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Back Roads and Bicycles: On Pedaling, Anyway.

I don’t know how much it’s true about getting back to your roots to find answers.  I’m acutely aware of the wealth of metaphors as my Someone and I spend the next couple of weeks in my childhood home, at my childhood cabin, with my childhood family.  I’m often coming here ready for something, ready for a solution to the problems that started before I could write about them.  This time, I am coming just to try this: being here.  Not figuring it out.  Just… hanging out.

So when we were walking an old road, one grown over and given up on by the county to floods, I was half rolling my eyes as I recounted the summer days I spent pedaling this route.  There’s something about nostalgia that makes me a bit skeptical.  And also, a little worried to be the one at the party talking about the good old days.  But here it was.  Me on an old road not far from home, overgrown and talking about the past.

“This one time,” I told my Someone, “my best friend Emily and I were trying to figure out what the exact halfway point was between us so we could meet without making our moms drive us.  So we were on the phone, and counted down, and the second we hung up we both got on our bikes and pedaled as fast and hard as we could toward each other on this road.  And then, by some strange miracle, we both ended up exactly where there was this mysterious bench by the river.  It was so perfect we couldn’t believe it!  We decided to meet there again just to make sure it was real.”

The metaphor wasn’t lost on either of us.  It was so thick I could practically hear 13-year-old me swishing past, doing everything she could to make it work with the friend she loved.

I’m not just being.  I’m not just hanging out.  Old habits die hard, or you can’t change who you are, or some other saying goes here.  I am pedaling as fast and hard as I can toward the people I love, hoping they are pedaling toward me, too.  And maybe, in some twist of miracle, there will be a resting spot in the middle for us to agree on.

Here’s a bit of a trick, though.  Even if they aren’t heading my way, if I keep pedaling, there’s a chance I’ll still reach them.

Tick Picks: On Extracting Fear.

We’ve been picking ticks for a few weeks, and it is alarming enough to be the first topic of conversation with new people.

They are worse than they’ve ever been!  

They are impossible to defeat!  

You know my neighbor, he got bit by a tick and couldn’t go to work for weeks!

I’ve been asking questions, remembering the ticks we would pick from our dogs in Western Pennsylvania.  But somehow, the fear of Lyme’s Disease and near death experience isn’t coming to mind.  Even the South, where every other infestation seems to be in abundance, doesn’t have a leg up on these ticks of New England, who are ever traveling north– killing baby moose calves and giving everyone’s friends hearing loss or fevers or paralysis.

We are sympathetic and nervous.  We are diligent about checking our entire family each night, while counting the days until we can leave for safer, tickless areas.  We find them crawling up our arms as we drive across Massachusetts, and we feel violated.  Invaded.  Afraid.  We can’t fight them alone, and yet everyone is responsible to fight them alone together. People petting our dogs quickly turn them to their backs to check their bellies for ticks.  The communal awareness of this infestation is refreshing, but it is a community based on fear.

“It’s like some sort of German warfare shit up here,” Kevin said to me at our intermission.  “We are helpless here.”

Kevin was bitten recently with no symptoms.  But he is worried, I can tell, because he keeps touching the same spot on his leg where I presume he’d been bit.  And he keeps telling me about his neighbor who woke up a year later, paralyzed.

A community based on fear is still a community, it seems.  Since November, a lot of us have been swung to tables with people we didn’t expect to be sitting next to.  The fear that got us there is quickly giving way to speaking, and the speaking to remembering what we were never taught: we have so much in common.  I have been lately trying to embrace the fear, not as an inhibitor, but as a motivator.  The one emotion that calls most urgently:

Listen up!  Pay attention!  We have something very important to learn right now.

It’s fear that keeps me picking over my pups for the hundredth time and, still, finding another tick.  It’s Kevin’s fear that keeps me from reassuring him, and instead stupidly tells him about my other friend who lost her hearing in one ear.

“Completely?” he asked.

“Yeah!” I said.

“Did she get it back, yet?” he pushed.

“Not yet,” I said.

I wished later that I hadn’t said it.  What was the point?  He resolutely changed the subject to maps and jobs and politics.  Which is when he, too, came around to it.

