I Will Do My Best to be Who She Thinks I Am

She was sitting on a huge concrete block in the wide gravel no-man’s-land that constitutes a parking lot for shipyard employees, as well as a micro-neighborhood of people who live in old RV’s. I was thinking about where I would shelter if The Big One hit right then. There was a reasonable amount of open space, free from hazards like utility poles and power lines; but the soil in the area, as I’d just learned from a color-coded map, is highly susceptible to liquefication, and I was beneath a slope that would surely collapse into a tree-and-building-laden landslide in the event of magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Bad news.

(I’ve been anxiously fixating on the danger our region faces from a massive earthquake since I read this New Yorker article yesterday. As much as I like to think that I have a deep acceptance of impermanence and the inevitability of death, the thought of being in immediate peril from a natural disaster is horrifying. Strangely, even before reading about the Cascadia subduction zone, I’d been experiencing a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of those who, like me, exist in the complacent ease of relative peace and prosperity. The truth is, it could shatter at any moment. I’d been having vivid fantasies of what it would be like to be involved in a large-scale catastrophe—like the mega-quake we’ve been promised.)

She was sucking on a vaporizer, and Ayla bounded up to greet her.

“You’re such a nice person. Wow. You’re gorgeous. I mean, gorgeous, wow.” She traced the contours of an imaginary pregnant belly.

“Thanks,” I replied. “You’re very sweet.”

“No, I’m not sweet! It’s true! You’re gorgeous. I am so happy for you. You’re going to be amazing.”

I smiled and thanked her, a little bemused, but flattered. As I walked away, she exclaimed,

“Yes. Yes, thank God!” I wondered what she meant, and surmised that she was glad someone as great as she clearly assumed I was was having a child.

When I was about 100 yards distant, she called out, “What’s your name?”

I yelled a reply, but she couldn’t hear, and started running towards me on sock feet. Ayla turned around and raced towards her, and I followed.

I repeated my name, and she launched into an impromptu paean to my beauty, kind-heartedness, loving nature, and overall greatness.

“Your energy is so beautiful! Look at the sunset. Look at it! That’s the energy I see inside you. You have so much love in your heart. You’re going to have a beautiful baby son. Can I give you a big hug? Or just a little hug?”

I assented. She smelled strongly of booze and there was a dampness of sweat between her shoulder blades. A small red bruise showed on her slender arm, and she had a Chinese character that may have been a tattoo but looked like a pen drawing in the center of her chest.

As I walked away, she began to weep.

“You’re going to be a great mother! I’m SO glad I met you. Namaste. What’s your sign?”

“Aries,” I said.

“I’m a Capricorn,” she said, and bowed, forearms drawn together in front of her face. “I love you. I love you. I love you so much!” She sobbed.

Needless to say, it was an affecting encounter. One could as easily dismiss her words as the illogical, and entirely unfounded, ramblings of a drunk. After all, I’m in the habit of dismissing (okay, attempting to dismiss) the nastiness directed my way by strangers who know nothing of me: the guy whose road rage prompted him to label me a “dumbass,” for instance. The screwed up thing is that his entirely unreasonable assessment precipitated a full-fledged emotional melt-down: Whereas the casual cruelty of strangers confirms what I suspect about myself (that I am bad, unworthy, stupid, etc.), the (often far more intense) avowals of my goodness that random people occasionally heap upon me make less of an impact. I don’t really believe them.

“She doesn’t know me,” I thought. “Where is she getting all of this?” Also: “She’s drunk.”

I’ve been feeling great guilt about bringing a child into a world that seems more frightening and unstable by the day. I feel selfish and foolhardy; even though I know that I did my due diligence in trying to prevent my pregnancy, I sometimes question whether it was morally correct to continue it. I question my ability to parent, my fitness to steward a vulnerable life, and even my capacity for love, on a daily basis.

But this evening’s encounter was a ray of hope. The total belief of a complete stranger in my essential goodness, her fulsome praise of my very being, her jubilation at my fruitfulness, buoyed my belief in myself. It made me think that maybe I can be a good, even a great, parent. That perhaps my existence is not a net loss for the world, and that, rather than hastening its demise, I might actually be contributing to society by raising a wonderfully compassionate and effective human.

And it took my mind off the Earthquake.

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Signs of Distress

There’s this guy who I see sometimes, on a bench by the canal. He has an old-fashioned radio, complete with twiddly knobs and a broken mirror taped to the top. He holds this ensemble very close to his face, while he raps along to the music quietly issuing from the radio and grimaces into the mirror. Sometimes he does this for hours at a time.

