The Infinite Gone Finite: on Going Home Again

Mural of two interlinked hands on the wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

I walked around the hole that grew into this station for more than six years.

I remember, walking up Olive in 2009, seeing the sign in front of where the Jack in the Box used to be, saying the closed-off blocks would reopen in 2016. “2016?” I said. “No one will be alive then.”

I am alive, it turns out, but my old life is gone.

I lived within four blocks of that enormous hole for years, first one side and then the other. Then, in late 2015, I left, ending my 11-year residency in Capitol Hill, in Seattle, in the first home I chose.

Mural of fingers walking on the wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

I’ve been back since, just once, though too quickly. I moved in October 2015 and returned in December to partake of my favorite holiday tradition, to maintain some kind of through line. But it was too soon, too weird. I was still heartbroken, still unraveled. I got tired easily, like I was much older than I was. Without enough distance, I still knew things intimately but couldn’t stop feeling the newly created separation. The city felt like mine but clearly wasn’t. It was like meeting up for a drink too soon after a breakup, the severance and the familiarity mingling in a queasy way. I love you, but we haven’t reset yet.

I went home to Oakland, feeling chastened somehow. It had been so good to see my people – oh, how lucky I am in people – but I’d fucked up in some way and hadn’t done right by myself when I still needed such careful handling. I’d been in my new apartment for about two weeks at that point and mostly needed to stay inside, making food, watching Netflix, and convincing my adrenal glands that things were calm now and were going to stay that way.

An open window with sunlight shining through it

This time was better. The time was right. The last threads of magical thinking after all that grief had long since been tucked back in. I stopped looking at my new life in disbelief some time ago. It was time for a social visit.

I spent two nights in a friend’s spare room in the north of the city and then two nights on a friend’s couch just a couple blocks from where I lived from 2004 to 2010. Throughout, I ended up in different spots of Capitol Hill – at Laughing Buddha for a second nose piercing, finally patronizing a business I’d walked by a million times. Tracing paths across Cal Anderson, by the sport courts, the empty wading pool, the new murals by the reservoir, and finally laying atop Teletubby Hill in the dark, watching the blank sky at 2 am. Savoring a white velvet at Vivace. And all the while, feeling my mastery of the place disappear – I no longer know which lights are long and which are short, and a request for restaurant suggestions brought me up short, even though there hasn’t been that much turnover. Mastery used to mean a lot to me, when I was younger and more anxious. If I learned things perfectly, I could stop thinking about them. This weekend, I just waited longer at lights, being more careful, accepting that my hard-won knowledge had slipped away some.

Stained glass over the entrance at the Volunteer Park Conservatory

It’s a weird feeling to play tourist in my own life. Eleven years of my life, friends and jobs and love and a rotating, evolving series of mainstays and assumptions. Now it’s something I can step back into, this diorama that used to contain a variety of my past selves. Once, it was infinite – I had no end date, so I felt I had all the time in the world to wander down the streets, make routines, or ignore things – I didn’t need to go to the Frye right now, I can go in a week or a month or sometime next year. Pike Place wasn’t going anywhere. It was all right there, whenever I needed it, so there was no need to rush.

Twisted into the shape of a vacation, it becomes an itinerary, with a list of things to do and a list of things that will wait for next time. An afternoon piercing excursion with a stop at Dick’s for milkshakes before ending up at Elliott Bay Book Company for late lunch and book shopping. An evening along the edge of Ballard for dinner. Meeting a friend at the Stumbling Monk, to see him but also to make sure I visit it. A long walk in the finite expanse of four hours, surveying Broadway, stopping at Volunteer Park, checking out how 15th has changed, and trying teas at Remedy. A stop at my old dance class. The different flavors of my old life, assembled as a kind of thali, and when it was done, it was done.

Two hours here, four hours there, trying to do justice to a life I sought and made and ultimately left when it didn’t fit anymore. Visiting people I love, but also myself and all the paths I walked.

