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?

Goodbye, Seattle. I Love You, Seattle.

The weirdly much-heralded Capitol Hill mystery Coke machine

“Seattle is where I’ve spent basically all of my functional adulthood” is how I usually state it, so people could understand how the last five and then seven and then ten and now nearly eleven years have been spent and what it’s meant. It’s one thing to say “nearly eleven years”; it’s another to say that it’s where I’ve chosen to spend all of my time since I was able to choose.

I moved to Seattle in November 2004, when I was 21. Then, Seattle was a respite; I was moving away from an area fundamentally unsuitable for me, even worse in ways than the cultural mismatch that were my high school years in the Midwest. Make no mistake: I was fleeing. I had my car, one houseplant, and a backseat and trunk full of things I hoped would matter once I got there. I just wanted to dig in roots somewhere and finally be able to relax among people who, while not just like me (for that is boring), would be better aligned in some key philosophical ways.

Which is to say that I walked around Capitol Hill in the wake of the 2004 election, saw paired jack-o-lanterns carved to say “Fuck” and “Bush” on a porch, and thought that probably we were all going to get along ok.

It took me a few months to make friends, but then they came, first through craigslist and temping, and then through full-time coworkers and connecting to other established social circles. In the way of these things, I met one person, then two and three, and across a few years, something like a proper network of people came together, real and important enough that I would sometimes wonder what it would take to draw me away. I assumed it would happen eventually; I told my family back east that I didn’t expect to die in Seattle. But my family is fairly long-lived, for the most part, so I was allowing myself a lot of time to figure things out.

After settling in some, I became uncommonly stationary for someone in their early-to-mid-twenties. The city became, for a time, a place of convalescence and slow, responsible growth. I settled into a cozy relationship and got a full-time job that could become a career. I had used the energy some college students and new graduates get to use to backpack across Europe to instead find a home. Instead of a Eurail pass, I’d paid for gas to Seattle, catapulting across the country with $4,000 in savings and a strangely steady trust in myself. That expenditure of energy done and survived, I dug in. After a year, I was able to trust that this was real, as permanent as I wanted it to be. I hung pictures in the apartment and established traditions. I relished the ordinary because, for the first time, the ordinary felt ok. It matched me. Art and movies and wandering the city, being in love and relaxing into grooves I’d never had the luxury to enjoy. A quiet home with a door I could close, friends close by, and fascinating people on the street. It was exactly what I needed.

For a while, of course. The career-type job grew stifling; I began to learn more about what I needed socially and romantically. And the city became a Petri dish. I met new people and pursued and displayed a new part of my identity more prominently than before, digging hard and focused on becoming a cartoonist. Not for money or fame – anyone who commits to that kind of work with a specific goal of traditional definitions of success is a fool. I wanted another way to tell my stories. It felt daring and important, and I began to know another side of the city. Now I made the art sometimes, and admired that of my friends at others, and I found another part of Seattle that had been there all along. The city was a place to try and explore and, ultimately, fail in a way.

For the first time, I began to see reasons that another city might work better. Somewhere bigger, for one – that became alluring. Bigger and more varied, where people socialize differently. Somewhere that there isn’t a chronically closed social condition named after the city. Friends elsewhere (or at least from elsewhere) swore it was indeed different in other places. A mid-tier city is an easy target, though. If you’re not satisfied in some way, it’s easy enough to attribute it to the number of people, the cultural drain as the most talented are siphoned off by bigger markets, the relative newness of the place. There’s always a reasonable place to point a finger if you’re dissatisfied. But that’s only a legitimate move if you’re willing to examine your culpability in your own situation.

“All of my functional adulthood” began to seem like a limitation rather than a point of pride. And my relative steadiness began to feel like it might be fostering decay rather than good, strong roots.

It was around then that I began to travel, making up for the relative lack of it in my twenties. To Paris, to Iceland, to Amsterdam and Belgium and Germany and Japan. And, in each of them, I could see how I might exist there.* Magically multilingual, I would dress this way and live in this neighborhood, having a deeply satisfying and unspecified career, eating all the cheese/beer/tulip bulbs/whatnot, and living the beautiful life, full of truths and insights a domestic life couldn’t support.

