Golden desk lamp in green dumpster

Wear the perfume, walk the alley, do the work

The week-three Wednesday of shelter in place, I had an important video conference call. I got ready in the mirror and, per my usual routine, reached for perfume to spray on my neck and wrist. This gave me pause. What’s the point? It’s not as if these people I’m video-calling can smell me. And my husband, the only human I’ve had physical contact with for almost a month, already knows alllll the smells.
Lime Basil & Mandarin, the label reads. That’s as far as the name goes. I like that. This scent just is what it is. It’s not a sexy scent, but that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because of the way the lime basil and mandarin transform on my skin throughout the day, as if it knows and shape-shifts around me. In the morning, the citrus is always sharp. By mid-afternoon the soft warmth of basil holds me instead. By evening it’s a quiet musk, like the burning embers of a campfire. It lasts on my skin longer than any perfume I’ve worn before. I like that too, that I can smell and appreciate throughout my day. It’s one small thing I can wear to make my day the tiniest, air-particle-sized bit better.
Doesn’t that still apply in lockdown? Aren’t I still here, in this place? Don’t I still have a neck and a wrist with a healthy, wild heart beating underneath? Don’t I want them to pump something lovely into the air, even if only I can experience the joy of it?
Yes. Yes, I decided. Yes.
I spritzed the perfume, returned the bottle to its shelf, shut off the bathroom light, and took my silk-bloused and sweat-panted self to my work chair in the office five feet away. Nothing to see here. Just a grown-ass woman going to non-essential work. But, my friend, if you could smell her…
I’ve been working from home for almost three years now. This process of separating work / from / home? I’m used to that. I’ve got that down. What I’m not used to is the lack of choice. This restriction is what alarms me and spends my mind spiraling. I know how precious freedom of choice is. I worry, worry, worry about what this pandemic means for choice in the future. I’m so worried about what’s coming and the people who will struggle, who will hurt.
To keep from running my head around in these circles, I’ve, instead, tried to keep said head down. Keep working—on professional work and creative work alike. I like to stay busy. I’ve used the time to write and make art. I’m still sitting with all of this; I’m just doing something with my hands while I contemplate it all. Movement makes me feel just as strong as the scary thoughts I’m facing. Staying productive is how I puff up my chest and stare down a problem.
For my husband, it’s the opposite. His anxiety right now stems from the crowny little thorns of that microscopic virus and towers into shadows of the potential pandemonium that could ensue as resources decline and demand explodes in the opposite direction. He thrives by being still with things. He stalks the prey, the problem, silently and with stealth. He wants to sit with it, watch it, to see it from every angle. To not move and scare the scary thoughts away.
Him and I have been taking “sun breaks” every other day. We go stand in the alleyway behind our apartment building, leaning onto our neighbor’s chalky beige garage like a masked Jay and Silent Bob. He likes to just stand there, face to the sun like a happy little lizard. If he had it his way, this is all we would do during a sun break. But after about five minutes, I get antsy. “I need to walk,” I say. “Let’s walk around the park. At least up and down the alleyway. We can take the sunniest path.” He says I need to relax, stay calm, be still. But, I explain, the moving, the doing, is how I be still. I’m not avoiding when I work and walk. I’m working it all out.
Maybe you’re productive in a traditional sense during this time and like being motivated to act. Or perhaps your productivity takes the shape of something more subtle, doing the basics and taking care of yourself is how your self-care presents itself. Does it matter? Are these two reactions really that different? Do we need to fight on the internet about who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong? “Getting through” is not an either/or proposition. This discussion isn’t really about “productivity.” It’s only the fact of how you hold yourself in a moment of fear, so you can better hold others in theirs.
I need to show up. I need to feel like I’m doing something in a situation where I am largely powerless. Showing up means I’m clear-headed and willing to try. Showing up means I’m alive. Means I’m hopeful.
So I wear the perfume. I walk the alley. I do the work. This is how I survive.

Illustration A Day Project entry, geometric illustrative graphic design

“You are the archivist of your own life”

I read something on Instagram recently that inspired me into a unique set of actions. (How often do you get to genuinely say that? Though, I guess Instagram is the platform on which you’re most likely to read something sincerely inspiring, but I digress.)

The sentence was a mere one of many in a long caption accompanying a photo posted by a friend of mine. It was essentially in defense of a series of selfies she had been sharing on her feed, and it said this: “You are the archivist of your own life.”

She didn’t come up with this phrasing herself, she admitted. She had heard it from someone else and had been inspired by it, who heard it from someone else who had been inspired by it, and now I—inspired by it—share it with you, like a high-tech, transcendent version of the kids’ telephone game.

