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….”


The only thing flying is an invisible sparrow

There’s a bird flying around Gate 2 in the A terminal at Washington National airport. I’ve got a box of leftover doughnuts from yesterday, and the coffee I’ve gotten to go with them is brassy but drinkable.

It’s a sparrow, I think. It’s picking at stray crumbs on the blue carpet, and I’m hoping it doesn’t lunge for my caramel doughnut.

Weirder than the sparrow: No one’s paying any attention. Everyone’s on an iPad, or reading, or talking. There’s one woman who’s been humming Christmas carols to herself — she’s in maybe in her 60s and wearing black Doc Martens, which I take as the sign of an enlightened soul, and she doesn’t react either. She’s reading a novel, pausing only to select an Altoid from a tin. Am I the only one seeing this bird? 

Our flight is delayed. Which is ok; I’ve got nowhere to be. This weekend was the kind of perfect balance between somewhere to be and nowhere to be. Cake in the afternoon, oysters at midnight and long, lingering catch-ups that remind me just how intertwined I am with people I barely ever see. 

We’re getting lots of apologies about the delay from the gate agent. She keeps saying, “I apologize for the delay” — the first-person pronoun — and I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of marketing tactic that JetBlue uses to make people sound like they’re taking personal responsibility for the delay of an entire aircraft. It takes the edge off the anger. It’s not some faceless, “we apologize” — it’s “Again, I really do apologize.” And I want to go over there and tell her that it’s ok. We all make mistakes.

We all do. I mean, somehow a bird got in here. Unless that was the intention — someone started a nest of birds in National, and they just live here now. I say “nest of birds” although I only see one, because I can’t imagine how lonely it would be if this sweet little scavenger was all on her own. She? He? I don’t know my birds. We’ll call it a “she”. She bounces, looks up at me, just a foot away, and takes off for the rafters. 

Reasons to speak to strangers, or: Chicago smells like chocolate and literature

At the stoplight, the young woman on the bike turned back to me, also on a bike, also waiting for the light to flick green so we could continue our gut-push through the current of bikes and cars; our commute.

Chocolate, the thick scent of it, hung in the air, literally mouth-watering, so tempting as to be cruel.

Breathing hard, she said, “It smells SO GOOD.”

“I KNOW,” I said. And that was all, and then the light turned, and we were off on our separate rides again.

It did smell so good. This is what happens when you bike downwind of a chocolate factory, which is to say — this is what happens in Chicago. You are overcome with the lusty goodness of something, and it is impossible to keep quiet. You must, in fact, announce your in-love-ness to whoever will listen, even if it’s the stranger behind you in the bike lane. Even if it’s weird to exclaim outloud.

I just had that kind of week, last week. Amongst Chicago’s community of writers. It started on Sunday, with That’s All She Wrote, a show in the back of a cafe that pulled some of the best stories I’d ever heard all into one bundle. Reading there felt like reading with, and to, a cadre of smart and funny best friends. It was also capped off my birthday week, and a handful of my very favorite people came out in support.

Then on Monday, bad news via email. Ian, the founder and host of WRITE CLUB was laid up with a bad, random back injury, and we weren’t sure if the show could happen. I wrote back right away: “We can do this.” Now, I am the absolute opposite of a host of anything. I can’t even host a brunch. But I did know that by pulling some talented folks together, we could at least keep the show on the rails, thereby not disappointing our audience or the performers who’d already prepped to be there. I stayed an extra two hours at work, writing out a game plan for how we’d pull this off. I sent it to Whit and Thea, who were already planning to be performing in the show in smaller roles, and conscripted them to also share hosting duties with me.

They responded right away with “Yes.” “Love it.” “I’m in.”


Thea said she’d wear her Halloween socks.

