Straw House

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I draw a tree over my healing bruise in ballpoint pen, the kind that smears when you look at it funny. Inky branches unfurl over a palm-sized wash of golden currant and leaf green and muddled blackberry purple, all colors that are absent from Los Angeles autumn. The roots are shaky and slender, blue like veins, extending far beyond the edges of the healing skin on my thigh.

My dad died when I was 21, so I’m no stranger to the unmooring power of grief. I think about death even when I’m not thinking about death: it’s a knowing, simple as breathing, that we are all hurtling down the same road at different speeds. Sometimes I forget to breathe, and sometimes I forget the way death presses its weight into the day-to-day, the invisible trajectory of each fragment of my life: a relationship, an injury, a reprieve. Everything reaches an inevitable end, but the darker things always seem to stretch on longer.

I sign the lease for my apartment on November 7th, braced for the unique difficulties of moving, living alone with a disability. I don’t anticipate feeling, one day later, that I am moving into a Trump-era bomb shelter.

The world is grieving. The world is terrified. I am not alone in this, and yet.

My home is just boxes and a bed. I stumble through November and December the way I stumbled through the months after my dad’s death, this time with a better understanding of the choreography, but pain and fear are a dance that counts on you losing your footing even when you’re sure you know all the steps.

I tell my therapist that the threads I am painstakingly stitching back together blow apart at the tiniest breeze. She nods and says: straw house. I lie on the floor of my apartment and stare at the ceiling, at a peeling square of blue painter’s tape that I notice and then forget about until the next time I’m on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I unpack one box at a time, one a day because I don’t have the energy for more, until there’s a cardboard mountain on one side of the room and the weight on my chest shifts just a fraction. I organize my books by color, and my favorite shelf has dusky blues and deep reds and warm greys, my dad’s prayer beads nestled beside a wheat-gold deerskin pouch stuffed with Virginia cedar runes.

I have blood work done the first day of December. The night before, I scratch lonely lonely lonely lovely lovely lovely loved loved loved into my journal until they become nothing more than the rhythm of the same word written over and over and over. That morning, I am straw and thread: every street light is out, roads blocked off, the clinic garage closed. My body is taut with hunger and exhaustion and I want to release it in sobs, want someone to tug hard so I can unravel.

My nurse’s name is Tamiko, spelled neatly in kanji and Roman letters on a sticky note pressed to a beige cabinet door. I’m fifteen minutes late to my appointment, and have forgotten to fill out my paperwork beforehand; when I apologize, flustered, she gently tells me not to worry, and pulls out a pen to help. She then tells me my hair is beautiful, and when I hand her my driver’s license, she wishes me a happy birthday.

I am more likely to pass out during blood work than most, thanks to my disability. I feel ashamed of this, somehow, want to explain that it’s not just a fear of needles, though that would be equally valid. I shift on the hard plastic phlebotomy chair while Tamiko prepares the bed. There’s a calendar on the wall across from me: December is a Yorkie in a velvet Santa costume.

I don’t like Yorkies, but I tell her the calendar is cute, that I’m looking to adopt a dog after the holidays. We talk about apartments, doggy daycare as I settle onto the bed and she gets the needle and vials; she had a pit bull, fifteen years old when she died, and at the end of her life she hired in-house dog sitters for long trips instead of putting her through the physical stress of going elsewhere. Tamiko was anxious, at first, about letting a virtual stranger have access to her home. “Material things can be replaced, but your loved ones can’t,” she concludes after asking me to release my fist, the vein in my wrist twitching as blood pumps through the needle, nothing more than a pinch under soft skin.

When I’m home, I organize my kitchen. I don’t have any furniture, so this is the one room of the apartment that feels like it’s already mine: a basil plant on the counter, postcards on the fridge. I move a whiskey bottle behind the basil, try to peel the label off its wooden stopper and lodge a tiny splinter into my thumb. It’s been years since I last had a splinter, and it hurts more than I expect it to; I pour white vinegar into a Mickey Mouse shot glass, soak my thumb until it prunes as I rummage one-handed in my medicine cabinet for the hotel sewing kit I put there the day before. I pour alcohol into a paper cup to sterilize the needle and sit cross-legged on my bath mat, tenderly plucking at my skin with a calm I haven’t felt in months.

I feel the same calm when I shatter a cup days before my birthday. It’s one I’ve had since I was small, tiny and fragile and white with plump bruise-red cherries on the side, a child’s souvenir from one of my first international flights. I sweep up the pieces, see if I can glue them back together, but the bottom is practically dust, and it ends up in the trash.

Days after the New Year, I adopt a dog. I wonder if the liminal state of my home will be too stressful for him, still just boxes and bookshelves and a mattress on the floor, but I get to the rescue and see the swish of his curled tail and his soft sad eyes and I’m gone. The young girl working there calls him osito as she scratches behind his ears, and I name him Pan.

I mean to crate Pan that first night, but after an hour of whimpering and scrambling against the wire I let him out. As I settle onto my side he climbs onto the mattress, curls warm against the curve of my belly, and I feel expansive, suddenly—struck with wonder that the two of us are alive at the same time.

Teeth

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I had a dream the other night that my teeth were falling out. First whole, molars followed by canines, then in chunks and shards. No blood, just polished cream fading to baby pink at the root or the jagged edges where they splintered. I was afraid of swallowing them, but I never did. I spat them into cupped palms and gingerly tongued the gaps closest to the front, the ones most visible to others. It was my fault they had loosened, but I don’t remember why. I wished I could undo it, that I could reverse time and take better care of them, but I told myself that someone would love me anyway, that someone might even love the gaps themselves. I told myself it could be worse; you can live without teeth.

I’m smiling tight-lipped when he leans in to tell me that the worn green lines go “all over” his body, indicating, of course, his penis. He tells me that you should never hit against the muscle grain if you want to avoid bruising. He presses a wrinkled finger lengthwise on my arm to demonstrate, and I don’t know how to tell him I don’t ever want to be touched by strangers, so I ask if the tattoo hurt. I wonder how old he was when he got it, aware of the tension in my temples that comes with a clenched jaw, taut shoulders. He says when you focus on the pain it suddenly stops hurting, because all the hurt came from dread and you realize you never needed to dread it to begin with. His smile is all gums, laugh lines folding into delicate branches of skin.

