list four: a sequence of events

  1. Last spring, Myron took off for almost three weeks in Ukraine visiting his dad’s relatives. 
  2. When he got back home, he bounced back and forth between Winnipeg and Ottawa a couple of times, and then he moved back home for good in June to start his new job while I worked on getting the house ready to sell.
  3. He missed our anniversary.
  4. He missed my reading at Blog Out Loud.
  5. He missed the terrible roofer, the terrible handyman, the day I came home from Montreal to find the front porch sloppily remade without my consent, and a dozen other home improvements.
  6. He came back for a visit, and we watched the Mars landing on the night I heard that my cousin, a young man named after my father, had been murdered. I felt so small and so unready for him to leave again.
  7. I listed the house.
  8. I went to BlissdomCanada and made some wonderful friends.
  9. The house sold. We packed and cleaned every single inch, and trudged away from it in horrifyingly freezing windy temperatures dragging suitcases along the highway the night before closing.
  10. I spent a couple of weeks in Toronto in January. 
  11. I took the train to Winnipeg and got here in February. All told, we were apart for almost seven months and it was as awful as you think.
  12. I failed at: keeping the blog going, The Month of Letters, general grownuppityness including timely email responses.
  13. I passed on a pass/fail scale at: Scintilla, being a decent friend, unpacking.
  14. I rocked at: wall painting, coconut curry chicken, getting Myron out of the house for fun things.
  15. I started to write again.
  16. I ate a shawarma that put every single Ottawa shawarma I ever had to shame, and I do not exaggerate about shawarma.
  17. I waited at my father-in-law’s side in a hospital and realized that I was part of this family in a way I’d never realized it before.
  18. Today, June 18, around fourteen months since he sent it, a postcard from Myron’s Ukraine trip showed up here, forwarded from our Ottawa address. On the back it says We’ll have a little while together, and by the time this arrives I’ll probably be away again. Never was I ever so glad for him to be wrong.

For a while now I’ve been wanting to do a year’s worth of lists a la hula seventy. And I am so behind! I’ll never do them all but I am going to do as many as I can, god damn it.

#scintilla13: a place to run


I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 9 prompts, Talk about where you were going the day you got lost. Were you alone? Did you ever get to where you meant to go? We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

This post is something I wrote in 2005. It appeared in a tiny zine.

When you are young, the only things that scare you are impossibilities. You fear slimy things in a tidy closet and vampires in the dark. In the daylight, you are stronger than any force of evil, and fate becomes something to poke at with annoying fingers. When you are so small and the world is so big, you learn that fear is fun, and that it ripples off you like notes from a harp, and you sniff in dark corners hoping to detect more safe fear.

There is still an hour before the roast will be ready. Your girl cousins draw pictures and the boys are all wrestling. You sit in the kitchen but the women ignore you, and you don’t understand what they’re talking about anyway. You smell slowly cooking meat in the air, and your stomach twists. Go play outside, the women say. Go do something.

You walk to the door and fling it shut behind you. There is no one out here. The few other houses in the neighborhood have empty yards this October Sunday afternoon and everyone else’s roast is ready. The back yard seems so big when you’re small, and you are old enough to see that it’s not as big as you once thought it was. You trudge all the way to the top of the hill, past the swings, past your grandfather’s vegetable patch, past the sandbox. The treeline is next, and you don’t pause.

Nothing to fear, after all. You’ve been in these woods plenty of times, and your grandmother would separate from the group and pretend to be lost, and one of the kids would always get hurt somehow. They trip on things and stand on fallen trees that are seconds away from crumbling. Someone would have a bowl for picking berries in case you came across some. Your littlest brother would find money or a dead raccon or something else interesting. He always looks down, sifting through what others overlook.

You’ve even gone into the woods without adults. You’re the oldest grandchild, after all, and you know the rule: If you can’t see the house, you turn around and come back home. It’s useful if the little kids want to go but you really don’t. You can come back sooner that way. But you know these woods like your pillows, like a song you know by heart. Today, alone, you don’t care about the house. You’ll come back late. They’ll have to put the leftovers away and wonder where you’ve been. By the time you come home, they’ll be worried about you.

Your blue nylon Kangaroo sneakers get muddy in the damp ground. Ther’s a chill in the wind as it rattles the leaves until they fall. You hear things, animals, things moving that are not you. Time passes and your nose gets cold, and you see your breath, and you walk, your anger fading.

You turn around.

You cannot see the house. Not even the tiniest glimpse of red brick through the trees. 

Fine, you think. You turn around. You walk back, retracing your steps. 

Ten minutes later you see a downed tree that you did not pass before. And no matter how stubbornly you peer at the trees in front of you, you still cannot see the red bricks of your grandmother’s house.

You stop moving. You look up at the sky and you cannot imagine what it is you expect to see, a bird, a power line. The sky won’t point you home, little one, and it’s getting darker. Your heartbeats are irregular; they are as panicky as you are. You keep thinking okay, okay, okay, okay. This is not okay. It will all be okay. You’ll be okay.