And our show the next day, Tuesday, was so, so good. It was good because Whit and Thea are some of the funniest, warmest, most quick-thinking people I know. They were game for anything, including a get-well phone call to Ian mid-show, and so was I. And it was good because it was shot through with the extra tang of last-minute, underdog achievement. We (mostly) remembered our plan. We (totally) enjoyed the hell out of each other. It was the only time I haven’t been at least a little nervous before or during a show. Because no matter what, being there was better than not being there. Not canceling was better than canceling. Keeping Ian’s hard work rolling was better than shutting it down because of life’s shit luck. I loved that first moment when the Ramones started playing our intro music, Thea and I took last slugs of our drinks, and ran up the aisle.

Wednesday, then, was a different kind of good — a quiet, deep good, the kind of communion that comes from writers sharing their most close-to-the-bone pieces. I can’t remember who once likened a show to “story church”, but that’s how this felt. In the back of Powell’s book store, Guts and Glory — without mics, with barely a stage, tucked into a back room with mismatched chairs — overflowed with stories. They do this every month. And the writers were so good, I was furious at myself for not coming to previous months’ shows.

Then on Friday, Josh and I recorded the WRITE CLUB podcast. It’s not ready for people to hear it yet. It’s in the works. But I can’t shut up about it.

Or any of it, really; it’s just a really, really good time to be a writer in Chicago.






The map is not the territory

Chicago has this thing, the “live lit” scene. Live, literature; stories and essays and poems performed for an audience.  There was a long time when this genre didn’t have a name. I don’t know how this name came around, but here we are. Live. Lit.

I’m mostly a writer for the page. I once thought that if only I practiced enough, I’d get really good at performing. This is not true. I can’t get better at whistling, either. I always sound like a teapot. But I like it. From the stage or the audience, I like it. Not being alone with words feels healthy.

The venerable Mike Doughty says it well in the NY Times this week.

The most challenging Borgesian map-versus-territory aspect in playing these songs isn’t technical, but — if you’ll allow me to be a hippie here — spiritual. A live performance’s intensity of focus — both mine and the audience’s — can’t be replicated in rehearsal. There’s a communal mind to be navigated. What’s gratifying to me about playing to an audience isn’t the applause; it’s the oceanic feeling of fused consciousness. You can’t rehearse that — it’d be like rehearsing the Himalayas.

In other news of literature and metaphorical geography, this poem of Scoddy’s is perfect with a Saturday morning cup of coffee:


contemporary Mexican poetry

an unexpected gift:

someone found a book in the street

and passed it to me.

I guess I am known as a reader of

thick books.


so contemporary Mexican poetry

falls into my lap

and makes me consider

the nature of such events


if it’s your book,

please give me a little time to digest it,

before you whistle it back home

Speaking of Prairie

It’s fall and Peggy is chopping apples and watching West Wing, apples and more apples into a big metal pot. These will be applesauce, and this is the closest I’ve been to a manifestation of Little House on the Prairie.

Speaking of prairie, on warm days you can wander through the prairie-in-progress over in the park. I love this idea, a little fenced off area with a sign that the park district is planting prairie plants on purpose. That the prairie is something that can be resurrected and made real in a tiny space. Wee small ways that we are connected to the past and the earth.

It’s fall. Everyone’s sneezing. That seems to be the curse of fall in Chicago. On the train I switch seats away from the sneezers only to hear a mucous cough from my new seat-mate. I pretend to urgently read the CTA map and stand by the door instead, clutching a pole, but then think of all the germs on the metal.

Fire, fire, fire. Ice, ice, ice. We are warming here and freezing, alternately. I’m thinking of fire and ice, water, and how I was born in a place named Meadowlakes, after a series of non-existent meadows and very tiny lakes, which were really drainage ponds, which my grandfather pointed out as he drove us home one day.

The grandfather who is, right now, ticking fast through winding-down days, was always a truth-teller.

The truth, I guess, is that 60 degrees feels cold, but soon it will feel warm, and we don’t actually know whether someday the prairie — encouraged, furtive, in small clutches of weedy, rustling patches — will one day reclaim us.

The smallest story on a hot rooftop

The point is just to make things. We learned that last summer from Rachel, picking cherry blossoms out of our hair and watching a rusty carnival set up its pieces.

