What I Did on My Summer Vacation, 2018 edition

Some of you might know this already, and maybe a lot of you don’t. Blogging is actually hard.

It’s especially hard for writers like me, who have periods of creativity and then periods of drought. (I actually think of it less like a drought and more like living life, priming the pump, re-filling my stores.) I’m also an Aries sun sign blessed with Virgo SOMEwhere in my chart, which means I get excited about my projects, organize the hell out of them, start them, and then get tired. I’m also a Scorpio rising, which means a lot of my projects stay private, so no one ever knows what the fuck I’m doing.

I digress. What I was saying: blogging is hard for writers like me, who started out writing so many years ago with notebook paper and pen. Who carried notebooks and binders around with them everywhere so whenever they had an extra minute or an idea, they could sit and physically write everything down.

I used to be a prolific writer. Poems used to come easily, and prose even more so. The real work was in the revision, and I did it, but not with so much attention. Because I was also busy being young and living and not understanding that revision is not only about what’s on the page — it’s also about reading the self and understanding what it’s trying to say to you. These days, I sit with poems in their revision phase for months at a time. Sometimes years. I think about intent. I think about voice. I think about character. Who is the voice that is speaking through me? Why are they speaking through me? Is it me? Is it someone else? What do they want? (What do I want?) How are they saying it? What matters about how they say it?

So anyway. I forget where I was going with this. Oh yes. My point: blogging is hard for me. When I’m writing for the page, I do not (and cannot) blog. When I am not able to write for the page for whatever reason, I blog instead. And when I cannot do either, I live. I try to stay present, in the present.

This summer, I’ve been doing a little bit of everything. I went on my first-ever writing residency in Knoxville, Tennessee. I stayed at Sundress Academy for the Arts’ Firefly Farms, caring for a dear donkey named Jayne, a sass-machine goat named Munchma, tons of sheep, and some pesky (but entirely relatable) chickens. And when I wasn’t throwing down bales of hay or hand-feeding Jayne treats, I was reading and writing. I wrote pages and pages of prose about food and family and memory and relationships and everything in between. I wrote more poems than I’ve written in the past year. And I’m excited. I finally feel like my full and actual writer self again.

***

M and I moved to a new place. It’s a townhouse in the same neighborhood we’ve been in for the past 6 or 7 years. We weren’t expecting to move, but when we made the decision to do it, it felt like exactly the right thing to do. We hit hiccups here and there, and there was sweat and there were tears, but I’ll tell you one thing: if you can, hire movers. I can’t tell you what joy I had watching two young college-aged men efficiently carry all our furniture and all our heavy boxes out of our old apartment and into our new place. If you can afford it, it’s well worth it, even if you can only afford to hire them to move your heavy stuff. I swear to you. Worth. All. The. Pennies.

***
We also took a spontaneous trip to Seattle to see Pearl Jam. I came home from work one night, and M said, “So…you want to go to Seattle tomorrow? To see Pearl Jam?” It’s been a dream of M’s to see Pearl Jam in their hometown, so we did it. We spent 36 hours in my favorite city, and we didn’t get to see or do much outside of waiting in a merch table line for 4 hours, or actually watching Pearl Jam perform a truly epic 3.5 hour show, or getting within an arm’s length of Eddie Vedder.

But we did have some delicious and unexpectedly comforting noodles though. I still think about them.

***
What else did I do this summer? I got a new job. At a bakery.

Do you remember that scene from Office Space? The one at the end when Ron Livingston’s character is finally free of his cubicle job, and he’s relishing in his new job as a construction worker? That moment when he stops shoveling for a minute, smiles at the sunshine, takes in a deep breath of fresh air, and finally looks content?

That’s me these days. It’s not easy work, and some days I come home with my body aching and cramping in places I didn’t know could ache and cramp. Sometimes I find gigantic bruises on my legs that I don’t remember getting, but then I vaguely remember that something happened and it hurt a lot, but I kept moving and then I forgot about it. (Kind of like life.)

