Hey Jude, Will You Leave My Head?

First post of 2021, and I’m starting off with something a little different.

I finished A Little Life over the weekend, my last book of 2020 and my first book of 2021. It took me about a month to finish not because, at just over 800 pages, it was a challenge, but because… it was a lot. And not enough, as all good books usually are. This blog won’t turn into a book reviews blog, I promise, but rarely am I so affected by a book that I can’t stop thinking about it, so I’m writing about it. I’m even listening to the Spotify playlist that the author compiled for the book as I write this.

About a week before I actually finished it, I put the book down and didn’t come back to it. I was very close to putting the book in the freezer after one particular plot point, but I made the mistake of stopping on a Sunday night. The first thing I thought of Monday morning after a semi-sleepless night was this book, how I was so sad at what had just happened that I couldn’t keep the thoughts from bouncing inside my head like little red balls. So I have to write about it. I have to process what I just read.

If you’re precious about it, I’d stop reading now to avoid spoilers.

Picture by me

From the first few pages, I didn’t know what I was reading about and there a lot of names from the start. That is, in fact, my only complaint about the book: So. Many. Names. Some don’t come back or are only mentioned once or twice in passing, and some keep popping up but I don’t care enough about the character to try to keep it straight. Think One Hundred Years of Solitude but none of the names are related to each other so you don’t have many points of reference.

It wasn’t until about fifty pages in that I could keep the four main characters straight, and it took me the first section to start actively disliking Jude, the person around whom the book’s universe revolves. And yet as the book progressed and I started finding the breadcrumbs about his past and his traumas, my dislike faded, and inevitably I started rooting for him, if anything because of the people around him who loved him so much and were so invested in his wellbeing. Much like the characters themselves, the people who loved him, I found myself begging him to seek help, to talk about his traumas, to unburden the people who cared for him and just try accepting the love that was given to him.

The book is about friendship on the surface, but as you dive deeper and move through the torturous pages, you find it’s about self-love, self-loathing, pride. How those three aspects work together in a span of thirty or so years to conclude in the ultimate act of sparing your loved ones and yourself from further suffering. It’s not a love story and it does not have a happy ending – when you get to a happy part at the end of a chapter, the author warns you it won’t always be like that by crushing the present she’s just constructed. She warns you that more tragedy is coming. And I appreciate that earnest take of life itself, because you don’t know that you’re in the good days until they’re over.

That it’s a book about trauma is obvious from the first few chapters. The three seasons of trauma that Jude experiences could have been books of their own, but that would have been very predictable and sensationalist sales-bait. You may not see many plot points coming (although I successfully predicted the two main deaths), but you know there will be something horrible. You’ll only be surprised by how terrible a specific event is. But you get insult to your injury when you find out what made Jude be what he is, what he sees himself as, because you see what the trauma and the injury have done to him, what they made his life be like. By the time you find out what happened, you almost don’t care – you’re angrier at what his life has become because of it.

I loved this book, despite the can of worms it left writhing in my brain. Its home is in New York City, but it doesn’t do the annoying thing of making the city a character in itself, inserting homages that only other New Yorkers will appreciate and non-New Yorkers will want to move there to understand. The city is a setting, as it should be, and the characters go to a lot of other places as we follow their journey. They have flats in London and houses in Upstate New York – their happiness and suffering are the focal points and settings in themselves. The story is told around their grief, their happiness, their humility. It’s their lives, not their lives as New York has molded them to be lived.

I will also always appreciate a book that isn’t heavy in description – I have no idea what the characters look like aside from Jude’s eye color, Willem’s hair, JB’s body type and Malcolm’s mixed race because they are used as markers, tools to tell a specific part of the story. I know Jude comes to appreciate tailored suits and loves baking and cooking for others (a man after my own heart), and that Harold teaches him to drive; I know Willem is of Swedish decent and has sandy hair; I know JB gained weight after this meth addiction and that Malcolm struggles with his identity because he feels he doesn’t look or act Black enough. And that’s all I needed to know about them to have me invested, because what they look like wasn’t always relevant to the story.

I loved the narrative of the book. It wasn’t linear, as if the author was telling us scenes as she remembered their relevance to the main story arc, and yet it flowed. This only bothered me until the second section, after which point I started trusting the process and understood I would find out what I needed to find out when I needed to. I found this particularly inspiring because I often have issues sticking to a linear story when I write, getting a bit boxed in by my own pressure to tell the story sequentially while dropping breadcrumbs to the ending. Of course, the story does need to have some structure, but that’s where technique comes in, something this author showed me.

I’m at my most inspired after reading a great new book, and this time is no different. After I get over it, that is. I need to mourn this book and the characters; I have to mourn the feeling that I will never again be able to read this book for the first time.

Steaming Black Coffee

The last blog post of the year…

I’ve inadvertently taken the month off, and in observance of my birthday on Friday and the general write-off this year month has been, I’m calling it a day after this one.

It started more emo than it is here, and it all came from the first line, when I was sipping on a cup of black coffee the other day and enjoying the simple pleasure.

Happy reading! And for those who have stuck by this blog from the beginning when posts came once a week, to now when they come once a month (2020, amirite?), thank you. Here’s to whatever the other blog posts, months and days will look like.

She found comfort in the steam from a hot cup of black coffee.

Though she didn’t actively seek it, she always ended up being alone. At the end of the night, at the end of the day. She hadn’t noticed, but loneliness had moved in with her, into her.

It began at her feet, making her walk away from any group of people at a party after the conversation was over. It stayed at her feet for a while and made her walk the other way from coworkers leaving the office, often walking around the block once to make sure she lost them before going to take the train. The loneliness would weigh her feet down and kept her a few paces behind a person she knew who walked ahead of her – the loneliness knew she hadn’t gotten to the voice yet.

