Major Arcana of Scotland

It’s a Thursday. I pull the Tower tarot card. A tower, struck by lightning, collapses. Cats fall out to their potential deaths. (The characters in my tarot cards are all cats). They meow, on their way down, Expect the unexpected

That morning, I’d applied for a month-long job in Scotland. A month in cold, rainy autumn Glasgow for the United Nations climate conference. 

I felt a shift, a world splitting into two futures. In one, I would enjoy a relaxing autumn in DC, watching the trees turn from our eighth-floor windows, finishing a draft of my second novel, baking bread, seeing friends, feeling overall healthy and well-rested. In the other future, I would go to Europe. 

Lately I’ve been reading tarot every morning. Just one card. I read tarot to read my future. I don’t believe in the clairvoyance of these cards. I do believe in tarot as a mirror. Whatever problem you’re thinking about, tarot provides a new lens through which to look at it.

The next morning I pulled the Five of Wands. Conflict, conflict. A cat holds too many wands for his arms to carry. These wands are meant for battle. He needs to let them go. 

I wrestled with my two potential futures. They each gripped me by the arm — and Europe was pulling more strongly. I tried to focus on writing, on DC, on not letting myself get carried away by the drug of excitement.

Four of Swords. Exhaustion. Burnout. I was too worked up. I needed to rest. 

My two potential futures corresponded with the two major vocations in my life. Fiction writing vs. climate change advocacy. It’s almost been a year since I quit my climate advocacy job to focus on writing. Yet the climate advocacy has crept back in bit by bit. Then here I was, contemplating foregoing writing for a whole month to throw myself into a job. 

The Tower card, again. 

Typical interpretations of the Tower card beg the reader to consider: have you built your life on an unstable foundation? Are you living a lie? But I reject this interpretation. In every Tower card I’ve seen, the foundation stays upright. The top of the Tower is struck by lightning and bursts into flames, yes. But only the apex is destroyed. 

Ten years ago, I went to the United Nations climate conference in Cancun. I had a panic attack on the way there, on the plane. It was one of the worst I’d ever had. As the plane started moving, I wanted to get off. We hadn’t lifted up yet, and suddenly I realized this would be my last chance to leave. The tarmac rumbled but we were still on the ground and I felt I needed to stay on that ground. But I didn’t move an inch. My eyes were opened wide but I was silent, still, suffering. I’ve never been able to describe panic attacks other than to say it’s pure, unfiltered suffering. But thinking about it now, another way is to say that panic attacks are what happen when your mind splits off from reality, pulled into obsessive and terrifying futures that don’t exist. The best tips to overcome anxiety are exercises to focus on the present. Squeeze your hands. Feel the floor. Take a deep breath. Read a tarot card.

When the plane lifted up, my friend asked me to play hangman. I agreed. We made it through the clouds. My panic subsided. 

Ten years later — but wait. No. Those ten years mattered. I saw therapists and read anxiety self-help books. And I kept working on climate change. I worked for ten years in the climate world, building my career, getting to a place where I would be able to apply for a last-minute whirlwind job in Scotland and feel like I really could get it. Professionally, I’m building on a strong foundation, client by client, brick by brick. 

In my writing life, I’m still at the beginning. I’m trying to enjoy that for its own sake. Even if I’m many years away from getting a book published… I’m on my way there. My future is in the present. In this sense, tarot is clairvoyant. Every morning I get up to write, I’m building another layer in my writing tower, I’m creating my new future. 

But, yeah, this tower can wait a month. Because I’m going to Scotland 🙂 

-Denise


Elephant of the week: photobombing my Scotland rain gear photoshoot

Excitante

I’m excited about something that might happen soon. It probably won’t, but maybe it will.

But I can’t tell you what it is.  

I know. I know. I’m telling you without telling you. That’s so annoying. I know. I’m sorry. But I don’t want to jinx it. And you know what? While I’m waiting to find out if the exciting thing will or won’t happen, you can wait to find out what that maybe-exciting thing will maybe-be.

Calm down. It’s not life-changing. I’m not moving or dying. I’m just thinking about something that might happen, although probably it won’t, but maybe it will, and if it does, it will be very, very exciting. 

I keep thinking about that word. I’m excited. It’s exciting. These days I’m studying Spanish, and finding it helpful to explore word roots. (For instance, ‘encontrar’ might seem like a weird translation of ‘to find,’ until you realize it comes from the same root word as does ‘encounter.’) Exciting comes from the Latin word exciere, to call out or call forth. In Spanish, you can either say you are emocionado (excited), or that something is excitante (exciting). Emocionado (and emotional, the English counterpart) comes from Latin emovere, which means to stir, to agitate, to move. Excitante means both exciting and stimulating. Stimulating, as in drugs.

