Training Wings

Perched on the edge of the planter box, I rub my eyes with thumbs roughened from my morning brier-plucking routine.

The sun has nearly set, and the moon is already hanging low in the sky – a celestial combination casting a gray veil over the yard, cajoling nocturnal critters bedded down in the bramble to rustle awake.

Large, ant-like insects flounder through the breeze with awkward intensity, smacking into the open windows, looking for an entrance through the glass before their bodies’ weight drags them closer to the dusty, browned grass.

In the distance, down the hill, the steel mill clangs methodically – sheets cascading down into piles for shipment abroad, filling the air with the sounds of a bustling industrial kitchen. With my glasses propped atop my head, I take in the blurs of green, the slight reds of changing leaves, and close my eyes – absorbing the night, reveling in the smells wafting over from a neighbor’s grill.

Before long, I hear nails scratching against wood, and peer up to the windows to see a shaking tan blob atop the worn windowsill.

“No ma’am,” I coo quasi-authoritatively.

Readjusting my glasses, I stare up into Joanna’s deep, dark eyes – marbles set within her velvety, buff coat. She stares back, and I can tell her thin tail is wagging rapidly. She sniffs the air, licks her nose, and disappears – pitter-pattering back to my room, a signal she’s ready for bed.

I rub my eyes again, shift slightly, and feel the rotted support beneath me moan – and a tickling along my neck. Looking down, I see a large wing stuck to the inside of my white V-neck. And then I know what’s on me: one of the massive ant things.

I rip off my shirt and shake it wildly. My reaction’s not necessarily out of fear, but more surprise. I’ve never done well with surprises.

Another translucent wing dusts up in my solo melee, and I hear a low thunk from the insect’s body landing where I just sat.

I stoop and watch it clamoring along the weathered edge, making its way as an ostensibly different being.

A creature whose wings will regenerate.

A beginner who will learn to fly again.

To Feel, To Touch, To Move On

Traffic rolls to a stop, and the setting sun’s intense rays glance off my smudged glasses. Sia belts out “Fire Meet Gasoline” from my battered iPod. Since I’ve never figured out the precise sequence of plugging in and starting devices in this car, I just default to the basic, knuckle-dragging predictability of the Touch’s Play button.

The perfect collision of wandering thoughts with meaningful lyrics evokes roiling waves of tears. Like shifting weight to a walking stick, I rap the steering wheel repeatedly – finding equilibrium – convincing myself, “You’ll be fine. This is all temporary.”

The drive home after therapy is never easy – a time of deep reflection, during which exhaustion often takes hold, exacerbating each toiling thought’s toll.

En route to my session, I got a call from a potential employer informing me that, while I made it to the final two, they were going with the other candidate. “Disappointed” doesn’t quite capture the series of cascading emotions that left me crestfallen.

“You know, I’ve been on the other side of the phone on calls like this. And it sucks. I’m sorry. I just want you to know it was an incredibly difficult choice.”

Following the most sincere, genuinely supportive rejection call I’ve received, I sighed, then screamed. Rather than chalking it up to “it wasn’t meant to be,” I fully embraced the emotional flood, letting it wash over me. And then, drenched and dripping in anger and sadness and dejection, I let it go. The future I thought this job would allow me to create isn’t going to be brought to fruition. And that’s okay. It has to be. There just isn’t time to live in the what-ifs.

A row of cars inches over into my lane as they approach a bank of firetrucks and ambulances spread over the two righthand lanes. As a Volvo scoots ahead of me, I see the upturned half of a motorcycle, the back half of which is about 10 feet away, smashed into a sheared-off bumper from a thrashed sedan. Four firefighters strap in the motorcyclist as two paramedics administer CPR. It’s one of those powerfully slow-motion moments, a painful crystallization of true tragedy.

And each of us passersby motors by, absorbing the devastating spectacle – silently willing that never to be us.

