Cinnamon Rolls, Travel, and the Future

Ten years ago, I had surgery for what turned out to be endometriosis. It happened in what I have considered for many years to be the worst year of my life (and yes, I’ve thought a lot about that ranking this year, thank you for asking).

In the spring of 2010, I quit my job of several years. I had plenty of savings and intended to meticulously plan out my next job search, but instead of embarking on a careful professional journey, I had a drunken cartwheel of a year that included a devastating breakup, finding a new apartment while unemployed, some incredibly bad interpersonal choices, and – finally – finding a large, hard lump across my lower belly a week before my health insurance kicked back in. I had to ask questions like: “If I see a doctor before the first of next month, will what is eventually found become a preexisting condition?” This is why I want to choke the life out of people who want to take health insurance back to those dark ages (which is not to say that it’s great now, of course). That fear was pointless, an absolutely useless application of time and thought when I should’ve been concentrating on my health. To have to worry about that rather than questions like “Am I filled with literal cancer?” is so stupid I still can’t think through it without feeling static bursts of rage through my brain.

I got it sorted. Afterward, things went sufficiently back to normal with my health that I have to remind myself sometimes that I do actually have a chronic health condition.

The aftermath of surgery for it was a vivid introduction to that. I was at a low weight for me before it all started anyway, because heartbreak makes it hard for me to eat (and then a big old ovarian cyst pushing my organs hither and thither did not help). And I diminished a little more post-surgery, as my body consumed itself a bit as I healed; I refer to how I looked then as uncommonly cheekbony. I was hungry all the time, on so many levels. And suddenly, I thought endlessly about cinnamon rolls.

To qualify this, I’m not really prone to food cravings. I got to grow up with a mostly healthy relationship with food and eating, so there aren’t too many dragons in there. When the cinnamon roll preoccupation arrived, I looked at it and thought, “Yeah, there’s a lot of weird shit in my brain right now. Get in line.” It did and patiently waited for several days, never diminishing in intensity. I realized it wasn’t going anywhere and apparently meant something. I made my way to a North Seattle diner, ordered the most frosting-covered cinnamon roll I have ever (briefly) seen, and disappeared it into my face in less than sixty seconds. I have no memory of eating it except for a big, amorphous cloud of OMG THE FUCKING SATISFACTION.

The craving vanished.

Between reaching the ten-year anniversary of getting four little scars on my belly and having a lot of time to think this year, that period of my life has lingered in my mind lately. I’ll add the obligatory disclaimer here: my quarantimes have been on the easier side. My well-paid job can be done entirely remotely with fairly few professional side effects. I don’t have roommates, my neighbors have been very careful, and my building doesn’t have halls with dozens of apartment doors facing it, so it’s fairly easy to be safe where I live. And I’m inclined toward solo pursuits anyway, so I’ve been able to self-amuse pretty easily. This year has sucked shit, but my personal portion of it has sucked less. Rather than an unending exercise in horror, I’ve spent some time better understanding the parts of my life that make living feel more fully worthwhile, because I’ve gotten to see what’s left when they go away.

Yarn-bombed sculpture of rings in front of the north Amsterdam waterfront

Which is why I’m writing about this here, on what is ostensibly a travel blog. Early in this period of history, back in March and April, I had the idea to write more here, pulling pictures out of my archives and telling stories to go along with them. Little snapshots for the few friends that read this, little reminders to myself that I used to regularly go more than half a mile from my legal address. Every time I’ve intended to do this, however, something has happened that made it seem either superfluous (in the way of spring into summer, with protests about police brutality and systemic racism in my country) or not the best use of my limited energy (during times of political fear; I channeled that energy into postcards and letters to voters, plus a lot of rage-donating).

Now I’m here, and it’s quieter than it has been. And, in the way I always do in the last week of the year, I’m thinking about the future.

I dislike Christmas enormously. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to strongly dislike all the holidays that come with shoulds. You should have fun, you should be surrounded by family you should get along with, you should have a life that meets certain expectations. I don’t like New Year’s Eve either. However, the week in between, that liminal time? I like that a lot. I think of the year behind, I think of the year ahead, and as the veils part and graze each other, I think of how I want to spend my time in the next year of my life.

