Journey to Health, Odds + Ends, The Work of Becoming

thoughts on self-care

“A world in which self-care has to be such a trendy topic is a world that is sick. Self-care should not be something we resort to because we are so absolutely exhausted that we need some reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure. True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.” – Brianna Wiest

I spent Friday night alone to rest. It was a busy week, and I had a bad cold for all of it. I really, really need rest, but in order to do so, I had to cancel on a holiday party I was invited to (which I really, really didn’t want to do).

I have a complicated relationship with the idea of “self-care,” because I think that being kind to yourself is one of the most fundamental things we all (but in particular, we women) need to learn how to do, but also I think that lots of selfishness, consumerism and blatant bad decisions get excused by calling it “self-care.”

Last spring, when I was the most strung out and burnt out by the life I was living, I wrote about self-care. I re-read that short essay now, and I cringe a little bit, but I also feel a kind of sad-happiness for that girl. On the one hand, my attempts at self-care seem flimsy in comparison to circumstances I was trying to care my way out of, but on the other hand? That girl was learning so much. I was learning so much.

One of the primary things I was learning was that even though life is so damn hard it turns our bones brittle and our skin rough, each waking minute doesn’t have to be a battle.

I was thinking about “self-care” last night when I was home sick, because I found myself practicing some of the form of self-care I used to rely on. I used to put so much stock into baking a batch of cookies or reading a book to make me feel better. I remember pleading with myself just to get to the end of the day or end of the week so I could zone out in front of the television, or lose myself in a book, or in the mindless of baking. These habits alone, though, rarely brought me what I needed, because – and this is what I know now – self-care isn’t giving yourself permission to escape when you find yourself breaking. Self-care is working hard to live a life that doesn’t break you.

I said this last week too: Life is hard. We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and its bringing new waves of grief. I’m getting my financial house in order, but I’m not there yet, and my chest sometimes gets tight with money-worry. My network of friendship has splintered, and even though I maintain some dear, old friends and have met some new, wonderful people, my circle of relationships are, on the whole, smaller and less intimate than ever. I feel lonely sometimes. I read the news, and then, like every woman I know, I have to grapple again with the ways I’ve experienced harassment and assault and violence and degradation. Life is still as hard as it ever was, but I now have a life that can handle it all better.

I spent spring 2017 learning how to gather up strength inside myself, and then I spent summer 2017 living a life I no longer needed escape from. This was – and is still – the kind of self-care I’m trying to practice. Cultivating a life from which I don’t need to escape.

Last winter, I begged with the universe “why can’t it just be easier?” My life is easier now. It just is. I got to bake last night, not because I needed something to make me feel better equipped to face my life, but because I wanted to. Because it was fascinated to see how butter and sugar caramelized and then crystallized into these delicate, lacy cookies.

I said the same thing last week, but god, it feels good to not have to escape anymore.

Odds + Ends, On Writing, Overcoming, The Work of Becoming

snapshots of a happy summer + why i’ve been quiet

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I’ve left this space deliberately blank for several months, but I think I’m ready to return to it.

I spent the last three seasons living my life. For years, since I was a teenager (maybe earlier), I had the sense that there was some fullness of experience that I wasn’t getting my hands on. I paired with a crippling fear of what may come should I try to get to wherever that fullness was, and I lived inside of small boxes. It’s hard to explain to people who have been less afraid to me how deeply joyful and fundamentally expansive and overwhelmingly delightful it is to say yes instead of no. It’s wild and full, and it’s oxygen to empty lungs.

I spent the better part of the year hacking away at all these vines that had grown up around my life. Light after darkness? When you can claw your way to it, it’s glorious. It shows up on your skin and in your bones.

One of my uncles said to me: You look happy in your eyes. And my mom said: You don’t look scared anymore. And countless people said: You just look different, in a really good way. I told them this is what good looks like on me.

This summer, I saw things that I’d once clung to slip off my skin like water.

Between May and November, I read very little. It wasn’t an active aversion – books weren’t a struggle, but no longer were they a salve. One of the first warm afternoons in May, I took a blanket and a stack of books into the yard. I spent three hours moving my blanket to follow the sun, and not once did I open my books. Over and over, I found myself more content to sit quietly with my own thoughts, than I was to fill my mind with someone else’s. What little I did read, though, was brilliant, and radical, and healing.

