All I Never Wanted

A swing hanging from a branch in front of a verdant wooded valley

Normally, the money I spent to stay an hour from my apartment for my spring vacation would’ve been more than enough to take me across the world. It’s bizarre that staying so close by required so much more: money, energy, STUFF. 

My god, the stuff.

I used to have these easy habits, these little portable compartments of necessities. My work backpack contained lip balm, nail clippers, Excedrin, period gear, hair ties, bobby pins, no fewer than five pens for several different purposes, index cards, mints, my journal, at least one book, a small umbrella, a folding fan, a small power strip, cuticle cream, a small fiction notebook, my planner, and safety pins. These things rarely left the backpack. If they did, they returned to it when I was done.

On my staycation, I forgot the Excedrin, because for 13 months, I had headaches exclusively in my apartment. Fortunately, there were six loose ones at the bottom of the front pocket, a relic of when the backpack moved around, enough to occasionally agitate the pill bottle top off. It worked out, but the effort of forgetting, the realization that I’d have to drive a headachy 25 minutes to the nearest everything store, was enough to stop me in my tracks for a solid minute, motionless and reeling at what I’d done.

To go to Europe for 2.5 weeks in 2014, I brought a backpack and my beloved, ridiculous rolling carry-on that’s printed with graffiti. Excellent for identifying on a conveyor belt; harder to describe to a stern German airline agent after managing not to pick it up before I left the secured gate area.

To go to an Airbnb in Portola Valley for a week, I brought two pillows, two fleece blankets, a new Lego set, a crossword puzzle set supporting an abortion fund, the same rolling bag full of clothes, a tote with some additional clothes, hiking and exercise gear, my sun hat, ten books, a tote and a half of art supplies, cloth napkins, a medium hoodie and a heavyweight one, my planner, my new journal and another one just in case, my light headphones and my noise-canceling ones, and three totes of groceries. This last was in case I didn’t care to leave the Airbnb for most of the time I was there, despite being near the California coast and having the rare luxury of a car.

And I forgot the Excedrin.

I used to know how to leave the house. I had my kit down. That’s what we anxious people do sometimes: we nail the kit so we don’t have to think about it anymore, and we get rather upset when the kit is compromised. When I learned the maker of my favorite, perfect pink hair dye was suspending production in late 2019, I was rather upset largely because it meant I had to figure something out, AGAIN, after I’d had it sorted. I like for things to just work, once I figure out the best way. The last ten years of my career has been built upon this exact tendency.

The pandemic has left me rather upset.

Naturally, in the midst of all the things being thrown in the air, I decided to leave home for a while. Not to go too far – I have extremely minimal patience for Bay Area traffic and furthermore do not like driving in the best of times. I like a plane and a train. I like a subway. A ferry or a bus? Also just fine. I don’t mind things taking longer if I don’t have to worry about anything beyond being at the right place on time. I am the only person you know about who got Pre-Check and still showed up at the airport at the exact same time I would have before I had it. I didn’t get it to save time; I got it to reduce unpleasant possibilities and the anxiety I get when power is applied inconsistently. I bought into a corrupt system because I wanted to spare my body a little more unnecessary panic.

In the absence of all of these once-reliable options, I rented a car and took a trip. I told myself I didn’t have to do anything, with the quiet goal of waiting to see how long it would take to get bored enough for driving somewhere to be worth it.

How’d that go, then?

fog over a wooded valley

Day one

I arrive at the Airbnb around six, following approximately six hours of potent medium-grade anxiety. It’s a lot, after a year-plus of primarily being on my couch, to have to go pick up a car, drive the car home, pack up enough stuff to exist comfortably for eight days, put it in a car, take the car to get groceries, get the groceries, and then drive an uncertain route somewhere new. I swear to god I used to roll more easily with change, but I’m so out of practice. I reminded myself today that first days of trips are almost always like this for me: jittery and arch, and remaining so until I’m at the first point where I don’t have to think anymore. Once upon a time, that usually meant my butt in an airplane seat. Now it means all the way at the place

I miss my interstate exit because of airport signs and a box truck cutting me off hard at just the right time, but I make it before dark, the only important thing. The refrain for this trip has been you do not have to do anything. I brought frozen meals and endless entertainment. You do not have to do anything. This sounds almost like incomprehensible syllables after 13 months of utter and absolute panic on multiple fronts in my life.

