Naked, with grace

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”

My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”

“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”

She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”

I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”

“Hmm.” I responded.

“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”

I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

“I’m not your therapist. But I am therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”

“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”

“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”

“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”

She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”

“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”

She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”

I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”

I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”

“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”

“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.

She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”

“I fucking love you!” I countered. But then I sobered a bit. “Have you ever gotten angry with your husband for not loving you in a particular way? Like you inherently expect him to see past your insecurity and just make you feeling fucking beautiful. And you’re hurt and angry when he doesn’t. Like because he doesn’t make all your pain go away, then he needs to be punished.”

She glared. “You already said that. Well, kind of.”

“Hey! I’m processing here! And do you ever find yourself resenting someone who you think looks great, and you are mad at them because they have some sort of insecurity? Like I have this friend who has literally done underwear modeling, and I saw him once and told him he looked incredible and he was like ‘don’t say that, not today. I don’t feel good about myself’ and my natural instinct was to be like ‘fuck you! you aren’t allowed to be insecure when you look that good! Only I get to be insecure!’ but instead I was like ‘oh man, I’m sorry you are having a tough day’. And he actually gave me a hug and said ‘thank you for letting me be human and have insecurity for a second. No one lets me do that.’ Like am I the only one allowed to be insecure? It’s an actual human trait. We all experience it. And we waste all of this time and money on shitty behavior that we think will make us feel better because we aren’t at some standard of beauty that society has branded into us! We can only be successful if we are this particular definition of hot!”

“Okay, now you are just ranting. So what is the point of all this?”

I took a deep breath. “So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”

And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”

We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.

Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?

 

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Dark Morning

darkmorning

I woke up this morning wondering what it was all for.

It’s dark outside, especially this early.

For a little while, I forgot how hard I fought to get to this place, the one where I’m working hard to live my dream. Well, at least the parts of the dream that aren’t contingent upon other people.

My back was aching. It aches every morning. On mornings like this, a few days after a hard workout, it hurts, and not in the “achy muscles that are building” kind of way, in the  “twisted spine scoliosis old man in a young body” kind of way. My muscles tug at each other over my ribs, and a deep ache sets in in the hollow under my right rib cage, and in my pelvis, and in the base of my neck. I desperately wanted two more hours of sleep, but I knew better. My body won’t let me. I need to get up, stretch, let my bones crack into their normal misalignment, the muscles stretch out twisted around them. I need to drink water, move my limbs, and let the natural healing of my body begin, so that my pain levels will drop to normal functioning rates. By then, I’ll be ready for coffee. Again, I wonder why this problem was one given to me, and if anyone who doesn’t have scoliosis could understand.

As I slowly stretched my back, feeling the pain pulse, I became aware of my boyfriend’s steady breathing next to me. He’s wonderful. Fit, and kind, and consistent. I know he has his own struggles, but he is so good at his nutrition, his routine. He’s so steady, so calm. I envy so much about him, and find myself wishing I could adopt his healthier habits. And I know he feels the same way about me, and I guess that is part of why we are so good together.

I lay there in the dark, not wanting to get up, and I grabbed my phone. I clicked the Email indicator, checked the first message, and realized a professional I’ve been waiting to hear from had finally written back. We had set up a meeting this coming week, one I’d been waiting for for weeks. She’d gone quiet for a full week, and now this Email was canceling the appointment. Ugh. I feel like my entire life has been dominated by variations of this interaction lately–professionals who take an active interest in my work and projects who eventually just ghost me or go silent or cancel things. I hate being pessimistic, but repeated interactions like this were beginning to rankle within me.

I’m spending so much time on work and projects that I’m consistently proud of. This blog. My book. Monthly readings and presentations. The documentary. My old comic book and YouTube channel. Quality work with very low audience attendance, and all things that yield zero profit. I do them because I love them, but this morning, I find myself wondering what would happen if I just scrapped them all, shut them down. It would free up so much time. Dozens of hours per month that I could use watching Netflix, playing video games, exercising, joining groups, playing games. I would miss them, but sometimes they feel they aren’t worth the aggravation.

Then I remember, again, how hard I fought to be able to do these things that I love. I feel like I’ve written a dozen blogs just on this topic, exploring the frustrations of not seeing things turn out as productively as I’d like. The costs of not being successful, the price of every artist living any version of their dream. I sigh, remembering these lessons, and stretch my back some more.