When you look up “teeth” in the dream dictionary it comes up under “body” and only after “body situations”: bodiless, body being cut open, burnt body—where burn is painful, where the burning body is beautiful, leaving body. The subsection for teeth is longer than heart and bone but not as long as hand and blood.

There’s a lot about biting and gnashing and chewing before you get to loosening, spitting, falling: “This may be felt as the sense of not being able to get what one deeply wants, and so is experienced as a death, or a loss of self in some degree.”

We ask permission for different kinds of touch. We’re all drunk, and I try to make it sound like a joke or an off-hand comment, wishing I had someone to hold hands with while everyone else is paired off, but I almost cry when she skips away from her wife to twine her fingers with mine.

I’ve only kissed boys this year, and when I fall asleep with them they’re softer than I imagined they would be. They like being little spoon and I like that they never take without asking. I start the year reckless and now I’m so careful, and I’m not sure which is better when both feel like pressing on a bruise. I love them with ferocity and fear, because I never thought I could, because too often I spit love out with mouthfuls of blood.

The attachment glows purple like the strings of Christmas lights on their window, haloed and over-bright in my smudged glasses. It feels like the zap of a tattoo gun, tiny lightning sparks arcing between skin and wand, and I’m not sure I like it. When she uses herself as a conductor, it changes—jolts accompanied by a drag of nails, the warmth of human skin. We play with a chainmail belt, a whisk, a mesh tea ball, menacingly-sharp pinwheels, the cat’s tail swishing with interest as we shriek and giggle. If you use the wand on someone else, you don’t feel it at all; I expect the same when it’s my turn as conductor, but skin-on-skin thrums and prickles below the pads of my fingers, a cloud churning grey-black.

I ask permission to kiss his hand while she’s touching him, while we’re all linked. When I do, my lips spark, and my startled laugh exposes teeth.

the hanged man

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Back in October, when I came to Virginia to help my mom recover from surgery, I took a walk in the woods. It was the quintessential east coast autumn experience: damp earth, leaves still berry-red, pumpkin orange, and sunburst yellow, sleek foxes darting along the river bed and deer standing quiet between elm and oak. I brought a new tarot deck with me, intending to pull cards for the universe at large, whoever needed them most. I’d post them when it felt right. When I returned for the holidays to a strange, unseasonably warm winter, I realized that they might have been for me.

I wrote earlier in the year about the music my dad chose for his own funeral–about the strange ways it’s resurfaced in my life in the five years since his death, the ways in which it’s opened my brain and heart to the idea of maybe, possibly, being a part of something bigger. I was convinced I couldn’t hold a dialogue with whatever that Big Nebulous Something was, that I couldn’t pray to it or ask anything of it, but I could remain receptive to it. I could listen.

To my own immense surprise, I was wrong. The universe listens back, and it has so goddamn much to give.

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On that walk back in October, I pulled three cards: Justice, The Tower, The Hanged Man. Justice, for those uninitiated in the Ways of Woo-Woo, is all about the law of cause and effect, of karma. Of knowing that your decisions and actions–good and bad–will eventually boomerang back to you, probably in unexpected ways. The Tower is catastrophic, unexpected change: change you desperately need, and also desperately don’t want to go through.

The Hanged Man is, in simplest terms, a sacrifice. A surrender. It’s vulnerability, it’s discomfort, it’s letting the fuck go and learning not to push because something greater awaits. There’s no forward motion, no soaring accomplishments or crushing defeats–but once we’re still, with the world turned on its head, we find clarity. We grow. And only after we’ve found that clarity can we untie ourselves and carry on.

Last night, I calculated my “year card” for 2016: The Chariot. Which means, sequentially, that this year was The Lovers, and in retrospect–boy, it sure was. The Lovers is sort of like Death in that everyone makes immediate knee-jerk assumptions and associations, and while it is about romantic love, it’s also more than that: it’s coming to terms with our beliefs, our values, with intimacy in all shapes and forms, physical and emotional.

At the end of 2014, I started going to therapy regularly. I saw someone in Virginia after my dad passed away, but stopped when I moved to LA. Then, last November, a month after being quietly let go from my job doing practical effects for film, I was such a wound-up ball of anxiety and fatigue that I bit the bullet and found a new therapist. We worked through a lot of career stuff and dead dad stuff and friendship stuff and health stuff. I didn’t really talk about romantic or sexual relationships, because I didn’t think it was relevant.

Sometime around April or May I started exploring BDSM, and suddenly it was. Kink forced me to strip naked in front of a full-length mirror and look at myself–really look at myself–for maybe the first time ever. I had to relearn my body, and my wants and my needs and how they related to other people and their bodies and their wants and needs, and all of it was terrifying and uncomfortable and weirdly, blissfully freeing. When I was diagnosed with dysautonomia, BDSM became a way for me to reclaim pain, to learn what limits I wanted to push and which ones were set in stone. It helped me clearly define my physical boundaries and become comfortable laying them out for others in my day to day life .

I was dating on and off, sort of. Mostly stuff that petered out after two dates at most. I had kind of seen someone the summer before, and then I just wanted to be friends, and being alone felt good to me. It felt safe. I’m still learning the ways in and extent to which losing my dad has impacted my relationship with intimacy, but the short answer is: a lot.

The thing is, I like the deep shit. My best, most meaningful friendships are with people I can talk to about love and loss and the universe and the fucked up shit we’ve been through and want to do and want to know. Friendships aren’t easy, but they’re a little easier than romance. They don’t come with a contract. They don’t feel like they have to be all or nothing. They can wax and wane at their own pace and that’s perfectly normal and okay.

Romance probably doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either, but I felt like it did. And that scared me. And so I withdrew.

When I first started doing tarot readings for myself, at the end of the summer, I pulled The Lovers as a card that was coming into my life. I didn’t give it a ton of thought; I was casually seeing someone at the time, but she had a primary partner, and so I thought it might just represent growing closer to the two of them. They were rad. I was cool with the idea of that.

