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?


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.

Being in San Francisco Inspires Me to…

koi stencils on haight street in san francisco…make and carry stencils.

heart stencil on haight street in san franciscoSeriously.

zines copy shop sign san franciscoTo make zines! (Granted, that doesn’t take much. The only thing I lack these days is time.)

colorful houses off haight street in san franciscoTo live in a beautiful cake.

extremely ornate house off haight street in san francisco…to live in a freaking work of art.

very very ornate house off haight in san franciscoDude.

mission-drug-poster…to make silly bullshit, make a bunch of copies, and post them everywhere.

mission-cereal-poster…to eat cereal.

golden-gate-park-rainbow-steps…to own a big rainbow staircase. In pretty much any context. I can live under it like Harry Potter, I don’t care.

golden-gate-park-musicians…to lay in the grass and talk for a while. (No, not to dance. I am not shy about dancing, not even a little, but San Francisco and I diverge in that I do not do it in the full daylight in a park. No.)

fishnet legs on haight street in san francisco…to think about Bourbon Street.

the alembic bar, san francisco…to drink cocktails made to be paired with Girl Scout cookies. One of the only regrets of my trip is that I’d already reached my booze threshold for the evening by the time we passed The Alembic. (That I reached it by splitting a couple wee pitchers of sangria at Cha Cha Cha makes it almost worth it. Almost.)

And also:

  • To drink more awesome beer. That’s a greater quantity of awesome beer, I mean – not beer of increased awesomeness. I’ve got that down. But San Francisco? Also has their beer game nailed.
  • To get a job that pays a lot more than I make now (ah, the life of a writer)
  • To be a character in Tales of the City, which I surely need to go back and finish reading

This was my fourth or fifth time going to San Francisco, and for some reason, it hit me so much closer to the heart this time. Now I get to figure out what to make of that.

My Favorite Art in Capitol Hill

It’s on a wall facing the patio of the twice and possibly future Online Coffee on Olive Way, just north of Boylston.

I lived very close to here when I moved to Seattle in 2004, and I ended up at Online Coffee a fair amount as I worked to get my life set up – as I waited for my wireless router to arrive so that I could get actual internet access in my actual apartment.

Coming as I did from a place I regard as sterile and artificial, I felt it deeply when I looked up and saw this, just idly sitting next to people sipping lattes at metal patio tables.

i will always love the false image i had of you“My god,” I thought. “Look at this vibrant, kind of weird place I find myself, that I found for myself. I’m among other people who do things because they want to – and who think of things like this, and who want to put them somewhere public. To share.”

Here‘s a picture of it from 2003, minus the chip it currently sports.

I imagine a good 70-plus percent of the people who have seen this would be able to say what I’m about to say, but: it became part of my background, appreciated but benignly ignored, and then a few months after we were first introduced, it exploded with new and deeper resonance.

“Damn right,” I’d grumble. “We’re all fools, every one of us.”


A conversation I’ve had with myself for the last couple of years has centered around two things: at what point will I make my departure from Capitol Hill? And what Capitol Hill mainstay would break my heart if it were pulled into the grind and churn of all the development?

I still don’t know the answer to the first. Maybe February. Or maybe later, when I decide to leave the city altogether.

The second has had a few answers. Six Arms, the Stumbling Monk? I like those places, and very much. Good memories there. My current yoga studio’s days seem numbered, but I soldier on, so it’s not that. The Egyptian, or Broadway Grill? Apparently not. This coffee shop, that store, that theater, that house’s perfect garden.

Nah, I think it’s this. One of the first things that told me I’d made the right choice and had a decent chance of finding my people.

I made this blog to explore, but also to see. Today I saw my past.

Hither and Thither #10

Prosthetic eyesOcularists: a creator of prosthetic eyes. It’s meant a lot of things over the last couple millennia, but for a pair of families, it means two strikingly different philosophies. The LA Times explores the gulf that exists between the art and science of ocularistry.

division squiggleBecause Halloween is so awkwardly midweek, I declare that this weekend has also been Halloweekend. (The substantial number of costume-wearing people I saw Friday and Saturday night agree with me.) As such, this excellent roundup of horror movies set in New York is still timely. This is a new blog I’ve found, which looks at New York from the distinctive view of a location scout.

Also, this kind of thing is why going to New York feels like entering the real world, and leaving feels like going back to the outside to look in.

division squiggle

Capitol Hill has a new bookstore, and I can’t wait to wander through it!

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