november 5, 2020…moving pictures, part 3

Moving Pictures. A Farewell Tour to 25 years in the Twin Cities, part 3

Thursday, October 29,
my last night in the Twin Cities. I’ve been packing and crying and cleaning and sighing all day, wondering is this really, I mean really? good bye Twin Cities? Forever?

#1 Dayton Avenue, St. Paul, MN. May 2013 – May 2016: I love this address, I love this neighborhood, Rocco does too. It first imprinted on my cells with the drafty old Iglehart home, and became a permanent part of my DNA when I moved to Dayton Ave. Sometimes I get wistful, and drive to St. Paul, just to walk around the neighborhood. Left to his devices, no matter where we begin, Rocco will lead us to the front door of this familiar brick house.

The kindest owner/landlord—single dad with 3 teenagers—lived above me, with their wild yellow lab, Taz. The sounds of life drifting down from their upper levels into my first floor apartment was a balm for the skin-crawling dead silence of my country home on Oldridge. Inviting front porch in summer, cozy fireplace in winter, the most traumatic Forth of July fireworks antics I’d ever encountered anywhere, worse, even, than living next door to Wisconsin.

My mom stayed with me a lot here. She watched me rearrange furniture a lot here. One night, she sat on my sofa, glass of wine balancing on one knee, Kindle on the other (she told me later, she was Googling “rearranging furniture + mental health”), watching as I shoved and dragged my belongings into a new configuration.

She casually asked, “So, when are you going to stop rearranging your furniture, Jen?”

“When everything in my life feels like it fits together again,” I said.

She adored this neighborhood, too, we shared countless gin and tonics on the front porch in summer, bottles of wine in front of the toasty fireplace in winter. She adored my landlord and his family, became friendly with his mother, who often came from northern MN to help him with the grandkids (something my mom could wholeheartedly relate to).

I took a year off from grad school while living here. For all the writing, I didn’t feel any wiser, any more enlightened, any more healed. What started as an education now felt like a failed exorcism. The ghosts remained, like squatters, moving freely between my cells. Two years, then three years, then four years after Bob’s death, “All I do is write about a dead man,” I thought. I’m sick of this story, I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want to live haunted like this for the rest of my life. I despised the label widow and the pedestal that came with it. It felt unfair, a betrayal, to talk about Bob when he wasn’t here to verify, or refute, or offer his version of my stories. I wondered how healthy it is to continue to relive this experience overandoverandoveragain by writing about it overandoverandoveragain.

I traveled a lot while living here. I was diagnosed with caregiver PTSD while living here. I spent a small fortune in therapy, trying to talk the ghosts from the rooms of my bones. I went back to grad school while living here. I accumulated more teaching certificates while living here.

three years after Bob’s death, I began dating while living here, not on purpose. I’ve never dated on purpose—it’s one of seven wonders of the world that I ever got married. I don’t “put myself out there,” I’ve never used a dating app (no judgment, just not my thing). I’m usually minding my own business, and shit just happens; I’ll shrug and say, okay fine, we can meet for coffee, but my bullshit radar is razor-sharp and sniper-accurate and most first dates are usually just that, first. This was not a new development since Bob died, and I’m not saying it’s the best strategy or that I recommend it; for better or worse, it’s the way I’ve always been. I went out with safe men, who lived across the country, who lived in other countries, who were married to other women, who were married to their jobs—men whom I knew wouldn’t or couldn’t get too close, because there wasn’t enough room for much else but me and my ghosts.

Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage when I was living here. I went on a few dates with a senior captain of a major airline while living here. We met at a roller derby match. What followed was a fascinating first-hand study of what was seeping into our nation’s psyche. On a cold winter day, we met for coffee at the Mall of America (his idea, not mine, red flag #1), where he told me about how much money he made, the big houses he owned, how much fun we’d have traveling to Japan, the Philippines, the Netherlands together (red flags # 2, 3 and 4). He rolled his eyes at my “love is love” bumper sticker. “Oh, you’re one of those,” he said with a scowl. I took copious mental notes of his actions, his words, wondering how much of my soul I’d have to sell, how much of my brain I’d have to shut off in exchange for the brand of ease he was hocking.

A constantly-professing Christian, he told stories about the good work he did, serving meals with his church men’s group at a homeless shelter. He rattled off percentages—how many of the men coming to the shelter could work if they really wanted to, how many did have jobs but were taking advantage of a free meal, how many were this, how many were that, and came to the conclusion that no one at the shelter actually deserved the free meal. I stopped him mid-sentence, “Hey wait a minute—you don’t get to judge the people you’re serving. I’m no expert, but I’m 100% certain Jesus didn’t do it like that.” My bullshit meter shot off the dial before I’d finished my coffee, yet a strange fascination compelled me to spend time with him, listen to his rhetoric, take note of his skewed ethics—this was something I needed to know, this echo of the politics swirling around at the time. I ended my informal study when he broke a date for a hockey tournament, which was a-okay by me; it was his aggressive insistence that I join him to watch the tournament that was especially concerning—it began with bribing then guilt-tripping then vague threats. I’ve saved all our text exchanges for an essay I’ll one day write. Maybe.

I fell in love for real while living here with a man who wasn’t married to someone else or a job, who didn’t live impossibly far away, but I still played it safe—he lived in another city an hour and a half from me. My youngest sister, Gretchen, came to live with me while I was living here, after she did one of the bravest thing I’ve known anyone to do—she left her husband, a big comfy home and cushy life, with nothing but the clothes on her body and whatever she could fit in the trunk of her little Kia.

Philando Castile was brutally, publicly executed by a police officer in Falcon Heights while I was living here; the murder captured on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, her tiny four-year-old daughter in the back seat. I consumed news coverage of his murder, which talked at length about who Pilando was, how beloved he was by his family and friends and his community at the JJ Hill Montessori school in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood where he worked, down the street from where I was living.

Philando Castile became not just another headline or statistic; he materialized as fully human, a decent, loved and loving, flawed being, as we all are, who did not deserve to be murdered over a traffic stop. I marched in peaceful protests, I stood outside the governor’s mansion singing and chanting, I wrote to and called my representatives expressing outrage and support, I read, and read, and read—newspapers, online articles, essays by known and obscure authors, oh my god, so much catching up I have to do…though I’d lived in Cathedral Hill for over three years, the first and only time I stepped foot inside the neighborhood’s namesake was for Philando’s funeral. It was shoulder-to-shoulder packed, his death tore the Twin Cities wide open, it had the power to shake the whole wide world awake.

The 2016 election campaigning was building steam while I was living here. I felt and saw and heard an ugliness brewing in our country, gaining momentum, a disorienting “us vs them” mentality spreading like a virus. What the hell is going going on here? Where the hell have I been? I wondered.

My sister moved out, my rent was going up (the first time in the 3 years I’d lived there). The summer before the election, I moved from St. Paul across the river to Minneapolis.

#2 40th Ave. South, Minneapolis, May 2016 – May 2018: I moved from Dayton Ave. to south Minneapolis, into a little 2 br stucco not far from Lake Nokomis. South Minneapolis is known for its progressive leanings; I managed to find the one block that was not. I was a Bernie supporter, through and through, as the bumper stickers on my ol’ Jeep proudly (still) proclaim, and maybe explains why my neighbors let their dog shit in my yard and didn’t make eye contact and scurried into their house whenever we passed on the street. Or, maybe they were plain ol’ assholes, who knows anything for sure? But, when Bernie didn’t get the Dem nomination, I put my sad hopes aside and stood with Hillary. Any other option was not an option. This was the first time in my life that it became blindingly, excruciatingly, imperatively clear, that my vote was not just for me, but for those—many I knew, far more whom I didn’t—whose lives and livelihoods were in grave danger.

In tandem with the election theatrics, I had just signed a lease and paid first month’s rent and deposit for a small commercial space on Minnehaha Avenue, to open a Pilates studio. The landlord turned out to be Minneapolis’ own small-potatoes version of DJT, a lecherous, unethical creature who was more handsy and creepy than a landlord (or anyone) has a legal right to. I kept brushing it off as me being too sensitive; he’s from another generation, he doesn’t know any better. It was a surreal two weeks, a parallel universe of the national scene, his behavior grew more brazen as the campaigning grew more aggressive. I finally confronted him and his partner (with my sister, Jill, planted as a witness/reinforcement) with three pages of documented transgressions. I broke the lease, he returned my rent and deposit, gave me two days to get my equipment out of the space and into storage, not because he admitted to any wrongdoing, but because he feared I’d take him to court.

The upside to this awful story is that I found a small space to rent at University Baptist Church in Dinkytown, which is how I learned that not all Baptists are variations on the godawful Westboro theme, but can, indeed be astoundingly progressive, tireless social justice warriors…I can’t say I because a member of the church, but I can say that I went to church at UBC more than I did anywhere in literal decades.

On election day, 2016, I donned my Wonder Woman knee-high socks (with little capes, even!), and with stars in my eyes and hope surging through my veins, I traipsed across the street to my local polling place to cast my vote (a Lutheran church, where I duly noted many cars in the parking lot on Sunday mornings, emblazoned with Trump 2016 bumper stickers).

I was so confident, so sure that, despite the deep chasm the year’s campaigning had gouged into our national psyche, more people than not still had the heart and mind and soul to vote—not for a crude, loud-mouth realty show host who inherited his fortune (a member of the lucky sperm club, my husband would have called him) and a history of sexually assaulting women and bragging about it on camera and using other people’s money and labor to run business after business venture bankrupt—but for those who’s lives matter, deeply. Needless to say, but I will anyway, I was proven horribly wrong.

I went to my beloved Auntie Patty-cake’s home in uptown that night, to hang with her and my mom and watch the election results. We grew sick to our stomachs as we watched the results coming in. There was something gruesomely familiar to the scene—I couldn’t stop comparing what was happening with the election to my husband’s time in hospice. We knew how it would end, not well, but we didn’t know exactly how, or when, or…I left Pat’s early, I couldn’t hold out till the bitter end. Hate and divisiveness were winning out. I crawled into bed and was jarred awake the next morning, it was still dark. I didn’t have to check my phone, the collective grief was so palpable, settling heavily into the spaces between my cells like thick sludge. My god what is happening, where the hell have I been?

The next day, my mom and I found a church service at the Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, on Macalester College campus, a hastily-organized event offering solace for those mourning the loss of America as we once knew it. It was like being at a funeral, everyone was crying, the heaviness in the room was oppressive, we could hardly breath. We lit candles, sang songs of hope and love, hugged one another tight (remember when we could do that, with such ease?), assuring one another that the fight was not over, the hard, necessary, long-overdue work had just begun.

I watched my sister, Jill’s, life unravel with the fury of a cyclone when her husband left her and their kids and a house facing foreclosure. I helped when I could—her kids came to stay with me a lot, I watched her dog a lot, I helped clean her house. I watched with strange envy as she uprooted her bewildered, fractured family from their home in Golden Valley and haphazardly replanted in St. Peter, first in my mom’s dollhouse apartment—all three of them and my mom jammed into her tiny 1 br. Through a series of celestial happenstances, she got a job with an online university (she could work from home and be with the kids) then an apartment, and a community who immediately enveloped her and her kids.

