Saigon Dreams

I’ve been meaning for over a month now to write about Vietnam, but every time I sit down to do so the words slip away. Maybe I need time to digest, I told myself. The trip needs to coalesce, to firm up.

But it never did. When I think on Vietnam, all I see are fragments, moments.

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Maybe that’s because of the force of nature that is Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City—a never-stopping sea of people and scooters and red flags and little plastic stools on sidewalks. The smell of herbs and frying pork and sugar, of exhaust and day-old rain and heat.

Oh, the heat. Walking out of the airport close to midnight, I thought, This isn’t too bad. Yes, it was heat you walked into, a dampness you could feel wrapping around your skin. But it felt like Maui, like Florida, like any other tropical climate. It felt manageable.

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The next day we walked out into the city… and there was the heat. Inescapable. A weight slowing you down. By the end of the first day, after a long walk back to our apartment, sweat dripped down every trail of my body. It was like I had stepped out of an hour-long hot yoga class. (According to locals, this was nice weather. Not too hot, not too muggy. Of course.)

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The afternoon rain storms did nothing to break the heat. Neither did the thunder, waking us one morning by shaking our entire apartment, the metal patio door rattling.

The metal patio door, kept closed, keeping the heat out and the AC in. But through it every morning you could still hear the swish swish swish of the woman outside, sweeping the sidewalk with her twig-tied broom. As the morning wore on, honking scooters and lottery ticket vendors added their cries to the mix. Still, over those sounds, that broom. Swish swish swish.

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These are what stick in my mind—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. No distinct moments, no momentous events. Daily life in Saigon was about the little things. Sitting on plastic stools in an alley, drinking iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Watching the neighbors come and go, greeting each other. A restaurant owner instructing us how to mix our vegetables into our broth. Watching the city go by from the back of a scooter, wind hitting my cheeks.

The more time passes, the more Vietnam seems like a dream seeping into my consciousness. Less memory and more of a feeling, a longing—for slowly dripping coffee, for complex, confounding, astonishing food. The rows of tamarind trees, high above the streets. Even the heat. All a hauntingly written story; once you’ve read it, you can’t ever really get it out of your mind.

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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.

Here There Be Giants

Four years ago for our honeymoon, we traveled to the Grand Teton National Park. I fell in love with the Tetons immediately, head over heels. Teeth rising straight out of the earth, fierce and abrupt, like a hand simply slipped underneath and pushed. Yet the Tetons were familiar in their own way–like how a child would draw mountains. Flat land, series of triangles, nothing in between.

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Glacier National Park isn’t that way. We drove out there a few weeks ago, prior to a friend’s wedding. I’d done my research on the park, knew what to expect…yet I still felt myself warily circling it as we drove, hiked, explored. Glacier feels raw, wild–like, actually wild, not a tamed human version of wild. (Even though technically, yes, it is.) When you first enter the park, the ranger hands you a brochure with a close-up of a snarling grizzly, its muzzle covered in blood. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but it does get the point across: you are not the top dog here. Not by a long shot.

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The Tetons are the same range as Glacier, all the Rockies…yet the mountains here feel different. No child drew these. In Glacier, you can see the giant, ancient, mind-boggling powerful forces that shaped this land, carved it, curled it into bowls and peaks and valleys. The tiny remnants of those forces remain; from the road, you can see Blackfoot and Jackson and Salamander Glaciers. Seeing those, then imagining their size and scope when they created this…

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To the Blackfeet Nation, this was holy land. You still feel that. But this doesn’t necessarily feel like a benevolent deity, one shaped in man’s image. This feels deep, potent, a giant slumbering under the earth. A force that doesn’t care much for the humans on it–at least, not any more or less than anything else that scampers and crawls and flies across its surface. It feels like it would open one sleepy eye and say, “Oh, you,” before casually flicking you away. Which is not to say it’s evil or mean. It’s just indifferent. Which is sometimes nice, sitting near a power so much larger than us, that doesn’t care if we stop and mind the view.

