Empty of strangers, full of birds

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:

Room for chaos

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.


Elliephant of the week: Cat becomes oblong sphere

Low-quality physicality

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. 


Elliephant of the week: BOX.

Memory vaccine

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.


Seth + vaccine nurse at CVS. Brought to you by Dunkin’, our post-vaccine treat.

A story about the story in the Barcelona Review

This newsletter will be a little different.

First, I’m excited to share that I had a story published in the Barcelona Review. This is a big milestone for me, and the story is near to my heart. 

So before you keep reading, I’d love for you to read this story in the Barcelona Review. It’s called “That One Night.” It’s free to read online, and it’s pretty short, too.

But that’s not all. After you’ve read the story, keep scrolling. Because you might have some questions. And today I want to talk about it. 

(If you don’t feel like reading it, that’s okay too! But the rest of this newsletter might be confusing.)

I’m going to throw my Elliephant of the week right here, so there’s a nice big break between this part and the discussion below. Again, click here to read the story in the Barcelona ReviewThen, keep scrolling and read the discussion about it, including a bonus paragraph that might clear some things up.

Elephant of the week: A pile of paws

OKAY. So. First of all, there’s a certain paragraph that I considered including in That One Night.

This particular paragraph explains some things. But it felt a little forced. I ultimately kept it out to preserve a sense of mystery. However, I saved it, and I hope that reading it will add to the story for you. The extra paragraph is bolded. 

The old man said, eventually: You know I can’t let you do that. You’d be killing me, too.

Who cares about you?

You do.

You’re disgusting. Lonely. A loser.

Only because you see me that way.

You’re miserable. And you don’t deserve to exist. The young man crumpled up his last beer can and threw it at the older version’s face.

The old man dodged it. He stood up. He said: 

You think you’ve got the world all figured out. You think the entire world is pain. That this pain, this night, is all that matters. That there’s nothing that will make this worth it. You’re a chump. One day you’ll look back and you’ll realize this was just another dumb night in a series of dumb nights, and the pain will be gone, or replaced with new pain, but you’ll still be alive and learning new shit and you’ll laugh at how dumb you were that one night.

Does that help? Maybe? Should I have kept it in? I’m honestly still not sure.

Next: Some of you might be thinking after reading the story, What’s the damn question?

First, I’d like you to take a shot at answering that yourself. Really think it over. Here’s another picture of Ellie’s paws as a distraction.

Here’s the answer.

The question is: What’s the question?

That’s the annoying, simple answer. It makes me giggle to think of a reader putting down the story and asking themself: What’s the question? over and over, never realizing they are asking it already, and maybe, eventually, realize it.

The more complicated answer is: It doesn’t matter, except that it exists.

First, there’s the logistical consideration that the old man is what the young man dreams of himself. Have you ever had a dream where you’re trying to read a book but the pages are too blurry? And the closer you look, the less you can read? Maybe you realize that it’s a dream and you’re the one creating the pages, and you will yourself to understand, but you can’t, it’s just beyond your grasp.

That’s “the question” in this story. It comes from the young man’s dreams and it’s just beyond his grasp, but he reaches for it, and in reaching, realizes there’s a question that needs answering. He realizes that he has something to look forward to, to bring him to the next day.

To me, no matter how hard things get, life will always be worth living as long as there are new things to discover. The idea that future-you will be infinitely better than current-you. That even as a body may deteriorate, a mind will keep improving with experiences and wisdom. I believe this strongly. But it takes work. It takes effort to keep learning and growing.

We all go through hard times. I’ve had a few. When I was a sophomore in college, life sucked, and I was too dumb and young to figure it out. I hated my major, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, I had no close friends where I lived, so far from home. I starved myself for four months for an illusion of control. At one point I wondered if I was anorexic but I read an article that said anorexia requires eating less than 900 calories a day, so I ate exactly 900 calories a day. I had a boyfriend but didn’t tell him how miserable I was. I didn’t even admit it to myself, until I started getting panic attacks and my hair fell out. I didn’t like it when my hair fell out, so I started eating more, and my body came back to life, slowly, but jaggedly, and my panic attacks kept getting worse, until I learned what they were, and, in recognizing them, in discovering what was happening to me, I was able to heal. 

