north towards Eureka

(continued from here)

On the day after Thanksgiving, we find perfect. Rather, we make it. We carve it out, hour by hour, along the two-lane highway heading north toward Eureka. Avenue of the Giants Scenic Byway. I am selfishly thrilled to have him all to myself for the day. One hand stroking the back of his neck while he drives, the other on the playlist running through my phone.

Townships tick by. Mostly quiet, we absorb the majesty of our surroundings. Towering redwoods, rivulets that fill out to creeks that suddenly become the latte-colored Eel River. Criss-crossing it through Phillipsville, Miranda, Myers Flat. Every roadside tourist trap inducing us with the promise of cornball laughs. Chainsaw Carvings. Drive-through Tree, Five Dollars. We buy buffalo jerky from a manic-seeming local whose warp speed spiel (Alrightyfolksletmejusttellyoualittlebitaboutourjerkiesgoaheadandusethetoothpicktospearyourselfapiecenowgoaheadandturnthattoothpickaroundthatsitjustlikethat) lends itself to a Kate McKinnon character. I consult a map.

"Would you rather see the Immortal Tree or the Eternal Tree?"

"Immortal, probably."

"Would you rather be immortal or eternal?"

"Eternal, definitely."

The rain flushes most of the traffic from the road. When other cars do stack up behind us, Timo pulls over to let them pass. We just want to cruise, just want to take our time.

We wonder aloud about the sorts of people that live out here, and how many inhabitants it takes to make a town, anyway. We joke about murder-y looking motels, which triggers Timo to tell stories about backpacking through Australia and New Zealand. I press my face against the window, watching the tops of trees whiz by.

In a turnoff somewhere along the state reserve route, we grab hats from the backseat and climb out into a strikingly silent grove. My rain boots sink into a forest floor of soaking pine needles, and Timo withdraws hands from warm pockets to pull me up beside him. On the ageless carcass of a fallen sequoia we survey the grove. The afternoon has brought just the right amount of rain, which we're mostly protected from anyway, under the canopy. There's something sacred about the space, the isolation and quiet. We take advantage of it, feeling brazen in the lush, wet wilderness, despite being so close to the road.

Later, stopping for snacks at a grocery store in a Stepford-esque sawmill town, I get the creeps. Something about the hollow way the music drifts down the aisles. The tinny, sad echo of it, getting lost among banks of fluorescent lights lining a disproportionately high ceiling. Everything and everyone seems cold and stale.

"Let's go," I say edgily, garnering a curious look from Timo. After we pay the dead-eyed teenage cashier for a bag of potato chips, I try to explain my unease. "It just feels like a place time has forgotten. But for circumstance, I could be here, living here, shopping here."

"Don't move here, and you won't live here," he replies in his problem-solved tone.

We play questions on the way home - his lighthearted and forgettable, mine studied and serious. I practice the art of not reading too much into his answers.

Back at the house, he fixes us plates of leftovers, cubing the roast pork and frying the mashed potatoes in little pancakes. He joins the others in front of the TV, and I drift away to the bedroom to blog. A huge, unbroken chunk of time for me just to write, and for him just to read, watch movies, and hang out.

We agree it's a pretty perfect ending to a pretty perfect day.










layers

(continued from yesterday)

Thanksgiving morning is grey and damp and still. A blissful lack of street noise, of constantly rushing traffic outside my window. I am always embarrassed by how late I sleep in other people's homes. But Timo's right there with me, and it's nearly eleven before we stretch and yawn and wish one another a happy Thanksgiving.

Cooking smells permeate the house. Roast pork and pumpkin squash soup. Stewed cabbage, broccoli and hollandaise, mashed potatoes and gravy. I poke around the living room, examining tchotchkes and souvenirs, peering into the tiny framed faces of loved ones I'll meet later today. A passionate devotee of Native American culture lives here. Dozens of dream catchers adorn the walls. Feathered brushes for sage ceremonies, instruments of horn and skin and bone. Beaded drums, woven blankets, paintings full of tribal imagery. Bear claws and eagles.

We explore the bosky grounds. I'm enthralled by how wet and green everything is. Moss wrapped trees with dripping branches. Reedy ponds sheltering toads I can hear but can't see. A carpet of soggy leaves underfoot, flecked with spongy yellow mushrooms. Following a road storied with Timo's teenage experiences leads us to the fenced-in pastures of other rural loners. In one, a curious horse ambles over when we cluck an invitation, carefully extending our arms across the barbed wire. His mane is matted and his flank is filthy; our hands are black when we finally leave off petting him ten minutes later. We promise to return tomorrow with apples.