“You know,” he said, “since 9/11, it’s all messed up here.  Everyone’s afraid of everything, now.  No one can live their lives.  I hate it!  I really do!  Everyone is just afraid and acting on fear.”

“Maybe so,” I said.

“But really, I hate it.  I hate how we all just hate each other.  I hate how we all treat other.  I hate it more than anything.”

He paused.

“I hate that, and these stupid, goddamn ticks.”

Jesus Bears: On Mutual Friends.

I like to poke the Jesus Bears.  The thing about poking them is that the reaction almost feels aggressive, but there is somehow a safety in the consistency.  My persistence is partly a barometer for my own feelings about Jesus, and partly to challenge myself and the Jesus Bears I am poking into figuring out that we can love each other even if we aren’t so sure.

But here, I was not poking a Jesus Bear.  Mostly, I was trying to be friendly.  I heard him talking about friends I knew, some of my best friends, and so after our set, I asked this man in the back alley of a Boston venue if he knew my friends.  He did know my friends.  He loves my friends!  We are practically friends because of these friends!  And then he said,

“So, you’re a Jesus-Lover, then!”

“Um,” I said, surprised that I had poked a Jesus Bear, “more like a friend of a friend.”

“Friend-of-a-friend of a Jesus Lover?” he pushed.

“No, more like a friend-of-a-friend of Jesus,” I said.

He nodded and walked away.

But this is how I wish I had responded:

1. What does that even mean?

or

2.  Why would you think that?

or

3.  You do know that if I say “no” that I am denying Jesus like Peter, but if I say “yes” then you think I am like you, and judging by how I just accidentally poked the Bear, I am not like you because…

and/or

4. I think that I am a friend to Jesus.  But I am not so sure we agree as to who that is.  Plus, Jesus and I used to play tea parties together and you weren’t there and he never mentioned you, so I kind of think maybe you aren’t a lover of him.  Unless you guys started seeing each other later at a different tea party.  And maybe sometimes just because you have a mutual friend does not mean that you will be friends with the person that your friend is friends with, and that’s okay.  

One New Thing: On Believing What They Say.

Scientists or Buddha or some article in USA Today says it’s important to try something new every day.  Important for fighting dementia or depression or from cobwebs growing on the bottoms of your feet.

My friend Bryan told me that it’s hard to love yourself, because you know yourself best.  He also told me it’s important to believe the people who love us when they say unbelievable things.  Things like “You are good.”  Or, “You are special.” Or, when my Someone say, “My heart would break without you.”  Or even when he says, “I love you.”

No matter how unbelievable, Bryan says it’s important to believe.

I think that will be my new thing for today.  The believing.  I don’t know about the dementia, but it might work out all right for clearing the cobwebs that have me tangled from the heart down.

Resolution #2: On Mud Season.

2. Embrace the mud (roll with it and let it make me laugh).

We started this year in the mud, slogging around on January 1st on a Tennessee park trail.  We were turning over a new leaf, and the south was turning over nothing but rain.  But we were determined, two people and two dogs, to make this year one where we make the right choice over the third glass of whiskey choice.  We were sober and grinning as we slid down one hill and slipped up another on New Years Day morning.  Our short hike turned into a couple hours, and by the time we hit the grocery store on the way back, we were caked in a fine layer of mud from the waist down.  Walking Jackson Pollocks, really.  I laughed as my Someone grimaced and we slogged home to shower.

That’s when I wrote down my second New Years Resolution.

I’m an idiot.

I have this theory about the Universe– that it is listening and waiting for our next declaration.  I call it the Universe instead of God, because there is something about God laughing at our pain that keeps me from loving God.  And I am lately trying so hard to love God.  Whoever that is.

The Universe, on the other hand, seems more reminiscent of a Benevolent Trickster.  Like Puck.  Or the Devil.  Someone who loves the world too much not to poke it in the face while it is sleeping and delight in the spontaneous reaction.  For this reason, I love the Universe.  I’m not sure why it can’t translate to a God, after all.  I’m working on one thing at a time.  This year, it is mud.  And I made the declaration and the Universe heard me and I have been stuck in it ever since.