The loneliness then moved up her back, keeping it turned away from everyone else. She could hear people talking and would join in even without being asked. The words would come out and the doubt would come in, and the loneliness fed on that and made her keep her back turned. With her feet secured and then her back, the loneliness would make her turn an about face after a few pleasantries exchanged at a friend’s get-together or a polite glance given at the handsome barista.

The loneliness saved her heart and her head for last. They were easy pray and to be savored as dessert. By then, she had stopped being invited, and colleagues kept their pleasantries to the office. With the loneliness firmly rooted inside her, though, she didn’t even notice. She welcomed the quiet and simplicity of her exterior as a welcome contrast to the chatter of her interior. She wanted nothing else besides what she already had, because she hadn’t noticed that the loneliness had taken everything.

It didn’t pain her to part with everything, though, to be reduced to nothing but her apartment, her clothes, her furniture, her knick-knacks. She started the day alone and she ended it alone, and she didn’t notice. Others noticed for her, told her they admired her bravery at going to dinner alone and traveling alone with a book, some puzzles or an adult coloring book. When she wondered if she should mind, if there was something wrong with her for not minding her own company, she looked for people who weren’t alone at the restaurant, or a couple who was laughing together at the bar, to compare. She felt happy for them. Happy that they enjoyed each other’s company, but she didn’t envy them.

When she did feel anything other than simple contentment at her arrangement, she felt wonder. She wondered what arrangements had been made for those people to laugh and joke and spend time together. She wondered what they talked about and if they ever ran out of topics of conversation. She wondered what it felt like to find that arrangement effortless. The loneliness inside her would dig its claws in deeper, reminding her that this was comfortable, familiar and expected. At the prompt, she would retract and leave the others to their own lives.

So she always enjoyed her black coffee alone, and as she watched the steam rise and disappear and absorbed the smell and felt the warmth of the mug on her hand and tasted the bitterness and heard herself say “Mmm,” she was comforted.

On My Immigration Anniversary

I’ve been writing this entry in my head for a while, and it will mark my serendipitous return to my poor, neglected blog.

This past Thursday, the 19th was my immigration anniversary. Sixteen years ago on Thursday, I arrived in the US for the very first time, not knowing a lick of English, not knowing any of the extended family that waited for me and not knowing what being an immigrant entailed then, now and for the rest of my life. Every year, I reflect on the years that have passed and often get stuck in the thought loop of, “What would I not have, have not been able to do or had not seen if I hadn’t gotten on that plane with my dad in 2004?” 

The answer? Everything. Everything I have and hold dear, every experience, every memory, every friendship.

But, because it’s also been a strange year (few years, really) to be an immigrant, this year’s reflection was different. Like with anything or anyone you love and love well, you have to be lovingly critical, but critical nonetheless, when considering the good and the bad. This year’s reflection also started with a memory.

Little Vanessa. Circa 2002? One of the few pictures of my childhood that I’m able and willing to look at… for two minutes tops.

When I was eight or nine, I got caught cheating on a test. This was Ecuador, so the details are a little fuzzy because of Trauma and trauma, but the gist is: I was sitting next to my “best friend” and we were given a test that she hadn’t studied for. The classroom had those two-seater desks where two children fit comfortably, and to keep us from cheating, the teacher gave each seat of the two-seaters a different version of the test.

As the teacher dictated the questions, we were supposed to write down the answers for our version on a blank sheet of paper. On one of the questions, my friend nudged me and pointed to the blank space on her paper. I knew the answer, but I shook my head at her because I didn’t want to get in trouble for talking during a test. She kept nudging me, so I did the next best thing: I wrote the answer in tiny letters on a tiny piece of paper, folded it and handed it to her. The teacher happened to be walking by as my friend was unfolding the paper. When the teacher inspected it and saw it was written on, she snatched both of our tests and returned mine with a zero.

I can’t remember what happened next, whether I was sent outside while the other students finished the test, whether I cried or not, or what my friend did. What I do remember is feeling incredibly sad and ashamed, with that prickly sensation on the back of my neck that I can now identify as a panic symptom (Little Vanessa was panicking at the thought of getting a zero on a test and getting in trouble – that’s Trauma with a purposeful capital T). I also remember writing “zero” in cursive next to the numeral the teacher had written. My loopy cursive was self-flagellation, a habit I carry to this day as an almost-twenty-eight-year-old adult; no one is as hard on me as I am on myself.

The next day, my mother went to talk to the teacher, to plead my case, and I don’t remember what the resolution was. I want to say that my friend and I got half the grade we would have gotten had we finished the test without cheating, but I definitely remember that she didn’t get in as much trouble as I did. I found out later that the teacher was a friend of my friend’s mom. The quotation marks around “best friend” were not accidental. We didn’t speak after that and actually became frenemies until I moved to the US three or four years later.

Why that memory and why now? I don’t know. All I know is that the test did not matter almost twenty years later, and that friend got pregnant at seventeen and posted a lot of selfies on Facebook last I checked when I still had a Facebook account years ago. I know you’re not supposed to get pettily happy about things like that, that motherhood can come at any age and in any circumstance as long as the woman is happy and sees the child as a blessing. But, on behalf of that little girl who wrote “zero” to make sure she learned a lesson, I’m pretty happy I turned out nothing like that former best friend.

That was not the first or only instance of unfairness that Little Vanessa would experience, and certainly not the first or only instance of pain or panic symptoms at not being the best, brightest or best behaved.

What Little Vanessa did not know at that time, however, was that she would come to a place where such unfairness wasn’t so blatant, where tests were better administered and she would be protected from being manipulated into helping a friend cheat. Little Vanessa would come to have opportunities, to go to university although her family was in no position to help her pay for her education. Little Vanessa would come to speak three languages, an asset that would set her apart wherever she went and at every job she had. Little Vanessa would even learn to drive a car that she owns herself, which she would drive on bad days while singing along to the best of All Time Low to cheer her up.