I am given a tour of the cannabis garden above the house. It's a completely legal operation; a dated, signed permit hangs in a sheet protector on the tool shed beside. In the shed, massive plastic bins keep the harvested buds, still in need of trimming, safe from the mold and cold. Overhead are parallel lines of cord, hung with bunches of colorful wire hangers--all empty. This is where the plants, earlier in the season, hang to dry.

Near the empty garden is a mound of discarded bamboo shoots, used for staking the plants. I enjoy the thought that even wicked things need support to grow properly. I'm told about the technique of light deprivation: shrouding the crop in the darkness of tarps to trick it into thinking it's later in the season than it really is.I enjoy the thought of this as well, and try to explain to Timo why. "The idea of applying some artificial means of...whatever. Speeding things up. Getting to the end game faster." I don't know what end game I mean, though.

Guests begin to arrive, and the house fills with the cheerful sounds of introductions, reunions, gift-giving, glass-pouring. I hover at the edge of conversations, trying not to be underfoot as tables are brought in, seating rearranged. I spend entirely too long wiping down some folding chairs, just to have something to do.

Dinner. Talk of travel, politics, the career achievements of the past year. I nurse my glass of local Chardonnay, watching strange faces laugh as they uncover commonalities, disclose relatable moments.

Later: backgammon, homemade quince liqueur, and naps on the couch. I excuse myself to make calls, send texts. The feeling of wanting to belong to something is like a blade at my throat. Being included in a day like today is the ultimate paradox: it only makes it worse. Everyone is lovely and welcoming, of course. It doesn't matter. My walls are three feet thick.

When everyone has gone home, Timo shuts off the outside lights so we can see the stars. At the edge of the yard he holds me and we tip our heads back. "I've seen some incredible Milky Ways here," he says.

I tell him this is a moment we'll enjoy in layers. "Right now, then again later as we fall asleep, then however often we'd like in the months to come, remembering it."

I know this is true, because it's like others I've had--while being completely unique at the same time.







everything coming up

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and the metaphors are everywhere. I don't even have to look for them anymore. The universe just hands them to me on a silver platter, monogrammed with my initials. It allows that this is my talent, for better or for worse: finding meaning in the vagaries of an indifferent world. And it provides me with plenty of material. Here, Ellie. Be of use. Amuse someone, even if it's just yourself. 

We're driving up the PCH, having cut over to the coast just north of San Francisco. Just for an hour or two. Just so long as we have daylight to take in the views. Then we'll snake back inland, pick up the 101, finish the haul up to Mendocino County where our host for the weekend lives. A second family of his, of sorts. They'll greet us, along with two bounding, barking dogs, in the frosty driveway. Usher us with hugs and handshakes into the home where Timo spent a year of high school.

But right now we're on the road. Six days off from work. We sandwiched the holiday with vacation time. My first official RTO at the new job. It's a big deal to me, to be here with him, to enjoy this trip guilt-free, because I have work to return to afterward. It's a big deal for other reasons, too.

Muir Beach. Stinson Beach. The marshy wetlands of Bolinas Lagoon. At some point we stop saying "Oh wow", stop craning our necks out the window, and actually pull over at the vistas. The windswept cliffs of Point Reyes. The clay blue cottages of Nick's Cove. I say something banal, about that blue. How you couldn't buy it, you couldn't ever find that perfectly faded shade even if you thumbed through a hundred paint chips at the hardware store. Wabi sabi. I have to believe in wabi sabi.

"Yell if you want to stop," he says, and sometimes I do. Then I spring from the rental car, retracing the twenty or thirty yards needed to get whatever shot it was I saw. It feels weird. I'm out of practice. I miss Instagram, on days like this.

When he comments on the barges dotting the horizon I have an excuse to use one of my favorite phrases. "In the offing," I say, smiling at him. He loves learning new English words. "That's what they call it, where it drops off from view. Literally it refers to the farthest you can see out into the ocean but it's a great metaphor for something in the future you can just barely make the shape of." The words hardly get out of my mouth before I realize their import. To me, anyway. Skirting the conversation I've boxed him into half a dozen times already. The one about where his future diverges from mine, or doesn't. The one about work visas and homesicknesses and job placements that weren't supposed to last as long as they have.

