She flies to New Mexico and rents a truck

“Why are you going to New Mexico,” people asked, and most of the time she didn’t feel safe telling the truth, which was, “I think I lived there in my last lifetime, I think I’m astrally traveling there in my sleep, I think it has something to tell me.”

Most people, hearing that, would think you’re insane, so she just said she loved the desert vibe and all the art in Santa Fe. She felt absolutely safe, however, saying it to the man she took home the night before she left, as she drove him back to his bicycle the next morning. This was the island, a place where men couldn’t afford their own beer because the realities of life simply eluded them – but astral travel was no problem.

She realized, driving away from him, that once again a casual encounter had not been based on totally accurate expectations. She knew that he was a deeply interesting man who was living a lifestyle she probably wouldn’t be happy partnering with. He did not know, because life plans hadn’t been discussed, that she was waiting to go, and had absolutely no intention – in fact she probably didn’t even have the mental, chemical or hormonal chemicals required – to fall in love.

She woke, he was there, she deposited him, she drove away. In the back of her mind a to-do list item had emerged: Explain to him that could only mean nothing.

The question mark next to it was: Why can’t it? Why is this trip so darn important?

The rest of the morning was spent sweeping their evening under the rug and making her hungover, rather blank way to the ferry, and an Uber, and a plane.

Landing in Albuquerque the question mark became a pounding heart. The airport, small, dated, one of at least two dozen airports she’d passed through over the years, was so familiar to her she could have mapped it from the plane. Elevator is here, restrooms are here, you go there to get the shuttle.

Picking up her rental car, she walked up to a counter staffed by a thin fiftyish woman with auburn hair and smoker’s voice, reminiscent of Marge from The Simpsons, and a younger man whose shirt sleeves didn’t quite reach his wrists.

“I had a reservation,” she said, then corrected herself, “I have one.”

Marge laughed, “Did you, or do you?”

“I made one and I still have it,” she said with cheerful conviction. Marge left and paperwork commenced.

She was sent outside to meet Marge and fetch the car. In the greater Seattle area, the sky never gets darker than navy blue or smoky purple. Here the sky was black, and expansive, and oddly reassuring.

“What’s the smallest car you’ve got,” she asked. She had reserved a mid-size but under that black sky wanted something even smaller, like the tiny hatchback she drove at home.

“Oh gee,” Marge said. “I don’t even have any mid-size. I was going to put you in one of these.”

She waved a thin arm at three pickup trucks. They were twice the size of her car. The only thing to do was laugh. In the heightened awareness of this strangely significant trip, it was not good form to question something so ironic as putting a city girl in a truck to drive through the desert.

And so, under the black sky, she drove.

eulogy for the living

Sometimes you encounter something that will not be pinned in. You cannot contain this or rationalize it or know in advance where it’s going.

This event does not have to be the most significant of your life on any other terms. But it will knock you flat.

it’s called grief.

Grief for a chapter of your life now ending, a love affair, a national disaster. Whatever the source is, you react by saying, “Oh.” There is nothing to articulate, no social media to post.

There is no eulogy to write when a person dies.

We write it, a bit later, to sum up. But it’s only after another’s death – a death that moves you – when you realize that the living reality, however complicated, however annoying or bothersome or disappointing, was so much better in its indescribable complexity than any neat and tidy, poetic or eloquent summation in death.

Perhaps that is grief itself: We didn’t mean it. You were perfect as you were. Come back.

I would prefer it if this man continued to exist.

I met him just a couple of months ago. I was sitting at a table at a bar I had determined was the safest dive.

“Pretty redhead at table two,” I heard, and looked to see a man passing by.

Mentioning that, I feel the need to add, “He was a perfect gentleman.” But saying that would, in a good essay, need to be backed up by facts. To relate facts after knowing a man for a matter of weeks, when others have known him for years, is to diminish the experience of knowing this man.

Who am I to say, “This is why he was special,” perhaps overshadowing the memories of others, much more evocative than mine?

The truth of death is that it belongs to the living. Grief is for those left alive.

We sat around his end of the bar tonight, making ribald jokes, and jokes about how to pronounce the word “ribald.”

