Love, grief, and Macaroni

I’ve been away from my writing practice for a while. I’d like to say that my days were taken up by diligent work in the archives, a non-stop painting business, and a perfect (nearly perfect, perfectly imperfect, smashingly successful, married as hell) wedding, but this is not quite the case. There were boring days, days when I could’ve used a break to check in with myself or to start a new self-care routine.

I didn’t give up on taking care of myself during my time away. I went to therapy and premarital counseling. I made things. I made friends. What was supposed to be a stressful time, the pre-wedding, was markedly fun and energetic for the most part. But even in my diligence in seeing friends and working through my inner and outer conflicts, something was not right in our home.

As a person who struggles with mental illness, pain is often hard for me to pinpoint and to trust. I described increased anxiety in decision making when I was driving to my doctor last year and she asked pointedly if anything had happened to me recently. I hemmed and hawed and tried to grasp for something, though I initially couldn’t think of anything that had changed. Suddenly I remembered totaling my car, being cut by glass in the front seat of my car – t-boned on a grocery run. Oh right. The pain is coming from the open wound. That is how grief has sat in our home. Some nights I cry too long at something that doesn’t seem to matter, and it isn’t until hours later that I realize that my husband and I are both holding the pain of loss, while holding each other.

A month before the wedding, to the day, we lost our poor sweet Florence. A queen among swine, Florence had lived with cancer for over two years. I always knew that the next time she visited the vet would be her last, but as I threw her in the cat carrier and drove crazed to the emergency vet, I had no time for sadness. It was when I was taken into a room without her that I knew I was about to say goodbye. My constant companion for eight years, my one constant in the tumult of my twenties, gone in a moment. Sam was there and he held me up, the way I have always deserved to be held up but never have been by a partner – but the hole remained.

While the gaping loss in our family continues to feel profound, this wasn’t the only loss in our home. Sam, in the matter of three months, lost two friends far too young, and these deaths echoed off of each other, reminding us of our mortality and the fleetingness of joy, friendship, and life. I heard Sam’s voice crack on the early morning phone call where he learned of Riley’s death after Evan’s, his tone wavering, his vocabulary unlike his usual arsenal. Dude, fuck. No. It was so glaringly apparent in that moment that grief cracks and chips at us and that, though whole, we are not the people we once were.

I still cry for Florence, who went to sleep in my arms one last time in April, and I cried for Evan and Riley, though I didn’t know them, because I saw their lives reflected in good people I love, forever changed. It is hard to reconcile this deep sadness with the joy of our wedding and the new addition of a very bad boy, Mr. Macaroni, to our couch. Some moments, like introducing Sam as my husband, looking at Polaroids of wedding guests, or having a 20-pound cat purring in my arms at three in the morning, are so blissful that time on earth feels boundless, generous, and complete. Other moments, like hearing the a capella vocals of “Blackbird” bouncing off cathedral ceilings, watching a friend cry outside of a bar, or seeing a picture of a person I’ll never get to meet, life feels cruel, unfair, and violent.

The haltingness of the human experience, the ability to feel so much love and safety in the light of another person, and the ability to lose all of that in a moment, is the true completeness of existence. Both the joy and the pain of the past months have stopped my hands on the keyboard, but the marinade may have been worth a piece or two of writing to come. In the end, time away from my writing about self-care was an act of self-preservation and growth. I was giving myself the space to live and to feel deeply, and sometimes that feeling was, I’m bored as fuck and should be writing. Sometimes it was more profound. All of it was part of learning every part of myself.

Forward

I’ve been vision boarding since I lived in Chicago. For a while before I got a third roommate, we had an empty front room (closet with a window) and I would huddle in there to make art. My first vision board came during a time of deep depression and turmoil in my social life in January 2013. This was the year I would eventually leave Chicago to go to school in Texas. The vision board was orange all the time everything. It had boots meant for walking away from abusive people, trash situations, and bad habits. It had a pick-up truck, my childhood dream car (a symbol of tapping into childhood joys). December 30th, 2013, I was on my way to being a burnt orange Longhorn, brightening the chances of success in my career, and leaving behind the bad (and the good, which had given me the strength to strike out on my own) in my old home.

On December 31st, 2017, we had too many people to our tiny one-bedroom to have a very fun, very loud party. The hit of the night was a table for vision boarding, complete with a hodgepodge of magazines and glues, for our guests ambitious pleasure. Here’s what I came up with:

vision board

A rough and dirty analysis of my 2018 vision board, and how I did

TAKE THE POWER

Lord, it is hard for me to look at 2018. I have to take off my glasses and squint because I don’t want the full, in focus picture. It was an incredibly hard year for me personally (bad) and professionally (good). Did I take the power? In some ways, yes. I took control of our tiny space to make it a very colorful, pleasant place to live. In power struggles between me and society and me and whoever about our wedding, Sam and I won. I let my anxiety manifest in productive, artistic, just-for-me ways. I felt powerful at work, for the first time in a long time (and finished two huge projects of which I am insanely proud). I did not take the power over my depression, my physical life, or my money (?) life.