***

The West Seattle Bridge stretches ahead of me, all lanes backlogged. I ache to get home, to see Joanna and scrunch her velvety face under my chin. To walk around my neighborhood. To enjoy this little house as long as I’m able to stay here.

To stare out my windows and repeat the simple mantra I murmur every single time I take flight – gripping the armrest with all my might, as if it’ll effect some change:

“I’ve loved. I’ve lost. I’ve lived. I’ve made a difference.”

To remind myself that I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried.

That I’ll keep learning from this rough, taxing, spirited, unpredictable ride.

And will be better for it.

Gay Gardens

Sweat beads on my brow, and Jimmy Eat World’s “Middle” blasts through my ear buds. Brier-pricked and cut, my gloved hands receive little in the way of protection from nature’s most annoying floral bastards. My paint-spattered, dirt-coated glasses slip and fall into the growing pile of freshly weeded detritus amassing at my feet as I bend to unhook a gargantuan, spiked vine from my pilled It Gets Better tee.

Now free of unwanted hangers-on, I step back and survey the cleared areas of the sprawling stone-laid terraces. Insects dart over the freshly uprooted soil, congregating around fractured, dewy stalks and root balls. I pause my music and sink into the morning’s natural calm. Hollow, browned stalks of Japanese knotweed clang together in the wind like bamboo chimes, and dead leaves filter down through new gaps in the overgrown canopy and settle in sun-dappled piles.

Gay Gardens, the early months

It’s an uncharacteristically hot Seattle day, and the formerly shaded earth quickly dries while I sit for a much-needed respite, feeling the worn stones warming the insides of my calves. Like Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos, I’ve been methodically unmasking mature ferns, shrubs, and trees from their brambly oppressors and mapping a new, slightly haphazard order onto the leftovers.

Metaphors for every sort of life experience drift in and out of my mind as I till the soil and pull at stubborn roots. I give each thought a little slant of limelight before letting them dissipate into mental white noise.

***

Sided with weathered, warped yellow clapboard and sloppily trimmed in faded red, the cottage sits on a shoddily cleared terrace, accessible only by a rickety wooden staircase built into a steep hill just off an arterial, hilly road in West Seattle. Its seclusion is just what we wanted – the antithesis of our small Capitol Hill apartment in the center of a growing party district of young twenty-something college students.

And while the subsequent tours with the uninformed property management company’s agents brought us vis-à-vis with the cottage’s less than stellar drawbacks, we went for it – mostly because its location, privacy, and space aligned with the most desired bullet points on our wish list.

Of course, being a post-war cottage that’d been overgrown for a few years, it needed a lot of help, which hadn’t exactly been a priority of the decade-long tenant before us, or the property management company: turd-colored, faded interior paint; an illegally enclosed back deck; a disgusting bathroom; dirty, ivy-covered windows; hole-pocked walls; and more than a fair share of creepy-crawly roommates.

But even before we fully moved in, we decided to separate. Sharing a home that feels more like a staging area isn’t easy for anyone, which is why the forgotten gardens started to play such a therapeutic role for me.

Now that we’re both in our respective nests, it’s time to move forward – to take time to celebrate the good times, focus on the future. And, for me, perform plenty of internal weeding.

***

The whir of far off traffic on the bridge melds together in a wave-like, rhythmic tide, lulling my eyelids closed. Seclusion like this is beyond rare, especially as Seattle continues to boom and rental prices soar. I’m sure at some point I’ll get priced out, the cottage will be torn down by a developer, and the carefully curated landscape will be razed asunder a bulldozer.

Until then, I’ll be channeling Kate and using the landscape both as an emotional crutch and an aesthetic treasure. And will keep slathering as much lipstick – and paint – on this cute pig as possible.

Because I’d like to keep Gay Gardens full of character and far away from descending into a moldy, waterlogged lair wherein I routinely swaddle my fro in a cashmere headdress and soft-shoe down the hallway to the applause of a ragtag crew of feisty raccoons.

As my cackling drifts up through the attic, between cracked seams, and melts into the night.

