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…
Elliephant of the week: Getting nervous about all these boxes, she’s staging a sit-in on my backpack to prevent me from leaving
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
“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.
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.
Elliephant of the week: Whiskers, take the spotlight!
People, no people. People, no people. What’s to love about people, strangers and all, and what’s to love without them? In the early days of quarantine, the busiest cities grew still, cars went into hibernation, walks outdoors were taken with caution, and the number of people in our lives significantly shrank.
To celebrate our four-year anniversary, Seth and I spent the week in Hampton, Virginia. This is a city that is full of some things and empty of others. More than a hundred thousand people call Hampton their home, yet when we went to visit, the people were inside; in their cars, in their carbon-copy homes, in their yards — like it was the beginning of quarantine all over again. I was struck by the prevalence of land and space. There were cemeteries and huge empty fields in the middle of downtown — which itself comprised two blocks — wide streets, large yards, and tiny sidewalks.
Yes, despite all the space, the sidewalks were miniscule, one-person wide, appearing and disappearing at random, causing us to walk on road shoulders or jaywalk to our salvation. Also pitiful was the public transportation, with bus stops few and far between and a shoddy schedule. Surprisingly, carshare options were even worse. The city was small enough to walk nearly everywhere but at the end of a long day, six miles from home, we called for a car, yet there were none. Zero. No cars available. Everyone has their own, I suppose, who would need an Uber?
A few folks we talked to (still masked, distanced, etc) didn’t seem to understand why we came to visit Hampton. Our Uber driver (we got one an hour after requesting it) and our kayak fishing guide consider it an empty place. (We consider it the closest beach to DC we could easily get to by public transportation.)
Hampton is not empty. It’s beautiful. There are miles of beaches and dolphin coves and marshlands and pine trees taller than cathedrals. Entire beaches with just me and Seth.
And it’s full of historic significance. The oldest continuous English-speaking town in the country — and the land where America’s first slaves were brought in 1619 — it sits at a key access point in the Chesapeake Bay. But its very importance was its peril; it was targeted by the British for burning during the Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812, only to be later burned by the Confederate army during the Civil War to prevent the Union army from building a stronghold larger than Fort Monroe; a Fort that itself became a flagship in the fight against slavery, when former slaves of the town fled to the Union-held fort and the General there decided the slaves could stay as “contraband,” leading thousands more to flee, the thousands of slaves that made up half of Hampton’s population before the war, their flight now turning the tides of war more thoroughly into a fight about slavery itself; Fort Monroe, known as Freedom Fortress, when we visited, was empty, strange, with a pet cemetery by the lookout, including a dog named after Jefferson Davis, who himself was held there after the war for treason, and who has a memorial park named after him within the fort, which later had his name quietly removed. Strange and filled with ghosts, Hampton is far from empty, yet at the same time it is, where aside from the Fort and a couple scattered areas, the historic significance has been burned to the ground, rebuilt with chain stores and empty mowed lawns. Hampton is empty and full at the same time.
There was an upside to the lack of people, in addition to having entire beaches to ourselves. With fewer grabby hands to fear… birds. Here are all the birds we saw with our eyes: one yellow-crowned night-heron, several great egrets, one bald eagle, one osprey, seven great blue herons, one killdeer, one grackle, and several piping plovers, mockingbirds, royal terns, laughing gulls, and more. Many of the birds share Hampton’s proclivity for solitude. We parked our kayaks on a riverbed special significance: hundreds and hundreds of oysters. As we sat there, one huge bird would fly to us and land in the water, fish for oysters with its beak, fly away, then another huge bird would take its place. Always one at a time, no less, no more (if you don’t count the single mallard who also hung around, watching the huge birds as if he wanted a friend).
Seth and I were there to celebrate our togetherness, alone in the city. Being in a relationship is, in a way, a solitary act. The best relationships allow you to become the best version of yourself, to feel a strength of self that grows when you are together and remains strong when you are apart.
People are important. I’m glad we got to see a million birds and walk through history unencumbered, but I’m grateful for the Uber driver that picked us up after an hour of waiting, for the kayak fisherman that taught us how to tie knots and be patient, for the friends who fed our cat while we were away, and especially, especially, for the friend who picked up his phone when we called at one in the morning when we got back because we had left our keys in Hampton, because our upstairs landlords were — reasonably — sound asleep, the friend who let me cry out our conundrum, that we were locked out and had no way to get in and nowhere to go, who let us come over and sleep on their couch, with sheets and pillows made up, and even though we only slept for five hours, we’ve never slept so well.