The worst part about all this was how much I denied and hid my suffering. I wasn’t able to tell Andrew, my then-boyfriend, until I was on the mend. Even then I wasn’t able to tell him face to face. I wrote him a letter. We sat in the same room but I wrote him a letter about what I went through and handed it to him. I couldn’t talk about it but I could write about it, and I wanted him to know. He was nothing but grateful that I had finally let him in.

It’s strange to look back and see how much has changed. I forgot about that letter I wrote Andrew until I sat down to write this newsletter, a piece of nonfiction reflecting on a piece of fiction that refracted a memory…. Young-me would have died of shame before writing about this in a public newsletter. Current-me recognizes the power in examining and sharing my experiences — power over myself and self-identity — even the experiences that made me suffer. Even the embarrassing ones, like being a stupid college kid who couldn’t handle life. Though sometimes I get to write about them obliquely. Like in a story about an unnamed young man. 

Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell younger me that everything would eventually be okay. Hopefully with a little more compassion than the old man did in this story.

❤ Denise

What’s your Thing?

A story about Seth’s nose

We all have our Things

They emerge when we’re bored. When we’re waiting. When we’re procrastinating. When we’re tired. It’s a mental itch that wants to be scratched. It’s like Thing from the Addams Family, a blind, feeling hand, flailing around, looking for something to grasp. 

Your Thing might be snacks, or Fruit Ninja (is that still a thing?), or CNN news alerts. For me, it’s Twitter. For my partner Seth, it’s picking the skin off his nose. 


Seth likes to pick his scabs, and in theory I understand. It’s satisfying to remove that layer of deadness and let the pink, healed skin be free. But he tended to pick them before they were ready to be picked, before the skin had rebuilt itself underneath, leading to even bigger wounds and even bigger scabs, which, of course, made him wild. So I got mad at him, but that didn’t stop him. So I offered to buy him two gallons of ice cream if he let his wounds heal, and that worked. 

And now he likes to pick the skin off his nose. 

It’s not a scab, just dead skin that flakes up. And when he sees one flake, he pulls it, and the skin is raw and pink underneath, and that requires healing, with new layers of skin, and the dead layers on top always have an edge, because you can’t exactly pull off an entire layer all at once cleanly, thus, as his nose got pinker and more irritated, the cycle continued.

We had a Very Serious Conversation about this. We decided he needed something else to satisfy his hands. A new Thing. So we went to Target. 

Yes, a real store. It’s nice to be in the real world. To see physical objects in 3D. The goal was to get a stress ball, a squish toy, something. We would go to the toy section and figure it out.

It was a weekday night, and Target’s closing hour approached. Of course we procrastinated until it was nearly too late. But his nose was pink and swollen, we had to go. 

We arrived eight minutes to closing. Every Target worker gave us evil eyes, eyes somehow more evil when their bearer is masked, for eyes are all you can see. But we sprinted, and besides, there were plenty of other people in the store, and Seth’s poor pink nose, it was an emergency, sorry! We speedwalked up to the second floor. We asked someone in a red shirt about stress balls and he pointed us to the toy section. He followed us and hovered in the aisle, speaking into his walkie-talkie: 

Yeah, I’ve got two new guests in toys. 

They were watching us. They were waiting for us. We were running out of time. 

And the options were… dire. 

There were no stress balls.

They did have silly putty, though. And round squishy stuffed animals. Okay, so we had two options, and thirty seconds of rushed deliberation. Would you rather squish an animal’s brains out? Or rub planet putty in your palms? Which one will look you in the eyes? Which one has more resistance?

We chose the planet-themed silly putty. Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Uranus. He would squish the life out of these planets and let his nose heal. And we weren’t even last in the checkout line. 

Seth and I both spend a lot of time at home. This is not unique these days. Seth reads a million books and thinks very hard about economics and physics. I sit for hours a day writing, editing, and reading. 

Hours of sitting. Not all of this time is productive. The brain wanders. It needs a break… then another, and another, and why am I sitting here again?

