Toby

This week we had to say good-bye to Toby, our cat of nine years.

We adopted Toby from the local humane society when he was about six months old. A tiny cat with a Maine Coon ruff and a bright-pink nose. We’d later learn that his nose acted as a sort of warning device. When he was stressed or excited, it was so pink it was almost red. When he was happy and calm, his nose turned so pale it almost blended in with his white fur.

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He was meowing a lot at the shelter. We thought, well, he’s stressed out, he won’t do that at home. We were wrong. Toby was probably the most vocal cat I’ve ever met. He had a whole range of meows, going from a tiny little noise we called a “murple”, to a shrieking, ear-burning witch yeowl. It could be…challenging, to say the least.

To match his meow, he had the loudest, most melodic purr in the whole world. Some days you’d hear him at the opposite end of the house, all by himself, purring.

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When we brought Toby home, he hid behind the shower curtain for three days. We thought, ok, he’s not going to be a lap cat. That’s alright. Then one night he was up on the couch with us. The next, briefly on a lap. Before long, Toby was a nothing-but-a-lap cat. He absolutely loved to snuggle, and if it wasn’t convenient for you, tough.

In the mornings, I sit on the couch and journal with a blanket over my knees. He demanded to crawl under the blanket. (Which I’d have to lift up for him—his method of getting under a blanket involved hitting it repeatedly with his paw. Super effective.) He’d sit in his little fort, purring. When I worked at the computer, he’d sit up in my lap with his paws draped over my arm. When I’d curl up for a nap, he’d curl up against my stomach. His favorite? If you had your legs stretched out with a blanket over them. The space created a hammock that was perfectly Toby-sized. He’d stretch out long, sticking out his front legs until they almost reached your face.

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He taught us that he liked to play fetch. One day he carried a toy over in his mouth—one of those plastic “fur”-coated mice that rattles a bit when you shake it—and dropped it on the couch. We didn’t want to play, so we tossed it away. Seconds later, there was Toby again, with the toy. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on. You could throw a mouse across the house, and he’d bring it back at a run.

We quickly realized that Toby had a lot of anxiety when left alone all day, so we got him a kitten. Cecilia was probably three months old when we brought her home. It took Toby about a week to warm up to her, but the two quickly became inseparable. Almost every afternoon, you could find them napping together, wrapped up around one another.

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Every once in a while they’d have “silent cat battles”—the most epic fights, but totally devoid of any hissing or meowing. The only way you’d know they were happening was when their tumbling bodies crashed into furniture.

Toby loved to groom. He groomed Cici all the time (sometimes against her will), and the dog also came under his line of fire. His humans, too. He’d sometimes lick your arm until it hurt.

I have a friend who works in special education who jokingly diagnosed Toby with autism. Semi-jokingly. There may have been some truth there. He did respond really well to her deep-pressure calming techniques.

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We weren’t sure how he would handle the dog. Any dog that visited in the past, he’d run and hide in my closet. And he was nervous about Louie at first. But the two quickly became friends, batting at one another and playing. If Louie got too rough, Toby fought back. It wasn’t uncommon to see the eight-pound cat chasing the 25-pound dog through the house. They liked sleeping near each other, usually just barely touching—a paw extended, booties bumping.

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We usually had to lock him up at dinner time because he was always interested in the food on our plates. Cheese—he’d lose his little mind over cheese. Tuna, of course. If I wasn’t paying attention, he’d steal shelled pistachios out of the bowl. Oh, and peanut butter toast. Every morning he begged for my peanut butter toast and tried to steal the scraps. (Sometimes successfully.)

Toby made me laugh. Always.

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He got sick about two months ago. The medicines helped for a little while. But when he stopped purring, we knew it was time.

There won’t ever be another cat quite like Toby. He was a total weirdo, our special little guy. All the hours I’ve spent writing, Toby was there, sitting on my lap, curled up on the desk. Just happy to be near me. My friend.

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Unknowing

I’m approaching a new birthday, a new age to remember: 32. Solidly in the 30s. For a long time, everyone your age is pretty much doing the same thing. School, birthday parties, first relationships, first jobs. And then at some point in your 20s, things begin to diverge. And your 30s…well, it looks different for everyone.

Some people are married, some single, some divorced. Some have kids. Some have decided they’ll never have kids. Some buy a house; others happily travel the world. Some are stay-at-home parents. Some climb the corporate ladder. Some HAVE climbed the ladder and realized the view from the top wasn’t what they wanted after all. Some are still trying to figure out what they want to do. Who they want to be. It’s only when you make choices and narrow down the path that you really start to see all the possibilities.

One thing you realize as you get older: no one actually has it figured out. Even the people who seemingly have all their shit together are pretty much making it up as they go along. And how could it be any other way? You’ve gained experience, sure, but there are still new ones being thrown at you.