No Elliephant of the week because we were away, so here are a couple of Seth instead:
Dozens of species of sparrows live in DC, all with different bird feathers and songs (in my backyard, my favorite is white-throated sparrow, with a yellow spot on its forehead, who whistles a song that sounds like, “Oh-oh, Canada, Canada, Canada”). Hundreds of tiny weeds of various shapes and textures are sprouting through the bricks of my driveway. Seven different types of native woodpeckers call DC home. The sleds hanging up the alley fence are red and blue with neon pink.
Our planet is impressive because it is so various, and not just for the sake of beauty or fascination. It is huge and variable enough to account for chaos, to soak in aberrations; if one species of sparrow should go extinct, there are dozens of others to take its place. Often nature is considered pristine or perfect, with every bug and bacterium contributing an important role. This isn’t true. Nature isn’t perfect, it’s embedded with chaos. Nature simply has a way of soaking up the chaos to manageable levels, and importantly, if one species or sub-ecosystem fails, theoretically there is always another species or sub-ecosystem to fill in the emptiness, because everything, always, wants to grow.
I just finished a book called Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson that explores this idea. The book is fantastic for many reasons — it covers the impossibility of space colonization, the edges of artificial intelligence, and other nerdy things, and it covers everything with scientific rigor and beauty — but I want to talk about the ship. It’s a “generation ship,” a massive spaceship travelling over centuries to find another planet to terraform and colonize. The ship itself is engineered to perfection, with every biome of planet earth given a ring-shaped ecosystem and hundreds of important plant and animal species brought on board, along with two thousand people who farm, distribute, and compost everything in a closed loop. But nature can’t be perfectly engineered, so the ship’s comparatively small size eventually, inevitably, has limitations, and things break down and can’t be recovered.
I finished this book on audiobook earlier this week. Then I finished another audiobook. Then, Sunday, today, I couldn’t think of anything to write.
Yesterday, I took a writing workshop about the I-Ching, or the “Book of Changes.” When consulting the I-Ching, you flip coins to get random numbers, which are then ordered into hexagrams, which provide answers to a problem or question. Specifically, it’s the change between two hexagrams that is supposed to provide the answer. The workshop taught us how to use the I-Ching in fiction. To put aside an engineered plot and allow randomness into the story. To soak in the chaos and find meaning.
Why didn’t I think of that today, when I told myself nothing interesting happened this week? Why didn’t I think of the raccoons I saw making babies in a tree? The woodpecker I finally found in my backyard? Why was my brain dead, after a week of hard work?
I’ve been trying to control my time like a spaceship: every moment accounted for and utilized for productivity. I have an intense writing schedule and reading schedule, and also make time to study Spanish, participate in writing and reading groups, listen to lectures about the craft of writing — as if I can beam in “be a great writer” like a computer upload — and volunteer… and now I’ve rediscovered audiobooks. With all the running and writing I do, I can get through two books per week!
But I lost something important: time to think and wander.
When I went on a walk this evening, I told myself I wasn’t allowed back home until I thought of something to write about. No podcasts, no audiobooks, no lectures. Just the sunset and the flowering trees. I bumped into Seth a few blocks away, who was coming back home from a run. I told him my conundrum, but he couldn’t help me. The writing lectures couldn’t help me. The only thing that could help me was silence and time, the space to listen to my own mind.
The beauty of space lies in the expanse. Silence. Limitlessness. But these are only our ideas of space. These ideas are also right here, on earth.
Winter is over. Most people I know have either gotten their vaccine or will soon. The sun has reminded us how to be outside. It’s finally happening. We’re coming back to life, real life.
But what about this virtual life? In many ways, it’s been a blessing. There’s no commute. No daily pressure to worry about your hair. You get to hang out with people on the other side of the country and still have all the time in the world to play with your cat.
There will be a thousand thinkpieces about the transition back from virtual to physical, the benefits and downsides of both. I’m not going to write a thinkpiece. I just want to write about two things that happened this week that are making me think.
Thursday evening: A virtual reading. I signed up to read one of my short stories for a group called Readings on the Pike. I had been looking forward to this for months, maybe years, following this group before Covid began. Once a month, they host events for local authors to share their fiction and poetry, but in person, the event was in Virginia, not accessible by public transport, a long bike ride away, which always seemed just too far on a late Thursday night. But virtual, yes! I submitted a story four months ago and finally, on Thursday, alongside a handful of professional authors, most of which have several published books, and little old me, I got to read.
I was the third reader. First up was a local poet named Tatiana, who spoke beautifully. In the chat, listeners expressed their gratitude, a virtual hype machine with virtual snaps. But in the middle of one sentence, from the audience, it came: a burp. Not a dainty throat-clearing burp, a major, soda-glugged burp, beginning to end. The poet didn’t flinch, she kept reading as if nothing happened. Until it happened again… and again. It became clear these weren’t real burps; they were pre-recorded, then unleashed with intent.