The top-of-mind anxiety burns off once I get there, but the evening proves to be an excellent time to think through everything that’s felt shitty lately that my brain thinks might actually be partially my fault, despite it clearly not being so. This trip is right after my birthday. This trip is right after receiving a birthday card from my mom that took the opportunity of a visit to Hallmark to inform me that I’m terribly closed-minded about her politics. I spend some time on this first night thinking of the unmitigated gall to use a birthday card this way and to act like our politics are the same trivia to trot out every two to four years before returning them to the silent shelf of Midwestern self-repression that all unpleasant things belong on. 

My politics and morals are inextricably interwoven and have everything to do with making the world better so that everyone can exist without, say, being murdered and having it made to look like your fault because of who you are or what you look like. Or, to look at the news this week, having your lifesaving healthcare literally fucking outlawed.

We are not the same.

While I start and give up on a book, start another book and stay with it, write in my journal, and do my daily hour of fiction writing, there’s a quiet refrain in my head. These things are not comparable, twinned with if you only explained things right, it wouldn’t be like this.

I’ve explained it just fine. It’s not like this because of my substandard efforts in language. If you’ve read the preceding paragraphs, you’ve probably figured out already that nothing in my life is due to a lack of effort with words.

I sleep solidly for ten hours because of sleeping pills, waking up briefly at ten am to put earplugs in due to exuberant birds in the trees outside the bedroom window.

looking up the trunk of an old, gnarled tree

Day two

You do not have to do anything.

I lumber out of bed after noon and eat pastries a dear friend left outside of my door the morning of my birthday. It’s the theme of meals today: pastries, one of the bagels I summoned from New York, the cupcakes I summoned from closer by. I lightly destroy myself with sugar today. I finish the book I started yesterday, one that burns so slowly that it’s only by four-fifths of the way through that one main character says to the other that, if he wanted, he could address him by his Christian name. (And saying even that feels like a spoiler.)

I write on the porch, diving further into a short story. Historically, I only really wrote short stories for college, because getting feedback in workshop classes was more useful with a complete story than with an excerpt that would lose people’s attention for being incomplete. But I’ve spent the last eleven months living in a world of my invention, which has spawned three first drafts of novels (one of which has lived in a purgatory of partial second revision, stymied by the general on-fireness of the world, since December) and a bunch of smaller ideas, some of which want to be written out rather than only referenced as backstory in longer pieces. 

So now I write short stories. Like, on purpose, for their own sake. 

It’s been a transformative year in exactly one good way, which is the one that’s led me to write maybe half a million words of fiction at this point. I tell people close to me lately that I like one thing in my life, writing, and it’s only mildly hyperbole. It’s been the only thing that’s reminded me that I’m not lazy, I’ve never been lazy, but this year has been absolute murder on most aspirations that require something above subsistence-level energy. It’s in my nature to do things and to go above and beyond, but it’s felt impossible this year except for this one beautiful, essential, revelatory thing.

I make the coffee my host left for me, and it’s delicious but sends my nerves jangling. When I talk to my aunt and uncle later, I say, “I had real coffee today after only having occasional decaf for the last year, so if I either talk fast or sound like I’m trying not to talk fast, that’s what’s up.” They’re having their 50th anniversary in a month. I know they’ll celebrate properly later, but they love traveling and regularly take cruises and tours around the world, so I know that in an ordinary year this would be a big celebration in some form. I’m grateful they’re happily hunkering down together, but it’s the same quiet sadness as everything. I’ve had two quarantine birthdays. It’s nice to be alive, but if you’re behaving ethically, everything feels washed out at best.

I stay up too late doing the onanistic thing of rereading things I’ve written. I edit a little, but mostly it’s the self-soothing I’ve done this year. I’m up past three with it, and it feels so pleasant, but in kind of a fake-sugar way. It’s not what I need, but it’ll do for now. Still, in a pursuit usually riddled with self-loathing, feeling soothed by my own work seems like a little miracle in itself. I’ll take it.

Day three

I wake up much too early to take a class about bringing a story from rough first draft to something suitable to show beta readers. I look puffy and mildly out of it in my little Zoom rectangle, but that’s ok. I still take good notes and listen carefully, and that is everything.