I noticed more changes during that first too-soon visit than I did this time – the new restaurants, boxy new buildings replacing beautiful old houses, construction started and ended. This time, maybe because the Bay Area inures you to weird things, it was less dramatic. The house at 12th and John finally went; well, that’s no surprise. Ah, they finished the big boxy thing that replaced what were once twin B&Bs. They painted my favorite pink house beige.* Maybe I’m just being worn down by the aggressive change of the Bay Area, sure, or maybe it’s just distance. My sense of space and change lives in Oakland now, the way it did in my first couple of years in Seattle. Without the attachment that can only grow over a decade, restaurant turnover and other natural shifts just seem like interesting change. I’ve been gone for almost a year and a half now; things wither, and it can’t and shouldn’t be helped.

I purposely took 2016 off from my old home, especially after the weird, mingled feelings of that first visit. Like a breakup, sometimes you just need to quarantine these things, to let the old feelings die back so the new version of knowing each other can fill the vacated space. And then you get to know each other in a new context, to appreciate each other all over again. As I took off from SeaTac, I looked down at the lower Sound, all threaded with islands that looked like the richest lumps of green moss, the air misty and thick. I feel more alive in the Seattle air; it’s the weather I’m built for. Pressing my face to the window, I thought, “The place is so damned livable.”

But to be fair, I’ve also thought that about Amsterdam** and Stockholm and Copenhagen, among other places. It’s a certain broad metric that encompasses weather, people, the beauty of the place, and a certain ease that’s hard to describe. They’re places I want to return to but don’t necessarily need to live in. They’re settings for pleasing alternate realities. They’re places I’m sad to leave – but which I leave in favor of home every time.

I see how I lived in Seattle for as long as I did – it’s a very easy place to be. But I’m glad to be just where I am, where I write this, here in Oakland. And grateful that my old home and so many absolutely fantastic people are just a two-hour flight away. I think a lot of people don’t even get one great life to inhabit; I get two.

 

A strange thing about this post: every picture in here was affected by the space I was in – never able to back away enough to see everything I wanted to. I don’t think that’s happened on this blog before.

*Ok, not gonna lie, that one got to me.

**Did I not write about Amsterdam before? What the hell? It’s so great!

Bike Locks in Copenhagen and Thoughts on Feeling Safe

A lone bike, unmoored, in Copenhagen

I noticed it on my first day.* You can’t help but notice the bikes in Copenhagen – among other reasons, if you don’t, you’ll likely be run down by one. They are legion and ubiquitous (and the separated-by-a-curb bike lanes look fan-fucking-tastic). Behold:

copenhagen-majestic-bike-herd

This is actually not the best example, but I neglected to get a picture of the bike horde by Nørreport because I was too busy trying to figure out where the hell my next train was whenever I was by there. But you get the idea: bikes bikes bikes.

Here’s what’s not ubiquitous: redundant D locks attaching said bikes to a fence or parking meter or bike rack or any fairly stationary object that would be hard to cut through.

I have an Oakland state of mind right now. The advice for being a cyclist there goes as follows. Choose one:

  1. Find the bike of your dreams and then either store it with BikeLink or take it indoors with you wherever you go, or:
  2. Buy a $200 beater that’ll get you where you need to go and assume that shit will get stolen at some point.

There’s an in-between step, which is two D-locks used in the way described by an official BART sign I see at MacArthur station most mornings: one securing the front wheel to the frame, the other connecting frame and back wheel to one of the previously mentioned stationary objects. Even this is not considered necessarily adequate; it’s just what we have to work with.

So to walk around Copenhagen and see this actually kind of blew my mind.

copenhagen-bikes-by-fence

The fence is RIGHT THERE.

If this happened in Oakland, someone would be along in about ten seconds with a truck and a quick route to a closed warehouse. It feels like walking through a video game and spotting loot. You have gained one bikeTwo bikes. Like 400 bikes in the space of a couple of blocks.