Television, too, has lost some of it’s appeal. I’ve written before about how much I love well made TV, and while that’s still true enough, I don’t have the same stomach for it anymore. I still haven’t seen the new season of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, and I haven’t even cared to give Mindhunter a chance. This is nothing intellectual or enlightening, I can still fritter away hours like a champion, I just don’t have the need I used to to anesthetize. Why would I, when all of a sudden, mine was so bright, and so beautiful, so equal parts terrifying and exhilarating?

I also wrote very little. Circumstance often left me without a laptop or without the paper manuscripts I work off. A notebook and pen were easy to carry with me, so I wrote extensively for myself and about extensively. But the littleworldsI’vespentyearscreating? I left them empty and untended to for months. I am coming back to these, but I’m finding it harder to slip into someone else’s skin now that mine has grown so easy.

Of all the changes I experienced this summer, losing my anxiety was most exciting. At some point this spring, it began to steam off my body the way fog burns away underneath a rising sun.

Do you know what it’s like to feel at ease in the world? For a long, long time I didn’t. I’ve writtena lotabout howmy anxiety is (was) a constant negotiation. I carried Xanex and apples with me, chamomile tea and a book in my bag. I was always bracing for what next thing would cause that awful, nauseous fear. And then I woke up one day, and it was gone. New people? Crowded rooms? Spending time with someone new? With several new people? With a whole room of new people? May, June, and most of July were one long rope of anxiety triggers, and not once was I triggered. When a friend asked me how I was handling all these social situations I was describing, I laughed. Afraid of being rejected? People have done worse to me than not like me.

At the beginning of November, I felt the first tremors of dread that I’d felt in six months. It took me a minute to recognize that particular internal shaking, but when I did, I breathed through it. It’s going to be okay. Not because it’s meant to be, or because it has to be, but because it always has been.”

I cried, one Monday morning, when I realized that I’d spent an entire weekend meeting new people. Not once, in three days of introductions, did I want to peel back my own skin and hide. (Big, big thanks also to the man I was with).

I am now at ease.

It may be gone for just this season, but I really hope it’s not. Of all the things that have rolled away from me this year, my anxiety is the one thing I most hope will never, never return.

I spent much of June hot and in my underwear. I was living with people who were rarely at home when I was, and because of it, I spent most of my evenings alone, and on this beautiful porch. I’d set myself up with a book and maybe a glass of wine. The sun would set all pinks and oranges over the neighborhood. One night, I heard a little boy yell at this dad “no, you need to go to bed!” Another night, the pre-teens next door played basketball and worked on memorizing the lyrics to 1-800-273-8255. I listened The Weeknd (surprise soundtrack to my month of peace) on loop, and rarely opened my book. I was so much more content to lie on that sofa, and reflect on who I was. Who I might be. Life was (is, will always be) as astoundingly, fundamentally hard as it was ever, but the difference was (is) that it’s hard in ways I want to be awake for. I think that’s the reason why I’ve been foregoing so many of my old habits. I no longer want to be distracted. Comfort isn’t the endgame anymore.

When I was a freshman in college, I was far too deep in the throes of an anxious depression to experience that particular thrill of being on the precipice of that which you cannot fully grasp. June was me on that ledge. I called it an ecstatic explosion. I didn’t have any other words to explain the compounding joy of learning and relearning to live a life of my own choosing.

I know that I’ve rambling, and I know that a lot of this is vague, but this is my way of coming back. For two years, I found something hopeful and inspiring about writing here for an audience so small it could barely be counted. At some point, writing became another coping mechanism in my deep chest of survival tools. I’m ready to come back to blogging (I’m even giving this space a new name, y’all!), because I’m hoping it gives me a path back in to the fiction writing I’ve loved for so long.

Onward, right? Always, always onward.

On Writing, Short Stories

somewhere among the mountains

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I. Maria Elena   

Now that they’d finished negotiating the streets of suburban Tucson, the busy, distracting noise they’d made had fallen away. Silence rose up in its place, a third sister, ready to ride with them all the way to California.