I began my thesis while living here, stringing together all the stories I’d written over five years, about being a caregiver for my dying best friend, who happened to be my husband. I had my first essay published while living here in south Minneapolis. I won a MN State Arts Board grant while living here. The Us v. Them fervor was spreading across the country like a virus. I started writing an essay that wasn’t about my dead husband, “Pelvic Floor Disorders, Explained (or, How DJT Became 45th President of the United States)” but then I got stuck. I didn’t have words for what I was seeing, hearing, feeling.

My thesis committee raved about the quality of my work, but the big question was, “We know what happens to Bob in your story—we are in love with and heartbroken over him, you’ve made him so real. But what about you in your own story, Jen? What happened to you?” I didn’t know how to tell that part of the story.

I got sick—literally, physically, mentally, spiritually—of writing, of everything, while living here, the culmination of too many things bearing down, catching up, swallowing me whole. My story came to a grinding halt, if it had ever began at all. I graduated with my Masters in Creative Writing in April, while living here. Then my landlord’s husband died, so I had to move, again.

october 27, 2020…moving pictures, part 2

Moving Pictures. A Farewell Tour to 25 years in the Twin Cities, part 2.

#1. Oldridge Avenue revisited, Feb, 2005 – August 2011: In 2005, we moved from our beloved bungalow in Roseville to a groovy li’l ’70’s walk-out rambler in the country near the Wisconsin border, a year after I opened my salon. “The best of both worlds,” our realtor said about “country living close to the city.” And for a very short time, I concurred.

“The worst of all worlds,” I soon thought about this land of Michele Bachman and imposing, stone-cold McMansions, where neighbors kept to themselves and friends didn’t come to visit and the dreaded commute that I had so far avoided my whole adult life became a necessity not a choice, where Bob had his first heart attack, then our sweet husky, Liddy died, then my dad died, then Bob’s cancer, and then, and then, and then…

I started writing things that weren’t epic Christmas letters while living here—first on CaringBridge when Bob had his first heart attack in 2007, then on a blog, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. The blog’s only intent was to share with family and friends what was going on with Bob, who, when all was said and done, would spend more days in a hospital than in our home during those 19 months he was ill. All he ever wanted, when he was in the hospital, was to be back at his home in the country. All I ever wanted, when he was in the hospital, was to be anywhere but alone in that country home. After over a year of assault by treatment and disease, a few days before Christmas in 2010, I brought him home to our country house for good, for hospice.

I trailed him like a shadow those long, last days; I couldn’t leave him alone for any length of time, for fear he’d fall, he was so frail, more confused every day. But, even in such a state, dammit if he wouldn’t sit still for a moment for me to catch my breath, for me to catch a few winks—instead, he’d fumble and stumble through the house, from bed, to living room, to bathroom, back to living room, back to bedroom, round and round we orbited our small hospice universe, occasionally collapsing into bed, only to repeat the routine throughout the night. The days were mostly uneventful, though.

Shortly before he died, we were in the bathroom together late one night; I was waiting for him to finish so I could clean him and help him back to bed. The end was too close, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t stop our little universe from unraveling, I couldn’t stop him from dying, I couldn’t stop anything, but forever a control freak, it didn’t stop me from desperately trying.

“I’ll take care of you like this forever, if you promise not to leave me,” I bartered with tears.

“You say that as though I have a choice,” he laughed quietly at my words.

“Will you give me a sign then, after you die, to let me know you’re nearby, that you’re okay?”

“I can do that, as long as you quit saying I’m leaving you,” he said with a weak smile. He sat quiet for a while then announced, with surprising clarity, “I’ll send a great horned owl.” My heart sank. Great horned owls were a dime a dozen out here in the woods.

“I won’t know which one is from you,” I whispered.

“Don’t worry, you’ll know,” he said. He was so serious and so sick, what else could I do but believe him? He died a few weeks later, on May 3, 2011.

The emptiness of his absence swallowed me whole, as black holes are wont to do, nightmares don’t follow rules and didn’t leave when daylight appeared, instead, gnawing on me from the inside-out. The gouges carved into woodwork from his walker, the camping gear lining the shelves in the garage, the soundtrack from the music of his memorial service that wove in and out of my brain all hours, for days, then weeks, then months on on end interrupted conversations, kept me from sleep, never let me forget. I couldn’t press pause, I couldn’t hit stop, songs I used to love now haunted and repelled. At night, I’d stand on the cold dark deck in bare feet, where we used to have wine parties, and scream into the blackness till my dogs ran for cover and my voice grew raspy and my neighbors must have wondered why banshees liked to congregate on our property.

In the wake of Bob’s death, everything, like me, was breaking down and giving up. The washer stopped washing, the dryer stopped drying, then the freezer began leaking, the ceramic cooktop refused to cook. Our trusty ol’ lawnmower, that barely had a patch of actual lawn to mow, fizzled out. I fixed every one of those things myself, thanks to YouTube and an unhealthily-developing aversion to allowing anyone, even repair people, into my world. My mom stayed with me a lot out here, she told me later she feared for my life. She willingly (?) agreed to help me move all our furniture from the first floor to the finished basement and the basement furniture to the first floor, I was desperate to scramble the memories, dismayed that no matter the reconfiguration, they remained front and center in my brain.

She was with me when the chimney began drip, drip, dripping into the fireplace when it rained, when the garage flooded in spring and we had to shovel knee-deep water out and around the building to the ravine below. She was with me when massive tree branches from the oaks that umbrellaed our house, felled by wind, crashed onto the deck and the roof. It was as though the house was the external expression of what was raging inside of me. She had good reason to be fearful.

Things got harder, not better, on Oldridge. I didn’t cook, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I slid deeper into despair. But I did paint the kitchen, and the interior of every closet, and the vertical blinds, and I started swinging kettlebells, which sounds like an odd thing to do in the throes of grief, which was my dear friend, Lisa’s fault. Lisa, who had unexpectedly lost her beloved son, Sam, shortly before Bob, invited me to a class, “It’s a small group—everyone knows I’m the crazy grieving mom—you can be my crazy widow sidekick, we’ll be quite the spectacle. Yes, you will still bawl your eyes out in class—Roni, our instructor is so cool about it—but you will also think about not dropping a 25 lb. cast iron cannonball on your head, too…” And I got my motorcycle license, which, in hindsight, is probably the worst thing a person in the depths of grief should be allowed to do, then my kettlebell instructor’s certificate, then my Pilates teacher’s certificate and then, and then, and then…

The nightmares in the house were relentless. One sleepless night a few months after Bob’s departure, with the soundtrack of his life looping in my brain, I hopped on Craigslist, my eyes sliding down the list of “Homes for Rent” until they came to rest on a boxy old stone house in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Reasonable rent (reasonable for a crazed widow with a $2200 mortgage and no job), no garage, perfect size for me and two dogs . . . after shooting an inquiry email to the owner, after quelling the looping music with the only way I knew how, a couple of stiff gin and tonics, I slid into fitful sleep. The next day, I signed the lease for this old home, paid the deposit, move-in date set for mid-August.

I drove home afterward, collapsed onto my sofa and cried like I had yet to cry since Bob died, which was an impressive feat, because for the past twenty-two months, all I did was cry. I was getting really good at it, as natural as breathing. I was pummeled by worry: what the hell am I doing? I can’t just move—I don’t have this house ready for sale, it’s a terrible market—what if it doesn’t sell? Am I dishonoring Bob’s memory and all he went through by leaving his beloved country cottage? what if, what if, what if. . . I lay on the couch, heavy sobs wracking my body. I was so tired, I wanted my eyes to close forever, my mind to grow dead still.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a bright flash outside. I wanted to lie there, ignore the flash but then, I was standing. Then, I was walking through the patio door. Then I was standing on the deck. That time of year, our backyard, choked with towering cottonwoods, expansive oaks, slender birches, would fill in so lush and full, it was nearly impossible to discern anything else from deep layers of foliage. Sometimes, I remember, I did love this house, because it felt like we lived in the treetops. I stood on the deck, my eyes scanning the landscape. For what? I wasn’t sure. Until the thick backdrop was interrupted by a shadowy football-shaped silhouette that grew feathers as I stared. Then, the piercing gaze of a great horned owl, perched on a low branch just beyond the deck, burned through to mine. How I found it, I couldn’t say. I’m a terrible birder—they all look like black blobs to me. It was broad daylight, an odd time for a great horned owl to be out and about; sunlight couldn’t penetrate to its shadowy location, no crows were harassing it. The owl was so close, I could see its golden eyes blinking, the mottled pattern on its chest expanding and contracting with each breath, the breeze flicking at its tufted horned feathers.

We stood still for several minutes, staring at each other until the owl finally broke the stare-down. Turning its head to look behind, then back at me for one long last gaze, the owl alighting from the branch and slid into the woods, swallowed by layers of green. I wish I could say that with the appearance of this owl, the despondency that had settled heavy into the spaces between my cells suddenly drained out of my feet, through the slats of the deck, seeping into the ground below, but that would imply a fairy tale ending, and unfortunately, that’s not what happens when you let your head rule your world.

#2. Iglehart Avenue, St. Paul, from August, 2011 – January 2012: I’ve written a lot about this old stone house on the cusp of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. An awfully expensive, horribly maintained, absolutely charming drafty box of a house, with windows so sagging in their frames, my mom feared someone would slide a blunt object between the frame and window, pop it open and gain entry. I never did tell her about the time I found a butter knife on the outside sill of my kitchen window when I was weeding flower beds.

I submitted 30 hastily-assembled pages from my blog to Hamline University at the literal 11th hour, and was accepted to their MFA in Creative Writing while here. I watched drug deals outside my living room window while here. I saw a SWAT team tear across my front yard and storm an abandoned house two doors down. Nearly every home on my block, except mine, was burglarized that summer; my mom said people are going to get suspicious of the widow and her two dogs in the old house. I was only here 6 months before some of the brain fog dissipated enough for me to admit that I couldn’t continue to pay for two homes indefinitely. Which, in hindsight, was the absolute wrong decision, but again, when brains take over…I begrudgingly broke the Iglehart lease and moved back to Oldridge in the middle of winter in 2012.

Back to Oldridge, Feb. 2012 – May-ish 2013: My beloved old dog, Gaia, died shortly after we moved back to Oldridge. I tried selling the place conventionally with a realtor, I tried unconventionallly, for sale by owner, I tried renting the house out and in the process, inadvertently coaxed every shady character to crawl out from under every rock in the tri-state area and try their hand at swindling the grieving widow on Oldridge. In the end, CitiMortgage beat them to it. I waged a two-year battle with said lender, trying to prove that “death of a spouse” was an actual hardship. They didn’t buy it. I lost handfuls of hair going head-to-head with our lender (which I thought about collecting and sending to them as more proof of hardship). I lost the equivalent of ten years of sleep. I lost an alarming amount of weight, which prompted people to say, “You’re looking great! Things must be getting better, huh?” I learned that’s how others will determine how well you are doing, by your exterior, and I thought, “hmm. Maybe I need to let loose my inner shitstorm in public.”

I started grad school while back at Oldridge. I began teaching kettlebells and Pilates back at Oldridge. I finally threw my hands up in exasperation and walked away from the house on Oldridge, in the spring of 2013, back to St. Paul, declaring firmly that never again would I fight like a madwoman for an inanimate object. Another human being? Absolutely, always, every time. But a material thing, a resounding no.