This has been a fine year for evolving expectations and being malleable (and for possibly nothing else). In past years, I’ve written a list of five-odd countries I’d like to go to. Sights I’d like to see. Lots of things involving planes, trains, and other things that are bad ideas for now. My current draft of this goal for 2021 is I want another stamp in my passport. It can be anything, basically. I don’t care. I just want to start here and stop somewhere else and have new streets to look at. I live in a quaint-ass neighborhood, but do you know what? We are sick to death of each other’s dumb, familiar faces. Every well-kept house, every clever yard, every political sign that I completely agree with: fuck it all, man. It turns out that one of those pillars of my life that makes everything work is a highly varied diet of visual stimulation and different locations. I considered getting an Airbnb by Ocean Beach in San Francisco for this week before it became first an obviously bad idea and then actually illegal. An Airbnb to stay less than 20 miles away because I just want to gaze upon some different bullshit.

In the spring, I found it enchanting here: I took walks, I became familiar with everyone’s flower beds, I could perceive the passing of time by the rise and fall of the different colors of irises. In December, I just stomp around listening to industrial metal and practicing a very weird and particular form of mindfulness. “You still like that cool pink house, deep down in there. You do.” “You don’t actually hate little free libraries. You think they’re interesting when people don’t fill them with useless how-to-use-this-1995-software books that should be recycled.” The last half of the year has been a frequent mental recitation that I haven’t come to hate the things I used to love. Instead, it’s that I used to be able to count on variety. Without it, I lose my taste for what used to be reliable joys. I burnt myself out on twice-baked potatoes in the first two weeks of December in a similar way.

I’ve been thinking of what I actually want, when I’m in a position to ask for and get more again. I miss the water. I miss different accents and languages. I miss having to be nimble and figure out things like how to get a table in a restaurant or how to order food when I’m not sure of the steps or words. And when I think of this, I’m torn between wanting to revisit all the old beloved places I miss so desperately and going on a wild tear around the world to all the new places I used to think were a constant option until, for a terrible time, they weren’t.

I want to go back to New Orleans, New York, Paris, Montreal, Seattle, Vancouver, San Fran-fucking-cisco, Portland, Amsterdam, Japan, Mexico City, Iceland, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen. All of it. Just to revisit everywhere I’ve gone since 2013, a frantic reminder that we still exist on this one same earth, or will once it’s smaller again.

Townhouses of central Amsterdam with streaks of blue-and-pinky dusky sky behind them

And I also want to finally go to Peru, Greece, Vienna, Spain, Vietnam, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand… all of it. I want basically all of it. I read an essay called something like “You Don’t Want to Be an Expat, You Want a Vacation”, which I’m not turning up right now, but… yeah. This has been a time of flinging myself against the confines of my newly 600-square-foot life, and it includes thoughts like MAYBE YOU WANT TO LIVE IN NEW YORK and MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE APPLIED FOR CANADIAN RESIDENCY IN 2016 LIKE EVERYONE ELSE and I WONDER WHAT THE INCOME REQUIREMENTS AND PET IMPORT RULES ARE FOR $country. And other thoughts that come with being afraid, tired, and possessed of more privilege and panic than sense. “No big decisions in 2020,” I’ve told myself repeatedly (and assured my therapist). 2020 is for observations; 2021 can maybe be the application of what I’ve learned.

For now, the working hypothesis is I need a vacation. I’ll take a couple of those before I work on Project Abrupt Uprooting.

In the meantime, I’m dying for things like looking at graffiti and street art in other countries, or fucking up an order in a hilarious way at a restaurant. Petting cats in public places. Going on long, ambling walks to see how lost I can get before finding my way back. Feeling my brain getting more nimble as I try to interpret languages I don’t speak. Reading unfamiliar public transportation maps, doing currency conversions in my head, figuring out the nuance of how people dress and move and what those nuances mean about the lives they lead. I love and miss all of it. I love my own company, but like everything else I’ve had in relentless abundance this year, I could use a little distraction from my own reliable inner monologue.

I’ve been tempted a few times, once refundable flights became the norm, to place a bet of sorts by buying a ticket for a time that I think might be safer. Surely borders will be open by August, surely vaccination rates and public behavior will make movement safer by September, surely…

Brick walls and arches, light shining through behind them, at the Cloisters in New York

It depresses me to write it. I realized that the cost of having my bet proved wrong was higher than any perceived savings from buying a ticket when everything was still fucked. No, I’ll wait. And I’ll wait a while, according to the NYT Covid Vaccine Calculator. As it should be. Since that wonderful day when we all sat glassy-eyed in front of our trusty screens, looking at pictures of people getting vaccinated, I’ve joked that I should and will be the last person vaccinated in Alameda County. The calculator puts me six from the end of the representative line of 300. I’m not essential and can hide up here in my apartment for a very long time. I’ll wait.