Adult Vanessa, however, still struggles with the realities of being an immigrant, struggling to always be grateful to a country that has done so much for her yet has behaved so heinously throughout history, even as recent as the past four years. Kids in cages, police brutality, the student loan system… all that lives in the same system that gave Adult Vanessa the opportunity to think differently, to question ideas that would have been a given in Ecuador had she grown up there. Can a place that supported Adult Vanessa in getting  a master’s degree in another country be the same place that does not support other immigrants who don’t have the privilege of migrating legally? To the point where they’re denied health insurance and are disproportionately dying from this unforgiving virus?

The answer is yes. Yes, it can be the same place. And that is the biggest way I celebrated my immigration anniversary this year: by accepting that two things can be true at the same time, and that my experience could have easily been different and harsher if I happened to belong to any other marginalized group. For that, I’m thankful. For the ability to be critical yet appreciative of my experience. To even have the right and privilege of speaking my truth.

Have I Seen Too Much?

In what has become a biweekly tradition, I will start this post with a poor excuse.

I haven’t neglected this space and have actually thought about this entry for about a week, but I haven’t gotten around to actually writing it because… life. Life and its many commitments (one of them being jury duty) and my newfound journey into being kinder to myself and unlearning the “I must work hard to earn time off” mindset.

A week and a bit ago, I did two things on the same day that were unrelated at the time but now I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. For one thing, I finished re-watching all of Sex and the City on HBO Max (honestly, adding that subscription to my roster probably contributed to my neglectingprocrastinating, not writing). For another, I went to a haunted forest for the first time in my life.

How are these two things related? In the first Sex and the City movie, Carrie and Miranda are walking around a Duane Reade looking for a Halloween costume for Miranda. As the two women browse the aisles side by side, a small child wearing a mask jumps out at Carrie to try to scare her, only for her to be unfazed.

“You can’t scare me after everything I’ve been through,” she says as the boy’s mom ushers him out of the way. I’m paraphrasing, but the point was that (spoiler alert?), after being left at the altar earlier in the year, she was not moved by an obnoxious child left unsupervised.

Although the remark is obnoxious itself and very Carrie-esque, I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I was, also, unfazed when walking through the haunted forest.

I couldn’t help but wonder, had I also seen too much?

(See what I did there?)
Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

It has been nagging at me for over a week why I wasn’t scared at the prospect of hiking through a trail, in the relative dark, knowing there were things waiting to jump out and scare me. It was a very odd time to have a first-time experience of any kind, but those who had been during normal (read: not COVID) times told me that actors usually get very close to you, getting right in your face in their creepy costumes and forcing you to stop when you really should keep going. In COVID-19 times, of course, anything closer than 6 feet wasn’t advisable or safe, so no one came too close to me other than other hikers. To make up for that, it looked like the organizers put more budget toward the machines and scenery rather than rely on actors to navigate the trail themselves. One of the first few settings was a pitch-black tunnel that, every few minutes, lit up to show a giant fake spider with strobe lights behind it.

After the spider, there were haunted churches, a haunted cottage setting with two hillbilly farmers with chainsaws chasing us (with a 6-foot lead), a haunted pumpkin patch, a freak show section, a haunted museum section, a spaceship section with alien actors running around, ending with an escaped convicts section with a metal song playing loudly in a loop. Sections to overwhelm the senses and scare you, as the announcer said when we went in.

Except… I wasn’t overwhelmed or scared. I was alert. My heart beat faster, my body’s reaction to perceived danger, but I did not let out one scream. I kept walking, leaving my crowd behind a few times, letting my eyes scan my surroundings and stepping around actors clearly positioning themselves to jump out at the next patron. I was uncomfortable in confined spaces and refused to go first when going through doors (although I inexplicably led the way when we first walked into the trail), and that was the only expected reaction I saw in myself all night.

So, why was I not scared and just alert? It is the nature of my anxious disposition that I do not like not knowing what to expect from something or someone, so why was I happy to walk in first? Comparatively, I was very anxious and nervous when I went in for jury duty on Friday, since I’d never done it before, I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid of getting something wrong.

I did some digging, and the research done so far added to the confusion instead of providing an answer. The least-contradicting source was this Huffpost article that isn’t too recent and is about scary movies, but at least it’s very much pre-pandemic so that’s as reliable as I’ll get for now. According to this article, there are a few reasons people don’t get scared while watching scary movies:

  1. They experience the stress that the adrenaline causes differently, almost enjoying the reaction.
  2. They are not highly sensitive people.
  3. They may have experienced fear and discomfort (from age-appropriate scary movies and attractions) from a young age, so they’re more or less used to it.
  4. They enjoy connecting with others over being scared.

I do not fit into any of these, starting with my last entry on my realization that I may just be a highly sensitive person. I do not enjoy the stress reaction of being scared, as the near panic attacks I get when I see a rodent or I’m somewhere higher than the first floor would indicate.

Going back to my Sex and the City connection, perhaps I have seen too much. There is a lot of trauma and Trauma I’ve experienced, like anyone and everyone, and it takes specific stressors and fears to trigger an adrenaline- and panic-led response.

Knowing that everyone in the haunted forest was an actor and wasn’t allowed to get closer than 6 feet for their own and my safety didn’t scare me but, rather, gave me a task: to finish the hike.

I saw It: Part Two recently, so I knew that killer clowns are in vogue and very much not real, but seeing a rat in the streets of Baltimore on Saturday night sent me into a near panic and walking faster to the car.

Walking through the haunted cemetery section, eyes alert and open to dodge the next actor, only meant that I had to walk the trail and watch out for loose branches that may have tripped me. That isn’t nearly as terrifying and anxiety-inducing as the paralyzing fear I feel in my gut when I think of any illness, accident or disease that could affect my dad as he gets older and isn’t in the shape he was 16 years ago when I started living with him full time.