I had felt at home at this bar because it seemed full of intelligence, but I only saw that because I was introduced to intelligent people by Lyman.

There you go again with the anecdotes.

Tonight, we told anecdotes and we drank and we made ribald jokes.

Here is the terrible thing.
If you could trace the shape of a person’s soul.
If you could follow the path on a map from Point A to Point Z along the timeline of a human life.
If you could see, projected on the wall, the deepest wish in someone’s heart.

And, if you took that device to the ICU to document the purest intent of this unresponsive man.

It would show the image
of people he cared about
or, if that was all that was available,
even people he was mildly fond of,
sitting around a four-top,
beers in hand,

This was a man who simply wanted others to be their happiest or their best. Creative and intelligent, he knew those two feelings could be mutually exclusive. He had an appreciation of talent that even talent itself denied.

But there I go again, telling anecdotes.

My biggest fantasy tonight is that tomorrow I will learn he’s rallied. Hearing the news, I’ll feel overjoyed and delete this post. Just in case.

You should never have to read your own eulogy.

In the meantime, we take turns throwing memories into a hat. Maybe one of these memories will take on a vivid blue light, the passion of life. Maybe one will be so wonderful that it will strike him, in his unresponsive state, and make him feel the thrills of that day.

Perhaps he will be forced to blink his eyes awake, with the sheer delight of that memory.

“I remember,” he’ll say, and jump up from that hospital bed.

In the meantime people who knew him, for weeks or years or decades, tell stories. Stories of experiences shared with him, stories of things frustrating about him, even terrible and embarrassing stories that can only be told in the shared moment of mourning him.

Eulogies are told. The memories may not resurrect the fallen. But they serve, as best anything can, to honor the mess that is love.

neon chaser

Is happiness more selfish, or is sadness? His visit was like a WWE smackdown of happiness, but her wiring was calibrated to interpret warnings, dark omens, wooden signs jammed crookedly in the forest floor that read “Turn back now.” She was not calibrated to simply enjoy. She had to force herself as he touched her. Be here. Be now.

Part of this was watchfulness. Being sad meant you were aware, that you were the wooden sign jammed crookedly in the forest floor. You could tell people, “Turn back now.” If you became too good at this role, you stopped smiling, but it didn’t matter. You were the lookout.

Much later, long after he had left, she sat listening to a young man recount how many shots of tequila he had had that day. He told her he was going to move soon, for a job. She congratulated him, eyeing the neon drink that was his untouched chaser. He shrugged, explaining what this job meant in the context of his struggling love with a woman.

Elwood P. Dowd was right: no one ever brings anything small into a bar. And her reaction to his angst was no smaller than the angst itself. It was as though in that moment, the souls of two strangers connected to download a single truth: Do not say no to this opportunity.

Ironically, she wanted to wave her arms tell him, Love is never worth it.

She wanted to say that, not because that was how she felt that day, but because that was what had been true for her in very similar circumstances at his age. When it comes to truth, one size never fits all. What is accurate for you today may become totally irrelevant in ten year’s time. In one moment, your epiphany may be to discover your own independence. In the next, it may be to experience vulnerability.

Growth is not mastering one set of circumstances. It’s becoming open to all circumstances.

That can be tough to explain at eleven o’clock at night when someone is working on his fourteenth shot of tequila, so she just gave him a hug, pressing his drooping head into her chest. Because if there is ever a time when it’s okay to comfort with boobs, this was it.

She wanted to tell him that it would not matter in ten years, that he would become a totally different person, that he would learn to use the word “toxic,” that he would break 2.3 hearts in the process of shedding this skin. That one day he would not order those neon chasers, because one shot would be enough.

She wanted to tell him that when she smiled, she set people on fire. It was not a boast. It was, in fact, terrifying. To a storm cloud, to have the power to summon the sun is an overwhelming majesty. She wanted to say, This could be you someday.

She wanted to say, It’s oddly easy. To be happy.

The secret (who knew?) was to run out of shits to give.

The equation seems counter-intuitive but goes like this: We’re unhappy not because things suck, but because we label things as sucky. We decide, “this is good,” and “this is bad.” We decide “this is what I want,” and “this is not what I want.” And by doing so, by smacking stickers on every single experience, we guarantee our own misery.

