Two empty lawn chairs sitting side by side

Home is a feeling


Quarantine Day 1,345. It was early evening, that time of day when the heat has started to fade but the light is still saying its goodbyes. 

Justin and I strapped on our masks and headed out the door to take a walk around the neighborhood. “Let’s go get Italian ice,” he said. I was suspicious, not wanting to go to a restaurant. “They have a walk-up counter,” he said convincingly.

And so we strolled, taking a brand new route, a few side streets behind the local grocery store, streets that I’d never been down before. One block in, and I couldn’t believe how excited I felt. All the new things to see! After approximately forever-amount-of-days staring at the same walls and the same computer screen, chilling in the same park and running the same route, this walk was a novelty more delicious than any cold treat.

We said muffled hellos to an ancient Border Collie lounging among the pink blooms and behind the twisted iron fence of a brick one-story.

We joked about what we would do if we had to move into a three-story house towering above us, its boarded up windows framed by a white exterior turned a dingy browbeaten gray. I would fix it up and nurse its good bones back to health. Justin would burn it down because clearly it was haunted and something wicked lurked in the basement. 

We passed by a wooden fence. It was too tall to see over, but if we could, we would see a family celebrating summer in their backyard. The scent of grilled corn and the sounds of mariachi carried over the fence, tempting us to join as we passed on the sidewalk. Hello, I said, wordlessly. Thank you for the reminder.

I’ve always loved looking at houses. That there are endless rows of them is one of my favorite aspects of living in Chicago. The neighborhoods, the overflowing residential streets with endless charm tucked away just beyond the hurried thoroughfares. It’s like knowing where to find a secret water source in the desert.

I tried to explain to Justin why I like walks like this so much. Looking at other homes makes me feel like I am here. Nowhere in particular, just here. On earth and un-alone. But though I like thinking of all the human stories stacking up in those houses they inhabit, what I enjoy most is the look of the exteriors, as an individual and as a whole. A street of houses all lined up, especially if those houses have completely different facades, looks the way a bowl of fresh, in-season strawberries tastes: A welcome mat for the senses. 

Each house has a face and sleeps at night. Even the most humble of architectures here carries a gentleness for me, feels like a place where life unfolds unceremoniously (which is the most rewarding kind of unfolding, I think?). From the humble bungalows to the soaring million-dollar build right next door, I love looking at all of them. I don’t want to be inside them necessarily, just to behold them. The window panes, the flower beds, the curve of a doorway and all the knowing it can share just from its shape. Even the sharp angle of every roof taps a different feeling inside me. Oh! And, best of all, the trees! Dangling their drapery as a curtain to each house’s stage. Look, they say. Witness what is here.

We held hands as we ordered our Italian ice, a line of people with the same idea spaced six feet apart behind us. A string of brightly colored owl lights on the outside of the building shone stronger by the minute as the sun settled. There were pink and green plastic chairs on the small strip of grass near the order window—also six feet apart. We decided to keep walking and find a corner to stand on as we spooned the icy treat into eager mouths. Lemon, raspberry, watermelon. A woman riding her bike with a dog on a leash passed us. A new mom on her cellphone tutted along, baby peeking out of a blanket from the stroller in front of her. Cars blinked by with a rattle. Justin and I watched it all as we ate, the cold a relief on our hot tongues. The taste lingered, hidden behind masks, as we walked back. Dusk hitting the homes with a loving light, guiding us back to ours.

Couple in a private dance studio

Finding an old flame on the dance floor


I always frame my dancing in the past tense: “I used to dance.” I’ll say it wistfully and stand a little straighter as I do, like a ribbon is connecting my ponytail to the ceiling, a helpful visual technique for dancers with poor posture. I always had poor posture. And I had trouble remembering more than an 8-count at a time unless I choreographed it myself. And I never paid attention to the costume requirements and more than once ended up on stage in the wrong colored tights.
 
But none of those flaws stopped me from dancing. Time did that. As I entered my 30s, dancing sounded exhausting… was exhausting. Moreover, I knew my ability to dance would be on a continued, inevitable downward slope. My best dancing days were already behind me. A body’s flexibility, physicality, and strength is at its prime at a certain point, and that point is one I have passed. I didn’t want to dance because my self-competitive nature would be disappointed that I couldn’t leap as high, spin as fast, or bend as lovely as I could five years ago.

