Walls within walls within.

“Certain fundamental political decisions have been taken in our name – without ever being presented to us as a matter of choice. We have accepted them as inevitable or with minimal protest. …We have been spared the obligation to commit ourselves to a choice concerning any of these issues which occupy three quarters of the world as matters of life and death: such issues as racial equality, the right to national and economic independence, the ending of class exploitation, the struggle for freedom (and survival) in a police state… Unaccustomed to choosing, unaccustomed to witnessing the choices of others, we find ourselves without a scale of standards for judging or addressing one another. The only standard which remains is that of personal liking – or its commercial variant, Personality.” – John Berger, A Fortunate Man

Yesterday, while enjoying an evening with my family, my brother asked to show me something on Facebook. It had to do with a neighborhood figure, one often referred to as a “community leader”. My brother was surprised I hadn’t seen it and written a response; I had to inform him that I had stopped following this person some time ago, having tired of a rhetoric I was increasingly uncomfortable with, an us-versus-them pride, a kind of base nativism. I suspected this post would be more of the same and thought nothing of having a laugh at hyper-local hyperbole. What I read, however, struck me much more harshly. (Names removed for privacy.)

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Upon a quick scan, his words might suggest that members of the city council of of Santa Rosa, California, had their physical selves put in harm’s way by actual thugs. (From Webster’s Dictionary: “Definition of THUG: ruffians, assassins. E.g.: ‘Earlier in the year another prominent German Jew, the foreign minister Walther Rathenau, had been assassinated by right-wing thugs (earning the praise of a Nazi Party member named Adolf Hitler)'”) His words, “like the criminals that they are” begged the reader to feel anger and worry. They suggested that we’d find actual, criminal records for these people. Upon further inspection, however, the reader reaches the article’s subtitle, wherein we learn that the “thugs” and “criminals” were everyday people fighting to protect the civil rights of a rapidly growing homeless population, one left drowning in a staggering housing crisis worthy of a passage in a George Orwell novel, already horrific enough before a recent spike fueled by a climate chaos nightmare.

(Before I continue, I need to explain to you who this person is. He’s a small-town, former city planning commissioner who owns a land-use consulting business. He also founded a neighborhood association that rallies around such pressing issues as barn renovations to make a $3,700/day venue, dog-park building, and farmer’s markets, and how to move the homeless out of the neighborhood. He likes wine and sunny days and his dogs, and he absolutely hates garbage on sidewalks. You know him. There’s one of him in every neighborhood in every town in America. He also happens to spearhead my parents’ neighborhood association.)

To get an idea of the scope of how shocking his words are, should you need the scope, I should take a step back. I was born and raised in this county. For 30 of my 36 years, I have lived in Santa Rosa, minus a brief stay in Portland, OR. We were never rich, and neither were most of my friends, but for most of my childhood and teen years there was a relatively thriving arts and music scene. However, as the economic landscape shifted toward wine and expensive consumables, that changed. It rapidly became too pricey for young people without inherited money to get a start, and to make matters worse, many long standing venues that offered all-ages entertainment were shut down in the early 2000s. Suddenly, the entire county was a “destination”, meaning if you weren’t here to offer a lucrative temporary service to a visiting tourist, you weren’t wanted. Half of my friends left the county to avoid moving from an apartment to a couch. And with the economic crash of 2008, the gap became wider. “Hopeless” wasn’t a hopeless enough word.

Enter the fires. On the morning of October 9, 2017, there were times when I didn’t know if my parents or friends or my bosses or anyone who lived in or near east Santa Rosa was alive. As the fires kept burning, for days on end, I didn’t know if my brother two counties over was going to survive the fires that were heading in his direction at the same time; if our health would take a blow due to the amount of human-made plastics waste and chemicals in the air; if, should our houses actually burn down, there would be any chance to live here ever again. The etc.’s are too many to type. But there was no time to panic. The second the cops finally took down the barriers to Santa Rosa, I ran toward the fire. I stayed up for twenty four hours driving supplies where needed, checking on loved ones, putting out the still-burning embers on a friend’s property. The next week I spent distributing children’s masks that my friend made when he learned that people weren’t able to find any, and making sure my friends with health issues had their medications and food. And I went to my mom’s house and cut down dead brush and hosed down the roof.

Let’s take note of where this house is located. Less than three blocks away is a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen. It’s always been busy but recently, with shelters shutting down and rents growing at unbelievable rates, it has been overflowing. A few blocks beyond that is a bike trail that runs alongside the Santa Rosa Creek. Many homeless encampments are set up there, as well. Now, let’s take note of the state of mental health services in the county.

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In January of this year, just four scant months after the devastating fires which left thousands more residents without homes (in the midst, it must be repeated, of an already dire crisis), the county readied to slash its mental health budget. Medicaid – healthcare for poor people, which is basically all of the middle class at this point – has been sucked dry by our current federal administration and its local enablers. In our case, those who voted to fund the gulag-inspired make-over of Old Courthouse Square – to the tune of $10m. If I am reading page 269 of the 2017-2018 Annual Budget projection correctly (I’m probably not, I get lost in the jargon), this county allotted $1,255,746 to mental health services and $2,597,134 to behavioral health. That’s less than 40% of what the city spent on cutting down old growth redwood trees and replacing them with a concrete desert.

Meanwhile, the cost of living in Sonoma County was already on par with the most expensive metropolitan cities in the United States. On the low end, you can rent 824 square feet for $1,849. As a person who grew up here, I have to ask, “Yes, but what are you GETTING for it?” Certainly not what the metropolitan cities are offering. A vibrant, richly diverse, community-centered municipality that embraces change and celebrates positive growth for all? No. I will tell you what you will get. A town that shuts down all-ages venues faster than a fundamentalist father shuts down a boy walking within 200 feet of his virginal daughter, to make room for the temporary happiness of monied passers-through: wineries, breweries, fooderies, things that disappear, things that last one day, things they will forget tomorrow. It’s a county that still upholds Jack London on a lucrative ivory pillar, despite his unhinged alcoholism and astounding racism. A town whose cops shoot children in the back while they play – and let said cops keep their jobs. A town that decided a giant, white, Italian marble hand in front of a mall would symbolize our rich agricultural history (if you’re not from here, you might not know that our agricultural history was built by brown hands). And who are our cultural leaders? Who are the community movers and shakers? Well, I will tell you. Save for the rare few diamonds in the rough, they are mostly men and women who would rather shut down a conversation and lose friends than address their own racism. They are men and women who defend institutions before children. They are men and women who call peaceful defenders of human rights “thugs” and “criminals”. They are the men and women who fear grief and pain so much that they will gladly sweep those who experience it out of the way like the dog shit in their poodle park before they will allow themselves to feel one one bloody, pulsing ounce of humanity.

