On the el yesterday, I made eye contact with a woman who seemed so much like me but twenty years older. She wore headphones, and maybe our eyes were the same distance apart and we had the same color hair, but mostly it was fleeting recognition: we are both weirdos in transit from one place to another.
At the next stop two women sat across from each other speaking French. They were both older, maybe 60s, with stylish short haircuts and the breezy, elegant air and bright, pretty clothes of people on vacation. My doppelganger started asking them questions in French. Bad French. French with a Midwestern accent. Which, as we’ve discussed, is what I learned in high school. So I understood every word. Where are you from? Where are you going? Oh, your son lives here? Is he in school?
Their conversation carried on and it turns out my doppelganger had lived in Paris for twelve years. Deux années? Non, douze années. The French women hurried off cheerfully a few stops later. Another woman sitting kitty-corner who’d been reading a paperback looked up and started talking to my doppelganger.
-I took French you know.
And the conversation continued until my doppelganger slung her purse over her shoulder and waved goodbye at the next stop. I watched her leave, and the woman with the paperback went back to her pages, and I sat there for a second and looked around. France had snuck up on me and snuck off again, just that easy.
My friend Caleb is the only shaman I know who wears beat-up hoodies and lets me come over at 11pm and orders us pizza. We’re in the dining room of The Vortex, an apartment that always looks like it’s recovering from a massive art party – paintings and drawings and scrawled words cover the walls and ceiling.
He takes the deck of tarot cards out of the box and we each take turns shuffling. He lays them out in a pattern on the table and flips through an instruction book with the meanings of each card. Because we are old-school pals, I feel okay being honest/whiny: “What you’re saying is all true but it isn’t very useful…”
He laughs. We try again. Shuffle, reshuffle, new pattern of cards. Different cards pop up but the end meaning, when read altogether, card by card, says essentially the same thing: You don’t want to be put in a cage. You forget that you are your own home and sanctuary. Change is constant. Put your roots in the bare dirt and grow. Notice each moment.
“But this says the same thing as the other one.”
Nice work, tarot card manufacturers! A trick deck.
“It’s you,” he says. “These are your issues. So in the end, this is how it will always go, no matter which path you choose.”
I take another slice of spinach pizza, which he got delivered from the place next to the laundromat that always seemed too sketchy to be a real business. Right then it is the most magnificent pizza I have ever tasted. The point, suddenly, is not this exercise in cards. Not even a little bit. It’s that I’ve heard Caleb’s words before, from other people, and now here they are again: It’s you. Until you decide to see or do things differently, this is how it will be, no matter the details.
It’s not the cards, it’s what you think when you see them.
In simple terms, this sums up the most beautiful endpoint of the direction in which I bend:
“This is what I hope my theater work does for people: it takes them inside worlds they’re curious about but have no real access to; it bears witness to truths that many folks — both government leaders and lay people — try aggressively to distort or to ignore; it makes beauty and meaning out of sometimes ugly, sometimes confusing strands of human experience; it is a creative act that, while often standing in for a memory, can actually become a new memory, can become a new truth — that, while telling one story, can actually become a new story and inspire the creation of yet other stories.”
– Laura Wiley, Albany Park Theatre Project co-founder
Every morning, for the past many mornings, I’ve been at a coffee shop writing, clicketyclacking my little brains out, making sense of the stream of text that loops on a mobius strip along the backs of my eyes. And so sometimes I am sleepy when I arrive, and sometimes it is cold, and sometimes I drive to the coffee shop, a bus of one, and sometimes in my sleepy and cold it seems impossible to pay for parking at the silly parking meters that require quarters or credit cards. I mean: if you can make it take a credit card, can’t you make it take a nickel? And so sometimes I just park and hope nothing will happen. But one day this week I walked out of the coffee shop blinking and caffeinated and found a dollar under my windshield wiper. I don’t know if this would ward off the coppers, were they to descend upon my 1993 Buick LeSabre, but it might. Or at least maybe someone thought, with a car like that, this gal can’t afford parking. But either way. I held the dollar bill to my heart for a good few seconds and looked all around, and found no one with a fistful of dollar bills looking suspicious, so I just yelled, THANK YOU and went on my way.
