realm entirely. Sometimes I am alone. Sometimes I am not.

The other week during class, a girl trailed me closely as we walked through the neighborhood after tide pooling. She looked at me with button brown eyes, trying to leech my attention with her questions, her blatant stares. I told her that she was smart to wear shorts that day as the sun shone more intensely than anticipated. She told me that she rarely wears shorts because one time a boy placed his hand on her thigh and it made her uncomfortable.

That’s where the story started. Like a loosely wound spool, it unraveled from there. As we walked in the heat, up the hill, past the house with the automatic lights that burst into illumination every evening I pass them, she continued sharing. I gave her my watered-down, elementary-school-appropriate feminist talk: No one can touch you without your permission. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s not OK. Don’t feel embarrassed; it’s not your fault; it’s never your fault. I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell her that this won’t happen again, that everything is behind her, that things get better. But they don’t. She is 11 and her childhood has been taken from her in small, snatching ways, and this is what it means to exist in bodies like ours, and I wish that it wasn’t this way, I wish life was a little less red, but I don’t know how to turn every scar into poetry. There is so much that is beyond me.

I ran hard that night. As I was leaving camp, a coworker passed me in his car. He jumped out and asked if I was OK, if I needed a headlamp. I told him I had one; I just preferred darkness. He seemed concerned. He didn’t get it. The point is not to be seen. That’s what I want. To exist in the darkness unnoticed, to pass by the TV-illuminated windows in total silence, to stand in the middle of the road with world sprawled around me with nothing but stardust in my heart, moonlight in my veins. Because here on the golden coast, in this retirement town, I can move through the darkness without worry, without fear, without light. There is no one chasing me. There are no men shouting at me from their porches. There are no streets that I’ve learned to avoid because they make my skin crawl with threatened violence.

To only fear the uneven pavement and your own reckless speed. Imagine.

Walking at night feels luxurious here. I want to gather it in my fists until the smell bleeds into my fingertips. I want to bathe in it and cradle it and wear it like an expensive robe.  I want to fold it into my pocket and take it with me so that I can have expansive, empty darkness with me forever.

Sometimes the world feels like a map of places I cannot go, and so much of my history feels like me sucking in a breath and going anyway.

My night walks are always different. Sometimes they are spent with a laser pointer in hand, staring at they sky, trying to identify Leo and the entirety of Ursa Major. Sometimes they’re spent running from skunks in Fiscalini. And sometimes they’re spent lying on the ground feeling the opposite of lonely (is there a word for that?), staring up at the limitless sky. But I go out into the night because it is a gift to slip through the cracks, to be unnoticed, to be forgotten, to exist as a small speck of night moving quietly through the star-studded world, knowing no fear, only life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

perfect moments

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one

It is early in the season and my night walks have not yet become habitual. This is the first time on one of those walks that I am not alone. We are walking and the fog is rolling in, covering the stars slowly like a blanket being pulled over bed sheets. It feels like the world is moving very fast. Leading up to camp there is a large hill and at the base of that hill is Rancho Marino, a private gated property that snakes up the coast and hugs the perimeter of camp. The fence taunts me daily. A place of Monterey pine and coastal oaks and scrubby sage. A place I cannot go.

We reach the bottom of the hill and come to a stop at the entrance gate to Rancho Marino.

Do you see that? What is that?

In a perfect arc over the gate is a ribbon of white.

I try to explain it. A strange refraction of distant headlights? A distortion of moonlight? I am utterly unsure.

It’s a moonbow, a lunar rainbow, he tells me.

A moonbow. A moonbow. I didn’t know such things existed. And how wonderful is that? To find something blindly, to be wholly surprised and overcome with emotion, to stumble upon something magnificent and be struck dumb with the mystery of it. The internet has made so much knowable these days, and although I love all that access, sometimes I just want to sit and know nothing and experience the world in a bright, alien sense, observing and feeling with no name for anything, just sensation, just waves of wonderment.


two

The tide is low, so three of us go to explore the sea caves at San Simeon. We wander along the beach and do our best to avoid the male elephant seal patrolling the water. Even at low tide, only a couple caves are accessible by foot. They are filled with ochre stars and mussels and sea anemones with the vibrancy of highlighters. The caves remind of me of The Grotto in Iowa, which is one of the craziest comparisons I’ve ever made.