So, after doing skimpy research, reflecting and writing this post, I’m still not any closer to figuring out why I wasn’t at all scared during a sensory-overload experience meant to overwhelm and scare. At least I know I have the capability to be scared, paralyzed and overwhelmed. I have but to think of standing on a rooftop with mice and rats scurrying around my feet while my dad is being rushed to the hospital to feel my heart race and ears ring, like the actors wanted me to feel while walking through the haunted forest.


Bloom where you are planted.

If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t change the flower; you change the environment.

You’ve come across both of these inspirational phrases before in times of adversity, or in motivational posters in a doctor’s waiting room.

But what if I’m an orchid?

Photo by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

When orchids are cared for properly, they bloom, wilt and bloom again for years. They require precise conditions to survive and thrive: too much or too little water can harm them; too much or too little light can make them wilt; too much or too little humidity and they won’t bloom another year. Orchids are the flower that you shift your life around to make sure they live, shifting around furniture to let them receive south- and east-facing light, and even adding a humidifier and humidity meter for good measure. Yet sometimes, even with the right amount of light, watering frequency and repotting, orchids don’t bloom.

I have killed many a plant this year, and some haven’t even grown roots. None of them, however, have died out of neglect. I have watered them or removed their water supply if I was advised to. I moved them closer to the sunlight and away from it. I’ve protected them from the cat’s curious reach and let her have free reign of the one that was safe for her (cat grass; a gift for her twelfth birthday). I even tried planting one from scratch: I planted the habanero seeds and tenderly packed the soil before watering it, diligently ensuring that the soil was moist everyday so it could germinate. I watched as two hopeful sprouts emerged from the soil, only to watch them die over the following weeks. I got a miniscule Venus fly trap as a gift and was commanded not to touch it. Only to look at it. Three weeks later, what I tenderly dubbed Cheryl Blossom withered and died a slow death.

There are plenty more plants in my house, plants I’m not the guardian of. These are all thriving: the small aloe vera grows greener every day, promising to have stems large enough to cut for face masks one day. The money tree had a few singed leaves from too much sun exposure, but a careful shift two feet to the left, and he’s growing teeny new leaves. If you sat and watched these plants, they would mock you with their growth. There is even a small red pepper plant that bore a small pepper even though it was left outside all summer, was never repotted and never watered.

Are my dead plants trying to tell me something? To change the environment? That they can’t bloom where they’re planted – they can’t even germinate. Are they a reflection of me and my lack of bloom this year?

Like many a plant optimist, I have said, “This is the last one. If this dies, I’m not getting any more,” only to grieve and flagellate myself for a few weeks at the failure when one more dies before attempting a different kind. I tried my luck at starting an avocado plant from an almost-discarded pit. All guidance said the pit would take two to four weeks to sprout roots, some taking as long as eight weeks. It’s week three, and there aren’t any roots, just tiny white dots forming a ring on the bottom half of the pit, teasing me at becoming roots. This, too, I tenderly look after as much as I (read I) need to and have the common sense to: changing its water once it gets yellowish and ensuring it’s receiving just enough indirect sunlight.

What if this attempt doesn’t bloom either? I have held off giving it a serious name until I see a sprout.

Bloom where you are planted. My dead never-would-be flowers disagree.

What if, like my plants, I can’t bloom where I’m planted? What if I need a different environment? Like an orchid.

I recently read about orchid children and how they take special care to bloom. Most advice is geared toward parents raising sensitive children, even providing a handy 23-question quiz to determine if your child may be sensitive, an orchid. Curious, I took the quiz myself, keeping in mind what I remember I was like as a child and what I’m like now. The threshold for sensitivity in the quiz was 13 – I scored 15. At almost 28, I may have to accept the fact that I’m a highly sensitive person, one who may have been born wired that way and developed into a highly sensitive adult from the trauma and Trauma I’ve endured.

Orchid children are sensitive to their environments and tend to become overwhelmed in loud places, in front of strangers or after a radical, surprise change. Often confused with being shy, a highly sensitive child may prefer to sit in the back of the classroom and not raise their hand even if they know the answer, may be wary around strangers until they get to know them better and may notice the distress of others and withdraw or get upset.

Classic perfectionists, orchids do not do well when told to toughen up, to deal with the stressful environment they’re thrown into. Parenting advice today encourages routines, grounding techniques when the child seems anxious, and balancing the line between letting the child explore, gently pushing them to try new things, and coddling them when they become overwhelmed with a big change. Most of all, parents are encouraged to nurture the highly sensitive capabilities, not belittle them as if they were a weakness.

Because they’re not weaknesses.

By sitting quietly and playing alone, a child can be observant, noticing the colors of the changing leaves or the sounds in the street. Wary of strangers, a highly sensitive teenager may take longer to make friends, but the friendships they form will be lasting and genuine. The sensitive adult who doesn’t participate in workplace banter and watercooler visits may get their work done quicker and be more focused, but will always remember a coworker’s favorite meeting room dessert or ask deep, meaningful questions in meetings that are impactful and useful. The sensitive child will grow up to be an adaptable adult.

Orchid children, like their flower namesake, are highly sensitive to their environment and, if they don’t receive the right care and attention from early on, they grow to view the world as a place to protect themselves from. They learn to always be on survival mode, to retreat when the environment disagrees with them. At least that has been my experience now that I have a term for my personality.

It seems like survival mode hasn’t just been my default this year, but for as far back as I remember. The last time I think I can recall not being in survival mode to some degree was 2015. When I wasn’t constantly thinking, “Just until X happens, then I can breathe easy.” What if my orchid tendencies have been showing through and I just need to find the right environment to bloom out of survival mode?

“Watch me while I bloom,” sings Hayley Williams in the eponymous Watch Me While I Bloom. But orchids don’t bloom on command. When is it my turn to bloom? What does my “blooming” environment look like and how can I get there?