The Starting Line

The orange extension cord’s serpentine coils lay across the kitchen floor, mounding at the base of the overworked, cream-colored refrigerator. A casement window hangs open, a tiny mouth breathing in the Seattle chill – a harbinger of fall.

Beyond the freshly painted sill, the yard sits upturned, its overgrown beds gutted – their English ivy and blackberry interlopers ripped out, the browned stalks and residual leaves scooped up by obese robins and thrushes for nest-making, along with the occasional displaced worm for dinner. This ramshackle stretch of existence is my Eden.

Leering over my steaming coffee cup, I’m fixating on the Mission-style, glass-fronted cabinet neatly filled with brightly colored Fiesta, the plants sitting atop cascading down like leafy waterfalls. Joanna is taking a post-breakfast nap in the bedroom, which means the house is silent and still – my favorite time of the morning.

I walk around assessing the cottage’s rooms, mentally scrawling lists of what still needs to be done.

  1. Paint trim
  2. Move dresser
  3. Add curtains

Everything’s been moved and reorganized into a space that’s now uniquely mine. From recent investigative forays into the far reaches of the house, I’m coming to know each nook and cranny. As I strip off layers of 50s wallpaper, and empty Cold War-era End Days larders of canned peaches, peanut butter, and assorted jellies from the crawl space, I daydream about the people who used to live here, and craft their backstories. I wonder if they, too, spent each morning staring out these windows, conjuring fantasies of what they’d make of their existence.

Despite the progress I’m making, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by everything – succumbing to the numbness and ambiguity of every anxiety-inducing detail on my radar: a needy dog, an endless list of housework and landscape maintenance to complete, a social network to build, an electrical problem to be fixed.

Joanna’s wet nose startles me fully awake, making me slosh coffee out of my milk glass mug onto the weathered tabletop. In the freshly cleaned windows’ reflection, I watch as she drags a gutted seal plush to a sun spot and collapses in a heap of wrenched-out stuffing. Dust kicks up from the floor, the particles dancing in the slates of sunlight pouring in; they look like sea monkeys somersaulting in the air, disappearing in the blink of an eye, making me wonder if I ever really saw them.

I refill my mug and add milk, watching the white marry with the deep, dark roast – swirling together in a tiny cyclone, a contained storm. There’s beauty in this chaotic world, if only we stop to recognize it.

My joints ache, like a cat eternally caught arcing its back, hoping for the release a solid stretch – the most mundane contortion – will bring. A spindly-legged house spider performs arabesque arachnid aerobatics while weaving its silken tapestry from the leaves of my beloved geranium. I get up, stretch, and relocate my eight-legged breakfast companion, watching her drift down from the open window and scurry into another crevice in the board and batten.

I let the sunlight warm my face, and the breeze tousle my unkempt curls. Birds dart from nearby branches into the thicket far behind the house, reminding me that there’s so much to see, so much to explore – that there’s a whole world waiting.

Joanna sniffs at the door and circles, watching me expectantly. I shrug off the morning, the fractured thoughts tumbling around, and embrace the uncertainty of the day with a smile, open mind, and sense of humor.

Because I have a dog to walk, walls to paint, plants to grow, and cookies to make for new friends.

And a cottage with electricity that works most of the time.

Enough. Enough. Enough.

Everyone at work today remarked about how well I looked – how much more rested and less stressed I appeared. I replied with comments about the curative power of Alabama’s micaceous red clay, gave a fake smile or two, and inwardly rolled my eyes.

The past several days have been exhausting in every way imaginable – in many ways for positive reasons, with one notable exception.

The staggering toll of the Orlando hate crime seeps into the fore of my mind every other moment. The faces of the dead slowly begin to emerge; we learn about their lives, loves, passions, dreams – all cut short by the hands of a disgusting waste of human flesh. His selfied face becomes the one plastered across the subconscious of so many television viewers – not those of his victims. And it makes me ill.

