I’ve been thinking a lot about moving. I’ve been thinking about 2009 when Silas and I worked our Chevy Malibu full of our necessities like one would work on a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle. The results looked less Norman Rockwell and more like we had the vehicle of a common hoarder. Garbage bags, sleeping bags, a tent, a vacuum, and a Swiffer pressed to the back windows rendering the rear view mirror useless.
We arrived in Seattle during the bright endless days of August with no money, no jobs, and no friends. When the chaos of our car spilled into our one bedroom apartment it amounted to a minimalist’s puddle of dishes and clothes. We needed furniture, so we jumped in the car with competitive fervor to be the first to arrive at the site of items listed as free on Craigslist, like the orange Adirondack chairs we found next to a dumpster and victoriously shoved into the back seat and trunk.
We spent that month in pursuit of free or cheap. We approached coffee shops like a tour-of-homes, breezing into a couple of different shops a day. Silas, always the optimist would point out something he liked, “The ergonomics of these chairs are great,” and then I’d find something that needed improvement, “What’s with the music? Who plays rap in a coffee shop? Did you bring headphones?” We ordered drip coffee, always asking, “How much for refills?” and always, “Could I get the Wifi password, please?” I used the free Wifi to search for the jobs many college graduates were looking for in 2009: barista, nanny, cleaning lady. Most of my friends were either living in their parents’ basement or in a commune of impoverished AmeriCorps volunteers. Fifteen dollars an hour was my definition of success. Silas used the Wifi to plot out the rest of the day’s activities, deciding which of the 400 parks we should visit that day, reading yelp reviews, planning the most efficient routes for bike commuting. That’s how we spent our August days, like a never ending low-budget vacation.
In the evening we made dinner–casseroles concocted with canned cream soup, meat loaf with lots of ketchup, tacos with the cheapest possible ground beef, and we ate omelets without considering where the chickens that produced the eggs lived and what sort of diet they were on.
We said a prayer of thanks for food that we didn’t know was the food of foreigners and sat in the sea of vacant apartment, our bottoms disrupting the vacuum lines on the new, cream carpet. We balanced dinner plates on our thighs, gazed admiringly through the window at our orange chairs, ate, and then read, or watched DVDs on a laptop, and drifted to sleep on an air mattress, our open bedroom window letting in the white noise of traffic from the freeway below at the base of the hillside tangled with blackberry brambles.
We’d already been married a little over a year, but Seattle is where we started to became each other’s family. That just-the-two-of-us feeling was transformative and beautiful, until it wasn’t enough.
When school started Silas approached his work the way he always had, alone and well ahead of schedule. He sat hunched over his homework late into the night, making frustrated growls, tugging at his hair, clenching his wide jaws, never arriving at a eureka moment.
The desk he worked at was one of our nicer pieces of furniture, a non-craigslist item that was originally from Pottery Barn, but came to us from the home of Joe and Matt and their two adorable Columbian sons. Joe was besties with the mom of the kids I was nannying. She was always looking for ways to help me feel settled and enlisting the help of her PTA entourage.
One day, she bustled in to the kid’s tennis practice with a large silver Nordstrom sack on her arm. She pulled out a North Face jacket in my size. “Try it on,” she urged, “spin around.” She showed me how to tie the belt at the waist, how to work the two-way zipper, and then proclaimed, “So cute!” The price on the tag still dangling at the wrist made me feel uncomfortable, like it was an invasive species. I wasn’t sure what harm it would do, but it couldn’t be good for me, but refusing this gift would be like saying no to a plate of locusts generously offered by a Ugandan in a grass roofed hut. I was in a foreign rich-people land, so I said, “Thank you so much. I love it!” The coat was her way of saying I just want you to be happy, but a jacket wasn’t going to make me happy.
I hate driving and I was driving at least an hour a day to get to and from a wealthy enclave of Seattle where I didn’t belong. I came home to a sparse apartment and a man on edge, like snakes were slithering through his shoulders and small birds had made a nest in his hair. He had the demeanor of someone who’d been assembling Ikea furniture non-stop for weeks. I met a few new friends at church who seemed to be most interested in double dates. My date was always busy, so that was that. Loneliness marched on.