That’s right, I feel like I’m on drugs. My emotions are moving. My emotions are movement. My nerves are being called forth. My daydreams say, come out of hiding, nervies, see the sun and dance! It’s everywhere in my body. Fingers, toes, temples. Everything is wiggling without wiggling. As I call forth my body, my body calls me forth. It’s almost anxiety. If I’m not careful, it might morph into that. In college, I was so excited by the possibilities of life, I overwhelmed myself into a weekly panic attack. Where is all this energy coming from?

On Thursday morning I woke up excited. I ran ten miles, quickly. By the end of it I calmed down. Until the evening, when my nerves had recovered and started bopping around again. So I went on a walk. It was the most beautiful walk in existence. I walked over a bridge that somehow signified the past and future connecting at once. The sunset was relentless. I listened to Billie Eilish’s new album, which is also perfect, turned it up and danced on the sidewalk. Back home, I logged into my virtual Spanish class. The teacher asked me to create a sentence with la verdad. The truth. Any sentence, to pull one out of the air. I said, ¡La verdad de la vida es que toda la gente es buena! (The truth of life is that all people are good). What’s going on? When did I get so disgustingly optimistic? I don’t care. I’m having a great time.

Most of the time. Sometimes I’m just sitting here, waiting. 

Time travel is real. My future is now. What might or might not happen is already happening. I think that’s where the energy comes from. It comes from future-me, looking back. It’s the anticipation. It wiggles my nerves. My nerves can’t handle stasis right now. They are everywhere in time.

I’m trying not to think about the thing that might or might not happen. It’s okay if it doesn’t. Honestly it’s not a big deal. And at this point, it almost doesn’t matter if it happens or not. If it doesn’t, I’ll find something else to look forward to. I’ll need to. Because I’m realizing how much I’ve missed this feeling. It makes everything beautiful. When’s the last time you’ve looked forward to something big, something maybe huge? It’s been a long time. It’s been a pandemic-amount of time.

For now I’m just excited. I’m daydreaming like crazy. And I’m enjoying the hell out of this feeling. 

-Denise


Elephant of the week: slightly less excited than me

I was hit in the face with a basketball

The secret to staying young is feeling young

(I keep telling my old cat this but she insists on remaining blind)

So I’m trying to do the splits

Like I could when I was twelve

But I imagined something snap

I swear I think I felt or heard something pop

I stopped 

I’m fine

(I still can’t do the splits)

.

The secret to staying young is feeling young

So I’m trying to play basketball

Sometimes I sink the frees

Sometimes it bounces off the rim 

Hits me in the head

Sometimes that jerk bf blocks it 

Hits me in the face

I say he shouldn’t block me because I’m his gf 

(he doesn’t listen)

(but feels appropriately bad when I get hit in the face)

.

I once swam in a swimming pool

I touched the bottom of the deep end

The pressure killed my ears

I threw a toddler in the air

“Throw me again!” 

I threw her again

Gleefully, “I’m drowning!”

People glared

“You’re not supposed to say that”

“I’m drowning!” 

I’m an adult

“If you say that one more time we’re leaving” 

.

I’m trying to write without punctuation because that’s how high schoolers do it

Like how a period means you’re dead to me.

.

We were playing basketball in a DC park

Little kids came to watch

They clapped when I scored and booed when the bf did

They asked without asking if they could shoot too 

We gave them our basketballs

They didn’t give them back

Another kid brought a scooter

They started fighting over it

Pushing each other to the ground

Four trying to ride at once

Score! We got our balls back 

.

That’s when I got hit in the face

Playing one-on-one

Practicing new moves

Cross over

Behind the back

Pull to the left and SHOOT — 

The jerk bf blocked my shot

Ball hit my glasses into the bridge of my nose 

“Shit, you’re bleeding”

I thought about crying

But I’m an adult!

But I wanted to cry

Like a switch flipped

The ‘you got hit in the face’ switch

Cheeks burned

Forehead pounded

Glasses slightly smushed

How much blood was there? 

To my right a kid got water sprayed into his eyes

To my left one held the scooter as a girl pushed his face

He held on with an iron grip

And I didn’t cry

We kept playing and I scored. 

-Denise


New publication alert! A story of mine was just published in a fun magazine called Oyster River Pages. It’s a weird one. It goes through time backwards. It’s called Love and Pistils. Check it out here. 


Elephant of the week: Soaking up the sun

My cat is blind

I came back home to a nervous cat with a cloudy pupil. 

It was hard to tell at first. It looked as if her eye caught the light. But it was the same from every angle: white, milky, with nothing to reflect. Did you know cat eyes glow in the dark? They really do. But with her, only one eye glowed. The other was blank. Blocked. 