Things went downhill from there. The mysterious burper was kicked out of the Zoom, but during the second reader’s story, another picked up where he left off, interrupting the reader with a loud yell, then another, until the moderators closed the waiting room, didn’t allow anyone to unmute. Then someone blew up the chat with profanities, and someone else turned on a video to… something unpleasant.
My first Zoombombing. To all effects it was harmless. If it happened to someone else, maybe I would have laughed? But it shook me. I was next. I was about to tell a story that was deeply personal to me, one that, when I practiced earlier that day, made me cry. Yet an unknown quantity of Zoombombers reigned in the sea of names and screens. The bad actors were kicked out and the chat was closed down and no one new was allowed in, but who was left, ho was waiting undercover for their own moment to be an asshole for no reason?
This all happened right before my piece, but the moderators felt confident they had managed the problem, so I hid the video and concentrated on my story.
Then it was over, and no one could comment because the chat was shut down, so it was over and that was that, no reaction, and I was left with a terrible feeling. It could have been worse. Why is that always the reaction? It could have been much, much worse (content warning), but instead it just sucked. And that’s the end of this story.
Saturday evening: A walk, no screens. I walked around Malcolm X park, I walked through Columbia Heights, a thousand people out tonight, joyful as the sun went down. I heard music. People played music on speakers at the park, cars drove with their windows down. And new music, this was different, bigger. It was music I could see from two blocks away, I mean see, so real I could practically watch the soundwaves, even though I couldn’t see where it was coming from. Drums, more drums, singers, synthesizer. It echoed around the streets, clapping on concrete.
I found it one block away: a flatbed trailer, converted into a stage, with a dozen people playing go-go, and thirty congregating all around, dancing and taking up the sidewalks, the street. The drums. You could feel them shaking the ground. The cymbals that wanted to break apart. The singers, moaning, were secondary to the drums, so raw. The music wasn’t great. It had a quality that existed on a different plane than technical excellence. It existed everywhere.
One woman in particular caught my eye. A middle-aged woman in a pink polo who had a huge jug of water and groceries by her feet. She had her phone out and was recording a video with intensity, not just the band but following every dancer that passed her by. No smile, perfectly serious, so important that she had to put down her groceries and capture it all to remember.
I stayed for about ten minutes, and eventually took a photo. Not a video. Cell phone videos of in-person music always sound terrible later.
But maybe that’s the point. To remember the imperfections, how little they matter.
Build, build, build. A messenger from the enemy bears a letter with instructions. My cells listen and begin to build. Hundreds of spikes are forming, inside. The messenger is a false friend. The spikes are traitors. My own personal army catches the betrayal. They do not know what are these spikes and what is their purpose; they do not care. No. They gather their forces to attack. Attack, attack, attack. A great battle ensues, one that will lead to many deaths. The spikes are ruthless, they will not go down easily. The messenger from the enemy is compelling; more of my cells betray me, follow its instructions. More spikes form. My personal army must experiment, call for reinforcements, drain blood from my brain, We’re givin’ her all she’s got! The battle is ruthless but the messenger will die and then it will end, the spikes will be overwhelmed, my personal army will be battered but victorious, and most importantly, it will come away with a gift: a memory.
Yesterday I was pricked with an mRNA vaccine. mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid but mRNA vaccines should stand for memory vaccines. Although what is a memory but a message from the past?
The other day I was in the woods when a great solemn shadow flew overhead; I looked up to see a red-tailed hawk, soaring on a thermal, circling above me, keeping its wings perfectly still, with lush white feathers with a streak of brown and a tail that glowed pink, searching for something to kill.
There’s a woodpecker that lives near my house that I hear pecking almost every morning but am never able to find it, even with binoculars; it’s probably hiding behind some tree, just beyond my field of vision; it doesn’t want to be found.
When it was dark this winter I missed the sun terribly but went for walks at night anyway, sometimes finding joy in the various streetlights from all angles, creating many me-shaped shadows that interact with one another, disappear, conjoin, fall away.
It’s cherry blossom season in DC, but it’s not just the cherries; every flowering tree has come open with force. Normally my favorite part is gently shaking a branch of a flowering tree and letting the petals fall like rain, but we’ve had gusty winds every day since peak bloom; every spare petal has already fallen.
In an era where we are largely stuck at home, we are all becoming more acquainted with our dreams and memories. Oftentimes it doesn’t feel like enough; we want more, we want the real thing. But there’s something to be said for a memory, a message, a shadow, a reflection, a falling; for the things that represent real things, for the representations themselves.
I have a plane ticket to Wisconsin in July. Soon I will be able to hug my mother and do “the Robbins laugh” with my brothers and chase my little nieces and nephews, who, after refusing to stop growing for two straight years, are suddenly not so little. I have three months more to wait before then. But my dreams will suffice in the meantime.