In time, those imaginings became inspiration rather than torment. Fortunately, I don’t get the sharp emotional hangovers after trips that I once did. Instead, I took the advice of a couple of very sharp friends: bring something into your regular life from your travels and start planning the next trip as soon as you get home. And I tried. French wine and better beer and thoughts of a bicycle-centered life, yes, but also looking at my city differently, seeing both its shortcomings and where it shone brighter and taller than the rest of the American urban archipelago. Seattle’s nature and beauty, its manageable scale, its distinctive history. Travel let me love home more too.

In the meantime, I considered what it would take to get an EU visa by living in Berlin for a while and if I wanted to move toward it. What companies I might work for that would get me into Amsterdam. If I’d live in Reykjavik or Budapest or Mumbai for a job – or if I would take a job just to live in those places.

All the while, though, I stayed dreaming in Capitol Hill, wondering in a new and pointed way what leads an adult to change cities for reasons short of a great international leap toward adventure, leaving behind established friend groups, good (or at least good-enough) jobs, and beloved haunts. Jobs, usually. Having kids and changing priorities. Saying the hell with it and following someone they loved and having a bit of adventure. But, since my life didn’t contain any of these situations, these reasons all seemed flimsy and slight, and I couldn’t quite understand it. I did keep trying. I could tell it held a truth.

Then, this spring, I was accepted to a programming school in San Francisco. I was able to live with my friend in Oakland for the duration (and a little extra). Before I left, another friend asked me what I thought the chance was of me moving there.

“Well,” I said, “considering the industry and the connections I’ll make, but also my complete lack of intentions to do so… let’s say 30 percent.”

Across the summer, I waited to see if that percentage changed. It bobbed up at a very fine comics reading, at wrestling, as I sat on a bench in South Beach to admire the haze-cloaked Bay Bridge. It sunk at the sharp, harsh economic disparities and my unshakeable sense of the parallels between the Bay Area now and France just before the revolution. Mostly, I concentrated on school and tried to learn everything I could, aiming to get that software engineer job I’d come to so covet. Conclusions could come later.

And in the end, it was a job that tipped the balance, in the way of these things.

In September, I’d decided not to decide until October, giving myself the grace and freedom to pretend there was a viable alternative to moving to the Bay Area. But I was a new software engineer from a nontraditional background, and there’s nowhere that compares for establishing yourself. I fought it, and I resented the lack of options at times, silly though it was. But in the end, my fears of purgatory and leaping without a place to land vanished: I had the extraordinary good fortune to receive a job offer at an exciting company, and suddenly my decision to move could be made based on reality and not desperate hopes. I didn’t have to gamble.

By then, Seattle was a safe fallback and had been for some time. I kept my Seattle apartment while I was in the Bay Area so I could have choices when I was through.** So that, in at least one place, I would not have to reestablish life from scratch. In hard times, I could picture my beautiful studio and its period molding and cat tree and bookshelves, and know that, no matter what, it was waiting.

In early October, I took the art off the walls, boxed up the books, and put my life into a series of cardboard boxes. I felt a chapter closing, and I had the great pleasure of visiting with most of the people most important to me, each visit feeling like an excited, melancholy benediction. We will miss you. You’re going to do great. I have chosen to believe. I have put my faith in myself in the trust of those who love me for the duration of this necessary, turbulent period. They’ve done so well by me.

And I invite them all to visit me in Oakland. I hope they do.

Yes, Oakland. I could technically afford to live in San Francisco, if I put less of a priority on having privacy or a stove. But Oakland, in all its vibrant struggling and active conversation, all its hurt and beauty, has been the place that’s spoken to me. I want to be there and get to try in a way I haven’t had to in Seattle in a long time, if ever. I want to have unexpected conversations with people who aren’t just like me. I want to support important things in a place where so much crucial political change has either been born or fostered. I want to be real.

Seattle is a gentle place, mostly. It’s angrier in the last few years in the wake of Amazon, sure. But it’s also a place where I’ve gone to parties and talked to politically active liberal people who I am quite certain have no conservative people in their lives at all. People are polite and distant, and it’s easy to live unchallenged unless you try to do otherwise.

Seattle became a place for me to crouch and wait as I figured things out. I went to user-centered design school, I pushed and thrashed in my unsatisfying career until I began to, at long last, get what I wanted and needed. I learned and honed, and I realized that, while I could see perhaps committing to Seattle for the long term, I would not be happy doing so without giving myself the gift of contrast. We’d gotten together when I was so young, and I needed to see another way of being before I could settle down with any confidence.

I did not intend to move to the Bay Area, but I did need something else. And there it was, in all ways sensible and not.

