To Chingachgook

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-12-3,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

Once upon a time, I worked at a camp called Chingachgook. It was a sprawling camp nestled in the southern Adirondacks with a 32.6 mile lake at one end and a 2,631-foot mountain at the other. It was home to squirrels and owls and eastern newts. It was home to dozens of staff members, their numbers fluctuating with the constellations. For four seasons, it was home to me.

I remember when I first arrived at Chingachgook. It was early evening and the world around me was tinged an atmospheric blue. I was given a golf cart tour around the campus and then moved temporarily into a yurt, which lingering summer camp staff tried to use as a hookup spot that night. It was the last week of camp, and it was strange to be welcomed to a place that was winding down, to be eager and new amidst a tired, sun-drained staff. I felt out of place and overwhelmed.

Flash forward a year and I was sterning a canoe full of college freshmen back to camp after a three-day trip down the lake. We bumped onto the shore and I began the process of de-boating the participants, holding the canoe even and steady as they clambered out. It was my last trip for the summer and already the fall staff had begun to arrive. I was sorry to see summer go. I felt like something had changed within me that summer—on the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw, in the swatches of Canadian wilderness, 100 feet below the lake—and I was scared that I would lose it with the shortening autumn days.

It is strange what you remember once an era is over. It is interesting which totems you take with you.

COVID has been a slow suffocation for a lot of camps and outdoor places, Chingachgook among them. The doors are closed. The people are gone. The woods grow wild with the absence of campers.

I’ve written a lot about the loss of places, and it’s tempting to do that again—to dissect my favorite Chingachgook spots and hold them close in memory—but that’s not the loss I’m feeling most acutely this time around. Because the wetlands will be there when I visit next. The billion-year-old rock will be perched by the brook. Red Fox Hollow will be shaded by its perpetual canopy of pine.

But the people? They are gone. Maybe for good. And certain places are only special because of the people who inhabit them, the memories forged in their presence. It’s like the hollowness I feel whenever I visit Pittsburgh: It’s not the dingy streets I miss, but sipping shandy on sagging front porches, or eating egg noodles at 1AM and forcing my few still-awake friends to watch Wild China with me. The city feels empty in their absence.

I thought I’d gotten good at impermanence; it was something I’d honed and practiced through seasonal work. I was always leaving, always moving on. But there was a self-centeredness to it all, a sense of agency. I was the one leaving. I was the one who chose to say goodbye.

And now I am the one who is left.

See, Chingachgook was a place I took for granted because I always assumed it would be there. I could go back whenever I wanted. Things would have changed, yes, but not very much. My bosses, my friends, they had full-time jobs and employee housing. The seasonal staff would change, but the bedrock people would still be there, of that I was certain.

When you go into the wardrobe, when you burst through the brick wall at Platform 9 and 3/4, you expect the world you left to keep existing in your absence. You are off on your own grand adventure, but the world will wait for you to come back. You can go off and vanquish the darkness and marry the prince and slay the dragon, and the world will be ready to welcome you back when the time comes. You don’t expect the world to leave you. You don’t expect the people you left behind to vanish.

What breaks my heart the most is that the community I existed on the periphery of is crumbling. I can only watch from a distance as this seemingly stable structure of people is forever altered. There is no going back. From my vantage point, they’d made it. They had those few coveted full-year positions in the outdoor world and a sense of community that held steadfast through the changing seasons. They were proof to me that you could have it all, that a life like that was possible.

Bereft. Such a formal, tight-laced word. To lose something you didn’t know you could lose and what to do with that sudden emptiness. That is something I’ve been learning throughout this pandemic—how to deal with the world when tectonic plates shift and certainty crumbles and you are left alone.

I’ve been fighting the urge to end this post with a happy, nostalgic memory—something wistful, something pleasant—but it feels disingenuous to the moment. This post is rather messy in construction, the metaphors are lopsided, and the flow is shaky. But that in itself feels authentic, true to the unspooled chaos of the moment and my own ragged thoughts. Not every wound can be turned into poetry. Sometimes things are just sad and it’s OK to let them be sad.

 

Self-Portrait at 27

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This is your first summer not out in the sun, and it is hard.

This time last year, you were paddling a canoe up in Canada.

And the year before that, you were watching the tide crash on Cape Cod.

And the year before that, you were backpacking through the Adirondacks and finalizing your road trip plans.

before that before that before that

It has been three years of wandering. Three long, sun-kissed, moonlit years.