I switch over to the news, catching the CNN headlines as I lay there in the dark. Today is the final vote for the Supreme Court nominee. All rationality, all reason, all ethics and morals and human decency point to the fact that this man should not, should not, should not be given a lifetime appointment. Yet I already know he’ll be appointed. I’ve known it for days. It fills me with this despair at our entire government and political system. I want to throw my hands up and give up on the whole thing. I’m out of outrage, and that scares me. This coming week, I’ll watch my clients come in, traumatized by all of this. And I’ll have to inspire them to find hope again, because what is the alternative? Honestly, though, I haven’t felt this hopeless since that man was elected as our president. I keep hoping things might change. I’m not sure they can. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy life.

I finally sit up, clear my head, stretch my back, stand. I step outside of the room. I know inside this isn’t some despair, some state of mind that will last all day. My self-care will kick in. Movement, water, exercise, food. My endorphins will begin firing. My heart will heal again. It does every day. I’ll sit down at my computer later and write about my feelings. My children will wake soon and they will giggle and be cute, then aggravating, then sweet and cuddly, then tired, then cute and giggly again. It will be a wonderful day with lovely fall weather. I’ll be fine.

I set the coffee to brew. I turn on soft music. I light the fire. The house is still dark, everyone is sleeping, and the world outside is still sound. I have a good life, I remind myself. My heart is full. I’m okay. I touch my toes, elongate my spine, twist my hips, turn my neck. My body cracks and my bones tug on themselves. I feel sad, mad, scared, impatient. I feel full of hope, light, pain. I feel.

It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.

Calgary Loft

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I’m on the 17th floor

It’s dark outside

I’m standing in a pair of black briefs

looking at the neon city against a dark sky

as the cars drive on bridges over the river

But mostly I catch my reflection in the glass

I can see through myself and into the city

and that awakens the poetry corners of my brain

I’m only renting this penthouse

but for many this would be the realization of a dream

Hardwood floors, marble counter tops

a grill on the balcony overlooking the river

It’s easy to picture red wine in goblets on coasters

laughter as the sun sets

lentil pasta in steel pans, fresh flowers in vases

and homegrown coffee in the morning

And the vision of all this haunts me in its way

because its all so fleeting, so temporary

Those preconceived ideas

about happiness, joy, success

Because some day, someone else would own this space

and make it theirs

and the landscape would change. 

I can see through myself and into the city

and then the light flicks off

and I can’t. 

Seattle Part 10: Goodbye, My Lover

February, 2015

I was hopping up and down with excitement at the airport. Like literally hopping, bouncing up and down in the air. It was a private joke between Matt and I. When I asked him what he loved most about me, he said it was how I hopped when I saw him.

The joke had started a few years before. I’d gone to Las Vegas with friends for a weekend. One night, after a few drinks at a club, I’d danced with a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed man in a leather jacket. We’d flirted, made out, laughed a lot, and then traded phone numbers. After weeks of chatting, he’d come to see me in Salt Lake City. Before his arrival, I’d texted that I was so excited to see him that I couldn’t hold still, and as he’d pulled up, I’d been hopping in the yard, making him giggle. After that, I’d hopped every time we’d seen each other.

Prior to this, the last time I had seen Matt was nearly a year before. I met him in St. George, Utah, in the middle of an insane blizzard. He got out of the car, and I just seized him in a hug, and we stood there, holding each other for several minutes as the world blustered around us. After that, we went inside and made love and just held each other. He could light me on fire with his touch. After that, we’d had yet another passive argument about why our relationship wasn’t working, and why it couldn’t (the distance, the kids, he needed to finish college, he wasn’t ready, he cared too much, it hurt me too much to be so far away and have so little time with him), and he drove away, and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again.

Matt got off the plane, and found me hopping, and we hugged and kissed and laughed. I always felt so perfectly complete when I was with him. I felt attractive, desired, loved, accepted, like everything would be okay.

Over the next three days in Seattle, we talked, drank coffee, hiked to waterfalls, window-shopped, danced, had drinks, and ate everything. We snuggled at night and kissed in the morning. And yet again, I realized how perfect life with him felt. He stopped to pet every puppy, he reached for my hand when we walked, he had this way of looking me right in the eyes and making me feel safe. But I knew he’d be gone again and that it would all fall apart. Again. We’d already done this perfect-weekend-only-to-say-goodbye thing so many times, so many times.