Maria Elena adjusted the mounted GPS, and accelerated to pass a groaning pickup truck. Cecilia had been useful in relaying the GPS’s direction when they were making their way from their mother’s former home to the freeway, but now that they were on the road that would take them all the way to San Diego, she’d gone quiet, her eyes unfocused and her fingers plucking absently at the waist of her jeans. At least she was driving, Maria Elena though. Cecilia hadn’t protested when they’d retrieved the keys from their mother’s old neighbor, and she was double glad of that now. It was the natural order, that she should drive and Cecilia should ride, but it also have her hands something to do. Maria Elena checked her rearview mirror again, then her left and her right.

“Have you talked to mom yet?”

Cecilia rolled her head towards Maria Elena. “I texted her when we got to the car.”

“Thanks.”

“She told me to call when we got close.”

“Sure.”

Maria Elena nodded, shifted lanes. It had been five years since she and Cecilia had last seen each other. Christmas, with their mother, at the rented house in Tucson. An unremarkable holiday. Maria Elena brought cookies from the grocery store she managed, and Cecilia’s daughter Jamie, seventeen and weeks away from the inseminating incident that would make Cecilia a grandmother, spent the long weekend flipping through beauty magazines. The four woman got pedicures, exchanged gifts, watched a movie, and after three days, left. Cecilia to Fort Worth, and Maria Elena to Colorado Springs.

They’d spoken with more recently—they were sisters, of course—but their conversations were never more than perfunctory. Maria Elena providing Cecilia with a bulleted version of her separated life, and Cecilia doing the same.

They were only together now out of duty to their mother, because keeping her car was the condition upon which their mother had agreed to move into an assisted living facility with her own sister. If she moved, someone would drive the car from Tucson to San Diego. After the deal had been made, Maria Elena and Cecilia decided to make the drive together. Turn it into a long weekend, and help their mother settle into her new home.

Fighting back a beat of irritation, Maria Elena now wished she’d insisted upon making the trip alone: It didn’t need to be a two man job. Her palms tingled in the silence. As children, Cecilia had been the talker, the storyteller, the show. Maria Elena had always ceded attention to her sister, letting Cecilia take up all the air in the room. Why wasn’t she filling their silence now?

“Does mom like her new place?” Maria Elena asked.

“Seems to. She likes living with Tía Irma.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah, I’m glad.”

Cecilia let the conversation drop, and Maria Elena went back to focusing on the road. Traffic was dissipating the further they drove from the city. Maria Elena knew, from a childhood spent bouncing around the desert southwest, that they were driving into the mountains. By the time darkness fell, they’d been among them, their car one of the only ones crossing the cracked and buckled roads.

“How’s the grocery store?” Cecilia asked, rousing herself for the first time since they’d hit the freeway.

“Fine. It’s a grocery store. Last week, we ran a coupon for avocados, and ran out four hours after opening.”

“That’s crazy.”

“It was.” Maria Elena flashed her brights at a semi angling into their lane. “How’s Jamie?”

“Good. Pregnant again.”

Maria Elena sucked in her breath, making a sharp noise that she regretted as soon as Cecilia whipped her head around. “Wow! Her second?”

“Third.”

“Third?” Maria Elena colored. She’d been in the delivery room when Cecilia had birthed Jamie. She’d shared a bedroom with her bassinet. She’d poured baptismal water over the baby’s downy head. “How far along?”

“Still in the first trimester. She’s sick as a dog, though. Something about her boyfriend. My pregnancy was a breeze, but all three of hers have been bad.”

“They’re still not married?”

“No.” Cecilia’s fingers twisted her waistband. “But you know. It’s different now.”

“Of course.”

II. Cecilia

The sun shifted, and the sky split open, a violent, dusty orange. The sun hung, for a suspended second between the clouds and the mountain. Beneath its nakedness, everything glowed. Orange, red, gold, shot through in the dirt. Each sister exhaled.

“I’d forgotten—”

“How big?”

“How beautiful.”

Cecilia leaned her elbows into the dash, drinking in the light. They were driving into a bowl that would life back up into those mountains.

“Texas does not look like this”

“No?” Maria Elena laughed. Cecilia watched as her sister edged the speedometer a few miles higher. They were going ten over the speed limit now. As the cruise control beeped, Cecilia wondered if Maria Elena was trying to shorten the time they had to spend together, and alone. The engine growled softly underneath her. Cecilia cast around for something else to say.

“Somebody once told me,” she said, leaning back in her seat,” that the sun doesn’t set on the other side of the mountains. Only really good girls get to live on the other side, and they don’t have to go to sleep.”