#3. Detour—Park Row, St. Peter, MN. May 2011 to December 2018: My mom’s cozy living room in her dollhouse apartment in St. Peter, MN. I probably spent more time tucked into the shadowy corner of my mom’s sofa, than anywhere, for a very long time after Bob died. I probably should have paid half her rent. Of the three girls in my family, most who know us would say I am the most independent (some might say headstrong, stubborn, obstinate, whatever). I used to think this, too. Curiously, though, I have many pictures of me as a little girl, practically welded to my mom’s side. I notice this recurring theme throughout the years, me and my mom, cheek to cheek, arm in arm, squeezing her shoulders, clutching her waist, like she was my lifeboat, and I was a ragged sail attached to her, flailing in the wind.

october 24, 2020…moving pictures

A Farewell Tour to 25 years in St. Paul, part 1.

#1 Cleveland Avenue, circa 1993-94ish: The start of my love affair with St. Paul—this 3-level townhouse in Highland Park, across the street from the Ford Plant (which is no longer) and Little League fields (which still are). I’d moved into this place by way of Mankato to Winona to St. Paul (Winona? Yes, Winona, where I’d gone to nursing school for a year, after 4 years at MSU), with my sister, Jill, and Bob. Yes, my sister, my boyfriend and me, living under the same roof, like a slapstick sitcom, a melodramatic soap opera; some days, definitely both and more.

Bob had recently begun work as a wine consultant with a local wine and spirits retailer (which is how I learned to describe red wines not as “bitter!” with a scowl, but as “dry, but full bodied with a glint of raspberry and a dash of pepper” ). I started beauty school while living here, I hacked my hair short while living here, I got really into crafts while living here (everyone got puffy-painted sweatshirts, or hot-glue-gunned dried flowery/ribbony/lacy things from me for Christmas that year), my sister and I still smoked like chimneys while living here, we collected Marlboro Miles by the grocery bags-full while living here—remember that Jill? I think we smoked enough to get a zero-degree sleeping bag, a weather-proof lighter, and probably latent-cases of emphysema.

#2 Ashland Avenue, circa 1995-96: tiny 1 br, near St. Thomas University. It took me a while to find this place to snap a photo the other day, there are many similar apartment buildings in this neighborhood. As soon as I saw the window boxes, I knew this was the one; instead of flowers, Bob fed birds from feeders he’d planted in the window boxes, which attracted more squirrels than birds, which caused our landlord to ask Bob to please remove the feeders or the squirrels will stage a hostile takeover of the place. We were married while living in this classic brick building, I was still in beauty school and had converted our tiny dining room into a “salon,” where many haircuts and spiral perms and cap-highlights happened.

#3 Grandview Avenue, circa 1996-97: Hillsboro Apartments in Roseville. A gargantuan, unsightly building off Rice Street and Hwy 36 (I think everyone who moves to the Twin Cities makes a pit-stop at one of endless nondescript mega complexes in this area); it reminded me of the Pentagon, except more like a Polygon, with many odd-angled sides, a courtyard in the middle, two swimming pools—one indoor, one out. The outdoor pool I never used, the indoor one I used almost daily until my skin turned to raw hamburger and my hair to shredded wheat, and I swore off chlorinated pools for the rest of my life. I’d finished beauty school and was working my 1st salon gig where I suffered my first and only case of salon-induced hair disasters—I got tired of my high-maintenance pixie-short hair (every two-weeks haircut? C’mON. But had to be done, lest I tread into Ronald McDonald clown-wig territory), so I began growing it out. Being the impatient person I am, but now a trained professional with caustic chemicals at my disposal, I decided to straighten my hair (with said chemicals, in the hopes it would appear longer), successfully swapping The Ronald for The Scarecrow, which was also when The Rachel (from Friends) was at its pinnacle, which was what I was going for, but was not what I ended up with. The obvious solution was to put my curls back, right?

One night, alone in our Hillsoboro apartment, I broke out my beauty-school-issued perm rods and permed my straw-straight hair, and wound up with something that looked like my grandma would have requested from her small-town beauty parlor—The Classic, Sensible Wash ‘n’ Wear poodle ‘do. I wore a lot of hats and scarves for a good year after that. This was also the apartment building where I walked in on the paper delivery guy in the laundry room early one morning, who was attempting to steal all my undies that I’d left in the dryer overnight. We frightened each other equally when I walked in on him—he dropped my drawers, blew past me, I reported the incident to the management office, inadvertently solving the Case of the Missing Underwear that had plagued the complex for months.

#4 Chatsworth Avenue, circa 1997-2004ish: our first real house, a little story and a half 1940s Sears and Robuck bungalow in Roseville. The Center of the Universe, I always called the inner-ring suburb. We closed on this house on my 30th birthday, November 24th, swear to God, literally the day before the housing market took off like wildfire. Our budget was $100,000; this house was $105,000. I was sick to my stomach over that excessive $5000. As we sat signing document after document after document, my brain grew more numb and my eyes more glassy with every passing minute, I remember thinking, “I don’t think I could do anything more grown up on my 30th birthday than this.” My in-laws wanted to take us out for celebratory drinks, I just wanted to go home and collapse into bed. I loved everything about this house—the size, the yard (it was huge, for a home in the city), the neighborhood, expansive city parks, the fact that you could get to damned near anywhere in the cities in about 20 minutes.

We got our first dog, Gaia, while living here. I grew my hair back out while living here, we got our second dog, Liddy, while here, I learned to use power tools while living here, when my dad gave me a tool belt and power drill and saw for Christmas. I was diagnosed with epilepsy here, I started my salon while living here, we had our first annual Wine and Cheese Soiree here, where we packed the tiny house with bodies, booze, good food and music, turning the event into a successful little fundraiser for the shelter where we’d adopted Liddy. While living here, a client once told me, “I think you are the most self-actualized person I know,” and I was stunned by her words, but held onto them tight. For a long while, I truly believed them, because here, in this house, while my life wasn’t perfect, it felt full, alive, well-lived. Seven or eight years later, we sold the house for something like $230,000 and moved to the country.

#5 Oldridge Avenue, West Lakeland circa 2004-2013: Michele Bachmann land. “Lowest taxes in the metro!” everyone who lived out here boasted. As beautiful and serene a setting as this house sat in—two and a half wild acres near the Wisconsin border, like a petting zoo outside our windows, deer, pileated woodpeckers, a chorus of songbirds, gangs of wild turkey, a little red fox hung out in the depths of our back yard—almost as soon as we moved here, I wanted to bolt back to the city. We’d sit out on our deck on hot summer nights, beers sweating in our hands. Whenever a car would roll by, we’d turn our heads, eyeball the occupants with suspicion, were they were from around here? “Good God, can we please move back to St Paul? I’m becoming more racist by the day,” I’d plead to Bob. “But we just got here,” he’d say back. He loved the little sanctuary in the woods, his private escape after a long day at work. He’d head out to the backyard “to do chores” he’d call it, filling bird feeders, hacking errant buckthorn, snapping photos of the little red fox that would sometimes spy on him. He christened our property Wrenwood, a nod to his favorite wildlife photographer, Jim Brandenberg, who had a property in northern Minnesota called Ravenwood, I think it was.

As much as Bob loved it out at Wrenwood, an acute aloneness settled into my cells that I couldn’t shake, that now, looking back, feels like a harbinger of things to come. We lived on a dead-end road where neighbors kept to themselves and none of our friends came to visit us unless we bribed them with more wine parties (which were a complete blast, I have to admit—we bought the house as much for its spectacular outdoor space as anything—the decks seemed to double the square footage, at least in the summer months. Maybe if the wine parties had happened more often, it would have helped stave off the unspeakable sense of abandon that had seeped into my cells). That’s not to say wonderful things didn’t happen here. That’s not to say I was unhappy all the time here. They did, and I wasn’t, mostly, but when I look at this photo, I get knots in my stomach. The wonderful things that did happen are nearly smoked out by so much sadness and heartache trapped within the the walls this house. It was here, that Bob had his first heart attack, then cancer diagnosis, then second and third heart attacks, then the GI bleed, and then, and then, and then…

I spent so much time out here alone, while he was battered by cancer and treatments at the U of M. It was here, that “day drinking” and “drinking alone” started to materialize in my life; up to that point, it had never occurred to me to drink by myself. Ever. Not even in college, when you’d think the occurrence would have happened more than any time, like what had happened to an old roommate of mine. Not that it happened on the daily, not that I was guzzling legendary amounts of booze (this drinking thing is a vast continuum, not black and white, cut and dried, I’m learning), not that I even thought much about it at the time, not that it would make a good “quit lit” book. It was quite unremarkable in the grand scheme of such things. But still. It was here, in this little cottage in the woods, surrounded by birds and deer and lush trees, that the line between drinking for fun and drinking to numb began to blur. It was here that I learned, inadvertently, that alcohol is indeed a highly effective anesthetic.

Bob was in the wine biz. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he had to quit working, he had gotten so sick. The two winters he was sick were brutal (in Dec. 2010, the Metrodome roof caved); often the weather prevented me from getting to the U to be with Bob. His colleagues would send cases of wine and beer and other spirits to our house. Whether or not they realized Bob couldn’t drink, as ill as he was, didn’t matter, they kept sending it. My joke became, “I’m drinking for two, since Bob can’t,” and everyone thought it was wry and appropriate and well-deserved, and they’d often join me, because what the hell else can a person do when nothing in the world can be done to stop the inevitable, when nothing in the world could have prepared me for this new role as full-time hand-wringing-caregiving/advocate/wolverine-hospital bodyguard.

It was here, at Wrenwood, that Bob died, on May 3, 2011. It was here, where my self-actualized life dissolved. It was here, that my writing began to take root, and for a long time, it might have been the only thing keeping me alive, but at the time, I wouldn’t have said it like that. At the time, it felt like I was drowning, choking on words thick as sludge. It’s taken nearly a decade to begin the recovery from the affliction of being so alone, a sobering, heavy, hopeful thought.

friday, october 16…love trumps everything, every time

A few weeks ago, just as I was about to head out the door, my cousin/neighbor/landlord called to tell me that the plumber, who was supposed to be stopping by later in the afternoon to fix my clogged tub, was on his way over that morning instead. As in, “He might even be there now.”

“I’m fifteen minutes away,” Erin says, “if you could just hang around untilI I get there, I’d so appreciate it.” I can do that, I say. No sooner do we hang up, when Rocco erupts into a barking frenzy at loud pounding on the door. I grab a mask from a basket in the hallway (“what the even normalizing fuck?” I think every single time), affix it to my face and open the door. There I stand, mask-to-mask, with blinding white words, TRUMP 2020 emblazoned in blue fabric stretched across the face of a hulking frame.

Good GOD, it’s not Halloween yet. I fight the impulse to slam the door in Hulk’s face. Instead, I take a deep breath and try to focus not on the aggressive white words stretched over the mouth, but instead on the blue eyes peering over the rim of the mask. It takes every cell of my being to not blurt out, ”Since when did y’all start taking science seriously?” More deep breaths. I set my brain to repeat: at least he’s wearing one at least he’s wearing one at least he’s wearing one … Erin appears moment later, thankfully, relieving me of my duties.

Today, the same plumber is coming back to work on my bathroom again. This time, I had a few days’ warning. This time, I would not be caught off-guard. I left my home before he arrived, but not before creating this lovely display for his viewing pleasure.