Googling commenced. I learned it was a cataract. We took her to the vet. They confirmed it was a cataract. But they said the cataract hardly mattered. Because both her eyes are blind. 

Yesterday morning, things took a turn for the worse. Or they ended up where they would always go. Her cloudy eye stopped working completely. Even with the cataract, her pupil would contract into a sliver in the sun. A reflex, perhaps. But yesterday, that stopped. Her big cloudy pupil stayed big and cloudy and unmoving. 

I had writing goals for the day. But I put them aside and… well, I cried. Because she really is blind. And old. This is the latest in a series of health issues. And this one is irreversible. She’s an old cat with a limited lifespan. Now I notice her bumping into things. Now I notice her testing the ground with her paw before making a small leap. Now I notice her crouching low to the ground, to feel the area out with her whiskers. Now I worry her future will be full of confusion, pain, and stress. 

Elephant, aka Elliephant, aka Elefante, aka Ellie has always had mediocre eyesight. But I’ve never worried for her because her other senses are so strong. Cats have 40 times more sense receptors in their nose than humans do. Their whiskers can capture movements in the air. They have 30 sets of muscles in their ears. 

But sight. Sight! What can replace vision? I can’t imagine losing my sight. I’d rather read a book than listen to an audiobook, or look at a photo of my cat than listen to a recording. When I go on hikes, I need to look around to feel alive. But why? Why does sight matter so much more than the other senses?

I think it’s the ability to linger. To reread a sentence when you want to experience it again. To let myself get lost in an image. To repeat, repeat, repeat and understand. With sound, in real life, you can’t rewind. When there are strange noises in my apartment — like new, heavy shoes, or a box dropping to the ground — my cat doesn’t have any additional information for context. As far as she knows, the world is exploding and there’s nothing she can do. 

Yesterday, I pulled out my camera to take photos of her and her eye: close-ups, long shots, videos. It occurred to me I’d want documentation of her life after her eventual death. This morbid thought occurs to me often, but sometimes I need a reminder. It also occurred to me while photographing her just how powerful the eye can be. The camera attempts to recreate what we see, and it’s flawed. In a room with varying light, the camera cannot capture everything. It must choose a range of light to focus on. Our eyes make so many miniscule adjustments we don’t ever stop to say thank you. The nice thing about a good camera is getting to learn about light. How to adjust shutter speed, f-stops, and ISO settings to create the right light settings for the right mood. When I’m feeling confident behind the camera, I feel a sense of control. I can play with the sunlight and make interesting images based on how it lands. It’s why I enjoy flying kites: the feeling of playing with the sky, controlling the wind. When there’s no wind, you can simply run fast enough to create your own. 

In reality, it’s less about control and more about understanding. I can’t change the sun or the wind. But in understanding, I can feel stronger about my relationship to it. 

There’s not much I can control about the scent in our apartment. (I tried giving Ellie a sweaty hug but she was not having it). But I can sing to her when I enter the apartment, and I can touch her as much as possible. I can let my hand linger on her neck, scratching underneath her chin. I can put my face in her stomach, making a pillow of her soft white fur. I can remind her I’m here. And in the darkness, as one cat eye glows back at me, I’ll imagine her other eye filled with my image, with my eyes reflecting back at her. 

-Denise (and Ellie)

Patience.

Cicadas wait seventeen years to crawl out of the ground, rub their butts together, and die. 

I waited twenty-five days after filling out an apartment application to sign the lease and thought I might die. 

I have two new pimples named ‘Julia’ and ‘Kelton.’ For the past twenty-five days, my days have been like this: I phone their namesakes. I hear “It’s a wonderful day, how can I help you?” I’m told they’re out to lunch, or not arrived, or already gone. There is a precise ten-minute window when the cicadas’ songs align and the moon passes over the sun on the dim fiery morning of the rapture when, after twenty minutes of being on hold, Julia and Kelton are available on the phone. At which point I am told that I need to send the documents I’ve already sent five times. 

We had a problem-child application. Apparently ‘aspiring novelist’ doesn’t look good on paper. Nor does ‘makes her own kombucha’ or ‘has listened to the same yoga podcast for ten years’ aka frugal. Instead I had to prove the legitimacy of my ‘business’ aka me. I’ve never filed a tax return for it, but believe me officer, it’s real! It’s, uh, growing? 

Patience. I had none of it. We were a problem child and they didn’t want to deal with us, and every time I had to wait another day, I sprouted another pimple. My other zits are named ‘homeless’ and ‘rejected’ and ‘your career isn’t valid.’ 