Now, it’s not that they’re completely unsecured. What I mistook at first for a rear brake is actually a clever little lock. Can you spot it?

copenhagen-locked-bike-slotsholmen-distant

This bike was on the island of Slotsholmen.

copenhagen-bike-slotsholmen-closer

Is it locked to the rack? Of course not. It’s just there to correct the bike’s posture.

copenhagen-bike-slotsholmen-lock-detail

Instead, there’s this. Arrow added because it was, at least to me, subtle before I picked up on what was actually happening.

There are a couple things going on here, as best as I can tell.

First, it’s not Oakland. Or San Francisco or New York, come to that. I had an interesting conversation with a Swedish friend while I was in Stockholm about social pressure in Scandinavia (which led to speculating what elements of that fed into the creation of Midwestern Nice). If you lift a bike on the street and someone sees you carrying it instead of pushing or riding it, you’re going to look mighty suspicious. That’s not to say bike theft doesn’t happen – apparently it’s fairly common, but more people seem inclined to have a series of shitty bikes, so your heart and bank account don’t break when your latest beater goes missing. You have a bike for a while, then it disappears, and you’re stranded. You get mad. But maybe you’re drunk and need to go home another time, so you liberate an unlocked bike from someone else, ’til we find our place on the path unwinding.

copenhagen-bikes-by-marble-church

Fair, fair. However, there’s also another element, which I think has to do with living without fear. This came up when I talked to the front desk person at my hotel when I checked out my last morning in Copenhagen. She mentioned that Americans in particular seemed to freeze up when instructed to just leave their bags, unsecured, behind and by the front desk if they wanted to pick them up later. I confessed that I’d had that exact reaction, even though, deep down, I knew it would be fine. “They ask me if it’s safe, and I tell them, well, sometimes I do go to the bathroom or the back room,” she said. She shrugged. “Nothing’s disappeared yet.” And indeed, there was my stuff when I returned from my canal boat ride.** There was my wallet, returned to me by kind people.***

Risk and trust. It’s a game and a balance that seems to have gotten really difficult for Americans in the last several years. I don’t claim to know exactly why, though I suspect a culture of fear and anger, with media that feeds it, has played a key role. Bad things might happen. They probably will sometimes. But most of these things are survivable. It’s hard to remember that, though, when news networks have 24 hours to fill with the most sensationalistic stuff possible. If all you’re hearing about is terrorism and little white girls going missing, the world’s going to start looking like it has sharper teeth than perhaps it actually does.

When I leave the U.S. these days, it’s a metric I pay attention to. The time I climbed an Icelandic glacier, ice axe in hand, with no waiver signed. When I feel paranoid when I suspect everyone else is calm. When I feel protective of my own little domain of stuff and dignity as I cross through unfamiliar spaces. The streets I choose to walk down, those I avoid, what inspires my discomfort. And, sometimes more interestingly, the streets I do choose to walk down. The process of listening to valid fear and hearing anxiety that will keep me from doing interesting, nourishing, important things.

There’s still no way in seven hells I’d lock up my future bike in Oakland with only that tiny black cuff. But it’s an interesting exercise, reading one’s fears and assumptions within a new context, asking yourself who has the right of it and who’s living in a delusion.

I guess I mostly choose to treat my life as the beater bike. I keep it safe and do what I need to for things to be ok, but in the end, it’s something meant to get me from one point to another. If I don’t get to see and do the good shit while I’m going about my life, what’s the use at all?

*Well, my first full day. My actual first day, I arrived in Copenhagen from Stockholm midafternoon, a carefully thought out move designed to give me an extra chunk of day there. Maybe I could go to the Designmuseum? Take a walk in the daylight? See an extra neighborhood, yeah? I laid down to rest after walking from central station to my hotel with 30-plus pounds of shit on my shoulders and woke up ten hours later at about 2 am. So much for that. At least I got to see snow?