But I learn something new every day. How to make neat-edged cookies. How to wrap treats and box them neatly. Remembering complicated orders. How to work quickly without fucking up, which I am not always successful at, but I’m learning. All of these are little things that, if you’ve never worked in the service industry, you take for granted.

(Also, an aside: tip your servers. Always. At least 20%. If there is an option to tip (do you see a tip jar? when you pay with your card, does it give you the option to tip? etc.), always do it. The people who serve you bust their asses every fucking day and they don’t get paid enough to do it with the amount of patience and grace that they do. Believe me. Okay, stepping off my soap box now.)

So anyway. I’m doing something completely new and different. It’s hard work, but I like it. It’s teaching me a lot in terms of tangible skills, but also more important things about truly and actually caring for the self physically. I’ve learned so much over the years about emotional and psychological self-care, but physical self-care has come as an after-thought. This new work is forcing me to pay attention to my body and listen to it. If I don’t, I literally cannot do the work.

***

What’s ahead? I don’t know yet. I’m working on some things. After the heat and excitement and ever-changing days of summer, I’ll be shifting my attention to writing projects outside the blog for awhile. Friday Bites will not be making its regularly scheduled appearances, but I’ll still be writing about cooking and baking and sharing my home creations on the blog. Scary movie season is upon us (although it’s really year-round for me), so I might jump back into my Days of Horror series soon.

The name of the game these days is staying open and flexible, working with what I have, and, as always, staying grounded amidst the vast fields of uncertainty that life is made of. Stay tuned.

More Disasters, Stubborn Bananas, and a Meditation on Creating as a Response to Violence

Wow, y’all. I have not fucked up this much food this many times in recent memory.

I started this week off with a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook, Simply Nigella: Thai Noodles with Cinnamon and Shrimp.

It sounds amazing, right? I was so excited to make this and then eat it. My mouth watered just imagining the umami flavors of the soy and oyster sauces fusing with the sweetness of the cinnamon and cloves to create a flavor bomb of awesomeness.

What I made was the exact opposite of that. I had double the noodles and double the shrimp, so I thought I would just double the sauce, which has large quantities of light and dark soy sauces (??? I don’t know the difference ???), oyster sauce, a concoction of dark soy sauce and brown sugar, pepper, chicken broth concentrate, and water.

I thought I had everything under control. I marveled at the darkness of the sauce and the smell of the garlic and ginger and the cinnamon sticks and the star anise as it simmered and bubbled in the pot. It truly smelled incredible. Then, I dumped in my shrimp. I stirred them around and realized I had made a huge mistake. The shrimp were so coated in the sauce that I wouldn’t be able to tell when the shrimp turned pink because the sauce was so dark.

I shrugged and thought, oh well. Shrimp don’t take too long to cook, and when I put the noodles in, they will soak up the sauce, the shrimp will turn back to a normal color, and everything will balance out.

I dumped the noodles into the pot, and they also turned dark. The more I tossed the ingredients together, the more everything simply turned full dark, no stars.

And not only was every ingredient of the dish just the same shade of dark, they were amazingly, incredibly salty. I tasted one shrimp and thought it wasn’t too bad. When I ate an entire bowl, though, I had to chug water every couple of bites because I was afraid of shriveling up like those aliens in The Faculty

Even through the saltiness though, I could taste the sweetness of the spices. I could taste what the dish was like under all its darkness.

***
These goddamn bananas are driving me nuts. They are still ripening.

So still no banana cream pie this week. My baking fingers are itching to make something.

***
I’ll be honest. For the past week and a half or so, my body has been preparing to shed its uterine lining. (Yes, I’m going to talk about periods. Deal with it.) This means that my energy has been super low, my ovaries have randomly felt like they were trying to rip their way out of my body, and I’ve been hungering for moderately salty foods  (i.e. NOT the monstrosity I made of Nigella's recipe) and deeply chocolate foods. Sometimes, even at the same time. (Gasp.)  

On Wednesday, I could feel the cramps coming. It’s like watching a train come down the tracks really slowly. I can hear its whistle, I know it’s on its way, and I know I have only a brief amount of time before it flattens me on the tracks.