After our hike to the waterfall, we got a table overlooking the falls, and ordered coffee. He smiled at me. God, he was beautiful. He looked me in the eyes.

“You seem happy here. In Seattle.”

I looked down, sighing. “I wanted it to be perfect. I did. But I hate my job. I haven’t made friends like I had hoped. And I’m lonely, a lot. I miss the kids. I–” I looked back up. “I miss you.”

He nodded, understanding. “I hate Vegas. I hate living there. I hate who I am there.”

And I surprised myself. “We talked about you coming to Salt Lake to live, lots of times. And you never felt ready. You never were ready. But what about–”

“What about what?”

“What about Seattle? What if you came and gave things a try here? What if we started here together, with a blank slate?” My heart pounded in the silence.

He shook his head, quickly. Too quickly. “I can’t.”

“You haven’t even thought about it. Matt, why not?”

“I can’t. I’m not ready. And I have thought about it. Ever since you’ve moved here, I’ve thought about it. I miss you constantly.”

“I miss you too! This could be something! Why can’t you? Why can’t you give it a try?”

He sighed. Deeply. Painfully. “I wouldn’t be easy to be with.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can handle the challenge.”

“No. I’m not ready. You’re eleven years older than me. You’ve done so much with yourself. Your writing, your career. I haven’t done anything with my life. I work part-time. I have years of school left. I can’t.”

“Matt, it isn’t a competition! Aren’t we worth a try?”

“Of course we are. But not yet. I’m not ready.”

It was the same conversation we had had a hundred times. We would reach a stalemate, and then it would get too painful to stay in contact, knowing it couldn’t go anywhere. I had kids and responsibilities. He just wasn’t ready. So we would stop texting. Months of silence would follow, and then one of us would finally reach out, and we’d make plans to see each other again.

“I–I think I thought that you wouldn’t come to Utah, for whatever reason. But I think, deep down, I think I hoped you might come here.”

He looked surprised. “Am I why you moved to Seattle? That doesn’t make sense.”

“I–no. I moved here for me. I just think, subconsciously, I think I hoped you might want a fresh start with me. I think deep down I thought that maybe we could finally be together.”

“I’m not ready,” he repeated, and then the coffee came.

That night and again the following morning, we made love again. He was leaving in just a few hours. In the car outside my apartment, I felt my heart break. I turned to him, my eyes brimming with tears.

“I’ve never said this to you, not out loud, but I love you.” I meant it, and he knew it.

“I love you, too.” He said it softly, his eyes turned toward the floor. He reached over and took my hand.

I looked away. “You say that. But you’re going to leave me today, and I have a feeling I’m not going to see you again.”

“I’m just not ready,” he said. “I have to find me first. It’s Vegas for now. I can’t leave yet.”

I drove him to the airport and kissed him goodbye. And as I drove away, tears leaking down my face, I knew that it was time. There was nothing for me in Seattle. It was time to start planning my return to Utah.

A year later, while I was in Las Vegas for business, I stopped by the place where Matt worked. A tattooed girl with long black braids worked behind the counter. I explained I was there to see Matt. She responded with enthusiasm.

“Matt! Oh, I miss him! He moved two months ago. He met a guy last summer, and they just got a place in San Francisco together.”

And as I left, I realized that although I hadn’t been holding on tightly, it was finally, finally time to let go.

Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

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The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Pot and Coffee

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The morning was cold and rainy in Missoula, Montana, and rather than drive somewhere, I was in the mood to walk. There was a heaviness in the atmosphere, a wet weight that clung to the trees and showed up as wisps of clouds and fog across the sky. Against the dense green backdrop of pine trees and rolling hills, and over the river, the fog rolled and made everything just a bit magical.

My head felt full as I walked along the railroad tracks. The night before, the film crew and I had conducted a particularly heavy interview for our pending documentary, and I was still processing all the new information, the tragedy and pain of it all. The storyteller side of me was on fire, but the therapist side felt disheartened and exhausted. So, while the two sides battled it out, I walked.

After a time, I stepped up onto a road and noticed a small shop in an old brick building advertising coffee with a paper sign. It had the word ‘green’ in the title, but I didn’t realize what that meant until I stepped inside and smelled the pot.