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We spent almost a full week in Glacier and still I don’t know it. How can you know something so ancient, so old, when to it you are simply passing through, like dust in the night?

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These Stories Run Deep

If Ireland is a thin place, Greece is a deep one. Walking through the labyrinthine streets of the Plaka neighborhood in Athens, you don’t have to know that people have walked here for 7,000 years–you can feel it. Cobblestones worn by millennia of footsteps, the smell of roasting meat, the hot fecund air sticking to your neck. That citadel looming above the city, the Acropolis, icon of Western civilization that millions flock to every year–that was once new. The people who lived here watched that being built.

In fifth grade we studied Greek mythology–and by “studied” I mean we colored pictures from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths while our teacher read us the stories. The birth of Athena, the tragedy of Orpheus, the downfall of Persephone…I devoured each and every one like pomegranate seeds. When we moved on to the saga of the Iliad (a toned-down, child-friendly version, of course), I couldn’t get enough of the drama, the wit. My parents bought me a copy of D’Aularies’. I read it over and over until the spine cracked and the pages started falling out.

On Santorini, I sat on the black-sand beach and looked out towards the distant island of Anafi, imagined living here thousands of years ago, seeing Athenian sails billowing on the seas. In Crete I swam into the brilliant blue waves, remembering the sirens and Odysseus and his journey through these islands. At the Palace of Knossos I walked the kingdom of Minos, touched the stones, saw how such a place could inspire the Minotaur. I walked a city that saw the fall of Troy, that held contemporaries of Achilles and Helen and Agamemnon.

These stories run through me and here are their roots. You can hear it in the crash of the waves, what these places have heard. A murmur of something unbroken, unchanged–stories that bind us through space and time. If I’m ever able to tell stories with a tenth of that impact, with an infinitesimal fraction of that power, it will just be a continuation of a tradition that started long before me.

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2015 Favorites

It’s not weird to me that 2015 is almost over — what’s weird is that 2016 is next. How is it that we’re suddenly in the future, where self-driving cars and computer watches and hover boards are all actual things that exist? And yet here at home, the height of normality reigns. I sit here in my sweatpants, drinking coffee out of my writer’s mug, while a cat purrs from the desk and a dog stares at me from the floor. These are all good things.

I’m excited for 2016. 2015 was a rough year in some ways, but it was also kind of magical. Restorative. There was a lot of travel, a lot of reading. I curled up into a cocoon and took care of me. And now I’m ready to bust out and say OH HAI to 2016.

But before we move on — a look back, as I do every year. My favorites from the past year — I’ll be eager to hear yours.

Movies

I did NOT want to go see this movie. I typically don’t like full-on action flicks, and one that was basically one long extended car chase…nooooo thank you. But I was cajoled… and five minutes into the movie, I was sitting there with my mouth open.

The visuals, the feminist plot, the crazy pounding music…I was hooked. I’d never seen any of the Mad Max movies before (and still haven’t seen the prior ones), so don’t know how Mad Max: Fury Road compares. But WHOA was it a kick to the nerves.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum: Inside Out. Thank you, Pixar, for creating yet ANOTHER movie that makes everyone in the theater cry.

Books

I just did my 2015 book re-cap, and I suppose all of those could be counted as “best of’s” for the year. But if I had to narrow it down… I’d go with The Sixth ExtinctionCreativity, Inc. and Half of a Yellow Sun. The first two because they kept me thinking long after I’d finished the books. And the last because — while it’s suuuuper depressing — it’s hauntingly beautiful and showed me a story I hadn’t encountered before.

Oh, and one more… I didn’t include this on my re-cap list, because it seemed like a bit of a cheat. But this year I re-read Watership Down, one of my all-time favorites. I read it on my trip to Greece (more on that later, I promise) — and I don’t know if it was the setting, or because it had been so long since I last read it, but I fell head-over-heels-in-love with this book all over again. Sitting overlooking a caldera, reading about the rabbits’ search for a new home, looking out to the endless sea and comparing this to the tale of Odysseus…that’s a memory that’ll stick.

