When I moved out of the apartment where I had spent the most tumultuous years of my mid-20s and into my first two-story house, the youngest of my two cats, Birdie, gained two pounds. Two pounds may not seem like a lot, but for little runt-of-the-litter Birdie it meant that she was suddenly 150 percent of her original size, her body stretching longer and her haunches thicker and stronger than they ever were before. I didn’t even need to weigh her to know that she had changed; at the apartment, she had spent most of her hours tucking her meek white and grey body into the corners of closets and crawlspaces, desperate for a pocket of space to call her own. In the house, she will curl up next to me on the couch or bed, and even greet company when they stop by for a visit. She is confident and affectionate, chirping happily as she trots around—she’s practically a brand new cat.
It’s been years now since bashful four-pound Birdie transitioned into brave six-pound Birdie, and it’s hard for me to describe just how significant that move was to people who meet her. “She grew—like a goldfish,” I’ve told friends again and again, but I don’t think cats biologically respond to their surroundings like pet fish, accordioning to fit the space around them. So how do I explain that, as far as I can tell, Birdie needed to live in a house with extra rooms and stairs and a yard in order to become the courageous and empathetic cat she was meant to be?
I was thinking a lot about Birdie on my most recent trip to New York City. It was my seventh trip since first visiting the enormous, sprawling metropolis five years ago, and every time I return I get an adrenaline rush as soon as I see the skyline. As I move through the city, I enter what feels like a meditative state. I ride the subway in blissful anonymity, at peace with my nothingness and marveling at how utterly inconsequential I am to this great big world around me. It might sound counterintuitive, but I go to New York, one of the busiest and most bustling cities in the world, to reconnect with my innermost desires and revel in peaceful solitude.
This time I spent half the trip lost in thought. As I rode the subway cars with my newlywed husband, Ben, and wandered up one block and down another, I could feel myself deflecting one question after another: What’s going to happen to us next? What does it mean that I feel so peaceful here, and that Ben and I seem so happy? Is it just because we’re on vacation? What if we lived here? Could we raise a child in this place, or would that wait until later? Maybe I would lose weight from all the walking, or write a book, or play in a jazz band? What kind of fantastic life could we imagine living out on these dark streets?
On the plane ride out to New York I read a beautiful book by a Minnesota author named Kate Hopper about her experience having a preemie baby. In the book, she finds respite in a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke that I hadn’t heard before, and I found myself repeating it in my head again and again as I paced through Manhattan.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” the quote goes. “The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Live the questions now. Live the questions now. I said it over and over like a mantra, thinking about what Kate had gone through in the book and how tortured I was over a period in my life that was decidedly free of trauma. But the truth is, despite all of the happy developments of the past two years—getting married to a man whom I love deeply and profoundly, and working through one of the most exciting creative periods of my life—I still find myself teetering atop a precipice, desperate to look out into the future and see what comes next.
People talk a lot about the process of getting married, and grappling with what they want to do professionally, and the fear and overwhelming love that sweeps over them when they find out they are pregnant or their first child is born. But what about this grey period that falls between? What about the agonizingly long year or more that might stretch out between when you know you want something, and when you feel like you might finally be ready to dive in? How will I know I’m ready to take the next step? Will Ben know he’s ready? What if we never are?
How long have I been holding my breath in like this?
Every time we go back to New York, I take Ben on at least one dizzying quest to find a place where we can see the whole city at once. We’ve taken ferries to Staten Island and back; we’ve climbed the hills that lead up to the Cloisters; and we’ve paid tourist fees to skyrocket up to the top of the Rockefeller Center—all so I can breathe in the magnitude of the city try to wrap my arms around its endless possibilities.
This time, we rode a subway car underneath the waters of the East River, popped out of a staircase in the trendy neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and walked westward until we hit the riverfront so we could drink in the Manhattan skyline at dusk.
On the ride over, the Rilke quote was still ringing in one ear—Live the questions—but so was the melody of a song by an artist from Minneapolis named Dan Wilson:
In the air the questions hang
Will we get to do something?
Who’re we gonna end up being?
How’re we gonna end up feeling?
Whatcha gonna spend your free life on?