Oakland is a place to try in a way I never have. San Francisco is the major international city I’ve never had. And both contain so many ways for me to learn and fly and flounder, probably all at once sometimes. And, in the way of me, I can’t say no.

Seattle, I love you. I love you, Seattle. And you may be where I quit my wandering days, if I indeed do such a thing, someday cultivating a home while still prizing a nearby international airport.

But I can’t be sure until I’ve tasted something else. I might have some realizations, or I might never come back.

I’ll let you know.

Until then: to Oakland, to San Francisco, to the horizon, and beyond.

 

*Well, maybe not Belgium.

**Or, on bad days, to ask myself if I wanted to turn tail and go home. I never did.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, Where I Am

A most excellent shop window in Montmartre in Paris

I am yearning to travel.

I am currently, technically, traveling every day.

I look up flights in October every day or two lately.

I remind myself that I will probably want nothing more in October than to sit my ass down in my apartment, pet my own cats, and do the work on my home life.

It helps sometimes. For a few minutes.

I’ve just finished my first month of living in the Bay Area. I live in Oakland; I go to school in San Francisco at Hackbright. (You can read about what I’m doing there on my other blog).

I had some realistic ideas about what school would be like. I knew it would absorb most of my energy. I knew it would be a major undertaking. But I still thought of it as a kind of retreat, in that it would be me concentrating on myself and learning a skill. The focus part of a retreat if not the relaxing part.

I didn’t anticipate the difference between the energy that goes into a full-time job and the energy required for 40 solid hours a week of learning something entirely new.

(Spoiler: IT IS MASSIVE.)

And so my “SF planning” spreadsheet, with its optimistic tab of places to explore, is relatively untouched.

A month in, my energy is starting to come back. On Wednesday, I took an indirect route home from BART. I saw this.

Turquoise three-eyed cat graffiti in Oakland

That same day, I took a lunch walk that ended with me reading in Union Square for a while, surrounded by tourists and gobs of languages and the soft summer sunlight.

I have learned that I feel unlike myself when I don’t have the energy to explore. I feel like I’m inhabiting someone else’s weird, small life.

So it’s an interesting, evocative thing for me to think about things like “Shall I take a trip in October, before I (with any luck) get a job? Or shall I respect my limits and needs and stay the eff home for five minutes?” Traveling feels like who I am. Exploring is how the parts of me I love best work in the way I enjoy the most.

I had a sharp division in time about a week and a half after I got to the Bay Area. Except for my six-week depression national tour in 2007, 18 days was the longest I’d ever been away from Seattle in the ten-plus years I’ve lived there – that was my trip to Europe in November. Recognizing that I was approaching that limit and then surpassing it affected me more than I expected. While I’d been to San Francisco and Oakland before, I’d never stayed past the “Gee this is neat and new let’s eat this and see this ok wow windmills right then going home now” point. Doing that has felt like an umbilicus stretching and then going slack, if not actually breaking.

Part of the tasks of being here is deciding whether to stay or not after the program is over. I am training to go into tech; it would certainly make sense to try to stay. But my focus right now is on learning Python, and I think I won’t have answers until I go back to Seattle for a bit. See what I miss about the Bay Area when I leave it, see what feels like oxygen rushing back into the room when I return to Seattle.

In the meantime, five weeks in, I have the energy for a few extra things now. On Friday, after class, I went art supply shopping and then took the long route to BART from SoMa, walking up the Embarcadero along South Beach, past the paint-flaked workaday piers, the tugboats floating in coronas of golden light on the twilit bay, the bow-and-arrow sculpture, and finally the synapse sculpture, its LEDs cycling through the rainbow in a way that seems to have been scientifically calibrated to the way I appreciate color. Tomorrow, quite early, I am going to the Alameda antiques market with my friend/roommate. I am seeing things and doing things.

Just in time to start projects season at Hackbright, during which I may disappear. I hope not. I don’t know.

I had to stop myself from doing that thing of avalanching Amy with iPhone travel pictures earlier tonight, instead showing her just a couple of street art from Montmartre. When I do flight searches lately, I look at Reykjavik and Paris; I’ve gone to enough places that I’m considering repeats. Maybe part of it is that I also recognize that I basically want to go everywhere, so I might as well go somewhere. Central and South America. Morocco. Italy and Greece. Turkey. Croatia. Japan, again, more. India. Korea. Australia and New Zealand. The better known, the lesser known, the easily accessible and the ones where you have to squeak by in single lanes, via tiny boats, such tenuous connections to the rest of the world that you wonder if you’ll be able to squeak back out.