There’s another guy who I often see walking the canal trail. He may be carrying grocery bags, or he may be empty-handed. He is extraordinarily thin, he walks very fast, and he is always dressed for cold weather. Yesterday, it was in the mid-eighties; still, he was wearing a wool hat with ear-flaps, a winter coat, and bulky black pants. He never looks at me, or as far as I can tell, at anyone. He appears entirely single-minded in his walking.

The behavior of the first, I find incredibly disturbing, whereas that of the second elicits curiosity, pity, a strange sense of protectiveness. I dread the thought of Mirror Man observing me observing him, whereas I would welcome an acknowledgement from Walking Man, the opportunity to meet his eyes and smile. Why should this be so? Each man exists apparently outside of the social world, absorbed within his own reality. Both exhibit signs of what is commonly understood as mental illness. Why, then, does one man provoke feelings of threat and revulsion, whereas the other strikes me as completely innocuous?

I have a story that I’ve made up about Walking Man, most likely wrong. In this story, he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, which is the impetus for his walking. Although he’s skinny and worn-looking (he does, after all, spend his life walking briskly from place to place), he has a home that he returns to, where people—probably parents—love him, and make sure that he is fed and clothed and sheltered at night. In reality, he’s probably homeless (though he may well have OCD.)

I don’t have stories about the other man—yet. I haven’t seen him as frequently, for one thing. Also, because of my response to him, he’s remained, thus far, an Other, not a person with a history and a family and a context. I assume he’s in the grip of drugs and delusions, feeding and enriching one another in a continual cycle of disordered fixation.

The walking behavior seems innocent. With his slight frame swaddled as if for winter, his hands occupied by paper grocery bags, his posture upright, Walking Man projects a kind of harmless self-possession, a stoic vulnerability. Mirror Man, on the other hand, seems like he’s practicing for a confrontation. Shirtless, hunched over his radio, head jerking, gaze fixed on his own image in the broken mirror, his performance seems like a metaphor for the aggressive solipsism to which so many of us succumb.

Of course, I know nothing about these people. My assumptions have no factual basis, and my instincts might be all wrong. I’m used to having my perceptions shown to be grossly distorted—reflections of myself, as much as of those I’m perceiving.

the walking man walks
the walking man walks

Bittersweet Guilt

I did a couple of stupid things last night, and spent the better part of today ruminating on them, feeling wretched.

This morning, on the ferry ride home, I ran into an old friend. Her enthusiasm for her new camera, her ready smile, her delight in the beauty of the landscape, and her good old-fashioned kindness penetrated my cloak of shame and sorrow and made me smile, too.

I arrived home, collected my dog, and ventured out into the sun. I had a quick indoor picnic of leftovers (the day was too fine, and I was too hungry, to fuss with making an actual picnic. Sometimes – often, actually – the perfect is the enemy of the good).

haste meal
haste meal: boiled egg, matzoh with goat cheese and tzatziki, grilled asparagus, carrot salad, arugula

I met many people who were delighted by my dog. I wrote things while sitting in the sun, drinking coffee. I ate two big scoops of gelato (pistachio, coconut) and drank a beer.

I reflected on my transgressions, resolved to do better in the future. Guilt can be instructive. All those facebook posts would have you believe that guilt has no place in a healthy person’s heart, that worry is a waste, that anxiety, in all its forms, is a bad thing.

But if we felt no guilt for the wrong we did, what incentive would we have to do right? Sure, there is intrinsic gratification in performing acts of kindness, in bringing others pleasure and happiness, in helping people. But sometimes it is equally rewarding to disregard the feelings and needs of others. In matters of public interest, there are laws to keep us in check. But in interpersonal matters, feelings of guilt and shame act as a check on bad behavior and can serve as an indicator that we’ve been in error.

I think that morality is, to a significant extent, inborn, that feelings of guilt enable us to learn from mistakes and avoid future transgressions: For social animals like us, it’s adaptive to feel shame. We don’t need the rubric of religion to teach us what is right and wrong – we need only listen to the accusatory murmur from within. (What is considered “wrong,” is, of course, partially socially constructed, but there are a lot of universals.)

this is a "small"
this is a “small.” and my hand is really dry.

Of course, guilt can be paralyzing, and overly zealous self-excoriation can be a vice. So I had to back up off of it and eat some ice cream, sit in the sun and pet my dog, give my fallible self a break.

