Home, Less

February 4, 2020

I don’t go home for the holidays.

“Home is where the people are,” I remember him saying, maybe a little bit defensively, not long after they had moved. And it’s not the sort of sentiment you’re supposed to disagree with, but I feel the sting of that lie in my marrow.

Home exists only in my memory.

I can close my eyes and smell the carpet in my bedroom. See the ceiling, the swoop in the paint that always looked to me like a man lifting a woman into his arms. I can remember when my head got too big to fit through the bars on the railing of the landing. Feel myself racing up the stairs on all fours, plucking at the grain in the fabric of the guestroom sofa when I was sick or couldn’t sleep.

Home was outdoors, too. The tall grass beyond the circle that we crawled tunnels through in the summer. Dusty blackberries along the driveway. Bouncing in the back of a pickup truck on the way to the pump, or always being the dumb end when moving pipes, my brother squinting and directing–left, just a little bit more–stop. Drop it there.

And the sounds. Sprinklers always, that steady tick tick tick. The methodical thump of a bailer. Sheep lowing, on their own or in chorus. The distant yip of a coyote.

They tore the place down.

I found out on Facebook, from a childhood neighbor. I drowned my sorrows in a bar down the street, across from the subway station. Tried to numb that ache in the middle of too many city sounds.

They tore the place down, and now it doesn’t even live in google maps. It’s trapped in blueprints he can’t seem to find, and the sticky amber of my memory.

So I come here for the holidays.

I see cars with Oregon plates and my heart collapses in on itself. Just that tiny green tree is enough to undo me.

There are some similarities.

It smells like barnyard, that scent I tried for years to banish from my clothes and under my fingernails. At this point I’m afraid it’s in my pores somehow, the constant fear that I’m tracking sheep manure everywhere I go. No matter what shoes I wear I’m forever finding bits of straw stuck to my socks.

And so many of the set pieces are the same. The blue chair I spent so much time in, the china cabinet. Even my bed, lovingly reassembled but now covered in junk. That ancient microwave.

But the air is different here. Higher, thinner. I feel it every time we take the dog for a walk, my pulse pounding in my ears. I don’t smell alfalfa or blackberries on the breeze. It’s all rock and scrubby brush.

And it snows here.

I can really only remember one good snow at home, enough for an anemic snowman on the lawn. I had these visions of icy monstrosities straight out of Calvin & Hobbes, but there was barely enough for a melting head on a picnic bench.

I remember once our neighbor had a friend visiting from Japan. She had never seen snow, and we piled in the car to take her to Mt. Ashland. She shared these salty, pickled plums–something I would probably love now–and I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t like mine, quietly dropping it on the floor mat. We got to the base of the mountain and her face lit up like a child’s. I felt so special, to be allowed to witness that kind of wonder from a grown-up.

Here the snow is real, fuck you snow. Have fun clearing the driveway snow. We might just stay at home for a few days snow.

When we walk the dog all you hear is the crunch of snow. Conversations tend to be quick, loud bursts or nothing at all. The layer of powder and ice muffles everything. Somehow the way back down always seems steeper. Little balls of snow go tumbling down the path and I imagine myself sliding headlong beside them, catching myself on sage and bramble.

In the spring the clay turns to mud. Everything squishes, nothing stays dry. Rush Creek rushes and rises and threatens to flood. You can hear it as soon as you open the door, louder than the snow.

There’s just enough that’s familiar to set my teeth on edge. Sleeping in my brother’s old sheets, staring at the stained glass window. Fingers pressed against the wooden napkin ring.

I don’t go home for the holidays. I come here, to be heartsick. Homesick. Fourteen again.


December 4, 2019

Denver gives me the sensation of walking downhill.

Sometimes we are, of course–stepping into those shadowy underpasses, entrances lined with pigeon shit and burst trash bags, fast stepping past abandoned encampments and piles of clothing with the sick realization that there might be a human under there.

But mostly the streets are level, just the ice giving the illusion of sliding downward. It’s the tricky kind, hardened and hidden under a skim of powder. The drifts look safer but my boots are already busted at the seams, filling with snow whenever I step too deep.