And then, for fun, I did a “coming romance” spread. It was supposed to show you the next person you were going to date. I figured it would be some mysterious, exciting unknown, but that was all I expected from it. I wasn’t ready to seriously date anyone.

But the outcome was weird. I railed against it, because all the cards said, very plainly, down to her appearance: remember that girl you dated last summer who you’re friends with now who you don’t have any romantic feelings for? Yeah, it’s her. And it’s gonna be tough. So goddamn tough. But it’s also gonna be important.

This was sometime around late August, early September. I wanted to yell at my cards: I’m having so much fun with this couple! It’s casual and easy! It’s fine! You’re not the boss of me! And then by October, the girl I was kind of seeing in that pair didn’t text me much anymore. And I came home, and I took that walk, and I started thinking more about that one friend.

The friend I was kind of an asshole to when we dated, because I freaked out without really knowing I was freaking out and told her I needed to focus on career stuff–which was a half-truth–when in actuality I didn’t feel, after maybe a month of casually dating/hanging out, that we should be more than friends. She was great, though. She was funny and talented and brave and a wonderful tiny little spitfire and I had so much fun with her, and I wanted to grow that friendship–just not with the romance attached. Romance was sticky. Romance was scary. Romance was not what I was ready for. Instead of telling her that, I kind of quietly detached, and then she asked me on another date and I texted her to say that I really wanted to be friends.

It was shitty of me. But it was also really, really good for the both of us that we didn’t date back then.

We both had growing to do, although neither of us would have known it. We did grow together and on our own, slow and steady, as friends. And while I was alone at home in October, with my tea and my cards and the changing seasons, I considered the shape of our friendship. How easy it was to be alone with her. How, after more beers than we could count while marathoning some show when we were just friends, I held her hand, and then felt guilty about it the next day. There were still some things I was keeping from her, then, and I hated that. I’ve never liked secrets. Not when they could hurt someone.

A friend who knew us both did another “coming romance” spread for me, again pointing in one unmistakable direction, and she said–look at this. Look at how good it is. Just do it.

I still pushed back until I came home to LA, and we were drunk and we sat under the stars and we talked about storytelling and loss and love and how we would have crashed and burned if we’d dated a year ago. I could feel the weight of my growth, and I felt hers, too.

I wasn’t head over heels for her, but there was something there. It was small, and I was still scared, but I also felt drawn to it the way I felt drawn to all the sacred unknowns in my life: it felt right, and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t give it a second chance to bloom.

My therapist asked me, in the midst of all of my confusion over her and the couple and the secret, what my first relationship was like. I realized, with surprise, that I couldn’t easily conjure an image of my first relationship, but I could remember the first person I fell in real, soul-crushing love with. We were 16, and we were friends, and she was tall and gorgeous and lived in Mississippi, and I wanted so desperately for her to be my first girlfriend, distance be damned. I didn’t tell her that until a year later, because I was scared, and she was seeing other people intermittently during that time. She ended up becoming one of my closest friends, and we lived together when I was in college after my dad died, during one of the hardest years of my life–and even though we don’t talk as often now, she’s still hugely important to me. But I was always relieved we never dated, because I was certain I would have lost her.

I’ve dated a lot in the ten years since, and I’ve broken hearts and had my heart broken in turn, but that was kind of the foundation on which my romantic experience was built. Friendship was always more important. Friendship could last–romance was fleeting. And then I learned how easy it was to be a third, to be casual, to not get attached: to hook up with friends who were in open relationships. I “lost my virginity,” if we’re still calling it that, in a threesome with an older couple when I was 20. I wasn’t in love, and I liked it that way. I could slip out into the quiet dark on my own while they did their post-coital thing and avoid real vulnerability.

During my last session with my therapist, I still didn’t know what I was going to do. This girl was younger; I wasn’t sure if I was attracted to her; I didn’t want to risk our friendship with all of those uncertainties hanging over me. My therapist always came from a place of empathy, but she also always told the truth, and helped me find the truth in myself–and she told me that day that she felt like romance would be coming into my life soon.

I went to an event with Cheryl Strayed about a week later, during her tour for Brave Enough. Her work spoke to all the truths in me that were sleeping under the surface until this year. I flipped through the book on the ride home, and knew I needed to be brave enough to break my own heart, and I texted my friend from the back of an Uber that smelled like stale Chinese food and told her I liked her.

And we dated. And it was good, but I was also low-key scared the whole fucking time that it wouldn’t work out. I wanted to be brave enough to break my own heart, but I wasn’t really. We wanted to build a strong foundation with each other, and we worked at it, but it was hard. I had a lot of issues I hadn’t looked dead in the eye in a long time, if ever, that I needed to work through, and I think she did, too. The problem with being a pretty intuitive person is that I can almost always tell when something is off, and then I catastrophize when the other person doesn’t talk to me, and once we do talk it’s always open and honest and good, but the waiting game leaves my stomach in knots.

As helpful and clarifying as tarot had been for me, I kept pulling the same cards for the end of the year: The Tower, Three of Swords, and Ten of Swords. The catastrophe card–that I’d pulled back in the Virginia woods–followed by the heartbreak card and the rock bottom card.

They weren’t exactly comforting.

But with her, specifically, I’d never pulled those. Cards that came up on days with those difficult conversations or niggling uncertainties were the Nine of Wands–perseverance despite setbacks–and The Star. The Star is a gorgeous card. It’s a card about hope, and inspiration, and generosity of spirit.

I’d kind of forgotten, until she called after a week of mostly radio silence to apologize and to break up with me, that The Star comes after The Tower in the major arcana. It’s finding peace as the dust settles; it’s looking forward, and knowing that things will be okay. You’ve survived. You’re still here.

“I haven’t been fair to you,” she said, which was true. But I hadn’t been fair to her when we first dated and I broke things off with half-truths about why. I wasn’t fair to her when I kept that secret from her, even if it was because I didn’t want to hurt her.

So there, then, was Justice: the scales tipping back into balance. The Tower was that phone call, destroying an unstable structure. Three of Swords and Ten of Swords were my hour of crying in the bathtub afterward, wondering why I’d set myself up for heartache again.