Music

One band dominated the year for me. In April, we flew down to San Francisco to see them play because they didn’t have any upcoming concerts in the Seattle area. And when they DID come to Seattle in August… yup, we went to that show, too.

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And if I’d had the opportunity to see Alabama Shakes a third time this year? You’d better believe I’d be RIGHT THERE. The bands two albums are good — but if you can, go see them live. Brittany Howard is a powerhouse. Watching her play and sing, I got the distinct impression that I was watching someone very, very special…like, one day I’d be looking back and saying, “Yes, you young whipper-snapper, I saw Brittany in her early days. Go ahead, be jealous.”

If I had to pick one favorite song…I can’t. So here’s two.

 

Moments

Man. I hadn’t fully realized until I did that #2015bestnine thing, but 2015 was an epic year.

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Walking along the Cliffs of Moher. Discovering a sunken tree-fern forest at Blarney Castle.

Floating on Lake Washington with my bestie. Sitting at a picnic table at Crystal Mountain in the later summer sun, reading a a book next to my mom. Fly fishing and actually catching fish.

Swimming and snorkeling in the Aegean. Taking shots of raki with a Cretan restaurant owner. Basking in the sunset at the Acropolis.

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Attending the Hedgebrook writing workshop with my friend Val.

Driving through central Oregon with no AC, sinking into the heat like a lizard, reveling in the beauty that is Painted Hills.

I did SO MUCH this year — yet it still felt balanced. I need to strive for that in 2016 as well.

Food

You guys, do you know about taramosalata? It is SO AMAZING and SO NOT AVAILABLE in this country. I ate it every chance I got in Greece and now need to find the ingredients to make it at home. Byron will totally hate its fishy taste…but that just means more for me.

Speaking of fishy taste — Irish smoked salmon. I don’t know why, but it’s different than other smoked salmon. It’s smooth and silky and subtly sweet. It’s like biting into a piece of the ocean. I ate my weight in it and would happily eat it every day if I could.

Other than that…this was admittedly a weird food year for me. I started seeing a naturopath, did some allergy testing, and as a result cut out dairy, eggs and a whole lot of other crap for most of the year. I’m starting to eat them a bit now…but for a lot of the year, I was basically eating vegan.

So when I ate cheese? I REALLY relished it. You guys, cheese is AMAZING. If you can, eat it for every meal, every day.

I also developed a deep appreciation for hot toddies in Ireland that continued through the year. Hot toddies cure what ails you. Hot toddies are a dollop of sunshine on a cold, damp day. Which is a LOT of days in the Pacific Northwest, which means they’re basically the perfect Northwest drink.

What are your favorites from 2015

Thin Places (Or, the Goat Leg)

Empty your heart of its mortal dream. -William Butler Yeats

Have you heard of “thin places“? It’s originally a Celtic term — the idea that some places on earth are “thin” and therefore closer to “the other side,” whatever that might be.

Ireland is one of those places. Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s a difficult feeling to describe — it’s like you want to enter it, but there’s no “it” to enter. A line I wrote in my travel journal sums it up: “I want to walk away into the mist and leave everything worldly behind.” You feel it walking along the Cliffs of Moher, you feel it watching the ocean break on the coastline, you feel it driving through the bog.

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Admittedly — I totally set myself up to “feel it.” I’ve always been interested in Irish mythology, so I read a lot of Yeats before our trip. In the late 19th century, Yeats collected traditional folk tales about “the gentle folk.” And let me tell you — all in all, the gentle folk aren’t all that gentle.

They steal children, they carry away maidens, they trick and deceive. Basically, if you feel drawn to “walk away into the mist” — NOPE, turn around, it’s probably a fairy trying to trick you. And fairies weren’t the only things to look out for — there were also mermaids (and mermen), banshees, puca (changelings which often took the form of goats). If you saw the color red (the color of magic, according to Yeats), watch out.