ABOVE AND BEYOND

Did I go above and beyond? Professionally, yes. I performed interviews by myself, compiled all of our project data into a useful analysis, and provided a motor of positivity when things felt impossible. I earned the trust of my colleagues – okay really just the one. In my personal life, I nurtured my friendships and my family relationships in a big way, though sometimes above and beyond meant abandoning self-care.

MODERN WOMAN + REAL PEOPLE

Most of my feelings of being a modern woman have been hard-fought this year. Deciding to keep my last name; shutting down people who want to make my upcoming nuptials about tradition, themselves, or baby-making; taking time to go to therapy when I needed it; and letting myself do things that felt silly or pinterest-y, but felt right to me. In the end, it was the real people in my life that gave me the power to do these things. Friends who held my hand, figuratively and literally, as I moved through the world. These are my most successful vision boarding categories!

FORWARD

Where could I grow? What could I master? 2018 was a slog. One of my blog goals for myself was throwing off the yolk of Instagram, but I found that Instagram made me happy, so despite the trend in screentime monitoring (this gives me more anxiety than facebook and news twitter combined), I let it bring me joy. I tried to give up self-blame but that little bastard thrived this year! What a shiny glow it had! I did well at giving up some of my “living in the future” tick in most areas, but with a wedding coming up, this also got out of hand. I let myself have maybe three negativity spirals, down from maybe 3,000. Finally, my old friend boredom was a big mood in 2018 as it was in 2017, compounded by some of my worst financial problems in many years – but I found crafting, I found a few blogs I loved to read, and I found my love of planning.

Small goals are the way forward in 2019:

Bring people together for a very fun bachelorette party in New Orleans

Figure out what to do with all these f*cking pom poms

Frame my This Year’s Model record cover

Finish the cloth napkins for the wedding

Be there for my family by listening and offering my self-care resources

Be there for my friends by listening and being thoughtful (they have a lot of self-care resources!)

Go to therapy and /or pre-marital counseling once a month until I’m Oprah

Paint when it feels right (finish Dag’s lizard, you asshole)

Walk when it’s nice out

Advocate for my mental health

Get above ground during work once a day

Get a pedicure

Get married

Go to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver for our honeymoon and Dan and Della’s wedding

Accept kindness

Give kindness

Do one chore and drink two glasses of water when I get home from work

Don’t cry about money – money isn’t real

Curate my digital life in a way that is meaningful to me

Use our instant cameras

Make two new friends

Nurture two new friendships

Learn to make two new meal and two new baked good recipes

Make a 2019 vision board

Moisturize more of myself

Say one nice thing about my body to myself every day

Get a haircut, you ragamuffin

Do things that make me feel beautiful

Forward

 

Sleepwalk with me

My on- and off-again friend, depression, has silently, slowly been holding me back, like an older sibling with her palm on my forehead as I swing my fists, unable to strike my oppressor. This is not my friend depression’s usual approach with me; usually, she comes in slowly, getting ever louder as she pushes my pressure points and sore spots. Unlike for many, my depression is usually a screaming, crying pain, rather than an inert whimper. Ever the shapeshifter, depression arrived this year and made writing and painting excruciatingly painful – but in creation’s pain, it became so much more important, worthwhile, and fulfilling when I was able to eke out a piece of work.

A friend (a real friend, not my jerk depression) recently shared an essay I read years ago, that resonated differently for me this time. In “The Cost of Daydreaming,” Vivian Gornick writes:

Ever since I could remember, I had feared being found wanting. If I did the work I wanted to do, it was certain not to measure up; if I pursued the people I wanted to know, I was bound to be rejected; if I made myself as attractive as I could, I would still be ordinary looking.

Around such damages to the ego a shrinking psyche had formed: I applied myself to my work, but only grudgingly; I’d make one move toward people I liked, but never two; I wore makeup but dressed badly. To do any or all of these things well would have been to engage heedlessly with life — love it more than I loved my fears — and this I could not do. What I could do, apparently, was daydream the years away: to go on yearning for “things” to be different so that I would be different.

When I was growing up, I tackled my “fear of being found wanting” with achievement. I worked tirelessly to be praised and to have a piece of paper or a stroke of ink proving that I was not wanting. When I graduated from college, a switch flipped in me. My ceaseless endeavors towards having the best and most education gave me a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to be free. I wanted to accept myself and let go.

It was only after I’d given myself space and accepted myself that I started to feel my psyche shrinking, as Gornick said. It took years of ebbing and flowing, but here I am, half myself in everything I do, sleepwalking, latching onto big goals and outcomes that are always just around the bend, out of my reach. No ink nor paper to show for all of my half-work and bleary-eyed daydreaming, but also no satisfaction.