And then, when the dust settled, as it always does, I thought: that’s what I was afraid of that whole time. I let that fear get in the way of letting myself enjoy the relationship for what it was. Here I am, and she still wants to be friends, and I still want to be friends, and I’m okay. I’ll be okay.

I still have sort of a nebulous relationship with believing things happen for a reason, although tarot has certainly tilted my world view in that respect. It’s been dead-on too many times for me to think it’s just coincidence. I believe in magic and I believe in the power of intent and all sorts of strange and beautiful and weird shit that I thought was mostly bull before this year, and I believe there are people we’re meant to meet in this life and we’re meant to help each other grow. Even when it’s messy. Maybe especially when it’s messy.

And boy, has this year been a messy growth year. But I’ve also healed in so many deep, important, soul-shifting ways. I was on the phone with her during one of those difficult messy conversations that nobody wants to have, and I said: “I love you. Not in a scary way, because it doesn’t have to be this world-shaking thing. I loved you as a friend and the shape of it is just different, now.”

Although it was world-shaking, in a way, because until then I thought that romantic love itself did have to be world-shaking. After my dad died, I dated and fell in love with one girl, and it certainly felt that way. And then I closed myself off without really thinking about it or meaning to. I never learned to say “I love you” when it mattered most with my dad, when he was sick and when I still had the chance to. I said it over his death bed, when I was so afraid he wouldn’t hear me. And then I lost him. And I said it to my last serious girlfriend, and it didn’t last.

When I realized that love could change shape, though–that it wasn’t some finite resource we had to clutch tight, that it didn’t come in these limited specific varieties I grew up believing in, that it could expand beyond them and bleed between them–that was important. It was maybe the most important thing I learned this year.

Vulnerability is so goddamn hard, but this year taught me how important it is, too. How when we’re vulnerable, when we open ourselves to others instead of shutting down, we hit upon that place of authenticity we’re always striving to reach. In stumbling through kink and dating and illness and relearning my body in relation to all of the above, I managed to hit marrow. I remember my therapist telling me, one afternoon as I was working through some of this: “I’m 99%–fuck it, 100% certain that real strength comes from vulnerability.”

So here I am, strung up by my ankle as the year comes to a close, uncomfortable and vulnerable, the world turned on its head. And I’m weirdly okay with that.

I went for another walk today, my last one of the year. It’s been unseasonably warm and rainy in Virginia, but most of the trees were bare, paw prints and hoof prints and boot prints squished into the muck of the trails. When I went on my walk in October, I came across three turkey vultures perched on an old, gnarled tree. One had its wings spread, and as I stepped closer, it dropped a feather on the ground right in front of me. I picked it up. I kept it. It felt like a gift the universe had given me.

Today, when I pulled my daily cards, my outcomes were Six of Pentacles and The Fool. Six of Pentacles is about giving and receiving, being generous when you have enough and knowing when to ask for something in return. I put my backpack together, with my tarot cards and my journal and my mom’s copy of Brave Enough, and on the way out the door, I grabbed the feather. I held it up in the wind and let it choose which way I would turn at each fork in the road. I went down that same trail, but took a different path. My family has lived in this area for ten years, and I walked further than I ever have before.

Much as I love the great outdoors, I wanted to find a place to sit that wasn’t going to ruin my pants with mud and/or dog shit, so I walked until I found myself at a little bridge with some rocks leading down to a stream. As I settled in, I noticed a huge, waxy-bright hunk of calcite in the dirt, and placed it where I planned to do my readings.

I’ve already done a handful of 2016 spreads for myself. I kind of know the trajectory of my year, as the energy stands right now. But I don’t know the specifics. I have the road map, but I’ve never been to this neck of the woods before. I’m looking at my itinerary and know what I want out of it and what I’m dreading and what I’m looking forward to, but my journal and photo album are full of blank pages. I won’t get to fill them in until I get there. And that’s both terrifying and exhilarating.

I drew a couple more cards for myself while sitting by that stream. I let Brave Enough fall open wherever it wanted to and soaked up those words, resonating so clearly with the cards I’d drawn. I thought about my intentions for the year ahead, and how far I’ve come, and how far I still have to go. The staircase of branches in the Nine of Wands looks like it wants you to fall back down it before you’re even halfway up, to make sure you’re bruised and bleeding and stuck with splinters by the time you reach the moon. But I want to get there. I want to see what secrets it has to share with me.

As I packed up my things to leave, a woman was waiting by the trailhead for her husband, and we chatted a bit. I was prepared to move on, but then I asked her if she’d like me to draw a card for her. It was the first one I’d ever drawn for a complete stranger, out of the blue. When her husband arrived, I wished them a happy 2016.

I took the same route back home, but stopped once more, just off the trail. It wasn’t exactly where I found my feather before, but I felt it was the right spot to pause and say thank you. Because I’d learned to ask the universe for help, for protection, for clarity, and it had delivered. It didn’t come in the form of a mountain of wealth or an immediate book deal or a steady relationship, but that’s not really how it works. When you come at it from a place of openness and a willingness to learn, it gives you opportunities, and you have to be willing to take them. You have to be willing to work your ass off, so you can look back some day and say: that was so fucking worth it. You’ll know what they are. You’ll know what you’re meant to do, and if you’re not quite sure–you can always ask.

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I left the feather there, the piece of calcite heavy in my palm, earth still clinging to its ridges, fingers smeared red with it.

I pulled a card for all of you, too, and let Brave Enough fall open to whatever it wanted to tell you. It’s already 2016 in other parts of the world as I write this. It won’t be too long before it’s 2016 here on the east coast of the US. I won’t tell you how to interpret this–I’ll let it speak for itself.

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The first cards that I laid out on the rocks for myself were Beginnings and Judgement. Rebirth, renewal, and transformation. I know it won’t be easy, because nothing worthwhile ever is. And then there was The Fool, my final outcome card for tonight. I can’t imagine a better way to close the chapter on a strange and awful and wonderful year.

So here I am, at an ending and a beginning, preparing to step out into the unknown.

I think I’m ready. And I hope you’ll come with me.

 

a smudge year

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In these final days of December—when dark begins to creep into each afternoon, stretching just a sliver longer than before, exhaustion settling onto our shoulders like a fine layer of dust—it seems natural to pause, to slow down, to reflect. We’re ready for the year to be done. We’re ready to start fresh, to slough our skins, to shed whatever’s grown heavy there, whatever fails to keep us warm.

