Sunday, November 13, 2016

On Melancholy Hill


The election.

I didn't have a TV, so I religiously refreshed the New York Times website, following people's reactions in real time on Twitter and Facebook. As the hours ticked by, we all watched the map grow redder.

When the results were official (I think it was about 3am EST, so about 4:30am here) I got so keyed up I knew I'd never sleep. After a half an hour or forty minutes just sitting there, alternating between numbness and sobbing, staring at the tweets of shock and rage zooming by on my glowing rectangle of a screen, I finally stood up. I knew I couldn't stay in that room anymore. 

Somehow I got clothes on - I don't remember any of this - then the next thing I know I was by the graveyard on Bonaventure Avenue, which is a ten minute's walk away from my apartment. It was about 5:00 in the morning, the sun hadn't even risen, and there was thick, soupy fog everywhere. 

I knew, I just knew that I had to get to the top of Signal Hill to watch the sun rise. It's not like I thought that would make anything better. It was just something I had to do.

Signal Hill on an ordinary day...
...but Signal Hill felt more like Silent Hill on this particular morning.

I hadn't dressed properly. It was cold. I was wearing this thin water-resistant jacket "shell" which was nice for repelling the mist but had nothing in the way of lining, and I'd forgotten to bring a hat or scarf. But I kept walking, and my constant motion and turbulent emotions kept me relatively warm. It's about a 3 mile walk from my corner of campus to the visitor centre below Signal Hill. I made it, pausing only once to watch three birds land on Deadmans Pond, tiny black specks on the patch of rippling dark water I could make out through the white. I had been the only source of noise for miles around and when I stopped all was thick, exquisite, unbroken silence.

Up past the visitor centre, up the path where I sprained my ankle my first week here, up to the barracks and cannons where I took pictures with Rebekah when she had visited. I hadn't even made it to the tower and already the fog was so thick I couldn't see my hands held out in front of me... which was a problem when I realized I was no longer on the path. I knew from my time here before that these cannons were near the edge of quite a tall cliff, but couldn't tell how close I was to the drop-off. I'd lost my bearings completely. I ended up crawling back to a safe jut of rock and sitting there, waiting for the mist to part so I could find my way.

I'd like to say this was a profound experience, but mostly it was just profoundly miserable. I had to wait nearly an hour. The chill from the rock I was sitting on crept through my clothing and settled in my bones like an ache. I felt too nothing and everything to cry anymore. I just stared out in the direction I guessed the ocean would be, waiting for a sun I couldn't even see to somehow break through the awful choking fog. In my head this was supposed to be beautiful, I thought, but now nothing's clear. I'm literally trapped by uncertainty. Subtle as a sledgehammer, as metaphors go.

But this story doesn't end in that same over-the-top manner, with the clouds suddenly parting to reveal a glorious sunrise over the water and our heroine realizing that things aren't completely hopeless. No.  In our tale, the weary, benumbed traveler manages to find the path again and staggers back down the hill to a world just as bleak as she had left it. But at least there was a cafe at the bottom of the hill, its sign flipped to read 'OPEN.' I went in and bought myself tea (in my crazy numb state I had still managed to grab my keys and wallet), and soon was warmed enough to continue, and by the time I stepped outside again the sun was fully up, the mist a mere smudge around the edges of reality. Early morning commuters were already up and making their way about the city. 

I hiked back up to campus, collapsed in my bed, and slept through class.

And that's how you react, ladies and gents, when you come to the realization that the world is about to enter (or perhaps has already entered) a very dark chapter in its history, and that all your attempts to stop it have failed. Mark my words: 2016 will be an important date in future history books.... But if this election is anything to go by, I'd much rather read history than live it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Patriot Day

This September 11th I’m thinking about a football player who sits during the national anthem.

People are so angry, and I guess I get it. But let’s review our history for a minute. America was founded because a group of young upstarts felt the country they called their own wasn’t seeing them. It didn’t recognize them or acknowledge the abuses that plagued their daily lives. The symbols and leaders of their nation — the crown, the king — had let them down, had no interest in helping them. And so these hotheads decided enough was enough, and that they needed to do something about it.

Sitting during the national anthem is seen as disrespectful by many. But while Kaepernick may not be a Jefferson or a Washington, you can’t say what he’s doing is un-American. It’s more American than apple pie, and far sweeter. It’s freedom, my friends, pure and simple. What generations have fought and died for. It’s the right of an average person to look at the nation that’s supposed to have their back and to say, “We can be better than this. Something’s got to change.”

This September 11th I’m remembering being a substitute teacher on yearbook signing day, and reading what one eighth grade boy wrote in his fellow student’s annual.