Lately I’ve been getting the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Or some variation on the theme. The truth is, while I organize everything else in my life—finances, meals, parties, excel spreadsheets, bookshelves, closets, spice drawers—I’ve never focused on long-term plans for myself, my career, my growth. There are always surprises you can’t foresee. Some of the best choices in my life started as opportunities that fell into my lap. If I’d had everything planned out, would I have been open to them?

Weirdly, the older I get, the easier this unknowing is to accept. Limbo is temporary; there’s always an end. Always new adventures, new laughter, new joys. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the yard lately, and every day there is something new bursting forth from the earth. Today a hummingbird landed on the blueberry bush, feet away from me. We considered each other in the sun before she flew off. The only thing my five-year plan holds is to hold time and space to regard a hummingbird.

I don’t have it all figured out. I never will. Thank goodness.

2016 Favorites

I woke this morning adrift. Last day of 2016, a year I thought would be MINE MINE MINE for the taking. Instead, it was a year of heartbreak and heartache for pretty much everyone. For me personally, it was a year of transition. Change is good; transition is tough.

I felt the need to be intentional about the upcoming weekend. The end of one year, the start of the next. It seemed whatever I did would set the tone for 2017.

Which is silly, of course. This arbitrary marker of time. I look out the window at the gentle snow drifting past the cedar trees. Nature hasn’t gotten the message that it’s time to turn a new leaf. She’s still in the middle of winter.

Still though, it’s never a bad time to start fresh, to shake off the dust that’s been gathering and set new intentions for a better tomorrow.

I almost wasn’t going to do my favorites this year. All I want to do is look FORWARD, move on, no looking back. But that would be a disservice to myself, and to the year past. Because while, collectively, it wasn’t our best year, there were still some bright moments.

Movies

This one didn’t get the best reception, but I loved Hail, CaesarI grinned the whole way through. No, there wasn’t much plot, but that wasn’t the point — this was a tribute to movies of yesteryear, to the so-called “Golden Years” of Hollywood. It just made me happy, and sometimes that’s all you want out of a movie.

Plus, it gave us this glorious moment:

Oh! And how could I forget the new Ghostbusters? Another delight, from beginning to end. (And even better for the fact that it enraged the Internet Trolls.)

Books

Already mentioned — but if I have to pick just two, it’d be Station Eleven and The Fifth Season.

Oh, and an honorable mention to Calvin and Hobbes. I spent the majority of the year reading through the full anthology. Is there anything better than snuggling on the couch with cocoa, a cat and a comic book? So many years later, the friendship between a boy and a tiger still makes me warm and cozy inside.

Music

Whenever I needed a pick-me-up this year — a “HELL YEAH YOU CAN DO IT” boost — this one got cranked up.

But looking back at my most-played songs of Spotify, there’s one other that dominated.

I remember playing this one on repeat on New Year’s Day last year, and it just never stopped. Something about this song just gets me. I missed the opportunity to see them in concert in 2016 — fingers crossed I’ll get that chance this year.

Moments

Oh, so many.

Sitting in the meadow at Hedgebrook, in the full early-summer sun, watching the tiniest frog make his way through a forest of grass.

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Dancing so hard at my sister’s wedding that the next day my arms were sore. Apparently, I throw in a lot of arm moves while dancing.

Successfully reaching Sperry Chalet after a strenuous hike through Glacier National Park. (And NOT being eaten by a grizzly bear.)

Watching the sun set over the Pacific ocean during my first-ever backpacking trip. Watching the tide roll in the next morning.

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Experiencing the odd zen-like sensation of riding on the back of a scooter through Ho Chi Minh City.

Sitting in the shallows of the Gulf of Thailand, gently picking up sea urchins and setting them back. Watching hundreds of tiny crabs form perfect circles of white sand.

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Exploring a quiet cove on Lopez Island with friends. Exploring a snowy lava field outside Bend, Oregon.

Taking my mom, a life-long Beatles fan, to see Paul McCartney in concert for the first time ever.

Watching a hummingbird build her nest outside our bedroom window, getting to see the eggs hatch and grow and fly.

All those and more — that’s what makes me realize it wasn’t a totally lost year.

Food

Ina Garten’s baked risotto –- my go-to comfort dish this year.

A veggie torta — side of rice and beans — from the taco truck in our neighborhood. TACO TRUCKS ON EVERY CORNER PLEASE.

There were so many intriguing, new-to-me dishes in Vietnam that it’s hard to pinpoint just a handful. Vietnamese coffee, of course, with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. A stir-fried dish of fish sauce, peanuts, shredded green papaya and beef lung. (I know, I know, but it was GOOD.) Dozens of dishes of chè, a pudding-like dessert.