When I wondered how I would cap off the year, I thought about how strange it is that we categorize our lives so neatly into “good” and “bad” years. “This was a tough year,” we say, and our friends nod in solemn agreement. Even when we acknowledge the good with the bad, it still doesn’t sit quite right. It feels a bit like being given a blank canvas and a fresh set of paints and, when asked to depict your year in review, you swipe broad strokes of black, return with the same muddied brush in cream over the center, and call it done. Twelve months of life experience summed up in a smudge of grey.

Objectively, I would categorize 2015 as a smudge year. My mom and a friend I love dearly both found lumps in their breasts. My mom’s was benign; my friend’s was not. My own health was an unsolved mystery until halfway through the year I was officially diagnosed with chronic illness. Said diagnosis forced me to cut my losses in a physically demanding career. I landed in the ER more times than I would like to remember, with doctors squinting at the word “dysautonomia” on my flimsy medical card and saying, dumbly, “your heart rate’s pretty high,” as if I were unaware of the way it battered against my ribs like a spooked bird, fingers tingling as my blood pressure dropped. I scraped by a number of weeks with to do lists that were only as extensive as “get out of bed” and “go to therapy,” and didn’t always manage those two simple things.

My world at the end of last year was steadily eroding underfoot, and this year was the step that sent me plunging into the unknown. I’m still not quite sure where I landed.

If you’d asked me, with the clock ticking down to midnight on January 1st of 2015, whether I would like to deal with illness (my own and others’) and surgery (my mother’s) and quit a job I’d sunk thousands of dollars and hours of just-barely-paid work into and have fallings-out with friends because of said illness, I would have said fuck no—once I got through the frightened-rabbit panic at the thought of all of the above. I would have made a very urgent plea to any god that would listen to keep me firmly planted in the safe and comfortable cocoon of whoever and whatever I was in December 2014.

I’m glad I didn’t know. I’m glad I didn’t make that plea. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want to relive a lot of this year, but I also wouldn’t go back.

The weird thing is, I’ve got the fortune teller’s cards laid out in front of me, going into 2016—quite literally. I’ve started using tarot to make the most of each day, each month, to ask the question: “what do I need to know?” Sometimes, what I need to know makes me smile in relief. Sometimes it makes my chest squeeze tight, and I want to slide the card back into the deck, to unsee it. Without fail, what I need to know is something I already know: I’ve just been looking at it through the warped reflection of a spoon, finding the color but never quite working out the shape.

I haven’t yet looked at the year ahead of me, because I’m a little afraid of what it will hold, but I also know it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve seen all the colors before, even if the form is different. Which doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

I think in general we want to grow, but we don’t want to go through the process of growth. Growth is messy. It’s plunging off the cliff and knowing that, even if you survive the fall, you might not make it to shore. It’s heaving yourself out from the boot-sucking mud of the briar patch and emerging sticky with sweat and blood. You might be a butterfly, triumphant and radiant once you rinse off the muck, but you also might not. The muck might not come off in one wash, or you might wade thoughtlessly into it again. You might not want to come out. Growth starts in the dirt and the dark; once our knuckles are raw and our nails caked brown, once we spit soil from our teeth and blink it from our lashes, we know we’re finally stretching towards the sun, towards renewal and warmth.

This year began in the dirt. It was messy in all the areas of life where it counts, that we reflect on as December draws to a close—health, relationships, career. It asked a lot of me, and I often wanted to say no. No would have felt easier, even when I didn’t have a choice.

But this year wasn’t just a smudge on canvas, wasn’t dark ink blooming slow in a glass of milk. It wasn’t really that dark at all, when I lay out the album of moments. It was jewel-throated hummingbirds and pastel-dotted hospital gowns—my mother’s blood drained into tiny plastic cups, mine sucked from needles, a fledgling’s smashed berry-wet into concrete. It was fog and sea-foam and bone, earthy leather and bright shame and shivering catharsis. It was fire-kissed hair and sunbursts of freckles on elbows and cheeks and one on soft lips; it was learning that love can’t be sliced neat and clean into little compartments, that it strains with you through the earth to burst into the light. It was learning that when you have the choice, you should always, always open instead of close.

Our instinct is to leave each year behind. Blank canvas, blank slate. Shed the skin to heal. But letting go isn’t always that simple; sometimes, weeks or months later, we find stingers and splinters lodged beneath our skin, still visible through the fresh layers. Fractures that knit themselves back together often ache in the rain.

We don’t have to look at these reminders as failures. There are still things to carry forward, things that nourish us, that we can tuck into our pockets and close our fingers around, smooth over and grasp like a bead or a button or a stone: I am a survivor; I deserve better; the universe is sometimes horribly cruel, but I am still here.

I went to Big Sur this summer, on the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death. I talk about the trip a lot, but I also haven’t really talked about it, not the whole truth of it: the weight of it and the weight it lifted. It felt like a pilgrimage before I even left, and one afternoon when I had medics struggling to thread an IV into my veins I looked up into overwhelming brightness and thought: I still have to go to Big Sur. I still have to write. These were fundamental truths that I understood the importance of without really knowing why.

My dad’s death was the dark. 2010 was a bad year—a terrible, cruel, gut-wrenching year. The tiniest drops of cream in devastating, devouring pitch. Five years feels like forever and also nothing at all. But I can’t picture who I would be without that tragedy; it’s a blurred reflection in a fogged mirror, one that smudges more the harder you try to clear it. In March, when my mom called to tell me she had a tumor, I remember thinking: if I lost them both, I would die. I could not go on.

But you do, because you have to. Because dirt breaks down the dark into the pieces we need to nourish us, to grow us, even when the weight feels unbearable, like it will crush you. It hasn’t. It won’t.

Remember this as the days reach their darkest, the nights their coldest: you are still here with us, stretching towards the light.

XX – Confessional in the Back of an Ambulance

Seriously, you can ask me anything at all.
Anything you want to know.

