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

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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?

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.