“Why didn’t they have to sleep?”

“Because the sun doesn’t set.”

“But why doesn’t the sun set?”

Cecilia watched her sister’s eyes cycle from the road to the rearview mirror then back to the road. Maria Elena asked her question like Cecilia was posing a riddle, not telling a story. She kept an irritated sigh deep in her diaphragm.

“Because the girls on the other side of the mountain are good. They get more playtime, because they’re good.”

Maria Elena’s lips split open slowly, a smile finally pulling itself over her teeth. She moved slower than Cecilia remembered. Like she wasn’t used to having someone in front of her to respond to.

“Who told you that?”

“Patricia.”

“Mom’s friend Patricia?”

“Yes.”

“She did not.”

“She did too. Several times. That summer she lived with us in Jerome.”

“When did she tell you that?”

“Oh you know,” Cecilia waved her hand, remembering the season they’d spent with their mother’s friend in Jerome. Loneliest place in the world, and at eight years old, Cecilia had thought that even the wind in that town sounded sad. “Anytime I misbehaved. She didn’t like me very much.”

“You’re kidding me.” A produce truck passed the on the left. “She never told me that.”

“Yeah well, she liked you.”

Maria Elena didn’t say anything else. Cecilia looked over at her, and rolled her eyes. Her sister still had as much grace as a rock. Even as a little girl, Maria Elena had held herself in close. When they were teenaged, Maria Elena told Cecilia that she needed to say no more often, and Cecilia, loose from empties she’d been swiping from the bar that Maria Elena worked at, had laughed and told Maria Elena that she needed to say yes. Cecilia could see that her sister still kept herself rigid, so tight within herself that nothing could get out.

“Why did mom let her live with us? She was so awful to me.”

“We lived with her,” Maria Elena said.

“No, she lived with us.”

“At the house in Jerome?”

“Yes.”

“We lived with Patricia. It was her house, not mom’s.”

Cecilia took her feet off the dashboard. “Why did mom always tell me that was her house?”

“She wanted you to think she owned it.”

“Why?”

“Because she didn’t want you to think we were poor.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria Elena was being glib, Cecilia though, her own irritation growing.

Maria Elena laughed, and shook out what was left of her short hair. “You never asked me.”

“Mom’s told me recently that she owned that house.”

Maria Elena laughed again. “She lied to you.”

“I don’t believe it,” Cecilia muttered, “I swear mom owned that house.”

It was a small thing, Cecilia knew that, but she didn’t like not knowing. That had been the first years of her adulthood, after her mother had kicked her out and she and Maria Elena had move away from each other. It had come for her like cold water, everything from which her mother and sister had protected her. Struggle and pain, violence, want. She’d been a young mother by the time she’d had to confront the world, had to learn about it. Even in the darkening car, Cecilia could feel her own foolishness and ignorance. Twenty years old now, but still hot.

“Cecilia,” Maria Elena, said, gentler, “we didn’t have shoes that summer. How could mom have afforded a house?”

Night was coming down like a blanket across the desert, stars beginning to push themselves through the velvet. Cecilia made herself busy watching them out the passenger window. She knew, vaguely, that her irritation towards her sister was not about Maria Elena herself, but the idea of Maria Elena that Cecilia projected, but she didn’t know how to separate the two. It had been too long since she’d truly known her sister. What she assumed Maria Elena thought of her was all that Cecilia knew of Maria Elena. And, Cecilia realized with a sinking in her throat, all that Maria Elena likely knew about her. She watched as Maria Elena adjusted the GPS again, and the embarrassed anxiety of the movement made Cecilia twitch.

“What I remember about Patricia is her giving me Mexican candies,” Maria Elena said, returning to the subject like fingers to a smoothed stone.

“Sticky things, right? With chili powder on them?”

“Yes! You remember them?”

She made a gagging noise. “I remember them making me sick.”

Maria Elena laughed. “They didn’t make you sick; you already were sick. I gave them to you because you wouldn’t stop crying. I pretended they were medicine.”

“Then I threw them back up onto you.”

“Yeah, and I didn’t get a new nightgown until after we moved out of Patricia’s two months later.”