Creating is an uphill battle for me lately. I get excited about a project, prep for it, and drag myself through molasses to get started. Every brush or keystroke makes me feel more myself and more satisfied with my life, but each is harder than the last. For me, art is about revealing myself; laying myself bare: here are the colors I love; here is my weakness; here is my strength; here is the nose I got in the neighborhood of correct; here are the people I care about; here’s what I was too self-conscious to paint right the first time, but got right the second time; here is how I spend the last slants of late fall light after coming home from work. Since starting to paint for clients in 2011, I’ve had to unlearn my instinct to poke fun at what I do to alleviate some of the pressure of hoping people like what I have to share. I have had to stand next to my writing and my paintings and say, “Here I am. This is me.”

unnamed

The only piece of art I’ve finished in four months is this painting of Miranda July for Sandy, a person who has always supported me and artistically inspired me. I’m proud of this piece because I think I got Miranda July’s spirit right, but also because it was a trial through the thick of my creative mental blocks lately. In the end, I had to fight the final boss of my depression: putting all of myself into something and accepting I might fail with no one to blame but myself. I knew that if I were to stop, it would be an even greater failure. I would be going back on my word (and my Venmo) with someone who believes in me.

Gornick’s essay talks about the vacancies left when you stop daydreaming and start holding yourself accountable for the moments in life that you hold onto or let pass away. Knowing what activities help me grasp these moments has been half the battle: it has taken years to peel back the layers of myself and find that all along, the things that make me happy are the activities I loved as a little girl. Now that I can see the emptiness of achievements and the wholeness of art, I have a map of where I’m going and what I’m fighting for, but the guiding force is the people who see me, who have always seen me, as capable of failure, but as more than enough.

Depresh Mode

This is where the hot dog man gave me free M&Ms and he said I could get him back, but it was days before I graduated. His stand has been replaced by four bougie food trucks, but his kindness remains in my increasingly shitty memory. I remember when they put in that huge Pepperdine sign on the top of that building. That shop used to be the ice cream place where Wolf Blitzer would get his black and white milkshakes. Here’s the dorm where I had the partially lofted bed and where I piled sweats on after sleeping outside in the winter for Sufjan tickets. Here’s the dorm where our ceiling collapsed while I was in the shower.

It’s interesting what sticks and what doesn’t. I had lived in fear of returning to my alma mater: a place where I was accompanied by painful social anxiety, catty friendships, and burgeoning depression. It wasn’t the place exactly. I loved the warmth of the glass stairwell in Rome Hall on the way to my job at the Writing Center. I liked the country campus where I took classes with my favorite professor, a charming and hard-nosed British woman who would eventually help me get into graduate school. I lived to run for the last Metro at U Street after shows at the Black Cat, catching my breath holding onto the disgusting train poles as we laughed.

When I was in college, I didn’t have a name for why I cried. I had the music of sad men, I had a relationship that was full of strife, I had the protective shield of being (militantly) anti-drinking, and I had a handful of counselors who had tried to put me in the box of homesick college students. I was a mess.

One universal truth I’ve found when talking to other sufferers of mental illness is the relief of a diagnosis – putting a name to pain and discomfort that has been rattling around for years. I didn’t get properly diagnosed with mental illness until I was 26, having a second go at settling into a city in Austin, TX. Suddenly it made sense why college had been so hard for me. I lashed out at other people because I couldn’t make sense of my emotions, and in a hard environment to find true happiness, I didn’t have the strength to get there.

This is all to say, revisiting the scene of the crime helped me heal. It helped me feel the joy of my Austin life, of my medicated life, of my strong friendships, and of my happy relationship. I learned not to fear the memories, because buried beneath it all was me. Even through depression and confusion, there I am, graciously accepting some chocolate from a stranger, even though the stranger is gone and that version of myself is too.

Moon ‘tude

Yesterday, my friend Lexie (who runs the amazing blog Copper Oranges – of endless inspiration to me, especially the posts about her wedding) posted her answers to the Moon List – a series of questions to ask every moon cycle. As I’ve been writing for myself and not sharing, I found the Moon List to be an excellent exercise in introspection and taking stock of what’s going on around me, and I wanted to share. Some of you may know I have an adversarial relationship with the moon, but some of you may also know that I love the idea of regular check-ups to keep the chain on my bicycle brain greased. Thanks to Lexie for the great new practice!

01    OBJECT (NEW): A NEW OBJECT THAT HELD SIGNIFICANCE

The saga of the oven is familiar to most of my friends and family. My favorite thing to do on a Sunday is to roast a chicken and sit on the couch in the golden hour and listen to music. This is an activity that I attempted oh so many times in the (ahem) humble apartment Sam and I have lived in for about a year. Our previous oven was charming: it had a piece of metal that you had to navigate to fit baking dishes inside. It was charred black from years (maybe decades?) of people trying to roast chicken during the golden hour on Sunday. It filled the house with practically billowing smoke, and it cooked at whatever temperature it damn well felt like. This month, for its last trick, it stopped turning on altogether.