I'd bite my tongue but I know I'm safe. He hasn't heard the subtext of my words. He's not afflicted with the same "talent" I am. He's just happy to be here. It's one of the things I love about him. He rarely overthinks.

We stop for bottled water, and to stretch our legs. An outdoor coffee stand attached to the general store catches our eye. It's a long drive still. Caffeine might be a good idea. The wiry barista who makes Timo's latte speaks with a vague accent; we'll agree afterward that he's French, that an interesting story must have landed him in this tiny seaside town. When I throw down four bucks for a three dollar drink the Frenchman rings a little bell. "We do that for good tips," he winks at me, though I don't see anyone else around to constitute a "we." Handing over the cup he nods his traveler's benediction. "Enjoy everything coming up."

I write this down, word for word, in the notepad on my phone. Enjoy everything coming up. 

A few minutes later and my recent sleeplessness hits like a wave. I cannot stay awake and keep Timo company for the remaining drive, even though I know I should. Even though I know he would. I am positively wiped, physically and emotionally. In the past two months I have started two restaurant jobs and quit one. I have taken on three freelance writing gigs, started and then stopped an assistant position in Beverly Hills, broken the lease on my apartment and signed the lease on a new one. I am finally settling into something resembling routine and stability--or at least I will once I've moved. This is the first I've felt I can really relax in a long, long time.

The best I can do is change the music I've been playing through my phone to a podcast for him. Snippets of it invade my dreams. TED Radio Hour. Something about love, about the kinds of partners various personality types seek. I'll bring it up later, because of course I will. This time Timo will know exactly what I'm talking about. He'll have honed in on the same part, maybe thinking the same thing I am: We sought and found our opposites. Isn't it lovely? But not exact opposites, you know. In some ways we are so similar. And that's lovely, too.

(I'll say all of this in a state of exhaustion, curled up next to him in our bed for the next five nights. Even in the dark I know his expression. The half-smile that means he's listening, accepting, but not necessarily agreeing or endorsing. It's okay. The listening and accepting are enough.)

Two cattle grids in quick succession jar me awake. "We're here," he says, carefully navigating a starlit, gravelly country road. I feel groggy, puffy and gritty from travel. I blink, getting my bearings. An expansive yard, raking sharply down to where we drive. Trees bedecked with string lights. Wire form animals, also strung with bulbs. Colored icicle lights crowning a house the details of which I can't make out yet, in the dark and in my punch-drowsy state. A pair of German Shepherds herd us up the driveway, barking in welcome or warning or both. They know Timo. They don't know me, the holiday interloper.

The cold when we emerge from the car is biting but not bitter. I hang back, pulling on my coat while Timo greets his host mom and the man whose exact title in this domestic arrangement is unclear. Roommate? Caretaker? Companion? Even Timo doesn't know how to explain their relationship, which while long-running has never been romantic. Friends. Co-inhabitants. Whatever. It's working for them. This is a happy home, that much is obvious immediately. I am not spared any of the effusiveness Timo's return has generated. Hugs for me, too. We go inside. The dogs stay outside.

An hour of catching up, reconnecting. Polite inquiries about the generalities of my life. I am bleary, but trying to be bright. It's unnecessary, though. These are easygoing people. Relaxed, ready to like anyone those they love present to them. And they love Timo. His host mom is lit with excitement at his arrival. She peppers him with questions about his work, his family, his life in LA. I sit beside him on the sectional, chiming in when I can, smiling quietly when I can't. Heat from the furnace is pushing me back towards sleep. Tomorrow will be tough, I know. I'll miss my family and my friends. Voices in my head will attack me, tell me I deserve the loneliness I'll feel despite sitting at a cheerful, packed table. I'll wonder whether I shouldn't have stayed home, rather than foist myself on yet another unsuspecting family.

But I was invited.

I retire before Timo, who stays up to talk, laugh, reminisce. He snuggles up to me a little while later, giggly and high and sleepy. "I'm so happy you're here with me," he whispers. "I'm so happy to share this place with you. I can't wait for you to see how beautiful it is."

As always, as has not yet ceased to amaze me, the sleep I share with him is the most restful I've had with any man, ever. No tossing or turning. No feeling crowded, even when when our limbs tangle. He is the only one I can say this about.