We became well-acquainted with Julia’s hold music. It’s one long repeating song. There’s a nice lift with a saxophone. There’s the part where it turns to a minor key, dark and moody. There’s the part at the very end, which — and I don’t know if this is a mistake or intentional — there is a phone clicking noise, as if someone is releasing you from hold-purgatory; but they’re not, it’s part of the music, and the song begins all over again. 

This phone click. Is it meant to inspire hope? Or to knock you down from believing? At this point it doesn’t matter. It’s there, I know it well, I’ve come to love it. It’s consistent, and, unlike Julia, it will always be there if you wait long enough. 

Patience. I have a vision of myself as the embodiment of patience. This vision has popped like a pimple. What is it about waiting? It’s not the waiting. It’s how your mind runs wild with all the ideas of what might happen. It lingers on the bad ones. Getting rejected, which would portend future rejections from other places, other Julias, a roguish homelessness, cat in tow. Why not linger on the good? The beautiful bay windows, the roof deck. Or why not think of something completely different? Sitting in this beloved chair. Now I anticipate myself in future patient moments, petting the cat and not thinking about anything else. Patience. One day I will achieve it. Until then —

We move in ten days. We’ve booked the movers. We’ve signed the damn lease. Now we just need Julia to sign it, too…

-Denise

Elliephant of the week: Getting nervous about all these boxes, she’s staging a sit-in on my backpack to prevent me from leaving

Someone threw an egg at me

(but it missed.)

I was walking on Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago. I was with Seth, and we’d passed through Little Italy, Greektown, andPhilly’s Best Cheesesteaks to get here. Our bellies were full of flaming cheese, the kind where, at Greek restaurants, they bring it to your table, torch it, and yell “Opa!” And our heads were full of questions. The questions were all variations of: Do we want to live here?Not today, not tomorrow, but a year from now, or five? What about Philadelphia? What about, I don’t know, Dublin or Mexico City or Antarctica? 

Sometimes we forget that we’re allowed to go wherever we want. Nobody is telling us no. But there’s the cat to think of, and the local grocery store where we’ve memorized the aisles (ours stocks kitty litter behind the checkout counters; wtf?). What would it take to memorize a new grocery store? To pick a new route for an evening walk? To find a cat-friendly apartment and create a network of friends to take care of her when we go out of town? 

We were talking and walking down Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. I was wearing my ‘city fashion’ outfit because I wanted to feel like Chicago while we experienced Chicago. It’s a matching floor-length skirt and crop top, with light-blue cotton fabric that almost looks like denim. (I’ve since realized there is no ‘city fashion’ in Chicago — sorry, Chicago — the fashion there is essentially ‘Wisconsin, with a little business casual’: Birkenstocks, jeans, t-shirts, and a few pencil skirts.)

We were walking down Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, wearing out-of-town fashion, passing by a Philly’s Best Cheesesteaks, full of Greek cheese, thinking of our futures, when someone threw an egg at me. 

It landed at my feet. 

I thought something had fallen from the truck that passed us by (we weren’t paying attention, and it was quick, but in our peripheral vision, our memories pieced together an image of a blank white cargo truck, zooming too quickly around a curve). But the trajectory was all wrong. Its shell splattered forward, not backward. It was no accident. Someone had hurled it at me. 

It didn’t hit me. But it was supposed to. But it didn’t, nothing happened. But it could have, and why? Who cares, nothing happened. But why me, was I targeted? 

We kept walking and found more egg shells splattered in similar trajectories. I didn’t get an answer to ‘why,’ but I did get an answer to ‘why me.’ The answer: I didn’t matter. It had nothing to do with me. There was a guy throwing eggs, and that was that. 

One week later, I was in Madison at my brother’s house. He was at work and I, carless, went to the grocery store. It was a thirty-minute walk away and I forgot to bring reusable bags. Stupid. Despite this, the grocery gods compelled me to buy more than I intended, as they are wont to do, so I ended up with two plastic bags and one paper bag full of goods. The heavy items, including a large bag of frozen vegetables, went into the paper bag; into the plastic went lightweight items, including two boxes of mushrooms, one per bag. I’m not pointing out these specific items to brag about my vegetable intake. After ten minutes of walking, an edge of a mushroom box cut into the plastic bag until it split open and burst. The mushrooms made a break for it, scattering all over the sidewalk. I tried to reposition the items into the other plastic bag, which, of course, was in the process of being split open by the other mushroom box, and with a little extra pressure, it too cut open and released its contents. Okay, so I fit everything into the sole paper bag. Little did I know the frozen veggies had soaked the paper bag with condensation, weakening its fibers, and the bag completely fell apart. Everything collapsed to the ground. Including me. 