The new oven arrived after two calendar weeks of using the Instant Pot, complaining to our property manager, complaining to the property manager’s supervisor, complaining to all of my friends and family, using exactly 100% of my capacity to negotiate, and four hours of our maintenance friend cutting apart our kitchen island to fit an incorrectly sized oven. But by god, if it isn’t the sweetest thing to evenly cook a gorgeous chicken. If it isn’t the sweetest thing to pull perfectly golden cookies out of the oven. If it isn’t just the absolute sweetest thing to cook in that 100+ degree heat without turning the whole apartment into a fire hazard. The oven represents more than that. It represents my perseverance, my will to stand up for myself and my family, and my ability to treasure nice things, in a life so often marked by just getting by.

02    OBJECT (OLD): AN OLD OBJECT THAT TOOK ON NEW/DIFFERENT KIND OF MEANING

A couple of weeks ago, a UPS man left a box of jewels on my door. The box contained broken brooches, forgotten pearls, treasured costume jewelry, and neglected rings. Friends and family collected these beautiful items for a wedding project I’m working on that has taken on enormous significance, symbols of my love and community.

03    UTILITY: DESCRIBE AN OCCASION WHEN YOU FELT USEFUL.

See: oven gladiator.

04    STORY: WHAT’S THE BEST STORY YOU HEARD?

Della and Dan, my lovely neighbors – a true gift to my group of friends in the last year – recently got engaged. Their engagement story isn’t mine to share, but suffice to say there was a beautiful charcuterie board, a song, and a lot of love. I really treasure these moments from my late twenties and early thirties, after years of my friends and I dating duds and flailing to find ourselves, with or without partners. To see my people’s glow reflected off their people… now isn’t that the sweetest thing.

05    NATURE: AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE NATURAL WORLD

I’m an inside kid and the most I’m willing to venture into nature is to see a beautiful body of water and get my hair wet. During our trip to Chicago, Sam and I woke up to a perfect (perfect) 74 degree day with tufts of clouds and took the #6 bus down to my old home, Hyde Park. We sat on the (man-made), bouldery beach, our bums getting wet from the lapping waves. I thought, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

06    MINOR SECRETS: DESCRIBE SOMETHING YOU DID IN SECRET.

Put all of Sam’s favorite songs on the jukebox at the Aristocrat Lounge. It wasn’t a secret for long.

07    PROPORTION: A SPECIFIC MOMENT THAT REMINDED YOU OF THE SCALE OF THE UNIVERSE; THAT YOU ARE PART OF A GREATER WHOLE

See: lapping Hyde Park waves.

08    CULTURE: A LIST OF FRONT-BURNER INTERESTS FROM THE LAST MONTH

Queer Eye.

The book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson.

The Romanovs.

Travis McElroy.

Kacey Musgraves.

09    WHAT WAS MISSING LAST MONTH?

A healthy, balanced, budget-friendly, home-cooked diet.

The Wedding Planner (I’m J. Lo)

I love songs about the wonders of the universe – the big, mysterious treasures of our world – that include a sweetheart. I love Jens Lekman’s “How We Met, the Long Version” that begins at the big bang and ends with a first kiss. I love Kacey Musgrave’s discussion of photosynthesis, neon fish, “and then there is you.” I love it when Brian Wilson sings that you’ll never need to doubt his love, “as long as there are stars above you.”

So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise when I tell you that I’m a romantic. When I met Sam, I was completely burnt out on online dating, on hopes up and hopes in the trash, and on opening myself up to the possibility of a real partnership. Our relationship was a slow burn (Kacey Musgraves again), but once he pried my heart open with a crowbar (which included homemade steak dinners, feats of courage, and open-minded listening), I’ve been hooked ever since.

In addition to being a romantic, I love a project. I’ve painted series such as heroines, online cats, and myself; I’ve done cooking projects like learning to cook all my favorite soups from Soupbox; and I’ve made something every day of a whole year. I love a list to color-code and cross-reference. I love to X things off and add bullet points.

I am not, however, someone who grew up with elaborate daydreams about my wedding. I did ask my mom if I could wear a green pantsuit (yes) and if I could marry my favorite person (her – and no), but that was the extent of it. As a dedicated daydreamer, romantic, and project planner, my enthusiasm about my own wedding came along with our (mutually agreed upon) engagement. Suddenly, a big ole party to plan with all my favorite people and my most favorite person of all. No cats allowed, unfortunately.

Wedding planning has become a way to deal with my anxiety and burnout from daily life (the grind, the news, the World Cup, etc.). It also causes a little of the anxiety, but then it again soothes the anxiety, like a snake eating its own tail. Wedding planning has become part of my expression of creativity and my self-care, and much of what I’ve learned can carry over to any big, explosive life situation – be it good or bad:

  1. Choose a menial task that brings you joy when things stop being fun

For me that’s been making pom poms. Lord, do I love a pom pom. The pom pom making came about from my anxiety about living flowers. That’s right, baby – I can conjure anxiety from just about anything, first of all, nature. In an effort to limit the amount of blooms we’ll be paying for and arranging feverishly right before the big day, I wanted a long-term DIY project that could be a little more representative of our style and values. I’ve made about 100 so far, and found myself wrapping colored yarn around the pom pom contraption after my (second – not my fault) car accident in as many months. Something fun can come from my negative energy, and the fun can help dissipate the bad mojo.