I count it as a something to be very thankful for.








I'm a dime. I'm fine.

Sitting cross-legged on the rug, she tipped the oversized mason jar once used for cold brew coffee onto the floor. The sound made the dog look up briefly before dropping his head again.

An avalanche of copper. A buck or so of nickels, dull and thick in their near worthlessness. She spread the pile with her fingertips to unearth what was left of those precious glinting slivers. Dimes were always her favorite. Tidy little discs that like to hide behind pennies, surprise you in a winking flash. That pleased feeling of suddenly jumping ten cents closer to the object of one's vending machine desire.

There were no quarters. Quarters had their own special home, in the footed antique desert dish where they gathered strength in numbers before giving their lives in service of clean sheets, socks, sweats.

The indignity of the moment bit, though she re-packaged it cheerfully as frugality. Legit a week's worth of Metro rides in here! She glanced at the dog, as if to check whether he could read her true thought, which was closer to a solitary, sighing Christ. If so, he remained poker-faced about it.

A curious imposter in the jumble of coins peered up at her: a lone googly eye. Lidless. Lost. Laughing? Oh, knock it off. Don't be dramatic. No bigger than the nail of her pinky finger. Hard transparent shell protecting a flat black circle. She resisted an urge to crush it with her thumb, watch the clear plastic turn milky the way it will when bent. Cheap things give easily under pressure.

Instead she picked it up and carried it to the kitchen trash. It wouldn't help her get to work in the morning, and she doubted she'd come across its mate any time soon.

no choice but to believe

I've been compiling a list on my phone's notepad. Small moments that have been special, that I wanted to share with you.

Today, despite the blue skies and 80+ weather, feels black and airless. Twenty-four hours ago I was crying, walking out of the elementary school gymnasium where I triumphantly cast my ballot. Election days always make me emotional. For the past eight years that emotion has been elation, and yesterday's tears represented a prolepsis of another victory that, shockingly, didn't materialize. Which is why twelve hours ago I was crying again, but for entirely different reasons.

It's gonna be okay. It's gonna be rocky at best and consistently enraging at worse--but it's gonna be okay. We all have a responsibility to buckle down and promote positivity every chance we get, on every level we can reach. Last night I made two vows to myself. This was the first: that I would concentrate on the things I can control; on building better relationships with the people in my life, taking the time to appreciate them and express my gratitude. My hope, I guess, is that this love will ripple outward and someday, hopefully before the next election, reach those who've become so lost, angry, and misguided in their values that they think the president elect represents their interests. It's Pollyannaish, sure, but we don't have much to lose right now.

The second vow I made is to make better and more frequent use of whatever meager talents I have. To be of service. To make you guys laugh, or think, or just feel less alone. And I urge anyone possessing any artistic bent to do the same. Now's the time. Get expressive. Bring us together, any way you can.

After I share the small moments I've been collecting, I'm going to share one other, bigger moment with you. It wasn't something I ever planned on telling anyone about, for reasons that will be clear to those with good Elliequent attendance. I'll let you make of it what you will. I'll let you think about it as much or as little as you want.

Today is a good day for thinking.

Moment #1

I'm walking home one day in August, the weight of my world slowing me almost to a crawl. Self-pity is a brick-filled backpack I can't seem to unzip, much less unload. My street is ugly; there's no two ways about it. I hate it. It's choked with traffic all day, and lined with run-down duplexes whose front steps are littered with discarded mattresses. How did I get here? A series of very poor decisions. Someday, if I keep making enough good ones, I'll be able to move off of it. But for now, trash avenue is my home.

Twenty feet ahead of me, a front door swings open. Three nimble young bodies bound out into the sunshine. Boys a few years apart in age, and sized accordingly. Ten, eight, and six, if I had to guess. The oldest reaches the sidewalk first, and without turning around, extends his arms backwards. His two younger brothers quicken their pace to catch up. Each takes the hand of their big brother. All three fall into step, and the picture they make from behind stops me short with its sweetness. Head, shoulders, hand. Head, shoulders, hand. Head, shoulders, hand. Together they are invincible.