We picked up a craigslist bed from a young family with a golden retriever, a crying baby, and a toddler on the couch who looked like she’d been watching Strawberry Shortcake for approximately 12 hours. I cocooned into that bed early in the evening and cried or stared at the wall in a depressed coma. Silas would kneel bedside asking what was wrong, begging me to be happy, and I’d beg him to quit working all the time. It felt like a stalemate.
I don’t remember exactly when things opened up, when the dark cloud started to lift, but I think what happened is we realized just-the-two-of-us was not enough. By the end of the first quarter, Silas started collaborating with his classmates on homework problems, and started doing research with someone he respected. I started volunteering, joined a Bible study, and the double-date friendships gained substance.
Five years later the number of friends and commitments we have in Seattle is bordering on unmanageable. Sometimes it feels foolish to be leaving a tangle of relationships that took such care to establish, but I know when we arrive at the next place, what we’ve learned in the past five years will help us get caught in the tangle faster and with greater ease.
Something I like about the family Silas and I have become is that we don’t want to close ourselves into a quiet, private life. Wherever we go, we want to share our lives with others, and wherever we go there will be other people who also want to share their lives, and that’s what will to make this whole moving thing okay.
Also, I’m going to be honest and say that as grateful as I am for a Seattle community, I’m really looking forward to the isolation of eastbound I-90 where that beloved just-the-two-of-us feeling will likely return naturally instead of having to be manufactured somewhere between racquetball, church council meeting, babysitting, book club, softball, and a dinner party.
I thought I should explain my absence. Instead of blogging, I’ve been writing a memoir. Sort of. More like, getting tangled in spotty memory, filling in the gaps with fiction, always wondering what degree of fiction I’m comfortable with in a piece of “non-fiction.”
This growthful chaos was brought on by a 6-week memoir class at a magical old mansion turned writing center (the Richard Hugo House). It sits across the street from Cal Anderson Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
When I signed up, I imagined my classmates would be the sort of people I see around that part of town. People who would bring a hula-hoop or a pet parrot to class. And maybe there’d be the girl with headphones the size of grapefruit halves and the man in short cut-offs wearing mascara. Everyone of them would write about harrowing adventure and spicy romances and anarchical rage against George W. Bush. Behind my back, they’d commiserate about how much cooler the class would be if I’d pack up my nice, quiet girl energy and scram.
Okay, so maybe I didn’t actually imagine anything in that much detail, but I was worried about encounters with cool, talented, mean spirited people. I was wrong. There was a lot of talent, but everyone was the opposite of mean and no one was too cool for school.
If anyone had earned a too-cool-for-school attitude, it’s Claire Dederer, the person who taught the class. I mean, this lady writes for The New York Times, Vogue, Real Simple, The Nation, and a long list of other publications that would surely impress you. She’s also the author of the beautiful, funny memoir, Poser. And yet she unpacked her knowledge and experience and handed it over like it was no big deal. She was like the girl with the most enviable lunchbox sharing her Twix, and all we could offer was a bruised Red Delicious, but she still sat at our table and acted like she was having a great time.
This week I read When We Were On Fire by Addie Zierman. She wrote the coming of age as a Jesus Freak memoir that I was going to write and now I don’t feel like I have to anymore, which I’m glad about. If evangelical Christian jargon has ever left you feeling alienated or wounded, or you just like a good, artfully told story, then you should read When We Were On Fire.