Your feet are moving again but warily. You scan the trees in front of you for something familiar. You watch your sneakers take step after little step in the oozing mud, hoping a trail will materialize in the thickness of the green and brown and tan and still more brown. You see the dead rabbit and nearly step on it. You flinch and step sideways, scream out.

Screaming feels good. Scream again, this time for your mother, your stepfather, anyone to help you. Scream until your throat hurts. Scream loud and long, feel your eyes fill with tears.

Through these stinging tears, you look to the left. It is your mother, thirty or forty feet away. Her orange puffy jacket is a bright light in the darkening forest, and you run to her, leaping over a fallen tree, and she bends down to be a target for you, a place to run.

#scintilla13: distance is a long-range filter


I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 3 prompts, Talk about a time when you were driving and you sang in the car, all  alone. Why do you remember this song and that stretch of road? We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

(First, and importantly: When I thought of this prompt I almost rejected it or smoothed it out, took out the song request, took out the “all alone.” Maybe I should have. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive. But then I thought that if you had one of these memories, or something close enough—maybe with someone else in the car, maybe without remembering what was coming out of the speakers—you would know why I wanted to write it, and more importantly why I wanted to read your story of being on your way somewhere, simmering in dread or happy anticipation or simple enjoyment of the moment. We don’t usually talk about why we chose the prompts or where they came from, but since it’s so specific, I wanted to give it some background. Now, on with it.)

I was a hesitant driver at first, and frightened of accidents. My family had been in one when I was a kid and it had lasting repercussions. So I panicked through learning to drive, panicked through the day I got my license, and then eventually worked through the panic by driving. A lot. I had an old used Escort that I drove all over the valley and to work and into Pittsburgh, with friends and on my own. Gas was so unspeakably cheap back then. I remembered a day when my aunt Ramona picked me up and drove me across the state to stay with her family for a week in the summer (when this happened) and she told me how she just got sick of driving, that it wasn’t fun for her anymore. Instead of feeling guilt that she was in fact doing just that for hours in order to bring me to her house, I was astonished. How did anyone get sick of driving? It was the time when I felt most in control of anything.

I traded up, to a 1992 Geo Storm in Bennington Blue and put more miles on it, more and more. I commuted to college through snowstorms and sunshine, half an hour each way, and then the last year I moved to my college town and commuted to my retail job, selling shoes on commission. I loved the people I worked with even when they worked my last nerve; we were family in a way that I never found at any other job I held. I didn’t mind the drive either way. Through those years, that daily hour of solitude centered me, rebuilding any parts of me that had been rubbed raw by the day. Even today, when I stream NPR from the United States, I stream it from WPSU. That last year, the one where I wrapped up stray GenEd credits and sold nine pairs of the most expensive sneakers in the store to an entire basketball team in one record-breaking transaction, I haltingly put together my plans to leave Pennsylvania after graduation and head south. Winter was for suckers.

Problems: I had no job. English lit degrees do not prepare you for the most lucrative or in-demand careers.  I knew no one there. “Heading south” encompassed an enormous swath of the US and I wasn’t particular about where I landed. I wasn’t afraid of having to meet new people, but I was afraid that this new start would take more imagination, money, or determination than I actually possessed. I had never been tested, not yet. And I had read enough contemporary fiction to teach me that freedom and control were meant to be seized half an hour at a time behind the wheel of a car, but in the rest of life they were often illusions.

Those of you who have held retail jobs know there were certain times of year that you just can’t take days off. In the shoe business, Easter is one of them. Hundreds of white patent squeaky t-straps come in the store, destined to be scuffed as soon as they’re put on children Easter morning. A Saturday shift during the lead-up to Easter is commission gold; the shoes haven’t hung around the store long enough to be marked down and commissions are epic. If the child is old enough to wear adult sized shoes, all the better. It’s insane to ask for time off around Easter—you’re putting pressure on your coworkers, you’re missing out on the best money you’ll see until back-to-school, and you put the manager, a 28-year-old moppet of a Deadhead named Todd, in the position of having to tell you no. But I needed to spend spring break driving south and getting lost in new cities and figuring out where I wanted to spend the next part of my life. My apartment lease would be ending a week after graduation. I didn’t have time to waste. So I turned in my two weeks, selling as many tiny wingtips as I could before I left. And then there was nothing else to do but head out for the road and find a place that spoke to me.

I was petrified. Somehow—and you see this buildup, these years of traveling between places, these years where my cars brought me to places of my own choosing—I was always driving distance from a home of some kind. My jobs. My apartments. My family. My friends. Even if I felt the need to get lost until I was driving on fumes, I had a place to go when I turned off the car. I felt spoiled, coddled. Even though I knew I was hardly taking a huge risk, I had never done anything like this before.

I took that Geo to the highway and put in a mix tape. It was one that my then-mostly-ex boyfriend had made. Side B, first song. Rush, of course, always Rush.