I’ve deactivated my Twitter. I have nothing against Twitter or social media, specifically. But it’s killed my concentration, and I need a big break. I have nothing against picking scabs or peeling dead skin, either, but after a certain point, it becomes destructive. 

I’m trying to notice the Twitter cravings, to look them in the eye and say STOP. But it’s still hard. The habit is embedded. I find myself checking my email too often instead, and feeling disappointed. I need to replace it with something else. Now I’m trying instead to pet my cat when my brain hurts. It’s nice to move around.

Or maybe I’ll steal Seth’s silly putty. 


Elliephant of the week: She is furniture now

The pigeon is going to be okay

It was clearly hurt. 

The pigeon’s wings were stretched across the sidewalk in a position that was almost graceful. It didn’t move as we approached. It stared at us and its little breast started pulsing in and out quickly. Terrified. 

It was a sunny day, sixty degrees, after a beautiful afternoon playing hooky in a park. Who am I kidding, I have nothing to play hooky from, except my own ambitions. I convinced a friend to play hooky on a Wednesday afternoon, so I felt the hookiness through her. But she had to get back to work, so we left. Then we came across the pigeon by the busiest intersection in Adams Morgan. 

With a closer look we could see it had a broken wing and leg. The wing was jagged and the foot was sticking sideways. We couldn’t leave it. I called animal rescue. My friend ignored work and stayed with me as we waited for the pigeon saviors to show.

I didn’t want to name it because I thought it would die. I didn’t want to get attached. But my friend named it Stu, so I named it Sir Pigeon.  We stood close to it so others wouldn’t step on Sir Stu Pigeon. In fact, many passersby nearly walked into us for having the audacity to stand in the middle of a busy sidewalk. Then they would look confused, look down, and gape. I wrote WE CALLED ANIMAL RESCUE on a piece of paper so everyone wouldn’t look so sad. 

It had three sets of eyelids, clear, orange, and gray, and each set blinked one by one in pain. It took quick breaths that shifted the damaged wing in and out. When I leaned forward for a closer look, its breathing increased into a panic. It was completely vulnerable to the nearness of me. 

The pigeon savior showed up after fifteen minutes. She wore a khaki shirt and tattooed arms and told us she had just saved a squirrel down the street. She placed Sir Pigeon into a blanket-filled cage and told us they would take him to a wildlife rehabilitation center. That he would be okay. That he might never fly again, but he would live. 

All of this doesn’t make me feel that great. Earlier that afternoon, someone on the street asked if I could buy them a sandwich. I smiled and said “not today.” But a freaking pigeon is hurt? Stop everything. It was selfish. I wanted to feel better. I saw something that was hurt and I, too, was hurt. I watched its blinking eyes and was reminded that I, too, had eyes that blink. I wanted the pain to go away. For both of us. And, for a moment, it did. The broken pigeon would live. 


Ellie of the Week: Bought her a bed. It’s a little too big.

Down with the clocks

Today is the best day of the year. Today we all decide at once to say: down with the clocks, give us the sun. 

The first day of Daylight Savings Time is one of my favorite days of the year. But maybe I’m just in a good mood. Because a warm sun puts me in a good mood. All I have to do is go outside, stick my face up, and frown into the light. Just go to a park and you’ll see it. That solar infection: joy. 

On Wednesday, I sat on a bench at a park until my butt got sore. I watched people walk from one end of the park to the other. People. I soaked in the energy of other human beings without speaking to them. And dogs. And cats on leashes. Three of them. 

One of the leashed-cats was a small orange creature. His owner let him ramble forward, stop and sniff, then keep rambling around. I watched this beautiful cat from afar. He was the perfect combination of curious and nervous. When people shouted nearby he would shrink back, then when the danger was gone, keep moving forward. 

The cat approached me. I tried to hide my excitement. But the cat’s owner saw me smiling, and we struck up a conversation. 

“Do you lead the cat, or let the cat lead you?” 

“I let him lead me. Is that right?” 

She asked me as if I were a leashed-cat expert. I didn’t tell her my own cat would sooner crawl underneath our sink than ever go on a walk in the real world.  