That penguin walk comes back to me so easily, keeping the weight underneath with just a little more work from the hips. We make good time. We walk for miles.

I am thinking of you.
I am not thinking of you.
I am fervently thinking I am not thinking of you.

He says we’ll get drunker faster. It’s the altitude, the lack of oxygen. This isn’t a warning, just a fact.

We drink flights and half pours and whole pours. We take shots when they are offered. He always introduces himself and I’m always just a beat behind, unsure if we should shake on it or just nod. We are from Massachusetts and Kentucky, in that order.

There’s so much art everywhere. Murals and graffiti and the rhino signs proclaiming Art. We steady ourselves on crackling patches of ice to photograph bursts of color against the night sky. It’s socioeconomic voyeurism, he says, documenting the decay.

I wake up at two, at four, at nine thirty. Nothing is spinning but my heart races. I’ve kicked off the comforter, sweating through my shirt, the texture of the sheets all wrong. Trying to sleep with arms empty.

I am thinking of you.
I am not thinking of you.
I am pressing hard against the spot where you aren’t, like tonguing the raw edge of a split lip.

We wake up hungover or not quite. We say yes a lot, and thank you. When we order a cinnamon roll the waitress at the Butcher Block lowers her voice to ask Should we warm it up with butter? as if nothing would please her more, as if we’re about to get away with something naughty together.

Denver is mustaches and Patagonia vests. It is the mountains peeking over the dirty skyline. Search breweries. Search breakfast. Sort by open now. Decide to start drinking at eleven in the morning. Resolve to stop poisoning yourself. Tuck into a bibb lettuce salad with gusto and realize it’s the first green you’ve seen in days.

It’s warmer here than we thought it would be. He brings base layers he never wears. I keep taking the scarf, leaving it, taking it again. The laces of his boots tangle in the straps of his backpack. My jacket pockets are full of tampons and Magic cards and a twenty sided die.

I am thinking of you.
I am not thinking of you.
I am touching this not-you gingerly like a fresh bruise.

We make ourselves regulars. I’m not interested in the bartender but I like the way she looks over at us, like she might be talking about me. I buy them drinks they don’t need. Her friend is staring at the persistent drip from the ceiling. Someone stole our ladder, she says. I have to clear the snow from the roof.

Somehow we keep ourselves upright. My stomach drops when I feel my whole foot losing purchase but somehow I’m still standing. I press the feeling back into my fingertips. I watch my breath cloud the air in front of my face. I am walking ever so slightly downhill, using all the oxygen I can find.

park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me

August 3, 2019

I’ve been having a hard time lately, and thought writing out my thoughts by hand might do some good. So I dug out the first notebook I could find, and when I flipped through it I realized most of the (little) writing in it was from ten years ago, when I was ending one relationship to start another, searching for an apartment, researching buying a car, starting a new job.

That’s a lot of change all at once.

Anyway, it feels a bit serendipitous to find these little notes from my 25-year-old-brain, so I thought I would share this piece (seems to be unfinished, but such is life) in its entirety, unedited:

It’s taken me a while to sit down and write this story. And it is a story, the same way we warn about telling tales out of school, or tell ourselves stories even if they’re never told aloud or committed to paper. But the parts of this particular story aren’t just words or abstract concepts–they’re hearts, and lives, not just anonymous ones but rather the kind I take great pains not to hurt.

Deep breath, then, and into the open field.

It must be very hard to be in a relationship with a depressed person. I couldn’t say from personal experience, really–I’ve been lucky in that regard, I suppose.

What I can say, though, is that it is also very hard to be in a relationship as a depressed person. And if I really take a hard look at my past, every relationship I’ve ever been in qualifies.

I’ve written about this here before, sometimes with trepidation, often with a great deal of thought, but the short version is that I’ve struggled with depression all of my adult life (and possibly for much of what came before–I was first diagnosed at 18, but who’s to say what state my heart and mind were in before?)

At the best of times, my depression and anxiety blink sleepily far below the surface and don’t bother me much. It’s like being used to dull headaches, or having to squint ever so slightly while the sun beats from behind overcast skies. And at the worst of times my depression bleeds through everything I do, everything I say, everything I taste.