I knew all these songs, his songs. That’s the pleasure of a mix tape, that someone else has made choice after choice for you.. Sometimes in the midst of a dizzying blast of freedom, you need someone to make a choice for you, even a small one. And there is no better song to start a roadtrip with than “Dreamline,” and there never fucking will be. 220 South to 80 East, faster, faster. We’re only at home when we’re on the run. I sang it and was no longer doing this alone.

list two: uprooting

  1. There were boxes everywhere, but mostly in a large stack in the middle of the basement, our books and papers and heavy, sturdy things. And then the closets, where I stacked our clothes and the things from my desk and the top of the dresser, heavy glass candles and dishes my grandmother made during the war. Myron came home late at night, exhausted after working all day and flying for hours.
  2. Every time he goes away for more than a few days, there is a moment on his return when I look at his face and don’t recognize him. Then the truth of him reappears and I cannot remember what it felt like to be empty of it.
  3. The next day, we packed and packed. I left too much of the kitchen to the last minute. We used more rolls of tape than I can even tell you, more boxes, more paper. He constructed two-box hybrids to encase mirrors, artwork, and even the plant he nurtured from tinydom into almost-treedom. Before eleven, we were done.
  4. It was the first time ever—ever, in all my moves, and there have been so many—that I finished at a reasonable hour on the day I meant to, instead of staying up all night. Still I woke up needlessly early the next day, frantic and tightly wound. No matter how many times you go through this, I can’t imagine that it ever becomes routine and unsusceptible to gigantic error.
  5. We slid our suitcases into the bathroom and tried to stay out of the way of the movers, who were everywhere. More snow had fallen the night before, and the door stayed open all day. We ended up hiding in the bathroom, devices in hand, while the heavy boots and low voices echoed through the rapidly emptying house. I thought to take pictures, but the scene was nothing I’d want to remember, so I left the camera in its case.
  6. We cleaned. Scrubbed. I polished the refrigerator shelves and freezer bins and the cooktop. Myron cleaned the bathroom, swept the basement. The last thing I did was spray the almond-scented cleaner and buff the hardwood one last time. While I pushed the velvety mop in little circles, I invented and sang an impolite song that made Myron smile. No, I won’t sing it for you.
  7. We caught a bus to the city. I dragged my massive suitcase behind me, mounted my backpack on my shoulders, wrapped myself in gloves and hat and coat. The cold was unbelievable. I stopped twice to cough and cough and cough. I walked along the highway for the last time, mostly on an unpaved shoulder. After about ten minutes I stopped feeling my legs, but somehow they kept moving. The hot breath trapped by my scarf clouded my glasses with steam. I counted breaths until I made it to the intersection, crossed the street, and then counted breaths some more. The suitcase lolled on its cheap wheels and I let it fall and picked it up again. I couldn’t speak the entire ride. In the hotel that night—the same hotel where I stayed my first night in Ottawa, the place where I said yeah, I could stay here—I slept like the dead.
  8. Friday morning we signed a few papers and split up. Myron went to the national archives and I went for my last haircut with the astronomically talented Kim. I wonder about these curls and how they’ll fare in the hands of someone less talented. These days, they bounce and swoop and I should really take a picture of them before they grow out.
  9. And then we left, and I feel like I should have felt more, but maybe I had spent so many weeks feeling so damn much that there was nothing left to feel. Instead, there has been gentle quiet in my temporary home, and no pressure, and sleep, and coconut sorbet, and a bit of transplant shock, and tabbouleh.

For a while now I’ve been wanting to do a year’s worth of lists a la hula seventy. Let’s see how long I can keep this up.

#augustbreak: valediction


Amanda talked today on Twitter about her blog having a case of the tumbleweeds, but mine has been even worse. (So grateful for Laura’s panzanella for brightening up the place.) And I really would like to write a better post telling you more about actual stuff that happened in the past few months, but instead everything looks like this: boxes and things where they’re not supposed to be and the long list of things we always meant to spruce up around here that are now being spruced for whoever buys the house from us.

If you couldn’t tell, a month of upheaval is as good a time as any for August Break. Last year, this project threw my writing mojo for a loop and I never quite bounced back. This year, I’m in the opposite situation—instead of blogging too often, I haven’t been blogging enough. Last year I didn’t dare to say a tenth of what was pushing at my throat. This year, I’ve been ready to speak but haven’t had the time… or energy, when the time came to me. Last year, I was holding all my friends at arm’s length, not knowing if I’d scream or cry or laugh or where I would be living by the time fall set in. This year, I am loved, joyfully, resiliently, and fearlessly. And I know where home is and who lives there.

This August I turn 39 and I submit my home, my sanctuary, to the abacus eyes of real estate agents and prospective purchasers. Every decision represents a dollar that will go toward our new house. This August is not just documenting the everyday of a summer month—it’s saying goodbye to the home where Myron and I were newlyweds. I haven’t lived in one place this long since I first left home at eighteen. It’s grown around me like a shell. And shells crack open.