Soft Animal

I read somewhere recently that your body is the only way you have any experiences in the world.

This is painfully obvious, maybe, but it wasn’t to me. As a post-Enlightenment person, I’ve struggled for many years against the feeling that I am a rather defective brain in a vat. That is to say, “I” am my brain, and my vat is this meat-suit that for some reason cannot process certain ordinary foods and which gets sleepy at inconvenient times.

But I am the vat. So is my brain. Everything my brain has ever done has been because the vat was there to do it. At the end of the day, my brain is an organ that feasts on glucose and relies on other squishy little organs to function. Every shard of love, every brilliant thought, every heart-piercing thrill, happened in my body.

Now, where did I read this helpful little nugget of wisdom? On the Internet somewhere, which means I have no idea who said it or in what context, because the Internet is a soup of free-floating little ideas. Just like brains in vats, ideas on the Internet are rootless entities. The Internet is a masquerade ball for brains, the place where brains go to be on holiday from their vats. On the Internet we’re all just user-names, cell numbers, saying words, needing nothing but electricity to work. I send memes or thinking-of-you texts to a username or a cell number and I truly believe, if I don’t bother thinking about it too hard, that I am communicating directly with a person I care about. I forget that I’m using my body to talk to a machine, relying on the fact that the person I care about will use their body to talk to their machine soon and we will thereby be connected. But that person is not their cell number, their Instagram inbox, any more than the love I feel for them is the digital photo of the enormously fat grizzly bear I send them.

Online we are stripped down to pure thought, pure language. This illusion is quite an ego trip for the brain, which is humiliated to be so dependent on its embarrassing and unpredictable body.

I haven’t been writing much. I forget to do it, if I don’t have my to-do list helping remind me to. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a writer is someone who can’t help themselves from writing. On the contrary; it’s very easy to avoid it for days, weeks, years. Especially the hard parts: long projects, messy ones. Ones that require research. It’s the easiest thing in the world not to, just as it’s terribly easy not to eat vegetables, for a while.)

Every so often I realize I “should” post something here. Then I consult my trusty box of ideas. Twenty-five pages of them. I scroll down from the top, up from the bottom, middle out. But there’s often just a shrug awaiting me there. A lot of the ideas have really missed their moment (sorry, guys). A lot of other ones are very heady—maybe the kind of thing my brain fancies itself impressive for even considering writing, but the rest of me just goes—

Give it a rest, nerd.

So on a quiet afternoon, here’s where I find myself: low energy. It’s raining outside. The bright yellow leaves look especially brilliant against the gloomy gray. Mug of chai with some extra ginger slices in. Bright-red fall-scented candle making it all smell pretty spicy in here. Between books and board games and Sunday dinner.

If there is a time for my brain to charge ahead, write some impressive thing or other, this is not it. Today is a day, with apologies to Mary Oliver, for the soft animal of my body to love what it loves.

Yes. And.

Today is a grief with no name, an anxiety with a dozen hydra heads.

It’s a mega pot of ramen made in a trembling frenzy.

Two carrots, a shallot, a tub of leftover vegetables.

An egg, American cheese.

Sesame oil, soy sauce, Marmite, chili garlic paste, Old Bay, oyster sauce.

Too many flavors. Too big for an ordinary bowl.

Put it all into the sunshine, then into the belly, then the belly into the sunshine.

That’s better.

The grief takes a step back and folds its arms. ⠀

The ginkgoes throw their hands up in a shrug dance.

A white butterfly manically meanders for flowers.

Dogs ruckus.

An artist sands her chair.

Dozens of unread lives wait to be read on the shelf.

Sweet tea mixes with milk.

We smile at each other.

Yes. And.

A Lament for California in the 21st Century

I was born in upper Alta California in the late 20th century.

By that time, there were some people who looked calling themselves sixth-generation, which was very impressive indeed.

I couldn’t boast that long background. Like many, I was the first of my family to be born in California, my parents and grandparents having chosen it for its Edenic qualities: its variety of stunning topography, its mild climate, its vibrant economy, its friendly culture.