Then 2020 happened, and, damn, it has got me feeling d-o-w-n. My morale is the thing on the downward slope now. Justin (my bff/husband) has been encouraging me to get back to dancing ever since I stopped, but I have promptly ignored him, saying I’m happy to leave the barre behind me, which I think has mostly been true.

Last weekend, however, he made some moves himself. He took me to a dance studio that he had rented for a few hours from Peerspace (like Airbnb but for studio, meeting room, or venue rentals). And that was all I needed: A partner to take me by the hand and plop me back on the dance floor. My body instinctively took off. 

Dancing around the studio space was the b-e-s-t thing I’ve done since early March. So much sweat! It felt grounding, calming, and exhausting indeed! It felt like a turned-head to pointed-toe rejuvenation! To get out of our apartment and just move my body around, a body I have been staying put to protect in recent months (and, I realized, keeping in self-imposed bounds for the past few years), was mentally healing beyond measure.

The experience helped me see that hobbies can evolve, and that’s OK. I will never be as good a dancer as I once was, but was excellence really why I was dancing in the first place? Nah. Not even close. I danced because it was fun. And, it turns out, it still is. Maybe even more so because I don’t have to worry about showing up in the wrong tights. 🙂

What have you left behind because you thought it couldn’t help you anymore? If you reframed how it healed you, would it be worth another shot?

Grandpa in front of stone wall in Korea

Time doesn’t pick sides


My grandpa died this week. It has caught me off guard. He was always so full of life, I just figured he would live forever?

He was such a spry old guy, too! Grandpa had recently moved into an assisted living facility, an act he definitely DID NOT want to do but acquiesced to when COVID-19 hit. Why? So he could visit my grandma in the Alzheimer’s unit there every day (a through-the-window visit would no longer suffice). He took such loving care of her the past few years. From making sure she had outfits she would approve of, to bringing her a thermos of root beer as a treat when he’d visit. His love for her is probably what I’ll remember most. I can still picture him helping Grandma dye her hair in the sink whenever we had sleepovers. They were best friends. 

Grandpa was curious, adventurous, thoughtful, smart, and so damn playful. And he was a wonderful writer, writing and editing the Army’s Preventive Maintenance (PS) magazine throughout his career. I’ve always attributed any natural gift I have as a baton handoff from him to me. 

After college, I asked Grandpa to email me some of his stories. Him and Grandma kept binders of tales from their many travels—like #vanlife bloggers before their time. He said yes but did one better: He said he would write some brand new pieces for me and his daughters of memories from his life. Today I have this remarkable collection of stories he wrote (a few by Grandma, but mostly him). What a fucking gift! I loved getting to know him this way and I was always excited to get a new email with a story attached. It sparked a lot of interesting conversations between us. They’re now all stored in a binder he gave me when I moved to Chicago. 

I recently started adding new photos to the binder… printouts of photos he would text of him and of Grandma at the nursing home, screenshots of funny text messages he sent, a photo of him in a COVID face mask that he’d drawn a smiley face onto. Such a rascal.

I’ve been adding these to the end of the book. The day he died, I added a note about when, where, and how he passed. I feel tender toward making sure I give his story, in this binder at least, the ending… that I record it. He would always end his written stories like the grisled old magazine editor he was: with – end – at the end.

A story isn’t a story without an ending. And Grandpa had a hell of a story. You did good, farm boy.

I’m sad COVID forced me to cancel my March visit to Marion. He and I had a Bob Evans breakfast date planned, like we had been doing for the past year or so. We would eat together, bitch about the coffee, politely disagree about politics (he would always hear me out!), talk about about my hopes to roadtrip across the country with Justin, order some blueberry crepes to-go, and take them (and some root beer) to Grandma for our visit.

But. I’m so grateful to have had him as a grandpa and have had as much time with him as I did. I miss him already.

– end –

Wave on Lake Michigan beach in Chicago

Girl, wash your face mask


Hey, how are you doing? Overwhelmed? Me too. It’s surprising how all-consumingly intense life can be in lockdown, no? Nearly four months of time in which I’ve talked to a total of three people in person. But maybe that’s part of the problem—I’m worried about humanity because I am not experiencing it much beyond the screen. I’m like the baby monkey clinging to a wire-made mother, longing for but misunderstanding real love.

Some complain of feeling bored in quarantine. I feel anything but. I feel stressed and anxious and overwrought. Everything seems so B-I-G, even as the physical boundaries of my daily life are smaller than ever.