But through all those times, I have to negotiate my relationships with other people, many of them people I love.

Trying to be in a relationship with someone while you’re depressed means there are really three of you involved. There’s you, there’s your partner, and there’s this version of yourself who barely resembles you but knows exactly how to hurt you. It’s like a nightmare version of Peter Pan’s shadow.

This shadow me is not always kind. She is often desperate, usually scared, occasionally malicious. She wants me to feel pain and she knows how to make me do the dirty work.

In the best of times, she trails along a few steps behind, a mostly harmless third wheel who just worries about me a lot, and consequently asks.


A Cool 100

April 2, 2017

Today we celebrate my wife’s grandmother’s 100th birthday.

Try to imagine–seeing all those years, weeks, days. Living. Outliving.

Hours before the reception I am tying off helium balloons. The playing cards attached to strings aren’t heavy enough to weigh the balloons down, so we drape them in groups of five around coat hangers and the necks of unopened wine bottles. The young cousin in charge of the helium can’t quite master the art of tying balloons, but he fills them with aplomb. He is territorial about the tanks and demanding when a balloon is ready. “Who’s going to take this pink? WHO’S GOING TO TAKE THIS PURPLE?”

A woman who works for the church tells us the security alarm goes on before midnight. “There’s a motion sensor,” she tells us. Our eyes involuntarily drift upward to the half dozen loose balloons, some stringless, swaying ever so gently in the circulating air. One of them hugs a light fixture.

We unload cases of beer and start emptying bags of ice into clear tubs. I want to break up the ice more, smash it like we used to in bathtubs before parties, but I’m worried about scuffing the floor. I accidentally send chunks flying when I try to use my keys as an icepick. I remember to set out a cup to save bottle caps for an aunt, though I know I’ll find at least two when I empty my pockets later.

I can’t remember the last time I was inside a church. Probably the service for my grandmother’s memorial. The sanctuary was dark and close and stifling hot. At one point I swayed, caught myself, wondered if I might actually pass out.

This one is lighter, bigger. The stained glass almost seems new. We hear the quartet practicing in the choir loft. Balloon boy prowls behind the altar, tests a microphone.

In the hymns and prayers I find myself mute. I’m rusty with the call and response, but more than that I feel strange going along with the motions. My lips don’t move until Hail Holy Queen. “How does everyone know these lyrics?” my brother-in-law whispers. He doesn’t remember this song from Sister Act.

The hassocks fascinate me.

After family photos–“That was perfect! Now just three more!”–we walk back to the assembly hall and find ourselves partly locked out. We sneak in through the church offices.

It is quickly apparent that there are more bodies than chairs. “We figured there’d be about 250 people,” one cousin tells me. “There are 200 chairs.” I resolve to stand for the duration.

On this side of the hallway, with all the tables and throngs of people behind glass, we are like a small zoo exhibit. Younger cousins drift in and out, eating and adding sugar to their lemonade. I try twice to hold a baby so that his mother can use both hands. Twice he decides against it.

I keep catching flashes of my wife from across the room. Relatives and old family friends recognize her. Sometimes she waves in my direction. At certain moments–once during the homily, once while I’m watching the endless slideshow of photographs–I am struck by how naturally, how easily this family welcomed me. How even Grandma tells me she’s glad to see me.

As the reception winds down we’re herded outside, handed balloons. The playing cards have special backs, informing the reader that Marietta Gesenhues turned 100, and that she would love a card or note sent to her address. Surely most of the balloons will return to the ground not far from here, but I like to imagine some of them setting off for parts unknown. Crossing state boundaries. Delivering themselves at the feet of children just beginning their own centuries.

We sing happy birthday and release our strings. The sun reflects off the playing cards as they rise, a glittering array winking out of view.

Try to imagine–seeing all those balloons. Seeing all those days. Living. Outliving.

Here We Are–This Must Be the Beach

September 1, 2015

My dad says that whenever we’ve arrived at our destination. Someone–his mother, maybe? I really need to start writing these things down–used to say it, and now he does. We don’t travel much as a family, so I haven’t heard it all that often. Nonetheless, I’ve picked it up myself.