Standing on the bank of the river in Brooklyn, as the sun set behind the south end of Manhattan, I scanned the city from end to end. I couldn’t believe how short the distance seemed between the new Freedom Tower to my left and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings to my right. I knew that the island of Manhattan was only two miles wide and eight miles long, but suddenly it was astonishing to me how manageable it all seemed. I finally knew how to navigate the subway system without getting lost, I knew how to shout my bagel order over the counter without my inner Minnesotan getting embarrassed, and I knew which buildings were in which parts of town, and where the good places were to eat, drink, and live. When had all this happened?
“It looks smaller from here. Doesn’t it look smaller?” I asked Ben, shaking my head. He smiled and shrugged.
Of course the city hadn’t changed at all, at least not in any sizable way we could scope out from that shoreline. But like Birdie had transformed when I moved her into the bigger house, I wondered if this time it was I who had grown. With the wind at my back and the sun sinking behind the buildings in front of me the city fell quiet, and, just for a moment, all of the questions faded away.
The first thing I noticed about her was her hands.
They were dainty and mangled, with each finger starting out on a straight path before being derailed at the knuckle, a row of swollen joints slanting each digit sideways. As she sat deep in thought she rubbed her hands slowly and gently, trading off which hand would go on top like a diner at a sushi restaurant rubs their chopsticks together to make sure there are no splinters.
Despite how painfully arthritic her fingers looked, she still had perfectly manicured nails, and they glimmered under the fluorescent lights with a rosy, pink shine. After we had exchanged niceties and it became clear that she wanted me to sit down across from her and chat, I decided that asking her about something as simple as her fingernails might be a good way to ease into a conversation.
“Oh these?,” she said, bringing her knobby hands up close to her face.
“Aren’t they beautiful? I saw them at the department store. They had these gorgeous nails on display in the front window, on this little rack.” She spread out her fingers as wide as she could. “I couldn’t believe how lovely they were.”
It didn’t make any sense, but I nodded anyway and smiled, hoping she would keep talking. We had started out on rough footing—I think I had caught her off guard when I approached her, and she gave me a gruff, “Whaddya want?”—and I didn’t want to risk confusing her anymore than she clearly already was.
She smiled at me with an overwhelming politeness. She was sitting up perfectly straight on the edge of a sofa, her hair curled into a flawlessly smooth coiffure and her stretchy cotton leggings tucked into clunky, oversized white sneakers, and she carried herself like she was entertaining a roomful of well-to-do revelers at a cocktail party, swiveling her head slowly around the room as she spoke.
“I just got married,” I blurted out, hoping that would nudge our conversation along. “It was a beautiful day. We got married outside in a park, and on the way to the reception there was this crazy storm, but then it was all beautiful again.”
She gasped, and for the first time her eyes locked in on mine, the faintest hint of familiarity lighting up her face and making her silvery irises glint and glow. “Oh, isn’t that wonderful?,” she cooed. “They say rain on a wedding day is good luck. It sounds like you’ll be set!” She let out a cackle and it grew into a hearty laugh, her shoulders bouncing up and down as she enjoyed some kind of inside joke with herself.
“Do you remember your wedding day?,” I asked, and she fell silent, contemplating how to answer my question. I feared I had lost her again, and I could see her eyes going dull and dark, like she was time-traveling to some other dimension.
Before she could answer, another old woman with tousled grey hair standing straight up off her head sat down on the couch and began hollering in our general direction. “Alice!” she barked. “Alice, show her your turkey!”
The woman with the knobby hands and perfect hair snapped back to life, looking over at her companion and then blinking into the fluorescent light, as if waking from an afternoon nap. “Do you want to see it?,” she asked, looking at me eagerly.
“Sure,” I said, and watched her as she slowly rose off the couch and tiptoed across the room, one big bulky tennis shoe in front of the other, to peel a construction paper turkey off a glass window and carry it back to me.
She sat down closer to me this time and held the paper turkey in my hands. Everything about the little crafted creature was delicate and perfect, just like her, with each piece glued right where it was supposed to be and a name written neatly in cursive at its base: “Alice.”