They were looking for Eden, like we all do. Like those who flooded west 172 years ago ready to fill their pockets with gold.

The land wasn’t empty then. That’s why it was a garden.

We killed Lilith the gardener. We had done this many times before. We excelled at it, down to a science.

The garden began to shrivel, grow brittle. It caught fire.

Again and again and again and again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about where to go next. This damp place where I write this has always felt like a phase rather than a home. I always thought I’d go back.

Not quite ten years ago I left a dry Spanish-golden-grass place, mild and inviting, where the landscape was all crag and roll and flow and crash, for a wet lakebed place, where the tallest hill was a rise of just twenty feet or so, where it sometimes snowed in late April. From there I went to the gray-green fjordy place, and then to the crater-bottom saltwater airwater place, with the stinging winter winds and the mildewy summer heat.

All along the golden place awaited me. I never said goodbye to it, because I never meant to leave it, not forever.

But having left, I see sharply how often it’s on fire. More, longer, hotter, bigger every year. It’s not the rare one-off anymore when the sky turns brown and the sun comes through yellow and your eyes sting. 

If I were already there, I would not leave. Probably not. 

I am the opposite of indigenous. Not only am I a white American, which means that my ancestors all came here from Europe in relatively recent history. But also, I am that brand of privileged, educated white American who has hopped from place to place to go to school and to get various jobs irrespective of place. I made places everywhere I went; places remade themselves to suit me.

Now I want a place.

I crave being indigenous to somewhere. But where? The average location of my genes is somewhere in the center of England, probably, and that is not my home. The average of where my parents spent their childhoods is somewhere around the middle of this country, and that is not my home. I grew up in Sacramento. That could very well be home, but making it home would be nearly as free a choice as moving to Duluth would be, and that makes me sad. It’s a consumer choice, a menu item. A great and terrible freedom.

“Where do you want to be?” people ask us.

Everyone hears good things about Colorado. It’s also on fire a good deal.

The menu options all have asterisks now, with the rising water and the mega-storms and the smoke and the fire and the floods and the cost of living and the battlefields being set for the future water wars. I don’t want my children to fight in them.

California is stacked high with tinder, with malls and shell mounds, with oaks and homes.

The orange sky, we know in our bones, is an omen. We know this as every human knows an omen when the sky is the wrong color. It’s an omen of something we already know as a fact. The smell in our noses like a cozy, devouring campfire, a sickening thought.

But is it so bad? The risk of actually being evacuated is low, if one chooses the right rise for the placement of one’s house, and the risk of actual fire damage much lower still. Yes, you will deal with the smoke; you will feel grief gnawing your belly when you see the pictures of the forests taken up in red and nearby people’s houses taken down to the foundations. But it won’t take down your house, probably. It almost certainly won’t take your life. It probably won’t send you packing in the middle of the night down the snaking two-lane highway into the dark.

Can you take it?

Is it worse than a hurricane? Is it worse than tornadoes? Is it worse than the mystical fear of the volcano spewing hot-wet earth down the valley? Is it worse than the earth opening up, splitting the fence, sending the car careening off the bridge? Is it worse than flat-wet tedium?

I’m selfish. I want a little house in the trees where nothing will ever go wrong and nothing will ever hurt. It would be unjust if I got my wish. 

I said it aloud during the thunderstorms. Maybe I cursed it. I said: this rain will dampen the land. But the rain was paltry. The lightning singed right through it. 

When the forest burns and the air turns orange and thick with the smell of it, we’re breathing in the forest. Just like the forest breathed us all these years. 

A mild loathing

As someone ever desirous of categorizing herself, allow me to introduce another category: misophonia. Sadly this is not a telephonic hotline leading to delicious soup. Instead, it is the hatred of sound.