Stability both taunts and terrifies you. It is strange having an apartment to yourself, being reunited with your kitchen supplies and business casual wardrobe. Some days you just want to burn it all and drive off into the sunset, but you are grateful for purpose and stability in this time of upheaval. It’s as if the world conspired to make you stay still, taking away all your easy escapes. You have never quite figured out if you are running away or toward.

Twenty-seven doesn’t feel much different than any other age. You wear the same clothes and listen to the same bands and keep your hair at approximately the same length. The biggest difference is that people like to inform you that you are getting closer to thirty, and then you have to politely inform them that it doesn’t matter and what we refer to as time, like many things, is a construct that we have developed in order to hide what we don’t understand, and did you know that string theory requires ten dimensions, time being only the fourth of them? No? OK, let’s move on.

You’ve spent a lot of time on self-reflection this year, most of it pandemic-induced. You unearthed some good bits and some not-so-good bits, and you’ve come to the realization that you are highly flawed, but you are honest about most of it, which somehow makes it OK. You consider yourself very aware of your thoughts and actions, but someone pointed out that sometimes you stop talking in the middle of a sentence, and you cannot figure out why you do that, why you give up halfway through, why words sometimes evaporate and you are left alone in the middle of your thoughts.

This does not keep you up at night. But what does keep you up at night is how sometimes you feel like you are simultaneously too much and not enough. (String theory keeps you up at night, too.)

In this time of solitude, you have been very nostalgic. Memories wash in like waves, some of them called for, some of them not. You vividly remember standing against a large door frame this past winter in California and jumping as an older woman put her hand on your waist, saying, it’s so nice that you young folks are spending time out here, and the part that you remember is her hand on your waist, and how it was touch that startled you, the suddenness of someone’s body against yours.

In a way, California was a snapshot of door frames. Closing and opening and nervous knocking and are you busy? and feeling disappointed and feeling excited and watching the door handle of the kitchen turn as you ate cereal, wondering if you could guess who was about to emerge.

One morning you stood in a cabin door frame as you said a final goodbye to a coworker and you remember the exact line he called back to you over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hill. That line he said lingers. You still have it. You do that a lot—picking up the scraps people have left behind and knitting them into something bigger than they were ever intended. People will sometimes compliment your memory, and you always fail to articulate how heavy it can be.

You sometimes do the mental math as to what time it is in California and then sharply remember that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Because you are back on the East Coast living a sweaty animal existence. You work and create art and read and try in vain to distinguish between swamp oaks and bur oaks. You’ve started meditating in a nearby park, and as you walk back to your apartment, men will sometimes catcall you, and that imagery alone really sums up what life is like these days.

Sometimes you sit on your second-story porch in your underwear and just watch the rain. It never rains enough.

 

 

(You can read my self-portrait at 26 here, and self-portrait at 25 here.)

(Also, string theory is only 10-dimensional for superstring theory, not some of the others, but pretty sure no one was going to fact check me on that one. . .)

to be alone

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Cocoa Puffs, 2009, Lee Price. (This is a painting! Check out more of her stuff here).

 

“There are worse things
than being alone
but it often takes
decades to realize this
and most often when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
than too late.”
—Charles Bukowski

to be alone
to be alone (with you)
to be alone

It was Friday night, and my friends and I were at a bar, a dirty curbside affair that served cheese fries through a literal hole in the wall. I was newly 21 and I wasn’t entirely sold on bars and beer, but this is what people my age did and I was trying to say yes to more things, trying to fit into the shape of the world around me.

What do you want from life? my friend asked me as we sat at the counter.

I remember being surprised at the depth of his question. To be happy, I replied, which was the shortest amount of words I could utter and still be honest.

Are you happy?

Usually. I try.

But you’re alone?

Even now, six years later, I can freeze frame on that moment. Him—sitting on the stool clad in jeans and a navy zip-up. And me, on his left, stunned silent for a moment. I don’t remember how I responded. I probably didn’t.

It struck me for two reasons. One, that you would call out someone’s aloneness. That you would ignore their friends and family and look at their dearth of dating, and tell them that they are alone. And two, that being alone and being happy cannot exist simultaneously.

I think about being alone a lot. It is something I actively work on and work toward.

Having a goal of finding a partner, of getting married, of anything of that ilk feels uncontrollable. It is putting my future in someone else’s hands. Because what if you don’t find that person? What if you never know a person whose presence feels like home? Do you say yes to the next person who asks because you’re getting older and more uncomfortable with your aloneness? Do you settle? What do you do?