We go hiking and climb down the bluffs and scavenge for gumboot chitons. I’d never heard of chitons before I moved to California, which just goes to show you how quickly life can change. There are different types of chitons, but gumboot chitons are reddish/orange, large, and vaguely resemble a quartered cantaloupe crossed with a maxi pad. Chitons have a fossil record dating back 400 million years, and it is not difficult to imagine them stuck to the side of a rock as a Diplodocus nibbles nearby trees. We find three of them. I name the last one Henrietta.

We find more than just gumboot chitons, though. We find dungeness crabs and a brittle sea star and a carpet of baby sea anemone that could easily be mistaken for lichen. We walk and wander. We separate. We join back together.

Nothing much happens. There is no ah-ha moment when the sun shines directly on us and our thoughts and dreams are realized. We explore and find stuff and it is one of those perfect afternoons because the whole thing is so sweetly mild, so unassuming.

The sun is disappearing as we make our way back along the beach, the sky turning that late afternoon, stuffed-cotton gray. We pass the elephant seals and a couple spooning on the beach, and then when we are almost back to the car, we take off our shirts and run into the ocean.


three

Five of us are spending the weekend at Pinnacles National Park. The hikes have been wonderful, winding through the rock and tenacious trees, leading us up near the nesting condors who swoop by overhead. We are on our last hike before heading out, and this one involves a cave.

The cave isn’t much. Arrows are neatly spray painted for directions. Railings line the steeper sections. The dark portion takes, at most, fifteen minutes.

But being in that darkness, headlamp on, makes me feel so many things and I’m humming with the vibrancy of it all. Because I’ve spent time in caves before and honestly some of those memories are my most cherished. Moments that ride the line of fear and adventure. Weekends spent muddy and slightly drunk and full of laughter.

Caving makes me think of Megan. She was there the last time I legitimately went caving. It was spring break of my senior year in college. I was 22. I think about her often, which is surprising because I didn’t really know her. But I think she changed my life. And now I’m older than she will ever be and that makes me feel, I don’t know, the way an oak tree feels during twilight, dreaming of rain.


four

We are at Harmony Headlands to see the sunset. The main trail takes you straight to the ocean, but if you cut south and head straight up the hill, the path will take you to the bluffs overlooking the water. It is my first time here, and I am wide-eyed and eager.

What surprises me most about California is how expansive the land is. How, once you climb to the top of the hill, it is you and the cows and the ocean and the tiny town far away but no one else for miles and miles and miles. In a state of 39 million, it is wild how easy it is to feel alone. Alone in that vast and freeing sense. …and my thoughts fly off to a province/ made of one enormous sky / and about a million empty branches, wrote Billy Collins. That’s how the Californian hills make me feel.

Sunset is not looking very promising. Clouds blanket the horizon, sometimes so thickly you cannot even see the ocean. We sit and watch and wait, hopes helium high.

And it’s spectacular. The sun bursts through the clouds at sporadic intervals, illuminating a narrow corridor of ocean, turning it a hazy tangerine. The clouds disperse the light making the sky look as if it were painted from watercolor—everything bleeding and blending and seeping together, orange to pink to blue.

And then the lower clouds clear and the ocean is bare and everything is neatly stacked—ocean, clouds, sky—and the surrounding hills blush with sunset and ohmyohmy what is this feeling that is ballooning in my chest? This swell of what—happiness? hope? childhood? It is too much and not enough and the vastness of the land swallows me, and to end on yet another quote because all I’m made of is words and honey….you almost believe you could start again. And an intense love rushes to your heart, and hope. It’s unendurable, unendurable (Franz Wright).

 

a metaphor of gulls

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I’ve only written scattered thoughts recently—lines jotted down in class, phrases saved on the notes app in my phone, scraps of words all clustered together in an attempt to describe a particular hue of blue. It’s one of those phases. Gathering wandering exploring excavating. You know how it is.

Several people have sent me letters recently—which I adore and am eternally grateful for—and in one someone mentioned how much they love my blog and always look forward to reading it. So this is a long way of saying thanks for the motivation. Here you go.

I recently wrapped up a California naturalist course, which involved a lot of science and sitting and Powerpoint presentations and retirees asking me questions about their iPhones. The last time I’ve taken anything remotely biology related was sophomore year in high school, and that combined with the fact that the moment I was most engaged was when an instructor made a passing comment about Mary Oliver really affirmed who I was and where my interests lay.

To “graduate,” we had to present a capstone project. Lisa’s was about gulls.