You’re afraid of needles until they can’t get one in you
and then you just want it done because there are pennies on your tongue and
to the left of your spine is just pin pricks and
static and then nothing at all so why be afraid of a needle you can’t feel when
you can be afraid of the not-feeling itself

Blackouts are white noise and shades drawn then tugged back one-two but this is—
white and white and white and it’s okay, it’s okay if I die, it’ll be okay

You can tell me anything you want.
You can be real with me.

There’s air in one tube and fluid in another and a cross above the door (just in case) and you wonder what others have told him when he says:
I’ve heard everything back here.

The world is retreating out the back window and it’s not the first time
you’ve watched tree rows on rewind but the last time
your dad drove to the hospital and took you home and this time
your dad is dead and he’s been dead for five years and you thought
you might see him again, maybe
even if it wasn’t the light at the end of a tunnel so much as just so much light

It feels like he knows you and it feels like
you’ve been here before and will be here again some day

Your brain says it’s just chemicals and trauma, or maybe he’s fucking with you but you still might be missing a chance when he says one more time,
as late afternoon spills sun-bright through the doors and out you go on wheels with needles in your veins, finally,

Anything you want to know,
Anything at all.

Will I be okay and is there a God and who are you, really

You know—
I don’t have any questions,
but thank you.

funeral for fun

“What do you picture when you listen to this? What can you see?”

I fiddled with the air conditioning vent, thumbing it up until it hit the right angle to cool Virginia-summer sweat from my brow. The car radio was tuned to a classical station, a concession I made because Dad was driving, because he’d treated me to pints of cold beer and baskets of wings, one of few meal outings we’d made together that summer.

“I don’t know.” A verbal shrug, because his eyes were on the road and I felt inexplicably uncomfortable, put on the spot. ‘I don’t picture anything,’ I wanted to say, because we were almost home and I was too tired for the challenge, the way I’d always gone monosyllabic when he asked how my day was on the long drives home from my high school.

But even as I thought it, willing the conversation to come to an end before it could begin, I was listening deeper. The piece was warm, bright, a stroll through the park depicted with the short strokes of an Impressionist’s brush: all yellow, blue, pink, and so much green.

Somehow, the response caught in my throat, embarrassed by the visual my mind conjured up, not knowing what the right answer was even though there wasn’t one. I don’t know, I’d said, even though I did know, and the moment was slipping away the closer we got to home, losing my window of opportunity to respond.

“Music is my favorite form of art,” he finally said as the car rolled to a stop at the light near our house. When I looked up he was smiling, eyes forward, seeing something I couldn’t—fingers tapping on the steering wheel, percussion to go with wind and strings. “I feel like it speaks to my soul.”

Funeral for Fun. Five years later, I wonder how he felt when he opened iTunes, clicked ‘New Playlist,’ and typed those words. Funeral was acceptance: his body was failing him, his doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and so funeral hovered at some uncertain distance, closer than it had in over a decade, closer than it should have for a man in his early 50’s. They didn’t think it was his cancer returning, at least—the lymphoma I didn’t know about until years later, when I saw photos of us in an old album, my sister and I both too young to understand that Daddy didn’t have hair or a beard anymore because he was going through chemotherapy. Any awareness I might have had of his sickness, his hospital stays, had folded itself quietly into the deepest nooks of my childhood memories, stuffed behind the brighter ones of him swimming, kayaking, encouraging my sister and I to pursue sports, teaching us how to ride our bikes at the abandoned elementary school down the street. As far as I was concerned, he had always been healthy.

For Fun might have been a reassurance if one of us stumbled upon it by accident—not yet, it seemed to say, but just in case—but it was also for him. He could have just called it Funeral, or Funeral Playlist, but that wasn’t Dad’s modus operandi. Music, to him, was joy and light. He loved the poetry in Counting Crows lyrics, coffee black and egg white, but he also loved to dance and vocalize—much to my family’s chagrin—to the techno-warble of the Doctor Who opening, the horns and percussion of the Uruk-Hai theme from Lord of the Rings. When I was away at school, he would shoot me e-mails—have you heard of Great Lake Swimmers? Do you have Hazy Shade of Winter by the Bangles?—and when I was home, I’d tell him about the Decemberists show I went to off-campus, pull together playlists of artists I thought he would like.

I came home for spring break, when things were bad but hadn’t yet gotten worse, and Dad accompanied me on a trip downtown to the Freer and Sackler galleries. He had so little energy, but still he watched the gentle, grain-by-grain creation of a sand mandala with rapt attention, leafed through books of Chinese poetry and helped me pick out a scroll with a cat, charming in simple black brush strokes, to hang in our kitchen. On the metro ride home, I pulled out my iPod, his callused fingers feverishly warm as they fumbled to take my proffered earbud. We sat in silence for a moment, just the clack-screech of wheels on tracks and one-half of a song in our ears; the last notes faded off and I turned to await his opinion, but he’d fallen asleep, head lolled forward and temple beading with sweat, the headphone cord dangling from his shoulder and the next song a tinny warble against the fabric of his shirt.

I don’t know when he started Funeral for Fun, but alphabetically he made it to N. Halfway there. The last song was one I’d sent him, Colorblind by Counting Crows covered by Natalie Walker. I couldn’t listen to that or the original for the longest time, because it was too real, too close: I am folded and unfolding, I am ready, I am fine.

He and I were alone in his last weeks at home. My mom and sister were visiting colleges, and Dad returned from a business trip while they were gone, so much sicker than he’d been when he left. He could barely walk without a cane, sometimes fell just getting from his bed to the bathroom. Food, as he put it, made him feel like Frodo in Mordor: all of it tasted like so much ash in his mouth. I spent those nights in my sister’s room down the hall, knowing that his fevers were spiking at 104 and terrified that he was going to die while I slept, so I didn’t. I could see the bright-dark flicker of my parents’ television one night after 2 AM, so I crept in to pry the remote from his hands, but not until after I made sure he was breathing. When he woke, he mumbled something nonsensical—that I was going to an island to get him some salami. “That’s weird, Dad,” I tried to say, as if it was normal-weird for him, but the words shook, tasting sour in my mouth. The fevers were literally frying his brain.