Maybe I’ll get an orchid when I find out.

An Update, Six Months On

When I joined the blogging community, I was conscious of the crowded space I was joining and how difficult it would be to stand apart from the rest. Although that was never my main intention, I knew that most of my voice would be lost in the void. It would have been nice to be noticed, but I never started this blog for anyone other than myself.

I’ve been noticeably absent for a while, and I have to admit that I’ve only given this blog a passing thought this week. Two weeks ago, I prioritized paid work again, and thought I would devote some attention this past week. Then I sprained my wrist.

The sprain doesn’t keep me from typing (obviously), but it did make the beginning of the week kind of painful. I have a brace now that slows me down in everything including typing and writing long-hand, so I have been preoccupied with that this week, doing the bare minimum to go about my daily life while being mindful of activities that may make the pain worse and recovery longer.

If we trace back the order of events that led to this long-healing, irritating injury, it’s COVID related, which is obvious. COVID has also affected the life of this blog and the plan I had for it earlier in the year. Like it has affected many a thing around the world.

Long story short, I was doing a boxing workout using my at-home gym. I’m being generous – my at-home gym is a freestanding punching bag in the yard. I’ve been using the without major issue all summer (it’s a great stress relief), last week I threw a punch the wrong way (or the right way, if I’m optimistic that I hit too hard) and I sprained my wrist. During that same workout, I under-rotated a kick and hit the top of my foot against the hard part of the bag, but (miraculously) my foot was spared any damage.

Where does COVID come into all of this? The only reason I got the punching bag was because I didn’t feel comfortable going back to the gym once it was allowed to open after quarantine, so I figured I’d add a fun way to workout to my routine. A sprained wrist and constantly-bruised knuckles later…

Besides my workout routine, COVID has impacted my writing schedule, aims and goals. Because I’m always home now, endless distractions, chores and lack of discipline has affected what I envisioned as a weekly task. I planned on working on the new novel (and that’s still a goal), but one of the new aims for this blog is now exploring my writing style and habits, and that often means deviating from the content plan I created at the beginning of the year. Not to mention that lockdown drove my friend to create The Artist’s Way group. After finishing the workbook, I know that what I learned informs how I write and create in general, which means I’ve had to be flexible with my content plan.

I worry that the more I write about this, the more this will sound like an excuse for why I haven’t bothered to write for two weeks, and why I haven’t touched my novel in even more weeks. However, this is the best I can do with my current circumstances, and maybe tomorrow will be different. After all, now that boxing workouts are out of the question for a while, my afternoons are free (until I find another way of gym-free working out that I enjoy) and I will make a conscious effort to write more, even if it’s just a few paragraphs.

If I don’t, no one else will. Or, what’s worse, someone else may.


A few weeks ago, I took on the mammoth task I’ve been putting off for months: plotting my new project. When I finally did, index cards and all, I felt a lot better about undertaking the project itself. I compartmentalized plot points and broke them down into achievable chunks, a third of which are already written and need developing. It felt productive to take that step toward completing the project I started earlier this year, almost like quarantine hasn’t been entirely wasted.

After plotting and getting down to write today (on a Wednesday, which doesn’t happen very often), I also noticed I haven’t posted a novel extract in ages. Julia Cameron would call this synchronicity, and even though I finished The Artist’s Way [LINK] weeks ago, I’m glad some of the tools have stayed with me. Others would call this being lazy and killing two birds with one stone, but I choose to be kind to myself today.

As with other excerpts, this piece is an extract of an extract so I don’t cannibalize my own work, but it’s enough to keep me accountable and to keep me writing. Writing something that’s not emails…

Enjoy! I’d love to hear what you think.

Image of person sitting in an airport waiting area, slumped on top of a suitcase.
Photo by Joyce Romero on Unsplash

“I still think it’s horribly irresponsible of you to do this.”

“Thanks for the ride to the airport.”

“How would you have gotten here otherwise?”

Xander sighed and looked straight ahead. The other cars zoomed by, yet she didn’t seem to be moving at all. The hour-and-a-half-drive to Dulles Airport was getting her somewhere and nowhere.

“Make sure you get yourself a new winter jacket,” her mom said. “That one is falling apart, and right now it’ll be colder than here. It likely won’t snow, but it’ll be rainy and gray all the time. With that sun that doesn’t keep you warm.”


“And good rainboots. You’ll be walking a lot too.”


“Although why you want to even go is beyond me.”

Xander stayed quiet. The potholes of I-495 were slowing down traffic, and as a Maryland-tag Civic inched its way in front of them to switch lanes, her mom swerved into the right lane without looking and honked the horn.

“Jesus Christ, could you be careful?”

“Don’t be taking the Lord’s name in vain,” her mom said. “And what did you want me to do when that a-hole cuts me off?”

Xander rolled her eyes. Their car finally merged into the exit and then the airport access road. The next eleven miles were quiet.

They drove without music as was her mother’s custom, not because it was distracting, but because she didn’t enjoy it. She joined the few people in the world who actively hated music, from rhythmic chanting to the current top hits.

Xander watched the buildings zoom by. The office parks, hotels, apartments and parking garages. This part of the city was ugly, and it was unfair that this is the last thing she would see of her home. She’d thought about going hiking one last time when her bags were packed, to stamp a last image of green before all she saw on a daily basis was concrete and double-decker buses, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. All hiking trails led to the lake, and she didn’t want to go to the lake.

Xander and her mother made it to the signs for the different airlines and parking garages, and Xander knew they were getting close. She waited for the butterflies to flutter in her stomach, the lump in her throat as she got closer to saying goodbye to her mother, her only family, but she didn’t feel anything. She even waited for the urge to run her hand through her hair like she knew she did when she was nervous, but nothing came. Her hair stayed safely inside her beanie.