Lisa was a nebula of a person, a riot of color and brightness composed of tiny indeterminable particles. It was difficult to look beyond the color, to not be distracted by her strange comments and to see what was really going inside of her tightly curled head. She was easy to dismiss as weird. And she was. But there was a lot more to it.

Anyway, Lisa’s capstone presentation was about gulls. If I was going to be scientific about it, I’d tell you that her presentation was about gull management on a high school campus and altering the paradigm of how students view the gulls. But I am not a very scientific person. Her presentation was about inclusion and what it means to be ostracized and how the difference between a pest and a pet is just one tender, soft “s.”

Lisa had chosen to sit next to me for the last two days of classes, and on the final day, in the last moments of class, she had a comment that just eviscerated me. Because beneath her wild ravings about owls, she was so goddamn perceptive, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much she had noticed about all of us, because she had noticed parts of me I didn’t think were visible to others, and I think about that one breakfast conversation we’d shared and how we’d locked eyes and she’d smiled, and she knew, she knew what I was thinking right then, the thoughts that were swarming my heart and head. She was miles ahead of me, this wild, lonely, owl woman.

I often think about that one David Foster Wallace quote: I’m so scared of dying without ever being really seen. Can you understand? I think I understand.

I think I understand which is why I want to talk about Lisa and her gulls without actually talking about Lisa and her gulls at all. Because that’s the point of metaphors. To give us a dollop of verbiage to hide behind. To be able to say, this is me, me, me, see me, love me, feel me, without saying any of that. To be vulnerable without being too heavy, too transparent, too gut-wrenching.

Louise Glück wrote a book about flowers that is only vaguely about flowers. Helena Fitzgerald wrote about Gatorade but really wrote about so much more than Gatorade. And when I wrote about Jupiter, it had nothing to do with Jupiter.

So Lisa wants to help these gulls. She wants students to stop calling them “crapbags with wings.” She wishes every gull could be as loved as Sandor, who is fed scraps from a cafe window. She has some ideas about practices to implement, technologies to pursue to help her with this gull “problem.”

Lisa took down my contact info before class let out for good, and honestly I’m crossing my fingers that she reaches out so that I can hear more about her 98-year-old father with health problems and her relationship with her sisters, and, of course, the gulls. More than anything, I want to hear about the gulls.

 

The Loneliness of Jupiter

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“Lonely, ain’t it?
Yes, but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”
— Toni Morrison, Sula

I was sitting on my sister’s couch when I found the picture of Jupiter. This picture of Jupiter. I don’t remember where I found it; Twitter, perhaps. But I saw it and stopped scrolling and feelings coursed through me. Shock, awe, that glittery rush of pure, unexpected art.

And loneliness.

That’s the one that surprised me.

Not loneliness in the broad, intergalactic sense. But the small, handheld kind, no bigger than a needle’s eye. It was strange. Marveling at this picture of Jupiter—admiring the whorls of color, the complementary shades, thinking of how one could paint an image like that—and feeling inexplicably lonely.

See, what I really wanted was to share this picture, to send this picture onward and have that person brim over with the same bubbly wonderment as I’d felt. But I couldn’t think of anyone. And the one person I could think of wasn’t an option anymore.

And that made me feel lonely. That earthly Jupiter loneliness.

It’s strange to talk about loneliness. Why does it feel shameful? The scent and grit of weakness? Earthen wanting skin. What a human thing.

I wish we talked about loneliness more. I wish we talked about the feelings that keep us up at night. I wish we talked less about the weather.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. Loneliness, Jupiter, how feelings can sneak up and yank you into the tides. But after all that thinking, I still don’t have much of coherence to write.

So here’s this. This is what I have. Here’s what my loneliness looks like these days: I took a walk last night at my new five-month home. It gets really dark out here, which is strange because there’s a neighborhood five minutes away, house windows glowing like jack-o’-lanterns, but the outsides dark and quiet. I walked and got lost and listened to the same song by The National on repeat. I got back to camp and sprawled in an Adirondack chair, neck craned to the sky, looking for something familiar. I found Pleiades and Orion, but I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. And just like Jupiter, loneliness. Right on cue. Because I always found the Big Dipper back in the Adirondacks. Every night I’d feed the animals and hanging over the lake, just visible beyond the farm, the Big Dipper punctured the sky, and I’d walk toward it on the wide dirt path, back to my house. And that’s what’s making me feel lonely these days. The Big Dipper, yes, but more so all the experiences that are mine and no one else’s, how when my housemates invited me to a movie night in their room it reminded me of those countless attic nights in India curled up under a comforter, and god that made me sad, and that’s what life is feeling like at the moment, all these times, all these memories, and no one to share them with, not in any meaningful way. I wrote to a friend about nostalgia the other day, and he wrote back this incredible line: “Telling stories of nostalgia is a way of not being alone in a memory of something gone.” And wowowow that hurts and dazzles and stuns because I want to gush everything to everyone but I never seem to get the stories quite right, they never capture the scent of chai and that warm, tender feeling of fingers entwined with mine. And honestly, nobody really cares. Nobody except me. And I guess what I’m saying is I feel alone in memory and that fills me with this smoky sense of loneliness for places and people gone, and I don’t know what to do about it or if this is just a way of being, if this is just what it means to exist for people like us.