But I digress. I took a moment and I decided that I would step into the rabbit hole of Comments on a Facebook Thread. Mostly, it was somewhat uplifting. Many people spoke out about the heartlessness of who I will now call the Neighborhood Ebeneezer. Some were calm and to the point, others powerfully displayed their anger and dismay. One of the citizens who had been arrested at the city council meeting chimed in with wise words that brought the Ebeneezer’s original post to shame. And yet.

And. Yet.

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(Clarification: I’m about 99% sure he meant to type “acting out doesn’t help solve the blight”.)

I will work backwards from last paragraph to first: Ebeneezer doesn’t appear to understand that this entire statement contradicts itself. He wants us, the *relatively* progressive audience, to think that he dislikes Trump, yet turns around and subscribes to the highly Trumpian, and highly problematic, blue-lives-matter stance that neo-conservatives tout like pitchforks. Ebeneezer, how can you speak ill of wall-building when you’re whole goal in life is to build walls? Around your house, around your park, around your neighborhood, around your town. You ARE the wall. When you open the dictionary to “NIMBY”, it’s just a photo of you. You hiss at the homeless and the drug addicts and the poor and the mentally ill, and basically anyone who doesn’t abide by that distinctly privileged, white, male certainty that your reality is the best reality. You want to walk around denying the pain of others, not fully realizing that pain walks beside you, beside me, beside us all, everywhere we go, and that only by bearing witness and lending a hand when times are cruel will things get better. You’re nearly a figure of Shakespearean tragedy, so alone on your little hill, but your deepening well of self-imposed solitude will get no sympathy from me when you verbally spit on human beings just so your existence can remain static.

Middle paragraph: “Make Santa Rosa Great Again”. There is literally no point in addressing this sentence.

First paragraph: “Desperate times? I see a lot of frustration. Life is short – acting out does[n’t] help solve the blight of the homeless.” Yes, life IS short. And aren’t you lucky that your short existence doesn’t involve actual survival? That you aren’t being referred to as a “blight”, as though you are made out of pustules, or locusts? You’re absolutely right, though, “acting out” doesn’t help solve blights. According to Webster’s, to act out is “to behave badly or in a socially unacceptable often self-defeating manner especially as a means of venting painful emotions (such as fear or frustration).” And here is the definition of “protest”: “A solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent.” I believe what the protestors at the City Council meeting were doing was declaring dissent, solemnly. “Acting out” is something I associate more with a grown man willing to whine on social media about trash on a sidewalk while people are forced into living in their cars all around him.

All of this behavior that you’re exhibiting comes from an understandable place. You love where you live, and it’s difficult to observe pain, particularly when it is so prevalent. I can understand this because I also love where I live, and I also struggle with witnessing so much pain. But I will tell you a short story that will hopefully put things into perspective for you, because you claim to love your neighborhood, and it happened to your neighbors. On the second day of the fires, after we were sure my mom was secure, my dad was packing up his work truck to go help others. Suddenly, a homeless and very possibly mentally unwell person came up to him and punched him square in the face. Pushed him straight back and down, causing his head to hit a large, ceramic tree planter, breaking it in half. All for no apparent reason. My dad did all the appropriate things. He called the police and he informed our neighbors. And then, two weeks ago, my mom woke to the sound of a man trying to break through the gate into her backyard. She, too, did all of the appropriate things, while also dealing with the reality of living alone, with cancer, in a neighborhood that sees grief all day long, surrounded by neighbors who she doesn’t have the energy to get to know better. But you know what the difference is between you and them? Despite the fear they felt, they never lost their humanity. They could see beyond themselves. They never said “If it weren’t for those thug/criminal people and their inability to be just like me, this world would be perfect.” They don’t have the privilege of clinging to an ideal born out of nothing but the dreams of colonialists-cum-capitalists. You have everything, a home, family, financial security, a neighborhood that mostly does what you ask…and you still aren’t satisfied.

I have to ask, what is that like? I’ve never had the privilege of assuming that this world was supposed to adhere to my exact liking, because I was taught that it’s literally everyone’s world.

Shame on you. Shame on your use of words such as “thug” and “criminal” to describe human beings who are trying to help raise up other human beings. Shame on you for abusing your power as a “community leader” to poison the well with hate. Shame on you for your turning your back on your own humanity when you have every reason, and all of the means, not to.

This city deserves better than you.

 

 

 

 

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The Hold

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Cargo ship on the Columbia River, Astoria, OR.

I’m six months back in the state of California. Myriad things had turned my mind south in Oregon and I was halfway here before my body caught up. I left behind friends and a world I had I grown to love, but I left it for the comfort of knowing my mom wasn’t alone while she went through cancer treatments. Miles came back with me, since a half-hearted attempt at trying to fit into a corporate structure backfired mightily, and between these factors our psyches began making the sounds that cars make before their engines explode. A slight, consistent hiss. When we left Home Number Two, there was sleet coming down and a sky the color of a trout’s belly; everything felt both rushed and incredibly tedious. The business of heading into sickness and fear makes the mind play tricks on itself; I wobbled between a desperate desire to stay and a dire need to go.