I called Seth and asked him to fetch me with reusable bags. He agreed, but it would be awhile. I sat on the ground with the contents of half a grocery store strewn around me. 

Then a stranger pulled up to the parking lot in front of me. “Do you need a bag?” He’d seen what happened, he said, and had a spare in his car. I said yes, yes, yes, and he traversed a muddy ditch in crocs to hand me a big, beautiful, strong green reusable bag. A few minutes later, a woman pulled over on the side of the road. “Do you need a bag?” She, too, saw my misery. Bagged up, I made it home. 

There’s no through line here. Chicago has Greektown, Little Italy, the country’s best Mexican Art Museum, and Philly’s Best Cheesesteaks. Philadelphia has its own cheesesteaks, two rivers, 11,000 acres of parks, and the world’s best tahini milkshakes. Madison has family, cheese, and birds. DC has my life. Chicago probably has people who would offer reusable bags to strangers. Madison probably has people who would throw eggs at me. Philadelphia definitely does.

I like being a stranger surrounded by strangers. I like the anonymity of a crowd. I like being able to sit on the side of a road with broken bags of groceries and not care how pathetic I look. But if I lived here, would I feel the same way? Or would I worry about who saw me — an ex-boyfriend, a former boss? Once you know a place, you become less of a stranger, and a little more grounded, a little less free. 

It’s nice to go somewhere and imagine something new. To travel not as a tourist, but as a human asking, what is this place really, and where would I fit in it? Chicago has more of everything. More people, more neighborhoods, more varying cultures. More interactions. More people throwing eggs. Less of a cohesive narrative. It can’t be figured out in three days or one blog post. 

After spending a month in a vaguely nomadic situation, it’ll be nice to return to the cat, our new apartment, and endless time. There are many different versions of life. But we’re in no rush to get there. 

-Denise


PS: I have a new story published! This one’s super short. It’s called Green Roof, published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House. Read it here.

PPS: I’m going to have another new story published in a couple weeks! August has been good to me. It’ll be in a magazine called Oyster River Pages and they’re having a launch party on Sunday, August 29 at 1:00pm ET, and I’ll be there, reading an excerpt I think? I’ve never done anything like this. You’re welcome to RSVP here.

PPPS: Madison birds are real birdy

A conspiracy theory about Bezos “in space”

Did you know Jeff Bezos went to space?

It was twelve days ago, so perhaps you’ve forgotten. Perhaps it never happened. Does the memory live in your brain? Right now, yes, because you’ve just read the words “Bezos went to space.” But what about five minutes ago? And what is this memory, exactly? Do you remember where you were when you learned about it? Does the memory stretch out over hours or days, or does it bring you a sense of feeling angry, excited, or generally bemused? Is it truly a memory or just a simple fact? Does it have thinginess? Does it have physical space? Does it really exist? 

“Best day ever!” he said when he landed — or was that a Facebook post I wrote in high school? 

“I want to thank every Amazon customer, you paid for this,” he said, as I paid for a pack of urinary-tract-friendly cat food and received zero luminous stars or sub-orbital moments. 

The earth’s atmosphere is “this tiny little fragile thing,” he said with great realization as I came down with a tiny cold that exhausted me for a week. 

“It’s another thing to actually see with your own eyes how fragile it really is,” he said as smoke from Canadian wildfires died the Wisconsin sun pink. 

I went for a run, and there was a cloud, alone and estranged, a circular thing that looked like a spaceship. It was a lenticular cloud. Lenticular clouds typically form on the downwind side of a mountain. There are no mountains in Wisconsin.

The run became a walk. When I got home I fell asleep. I slept for a week, waking to run and do necessary things. It was a body with a tiny cold, exhausted by living. A brain clouded by exhaustion. I didn’t write for a week. 

When my spell of tiredness disappeared, I went out for a drink with my mom. We sat at an outdoor table. There was a bird, a house finch, with a broken wing. It wanted to join us, though we had no food. It hopped around on its legs, flapping its good wing when it needed a high jump. It was close enough for me to reach out a fist and smash it, and it wouldn’t be able to fly away. It was bold, testing its limits. Hadn’t the bird already tested enough? Or, with a broken wing, were these brash movements all it had left? I waved my hands to make it go away, but it always came back. I let it come back.

When my cold disappeared, I shouted, “Best day ever!” Then I thanked my body for recovering, with appreciation for this tiny fragile thing. 

-Denise

I’m no masochist

but sometimes it’s nice to watch yourself heal.

To cut a staleish loaf of bread, have the knife slip, and open a tiny slice of your finger instead. Watch the blood cry “alert!” and rush over, carrying magical healing things, and — “we’re giving her everything she’s got!” — go too far, spill out the opening. To close it with a paper towel and medical tape until it can keep itself closed without you, then watch the skin stitch itself back together.