You are the archivist of your own life.

Wow, truly…

Perhaps it’s the word archivist that this trail of friends and I found most endearing. That word brings a sense of gravitas, a sense of humanistic purpose, to the act of saving, storing, and recording who you have been throughout the years and who you are now. A hoarder? Nay. An archivist.

I’ve never been reliable at keeping things. I’ve thrown many keepsake-ish items out in fits of productivity (holiday cards, my baby teeth, Little Dude’s collar he refused to wear) only to be sad about it later and console myself with excuses along the lines of Who needs that stuff anyway? To dust we shall return, et al. (Though, tbh, sometimes these purges have been a long time coming, I just need to work on being more thoughtful/ less reactive in emotionally cued-up moments of #getshitdone. Per usual.)

I consider this further proof of why the term archivist must hold special power. If you told me to simply take and save pictures of myself, I’d scoff and keep scrolling. But after I read my friend’s Instagram caption, something surprising happened.

I made a to-do list of how to organize my writing, artwork, and notebooks. Emotional mementos and professional trophies may slip right through my roller coasting, mood swinging fingers, but I can maintain a steely disposition to the deed of saving my creative work.

I organized my Google docs. Backed up hundreds of documents of writing practice on a jump drive—yeah, I bought a jump drive! Two jump drives, in fact. The other I used to house highly detailed folders with all my embroidery works, broken up by series and further by date. Inventory tracked. Price lists updated. I downloaded my Facebook and Instagram photo albums (you can do that!) and backed them up on servers. I organized my printed mood boards, dated my writing and art journals, wrapped and stored books I’ve been published in. It came without ribbons, it came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! 

These little digital and physical nests of me as an artist, maker, and person could be argued to symbolize something I subconsciously feel like I’m missing, like a more literal, all-encompassing nest (read: home). However, I’ve determined, more so, this act of wanting to archive and following through on it was a tangible display of my evolving idea of self-respect: Who else will save you, if not you?

Instead of archiving things to track my growth, the act of archiving did so itself.

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook is here!

An essay I wrote is in the new book “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook” from @beltpub! I’m excited and grateful to be included. The Chicago Tribune called the book “required reading” and I can’t wait to dig into it this weekend.

I’ve only had it for a few hours and already stained the cover with fried food grease because that will always be who I am as a person.

There’s a release party from 5:30 to 8 pm at The Hideout Inn (1354 W. Wabansia) on Sept. 11, featuring readings by some of the writers, including @meganstielstra (!!!😍!). Plus delicious food donated by Abra Behrens and by Floriole bakery. Books will be available for sale! Here’s the Facebook event link!

The second event is at Marz Community Brewing (3630 S. Iron) on Sept. 17, from 7 to 9 pm. There will be readings and a DJ at this release party. RSVP on Facebook here!

Check out the whole lineup of books examining life in the Rust Belt at (oh, hi, they also have a Rust Belt Arcana tarot deck and I think that’s so very awesome).

Everything I know I learned from a kindergartener

I’m on stage before the show. Nerves threaten to drown me if these sweat rings (spreading like an oil spill in my armpits) don’t first. What if no one likes my story? What if no one understands what I’m trying to say?

The theater’s free sparkling water nips my nose and snaps me from my trance long enough to think about one of my nephews hundreds of miles away. The memory seems random at first.

On my last trip to Ohio, I’d visited him and his siblings at their house, giving myself extra time to play with the kids on their family’s brand new trampoline. Following a few standard edition games that kids seem born knowing how to play (ie., monster chase, jump contest [children edition, aunt as judge], duck duck goose), the oldest boy announced that it was time to play “Shhrrrs.”


What? I said, gently, my mind frantically trying to connect his consonants.

Shhrrrs. He responded.


Shhrrs! Slower now, eye roll impending.

<I call for his translator [his mom] to come over.>

Can you describe it? She asked.

The things in water. Shhhhhhrrrrrrssss.

I don’t know what you’re saying, baby.

I am getting anxious, worried this child I desperately want to feel wholly capable is going to feel so frustrated that no one can understand him that he won’t want to play the game anymore—maybe not even jump on the trampoline with me, maybe forever feel insecure about saying what he wants or what he thinks because we cannot decipher the intended enunciations of this toddler speak! Disaster! Catastrophe! A message lost in a bottle at sea!

He looked at me. Then his mom. I waited for tears. That’s what I would have done probably. Right? Cry? Or change the subject, avoid confrontation, make a joke at my own expense, make sure everyone felt comfortable, doubt myself, ask someone else what they wanted to play instead?