In March I took a plane from Taipei to New York City, via Tokyo. And here’s what I wrote.
i’m sitting on a plane and thinking evil thoughts.
I am presented with the world’s tiniest kit kat and world’s saddest ham sandwich. but the grainy mustard makes me think of al’s deli, which makes me think of noyes street, which makes me think of graduation from college. for two days in a row i wore my orange shirt and black skirt with the flower print, what i wore to the ceremony, because i thought if i never changed clothes i would never change days. it was too much to think about an entire life switch because the calendar had flipped to a certain day in june. and my friends were leaving. and the boy i liked so much was moving back home. i packed some more, then went for a walk. i forget why but i went to get on the el and on the bench was a black plastic cassette tape. i hadn’t seen a cassette tape since i was a kid and my dad had them collecting dust in the basement.. so that was weird. weirder still was the album, bruce springsteen’s greatest hits. if there was one defining characteristic of this boy i liked, it was his springsteen obsession. moreso than his jeans and t-shirt wardrobe, moreso than his new diploma, or the nose on his face, it was the hours of devotion, listening and concert-going. and so to see this tape abandoned on the bench esemed like a little post-it from the universe, a little chuck on the chin that all would be ok. i went home, dusted out the cassette tape slot on the stereo i got in high school, and popped it in. and i listened while i packed.
i need that now, a little love note, a little chuck on the chin. i see chicago on the map but that is not where i am going though i long to parachute in. i keep contemplating my own demise. if this were it. the last word i’d want to read in this trashy stephen king book.
the kit kats are too small. the asshole next to me somehow got hot tea with milk.
for a meal earlier today (is there a today in this timeless state?) the mean stewardess with sausagey arms snapped at me, beef or salmon?
the last bite of salmon pasta, the beauty of the mozzerla cheese stringing off the end of the penne. would i want to look at a forkful of pasta right before i die? in the end times will i be thinking beef or salmon? is that the last big question?
for our second meal six hours later, there is no question, you just a get a sad ham sandwich with the world’s tiniest kit kat. i eat the chocolate so slowly, each nibble dissolves.
–Listen…you know those days when you get the mean reds?
–The mean reds? You mean like the blues?
–No… the blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
–When I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump into a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away.
Can’t think too hard. No, no, can’t think too hard. Think too hard and all of a sudden a giant wooshing sound rises up from the edges of the film and the celluloid starts to melt and the light bleeds through and the picture dissolves into white blotches and then: blackness. ABYSS!! ABYSS!! Nope, nope, don’t think too hard. Because you have no idea what you will be when you grow up, or when this growing up will be, or who will be there with you.
To ward off the mean reds, I am wearing a brightly patterned skirt and consuming a cinnamon chip scone and a cup of hot coffee in a bright, warm coffee shop. Not quite breakfast, not quite Tiffany’s, but close enough.
The children of Chicago chalk chalk chalk when the weather turns. In order of frequency, least to most, the top five sidewalk chalk-drawn items in my neighborhood:
5) Octopus with a gajillion legs.
4) Hearts! Crazy lopsided multicolored hearts.
3) Rocket ships.
2) Dogs labeled “dog” and bikes labeled “bike”.
and… 1) Hopscotch.
On my walk to work yesterday I passed six hopscotch boards, all multicolored, with weebly-wobbly lines and Dr. Seussian angles. My favorite? The last square was labeled “HEAVEN”.
I love hopscotch. I love it because it involves sidewalks and sidewalk chalk. But also because of the simplicity: throw a rock, hop your hops, reach the end, turn around. Maybe there’s a larger competitive purpose, but I’ve never witnessed a hardcore game of hopscotch. The big aim seems to be the creation of the board.