Picture the scene. We’re at a small Christian school in the heart of the Bible belt, and I’m a substitute teacher for eighth grade English on yearbook signing day. Oddly enough, some of the students ask me to sign their books — most likely caught up in the giddy rush of premature nostalgia that comes with such occasions. In this group of about fifty kids, there are only two black boys. One of these boys signs a girl’s yearbook then hands it to me at her request. I look down at the page where he just wrote. Instead of a name or “have a great summer,” there are just two words scrawled in marker: I’m black.

I stare at them for a second. It hits me like a punch to the gut. I’m looking at this phrase, stupidly wondering what it means. Yes, of course he is black. That’s a fact, just like it’s a fact that I have blue eyes, or a fact that the girl whose yearbook this is has red hair. But I don’t get treated like an entirely different class of human being because I have blue eyes, and this girl isn’t immediately judged as being a certain way because she has red hair. It’s never been an identity we’ve had to claim, or a stigma we’ve had to struggle against.

I’m black.

Is it celebration? Defiance? A proud declaration — this is who I am, this is important to me? A reminder — this is who I am, but not all I am? I don’t know. It really doesn’t matter what I think. He’s a funny, sweet kid with a bright future ahead of him, and he wants us to know that he’s black.

This September 11th, I’m remembering what happened 15 years ago on this day, and that it happened to all of us.

When the Twin Towers crashed down 15 years ago, you know what we all were? Humans. Much has already been made of this fact. We weren’t our race or gender, our political parties or religious ideologies. When you’re pulling a human being out of the ash and rubble, it doesn’t matter if they’re an Ivy League graduate or an illegal immigrant or the gay barista from the local coffee joint. It doesn’t matter if they’re someone you’d normally spit at or rail against, or someone you’d call your best bud. In that moment, they’re alive, and so are you, and that’s all that matters. Helping each other and staying alive.

We lost too many people that day. People from all across these various spectrums we use to divide or categorize our humanity. Today we mourn them. But it’s important that as we’re mourning them we don’t stop seeing them. Not just what they represent, but who they really were. We can and must celebrate both what unites us and what makes us unique.

September 11th reminds us that if we are truly united, when something bad happens to some of us it should hurt all of us. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye and insist it isn’t our problem because it doesn’t directly affect us. Sometimes that threat to our fellow citizens isn’t as blatant as a plane crashing into a building. Sometimes it’s far more insidious, and can come from within.

This September 11th I’m an expat American who finds herself far from home, who glories in the crazy contradiction that is our broken and beautiful nation, and who wants us to do better.

America has never been great. There, I said it. It’s been plagued with slavery, injustice, persecution and violence nearly every step of the way.

America has always been great. How could it not be? Peopled with citizens who think, challenge, try, dare, explore, create, and rise above despite the mess we are and always have been.

This is why I know down to my bones that “make America great again” is a lie. That isn’t what we should be striving for.

The truly shining moments in our history were the ones where radically different members of society came together to work with unity toward a common purpose. Why can’t we do that now? Why can’t our purpose be to ensure that black people in this country — especially young black men — no longer have to live in fear of being falsely persecuted and brutally gunned down by those who are meant to serve and protect?

“Make America whole again.” Unity. That’s what I find myself longing for more than anything on this Patriot Day.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

No, Donald. The World Already Has Too Many Walls

The thing I always hated about antidepressants was also the thing that allowed me to function as a normal human being while taking them: there was this wall, a figurative thing I guess, but I could feel it there the whole time. A wall between what I felt on the inside and what I could express on the outside. This was great when on the inside I was a caterwauling mess of self-destructive rage and woe. Instead of taking that to work with me, to the grocery store with me, to gatherings with friends and family, I could just shove it down and in and that wall, that barrier, would keep it in where no one would ever have to know.

But this proved problematic when it came to my art.

When you build a large portion of your life around the fact that you like to create stories, that you enjoy the craft of writing and want to bring a lot of it into the world, it becomes a HUGE issue when you can no longer take what's inside you and express it in external form. The same thing that kept me from dissolving into tears over the book cart at work also kept me from writing sonnets, or blog posts, or short stories. The build-up to writing was always the same - the spark of an idea, a glorious phrase, a lingering question, a vivid image or fragment of dialogue. They'd crowd inside my brain the way they always used to, but with one very noticeable difference. In the past I'd scribble them down on a page, or clickety-clack the words out into some computer document. I'd hum ideas as song lyrics into the poor quality video recorder on my phone. But when I started taking those antidepressants in the summer of 2014, suddenly all those bits and pieces had nowhere to go. They were no match for the wall that had been erected somewhere there between my heart and my brain. It was too high and too wide, and entirely without doorways. I was trapped in the prison of my own self.

So in February 2015 I stopped taking them. Without consulting a doctor (I know, bad Grace!) and without any particular impetus. I was traveling at the time, so it was harder to keep track of my regular routines, and I missed one day, then the next, and before I knew it I'd gone a full week without them and I felt WONDERFUL. Mainly because I could feel things again, just in general.