It feels too blindly hopeful to aim for a relationship status. In the Russian classic “A Hero of Our Time,” Lermontov writes, Why did you hope? To want something and to strive for it, that I can understand, but whoever hopes?  If I set a goal of climbing that mountain, of writing that book, of identifying every tree in that godforsaken park, I will get there. I can do that with my own dedication, my own two hands and eager mind. But that’s not true of finding a partner. There is a sense of randomness to it. Good timing. Luck. A conspiring of the universe and all its unstable elements.

But you’re alone?

One time I went to a concert alone. I was visiting my parents that weekend and the concert was halfway between their house and where I lived. Upon returning, one of my friends said, You went by yourself? I would *never* go to a concert alone. Her tone gave me pause. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed that I went or if she thought it was weird. Not that I particularly cared. But it made me think of all the things we miss out on because we’re scared of doing them alone. Scared that we will be bored or lonely, or that the people around will judge us. Sometimes the choice is to do something alone or to not do it at all. What then?

But you’re alone?

Being alone is easier in some respects. When I’m alone, I never have to justify my existence. When I’m alone, no one tells me that I’m walking too slowly or that I’m too quiet in all the wrong moments or that my joke was ill-timed.  Being alone means you can be unapologetic. It means you can exist in your mess and glory and complexity without explanation. It means you can lie on your mattress and only eat Doritos for dinner and listen to the new Fiona Apple album on repeat and stare at the dark ceiling for hours and exist in this tangled tired fashion and no one gives a shit because no one is there.

In one of my all-time favorite essays, Helena Fitzgerald writes about all she gave up when she knitted her life to someone else’s. The piece is incredible (read it here), both for the full scope it encompasses and the details. The lack of obligation to arrange my face in a way that someone else would understand, she writes, and which I love because of how true it feels on a basic, primal level.

We’ve sculpted aloneness as something to be feared, to avoid. It is a sign of failure. If you are alone, specifically romantically so, you cannot be happy. Not fully. It is Plato’s Symposium all over again—a hunt for our other half.

But what if we made aloneness something to strive toward, something desirable? Something, whether you are there by choice or circumstance, it is still wondrous? Loneliness is not the terror we escape, Fitzgerald writes, it is instead the reward we give up when we believe something else to be worth the sacrifice.

But you’re alone?

It can be difficult to be alone. There are moments when your apartment feels too empty, when no one asks you about your day, when you want to remark upon the sunset and realize there is no one there to care. Sometimes your skin feels unbearably lonely. Aloneness can ache. But I think all of life can.

The past couple of years, I’ve put a lot of effort into my platonic relationships. I write letters, I talk on the phone, I reach out and check in when communication has been sparse. I try and try and try to be a good friend, to be there for people. In a world dominated by romantic ideals, friendship sometimes feels like settling, a backup plan for when you can’t have something else, something more.

But that’s a lie. Good friendship is everything. My friends send me pictures of wildflowers and bears and trees bathed in sunset. They read books I recommend and message me with updates and favorite quotes as they go along. They gift me souvenirs from their travels, and art they created, and strange plastic collectibles of that Iowa YouTuber I’m obsessed with. The list goes on and on. People being thoughtful and generous with their time and energy. People picking up the phone and listening when I call at strange hours to vomit up my feelings. People appreciating me and acknowledging me and loving me for so many different things, from so many different angles.

This is all just to say that solitude is a lovely worthy thing, something to embrace, something to be grateful for. I know it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes it’s hard to be alone.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always surprised at who reaches out to me based off this humble little blog and what they have to say. I’ve gotten some letters over the past year that have been brutally, wonderfully honest, and it just makes me think how much better it would all be if we talked about the things that matter more, if it was easier to say I am lonely. I am sad. How do I hold this solitude? None of us have to be that alone.

So if you’re feeling alone and not in the good, Fiona Apple sort of way, just know I’m always here if you need anything. You’re only as alone as you want to be.

 

 

 

the art of looking

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I like to describe this color as hot dog tie dye.

 

“In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.”
–Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Taxonomy is the “orderly classification of plants and animals.” Meaning this is an orchid, this is a lupine, they are both flowers. Meaning raccoons are not flowers. Meaning the world was given to us without labels and we are trying desperately to scratch them in.