#twocanplaythisgame #loveislove #lovetrumpshate #Justice4GeorgeFloyd #PhilandoCastile #lovehoperise #isupportwoundedwarriors #scienceisreal #iamthestorm #keepminnesotapassiveaggressive

october 15, 2020…moving toward v. running away

Nine years ago, a few months after Bob died, I ran from our house in the country to a drafty old limestone on the fringe of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Some days, nearly ten years later, I still feel like Forrest Gump, like I’ve never stopped running, even if it looks like I’m standing still. When I signed the lease, my landlord, a gruff, manly man of a man said, “This house has a good soul,” which I thought was a curious thing to say, but it sounded important, so I tucked his words into my cells for safe keeping. This home, he also told me, was built in 1858, the year Minnesota was declared a state, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is often included in history tours of St. Paul.

He wasn’t kidding. Shortly after I moved in, I was talking with my mom on the phone one day when I saw a trolly pull up with people hanging out the windows, snapping photos of the house. I remember telling her if this becomes a regular thing, I’m going to sit in a rocker on the porch in period costume, head-to-toe in black, veil shielding my face, wailing into a black handkerchief. Maybe then, the world would leave me in peace with my internal war.

So often, I thought of my landlord’s words, “this house has a good soul.” From the day I moved in, I felt shimmers of this truth, though I never fully acquiesced to it. I often wondered about how much heartache this old house must have cradled within its walls, about how much generational tragedy occurred on the land on which this old house sits. This house knew sorrow far deeper than my own. It felt, to me, like its literal job was to absorb some of my sadness into its porous wall-arms, along with the others, a place of refuge when my life had been set to puree.

This house had a divine sanctuary of a back yard, a rustic brick patio and towering trees (and by rustic, I mean crazy-crooked—you had to be careful how the legs of your chair sat atop the bricks, the danger of toppling over was real), the bricks came from old cobbled streets of St. Paul. I’d sit on that patio with my morning coffee (or evening bottle of wine), and cry. Every day, in my chair by the window, usually alone with my writing, sometimes with my mom or one of the few people I trusted to share my fractured, sacred fortress with, always crying it seemed, everysecondofeveryminuteofeveryday, wondering if this crawling-out-of-my-skin, this electrified exposed-nerve state would ever go away, it felt like a permanent affliction.

One morning, as I sat down with my coffee and tears, something on the window ledge caught my eye. A small stone with the word, “patience” carved into its surface was sitting there, as though patiently waiting for me to notice it. Of course its appearance startled me. I’d sat in that same spot for weeks, and hadn’t seen it before. Of course my brain began running through possible reasons for how it got there. Of course there had to be a logical explanation. Of course—my heart finally interrupted, “SHUT THE FUCK UP, Brain. Quit trying to control the narrative. Quit trying make sense of anything—just let. it. be.” Of course, I didn’t have the patience to sit with that novel idea for very long—a traumatized brain has very little patience for anything new, it only knows “lather, rinse, repeat.” Still, the tiniest, barely-there flicker of something, like a single, solitary cell alighted in the trillions that are me, told me to start collecting moments like this rock. And the owl that preceded the move. And my landlord’s words. And the sandstone walls of this house. And letters from friends. And poetry pressed into sidewalks of my neighborhood. And the baby boy who babbled bobobobob whenever he came to this house. And the heart scars on trees. And the friends who showed up. And the ones who retreated. And the five more moves that would happen after this one. And the love that appeared. And the stories I tell, and the ones I might never get around to telling—because, in time, all of this will begin to entwine and grow, eventually displacing the raw, choking chaos that was taking up so much space in me.

I wish I could say I wholly embraced that message, “quit trying to control the narrative, quit trying to make sense of everything, just be.” I wish I could say things melted into a blissful acceptance of all the reasons for every thing happening, but as a lifetime member of the Control Freak Club, that tends to not be my natural state. I didn’t want this story to inhabit me or define me. I didn’t want it, period. Instead, I tried my damndest to outrun this heaviness that my life had become, the labels stuck to it, busying myself with distracting external things, ignoring that internal voice speaking to the contrary. Even though I kept collecting them, the tiny fragments of grace weren’t enough to pierce the thick sludge that was settling in and filling the spaces between my cells like mortar. Staying in place meant I had to accept this new reality, it meant putting down roots, it meant pinning me in place, it meant more people would become a part of my life again, which meant the chance of loss and pain would be greater. By not putting down roots, by narrowing the scope of who I allowed in, I could control the incidence of any more deep heartache that at the time, I didn’t know much more I could take.

Moving is a form of running, running is just one of endless forms of numbing. Yet, for all the moving and running and numbing I’ve done in the past ten years, the narrative stayed the same. Even though the external landscapes changed repeatedly, the raw, stagnant aching interior hadn’t. That’s not to say you can’t do amazing and wondrous and breathtaking and loving things in such a wounded state—you can and you will, and people, including yourself, will be astounded at what you accomplish and who you present to the world, but the external and internal will never match up, not when the head is running the show. The inconsistencies with which the moments of grace appear will become infuriating—like my bowling game, where I can get three strikes a row, then throw gutter balls the rest of the game—and you’ll wonder why can’t they happen more often? Why don’t they stay? Why can’t grace be my natural state? The incongruence will fester until you falter, until you come to a standstill, until a brick wall that you constructed yourself appears, that you cannot scale. Then, that too-familiar crawling-out-of-your-skin feeling will creep in, compelling you to run, again, but your condition—this ravenous, 100% subconscious-run state—will become so debilitating, there is nothing left to nourish you…you will finally collapse, maybe with a whimper, maybe with a howl—fine goddammit, you win, I’ll try something new—only because you have no more energy left to run, and this will feel so much like defeat, but maybe with the palest tinge of salvation, because you are desperate to rid yourself of this metaphorical cliche of an albatross of your own doing. Your only choice is to begin dismantling the walls of your own doing.

It’s taken a good ten years, and a pandemic wrapped in a revolution and a wondrous, awful, inexplicable alchemy of things, to come to know that no matter how what my head (subconscious) thinks, it doesn’t control anything. It’s a primal, reptilian thing, its intensions are well-meaning—to analyze threats and protect us from danger, but left unchecked, it can become a dysfunctional coping system. While it protects us from every threat—real and perceived—it’s an exhausting state to be in, on high alert all the damned time. And worst of all, it prevents us from taking risks. At least the ones that matter, the ones that help us grow, not stunt.

The irony of running (or moving, or rearranging furniture or overusing substances, or food, or technology or behavior or any infinite form that numbing can take) is that when the anesthesia wears off, the shit’s still there. But so is your heart. And, it’s astonishing, how ridiculously, graciously patient the heart is. Like a-stone-sitting-on-a-window-ledge-for-who-knows-how-long patient. And how malleable the sludge between your cells actually is, when you give your brain a much-needed rest and allow the softening action of your heart take over, like a canyon of wax melting in the warmth of a a small flame.

All of this is to say, I’m moving (yes, AGAIN.) at the end of the month. This time, not just across the city, or over the river, but to Mankato, to ease the financial burden a bit, to be closer to loved ones as this pandemic shitshow-without-end continues to drag on. The Twin Cities has been my home for 25 years, so of course, as soon as I decided to move, I panicked. What the effffffff am I doing?! I screamed in my cells. My natural impulse to bolt from the immediate crawling-out-of-my-skin response kicked in. But this time, instead of running, I am staying with the discomfort, allowing my cells to metabolize the scream, this most uncomfortable place, where growth happens (or so those who are wiser than I tell me; I’m still in the “fake it till you make it” phase). Curiously, as I stay with it, the decision to move, for the first time, feels more like moving toward, rather than running from, something, or running in place (though of course, my primal ways being as they are, I always seem to need an escape hatch—it’s a short-term, 6 month lease, a “try before you buy” kind of deal…old habits die hard)…xo

september 17, 2020…everything ashes

I have three boxes of ashes on my bookshelves—some of my dad (split between my two sisters and me) and two dogs. It was a good idea at the time—having a physical part of my dad and my dogs after their death would bring comfort and peace, I thought. Now, years later, I have to confess, those ashes sitting on my shelves have really not done much for me.

I never think about my dad or my dogs when I look at the boxes that hold their remains, because I rarely look at those boxes. I think a lot about my dad at other times—when Roy Orbison’s voice croons from a jukebox, when I utter one of his infamous one-liners (“You’re talking like a shit salesman with a sample in your mouth!”), when I pull out my toolbox to fix a leaking faucet. Sweet memories of my dogs come when I hike in the shimmery shadows of quiet woods, when I see a Siberian husky soar after a frisbee, when I stop for a Dairy Queen (Buster bar for me, pup cup of vanilla for the pups, always).

Those boxes of ashes have taken up space on my shelves for a good decade or more, tucked between photographs and books. The only time I contemplate them is when I’m inspired to dust, which is another way of saying seasonally, at best. Then, my thoughts are vaguely practical: These boxes sure make good bookends. Or vaguely morbid: Wonder if I’ll wind up in a box on someone’s shelf, or maybe in a dumpster? Sometimes, I think of the news story I’d read years ago, about a couple of punks who broke into a home and snorted the remains of, coincidentally, a man and his two dogs, believing they were drugs.

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided it was time to do something with the ashes on my shelf and, incidentally, the pandemic fatigue that seems to have settled a little too incessantly, insistently under my skin of late, as though it’s kicked back, feet up on my coffee table, barking orders like some kind of rude-ass guest who has no intention of leaving. Everything feels besotted in grief—when I look around, my eyes settle on familiar things that don’t match up to the feelings in my cells. Like everything is a ghostly version of what it used to be…

After clearing my schedule, after googling to make sure it’s okay to spread remains on public land, after shushing the rational voices in my head telling me to stay home and be a responsible, not whimsical, adult, I tucked my dead dogs in an old backpack, my alive dog in the back seat of my ol’ jeep that seems to be making curious/alarming new noises every day, destination: Oberg Mountain, on the Superior Hiking trail of MN’s north shore.

As I ran back into the house for Rocco, my cousin/neighbor/landlord called to say the plumber, who was supposed to be stopping by later in the afternoon to fix my clogged tub and a mysterious leak that was slowly infiltrating the neighbor’s laundry room below, was on his way over this morning instead. I groaned inward at the possible thwart to my impulsive plan. “I’m on my way home, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes—if you could just hang around untilI I get there, I’d so appreciate it.” I can do that, I said, and no sooner had we hung up when Rocco erupted into a barking frenzy at pounding on the door. I grabbed a mask from a basket in the hallway (what the even normalizing fuck?), affixed it to my face, and opened the door to a hulking frame in the entryway, TRUMP 2020 emblazoned in fabric stretched across the lower half of a broad, mulleted head. 

Good GOD. It’s not Halloween yet—I nearly slammed the door in the Hulk’s face, but resisted the impulse. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried my damndest to focus not on the aggressive white words stretched over the mouth, and instead on the eyes peering over the rim of the mask. It took every cell of my being to not blurt out ,”Since when did Trump supporters start taking science seriously?” as I walked him to the bathroom, contemplating the motivation behind the mask. Just shut up, Jen, this is not your home this is not your home this is not your home, my brain repeated over and over, let Erin and Kurt deal with this... Erin met me in the driveway a few minutes later; I warned her of the obnoxious sight awaits her inside. The brief, unsettling encounter confirmed my desperate need for a deep cleansing nature bath.

Funny, in my distracted mind, when I started the road trip, Oberg was just north of Duluth a bit. As the hum of the highway anesthetized the incessant chatter of my brain, as I caught the shimmer of Gitchigumi through the trees, I suddenly remembered that Oberg is actually damned near to Grand Marais, not one of the highly populated attractions scattered along hwy 61, but off a winding, unpaved backroad. It was already 1 pm, I still had two hours of driving—will this old Jeep even make it that far? Would my dog, who’s already stress-drooled about three gallons of saliva all over my back seat, in spite of the Thundershirt/CBD oil combo.