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While it’s true that the “old ways” are mostly gone, you still get traces of them here and there. At Blarney Castle, there’s an ancient cave where they claim a witch used to live. And every August, the town of Killorglin in Kerry still celebrates Puck Fair — a festival where they capture a wild goat and name it king of the town for three days.

 

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We passed Killorglin at the start of our Ring of Kerry tour. Kerry is a county in Ireland, and it’s a wild place. Bogs and heath give way to uplands of shale, with sheep grazing wherever they can find vegetation. The predominant color in March: rusty brown shot through with yellow flowering gorse.

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A low mist hung over everything, giving an other-worldly glow — a feeling only heightened when we passed the Eightercua stones.

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Our tour paused at Killarney National Park so we could get out and hike up to Torc waterfall. Now, we’re from the Northwest, which is famed for its greenery. But the hike up to this waterfall — crazy green. Moss covered the trees, the rocks, every possible nook and cranny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such intense, all-encompassing green. It almost hurt your eyes to look at it.

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Up at the falls, after I’d taken a few photos, Byron said, “I think I see evidence of magic.” He pointed — I saw a red coffee cup sitting next to the trail.

Now, Byron knew I’d been reading all these Yeats books, and he’d been giving me a bit of good-natured teasing. (He’ll probably protest. But I’m calling a spade a spade.) I had told him earlier in the trip about the color red and its association with magic.

“Ha ha,” I said.

“No,” he said. “There.”

I looked. A few feet away from the cup, placed neatly next to the walking path, lay a soggy goat foreleg. If the size hadn’t given it away, the hoof would have. It was unbloodied and, apart from being disembodied, perfectly intact.

“Where did that come from?” I said.

“It must be magic!” Byron said. “I don’t know how else it could have gotten there.”

“Or something ate it,” I said. We’d seen goats wandering the park minutes before.

“But where’s the rest of the body?” Byron said.

It was true — there was no sign of the rest of the goat. And the foreleg was so very neatly cut off — no sign of gnawing or bits of fur lying around. It seemed too clean to be an animal kill. And the way it was lined up next to the path, it did look like someone had placed it there.

“Why would someone put it there?” I said.

“I don’t know. Maybe an offering? It does feel like a magical place.”

I stared at the goat leg for a few moments more, both repulsed and fascinated.

“Are you going to take a picture?” Byron said.

I didn’t take a picture. There is no photographic evidence of the goat leg. I didn’t want the gentle folk to take offense.

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Stockholm Syndrome

“Can I help you?”

“Oh, we were hoping to get a drink at the bar, but it looks like it’s full?”

“One moment.”

The bar was incredibly inviting — hexagonal tile on the floors, dark wood at the bar and dark leather on the booths. Huge mirrors reflecting the electric light. A necessity in Stockholm in January, when the sun sets at 3:30pm and there are only 6 hours of daylight. It may seem CRAZY to travel to Sweden in January, but my friend Hen found cheap tickets, so we hopped a plane and set off for the Scandinavian north.

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And you know, even in the winter, Stockholm is a beautiful city — crisp and clear and bright. It was cold, though. This is how my iPhone announced the weather one morning:

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Frigid. The official weather forecast was frigid. Weather like that calls for one thing: frequent pit stops into shops, bars and cafes in order to warm up.

The shops in Stockholm close at 5pm — cocktail hour. The restaurant on the corner seemed the perfect place. We opened the door, ducked our heads past the “keep out the cold” curtains — and saw that the bar was packed. Filled to the brim. The dining room was empty, but this was clearly the type of place where a table was for dining — if you just wanted a drink, get to the bar. It seemed we were out of luck.

“Can I help you?”