The door opened with a small ‘ding’, a bell attached to the door announcing my entrance. The room was sparse, with a few black leather couches and some patio furniture, tables and chairs arranged against wooden walls and floors. It was an old building with a history, I could sense that much. On the back half of the room were lit up counters showing off baked goods, all of them edible pot concoctions, like snickerdoodles, lollipops, cinnamon rolls, and cookies, each wrapped individually or in bulk, each with a price listing next to it.

“Hey, welcome, man, how are you?” A skinny, good-looking white guy was behind the counter on a stool, shuffling through some business cards, probably looking for a phone number. He was likely in his late 20s and he had a killer smile. “I’m Kyle. How can I help you?”

I walked over to the counter. The shop was completely empty except for the two of us. “I saw your sign for coffee. It’s cold, sounded nice.”

“Right! Coffee!” Kyle stood up quickly and enthusiastically, knocking his stool back a bit. He caught it with a hand and set it down with a little flair, like he’d just done a magic trick, then he laughed. “Yeah, man, I got a fresh pot in the back. Ill bring it right out. Take a seat.”

I found a seat at one of the patio tables, and Kyle brought out a styrofoam cup of coffee. It was likely something from a K-Cup machine in the back. “Coffee’s free, man. Just glad to have the company. Make yourself at home!” He got me the Wifi code and I sat down to blog as we chatted idly over the next few minutes.

Kyle explained that he’d grown up in Missoula and he loved it here. He was putting himself through the local college, working at the pot/coffee shop during the day and as an Uber driver at night. We laughed about the fact that the shop had very little in the way of coffee. Kyle had a local girlfriend and talked about his philosophies of just getting through life by being a good person. As we chatted, old Metallica songs from the 90s played on the overhead speakers.

Soon the bell dinged again and Kyle rushed out of his seat again to rush to the door. “Evelyn, welcome, lady! How’s your rainy day?” He held the door open as a woman in her mid-60s entered. Her hair was gray and plastered against her head. Her face was angular and she wore a thick and baggy brown coat. She was hunched over, clearly in pain, and she had a cane supporting her weight. She slowly made her way into the store.

“Oh, Kyle, I’m well, thank you, dear. Do you have my usual order ready? My arthritis is something terrible in this weather.”

“I do, yes, ma’am. Enough to get you through the week.”

“You’re a lifesaver. My grandchildren are coming over this weekend.”

I watched casually as Kyle brought out an order from behind the counter, seven individually wrapped baked goods that Evelyn would presumably use daily to help keep her pain levels manageable. I wanted to ask her how long she had been using pot, and if she’d ever tried prescription painkillers in the past. As a therapist, I had known so many clients over the years who had struggled with chronic pain issues. From cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis, or old injuries, or chronic migraines, or recovery from a surgery. I thought of them self-medicating with alcohol or addictive medications that had harsh side effects. Now here she was, in a state that had approved medical marijuana use, picking up an order of cookies that would keep her pain levels down and keep her relaxed while allowing her to be with her family and grandchildren, not impaired and not constantly suffering.

Evelyn left, after sipping on some free coffee from Kyle, and another man came in, Bill, him talking about his anxiety after a car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury, and after that, Sam, a younger man who struggled with severe headaches. After that, there was a lull, and Kyle came back by to chat.

“So you just see customers every day who come in for their orders?”

“Yeah, man, absolutely. These are good people. They just have to get the doctor to approve their cards, then they have the right to pick up their alloted order. I mean, before it was legal here, they would just do it anyway, but they could get in trouble for it. Now it’s legal and it’s regulated.”

I only stayed an hour, collecting my thoughts on paper and sipping my free coffee. Soon, I had my bag back over my shoulders and my coat zipped up. I offered Kyle a hearty handshake before stepping back out into the drizzle, the fog, and the green, sorting through my thoughts. My time in Missoula was at an end, and somehow this seemed the perfect way to go. The two different sides of me, the storyteller and the helper, had stopped arguing with each other, finding kinship in a man who helped others by baking cookies and legally dealing drugs.

And so with the taste of cheap coffee in my mouth, the scent of marijuana on my clothes, and my head full of things to get done, I stepped back on the railroad tracks to walk toward home.