The instructor is someone who writes novels based on other people’s intellectual property, and her carefully laid-out structure for going from an initial idea to something worth getting outside feedback on is a really useful counterpoint to how I’ve written for much of the year. It’s gotten more regimented lately in a really useful way – thanks, London Writers’ Hour – but for months and months, I spent the last three-odd hours of any given day “writing,” an activity that did contain a fair amount of actual writing but also contained Twitter, RSS, texting, videos, and then writing again in a cycle until I had to go to bed in time to get up for work the next day. 

I had a pretty good wordcount output that way, but the focus of LWH – a timer, DND on, all other windows minimized or closed – has been a revelation. In a way that I’ve never been able to, I can bang out 1,000 or 2,000 (or more) words of fiction in a concentrated hour. It’s like discovering an additional arm on my back, one I could’ve badly used for so many years. But work, circumstances, and needs have coalesced, and now I can do it. The only thing I enjoy.

So yeah, a process where someone says, “Plow forward, do not look back until draft two, and keep adding until you get to something useful but imperfect and unfinished to show trusted readers” has an appeal. It would’ve been terrifying and impossible once upon a time. Now it feels like something I’ve evolved into wanting.

I fall asleep for three-and-a-half hours after, though. When I wake up, I make late breakfast. I write and read on the porch again until the mosquitos get to be too much. I’d had ideas of walking to the trail I’m told is nearby, but instead I just read again, finishing the last of a five-book romance series that I’ve been reading off and on for the last few weeks.

I didn’t used to read romance, in part because I had a very 1980s view of it: kinda weird, kinda rapey, and broadly not of interest to me. During quarantine, though, I learned that there’s a whole sector of more recent romance books that are… fun. Fun and funny, actually feminist, embracing all the good, weird ways that people are. Some are more rom-com, some are more contemplative, and all of them combine humor and horniness into the one genre that has faithfully kept my attention during quarantine. I read other things, but it’s rare that anything really keeps me that focused. More recently, Neon Girls did it. Earlier in quarantine, I had a long, strange phase of avidly reading most of the primary resource kind of books written about Joy Division and New Order (except those by the drummer; even I only need to go so far with these things). These small obsessions that feel like life until I run out of pages, and then I wait for the next one.

In the romances, it’s pleasing to read about things working. It’s pleasing to read about people fitting together without losing themselves. The boning is good, don’t get me wrong, but I think the thing that eases my weary heart the most is reading about adults talking, compromising, and working things out. I want to believe that can actually happen. I have less evidence these days, so I read fiction instead.

I round out the night by watching The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, which has been an open tab on my computer for many, many weeks. I complete a Lego bouquet set as I watch, a very thoughtful birthday present. The instructions contain annotations that note the petals of the roses are usually car trunks and hoods, that the snapdragons include half-sphere pieces usually used for Star Wars droids. I get the sense of a clever internal project at Lego HQ, and it’s enormously pleasing.

You do not have to do anything.

Yes. And also I’m waiting to see when I’ll get antsy. Usually this is a predictable reaction in me, one that faithfully gets me past first-day anxiety to leave the hotel room and see the world again, even if it takes a few hours. However, in those times, I haven’t spent the past 13 months almost unceasingly in my apartment, hiding for my own safety. Have I lost the part of me that wants to know more? I’ve had my share of smug enjoyment of those “introverts: now’s our time to shine!” memes, but in ordinary times I’ve still needed to leave the house occasionally. Is that still there?

I’m not obligated to leave at all on this trip, or not until I run out of food around Thursday – a tactical choice. Thing is, I want to want to leave. I want to still need to see things, to have curiosity outweigh fear and inertia. But when fear and inertia have been the only flavors on tap for so long, when they’ve been the only sensible approach to existing, can curiosity come back? I’ve come to enjoy finite things: meal kits and Lego sets, exploring stories in a world contained in my head. I wonder if exploring will ever feel rewarding and natural again.

I assume they will, but I’ve assumed lots of things across quarantine. The feelings will come back. This will feel like it used to again someday. I will enjoy old hobbies again. Fewer things will be terrifying again eventually. Life may never be “normal” again, but it will be good.

I carefully maintain the hope I have like some people maintain bonsai. Small, preserved on a little pedestal, and with a preference that it doesn’t outgrow its container.