Nebraska

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You are driving through Nebraska.

Nebraska has always been a drive-through state for you, a large expanse of field and sky, a doormat to the mountains, to your destination. You have no vivid memories of driving through it the other three times prior, only the vague smoke of anticipation, of wanting to be somewhere else.

It starts off as it has in the past. Flat land. Straight roads. Towns that make you think of the Dust Bowl. But then things start to change. Traffic slows. The other side of I-80 is closed. Sirens scream up ahead and lights wail. You drive by slowly, your mouth falling agape a little, just a little, as you see two pulverized cars in the opposite lane, their frames crumpled like plastic bags.

It’s a bad omen. But you don’t believe in those.

First you notice cars with snow on them coming from the opposite direction. And then the sides of the interstate become tinged with snow, cows huddled together near a fence looking as if they’d been sugar dusted. And then it’s here, you’re in it, a white-out of monstrous proportions, the road slick with ice and fear, cars sliding, toppling, over, out, on the ground, in the ditch, in the sky.

Everything narrows to a pinprick. You cannot keep up conversation because you are focused on the road. Focused on staying in the tread marks of the car before you because if you move too much either way you will skid off the road.

Many people have skidded off the road.

It is like a graveyard. That is all you can think. Car after car is stuck in the snowy median, hazards still methodically blinking. As you pass by, you sneak a glance into the driver’s seat, to see if someone is still there. But they are empty. Most of them are empty. (Where did they go? How did they get out of here?) And it is these empty, abandoned, still-blinking cars that make you think of a graveyard, headstones with a splash of fake roses that echo the semblance of life, that whisper, don’t forget me (we didn’t forget you.)

You drive slowly. Twenty-five miles an hour. Semi-trucks lay belly up in the snow, dozens of them jackknifed and abandoned. Everything is gray.

Snow blows across the road in plumes—like fog, like ghosts, like strange phantom tumbleweed—and the morbid part of you thinks that it’s every missing soul from all those abandoned cars you’ve passed.

And then the sun sets. You think it’s the sun but then you doubt yourself. It is an absurd shade of pink, a semi-circle clinging to the horizon as if it was birthed from the ground, not the sky. The edges are too perfect. The pink is too pink. For a second you think an atomic bomb went off, rupturing the sky into nuclear hues. And that makes sense to you for a night such as this. Sudden beauty slicing through the cold, damaged world. (Is beauty always marked by violence? Maybe. You’re not sure.) A TED Talk on climate change just ended and with the nuclear sunset and the graveyard of metal husks on either side of you, you feel like you are driving through an apocalyptic landscape, that after all the glory and tears and hubris, this is what the world has become, this snowy Nebraskan hellscape, this never-ending interstate of sudden abandonment.

You drive for five hours this way. You were supposed to make it to Denver, but your whole body aches from tension, from gripping the wheel too hard. You pull over early.

You don’t even make it out of the state.

End of an Era

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I remember Eastern Mountain Sports, EMS, back when it was at Martketplace Mall. My dad and sister went to gear up for their upcoming Adirondacks trip and I, the youngster, stomped up and down the small incline used to test out shoes.

My first backpack was from there. I purchased it in fourth grade, a pale green pack that felt fancy because it had a lined sunglasses pouch and a removable side bag. It went from a school pack to a hiking pack, which lasted me until I was 23 and the fabric began to flake off in my hands.

EMS’s doors closed for good last week, and I was part of the crew that worked in its final waning hours. We threw the remaining clothing and shoes into huge laundry bins, used a lift to stack them onto one another, and then wheeled them up a small incline to the loading dock and onto the truck. It’s amazing how quickly you can destroy something. How in a couple hours everything will be gone and in place will be a vast emptiness where there used to be objects and meaning.