Before I could say anything she dropped the turkey into my lap, grabbed one of my hands and held it up in front of her face. I could see that she was looking at my fingernails, in all their rough, unmanicured, bitten-down ugliness, and was examining the bumps and ridges that have always made my thumbnails especially unsightly.
I looked down at my hand in hers, and for the first time I noticed that her thumbnails were bumpy and full of ridges, too.
“Why do you think our thumbs are like that?” I asked her. “Do you think it’s genetic?”
She looked into my eyes again, and just then the light returned to her face as her head tilted to one side and her own eyes started welling up with tears. I didn’t know what she knew, but as she squeezed my hand tighter it was all I could do to keep from crying myself.
“It’s ok,” I said, nodding my head. “It’s ok, Grandma. It’s ok. It’s me.”
the politics of parties
glancing down at elbows and the carpeting
exposed skin, flushed
necks and hair done up
you looked at me sideways,
like a driver pulling up next to a panhandler at a stoplight
what’s new? you asked
what is new?
but it all felt very, very, very, very old
like someone had put us in the ground together once
mummified, wrapped side by side
and we stayed there for tedious centuries and we turned to dust
and the dust pushed us down into the ground
and the ground gave way to stalks of papyrus or maybe some ragweed
and we grew up, pushed up
and we were supposed to be together, you said
but now we’re ancient
and you’re sidling up to me and shuffling your feet
asking me to humor you and tell you a joke.
the only joke I know is about mummies
and it isn’t even that funny, I said
why did the mummy break up with his girlfriend anyway?
and I could feel the ice melting
in my drink, palms hot, friends
stirring up that familiar murmur,
and you said,
it’s because she was too cryptic.
There are many reasons why I hate writing about my depression, but the most glaring is that it sounds absolutely ridiculous when I describe what I’m experiencing out loud. When you get down to it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I’m madly in love with my partner and we live a relatively easy, privileged life. I work at a place where I feel sincerely valued, in a position that could be accurately described as my dream job. I’m close to my parents and relatives and feel genuinely supported by them and my network of tight-knit, crazy talented and inspiring friends. On the surface and even below it, my life appears to be embarrassingly perfect.
And yet, I feel a deep and impervious sadness. And that sadness is real, however ridiculous I feel it might be. I carry it around like a heavy cloak that I can’t shrug off; one that becomes so oppressive that sometimes even my eyes seem to see the world a shade or two darker than it really is, as if I’m wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night. Sometimes it presses me down into my bed and makes me feel like I could sleep for weeks without ever feeling rested. Sometimes it sucks the joy out of the activities that I love most, making my greatest passions feel like unseemly chores. And sometimes it sneaks up on me at the strangest moments, like just now when I piled all the clean laundry on the bed and then burst into tears at the boring fact that all those demanding, unfolded clothes exist. They exist! And my arms can’t fold them because there I am, crying over nothing yet again.
I wear the cloak almost every day. It has become a normal and expected part of my day-to-day existence. The cloak has become such a reliable companion that my therapist (YES I’M IN THERAPY, and yes I hate the phrase “my therapist” almost as much as I hate having to have one) sometimes joins me in a laugh of relief when I fill out her mood survey and register as “moderately depressed” instead of “severely depressed.” “A good week!” we’ll both titter, because, ha. What other reaction are we supposed to have?
The heavier the cloak becomes, the fewer tears I shed. In my worst moments my brain completely unhinges from my body and floats above my head like a mylar balloon. “Get well soon,” the balloon brain says to the girl with nothing to cry about. The psycho-speak for this effect is something called depersonalization. Some days I’m so far away from my fingers and my gut and my heart that it’s a wonder I manage to write anything at all. Other days my brain only unhinges when I’m under a lot of direct stress, like when I’m about to go live on air. I’ve had moments where I snap back into reality the moment the green light flicks off of my microphone, and I have no idea what I’ve just said or done. “Good job!,” everyone always tells me. I nod my head, but their compliments never manage to penetrate the cloak. I have no way of knowing if I’m doing a good job or not. The velvet curtain keeps me clueless, and alone.
