First of the Month

His grunting is muffled, but still, every “oof” and muttered curse can be heard in the hallway where his wife and I are stifling our laughter.

She speaks a few words of English, and I have a smidgen of tatty Russian, but we don’t need language to share a giggle, especially when it’s about the man in the bathroom grubbing around on his belly beneath the sink, frustrated and grumbling.

Every twenty seconds or so, we hear a cranky clank as my landlord tries to remove and then replace the metal vent covering the water meter. It’s October 1st, and, in addition to stopping by to collect the rent, he’s taking pictures of the numbers on various meters around my apartment so as to gauge the cost of utilities. 

Getting to the bathroom meter, though — it just might defeat the best efforts of even Slava, a man whose tattoos and bald head convey an initial impression of undauntable toughness. There’s a truism about metal wall covers, however: they’re indifferent to tattoos. 

To our credit, Slava’s wife and I weather the grunts straight-faced for at least three minutes before, eyes locking, we throw fists to lips and start shaking. I don’t know for sure what Slava is threatening down there on the floor, but his mumbles telegraph “FFS” effectively. Part of me wants to peek through the partially closed door, just to see if his track pants are slipping at all. I’ve never seen Belarusian plumber’s crack before, and I do so hate to miss a cultural moment.

But no. If I peer through the door, and Slava looks up at that moment, it’ll just irk him further, and then I’ll have to type some sheepish words into Google Translate and jam my phone towards his face down there under the sink. Better I just hover in the foyer with his wife.

THERE. In concert with three slams and six curses, the shadows in the bathroom shift as Slava stands up. I hope he’s not too worked up — because next he’s going to look at the faulty microwave and try to determine why it works fine for a few minutes and then taps out for ten hours. Since I need to type the particulars of the microwave’s moods into the translation app and coordinate a technology-assisted conversation, I want him calm and collected.

I scare easily, see, and I’d rather have no microwave at all than get yelled at.

Fortunately, Slava’s face, as he comes out of the bathroom, is full of good humor. It always is. 

***

From the day I arrived in Polotsk and looked at apartments, Slava’s charmed me. When the women from the international center at the university and I first followed him up the crumbling stairs of the building and waited for him to unlock the possible rental, we had no idea what glories awaited us inside. We had no idea the apartment we were about to see had been the first place Slava bought for himself — ten years ago, when he was burning to create the perfect bachelor pad. As he remodeled his new purchase to showcase his tastes and sense of self, the driving motto seemed to be “Only the Best.” 

“Only the best” is, it turns out, a uniquely individual expression.

I didn’t know, that first day when I walked into Slava’s former bachelor pad, if I was allowed to raise my eyebrows, make a face, have a laugh. I didn’t know if what I was seeing was representative of Belarusian decor, as a rule. The women with me were properly respectful, definitely awed as they looked up at the massive Sad Angel mural spanning the ceiling of the living room, so I tried to follow suit. 

As they asked questions and established a feeling of connection, I poked around the apartment, amazed at the sheer number of distinctive touches that revealed the interior of a man who initially read, to my gaze, as “thuggish.”

But then, every time I stopped peeking into the closet, taking stock of the washing machine, and wondering at the bright pink flowery rugs in the bathroom — every time I slowed my roll and looked at Slava — I saw the truth of him there, in his eyes. 

This guy was sweet like a chocolate lab. It was all I could do not to pet his head and scruffle him about the ears. 

Slava was all right. 

Without question, I took the apartment.

***

It’s at the end of my first month under Sad Angel that Slava and his wife stop by to check the meters, collect rent, and troubleshoot the microwave. Even though I know he’s the dearest soul, still, I am a bit nervous. This will be our first interaction without a translator present.

True to form, even though I am prepared for his visit and have had a stack of American dollars flattening and smoothing for days, readying them for proper payment, I dither from the moment he buzzes the apartment. Because I don’t have a steady flow of people stopping by, needing to be let in, I haven’t used the security system much.

Hearing the buzz, I push the button that shows me the building’s exterior view. Yup. Someone or something is standing there, a blurry landlordish blob. Simultaneously, I lift the handset and warble “Allio?”  

A tough monotone replies: “Slava.”

“Okay,” I half shout and hang up the receiver.

Flustered, I hit the security camera button again, realize it’s the wrong one, and then randomly punch three other buttons on the camera pad. None of them yields the tweeting sound that indicates I’ve unlocked the building’s front door.

Fuck.

I always know I’m an idiot, but I hate it when other people know it, too.

A few seconds later, the handset rings. 

Again, I hear the terse “Slava,” but this time I lapse into a garbled English explanation that sounds something like “Sorry, I pushed the wrong button I don’t really know people here so I haven’t really done this before nobody ever needs buzzing in at my home in America we don’t have an intercom system I’m kind of a book reader more than a button pusher hahaha bad joke actually not a joke at all if you really think about it…”

On the other end, there is silence. 

I push the correct button and hear the tweeting of the main building door unlocking.