The point is just to make things, and here are some things that have been made lately.

1)  An art gallery opening and show with WRITE CLUB and Paperish Mess.  Featuring strawberry Moscato cocktails. Featuring custom roasted coffee. Featuring sister power. Featuring holy-hell-we-actually-did-it.

2) A bunch of bad websites through my beginners’ class at the fabulous web dev school Starter League.  I am re-learning crap that I half-taught myself in high school, when HTML was the only thing you could use to make anything, unless you wanted to insert an applet which pretty much no one did.

3) Bouquets and bridal wishes for dear close friends. This is the summer of love.

These are good things. Great things, even; but there are lots of fragments being made, too. Weird little sprouts of essays and fiction, that grow in my brain and then I find them there, lurking, like those long random neck hairs that seem to come out of nowhere. (What, you don’t have those?!)

These fragments haunt me. Each one seems like an unfinished thing. They beg (forgive me) to be plucked. Ok, neck hair analogy = over.

So I’ve decided to try and find the smallest, complete story that I can. A story with a beginning, middle and end. And what comes to mind is Katie emailing, “can you call me?” and me emailing, “Yes, like in junior high!” and both of us finding outside spaces. Her on her hot silver rooftop with a cigarette, and me leaning against the warm brick of the cafe. And we talked about finishing things and starting things and how if there’s too much pressure, it’s easier to do nothing and throw up your hands and then jump off the nearest roof, cigarette or not.

And when we hung up, it was clear, again, that the point is just to make things.

Thank goodness.


The friction between

After reading Katherine Boo’s incredible Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I’m on the lookout for other women who’ve addressed themes in nonfiction that, to me, seem like the most death-defying of written feats. Here’s a new one that I’m intrigued by…

“My lodestar, my master narrative, is the friction between violence and beauty, between my hosts’ heartrending candor and crushing disenfranchisement, between the ancient and the modern, between our penchant for bloodshed on the one hand and our inherent defiance of depravity on the other. The intricacies of life are shaped within such precarious balancing.” — Anna Badkhen

Lately I’ve had a hard time perceiving this balance. The violence and bloodshed appear to overtake. 


Just five things, just two things, just one

I remember first reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, with its many top five lists, and all the girls who’d broken the main character’s heart, and all the albums he’d bring with him to a desert island — and, I don’t know, play them with a sharpened palm frond.

I love this idea, not the palm frond — the five things. What if there were just five things to focus on. That’d be so much easier.

This task, from the wonderful people of Write Club Atlanta, asks me to describe five things I am certain of. This is tougher than it sounds. I am usually not certain of anything.

Wait. That for sure is true. Okay. One down.

1) I am usually not certain of anything.

Let’s keep cheating.

2) Pie. This is an easy one. No one is uncertain about pie. Pi, on the other hand, is a different story.

3) Mostly, we are doomed. Collectively and individually. By a lot of things. By our ineptitude, by the global economy, by inequality and randomness and the ever-present specter of fear and regret. By our youth, by our age, by our geography and our class, by our genus and phylum and species. There is no getting around this.

4) You can miss someone forever. You there, who listened to NPR jazz in the back of your parent’s SUV with me. You there, who is the last one to truly remember how slow I used to walk. You there, who buried me in red fleece blankets. Unshakeable, this past. I can’t eat a grain of rice without thinking of my students. I can’t see a motorcycle without thinking of Kompheak. My heart lives in pieces and places. With Oriana in Costa Rica, with my grandmother in Tonawanda.

5) Memory is a luxury. Without it, without remembering, without missing, there’s just now, and you can only be certain of things — really certain — looking back. And nothing can stop doom, not really, not forever, but while it lasts, memory bends time. And when you link your story to mine, we form a chain of memory, unbreakable, unrepeatable, pi in story form.

In my dream, on my desert island, under the stars, we whisper it. We tell it. This whole big story chain.

You are all here, as we fall asleep, as we think about what we know for certain. Just five things. Just two things. Just one.