Also in my head: I remembered the Oberg trail as an arduous path, steep inclines littered with rocks and roots, endless time-eating switchbacks—good gravy, it’ll be dark before I get to the top…will Rocco, who’s been panting like a maddog in the backseat, be up for this hike…maybe I should have told someone where I was going…maybe I should settle for Jay Cooke, or Gooseberry, or the lakeshore itself, somewhere that’s not four hours away, the rational (dare I say smallest) part of my brain was quietly pleading. Too late now, the loudmouth part retorted, I’m obsessed with Oberg.

The last time I hiked Oberg (or tried to) was nearly to the date, 11 years ago with Bob, our annual mid-September spiritual ecstatic ritual, to saturate our senses in the north shore’s fall glory before winter settled in. It was just before his cancer diagnosis. He was already sick, I know this in hindsight, but doctors had yet to confirm that the weight loss and hip pain were not sciatica or a herniated disk or work stress or all in his or his hysterical wife’s head, but something more ominous—a terminal bone tumor on his sacrum, that had twisted his sciatic and a few other nerves in cement-like matter, already beginning its slow, agonizing life-squeezing mission.

Gaia was old—12 or 13, Rocco was just a bitty pup, maybe five months old, who from the day I brought him home from Safe Hands Rescue, hated riding in cars. He laid over my lap, panting incessantly, occasionally vomiting down my leg or into the console cupholder. Gaia snoozed in the backseat, I intermittently read and sopped up vomit, Bob drove, mostly quiet the whole trip. The weekend was abysmal—it didn’t just rain, a torrential downpour parked its ass right on top of our weekend, all day and into the night, drowning out any plans for hiking, sight-seeing, or photography. Bob’s camera equipment sat untouched in the corner of the not-in-a-hip-way kitschy motel room all weekend. Our nerves were fried (his, unbeknownst to us at the time, far more than mine), cooped up in the smelly little room for three days; by the end of the weekend, we were barely speaking to each other. Little did we know it would be our last vacation. When we returned from that trip, cancer kicked into high gear what it had started that fall and we spent the rest of our life together engulfed in the horrors of the oncology world. Bob died about nineteen months after that trip.

I’ve only been to the north shore twice since, only as far as Gooseberry and never alone. But, I’ve had great designs to some day take our dog’s ashes up to Oberg and scatter them along the path to the brilliant leaf show that we used to hike frequently. It’s taken over a decade and a pandemic and the impending doom of November’s election an a whole bunch of other inexplicable stuff connected to constellations and wind, rise and fall of the sun and molting of caterpillars and energy of trees and ghosts of so many beckoning, to finally get around to it, or muster the intestinal fortitude, or whatever, to make the pilgrimage.

I breeze through Duluth, regrettably choosing the “expressway” over the scenic drive, to Oberg. On a Thursday mid-afternoon, traffic is blissfully thin. I finally ease the old jeep down the accurately recalled wash-board-rumbly, gravel road and into a remote parking lot at 3 pm; I gather Rocco and the backpack of earthly remains and begin the trek up the mountain. I stop at the trail sign and read that, contrary to memory, the Oberg loop is just over 2 miles. Funny, how memory can distort things so effectively, how easily we can be convinced that our version is the the right and only one.

The fall foliage, a spilling of brilliant vegetable soup colors across the land, confirmed my decade-old memories. The spectacle days are numbered, if you’re hoping to experience this yet, this year. Don’t let the drab trees along the shoreline fool you—you need to go inland a few miles to find the magic. We begin the hike by switchbacking on rocky-root-tangled trails (a slightly challenging natural obstacle course, not nearly as long or treacherous as my memories), through thick enchanted woods. I traversed an emotional trail in tandem with the physical, noting how even after ten years, even with faulty memory, some of the setting is eerily, sharply familiar, down to singular rocks, roots, trees.

Along the way, I sprinkle a handful of ashes here and there, sometimes invoking a memory of my dogs, thanking them for being in my life, sometimes simply attending the moment, without words. The powdery remains settle on rocks, greenery, drift onto my boots and the legs of my pants, like fairy dust. I feel grit in my mouth and wonder if it’s part of my dogs. Rocco stands patiently, indulging my meandering and stopping, as though he’s aware of the reverence of things.

The trees eventually ease back to offer the first view of the colorful quit laid across the land. I remember when I saw this sight for the first time (I couldn’t even guess how long ago), grateful I wasn’t standing too close to the precipice, or I might have been startled right over the edge. This time, I am equally startled. My heart flips, my throat tightens and my eyes spill over with tears, as visceral as it was so long ago, but for different reasons. I sprinkle more ashes, snap a few pics that pale in the washed-out afternoon light that won’t do justice to the scene…the mountain is blissfully serene, nearly void of other hikers; I imagine the weekend will look more like an amusement park…

I walk a little farther down from the first overlook and see a woman pacing near the edge of a rocky drop-off. As I get got closer, I see she’s talking to a man in a flannel jacket with a camera and a tripod, crouched precariously on a lower precipice. They’re older than me, maybe 60s or even 70s; immediately, I’m pulled back to another lifetime ago, Bob doing the same thing as the man is doing—daredevil antics to get a good shot—she doing as I would have done, pacing nervously, begging him to be careful, I remember suggesting we tie one end of a rope around his waist and the other to a sturdy tree, should he slip…

I’m normally not one to chit-chat on a hike—a simple hello, beautiful day, isn’t it? usually suffices—but as I get closer, the woman turns around and smiles at us, and I can’t help but tell her how they reminded me of my husband and I, and try to condense in a few words the past ten or so years of my life and feel like some kind of whacko, especially standing with two plastic bags of powdery white stuff in each hand and a dog whose managed to wrap himself tight around my legs.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says quietly, and then stretches her arm out toward the man on the ledge. “He lost his wife two years ago, I just lost my husband this past November…then my dad….then my job, with the pandemic…we were all best friends…it’s been so hard…he thought it might be a good idea to come up here and visit the shore, for change of scenery, you know,” The tears reappear in my eyes, as well as hers.

Memory, being so unreliable as it is, won’t allow me to recreate word for word the conversation; I’d commit a grave transgression of irreverence if I tried. How does one capture the sacredness of this scene: the man with the camera, who comes up from the ledge to join the woman and me. Rocco, who usually gets a little freaky around strangers, walks over to each and presses himself against their legs, stretching his gaze upward. How we stand, on the smooth rocky outcropping, a small grief gathering enveloped in the healing glow of fiery oranges, fierce reds, shimmery yellows.

september 7, 2020…love, hate and tolerance in the time of coronavirus

So, I’m considering moving to the southern MN area, and by that, I mean there’s a vast space between considering and the actual act of uprooting myself from my beloved Twin Cities, which has been my home for over 25 years. However, the pandemic is making many of us consider and reconsider everything that we’ve ever thought we believed for basically our whole lives, and I’m no exception. After a pleasant phone conversation with the owner of a cute li’l 2 br bungalow in Mankato that I found on Craigslist, I made an appointment to head down and check it out on Saturday. My sisters, of course, freaked out: “You’re going alone?! Give us the address—if you don’t call us in an hour, we’re sending the police!” Clearly, they haven’t gotten over my recent bunny-in-the-window-well escapade. I’ve been buying and selling stuff on Craigslist for years; every home I’ve lived in since Bob died (save for the current one, owned by my cousin) has been a Craigslist gem. I’m always very careful and cagey, I’ve never had even a remotely questionable experience with any transaction.

Saturday afternoon, I pull up to the address given, grab my mask (a lovely floral pattern with blue satin ribbon trim) and begin strapping it on my face as I walk toward the house. The yard is void of trees, my heart palpably sinks—who will I hug should I move here? A man emerges from a minivan parked in the driveway; I take careful note of his features, his van, his demeanor. We kind of wave at each other, shake hands with the air, laugh awkwardly. I say, “Hi, I’m Jennifer, I’m here to look at the house— are you the owner?” He smiles, confirms, then says, “Uh, you want me to put a mask on, too?”

I pause. “Well, we’re going inside, right? Yes, please.” He fishes one from his van, launching into an articulate commentary about everyone having different opinions on masks, and studies show nothing but inconclusive evidence, and even though a lot of people seem to be overreacting, he’s agreeable to whatever anyone wants. My gut tells me that I should just thank him for his time right now and head back to my Jeep, but my head says I’m being too quick to judge. Besides, I’m intrigued by his response. I’ve never actually had a face-to-face conversation with anyone who’s vocally opposed to masks; even on social media, I tend to not make it my business to head over to a willful ignorants’ page and tell them what’s what, masks or otherwise. Because well, social media. Anyhow, this person could be my future landlord—knowing a little more about him is to my benefit, I reason.

“Well, sure,” I say, “it doesn’t take much to find a study to support any variation on the topic. Based on scientists I respect, I err on the side of caution and wear a mask when appropriate—I mean, what’s the big deal, except a minor inconvenience?” He loops his mask over his ears, actually taking care to cover his nose, instead of letting it hang over the top edge like a tiny penis, which honestly surprised me. He shrugs and says, “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” When we get inside, I begin asking questions about the house; he asks what I do for a living, why I’m considering moving down to the area. I give my explanation—the pandemic, now work-from-home, isolation getting to me, things ain’t changing any time soon, loved ones in the area, the whole bit. 

He nods and says, “Now, I’m just going to say, that I’m likely on the right side of you as far as politics go, but I also believe that even though people may have different opinions, we can have civil conversations and find out that we’re more alike than not.” Curious, that he would arrive at that conclusion by what little we’ve actually said at this point (I’m gonna go out on a limb and suspect the masks), or that he’d say such a thing to a potential tenant. In the six or so houses I’ve lived in over the past ten-ish years, I can truthfully say I have no idea what political affiliation any of my landlords were. I’m more interested in knowing what utilities the tenant is responsible for, is there a pet deposit? Laundry on site? Will he actually come and fix the leaky washer in a timely manner? I say, “Oh I agree, 100%. It takes all kinds to make the world go round.” 

This seems to give him the in he was looking for, to suddenly launch into a soliloquy about the liberal media blowing the pandemic out of proportion and scaring everyone, how damaging that kind of mentality is. I look around for outlets, cable connections, closets. I reply, “I hear you, it really is a strange time—I hate the masks, honestly, I hope they never become normal. It’s surreal, going into Target and seeing everyone, even little kiddos, all masked up.” He nods in agreement as I continue, “All this isolating isn’t good for our mental health, either—we have to keep being creative, working at staying connected with each other, while still staying healthy and safe, so we can help each other through this, hence my possible move.” 

He nods and says, “Yes, that’s IT!” a little too enthusiastically. “We can’t succumb to fear, we have to keep on living our lives freely. See?!” He stretches his hands palms up toward me. “Even though we come from different viewpoints, we can still agree on important things, right?” 

Riiiight,” I say, eyeing him with guarded interest, not sure exactly what we just agreed on. “That’s what being a decent human is all about—be kind and respectful to one another.” He stands in the living room, arms crossed, appearing deep in thought. I open a door near the front entry. “Whoa! What a huge closet for an old house—how handy, right by the front door! Are all the closets so spacious?” It’s like he doesn’t even hear me. 