To help myself feel just a little bit better, I’ve been trying to focus on things I can control. I can control what I give my attention to, so after work each day, I’ve been plugging along at building an online shop to sell my artwork. There’s something cathartic about tinkering away at a thing I hope to launch in “the future” while listening to the news and the podcasts and the sound and the fury. Working on the shop symbolizes the shred of optimism I have buried underneath all this tension that’s seething and solidifying inside a worried self. It’s like embodying a strange paradox—I miss being around people, but I’m also very tired of “people.”

I’ve been thinking about restarting my blog too. As social media, which replaced a lot of blogosphere time and energy, becomes a place of exacerbated one-dimensionality and optical, oppositional grandstanding, the thought of having my own little Island of Internet is increasing in its appeal. 

How do we all come out of this moment kinder, more equitable, more closely tied to one another and our collaborative condition? Is that possible at this point? Do others feel as tired and disconnected as I do?

I don’t know. And writing all of this seems trite in the wake of a cultural revolution, a global pandemic, a paradigm shift of historical proportions… I feel increasingly tense as there seems to be no route out of this place but to keep on keeping on. 

I am plankton in a wave. 

I do my work, I add items to my site, I plan for “the future,” I read about the present and feel upset about the past, I go to bed. 

I wake up and do it all over again. 

Photograph of last dandelion seed hanging on

Planting the seeds


Well, damn. When I started my newsletter I thought I would use it to share anecdotes of joy or hope or humor from my previous seven days. This past week has been anything but joyous, hopeful, or funny. It’s been historic. We better get used to it. We are on a precipice of something. I hope that something is change and a more equitable criminal justice system. I hope it happens soon.

In lieu of anything joyous to report, I’ll share this instead: I’ve found a lot of solace during the pandemic by doing regular runs around my neighborhood. I am not a ~runner~ by any means. By “runs around the neighborhood” I mean I slow-jog about a quarter of a mile, then walk, then kind of run again but get tired and tell myself it was a valiant effort and we can’t all be heroes, and then sort of surreptitiously dance to whatever music’s spilling from my headphones to my ears, then sit in the park for a while and try to will myself to do sit-ups and pushups but mostly just stretch and inspect the grass.

You can see a lot by looking at the grass, while on the grass’ level. 

Like a mystical woman in polyester nylon, I conduct phony tasseography and stretch my hamstrings. Fortunes emerge through the layered leaves and fragile stems, the grasses map to answers (a rapidly disappearing luxury). A cross can mean a blockage—they’re everywhere. The wings of a bird, new freedom—they’re here but not fully formed. This is like cloud watching but for those who have found themselves tangled in the earth.  

The other day, while performing the last act of my running ritual and lying down in the grass pretending to do leg lifts, I spent some time watching the last two seeds of a dead dandelion struggle to detach, to fly away from home and grow near each other elsewhere. They were on opposite sides of the center bud, both pulling as mightily as they could, buoyed by the breeze, like a tug of war in which both of them would crumble away with their host if they couldn’t figure it out soon.

I left before either flew away.

Magnetic sentence // There are things in this world that we will never understand

Remembering what I don’t want to forget


Two days ago, my bangs had reached the point of no return and needed to be trimmed/ burned to the ground. I haven’t cut my own bangs for a year or so, having found a delightful little Logan Square stylist who smells of root beer floats and always asks how my day is and brings me a bit of tea to sip on even if I don’t ask for it.
 
I forgot how to do this task for body management (it’s not so much a beauty ritual as it is maintenance and upkeep of a relatively uncontrollable variable—a body, my body, my hair growing out of my body). Nonetheless, I, chin-up, strode to the bathroom mirror, grabbed a chunk of hair and, with the confidence of an award-winning surgeon, performed a thorough snip straight across the bottom, right above my eyebrows.
 
I realized my mistake as soon as I let the pieces go free and they stacked like unruly sticks on my forehead. I looked like a young German boy off to fetch mushrooms for mutter dearest from the Black Forest at dawn.
 
“That’s not how you do it,” a voice snorted in my head. “Cool, hey, so nice of you to show up!” I replied.
 