I decided to go to Philadelphia, which was my first mistake.* The first night we went roller skating, which was my second. The second morning we went running, which was the third, but danger only comes in threes. I was looking at all the things one looks at when they don’t know a place. The sky, the air, the people. My phone was blowing up. My glasses were slipping down my nose. Everything had my attention except the ground, which was rudely uneven. My foot caught on a sidewalk joint. The rest of me continued pitching forward. My palms caught the ground but it wasn’t enough. My right shoulder and elbow caught the landing. On gravel. 

My shoulder skin scraped off. My elbow opened. It’s not a big deal. Just blood and skin. We kept running, then returned to an apartment in a warehouse with piles of rusty nails everywhere. Just kidding, they weren’t rusted. We went to the roof and held the door open with a piece of plywood. On the roof was a tank full of hungry sharks. Just kidding, they’d just eaten breakfast. In Philly we stayed with a doctor who lived in said rusty-nail warehouse, and who told me about skin and healing. I place all my trust in him. He had band-aids. He told me this: 

When a boy and a girl clink together, baby snakes fall out of the boy and rush into the girl’s nest, trying to reach her golden egg. The snakes will mostly die as they try to maneuver around a video-game style contraption of swinging axes and flaming swords. Perhaps one snake will make it, perhaps two. Then it will poke its head in and win the golden egg. 

The exact moment of entry, sperm into egg, means everything. The exact direction of entry means everything. This vector will guide the orientation of everything else. It will guide the structure of your body building itself. It will guide the shape of your skin. Your skin knows up from down. It knows where to send the healing juices. It knows when there is a piece missing on the left, and it will double itself to fill the gap.

The orientation itself doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it exists, and that it guides everything else. When this structure is upended, it means cancer. It means cells growing in every direction without guidance. It means death. 

I want to help. But I can’t. I don’t have the instruction manual. I am the instruction manual.

I’m in a writing group that meets once every two weeks. We all met because we like a certain author named Bud Smith. We are oriented towards Bud. The Buddies live all over the country but we went to Philadelphia so we could fall out of trees and let ourselves heal. We met in person for the first time but we’ve known each other for eight months so we hugged. Hugs are funny. Every hug is a battle: whose arms go on top, and whose arms go underneath? Who dominates the hug and who lets themselves be hugged? I’m shortish, so I default to underneath. I let myself be wrapped up. But sometimes, when I want to grip someone tightly, I hug from the top. 

Now I’m in Wisconsin. Seth and I arrived last night. My mom waited for us at the bottom of the escalator in the dinky Madison airport. But I noticed something strange. She held out her arms for a hug… diagonally. Right arm up, left arm down, facing me. So I brought my left arm down underneath her right, and my right arm over her left. It was a hug of equivalence. No one was on top, no one on bottom. 

I turned to my stepdad. He held out his arms the same way: right arm up, left arm down. I think he’s oriented himself to my mother’s hugs. Later I met up with my brothers, one by one. Guess how they hugged? Right arm up, left arm down, holding them out like stars. 

-Denise


Elliephant of the week: cats orient to no man

*Much love to Philly. I love Philly.

Robbins vs. robins: who built it better?

In the backyard of my now-former house, two robins have been building a nest for weeks. Every time I walked outside and interrupted their artistry, they’d stare at me with a beak full of twigs, standing on one leg, like I had caught them in the middle of cheating, and we’d stare at each other for minutes, me hoping they would continue building, them hoping I would please leave. Eventually, they’d fly off, leaving their nest unfinished.

For weeks I climbed up the side fence to poke my head and see if there were eggs in their ever-growing nest. But it was always empty. I worried I had taken away their dreams. What’s worse than an empty nest? The nest that doesn’t have a chance to empty? The nest of unfulfilled dreams? I told them, “I’m a Robbins. You are robins. We’ll get along, I promise.” But they didn’t believe me. They believed I was too dangerous a presence for their future children. They kept building the nest surreptitiously, slowly, yet refused to lay any eggs. 

Seth and I moved into an apartment building on Wednesday. We live on the eighth floor now. Everything is different up here. Light is everywhere. And where does the rain go? Somehow it rains sideways yet never into our open windows, which let in the sounds of birds, car honks, partiers, and a white noise of wind. I’ve never lived so high. I’ve never lived above the second floor. The sky opens up. We watched storms come in that first night and we could see the whole shelf cloud. When the rain burst, we could see different layers of rain: in front of us, sideways to the left; behind that, slow vertical striations that moved slowly right; and beyond, a coming light. We have bay windows, and when I look at the bricks of the next wall over, I wonder how the hell they hold us up. The bricks are not perfectly aligned. There are jagged inconsistencies. But inside, everything feels stable. 