She told me how nice it was to see the world through her cat’s eyes. When he picks a path to prowl, it’s never straightforward. Whenever he stops to examine something, that means there’s something worth examining. Out here, the owner is completely at the will of her cat. The cat doesn’t know that cats aren’t supposed to be on leashes. The cat doesn’t care where sidewalks go. 

It’s nice that we can just decide for time to move forward so we get more sun. A “real day” has solar noon at noon. We get equal amounts of sun before and after solar noon. A “daylight savings” day makes solar noon happen at one o’clock instead. The sun shifts into the evening. 

This makes me wonder: why don’t we just have life start one hour earlier? 

The workday starts at nine o’clock and ends at five. More sun shines before our day starts than after it ends. 

We like our evening events. They start late and end late. But what about morning events, which would be in better symmetry with solar noon? Why does the thought of that make my lungs shrivel? 

Is there something about staying up past midnight that people like? To live until the next day? To get two days for the price of one?

I’ve been trying to wake up earlier so I can have more sun in my day. I’m trying to create a morning ritual. Alarm clock on the other side of the room. Read a poem or a short story from bed to avoid getting up. Wash my face. Gargle mouthwash. Put on coffee and go outside while it brews. Look at birds and stretch.

But it’s hard. Evening events — even Zoom events — don’t want me to go to bed early. And I tend to wake up in the middle of the night with a weird three AM energy. By the time this energy goes away, sometimes at five, my six o’clock alarm approaches and it scares me.

Before electricity, people used to sleep in two “shifts.” It’s called biphasic sleep. They would sleep for four hours, wake for two to three hours, then go back to sleep for four. They had no evening events in the dark. When it got dark, they went to bed. This historical fact makes me feel better about waking up in the middle of the night. I read and I feel like a woman in a Jane Austen novel. But it makes mornings hard! 

When you set your own schedule, you need to choose time. To decide what makes a morning and what makes an evening. To decide that three o’clock is going to be a good time for reading and that eight o’clock is a fine wake-up time. 

In the end, the best mornings are the ones when I feel well-rested and ready for the day. The time it begins doesn’t matter so much. 

Bad things happen

Seven thousand feet above our heads, a particle of dust hovers. Let’s name him Fred. Water vapor clings to Fred and condenses into a liquid droplet. Fred then freezes in the cold. More water droplets form around Fred and cling and create crystal patterns. Fred has become a snowflake, and he’s heavy, so he falls from the sky. 

It’s a light, breezy tumble, with winds pushing him this way and that. It’s cold but he likes that. For one thousand feet, two thousand now, he drifts as if in a dream. Nearby, a thousand of his friends are falling in a similar dream. They woop and cheer when they pass by one another. They wonder who will cling to someone’s mitten, who will melt on someone’s nose. Who will become a Bernie-shaped snowman. Who will be scraped by the bottom of a sled. 

Then, at five thousand feet above the ground, the cheers stop. They turn into screams. His friends are melting. They’ve hit a patch of warm air and their crystalline arms and legs are falling away. They’re liquid again. Their speed picks up. 

Two thousand feet above ground now. Falling faster. Too fast. Back to the cold. The warm air was just a fluke. But it’s different. There are no crystals here. They become hard, thick pellets. Fred and his friends are sleet. 

Fred hits the ground and it’s hard. He bounces and it hurts. And he has no time to think before the rest of his friends crash down. Shocked and afraid, they cling together on the ground, forming a thick sheet of ice.

On Thursday in DC, what was supposed to be a nice snowy day became an ice storm, thanks to a sole patch of warm air nearly a mile above ground. Where did the warm air come from? Why was it there? Does it matter? My driveway is pure ice and I have no shovel, that’s what matters. I have to take extra care in walking, that’s what matters. 

Sometimes, bad things happen that change your life. Sometimes, bad things happen and nothing happens after that. I think about this a lot. I am a human being, so bad things have happened to me and to people I love. Everything that has happened to me is now part of who I am. But I hate to think the bad things were necessary for me to become me. Because I like me. Does that make sense? 