A familiar feeling of feeling nothing. Of not remembering when was the last time she laughed, or felt nervous or was angry.

They soon passed the last airline signs and entered the main traffic circle at the airport, and as her mother merged into a tricky lane without looking, the first trigger of feeling came: chest tightening and a racing heart. Maybe Xander was nervous after all.

Her mother continued on the circle toward the drop-off area, and Xander unclipped her seatbelt before the car stopped.

“Hold on, let me park and see you off properly.”

“No, it’s okay,” Xander said and opened her door in the same instant. The February air bit at her face and she zipped up her jacket almost to her chin. The trunk was already open when she went to get her huge and heavy backpack and her handbag. The car was still running, but her mother was out with her and standing next to the trunk as Xander hoisted the bag onto her shoulders in an unpracticed way.

“You should have gotten a rolling one. You’ll be walking a lot from the airport to wherever you’re staying.”

“But my hands will be free.”

“I don’t want to hear complaining about an aching back, then.”

Not that she would hear from Xander at all. Even as she thought about not talking to her mother as often, she waited for the sadness to fill her chest and tighten it, for the pricking of her eyes to make breathing difficult, for the ringing in her ears to make it hard to hear. Sensations she’d grown used to since last year that now she expected them. But nothing came.

“It’s fine. I’ll just go straight through and I won’t have to carry it until I get there.” Her shoulders already ached, but she welcomed the feeling as the rest eluded her.

“Okay, well, fine.” Her mom slammed the trunk shut and walked around the car to the sidewalk. “Please let me know when you get there and get WiFi, even from the airport. You know how to get where you’re going?”

“Airport, Metro, blue line to black. Get off at Farm something.”

“Chalk Farm, I think it’s called. But let me know when you land at least.”

“Yes, okay,” Xander said and leaned in to hug her mom. “Bye, mom. Love you. Look after the house and yourself.”

“Love you too, baby. Please be careful.”

Xander thought she should turn around and wave when she got inside the departures lobby, but when she did, her mother had already pulled out and was making her way around the traffic circle. She should have felt hurt, but she was relieved and wondered if she should have turned and waived sooner.

Other travelers and family members stepped out of her way as she walked to the ticket counter and she wondered how heavy her bag would be in the end. Before it was her turn, she hoisted it off her shoulders, dragging it with her when the attendant called her forward. She stumbled in answering how long she’d be staying in London and settled for “a while,” but the attendant pressed her and asked her if it’d be longer than six months. Xander said yes.

Surviving the Cicadas

I hate summer. There, I said it. And that is the hill I will die on.

To be specific, I hate the Washington D.C.-area summer, the swamp-like, cicada-infested, humid hell I am subjected to between May and mid- to late September. July is my least favorite month, and the day I get to put away my shorts, bikinis and tank tops for the year is my favorite day.

There’s also the added pressure of enjoying yourself during the summer, of taking advantage of a hot week and go to the beach, or camping or hiking. With the exception of camping, I would gladly do any “summer” activity during the cooler months – last year, my boyfriend and I went to the beach when the weather was in the 20s and the windchill by the ocean made it feel like the teens. I felt comfort in the empty beach and letting the sun that doesn’t warm you up shine on my mostly covered face.

As summer starts drawing to a close, I am not sad to be staring at the last quarter of the year, and I’m more amazed that I woke up one day and it’s September. For a long time now, I have started thinking of time as Monday through Sunday on repeat, and filling up the time in between. What I am also not sad about as summer ends is cicadas packing their bags and finding a hole to hibernate in.

I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a city rat, someone who is more comfortable around the sounds of sirens, traffic or people walking by the front door while talking on their phone. The sounds of the city comfort me, and I’ve been known to have trouble sleeping when I can hear the rush of ocean waves nearby or the empty sound of silence. So, instead of feeling comforted and wistful at the sound of the cicada song and crickets chirping, I am irritated by it.

I hate the sounds of summer, the cicadas, crickets, fireworks that go off on any day besides the Fourth of July. So one day last week, as I sat in bed contemplating what to write for my Morning Pages as part of The Artist’s Way, I wrote three pages of how much I hate cicadas. We are supposed to write whatever comes to our minds in a stream of consciousness, for three pages, first thing after waking up. When I tell you that all I could hear were cicadas invisible in some tree outside my window… they are cackling as I write this, and the screeching is all I can hear again.

Lest I suffer alone, this week’s post is a transcription of that morning’s ramblings, very much relevant until the pesky insects find their holes to crawl into and stop tormenting me.

Happy reading! Please tell me I’m not alone in hating the summer heat and the feeling of your face melting for months…

Image of a cicada perched on a tree
Photo by Shannon Potter on Unsplash

These damn cicadas are so distracting. It’s not a song or a screech, but an incessant sound, a rain stick that keeps getting turned and turned and turned. It’s the opposite of soothing – it’s intrusive. When it fades into the background and you don’t notice it, you can almost ignore the fact that it’s summer. When the screeching breaks through your consciousness, they are all you can hear, like their cursed song is a siren song that drives you mad with their decibel-planting larvae in your ear.

That’s the sound of summer, and if you’re extra lucky you’ll hear crickets on top. Crickets at least fall quiet when you or another predator get too close. Even though they’re invisible like their cicada siblings, they know their song indicates their presence, that it threatens their safety and location. Cicadas are up on the trees, and by the sound of their army, their song is an invitation, a challenge as well as their raison d’être. They sing to invite you to challenge their position. For every one of them that sings, a brother or a sister is ready with its family to defend their sacred singing ground. For a few months, ours is not to wonder, but to listen in awe.

Ours is to remember that they will be gone in a few months, that they’ll retreat into the ground and ask nothing but for you to wait until next year. When the ground is warm enough to warm their waiting exoskeleton, they rise to sing, to sing their neighbors away, to sing their neighbors to sleep, to sing the summer away.