During training this past spring, we spent time with a seasoned naturalist named Dean, a towering man with a beard who knew the exact inflection to give every word so that you held on just a bit longer. He told us that when guiding hikes people would constantly ask him, what’s this? what’s it called? can you eat it? They wanted to know the taxonomy. The name mattered to them. He would answer. Eventually. But first he would ask them what they noticed. The shape of the leaves. The texture of the stem. What did it smell like? What colors did they see? It was the observing that mattered. Giving a name is easy. But giving a name without noticing shrinks the moment. We are used to instant answers, but we are not used to sitting with our questions, with our own budding wonderment.

It was on a hike that I discovered Ceanothus, also known as the California lilac. They were small blue flowers blossoming on large twiggy shrubs and the thing that tortured me—and still does to this day—was how to describe the smell. Online sites say “floral” or “sweetly scented,” but none of those are quite right. There was a hint of spice to it, something I can’t put my finger on. I do not have a single apt adjective for how they smell. But I took the time to smell them. I noticed the color and the shrubby bush and I looked up the name when I got back.

The thing about describing something, labeling something, is that we are often wrong. We want things to be neat and orderly. We want everything to fit inside the narrow molds we’ve made with our own flawed hands. So we call Sarcodes sanguinea (snow plant) a plant even though it contains no chlorophyll and instead gets its nutrients from fungi, but we don’t call Nereocystis luekeana (bull kelp) a plant even though it does contain chlorophyll and photosynthesizes, which makes me think that all our words exist with a sense of hollowness in their bones and we are trying desperately to define things we don’t really understand.

Our human knowledge, our human senses are subjective. They too can fail us.

For example, our own eyes deceive us. Water is approximately 800 times denser than air and as such, absorbs light. Water appears blue not because it is actually blue (it’s clear), but because the frequency of blue light can penetrate the furthest. This is a fancy way of saying that something you see 40 meters below the waterline will not look the same when you bring it to the surface. The colors will look different. The fish you saw at 40 meters and which you thought was gray is actually red. But were you wrong? Maybe the fish is a Schrödinger fish. Maybe it is both. And does it matter that the fish is red? Maybe what matters is that you were in a submersible and you saw this breathtaking fish and you squealed and grabbed your partner’s hand and shouted looklooklook as you jabbed your finger at the glass. Maybe that matters more than the true shade of its scales.

And besides, what is red anyway? Different species have different numbers of rods and cones in their eyes, which allows them to perceive the world differently. Some animals see in UV. Some animals use sonar to create mental, visual maps of where things are. So maybe in the grand, natural order of things identifying red is relatively unimportant. Maybe we need to worry less about names and about being cosmically right, and to understand that the way we perceive the world is our own personal truth, and there are so many truths out there and all of them are wonderful, and it’s not about being “right,” it’s about standing there in the water ankle-deep, feeling tendrils of algae brush against your leg, and then seeing a fish hiding beneath a rock and wondering where it sleeps at night, wondering if it feels fear when it senses looming human shadows.

It is a sculpin. It is brown. I love him.

 

 

 

 

nothing ever ends as you think it will

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If I’m a slut for anything, it’s closure.

I will do backbends, somersaults, aerial pirouettes (unsure if that’s a thing) to ensure I get the ending that feels right. I want the memories gift wrapped and then safely shelved away, everything neat and easily retrievable. I want resolution like a knife sliding effortlessly through a cake—no mess, all clean edges.

At least that’s what it used to be like.

Endings feel different now. I’m not entirely sure what it means for something to end because it feels like most things never do. Not really. Not fully. There are always dangling threads, smears of memories left behind, a puddle of feelings left to cool on the stained linoleum floor.

I used to obsess over lasts. Last dinner. Last night. Last kiss. I wanted to know when and how and why something was ending so I could squeeze every drop of meaning from it. I wanted to know it was an ending so I could properly record it and save the memory for a rainy day. It’s my last day in India and I’m hungover and sad, my final post from the Himalayas begins. And just like that, I can go back. My writing is a gateway to take me there.

But to record is to remember and to remember is to linger and to linger means to never leave and to never leave means it doesn’t end.

See, moments do in fact end—you move away, you breakup, you change jobs—but feelings never do; they mutate. And feelings may be the only true grasp of reality we have (thanks, Yuval Noah Harari).

Like a fortune-teller reading tea leaves, I find symbols in everything. It makes endings cleaner and more significant, even if it’s all in my head. It helps with closure, if such a thing exists. It helps with moving on.