Cecilia smiled. Maria Elena wouldn’t know this, but Cecilia had told her daughter this story when Jamie was sick. When I was a little girl, Cecilia would say, smoothing back Jamie’s hair or rubbing her back, I didn’t have a Mami who took care of me like I take care of you, but do you know who did take care of me, mija, your Tía Maria Elena did…” Cecilia thought about asking Maria Elena if she remember the other stories she’d told Jamie—about the fever that Maria Elena had tried to break by making Cecilia swallow ice cubes, or about the chicken pox that Maria Elena treated by rolling her up in a bedsheet to keep her from scratching the sores—but Maria Elena starting speaking again.

“Mom didn’t actually buy me a new nightgown. One of dad’s sister made me a new one after we moved in with her.”

“We moved from Jerome to Escondido?”

“Yeah, into that little blue house.”

“With all those little kids. That’s right. I’d forgotten about that house. I didn’t think we moved to Escondido until after Abuelita died.”

“No, we moved into her house after she died, but we lived in Escondido for at least two years before that.”

“Yes. With all of the tías.”

“The house of whispers.”

“Who called it that?”

“Mami.”

“Why?”

“Because dad’s sisters were always whispering about us.”

Cecilia leaned her head against the window, looking back through her own memories with as much visibility as she had looking out onto the darkened highway. She had forgotten about the house they’d shared with so many members of their father’s family. She marveled, not for the first time, at the flytrap way Maria Elena had retained the details of life.

“There’s a lot I don’t remember.” Cecilia said quietly.

“That’s ok.”

“I’m serious. There’s so much I’ve forgotten. Like that house. Poof. It just not there.”

“Come on. It’s not like you forgot a trip to Disneyworld.”

Cecilia laughed. “That’s true.”

“You were young, Cecilia.”

“So were you.” Her sister spoke in the way she did when she tried to make something better.

Maria Elena nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Well.”

“What I do remember about Escondido is lighting our curtains on fire when I was sneaking one of Mami’s cigarettes.”

“I remember having to wait outside for the fire department to come and turn off the fire alarm.”

“Mami was so mad.”

They began to climb, a slow ascent that brought the mountains close to them on either side. The sky opened up, a whole galaxy expanding above them. Cecilia felt her sister’s tension ease, and she too let herself mellow.

“Do you remember the car that Mami had with the front doors that wouldn’t open?”

“The one that she got pulled over in because the police thought she stole it?”

“That piece of shit. We always looked like fools climbing in through the backend.”

“What about Tío Ruddy’s funeral? Do you remember how that priest that ran up and down the aisles touching everyone?”

When you feel the wind,” Cecilia mimed, “Or walk through a pocket of warmth on a cold day, that’s your friend, your brother, your son…

“He touched me,” Maria Elena said, “Do you remember that? He skimmed my shoulder with his hand, and Mami yanked me away, and then burst in to tears.”

Nobody had given the priest the same warning that all the young girls received about Tío Ruddy.

“I think that night is the only night I ever remember seeing Mami really, really drunk.”

“That was the night she chipped her tooth, right?”

“Yeah. Falling down the steps outside the bar.”

That fall had changed their mother’s face, taught her how to talk and smile with her lips held tight.

Cecilia and Maria Elena ping-ponged their way through their shared childhood and adolescence, playing their memories like cards laid down in the quiet gulf between them. By the time the GPS chirped that they were halfway to their destination, the darkness had grown so thick that it seemed to expand around them each mile they drove.

“What was the name of that hotel you worked at? After we moved out?”

“Hotel Lotus or Crocus? Hotel Flower Something. Why?”

“Just curious.” Cecilia stifled a yawn as the clock rolled over into the new day. “I was thinking about it the other day. How young we were when we moved out.”

“We were young, but we kind of had to.”

She’d been pregnant. That had been the reason why they had. Jamie was still a secret she’d told only to Maria Elena when they’d packed up their shared bedroom and left.

“Still. I can’t believe that Mami didn’t fight us on it at least a little bit. If Jamie had tried to pull that shit when she was pregnant with the first one.”

“Mami didn’t have it in her to fight us anymore.”

“Fight me. I don’t think you ever gave her any problems.” The heads flashed on an exit sigh, and Cecilia pointed, “Gas station. I need to stop.”

“But at that point, it was both us. She couldn’t have kept me without keeping you. Mami knew that,” Maria Elena said, turning on her blinker.