Life doesn’t actually care what you think you want. Selfish, selfless, happy, sad, straight or with a chaser: life just is.

Do not say no to this opportunity.

Notes from the island: Amie

She was starting to feel like she was alone in a crowd, singing a song no one could understand. Nearly every day she found herself wishing she could better articulate one simple point:
Calm down. It will all be okay.

Ironically, in a city gone mad, that seemingly simple point was harder to make than any complex legal argument. Try telling the man staggering up the street, drunk at 9am, that it will all be okay. Try telling the people driving like bats out of hell to jobs downtown that it will all be okay. Try telling your coworkers that, or your mother, or even your cat.

Driving off the ferry one night, safe from the rage-filled city, she felt inclined toward a whiskey ginger. Into the dive she walked, wondering how many stories in her life began with “I walked into a bar,” or ended with, “And then I paid my tab and went home.” She couldn’t seem to escape the reality that no matter what else was going on in her life, one solution was always to sit down on that stool.

If only she had such faith in other spiritual practices, like yoga, or helping at a soup kitchen.

But this was another question she could ponder over ice.

Fiddling with her phone, she remembered that she had uninstalled all her social networking apps, like Instagram and Facebook. In a fit of enlightenment, she had realized that these supposedly social tools were actually preventing her from socializing. The only way to explore this theory had been to uninstall them. Toying with the idea of now re-installing one just for something to look at, she sighed.

Forcing herself to test her hypothesis, she set down her phone, walked over to the group of folks at the other end of the bar, and asked them how their night was going.

She was soon ensconced at the corner stool, discussing everything from Utah to Hawaii, software to poetry, suicide to morality. This was what always tempted her to return to a good dive: it was the most likely place you could have philosophical conversations.

And it was better than an app.

It was revealed to her that she shared her name with one of the bartender’s children, who had committed suicide as a teenager several years before. He elaborated, describing how and when and why. Inhaling, she felt no need to run away from the conversation. This was an opportunity to practice articulating her inarticulate song.

She said, “I feel the need to say something presumptuous.”

He waved his beer at her in invitation.

“I have always struggled with anxiety and depression. I know a little bit about what inclines someone toward suicide. What you’re describing… the way he did it, and his reason… there was something in his wiring. If he hadn’t done it then, it would have been a year later, or five.”

“That’s what his sister says,” he told her.

“But you feel guilty,” she pressed on.

“There is some of that,” he agreed, and joked without humor, “That’s why I come here.”

She suggested he think about letting go of that.

She didn’t really know if he could have done things differently. She just knew with utter confidence that it no longer mattered. His guilt now only served to keep him on that bar stool with that pint glass.

If she was ever going to get off her stool, she had to find a way to show people that it would all be okay. Even when it most profoundly was not. It was simply a song she could not get out of her head.

He thanked her, patted her shoulder, and bought her another drink. A stocky regular sat down with them. They chatted about her recent move to the island. And then “Amie” came on the jukebox.

Together without discussion the three of them began to sing along, and sang every chorus to the end.

For 4:23 minutes, life was completely, unreservedly okay.

The husky fellow held out his large hand to shake hers, saying, “Welcome to the island.”

She paid her tab and went home.

Friday Night Teddy Bear

She fantasized that she could walk into Salty’s and find him with a beer and a drunk buddy discussing some deep subject like whether pink lures worked better than purple ones. He would act surprised to see her, attaching great significance to her arrival, and say something idiotic about how they were meant to be together. She would sit down with her own drink and assure him they were not.

But in this fantasy she would take him home. She would do this because sex with him was like being with an extremely ferocious teddy bear, a combination she had longed for for some time.

It appeared to be impossible for her to want a normal love with a normal man. Whenever she got frustrated with the obsessive, melodramatic men she knew, the type of men for whom reality was a highly optional endeavor, she would remind herself that in her daily life she encountered just as many cheerful, well-adjusted men. They just bored her to death.

And this was probably the crux of it: she didn’t want a relationship. She wanted a Netflix series of a man, a bingeable drama that you could also pause or mute. She wanted a love that was wild and true and could be turned off when it was time to go to work.