Day four

I wake up right as London Writers’ Hour is about to start after a morning of fitful sleep and weird esophageal pain. Because I’m leaning into my crone years, I take an antacid at night so the fires don’t escape their rightful home. Apparently last night, it wasn’t enough. So I had weird family dreams and a line of pain up through my guts.

One of the stranger parts of the last year (you know, beyond the abundant strangeness we’re all swimming in) has been writing family relationships. I’m not close with much of my family. I have a fondness for parts of how I grew up, but I tend to think of myself as having escaped from a toxic stew of rigidly enforced guess culture and that white bullshit where the person who points out the bad behavior is considered just as bad as the person who transgressed.

Early on in this fiction project, I thought, “Maybe all of my characters will be estranged from their families. Or their whole families are DEAD.” I thought of a friend’s description of Disney movies as a cavalcade of matricide and decided to try to be better. So instead, I write sibling relationships, and I try to forge unfamiliar parental relationships from my imagination. I’ve found it oddly healing: this is a world where people actually can treat each other better. And I write those. People step on each other, and rifts arise sharp and sure, but the characters I love make a real effort to make room for the people they care about. They consider it worth the trouble.

It’s warm to write. It’s cold to live without. So: fiction.

I spend the evening communing with the universe, first willingly and then increasingly less so. It’s a useful exercise, but I’m grateful when the passage of time goes back to its normal rate. The funniest thing is when, deep in the midst of this, I look at my phone and see that I got a phishing text. I’m seeing connections between molecules, and some dipshit is trying to get me to click on a nonsense link to try to extract money or credentials or who the fuck knows from me. The juxtaposition is so good that I laugh until I cry again.

Once I come back to earth, I talk to some people I love, and then I watch about six episodes of UNHhhh to ground myself back in the world.

sign for a trailhead

Day five

One thing from last night’s communion is that I realized I needed to get the fuck out of the Airbnb. It takes a while: I sleep until 12:45, do London Writers’ Hour, eat actual breakfast, deal with some logistics at home, and manage to get out of the house sometime after four. I walk to the trailhead that’s about 15 minutes away from where I’m staying. Two does are grazing in the yard when I leave, unperturbed by my presence, and it feels like an immediate welcome back to the outside world. 

I wander blearily through trees and Spanish moss, past ponds, and up and down hills. I encounter a few people. They’re less interested in my cheery hellos than city hikers are. I have a broad sense of where I’m going, and Google Maps does show the trails, but it doesn’t always have the finest sense of where I am. In the span of a minute, it might tell me I’m 15 minutes from home or two hours and 38 minutes. After last night, this feels meaningful somehow.

The nature preserve has a number of trails that overlap each other and blend, and because of this I manage to take a different route out than I did in. I honestly have no idea what I did, and the whole thing feels a little mystical when I emerge back at the original trailhead. I walk past a swing on the way into the woods (and paused to swing back and forth for a bit) but don’t pass it on the return. When I’m coming back, I go by an enormous tree, a mystical-looking thing with a dozen thick branches going in every direction. When I walk around it, I find that someone’s left a piece of quartz as long as my hand at its roots, tied with a gold ribbon, a moon charm, and some lavender. If it weren’t for the two vicious blisters I spawn halfway back, the whole thing might feel very mysterious Mists of Avalon. Instead, I just feel like a benignly silly city mouse taking a walkabout.

a deer looking at the camera on a grassy hillside

After I return, panting from walking up the steep-ass hill that leads to where I’m staying, I hear a crunch outside and find one of the deer from earlier having a munch on the hillside beyond my deck. We study each other, and I promise her I’m not going to come any closer. She grazes and occasionally tries to address an itch on her shoulder, first by bending her head back to nibble it, then by having at it with a rear hoof. It’s so like a cat or dog, but I never knew. I’ve mostly seen deer illuminated in a field, eyes bright from traffic for a moment before they go “NOPE” and run away. It’s nice to not to be taken as an immediate threat.

A rarity: I wish I had a hot tub here. There’s only a shower, and I keep doing things where I need some heat to regulate my temperature after. Instead, I turn on the heater and eat gnocchi while sitting about a foot from the grate.