There are days when I can feel the sadness of the world pressing down on me. I think about the man who tried to jump off the bridge next to my house — he looked just like my dad — and all the lonely people whose cloaks have become so heavy and opaque that they’ll do anything to find a new source of light. I think about the fact that I will outlive both of my cats, whom I can’t fathom living without, and then wander on to the even more unfathomable idea of losing my grandparents or parents. I think about my friends with real, tangible, physical problems. Friends who are sick. Friends who have lost more than I can imagine. Friends who are dying. Friends who are so angry, or disappointed, or disgusted with the world that they’ve given up all hope.
I still have hope. Despite all of this seemingly melodramatic bullshit, I do have hope. Here’s a random story: when I was 18 and just figuring out what I wanted to do in this world, a sled dog racer came to my suburban hippie high school and delivered one simple, memorable message to the graduating class. Find your spark, and spend your whole life guarding it so it doesn’t burn out. Find your spark, and turn it into a fire. Some of my classmates laughed at how new agey the whole speech was, but I’ll never forget it. So many people lose sight of what they wanted to become. There are so many day-to-day worries that can distract us from pursuing our dreams. But I knew what I wanted to be, and then over the years somehow I became it. I’ve spent my entire adult life working toward a singular goal, at the expense of almost everything else. I left a whole entire marriage behind because my partner didn’t support my passion. I fought, and fought, and fought, and now here I am living my dream atop a fluffy whipped cream cloud. For the most part, I have become exactly who I wanted to be. What the hell do I have to complain about?
I can feel that I’m at a turning point in my life. And this time, for perhaps the first time in my life, that turning point doesn’t involve leaving anything behind. There is no unhappy romantic situation to flee from, or not-quite-right job to ditch. Everything that lies ahead is happy, and exciting, and real. A family. An enduring partnership. A promising and fulfilling career. All signs point to the notion that no matter how much I worry and no matter how far my head floats above my body, things are probably going to be ok.
I just need to find a place to hang up my cloak.
When I was two years old my parents made the wise decision to move out of the teeny tiny trailer they were renting in Barnum, Minnesota, and buy their first teeny tiny house in the neighboring town of Moose Lake.
I don’t really remember the move, of course, but my mom likes to tell the story of how I darted through the house during a walk-through frantically trying to flip on all the light switches before the electricity had been turned on and marveling at the fact that I’d have my own room. A few years later, my parents would let me choose the paint color for that room, and I would pick out a blaring Pepto Bismol pink. My bedroom was just large enough to fit a twin bed, desk, dresser, and shelf overflowing with toys, and was so poorly insulated that they would tuck me underneath six or seven blankets in the winter to keep me warm; to this day, I still sleep best in cool air, with a heavy weight pressing down upon me. But it was the first space that I remember having the privilege to call my own, and I lived there for 10 years—the longest stretch of time I’ve spent tied to a single residence so far in this life.
What the house lacked in square feet it made up for in property value, as it sat directly across the street from the shore of the town’s namesake Moosehead Lake. For a long stretch of my childhood I recall sitting out on the dock after dinner and watching the sun go down over the water. As I remember it, I was often alone on that dock, but the truth probably was that I was just far enough out of reach of my parents that it gave me my first taste of independence. As soon as I got permission to ride my bike without supervision I would take off down the street and pedal alongside the lake for a good mile, then pull my bike up under the Main Street bridge and sit cross-legged on the bank right where the Moose Head River bubbled into the lake. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little lakeshore house and the hours spent communing with the water taught me the value of solitude and savoring the rare quiet moment; it’s something I still seek out to this day, especially now that I live in a much faster paced city.
I remember so many of the details of that house vividly. The wood-paneled walls; the drab brown carpet; the rotary dial telephone that hung in the hall outside my room; the three steps that led down from the dining room to the living room and were the site of so many dance performances and mini-plays. I remember when we got our first computer, and how the dot matrix printer clacked and sputtered so loudly that it would drown out the TV. I remember waking up in a fright and doing an army-crawl from my room to the edge of my parents’ waterbed, convinced that either a robber or a bear or perhaps an especially skilled robber-bear was going to apprehend me in the night. And I remember that there was always music, whether it was my dad playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on his acoustic guitar to soothe a tantrum or my mom playing movie themes on the piano or the turntable spinning Linda Rondstandt, Paul Simon, and endless Beatles, Beatles, Beatles as we all sang along. It was just the three of us, and inside those walls we formed a unit that felt impenetrable.