So many of my LGBTQ friends are having a hard time with this one, which is a horrible thing to write – “this one,” as if the other tragic mass shootings are any less horrific. But the fact of the matter is this was a hate crime – a deliberate, calculated attack on the lives of LGBTQ people.

It is different for us.

***

A tiny bar tucked away in the far reaches of Tuscaloosa’s downtown, Michael’s was more than a bar; it was a haven for fledgling LGBTs, each like me – unsure, cautious, exhilarated, terrified. But despite those initial feelings of unease, I felt safe when I passed through the doors; these were my people.

It was one of the first places I felt comfortable in my own skin, and the first place I got groped by a crush and felt alive in a way I’d never felt before. I laughed and screeched along to horrible karaoke and stuffed dollar bills into a drag show performer’s nylons for charity; I started to transform into someone I felt could actually make a life and be happy.

And then my friends and I stepped back outside, into the cool of the deeply late evening.

“FAGS!”

“COCKSUCKERS!”

“ASS-LICKERS!”

A bottle shattered in the gutter.

My mind stopped working; my self-esteem plummeted, and I reverted to my antisocial cocoon – all while humming to myself, “Get back to the car. Just get back to the car.”

The small group of fraternity brothers hovered on the side of the street opposite the bar door; they raised their fists, spat, gave us the finger, and made sudden, aggressive moves toward us.

Just get back to the car, back to the goddamned car…

I was sobering up fast. But then, the unexpected happened.

“OKAY! YOU WANNA ROLL, MOTHERFUCKERS? C’MON, I’LL DRIVE MY FIST SO FAR UP YOUR ASSES…”

Our self-described matriarch began crowing back, which is when I realized a few things.

 We’re not punching bags.

We can fight back.

We’re in much better shape than them.

We can be scary too.

We’re family.

We took up a cacophonous chorus, each of us stitching together our entire repertoire of obscenities, and watched the band of misfits melt back into their beer-soaked truck, disappearing entirely.

For the first time, I felt I had a voice.

I felt alive.

I felt I could make a difference.

I felt right.

***

A decade later, I know there will always be broken glass to dodge. But I do know something for certain: I am right.

And so were all the victims.

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34

Stanley Almodovar III, 23

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36

Luis S. Vielma, 22

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20

Kimberly Morris, 37

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50

Amanda Alvear, 25
Martin Benitez Torres, 33

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31

Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19

Cory James Connell, 21

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37

Luis Daniel Conde, 39

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32

Frank Hernandez, 27

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25

Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Paul Terrell Henry, 41

Antonio Davon Brown, 29

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, 27

May they rest in power, their memories kept alive in the fight for justice, compassion, and understanding.

For our humanity.

Pulse

I don’t realize how hard I’m clenching the waded paper towel until I turn from the television to look out the window and lose my balance, my hold loosening as I re-center.

My parents’ dogs have just been bathed, and are rolling around in the sun-bleached grass. I try and lose myself in their simple revelry, but know I can’t. My mind is swirling with the news anchors’ voices, the phrases “domestic terrorism,” “deadliest mass shooting in nation’s history,” “lone wolf,” and, occasionally, “LGBT community.”

I can’t breathe, and start sweating; my chest tightens and face burns. I grab my camera and walk out, up the gravel drive past the dogs – the youngest’s plaintive cries to tag along drifting away as I quicken pace.

Every step on the gravel sounds like a series of crashing cymbals; everything is amplified. I snap a photo of newly bloomed flowers, and try to map on a heartening metaphor, but fall short. A turkey feather catches my eye, and I dissect it through the lens; it’s nothing special, and completely uninteresting – but I have to focus on something, anything other than the rapid-fire thoughts pounding inside my skull.

I wonder how frequently the lives of those lost will be glossed over, their identities stripped and tamed and drained of color to be palatable enough for mass media consumption; how frequently “hate crime” will be disjointed from the narrative of this horrible attack; that “domestic terrorist” will become the coward’s moniker, divorced wholly from his anti-LGBTQ bias and motivation; that the fuel to his sickening fire was never spurred by our own politicians’ hate speech and rhetoric, but rather from “over there,” from “The Enemy,” “Them.”