**No pictures from that either. It was raining pretty hard, which made for some pretty smears of color as we motored around, but shit pictures.

***I have since discussed this with friends, though, and we agreed that the great wallet walkabout would have ended very differently in other cities, among them London, anywhere in France or Italy, San Francisco, Oakland, and probably Seattle. You win some, you lose some, and ideally you’ll strategize based on how these situations are likely to go based on where you are.

Current Delights, in Honor of a Gently Surly Week

The Cathedral Building in downtown Oakland

The ornate and varied architecture of downtown Oakland

Beginning to type and feeling my brain purr, going back to the thing that I am meant to do, above and around all else

Beer in the fridge, stocked by me, meant for me

Friends who reach out; the options of yes and no, both given joyfully

A fluffy cat, patient as I pick a little dread out from under his infinitely sweet chin

The awareness of being in another first act

Midwestern Nice used for the power of good

An unread shelf, unpacked after months, shining and new and alluring

Casting my own future as I pick lodgings for my next trip

A two-block walk to buy hair dye

The cheap cheese-end bin at the grocery store

Seeing my work attached to an icon on my phone, a real thing someone could someday use

That our knowledge of love and its strangeness and ways deepens for all of the rest of our days

Purple soup

My quickening breath, my capable body, the elliptical after a long absence

Reassuring wildly worthy people of my unmeasurably massive belief in them and all their dreams

Needing to buy more tea and planning an entire anticipated outing to do just that

A quick tongue at the right time

A sincere tongue when quickness isn’t the order of the day

A friend’s trust when I most need to support someone I love

The last Christmas fudge

Abundant teachers and the promise that I’ll someday join their ranks

My French teacher’s gleeful, pragmatic sadism

The particular intoxication of fighting a sleeping pill before plunging, willingly, beneath its wooly grey waves

That place where software engineering touches the older layers of the miracle of long-distance communication

Cats in bed, an unbounded morning, rain against the window

Realizing I forgot my untouched beer for several minutes, the spell of writing enough for a bit

Seeing the feast waiting where famine once was; seeing past an irritable moment to remember, again, fresh each time, that I have everything I need, plus things I haven’t even dreamed of needing yet

That even in the dark, the dim, the damp, my weirdly stalwart heart (sometimes labeled my stupid, persistent heart) lies shining, waiting for me to catch up, because oh, the fun we are going to have this year

The Incomparable Unknowns and the Potential of the Indefinite

The cranes of Oakland's harbor, magnificent sunset behind

One weeknight in late summer, I found myself on the Embarcadero BART platform with two Hackbright friends. It was rush hour, so the platform was crowded, but we were leisurely and chatted as we waited. I gazed past them periodically; while I knew time was passing, you wouldn’t know from the times to arrival listed on the sign. 12 minutes; 13 minutes; 12 minutes. At least five passed before I explained why I was gazing past them instead of making normal, meaningful eye contact. By then, the platform was almost full. By then, we looked up what was going on: equipment failure, a major delay.

Hackbright was an incredibly stressful period, and that day was no exception. But somehow, in the epicenter of it, we found ourselves with one of those moments of grace – a major inconvenience was transformed into adventure by way of a perfectly matched ferry schedule. We crossed the station, ducking through confused commuters, hoping they’d catch on just late enough for us to be able to get to the boat ahead of the East Bay-bound hordes. And so we did, catching a ferry precisely at the beginning of sunset. The three of us, uncertain and tired and operating in slightly different states of at least mild freaking out, climbed to the top of the boat and to the benches at its stern. We gazed in grateful awe as the sky cycled through nature’s most stunning gradients, as the city retreated and first the bridges and then the cranes became perfect silhouettes. The air was gentle, and we fell quiet, stunned at our good fortune, at this perfect moment when we all needed it so badly.