So I hurried and made this Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from the latest issue of Cooking Light. Cooking Light reports that the soup is immune-system boosting. It’s brothy, it’s spicy, it cleans out your sinuses. It’s got a million cloves of garlic in it (okay, fine, it actually has only 15+ garlic cloves), it’s got little nuggets of beef, crisp baby bok choy, and earthy mushrooms. It’s delicious.

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Two hours after I finished the soup, my cramps hit. I spent the rest of the night on the couch with my trusty heating pad and a comfortably full belly.

***
Usually, when I mess up a dish, I want to forget it ever happened. I want to bury the recipe and my mistakes in a cemetery along with all my other botched things (food and otherwise). I usually make notes on the recipe for myself, for when I've forgotten the disaster at hand and want to try again. But that amnesia and ensuing motivation usually comes long after. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years.

I was so disappointed in my Thai noodles miscalculations. I was disappointed that I didn't get to enjoy what I could tell was a tasty dish underneath all that salt, and I was disappointed in myself for not trusting my intuition (which had been yelling and waving its arms at me frantically as I ignored it and continued to pour unthinkable amounts of salty ingredients into the pot).

This time, however, I wanted to get right back on the horse. I wanted to try again. I want to try again.

***
I’ve been waiting around for these bananas to ripen because I really want that banana cream pie. But it occurred to me that I don’t have to wait around to bake, just because the bananas aren’t ready. I can bake something else while I wait.  I don’t have to deprive myself of baking for however many weeks, just because these bananas are taking forever to rot.

So simple a revelation, and so duh, but, man.

And so, I’m ending on another culinary cliffhanger this week. I’m going to make a Nigella chocolate cake. I have no idea where I’m going to find edible rose petals for this thing, but I trust that I will find a suitable substitute somewhere. 

Who knows. Maybe next week’s Friday Bites will chronicle the making of a dark and sumptuous chocolate cake and the world’s tastiest banana cream pie. Here’s hoping.

***
I’ve realized that cooking is nice and all, but baking is what makes me feel like everything is going to be okay in the world. The precision and order of baking is comforting in times of chaos and violence, which is the world we live in. It's not a coincidence that my need to create something tangible and nourishing reared its head after I read the news about the18th school shooting of year. When I feel powerless and devastated, the instinct to do something comes.

There are so many things to do. Call your representatives. Protest. Petition. Lobby for change. Write op-ed pieces. Tweet angrily.

I often struggle with what feels like the most effective thing to do in the moment. What if the thing that feels best and right is to create something? To bake a fucking cake? Does it do anything to create something - a dish, a cake, a pie, a pastry, a poem, a blog post, an essay - and put it out there? What if you create it and put it out into the world with love and revolution in your heart and mind? Is that something?

What I did on my summer vacation (2017 ed.)

I've been away from this blog since April. When I look back on it, it seems unfathomable that so much time has gone by, and it also feels like a hundred years have gone by.

I always forget about the rhythms of my writing. I don't know how I forget it, but I do. Maybe it's the 20 years of having a summer vacation that has embedded itself into my psyche. The cycles of hunkering down, working hard, studying, and producing from September to May. Then, when the weather starts to warm up and the days start to feel lazier, I give myself permission to take it easy. In years past, it was a subconscious decision.

This year, it's been a little bit of both. This year is different from all the other years. Every day there is a new tweet to rail against, a new infuriating policy to protest, a new disaster to mourn. This presidency has affected my psyche in ways I'm hesitant to admit, but it's undeniable. I'm living with a cynicism I've never lived with before.

Aside from all the large scale stressors, we're finally (!!!) planning our wedding. Each wedding dress I look at is now distinct from one another (please see 2017: The Year of No Intention), and I have actual opinions on them. I was hoping I'd have an actual strong opinion on our wedding colors, but I still don't. I have days where I'm so excited for our wedding that I wish it were happening tomorrow, and I have days where I avoid looking at the countdown timer on my WeddingWire app because the number of days til our wedding is too few. I've begrudgingly and apprehensively bought two wedding planning books and a wedding planning binder (and also wondered who the hell I am these days). 