When we rumbled down highway 101 in our moving van, car attached, into the heart of pasture and vine country, the hills were a blinding emerald, the edges of fields glinting with a confounding dew the likes of which I had not witnessed since I was a child. My California eyes, weary with seeing nothing but drought for most of my life, were not used to such Technicolor. The late winter sky was a soothing blue, like something from a brochure for therapists. A fact not lost on me. The air smelled dry, even in the rain, reminding me that I was Home (Number One). A touch of spice from blackberry briars, an aroma I knew would rev up in the summer heat. A splash of honeysuckle. Eucalyptus. Car exhaust. Restlessness.

I tried to find a path when I arrived, something only for me. But I was too broke to explore too far so I tried to keep my adventures closer to home. I tried to find the fighters. I needed to find that camaraderie. When November 8th happened–sitting in a friend’s living room in Portland with a group of like-minded souls, our hands over our gaping mouths in horror, tiny paper flags wilting on the cupcakes we no longer had an appetite for–the only thing that kept me from despair was climbing the eerily silent on-ramp of Interstate 5 on foot, linking arms with thousands of other souls and stopping cars with our noise and bodies, shaking bridges with our weight, tears in the eyes of people at their high-rise windows, tears in my own eyes, heart and blood alive. The rumpus. The roar. The collective anger that kept the despair away like a bonfire staves off shadows. It made me feel quieter inside.

But I found that it was not the same here. The world, now, was quiet. Or I had just become too loud. Hard to tell. I learned quickly that the anger I had taken comfort in, that had protected me from tailspin of depression, was not welcome in these parts. What I perceived as bravery and hope was perceived by others as negativity. I went to gatherings and found the only words that came out of my mouth were bitter ones. I thought I was being hilarious! Nope. The words dropped like stones at others’ toes. I went back to Miles’ and my borrowed home and reprimanded myself for trying to connect. “You don’t know how to do that!” I reminded myself. “Not here, anyhow.”

I suppose this whole adventure that I’ve gone on, this roam, this seek, fueled at first by Miles but now wholly engulfed by the fire of my own soul, was not, in fact, an adventure. It was just a seed, planted where I did not know there was soil in which to grow. But it’s a lonely adventure. And a quiet one.

I am a cargo ship. I am laden with innumerable tonnes of things and I grow and grow and grow and I can’t seem to stop. When you stand near me I am colossal. You cannot see the end of me. I am a confusion of supplies and goods and services and there is no rhyme or reason to everything I hold within. But stand on the shore and look at me now. I am floating on a water so vast I am small again. I am contained, and and from afar I can be seen with eyes of judgement; I can be valued, I can be measured.

Can you see me now, Home Number One?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve written at least ten posts that I never finished in the last year.  I can barely set my thoughts straight long enough. They wriggle and prance and kick up dust, a tiny roadside attraction in my brain that I pulled off the freeway for, and then never left. A fairy ring; a curse. Today I helped my mother–pumped full of the hemoglobin of other people to ward off a cancer that cannot be killed–sort through her life’s things while I pushed my own life as far away as I could. It’s not a life I am proud of. It’s an embarrassing ex: I try to hide it, but something about the past always betrays me.

Was the world coming to an end that last time I posted? I’m too immobilized to check. Or I’ve been drinking a clumsy, homemade martini and I no longer give a shit. What I know is that I started this blog to record an adventure I was certain would change my life and now it’s just where I go to exorcise demons. In some ways I was able to adventure. I saw much of the country before it began gunning for the cliff’s edge. I met wonderful people; ate pleasantly mediocre food in peaceful settings. I built fires and pitched tents and drank cheap wine under a sunbrella in the pouring Pacific Northwest rain because I was “rugged” (read: tired and grumpy) and did not give a fuck. I camped, explored, and took pictures that the Internet told me would make other people jealous of their nine-to-five lives, even though I sort of envied their money and their stability. I adventured, and pretended I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, when I knew that I wouldn’t ever do what I wanted; I would have to eventually do what I had to do.

And let’s be honest: I should’ve started on that path a long time ago.

We left Portland on the heels of a snowstorm and a massive disaster known as an election. We the people hired a televangelist for greed, and as he took the reins he began to unfasten the bolts of the great mechanism we call America. It’s too insane, too ridiculous, too painful to write about. Already there is a wave of hate upon us so deeply ingrained in and reliant upon ignorance that its weight cannot be shook from our shoulders.

This is not to say we don’t deserve it. But let’s be honest: the people who should’ve taken up the hammers of justice should’ve done so years ago.

My heart hurts as I type this. Not because I didn’t see it coming– I did. While sighs of pained realization floated all about me during election night I couldn’t rid myself of a feeling of familiarity as the president elect celebrated his win. Not a good familiarity. Not one of pleasant recognition. Just one of resignation as I realized that this was truly, for all intents and purposes, a long time coming.

We left Portland, and came back to help our parents through whatever trials and tribulations await them and us and everything.

I’d like to say that moving back to California has done me some good. Like an ad for milk, I’d like to say that I pull my shining hair into an easy ponytail, sip on a glass of Golden State sunshine, and exhale exuberance. I’d like to say that I wake up in the morning looking forward to the day. Instead, I wake up wondering how long it will take until Miles is annoyed that I haven’t moved. He won’t see that my feet are stuck in existential cement. That I dreamt–when I was able to sleep– of walking in a slow circle in a field full of nothing and that that dream didn’t seem to end when my eyes opened. I’d like to say that I am filled with hope, even as my prospects for a job, for the ability to see a doctor, for my nieces and nephew to know a healthy planet, for my Native relatives to grow stronger on their uncontested land, for my grandmother not to think her life will end in a world of turmoil and grief, for a chance at a future without fear and worry, all seem to diminish as quickly as my shitty, cheap martini.

For now, I will go to bed. Tomorrow, I will try again.

 

 

 

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The snow

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Gentle.

The snow started out in dry flakes the size of buttercup petals. Individually, they swayed, twirled, and dissolved just above the too-warm sidewalks. Together, they tumbled through the streets like confetti, sticking to nothing, skimming along the subtle electrical currents of everyday objects. By noon the snow was tidal, an ephemeral wave washing over everything in undulating ebbs and flows. And then a darker sky, a thundering rush of wind, peels of snow tossed in every direction, slithering off of rooftops and along gutters like snakes. The harrowing wind started and stopped and started in a brisk staccato, veils of snow hanging briefly, suspended, before falling, defeated.