Moment #2

The 720 bus, the one I occasionally take home from the west side, is standing room only at certain times of day. Exhausted faces that remain otherwise indifferent as we cram against one another, sometimes muttering apologies, sometimes not even bothering. I push as politely as I can to the back, not to get a seat (there are none to be had), but to make room for the dozens more passengers jostling for space behind me. A man ten years my senior stands and gestures for me to take his spot. I demur despite my heavy bag, but he insists. To my mind, etiquette dictates the seat is his; I'm a woman but he's older. But the bus is picking up speed, bouncing us around. Someone has to sit. So I do. All of this is theater for the surrounding passengers, who watch with impassive eyes. All except for one young man, who rises and taps the shoulder of the man who's just sacrificed his seat. Wordlessly, he signals: Now you take mine. They laugh and nod at one another.

Impassive eyes are now smiling eyes. Smiling at me, at the two men. Half the bus is in on this lovely moment. Rarely is something paid forward paid back so soon.

Moment #3

On the first floor of my building lives an old woman who, it seems, is caretaker to several small children in the neighborhood. Some of these kids--mostly around age five or six--live in the building. Some are visitors, only appearing in the afternoons. It's a sort of unofficial day care, the playground of which is our building's dusty front stoop. The kids pull cardboard boxes from the recycling bins, making flat-screen TV sleds or choo-choo trains out of them. A few have bikes, or those wheelie shoes. They don't seem to have much more.

The old woman doesn't speak much English, but I feel like I know her anyway. Her colorful cotton peasant dresses are worn to softness. When she smiles, nearly toothless, I can see why parents trust her with their children.

One early morning, as I am returning home from god knows what debauchery, I watch a man drop off his baby for the day. It couldn't have been later than six am. (Dawn spreads over our east-facing building beautifully but mercilessly; those of us with street front windows woke to roasted living rooms all summer.) The man is tall, dressed in carefully pressed work attire. An immigrant, his accent indicates. As he approaches the building he speaks in low, gentle tones to the baby in his arms, who positively lights up at the sight of the old woman. She reaches out, cooing. The baby giggles, and the man who places his child in her arms wears a complicated expression that moves me immensely.

I bet I don't even need to describe it. I bet you can imagine it perfectly.

Moment #4

I'm sitting at dinner with a man I've known for a little over half a year. My feelings toward him are as complicated as he is. He's a difficult man. A damaged man. He can even be a dangerous man, ill-tempered and violent. He has stunned me, at times, with his selfishness and small-mindedness. He has said many hurtful things to me; criticized and mocked me and left me crumpled in self-doubt. And I've watched him do the same to others, both to their faces and behind their backs.

But right now, he is none of those things. Right now he is someone else entirely. Because right now he is talking, with a sincerity I believe because I have seen glimpses of this other person, about the changes he wants to make. He is speaking with true self-awareness about the importance of compassion. Of how good it feels to him, to give to others. This second man, who lives inside the louder, brasher, angrier first man--I've known this man, too. He has been kind to me. Incredibly generous and understanding and patient. This second man is good. He just needs help being better. He needs encouragement. He's not entirely evil.

Very few people are entirely and exclusively evil. Very few people are incapable of change and growth. For some of them, change and growth are terrifying and threatening. But under the right circumstances, surrounded by the right influences and examples of others--almost anyone can access their second, better self.

There is no choice but to believe this.

sam harris + richard dawkins

This was tonight, in Glendale:


I'd seen Richard Dawkins years before, at the ASU Origins Conference. But I'd never seen Sam Harris speak. And the two of them sharing a stage? I was super, super psyched.

It was entirely too short and more than a bit biology-heavy, but man. There was a moment in the beginning, when they were first came onstage, that just felt epic. Don't laugh, but I thought of ancient Greece. How for centuries people have gathered to hear the philosophers and writers and orators they admire speak about big, important ideas.

I fell into conversation with another attendee about just how much Sam Harris has impacted me in the past five years. How much he's influenced my worldview and shaped my values. (Most recently: the day after I bailed on that interview, when I realized I couldn't stomach fabricating my resume, I listened to "Lying" on Audible. It was cathartic.)

I'd actually screwed up and forgotten my ticket was for last night. I was crushed when at 6:30pm yesterday I realized I would never make it in time. So tonight I took a gamble and went to Glendale anyway, hoping to beg and grovel my way into the sold out show. The loveliest docent nodded understandably at my predicament and fetched me a ticket from the office.

Sam Harris in the flesh. Bucket list item for sure.