  1. Give your money to people who seem cool

When we started our venue hunt, there was one place that seemed like the clear winner. It was psychedelic, beautiful, quirky, strange, and large. It was the weirdest place I could imagine getting married in Austin, and I had to have it. The man who showed us around was delightful, but extremely hands off. He didn’t care to know about us as people or our vision, and he certainly wouldn’t be there on that day. Sam encouraged me to be open to other places, so we trudged down a gravel driveway toward Tiny T’s ranch house to meet Spike.

Spike told us incredible stories of fun and love that had taken place on the ranch. She showed us wedding albums and showed us her home. She introduced us to her horses and asked about us. She told us the incredible story of the tiny chapel that sits in the pasture. She is a writer (like us!) and a lover of love (like us!). She was open and accommodating. We shut the door to the ranch house, looked at each other, and said, “That’s the one.”

Meeting with Spike helped cement the philosophy of my wedding planning that had been floating around in my conversations with Sam. Not only are the vows, playlist, centerpieces, food, and wedding party a reflection of our life together – so are the people we give our money to. These are the people who aren’t family or friends, but are so intimately connected to us that it should absolutely be someone who wants to get to know us and who is excited about what we want to do. People who take your spark of excitement and light their own are so important to your projects. We used this rubric to pick a wedding coordinator, photographer, and party. So far, so good!

P.S.

For me, this means hiring a lot of women who are vouched for by other women. Incorporating women into your wedding is one feminist wedding tip from our amazing photographer Diana Ascarrunz.

  1. Ask for help

This is a hard one for me. I’m not a control freak (I’m a control friend) but I do often feel like, if I need to get something done, the most reliable person I know is my damn self. I’ve asked for Sam’s help with all manner of things, and he’s always game, as my partner in planning. The harder part for me is asking for favors, discounts, and money (surprise: a state of Texas employee cannot pay for the wedding of the frickin’ century on her astronomical, Elon Musk salary).

So far, I’ve learned that my instinct to ask for lower prices is a good one. People understand all too well that weddings are expensive and they do what they can to help, especially if you’re planning far ahead.

I have an army of creative friends I can’t wait to ask for help as I take on more and more idiotic DIYs while living in a one bedroom!

  1. Give it a day

Lord, I am bad at this one. When I want something, I want it. Right. Now. But that’s why I have a Sam. He has a rule of threes – we have to pursue three options before deciding on anything big ticket. This has made all the difference. This is a double lesson: listen to your collaborators and hold your horses.

∙  ∙  ∙

Woo! That’s me getting over my big fear of oversharing about wedding planning. I’m so open to all of your tips about wedding planning, big projects, collaborating, hiring helpers, ETC. and on and on forever. Please give them to me!

Let’s Get Out of This Country

Yesterday, one of my all-time favorite albums, Let’s Get Out of This Country by Camera Obscura, turned 12. In 2006, I was a fresh college student. I had spent the last couple of years in my hometown not hiding the fact that I was too cool for the suburbs (my Myspace profile song was “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” by Belle & Sebastian, subtly). For all my complaining, I had the hardest time fitting in in college, missed my home friends dearly, and figured out maybe it wasn’t a place I was trying to get away from – it was me.

Camera Obscura hit me like a ton of bricks with Let’s Get Out of This Country. Sweeping strings and cheerful melodies and lyrics about trying your damndest to be happy – what more could an 18-year-old need?

I’ve tried to excerpt the title track’s lyrics in some meaningful way, but honestly, listen to it. If it doesn’t remind you of the ache of being a teenager, driving past cornfields, and wanting someone’s affection and validation so badly it hurts, I’ll give you your money back. Tracyanne Campbell, the most perfect twee frontperson since Stuart Murdoch, sings, “Let’s get out of this country / I’ll admit, I’m bored with me.”

I told myself this summer, I’m going to celebrate where I am. I’m going to love my home, my body, my partner, my city, my pool, and my work. I’m going to read my story as something new and fresh, a soon-to-be bestseller, a beach read instead of a murder mystery or an atmospheric modernist novella. I’m going to use the ingredients I have to make something great. Like Pam on The Office, I get 3 additional vacation days plunked into my account on June 1st – and I always want to keep my pretties safe, for a trip to Bermuda or a long weekend in the Hill Country, ya know? However, just like Pam, I made it exactly -4 days before deciding to take my vacation days and get the hell out of Dodge. When the anniversary of my favorite album came around right as I booked our tickets, I felt 18 again. “Let’s get out of this country / I have been so unhappy / Smell the jasmine, my head will turn.” It’s time for travel to turn my head right around.

Sam and I are headed back to Chicago, my first time showing him around in the sweet spot of July, when it’s perpetually a little hot, a little drunk, and little late to be walking home at night. Instead of plowing headfirst into the Malört, I want to be able to bring back something fresh from the garden of Chicago to add to the metaphorical spice kitchen of my Austin life. I want to find a cathedral. I want to be dislodged like I was when I was 18.