I only worked at EMS for a cumulative total of maybe six months—a winter season and a half. It’d be dishonest of me to turn this into a bloated metaphor, something poetic about endings and closure (haven’t I written enough of those?). But the store that was a beacon of otherworldliness to me as a child was a place I ended up working, and I got to see it in its twilight hours. And that means something.

What I’m trying to say is that sometimes you’ll become the person you always wanted to be. Sometimes you’ll pause and take a breath, look at your surroundings, and whisper to yourself, I’m here; I made it. And that place will be different for everybody. And sometimes it takes us longer to get there. But it’s out there for everyone, I know it is.

Working at EMS was a positive feedback loop for me, a balm for my insecurities. It was hard walking away from a job, ignoring my academic background, forgoing a teaching gig abroad and plunging head first into wilderness. But at EMS, all the things I did post-college, post-work, those were what counted. My evenings spent curled in the back of my car. The solo hikes. The time spent trouble-shooting malfunctioning camp stoves as kids looked on anxiously. My choices made sense to my coworkers. We were all cut from the same sap-stained bark. Whereas friends and family often questioned what I was doing, why I was leaving certain things behind, no one at EMS cared. I was the girl who worked seasonally at the gear store, spending the rest of the year teaching kids about trees. That was it. That was all.

It’s a gift, I suppose, to be viewed in a specific, slanted light. For your history to not matter. For your tangled past and jagged edges to be deemed inconsequential.

I wish I had a great final moment to leave you with, a moment of satisfaction as the doors were locked for the last time and we all cried tearfully, hugging and remembering the beloved customers we’d sold Microspikes to. But that didn’t happen.

If I had to choose one final moment to encapsulate my time at EMS it would be this:

It was the last night the store was open and we had just locked the doors. The two managers were in the back counting out all the money, leaving my coworker and I alone at the front. After we’d exhausted ourselves trying to squeeze her into a duffel bag and making a bracket of all our fellow coworkers we thought we could take in a fight, we gave up on distractions and turned to our phones. It was quiet. The store had closed forty minutes ago.

I noticed it first. My head snapped up and we locked eyes.

Do you hear that?

She paused.

Oh my god.

Outside in the plaza played the worst Christmas song of all time. A song I’ve only ever heard at EMS and pray to god I never hear again. We’d been making fun of it all day, waiting for it to come on. And it had. In the final moments of Rochester’s Eastern Mountains Sports chapter, perhaps the last song to ever blast through its speakers, the worst song in the world came on.

And, I don’t know, it was kind of perfect.

 

(If you want to read some other stuff about my time at EMS, here ya go.)

(And, if you’re a total sadist, here’ s a link to that miserable song. The music video is equally horrifying. DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.)

To Joanna

nighthawk

Nighthawk, Edward Hopper, 1942

The start of this story is really the ending.

Here’s how it begins and ends:

I was at the end of my road trip. Three months spent driving around the States, sleeping in the back of my car, hiking up mountains, dunking my head in wild rivers. This was the falling action of the story, the tide that brought you to the end. The climax had already happened. The hero cycle was complete and the protagonist was on her way home a new and different person.

That new and different person was me. There wasn’t one specific change. I was still the soft, firm, overthinking, excitable prism of starlight I’d always been. But I’d opened myself up to the world and world had rushed in and somehow everything was different. The wind, the rain, the scent of freshly peeled oranges. You know how it is. Don’t you?

Don’t you?

I was spending the day in Vegas, wandering down the Strip during the sunlit hours, weaving in and out of casinos and getting so lost I had to ask security guards for directions. I didn’t buy anything. I didn’t gamble. I splurged on Shake Shack and popped in my earbuds and daydreamed about Cirque du Soleil acrobats as I roamed the wild streets.

But enough of all this. You’re here for Joanna.

Joanna was a waitress at an Indian buffet located off the Strip. She had a curtain of dark, thick hair and subtle lines on her olive-toned face. She spoke with just enough of an accent that I struggled to understand certain words.

Where do you think I’m from? She asked me as I sat at a corner table eating aloo gobi and rereading a book. Guess. Just guess.

The Middle East…?

Greece, she said.

Here’s what happened next. Here’s what you need to know: Joanna revealed herself in fragments, flitting to my table like a pigeon to a park bench, leaving only when her stern-faced Indian boss gave her disapproving stares. She was Greek. She lived alone. She hated Vegas and was moving to New York City shortly, which she was looking forward to. Her parents were dead. She had no close family.