Cecilia exhaled, almost laughed. She needed a cigarette if she were going to stay awake. As she pulled off the freeway, the lights of the gas station marquee reflected on Maria Elena’s face. Cecilia watched it shift, purple, then red, then hollow white. For a brief moment, the lights erased her wrinkles, and Maria Elena looked like a girl again.

But then she turned off the car, and the dome lights came on. Cecilia looked away quickly, but not before seeing her sister, middle aged and gaunt, in the thin, blinking light.

III. Maria Elena, again

After the gas station pit stop, quiet grew back up between them, sleepy and soft. Cecilia had tried to keep up the thread of reminiscence, but her voice had grown heavy, syllables slowed down. She’d finally nodded off, and Maria Elena had pushed on, reminding herself of all the childhood nights she’d lain awake, worried or hungry or simply sleepless, next to Cecilia.

To her left, a flotilla of lights rose up out of the darkness, then sailed away. Her headlights caught on the glare of a sign: “State Penitentiary,” and underneath it, “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” Maria Elena shivered, and the mountains pushed in closer, immense, and razored, and indifferent. If she veered off the road right now, they wouldn’t crash, but would be subsumed into the chasm of limitless black opening up in front of her.

Maria Elena turned on her brights, and rolled her shoulders up towards her ears, trying to bring energy back to her sleep soaked body. Next to her, Cecilia stirred.

“You still okay driving?” She’d asked the same thing when they’d stopped at the gas station, but Maria Elena had shot down her sister’s offer then too.

“Yep. Still good.”

“Are you?” Cecilia’s voice was barely louder than the hum of the car engine.

“Good to drive?”

“Or in general.” She uncoiled herself from her seat, blinking heavily. Maria Elena stayed silent, forcing her sister into an extended pause. “It has been five years.”

Maria Elena took her eyes off the road, and sought the mountains. She found them in the pitch, a deep, jagged sheath of black cut away from the charcoal sky. Orion the Hunter hung above them, his bow reaching towards the horizon line. She repeated Cecilia’s question to herself, and focused on what she could barely see. There were no lights out here. Just what came from the car, and what came from the stars. So black that the whole earth could have emptied of all its contents except for she and Cecilia. Maria Elena exhaled.

“I’m lonely, Cecilia. Most days, I feel very, very alone.”

The quiet expanded around them. Maria Elena felt the sadness she kept inside start to seep from her, the way that cold seeps from bones. Cecilia’s hand brushed against her leg, the quiet pronounced.

“I’m sorry.”

Maria Elena blinked back the hint of tears. “It’s okay. It’s life.”

“It is.”

She waited Cecilia’s breath to fall back into its metered pattern. Her sister had barely roused herself from sleep—she’d be asleep again soon. It was like when they were children, and Cecilia woke with a bad dream. Maria Elena would like awake and pray that Cecilia would sink back into sleep quickly, that when she woke, she’d have forgotten the night.

“After Jamie told me she was pregnant again, I stayed in bed for a week.” Cecilia said. “I couldn’t fucking believe it. I felt like I’d rewound the tape twenty years, except that Jamie was me, and I was mom.”

Maria Elena sucked air slowly through her teeth before speaking. “Did you tell Jamie?”

“That the news of my third grandbaby made me so depressed I couldn’t bring myself to eat for two days?” Cecilia shifted towards the stars, her voice its own quiet fire. “No. What could I have said? ‘In twenty years, you’ll be a grandmother, and your own daughter will be pregnant, and unmarried, and surviving on scraps. You’ll regret every decision you’ve ever made, and you won’t be able to change a single goddamn thing?’ No. You can’t say that stuff. Not out loud.”

Cecilia’s words burned in the small car. The darkness made a wall around them, and the car became like a cloister, a confessional. Like, to Maria Elena, their bedroom back home.

“Do you regret Jamie?”

“Yes. Every day. I regret who I had her with, when I had her. How I raised, what I gave her, what I didn’t. I love her, but yeah. I regret her too.”

A black grief filled the car, crushed the sisters on each side. They both felt its squeeze.

“Don’t you think that everyone feels that way though?”

Cecilia laughed, a hollow, guttural sound.

“God I hope not. That’s miserable.” She paused. “Do you think mom felt this way about us?”

Maria Elena watched the road bend away from the face of a mountain, and followed its curve.

“I’m sure she did.”