I have made countless aspirational lists, small goals and big goals, to-dos and to-don’ts. So instead, I’ve decided to pursue feelings. If I’m going to get out of this country (because Texas is a country, right?), I’m going to get something out of it that can last me through the fall.

Freedom

By all accounts, I have a lot of freedom. I can tweak my work schedule to come home at 4.30 pm to sit by the pool. I have lax painting deadlines and seemingly endless free time. Why don’t I feel free? A lot of this is the pressure I put on myself, and some of it is my good pal mental illness. I always feel like I should be doing something – a pathology that a therapist pointed out to me years ago. “You do know that you don’t have to do everything, right?” Reader, I didn’t. I didn’t know. Being an adult meant getting my chores done, having a fulfilling social life, working my butt off at my art, and having big goals and aspirations. So, this summer, something new: no daily quotas. If I get nothing done, well, so be it. If I paint the last supper in one go, so be it. Both things have equal weight. The days I do nothing give me the fuel for the days I do something. I’m going to pursue that summer feeling.

Fun

One of my least favorite phrases in the “English” language is “the Summertime Chi.” Please god, why? However, the concept has a name for a reason. Summer in Chicago cannot be paralleled.

Street festival after music festival after late night patio after beach afternoon after boat ride after free day at the museum – and then it’s over. Austin doesn’t always feel this way. I feel like I’m dragging people out of their A/C. I feel like I’m searching out the next thing to do, instead of it plopping into my lap. I am hoping my trip to Chicago gives me that boost to chase fun, by any means necessary: to say “screw it” to my problems when it means a hot sauce festival, or a comedy show, or a swimming hole.

Peace

I’ve been hiding out. I’ve been radio silent on the blog. Why? I’m afraid to bore everyone around me with the one thing that really sparks enthusiasm from me this year: our wedding. I’ve always loved weddings, but many of my friends aren’t shy about their negative opinions of weddings, marriage, and the wedding industrial complex. Fam, the wedding industrial complex is only as strong as you want it to be. So while my IRL vocal vomit of excitement over Save the Dates and dresses and DIY projects has been a leaky tap, I’ve been shy about writing about it here.

I hope to find peace with my passion over this event and this union and to share something that has me creatively inspired. I hope to not be my own worst critic. I hope to fight the strongest bit of the wedding industrial complex for me, which is the backlash that makes me ashamed. I love color-coded spreadsheets and shoe shopping. When Campbell sang, “Find a cathedral so you can convince me I am pretty,” I felt that. Convince me I’m worthy. But, well, fuck it. I’m worthy, full stop. I want to find peace in knowing that who I am and what I do is only as important and valid as I decide it is! I’ve decided it is.

∙ ∙ ∙

The holy trilogy of summer feelings: Freedom, fun, and peace. Sometimes, what I have isn’t quite enough. What I need is a new set of priorities, and I hope I find them in the Summertime Chi – or maybe in a 12-year-old summer soundtrack.

 

The Copy Clerk

Last month, I asked friends to reframe their lives in terms of a new story. I gave no direction other than that it had to be a way of thinking about your life in a novel way – a way of seeing yourself in a different light. Silvia de la Peña did not disappoint. Without further ado, Silvia’s story, inspired by her love of Chekhov.

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It was evening. The sun was setting, casting a golden hue over every long aisle of tables and chairs in the office. Silvianna Alexandrovna Ivanovna sat hunched over at her small table, quill in hand, working on the very last assignment for the day. ‘Another word for grand … Must think of another word for grand …’

Clack. Clack. Clack. The sound of black boots walking across the cement floor grew closer, a long black skirt swishing with every step. The chief supervisor of the copy house, Lizotchka Kudrinsky, stopped at the side of Silvianna’s desk.

“Katerina …” the supervisor began.

“She left an hour ago,” Silvianna replied.

“Who did?”

“Katerina.”

The supervisor lowered her round spectacles and peered down at Silvianna from above the tops of the frames. “As I was saying …” she continued. “Katerina, we really need this copy within the next thirty minutes, we simply must have it by then. The governor’s ice skating gala depends upon it. If they don’t have invitations, who will know if they’ve been invited?”

Swish. Clack. Swish. Clack. Lizotchka Kudrinsky walked down the aisle back to her desk at the front of the room.

‘You’re invited to the grand ice skating gala,’ Silvianna thought. ‘You’re invited to one especially grand ice skating gala … the grandest of all ice skating galas … where all your dreams can come true.’ As she thought of more ways to say “grand,” she swiped the quill against her forehead. Silvianna marveled at the amount of oil that appeared on the feather. ‘My powder said matte and the mister promised hours of a shine-free face, yet here I am again at five o’clock with an oily forehead.’ She wiped her forehead with her finger this time and looked at it for some time. ‘I shall gather and press my excess facial oil into a rose scented serum and sell it to ladies with dry skin. Then they will apply it to their faces in the morning, hoping to stay glowing all day. I could make millions of rubles! It would be … grand.’

From the front of the room, the chief supervisor cleared her throat and glanced up at her worker. She was eating from a small bowl of halved red potatoes. She stabbed one potato with her fork and pointed at the clock on the wall with it. “Katerina,” she said, “time is ticking.”