Life in lockdown has reminded me a of things like this, things I’ve forgotten. Like that bangs are best cut in small vertical snips, not one long horizontal gash. Other remembrances of late:

  • I live in a city because I like to see things for myself.
  • Intimacy is a gift; adaption is a given.
  • My body is a vulnerable vessel.
  • I still own the red mini skirt from Express that I bought at 80% off five years ago. (Hello, week six’s Project Closet Purge.)
  • In a lab test in 1978, two scientists fed rabbits high cholesterol diets to see if they got heart disease. One group of rabbits totally fucking did. The other group didn’t. Why? The lab assistant who fed the group that didn’t get sick talked to the rabbits, stroked their fat little cheekies, and cuddled them while she fed them. (AKA: Family dinner can be sacred.)

Twenty-four hours and two YouTube-tutorials-by-teens-named-Ava after my “haircut,” I fixed my bangs. They look pretty good, actually, all fringed and perfectly layered, and I’ve been thinking about how much, before coronavirus, I paid for things that I could do myself just as well. More of that’s coming, I’m sure—a global scaling back in favor of doing it ourselves (by way of virtual spiritual guides named Ava, of course.)

I feel shocked that these shifts that are already happening to us individually. This experience, potential life-threatening illness notwithstanding, hasn’t been a full two months in progress and we’ve already changed, adapted, rethought, reimagined, reframed. 

Why am I so surprised that I can continue to be surprised?

When will I remember that there’s always something to forget?

Photo of a painting of fruits and vegetables on a table

Fiona and friends


I first heard—really heard—Fiona Apple during my second week of college. My new friend from Buffalo was a huge fan. 
 
Buffalo lived a few doors down from me in the freshmen dorm, and I was in love with her the minute I saw her. Were there people like this, people who showed up for you when you first left your hometown, people you were drawn to instinctually, magnet to magnet? Buffalo was one of two girls I met my first year at college that, when I first saw them, some internal alert flared and flashed, “That’s her! That’s her!” I’ve never felt that kind of intense platonic attraction since.
 
Buffalo was wildfire with an ice pick. Where I had hung a poster of Van Halen that I’d won playing SkeeBall at the county fair the past summer, Buffalo had taped up a handwritten self-manifesto of “Who I am and what I believe” on her wall. Where I had a Caboodle box on the shelf above my computer, she had a betta fish in a bowl. A betta fish named Sue. Like the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” Yeah, dude. So cool, especially for an 18-year-old from Buffalo.
 
In Buffalo, I saw a model for the kind of girl I wanted to be. Strong, certain of herself, giving, curious, and effortlessly fun. We would end up accomplishing a lot during our first semester of college together. Where I got a Monroe lip piercing, she got a nose ring, etc. The fact that we were both redheads worked in our favor at parties; we’d snag free beers from the boys and then sneak back to our dorm floor and hang out on our own.
 
I was starving for culture by the time I got to Kent State in fall 2004. I knew how to find a world beyond the one I’d been born into, but only in a fractured way. I spent much of my senior year of high school checking out CDs from the local library and having a friend with a computer burn them onto CDs I could listen to in my Buick Skylark while I surreptitiously smoked Pall Malls out the window. In this way, I learned the entire catalogs of the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, The Pixies, Janis Joplin, and (of all things) Supertramp. Mesmerized, but still hungry. By college, I’d eeked the Marion County Library dry and I needed more. (To be honest, I had also lost the fourth CD in a Rolling Stones multi-pack and owed the library the kind of money a 17-year-old Applebee’s carside-to-go girl just doesn’t have!)
 
Culturally, I needed some direction. I needed people like Buffalo to be my source, my guide to music and art and books and ideas. When Buffalo let me borrow Fiona Apple’s album “When The Pawn…” it was her idea. “I think you’ll really like this,” she said. “Oh and this, too,” she added, putting The Distiller’s album “Coral Fang” in my other hand. 
 
That handoff changed everything. Fiona Apple and Brody Dalle—and, by proxy, Buffalo—are cemented in my spirit. The lyrics to “Limp” still ring righteous shivers like a shot right through me. “Drain the Blood” still makes my pulse pound hot and rapid. These furious fucking women helped me feel not so fucking furious.
Sophomore year, Buffalo and I were in different dorms, in different areas of campus, and we naturally drifted apart, but not before she showed me how to find more of who I was and how to express it. My sense of self was forged through our friendship. I learned to balance my adoration for Buffalo and what I learned from her with what I brought to the table as myself. 
 
My first year out of college, I bought my own betta fish. I named her Black Betty, after the Ram Jam song—a song I used to blare from my smoking Buick, tearing down a lonely country road, with so many more miles to go.

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 beltpublishing.com (oh, hi, they also have a Rust Belt Arcana tarot deck and I think that’s so very awesome).