But over this past year and a half it's still been a struggle. It's like the wall was torn down, but not completely. I still trip and stumble over the remnants on a regular basis every time I try to take these thoughts and feelings and pin them to the page. And sometimes I don't even try. I mean, there have been so many things going on. I moved out of my apartment. I applied to go to school in freaking CANADA. My parents sold our house of the last 26 years. In 37 days I'll be boarding a plane to leave the country for the next two years. After I finish this Master's Degree program, I have 0% knowledge of what I intend to do with my life. I know it probably wouldn't involve retail or libraries if I had my way, but who could say for sure...? And through all of this, I've felt things, I've had words roiling around inside me that I've just allowed to settle there. I haven't once tried to climb over those jagged ruins of the Wall That Was to get my feelings out there in some form. I've just accepted the fact that they aren't important.

And fiction? Man, when it comes to fiction I haven't written anything I've been truly proud of in the last year and a half at least. (More like two.) I don't know what's going on there. I mean, I can blame it all I want on this "wall" inside my head, but the truth is that wall is made of fear. Every brick of it, and the mortar that binds them all together: fear, fear, fear. Fear that I'm worthless. Fear that nothing means anything. Fear that anything I express would just be empty noise, signifying nothing. A useless shout into the void.

Yeah, existential crisis. Light, happy summer fare. Sorry.

Basically, I'm writing this (1) because I can (for some reason these words have squeaked their way through the barrier, (2) because it feels good to explain (I'd hate for people to see the person I've been in the last couple of years and think that was somehow the best version of me... try, more like the worst.), and (3) because I want to try to demolish the rest of that wall for good. Maybe part of that will come in taking this bold step to a new position on the globe, a new city, a new school, an entirely fresh experience. And maybe part of it will just come down to good old-fashioned elbow grease, stubbornness, and determination.

The point is, it's time to stop living life as if I'm stuck inside my own skull.  Time to start living with purpose, and without fear. The freedom of a world (and a mind) without walls.

Friday, June 17, 2016


I deal with my stories the way I deal with my life. There’s this overarching philosophy. I don’t know where I learned it. (It’s not a very good one.) I think, “I’ll get all these pesky, less important projects out of the way before I dedicate my time and attention to the things I really care about.”

You see why this is stupid, right? Because you get a lot of things done, but a lot of mediocre things. And the truest tales, the ones that tug at your insides and echo the most vibrant bits of your dreams in waking, those are the ones that remain unspun, unfinished, only partway done, half-notions left to molder while you birth “realistic” compromises, those dimmed visions more easily sculpted from inkling to full fruition because they aren’t difficult enough to warrant much in the way of effort or discipline.

“I’ll write these short stories before I bother getting into Doors.”
“I’ll write Doors before I tackle Wishbook.”

(Because Doors is special, but Wishbook is probably the only story I’ve ever truly cared about. I care about it so much that I don’t want anyone else to have it, because they might harm it. But I want more than anything for it to be told, and told well.)

And the thing is, I’m going to die someday, maybe 40 years from now, maybe 4 days from now, and I have no way of knowing if I’ll get them all down.

It’s funny. I should be afraid of dying without ever having fallen in love, or dying without ever having experienced the world, but my main fear is dying with all these untold stories rattling around inside. Because if I die, then they die with me.

This is morbid. But Orlando has everybody thinking about life and death these days, so can you blame me?

The thing a writer has to realize is, No one will ever know these stories if I don’t tell them.

And either that’s enough of an impetus for you to sit your butt down and get to work, or it isn’t. But if you’re going to do it—put the work in, really try—then you have to cut through the bullshit excuses and choose to be raw and real. Don’t take the easy path, don’t tackle the less vital project because it lets you delay what’s really important to you.

These things inside you that want out—they’re scary, beautiful, enormous, treacherous, and ultimately so worthwhile—

Don’t wait. Won’t wait. Why wait? It’s a lot of work, sure, but you’re up to the challenge. Maybe I am too.

Words on a page, friend. That’s all it is. Words on a page.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Moving Out and Moving On

Do you
maybe only ever really
know a place
when you leave it?

A place,
sometimes a person,
or just a state of mind.
You never understand it when you have it,
see it clearly only in looking back.

Do you
maybe only ever really
know a room
when it's empty?

A room
is never truly bare,
it's haunted: by potential or memory.
What was and what could be
all contained in a single space.

Do you
maybe only ever really
know yourself
when you walk away?

Your self,
the one thing you can't escape
that you take everywhere.
If "home is where the heart is,"
you'll never leave it behind

(no matter how you try)

But I'm tired of these places I've seen,
these rooms I paced many a night.
I'm tired of people I've been within these walls.
I'm ready to try something new.
I'm itching to put up a fight.
Why did I ever let life make me small?