I worry about our future, and mourn those whose futures were ripped from them – taken in an instant that should’ve been filled with joy and laughter, part of a series of rhythmic vibrations to club music, to living. Each of them should’ve been leaving exhausted and hung-over and sore from dancing, not having their lives become part of a protracted national narrative about hate and guns.

But then I watch the lines to blood banks grow longer, and hear calls to action ring out from more than LGBTQ groups. Where ignorance inspires hateful action, hope springs like seedlings from the earth, ready to grow. We must be constant gardeners.

***

A few feet away, our childhood seesaw hangs broken and rotted, a testament to the passage of time. Behind me, the wind gusts forcefully, nearly blowing me from the molding deer stand’s ladder-like steps.

But instead of bracing against it, I turn and face it. Eyes brimming with tears, I look to the horizon, to the infinite space before me, and murmur, “Keep dancing. Keep living. That’s how we’ll prevail.”

The Hard Stuff

Spiders cower in hole-pocked wall crevices. Bags overflow onto cluttered tabletops, computer cords dangling out like disemboweled hunt kills over long-neglected CD cases with 90s-era pop band icons plastered across their yellowed covers. Boxes packed and repacked line every available space – constant reminders of blocks to begin building new lives.

Birds chirp in the rising sun, and wind gusts through overgrown flowerbeds and hedges, creating the illusion of a giant, larval caterpillar undulating across the yard. Beside me, the tendrils of a newly sprouted plant shiver slightly, reminding me of all the cottage’s cracks and gaps I’ve yet to discover – known only by the cool morning air, the nests of freshly hatched brown spiders. It’s a little after 7:00, and the fragments of morning light refract in the jadeite mug I’m holding, offering very little in the way of welcoming warmth.

Staring out at the unkempt blackberry bushes and sprawling decades-old English ivy, I reflect on how much work there’s still to do to reclaim this little piece of existence from the bramble. The pink-tinged sky brightens a bit, and I tip back my mug, sighing heavily as I peer out into the jungle of weeds.

And then the clouds swallow up the light for a moment, and there’s just me – puffed hair and six-o-clock shadow reflected in the dirty window panes.

Still so much to do.

Somewhere in this mess is where I must begin again – suss out the cherished from the painful. All of it’s part of a new recipe, and I don’t know what I’ll make of it.

***

Not that long ago, I wrote that life is a string of unscripted, unknown experiences, from which we can either choose to grow or wilt. Lately, this phrase haunts my shallow sleep and momentary daydreams; it frightens me. It empowers me. And, at times, it crushes me.

Life has changed, and I must change with it.

Andy and I are separating. Albeit amicable, it’s still the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make.

I gulp a mouthful of cooled coffee, closing my eyes and letting my thoughts thread this new reality together as my body adapts to the daily machinations of fledgling routines.

Joanna stretches out in a patch of sun and stares up dreamily with a bloated breakfast belly. And I’m overcome.

I’m a ball of exposed nerves; daily minutiae can thrust me into a mental brier patch. But rather than fleeing from the welter of conflicting feelings, I have to embrace it all head-on – grapple with the hardship, ambiguity, terror, exhilaration, anxiety – and fashion a different future from it.

I must once again become my own knight in shining armor. And remind myself that I don’t need to be rescued – that I am enough.

The Change

I guess we all get to that point. You know, when you stop relying on other people to fix your problems, asking why something is done a particular way, or being a “yes” person. Some might call this hitting your bullshit threshold; others, your thirties. And still others may assert that you have, in fact, become an adult.

I’d like to think I’ve been this way for a while. I mean, sure, the whole cross-country, starting-over thing required a particular adult-like commitment; but mostly necessary naivety fueled by a flight response. But even while we were in California, I still felt more like an adult impostor than a bona fide adult.