Here’s a scene from what I worked on for class. The situation and the narrator’s feelings are real. The dialogue and a lot of the physical details are fabricated for the sake of story. I felt like I had to say that. I’m still so uncomfortable with writing “non-fiction”
On the Lyon County fairgrounds, in a machine shed that could fit a hockey rink, we the people of Grace Life Church set up our booth between the Mary Kay lady and the Southwest State University recruiter. The neighboring booths offered fingernail sized pats of lipstick and pencils and lanyards. At our booth, the Heaven Booth, we offered eternal life. They had tables covered in branded tablecloths. We had pieces of white painted plywood hinged together to form a hybrid of cubicle and confessional. At the top of the white walls was a hand stenciled sign. In red letters, “Are You Going to Heaven? Two question test reveals the answer.”
At church a few weeks prior, I signed up to proctor the two question test. A clipboard circulated through the wooden pews. My dad signed up, but not my mom or my two older sisters or my older brother, and of course not my three little brothers. I put my 10-year-old self down for the 1 p.m. shift.
I, the girl barely assertive enough to raise my hand in school to ask to be excused to use the bathroom was going to proselytize total strangers. From the pulpit, I was told the lost needed to be found, that people needed to hear the good news. I was told that one day maybe I’d be standing at the gates of heaven and my friend in front of me in line might not be saved. She’d learn she was spending eternity in hell, and turn around with terror on her face and say, “Why didn’t you tell me!”
I couldn’t bear the thought of that scenario, so I stood in front of the Heaven Booth, nervously shifting my weight from one foam flip-flop sandal to the other, asking anyone who made eye contact, “Do you know if you’re going to heaven?” There must have been a grownup working at the booth with me, but I only remember feeling alone.
A man passed by in cowboy boots and jeans so dark I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a price tag still dangling from the waistband. He grinned and said, “Already know where I’m goin’. Thank you, sweetheart.” I said nothing to a small flock of teenagers, all of them with hair box-dyed black, all of them wearing jeans with legs wide enough to be confused for a skirt. One of the boys with a hoop earring through his lip glanced at me and murmured something inaudible to his friend and they high fived.
Rejection after rejection. Now I knew what it felt like to be the lady at the kiosk in the middle of the mall saying, “You like to try?” except I wasn’t offering to demonstrate a hair straightener, I was offering an existential crisis.
Finally someone agreed to stop for a chat in the Heaven Booth, a father-daughter pair. They didn’t look like the kind of fairgoers that have been camped out all week in 4-H buildings next to their horses and cows and molding slice of cherry pie. They weren’t dressed up in new back-to-school wardrobe like the people who drove in from an even smaller town than Marshall, approaching the fair like the event of the summer, an all day affair from funnel cakes for breakfast up through live country music in the glow of grand stand spotlights. These people probably lived in town and just came by to wander, maybe have a quick corn dog and a ride on the scrambler.
The father-daughter followed me behind the white plywood wall and we lowered ourselves into chilled metal folding chairs. I pulled two of the small paper pamphlets from the stack under the chair. I straightened from my usual slouched position and tried to look confident as I passed each of them one of the papers. With my voice quivering, I said, “Alright, take a look at the first question. It says, ‘Do you believe that you will go to heaven when you die?’ And then it’s multiple choice, see:”
I Hope So
I’m Not Sure
The dad answered, “Not sure.” His daughter, slightly younger than me sat silently, pressing her hands between the chair and bare thighs, looking around above my head or peering up at her dad when he spoke.
“Okay, great.” I said, “Next question, ‘Why do you believe this?’”
I don’t remember what he answered. I gave my spiel, reading from the answer key. He held his thin lips in a pursed smile, nodding politely, waiting for his turn to prove me wrong, “So you’re saying that if I don’t ‘trust in Jesus’ I’m going to hell? What about, like, the remote tribes of Africa that have never even heard a thing about Christianity? What about babies who die? What about Gandhi?”
He was overflowing with a rapid succession of questions that made me curious, but I could tell the man wasn’t curious, these were rhetorical questions. This wasn’t a safe place for me to sit and crochet these new strands of curiosity into something useful. I had to get that guy out of there, “Those are really good questions. I guess I don’t really know, but thanks for talking with me. Enjoy the fair!”