“Yes, Madame,” Silvianna replied. She stared down at the paper. Was it really to be a grand ice skating gala? Would there be roasted chestnuts and tea served by the frozen lake, like last time? Would they offer tours of the governor’s palace, like last time?

Silvianna gazed out the window along the side of the large room. The golden hour was nearly over, the trees and the sky outside had turned dark. She thought of her mother at home – had she locked all the doors so that no one could get in? Was she safe on the sofa, knitting a blanket? She thought of her father – would he like the sanitarium? Would he be lonely? Would he mind the staff, would he listen to instructions and not bother anyone with his episodes at night? Did he miss his mother? Silvianna thought of her last conversation with her grandmother before she passed several months before.

Her grandmother had been lying on the cot, holding her hand out and pointing toward her bedroom. “Silviannka,” she said. “Take my lamp. It’s in my bedroom. The one with the flowers. I want you to have it.” She put her hand down and closed her eyes.

Silvianna went into the bedroom and spotted the lamp. It was set upon a tall dresser, surrounded by trinkets and tiny pieces of dust. She returned to her grandmother’s bedside. “Thank you, Grandmother. I will take it later,” she said.

Her grandmother, with her eyes closed still, nodded. “Okay,” she said, and went off to sleep.

Silvianna thought of the lamp now. Should she have taken it? Did she have room in her small apartment for another table lamp? She wished she could have one more conversation with her grandmother.

“Five thirty!” cried the supervisor from the front of the room.

Clack clack. Swish swish. She appeared at Silvianna’s side again. “Katerina, do you have the invitation ready?”

Silvianna dipped her pen in the ink well and scribbled quickly onto the paper. She slid it across the desk to the supervisor.

“Ah ha …” said Lizotchka Kudrinsky as she read. “You’re invited to a capital ice skating gala held by the governor … Capital fare will be served, and all will have a capital time.” She lowered her spectacles again and peered down at Silvianna. “You may go,” she said.

Silvianna buttoned her coat in a hurry and stepped out onto the street. Suddenly she was in the mood for tea and roasted chestnuts.

The Flamingo Queen: This Is 30

I’m a straggler – so many of my friends are already in their dirty, flirty, nerdy 30s and loving it, even those who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into their own 30th birthday parties. This is (mercifully!) the last month of my 20s, with only 17 days to go. As I hurtle head-on into that milestone, I’ve been taking stock of my life. There’s a lot of talk in those horrible “Why aren’t millennials buying Ferraris?” articles about people of my generation not being where we thought we’d be, mostly based on our parents’ lives, at this age. I’m not a homeowner (thank GOURD – if I ever have to do a lawn care task, it will be too soon), I’m not married (on my way there), I’m not making enough money to support a family, and I haven’t made a name for myself in my career, in my artistic life, in my popstar aspirations (Emma XCX), etc. On this blog I spend a lot of time musing on what I’ve learned, but today I want to imagine the person I hope to be in my 30s, the things I hope to learn, and the cocktails I hope to drink.