“There’s no conclusive evidence that masks do anything to curb the virus, y’know,” he says, his voice echoing in the empty room. I stop ogling the closet and turn to face him, choosing my words carefully before I speak.

“Well, I have to believe that anyone who watches the news at all, has come to the conclusion that the pandemic is a real, serious thing. It’s imperative that we all get on the same page and work together. This is like nothing we’ve ever been through before in modern times—of course we don’t know everything and we’re making mistakes—we’re learning as we go. Isn’t that kinda how life just happens, anyhow?” He appears to slowly nod in agreement, but who knows? He could be sticking his tongue out at me behind the mask for all I can see. “We also need leaders who act like leaders—wise enough to defer to experts rather than shooting off reckless opinions and rumors, or making dangerous, selfish decisions based on “the economy,” that ultimately only benefit a small segment of our population, rather than what’s going help all of us. Unfortunately, that guidance isn’t coming from our top officials, so everyone’s scrambling to do their own thing. That kind of chaos will bring our country down faster than wearing masks will.” I wander past him, through the arched doorway into the dining room.

He follows, nodding. “You’re right about our leadership,” he says, “it’s certainly been questionable. I’ll be honest, I didn’t vote in 2016 because we had such shit for choices.” I bristle inward, not at the cuss word—I’ve been known to use a few myself now and then—but his arrogant admission about voting. I let him continue uninterrupted. “I couldn’t vote for Trump then, but there’s no way in hell I would have voted for Hillary—”

Noticing a cute little built-in cabinet tucked into the corner of the room, I remember all the teapots I used to collect that I gave away after one of my moves, that would have looked adorable behind the cabinet’s paned glass doors. I interrupt, “Well, Hillary’s not on the ballot this time, and elections aren’t just about what’s best for a single person—I think that’s what got us into trouble in 2016. There are a helluva lot of people in our country who have very different realities from our own. They have the right to everything we have access to, but are being dangerously, openly targeted and excluded by the current administration.” I turn, we’re standing the length of the room apart, facing each other.

“Yeah, but we can’t have a socialist like Bernie Sanders,” the name comes out with a vocal sneer and an eye roll, “demanding that we pay off everyone’s student loans and give away healthcare—our country will literally collapse if the government is responsible for every single need of every single person. Especially those who are here illegally.” This is where masks challenge reading facial expressions—essential elements for effective communication; and they demand us to use other nonverbal cues to fill in the gaps, like the volume rising in his voice, the hands that slice the air with emotion, punctuate with a fist. I take notice of my breathing, which is getting more and more shallow. My gut is telling me, get the hell out, now, this place is not that cute, the energy is suffocating—there is no good reason to continue this conversation. But, I’m compelled to stay just a bit longer, I’m, desperate to understand—I honestly believe what got us into trouble in 2016 is refusing to listen to anyone with a drastically different point of view. I want to believe that we’re just two people on different ends of a spectrum, trying to close the gap of understanding. That I’m also considering renting his house is a really odd, almost inconsequential element now…I nod. I take deep, measured breaths. I chose words carefully. 

“I hear you—I used to be a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party, believe it or not, before they got hijacked by some whacked-out influences. I agree, when the government gets too involved in too much of our shit, everything gets mucked up and winds up being a financial nightmare, at the expense of those the government is trying to help—”

“See?!” He jumps in excitedly, “when we can have these kind of civilized conversations, we find we agree more than we disagree—I wish more people would make this kind of effort—”

I continue, “Isn’t that the truth, but our current administration doesn’t seem interested in helping the average person or making an effort to help anyone who looks different, worships different, loves different, or anyone who speaks out about injustice. They’re failing miserably with the pandemic. Small businesses are collapsing left and right, people are losing jobs, the unemployment relief has ended—but damn, there seem to be more than enough money to take care of themselves, to keep huge businesses healthy and viable.…and now, the public execution of George Floyd, and the never-ending roll call of police violence victims—the president encouraging, lauding, rewarding the racial unrest and violence burning our country down…I don’t know, I can’t help but think our country is facing its day of reckoning…” 

“Oh, c’mon now, it’s not that bad. That’s the liberal media getting to you—“ 

Deep breath. “Maybe we have to let it all burn to the ground, start over…I’ll give Donal Trump credit—the racist, bigoted vein in our country runs deep and wide—despite the civil rights movement, it never went away, it just went under the radar, out of the white person’s sight for the past several decades. Thanks to Trump, he’s revealing the awful but necessary truth about a huge portion of our population—”

“FINALLY.” he throws his hands in the air in a strange display of victory. “A liberal who gives Trump some credit for doing something good. I’ve never heard a liberal give him credit for anything—“

“Wow, really? I didn’t say it was a good thing—it’s not like he’s doing it intentionally, to expose and eradicate the shit and make things better—he’s just emboldening, encouraging, and rewarding violent racist, bigoted people and their actions—”

Because we’re truly being civil, mostly, because this is the first time I’ve ever face-to-face spoken with a very conservative (this word sounds horribly inept here), anti-mask person about politics, it’s oddly compelling to stay, to witness how our conversation will unfold. I really want to believe we’re both making an effort to listen to each other and carefully consider new points of view, but I can’t help but sense that his tone is getting a little more agitated as we talk, a little more insistent, his gestures more animated, like he’s trying to bait me with ever sentence.

We cover it all: 

Abortion (him: so what’s your stance on abortion? Me: 1. none of your business. ever. 2. tell me what you think about universal health care, accessible birth control, affordable housing, fair living wages, public education, job training, the hunger crisis in our country—because it can never be just about abortion. If you’re not supportive of all of those things, which are inextricably tied to abortion, then you’re not pro-life. Him: but what about late term abortion—me: what about it? It’s the tiniest percentage of all abortions, and overwhelmingly when the mother’s and/or baby’s life is in grave danger Him: but at that point, it should be the medical team, not the mother, who decides Me: no, no, NO. What if it were your daughter? You’d be cool with her doctors saying they’re going to let her die? Him: whew…didn’t think of it like that Me: bottom line, it’s a hard, hard, complicated decision that is ONLY the mother’s decision—you don’t want to wear a fucking mask because it’s “too much government control, and yet—?”

*BLM (him: my best friend in HS was black, came from a really hard background, worked his way out of poverty and makes more money than anyone I know—there’s no excuse for anyone to not do what he did…me: How about if you step away from Fox news and start reading some actual history books—read about the very real, lasting impact of slavery, of generational trauma, the intent behind the 13th Amendment. Read MLK Jr, Malcom X, Angela Davis, WEB—their words are horribly, accurately applicable today as they were 30, 40, 50 years ago…him: but the riots, so destructive, so many innocent people’s livelihood affected, what did they accomplish…me: I know, it’s awful, no one thinks that’s a good thing, no one. But again, history…you need to know it…

Indigenous issues (him: well, what are we supposed to do? Give the land back? Me: that would be a good start…)

*immigrants and children separated from their parents and caged (him: all you liberals believe there shouldn’t be any laws regarding immigration and refugees Me: that’s not true—him: yes it is, AOC says it herself. I’ve worked hard my whole life to get where I am—I’ll be damned if I’m going to give that up to anyone who just thinks they can slide by w/o working for anything! You know who started putting kids in cages—Obama, that’s who! And what exactly do you mean by “cages” anyhow? dog kennels? What? What??!! Me: No one with a functioning brain believes the borders should be completely open, not even AOC—like our dismantling the police, she’s saying the current sytems are horribly dysfunctional and need to be replaced. At any point, when you justify children separating from their parents and treating people who are immigrants or refugees seeking assylum or a better life—just like your grandparents did, as you said—you are no longer pro-life. Given the choice, I will always chose a bleeding heart over no heart.)

I’m surprised the police didn’t show up looking for me, well over an hour had passed (shows you how much my sisters actually care about me…) Our conversation covered everything under the sun, except anything about the house I thought I was interested in renting, but now think I can’t run away from fast enough. Either this man has a serious axe to grind and I’m the unwitting victim (I’m now thinking literal, not figurative axe), or the impact of severely isolation has worn him down and I’m his inadvertent talk therapist. Neither scenario is appealing.

How surreal it is, to stand in the empty dining room of that old house that started out as adorable and feel in slow motion, it smear into a bizarre psycho-suspence thriller, our conversation slowly twisting into a more aggressive version of itself with every passing minute as his civility slowly disintegrated into something more menacing. I’ll never understand why, at any point, I didn’t just excuse myself and walk out the door. I’ll never understand why I thought this would end any way other except how it did.

I am standing in place, taking slow, deep breaths, watching his eyes glower wild over the edge of his mask, his hands don’t stop flailing, he paces back and forth. I can’t help but think he no longer cares about being civil, only about being right and he’s furious at me, for not being swayed by his civility or submitting to the building rage. I can’t help but wonder where my voice is coming from—I have never confronted anyone like this before, it’s terrifyingly powerful, it feels like an other worldly entity has infused my body and that, not my own bones and muscles, is holding me upright. I no longer hear full sentences but I hear him mention his wife, who is a teacher, and that is my breaking point.

“Please, tell me you’re not also a teacher,” this voice that is not mine says. He stops pacing mid-rant and stares at me. “No, why?” he spits the words toward me that instead get snared in fabric. I wonder if he can see the imprint of my heart battering against the front of my ribcage as I say, “Because if you are, your students and our world are so screwed.”

His hands fly up, clenching air in big fists, “THAT’S IT. GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! GET THE FUCK OUT, NOW.” For a split second, I see his whole body go rigid, I think he is going to bound across the room toward me. I take a last deep breath and look him in the eye. The voice that comes from my throat that does not belong to the body that feels as though it might collapse on the bare hardwood floor that holds me upright, says clearly and loudly, “Gladly. I’m so grateful I learned all of this before I signed a lease.” I turn and walk out the front door, I hear a sneering laugh, keys jumbling behind me. When I get to my Jeep, I collapse against the steering wheel. I look up to see a blurry figure slam the door behind him, storm across the treeless yard—of course, the treeless yard, how could I dismiss that so easily—dive into the minivan. Angry red tail lights flash, tires rip into gravel, the van peels out down the alley, a billowing cloud of dust in its wake.

august 24, 2020…love, pandemic style

I’ve been up since 2:30 a.m., wakened by two very drunk people outside my bedroom window, slur-yelling at each other (lots of “f*ck you,” “no, f*ck YOU, b*tch!” “f*ck YOU, where’s my PHONE, b*tch—I can’t find my PHONE! WHAT DID YOU DO WITH IT” “No, f*ck YOU, where’s my other SHOE, b*tch!” flying around down there). A lover’s quarrel, I presume, as I lay in the dark, trying to decipher the garbled arguing. I’d love nothing more than to fall back asleep, but feel compelled to continue listening, should it escalate further.

Before long, I hear the sound of heavy objects being dragged across concrete—good lord, are they using my downstairs neighbor’s trash and recycling bins as battering rams? Time to get up and assess the situation. I stand in my dark kitchen, peering through sheer curtains, down to the sidewalk a story below. My sleepy eyes adjust to the layered shadows cast by street light until two figures materialize: a tall, gangly body in a short dress, white glowing legs, one foot tennis shoed, the other bare, a thin scraggly pony tail hangs off the back of their head faces off with an even taller body, shortest of shorts squeezing hips tight, wig-ish brunette bob rimmed in short cropped bangs. Both are barely able to stand, they’re so soused, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to duke it out right there. Weaving and bobbing in the cool, shadowy spotlight, as though their bodies are void of bones, reminding me of those inflated wavy noodle-guys car dealers are so fond of, or punch-drunk boxers desperately holding out for the bell. Stagger-stop-weave, stagger-stop-wave…I’m getting a little sea-sick just watching. Unless they become a real danger to selves or others, I highly suspect they won’t, I will not call the police, as Mpls cops have a notorious history of violence.