Cecilia sunk into her chair like a popped balloon, and Maria Elena trained her eyes on the highway’s dividing strips, counting them as they rushed beneath her. This was it. Each sister retreated into her own castle of quiet. This was what they had to say to each other. Outside their car, the darkness was shifting, monstrous nighttime creatures pulling their matter up from the unformed black. Maria Elena looked out on them. The mountains, unending. They reminded her of Mission, Texas. Another great, unending landscape.

That’s where she and Cecilia had come undone. Nineteen years earlier. Maria Elena had driven through the night for Cecilia them too.

Jamie father, a boyfriend who’d disappeared before Cecilia’s stomach began to swell, had resurfaced, the baby, by this time, was nearly walking. He wanted them both—Cecilia and Jamie. He had a job on the oil line, a trailer in Mission, Texas, he was ready for them now. That’s what he’d told Cecilia over the phone. That’s what Maria Elena had mocked. That’s what they’d split apart over

The night Cecilia told Maria Elena her decision, they had raged. They did battle, first in whispers, so as not to wake the baby, then in shrieks that Jamie had added her own voice to. They’d split the night open with their fury. Maria Elena refusing her sister her decision, accusing Cecilia of helplessness, spinelessness, foolishness, forbidding her to leave, and Cecilia defending her independence, her competence, enraged at Maria Elena’s dominance.

You tell me no like you think it means something, Cecilia had yelled, Like that word is fucking magic. You’ve been making my decisions for me and my baby. No, no, no. No to everything, but this isn’t about you, Maria Elena. It’s about me and Jamie, and my family.

I’m your family, Maria Elena had screamed back. I’m the reason life hasn’t been hard for you. I’m taking care of you and Jamie. I’m the husband and the father and the provider. I’m your family.

Cecilia, smoldering, hadn’t responded, and after a minute that scraped each of them like a bed of razors, Maria Elena had screamed, then collapsed into great, weeping gasps. The next morning, she helped Cecilia pack, and then she took the driver’s seat, and drove Cecilia and Jamie 1300 miles to Mission, Texas.

Before hugging goodbye in front of the dusty trailer Jamie’s father had presented as Cecilia’s new home, Maria Elena had whispered, He’ll never be your family. Cecilia shoved Maria Elena away, and took Jamie into the dark home. When Maria Elena drove away, she felt a great fissure split wide the earth, and separate her, for the first time, from her sister.

In the pressing blackness of night, Maria Elena remembered how her sister had felt to her in the days and weeks after their separation. Like Cecilia had been sucked away into some unreachable land. The world had never felt so big, nor she so small. Cecilia had become an absence only, a crater removed from her own body.

Maria Elena looked across the car at her sister, asleep again, and instead of the warm swell of intimacy, a gutted emptiness slashed through her belly.

The GPS lit up the car, spitting out a new set of directions. Maria Elena realized that the darkness, so unrelenting only a few minutes before, had broken in front of her. A sheet of gridded lights, dense as fog, shimmied and danced in interlocking ribbons. They’d reached San Diego. They were twenty minutes from their mother’s home.

Cecilia stirred, unfurling her body into stiff angles. “We there?”

“Almost.” Maria Elena said. She heard a sharpness in her voice. “Call Mami. Tell her we’re close.”

Cecilia nodded, and pulled herself back to wakefulness, and the stiff quiet of the previous evening stole back into the car. Their midnight intimacy had vanished.

Cecilia fumbled with her cell phone. Maria Elena listened to the faint ring on the other end of the line, then the sleepy sound of their mother’s voice. Her sister spoke for less than a minute, then hung up. “Mom says that the night staff knows we’re coming. They’ll bring us to her apartment when we get there.”

“Okay.”

Cecilia yawned, and plucked at her waistband one more time. Maria Elena asked her to watch for their exit, and together they murmured street names out loud as they passed them.

Tomorrow, Maria Elena though, her brain suddenly seized with exhaustion, they’ll take their mother to lunch, and then to the supermarket, and the next day, to lunch again, and to the zoo, or maybe the wharf. She and Cecilia would operate in tandem in order to serve their mother, their sisterhood a muscle flexed only for her benefit. That would be all they’d muster. Despite the flare up of their childhood intimacy somewhere in the mountains behind them, too much time had passed for anything else. Too much time and too much sorrow. Too much separation. When she and Cecilia split their shared life, twenty years earlier, they’d broken it.