But my difficult adjustment – which is, granted, exacerbated by school – has given me things to think about regarding long-term travel, or even living elsewhere. Whether it still has any appeal. Whether what I’m doing now has that many parallels. I don’t know yet. I don’t know a lot yet. I guess that’s one of the things going new places will teach you. For most of us, a lot of our basic daily intelligence is based on familiarity. Pull that, and you’re lying if you say “I know” more than you cheerfully shrug.

I’ve thought of writing here often over the last several months. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting about school on my other blog. A couple people in my cohort have said that they’d have a hard time writing that much; we’re all basically exhausted all the time. And I say, “I’m a writer. It’s what I do and what I’ve trained to do; it doesn’t take much out of me.” And it’s true. And it’s time to do it again for myself too.

I have such a backlog of pictures. Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam. Victoria. Japan and Japan and Japan, where I had my new camera that captures things almost as beautifully as I see them. San Francisco and Oakland.

I’m very lucky.

The backlog has been daunting. I prefer to knit together narratives, stitching together themes and my observations and those feelings and impressions that stick with me still, that I think of when I stare off into space these days, trying to figure out indentation and functions and just-so syntax in a way that’s both familiar to me and radically new. Turning a corner in Montmartre and seeing another piece of street art so stunning and perfectly placed that I feel something pierce me slightly in the vicinity of my heart. Gently rocking houseboats in Amsterdam, generous guides and new friends and being able to see the beauty of a place but having no chance to get its full context, the glory and tragedy of it. The insight of the outsider without the context of the insider. It’s all we have sometimes.

And it’s late, and tomorrow is early. And I’ll be back soon. I’m going to start writing moments. If there are themes, they can grow from there. But I’m long overdue to tell you where I’ve been lately. I’ll fix that soon.

P.S. The top picture is a Montmartre store window I passed on the way to get breakfast before a walking tour. I wanted to go back; I didn’t get to go back. Not yet.

The Fear of Opening One’s Mouth and the Difference of a Year

A deviation sign, but in Dutch this time in Bruges

Once upon a time, I felt it necessary to be “correct” all the time. Necessary – and vitally important. To know how to smoothly maneuver any situation, to say some polysyllabic constellation of words to dazzle and open doors. It was my own small way of manipulating the world, a strange skill I learned to rely on early.

I have never considered myself charming, to be clear, but I felt that, through my hyperarticulateness and apologetic tone, I could deal with whatever I had to. I would show people how good I was, and through impressing them or saying the right thing, they would help me solve my problems.

It’s a difficult thing to keep up. Even if you are naturally polysyllabic and hyperarticulate, it takes a lot of energy. It’s not a sustainable tactic.

Mouth and teeth street art in Brussels

I began to walk away from being this way a couple years ago. It changed everything – it lightened my heavy introversion, because being around other people wasn’t such an energy suck. It paved the way to easier and more genuine interactions with everyone from my nearest and dearest to the cashier at QFC. I embraced it, and I opened myself to being awkward (once a life-bending fear) and incomplete. I opened myself to actually being real with people. I congratulated myself on being past this old hindrance. Haven’t I done so well.

In Paris last year, I realized how far that was from the truth. I may not try to dazzle people with my glittering utterances anymore (or not all the time, anyway), but I am made of words, and to have to get by without them left me unprepared for anything – and panicked at times. My first two or three days were spent with at least a mildly elevated heartbeat. What if something happened? What if someone misunderstood me?

Beginner’s mind: it does not come easily to me.

It was easier this year. Because we went to a trilingual country where it’s in everyone’s financial interest to speak at least business English. Because my French is somewhat better than nonexistent now. But mostly, really, because I calmed down. Once upon a time, that the housekeeper who checked us into our Brussels studio didn’t know English would have left me stricken. What if we missed some vital detail? What if we have a question or an emergency later?

What if she doesn’t know how smart I am?

Oh.

Octopus street art in Brussels

Instead, I was able to admire how she was able to pantomime everything from how to work the complicated locks to where the coffee is (and how good it is) to how to work the TV. Her job is to deal with Frenchless foreigners; she performs it beautifully and with good humor. And instead of feeling mortified at being inadequate, I was able to enjoy the particular skill she’s had to cultivate and to marvel at how much I was able to learn without words – and how happy I was to pick out the French I understood.