On a morning walk, I meandered past the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. I guess I can never just pass by that place. No matter how many times I see the building, I always stop to gawk. Amidst several city blocks of one basic craftsman house after another, stands this large mustard yellow building with bold red trim, golden fawn statues on the roof, and dozens of primary colored prayer flags draped between porch beams and trees. In the monastery yard is a circle of 24 prayer wheels, and on my walk that morning I sent each one spinning, breathing a prayer to Jesus with each flick of the wrist.
I walked back home, did laundry, and picked at a writing project for a couple of hours. In the late afternoon, I prepared a thermos of tea, shoved an orange in my coat pocket and set out on another walk. I paused at a bench by Greenlake to peel the orange now warmed by my hip. It’s a fruit I haven’t made much time for in my adult life. I forget the way the first dig of the rind releases a scent so aggressive that all other senses must pause for smell. I forget the way peeling demands both hands, and how your fingernails get filled with gunk, and that misty spray of juice that quickly dries to a mysterious powder along the base of my palms.
When I got to the actual fruit, conveniently sliced by nature into perfect segments, I could divide my attention between the orange and the flocks of birds drifting and swooping through the gray sky and over the water, like flecks of newspaper rising from a campfire, blackened by the last pour of daylight.
Going for walks, doing household chores, visiting friends, writing, and observing is essentially what I’ve been doing on most weekdays since October. This may seem boring. This post may even seem embarrassingly boring, like a KING FM dj gushing endlessly about the glories of a Beethoven sonata and day light savings. When friends and acquaintances ask what I’ve been up to, or what I did today, it’s difficult to articulate. I avoid giving many details because I’m unsure of the value of what I’m doing. I say I’m enjoying not having a 9 to 5 job, that it is a great privilege.
From my snacking spot beside the lake, I glanced over at the man sitting on a nearby bench. Next to him was a grocery cart filled to the brim with his belongings. We were watching the same duck bob its head in and out of the water. I had an orange in my hand; he was holding the edges of a magenta blanket draped over his shoulders. I wondered if he felt grateful to be in this moment. Did he feel privileged to have the time to be a witness to the behavior of ducks?
I have a choice as to whether this season of unpaid work will go on ad infinitum, and I understand that is a unique privilege. My choices may have been limited previously by a trapping thought that my work would define me. I thought I was made to follow a specific career path and the most highly evolved people among us were those who had discovered that path and were pouring their heart and soul into achieving the highest heights of their field. Giving career that much power to define my worth was a prime set up for depression. On the spectrum of ambition, I am far from attempting to be at the top of any field, and I’m working on accepting how okay that is.
Whether I do paid work again or not, I am grateful for this season of learning what it means to rest. When I was working, taking a break from work meant escaping work. In the name of “recharging my batteries,” I’d make great efforts to not talk about or think about work. I’d make a dramatic shift from arduous to effortless (laying on a couch, watching TV, indulging in a huge bowl of ice cream and a huge glass of wine).
In Timothy Keller’s book, “Every Good Endeavor” he points out that after God created the universe he rested and since God has limitless strength, it’s not like he rested in order to recharge. He rested to take time to acknowledge the goodness of His work. The 12th century German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper says, “Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity…It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.” He goes on to say that leisure ought to include, “a celebratory, approving, lingering gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.”
Lately my days include a lot of lingering gazes. I am learning how to rest, but am I also learning how to work? I think it would be disrespectful to the unpaid work that I’m doing to say that I am not working at all. It’s just that I have grown accustomed to view work and rest in such extremes that if my work doesn’t cause me major distress, it seems like it doesn’t count.
I have been searching for a long time for indisputable principles to govern my career choices, but I don’t know that there is a philosophy that works as one-size-fits-all. When it comes to work, I hear many differing “ought’s” from my family, Christianity, feminism, capitalism, etc. Even within those communities the voices contradict each other. The swarm of advice is informative, but ultimately how I approach work is going to be deeply personal. And that’s something that might be in process for a very long time.