Cicadas come out of the ground to fulfill their duty. Theirs is to get up and sing. To them, it looks like any other summer. It’s hot, the days last longer and the trees have plenty of leaves to hide in. They don’t see that the heated months last longer now, that a different family lives in a house under a specific tree, that a dog that barked at the sister cicada that got too close one year isn’t around another year. They don’t notice that it’s a summer that their audience grew, with more people at home to wake up with a song or more people to serenade as they sing from their trees in a park of by an artificial pond.

They keep singing, screeching and calling, doing the only thing they’re aware of that needs doing. When their song dies down, when they need a collective break, a section of their orchestra starts building again, building to a crescendo, leaving a brother or sister cicada to sing out a solo for a few notes, letting everyone else rest. When the urgency of the solo builds and calls for a response from the chorus, the song begins again. Until the end of summer.

I Spy During a Road Trip

I don’t feel like writing today. So why am I writing and drawing the blood out of the stone that is this week’s blog post? Because I’ve heard that a third of a writer’s life is procrastinating, a third is writing when you don’t feel like writing and a third actually writing. When last week’s post had me firmly in the third category, today has me smack in the middle of the first two.

What to write when you don’t feel like writing? A listicle! Well, to be more nuanced than that, ten questions I would ask if I were playing a game of I Spy. I’ve never played a game of I Spy in my life as I wasn’t often the kind of child that needed to be kept occupied during, say, a car ride, but that could also have had to do with the fact that I enjoyed looking out the window undisturbed the most.

For the purposes of this exercise, our setting will be the usual road trip where you’re trying to keep occupied at a rest stop until you’ve gathered up enough energy to get back on the road. You can be a kid of any age here, even if you’re a “big” kid. You are sitting on a shaded bench next to your road trip companion, with the sun reaching and baking only your ankles, and the cool drink you got has already made a pool of condensation on the table you’re leaning back on. You’re people watching, but instead start scenery watching when you become aware of how much you’re procrastinating the drive.

If you have made it this far, I commend you. don’t even want to keep going today…

Image of colorful rest stop, with people sitting on an outdoor bar in the background, and empty wooden tables in the foreground.
Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

I spy, with my little eye…

  1. Would it fit on your hand?
  2. Would an animal eat it willingly?
  3. Could you run to it and back in less than five minutes?
  4. Is it a color that is one of the primary colors?
  5. Would a five-year-old child have a name for it yet?
  6. Would you find it in another country under a different name?
  7. Is it likely to still be on the same spot when we make our way back through this rest stop?
  8. Is it something you could also have in your home?
  9. Is it something that could be damaged by the elements?
  10. Is it something that could still be used in a future dystopian society?

The Baby Incident

It has been almost two weeks since I wrote last.

Well, wrote and published would be more accurate. I’ve been doing plenty of writing, not least for the daily and weekly tasks for The Artist’s Way. I realize now that I haven’t talked about that much on here and now the group I’m doing it with and myself are almost two weeks away from completing it.

The Artist’s Way is about healing, healing one’s creative self and allowing it to flourish and be the guide for our creativity after it’s healed and unblocked. A few weeks ago, one of the tasks was to think of ways to forgive ourselves, to acknowledge whatever the situation was, remember it and let it pass as something we can’t control and to forgive ourselves. Since my biggest self-flagellation weapon of choice is being too hard on myself, I remembered ways I’d been too harsh about my writing, berating myself for not being productive at every instance of downtime I had, feeling guilty for taking out any sort of free time without feeling like I’ve earned it.

This week, as I took two days off work to not exactly go on vacation or disconnect but to be away from my desk (currently writing from the couch), I tried to allow myself the luxury of not planning my time off to the minute and to allow myself to recharge. I realized I hadn’t posted in a while, and when I went back to my content calendar to find planned posts I’d skipped over in the past few weeks, I found another way I like to self-flagellate: ruminating on embarrassing stories.

Those embarrassing stories that nag at you, bouncing around your head and making you wish you could go back and pull yourself away to spare yourself and those around you. Unfortunately, by allowing myself downtime to do nothing, my brain came across this memory from last Christmas, one that still makes me cringe and want to hide under a rock. In a hole somewhere. Close to the center of the Earth. Inside a locked room.

So, enjoy. It’s not fiction today, but storytelling, which I enjoy doing just as much, although I do wish the story itself were fiction and had never taken place outside my own brain…

Image of an adorned Christmas treeing the foreground, with two people blurred out in the background.
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

December 2019. A Christmas party. Not a work Christmas party, but a colleague’s of my mom’s. A direct report of my mom’s. This is important to the rest of the story.

My whole family, including my sister’s boyfriend, was invited, and I was grateful I wouldn’t need to drive everyone home at the end of the night. I started drinking, buzzed on being at the only Christmas party I’d been to that year more than on the free-flowing, self-poured mixed drinks. I didn’t know a great many people, and I was self-conscious that I’d come in as part of a crowd made only ore conspicuous by the fact that my sister was on crutches (she’d broken her foot weeks earlier). The solution to that was, of course, drinking and mingling with those people I did know.

No, this isn’t a story about my making an ass of myself by drinking too much and dancing on a table at a practical stranger’s house party, a practical stranger that would have to see my mom at work come Monday. I knew that going in and I knew to behave myself, to be polite, to introduce myself and be chatty enough. However…

I tried keeping to my crowd, talking to my mom’s manager whom I’d met before. She is talkative by nature and wasn’t drinking as she’d come with her young daughter, so she provided as much conversation fuel as I’d needed. The night went on with party games, raffles and nibbles, and I was even more self-conscious when my crowd kept winning prizes. A stuffed animal here, a reusable water cup there and we were one number away from winning a scanner-printer. I felt people staring and their spiteful thoughts at the back of my head – but I just liked winning free stuff so much…

The first slip happened as some groups started leaving, those with young kids. The living room emptied and there was more room to sit. One of the hosts shouted over my head to those behind me, “Before you head out, let’s do a Sherwood picture.”

