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 (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.