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  1. Try an aperol spritz: what are they? People in New York drink them. I want one.
  2. Wear jumpsuits: you’re really cool if you wear a jumpsuit, it’s science. I must find one that works for my decidedly short corporeal form.
  3. Speaking of the tragedy of corporeality, stop self-body shaming. Part of this is knowing who I am and demanding people give me respect and adoration where I am in the present.
  4. Enjoy the silence. My therapist always asks me why I’m afraid of being boring, and I get all in a huff. I’m not afraid of being boring – no chance – I’m afraid of being bored. But why? One goal is to let there be empty parts of my life and to stop filling every nook and cranny with the junk food of life: people and things that make me feel bad in the end.
  5. Paint more. Yesterday, I was so tired from work and post-work weight training that I could barely stand to paint. But I did it. I painted three strokes and collapsed into couch potato life. Forcing myself to do a tiny bit is better than adding another day to the creative trash heap. Keep going.
  6. Challenge myself physically.
  7. Go to Big Bend. When I was 13, I went to Santa Fe with my mom to see Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked for so many years. I still look back at those drives through the desert with boundless fondness. The desert: a land without allergies. An endless landscape of reds and purples. I want to feed that part of me that is a baby Georgia O’Keeffe. I know this is possible without (gulp) camping, and I’m ready to make it happen.
  8. Ride my god dang bicycle, which has sat lonely in the below-the-stairs bike rack since LAST MAY.
  9. Walk, walk, walk.
  10. Be proactive about my health. This means finding a doctor I don’t actively loathe, continue collecting sensible footwear, and skipping the third glass of wine.
  11. Plan the most Sam and Emma wedding possible – and don’t cave to the pressure to do it any other way. That’s right! I’m buying the pink flamingos that are on my wedding Amazon wish list. Wedding spoilers abound!
  12. Cultivate a community where we live. This is the first home I’ve ever had as an adult where this feels feasible. Our neighbors look out for each other, bring by treats, finish bottles of wine with us, take in our stranded packages, and share their dogs. I want to work on being a neighbor I would enjoy and appreciate.
  13. Wash my face every night, even on nights when I could fall asleep sitting up in my clothes.
  14. Volunteer my time.
  15. Learn a new craft. I think I might be ready to take the plunge into fiber art, after months of channeling my wedding anxiety into pom poms.
  16. Practice for skeeball. I’m pretty good, but I could be very good, right? 
  17. Send care packages. This used to be one of my favorite activities. I love assembling prayer candles and candies and shipping them to the people I miss so much.
  18. Defend myself when I’m feeling attacked. Boy, is this a big one this week. After a crappy interaction with a doctor and a friend, I smiled and nodded and, in so doing, internalized some of their piss poor attitudes about me. I bounced back, but why didn’t I speak up? That’s not me. Defending oneself is often about being vulnerable, almost crying, and trying to control one’s temper and timbre. Why don’t I trust myself to do that? I am powerful.
  19. Listen to a new band every week.
  20. See live music two times per month. A new study finds that seeing live music twice a month can help you live happier and longer. Let’s live forever, baby!
  21. Seek adventures, big and small. Take the long way home. Say yes.
  22. Wake up early. Early mornings, my old friend, make me feel more like myself and are the engine of my creative life.
  23. Keep in touch with people I miss and love.
  24. Pay compliments.
  25. Go to therapy regularly, even though it’s expensive and sometimes I don’t have much to say. Keep pushing.
  26. Hustle. Promote my business and make art that changes people’s moods.
  27. Save money. Hello, wedding joint savings account, my first real foray into saving (that’s right, mom).
  28. Support my friends’ art. They’re incredibly talented and deserve my attention and money.
  29. Push myself at work. Put in the time.
  30. Be the Flamingo Queen. A couple of weeks ago, I wore this dress. I was nervous to attend a formal event in something so Emma and so loud, but all night, people (timidly and bombastically) came up to me to pay compliments to the blessed dress. Getting in the elevator after the wedding, a little girl said to me, “I like your dress.” Then, quietly, she turned to her mom and said, “She looks like the Flamingo Queen.” The happiness and wisdom I gained in that moment is unparalleled in my 20s. People respond to positivity, to me being myself, to statements, and to playfulness. I had felt unsure if I was still young enough to make that statement and to be the Flamingo Queen, but b*tch, where’s my crown? Watch the throne: 30-year-old Emma is coming.

Block party

When I started this blog in September 2016, I was a bit of a mess. I felt really isolated, really bad about my current state of affairs, and really ready to make a structured change. Some things about the blog have improved my life significantly – writing about weight gain and how to be honest with myself come to mind. Some things have not stuck the same way – I’m thinking of pieces about getting back to old habits and de-cluttering my dresser (oh lord, if you saw my dresser now, dear reader). Writing has always been a way to narrativize my existence, a way to create a vision of progress when the predominant feeling is stagnation. There’s a whole field (that I don’t understand!) called narrative medicine that studies patients telling stories rather than just describing symptoms, and how it helps physicians understand the individual and their affliction more fully. This field has always given me a sense of validation for my writing and my storytelling – if a doctor thinks stories save lives, well then, my GOD…

Sometimes, just sometimes, the chaos and mess in my life resist the pull of narrative like a cat resists taking a pill. I worship stories about the magic of the ordinary, certainly (please see my masters thesis) but if you’re not Virginia Woolf (I’m not), telling a story of how you went home, idled on the couch until the sun went down, and went to bed – well, let’s just say that you might not be all that compelling.

My problem isn’t writer’s block exactly – it’s something more existential. Liver’s block (that sounds like what happens to you after the infinity ciders of SXSW)? Framer’s block? Experiencer’s block? Unable to tell the story of my progress to myself, I am unable to make art from it. I don’t feel like I’m learning to live and care for myself better, and as such, I’ve written a big, fat, critically-scrutinized THE END.

Once a year, SXSW comes around and reminds me about the best parts of my life and my city, and this year, it has kicked my experiencer’s block right in the tush. The fun and activity of new experiences has me shook. Now’s not the time for major revisions to the narrative of my life – it’s time for a new story entirely. I used to start new stories with great frequency earlier in my twenties. I wrote an academic story, then I wrote a lapsed academic story.  I wrote a bad boyfriend story or two that were published to fan acclaim. I wrote a new state story that was warm and inviting. I wrote a serious story, I wrote a funny story, I wrote a drunken sea shanty. You get the picture. It isn’t the characters or the setting that need retooling. No, it’s the life inside the narrative itself that needs to be willed into existence. I need to strike the right tone, to make the big choices, to discover hidden truths in the same old structures that I still call home.

I’ve decided to start with short stories – with little somethings about how I spend a day. I’ll post the greatest hits here. Other creative people, I’d love it if you could submit your own one-day-stories that I can share with my people. How are you understanding your own progress in the context of your ordinary life? What’s the driving force, who’s the antagonist, and what’s the style? Together, let’s see if we can start a new story.