This summer, my brother graduated from college after being an extremely hardworking Van Wilder for many years. M and I were there for his graduation. After, we took a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where M learned that when we say Tahoe's water is very cold, we are not kidding.

What else?

I went to Phoenix where it was 110+ degrees. I lay out on a 5th floor hotel rooftop deck at night, and felt homesick for the dry, hot, desert wind. We took M's dad on a surprise birthday trip to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals. The Cardinals lost both games we went to, but the weather was beautiful and the Bud Light Lime hit the spot (I know). I went to San Francisco for the Las Dos Brujas writing workshop, and wrote poems that I'm still working on and love dearly. I saw dolphins while hiking the Marin Headlands with poet friends. I got to show M the Golden Gate Bridge for his first time, and also introduced him to the (also very cold) Pacific Ocean.

This summer, writing has not been a priority. I've written here and there, and made some breakthroughs at Las Dos Brujas, but for the most part, it seems that my subconscious decided it was time for a break. It was time to take a step back and recognize that I have a very large plate, it is very full, and if I am not very careful and very intentional, I will burn all the way out.

I'm asking myself questions about balance and boundaries, about what caring for the self truly means. I'm asking myself questions about how to nourish myself and my writing when so much else in life and in this world seems to take and take and take.

So I'm back now. I don't have a lot of answers, but here we are. Figuring things out. As always.

A love letter to mountains and coming home

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, looking out over the tarmac and into the surrounding mountains. I love this view; I love these mountains. When I come home, I can’t seem to get enough of them. 

***

Yesterday, my Instagram story was comprised primarily of Boomerang videos of the trip my mom and I made to Reno. My brother saw it and said, “Seriously? Just a bunch of Boomerangs of the mountains? Are you kidding?”

It seems silly to my brother, someone who was born and raised out here, and then continued to live here. If you live out here — if you live on the west coast, in general — mountains are a given. If you’ve been surrounded by mountains your whole life, of course an Instagram story of a bunch of mountain Boomerangs are going to seem like a snooze. 

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A post shared by medusaironbox (@medusaironbox) on

***

I grew up in rural Nevada. I was born in a small town called Lovelock (population: about 2000), and when I was 5, we moved to the larger town of Winnemucca (population: about 8000). Though our zip code was Winnemucca’s, we actually lived 30 minutes outside of the town itself, putting us squarely in the middle of nowhere. 

When I lived there, I hated everything about it. I hated the landscape because it was always dry and only 5 shades of tan; I wanted lushness and green and trees and shade. I hated Winnemucca itself because it was small and full of conservative foolishness and cowboy poetry; I wanted art I didn’t understand and coffee shops and acoustic guitar shows. Winnemucca is big enough that you won’t know everyone’s name, but small enough that everyone looks familiar. I wanted to get lost in a crowd. I wanted no one to know who I was. 

***

When I graduated from high school, I moved to eastern Washington for college. The landscape felt similar, but with more trees and more people. It was just right for a girl from the country. 

I came back to Winnemucca for winter breaks and spring breaks and summer breaks, and felt the same disdain I always felt for it. As I got older and moved farther away, my visits became shorter and less frequent. And still, every time I came back, I felt that claustrophobia that I had always felt growing up, and the distinct urge to leave it all behind. 

***

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I began coming back to Nevada once or twice a month, for a week or two (sometimes three) at a time. I usually stay with my brothers who live in Reno; they live in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of coffee shops and bookstores and restaurants, and they have reliable internet, which I need so I can work remotely. 

My most recent visit was for my mom’s birthday. Instead of staying in Reno, I decided to take a few days off to come back to Winnemucca.

***

Usually, when I come back to Winnemucca, I find it hard to do anything but anticipate leaving. Everything feels like a countdown. I think about all the things I need/want to do to help my parents out around the house, and how many days and how many hours I have to do them. I think about how there is nothing to do in town itself, and I think about my high school best friends who return home as infrequently as I do and rarely at the same time.

***

This time though, things were different. I was different. I am different. 