But then, relatively recently, I woke up, thought about my day, and adulted. I listed out all of the insane to-do items in my head while making coffee and feeding the dogs. And then I acknowledged the enormity of the tasks at hand, reminded myself that only about two of the innumerable things I should get done actually will get done, and then snapped out of it because the dogs had to poo.

And then I did it all again the next day, and the next, and the next. I just sort of stopped looking to others as the “people I want to be like when I grow up,” and stopped mentally interviewing everyone I passed on the street with the question, “And how exactly do you make adulthood look so effortless?” I just gave in to the internal metamorphosis that’d apparently been in-process the whole time and went with it.

***

The dream I’m having jars me awake. As I regain my bearings in the real world, hints of light begin to redefine the bedroom furniture, conjuring them out of darkness.

Joanna stirs in Toby’s crate, which she annexed last night as hers – at least while he slept, comfortably swathed in a warmed towel on the living room sofa. The unmistakable ba-du-dah from her jumping onto the trunk at the foot of the bed is my 1.5 second warning of impending tongue-to-ear-and-face licks.

I lift up the covers in a feeble attempt to redirect her attention, hoping the sheets’ encasing warmth will cajole her into a few more moments of slumber. Shockingly, she accepts this olive branch and settles for fifteen minutes, during which time I slowly pull myself out of shallow sleep to embrace the inevitability of morning. Somehow their atypical sleeping arrangement last night afforded me an hour more of sleep – an unexpected treat made all the more enjoyable by having the day off.

The luxury of time off is something I once took for granted – draining my stores once a few hours accrued and days were replenished. But now as the singular driver of a nonprofit development department, I’m finding it nearly impossible to take time off – for obvious reasons. Departmental restructuring and strategic planning and diversifying funding streams seep into my dreams more frequently now, compounding generalized exhaustion and providing more mental fodder for the next day’s sprint. It’s not as though I dislike what I do; it’s more like I’m frustrated by wanting to do so much – realize the latent potential I see, but am too thinly spread to bring to fruition. This is yet another lesson I – a self-proclaimed control freak and perfectionist – am learning to make peace with: trying to do all the things and help everyone is a collective exercise in madness which will ultimately lead to burnout.

***

Leaning against the counter while overseeing the pups’ sloppy eating, I give half-hearted thought to going in. But instead of stealthily sneaking out with my car keys, I will myself to pick up a book and settle onto the sofa, at which point my mobility is completely curtailed by breakfast-bloated chihuahuas. Toby stares up at me, pitter pats in a circle on my stomach, and settles in for a much needed nap; Joanna, however, not so subtly maneuvers for a better position – traversing the tops of the sofa cushions whilst keeping an eye on her slumbering brother beast. Her leg brushes his side as she skirts along, and he growls lowly, threatening action unconvincingly. Albeit commendable, her tenacity works to my detriment given her insistence on using my hoodie pull-string as a pacifier. constricting its billowy comfort around my head as she lulls herself to sleep.

With my neck contorted and legs and book pinned, I acquiesce and give in to the nothingness of the moment – something I both detest and begrudgingly welcome. Because I know in about twelve hours I’ll be soundly asleep, my mind wandering to a backlogged to-do list.

Until then, though, I’ll continue to embrace this newfound acceptance and ownership of adulthood – and the self-confidence and commitment it takes to exercise and wield it every single day.

Because there will always be something to do, something to sideline expectations, something disastrous, and something enthralling – and it’s up to me to accept all of these inevitabilities, the entire package, and glean benefits from each and every moment.

That’s real growth.

#adulting

The GPS navigator’s monotoned, mechanized voice orders me to Make a legal U-turn as soon as possible – although her annoyed tone belies programmed nonchalance.

I wind up a side road, through some lush greenery, and take a few sharp turns further away from the main road into an agricultural area – which is when I wonder if this churchy high school possibly worships He Who Walks Behind the Rows.