It was a great welcome to Brussels.

I think what makes a person able to travel and really enjoy it is the skill to laugh at these shortfalls. To enjoy the gaps that exist between people and cultures, but also to celebrate when they’re bridged (perhaps using a mix of French, English, and Spanish, which happened to us at the kaiten-style Spanish tapas restaurant in central Brussels – a good meal, enjoyably delivered by lovely people).

At the end of a trip, yes, I confess I’m glad to return to where I know when the bars close and what’s sold at a pharmacy vs. the grocery store and how to pay the check in a restaurant. But it’s a flush of gratitude, a fluency returned, and there’s pleasure in that too. I know this. I can do this right.

I hope that, one day, beginner’s mind comes naturally to me. I admire it so in other people.

In the meantime, if I can look past my panic in a moment, I can see a crossroads. And I choose, over and over, the path of laughing and laughing, and trusting that most of us just want everything to turn out ok.

London’s Albert Memorial: Grief as Religion

A fuller view of the Albert Memorial in London

We approached the Albert Memorial unknowing, towing my recently rescued bag on a scenic walk through Kensington Gardens. I was tired and relieved, and so I didn’t see signs for the memorial before I saw it beginning to tower above the trees before us. I wondered what saint or martyr or other person fallen in defense of the common good it commemorated.

But it wasn’t a glory to god or a representative. Instead, it was an expression of grief.

Part of the Albert Memorial in London

What is it like to have a larger part of the riches of the world available to make your grief solid? How is your grief shaped if your every dictate must be heard and obeyed?

Part of the Albert Memorial in London

Queen Victoria’s legacy suggests it doesn’t help it digest. The memorial was 14 years in the making.

London's Albert Memorial from behindBut if you could write large the greatest hurt of your life, with a dominating part of the earth’s resources behind you, can you say for sure that you wouldn’t? If you could make your love a permanent, towering part of the landscape of one of the most famous parks on earth, would you be able to resist?

I bear my hurts quietly, but I can’t say no.

Hello.

I am writing to you from the other side.

Looking up into a blossoming tree in Fremont

For the last nine months, I’ve been working on a User-Centered Design certificate from the University of Washington. I have finished it.

If you looked at the calendar of posts on this blog, you would be able to precisely chart when my breaks were.

I have pictures on my camera’s SD card that date back to March.

Once upon a time, I emptied that card every day. Dutifully. Joyfully.

I have missed writing here, but some things have to slide when you’re throwing all your energy in one direction. In my case, this included dishes, exercise, creative writing, this blog, and about half my social life.

I am looking forward to the summer.

At work in late December, we gathered in the middle of the office for a celebratory toast. We were asked what our resolutions were.* I said that I didn’t have resolutions per se, but that I had a goal to go to three countries this year.

“Canada, Mexico, and where?” one coworker joked.

“No,” I said. “Three new countries.”

So far this year, I’ve seen Iceland, so I’m a third of the way toward a very good goal. As my autumnal plan to go to Japan has moved to next March, I’m left with two new slots to fill. I’ve spent a week in Mexico, but I think I would count Mexico City as part of the three-country list because it’s so different from the experience I had. So, beyond that… Germany? Italy? Somewhere in South America? Will this be my year to touch a tentative toe to Antarctica?**

I’m still working it out. But I’m thrilled that my middle-enough-class income and hoarding of credit card-generated airline points give me the privilege to be able to consider these things. Most of the world is open to me, and considering what parts of it I want to go to is, at the moment, almost as delicious as the going will be.

In the meantime, though, I’m just excited to have time to write again. I want to tell you about New York – my favorite trip there yet. I want to give you a snapshot of what I did for Easter. I want to show you the ducklings in the big fountain at UW and their ramp***, and graffiti I’ve liked, and what it’s like to ride in a pod of Minis around Whidbey Island. I went to the studio of the artist who made the Rachel piggy bank at Pike Market (and a bunch of other great pieces). I’ve gone clamming and seen spring flowers come and go and really had a very fine time. However, considering class and work and my continued need to do laundry and buy food now and then, I’ve only had time to go to these things… but not to write about them.

We’re at the end of that. Graphomaniac posting recommencing in three… two… one…

 

*My official resolution, so far as I make one, is always to floss. I’ve been resolving that for several years now. I highly recommend it: it’s easy, cheap, almost immediately beneficial, and you get good grades at the dentist. Think about it.

**No.

***THEY HAVE A RAMP.