God damn.

It was February and we were T – 5 days from leaving Nashville.  We will be gone for months.  Or we will be gone not at all, because we are stuck in my sister’s backyard.  In the mud.  Our big ideas to store the camper in the backyard suddenly backfired after a cool-but-not-freezing winter full of more rain.

I did not laugh.

We waited a day for it to dry out.  We were still stuck.  We said angry things at each other.

We still did not laugh.

What we did, instead, was work through our things, getting rid of the excess, re-reading our old journals, giving up on our college goals of reading thick Russian novels and placed them instead into a box that would be traded for gas money.  Having nowhere to go had us remembering where we were going.  And we were rolling with the time we had left in Nashville.  We may never live here again.  Or, according to the mud, we may live here forever.

We rolled with it, but we did not laugh.  Not until the tow truck pulled us safely out another day later.  We would make it to our first show on time.  We were on our way.  Just as soon as we cleaned all the mud from the camper.

We are bad at lessons.  Especially lessons we are asking the Universe to keep us accountable to.

We were three weeks later in Michigan, and we were stuck in a stranger’s yard.  We were ankle deep in mud.  We didn’t hesitate this time.  We called the tow-truck.  We didn’t laugh, but we didn’t say the angry things.  Maybe we were getting better at the lesson than I think.

When I was working for my father digging ditches and laying pipe to make enough money to leave for a summer, there were a number of naked men who would appear.  The first one I saw was at the base of the hill from the manhole I was clearing, and when I saw him, I ran to my father.  He was unfazed.

It seems when you are digging in the dirt far enough and it rains, the thick mud lets loose a silky substance that is a perfect balance of clay, sand, and soil that drains to the bottom the grade and gathers in a latte colored pool.  This is where the naked men bathe– in the silt pool.  There is belief that this particular kind of mud, whose origin is quartz, is good for the skin and can heal anything from psoriasis to cancer.  It’s a gloopy fountain of youth.

My father didn’t indicate that he believed in its healing property, but he didn’t shoo away the hopeful mud-seekers, either.  But when I turned back to the manhole, he handed me a shovel.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“If he tries anything, just knock him out,” he said.

“It’s real!” Ash had said.  We found ourselves back in Booneville, New York just a few weeks after Michigan.  We hesitantly parked our camper in the backyard of a farm we played last year at this time, a bit more skiddish as we drove across the rain-soaked ground.  “It’s the season between winter and spring– we call it Mud Season.”

We had planned a tour to follow winter, squeezing out as much chilly weather as we could before we find ourselves sweating and sleepless in our air conditioning-less home.  But instead of traipsing through lumpy snowflakes, we find that we are only kicking up globs of mud.  We have become more careful, rarely driving off of pavement and holding our breath down sandy back roads in Vermont.  It had been more than a month since Ash warned us, but we are ever northbound this spring, and the mud gets only thicker.

In the south of Maine, we had enough.  The dogs had developed a cakey layer under their fur and a distinctive smell that no amount of candle burning was eliminating.  So we hosed them down and headed even further north.

Further north where Mud Season is in full swing.

“I’m only five miles from home, but it takes about an hour,” George said.  He was our host and owner of the lone bar in Northern Maine.  We were thirty miles from the Canadian border where, the locals proudly told us, police activity is at a minimum, and everyone has had to call someone to get them unstuck at least once this season.  “See, it’s about three miles on paved roads to my house, and two miles back from the main road, so I gotta park my car on the street, hop on my tractor, and slug through the last two miles and just sorta hope I don’t get stuck again.”

Which is why, with our freshly bathed dogs the next morning, we chose to take long, easy gravel path through the woods.

The thing about Mud Season is that no one is safe at any time.  We made it half a mile before both dogs were chest deep in the slurry lining either side of our best laid plan.  My Someone grimaced.  I laughed.  Soon, the dogs were chasing each other, splashing it up, and full face planting in the mud.

“It’s a Fool’s Errand,” my Someone said.

“It’s Mud Season,” I said.