In the meantime, he wasn’t at Salty’s, and she could never just call him up. That would be too easy. So she paid her tab, and drove home. To her TV.

notes from the island: twirl

notes from the island: twirl

Driving home from work on Tuesday, she decided to pick up the tea the doctor had recommended. It was dark out, well past six on a January night. The doctor’s hippie tea blends were sold from big jars at the coffee shop. She parked in front of the coffee shop and got out of her car distracted by the light-filled building across the street. A concert or something at the Arts Center.

It looked fun, full of people on an otherwise sleepy weeknight. Too late to join in, probably. Preoccupied by this, she walked into the coffee shop and found it dark and empty.

She looked around.

There was no one inside.

Even considering what a quirky, hippie business it was, this seemed a bit much…

And then the alarm went off.

Tiptoeing out of the building, she was met with a guy leaning against his car outside, saying, “They’re closed.”

He said it in in that mellow Northwestwerly way that is chill and friendly, but uncaring.

“I figured that out,” she said. “Hopefully they will, too.”

The doctor had agreed that she was BURNT OUT. She had been prescribed the tea to restore the burn, and was also supposed to go in on Saturday for blood work to confirm.

She had sat down with this doctor, an island doctor, who must be kinder and more patient than most, because she lived here, for more than an hour. They had discussed everything from what kinds of foods she craved to what caused her stress as a child.

Trust in a doctor-patient relationship is not just about discretion. It’s about an investment of time, and of confessing one’s sins.

I drink too much.

Okay, yes, I do smoke.

Sometimes I eat a whole box of donuts.

You tell your doctor, not for forgiveness, but because your imperfections are presumably a factor. In a perfect world, a doctor would see the whole you, so they could diagnose the entire ecosystem of you, mindful of the donuts, but not judging them.

In a perfect world.

She had had a wonderful first date with this doctor. They had covered so much ground. She felt the afterglow of confession, of feeling recognized in the eyes of an extremely educated medical professional. She felt that, surely, this woman would understand her situation and help her fix it.

So she had pills to take and tea to drink and blood work in a few days.

A designer and artist, she felt her ailments in color and texture. Thursday, in the overcast heart of January, she felt as she had for months a craving for red. This red was the color of passion, and not just any red – cabernet. Call it pretentious, but by god, only the deepest, richest red would do.

In her quest for this rich, vivacious, un-burned-out, reddest of reds, she was lured by the corner of a dress folded on a 50% off table. She hadn’t been into this shop, up the street from the doctor’s office, before. It looked so twee from the street. But here she was rummaging through their sale goods.

Carrying two dresses into the shop, one (let us go ahead and call it) cabernet and the other turquoise, she was greeted by a fluffy woman in overalls, arms outspread, offering her dressing room – Behind the curtain, just shove the wrapping paper out of the way.

When she emerged a short time later, she was met with, “You didn’t come out for a twirl!”

She bought both of them and promised to come in next time she was wearing one, to twirl.

On Saturday morning she walked into the doctor’s office to be greeted by the typically calm assistant bursting with explanations and lectures. I was just calling you… so you know… you would be the one to call the lab to check if the blood work was covered… 

The doctor emerged. It was that moment, after a date, when you run into someone on the street and they’re suddenly frosty. I said you would need to call them, the doctor said.

She left feeling like an idiot. The labyrinth that is American healthcare had defeated her, once again. She hadn’t read the invisible ink.

Silly girl.

There was surely moral enough in the fact that she, personally, diagnosed and treated herself with a dress of a certain color. But that was the thing about this life, an assumption she made, perhaps foolishly – that everyone had a role and could work together. She assumed she could be the one who thought in colors, and that a doctor could be the one who thought in treatments, and so on. She believed in specialization. But it was becoming clear to her that she would need to start educating her specialists. Write it down in more detail, please. Who am I calling, and what do I say?

In the meantime what made her feel better was not the tea she hadn’t been able to buy, or the possibility of this lab work, or even the red of the dress she’d bought.

What made her feel better was remembering that shopkeeper, arms open wide, insisting, You owe me a twirl!