We sat across from each other at dinner, the day before he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, and he finally talked to me about cancer. About death. The stretch of table between us felt like an insurmountable distance, like if I stayed on my side none of it would be real. I would be safe from the words, “I might only have a couple of years left.” He was crying when he told me that my mom, my sister, and I were more important to him than anything else in the world; that we were what kept him going the first time around; that he’d wanted nothing more than to see Ali and me grow up; that he wanted me to know that he loved us.

I should have said “I love you, too,” but I felt like my dad had pulled his ribs apart and laid his heart out on the table between us, a centerpiece of vulnerability I didn’t know how to match. All I could hear was two years, two years, two years in its quiet, unsteady rhythm, and instead of “I love you, too,” or “I don’t want you to die,” all I could choke out, with a nod, was “Yeah.”

The next week, I went on a long-planned trip with some friends. When I returned from Florida, Mom told Ali and me that his liver was failing. He was dying. Actively, irrevocably. Two years had turned, suddenly and horribly, to a little under two weeks.

Dad took his final breaths in the hospital CCU that night, do not resuscitate on yellow plastic around his wrist, rain streaking the windows of his private room.

The Beatles and Brother Iz played over a slideshow of him, of us, at his funeral. At the reception his playlist, a 200-song letter to my mom, my sister, and me, reverberated through the expensive sound system he’d bought for the house. My mom burned me a copy, 7 discs total, to take to school, to have on my laptop and my iPod. I looked over the track list, kept the CDs stacked neatly on my shelf beside a photo of him in my cramped little room off-campus, but I couldn’t listen to it, couldn’t even move it to my computer. The Crane Wife, Round Here, Coconut Skins—all of them made my throat close up, my shoulders shake. All of them were a part of him, but he was gone.

Religion was never the bedrock of my adolescent life. My dad was raised Jewish and my mom Christian, but neither believed in God. When I asked what religion I was, sometime in elementary school, they told me that I could choose whatever felt right. We celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, but never went to church or temple, and I prayed maybe a handful of times as a kid without any real conviction, over trivial things: Dear God, please make so-and-so like me. Please help me get the nice 5th grade teacher next year. Amen. It felt a little like writing to Santa Claus, presenting a wishlist with the intention of being good in return.

By the time I hit 20, I’d taken an eye-opening comparative religion class in high school and was considering minoring in Eastern Religions in college, but still had no solid belief system. I felt comfortable saying I was spiritual, open to the idea of the inexplicable, but as far as a higher being, the after-life, the soul living on post-mortem? I didn’t know. Amidst all the leaders of science and faith, the atheists and the Catholics and the Buddhists, I didn’t think anyone in this world really knew. The people who knew were dead. When I thought about my dad, where he had gone when he took his last breaths, when heart and skin and bone caught flame and his earthly body returned to dust, all I could conjure was some sort of nebulous up there. I found a modicum of comfort in thinking that he was watching us, but I couldn’t quite picture his face, nor this wispy-pearlescent idea of his soul in the shape of his body hanging around with the greats of our universe, watching it all from the best seat in the house.

I can’t remember when my mom first told me that she was hearing music from Funeral for Fun in odd places. She would be on a trip, text me that something obscure—something from the 70’s she and Dad listened to together, that he’d then put on his playlist—had thrummed quietly over the clink of silverware at a restaurant, beneath the chatter of patrons in a shop. I thought it was nice, but largely coincidental. I had also heard a couple of songs here and there, but I assumed it was because I was hyper-focused on them, still wrapped tight in the insular cocoon of grief.

Not quite two years after he died, we went on a family trip to Hawaii. I was beginning the slow crawl out of the soul-sucking quagmires of fresh, marrow-deep sorrow: I’d dropped out of school, started seeing a therapist regularly, was working a job at a skincare company that required an energy level and cognitive capabilities that were trickling back to me after a year of exhausting brain fog. I felt okay, in the way only those who have experienced trauma feel okay: functional, appreciative, but acutely aware of the painful growth that trauma required of me. It was always there, the before and after, the knowledge that every moment in the years ahead of me, significant and not, would be experienced through the lens of my father’s death.

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(c) Lauren Kayes, 2012

Hawaii was rejuvenating. It was important to both of my parents that we travel as a family at least once a year, and the places that struck me most were the ones with spectacular natural beauty—where rugged cliffs met crashing waves, where redwoods huddled dark and close, urging you to hush, to be present. Kauai was powder-soft sand and thunderous waterfalls, gentle turtles and inquisitive roosters, lush green forests spotted with orange and yellow and pink. It felt like my heart could make a home there.

We spent our time in Lihue reading on the deck of our rented condo, tasting homemade pies and shaved ice in flavors like lilikoi and li hing mui, shopping on days when dark clouds grew thick overhead and driving to the beach when the sun peeked through. The weather was mixed, but we wanted our trip to culminate in a helicopter ride over the Na Pali Coast, something that—as someone who is terrified of heights, and had heard many a helicopter tourism horror story—I was a bit apprehensive about.

There was scattered rain the afternoon we booked our helicopter trip, and I think the three of us were feeling my dad’s absence that day, the familiar dream-space of what this vacation would have looked like with him there, without the empty seat at each table for four. But I felt my heart rise with the helicopter’s ascent—the pilot pointed out landmarks, but otherwise we were left to soak in the views and listen to the pre-selected tour music, starting with the warm and charming Hawaiian Rollercoaster Ride from Lilo and Stitch. I looked out over fields speckled with chartreuse and moss green, cut with slender rivers and thick patches of forest, and felt at peace.

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(c) Lauren Kayes, 2012

As condensation started to bead on the windows, clouds rolling to kiss each mountaintop in the distance, Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Brother Iz began to play. It made sense—we were in Hawaii, after all, but it still felt like a hand was squeezing tight in my chest. I wondered, without daring to look, whether my mom and sister felt the same.

We made our way to the coast, and the clouds parted with a serendipitous transition to Here Comes the Sun, a small rainbow arching across the mountains. It was another of Dad’s songs, one of the few I could listen to without hurt in the wake of his death, but again, it was popular and universally beloved: a beautiful comfort, something to talk about when we came down, but coincidence.