I’ve been crying off and on all day because of something that happened on February 23rd. That night we were driving home from dinner at a friend’s house. The drizzly darkness and the commonly quiet streets were interrupted by an effulgence of rhythmic blue and red from a slew of emergency response vehicles. We couldn’t get a close look, a police barricade blocked 1st Ave. N. We’d have to learn the story secondhand.
King 5 told us a man had been shot dead. The reported suspects were a white female and two black males. I was so irritated by the incompleteness of this reporting. I would have rather known nothing. I thought back to 2009, when Maurice Clemmons was at large after shooting four Lakewood police officers. I remember despising myself for the way my body would tighten every time a black man boarded my bus or passed me on the street. In 2014, the old story of irrational suspicion of a racial minority seemed just as unproductive as ever.
Everything I heard in the days following the Feb. 23rd shooting felt unproductive. Facebook friends warned us all to be safe out there in Greenwood, as if this shooting was not completely random, as if Greenwood was now a place of rampant crime. I eavesdropped on someone asking his friend where he parked and then warning him that he might not want to park “over there” as if the area in front of a ritzy pet store is now distinctly dangerous.
In the days following the shooting, news reports became increasingly more detailed. The victim was 54-year-old David Peterson, a man out on a typical evening walk when he was approached by 17-year-old Byron White. White attempted to steal Peterson’s cell phone. Peterson refused to give it up. When they parted ways, Peterson called 911. At some point during the call, White returned to the scene and shot Peterson with a single shot from a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
On March 1st, I dropped a friend off at the airport at 8:30 a.m. In the departures drop-off zone were about a half-dozen police cars neatly parked, backed in at an angle. When I got home, I saw the news that those patrol cars were there to arrest White who was about to board a plane to Atlanta.
How dumb, I thought. The stupidity of choosing an airplane, the most surveilled way of travel, as a getaway vehicle seemed uniquely juvenile.
This morning I’ve been thinking about all that’s happened in my life since being 17, all the ways that I’ve grown, all the things I’ve learned. I wonder what sort of learning and growth will be possible for White as he sits in prison for the next few decades. How will his identity form? Will he learn what it is to engage in meaningful work? Will he ever know what it is to be a loving father or spouse? I can’t know the answer to these questions, but my speculations are void of hope. I don’t expect or want the justice system to show mercy to White, but at the same time I’ve been tearfully praying that somehow God’s grace could show up in this situation where human grace is unlikely.
I’ve been thinking about my brothers who were once 17-years-old. I think about how they came home from school with mesh bags of smelly football pads, and imagine White, a linebacker for Ballard High School doing the same. I think about the times that my mother must have worried about my brothers and cried over their teen angst and short sightedness. I ache when I think about Yvette Watkins, White’s mother, who told the Seattle Times, “A piece of my heart has been snatched out of my chest.”
Last night, our church organized a community walk through the neighborhood to remember Peterson, to demonstrate that there is still light amidst dark circumstances, that we live in a community filled with caring, hopeful people.
I approached the huddle of a few dozen neighbors waiting to go on the walk, holding flash lights or candles, grasping dog leashes or the hands of children. I talked to someone named Ben. We shook hands and told each other where we live. Another stranger in a neon safety vest joined us behind the back of the news cameraman. We all talked about how to avoid cameras. We exchanged awkward and somewhat nonsensical pleasantries, “Community. Yes. So great!” None of us knew David Peterson. We didn’t really know why we were there, but felt like it was important.
As we set out to walk, a concerned child asked his mother, “Are we going to see his body? Is he still there?” To the ears of an adult, this was such a precious misunderstanding, almost laughable, but did the adults in the crowd really have that much more clarity about what was going on? As my friend Matt put it, we were just being sad and confused and walking together. What else can we do?
These are situations where “What can we do?” is often answered with a militant debate about guns, a debate in which zero minds are ever changed.
So, we all just go for a walk and pray it doesn’t happen again, certain that it will happen again, but maybe next time it will happen somewhere far away to someone who is only a photograph on national news.