Saskatoon Shines!

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Years ago, I learned to find peace when I traveled, respite from life. Parts of me would come alive when I left my home in Utah and stepped into a new and unfamiliar place, where I could place my feet upon new streets and breathe new air. Travel became crucial for me and for my development, and my soul cried out for it. I traveled to survive.

Now I travel simply because I enjoy it. I like frequent getaways to new places. I enjoy walking and seeing what I can discover.

Saskatoon snuck up on me. It was a word that merely escaped my lips after a stressful day at work, and suddenly I had booked plane tickets for a few months later. And now I’m here, looking out at the expanse of the flat Canadian prairie country and farmland around me. I’m staying on the 21st floor of a tall building, and my view overlooks the river and a few bridges, into the distance and over the city. The skies are grey and I can see the Earth curve on the far horizon.

There is something about being somewhere I haven’t been before, and with a place like Saskatoon it is likely a place I will never be again. The city isn’t particularly magical. It’s drab, all browns and greens and grey and blues that seem muted, like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. The people are kind, and funny, and go out of their way to be helpful. The architecture is normal. A cold breeze blows across the river. It feels like a normal metropolitan western city, with many of the same restaurants and department stores that I would find back in America.

But for me, it isn’t about the city, it’s about the experiences.

It’s wandering into a city government building to explore and having a long conversation with the security guard about canola farming and the changing temperatures of the northern farm land and the tax incentives for farmers who are looking out for their families’ well-beings generations down the line.

It’s stopping in the tourism office and chatting with a delightful potato bug of a person named Debbie about her passion and love for the city.

It’s stepping into a random restaurant and having a friendly Asian man with much too long fingernails serve you thick noodles in vegetable broth with freshly sliced mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage, and talking about how good life is with your best friend.

It’s seeing Canadian geese on a Canadian river in Canada.

It’s sitting down and clutching a cup of coffee for warmth as two women loudly cackle while another man rushes into the place looking like he forgot where the bathroom was, and then realizing that look never quite leaves his face.

It’s going out to a nightclub in the late evening and hoping to interact with locals and then leaving two hours later, having been the only ones in the establishment.

It’s repeating a joke to a Canadian woman: “I heard that in Saskatchewan you can watch your dog run away for three full miles.”

And hearing her take it far too seriously: “Well, I suppose, but that is more in southern Saskatchewan, we get a few hills here and there up here.”

It’s complimenting a woman on her niceness, and indeed the seeming niceness of all Canadians, and having her respond, “Well, we are nice, yes, but we are sarcastic too!”

Travel sings to my soul. It takes me to a spiritual place in my own head where I can be anonymous in a crowd and just absorb. I didn’t travel, much, until just a few years ago, and now the memories I can capture in my journal or blog or just in my own head resound within me constantly on a playlist. Ocean Beach and Provincetown and Missoula and Reno and Fillmore and Little Armenia and the Castro and Pike Market. The list extends, and each place brings a smile to my face, though nothing note-worthy happened in any of those places except for long walks and life on my own terms. Community theater, vegan restaurants, saloons, beaches, live music, coffee shops, book stores, and strangers.

Travel releases me. It puts me in tune with myself. It gives me voice. It sings to my soul and through my fingertips. It slows me down and brings me back into my own self.

Yet travel also exposes me. It strips me bare. My insecurities, fears, doubts, shames, regrets, and worries work themselves out of me. At some point on every trip, I feel small and scared. I worry about insurmountable tasks. I think of my children and get tears on my cheeks. I grieve for losses. I think of the unfinished: the book, the documentary, the fitness goals. I shift to gratitude and I wonder if I’ll lose all I’ve gained. But even these parts of me are valid, vital, crucial. They are always within me, the bones upon which I build myself, and it is freeing to feel them there and let them breathe.

When we landed in Saskatoon, the welcome sign said “Saskatoon Shines!” But I haven’t seen the sun yet here. On the first night, the sun was setting, and pinks and oranges blended in with the grey clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and a woman nearby took notice.

“Oh, that is pretty, yes, but we get much better sunsets than that one. That one is just okay. Sorry ’bout that. Keep watching, no worries.”

She apologized for the quality of the sunset. And somehow that single moment captures the essence of this trip for me.

As I type this, the sky is still grey, and river still flowing, the colors still drab.