And in the meantime, I’ll plot and plot and plot. I’ll try not to break my fast on an onion, when that day comes. Though really, the idea of flying anywhere might feel so magical that there might be no onions at all: only beautiful cinnamon rolls of opportunity, all of them too exquisite to turn down.

I miss wonder.

Several human-sized brightly colored alebrije sculptures made with paper, gathered on a white balcony at the Museo Artes Populares

I miss Mexico too, which was what I originally meant to write about, when I thought about returning to writing on this site. Looking over my pictures from my Mexico City visit in November 2016, though, the thing I realized that I missed above all was possibility and that sense of looking.

On that trip, I took pictures of my teapot at breakfast, a bike in the background against the brick entryway of the cafe’s courtyard. Of spicy corn puffs being sold in tall, upright, cylindrical bags on tables on the sidewalk. Ads pasted on walls. Vendors selling tiny wrestling rings at a lucha match. Food and drinks, shiny garlands over streets, dozens of alebrijes in museums, everything sold in mercados, everything everything everything. I was immersed in somewhere new, and my brain was alive, gorging itself on color and art and all of it at once, or things slightly familiar but suddenly in front of me in three dimensions and colors so vivid that I couldn’t completely comprehend them immediately. So vivid they seemed to vibrate in front of me. Things that shook my rods and cones, and things that rearranged my brain.

A vendor in a crowd at a lucha show sells a tiny lucha wrestling ring

My boyfriend and I, quarantine buddies here in my apartment, talk sometimes about where we want to go, you know, after. The real answer is everywhere. The answer is also Mexico. Philadelphia. Montreal. Paris, again, always. Los Angeles. Vietnam. Peru. Iceland, as he’s never been. Anywhere but here.

In the perpetual habit of the employed and guilt-laden, I think fairly often that it could be worse. It can always be worse! We usually aren’t literally on fire, so yes, it could be worse. But I am not currently afraid for my job, and I have a good home situation in the form of a one-bedroom I share only with someone I love and with one cat, perpetually annoyed with us. I think a lot of people are facing some realizations about their lives right now, things that felt tolerable when they could be outside 40 or 50 hours a week but absolutely are not fine when they’re immersed in it almost every hour they’re alive. Mostly, I’ve had the realization that I’ve had a nice meeting of good planning and good luck.

It’s all true. It can be worse.

And also, worse than I usually am, I am buried in FOMO. My last trip was in the second week of March to go to my niece’s first birthday party, which meant going to Canada. I was less than confident about getting home according to our initial plans, bought with credit card points in a completely different era. Concerned but not quite fearful, I had brought cash and some tentative knowledge of alternative ways of getting across the border, imagining grounded planes and disrupted movement. I brought resources to fund a frantic game of Ticket to Ride meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as I would try to get us back across the country in a time of unknown panic and danger. Alternatively, we could have stayed in my stepsister and brother-in-law’s spare room for a few extra days, taking over cooking and diaper duty while waiting out uncertainty, so as to be decent guests. These were the two forks in fate I foresaw.

Instead, we boarded our plane, cleaned our seats and trays with alcohol, and adopted the handwashing rituals that are now part of what it means to be human and even vaguely careful and conscientious. On that flight, watching Rocketman in the dark and occasionally peering around the emptiest plane I’m likely to ever see, I had the strong feeling that this would be our last flight and trip for a while. I had already flown less in 2019, in part because I was trying to wean myself off casual air travel for environmental reasons, to approach old habits in a newly mindful way. So it had been a while already since my last significant international trip.

I didn’t fully understand what a while meant, though, on that quiet Air Canada flight. A couple of months? That’s a long time, right?

And so I think about the things I could have done, if I’d ruthlessly overstuffed my life before all this with things I couldn’t energetically fit in. I changed jobs in December; I could’ve gone to Europe for a couple of weeks between gigs, instead of taking just a week to do a little personal admin. I could’ve taken a long weekend somewhere in January. I could’ve just flown places last year, like anywhere, I could’ve FLOWN FUCKING ANYWHERE AND I DIDN’T JUST DO IT CONSTANTLY, WHAT WAS I FUCKING THINKING, FUCK FUCK FUCK–

And other thoughts while spending 23.5 hours a day in an apartment. I am lucky: my apartment is literally my favorite place in the world. What I’m discovering is that, like with my favorite people and experiences, I can only really enjoy my apartment when I get a break from it sometimes, when it isn’t mandatory. We don’t want cake for every meal for days on end, you know? It needs a carrot contrast to be a treat.