My downstairs neighbors are moving out and had put a number of items on the curbside, free for the taking, as folks are wont to do around here. Neither figure below appears capable enough to drag anything onto the street, yet somehow, that’s where all the items have wound up, scattered along the bus lane like a mini-tornado had just blown through. Maybe they wanted more room to rumble? One stumbles forward, swing-slapping at the other, catching only air. Both teeter momentarily, then fall over, flailing arms throwing their drunk-asses off balance. Repeat several times.

At some point, both fall onto the grass between the sidewalk and the street; why not take advantage of the fall and start making out right there on the boulevard under the street light? We’re lovers, not fighters...the fervor at which they go at each other causes me to look away, then back again. I mean, c’mon. Even at 3 a.m. this is a pretty busy intersection; annoying as they are, they’re also quite vulnerable. Jerry Falwell Jr. would have been in heaven to bear witness to, hell, probably join right in, the glorious rapturous scene below my kitchen window. A short minute or two passes, clothes remain on, bodies separate, red glow of a cigarette tip streaks through the night air like a laser pointer. Even sitting, the bodies still weave and waver dangerously unsteadily. Real-life evidence that drunk sex is never as good as it looks in the movies. 

A half hour that feels more like six days later (we’re still in pandemic time), the wee-hour revelers eventually stagger on. I can’t go back to sleep, so I get up, throw on a pot of coffee, start clicking away on the old laptop. It’s now 7 a.m., as I walk to the kitchen to refill my cup, I hear the familiar sound of heavy objects dragging across concrete. I look out the window to see a sweat-pant and t-shirted body topped with headphones dragging the desk that was lying in the street up onto the boulevard, eyeballing the dimensions. He pulls out a phone, soon, an SUV pulls up, they’re trying to stuff the desk, a dry erase board and end table into the back end. If that furniture could talk, oh the stories they’d tell.

I’m really too old and unhip to be an uptown girl, also extremely grateful to not be waking up with the hangover that will haunt the bodies of the nighttime neighborhood revelers, and for the stories outside my window that keep me company in a pandemic. xo

august 2, 2020…what do caterpillars have to do with anything anyway

Last night, I attended our Mentor Series wrap-up gathering at Hidden Falls Regional Park on the banks of the Mississippi, in St. Paul. Like everything in the world today, though the setting looked familiar, it was an unsettling, aberrant affair. No potluck dishes to share, masks hid faces and muffled voices (it was a surreal Kubrick endeavor, trying to find my group in an expansive park where nearly every group was wearing masks), wide expanses separated bodies, a twisted mirage of realities converging in one space, I had a hard time separating what was real and what was not.  

Just beyond the space where our cohort was spread out on the grass, about five lifetimes ago, my husband and I wandered down to the river, in wedding attire, to take our own wedding photos. It was a week after the actual service, we were so young, had so little money, our belongings a cobbled together collection of hand-me-downs, thrift store finds, tender new careers, unreliable cars. I was almost rabidly insistent on not falling into the financial trappings so typical of weddings—our love was more valuable than a superficial performance, I proclaimed. A dear friend made my dress in exchange for hair services (many, many hair services; 25 years later, I must still owe her more haircuts and spiral perms, with accumulating interest, for that stunning labor of love), the last stitch completed and the dress handed over the day before the wedding, to the horror of my mom, Bob’s mom, many aunts, and several friends, all of whom had been offering their old wedding dresses as my plan B. I wasn’t worried. I knew my friend well. The insanely gifted, self-proclaimed poster woman for women with acute ADHD would come through, I knew it. And she did. At the 11th hour, flying in all frazzled and wild-eyed, like Kramer on Seinfeld, fueled entirely on Marlboros and caffeine, with a dress that dazzled even the dry cleaners who had to pressed it for me, because Cate didn’t have time—she was racing out of town to be at the side of her dying grandmother.

What had started out as a simple sheath dress morphed into a breathtaking artifact, imagined on the fly, without a pattern, after a Valentino design we’d torn out of a fashion magazine and taped to the wall of her basement studio, for inspiration. Encrusted with glass beads and intricate lace that Cate had antiqued in a tea bath to add vintage esthetic, draped in raw silk, cleverly topped with a 1940s bustiere, camouflaged by more beads and lace and somehow attached to a hidden body suit that kept the whole damned, glorious enterprise together, which also made going to the bathroom a tricky endeavor. The bustier had belonged to Cate’s very busty grandmother, who’d taught Cate to sew, to whom my dress became a living tribute, because she was actively dying while Cate was furiously sewing, which had to be severely modified to fit my not-so-busty bust, but the thick, stiff layer of beads and lace gave the illusion otherwise. Bob’s mom was horrified, after hearing about my dress, that her son was going to show up in his best Dockers and a button-down shirt and one of four ties in his possession—the only formal-ish formal wear he owned. His parents rushed up and whisked him off to somewhere—maybe the Men’s Warehouse—to be hastily fitted for a suit worthy enough to accompany my wearable textile sculpture.

I refused to wear a veil, I wrapped stems of dried flower bouquets with long satin ribbon (hey, it was the mid-90s), told my bridesmaids to find a dress they loved in the color of wine. I designed our wedding invitations on an old MacIntosh (which wasn’t old at the time), and adamantly refused to hire a professional photographer. I hate being the center of attention and a traditional wedding photographer would have demanded this ridiculous performance of me. Besides, Bob was a photographer—why buy the cow when I can get the milk for free, right, Dad? wink-wink…the wedding night ended in a fury of thunder, lightening and high winds, tornado sirens tearing up the night skies around the metro area, and if one were superstitious and believed in signs from the universe, that storm could absolutely have been read as a heralding one.

It was an odd night to be out taking wedding photos, twenty five years ago, I remember that. There we were, on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, traipsing around with me in obvious wedding clothes, Bob in a somber suit, photography equipment slung over his shoulder. Surely it must have looked strange at times, like perhaps I was a jilted lover abandoned at the alter, draped in mourning clothes meant for a celebration, that I’d hired my own photographer to document my dramatic fall, propped up against trees, laying out on the grass, the river as a backdrop. Still, people strolling by melted into smiles when they saw us, boaters floating by waved wildly, their shouts of good wishes carried across the water and up the river banks to us. Even with the absence of facts, others knew what was what.

If you had told that young woman version of me, standing against a tree in that more-art-piece-than-dress, how life was going to turn out, twenty five years down the river, she might have dropped dead from shock right there on the banks of the Mississippi. At the very least, run screaming in the other direction to try escape this fate, maybe she would have scrambled to try to change some of the endings for some of the chapters…last night, all of these thoughts were more liquid in form, this morning solidifying with my morning coffee and a cool, after-storm breeze…I’m just letting them roll like a river, see where they take me…

It was an odd night last night, our end-of-the-year Mentor Series gathering. Everything, on the surface looked just like our old world did, but the pandemic has stirred everything under the surface up, nothing is what it seems, no one knows what’s what anymore, but we keep applying old world rules to this strange new world, and we keep coming up with incongruence, false truths, incoherent storylines, as though if we keep trying, something will finally, suddenly make sense.

Straining to hear others talk across the spaces, I finally gave up on the group conversation and settled into a one-to-one with the poet sitting next to, but not-very near me, who had hosted our last in-person potluck before the pandemic mangled everything near and dear to us into a distorted, incomprehensible mess, who had read with me at the Mentor Series’ first strange, virtual reading a month or so ago…we shared battle-weary stories of how we’re getting by in our respective, myopic, isolated lives. She talked about the ache of not being able to hold a brother’s new baby, of missing the children who used to come to the summer programs at the library where she now works remotely. She spoke wistfully of the beloved dog who belongs to her partner’s parents, who whines plaintively at the window when he sees her in the yard when they stop by for visit, but isn’t allowed out because of the fear that even a family pet could transmit the deadly virus. Can there be more disorienting, damaging place to live, than in a world where willful separation is an act of love and mercy, and physical closeness is not just selfish but a potentially deadly act? Who can even begin to make sense of this, much less be okay in it?

My sisters made a surprise visit last night, arriving just before I was to head to the Mentor Series gathering, bearing pickles from the farmer’s market and a fresh supply of poop bags for Rocco (it’s the little things in life these days, right?). I invited them to join me, as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen them with my own eyes, and I didn’t want to short-change our real-life connection. They were in town because Jill’s daughter had been invited to a social-distance birthday party of a friend from their old life in Golden Valley; Gretchen decided to tag along with them, and take a chance that I was free for an unplanned visit (which is usually a safe guess in my severely restricted world of the past five months).

Jill lamented the agony of deciding whether to send her kids back to school, fraught with logistic snafus and very real, inherent risks in the fall, or continuing their near-impossibly stressful but much-safer home learning environment; as of last night, their warped version of sheltering in place has won out. Gretchen struggles with the dichotomy of being gratefully employed in an environment that is in the heart of the viral beast, with Mayo Healthcare Services in Mankato, but like anyone, lives in fear of losing her job to the impetuous whims of a lethal virus…at the end of our visit, yearning for a real hug, and because I’ve also lost a chunk of my mind, I took the blanket that we had been sitting on at the park, draped it over myself and clasped each of my sisters in a covid-appropriate embrace, which was captured on camera and if this doesn’t look like yet another strange Kubrick moment come to life, especially with Gretchen in her corgi face mask, I don’t know what does.

As each month slogs on, it’s getting harder to write about this experience that doesn’t end, with unfathomable consequences that keep rolling out in unforeseeable unforgiving ways, but writing is the only thing I have helping me through a time where I have a hard time writing about what isolation means in my isolated language, from my isolated perspective. When I begin to lament, I immediately bump up against others’ realities, and it all feels so absurd and pointless…speaking of which, I just finished Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and now I’m an absurdist, as Camus was. Everything is absurd, nothing matters, what’s the point of anything can be our battle cry in this pandemic world. And with it, one can either decide, well, nothing really matters, what’s the point of anything—we might as well die? Or we can say, nothing really matters, what’s the point of anything—then we might as well not let the absurd get in the way of life, love, compassion, doing the right thing, and making good trouble…yes, a respectful nod to the wise, late John Lewis, because nothing is random…

But, what else can I do but use this time to knit together string of events of past and present lives, and this thing I’m knitting is billowing out of control, and now feels now more like an affliction than affection…I’ve had images of fire and destruction coursing though my mind, song lyrics of necessary destruction, ideas of complete collapse, which make me ponder the etymology of apocalypse which is not an end but truly an uncovering, time to make a few small repairs, if you will.

The current world events raging across the globe in a breathtaking all-encompassing manner that we can hardly keep up with, are revealing so much that is wrong with our world in horribly painful ways—we simply can’t continue to brutalize our planet and its inhabitants as we have been, we simply can’t…and the fiery imagery that i’ve been obsessed with lately slowly eased into the softer idea of a caterpillar-to-butterfly, which pissed me off immensely, like I’d suddenly given up—we need fire and brimstone in an apocalypse, not flowers and butterflies, dammit!!! 