Getting to the fourth floor takes Slava a couple minutes, time during which I hover uncomfortably inside the apartment’s open door, wanting to appear welcoming while, at the same time, worrying — because I have a faint recollection of some Belarusian belief that it’s bad luck to exchange money in a doorway, or maybe it’s just bad luck to give someone a bouquet with an odd number of flowers, or maybe it’s both, but mostly I am well aware I need to hand over a stack of money, and I still don’t pronounce “Zdravstvuyte” correctly. Will Slava think I’m sneezing if I try to greet him in Russian, and should I maybe have gotten him a dozen ‘mums to lubricate the rent payment? 

***

In short order, I’ve handed Slava the rent, and he’s taken photos of the meters in the foyer and the bathroom. The bathmat next to the tub is askew, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple belly hairs in its folds.

When he enters the kitchen and opens the cupboard that houses yet another meter, his eyebrows jump.

Crap. Did I use a kabillion kajigawatts during the month of September or something?

“Is there a problem?” I venture, hoping “problem” is a word Slava will understand. 

“Nyet,” he tells me, adding something that sounds like “Tak mnogo produktov.” I understand that last word: products. Dude can’t believe the size of my food stash.

Dude has no idea there’re three times as many products hiding in other cupboards, that he’s only glimpsing the tip of my issues. Dude has no idea he’s just clapped eyes on my “I’m going to a place called Belarus without my family” nerves made manifest, laid eyes on the comfort foods I brought from the U.S., witnessed the remnants of months of nervous preparation that resulted in a Mountain of Anxiety on our dining room table in Duluth: if I had a bad day in a foreign country, could the key to restoring mental balance possibly, perhaps, be a container of curried cashews from the Whole Foods Co-op? SHOULD I MAYBE PACK SOME TRADER JOE’S CANDIED PECANS IN CASE I EVER FEEL LIKE CRYING?

Slava recovers quickly from the surprise of my beef jerky hoard, snaps a photo of the meter, and turns his attention towards diagnosing the microwave.

First, he takes a pink, flowery plate out of the dish cupboard and sets it inside the microwave. Then, looking around for something to “warm,” he lands on a piece of scrap paper. Since I’ve explained to him through the translation app that the microwave works fine for four or five minutes, he sets the plate with the piece of paper on it inside the oven, programs the timer for five minutes, and hits Start.

I wish I’d watched more closely which buttons he pushed, as I have yet to figure out how to set a timer on the microwave. Instead, I stick to using the one button I faintly understand. If I push it twice, it yields a reasonable about of heating time before, of course, the entire machine goes dead. When I try pushing other buttons, the whole effort spirals into a cold-food snafu faster than you can say “Moy kartofel syroy.”

As it takes me thirty seconds to realize, five minutes is an incredibly long time to stand in front of a microwave next someone without speaking. Silently, we watch the piece of paper spin. ‘Round. And. ‘Round. At first, I try to fill the time by typing “That’s a delicious dinner you’re making” and forcing my phone screen in front of his face, but after my first attempt at app humor, I realize it’s a lot of work for both of us to act like I’m amusing. 

I last another half a minute before I break. The microwave’s problems are something I can live with; so long as I can warm leftovers to an edible temperature, I’m not bothered. Typing the words “The problem with the microwave is no big deal” into my phone, I once again jam my phone into his face.

Reading the screen, he looks more puzzled than when he met my Anxiety Food Stash.

Oooooooh, of course “no big deal” doesn’t translate correctly! I hadn’t been thinking of it as slang, but I probably just told him “The problem with the microwave is small process of distributing the cards to players in a card game.” Coming at it more straightforwardly, I type, “It is not a problem.”

Nodding with comprehension, he uses my phone to respond. “If it gets worse, tell me. I will get a different one.”

***

Ten minutes later, just as I’m about to put on one of those facial masks that makes me look like Jason in Halloween, I see something red on the kitchen counter. It’s Slava’s phone. Once he stopped the microwave at my behest and pulled out the slip of paper — making me feel how warm it was — he’d booked towards the door, quickly putting on his shoes before he and his wife wished me a good night.

Apparently, for all of us, it was a relief to be done.

But damn. Now he’d have to come back for his phone, thus providing me with another opportunity to push seven buttons on the security pad and still leave him standing outside.

Sighing, I realize I should let him know his phone is here, lest he tear apart his car seats, thinking it’s slipped out of his pocket. Taking a photo of his phone on the kitchen counter, I send it to him. A minute later, I think maybe I should tell him I won’t be home later, so I copy and paste some words from the translation app into another message.

Wow. Slava’s phone keeps dinging. He sure gets a lot of notifications.

There’s a beat. then another beat. Plus one more beat…before my brain catches up with my behaviors. Oooooooooooh. Slava’s phone is dinging every time I send him a message. Yeah, he sure does get a lot of notifications — from me.

A few minutes later, the phone begins ringing. I look at the screen. Can I answer it? Should I answer it? Somehow, it seems wrong to answer someone else’s phone, especially without being able to speak the language.