My only regret was that I only had my phone rather than my proper camera. It doesn’t matter, though: look at that. When people ask me for recommendations of what to do here, this is the only suggestion I get mildly persistent about. I don’t have the words right yet, because it’s hard to get across a sense of awe. Words are my superpower, but I can only hint at what was going on that evening, what we all needed so badly, what the earth gave us.

***

I got home late last night, coming from a comedy show in the Castro, delayed by a closed Muni. I’m tired and I have a cold, the kind that makes the elements, even the mild ones to be had in a San Francisco January, feel a bit like the lash, all angry membranes and breezes that cut to the bone. I walked to 16th and Mission and got to the platform just as my train arrived – another small bit of grace on a long day. I walked home on deserted Oakland streets. I realized that, despite a pretty decent if somewhat long day, I was a little melancholy. In the last year, year-plus, this has pointed at something. Sadness and anger were sometimes my compass, pointing at things that didn’t function the way they needed to, telling me where I should next focus my energy.

Tonight, I sensed it, and my attention snapped to it. Is it that I’ll want to move to San Francisco when my Oakland lease is up toward the end of the year? I wondered. Do I wish I were going home to another person? Is the difficulty of my job a bad difficulty? 

The answers are, in order, I have no idea, not really, and absolutely and completely the opposite of that. In the face of some mild sadness, I was fishing for reasons, and with uncommonly bad aim.

Because this was an ordinary melancholy. I was thirsty, my feet hurt after walking about 15,000 steps (per my phone), and the back of my throat had that slightly raw feeling following a couple days of a running nose.

My sadness has nothing to tell me except go to bed. 

If I could do celebratory cartwheels, I would.

***

I texted my best friend as I waited in the long line that snaked away from the theater and around the corner. When I’m tired and sick, I get touchy and ungenerous about other people. My usual delight in eavesdropping turns into pissy judgment – faces look ugly when you’re alone. Surrounded by fellow nerds, I was deeply not feeling it, swaying slightly on my feet and occasionally wiping my nose with a napkin filched from a coffee shop.

“When I was tired and felt shitty last night, I thought, ‘I am tired, but I am not sad.’ Such a difference from the second half of last year. It is such a contrast that it feels mildly like being on drugs,” I typed with one thumb, the other hand occupied by coffee.

And it startles me, even now, during ordinary things. I drink coffee, I read on public transportation, I cut a striking figure in my matron-of-the-arts coat. And all of them feel like dancing right now, the way even ordinary walking does for a few exhilarating seconds after you set down a heavy load.

***

I begrudge the dark right now in a way I usually don’t. I’m typically all about winter – I like mulled wine and hot cider and endless cups of tea. I look better in cold-weather clothes. But the dark means that work takes up all of my wandering time for five-sevenths of the week. When I leave work, it’s the opaque dark of deep winter, which means a walk to the Castro or a park or through the unexplored parts of the Mission would just net me a squinty tour of some doorways, walking past other people huddled in the relative cold.

I want to explore my cities so badly right now, but my exploration depends on some daylight. Instead, here in these post-Solstice days, I can only plot and dream, imagine the great sojourns I’ll take when the time changes back in my favor. Instead, I admire the gated doorways of the Mission and the stunning houses of Oakland and the murals and street art that color both cities in a way that just makes me swoon. Swathed in darkness lies my future, my new favorite restaurant and the patisserie I’ll come to adore, the perfect oyster happy hour and the most reliable source of sour beers. Friends I will make and people who will assume roles of great importance in my life in the coming months. This beach at sunset, this stairway hike on a perfect spring afternoon. I am hungry, but now, it’s not the sharp appetite of starvation, where you gorge yourself on the first thing you find. This waits, impatient but measured. This can plan. This anticipates.

I’m still breathing. I’m alive.

P.S. Friend of Deviation Obligatoire Christina wrote about as good a summary of this blog as you are ever likely to see – it’s gratifying to be so well understood from an endeavor that can be as occasionally gloriously nebulous as this one. Go for the incredibly kind words; stay for the beautiful, shiningly honest writing and wisdom. Two of the Smarty Mommies are officially favorites of mine; the third isn’t possibly only because we have not met.