I always dance on this strange precipice of wanting to share everything and absolutely nothing. Even in this blog, which people have told me is honest and vulnerable, I share genuine feelings but sometimes not the moment itself. People ruin beautiful things, Khalil Gibran wrote, and sometimes I feel like if I share too much the moment will no longer be mine, that it will lose some of its effervescent glow, that people will damage this wondrous, fragile thing and it just won’t be the same. I felt that way about last summer (you can read the one post I wrote about it here). I feel that way about quarantine-time in California.

Here’s how I knew it was time to go. Here were the symbols:

The rabbit was dead.
The kitchen was rearranged.
The grass the turkey had been calling home was mowed.

And here’s how California said goodbye in the final, waning hours:

The spot where I’d last seen a dying possum was covered in a deliberate pattern of pine cones.
The small, empty house we’d always passed by and commented on was no longer empty.
A dog I’d encountered only once before ran out of his house and up to me, staying only long enough for a single head pat before disappearing back inside.
A cat followed me on my walk and gave me the best leg nuzzles of my life, and I openly broke into tears.

Night walks were one of my favorite parts of the Central Coast (wrote about them here and here and actually here too). I took one final evening walk, clad in only shorts and a sweatshirt, the puffy jacket evenings a thing of the past. Clouds tessellated the sky that night; in fact, the sky hadn’t been clear in days, a somber last weekend of gray and rain after months of unadulterated sun. I remember my first night walk in California so vividly—wandering the neighborhood lost and alone, constantly scanning the sky for the Big Dipper. And there I was, six months later, alone, walking the same streets, knowing exactly where I was. I walked to my favorite ocean-side bench and listened to the black waves crash against the rocks. I waited and watched and listened and as I sat there the clouds shifted, revealing pockets of sky, and I looked at the stars—Leo and Gemini and Arcturus and Hercules—and I knew them all.

 

dream(s) deferred

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I currently live here. Isn’t that something?

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes

In another lifetime, I am teaching kids about tidepools. We scavenge the shallow waters for crabs and urchins and the occasional elusive octopus. In this lifetime, it is late April and kids are still arriving. Every day is full of sun.

In a lifetime different than that, I am backpacking in Yosemite. I’d long dreamed about returning to the land of granite cliffs and illuminated valleys, and it feels weirdly poetic to come back to the place that was the culmination of my long, solo road trip. This time, however, I am not alone.

And in yet another lifetime, I am working in the Adirondacks this summer. I have a cadre of returning friends and the woods that I’ve been missing are there to welcome me back. The sunbutter is plentiful.

It is May, and none of this will happen.

It is OK. It is fine. (How are you? / Silence again. / Fine, fine, I mumble, fine, / unraveling like string…—Sandra Cisneros). This is the way life goes. Sometimes you get the luxury of making choices, but sometimes you don’t, sometimes circumstances rear their head and the future you carefully crafted becomes dust in a heartbeat. You can only plan so much. For much of life, you just have to ride it out.

Life has changed for everybody lately, but among my own circles of friends, some feel it more acutely. When you work seasonally, your job and housing and food are often intertwined. To lose a job means to become mapless, it means to sit in your car and look out the bug-splattered window and wonder where to go next. It means to uproot yourself, once again, and toss your fragile body into the wind and see where you land.

Vast swaths of summer programs have been cancelled, and I’ve been thinking of all my seasonal-life friends, wishing I could hold them a little closer and promise them a safe and ripening future.

In a letter I received the other month, there was this one incredible line that lodged itself in my brain and I’ve been thinking about ever since: “. . . if I’m not careful, twenty years of these paychecks will go by and I’ll have done nothing but work for it. I think that is even more frightening, to know your future rather than to not know it.”

I think that is even more frightening, to know your future rather than to not know it.

…to know your future rather than to not know it.

I very much do not know my future. Not in any grand sense. Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who knew exactly what they wanted. But that’s not me. Sometimes I think I want something and then I get it and realize that’s not what I want at all, and then I have to start all over again. How do people do it? How do people know who they’re going to become?

This is all just to say that sometimes life sucks and you don’t get a choice. Things happen, and the only choice you have is how to react, what to do next. It’s OK to be disappointed. To be scared. To feel alone. It’s OK to look at your life and wish it was a little more sturdy, a little less susceptible to raging ocean currents.

I’ll be heading back east in a couple of weeks, and it feels strange to start over again in the midst of all this uncertainty. I have a place to go. I have stuff to do. But leaving this time feels different. Leaving this place. These people. The tattered dreams for what I hoped and longed for.

Onward & Outward

(I write about leaving allll the time. My all-time fav is this one, but this one is a solid more recent one, too.)