I attended the walk on my own. Silas had been on the Pacific coast hiking all day. As I trudged up the hill through pouring rain from the site of the walk back to our apartment, I thought about Kimberly Peterson, David’s widow, and a flood of salty tears were added to my already drenched face. I thought about the constancy of my partnership with Silas, and how painful it would be for him to just not return from his hike for some senseless reason. David not coming home for some senseless reason is now Kimberly’s daily reality.
At the walk, Kimberly was radiant. I heard reporters ask her what David was like, what were some of his defining characteristics. When she answered, I couldn’t hear her words, but I could see her whole being smiling, the way people do when they are talking about someone they love deeply.
I’ve seen her quoted in several different news stories as saying that she forgives Byron White. In news reports with the words “shooter,” “murder,” “senseless,” and “tried as an adult,” I am so thankful for Kimberly who adds the word “forgiveness” to the story. In her, I see a reflection of what I believe to be the bigger picture of a plan of hope and redemption for a world of despair and brokenness.
Sometimes hope is out of sight, and “I forgive” is something we have to say a hundred times before it’s actually true. There are times when hope and forgiveness are things we can only know in our minds because our hearts are stuffed full of sadness and confusion. During those times, I am thankful that we can pray and that together we can go for a walk.
These are not typical times in Seattle, Washington. The typical lineup of flavors at Seattle’s Bluebird Creamery includes Theo Chocolate Chunk (local chocolate), CB’s Peanut Butter (local peanut butter), Elysian Stout (local beer), and of course a few tasty vegan options. Today, add Beastmode to that list. Beastmode is a flavor concocted by melting a vat of Skittles. This flavor is in honor of Skittle-loving Seahawks running back, Marshawn Lynch.
After 10 minutes of Googling, I still don’t know where Skittles are made, but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing local about them. I did, however, learn that there’s a raging debate about whether or not Skittles are vegan.
I feel sorry for the Bluebird employees and the annoying questions they’re likely fielding about this flavor. I imagine a customer saying, “Can I see an ingredient list for Beastmode?” then grimacing at the sight of Red #40 and asking, “Do you know if titanium dioxide is gluten free? How about carnauba wax; is that sourced in the United States?”
Then again, maybe no one is asking those questions. Our football team is going to the Super Bowl for crying out loud. This is an opportunity to return to our base instincts; to throw conscientiousness and over-thinking out the window and just feed our beast selves.
In case you weren’t paying attention, on Sunday the Seahawks played the 49ers in some championship game that determines who goes to the Super Bowl and the Seahawks won. On that day Seattle said to herself, “Save polite and reserved for approaching 4-way stops. This is a time when Paul Allen, your patron saint of computer nerds is raising a flag with your favorite number on it, and Macklemore, your favorite hipster is somewhere in the stadium, and you are being monitored for loudness, so just go nuts, ok?”
Even those who have previously just eaten nuts can feel the freedom to go nuts about this year’s Seahawks. There are of course people who have been going nuts all along–true, devout Seahawks fans (I know at least three of them), but there’s plenty of the other kind of fan too. As a stranger in head-to-toe REI Anniversary Sale booty once said into her earbud cord, “I’ve never been a mainstream sports fan. If anything, I’ve been a vocal detester of sports, but now…wow.”
In the past, you may have been someone who regularly paid several dollars for a triple shot, venti Americano with a splash of soy, but now, you spring for a 12-cent cup of Starbucks drip in exchange for wearing Seahawks blue and green. Wow. These are indeed wild times.
The afterglow of Sunday’s win landed on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Normally on this day my Seattle network of friends would fill up my Facebook newsfeed with inspirational Dr. King quotes, photos of acts of community service, and links to opinion pieces about the ongoing battle for civil rights. This year, we used the Internet and our day off to passionately discuss what a 23-second interview revealed about the true character of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.