The Meaning of Travel in More Ordinary Days

One of so many long, beautiful staircases in Montmartre

When the great shift has finished, and I’m left with a blank slate of a life and the quietest quiet I’ve known for months or maybe even years, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I imagine a lot of us are there now, in some way, mentally if not physically – even if we had a trip planned. Reading that article, I realized something: if finances and responsibilities allowed, I’d be on a flight there tomorrow.

That’s kind of always true, but especially true right now.

My days as I progress into this next part of my life are marked by these kinds of realizations. It feels like luxury, after this long summer-into-fall, to be able to have the thought I would go to Paris tomorrow if I could and have it be something other than a clawing attempt at escaping necessarily hard days. I am gradually becoming a regular person again. Now that I’m moving past being completely tangled up in job searching, moving, and healing from some real heartbreak, I have sufficient brain and heart to have flights of fancy again. It feels good.

And so a dormant part of me is awakening – the part that thrills to finding how far my stash of airline and travel points will take me, or the part that feels a little frisson of excitement when I see how many airlines fly from SFO and OAK to such wonderful places. I could take one flight and end up in Dubai or Australia or Amsterdam or – well, Stockholm. Thanks to a staggering sale and the well-timed tip of a dear friend, I will be taking advantage of that one myself come February. (My somewhat curious decision to go to Scandinavia in February is not without precedent in my life, of course.) In the last week, I’ve thought or talked about going to not just Paris, but also Peru. Washington, DC. (I’ve never been. I know, it’s hella weird.) Stinson Beach. Los Angeles. Mexico City. Rome.

The power got reconnected, and the lights are coming back on in the house.

I didn’t stop thinking of traveling during the extremely stressful weeks between July and, oh, a couple weeks ago. It just had a different timbre: what if I just went to Paris and didn’t tell anyone and just didn’t come back, what would that be like, would that fix stuff? the little voice that comes from somewhere in my lizard brain said. What if you just put some underwear and a toothbrush in a little bag and went to SFO with that empty credit card and just blew this popsicle stand, huh? 

This isn’t a sign of real fear; this is a game I, veteran of a certain kind of anxiety, play with myself to find the truth in negative feelings. I feel bad right now. Ok, self, that’s fine. Is it the kind of bad we should just wade through? What if we picked up and went back to Seattle right now? Would that fix it? But I like learning programming. But I know that relationship needed to end, even though it hurts like hell. But I’m not willing to go back to that old paradigm of communication, just because it would seem easier in the moment. Cool, brain. Let’s just keep on learning. Stretching. Trying. Packing. Moving. Keep on going.

It’s been a theme of my life to be reminded, over and over again, until perhaps I really learn it, that the thousand small actions matter so much more than the one big one. It stayed with me this time. Just pack one more box. Just meet one more friend to say goodbye. One more phone call to arrange one more part of moving across multiple states.

One more, and one more, and a thousand more, and now I am really, honestly here. I signed a lease for an apartment last week, and it set off a series of events in my brain that I didn’t even realize were waiting to happen. I am good and here, and I see Oakland now as if I am seeing it anew all over again. The world has stopped being something to pass through, elbows tucked in and moving as fast as I can. Once again, for the first time in a while, life is a banquet.

And my god, but I am hungrier than a boxer at the end of the main event.

To refine this a little bit, to prevent myself from doing the travel equivalent of raiding the Hungry Man shelf at Safeway, I’m going to go back through my rather wonderful archive of travel pictures and tell you stories I’ve been sitting on for a year or more. The room to think again also means, for me, the room to write. Let’s go back to Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam and Tokyo and Victoria and take the long way to Oakland, San Francisco, and all the points present and future.

See you in a few days. Meet you in Montmartre?