 

 

 

 

regrets

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Picture of an abandoned building I took one time, which feels metaphorically appropriate.

The magazine editor Phillip Picardi recently posted on his blog about regrets. “I hate people who say they have no regrets,” he wrote. “They are all liars.” I’ve been thinking about his blog post recently. He writes about his regrets with humor and honesty. Some are small regrets—buying a winter coat right before moving to L.A.—and others are big regrets, the kind that keep you up at night as you stare at the ceiling, wondering how you got there, where you went wrong.

I like to think I am one of those people he hates. One of the liars. To be optimistic, to feel good about myself and my choices, I often tell myself that I have no regrets. But he’s right. I am lying.

I regret not buying those paintbrush earrings in Sequoia (the flower, not the art implement). They were a little pricey and I was poor, but every time I go hiking now in California and I see the red blooms, I think of those earrings and how I would’ve loved them.

I regret not being angry in certain situations. I wish I was better at being angry. Rage seems purifying in a ruinous, cathartic way, and I wish my anger didn’t melt so quickly into sadness.

I regret not holding people accountable enough. I regret letting comments and actions slide.

I regret every single time I’ve paid for food at Applebee’s. (It’s just not worth it, folks. We know this.)

Quarantine has been strange in that random memories—some of which I’d completely forgotten about—will float into my head, demanding to be acknowledged and processed and shined upon. I recently remembered about a position I applied for back in college. It was a ghost writer job that involved chronicling the life of a woman named Clarisse. I was a junior back then, and I was still toying with the idea of journalism because that seemed like the most sustainable way to make a living through writing (hahahahahaha).

I met Clarisse at a Popeyes to interview. Part of me wants to make a scene of the whole thing—to describe the smell of chicken and the gentle swell of people around us—but that’s not the important part. That’s not what matters.

Clarisse had HIV. She’d only ever had one partner before she’d found out she was infected. That was a long time ago, back in the ’80s when HIV/AIDS was associated with gay white men. Clarisse fit neither of those three categories. And what I remember most about our conversation was her talk of the hospitalizations, how her mother could never stand to visit her, how she would never use the acronyms or even acknowledge her daughter’s illness. The wave of loneliness was striking, and I wrote about this before when talking about Joanna, but sometimes people hand me a feeling, a cluster of vulnerability, and sometimes I don’t know how to hold it. My hands shake and I let it slip through my fingers, pooling into an oblong puddle on the floor.

When I think about Clarisse, I think about the loneliness, about her mother’s emotional abandonment. But I also think of her boyfriend who gave her HIV. How she had to bear the cost of his actions, no fault of her own. And isn’t it so often that way? Women living with the burden men have put upon them? It’s one of those facts of life that once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it. I watched an animal rights/factory farming documentary the other night, and even in that film there was a scene when a chicken farmer decided to take on a contract (AKA extensive debt) despite the cautioning of his wife and the whole thing fell to pieces, and the camera flashed to her only a couple of times because he’s the farmer and it was his choice and his chickens, but she’s the one I couldn’t stop thinking about, her patience and understanding as she stood around the kitchen table with their children, how she didn’t get to make the choice but she had to endure it. I think about that a lot. What it means to endure. Every minuscule feeling nestled inside that six-letter word.

I didn’t get the ghost writing position. But here’s where the regret comes in: an editor who had previously worked with Clarisse reached out to me a while later, wondering if I was still interested in the work. And I said no. I was busy that semester—I had a job, an internship, a full class load—but still, I said no. Conceivably, I didn’t have time to work on a project like that, but I regret that I couldn’t say yes. I regret not saying yes to this fellow human, saying yes, let’s uphold your voice for the world to see. I regret that I will never know her full story, that I will only have that one afternoon at Popeyes to remember her by.

I Googled Clarisse’s name recently, and besides the sparse articles about her that circulate on the web, I couldn’t find any recent news. I think she’s still alive, but I regret that I also don’t really know.

 

 

from the ashes

gucci (2)

This lil gem of poetry is actually from a line of Gucci products made back in 2017. The phrase was superimposed over the logo on sweatshirts, fanny packs, etc.

You are unsure of where the guilt comes from. Do they hand it to you mid-conversation? Do you conjure it inside of yourself like smoke? Do you find it on the street like a discarded soda bottle or Sunday coupons, sullied and stepped-on and yet you still pick it up, still claim it as yours?