Soon enough, my view clears and I pull onto a large campus dotted with Tudor-like buildings and auditoriums. I spot the orange cones that the school’s college adviser mentioned in her email, and notice another nonprofiter scratching his head at cone-blocked spaces. I get out and move one cone, and suggest he do the same.

Per usual with these types of things, no one’s waiting for us – as we’d been assured they would be – and so I plaster on my best I-have-no-fucking-clue-where-I’m-going smile and bid the other clueless presenters to follow me – the Pied Piper of Shoreline.

***

A few days before, during one of the craziest weeks in recent memory, I’m nursing a baby migraine – cooing to it softly to chill the fuck out. Being a department of one has been taking its toll on my sleep-deprived mind, with my nightmarescapes being constructed of donor asks and website code and lost checks and droning voices nagging, “I need that now, NOW, NOWWWW!” Bags hang heavily beneath bloodshot eyes, and my stubble has grown coarse enough to grate Parmesan. I reach for the large mug relegated to one semi-clear spot on my desk, gulp down its contents, and begrudgingly remember that I’ve been weaning myself off coffee; this tea just isn’t cutting it. Still, I chock the tea up to making a concerted effort to mitigate potential stressors in more proactive, healthier ways. I shift back to the Power Point I’m creating for a Community Impact Day later in the week. Since part of the whole de-stressing tack also translates to me not taking things so seriously, I insert a few Kristen Wiig gifs, a frame from Dodgeball, and a few old high school photos as anchor points for my chat about nonprofit world – how I came into it, pointers I have for those interested in becoming part of it, and WHY TO RUN AWAY FROM IT AT ALL COSTS JUST RUN YOU FOOLS!

Kidding. I play through the animated slides, laugh a little, and think aloud to my empty building wing, “I’m so goddamned hilarious.”

***

The two elderly receptionists direct me, as well as the gradually growing group of nonprofit folks trailing behind, to the library. We gather in a large, clearly well-funded reading room and start chatting. A doppelganger for Lost‘s Hurley sidles up next to me, quickly tying back his dreadlocks into a tight bun.

“So do you, like, live here too?” he asks a sheepish student nearby. The student nods side to side, then looks back down at his phone.

“The students should each have an organization name on their paper sign,” an adviser chirps from behind him, “and then they’ll take you to your assigned room.”

My student guide, clearly engaged in judging who’s most recent Instagram is the best representation of a well-balanced breakfast, looks slightly perturbed when I pipe in, “I think I’m with you.”

I ask all the typical questions as we’re walking up the stairs to the room – where we interrupt a trio studying To Kill A Mockingbird. I stifle my urge to scream, “WHAT’S UP MAH BOOS? Get it? Boos? As in Boo Radley?”

Instead, I watch as my student guide proceeds to text her teacher, asking where she is.

“You know, when I was your age I didn’t even know anyone who had a cell phone…”

I stop myself. I’m not going to be that guy. Although I already am. Students start filing in, and I mentally assign them to a clique: jock, a/v, drama, drama, heygurlhaiiii, a/v, punks, punks, PUNKS, hayyyy.

The presentation goes well enough, with minimal eye closures and snores. I ask for questions, and almost all of them are about my years as an archaeologist, with one about the time I got stuck in a shelter dog run with a blind poodle.

The bell rings, and the next group is ushered in. They, too, seem mildly intrigued by my chatter, but most exchange knowing looks, smiling as they do.

This guy is so weird.

He thinks he’s the ‘cool presenter’ type.

What’s going on with his hair? 

PUNKS, all of them. Not really. But as I stood up there rattling off life experiences, and how I parlayed a volunteer position into a growing career in nonprofit land, I couldn’t help but feel like I was aging before their eyes.

Eyes that first opened in the year 2000.

They had no idea that most of the world was all Y2K crazed in the months before they were born. Their first years were filled with Dubya’s countenance in the White House. They’ll be asking “older people” where they were on 9/11 and “How did it make you feel?” – the same way I asked various people similarly-lined questions about JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, and hippies.