Then the melancholy, unmistakable first notes of Colorblind rang clear as the mountains plunged into the sea, a second rainbow rising brilliantly and perfectly beside us, and my quivering heart dropped into my stomach. It could have kept going, through the bottom of our helicopter and into the vast expanse of ocean below before it was finally, gently buoyed there, cradled by the rocking waves.

It was an elation, a certainty I had never before felt, and one I find hard to describe to people who have never lost someone, who have never experienced that sublime moment when your loved one’s energy is unquestionably there, before and around and within you. Strangely enough, I was the one to introduce my dad to Counting Crows, at some point when I was still in elementary school. I bought a copy of August and Everything After, he fell in love, and as middle-schoolers are wont to do I decided I was Too Cool for them even as my dad continued to buy each of their albums, until finally I outgrew my Too Cool phase and fell back in love. Colorblind, for whatever reason, was a song that spoke so strongly of my father to me that I couldn’t bear to hear it after he died. That afternoon, as we soared over the Na Pali Coast, may have been the first time I heard the song in full since his death.

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(c) Lauren Kayes, 2012

The three of us didn’t have to talk about it, when our feet were firmly back on solid ground, but we did: and all that had to be said was that he was there. The music that spoke to his soul—the music he deliberately, painstakingly and reverently chose for us, for himself, his own death—was there. We didn’t quite know how, or in what way, but there was a truth in that shared moment that we couldn’t overlook. We missed him, and we were together, and our hearts were open in that honest, ever-mending vulnerability of moving forward from loss.

Somehow, Dad knew, and urged us to listen. And so we did.

Months later, the next trip my family took together was a one-way ticket for me: I was moving to Los Angeles, making that cliché leap into the creative clusterfuck of the entertainment industry. I was excited and terrified, and I leaned more terrified than excited as Mom and Ali’s flight home to Virginia grew closer and closer.

The two year anniversary of Dad’s death fell during that week, so emotions were running high amidst the anxieties of my move. Some friends of mine recommended a Chinese restaurant we should go to for dinner that night, since my dad loved Chinese food—he spent years studying in Taiwan, and when we went to Chinese restaurants together we were the only white people who ordered off the Mandarin menu, which meant we got the good shit—but it was our first foray into the treacherous, shark-infested waters of Los Angeles street parking. After circling for about half an hour, squinting at the indecipherable signs—No Parking Mon-Fri 7AM-7PM, 2 Hour Parking Sat-Sun, Definitely No Parking on the Anniversary of Your Father’s Death, Permit Required—we gave up. Mom was stressed. I was frustrated and stressed by osmosis. We were staying in a hotel at Universal, and despite having spent enough time mingling with the tourists there that week to last the entire tenure of my LA residency, we resigned ourselves to spending Dad’s anniversary dinner at the Hard Rock Café. He liked collecting their shirts when we traveled, so it would be good enough. I didn’t feel like it was good enough—I felt like somehow, we weren’t honoring his memory.

At the end of our meal, as we stood to leave, I realized that the framed jacket in my direct line of sight that evening had belonged to Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.

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(c) Lauren Kayes, 2012

It’s hard to explain how Funeral for Fun crops up at those moments. It’s not the only way in which I feel Dad’s presence—there are films, literature, animals, places that remind me of him, where his energy is so clearly there—and I certainly can’t just snap my fingers and say, “Dad, please give me a sign that you’re listening, that you’re looking out for me.” It’s serendipitous, it’s divine, it’s magical in a way that probably sounds like total bullshit to most people. We lived in the Boston area when I was younger, and when I returned for the first time last year, I spent a day at the aquarium and exploring Quincy Market with a friend of mine. This was almost a year after we scattered his ashes over the water in Maine, and I felt so at peace looking out over the harbor. I pressed my hands to the glass of the seal enclosure, chatted with my friend about how my dad and I went scuba diving when I was younger, and later that evening my mom, out of nowhere, texted me a photo she had just found of my dad and I on that trip together, scuba masks peeking out of the bottom of the frame. As my friend and I ran through the rain to catch our cab, shaking with cold in the growing dark, I realized the music I was catching snippets of, over the torrential downpour, was the Decemberists, braving that New England summer storm to perform on the Common. This past December, I went to a different aquarium with friends for my birthday, and as we sat down on the water for dinner, a perfect, frosty glass of Maine blueberry beer in hand, Counting Crows played over the restaurant speakers, just for me.

“Did you hear Here Comes the Sun when we walked in?” I waited to ask my mom until our waitress had flitted off with our drink orders at the Florida beachside restaurant we’d chosen for dinner earlier this summer, though I’d had one ear trained on it while she asked, not wanting the song to end before my mom and sister could hear. Mom said no, she hadn’t—and as she said it, Rain King by Counting Crows began to play. I walked along the beach later that evening, water drenched orange-pink with the setting sun and lapping warm at my ankles, and I felt full.

It is hard science fact that our energy doesn’t disappear when we die. So where does it go? I’m not a physicist, nor do I have any definable divine faith, haven’t turned to any variety of God or god as an answer to my grief. But I’m growing more comfortable with the not-knowing, with letting it be enough that our existences are miraculous on their own; with the inexplicable, sublime understanding in my viscera, at my core that my dad’s energy is still present. The music that spoke to his soul now holds some piece of it. I can’t really call upon it, or pray to it, but I can open myself to it. It is there because I allow it to be. And lately, it doesn’t feel like only my dad’s energy: it’s the energy of the universe, the Other of innumerable religions, the feeling we get while staring at the horizon where sky meets ocean and continues on and on, while looking up into the vast dark and covering the moon with our thumbs, wondering at how small and significant we are all at once.

This feeling can happen to all of us. It happens when we allow ourselves to be truly, deeply vulnerable, to look our pain dead in the eye and say: I acknowledge you, and you are a part of me, but you do not own me. It happens when we pull ourselves out of the microcosm of our personal existences, the minutiae of our daily lives, and understand that every other person on this earth leads a life as complex as our own; it happens with empathy, and grace, and in the most difficult and gut-wrenching, bone-bruising parts of growth. It happens at its deepest, most profound level within that growth. It most assuredly happens with love.

Just reach past your ribs, hold your beating heart in your hands, and listen.