How I learned to stop falling and love the ground

There’s nothing very glamorous about sidewalks, but I’m obsessed with them, and with the way kids covered everything in hopscotch patterns because three days were nice days, and how the pathways of my neighborhood are overhung with canopies of bright, sticky green leaves. Things bloom again, every year. This is my recurring topic, the one that always edges too close to sentiment but which I can’t overcome. 

There are worrisome things, too. I worry about the garment factory fire in Bangladesh and how I can’t buy anything made there, so let’s keep shopping from my sister’s closet. I worry about the way my first finger curves in the way my Italian grandmother’s does — which she said was from killing chickens, and I’ve never even slain one, and already it’s a little crooked.

Tiny seedlings bloom on the shelf above the television — ready to be planted in our garden plot soon. Their tenacity amazes me. 

I’m thinking of Borges’s garden of forking paths, and all the ones I didn’t take, and how there is luxury in resting.


Another year, another flood

Almost exactly a year ago, I sat in a hospital bed on the ninth floor under a clean white sheet,  in pale blue pajamas, dreading the floods. Calculating. The rise of the waters, the strength of my limbs. The ways that I could and could not leave Bangkok. Everyone, even the doctor himself, was thinking of the floods all the time, and one day he told me there was a conspiracy. See, the government had failed to properly drain a dam, the rice fields should have gone first but to spare them they flooded the industrial areas.

Bangkok was right outside my door but it looked on television like all disasters do in foreign countries. Remote and chaotic, someone’s mistakes compounded by nature.

Who built this place?

 Who built this this silly sodden city of broken wet things? 

The superiority of the outsider shot through with the panic of the imperiled.

Onscreen the waters bobbed and sparkled darkly, swallowed cars, looked innocuous and then terrifying in their languid but endless seeping. Humans in rag doll clothes loaded onto rafts — someone doing the heave-ho.

I watched the news from my bed between spoonfuls of pad Thai which always arrived on a nice ceramic plate sealed under plastic wrap from the hospital kitchen downstairs. Watched. Ate. Calculating. Outside was dry, but for how long? I asked the skyscrapers that twinkled benevolently.

My part of Bangkok, where the hospital was, remained dry. But everything was sandbagged in preparation. Weird little low sandbag walls, maybe two feet high. The hospital said it would evacuate us if we had to go.

Soon I made the decision to leave town, and before long, thanks to my travel insurance and the fortitude of my friends and family, was safely home. But even at home, even then, I couldn’t pass a body of water — a river, a drainage pond — without eyeing the liquid’s distance from the lip. Everything was always almost spilling.

I lived in New York for just a semester. A brief home, but still. To see my former city under similar threats and more…. I’m watching now from Chicago. Watching on a screen, everything filtered through pixels. It could be somewhere far away, but it’s here.  A strange and hard reminder that no matter how far  you are from disaster, you are very, very close.

On waking to a blind tongue

At the coffee shop I’m overhearing a language lesson – Portuguese, according to their thick green paperbacks. The young blonde guy in a black t-shirt listens, stoic, and sips his coffee as the older woman halts and bumps along, stopped by phrases such as, “residential” and “pledge”.

Last year I taught at least a hundred private English classes. For my sweet and daring Japanese ladies, who wanted to know how to write letters to their children’s principal. For my gentle, brilliant Korean girls, who pined to trade any knowledge of English for a normal amount of friends. For Kompheak, who taught me how to ride a dirt bike and how to handle French liquor, not in that order.

There is something so vulnerable about learning a language. Blind tongue, foreign terrain. You are stupid, on purpose.

I felt this way when learning Khmer, learning to say I wanted to go to the market. To say, “beautiful” and “ice”.

It makes me think of my friend Dean who teaches the art of clowning. Clown is the ultimate crash-course in vulnerability. You cultivate a mental state of openness. You enter a room and become reborn, every time. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but I know when I’m in it. It comes on when I take a long walk and everything seems fascinating. Fiery rust etching the glossy black of an iron fence. Leaves made of smaller cells made of smaller cells. You’re awake. I’ve spent long stretches of days like this, but not lately.