Violent.

I sit at my chair, at my table, in my apartment where the pilot light on the heater has just been snuffed out by the steady stream of air that sneaks its way through the vent. I wear layers and drink too much coffee. I’m sitting at my computer trying to think of what to write as the wintry tableau outside my window shifts restlessly in whites and grays. The seagulls, blown in from the coast by the storm, congregate among the crows along the spines of roofs. Black. White. Black. Gray. The world is monochromatic.

One month ago today half of this country elected to lead it a man who has no moral compass. He built nothing out of another nothing that his father handed to him, and half of the country celebrated his nothingness. It was as though we collectively glitched, our din pausing for a heartbeat and when it was regained we found that we were living in a reflection, and though the sound was the same it reverberated in the opposite direction. With applause and tears of joy half of this country elected a man who openly talks about desiring his daughter’s body. A man who cannot prove he did not rape a child. A man who gleefully flouts all notions of decency with the aplomb of a toddler flinging his own shit. A man who pointedly appoints decrepit shells of humans who donated to his campaign to operate the branches of his throne. He has promised to undo every good work this country worked hard to produce. He has promised to give to those who do not need and to take from those who do– and half of the needy applaud him for it.

And in what I consider the kernel of truth for every politician, he has shown what he will do to the Native population. He has promised to destroy the land of the indigenous peoples of the United States for resources that fuel a finite economy. This promise heralds destruction and death. He has promised to kill a part of me. He has promised to darken the futures of my nieces and nephew. He has promised to act as though his own lifeline is that of the planet’s. And indeed perhaps that’s not far from the truth.

I have moments when I suddenly recall being on the road. It’s usually at night; insomnia fuels longing. It is not the longing for an old lover’s warmth or a childhood I never had. Instead, I am startled awake by memories of golden expanses that normally terrify me: waving prairies, arid deserts, isolated plains. I even sometimes think fondly of the places that once forced me into a state of alienation so new and raw I could not carry the weight of my own fear. Now I remember it with hunger. It is stark and refreshing. Yes: it was lonely and I was afraid, but these things came from within–the world was not grabbing from the ground up in temblors of doom.

I recall now with peace the dust of the midwest: smelling of old sunlight, burnt, tired, deliciously indifferent. It fell around me as though it were glancing off my own subtle electricity. I think of driving alone to the edge of what was left of the prairie. It truly was like a sea, as many have described it in the past, with only one stark difference: the sound. Unlike the sea, whose thundering edges drowned out the worries in my brain, the sound of the prairie was a hum of summer insects and silence. Today, the midwest faces clean water issues and unprecedented earthquake damage, due to extensive fracking found throughout many of the oil states.

I think of the full harvest moon rising over the rim of the Grand Canyon, like some benevolent god whose sole purpose was to illuminate the inanimate, to show us the beauty in that which did not pass the time but was simply formed by it. Today, though a 20 year ban was put into effect to stop new mine construction, the Grand Canyon is under threat from pre-existing uranium mines; radioactive dust is found throughout the National Park.

I think of the dawn bleeding into the night over North Dakota as I drove through the painted canyons of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, compass pointed toward Tennessee. A lavender mist rose like ghosts to greet us before sighing back into the grasses of the plains. Miles slept as I drove, and I watched in quiet solitude as the sky bore on its wings the colors of an ancient and undisturbed beauty. My heart never felt so heavy with awe as it did that morning, in a place I would never have expected it to. Today, much of North Dakota fights over land and water rights with the advent of unrestrained fracking, and the North Dakota government has flouted sovereign law to gain access to the oil on Tribal land, going so far as to physically endanger the people trying to save that land.

What will I write about once irreality becomes reality? What will I write about when everything that inspires me is turned to dust? Does it help not to care? Is that the secret of the rich and powerful? Two sessions of therapy a week, creature comforts, frequent weekend getaways, the ability to buy the newest and best, the ability to say you purchased your ease of mind. To pay for indifference.

I don’t know what the solution is. I simply long, every day now, for indifference.

 

 

 

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On this, the month of my birthday.

It’s come to this: indifferent, mean city life has won the battle. In a dusty cloud of defeat I’ve arrived at my mother’s house– unemployed, bloated with roadside food and shame– to hide for the month of May.

Somewhere in the world there’s a video of me when I am eight years old. I am sitting on my parents’ bed and I have short, boyish hair and giant front teeth. My parents had rented a video camera to document my older sisters’ first modeling gig; having completed that, they are exhausting their skills at documenting everything else. I am excited. I’ve never had my moving face captured on film. They decided to put something together to send to my grandmother in Washington, D.C. She has emphysema and her skin, like rice paper, breaks with any measure of pressure, so much of our connection is ephemeral. Paper, pictures, now film. The lighting is terrible. Any first year film student will tell you that a single, dusty ceiling lamp filled with bug corpses and a low kelvin bulb will surely destroy any setting. You can see by our belongings that we’re poor, a fact I was not aware of as a child. The six of us live in a duplex off a main road in a shitty suburb of San Francisco. The carpets are hard and flat and avocado colored and even run through the kitchen. But we have an orange tree that smells like heaven in the spring and giant bay windows. I’m a pretty happy kid. Off camera, my parents ask if I’m ready. I nod, and then launch into a high pitched yet on-key version of Patsy Cline’s “Honky Tonk Merry Go-Round.” I’m nervous but proud and my dimple (only one; on the right cheek) flashes whenever I hit the high notes.