The night is for writing this, for reading, for movies. For rest, because I think I’m finally going to do it tomorrow: I’m going to drive somewhere and do something that isn’t just hanging around in my rental.

the shore of Half Moon Bay, sand meeting water with some standing driftwood

Day six

I’ve figured out some tactical errors.

I’ve almost never rented a car for a trip because I hate driving. And, possibly more than that, I hate parking. I never get so salty so fast as I do when I realize I’m spending any of the finite balance of my time on earth looking for a place to put a large object I don’t even like – not having, and certainly not depending on.

However, vacation to those denser places that allow a car-free trip – transit to plane to train to transit –  is still not a safe proposition. So I conceived of something else, and now I’m reminded of why I don’t take trips like this. I don’t like them.

Which is why I’ve left the rental once in the last five days.

I’m making myself go to Half Moon Bay today, in a state that reminds me of how I am at home: a meme of a grumpy eagle, making myself leave the house because I ought to.

The best things I’ve managed this week are writing-related, and I could’ve done those at home. Have done, do regularly.

Transcribing a handwritten story that I did way back in January 2018, that I’d forgotten I wrote out, was pretty cool, though. Like a gift from my past self. I forgot I’d been doing the handwritten fiction thing that long ago. I thought I started it later in 2019, when I more regularly got a seat on my bus into San Francisco in the mornings after my commute changed and ended further north in downtown.

I go to Half Moon Bay State Beach and walk along the cliffs, edged with an amazing array of plants in an astonishing depth and breadth of colors. I walk along the beach, watching people with their dogs or kids or both in the distance, barefoot because yesterday’s blisters make any shoe more serious than a sandal impossible. I walk to the north end of the beach then back south to Venice Beach before doubling back to get the car. I pick up Chinese takeout in downtown Half Moon Beach after, wandering past cute shops as I wait for my black mushrooms to be done. The food I brought to the Airbnb had some plant matter but was a little heavier on the gnocchi end of the food spectrum than is ideal for several days in a row.

It is indeed good to go outside. I call my boyfriend and tell him: I’m ready to actually go places sometimes. He’s gently offered before. He has a car, and while he doesn’t like driving anymore than I do, it’s more ordinary to him, and his psychological barrier around these things is relatively low. We talk about coastlines and woods, creameries and small towns, all the things that aren’t so hard to get to if one gets over their resistance to Bay Area traffic.

It won’t always be like this. But for now, flights aren’t a thing, so we have long, not entirely pleasant drives instead. It’s ok.

I finish the night watching a documentary about art theft at a museum in the city I went to college in, the one I never made it to, something I’ve always regretted. I’ve vowed for years to go back there for vacation sometime, but the vow sticks harder now. Once things are more open, I’m going to do everything.*

*Slowly, gradually, and carefully, because I know if I try to do too much at once, I will have my first full-fledged panic attack, rather than merely playing around in the foothills like I have until now.

brightly colored coastal plants above Half Moon Bay Beach's shore

Day seven

I got bored in a way I haven’t gotten to feel in a year, so I invited my boyfriend over. I talked to my therapist before he arrived; he got here shortly after, and now he’s talking to his therapist while I write outside on the porch, sliding door securely sealed. The circle of life.

It feels so good to have the luxury of opting into company. For a year, most of an entire year, I couldn’t, and it was utterly toxic to my heart and brain. Like shitting in the reservoir. 

We go to the Alpine Inn for dinner at early bird o’clock, which means it’s slightly less wildly busy than it will be when we leave, when the parking lot is stuffed like a mall on Christmas Eve, with Teslas and those boxy, bonkers-expensive Mercedes SUVs being strongly represented. The beer garden is big enough, and their online order system well-designed enough, that we’re able to eat in public without feeling like we’re being pointlessly risky. A plaque out front informs us that in 1976, a message sent from a computer set up behind the restaurant went from radio network to SRI to motherfucking ARPANET to Boston, marking the beginning of the internet age. Sometimes, sometimes, this Silicon Valley stuff can be ok. Stuff like this is my favorite part: excited nerds with the freedom and information to do interesting things with such massive effects. It reminds me of learning about RFCs and working groups in the wider Bay Area that had such an impact on the internet as we know it. It’s a wonderful reminder that our actions can matter so much more than we’d ever guess at the time.