Do you have misophonia? Here are some signs:

  • Glaring at loved ones and strangers alike when they make ordinary human noises, and then they either go “what?” or smile at you like you’re just saying hi, when actually you’re hoping they’ll understand from your look that you’d like them to enter a magical cone of silence;
  • Wanting to scream when people call using the speaker setting in public, especially when they for some reason decide to talk louder because of it, as though the phone can’t hear them even though they’re shouting directly into it;
  • Feeling physically itchy when you can sort of hear the TV through the wall you share with your neighbor’s apartment, and walking down the hallway a few times before midnight to try to get up the courage to knock on the door, which seems less passive-aggressive than just knocking on the shared wall, but ultimately not doing either one and just sighing loudly to yourself;
  • Nausea brought on by such daily occurrences as the scrape of a fork on someone’s tooth, the clank of plates going in or out of the cupboard, the rush of a car driving past, or that bizarre rumble that probably has something to do with construction but might be some kind of haunting;
  • Whipping open the bedroom curtains at 6:32 every morning when the horrible neighbor BEEP-BEEPs their car unlocked and then remotely starts the ignition, then staring at the car as though it will stop it growling in idle for ten to fifteen horrible low-frequency, high-greenhouse-gas minutes until Their Majesty the neighbor sees fit to actually get out of their house and get in the damn thing, as though it’s so hard to just start the car when you’re in it like a normal person, my God;
  • Passive-aggressive door closing when people dare to speak out loud in the hallway of the office (RIP);
  • Etc.

This all sounds (no pun intended) fun, right?

There’s no cure for misophonia, probably partly because it’s not even really a medically recognized “thing.” The therapeutic advice comes in two flavors: (1) alter your environment to the extent you can, such as by investing in noise-cancelling headphones and using them to play nature sounds that drown out city sounds, and/or (2) practicing mindfulness.

I’ve done a lot more of the former than of the latter, even to the point that a coworker once taped a comic to my office door poking fun at my frequent use of giant headphones in the office. Well, maybe if you didn’t yell-laugh in the hallway, Kevin, you’d be able to see my ears more often, but here we are.

(And yes, I’m aware of the irony of trying to escape sensory overstimulation by engaging my senses constantly. I have invited myself to kick this habit, and I have not yet done it. Perhaps someday. For the moment, yes, I’d rather listen to a song or podcast I chose than traffic noise I didn’t.)

Something I’m much less adept at is the mindfulness part. As anyone who’s ever struggled to meditate can attest, it’s hard. And avoiding mindfulness is, frankly, pretty fun for my ego: I suspect that part of my misophonia is the rather self-important desire to be unaffected by the world, the desire to be completely unbothered and at peace. Tough luck, says the world, you’re here with all of us, and you ain’t special.

Hm. Fair enough, I guess.

But here’s the thing: noise isn’t just something that I happen to dislike, the way I dislike Swiss chard but am totally fine with everyone else charding it up to their hearts’ content. It provokes in me an actual physical stress response, sort of like what I imagine an acrophobic person feels on top of a ladder.

And it’s not just me! No: noise pollution, like air pollution and water pollution, is an actual public-health and environmental hazard. According to a recent New Yorker article:

Studies have shown that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to many alarming problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, and all the physical, cognitive, and emotional issues that arise from being too distracted to focus on complex tasks and from never getting enough sleep. And the noise that we produce doesn’t harm only us. Scientists have begun to document the effects of human-generated sound on non-humans—effects that can be as devastating as those of more tangible forms of ecological desecration. Les Blomberg, the founder and executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, based in Montpelier, Vermont, told me, “What we’re doing to our soundscape is littering it. It’s aural litter—acoustical litter—and, if you could see what you hear, it would look like piles and piles of McDonald’s wrappers, just thrown out the window as we go driving down the road.”

As is true with all kinds of pollution, those with the most privilege are best able to avoid the nuisance. Those without privilege are forced to suffer.

If you don’t have the money to go to The Hamptons, or the Catskills, or have a car, or anything like that, then, you can’t escape it. You’re stuck with it, and a lot of research has shown, it’s the people that are stuck with it that are affected the most. Unfortunately, that makes for a lot of poor, a lot of minority neighborhoods [in New York City] that are dealing with the most noise, and they’re the ones that can’t leave.

