Pat and Lindsay, who are now married

The boy asked if Pat was a ghost.

Our house is tucked behind a brick storefront, separated from the back of a bike shop by a narrow lane of concrete. There’s a front porch, though — a relic from before the store, we think, and we sit out there sometimes. Yesterday Pat was writing on the porch when an older woman and a little boy came around the side of the store and stopped right in front of our house.

She carried a sporty hiking stick, had short Grandma-coiffed red hair (dyed?), and clip-on sunglasses. The little boy wore spectacles and could have been a young Harry Potter. They froze when they saw Pat.

“Oh, we’re just out here looking for zombies and ghosts!” she said, casual and jovial like she was in a department store “just looking”.

She went on: “We found this house back here one day and now we have to go check on it every day.”

The boy whispered something up to her and she whispered something back. Then he called out manfully but shyly to Pat, “Are you a ghost?”

I was watching all this from a chair by the window.

Pat looked positively tickled but held it together. “No, just a person!” he called back. The boy nodded, the woman nodded, and off they went.

Pat and I got married! We did. A wedding a wedding a wedding. With so many of my favorite people there in actual life and many well-wishes sent via electronic digitalness and paper. I wore a short dress made by my friend Rachel’s Cambodian clothing company, cut to fit on my dining room table the day before.

Our ceremony at Humboldt Park — where everyone sat around us in a circle, felt electric and serene at once. Violin music, flower petals, and we walked together. Our funny, kind friends wrote and read things. Thea played a silly, lovely sing-a-long. We did it. Our friend Josh officiated and at the end said, “I present to you Pat and Lindsay, who are now married.”

We exited the building into a tunnel of people blowing bubbles. Then we piled onto a school bus, docked at an old loft space in a warehouse district and slipped into a dream — the most light and love I have ever seen in one place, radiating through two stories of glass, across gleaming wood floors and sparkling china. This was for us? It was.

Pat and I danced to an Otis Redding song. I danced with my dad, to a lullabye he used to sing us girls. Everything was good, and okay, and better than good or okay. Oh, and pie. Instead of cake. Of course.

Senior year of college I wrote a list of what I wanted out of life. It was a joy-centric list, in opposition to the success-centric pressure coming from all around me that felt strangling.
I said on this list, more than a decade old now, that I wanted margaritas, Cadbury eggs, and music I could dance to. And, strangely, at the wedding I got all of those things. We ate margaritas and tacos. There was a basket of Cadbury eggs (IMPORTED FROM THE UK SO THE CHOCOLATE WAS BETTER) by the door, for people to take as they left. I danced every single song.

All the while I wanted to bottle it. Our parents, healthy and happy, our siblings, knitting into one goofy, dual-familied pack, our friends, dressed in bright spring clothes. If you’ve never danced in a twirly white dress in a circle of people screaming that they love you, well, you are missing out.

When everything wound down, we took a black car to a fancy hotel, where we managed to drink two more beautiful goblets of room-service champagne. In the morning, we woke up to time that felt molasses-slow. I shoved my dress into a clear plastic bag and ferried it homeward in a taxi. A useless and lovely parcel. We got out about a ten-minute walk from the house and stopped for coffee. Pat, talking to the cashier at Starbucks, referred to me as his wife for the first time. We walked home on a cloudless April day through our sleepy neighborhood — the buds just coming out, me swinging that dress in the bag.

It was pretty great.

——

My sisters and I had a mysterious house that we checked on, when we were kids. It was set way back in the woods, and we only knew it by its mailbox, which said, “Shube”. On long drives with our grandmother we would pass it. We never went back there. But we surmised that a woman named Mrs. Shube lived there in a wooded hermitage, and we longed more than anything to see her. We imagined her life so vividly. Every time I am back in the area, I look for it, even though I know the house is gone now.

We eventually found out through the yellow pages that the name was actually “Shubert” — and if you told me you knew something about that house, to this day I’d be all ears right away.

Now it’s funny to be that mystery house for another kid and his grandmother. A special kind of life cycle, a circle of imaginative children and the adults who let them dream.

We are ghosts, though, contrary to what Pat told that little boy. We are happy ghosts and loving ghosts and ghosts of immense intelligence and purpose, but ghosts just the same, to be checked on every day. We are here for just a flicker and constantly shape-shifting, ghosts of our old selves, not yet our new selves. Surrounded by ghosts, too, of our grandparents and great-grandparents, their guidance still flowing through our veins.