And then, it happened.  We weren’t stripping down and soaking in it, just yet.  We weren’t adhering to its healing properties.  Maybe next year.  But for now, we were rolling with it.  And for the first time in a while, we were laughing.  At the same time.

Phantom Limbs and Dog Bites: On the Transference of Pain.

I could have been any age, sitting there, waiting on the water to move me to feel something I lately can’t conjure by myself.  Six, sixteen, twenty-six– I could be any of those ages.  But the problem was, I was feeling the age I am now, and the age I am now is dealing with the heartache of earlier ages– dark things that have me hung up and snapping at my Someone and meddling in the sort of feelings that have me shutting down every feeling.  So in Vermont, alone in the woods on a rock by a creek, I was looking for the sort of answers that would help me be healthy, if not happy.  I was visiting all of my ages.  And a barefoot me in the woods on a rock by a creek is a common seance.

I was armed with journals and books and pens and an instrument, but for the love of the afternoon’s changing light, I couldn’t do all else but sit.  It had been ages since I’d been alone with all of my ages and a dog.  Which took me back to my other rock with my other dog.  The memory of that dog instinctively had me grabbing my right hand with my left, remembering every dog bite I’ve ever had.

I watched the river as I ran through the memory.  Any memory to take me back seems important.  Anything to get me to feel anything.  I was twelve or I was thirteen, and there was a knock on our door.  Our slightly neurotic hunting dogs snarled and clawed at the storm door window.  I reached for the doorknob, while Jake– the oldest and crankiest– tried to escape.  When I held his collar to pull him back, it happened.  Three big chomps to my right hand.  The surprise of what he had done sent him running back into the living room.  The shock had me politely asking the person at the door to come back later when my parents were home.  As I closed the door, I fell into a heap in the entryway, holding my hand and closing my eyes.  When I opened my eyes then, it was a stream of blood and an archipelago of bruises.

I remembered the entire thing vividly.

Which is why I was shocked when I opened my eyes in real time by a creek in Vermont, cradling the wrong hand.  My left hand, still with the distinctive scar, seemed surprised, too, and leapt up in front of my face to be examined.

“I’ll be damned,” I said to the woods, my right hand– the wrong hand– still aching from a two decade old dog bite it never had.

I have been thinking lately on the transference of pain.  This is partially due to the dark thing I am working through.  When time traveling to my ages, I am grappling with what was true– what happened and what is merely a side effect of what I can’t remember happening.  I am all wobbly on my memory’s feet, tripping over details and worrying that my full ethnographic study will be incomplete or, worse, inaccurate.

Each morning as I stretch, I rub my right knee and twirl my ankle.  I give my right side extra attention during yoga.  And then, I talk to my mother weekly to see how much longer until I am back to normal.  My knee started hurting just a couple weeks before my mother’s surgery.  The day of her surgery, I could barely walk.  In the subsequent weeks, its been a slow process of careful attention and long stretches.

My Someone calls this my witch stuff.  I call it inconvenient cosmic empathy.

Since my mother has been having knee trouble in the last couple years, even before she tells me, I have indicators in my corresponding leg.  While I am a believer in coincidence, I am also in love with a world filled with inexplicable magic.  It’s a complicated relationship, and one that I don’t often put stock in aside from checking in with my mother occasionally to see our progress.  The transference of pain here has become so literal, that when I complained to my Someone that my right knee seemed to be doing better except for at night when it was nearly causing me to lose sleep, he asked me when I had last spoken to my mother.

“Oh, I’m good,” my mother said to me the next morning, “the knee is much better.  I’m getting around during the day, except in the evenings it’s much harder.  And at night, I can hardly sleep because it hurts so much.”

I am bumbling through fears of victim blaming and no-one-will-believe-me-if-I-don’t-have-every-answer-correct.  But pain, it seems, is pain.  Even if not remembered correctly or carried by the right person.  And to better help me sort it out, I am attempting to give myself a pass on the grounds of empathy.  I am working so hard to believe myself, that my right side is empathizing with my left.  My fifteen-year-old self is trusting my thirty-one-year-old self, and the latter is believing the former.  It’s tricky business, and while time traveling through these ages, I am attempting to keep everything as I found it so that my present remains in tact.