I grew itchy, ready to jump in and suggest another game so he didn’t feel bad or embarrassed. But then…

Shhrrs. He said again, with such matter-of-fact, unwavering assurance and non-self-judgement, ready to sit there and keep speaking his truth until we all figured it out with him, I did almost start to cry but not because I was sad or worried.

SHELLS! My sister yelled from the porch deck. Also matter of factly.

Oooooooh! His mom and I said in unison. Sheeelllllsss!

Yeah. He said, excited. Shhrrs!

To play Shhrrs (aka Shells), the children lay in the middle of the trampoline with knees hugged to their faces and arms wrapped around themselves tight. Giggling optional, but likely. Aunt has to jump around these “shells” until they can hug themselves no longer and must open to the world—vulnerable, losers in an un-winnable game, but surging with the thrill of change without warning or control.

I jump around them and get the two smallest ones laughing and un-shelled in no time. The game’s mastermind, however, held on longer. A tough shell that’s all heart.

A few more hops… Boom. Open this shining little seashell popped, arms and legs now splayed open like a starfish, eyes still closed, cheeks I want to kiss salty with sweat, tiny body spinning in the air, dangerous, a smile given without question to the sun, unencumbered, his truth, having fun.

A 45-pound pearl of wisdom.

Back on a Chicago stage, I breathe again.

Get your tickets for You’re Being Ridiculous PRIDE edition

Chicago’s awesome storytelling show You’re Being Ridiculous is celebrating PRIDE at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre on June 20, 21, and 22 at 8 p.m. each night. The show is part of Lookout Series, an event that presents the work of artists and companies across genre and form. And I’m one of them!

I’ll be reading a new story at the Thursday, June 20, edition of You’re Being Ridiculous at Steppenwolf.

Join us to hear true stories from a stellar line-up of some of Chicago’s very best writers and storytellers. Tickets can be purchased here. Seating is limited, so be sure to reserve your seats today before it sells out! There’s a new group of readers every night (and YBR never disappoints), so maybe make a whole weekend of it, OK?

More info here.

Published: Meet My Neighborhood

Don’t miss my latest dive into home sweet home Irving Park for I wrote about seven of my favorite spots in my neighborhood, including Independence Park and the best new cafe this side of the Blue Line.

Best window seat in the house.

P.S. Right after I filed this story with my editor, I read about Mirabella Cuisine & Bar in Bon Appetit magazine. The Italian steakhouse is owned by an Ecuadoran immigrant who is carrying on the red sauce legacy of Chicago. I didn’t even know Chicago had a red sauce legacy… or that Mirabella was a hidden gem in my neighborhood that I pass almost every week on my Irving Park runs. Can’t wait to try it!

That’s my favorite thing about living in a city as big as Chicago. There’s an infinite amount of restaurants, art, people, culture, events, drag shows, book stores, et al, to discover here.

Published: Art and writing in Crowded zine

I’m jazzed (jazz-handed?) to have embroidery artwork and creative writing in the newest issue of CROWDED zine, a quarterly multimedia zine affiliated with The Crowd Theater, featuring written and visual work of Chicago artists.

The Issue #3 release party is tonight, May 11, at 8 p.m. in The Crowd Theater near Lakeview! Admission for tonight’s show is free, and you can purchase a zine there for $6. They’ll be taking cash, card, or Venmo exchanges @CrowdedZine. If you can’t make the show but would like a copy, Venmo $8 to @CrowdedZine with your address in the description and they’ll mail you your copy!

Published: Essay in Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook

Technically, this book of essays from Rustbelt Publishing won’t be out until September 10, but you can pre-order your copy today for $20 here! I’m really excited to have my work included and can’t wait to get my hands (well, mostly my eyes) on it. Following, a description of the book from the publisher:

Chicago is famously a city of neighborhoods. Seventy-seven of them, formally; more than 200 in subjective, ever-changing fact. But what does that actually mean? The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, the latest in Belt’s series of idiosyncratic city guides (after Cleveland and Detroit), aims to explore community history and identity in a global city through essays, poems, photo essays, and art articulating the lived experience of its residents.

Edited by Belt senior editor Martha Bayne, the book builds on 2017’s critically acclaimed Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology. What did one pizzeria mean to a boy growing up in Ashburn? How can South Shore encompass so much beauty and so much pain?  What’s it like to live in the Loop? Who’s got a handle on the ever-shifting identity of West Ridge? All this and more in this lyrical, subjective, completely non-comprehensive guide to Chicago. Featuring work by Megan Stielstra, Audrey Petty, Alex V. Hernandez, Sebastián Hidalgo, Dmitry Samarov, Ed Marszewski, Lily Be, Jonathan Foiles, and many more.