I believe motion rewires our brain. Neural pathways reach out their little tendrils and join hands, when the body moves in new ways. I didn’t come up with this idea, certainly, but I regularly turn to it. (I love learning new forms of transport, new ways to bend — even if I suck at them; I even love walking labyrinths, those ancient patterns inset in the floors of cathedrals, for this very reason.)
What does hopscotch do to us? Why do kids make hopscotch boards so instinctively? What if we gave every kid in Chicago sidewalk chalk? How many hopscotch boards would they make? Could we hopscotch all over town? And would we think differently afterward?
Other assorted favorite chalk drawings from my morning walk:
-A sidewalk square: “Welcome to dinner OUTSIDE”
-A front step: “CHARLE”
-A train extending over several sidewalk squares, each box car labeled a different food: applesauce, water, milk, peas, strawberries, PB&J
True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out — you must stay out; and to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand.
– Henry James
I am back in my apartment and surrounded by own stuff again. And it’s weird. It’s like, “all this stuff is mine?” I never noticed how many small objects have wedged their way into my life. They are mostly: books, clothes, sentimental papers, and teacups/mugs. But also there are other things: half-empty shampoo bottles, two hairbrushes, two sponges, bills for the electricity and the gas, a small frying pan and a big frying pan, a dish drainer, short-shorts cut from once-favorite jeans, one Converse sneaker without a mate, the apron Deanna made me, the tiny owl from Becca, the blue crocheted pouch Tara got me from Chile filled with the tiny stones Amanda and I picked up on our cross-country road trip when we were 19. Hiking boots. Bobby pins. Are you serious? I am the keeper of all of these objects? Normally I would say: slim down, throw out the baby and the bathwater. But now I am just happy to see things that are mine all in one place.
Last night Eliina, Amanda and I worked on crafty projects for Eliina’s wedding this fall. I stamped little gift bags with pretty ink designs, and Amanda helped make tags for the place cards. Simple tasks, simple motions. I could see why people knit in knitting circles. Because with the motion of hands, and the hum of a distraction, an easy rhythm settles in. We’re all metronomes keeping time by the creation of pretty things.
We talked about time. Eliina pulled out her typewriter for one of the crafts and found a sheaf of pages in the typewriter case, saved from the days when we kept a ready typewriter on a shelf at all times. We paged back through the scattered phrases, stuff people had typed during parties, during quiet moments alone, or collaboratively and with much silliness. I’d been griping and complaining between ink stamps, the helpless kind of irrational chatter you can only get away with when you’re around old friends who will forgive you. But leafing through those pages unlocked a simple truth. Time passes. And all we can do is honor the moments that tick by, one by one, creating something pretty.
I’m back in Chicago, and every day is still a rollercoaster. I don’t know if each day will be up or down. If a song in the CVS will touch off that drowning feeling or if seeing a friend in a coffee shop will make me dance down the sidewalk. Mostly I am watching the sticky green leaves open this year and I see each one as its own little rock concert, warming up, ready to explode when that riff reaches the roof.
“What good is intellect if it leaves us immobile and frozen in indecision? At some point, despite all the other options, you have to commit yourself to a path. Being flexible if fine, it’s maybe the greatest talent you can have, but in order to define yourself, you need to pursue your passion. There will always be good reasons not to do something, or to do something else, the world is full of women more beautiful than your wife, you can never choose the best car, there’s always a cheaper air fare. What’s most important is that you choose and get on with your life.” — Chuck Palahniuk
Janelle and I cemented our friendship in 8th grade because she was in a wheelchair from knee surgery. I pushed her around school when no one else would — for example, from lunch (where we sat in an loose alliance of awkward girls) to French class (where Ms. Martin taught us le Francaise with a Buffalo, NY accent.) All during our trip, people asked where we knew each other from, and this is the funny little tale we told.