Sherwood sounded familiar. It’s the high school up one of the main roads in the city, in the more affluent side of the county. I heard once, forever ago, that while some high schools had yearbook spreads of students with cars, Sherwood had a spread of the best student cars, with Mercedes and BMWs making the cut while Subarus and below didn’t.

This memory played in my head as I said, “Oh cool, you guys went to Sherwood. I went to Wheaton.”

I realized I hadn’t talked to this host much, so in my drunk mind this was my way of making conversation. Sober me would have noticed that he was busy entertaining and organizing his guests for a picture. Sober me would have stayed quiet, especially after his reply came.

“Yes, but forever ago,” he said without meeting my eyes, preoccupied with assembling the crowd.

Drunk me caught the slip, too. Of course. These people were older than me, not by much, but significantly enough that they were obviously adultier than me. By my calculations and by my mom’s intel, they were in their mid- to late-thirties. They had missed my high school years by a lot for me to casually want to spark a conversation about where we went to high school. Even talking about where we went to college would have been too far removed.

If I could have shrank and melted into my seat, with my drink in hand, I would have.

As it often does while you’ve been drinking, time started moving in quick bursts, and my actions were erratic. My crowd and I moved to the garage, where I was told there was a ping pong table and a photobooth. That occupied my time for a while, though I couldn’t say then or now how long it actually was. If I were skilled enough to learn Photoshop, those pictures would be edited to look like they were taken over many occasions, not one monopolized instance. Our crowd was big enough that we monopolized the ping pong table and darts board in the room, but we were conscious of that fact and kept ourselves out of the way, long enough for a young couple and their baby to come and take pictures at the photobooth.

Reader, this is where the story turns.

The baby didn’t look older than one year old, year and a half to guesstimate high. He wore a red onesie that would have looked adorable on anyone else, but it looked particularly striking against his white complexion and blue eyes. His parents held him and took picture after picture, trying to get him to look at the camera. My drunk self tried to be helpful, momentarily forgetting that I did not know these people and that I do not like babies. I was being obnoxious. I tried to get the baby’s attention, suddenly stopping when I realized I was cooing at him like I do at my dog, but luckily by that point the parents decided that they had gotten enough pictures and thanked me, much more gracefully than I deserved.

After they left the room, my dad started ushering the rest of us back to the living room too, trying to herd us like drunk cats. I sat with my parents for what felt like half an hour but could have easily been an hour or two minutes. They were waiting for my sister and her boyfriend to finish taking pictures and join us in the living room so we could grab our coats and go home, as I learned later on.

My parents chatted with the host who had invited us, my mom’s direct report, and it wasn’t necessarily shop talk. The young couple from the photobooth were with us in the living room, too, changing the baby and getting him out of the red onesie.

“We have one more Christmas party to go to, and this outfit has to last that long,” the mom said and chuckled. She handed the baby to the host, who was sitting next to me.

He hugged the baby as he sat on his lap and said, “I really want one.” My mom chuckled at that and the young parents continued to gather their stuff and rearrange the baby bag.

When the host turned slightly away from me to chat to the young parents, I tried my attempt at a joke. I looked at the baby, looked at parents and, very deliberately, scooted away from the child, as if I were repelled by him. I continued to look at him over my shoulder, aware I still had my audience, and scooted away a little more. The mom grabbed the baby away from the momentary sitter at that time, and I turned and giggled at my parents.

“Let me get you guys’ coats,” the host said and stood up, leaving me in plain view of the mom as she tried to put the baby in the car seat. I looked as she strapped him in, wincing a bit as the baby started wailing, not wanting to sit outside someone’s arms.

“I’m just going to leave this right here,” she said to me, pointing to the car seat on the couch next to me. “Is that okay?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” I said, casually and very much oblivious to her tone.

She went to grab her and her husband’s coats from the host’s arms, and they were gone shortly after, wailing baby with them.

Drunk me thought I was being funny. Drunk me was doing a bit about not liking babies and being put off by them. Drunk me did not see how that “joke” could have come off completely different to another audience with higher stakes on the butt of the joke than I had.

Before she left, the mom saw me inch away from her child, who wasn’t doing anything other than sitting and looking around at things he didn’t have names for yet. I was repelled by an innocent child who was doing nothing. To her, I was offensive.

I’d learn this weeks later, well after Christmas, too late to realize my mistake but soon enough to be full of shame. I tried to rationalize my behavior, to excuse it, really. Parents shouldn’t expect their child to be well-liked everywhere, especially not if they come across me. Parents shouldn’t expect people at parties to want to hold their child or want to hear stories about the latest development milestone, especially not me.

But every parent should expect their child to be well-received, not offended like I had done, joke or not.

We’re closer to a new Christmas and I’m still haunted by my behavior at that last Christmas party, with the baby incident only the culmination of embarrassing behavior of the evening. I was the boss’ daughter, acting out and showing off like a spoiled child, earning disapproval for her and for me, for our whole family.

Before COVID and its ramifications, my mom said we’d already been invited to the host’s yearly pool party in the summer. I had been thinking of ways to get out of this invitation since I received it, not wanting to own up to my mom that I was still embarrassed about the baby incident, and wanting even less to run into the young family again. They were close friends of the hosting couple, and they would no doubt be at the pool party, and an apology from me wasn’t enough or needed at this point. Of course, that’s a moot point now.

All I know is that even if we’re invited again, even if it’s two years from now and it’s safe to gather again, I will not be going. They probably forgot about the incident by now or would have done by then, and I would like to keep it that way.

For what it’s worth: Graham, Graham’s mom and dad, I’m very sorry.