And the Earth is still curving, and me with it.

Saskatoon may not shine much, but it shines for me.

Mormon coffee talk

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“I mean, seriously, what a douchebag move, am I right? Why else do people go to weddings if not to get drunk? I mean, unless you are getting married yourself or you are like the mother or father of the bride, then you just go there to get drunk or to get laid or, I don’t know, to meet people and get drunk with them. It’s free alcohol. Everyone expects it. You drink and you flirt. And this guy, he refuses not only to drink with me, but then he doesn’t even want to talk to me because I’m a little bit tipsy. Who is he to judge me?”

This woman must be the most unhappy person I have ever heard speak, I thought as I tried to tune her out. She has been going on like this ever since I sat down. She won’t stop! She’s being so loud!

And then there is that stupid Mormon girl, the one bridesmaid who won’t wear the dress that the bride actually chose because she feels it is too immodest. The dresses were cute! They were pink and like sleeveless but this bitch feels like exposing her shoulders will give the boys around her unclean thoughts or whatever and she isn’t even that cute. So she has to go and ruin the wedding because she wants to wear like a sweater over her shoulders and she is the only one in the line who looks different than the rest, and she is like taking attention away from the bride which is basically the worst sin you can commit on someone’s wedding day, don’t you think?”

Stop talking stop talking stop talking. I sipped my coffee, trying to focus on the stack of paperwork I had brought to the coffeeshop with me. There was nowhere else to sit, and this woman was talking so loud. I thought about turning to her and asking her to be quiet. The friend she was with wasn’t even talking back, just making mm-hmm and oh-no and oh-yeah statements. Just breathe. You’re cool. Just focus on your work. I managed to turn her out for a few minutes before she got louder.

“So then I get back to work on Monday after and I’m still hungover and I’m still pissed, but then, bam, guess what, my manager puts me in charge of that work project we have been working on. Like I’m finally in charge of the stuff that no one wants to be in charge over. Probably because I’m the only one who gives a shit. And no on there in the whole company even cares about the little rules anyway, and how do you think they are going to feel when I start making them follow the rules. Like everyone takes drinks to their desks and they aren’t supposed to. How do you think they are going to feel when I start walking by their desks and taking their drinks away, one by one, and just tossing them right in the garbage. I mean, they are going to be livid. I can just see the one guy next to me like ‘hey, I just spent four dollars on that energy drink, don’t throw it away’ and I’ll be like ‘well, guess who’s in charge now, bitch!'”

Okay, I have to admit this is kind of entertaining, I thought. It is unlike me to get so annoyed with someone so easily, she was just so loud. I kind of like eavesdropping on people sometimes. Instead of working on my notes, I instead got out my computer and started writing down what she was complaining about. This woman is a character.

“I just, this isn’t where I thought I would be in my life right now, right? I thought I would meet some guy. Instead it is just me and my dumb dog. I say dumb but I love him, you know that. In fact, he is probably the love of my life. I am done with men, at least for a minute. Did I tell you about that last guy I tried dating, the one from the singles’ ward? I mean, I’m not active or anything but I still want a good Mormon guy. I should have known something was completely wrong with him based on the fact that he’s 30 and not married. I know I’m almost 30, but it’s different for girls. Guys can have whoever they want. I just haven’t had the right person come along yet. So anyway one day he lectures me because he sees wine in my fridge and we haven’t even kissed or anything and it’s like our third date and he wants me to be a good Mormon girl and I’m feeling embarrassed and tell him it’s not mine that I just keep it there for friends who come over and I’m lying of course and he goes ‘yeah, but you should avoid the very appearance of evil’. I’m all embarrassed but then a few days later I find out that he has a porn addiction problem. He tells me that he doesn’t want to get too serious with me before he tells me the truth. And I’m like ‘what a hypocrite’ and I ended things right there. ‘The very appearance of evil’ indeed. I mean, I deserve someone amazing, not just some guy. You deserve someone amazing too. I mean, everyone does, even gay Corey.”

Gay Corey? Who is gay Corey? The two women laugh hysterically for a moment, some inside joke between then, and then I hear a loud slurp as the woman finishes her iced latte, sucking the last bits of liquid from between chunks of ice. She stands up and walks by me, giving me a slight sneer-slash-smile before dumping her drink in the garbage. From behind me I hear her summon her friend.