When I was halfway through sixth grade my parents sat me down at our cramped dinner table — an arrangement so compact that I would have to stand up and move my chair in order for someone to access to the oven, which never seemed like an inconvenience but now feels ridiculous — and told me that it looked like we were going to have to move. The Moose Lake State Hospital, where my dad worked as a physical therapist for my entire childhood and where he had met my mother while she was working a summer job there during college, was going to close. My dad was being transferred to some faraway place named Faribault to help them close another state hospital, and my mom and I were going with him to find a house and live in a suburb called Apple Valley. The schools there were excellent, my parents said. I would have more opportunities, my parents said. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t Moose Lake. And I somehow knew that nothing would ever feel the same again.
Since that time, my roots have remained deeply planted in my hometown. All four of my grandparents still live in Moose Lake and Barnum, and each trip up north is accompanied by a nostalgic lap around the lake and a drive past my old house, which until this year had endured a couple of questionable exterior paint jobs and one particularly neglectful owner but otherwise remained exactly the same. There was something reassuring about driving past it and glimpsing, even for a moment, my old blissfully simple life.
But Moose Lake has also been a great source of sadness for me. In one particularly devastating year, I received a string of terrible updates from the homeland: A childhood friend who I had known since daycare had dropped dead of a brain aneurysm just days before graduating from high school. A young woman from my church who was just a year or two older than me was abducted from a gas station at the edge of town, went missing for quite some time, and eventually was discovered to have suffered a brutal and horrifying death. And another friend, this time an elementary school classmate, was struck and killed by a drunk driver while out on a dark farm road delivering a pizza.
I was 16 at the time of all those tragedies, and each update pricked another hole into my deflating psyche. Though I wouldn’t find a way to verbalize it until years later, those Moose Lake heartbreaks shoved me into my first throes of depression, and effectively shattered the illusion of bulletproof security and the innocence of my childhood.
So when I found out that the same river I used to flock to as a kid was overflowing and dumping incalculable gallons of extra water into my beloved Moosehead Lake, it felt like jumping up to try to sprint on a broken foot that’s never quite healed. The ache returned immediately as I watched video of an old neighbor — a boy I used to baby-sit when he was only one year old! — grapple with the fact that his own childhood home was filling with water. And it grew into a throbbing sadness when I saw an old fifth-grade teacher, who is now the superintendent of the entire district, stand atop the roof of my elementary school and look out at a playground and campus submerged with water, rendered powerless by the disaster.
Thankfully, my grandparents escaped the floodwaters and their house at the edge of town remains unharmed, but many old neighbors and friends did not fare as well. Today, news came that my old house suffered so much damage in the flood that it has been deemed uninhabitable and condemned. There’s a good chance that my next trip home will be my final chance to take a leisurely drive around the lakeshore and see that house standing. It seems illogical to mourn a building, but with this news I’ve suddenly found that a term I learned just this year, “ambiguous loss,” has taken on a profound meaning.
It’s not the first time Moose Lake has endured such grand devastation. In 1918, my great-grandmother was among the many residents who fled into the water and watched as a fire tore apart their town and burned their houses to the ground. The town persevered and rebuilt and eventually rejoiced, and they will do it again following this year’s flood. And as the town rises once again so will I, each of us spurned on by the defiant resilience of nature and community and human life.
So I suppose that in the midst of this ambiguous loss, there is solace: I know, now, how to ebb and flow. I learned it from the water.
What are Bon Iver and James Blake doing in Fall Creek? This might be the most absurd/best thing we’ve ever posted on Gimme Noise.
Blast from the past. More pics on my Facebook.
Getting ready for the Ike Reilly show at First Avenue tonight, which marks the 10 year anniversary of the first time I saw live music at a bar, first time I met Jim, first time I got kicked in the teeth by rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all more than words can describe and it’s all been said already. I think I’ll just have some Jameson on the rocks and throw myself in.