Paige Towers,

So think of me and those like me, those of us glaring at you and putting our hands to our ears like children on the platform when the train screams to a stop—think of us as the canaries in this noisy coal mine. You’re all stressed too, on a cellular level. You’re just not aware of it. Or you weren’t before, but now you are, because I’m staring at you and hoping that you’ll consider closing your mouth while you eat that carrot, and that car manufacturers will decide to stop making cars that honk other than in danger.

You’re welcome.

January 25, 2015

The breeze is drawing little crosshatch patterns on the tidewater like skin seen from close up. 

The Sound is so inaccessible but this gap feels like infinite breathing room. Big splooshes of invisible fishes nearby, and waterfowl and bald eagles. We’re still in view of housing developments but we all get a respite anyway. 

There’s the universal smell of saltwater and damp ancient rocks. 

The forest has changed

The forest has changed.

In March, I started walking almost daily in it. There was no sign of spring yet, just brown and gray hillocks clustered with bare trees.

It took weeks for the small weeds clustering the floor to leaf out. This made me ecstatic. Tiny signals of spring. Little neon fingers of yellowest green began peeking out at the tops of the trees, in time, but I could still see straight through the forest to the sky, through the park to the houses.

I don’t know when it happened but the forest changed.

Maybe I walked in it less frequently for a few weeks in April, or maybe April zipped by me while I napped. But this week, I got lost several times on paths I came to know well in their brown phase.

Curious signposts were all I had to anchor me in the riotous expanse of green that was just yesterday an austere expanse of brown. A tree cut off about ten feet high, its stump shredded like a Troll doll’s hair, was my surprising signpost yesterday. I’m here? And there I was. Without that tree I would have thought I were a mile away from where I actually was, because all the other trees are masquerading as strangers. Or maybe their masks are off, now. I’m not sure which.

I’m not a parent but this must be what it’s like to watch your child grow up. Day by day, minute by minute, change is imperceptible. Then all of a sudden, the infant is running and speaking in full sentences.

Change is like that.

Today I walked six miles in sandals, which I don’t recommend, but in fairness I didn’t plan it. Once I got to the trees I turned the wrong direction on purpose and kept going. I needed it.

The wind was sowing pollen everywhere like snow, and it was gusting every which way, a mercy in the sudden summer heat today brought. Whenever I am in the trees and I feel the wind, I think of Elijah:

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

1 Kings 19:11-13

The problem is, I stubbornly remember this passage wrong. The Lord was not in the wind, it says, but I think he often is. He’s in the silence too, and sometimes the earthquake and the fire. Wind, definitely. The Lord is in the wind. So are allergens. It’s all part of it. Having a humble, sneezy, blister-footed body is part of it.

The creek was calling to me, and I’m usually in too much of a hurry (officially running, officially walking, must get back, no time to spare!) but today, not so much. I bushwhacked a few yards and sat on a rock to soak my feet in it.

God’s in the creek, too.

The last several miles were through neighborhoods, where kids biked around in swimsuits and neighbors sat on many stoops drinking and talking at a distance. Men armed with spatulas and spray cans of OFF faced their barbecues. Groups of friends sat in large circles on lawns.

It’s coming to seem as though socializing outdoors is a lot safer than we’d thought, and indoors is more dangerous than we’d thought. The rule of six-feet doesn’t apply evenly because of airflow. Indoors, you might have the same sickly air passing you by for hours. Outdoors, it all circulates globally and winds carry it in all directions, and it’s hard to get to a dangerous concentration.

There’s something poetic about this, although I’m wary of ending with a trite, privileged optimism. But I can’t help it: I love the idea that we can all, maybe, sit outside together, even this summer, under the trees. Golden summer can still happen.