“Come on, let’s go.”

Her friend says ‘oh, okay’ and quickly gathers her things before rushing out. My fingers are moving on the keyboard, and all I can think is, wait, what just happened? 

 

Date Night For One

As I sat in the coffee shop just before I was supposed to meet Jeremy (not his real name), I scrolled back through our text messages from the few days previous, remembering the details we had exchanged about home towns and jobs and hobbies.

Jeremy seemed like a quality guy: he had a stable job, he owned a home, he had an adorable dog, and he took care of himself. I scrolled through the photos he had sent after we met on an online dating sight. He had brown eyes, a wide smile, and seemed to be in great shape. After a few days of chatting, I had asked him out for coffee and he had responded with an enthusiastic “YES!!!” that made me laugh.

I looked up to the time. 6:10 pm, and we were supposed to meet by 6:00. I’d give him a few more minutes before I texted. I took a sip from my decaf drip.

Jeremy had also checked all of the boxes that I had: he was single, emotionally stable, communicative without being standoffish or needy, funny, he liked the fact that I had kids, he wasn’t in a rush for a relationship, and he didn’t live hundreds of miles away (this had been a problem for me more than once). It was coffee, nothing more nothing less, and I was actually excited about this one.

My phone dinged and I looked down to see it was 6:15. There was a message from Jeremy. I smiled, thinking he was telling me he was running late, then I grimaced instead.

“Hi Chad, I was really looking forward to meeting you tonight and I’m glad we chatted the last few days. I was reading through our messages just now and I realized that I’m just not emotionally equipped to have a conversation with someone new right now. Work was just too stressful today. You seem like a great guy and maybe I’ll contact you in a month or so when things settle down. Sorry. Jeremy.”

My mind went instantly calm, but I could feel myself clenching my jaw. I took a long sip of my drink and then sighed. Okay, I told myself, this is not your thing, this is his thing, and it’s just coffee. This isn’t even someone that you know and it’s no big deal.

I briefly considered texting back, but instead just closed my phone. A text cancel 15 minutes after the meet-up time was rude at the very least, even if he was a really good guy. A bit frustrated now, I considered how to spend my suddenly free evening, and, after finishing my drink, took myself for a walk. I laughed and then cursed as I heard my friend Billy’s voice in my head, teasing me that I have the super power to attract any handsome guy in a ten mile radius who is either major drama or has major emotional problems. #### you, Billy, I thought with a smile.

As my feet moved, my head started spinning with the human panic and shame that sometimes comes with rejection. Six years of this! Six years of guys who don’t message back! Six years of chatting only to have guys fall silent or only want sex! Six years of first-time meet-ups, sitting across from someone while you size each other up, is he good looking enough stable enough interesting enough funny enough! Six years of second or third dates followed by an ‘I’m not interested’ or ‘I’m getting back with me ex’ or ‘I’m not out of the closet yet’ or ‘I should have told you I was married’ or ‘I just got out of a psychiatric facility’ or ‘I don’t like kids’ or ‘I’m currently unemployed’! Six exhausting years of this!

I was mad now and walking more quickly. Not mad at Jeremy per say, because whatever, I don’t even know him, but mad at the emotional energy dating sucks out of you. Six years. Why do I keep doing this to myself?

I rolled my eyes at the sky and slowed my breathing. I was a human having a human reaction to something that on another night wouldn’t bother me at all, but this time I was annoyed. It was only recently I had decided to try my hand at dating again, after a difficult breakup from someone I had loved, and it was the same old games all over again. Like every human, I needed a chance to get mad for a minute, and I’d had my minute.

I took a minute to remind myself that I’m not the only one who goes through this in dating. Men and women of every age get lonely, try to meet someone, get sick of trying to meet someone and take a break, try to meet someone again, and get their heart broken all the time. And, just like me, they in turn break the hearts of others sometimes. I see humans who completely despair when they are rejected. Someone doesn’t show up for coffee and they go on a long spiral of self-shaming, calling themselves pathetic and hopeless and unlovable and destined to die alone, all over something as simple as a cancelled date.