Somewhere else in the world there is a picture of me when I am twelve. I’m sitting at the piano and looking over my shoulder at the camera. It’s an event, and it’s during the holidays; I know this because I am wearing the crushed red velvet top with embroidered silver stars that my grandmother bought me for such occasions. I’m straight-backed and my mouth, full of teeth too big for my still-growing face, is stretched wide in a proud grin. At this point I have dreams. I am going to be a writer of fantasy and political non-fiction (not journalism, though– far too dry), and in order to accompany my singing I’m going to learn piano.  Somehow, I will also earn enough money to buy a guitar. My narrow hands and long bony fingers are poised over the keys like some damned pro, like I’m envisioning Carnegie Hall. I’m excited about the future– still!– because as yet no one has tipped over that urn full of dark clouds that awaits me. That huge, insurmountable pile of disillusionment that permeates the world around me now, smudging my vision, always.

Even as a teenager I was eager to learn and grow and conquer and maybe even destroy (like, patriarchy and stuff).  I can’t say exactly when I changed to become so bitter and suspicious. Was it the general economic downturn? Was it watching friends become house-flippers and heroin addicts? (Though soccer moms and politicians will tell you otherwise, the line drawn between those two categories is a watery one; one destroys themselves, the other destroys entire communities. Only one of them makes it to appointments on time, though.) Was it watching our country turn on a president because of a blow job and then hire a B-grade frat boy to lead us into moral obfuscation? Was it knowing that I would never, ever fit in with the crowds that had the most fun because I always, forever see the bad guys lurking under the bleachers, even when they aren’t there? I can’t say, but I CAN say that it seems to only plateau and then worsen, though. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around, aren’t we supposed to grow out of fears and experience the bettering of our selves and the world? I always believed adults so wholeheartedly when they told me that. Are they liars?

I can’t say. I just sit around my mother’s house, hiding from responsibility, painting my nails and drinking cheap white wine like a broke divorcee who couldn’t afford this year’s Cougar Cruise.

I look back on what the last three years have brought me, despite all of my [perhaps self-wrought] misery. It has been glorious in many respects. I learned to love traveling and I learned that, despite my hatred of cities and despite its steroidal growth, Portland is a city worth my love. A dubious honor, I know. But from a person who greedily, hungrily squirrels away secret, lonely outposts in her Pinterest account to use later as a means of escape from human connection, it’s a pretty serious honor, too.

To ward off my constant companion, a smarmy shithead of a gent called Foreboding, I’m going to go paint my mother’s living room and visit the DMV to make sure I am still registered so that I can at least say I didn’t vote the talking wig into office. And then maybe I will go chill alone on a shoreline somewhere.

The balance, though elusive, searches me out on occasion, too.

 

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i wave back

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I know all there is to know about waves. From the gritty gray shorelines of Northern California I learned their patterns as I learned the familiar sounds of my siblings’ voices. Before I could see them I could sense how hungry the tide was– the hungrier it gets the closer it crawls to the dunes, lapping at the toes of sun-dazed tourists. Waves are the quickly sketched and easily disposed objets d’art of energy; they are wily creatures; they are perfect specimens of the evolution of life. They roll over one another in a seemingly steady dance, but upon further inspection you can begin to decipher where they trip up: racing for the edge, they crash into one another like children gone berserk on candy and too much fun, the result less elegant than that of their calmer selves. From afar we observe the perfection and revel in pattern of the calmer waves. They sport the obsidian sheen of fused glass, and they set every refraction of light on fire. Closer, though. Those others are broken, muddled, looming shells of foam rising to the heavens, clashing, and collapsing over and over, like grief.

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my friend, death

summer moon over belmont electrical wires

summer moon over belmont electrical wires

death is a strange bedfellow. it is a seemingly palpable presence, but in reality is simply an abstract one. we fear it because of its inherent mystery; we explain it by weaving stories that are pulled out from inside our hearts. we avoid discussing it but we all face it someday. or experience it, rather.

“today,” we might say, as from a news broadcast featuring walter cronkite, “jane doe experienced death. though we cannot ask her to describe it, as her brain can no longer send the proper electrical signals to her throat and mouth to form sounds, we can imagine myriad things she might say in an interview with terry gross regarding the subject.” we fill in the story for our dead friends.

because nothing is more frustrating than not knowing.

this has been a year of death visits and death missed-connections. sometimes death walked in, brushing me aside, when i cracked opened the door; sometimes death called to see if it could visit and i was like, i mean, you COULD but seriously you’re always so inconsiderate, so could you just not. and death sent a postcard anyhow. my mom’s cancer, incurable but supposedly slow-growing ( “a good cancer to get if you have to get an incurable cancer”), hangs out like that sleazy mustachioed yippie who can’t figure out what to do with himself in between burning man events. every day she wonders when chemo will begin; what years-left number will come out of the aging mesh bingo basket. multiple acquaintances have been diagnosed with cancer; in fact, if there were a google search for most-spoken-word in my life, cancer would be up there just underneath the phrase “fuck this shit”.

and two friends, one young, one old, died. those were the days death came through the door. it never gets easier, hearing that door shut and then having to rock yourself back to a steady stand-still when the weight of that person’s spirit has been displaced. i sit around and wonder how to talk about it. mostly i don’t talk about it. i can’t write about it without drifting into reverie. so what is left when your fingers reach for the keys and the letters you plunk upon don’t seem to translate into something meaningful? at this point, death should be my friend, should buy crappy happy hour drinks with me and remark on how good the tater tots are when we’re too tipsy to ponder how clean that circa 1930s unrenovated bar kitchen is. death should have a kind, open face. death should listen, should comfort. should spin the story out from within us so we don’t have to.

but death has no mouth. only the living do.

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Desert Oblivion

In the summer of 1995 I was fourteen and had long purple hair. I listened almost exclusively to Jimi Hendrix, Tori Amos, and old dead classical composers.  I dressed like a  skater boy. I read for five to twelve hours a day. I co-founded the Sonoma County chapter of NOW’s Third Wave organization and a sci-fi/fantasy literary magazine for teens called “Windchime”. I’d recently gotten braces. I was too shy to talk to anyone, so everyone thought I was a dismissive snob. Cherry on top, I was suing my school district for sexual harassment.

In short, I was the life of every party.