It’s been busy; the usual excuses.

At the next table, the woman holds up one hand… she’s saying to her tutor, “Pare pare pare pare….”

 Stop stop stop stop. 

Pie made easier

Once upon a time, I could not make a pie to save my life. That experience is detailed here.  But then, in early July, my dear friend Becky invited me to her house for a pie lesson. I’d been in Boston with my mother for a wedding, and for a mere two hour’s drive, we were rewarded with a dip in the clear blue lake, a porch to sleep on that overlooked the water (ACTUALLY CALLED A “SLEEPING PORCH”. TWO FAVORITE THINGS COMBINED.) And, of course, Becky.

Becky who drives a white convertible through the hills. Becky who tells us stories about her dashing son Solar, who is a pilot, and her rock-and-roll boyfriend, who makes her mix CDs. Becky who plays us these grit-bluesy mixes while we drive with her son in the white convertible, the cool New England wind battering us — hard as the beats but tasting of free-free-free.

Becky pulled me aside in her kitchen as we unpacked the groceries and bottles of Vinho Verde. “This is my pie nook,” she said. It was beautiful. A sunny corner with a low counter, canisters of ingredients and spoons and measuring cups all lined up. (You watch cooking shows and wonder how chefs make things so fast. It’s because the ingredients aren’t in twenty-five different places.)

She showed me how to make a pie an easier way, with just a few measurements. Soon it was ON: my hair tied back with a rubber band, floured up past my wrists. She rolled some dough. I tried rolling. Repeat. I learned to feel it; to feel the mixture’s textures and act confidently, the way the convertible took its curves.

I woke on Becky’s sleeping porch to a blood-orange sunrise — blueberry pie and fresh coffee for breakfast.  It seemed simple, the way pie should be. Closer to how the first pie pilgrims must have operated. Maybe even cave people made pies, for all I know. Everyone needs to eat.


Rock, paper, bones & dangerous Turkish keepsakes

The house down the street is being picked apart, bone by bone, object by object.  It belonged to someone elderly and insane — she kept her old Victrola and about a thousand jelly jars, rugs and sketches and a kitchen stove that could only be used by a time-traveling pioneer. I followed the signs and walked in there with Kerpowski one Saturday. We’d just started dating; it seemed a quirky excursion — and the Victrola was spinning, some hipster hunched over it like a DJ. We stepped over piles of objects, encased in dust. Weeks later, there is a perpetual estate sale. The daughter of this woman is there almost every day, hauling new things to the curb. When I walk by it smells of musty paper — strong as opening an old encyclopedia even twenty feet away. A row of hand-carved chairs sits on the lawn for a ghost audience to watch the proceedings.

The house itself is crumbling like old newsprint; paint peels, shingles shed onto the lawn.

I can’t imagine owning that much stuff. I used to have stuff. And then everything scattered. I boxed it, moved it, unpacked some things but not most. There’s a skeleton in every box now. They’ve been gestating. I know it — growing bone by bone and waiting to pop out of each box first so that they can be first to see the performance, seated in lyre-backed chairs. The Grand Unpacking.

Yesterday my roommates and Eliina helped me fetch the last of my belongings from storage — my books. At last, something for the shelves.

In the bar one night, the Turkish girl — Kerpowski’s ex, counter-intuitively my insta-pal– yelled into my ear. She was visiting from Istanbul. I wanted to hear all of her stories. It was one a.m. and we’d finished off the sweet potato fries.  “In Turkey there’s two things we never throw out,” she shouted and handed me another rum and Coke.

I wonder how many books are hidden in the old paper house, and how many were read and loved, and how many will pass into new hands, for fifty cents, and how many will go back to dust. I wonder about the elderly woman’s daughter, and how many particles of her family’s past she inhales every day. It’s becoming part of her. I wonder whether she’s taking anything back to her own home. Maybe she can’t stand to look at anything. Maybe it’s all skeletons, sleeping and waking under the tinder.