Moving into a new apartment brings about a whole new world of design possibilities, which itself brings a new set of insecurities. How will our design stack up with that of our friends? I have the same furniture I’ve had since first moving to DC, when I picked up arbitrary wooden pieces off Craigslist. Over the years I’ve accumulated various items from friends here and there. None of it matches. Would a few pillows and a new rug pull it together? 

While packing and unpacking and dreaming of decorating the new apartment, I listened to Panic! At The Disco’s first album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. The music isn’t very good, but it tweaks my nostalgia strings, and on relistening to their first album over and over (the only way a teenage girl listens to anything), I realized that the music is at least … interesting. The instrumentation is exciting (their hit single begins with a cello plucking tango), the words are fun to yell (tell me a better phrase than “we’re just a wet dream for your webzine”), and the lyrics themselves beckon a closer look. When I was young, my key takeaways were: sexy sex, wet dreams, and the groomsbride is a SHHHHHHH. But the album in its entirety is an interesting meditation on performance, poise, and self-composure. It was an era when “poser” was the worst dig, yet the lyrics revered “poise,” while the album was embued with self-knowing artifice: Theatrical costumery is present on the album cover and in every music video, and the songs are meta-contemplations on the act of performance itself (the album list begins with “introduction” and has an “intermission,” while some songs break the fourth wall and announce that the singer is a narrator of a story, etc). 

The song lyrics tackle artifice from many angles. Veneration —

I chime in with a

“Haven’t you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?”

No, it’s much better to face these kinds of things

With a sense of poise and rationality

(The song, I Write Sins Not Tragedies, is about how a cheating groom should hide his infidelities — but on the other hand, once the secret’s out, the marriage is saved, because it will never happen)

Derision — 

What a wonderful caricature of intimacy

(The song, Build God Then We’ll Talk, has a music video is about a pornographic mime couple who cheat on each other by mime-sexing with nonexistent people, but lyrics about a Catholic girl sleeping with a lawyer for a job, and ends up pregnant — an act of that, while it began as a farce, potentially results in a bond with a forthcoming child)

Cynical esteem — 

Have some composure

And where is your posture?

(The song, Time to Dance, is about a vanity during a gun shooting scene from the book Invisible Monsters — it begins, sarcastically, “she’s not bleeding on the ballroom floor just for the attention”)

Light-hearted ridicule with a tinge of jealousy — 

The strip joint veteran sits two away 

Smirking between 

Dignified sips of his dignified 

Peach and lime daiquiri.

That last one, But It’s Better If You Do, was written by teenagers about teenagers who sneak into a burlesque bar, but not because they want to, only because Isn’t this exactly where you’d like me? — the need to do dangerous things to impress others — later to claim that I may have faked it, and I wouldn’t be caught dead into this place — admission of the truth. In their fake version of the burlesque bar, do all the dignified patrons drink peach and lime daiquiris, or just the one? There are many layers here. I could keep going but… I won’t.

“Composure” is an interesting word. It tends to mean self-restraint or self-control. Yet its root word, “compose,” seems the opposite: to create. Creation with restraint. Creation with control. What’s the difference between being a poser and having poise? According to Panic!, not much — and that’s okay, I think, as long as it comes with self-awareness.

The place in which we live must be filled with things. The choice is what those things are. Every object is an act of composure. Am I the kind of person who puts a grandfather clock near the window? Yes. Am I the kind of person who can occupy this sun-filled apartment with plants? I wish, but no, I kill plants. Which photos go where, and which books should be on prominent display? There are little choices of placement, but the bigger choices as well, the ones that go back years, back to when Seth and I took those photos while walking around downtown, back to when I decided to teach Seth how to use a DSLR, back to when I first decided to start taking photos myself, one of the many avenues I’ve explored to find permanence — yet all these choices seemed like little ones at the time. 

The focus of my attention in this new apartment has been the bay windows. The bay windows are why we’re here. The decorations in front of them don’t matter as much — they matter a little, but only insomuch as they draw eyes to the windows. To look out at the sky, to feel like we’re part of a big world, in our own private space, this feels essential. There’s that tension again: openness and restraint. Privacy in the expanse. 

In the old house, I had a nice spot for reflection. It was the brick driveway that led to a stand of bamboo in the alley. I was able to go outside, stretch, and look at birds. But it wasn’t safe. Even standing in front of my apartment at eight am on a weekday morning, there was always the knowledge that it could never be perfectly safe. It was an alley, and I was alone, and to be alone in public is to be in danger. 