***

I’ve lived in Indiana for almost 9 years now. (Jesus, it’s been that long?) 

In the spring and summer, it is lush, green, and humid. There are trees everywhere. There is shade everywhere (kind of). It is flat, flat, flat. In the area of Indiana that I am in, there are “mountains,” but they are really just hills.  It is the opposite of Nevada. 

***

The Indiana landscape makes me claustrophobic. It’s flat, but there are so many trees that I can never get a good look at the sky. Looking up at the sky in Indiana feels like I’m looking through a porthole. 

(I was going to insert a picture of some Indiana landscape here, but I found that the last time I took a picture of Indiana was 7 months ago. Half of the photo is the water of Lake Monroe, a third of it is trees, and then there's a bit of sky. That was a different time -- it was summer, it was pre-election, it was pre-finding out my mom had cancer. It feels weird to insert it here now.)

Until I moved to Indiana, I never knew how much I needed to see the horizon. I never realized that mountains shaped me. That they gave me a chance to get to literal higher ground when I felt like I was metaphorically drowning. That mountains can hold you and also make you feel small. That feeling of smallness, of insignificance, is comfort to me. 

***

Winnemucca is located in a region called the Great Basin. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains. The city limits spill into the foothills of Winnemucca Mountain. 

In high school, we would go to the top during the day, explore the abandoned military buildings and climb into the old water towers. From up there, we could see the patchwork of farm land to the east, or the dull spread of the city itself, or follow I-80 as it stretched west toward Reno, or the expanse of sand dunes that lay behind the mountain itself, like a gigantic wrinkled sheet.

Or we would go to the top at night, and look out over the lights of the city. Winnemucca looked beautiful in the dark, sparkling and manageable. It seemed so much smaller from up there. So much easier to escape than it felt. All the feelings and events that loomed large in those days shrunk when I went to the top of that mountain. 

A bad photo of a photo. My best friend at the top of Winnemucca Mountain. 

A bad photo of a photo. My best friend at the top of Winnemucca Mountain. 

***

When I returned to Winnemucca this time around, I didn’t feel claustrophobic. I felt like I could finally breathe again and think clearly again. 

I took long walks around my parents’ property and thought, How could I ever feel claustrophobic here?

Because when you grow up in one place, it is inherently claustrophobic. Because it has contained you all this time, and you are growing, and, eventually, you want out of the thing that’s held you close for eighteen years. 

Some people get to leave. Some don’t. Some don’t want to leave. It’s all a journey. 

***

When I come back now, I breathe in that desert air, take in that blue sky, drink in that mountain horizon. 

I would be lying if I say I didn’t think about what it would be like to move back. What would it be like to live in Winnemucca as the person I am now? Would it be bearable? 

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. 

On avoiding writing, trusting my gut, & repetition

I was going to start this essay by saying that I have been avoiding the page, but that’s not true. I’ve been drafting poems and writing morning pages every day for the past two weeks.

I’ve just been avoiding essay 5. 

Why? I’m not sure. 

Sometimes, I think it’s because I’m not sure what to write about. 

But that’s not true. There’s plenty I want to write about — the WWE, country songs, Ink Master, having clutter, Ana Lily Armirpour films, Michael Ian Black, to keep or get rid of old photos, Friday Night Lights and all my nicknames for Tim Riggins, an ode to Coach Eric Taylor. And so on. I have no shortage of material for essays. 

And yet. Here I am. Writing about writing again. Writing about my feelings about not writing again. Writing about the things that I think keep me from writing again. 

And maybe that’s why I’ve been avoiding essay 5. Because though I have so many things percolating that I want to write about, the one that keeps rising to the surface is this one — avoidance. 

***

Every time I sit down to write this essay, I think about Jude Law’s character in I Heart Huckabee’s. He’s a schmoozy advertising executive who tells the same story over and over again about fooling Shania Twain into eating a tuna sandwich she didn’t want to eat. I think about the scene where the existential detectives have recorded every single instance in which Jude Law’s character has told the Shania Twain story, and they play every instance back to him in succession.