So, what’s my point? There’s not much of a point other than this is a really fun time to live in Seattle. Sunday night, people in my little Greenwood neighborhood went through the trouble of setting their TV up outside so they could yell at it from a lawn chair beside a bonfire. I watched the game in a friend’s basement with people I love, and for perhaps the first time ever I paid attention to an entire football game. Together we ate processed meat wrapped in biscuit dough from a tube, and we enjoyed every bite. I skipped Downton Abbey in favor of a joyous scene of backyard fireworks, and jersey wearing people exiting a neighborhood bar, whooping and hollering at strangers exiting a different bar across the street and wearing the same blue and green.
The Seahawks may be the most despised, dirty playing team in the NFL, but Seattle doesn’t care; they’ll claim them no matter what. Well, at least for the next nine days. We’re going to the Super Bowl, baby. And we are carefree!
One night last week, Silas and I were hunched over plates of stir-fry, engaged in a typical dinnertime rehashing of the mundane events of our days, when out of nowhere Silas said to me, “I wish I could have your brain. Just for one day; it would be so…fascinating.”
“Why? What would be so interesting about it?”
“You’re just so different from me.”
“How? How am I so different?” (Sometimes I ask “Why?” and “How?” more relentlessly than a 3-year-old.)
He fumbled for an answer, “I don’t know. Lot’s of ways. You get embarrassed so easily. You’re always embarrassed. I’m never embarrassed.”
Normally this is the point in the conversation when I say, “Whoa, there. Easy on the absolutes. ‘Always?’ ‘Never?’ but I don’t remember what either of us said next because I was thinking about whether it was true.
It is true. I protect myself from embarrassment and am frequently embarrassed on behalf of others. For example, I look for a place to hide whenever Silas dances with his fists alternately pumping the air like a senior citizen raising one pound dumbbells. He calls it his “victory dance,” and since everything is a competition for him, there’s potential for busting a move anywhere and at any time. Silas thinks doing embarrassing things is cool, and I admire that. I like that he doesn’t apologize about taking the last piece of cake or about spouting liberal ideas to audiences that think he’s full of total nonsense.
There have been periods of my life when I experimented with being more like Silas, a little more free. In grade school, I made a fashion statement by wearing bowling shoes as my actual shoes, and my favorite clothing item was a vintage t-shirt I found at my grandma’s house that said, “Individualists of the World Unite.”
During my era of uniting individualists, I was the only girl in my small Christian school’s 3rd grade class. The boys discovered that if they told me deer hunting stories in enough graphic detail, I would well up with tears and tell them I was thinking about becoming a vegetarian. I was a wonderful actress, so immersed in my role that I used both sides of recycled paper that flaked like dry skin when I erased. I hardly ever sharpened my pencil, and when the boys asked me why, I told them I wanted to save the trees. Everyone thought the tree hugger identity experiment was hilarious.
At home, I was the quiet one. So quiet that on family road trips I was accidentally forgotten at rest stops. At school, I was the exotic one, and I gorged myself on the ensuing feast of attention.
Back then, I would have said I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, but I was as guarded as ever. In a game of Truth or Dare, I always chose truth. To the question, “Truth: what has been your most embarrassing moment?” I’d coolly answer, “Don’t have one.” It was sort of true because I was careful enough not to get caught doing anything stupid.
My tree hugger year was the year I started wearing deodorant—when I remembered. I’d be at my desk, suddenly alarmed by a whiff of what Taco John’s would smell like if it were also a hockey locker room. I’d pretend to itch my nose with the collar of my Individualist t-shirt to confirm that yes, it was definitely me who wreaked. The next step was to nonchalantly excuse myself to the bathroom where I’d lather my pits with hand soap and a little water and then carefully dab the moisture with a paper towel. If I knew anyone had smelled me, or if anyone had caught me taking a sponge bath in the women’s restroom, that would have been embarrassing.