But truthfully, meddling with time in any sense will leave a few ruffles.  Phantom limbs are still retracting from invisible dog bites.  And if the scars aren’t there to prove it, I am still learning to listen to any amount of pain, tracing it back to the source– figuring out not just where it came from, but from who. And remembering that, like it or not, it is connecting us.

Black Bean Soup: On the Gift of Impermanence.

I am thinking about the impermanence of my black bean soup, again, and it is sneaking into my death thoughts.  Even on a night of fried tofu and brussel sprouts, my mind wanders to the miracle of the black bean soup, all while chewing the impermanent tofu and sprouts.

“People always ask me for my recipes, and they make them,” Ms. Vicki had said, “and then they inevitably call me after and say– ‘Vicki!  I did everything you said, and it doesn’t taste the same!'”

I was standing in her kitchen, shoveling one hot bite of carrot soup down and quickly slurping her homemade chai tea, breathing intermittently and feeling a little like an orphan on a curbside with a hardened bread crust.  I was grateful to be eating.  And everything tasted so… perfect.

“And I have to tell them,” she continued, “I say, ‘It’ll never be the same!’  Like this one you’re eating– it has leftover basil broth and leftover oregano, some potato water and Pat only just this morning pulled and peeled those carrots.  How do you replicate it?  You can’t.  You just have to enjoy each one for its impermanence.”

“My miracle black bean soup!” I blurted out, dripping a little carrot soup down my dress.

As if omniscient, she repeated back to me, “Exactly.  Like your black bean soup.”

There’s a fancy ramen place back in Nashville that we’ve heard does not allow customers to box up their leftovers for home.  We’ve rolled our eyes and groaned, lamenting yet another uppity snob-nosed indicator of our old neighborhood turning into a lavish, throw-it-out-if-it’s-not-new marketplace for white people with skinny jeans and fat wallets.  We made plans that, should we ever go there, we would sneak in our tupperware and dump the cooled ramen and walk out covertly with what we rightfully paid for.

“How can they tell us what to do with what is ours now!” I said.

“It’s like giving someone a record and telling them they can only listen to it on a special sound system!” my Someone said.

How cruel.  How unfair.  How pretentious.  That someone takes such pride in the time and place and demands that people remain in that time and place to consume, not merely sustenance, but a moment.

I thought about my black bean soup.  Then, I thought about the first time I listened to the new Regina Spektor album on headphones, on a front porch in North Carolina, crying, laughing, and knowing that I could never have this moment back again.  We would listen to it endlessly in the car and in our camper, but every listen after was just me eating out of a take-out container reliving the steaming bowl presented to me the first time.  Maybe there is something to listening and tasting in the way the creator wanted you to listen and taste.  Maybe there’s something to stopping our claim on what inevitably will come to an end, and trying instead to be there– here– relishing in the impermanence of now.

Living on the road means that my whole life is impermanent.  As of this morning, we were parked on a secluded spot that allows you to take up residence for only 14 days out of 30.  Everything is with an expiration date, even with places to live.  And all the impermanence has my Someone and I lately talking about more permanent roots.

“What about Jonesborough?” he said last night.

“But it’s still Tennessee,” I said.  “I never thought I would be someone from Tennessee.”

“There’s always Dillsburg,” he said.

“There is always Dillsburg…” I repeated.  But then I remembered the problem with settling down just yet.  It’s not the feeling that stopping would mean quitting.  Rather, our little culture of impermanence means that we are always in the process of being about-to-see-our-friends and saying-goodbye-to-our-friends.  A house with a garden and a few little goats had me missing all of my friends at once– they with their permanent structures and backyards and increasing number of children.  My own impermanence keeps me permanently loving each of their own shifting, impermanent lives in their still places.  And the hello-then-goodbyes has me sucking to the marrow each impermanent moment with them.  And filling my to-go containers to the brim with the love of them.