Ritual eases that ghost-y feeling, I learned.

I wasn’t always convinced about the wedding— why have one? So much work and money and time! So many people, diverted from their daily routines! But the wedding is a pause. It freezes us. Full stop. Exist here. Be here, just for now — ye shapeshifting, translucent, unpinnable ghosts, with these people, in this place, with this love.

Crossings + the holdout hollering in the back

I’m thinking about borders again. It’s that old saw, that old pull. Maybe it’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from Canada, where THE LAWS were different, and television news anchors pronounced their “ou” sounds differently. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the edge of a subdivision on the edge of a town that was, itself, edging away from its farmland roots. On the edge of the working class, on the edge of the century.

It’s a chant in my head — push the edge, cross it. 

What edge? Where?

I’m not even sure.

Everything I am doing is my favorite thing I have ever done. Writing about the intersection of journalism, social good and data. Musing about user testing for civic apps. Co-writing a play about digital media, and performing it for audiences three times a week. Giving a Pecha Kucha talk with 300 people excited to hear my theories on cultivating a dynamite creative practice. Oh, and — you know, a new book of essays.

I’m combining media, non-fiction, performance, design and publishing in new permutations, which is what I have always wanted to do.

Maybe this push-pull is from a holdout contingent in the council of my brain. One old wheezing member hollers from the back.

“What? You are doing what you love? For money? For people? And they LIKE it? Well, this is absurd. Rewind time, get back in your box.”

Trouble is, I don’t think I can.

Or maybe it’s a voice in the hallway, on the other side of the door. Wondering what’s taking me so long.

One day we will eat the pie

“How’s the wedding planning going?”

So funny that you ask.

It is, in a word, going.

I love flowers. I love good food. I love music and dance, dance, dancing. I love all of the humans on our little list of guests. I love pie. All of these things will be present at the wedding. This sounds like an overflow of riches, right? I mean, you can never have too much key lime pie.

But you can have too many details about the pie, such as:

Would you like the pie purchased through the caterer or dropped off directly from the bakery?

I guess… with the caterer is good, why don’t we just–

Would you like it pre-sliced for an extra $5 charge, or would you like to slice it yourselves? 

Well, I guess, $5 isn’t so much, but–

Would you like it in basic tins or do you want to purchase ceramic serving plates?

WE DO NOT HAVE ANY MONEY FOR CERAMIC SERVING PLATES.

Would you like to– 

NO! NONE OF IT! WE JUST WANT TO EAT THE PIE.

And we will. We will eat the pie. Everyone calm down*. It’s going to be great.

*Everyone means me.

Two proposals, one wedding

The strangest thing happened. I decided to get married. It was a decision, and not just a proposal and an okay-yes!, because of how the whole thing went down. And LADIES, this non-traditional process is not the worst idea ever.

The guy proposed, with the bended knee and an origami ring. The Guy. I should say: Pat! That’s his name. Writer/curious soul/friend since 2007 and boyfriend for the past two circles ’round the sun.

We were in Phnom Penh, my one-year hometown, my touchstone on the other side of the ocean. And I had woken up thinking about so many things. Like: Move back? Like: Will it be hot today? Like: Such jetlag! Like: I want all the things I love and miss, want the iced coffee and the moto rides with my students and soup from that good place and…. Everything that year was a first kiss, and I was churning back through it all in my mind, which had floated a million miles away from Pat as we took a walk.

Which Pat couldn’t have known. And he pulled an origami ring out of his pocket, which had been painstakingly folded and then transported for more than 24 hours of travel time.

It looked like the perfect scene, probably — a walk by the river, before breakfast, just after waking.

And I was like, “What?”

//

Not right then.

//

Pat suggested, with the most love and kindness of any human I have ever seen (although I never did get to meet Mother Teresa) that I propose in return, when ready. And I believed that it would all be ok because he articulated my tendencies and quirks so precisely. He knew that I am easily rattled by change, even though I sometimes mainline things like trips to Phnom Penh and fast rides on two wheels. A reluctant adrenaline junkie.

//

Paused it. Kept on.