Let me help you out with the imagery, the plot:

Me: 25 years old, alone and proud
Her: middle aged, alone in a foreign land, spilling her life story to a buffet patron

Picture it like that Edward Hopper painting. You know the one. Nighthawk. Where customers sit inside a glass-paneled diner at some dawn-speckled hour, shadows stretching long on the ground and in the mind, the whole thing reeking of dust-crumb loneliness.

It was like that. But it was daytime in Vegas. And it was me and Joanna and her frown-faced boss. And it was a gush of words that was more than words and was maybe profound unhappiness, and I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to hold all of it in my hands, so I sat there and ate palak paneer and asked her questions and tried to fight off the darkness, tried to be someone for this stranger woman, this woman with no family in a city she hates, and god I wish there as a handbook for times like those, when everything you do feels inadequate and you realize you are in a situation much larger than yourself.

I drank chai. I drank water. Eventually it got busier. It was time to go.

We should talk more, Joanna told me as I asked for the check. She slipped me her number–discreetly, her grumpy-cat-faced boss was still watching–along with my credit card. I promised to text her.

And then I left.

What I struggle with are the people I’ve intentionally left behind. The doors I’ve closed because someone was dragging me down and I couldn’t help them. The list isn’t long. But there are a couple. A few. Enough that if the current of melancholy is particularly strong I will think of them–their names, their hands, the way their eyes pinched up in a fight–and I will wonder if there was more I could’ve done. If I could’ve saved them.

This is something I am learning about myself. That I care so deeply that sometimes I don’t know when to step away. That if some people texted me, after all this, I would still answer. After all this.

Joanna reminds me of those people. Barely. Just a little. The skein on a lake of sinking bodies.

And now this is actually the end. I left the Indian buffet and drove to my spot in the desert and woke up early and I drove away. I stopped in Moab before driving to Des Moines, where I spent a long, cold winter. I drove away. I left.

The last time I texted Joanna, she didn’t answer.

 

 

Goodbye for Now

Fotor_157350695325064You get into your car and drive. Mile after mile. Left turn then a right. You feel the tension pulling you backward, a slow, forceful tug telling you to turn around, to gobble up your goodbyes, to stay.

Part of you wants to stay. Staying is easy. Staying is safe. But a storm recently took out a bridge, which took out some electric lines, which caused the other bridge to close, and it’s hard to ignore the gaping symbolism of it all, to view the place without the storm.

So you left. You are always leaving.

You remember your first seasonal-life goodbyes. Those were hard. It was the first time you’d lived and worked with the same people, where you existed in a microcosm only the seven of you could understand. You get used to it, one of your colleagues told you when you complained of sharp endings. You thought your soft heart would never get used to it, but in a strange way it has. Endings are commonplace in your world. People and places, they come and go.

And then there was this season. This season that was really a year and a half in the making. This russet-hued autumn in the southern Adirondacks. Much of it blurs together. A revolving door of children, a pantheon of familiar games. You taught the same program over and over until it was all mindless reflex. None of that sticks out.

What sticks out are the people. Your coworkers. Friends. How you could go to your friends’ house, take off your shoes, eat pie that wasn’t yours, and share the intricacies of your day to listening, understanding ears.

Because that’s something you miss. That’s something you’re insecure about. If Hugh Everett was right and our lives are forever splintering into parallel universes, then in one of those lives you never left Pittsburgh. You have a well-furnished apartment and a job and a circle of friends that gather for potlucks bringing homemade breads and casseroles and pies. Community. You miss that. That is something constant motion deprives you of.

But this last season you had it. You had them. You’d gather in the window booth of the bar eating sweet potato fries while people discussed job interviews and grad school and that one annoying teacher who was woefully unhelpful. You rooted each other on, mocked each other relentlessly, and comforted each other when the storm clouds gathered. It felt mature and youthful all at once.

And those are the strings that pull at you as you drive away, pavement disappearing beneath your tires. It’s the mountains, yes. It’s the 32.6 miles of lake that holds 550 billion gallons of water, sure. But it’s the people who laughed at your jokes, and listened to your complaints, and played songs from Titanic for you. You felt it this season, that buzzing of hive of community.

And as you drive away, you are both sad and hopeful–isn’t that what all goodbyes are comprised of?–because you are leaving, but there is future ahead, and it is good and bright and wonderful, and you know there will be others out there who will love you in that gentle, tireless way that friends do. They are out there. You will find them.