I wonder if it is in this way that we crave so badly a Heaven.  Where every old face is restored to their young self, every missing family member has returned, every impermanent thing is given a permanent home.

I wonder if it is in this way that I am so rarely grateful for a moment with my Someone that I am not also afraid of losing him to the great dark mouth of death.  And then I wonder, which one of these feelings comes first?  And then I re-remember my fear of Heaven– that permanent place where time is gone and there is no hurry to be all in on love.

My black bean soup was a miracle.  An effort of leftover potato water and Himalayan pink rice that was gifted to us, some broken dried black beans from the bargain bin, and a concoction of spices and celery and… I can never remember.  But we ate that soup for three days, and each time wished for more.  And then it was gone.  And while I have tried again and again (maybe it was the Michigan water?), it hasn’t been replicated.

“You have to stop trying,” Ms. Vicki said.  “Even if you had it all over again, you wouldn’t be able to love it the same.  The impermanence is what made it so spectacular.  It is better to celebrate it than to replicate it.”

She must have seen my defeat.  She smiled.

“I once made a magic curry,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

Wabi-sabi: On Broken Baskets and Glue.

Wabisabi (侘寂) is a concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics constituting a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

It is important for me to remember that sometimes the things we carry that are broken are not direct representations of ourselves and our relationships.

I told this to my Someone as we both looked in the Broken Basket.  The Broken Basket was the basket we keep on the bed that moves to the couch when we sleep and back to the bed when we are traveling.  Its constant movement is to be a reminder that the broken things in the basket need fixing, and the sooner we fix them, the sooner we can put the basket away.

But the broken thing in the basket had been broken since the time I began to wonder if we were broken, and its continued brokenness culminated on a snowy Friday morning in April in Canada.  Here, a country away in strange weather, the little piggy bank shaped like a camper that my mother had given us for Christmas was still in pieces.  It had been broken for almost four weeks, and was a regular topic of conversation.

My Someone had broken it, accidentally, and was intent on being the one to fix it.  But somehow, picking up glue became harder and harder to remember.  We joked that the little bank camper was just like our own– often in pieces but still keeping us inside.

So over coffee in the snow I began to cry and be angry that the camper was us, and that we will never take the time to fix ourselves because we cannot take the time to fix our things in the Broken Basket.  And that maybe our whole life was a Broken Basket that will be endlessly tossed from the bed to the couch and back again at the start of each day.  My Someone bristled.  I got quiet.  I left to change over our laundry down the street at the laundromat.

When I got back, my Someone was gone.  I worried that he now believed we were in the Broken Basket, too.

When the door opened, my Someone was smiling.

“We are not broken,” he said, rummaging in a plastic bag, “I got the Crazy glue!”

And there, we pieced together what was left in the broken basket, some pieces missing, some of our finger sticking together, and a little white tape to cover the disparities.  Just like our real camper.  Just like ourselves.

Birthday: On Where I Am So Far.

Today I am 31 years old. I am the kind of person who leaves the hotel tv on for her dogs in case they get lonely. I am now vegan and gluten free because of my poor eating habits for too many years. I like wearing dresses even though I sometimes feel conflicted about the gender norms they indicate. I am getting better at looking people in the eye instead of looking around or down because I feel inconvenient. I am comfortable with the amount of space I take up. I like walking my dogs every day even though my knees hurt more now when I do. I do yoga every day because of my knees and a few other aches I didn’t know I would have at 31. My favorite color is yellow with brown as a close second. I am in love and married, even though I didn’t think those two things could happen at the same time. I prefer winter over summer. I am missing a tooth and have for a few years, which makes me chew mostly on my right side and makes me worry that my face will go lopsided. I am beginning to accept compliments rather than be nervous by them, especially the kinds that have nothing to do with how I look. I started eating chia seeds and taking magnesium supplements. I am learning to breathe deep to alleviate stress. I live on the road and don’t see signs of stopping. I don’t have any children and don’t think I will, but really love my friends’ kids. I still pick up pennies and I call my mother every birthday to wish her a happy giving birthday. I love eating and don’t feel embarrassed to take seconds anymore. I am really happy. It’ll be a good year.