Another ear-splitting bell rings, and I part ways with the teacher – the only other person in the room who got my Blossom reference – melting into the melee of kids in the hall. Everyone’s on their phones. A little gay shuffles past with his friend, and they both smile knowingly; I smile with my eyes and keep going, terrified I’ll smile too much or accidentally lick my lips or set off a perv alarm.

***

Back in the Subaru, the mechanical voice drones on, directing me to turn left three feet ahead. Instead, I cancel the route calculation as she, once again, begins to advise me to Make a legal U-turn.

I retreat momentarily to the horrors of high school; fun, foundational years in college; brutal self-reflective moments in grad school; bulldozing through the recession with a shovel in-hand and an empty bank account; coming into my own and finding friends, building a loving network of chosen family; moving off and starting over with my co-pilot; and melting into California, and soaking in Seattle.

I don’t mind getting a little lost. That’s sort of what my twenties were all about. Eventually, I found my way – and now in this relatively new decade, my been-there-done-that attitude acts as my guide, helping me shift from place to place – leveraging life experience and humor in equal parts to pave the way forward.

Wherever it may lead.

To Grow or Wilt

It’s around 6:00. It must be. Joanna’s signature high-pitched whine punctuates the dark bedroom as she rustles up through her crate blankets to greet another day.

Before my mind even registers the ungodly hour, my body, zombie-like, starts shaking off the night’s shallow slumber as I propel one leg off the bed followed by the duvet-snagged other – and then stoop down to the small blue crate nestled against an Eastlake vanity.

Predictably, Joanna feigns sleepiness in a halfhearted attempt to cajole me to scoop her up so that she, the exhausted one, can be rubbed and doted upon for approximately two minutes before she’s harnessed to visit her favorite garbage-dotted bushes along the sidewalk.

The front door’s loud thwack and my jingling keys do little to rouse Toby who, judging from snores and grunts, is still covered in his towel fort atop the living room’s sagging Victorian hexagonal chair.

Outside, typical characters are performing their morning scenes – the jogger clop clop clopping along the pavement; the flyer stapler bash bash bashing one more concert announcement into an already thickly layered telephone pole; the neighborhood druggies hack hack hacking up partial lungs while lighting up in alcoves where the faint morning light still hasn’t penetrated. Mini trash tornados circle and die in the street, and the sky threatens a morning shower. Joanna sniffs castoff food wrappers and smashed jalapenos outlining where the late-night hot dog vendor set up to entice drunken revelers to convalesce with compressed, meaty bliss.

Back inside, filtered light warms the apartment ever so slightly, and the dogs settle down with their post-breakfast treats while I indulge in a few cups of hot cocoa – my recent, somewhat successful attempt at limiting my coffee intake. The expected chocolatey skim forms on top, which once stirred vigorously, settles into the thickened mixture swirling around in the jadeite mug. I sip and gulp, and then rub my favorite geranium’s rough leaves – letting their peppery fragrance kick me in the nostrils.

It’s one of those mornings framed for reflection.

We’ve packed a lot into the last three years: we moved across the country; I started a new career; we moved out of our first CA perch, our tiny Koreatown studio, for our WeHo digs; we adopted Toby, then Pearl; Andy got another job; we got marriedPearl passed away; Andy got a promotion; we moved to Seattle; I finished my manuscript, and got a new job; we adopted Joanna; Joanna broke her leg; we decided to stay strong and lean in.

And now, in a few months, we’ll be moving again – but this time, only a stone’s throw to a larger place where we can let ourselves root in Seattle’s ever damp soil and save up for a house. We’re re-learning to focus on the good bits that sustain us – whether it’s overfilling our apartment with greenery, or enjoying the fact that Toby and Joanna have finally bonded.

A greenery-filled house is a happier house

They've bonded!

And acknowledging that life is a string of unscripted, unknown experiences, from which we can either choose to grow or wilt.