I was so popular, in fact, that most of my friends kind of forgot that I was going away for a portion of that summer. I was being sent to Idaho to accompany a family friend on her treks to the southern part of the state, collecting water samples in the desert’s canyons for her job with the Bureau of Land Management. I was homeschooled at this point, per my own request– well, “unschooled” was the term we used, as homeschool summoned distasteful ideas– and had a fluid schedule, so I wasn’t party to the desperate summer itineraries of my normal-schooled pals. We had begun going our separate ways and my new friends, also alternatively schooled, were always traveling and adventuring far more than I ever did, so they were nonchalant as I headed into the heat of summer Idaho. I swallowed my anxiety and decided I, too, would be nonchalant.

This was to be my first bona fide desert experience. I’d been through the desert several times before, crossing the country to visit family or heading up into Idaho to visit said friend, our orange-and-brown 1984 Vanagon breaking down in Winnemucca on two separate occasions. (What is this “Winnemucca,” you ask? Imagine a crumpled brown paper bag sitting in a 500 degree oven. If your brain keeps trying to add pretty cacti or a scraggly pine tree or two, don’t bother.) Going through it is different than purposefully being in it, though.  Coming from the mystical coastal Northern California, land of redwoods, fog, and possibly Puff the Magic Dragon, the desert always seemed as appealing to me as eating eggplant (how I feel about eggplant: set it on fire and walk away.) and as such, I was furtively apprehensive. By nature I am the one who gets into water one toe at a time. But I was surrounded by head-first adventurers, and I envied their freedom. I wanted to be an adventurer, too.

I mention this story because it figures into my future relationship with the desert. When I’m feeling romantic, I can summon up images of Santa Fe and Taos and not end up with a knot in my stomach. Otherwise, my associations with deserts are of isolation and fear, peppered with a paranoid view of military experimentation and Burning Man. However, with my recent trip to my sister’s wedding in Reno, NV, coming up, I had to find a way to love it. It was like trying to wring water from a rock. Dry, arid spaces make me feel claustrophobic in the way I imagine outer space would make me feel. Vast emptiness absorbing the oxygen and caving in on my being. Boise, Idaho, was a beautiful place with lots of cool people and approximately three handsome young guys that I immediately fell in love with for no other reason than that they were nice to me. I liked that portion of Idaho quite a bit. It was the desert that spoiled it for me.

When I finally got out there, this weirdo from California with unnatural hair color and a CD Walkman umbilical cord, I rapidly began feeling unmoored. Little by little, over the course of a couple of weeks, my brain began blurring what I was experiencing and what I feared I might experience. I didn’t hallucinate. I didn’t hear voices. Nothing like that. I simply couldn’t stop imagining the worst possible outcomes while simultaneously fighting against imagining them. In the heat and the dryness, everything magnified. The light seemed to brighten exponentially, the hot desert air to press in close, buzzing– what I now recognize as a sign of an impending panic attack. As soon as we would start the hours-long, bumpy ride out of the desert and back onto the freeway, it all subsided. I was completely normal.

To be fair to the desert, there was much more to contend with in my brain than most people had to by the age of fourteen: I had experienced the dark underbelly of an education system unwilling to take care of the bodies and minds of the children it represented; the violent death of a good friend at the age of twelve; the angry departures of my sisters to lives that they implied were preferable without the rest of us– an idea I had not considered and did not understand. I thought about dark things all the time, and thought it was normal to do so. While I wasn’t entirely wrong (I was a teenager, after all), I didn’t realize how much I had come to obsess over these things. Death, loss, and the fear of being completely alone became weighted hooks that embedded themselves in my soul. They pulled heavily on my heart and my brain.

And then one day, in the desert, my brain broke in half.

You wouldn’t know that there is enough water in the southern Idaho deserts to fill a sizable creek and to line it with enough coyote willow to choke a canyon. This is because the surface of southern Idaho’s earth is the color of bone and is textured like some macabre craquelure. But the canyons are lush and vibrant with life. Maybe a little too lush. On our second voyage out, we had come to an impassable section of the creek and we still needed to collect data from the other side. We’d made it through several snags already: walking hours too far beyond the point we wanted to be, according to our aerial map; waking up in the middle of a fire ant colony; and I had, personally, fallen into a beaver dam pool, grabbing a healthy stalk of stinging nettle on the way down and blowing my hand up like a rubber glove balloon, sending sharp stabs along my arm for a day and a half. But we’d made it. Now, our only options were to climb out of the canyon and walk its edge until we found a better spot– an hours-long excursion, wasting precious daylight hours– or for one of us (her) to try to forge ahead alone and find a miraculous break in the thick foliage. Plan B was enacted.

We found a shaded spot and checked my radio battery to be sure that, in the unlikely event that anything happened to her, I could find help. “Wait here, I will be right back” are words that we all say to all sorts of people without thinking. There was no need for her to say anything else. She was gone for a total of five minutes, and if she had been with any other person, everything would have been completely normal. Normal people would take the opportunity to relax, chew on a stalk of something that wasn’t stinging nettle, and enjoy the stunning vista. Unbeknownst to everyone, including my parents, my therapist, my best friends, and me, I was a special case. The words came out of her mouth and entered my ear like a runaway train. I nodded in what I hoped was casual agreement and then crouched in my little hiding spot, sweaty hand gripping the walky-talky like a life raft.

In my head, it really was a life raft. I clung to it as rapidly escalating abstract visions of death piled one upon the other, until the connection between my brain and heart twanged. Violently. It was as though the hand of god had reached out and plucked the throbbing veins of an electrical current. Suddenly, I stopped seeing. I didn’t shut my eyes or faint. I simply stopped seeing. My brain no longer accepted visual information. For about five seconds, I did not exist. When I came back into my body, I was screaming.