At first, Jude Law thinks his story is great; why wouldn’t he tell it every chance he gets? And then, after the 4th or 5th version of the story has been played back to him, he starts to sober. After the 6th or 7th version, he starts to literally vomit in his mouth. 

I love that scene so much. It’s hilarious and it’s sobering and it’s real. What’s realer than realizing that you tell the same story or say the same thing over and over again?

Every time I sat down to write essay 5, I felt like Jude Law’s character, hearing myself say the same thing over and over again. 

So I’d write a sentence, minimize the window, and go eat a cookie instead.

***

Some days, I think maybe I’m avoiding essay 5 because I’m afraid of writing something intimate, personal. Something I haven’t ever written about before.

But that’s also not true. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability and bravery any time we write and choose to put it out in the world — whether it’s publishing something on a blog or bringing a piece to workshop or showing a fresh poem to your partner or sending anything to a journal to be rejected or accepted or writing a personal statement. Whether I’m writing about Buffy or YA horror lit or my general exhaustion or being overwhelmed by the prospect of weddings or writing about writing — it’s all intimate and personal. Because I write things that I don’t usually say out loud. For me, that is writing for the jugular. 

***

Some days, I think I’ve been avoiding essay 5, simply because I’m burned out. I’m exhausted. This world we live in is exhausting and life on its own is exhausting. 

I’ve also withdrawn from my activity on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. When I think about composing a post or a tweet, I get overwhelmed. Even thinking about re-posting or retweeting overwhelms me. 

It just feels like there’s too much some days (every day). Too much to say and too much to absorb. How do you choose what to post? How do you choose what to retweet? It seems like a simple thing, but for me, lately, it’s been a conundrum. So I just don’t.

I close the apps, minimize the windows, and go eat a cookie instead. 

***

I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe I’ve been avoiding essay 5 because I’m trying to find balance. And I’m not doing great. But I’m trying. 

I’m trying to find a balance between a public and private writing life. Between writing for this blog and the #52essays2017 project, and writing in a private space. Both are important. I love this blog and I love the #52essays2017 project and I love my horror project. 

But writing in a private space — as I have been — is essential, too. I’m seeing that now. Practicing writing in private — knowing that I will be the only person for quite awhile who sees this thing that I’m writing — feels good. It feels quiet and important. In a world where I’m bombarded every day by terrifying news and so many voices, it feels necessary to have a space where it’s just me. Just me and my voice and my writing. In that moment and the countless future moments that I will spend with my poems, my writing is no one else’s yet. It is mine until I decide that it’s ready to be someone else’s.  

***

I have to honor and trust my impulse. Writing about writing — about the process, about all the outside things that intersect with the act of writing itself, about where inspiration comes from — demystifies it. Sometimes, I look at prolific writers and think, How the hell are they doing this? 

I don’t know how they do it, but I know how I do it. I’m a slow writer these days, and a percolator. I marinate on thoughts and ideas for essays for awhile before I sit down to actually write them. When I finally get to writing, the words come quickly, but I take some time to revise. 

(And poems? Jesus. Forget about it. I used to be a fairly prolific poem writer, and now I’m the slowest poem writer in all the land.) 

When I write about writing, I’m demystifying the process for myself. I’m writing to bust the myths I’ve internalized over the years in undergrad and in an MFA program about writing and what being a writer looks like. I'm writing to define what being a "real" writer means to me, and me alone. I'm writing to get rid of all those other voices that tell me not only what is acceptable to write, but how to write it. I'm writing to find the rituals I need to make for myself as a writer, as opposed to the ones that are prescribed to me if I want to call myself a “real” writer. 

Part of it is acknowledging that the world and life and exhaustion and emotions affect my ability to write sometimes. Sometimes I just have to take a break. Yes, writing is one of the only places where I feel truly whole, but it can also be exhausting if I don’t balance my private and public writing lives. 

***

Avoiding essay 5 has been a lesson in trusting my impulse and my voice. If an idea keeps rising to the top, no matter how many times I think I’ve explored it, I need to take its hand and follow it into the woods.