Is all safety artificial? I live in a tall building made of bricks that eventually could collapse. I live in a city prone to deadly heat waves and storms. Anything could happen. But when I stand in front of my bay windows, it’s easy to forget. Real or unreal, I’ve created a space where I can find the quiet place in my mind where ‘anything could happen’ only means good things. Where the world opens up and at the same time is quiet enough to hear myself think. 

Seth and I returned to the old house in the alley on Saturday for a final cleanup. I climbed up the side of the fence so I could peer into the nest to see if there were any eggs yet. But on my way up, I saw a tail sticking out. A robin lay there. In the two days since we’d moved out, the robins had finally moved in. 

A Robbins departs, a robin returns, and each of us has found our private place. 

-Denise

A robin’s nest:

A Robbins’ nest:

The streets are alive with the sound of jackhammers

A vaccine and a new story

Outside, rumble. Inside, rumble. The rumble of the jackhammers. All day, every day. It comes from the outside but shakes everything inside, down to the bones of the boyfie and me.

This isn’t a moment from the last week, but the beginning of a new short story that was just published yesterday!

I’m excited to share that “The streets are alive with the sound of jackhammers” was published yesterday in Pif Magazine’s May edition. 

I hope you read it; it’s free to read online. The whole May magazine is worth a read — there are several really lovely poems, cool artwork, and an evocative piece of microfiction. If you’re inclined to read it all together, it’s available in its entirety on Kindle for a dollar. 

“Streets are alive” is a story about a girl and her boyfriend stuck inside a basement apartment, dreaming of a better future. Sound familiar? Yes. I wrote it in the height of hot-covid-summer last year. What might be less familiar is that the streets are made of olivine, a green rock that comes from volcanoes and is particularly good at absorbing carbon. Some Elon Musk-types are pushing the wild idea to spread this rock on all our beaches as a solution to global warming. It’s a pipe dream, it won’t work; but it’s kind of a beautiful dream, sifting your fingers through emerald green sand, saving the world while getting a tan. 

This kind of cynical hope felt familiar to the dreams we had last summer that we could quarantine the virus away, even though at that point it was clear we were in it for the long haul, that nothing would work except vaccines.

Read the story

At least the vaccine dream was realized. I got my second vaccine on Monday. 

I was nervous. I was lightheaded and shaky with anxiety. Seth asked me, “Why do you like being nervous?” I don’t like being nervous. I heard two people say the side effects of the second dose made them feel sicker than they ever had in their life. Two people said this out of how many hundreds who had their second doses and were fine? But it’s the alarming stories that stick. 

Thus accompanied by nerves, Seth and I biked four miles in the heat through the heart of downtown to get to our appointment. We dodged cars parked in bike lanes, rumbled through the pothole canyons of Florida Avenue, trekked across the world’s worst intersection, and made it fifteen minutes early, having survived a ride that was far more dangerous than a vaccine. 

The ride helped excise the nerviest nerves. But it also heated me up to a temperature of 99 degrees, leading the nurses to almost not give me the dose. “If you were just a little higher… we’d send you home.” Of course I then wondered: Do I have covid? Will the dose and the covid that I definitely have interact and kill me? Do I actually secretly have silicosis that decided to wait until today to seize my lungs and bring me to fever?

No, I told them, it was just the heat. They sent me to the vaccine room right away, no line. The doctor also read my temperature and interrogated me to make sure I was fine. I didn’t feel fine, I felt anxious, which made me feel all kinds of unfine, but I didn’t tell her that. Then she poked me with a stick and that was that. 

The post-shot waiting room is the quietest place in the world. Seth and I, both newly shotted, were alone in it, and I whispered to him to calm myself down as we waited fifteen minutes to make sure our bodies didn’t spontaneously collapse. It vaguely occurred to me that, as I was whispering to Seth, others had entered the room, and that despite my quietness they could hear every word, but that didn’t stop me from being incredibly annoying. Trying and failing to take a selfie with our band-aided arms (it’s hard to get that angle!). Making fun of Seth’s hair (which I cut poorly). Saying whatever I could think of to distract myself from a potential panic attack. Trying to forget that the others existed, yet knowing they were there, yet also thinking, if our roles were reversed, if I was in here alone and there was a weird couple giggling in a corner, that I would be listening to their every word and watching their every movement, I would be grateful for the distraction as I avoided my own thoughts of potential doom. It was a weird in-out-in-out of body experience, and in a way, it was a performance, one that I was trying to pretend didn’t exist. 

We survived the void of the post-shot waiting room, and survived the following days with very few side effects. Now, we can dream of green beaches while we sit in white sand, and we can have hope and know that it’s real.

-Denise

Elliephant of the week: Whiskers, take the spotlight!