When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”

Mary Oliver

December 30, 2014

I’ve started to recognize this mountain like a human face. This strikes me as odd somehow and deeply intimate, although I am not sure why. I am able to recognize city streets, freeway off ramps, curves in a trail. But the mountain, too, has a face. Each of the hulking volcanoes along the Cascades has her own face, and I start to know them all. 

Rainier is the one I see daily. At roughly 8:34 in the morning as I descend St. Helens Avenue, late as always to work, there’s a moment at the old car dealership where Rainier appears. If the morning is even a bit clear, the mountain bellows from the hollow in between the buildings over the Puyallup River. I only have a few seconds of the view before the road again dips between the buildings and it is lost. But temporarily it is a riot of gold, haloed in a cloud or—on the rarest of days—crisply visible to the tip.

This is how I have memorized the ragged top of Rainier. I now recognize it instantly in photos, distinct from Hood or Baker. Rainier has that odd rounded top settled into a crevasse. Is that right? I can’t be sure. Perhaps this knowledge is partly cheating, as I see the mountain on every license plate around me daily. But I also can distinguish it from Hood – that one, a simple triangle. 

It surprises me that it surprises me that I should become aware of my surroundings like this. 

The mountain with the mothers, 2016.

Happy Mother’s Day!

When I am grumpy

When I am already grumpy is when my clothes don’t fit right, when my shirt gets stuck around my ears somehow. My pockets hook around door handles, yanking me backward when I’m already rushing around. The neighbors shout and turn their TVs up and my brain can’t tune out the wah-wah-wah noises. The tea is too hot. I spill boiling water everywhere. The weather goes bad—sticky and hot when I want to run, giving me a headache, but turning chilly and clouding over when I try to sit outside with a book. Every car lays on its horn. My stomach hurts. My headphones glitch. My hair falls across my face and into my ears, feeling exactly like ants. I can’t get comfortable because the bench is too straight-backed. Even the goddamn bird song is loud and piercing. 

Then I let the tea cool a bit, and I drink it down (Earl Grey with honey and milk, perhaps the best beverage). I read a paragraph over and over again, unable to absorb it because that woman in that one apartment keeps laughing, and someone else appears to be learning how to play the drums.

More tea. I finally make it through the paragraph and something in it inspires a fun detail for Book Three. I write it down. The breeze is starting to feel very nice. Birds are zooming and cooing. I think about how some people are very energized by living in a city, precisely because of these things that so often set my teeth on edge: the unpredictable, chaotic, joyful, tense, terribly human sights and sounds.

In spite of myself, I relax and I decide I’m going to make it through the afternoon.

On an unrelated note: how can we city-dwellers let out some good bloodcurdling-scream energy without having the authorities called on us?

Allergy season

I thought I was going to get away scot-free. It was nothing like last year yet, when I’d have coughing fits so strangling that I would be stuck with my eyes streaming until the pollen let go of my throat. It’s been rainy and cool. The trees leafed out without incident.

I thought I was safe.

But no, this allergy season is merely delayed, my friends. The pollen is falling in a thick powdery blanket of menace. It’s my fourth spring in DC, and I know what’s coming based on how grumpy and itchy I am. This is just the beginning.

My kidneys itch. My liver itches. My emotions itch. Every inch of my clothes itches every inch of my skin. It’s as though someone has sprayed quite a lot of corn starch into my throat, and put sand all over my body. 

Why would they do this? 

Maybe it’s the plants’ revenge, or maybe just their triumphant aria, the price to pay for how quiet they go all winter, the celebration that WE’RE ALIVE, BITCHES. After being cooped up like that, battening down the hatches in the cold and wind, I totally understand the desire to let your hair down and scream a little bit. 

I just wish they wouldn’t demand that I scream along with them. 

Plants, listen: you want us to be able to breathe free and clear. We exhale that yummy CO2 that you love. Let us do it freely, please? 

But, really, whatever you need. I’m just glad you’re still around. I guess I can choke a bit for a few weeks in exchange for all the oxygen you make, keeping me breathing otherwise.

You’re right. I’m sorry I complained. Confetti the world with your gifts, friends.