To this day I can’t remember if she heard me or not. After I came to, I was so shocked by my screaming that I clamped my mouth shut like a sprung trap. Body jerking with adrenaline that had nowhere to go, I scrambled to figure out the radio, and failed. I didn’t know what I would have said to a dispatcher, anyhow. “Please help me, it’s been two minutes and I’m scared”? So I sat with my hand over my mouth, crying, instead. When I heard the rustle of her footfalls in the foliage, I was flooded with relief and with wild, burning shame. After a brief, concerned reconnaissance in which I tried my best to appear fine despite my wet cheeks and shaking limbs, I did not talk about it. Self-hatred commenced, as well as a sense-memory connection with the desert and heat that, for a time, equated to nothing but abject terror. Somehow I made it through another journey there without completely melting down, but I realized there was a switch inside of me that I had no control over. It would be flicked on or off by a mutineer brain wave, which soon became a restless Peter Pan shadow sewn onto my every move.

I can recall now the beauty that I was sometimes able to recognize, and even get lost in, on that trip. I went home and wrote about it in a short poem that an annual publication was kind enough to add to a collection of far more worthy submissions. I saw the hand-print hieroglyphs of ancient natives on isolated rock formations. I saw my first bald eagle. Though we were told we wouldn’t see one, that they hadn’t been seen in that particular region in over ten years, we crossed paths with a mountain lion who paused in her hunt to watch us, the lines of her sinewy body bright with golden evening light. The night sky was akin to what I’d read about in nautical stories and I would imagine I was afloat on my beloved Pacific, though the scents of canyon flora gently belied my earthly position. I have grown to appreciate, and in some ways to love, that experience and that place, even as I wrestle with my brain every time I go back into the desert.

So when I learned that my sister would be getting married in Reno to the love of her life, I vowed that I was prepared to go anywhere. Even to the summer desert. Weeks in advance I began the long process of fretting, dreading, reminding myself ad nauseam of what I was looking forward to, hoping it would rain, hoping I wouldn’t spiral into the abyss. My panic attacks are few and far between these days, and I can go months, even years, without experiencing one. Especially if I avoid hot places. But I vowed that I would go because I love my family and because I wanted to be an adventurer. And it turned out it did rain.

And it was beautiful.

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Road Redux

I don’t know how to live in a city without shrinking. I’m already shy and prone to leaving parties early, without goodbyes. Yet in a city those dispositions are exponentially magnified. When I lived in California it was known by friends and family alike that two hours might be my max in a city before sprouting sharp teeth. Sensory overload, perhaps. I was born in a seaside snowglobe filled with fog; a tiny hamlet with no grocery store or bar or gas station. We left when I was four, first to a town that still had a train running through it, and then to a town with a freeway and a mall, and all I’ve ever tried to do since is go back to the snowglobe.

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For me to be in a city, then, is to live internally. My thoughts are my comrades, my allies, my saviors. My enablers. My backward walk, zig zagged, into the woods. I don’t fear the outside. I walk around until I find the places that feel alright to be in. I go to bars with friends and I go to concerts. I do the things that keep me from disappearing altogether, because when left alone in a city I shrink as every part part of my mind splinters into smaller and smaller categories of daily nothings: Where to buy the cheapest gas and how to avoid traffic. What is for dinner and will it include the CSA veggies rotting in my fridge (will my boyfriend and I ever have harmonious schedules?). Keep the blinds drawn or buy some billowing catalog curtains to lighten the mood. Which way is west- I never see the sunset anymore. And as my thoughts shrink, my shoulders bend. My spine curls, and my head hangs like a tired mule’s over a barbed wire fence. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

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When I was on the road and had only a car full of food and camping gear I felt huge, solid, and wondrously insignificant at the same time. In Maine I toed the shore of a tiny bay whose surface so perfectly captured the sky I felt suspended in air, light and transcendent. In Montana I sat in the shadows of jutting, angular glaciers and felt my mind unfold like an origami box and stretch upward. More of this, I keep saying to myself as I relive these moments in my mind. I want more and more of this. Sense memories will flood back into me at unexpected moments – the hunger I felt for everything I saw and for what I hadn’t seen yet. I hope I never lose them.

I keep remembering the land. Getting lost in Taos while trying to find something to eat, and finding instead a road that deadended in a desert full of sage and a sky full of evening fire. Arriving at the edge of Arizona’s canyon lands, the yellow earth kicking up behind me as I walked toward a fat, glowing moon traveling up the breast of a lapis horizon. Walking quietly, gently through the moss kingdoms of the Pacific Northwest as soft rain fell through reaching branches onto the crown of my head. Driving alone out to the edge of the Great Prairie with only dust and buffalo for company. And the scents. I could smell the raw earth in blossom and in death. The bite of eucalyptus. The black, shadow scent of decaying leaves. The musk of honeysuckle that makes your lips and bare skin yearn for touch. The electric bouquet of the midwest’s midnight storms. All without the permeation of industry. Alone upon the open earth, on light feet, I had nothing caging my thoughts or my body: I was free, and the highway of my thoughts knew no bounds.

Here, in the thrum of the city, I am back to splitting and splicing and organizing every thought until it resembles what I had tried so hard to escape before: a worn page of erasure. Though there are aspects of city life I have come not only to love but find that I sometimes need (music, so much music), I don’t see the endless opportunities in it that others seem to flock to cities for. Instead, I catch myself sifting through recollections. I bring up the smell of nasturtium, sand, and juniper. I recall the feeling of heavy fog blanketing my shoulders as I walked along deserted beaches shrouded in indigo twilight. I live in my head, knowing full well that’s no way to live. I wander around in the attic of my mind, and then I snap out of it, go to work, come home, and try not to wait.

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Portland, Music, Futures, Pasts: A Love-hate Story

My parents loved music nearly as much as they loved their four children. My mother had grown up on the East Coast and come from old Southern money. She was, miraculously, thankfully, the black sheep of the family. Motown, Soul, and any other kind of music that didn’t involve Barry Manilow or orchestral strings were socially verboten- so she listened to them often. It’s what got her through whitewashed summers in Virginia, and through the horrors of being sent to juvie at age fifteen for running away from her alcoholic mother. My father was the son of a civil rights leader and a no-nonsense but loving artist, and his obsession with jazz, modern folk, and rock and roll were encouraged, despite his fears that his parents wanted him to straighten up and fly right (read: become a teacher). He worshiped the guitar slinging of early 1970s beauty Bonnie Raitt and he bought himself a Guild with what was probably his rent money. When my parents met it was like the meeting of oceans: it ought not to have happened, but something beautiful occurred at some point, anyhow.

