I’m having trouble with the last installment(s) of the Field Notes posts; I’m stuck on the questions, yet again, of how much I want to share, how much I should share, who I’m writing for, and what people want to read. I normally prefer to write things consecutively but that tends to make writer’s block exponentially more insurmountable. I’d like to get better at posting things when the bloggy spirit moves me, so for now, I’m just going to set Iceland aside until the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip is ready to come out and play again.
The last few months in the Midwest have gifted us with one of the longest, most disgustingly cold winters I can remember. And with that long-lasting, seemingly never ending, brutal-stupid-cold came a lot of grey days and lonely nights and soul searching and journaling and trying to figure out the question that we can never answer fully: What Comes Next? (More on that later.) But there were some pretty great parts, too.
With that terrible cold came some terribly beautiful ice. Because of the weather, Lake Superior froze solid enough to allow visitors to walk to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves for the first time in a few years, and they were stunning. Red sandstone caves, striated arches, dangling exposed tree roots; they were all covered in ice whipped up by the bitter lake wind.
One step at a time is good walking.
– Chinese proverb
It snowed last week. Pretty, soft snow that stuck to the trees and cars and sidewalks, wet and melty and cold and peaceful.
Sometimes I can only take things one step at a time. Eight months ago, “one step at a time” was very purposeful, keenly directed, survival-mode walking. Get a job. Get a home. Get a car. Process. Grieve. Calm down. Breathe. Don’t forget to eat food sometimes. Once every few days, put on clean socks and get out of the apartment.
Things these days are a little more erratic and all over the map. Some days I feel so hopeful and have so many ideas, and I write really well and I run really hard and I feel so good that I think I’m maybe better off in some ways than I was a year ago. Some days I feel frustrated and sad. Some days I long so deeply for the life I left behind that it makes my teeth hurt. One step at a time means something different now. Go to work. Write poetry. Have fancy cocktails at fancy bars with girlfriends. Register for another creative writing class next semester. Cry and eat Nutella straight out of the jar. Walk around the icy lake drinking a latte, watching birds and talking with a great friend, dreaming about the future. Buy hiking boots for a trip that I haven’t even started planning yet.
My imagination of what the future will be, my 5-year “plan,” the fantasizing about travel and backpacking in Europe and going back to Antarctica and getting hired to work for a travel magazine, it’s going to my head. I find myself making plans that are loosely structured around things that I have no good reason to believe will ever happen. I guess that’s the point of dreaming though, right? What’s your 5-year dream plan?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to get all food-bloggy on you here (I’ll leave that to the pros) but I want to share what I had for brunch this weekend. My lovely roommate and I hosted for a party of eight, and the main dish was aebeskiver (Danish spherical pancakes: aebleskiver is Danish for “super delicious decadent amazing fluffy snack breakfast” or something like that).
You make them in a special cast iron pan that has seven hemispherical dents in it. The way they’re formed is by putting the batter in one of the dents, letting it fry up, and turning it before it cooks all the way through. The older and more seasoned your pan is, the better they turn–I’ve had my pan for 5+ years and it is just starting to get fully seasoned. You can put things inside of them when you turn them, like apples or chocolate chips, but I normally don’t. I think they’re delicious plain. We topped them with brown sugar and butter, Nutella, homemade jam, and powdered sugar.
We also made a winter pear salad (smittenkitchen.com, speaking of the pros) with figs, turkish apricots, bosc pears, apples and an anise vanilla bean sauce, and had organic coop breakfast sausages, mimosas, lots of coffee, and board games. We didn’t eat the board games though, we just played them.
One thing I’m really grateful for right now is this opportunity to develop the relationships I have here in the Twin Cities–I get to spend a lot more time with people who I was only previously seeing between deployments…just getting the time to devote to regular dinners, brunches, fancy birthday cocktails at restaurants I’ve never been to, and walks around the lakes in November. Life isn’t so bad, hey?
When we see our heroes for who they are, they mostly fail to live up to our expectations. They are, like us, flawed humans who make mistakes and fuck things up and hurt the people they love on accident or sometimes on purpose. They are, like us, people who say things they sometimes don’t mean and sometimes things they do mean, things they mean so much that it exposes a bone of truth so raw and ugly and scary that we wish we’d never said them in the first place. This beastly truth should make them less eternal, less ideal, less honorable, less heroic.
But what if it doesn’t? And what if our heroes present themselves from the beginning as so human that we can’t even construct that illusion around them? What if they’re so painfully honest that we can’t pretend?
About a year and a half ago, I happened across an article posted online by an acquaintance called “DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things.” It is a letter to the author’s self in her early twenties, prompted by a reader, and it is powerfully written, specific and moving. Please don’t trust me on this, go read it yourself. You won’t regret it.