On Thursday, we were supposed to get a snow storm, but we got an ice storm instead, and it encased tree twigs in ice, which was beautiful. On Friday night, I was supposed to have a boring night, but something bad happened instead, something that was almost very very bad but instead was only bad because of what it could have been, and now I will never again walk in the alley behind my house alone at night. I don’t know how else this event is going to change me. I hope that the me-ness of me will become stronger as a result. But I wish it didn’t have to. 


The pandemic wall is painted gray

But gray isn’t real – and that’s not as depressing as it sounds

A red-tailed hawk with a dead squirrel limp in its claws flew up from the ground two feet away, passing just by my head. A moment earlier, I hadn’t noticed a thing, running through Rock Creek Park with my head in the clouds, which, today, were gray.  

That’s the point, right? The coloring of hawks and squirrels is made for them to blend in with the fallen leaves, dirt, tree trunks, and scattered empty bushes of the park. The squirrel wants to hide from the hawk. The hawk wants to sneak up on its prey. Both want to avoid the grasping hands of human children. Together they can sit on a forest slope clear as day. 

The days lately have been gray, gray, gray. The grayness has helped the hawk; the colors detract from the park, blending everything to gray. It hasn’t helped me, or many others now hitting the pandemic wall (or still living in it). The days all blend in with one another. We have a supposed end date to all this but it somehow feels farther away every day. Some nights I just want to go to bed so it can be morning again. I’d really like to wake up in the middle of summer with a vaccine needle in my arm. But in the meantime I wake up because my cat is vomiting so I clean it up so that she doesn’t eat it and go back to bed and eventually I wake up because it’s time to wake up, and what then? 

It seems the sun agrees we should all be depressed because it’s turning everything gray. So I thought a lot about the color gray this week. I’ve come to the conclusion that gray isn’t real.

Gray is a combination of two things (black and white) or many things (color). Clouds are gray because they scatter all the colors equally and thickly, turning white to dark. A red-tailed hawk is not gray. It has many colors. Its head and tail are burgundy, its back and wings are white speckled with brown, its stomach is snow-white. No, that’s not accurate, either. Each individual feather has many colors and distinct patterns; in various assortments, many are white at the bottom, with brown stripes along its length, with a band of black at the tip. Eastern gray squirrels are similarly variant. They have warm orange fur on their sides and tail fur that goes from brown to dark to white. DC has its fair share of black squirrels and albino squirrels; these stick out. Solid coloring is a killer. Variation is key. Variation leads everything to blend. 

Image result for red tailed hawk camouflage
Not my photo
Image result for squirrel colors
Not my photo

Some animals are colorful, though. Cardinals and blue jays thrive in it. Cardinals have feathers that are almost (but not quite) entirely one color. Blue jay feathers have crazy variations, none of which are intended to camouflage. They have color despite the risk. Because of the risk. They have color so they can show off to the ladies and say hey, I must be fast and strong because I can live with color. 

Other things are colorful too, like chalky Valentine’s candy hearts that say UR COOL and DREAM BIG. Their colors are solid, minus the letters.

Gray isn’t real. Close your eyes when you look at something gray. What do you see? Red eyelids and yellow lights.

Ever turn the lights down low and wonder how everything turns to gray? When lights are dim, colors go away. But colors aren’t real, either. A thing is not inherently colorful. A thing gives off color due to the way it interacts with waves of light. 

Apparently there is a kind of mite that lives on your face and never poops. Instead of pooping, it bursts when it dies. It bursts and all its organs and poop explode on your face. It’s too tiny to see or feel. Face mites are our most intimate friends. They have been closer to us than anything else. Face mites are not gray. They’re too small to have any color at all.

If a gray-bark tree falls in a forest and no one is there to look upon it, was it ever gray?

Color isn’t real and gray isn’t real. The plus side to this is that days are never gray. They are never exactly the same. One day a red-tailed hawk will nearly drop a dead squirrel on your face. One day you will only dream of that happening.

But colored light waves are real. So turn up the light and take in the waves. Every gray day has its variations. I’m looking harder to see them. I’m really trying.

Happy Valentine’s Day. You’re cool. Dream big. 

❤ Denise


Ellie(s) of the week: Ellie tried to melt underneath the door to reach me in my office. She did not succeed. Photo from the outside taken by Seth; terrifying photo from inside taken by me.