I don’t remember many concrete things about my life before the age of five, but I remember music. My father had a vinyl collection that anyone who had once hoped to be a famous musician in the 1970s would own. All of the classics, and some treasures few would recognize. I remember the light of the coastal sunsets bleeding through our curtains as my older, wiser sisters placed the sturdy discs of vinyl, held delicately by the rims, on the turntable and carefully placed its needle on the correct ring, like a baker icing a virgin’s wedding cake. In addition to all the Beatles and Allman Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, there were other, lesser known gems.

One was “Stealing Fire” by Bruce Cockburn. Most kids’ parents that I knew listened to 1960s pastoral folk or had older siblings who obsessed over the Pixies, Michael Jackson, the Sex Pistols, or U2. I bopped my four-year-old head to a little-recognized Canadian songwriter whose album was created as a reaction to the horrors he witnessed in 1980s Guatemala (while the U.S. turned a blind eye). This album included the ballad – I sigh – “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” which remains one of the most painfully passionate stories I’ve ever sung along to (and which U2 stole directly from) (Well, okay. With permission.). It was also a song absolutely no one my age ever heard of, except for one guy. A guy who in every other respect was pure, grade A, unadulterated loser, dripping with the kind of lackadaisical male greasiness reserved for after-school television specials about teen pregnancy.  He also happened to be great looking and broke my young, dumb heart. He nearly ruined the song for me. But I was older than him by a small bit, so I rightly reasoned that the song was mine. And really, no one cared, because who is Bruce Cockburn, besides a tragically spelled surname floating around in Canadian music spheres? In effect, the sounds I was drawn to as a child were in direct opposition to what was considered popular. It is a trait I carry grumpily through every aspect of life.

My head has always been a maze of contradiction. Even when I am working on a piece of art, its creation is formed in an indecisive kiln: drawing a portrait of Art Blakey, I listened to System of a Down. Inking an album cover for a friend’s surf metal fusion band, I listened to Vivaldi. I want to feel the weight of wool in the summer and the weight of light in the winter. I hate ice cream and love butter; I only like the weather when it includes both blue sky and rain, at once. I always want something the minute I can’t have it: an embarrassing, child-like habit I fight with miserable results. My contrary brain knows no bounds.

All of this meant that my big trip across the United States – on the hunt for a new life – would consist of unending internal struggle. Every choice (that little town instead of this one, this cheap diner instead of that one) felt like a missed opportunity. I was a tangle of worry at not having experienced the thing that would transform me into… what? A happy person? A content one? I already knew that those were not things I was aiming for. I had no idea what I wanted, only that I didn’t want to work in retail and that I wanted to be feeling things, anything at all, besides stagnation. The trip was successful in that way. I felt many things, like massive amounts of frustration and sadness at being on the road, and then, toward the end, panic at leaving the road.

Damned, damnable contrary brain.

But the decision my boyfriend and I made was that, if we didn’t hate each other by the end of the trip, we would choose a place and try it out for a while. We never ended up hating one another; in fact, I probably have never been closer to anyone in my life. However, there were moments when I stood on the edge of an abyss (canyon, highway, vast body of water, etc.) and wondered what it would be like to go it alone. I decided against that, though, because there would be no one to passionately argue with. And that’s an essential part of life.

So here I am. That mysterious ribbon of road ended one year ago today, in the city of Portland, Oregon. I am fascinated by this city, intrigued by its storied past and frustrated by its willingness to commence with homogenizing its culture for the sake of money, much like the city we left behind- San Francisco. Portland is dirty and beautiful, and is technically a “city” but is still small. It retains- much like myself- an identity crisis profiled firstly by contrariness.

It wants to be progressive but it is 85% Caucasian. This is still better than most of the Midwest, but not by much. (Many white people in Portland still say, if there is a menacing person somewhere in their vicinity, either “There’s a black man over there doing a bad thing” or “There’s a person over there doing a bad thing” depending on- you got it- their skin color).

It wants to support artists and musicians and various weird, little-man food truck creators and does a truly amazing job of it, but that support appears to be on the quick decline. As with the crooked old gingerbread houses and marbled architectural wonders that crowded this old city, these people are replaced by shinier, flatter, louder, more modern versions of themselves. People who did not grow up here and have arrived to do business, make money, and leave. (I recognize the ridiculousness of me, a person who just arrived here and hopes to make money, speaking with such disdain about said people- but if you’ve been reading my blog then I hope you catch my drift.) There is no love for the broken, the tired, the people who’ve fought and fought and who are still trying to build themselves up but who rarely see the end of struggle. There is no extension of welcome from these enterprising newcomers; their love lies in the tourism trade. The whambamthankyoumaams of society. The condos of entrepreneurship, as it were.

Yet I still love it, even if it’s a slow death that I revel in. Where I came from, California wine country, social and creative circles were pocked with small town rivalry and suffocated by old-boy networking government. There were bright beacons of hope here and there, but wherever I went I felt cast out, side-eyed. It left me all elbows and no soft spots to recommend me for social embraces. So I left the place where my heart was planted to follow my wandering brain.

This city is broken in so many ancient ways. They aren’t very original breaks, I must say. Like so much of the United States there are entire cultures buried under the cement. First, the plowing-over of Native tribes for some uninvited white man’s dream. And now, the gentrification of neighborhoods that for generations have hosted families of color and people whose life goals did not include the invention of useless apps, squeezed out to make room for brunch spots that host hungover white hipsters with elbow patches and a love of tiny, handheld computers.

But I discredit those who fight back by focusing so often on the negative. There are stories being ignored by everyone; there are hidden dreams everywhere. They sleep in dark corners, waiting for the dawn to brush them off.

Portland is a love song written by someone far more talented than me, for someone far more deserving of the writer’s love, but which I will listen to unfold as I chase, chase, chase after my ever-wandering brain.

Happy one year anniversary to my four-year-old self.

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