“#64: Tiny Beautiful Things” has been a defining article, a crucial set of rules, an unofficial manifesto in which all the details don’t apply to me but the core values do. Sugar wrote anonymous, beautiful and wretchedly truthful articles. She wrote about death and love and fear and sex, about writing and courage and and the people who we become when we think no one else is paying attention. She wrote about trusting yourself. About living out what you already know to be true, that “you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.”*
Dear Sugar provided me with answers for questions that hadn’t even formed yet; questions I still haven’t parsed. Something about that article in particular pulled a thread out from inside me, started an unraveling, an emotional and lovely and terrifying thing.
To herself and to her readers, Sugar said, “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”
I read this before I knew my partner would break up with me. I was someone he loved; he was, in this moment, simply someone who wanted to change the terms of this one particular relationship. I thought about this as I processed it; as I processed my own advice to friends who were also considering leaving their partners and I told them, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and I meant it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other end of it. With the clarity of eight months’ time now since the breakup, I can tell you that this paragraph gave me something. It didn’t make me understand my own situation more than I already did, but it gave me something to hold on to, another truth to face, another thread to pull. That perspective made things more bearable. “You are not a terrible person.” Like I was saying it directly to him.
In February this year, Dear Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed, an author I’d never heard of. Part of me was terrified to find out who she was, because being a real person with a real name and a real face would ruin the Sugar mystique. Part of me really wanted to know, because I wanted to gorge myself on her work, to devour every word she had written. In April I read her novel, Torch, a piece of autobiographical fiction about cancer, about her mother’s death. In May I read Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mother had died and her marriage had fallen apart at her own hands. I looked up every essay I could find online, and I read them all. In July, Tiny Beautiful Things came out as a collection, a physical book I could hold in my hands, a bound volume of Sugar.
And last night, she came to speak at Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. I requested the night off from work months ago, because I needed to be there, to see her, to hear what her real voice sounded like and the cadence with which she read her own words. It was so odd, in the beginning, the mix of feeling this real devotion to a stranger who wasn’t a stranger, the din of bar patrons chatting, the weird desperation we feel when we want a drink from the waitress and can’t get her attention. The dizziness, the red wine warmth and fuzziness of the whole situation, the odd lighting and bad sound. It felt like swimming, or like it wasn’t real. They say we should never meet our heroes.
The discussion moderator said something important. He said to her, “You make me want to be a better person. You make me feel like it’s okay that I’m not.” I agree with him.
It was intense, sharing the experience with all these other people, people who said “awww” in all the right places, as a chorus of emotional voyeurs. It was a stark difference between that and when Sugar was anonymous and I had this private relationship with her, reading at my laptop, connecting with her veiled but very naked and vulnerable self. And I felt like no one was looking. Like I shared something with her that no one else knew about.
Part of me wonders if Sugar can ever come back, now that she’s been unveiled, identified. Someone at the reading last night asked this, and Strayed said yes, she can and she will. She told us that she always wrote with the knowledge that she would one day put her name on Sugar’s words, that being Cheryl was not any different from being Sugar. “I was never anonymous to myself,” she said.
The last thing she said while onstage was about the importance of finding solace in the wilderness—whether that wilderness is the PCT or the banks of the Mississippi River. She is right.
And for me, that also extends to the wilderness of the unknown territory of yourself. It felt like she was saying to me, you must find solace in the trees and roots and shadows and animal noises and the sweet and rotting and bodyish smells of your own unknown forest. She once wrote, “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”**
And here I am. I’m standing at the edge of the forest. I’m leaving my stick behind, but I am bringing a book.
Walk with me?
As a part of my self improvement regimen I’m trying to become a little less rigid, a little more spontaneous, and a lot more fun. Not in a way that betrays who I am, just to relax a little and get out of my comfort zone which is, coincidentally, about the size of my couch. Last night I went to a show in downtown with a single lady friend and dropped fifty bucks to see a band I hadn’t heard of until last week. We danced as hard as we could in our assigned nosebleed seats of the Historic Orpheum Theater and Heather did her best to try and chat up the guys standing next to us, but they weren’t having it, so we just enjoyed our drinks and tried not to spill them on the heads of the folks in front of us. We spent a lot of time identifying from afar who looked like the most fun, and the prize went to the guy in the blue shirt who looked like he had literally just rolled out of bed, hair all sticky-uppy and a drink in each hand, rocking out, punching the air with his beer bottles. There was also the guy who spent the entire show glued to his phone checking football scores, which would have been less funny if he wasn’t dancing the entire time (maintaining a very steady hand and a straight gaze into the screen). It was a really fun show: there were banjos and basketballs and mohawks and a lot of great beats. Check out the chandelier: I looked it up online and the thing weighs 2,000 pounds.
We went out for a drink at the jukebox bar next door afterwards, mingling with the superfans, taking our time until it was time to go. We found ourselves just a few minutes later in a deserted parking ramp with a dead engine, lights left on in the car, and panicked a bit until we decided that, rather than taking a taxi home and avoiding the problem until tomorrow, we could pay the taxi driver to come into the parking ramp and open his engine to Heather’s jumper cables. Sweet, sweet success.