Published: Tiki time in LongWeekends magazine

Check out the summer 2019 issue of LongWeekends magazine. The latest issue promises everything us Midwesterners need to plan the perfect long weekend trip this spring and summer.

My short piece is about three must-try tiki bars and restaurants in Chicago: Three Dots and a Dash in River North, Lost Lake in Logan Square, and Hala Kahiki Tiki Bar & Lounge in River Grove (worth the commute out to the ‘burbs, my Chi-town friends; this place has been tiki-ing since 1964 and claims to be the Midwest’s most authentic tiki bar).

Sober pals, don’t let the tiki-theme tempt you into not checking out these kitschy fun spots. Nonalcoholic treats abound. Example: Hala Kahiki’s zero proof Fruit Punch, a mix of passion fruit, housemade grenadine, housemade Orgeat, orange, pineapple, lemon, and lime.

Thumbing through the magazine has already garnered some travel ideas for us to conquer this summer, like taking a trek to Springfield, Illinois, to try the world-famous “hot dog on a stick” at The Cozy Dog Drive In. I guess I’m just a suck for anything corny! (Get it? Corn dog. Ha. Ha.) What are your big (or small) summer plans?

It’s my three-year soberversary!

Three years! Holy no-more-shitfaced!

I think of the exact date of my sobriety as a feral-animal-turned-beloved-pet’s birthday. I don’t know it for sure. I had tried to quit so many times before April 15, 2016, and I was tired of “remembering dates” only to be alarmed and disappointed in myself when I found myself hungover yet again. In fact, I figured out about a year ago that my real soberversary date is perhaps a few days before today… BUT I’ve got it in my brain as April 15, so April 15 it shall be.

That means, I haven’t been drunk since a little over three years ago. < !!!! pew pew pew all the emojis !!!!>

I have had one glass of alcohol since then. A glass of champagne at my bachelorette party. As soon as I sipped it, I felt gold in my veins. That’s what it felt like—gold. Relief. Escape. Precious.

More-more-more came calling with just one drink.

By the time of my bachelorette party, I had at least a year and a half of sobriety under my belt, but it didn’t matter. That voice I hadn’t heard in so long shot its shitty little self into my ear and said, “OMG ORDER EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW. A WHOLE BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE, AND AT LEAST TWO BLOODY MARYS. AND SHOTS FOR EVERYONE! OMG WE’RE fUCk*$g DOING THIS!!!”

But, no, we were not doing this. It took a lot of effort—too much effort, I thought, considering I hadn’t drank in so long—to push that voice back in the cage where it belonged. But I did. I drank sparkling grape juice the rest of the weekend. And my amazing mother-in-law had some waiting for Justin and I in the hotel after our wedding.

I’m so happy for that glass of champagne, which the well-meaning waiter had brought me as a surprise when he heard what our group was celebrating. Getting and staying sober was really hard for me, and it was especially difficult my first year, but I had reaped enough rewards of sobriety to know that voice was no good. Being sober for a while had made me aware of that voice so I could shut it up early. Being sober for a while had helped me be in my body in a new way, a way that enabled me to recognize that fool’s-gold feeling for what it was as soon as it hit me.

I’m so grateful today. I’m grateful for the people who loved me unconditionally through some hard times. I’m grateful to the people who find the courage every day to face their addiction problems, who have the courage to try to be their better selves and who fight for it day after day after day. I’m so grateful to the people who recover out loud, too, like the writers and recovering alcoholics who helped me understand what I was going through and helped me feel less alone.

Most of all, today I’m so… like… earth-shatteringly grateful to that sad, disappointed, disgusted, rock-bottomed-out self who decided around three years ago that enough was enough—and that I was enough without booze. Thank you thank you thank you.

That glass of champagne and how instantaneously my old destructive-drinking self presented itself was the final sign I needed to accept that I had to be done drinking forever. There was no controlling it. No nice little bachelorette brunch with one martini for me. I couldn’t drink ever again if I wanted to be happy.

A look back at Year Three

And happy I am! Year Three was a good one.

Some highlights:

  • I had my first solo art show, featuring work that I count as integral to my early sobriety. Listen to my interview about why on The Unruffled Podcast.
  • I launched a sober book club podcast with my dear friend Shelley. Obviously, there’s so much power in sharing our individual journeys, but it’s important we never feel pressure to share until we are ready. My first year of sobriety was spent being very, very quiet about it. I didn’t want to talk about my new sobriety for fear of scaring it away. I also wasn’t sure about ~anything~, least of all if sobriety would stick… Take your time. When you’re ready, the sober community has open arms, ears, and hearts.
  • I started going to therapy regularly. Regularly being the key word here. I was usually a three-visits-and-done kind of client, thinking “OK, problem solved!” Or (more often) “Why am I paying someone to just listen to me talk?” All things considered, I probably need regular therapy less than ever today. Ha! But that’s the point, I think. I’m healthy enough now to ask for help. Even minimal help. Going to therapy now is less about solving an urgent problem and more about reminding myself that it’s important to show up for my emotional self in some kind of physical capacity on a consistent basis. It helps me trust myself.