Her sister pointed out their exit, and Maria Elena turned on her blinker. She thought about crying, but then—decided not to. It had been twenty years since she’d felt the earth crack. If she didn’t focus on it, she didn’t feel what was on the other side anymore.

Bookshelf, Out of Doors, Overcoming, The Work of Becoming

comfort isn’t an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don’t need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I’ve made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn’t need shelter from walls or the root. I’ve been out of touch with that part of myself, and I’ve suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water – early spring grasses, a maple leaf, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines – life finding its way – giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles of my skin. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched him move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine – or was it someone else’s?) had loved great blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I’m sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn’t see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn’t matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes not of beam and nail, but of existence itself.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” Mary Oliver’s, Upstream

Lovely Living

be kind to yourself

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A woman once told me that I need to learn to be kind to myself.

I was reentering the world after a deep depression, and finding a life that I didn’t know I’d had. I was in the process of both beginning and ending relationships. I was no longer panicking daily. I was beginning to store memories again.

She knew all this, and I told her I was doing better. She laughed, and said “you still need to do it.”

I called (or maybe emailed?) her and asked what she meant. I don’t remember her answer, but that that night, I stopped by a bakery and bought a slice of chocolate cake.

I ate it at my university-issued desk in the dorm room I once hated. The window was open. Someone in the courtyard was playing Joni Mitchell.

This past few days? They were hard ones. Pedestrian culprits – long hours, insomnia, crap food hoovered in inconvenient places. I came to the end of the week depleted.

My work follows a cycle that peaks in March. My hours will go bonkers, rhythms thrown out the window. My stress levels go up, sleep goes down. I read less, workout less (though my job itself becomes physical), eat worse. I once described this season as “hell, but so great,” because even though it’s hard, it’s powerfully rewarding. That being said, this weekend is the last entirely free weekend that I’ll have in a while, and I’m savoring it.

I went grocery shopping yesterday afternoon, and the teenager who rang me up sang “My Girl” under his breath. I was so delighted (right up to the point when he pointed at the frozen pizzas and asked if I have teenagers. Kid, I’m 24!) I nearly cried.

Today, my plan is to be nice to myself. This sounds so self-indulgent I almost can’t stand it, but I think practicing simple kindness towards myself will do me good.

I’m going to cook. I have a fridge full of fresh food (finally!), and I’m going to give myself time to follow a detailed recipe I clipped from a magazine several years ago. So rarely do I enjoy creating a meal.

I’m going to read. Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea is captivating, but I’m also craving my weathered copy of Anne’s House of Dreams. Since I was eleven, I’ve read all eight books in the Anne of Green Gables series in the spring. Last year, I didn’t, and it felt like I leapfrogged something important.

It’s rare for my days to feel loose and open. Even when I’m “free,” I border my time, hem myself in with private plans. You know what feels radically kind today? To not do that.

The sun is out. Last night’s dusting of snow is gone, and tomorrow, the temperature is supposed to reach the 60’s. (And Minnesota said amen!). Two years ago (two!), I bought a candle that smelled so good I put it into a drawer. I placed the candle underneath my favorite piece of artwork (a drawing someone gave to my grandparents on their wedding day), and lit it. In my cupboard, I have cookies that taste best when they’re eaten one at a time.

Too often, I catch myself thinking “why can’t it all be easier?” Sometimes, it is.

Yesterday, I put pink tulips on my table, because when I was a little girl, my mother painted a border of tulips along the molding of my bedroom. I loved their pink, purple, and yellow. In the spring, I would try to pick them.

Kindness, sometimes, is easy like this.

Bookshelf, The Work of Becoming

what i’m reading + navigating the next

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Of course, of course, I know that I can’t know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there’s only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don’t mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what’s coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I’ve seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it’s all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true – two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather’s side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of “we didn’t know this coming; we couldn’t have known.” I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn’t planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn’t have known, then, what she knows now. That she’d spend more of her life married than not married. That she’d give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they’d each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we’re young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy “what’s next” is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It’s an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I’ve been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I’ve read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I’m looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family’s central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It’s a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me – the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I’m not even sure what; I just known that I’ve been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I’m currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I’ve read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again – or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I’m trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

Behind Us, and Before, Bookshelf, On Writing, This Quiet Place

what stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.