That year, when I came home from school on April 12th, I went to the downstairs bathroom, pulled down my LA Blues, black stretch jeans, and found that my Barbie underwear were ruined. I staggered out of the bathroom, and with a shaky voice and the beginnings of tears I said, “Mom. I think I got my period.” She squeezed me with the excitement and tears of someone moving on to the next round of American Idol. It was her birthday and she said this would be a year she’d always remember as very special. After I’d changed my clothes, I stood looking at my mom seated on my bed and waited for her to tell me what to do next about this special birthday present that felt more like a disability. She explained that my body stored up extra blood to make a nourishing home for a baby in my tummy, but since I didn’t have a baby in there, I didn’t need the extra blood, so my body would get rid of it through my vagina. She looked at me like she’d just said something astounding, like we’d just watched a butterfly emerge from a cocoon or poured vinegar over baking soda. I was not impressed. I couldn’t think of a stupider act of nature than getting my period. Didn’t God know I was only nine years old?
For a couple years after that, I’d be with the neighbor girls, playing something like Saved by the Bell, and between deciding which plot to act out and bullying me into being Lisa instead of Jessie for the hundredth time, one girl would say, “I’m so scared to get my period, aren’t you?” And I’d be like, “Yeah. It’s going to be so scary…” as blood dripped into a diaper sized maxi pad like old news. If I would have told the truth, that would have been so embarrassing.
This week marks Epiphany, a holiday to remember the day that the Magi finally showed up to Christmas and gave sweet baby Jesus his presents. It’s a beautiful holiday, but mostly it’s depressing because although there’s the brilliant star and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, in the next breath of scripture, before there’s even time to mention stuffing the wrapping paper into a garbage sack, the nativity scene is broken up and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus scramble to Egypt to escape crazy King Herod’s genocide of toddler and baby boys.
On Epiphany, we remember that tragedy of old while removing ornaments and lights from our Christmas tree with about as much joy as plucking gray hairs. When the tree is bare, Silas drags it down the front steps and sets it next to the dumpster as if it has something in common with moldy leftovers and dog poop. The tree is now just a memory of light and cheer. All that’s left to do is wave a vacuum hose at a frenzy of pine needles for a half-hour and then anticipate about 5 more months of cold, damp darkness.
Up until 5-years ago, the closest I’d come to this level of dismal was reading the last page of a good book. Christmas trees were not a part of my childhood. I knew this was abnormal, but I never wanted one and never questioned why we didn’t have one. For my mom, I guessed the reason had something to do with the tale I’ve heard her tell many times of her child self sneaking down to the Christmas tree in the middle of the night to carefully unwrap all her presents and wrap them back up again. She tells this story without a glint of humor and with no conclusion, just a confession of the facts that she keeps confessing and no one ever tells her she’s forgiven. For my dad, I suspect not having a Christmas tree has something to do with him being an ascetic who carefully scrutinizes what’s popular. I guess he never found a good reason to subscribe to the pagan tradition of putting a tree in your house.
This year, I had intentions of making Epiphany feel less sad, like a true feast day. I intended to take down the Christmas tree accompanied by a playlist so thoughtful and full of pomp that listening to it would make frowning impossible, but due to not budgeting time in accordance with the garbage pick-up schedule, we only had time to turn on the Remember the Titans soundtrack.
I intended to observe the end of Christmas by taking a picture of the yard on 81st Street that is roughly 100 square feet crammed with roughly 100 light up and inflatable decorations. Normally the gang’s all there: Frosty, Rudolf, Charlie Brown, Yeti, a robotic mailbox…you name it, they’ve got it. But when I showed up with my camera, all that was left was a strand of icicle lights and a Mrs. Clause doll waving in the window.
I intended to go downtown to Bavarian Meats and pick up makings for a proper Reuben sandwich. I imagined this could be our traditional Epiphany meal. I even stepped way out of my league and delved into researching the underground fermentation movement and DIY sauerkraut. Did you know drinking the sauerkraut juices is considered by Sandor Ellis Katz to be a rare delicacy and also an unparalleled digestive tonic? It’s true. Mother Linda and all the Wild Fermentation disciples agree. In the end I just got lazy and observed the holiday by writing this post instead. Maybe next year.