It is the small things. It is the big things. It is your decision to work seasonal jobs. It is your nightly eight-hour rest. You gather guilt crumbs the way strands of hair gather in clumps on your hardwood floor: unnoticeable, unnoticeable, until the spool is overwhelming and you wonder where it all came from.

You spend a lot of time defending your choices, mostly to yourself.

Because you could be safer. You could be more comfortable. You could be wealthier and more secure. But you chose not to. Not now. Not yet. And people make you doubt your choices.

I wrote the above stuff a couple of winters ago in the downswing of seasonal work. Guilt has clung to me loosely over the past few years. It’s my suburban middle-class upbringing, my friends who are investors and doctors, people I know who don’t leave their Manhattan offices until the city is already nighttime vibrant. It’s this residue of guilt that I could be doing more. That I could be someone more.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot during this pandemic: productivity, doing more. The ongoing internet dialogue swells with thoughts: I’m not doing as much as I thought I’d be. My productivity is nonexistent. Man, I can’t even concentrate long enough to read a book.

I feel that. I too imagined that I’d accomplish more than I have. A lot of my days involve just existing—taking long aimless walks, sitting on the beach wrapped in a blanket as sand eats my face, curling up in a chair with my earbuds in and listening to the same songs over and over.

I like it this way. I am just being. That’s good. For me, right now, that’s how it should be.

Seasonal life freckles me with guilt because in some ways it’s luxurious. I am constantly outside and moving around. I don’t have a commute. I don’t pay rent.

And it astounds me that these things are considered luxurious, that people envy me these very basic freedoms. As Americans, we’ve romanticized productivity and work-culture. Being tired and busy, worshiping business ethos, they’ve become badges of honor (remember in college when people would brag about pulling all-nighters, or existing on caffeine and Adderall like that was cool? Wild.). You must be doingdoingdoing and makingmakingmaking and havinghavinghaving because that’s the American Dream, and what does your life mean if you don’t conform, if you don’t participate? Who are you if you don’t believe in bootstrap wealth?

Productivity has flat-lined for a lot of people right now. A lot of things have come crashing down. Our health care system, our access to goods and services, our monetary and job security, our economy. When things fail, it shows us what we’ve taken for granted.

And the thing I’ve been thinking about most is how it doesn’t have to be this way. None of this. People talk about reopening, about going back to “normal,” but is that really what we want? What normal? Whom is that benefiting? Because people envy me my time outside and I envy them their dental insurance, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other. We can change things. We can have it all.

But radical change takes radical thinking followed by radical action. Change doesn’t happen unless we push for it.

So where do we go from here? What are you going to do? You. Yes, you. What changes for you after all of this? What are you going to make from this wreckage?

Imagine if we created a society that allowed you to exist in different forms, allowed you to choose the life you wanted instead of feeling trapped by essential needs. Imagine.

Now, what are you going to do?

what are we going to do with all this future?

life as told by seven unrelated facts

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My thoughts have been scattershot lately. Ribbons of this. Shreds of confetti of that. I wish I had more of coherence, of weighty substance to write, but that’s not where I am at. So here’s this. This is what I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. Swell sharks—Cephaloscyllium ventriosum—live along the Californian coast. They are called swell sharks because they can bend their bodies into U-shapes, and, with their cadual fins in their mouths, can swell up to twice their regular body size. This wedges them into hard-to-reach places, intimidates predators, and makes them harder to bite.

We released our two swell sharks into the ocean a month ago. Small, babyish things that have only ever known enclosures. We released all of our marine animals into the ocean because with camp shut down, we could no longer care for them.

The tank now sits empty and quiet in the middle of the mural-splashed room.

2. The Three Gorges Dam spans the Yangtze River in China. Finished in 2015, the dam has 32 main turbines and is constructed of enough steel to build 63 Eiffel Towers. The estimated cost of the dam was $22.5 billion, which was recovered in full by 2013 due to the dam’s productivity. So the dam paid for itself before it was ever finished.

NASA calculated that the Three Gorges Dam would increase the length of Earth’s day by .06 microseconds and also slightly alter the shape of the Earth in its entirety. It seems insignificant—what can anyone do in .06 microseconds and who cares if the Earth is a wee bit more round?—but that’s not my point. My point is that we shifted time, we changed a planet. My point is that things we took for stable, concrete facts changed by our own actions, and that maybe everything around us is mutable. Maybe everything is just an idea, susceptible to prying minds, pushing fingers. Maybe things don’t have to be this way.