Top of the list though: an ah-maz-ing seafood feast in the Night Market on Phu Quoc island. Crab with tamarind sauce, grilled calamari, sea urchin with peanuts and lime, mantis shrimp, all washed down with light beer, eaten under neon street lights with scooters going by. Heaven.


Look for the bright spots. Spend some time today thinking of yours from the past year. I promise, it’s worth it.

‘Tis the Season

Things I dislike about this time of year:

  1. Dropping temperatures. I got home the other night and said to Byron, “I just realized I’m entering five months of never being warm again.” He agreed that yes, that was probably true.
  2. The serious financial budgeting that this time of year entails. And, I totally know, we’re fortunate that we CAN afford it. I’m sure it’s much more stressful for others.
  3. The decreasing daylight. Right now it’s 7:20am and just starting to get light outside my window. And that’s actually pretty good. Talk to me when it’s 8am and still pitch black out.
  4. Trying to figure out a new skincare regimen to combat my increasingly dry skin.
  5. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Green Tuesday. Which I’m pretty sure is actually a thing now and not something I just made up.
  6. Having to pretend like I watched last night’s football game.
  7. The fireworks that go off in our neighborhood to accompany last night’s football game.
  8. Not being able to work in the yard as much, because a) cold, and b) dark.
  9. All the holiday obligations. Our December calendar is already booked. I don’t think there’s a free weekend on there.
  10. Wearing two layers of clothing around the house because I’LL NEVER BE WARM AGAIN.

Things I like about this time of year:

  1. Lighting candles in the living room as soon as I wake up in the morning, and as soon as I get home in the evening.
  2. Grapefruit. Satsumas. Meyer lemon.
  3. Trying to figure out a new skincare regimen to combat my increasingly dry skin. (Yeah, it’s on there twice. Because it’s annoying, but also… playing with beauty products!)
  4. Eagerly awaiting the annual Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog.
  5. Reading a book in front of the fireplace with a cat. Preferably two cats.
  6. On those rare days when daylight and sunshine and free time collide–grabbing the gardening tools and going out and breathing in the smell of wet dirt.
  7. Finding out what my top 10 Instagram photos of the year are #narcissist
  8. Watching the dog snuffle around in fallen leaves on our morning walks.
  9. Dinners with friends and family. It makes for a busy month… but gathering over homemade food is always time well spent.
  10. Pies. Cookies. Scones. Basically having a really good excuse to bake ALL THE THINGS.
  11. More time indoors = more time for writing.

Between Ease & Effort

A few months back I started taking yoga classes to get some sort of activity in my life that is not dog-walking. The other day, one of the instructors was talking about the space between ease and effort: how every pose should be a balance between those two. We should be pushing ourselves to be better (the effort), while also finding the comfort and joy in each move (the ease).

On our recent road trip though Montana, my brain mulled over this concept. We were on a long straight highway, clear as the eye can see. Looking at the world stretch out before us. A valley between sharp hills, west of the Rockies, with conifers clustered in gullies. Early morning sun making long shadows across tall grass, the occasional hawk poised overhead. A sky so big and blue it hurts the eyes.

The more I see of it, the more in love I am with the world. Why would anyone think there is anything better than right here, right now, this beautiful perfect earth that we have?

I get the feeling of seeing it all for the first time, the first time, as if no other eyes have devoured this landscape. Greedy. It fills you with such joy and such loneliness. It is good to look at rocks and realize how young, how small you are to this place. I could drink in all the world and never get enough.

2016 has been a big one for me in terms of trying new things, putting myself out there. Hedgebrook, going on my first-ever backpacking trip, making the decision to take the leap and leave my job… I couldn’t have foreseen how this year has gone. And I’m glad for that. I always want to see like this: filled with wonder at what the earth created.

This is how I want to live my life: full of adventure and a just a tad bit of uncomfortableness. Between ease and effort. It’s the balance between those two where you really shine.

What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

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An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)

Summer, Summer, Glorious Summer

High hot days and cool windy nights. Twilights that never end. Bats zig-zagging in the dusk, feasting on flying termites. Blueberries. Huckleberries. Blackberries, still warm from the sun. One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me. Fingers stained a permanent purple.

Sticking your head into a dinner-plate-sized rose and breathing in the pear scent. Crunching toes in dry grass. Listening to the bumblebees lumber from salvia, hyssop, lavender, collecting bright yellow pollen on fat black legs.

Sitting on the edge of a mountain-fed river, strong and tired and hungry from swimming. Hot rocks warming wet swimsuit, the sun dry on your back. Listening to nothing but the water catch and fall on rock. Remembering this warm summer moment for the winter ahead, storing it as an insect for the dark months to come.

Mint picked and pressed into lemonade. Five o’clock and the smell of charcoal filling a neighborhood. No reason, no reason at all to go inside and go to bed. There is no work, there is no tomorrow. There is only summer.