//

And one summer day back in Chicago, I tricked him into coming to meet me by the Chicago river (such trickery, these proposals always involve). Then I opened my backpack to reveal a bottle of champagne and a typewritten letter, and two rings. One, a ring made from a dime taped to a circle of wire. Dime. On. Ring. My grandfather’s gambit with my grandmother. Another, made from a binder ring, to go with the DIY theme. We slipped these on together and drank the champagne, and somewhere in there he said yes but I don’t remember how it all went.

You don’t remember?

I truly don’t. My memory during important moments is like a chalkboard in a rainstorm, and I rely on tangible objects to remember what happened. The empty champagne bottle. The ring on my finger is now a real diamond, from a vintage shop in Buffalo, bought a few weeks later. He said yes.

Because I proposed in return, I learned just how nerve-wracking it is to ask someone to marry you. It is terrifying. Even if you have been with the person a long time. Even if, no matter their answer, you are going to be fine. It is far more terrifying than sky diving, which by comparison was a walk in the park. It’s scary for a reason that I’d never considered before I tried to do it: You are holding the kill switch on Life As You Know It, in hopes that when you push it, the future is magically ransomed free and rises like a genie released to say: Hey. I’m supposed to be here. Where’s the party?

Well, the party is in the works.

We are in fact planning a small little thing called a wedding, where we will gather with our many, many family members and whatever friends we can fit in around them without the whole place collapsing. Yes.

Remembering in the time of unnumbered pages

Cambodian coffee brewing. The New Yorker fiction issue spread in pieces on my lap.

It’s July. Just the beginning of July, feeling like May, and time seems slippery. Fish-slippery — or tiny-crab slippery. Always running away from me.

(On the beach of the island where Kerpowski and I landed after our long boat ride into the sunset, tiny crabs burst up from the sand, one after the other. Dodging them made me think of heroes in the movies, the bullets always missed. I kept Not Stepping on Crabs but unsure of the physics.)

July. I wanted very much to start pie-making, because it’s summer and there’s fruit now, but I’m headed to Copenhagen for a SOMETHING I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO which is take a workshop at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. 

So, pies have been delayed while I pack.

No, packing has been delayed for this coffee, which has a maple-y sweetness to it that no other coffee does. And the New Yorker fiction issue, which was a June thing. It’s the best way to spend a morning, sinking and rocking into a sheaf of pages that someone else wrote. Not even all the pages, just the hand-picked ones. The best ones.

I have lots that has not been written, and time keeps happening before I can write it. There’s a menace about that feeling. It floats lazily through, yellow-jacket menacing. Things will just keep happening, and I won’t be able to record them.

The island felt totally wild and completely inhabited at the same time. We stumbled over rocks, dodged crabs, and then walked under an archway of bent branches and down a dirt path until suddenly there was a circle of candelight, a thatched-roof hut and the slow murmur of traveler’s conversations. I guess we were at the front desk.

The porch in the alley

I live in a house that’s directly behind a storefront, but it has a front porch. A pretty bold front porch. Wide, deep, big white columns. And yet now it looks out on the back of a bike shop and is hemmed in on the other side by an apartment staircase. Our house was the biggest thing around, at one point. It must have overlooked land. There may have been something of a vista. 

I’m thinking about change, impermanence. When I was in college, I thought about getting all Buddhist and zen and meditating. It seemed good for my claptrap ramshackle nerves. But it was also a lot of work, and I never went deep enough or far enough into a practice to really get a lot out of it.

Reading about it, though, I loved. And still love. Sometimes when life is being a crazypants, I look at my bookshelf and just pick something at random. Well, no, not at random. Something that, when my eyes skate over the spine, sends a telegram of a tug into the back of my mind, and I reach for it. Tonight my hand rested on Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

About twelve years ago, Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was senselessly murdered near the San Francisco Zen Center. The killers knifed Chris and ran. They did not take a wallet (I don’t even know if Chris had one on him). I was sitting a seven-day meditation retreat in Minnesota. It was December. We all knew Chris. Rumors spread quickly during breaks, even though we were supposed to remain silent. We all awaited our teacher’s talk that morning. Katagiri Roshi was close to Chris. He would make it all better.

Roshi walked into the meditation hall, bowed, lit incense, sat down. We chanted. Then he spoke: “Human beings have an idea they are very fond of: that we die in old age. This is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris Pirsig’s death has come now. It is a great teaching in impermanence.”

The bell was rung. It was the end of the lecture. I was furious. What kind of thing was that to say? How could Roshi be so cruel? I knew he cared about Chris.