To deferred to a lame-ass cliché of a metaphor to describe this epic, indescribable, apocalyptic, catastrophic epoch? You’re growing soft in isolation, Jen….so, of course, I began a little armchair research on the process of biological metamorphosis, which began with the question that is often skipped over, “do caterpillars feel pain when they turn to butterflies?” which lead my down an entomological rabbit hole (can I use two different species to describe this process? You bet, I can. We are living in a lawless land, which is not a terrible thing, I assure you. Everygoddamed thing needs to be dismantled and defunded. We need to start everything back at the beginning. Everything. BackBeginning.).

Which made me realize how careless we are with metaphors, when we don’t know their origin or their full truth, when we use them as a casual shorthand for a monumental, holy thing, an easy way around something that demands deeper interrogation. We miss their larger purpose, as real, profound tools of navigation in unsettling times, harbingers of past lives that help us move forward in a disorienting landscape, like the stars and the lunar pull,,, when used in this more complex way, metaphors’ messages won’t give you the answers you want, all neat and tidy, predicable and easy. Instead, they’ll take you down the dark and rambling path which won’t be pleasant, aand you will fall too many times to count, and when it’s finally over (spoiler alert, it’s never over) you’ll probably be a little uglier for the efforts, by conventional standards, anyway. Take comfort knowing that your smile will be more visible and welcomed with wrinkles no longer masked by derivatives of botulism, your wild hair will be out you as a comrade for truth and justice, your lost job a worthy sacrifice…rewrite the rules.

What if I told you that that metamorphosis isn’t a choice in the matter, the way we propagandize and bastardize the process, but is, instead a primordial duty to you shed your own skin and make yourself raw, four times, then wrap yourself in a fifth and final version

and inside this crystal bag of yourself, you will dissolve your own muscles in a bath of caustic enzymes, leaving only your breathing apparatus, maybe your heart and a fistful of residual cells carried from the pockets of your old clothes into this new mourning cloak

the imaginal discs that lay dormant in the gooey mess that used to be you, have been patiently waiting for this necessary destruction, this transformative moment to turn your sticky, broken down mess into something more solid, still trembling and raw, with the strength to split the old old version of you down the middle

you are your own escape hatch 

you slide out of yourself, a stream of your own waste pouring out behind your like the tail of a comet igniting the earth

Just before my sisters showed up, I received a seemingly random, completely unexpected text message from a woman I don’t know very well and haven’t talked to in literally years: “Hi. i have been so inspired by your FB posts. Your AFAF (alcohol free as f*ck) posts have hit me in the heart. This week, I joined Annie’s program…thank you for your honesty and your amazing writing. Love across the miles.” I was equal parts shocked and deeply moved. Being alcohol free in a pandemic has felt like the only super power I have in a time where we’ve been stripped of everything we once knew, but it also feels kind of useless…I mean, who cares, anyway? Does it really even matter, when we’re all hurtling toward a most certain death, at the very least, massive destruction, anyway? There’s very little I’m sure of any more, but in spite of that very real truth, that nothing has ever been certain—we’re fooling ourselves in a terrible way if we think otherwise, and still, I want to watch it all burn with a clear mind and eyes, and heart.

We exchanged a few more messages until my sisters showed up, until I started treading dangerously into a nutzo-buttzo religious zealot territory (kinda like I am now). For those few moments, via a few random text messages—my absolute least favorite form of communication— of all places, I felt a sense of connection and peace, that settled my racing heart. Every now and then, in this distorted new landscape, I find evidence of this truth, that things still really matter, we just now have to work harder and do things differently than we did before…of course, we already know that nothing is random, right? Sometimes that’s easy to forget, especially in these severely disconnected times that are forcing all of us to seek connections in strange and wondrous and sometimes inconvenient, infuriating ways—hell, my sister’s been worshipping at the church of TikTok these days…we will find our sources where we can, or they will find us.

And that, dear teacher, is what I’ve done on my summer vacation. Now, I’m tired and need a nap. xo

july 18, 2020—200 days w/o alcohol in the middle of a pandemic. WTeverlastingF.

200 days ago, on January 1, 2020 (that’s a decade, in Pandemic Years!), I embarked on a 30-day online experiment with a program developed by Annie Grace, called the Live Alcohol Experiment, along with 2000+ amazing, inspirational, badass souls from around the globe. Weird, maybe, but I’m also known to hop down strangers’ window wells to rescue baby rabbits, so…nothing dramatic happened in my life forced me to this decision—I have no titillating stories of self-destruction or rock bottoms—nothing that would make a good story (unless you consider the slow death of one’s soul dramatic and titillating, which I do, which speaks volumes to the fucked-up, dysfunctional mythology our culture has created around alcohol, which will have to be another post for another time, because this is long enough as it is). I didn’t make any promises to myself except to fully commit to the 30-day experiment—no more, no less. But I was also more than ready to challenge my own personal version of insanity as it relates to alcohol and try something new. I was tired all the time, a constant, low-grade sort of depression hung over my life that wouldn’t go away, I was fast losing interesting in everyone and everything. I suspected (maybe, hoped) the Live Alcohol Experiment would lead to this elusive “something new.” I had read Annie’s book, This Naked Mind, and had one non-live AE under my belt already, so I at least had a vague, filmy idea what I was seeking.

Today is my 200th day AFAF (Alcohol Free As F*ck became our group’s battle cry, we even joked about getting matching knuckle tats—AFAF4LYF—on January 31). Fittingly, as though to remind myself exactly what I’ve been missing out on, I bolted wide awake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, my heart racing, mind set to puree, anxiety tearing through my veins, something I haven’t felt in, well, about 200 days, give or take a few. I lay in bed, breathing deeply for several minutes as my pulse came back to earth, retracing the night before’s events, until I finally convinced myself that, no, I did NOT say “f*ck it, this pandemic life sucks ass!” followed by a string of IPAs at party last night. It was, literally, just a dream that woke me. Funny it should happen on this milestone of a day, but holy wow, it was nerve-rattlingly realistic.

 
I’m definitely feeling the strain of the pandemic like never before—I’ve essentially been alone for months (I don’t have children, and my partner (and all my immediate family) live an hour and a half from me. He’s been solo caregiver for his 88 yr. old terminally ill father who came to live with him in hospice care at the beginning of the pandemic. Just last weekend, his father passed away, a beautiful, grace-filled story of its own), I’m barely working (though I am working on setting up an online restorative movement biz), I live in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the world-wide revolution sparked by the horrific lynching of George Floyd by a despicable excuse for a police officer back in May, the daily news headlines are enough to send anyone over the edge…and now, summer brings a host of new AF challenges, even in a global crisis—socially-distanced gatherings, Zoom “happy hours,” (talk about an oddly intense way to observe others getting drunk), outdoor music and other events. Hell, just sitting on my big ol’ front porch with a bottle of sauv. blanc was an any-given-day ritual many summers in a row. Back in January, when my life was relatively drama-free, when we were all so innocent and naive, I wondered how I would handle a crisis without alcohol, should one arise. Oh, the gods and goddesses of the universe have a wicked sense of humor, don’t they?
 
My partner (for the record, I don’t use that term, partner, regularly or naturally; I don’t really know what to call us any more, being so severed from each others’ lives as we’ve been these long months) announced the other day, now that his caregiver role has ended, his keto and mostly-abstinent efforts have also come to an end (granted, what he did for his father was nothing short of breathtaking and heroic—I’m of the mindset that all caregivers should be given a year off of life, with pay, and a live-in chef, massage therapist, whatever the caregiver wishes; I was my husband’s caregiver when he had cancer—the most intense and sacred job one will ever have and it’s also, incidentally, when my drinking escalated); friends are posting endless photos on social media of beautiful summer gatherings centered around drinking, a friend shared the drunk Twitter feed of author Susan Orlean from last night, who’s now celebrated as the world’s “endearing pandemic inspiration,” which admittedly, was quite entertaining…to say that there isn’t some serious FOMO floating around my brain lately would be an outright lie. No wonder the dream…
 
I’m sitting here this morning with my coffee, windows open to a cool breeze after a wonderful thunderstorm rolled through earlier, quietly reveling in my 200th day AF. As fuck? Not so sure anymore. Physically, I feel like I could kick Chuck Norris’ ass. Mentally, bring it on, Neil Degrasse. Emotionally, I could out-zen Eckhart Tolle. (just kidding. don’t send any of them my way, I’ll run away crying). I haven’t experienced this level of clarity in I don’t know how long—ever, maybe? Still, in the grand scheme of things, it is only 200 days and that piece of shit is still in the White House… Suffice to say, a lot of thinking and writing is going on over here, and it’s only 10 am. Once we become aware of our cognitive dissonance (how our thoughts and action cleverly belie one another) in one area of our life (in this case, alcohol), it starts to become more apparent in other aspects—about to our choices in the pandemic, about our views on systemic racism, the environment, relationships, our overall health and wellbeing…suddenly what started out as blissfully easy experiment becomes an overwhelmingly complex way of being, leaving us wondering how the hell does anyone even DO this?! Forever?!
 
As countless who’ve gone before us have said: quitting drinking is easy. Maintining sobriety/an AF life is the hard part, and no wonder. Our culture is literally soaked in booze (and other addictive behaviors); from birth to death, it’s at every life event—good and bad and all the ho-hums in between—there are so many difficult obstacles littering the path to sobriety, it’s a wonder anyone is able to achieve it. The one thing I will focus on, on this 200th day going forward, is grace, forgiveness and compassion (okay, that’s three things, but they’re all intertwined). Glennon Doyle nailed it when she said, “You are not a mess—you are a feeling person in a messy world.” We’re living in some really intense, really messy times, like we’ve never before experienced. I think back to when my husband was sick—nothing in the world could have prepared me for that experience, but thanks to this program and others that it’s led me to, I can look at that time with a softer heart—I did the very best I could with the tools I had at the time; frankly, I don’t know that I would have survived or had stayed with Bob had I not numbed myself to the shit-show we were dumped into…up until 200 days ago, I never thought of that experience in such a compassionate way; this level of truth and grace has not been a part of my life, ever…nothing in the world could have prepared us for a worldwide pandemic, but here we are, and I will allow myself, today, the same grace, compassion and forgiveness, as I give my past life…I know a lot more today than I did then, but there’s still so much more learning to do. I’d venture to guess that no matter if someone is just starting this program or starting over again for the nth time, or 200+ days into it going strong, or 200+ days into it and ready to say “fuck it, this pandemic life really does suck,” we are already better equipped to move through these challenging times than we were before we knew of TAE, and we can be kinder to ourselves along the way, obstacles, triumphs, flaws and all.
 
I’m grateful that Annie’s program has given me a solid foundation to my AF journey, a new lens to look at the world and my life, and has brought me to a point where I can think about and talk about alcohol with more wisdom, insight and compassion than I ever knew possible. Today, I feel Annie’s message of ridding myself of residual shame, guilt and judgment is going to play a more prominent role in my life than it has been. We really are simply that—feeling beings in a very messy world. I can’t even guess what the next 200 days will have in store for me (I can say, that if that POS in the WH is elected to a second term, all bets—alcohol and otherwise—are solidly off), but I can say (in addition to the 100,000 words I just said), that the 2000+ strangers who joined me on the Live Alcohol Experiment in January have impacted me deeply. I’ve learned so much through their brave stories. Please keep taking and sharing and learning and living. Even at 200 days, especially at 200 days, I need all the stories—I learn from them and love all 2000+ of them. xo