The bartender came out to see what we needed. He was a large man (in hindsight, the only truly large man I saw in Sweden) with a hooked nose, two chins and piercing, deep-set eyes. The kind of man you don’t mess around with.

We explained our situation — hoping for a drink, but it looks like you’re full, so thanks anyway — and the bartender looked around his domain. “One moment,” he said.

(Everyone in Stockholm speaks perfect English, of course. It makes you feel ashamed of the American education system.)

We watched the bartender walk across the room and up to a table in the bar area. Three men, talking, laughing, enjoying some beers. We watched the bartender speak to them for a moment. We watched him bring the check — we watched the men hurriedly finish up their beers — and then watched as they got up, put on their coats, and walked past us and out the door, giving us the stink eye. I mean, OF COURSE they were throwing the stink eye. The bartender just kicked them out for us. It was clearly and obviously what had happened.

“Did he just kick them out?” I asked Hen.

Before she could respond, he was back. “This way,” the bartender said.

We followed (what else do you do when a table has been forcefully cleared for you?) and took a seat. The bartender put down drink menus and returned to his station.

I took a trip to the bathroom, and when I returned, Hen had ordered a drink. I asked her what she got.

“Something with bourbon,” she said. “I told him I like bourbon, and he said he knew just the thing and he’d make it.” She told me all this as if she hadn’t had much choice in the matter.

I took a quick glance at the menu — but then he was back, bearing Hen’s drink.

“And you will have?” he asked me.

I looked down at the menu. “Gin gimlet.” The bartender nodded, took the menu, and went back to the bar.

“I don’t know if that’s what I really wanted,” I told Hen. “But it’s the first thing in the menu, and somehow it didn’t seem like I could say, ‘I’m not sure.'”

The bartender brought over the gimlet — pale green, a tiny bit frothy — nodded, and left. I noticed the cloth tucked into his apron — white herringbone with red trim, just like the Swedish cloth my aunt gave me, hanging in my kitchen back home in Seattle.

The gimlet, I will say, was one of the best I’ve had. Clearly this guy knew his stuff, I’d give him that (even if he did kick out patrons on a whim). Hen and I drank, chatted, and decided that here was a good a spot as any to have a bite of food. When the bartender came back over, we said we’d have the special — crayfish with what was described to us as “farmer’s bread.”

“Should we get one or two?” I asked Hen.

We debated for a moment before the bartender put his hand on my shoulder. “Get two,” he said. “It’s very nice.”

We quickly agreed. “What wines do you have?” asked Hen.

“With the seafood, a nice white.”

We nodded. Sounded good. Besides, this man had a way of saying this — you couldn’t say no to him. His was the definitive answer: this, this is good, and you will have it.

The crayfish came, tasting like a cross between crab and shrimp, mixed lightly with dill and lemon and piled high on chewy dark bread and topped by a dollop of orange Swedish caviar. And the wine? Perfect, as promised, with the crayfish.

By the time we finished our meal, we’ve been sitting for quite a while. The entire restaurant was packed now, bar and dining area, and we could see people queuing up at the door. “We’d better get going, empty up the table,” Hen suggested. I agreed.

When the bartender came back, we asked for the check.

“Dessert?” he said.

Oh no, we said, we see there are people waiting, we don’t want to take up the space — we’ll get going.

He shook his head and furrowed his brow and repeated the question. “Dessert?”

I’m not sure what the qualification is to be kicked out of a table, but apparently we didn’t meet it. “Well, alright,” we said.

He told us the special — a dense, flat chocolate cake, paired with a scoop of house-made licorice ice cream — and we told him we’d take one.

“With two spoons,” he added. Not a question.

With our dessert, the bartender brought out two small glasses filled with amber liquid. “On the house,” he said. “Special aged Jamaican rum. Very good with chocolate.”

He was right, of course. Every sip of rum complemented the chocolate perfectly. You couldn’t say no to this man — but why would you want to? No trip is complete without a weird, random adventure — and Stockholm wouldn’t have been complete without the bartender.