Years later, distraught by learning that Katagiri Roshi had cancer, I cried for many weeks. In May, as I drove to the airport in Albuquerque to fly to see him, I suddenly remembered his talk about Chris. His talk had not been cruel. It was brave. He was willing to cut through all sentiment and touch the fundamental truth of impermanence. I appreciated it. What he said then helped my life now.

This is how we learn. Human life is very big. There is no short cut from Minneapolis to New Mexico. My car had to cover every mile. We learn with every cell and with time, care, pain, and love. I’m sure that many times when the marathon monks woke at midnight to prepare to run, they had an urge to go back to sleep, but the path was ahead of them. We, who are not marathon monks, wake up and have the toothbrush before us–brushing our teeth! the great ritual that gets us out of bed–and then we have the blank page in front of us, or the school bus, or the phone ringing. We all must go on down that highway. Our life is the path of learning, to wake up before we die. 

Another kind of flight

I’m thinking about moments when things begin. There’s a shift, a change, one moment that’s almost not a moment at all, it’s so small. Nanomoment?

Kerpowski and I went to Cambodia last month, together. This was, as you might imagine, fraught with tension for me. I was returning to a place that had felt so home-like, except it was no longer home. Or, not yet home again. Or, never to be home again. I did not know.

A structure fell into place around our days. A sort of grammar of our time and travel. Wake before it got too hot, free hotel breakfast, follow my meticulous spreadsheet of our plans, eat somewhere adventurous but probably safe. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, all our days went like this. And then there was one day when things shifted. On my meticulous spreadsheet, there was the line “Koh Ta Kiev”. Which meant, this was the day we were to stay on a mostly uninhabited island. And I kept framing it for Kerpowski, over and over.

“This is the part of the trip that’s totally unknown.”

“Get ready for crazy.”

I said it so many times because I didn’t want him to think that I had not planned. He is not the kind of fellow who demands planning, probably just the opposite, but I wanted to be responsible this time. My return to the Kingdom of Wonder would involve timetables and first-aid supplies and calendars. Here, I had planned for us to fall off the map.

It was not so bold a choice. Koh Ta Kiev is actually one of the closer islands to the mainland, and I chose it because it was just over an hour by boat. A lot of the other cool islands are several hours. I was still trying to play it safe. And yet.

“No really. I have no idea what’ll happen there. I’ve never been.”

We got off the little plane from Siem Reap and while Kerpowski waited for our bags, I changed into my waterproof shoes and shimmied a pair of denim shorts up under my skirt. Then we found the little motortaxi that would take us to the coast, where a boat was supposed to be waiting.

Green countryside, fresh air, a fading sun. The taxi was swift and sure. Not crazy so far. The red-washed land around us hummed with possibility and a race against the evening light, but we were headed in one direction.

But then we got to the coast, where there appeared to be no boat. Or, there were several boats, but none were obviously for us. The driver was kind of like, “See ya…” — and I looked around in a bit of a panic. We were just – standing there. With our giant backpacks. On the beach.

My brain quieted. It’s in these situations, with just stuckness, and no obvious way forward, that I’m most at peace. I don’t know why. It’s a really odd talent, the ability to get calm only in extreme times. After a few moments, two women and a young boy showed up, speaking only Khmer. They motioned for us to jump aboard their small weatherbeaten boat, with its outboard motor, as they packed it with supplies.

Oh, THIS was our boat. This was our boat. And we’d have to get aboard by first getting into the ocean, which I’d anticipated by slipping into my waterproof shoes. I tucked my skirt into the waistband of my shorts, and was seaworthy.

I looked at Kerpowski, who realized he was a little behind, and who changed out of his sneakers and into Chacos.

And then there was that moment, where the rules are different, and we waded up to our waists into the warm, sweet-salty sea, bags hoisted overhead. That moment when you stop trying for everything to be perfect, where it’s clearly impossible to stay dry, where jumping into the ocean is just another step forward. I love that moment. Where you’re not wading anymore, you’re waist deep.

Then the boat, after a few false starts, chugged off into the sunset with us perched near the supply crates, and we tried to talk to the Khmer women, who just kept saying, “Do you like this?” But I didn’t understand what they were saying — I’d forgotten so much basic Khmer, that I just kept repeating after them, “Do you like…. Do you like…. Do you like….”