I sat down on a park bench and thought things through. I needed a bit of self-care tonight. I didn’t know of any friends who were free, so instead I decided to treat myself to a movie. There was a theater nearby, so I walked in and purchased myself a ticket and had a brief moment of oh my god instead of being on a date you’re at the movies by yourself before I calmed the voice and exhaled. No, I wasn’t going to give that voice room right now. I was going to enjoy myself.

I got an iced tea to drink and I found a spot in the middle of the movie theater, shutting down my phone so I wouldn’t be tempted to check it. I gave myself a mental pat on the back, happy with myself for self-care skills. I often travel solo, see movies by myself, and take myself out to dinner, and I find myself to be pretty good company.

As the previews ended and the lights in the theater dimmed, I sat up and looked around and realized I was the only person in the movie theater. I mean, I went to the movies alone, but this was a whole different level of alone in a city full of half a million people.

“God, damn it,” I muttered out loud, then folded my arms, furrowed my brow, sank down in my chair, and prepared to sit through a movie.

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Thoughts on thinking

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Sometimes I don’t have anything to blog about.

Some of my best blogs come from deeply painful places, from emotional barbs that have to be worked out from my flesh with sharp grips. Or sometimes they represent self-discovery, a breakthrough I’ve been chewing on for a few days like a leathery piece of turkey jerky. Or sometimes they come from a place of righteous anger, a sense to vent about the social injustices of the world. Often they come from places of inspiration, bonding moments I have with my sons or my mother or a close friend.

But sometimes, I just don’t have anything to say, even when my brain never stops working.

I’m flooded with inspiring ideas that will never bear any fruit.

The other day, I drove away from Las Vegas at 3 in the morning and planned out a blog in my head about the desert at night with all the drunk people casually gambling with no concept of time. Then I turned on the radio and heard an old favorite song. I sang along, turned off the radio and sang it two or three more times, getting the idea to put up a YouTube channel with me singing a different song every day that inspires me, and then I deleted that idea because that would be one more thing I begin that I would be proud of but never know how to promote. Then I turned on a book on tape about the life story of Jerry Lee Lewis, and I spent the next few hours laughing and annoyed and outraged and inspired by his very weird life, and thought about writing a piece about him and wanting to buy and listen to all of his music now.

I kept driving and I thought about a getaway, something long and enduring, a few weeks where I could have pure, uninterrupted creative energy, but deleted that idea because I would miss my children and I have bills to pay and clients to see. Then I thought about how confident I felt just a few months ago, determined and sure that my LGBT History channel on YouTube (also called Snapshots) were going to take off and be successful, how the quality of the video and the content would just keep gaining and expanding, then I thought of how quickly that confidence had dissipated when I realized that even the people I was paying to support the product didn’t really believe in it, and how the failure to launch was really teaching me a lesson in humility. I thought about efforts to expand or reduce content, wearing a suitcoat to make myself more presentable, generating taglines and mission statements, and even throwing it all into a podcast that went nowhere, and how even though I’m still putting out the videos, my dreams for the project feel like they are tucked into a cardboard box I’ve placed into the attic.

I thought about other ways I might feel more successful with my writing. I thought about making inspiring music videos, or humorous blurbs about animals with unfortunate names, or posting daily images of terrible comic book covers from decades ago that are incredibly hilarious now, or reading my blog entries out loud and putting them online. I think of people who are doing what I want to do, like Anne Lamott and David Sedaris and Mary Roach, and doing it so brilliantly. I thought of all the people who make money on YouTube melting things or blowing things up or doing make-up tutorials or instructing dance steps or looking pretty while interviewing people.

I thought about writing books, and making documentaries. I thought about the graphic novel that I worked for five years on and that I was so proud of and how there are now boxes of them sitting in my closet, unread. I thought of getting in shape and the excuses we use to stop ourselves. I thought of the last guy I tried dating and how the early magic of the relationship had become weighed down by the human realness of adult life: jobs and kids and family and distance and communication, and how that made me sad. I thought of ghosts. I thought of constantly struggling to find our places in the world.

Then I sang, and listened, and thought some more. And the sun came up over the red hills and I stopped for coffee and sat on a curb and drank slowly as I willed my brain to be still. I saw the sun in the sky, the cars speeding by on the freeway, the isolated homes in the distance, and the small ants climbing near my feet.

I thought of silence, and ambition, and adventure, and independence, and my children.

And then I filled my car up with gas while I thought about thinking, and got back in the car to think some more.