This must be the beach.

We were headed to the beach, and now we’re here. So this must be the beach.

I lived essentially all of my adult life (so far, anyway) in a city. I grew up on a farm–most people know this about me, if they know much about me–but it didn’t take me long to replace the evening music of crickets and irrigation sprinklers with the irregular chorus of sirens and subway thrum.

Thirteen years ago I stepped into Harvard Yard with a guitar case and a stuffed panda bear and most of the other belongings that mattered to me. I stayed in Boston for two degrees, three Red Sox World Championships, three apartments, one disastrous breakup, two teaching licenses, one totaled car, the Marathon bombings, two adopted cats with snipped ears, countless beers, too much snow, many oysters, the issuing of the first legal same-sex marriage licenses in the nation, and my own wedding, just over a year ago, looking out over the Charles River.

The city adopted me. I don’t know if it loved me, but certainly I loved it. My heart catches in my throat when I see the skyline coming into view as my plane approaches Logan. I sweated there, and bled, and cried. I shouted myself hoarse, nursed broken hearts and whiskey, breathed the air and knew I was home.


Now I am back in a place where tractor fumes and cut hay dance on the breeze. These hills aren’t my hills, not yet, but the grass and the sky and the deer are familiar. Drivers wave when you pass on the road. Walgreens sells cases of Bud. At the high school football game you will run into women from your third grade class, now bouncing fussy babies on their hips. You may not recognize that guy in the John Deere hat, but his cousin used to date your babysitter.

Crossing the northern California border used to unlock my heart. It was almost a physical thing, that small release of a part I didn’t know I’d hidden away, revealed only when I finally came home. I haven’t felt it, not yet, but every hummingbird and every back porch chips away at the dirt from the city.

Not home. Not yet. But the beach, maybe. This must be the beach.

Hey, I wrote a thing!

January 24, 2014

Specifically, I wrote a thing for The Toast, which you should all be reading in general because it is wonderful. You should read my piece at least five times each so the editors ask me to write more things for them.

Food porn

December 11, 2013
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eagle.mk’s photostream on Flickr.

I Don’t Expect to Sleep Through the Night

October 18, 2013

I happened to catch an interesting story on NPR yesterday about new research on the benefits of sleep. The super non-sciencey version is that our brains (like other animals’ brains) actually flush out toxins while we sleep, which has implications for research on Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related illnesses. I didn’t know this before yesterday, but apparently dementia disorders are overwhelmingly associated with sleep disorders.

My interest in the story is twofold. First, I’ve struggled with insomnia for pretty much as long as I can remember. I basically thought this was just an unfortunate side effect of being me, but as it turns out, it’s actually a very common symptom of bipolar disorder, and one that is delightfully (for the most part) treatable with the right combination of medication.

Secondly, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s. Her deterioration was deeply painful for my mother and her siblings, and a fear of developing dementia is now something my mother and I share. Like the risk of developing bipolar disorder (which is pretty huge if one parent has it), the risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases considerably if the disease also runs in your family. The initial articles I found about potential links between bipolar and Alzheimer’s made my brain hurt (on account of not being so sciencey) but I would be curious to see if research on two conditions so strongly linked to sleep disorders could both be aided by this new discovery on sleep and the brain.


October 9, 2013

So I’m a big sports fan, which isn’t something I’ve written about all that much, although I was once really excited about starting a feminist sports blog. (That is still a thing that would be awesome to do. I’m even still sitting on the WordPress name. I am just awful at organization.) I think part of the reason I don’t write much about my love for sports is that it can be tough to be a female sports fan, especially if you’re also a fan of women’s athletics. Mainstream sports media dudes are, by and large, dudes, and their treatment of women’s sports (and women in sports journalism) runs the gamut from total ignorance to dismissal to super gross sexism.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, let’s think about fandom, and taunting, and young Wil Myers.
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But What’s Your REAL Name?

October 9, 2013

At least once a week someone asks me what my initials stand for. My stock answer is “My first and middle name,” which usually gets a chuckle, but almost never deters the questioner. When they realize I’m not going to tell them, a lot of people just start guessing. Curiosity is persistent, it seems.

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