Here's the heart of the matter
(the weight of the world)
that I carry wherever I go:

Where the curve of the path meets the crest of the hill
and the sky arcs wide overhead
That's the only home I long for
That's the only truth I know

(On moving out of my apartment after 29 months. On to the next adventure!)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dark Blue Nail Polish

Back in 1991 I was in Kindergarten, and my favorite days were the ones where my teacher Mrs. Moore would pull out a stack of magazines and the kid-friendly scissors and ask us to make collages matching the day's current theme. Most of these magazines were of the Better Homes and Gardens or People variety. We would thumb through their glossy pages and find pictures of interesting people, places, and animals to glue in crazy arrangements on our construction paper masterpiece.

The thing about magazines is that, of course, they're full of ads, and because of the kind of magazines we were looking at we were most often exposed to makeup ads. All these pouting models with luscious lips, thick dark eyelashes, and shiny perfect hair. And since this was 25 years ago, all the lipstick, hair dye, nail polish, etc. worn by these models tended to be in neutral or "natural" shades of pink, beige, brown. The most outlandish you might get were the fiery reds, hot pinks, or plums and purples. But there were none of the crazy neon rainbow hues you might see these days.

That was the climate I was brought up in. My father thought that girls shouldn't wear makeup until they were older, and that when they finally did it should be those same neutral shades - the ones that accentuate natural beauty but don't call attention to themselves.

Fast forward eight years. I'm 13 years old and in the 9th grade - my first year back in a traditional classroom setting. (After Kindergarten, my mom decided to home school us... which was very cool, but something to discuss in another post.) Anyway, I'm finally in high school, and here I am on a shopping trip with two of my friends from class. I end up buying some new jeans, a button down shirt that looks like something Julia Stiles wore in her most recent movie, and some nail polish.

But wait, guys. Not just nail polish. Dark blue nail polish.

Like this:

Or this:

I love this nail polish.

Love, love, love.

I saw it on the shelf and it was calling my name.

Hidden in its shimmery depths is a reflection of my very soul..... or something. (I was very emo in 9th grade. So sue me.) In fact, I can't even wait to get home. I pop open the bottle in the car and give myself a very shaky and precarious manicure on the way back to my friend Rebekah's house.

When it dries, I can't stop staring at my fingertips. I feel so grown-up. So brave and bold. In a way, I kind of feel invincible.

Looking back now, this seems silly. It doesn't seem like a big deal in an age where people regularly give themselves bubble gum pink highlights or rainbow-striped mohawks. But to me, back then, it was huge.

Buying that blue nail polish was a formative experience for me. It's maybe the first time I can remember making a decision for myself, without fear of what others might say. I knew certain authorities in my life (my parents, my school dress code) might disapprove. But I didn't care. And for Little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Never-Put-A-Toe-Out-Line-In-Her-Life, this was paradigm-shifting. I made my own choice, took my own path, moved forward with no regrets.

Which is why to this day if you ever see me wearing nail polish that color, it's usually because I'm trying to remind myself of that moment and how I felt: brave, bold, invincible. Some days those feelings are hard to come by.

It's kind of nice to remember a time when I could buy them in a bottle. Who knew such things were for sale? And for only $2.99?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Here's Rey!

Guys, can we talk about this birthday card? Because I was in Target today to get a card for my coworker’s wedding shower and I saw it in the little kids birthday card section and picked it up, then realized that was a total mistake because there was no way I was leaving the aisle or the store without it. Even though I’m a “grown adult” (I’m 30, ugh) and all my friends with kids have boys and I have no idea who I’m going to give it to.

It’s just… I would have KILLED to get a card like this when I was 9, 10, 11 years old. The ones I got instead were all pink and purple and said something like, “You’re a pretty pretty princess, birthday girl!” or “Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of!” with pictures of ballerinas or makeup or cupcakes on them. Now, ballerinas and makeup and cupcakes are all awesome in their way, don’t get me wrong. But all those cards were telling me I was cool because I was cute or pretty or sweet. Now look at this card and compare.

You’re a FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH, birthday girl.

You’re cool. Why? Because you’re COURAGEOUS, SMART, and STRONG.


Excuse me. I have to pause for a moment and grab a sponge to mop my heart up from where it’s just melted all over my computer keyboard.

This is why I freak out about this movie, guys, and especially about Rey. Because it’s taken 20 years for me to see a birthday card like this in the girl’s section of the card aisle. (And I know, it’s pretty dumb that there are gendered sections in the card aisle anyway, but that’s for another post.) I’m just so grateful for Rey and for the change she and other characters like her are bringing to these outdated marketing systems.

Where’s Rey? Right here. And I’m so, so glad.