I took a writing class at The Loft in the Open Book building in Minneapolis, ascetic but warm and inviting. There are classrooms and workshops, huge heavy printing presses and stacks and stacks of art books that seep simple beauty.
One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is finding my writing voice as a person who lives in one place and goes to a normal job—at least for the time being—if I don’t travel, what will I write about? If I don’t write, where can I go? Am I writing for myself or for other people? I’m perfectly aware that many great writers are not constantly deluged with stimuli the way you are when traveling; that a good writer can take a very ordinary thing and make it compelling. Traveling made writing easy for me because I just had to write what was immediately in front of me and there was always something new and lots of things that weren’t ordinary at all. I suppose my challenge now is to find a way to write about things that are not that.
It is starting to become more real to me that I am not leaving for Antarctica this year. As my friends and colleagues scramble to get their contracts, to pack their lives into boxes to place in storage, to fill their suitcases with belongings they need for many months away from home, to get their medical screenings taken care of, I am very aware of things settling down in my life, not winding up. For the past two years the end of summer was the end of my time in Minnesota, and the beginning of a huge trip with long plane rides and new cities and cold, breathtaking arrivals heavy with meaning. Even though I know it’s the right decision to stay home, and even if only for a few seasons, it still hurts to remove myself from the velocity of that lifestyle.
And I have to think harder about what to write.
I always enjoyed school and I like taking classes like this one at The Loft because it helps me to hear other peoples’ takes on similar assignments. I like hearing other people read the same poem I just read, but in a different voice, because it helps me pull back from my own myopic interpretation of its words. I like being immersed in the output of others because it makes me think harder about what I produce, and because for me creativity begets creativity. The more I read and look at art and listen to music and watch performances, the more excited I get to write, to make, to dance.
Death is not clean or punctual or forgiving. It has its own clock, makes its way through the beds of wet kleenex feathers full of snot and mascara when you have your eyes closed. Death sometimes comes when you have left for a sandwich, when you have gone to feed your elderly mother, or sometimes when you’re sitting right there, waiting for it. This breakup was bookended by the death of two sweet grandfathers, first my partner’s and then mine.
In February, a few weeks after redeploying from Antarctica to New Zealand, I found myself standing ankle-deep in the Pacific Ocean, feeling that odd vertigo that is specific to when the sea is pulling itself out from under you, eroding the very earth you’re standing on, one grain of sand at a time, creating heel shaped divots under your weight.
It all felt quite significant, like I was in a movie or something and the next thing you knew I’d be walking out and disappearing and the ocean would eat me and the credits would roll. I sang to myself, to add a soundtrack and expand the melodramatic fantasy. D had broken up with me about four days before that. I felt like shit. But I knew that realistically, instead of dying, I would rather go back to the hotel and have beer and pizza and talk more with him about what the future held for us, for him, for me. We had ten days in New Zealand to talk and process the highs and lows and confusing, hairpin-turn-roller-coaster delirium that ensued when our framework and the life we had together began to dissolve. It was kind of fun, in a contradictory way, getting to be painfully honest and brutally interrogative, to cry together and sometimes to even feel like things would be okay in whatever way they came to manifest. I’ll spare you the details, for privacy reasons. But we were seriously in it. We talked about everything.
What I will tell you is that I spent months after getting home (well, okay, I still feel like this sometimes) as a split self: part of me feeling really calm and collected, like the gift in all of this could be a new beginning, a rebirth, an infinite possibility of freedom. The other, smaller part was rebellion and ricochet, like certain isolated atoms of my being were on the verge of nuclear meltdown, destructive and explosive and very, very dangerous.
Everything inside of me felt visceral and raw, while simultaneously too-okay and oddly emotionless. I drank a lot of whiskey. I ran around the lakes, wrote pages and pages and pages of angry, confused words. I tried to do yoga, but it didn’t have the same physical release as running. I read a lot of classified ads, trying to assemble the puzzle pieces into something that resembled a life, and extended little prayer tendrils for good things in all directions, and tried to think Big Positive Thoughts.
After my grandfather died, I wish I could say that it gave me a new perspective on what things are important in life and what things are better to let go, but it didn’t. I just felt sad and panicky. Both of our grandpas’ memorials fell on the same weekend. I watched my grandmother cry wordlessly, a sad gift that in her dementia, she knew he was gone. I saw a lot of friends that have known us for all of the last twelve years as a couple. I felt immensely selfish, thinking about the breakup when bigger things were happening. Life and death things. It was terrible.
I’m not much of a prayer person. But Anne Lamott wrote, “here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'” And I can totally handle that. So I tried to ask for a lot of help, and I got it in a lot of different forms. So to those of you who sent love and positive energy; who sent me lots of supportive messages and gave me chocolate and wine and a place to sleep; who listened to my drunken narcissistic stream-of-consciousness rants and then made me laugh or cried with me; who told me your own stories of breakups that were far more traumatizing than mine: thank you, thank you, thank you. I really mean it. The little boat I’m in is lost at sea, paint peeling and leaks sprouting, but it’s still buoyant. So thank you.