Year Three definitely brought some brought new challenges, too. This year, the shock of staying sober wore off. A layer of the onion had peeled away. The raw one. And now I was left looking at a whole new me. I had changed and had to get used to it.

When you get sober (from whatever you’re addicted to… doesn’t have to be booze) and want to enjoy being sober, you’re required to give up some additional things. You’re not ready for it. You think, “Well, I quit the number-one-problem thing. Problem solved!”

Alas, recovery is a lifelong journey. There are 12 stupid freaking steps for a reason. You don’t just admit you have a problem and, bam, all is well. It takes work. And constant self-vigilance and discipline — two seemingly scary words that are, I’ve found, the root of all peace.

This year I was able to recognize ways in which the behavioral patterns tied to my alcohol abuse were still showing up in my life. The patterns were just channeled through other outlets, less destructive outlets certainly, but unhealthy ones nonetheless.

They were hard to pinpoint initially. I’m being vague for a reason… it’s still sorta hard for me to explain. The best example I can give is work. Workaholism is real and I got it, y’all. I can sometimes use work and overcommitting myself for the same reasons I used alcohol. As a means of escape, to outrun perfectionism and fear and guilt and shame and imposter syndrome and and and…

Plans for Year Four

I don’t think my intense work ethic is bad. Not at all. It’s one of the best things about me. I am loyal AF to something I say I will do and earn everything I have. That means a lot to me and always will.

I just want to work on working better. Saying no to good opportunities and only taking great ones, for example. Making space for more personal goals and being clear on what those are. Really working on being a better partner and friend and a person who lives every day aligned to her values. Etc.

New-age woo-woo story alert: So, last fall after my art show, I did this meditation where you were supposed to envision your highest self. Then, you were to imagine this highest self presenting you with something you needed. A gift, if you will.

In my vision, my highest self (lookin’ sexay in a white toga because I guess that’s how my mind works?) presented me with… a jug. A freakin’ jug! I was like, ugh, my highest self is one cheap bitch. What is this supposed to mean? I thought maybe water. Like I was thirsty at the moment (highest selves being quite practical), but in hindsight, I think it represents a couple important things: 1) taking a time-out to re-energize and 2) connecting with others over a new drink (ie. I don’t need to hide anymore… I can hang out with people sober and just drink water).

After this meditation, I also kept seeing jugs in artworks everywhere! Particularly in still life paintings, where the message is obvious — be still for bit, Mantey. But also in paintings where the jug was meant to represent community (a jug being something you have on the table when you have people over). I like that one and I think it’s important. I think Year Four will mean coming outside of myself more, now that I’m ready, and connecting with other people in better, more honest ways than ever before.

I have three ideas for how to achieve this all in Year Four. Recovering workaholics still need a plan:

  • Hustle with intention. I want to focus on the writing I’ve been planning for a while now but have been pushing to the back burner out of fear. Fear of it not being good enough, and also fear of not taking any paying job that’s offered me (even if I have five others lined up… oy). I want to focus on saying no to things, and I don’t just mean work that is unrelated to my creative writing. I mean saying no to, for example, taking a class that’s wrong for me or taking the time to read a book about craft just because I’m afraid to actually do the work.
  • Take the emotion out of most decision making. Blah. How many decisions do we make or how many worries do we focus on simply because we are afraid or trying to distract ourselves from some deeper truth? I want to be strategic and responsive, instead of reactive and unreasonable about my time and energy and interests. I want to look at choices as only that: Choices with pros and cons (not right or wrong, black or white, life-changing or life-threatening). Choices that I consider and make a logical decision about based on truth, not feeling. Contingency relationships with an if/ then approach.
  • Rest. Unapologetically. If I need time, I’m going to not only ask myself for it, but give it. I’m the one who puts myself in these overwhelming situations, for reasons that run the same deep paths that my excessive drinking did. I’ve learned a lot about boundaries the last three years, and I think this year will be about learning to put boundaries on my restlessness, which presents itself as ambition but is actually insecurity and a short-term escapism disguised as a “good idea.” Acting lovingly toward myself and my people is the better idea. Always.
And let’s have some fun, Year Four, shall we?