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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.