Shiny garlands stretch across a view of the sky and trees from below

I split my time, outside of my blessing of a job, giving myself space to do nothing productive or useful – and getting ready for things, when I have the ability to do so joyfully. I’ve returned to learning French, because my god I am going to Paris for at least two weeks once we can travel safely again, and I am going to be able to understand at least 20 percent of what people say to me! I exercise a lot, because my god I will not have my next trip spoiled by back fuckery! I read and I plot and I cook and I put aside some of the money I usually spend on going out. (Not all of it, of course. I keep some flowing to the people who make food or provide wonderful entertainment or other important parts of being human. I put some money toward preservation, so that we have something to look forward to when we emerge, so people with jobs that were put on hold don’t all get pulled under by this.)

I watercolor and make clay animals and sometimes try to write, the things that always light me up but so often get set aside with work and showing up for people I care about and going to other places and then being at them. It’s what I have. This is what I have. It turns out that being a self-regulating and misunderstood kid is great practice for having to amuse yourself while also keeping from circling the drain too hard. I don’t believe in silver linings; I believe we’re a really adaptable species with a skill for making the most of what we’re handed. I’m adapting. I generally feel salty, and I treat myself like I’m approximately 20 percent rage by volume as a baseline these days, but I’m adapting nonetheless.

Frida Kahlo's glitter collection, on a wood counter in her house, in front of a paint set

I keep having this vision of how it’s going to be when people can go outside again. It looks a lot like this, only more exuberant. For me, I wonder if it’ll look like a quick DM to my manager saying, at the same time as all my other coworkers, that I’ll be back in three weeks, that my passport and I are on a train to SFO, and I’m going to just run to an airline desk and see where they can take me that roughly matches the three outfits I frantically stuffed in a tote bag.

Do you know what I really want? It’s not adventure or thrills or amazing new cultural immersion (though I will take that too). I want to fucking people-watch. I dream of doing it in my own neighborhood, of having a coffee at a sidewalk table and getting to see people without being scared, without them being scared of me. I dream of other people being microcosms of possibility instead of the vector that might lead to my death, or being the cause of someone else’s sickness or horrible death. I dream of it so much that I realized a few days ago that I miss talking to strangers.

I mostly do not like talking to strangers. Or, to be more precise, I don’t like it when strangers talk to me unbidden.

Usually. But, in the way of humans, something is forbidden to me, and now I want it more than almost anything. I want to see people enjoying the spring flowers as much as I am. Instead, the blooming irises and wisteria in my neighborhood are my new soap opera, viewed mostly solo; I go out not quite often enough and check in, seeing them rise and blossom and wither, and I have sunny thoughts about infinite possibility and gloomier ones about the circle of life and death.

I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. The first couple of weeks of the quarantine were also the two weeks I spent saying farewell to one of my cats, my first cat, my buddy who’d been with me since 2009, my friend who I loved beyond description or measure. I spent those two weeks periodically exclaiming, “It feels like the end of the fucking world!” and Sean would assure me that it wasn’t, not in total, while I laughed darkly in the way I do when I’m immersed in grief.

But seeing restaurants and all these other places we go to be alive together close while watching my buddy wane before me, the entire outside world and almost my entire heart closing up shop at once, it felt like being buried in armageddon, like everything actually was on fire, like these were things that would never be redeemed or healed. Like my new state was hurt, and there wasn’t anything that could temper it, let alone end it. There was only through, to walk forward and forward and keep enduring.

I’m still alive. And the only useful thing I can do now is stay inside 23.5 hours a day, possibly a little more. The same place we all are, mostly, if we don’t have one of those essential but often curiously badly paid jobs that requires that we go outside and keep the world moving.

I don’t have any resolutions or even any conclusions, not yet. Maybe the only ending now is the way all emails and previously light encounters end now:

I hope you’re safe.

I hope the people you love are safe.

And I hope to see you again someday.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, making polymer clay nudibranches and dreaming, trying to stave off the despair long enough for the world to enter another kind of spring, all of us blossoming safely together again.

Marigold-covered looping shapes in front of a purple-lit wall