Incidentally, I love a cake cone: No sweet, crunchy waffle cones for me. The blank-slate neutrality of a cake cone’s flavor (or lack thereof), its airy crispness and the way it melts on your tongue, is the perfect foil for ice cream’s sweet, smooth richness.

And, in my experience, ice cream is a panacea for bad feelings.

styrofoamy goodness
styrofoamy goodness

Jolie Laide Landscape

There’s something about an industrial landscape. If you really look, its juxtapositions are exhilarating: jarring colors, jutting linear shapes against clouds’ softness, the insistent proliferation of plant and animal life amidst the hardness of metal and concrete.

I’m drawn to these places, their challenging beauty, their liminalality (who do they belong to? Where do they fit into the life of the city?). I feel lucky to live right next to a working shipyard, an oasis of unapologetic scruffiness hemmed in on all sides by the explosive gentrification overtaking Seattle.

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persistence

 

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12th truck

 

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spore

 

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flap

 

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random glory

 

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propeller grass

 

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secret garden

 

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wise watcher

 

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unlikely lushness

 

 

 

Ship canal trail, early spring

Were coin no thing
Were days as dreamlike, always
As days sometimes seem
Were rhyme, reason, impulse, one:
I’d go boating.

I’d stand tall in the prow, lithe, sun-browned
Blue and white cotton blowing about,
Eating ice cream, warm anyway.

I’d be ready at cone’s drop
To launch with child’s vigor into waves,
Run rat-like up the mast

Or with proper wholesome hunger
To fill my mouth with crisp-skinned fish,
Cold champagne, good bread.

Were coin no thing,
Were days as dreamlike always,
As days sometimes seem
I’d love all things the same.

boating

Smug Cyclist Syndrome

There’s something about riding a bike that seems inherently subversive. In addition to being an inexpensive, democratic way to get around (little kids can do it! Blind folks, too! Short people, tall people, thin people, fat people, poor people, rich people – all can ride bikes!), bicycling is fun. It’s a little bit silly. It’s anti-authoritarian and irreverent, a symbolic nose-thumb at the Man.

Queen really put it best:

That’s why I get really annoyed by all the Spandex-clad, special shoe-wearing cyclists with bikes that cost more than my car on the Ship Canal Trail.* People who, often as not, don’t bother with a friendly “on your left” as they go whizzing by at top speed. People who glare ahead with unsmiling determination, sweating and grunting and clenching their jaws, claiming every paved surface as their proper domain. They make cycling seem so damn serious.

I have plenty of anecdotes about bikers blatantly refusing to dismount in pedestrian areas when politely asked to do so, barreling rudely past walkers, ignoring traffic laws, and riding on the sidewalk (I admit: I’m guilty of the last two).

But that’s not what bothers me. What drives me nuts is the gravity with which people approach an activity that, in my (admittedly insignificant) opinion, should be lighthearted and carefree.

Yes, I know that not everyone who dons a special outfit to ride their bike is smug and entitled. I think commuting by bike is a fantastic idea. I support bike lanes and bike-friendly infrastructure. I love to ride my bike, and use it for transportation as well as leisure. I understand that the fancy gear makes cycling easier, faster, more comfortable. Furthermore, I count serious cyclists –stretchy getup, pricey bikes, elite racing chops and all – among those I greatly respect and admire.

But… I also wish the bike commuters of this city would lighten up a bit.

*Yeah, I have a car. Cars are terrible and I’m part of the problem.

Spring Grey

magnolia

When it’s grey outside and chilly and I imagine being spattered with wet cold drops, I don’t really want to walk Ayla. But then I do, and I see how bright everything looks in the rain. How saturated and vivid the colors are against the slate of the sky. Why our emerald city is called that: There are thousands upon thousands of shades of green, in grasses and firs and deciduous trees, ferns and vines and shrubs and flower stalks and jewel-like mosses.

grey beach

Sun’s delight needs no explanation. It’s showy and brash, greeting everyone with a high five and a belly laugh. Its gold illuminates an unchallenging, obvious beauty. But the grey, the misty drizzle that so often engulfs this corner of the world, is full of secrets. There’s a hushed excitement on damp grey days, a feeling of incipient magic. The grey invites you to look closer, to sit with stillness and let nascent dreams bloom into fullness.

Soon the kiss of the mist isn’t unwelcome, and the rain feels nourishing. Living things sparkle under its tender touch, streets are sloughed of grime. Birds chirp and dogs leap, knowing what’s good for them.

boat