At night, he makes a fire in the woodstove I wouldn’t have touched if he hadn’t come over, and we watch Sneakers in bed while I point out the things I think are solid representations of stuff like encryption and where they might’ve fudged a little. There are reasons this movie is well regarded by the hacker community.

I’ve missed the cats the whole time, but sitting on a bed watching a movie with Sean, I have the first phantom impulses: the very specific physical inclination to dip down to the floor and pick a cat up, the flicker of a hand that wants to pet one of my buddies, because one has been within arm’s reach for most of the last year. It’s weird being without them, but it didn’t become a thwarted reflex firing until the other half of my confinement joined me in a new place. 

Day eight

Aspirations: I had them. I scheduled a guided hike south of Half Moon Bay, and it sounded exquisite: walking through the woods with someone interesting and knowledgeable, seeing wildlife, all these things I love and have missed. But I wake up feeling fuzzy-brained, and the blisters on my heels from a few days ago haven’t healed like I wanted. I cancel the hike. I’ll come back again sometime when I haven’t royally fucked my feet so recently.

Instead, I read in bed for almost three hours, finishing Get a Life, Chloe Brown before taking a mid-afternoon siesta. I get up, eat leftovers, and go write on the porch one more time before hopping onto Friday happy hour with friends.

It’s a small day, but a truly vacation-like day, and so it’s good. I spotted a fawn in the yard next to where I’m staying, my fourth deer sighting but my first chance to see one so young. 

Cleaning up the space to leave tomorrow morning, I feel a strange muted sadness. It contains ordinary end-of-trip feelings, but there’s more. Things are complicated at work. Many large decisions await me at home. And even though this isn’t the trip I would’ve chosen in ordinary times, there’s still the melancholy of having to go back to my regular little world. I try to think through what I’ll do differently: go more places, be less precious about driving for more than 20 minutes, get outside more, go walk around other neighborhoods, take more ferries, take more short walks during the workday, continue to try to find specialness in things where I can.

Like a lot of people, this piece about the state of languishing resonated hard with me. My brain feels mushy from not processing more information than it does. I have to search for words more. I had a preoccupation earlier in the pandemic about feelings of aging and decay, something I’ve mostly dealt with and digested, but which still lingers a little. Is this all there is. Is this how more of my one and only life will go. How many days and months and years will be half-lived because of the state of things.

If I hadn’t been writing up a storm for the last eleven months, I don’t know how I’d be ok right now. No one is obligated to pour themselves into some quiet achievement – becoming super fit, learning a language, putting everything you have into some disproportionately large creative work – but it’s helped me. I’m not sure how the rest of you are ok.

I hope you’re ok.

four young goats, one sitting in an empty food bowl, eyes closed and looking blissed out

Day nine

I get up early. I go to goat yoga.

Goat yoga is amazing. A teacher leads us through positions, while a helper brings baby goats to people, guides a full-grown goat named Tinkerbell to stand on people in tabletop position, and generally ensures everyone gets as much goat access as they care for.

three tiny black and white goats on hay next to a fence


Afterward, I sit in the car and think about what to do. I could go back into Half Moon Bay, get lunch, return to the beach, say hello to the ocean. Or I could go home.

In the end, I realize I wasn’t super psyched to be in a between stage for a few more hours, my trunk full of my shit, my writing untouched for the day. I mostly wanted to be home, to pet the cats and write some fiction, to be in one place again and start the work of reacclimating to my life. 

I drive home. I pass two recent and very bad car accidents on the way and do some thinking about how the thin line between a good day and a devastating one is so often just happenstance. I make it home. I eat lunch, pet cats, write a couple thousand words, and think about the week to come.

It isn’t going to be an easy one. However, after the thinking I’ve done this week, I feel more certain that I can handle it than I would’ve a week or two ago. There is change coming, most of which is probably not going to be anything I’ll consider good. But I’ll abide. I have resources and skills, and I have a newly sharpened sense of what I’m willing to put up with. The next few months may be tumultuous ones, but it’ll be ok. I studiously avoided putting together anything like a professional plan while I was on vacation, with the curious effect that I’m actually excited to do it this week. I’m excited to plot out the shape of the future.

I guess, in the end, that’s one measure of a successful vacation: concentrated avoidance of one’s life so that one doesn’t want to keep avoiding it. Welcome home.