3. I have a note saved in my phone from a month or so ago, wondering if elephant seals ever get lonely. This is less a fact and more a commentary on my own maudlin sensibilities.

4. Coined by Achille Mbembe, necropolitics is the use of social and political power to dictate who dies and how. It is both action and inaction. People in power exposing others to death and doing nothing about it from their glass castles.

Perhaps the existential question I return to the most is about the innate goodness of humans. I watched the protests in Ohio and Michigan of angry white workers demanding that businesses reopen and then I read the Twitter threads from New York City EMTs saying how everyday is 9/11 and I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.

5.  I often think about the physics of a water droplet on a car window (“often” meaning when I’m sitting passenger seat and it’s raining and my head is everywhere else but inside the car). The formula for the direction a droplet would travel once dislodged looks something like:

I have no idea what any of that means, but the formula itself possesses a sophisticated, precise beauty. That happens a lot these days—I notice something, ask questions, and don’t know the answers. Sometimes I don’t even understand the answers when I find them out. There is so much I don’t know, and that is good, great even, and I think it’s OK to not know and just wonder, and to describe cows on hilltops using only similes, and there are so many ways to exist in this world, and no one knows the best way to be, so just do it all anyway.

6. Ice plant—Carpobrotus edulis—was brought to California in the early 1900s to stabilize sand dunes. Like a lot of invasives, it crowded out native species, creating monospecific zones. It’s bad for the ecosystem, but with its yellow and purple flowers, its tender succulent leaves that turn orange and red like deciduous foliage, it’s beautiful. So many things that are bad for you have beautiful faces. So many things that start out as a good idea end in colorful wreckage.

7. Shizuka Yokomizo has a collection of photographs taken through a window. She left notes on people’s doorsteps, asking if they’d be OK with being photographed through their own window at a specific time, and, if they consented, she came back and took a picture. Preserved in that photograph is a single moment, but also so much more. People let you see more of them if you ask, if you are willing to take the time to look deeply. People want to be seen.

I think most people in our lives are like those in Yokomizo’s photographs. Fleeting glimpses. Small moments. There are so many people we will only touch the veneer of. But then there are others whose lives we walk into like a house and there we stay, we reside, with comfort and love and the feeling of home. Those are the people to cling to the hardest. Remember that.

liminal spaces

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thinking about NYC a lot these days

Liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. Threshold, among other things, means the level or point at which you start to experience something, or at which something starts to happen or change.

It’s like this: You are water. Blue and blameless. Ebbing and flowing in a tide pool. Heat begins to build, and you, beautiful humble droplet, start to quiver. The sky is tugging at you now more than ever. And you want to go. Up and up and up into the vast and beckoning blue. On the threshold of becoming vapor. Blue and blameless, quivering tender droplet.

And that is all. There is no next. You are a droplet caught in a freeze frame of almost-could-be-motion.

Liminal: something starts to happen

A liminal space is a narrow slit between existences. It is a sense of stagnation always on the cusp of becoming. It is a pause. A reckoning with existence. What am I doing here? What does any of this mean?

To exist in a liminal space means to exist untethered, unbound by future. It is to be stripped of work and obligations and normalcy, to be naked of every value society has dressed you in, to be adrift in your own ocean mind. It is to look at your hands and wonder what they are for.

Liminal spaces exude a particular sort of frustration. They are all of the build-up with none of the climax. You can hope and plan and daydream all you want, but you are still stuck in your house, and the future is still estranged. Everything is thought bubbles and finger pads. All motion is arrested.

Sometimes other people can write my own feelings better than I can. (Is that why we consume art? To be understood? To see our internal labyrinths laid out in visceral form?) And when I think of liminal spaces, I want to envision an actual space. Jonathan Safran Foer did that with love in Everything is Illuminated: “If there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweler’s felt so that we should never hear it. Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does.” (What an excellent passage, right?)

Here’s what my liminal space looks like: It is sunny but not quite warm enough to do what I want, which is to lay outside and roast in the sun long enough that my skin sprouts wildflowers. Everything smells of lavender. The walls are here, but you can’t see them, which is true of most things in life. I am free and tethered, wild and caged. The Monterey pine out back finally toppled and our peregrine falcon died, and yet it is still sunny and my skin is still soft, and nothing smells as good as the slowly ripening tomato plant. Everyone around me is chiseled from the same stone—blue schist and chert and pillow lava, the Franciscan melange. And me? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that one flower in Big Sur and how I’ll never remember its name, its smell.

Liminal: of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold 

What does your liminal space look like?