The Turkish girl’s question seemed like a riddle, a koan. Tortoises or teakettles or tin whistles or trout.

Out of everything I left when I moved last year, books were the hardest. Other than people. People, then books. I felt naked in my new city. No one could look at my shelves and know who I was. The book stores in Phnom Penh are full of great paperbacks, photocopied and bound like new books. They are the clones of books left by intellectual backpackers and NGO workers. I immediately started shopping.

But my own books, now, feel right. Comfy. They are the same, too. Awake and fine, totally undramatic in their homecoming.

I’m shouting back at the Turkish girl. This bar is so loud.

“Two things you never throw out? Ok, what are they?”

She raised her glass. I leaned in more. “Books,” she said, “and friends.”

The point is just to make things

By the time I got to the house, I was so hungry that it seemed completely normal to make scrambled eggs.

Last month I visited D.C. for a weekend and through a stroke of luck learned that my old roommate in Phnom Penh, Rachel, was in the area, too.


Rachel lived with me in the apartment with the rusty staircase and the wormy cats that lived on the porch; above the family that sold heaps of pungent fruit downstairs; the friend who dolled me up in the clothes from her boutique so we could make posters proclaiming: SALE! The one I accidentally padlocked in our apartment one morning. The one who accidentally padlocked me in, too. The one who rolled fresh sushi in the back of a van WHILE WE WERE DRIVING DOWN A BUMPY MOUNTAIN PATH because we needed a snack.

American, blonde pixie haircut, been living in Phnom Penh since college. Anyway, Rachel.

She was visiting an aunt in Maryland, and I happened to be in DC. I borrowed an old minivan and drove all the way across town — rattling the whole way, straining to hear the weak prim GPS voice above the din. Not so unlike the van we drove down that mountain.

Finally I arrived — Rachel (RACHEL!) was in her aunt’s kitchen making breakfast (and would I like some?) So I set about making eggs right away. Pulled a few from the carton; grabbed a pan from a hook, dropped in shredded cheddar. Makin’ eggs in a stranger’s kitchen.

Seeing Rachel felt like home, too, because she knows what it’s like to go from Here to There and back again.

Next, a long sunny walk to the park, where we passed a carnival just beginning to set up. A washed-out, rusty carnival — the colors reminded me of Phnom Penh’s pastel amusement parks, where you think — if I get on that ride I’ll plummet to my demise, no matter how cute the smile on that bug-faced rollercoaster. I wondered where that carnival had been; and what it’s like to piece everything together, over and over. Do you get sick of tightening the same bolts?

Then we laid in the cool grass under a cherry tree and blew petals off our palms, catching up on all the stupid stuff. Our favorite Hungarian fashion photographer and his dirty mouth. The new cool restaurants; who’s leaving, who’s staying; The Cambodian girls and our wishes for their precarious or bright futures.

We bought bottles of water from a food stand and started to walk home. That’s when we saw the house. Covered in intricate metal scrollwork, a gingerbread house out of metal and more; everything metallic recycled and affixed in ways that suggested grandeur but up close looked like old eggbeaters and fan blades and muffin tins. In a row of normal-looking suburban homes, suddenly this.

Back at Rachel’s, her aunt unearthed framed drawings by Rachel’s great-grandfather for Vogue magazine, then unrolled an intricate beige silk shawl woven and embroidered in the Phillipines. And, oh, Rachel said, yawning, sipping tea — later she had to make a friend’s wedding dress. Because that’s a weekend project. Her entire family and its lineage burst at the seams with creativity and art.

Days later I Googled the crazy metallic house, and found this video of the owner talking about why he does what he does — tricking out his suburban house in elaborate metal sculpture. The point, he says, is just to make things.

It is the point. It is the point.

One of my favorite days in Phnom Penh: the afternoon I learned how to screenprint. It’d been a hot, horrible weekend. One of those days when you’d rather stay in bed, but it’s too hot in bed, so you walk around like a total zombie and hope your knees don’t melt into your shoes.