After our harrowing near-miss of the flight from Phnom Penh to our connection in Ho Chi Minh, we’d been on our feet a while. And, well, Janelle only really had one good foot, due to the moto accident. So by the time we landed for our connecting flight, she was hobbling with braveness, but hobbling nonetheless. And we had a lot of walking to do, from the gate through the terminal to check in for our new flight.
We’d been given little blue stickers that said “TRANSIT” so that everyone knew we weren’t stopping in Vietnam. We had to wear them at all times. I felt like a piece of fruit. Breathless, blue-stickered, bag-laden. Hobbling. And then I spotted the wheelchairs. Just sitting there, a dozen stacked up by the escalator. An ah-ha moment, if you will.
So yes, Janelle got in the wheelchair. We piled her lap with all our bags and I pushed her through security and around the terminal, to the chocolate shop, to the water cooler, to the Singaporean restaurant.
Before the eighth grade dance, a bunch of our lunch-table friends went to the Japanese barbecue restaurant on Transit road for dinner. They did not invite Janelle and I (which we chalked up to the fact that being in a wheelchair made Janelle more diva-esque than usual). We’ve always added this footnote to the lore of the wheelchair-pushing, and now that footnote made the circle feel even more complete – We parked the wheelchair and dug into Singapore chicken rice.
When a journey is too easy, it feels pleasant and safe but surely not epic. Janelle and I did not have this issue.
On Sunday we woke up with stretches and yawns. It was post-FCC rooftop night, post-moto accident, and neither of us had slept well. (Janelle’s foot was banged up and, well, I kept thinking I was hearing Khmer Rouge ghosts turning our bathroom tap on and off.) So we decided to stay in. Our flight was at 4:50pm, which gave us plenty of time to lounge by the pool, enjoy breakfast and books, maybe stop off for a fresh juice on the way to the airport, and check in by 2pm. We wanted to get to the airport early. A lot was riding on our flight out of Phnom Penh. We had a connection in Vietnam, and then I had to get on a plane back to the US the next morning.
Around 11:30am, I looked up from my poolside breakfast of chicken fried rice and pineapple juice and walked to the communal computer on the patio to check our flight status. The skies above shone bright as ever, but who knew? Best to be prepared. I clicked through to our itinerary in an old email, and then pasted the flight number into Flight Tracker.
Nothin’ came up for 4:50pm.
Instead our flight number was leaving at 12:40. In just over an hour.
I walked straight to the hotel room and knocked.
– I don’t want to panic you, but I think you should come look at this…
She hobbled to the computer on her one good foot. Yes, our flight was at 12:40. Fuck. Janelle immediately said we wouldn’t make it. Out of stupidity or willful ignorance, I said we had to try. Somehow the following occurred in the space of 10 minutes:
1) I asked the hotel desk for our bill. Their credit card machine was down, could I pay cash?
2) I sprinted two blocks to an ATM ignoring shouts from taxi drivers and weird looks from everyone else.
3) Janelle packed all of her things and brought them to the main desk. With one good foot.
4) The hotel prepped our bill and called us a car to the airport.
We told our driver we were in a hurry so he wove through traffic and even ignored a couple red lights for good measure. We got to the terminal at 12pm, sweaty and flushed, and pulled out our passports. Delays in line, delays in line… the kind of waiting that inserts fidgets into every bone. Janelle guzzled a liter of water out of sheer nerves. Finally — As our boarding passes printed from the Vietnam airlines machine, I thought they might evaporate as quickly as they were born. But they didn’t. Miracle of miracles. One last glitch: stop and pay $25 each to leave the country. Exit tax. Please, yes, let us exit, I will give you anything you want…
Through security, to the gate, and by the time we got seated in the last row of the plane, the tension dropped so drastically that we busted into astonished giggles.
At takeoff I watched through the little window from my aisle seat and felt my ribcage expand into one full breath.