But then Rachel called and said she needed a hand screenprinting some fabric in her workshop. I parked my clunky aluminum pedal bike downstairs, walked through a tiny concrete tunnel and then up a dark staircase, certain this had to be the wrong place. But then, the workshop: Light-filled, top floor, a balcony overlooking the outskirts of a bustling market. A smiling Khmer woman was already at work, pushing bright ink through a wood-framed screen onto hand-cut fabric pieces that would become skirts.

That day I helped hose off the silk mesh screens; develop new ones over a light box and, eventually, ink them myself. The work was methodical, and just what I needed.

At sunset on the balcony I saw cross-legged amongst screens propped everywhere and drying in the warm breeze. The orange-sherbert light washed through them and over us. The fabric hung over clothes lines, pink and green flags covered in new inked patterns and scrolls.

Every now and then, like once a year, I have a thought that causes me to stop what I’m doing and sit on the floor. Most recently it was this: My parents have always encouraged me to be a writer, which I think — looking back — seems strange, because no one in our family had ever been a writer. We’ve worked in steel plants and hospitals and car factories and on trains and boxing rings and bars. But there are no writers. I used to think they saw my constant scribbling and thought, well kid, get yourself a bestseller so you don’t have to work. Maybe they just didn’t know the economics of the industry and had miscalculated.

But now I wonder if it was something more; consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if they didn’t see that their little oddball would need some help. Some shielding for the journey, armor against the world’s harshness, and that writing would serve that purpose. Art does this for us. When things are very hard or heartbreaking or weird. When you finally realize that you just do not fit and never will. Again and again, I remember the same lesson. Whatever your art is, hold tight to it. The point is just to make things. Especially when you’re hungry. To reach for an egg in a strange kitchen, and without hesitation, crack it.

Memory: the most unreliable durable refrigerator

My friend Sam sent this story to me today, about how experiences are worthwhile investments because they can be considered “durable consumer goods”.  Like refrigerators and stoves. Things that last more than three years.

It got me thinking about the nature of memory.

Earlier this month I visited D.C., stayed with my old friends Doran and Tina and their adorable kids, and helped out at my old nonprofit job. These were such lovely things, and if I were better at being a blogger of everyday fun, I’d list out the whole itinerary and post photos from Instagram or something. Onward.

Point being. I left my job and life there in something of a rush; packed it all into a borrowed sedan and headed west. I was reeling from a college-boyfriend-heartbreak (everybody now: “awwww….”) and just had to get the hell out of dodge. I’d never take that decision back. Chicago has been everything.

But searching through old writings today (a couple of weeks after my visit)  I found this passage. It’s so strange. I recall that entire city laced with woe-is-me and the alienation of being too young for one’s own high heels, but I must’ve been having something of a good time:

…a beautiful dinner with doran, him hobbling around on his broken leg, where we conspiratorially made fun of the restaurant’s pretensions and drank the best wine, then stopped afterward for ice cream. it seemed like he really understood. or wandering around the sun-soaked botanic gardens with josh, like children fascinated by mysterious misters and textured foliage. or making spaghetti with sarah, meatballs falling as casualties to the kitchen floor. or the feeling of having a going-away dinner that felt crowded, hot, burbling like the spaghetti sauce with love, love, love. or crying at the supply cabinet in my office as i put back the paperclips i never used, and the staples, and feeling a co-worker put his hand in the small of my back as an it-will-be-ok. or lunch with a friend from a museum we often worked with, where she gave me mementos from her colleagues of the museum’s art. or the presents i got from the teachers — pencil holder, sweatshirt, good-luck card, wild flowers that stuck out in all directions and reminded me of the teacher herself, the one from south africa who told the most articulate narratives of growing up. cramming things in — dinner parties, improv shows, nights out out out and hard-working days, each one feeling like a marathon, only to see another marathon right around the corner. and then it was done.

— Sept. 2004