After a few more rings, the thing goes quiet. So. How long until Slava realizes where he left his phone and comes back?

Again, his phone starts ringing. Again, I don’t answer it. And then again: it rings. I cave: grabbing it, I jab randomly at the screen. Hell, 80% of the time, I can’t answer my own phone and hang up on the caller by mistake. In some sort of miracle, though, I manage to swipe the right direction and establish a connection on this foreign phone. “Allio?” I croak.

It’s Slava, and because he launches into a whole lot of words in Russian, and because I have no idea what he’s just said, I simply agree, “Okay.” For all I know, I’ve just made a date to shave his back. But “okay.”

Twenty minutes later, he’s back at the door to the building, and after I successfully buzz him in, I start down the stairs with his phone, hoping to save him a few flights of climb. Meeting in the middle, our eyes lock, and we smile knowingly at each other: so, yeah, hi again anyhow. Before we head opposite directions, I use all my words on him, from “spaciba” to “das vedanya”; in return, he musters a hard-won “goodbye.”

***

Back under Sad Angel, I sink into the couch and smooth the lotion-infused mask over my face, feeling the muscles relax completely as they absorb both anti-aging promises and the fact that they no longer have to host an overly perky smile meant to compensate for lack of language. Hoping some ginseng fairy dust will manage to make my face look less like an unmade bed, I tip my head back and close my eyes as I muse on the appeal of my landlord.

If my life is a book, and I’m currently writing the Belarus chapter, then Slava is everything I could ask for in a character. He’s cute, complex, charismatic, cuddly, quirky. If I were creating a “landlord,” I wouldn’t come up with material as good as what he’s given me — warming a piece of paper in a microwave, crawling around frustratedly on the bathroom floor, proudly describing the expensive living room ceiling mural. 

It’s the job of supporting characters to amplify the protagonist’s humanity, offer hope, play a role in a turnaround, remind the audience why the journey of the main character is important, heighten conflicts, advance the plot, or develop themes. 

In my time in Belarus, Slava is a perfect supporting character. He is one of the few people to enter the intimacy of my home here, to know “too much food” feels about right to me, to have seen the half-read People magazine by the toilet, to know I am inept with seemingly straightforward tasks like pushing buttons. He is one of the few here who crosses the boundary from public to private interaction. Whenever I leave my apartment in Polotsk, I am dressed, wearing make-up, braced with the trappings of full public persona for whatever comes. But as soon I get home, I am, blessedly, just me again, my real self free to wander the rooms with poor posture and a finger up her nose.

Back in the States, my family knows my truest self. They live with her.

Here, though, I am the only one who knows My In-the-house Self.

Except, of course, for Slava. 

He’s seen her, too, and despite these insider’s glimpses, he still smiles when he sees her.

And that very specific connection, especially in the midst of an intense experience that is a constant swirl of wonder and exhaustion,

feels like home.


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Waking Up

Wait.
What?

I am skimming down the crumbling stairs, focusing on not tripping. It occurred to me early on that I don’t want to get hurt while in Belarus — not that I ever want to get hurt anywhere, but I hope to be particularly careful during my time here because I don’t know how to ask for help or call emergency services. So the plan is simple: be careful.

My neck has been bent as I watch my feet move — where is that stair with the huge chip broken out of it? — and it’s only through a random fluke that my eyes rise as I reach the landing where the post boxes hang on the wall.

Initially, my assumption had been that these mail boxes had fallen into disuse; sure, they are painted a lovely blue, but at the same time, they’re ramshackle, not labeled, and some hang open while others appear jammed shut. I’ve visited places where mail delivery isn’t a regular or expected thing, so I had figured that it was the same in Belarus and that those expecting mail picked it up at the post office. However, when I asked my friend Iryna about the mailboxes in my apartment building, she corrected me: they are working boxes, maybe not used much, but occasionally flyers and coupons might be stuck into them. For the most part, though, she explained, such boxes are not used, especially because younger people pay their bills online; in general, the mailbox is becoming passe.

That’s why I’m so surprised when I raise my head and look at the mailboxes. As usual, there is nothing much going on with them, except wait. What?

Inside the third square from the left on the bottom row, something catches my attention. What the heck?

For the past month, I’ve been swiveling my head back and forth constantly; sometimes, by the end of the day, I need to tip it backwards with my eyes closed for a couple minutes before I can find the energy to make dinner. I don’t want to miss anything in this new place, so I’m always looking, looking, looking. There are those charming wooden houses; there are the grannies with their scarved heads; there are the fashionable young women in satisfyingly clompy boots; there’s the dirt path by the river, the dizzying array of spices in the grocery store, the kids playing in the fountain in the town square, the three dogs who oversee the block where my favorite cemetery is. Because I can’t believe I get to be here, I don’t want to miss anything. Because I only have a few months here, I want to absorb as much as I possibly can. Because I find great joy in the small details that tell a bigger story, I am always wondering if an untied shoe signals arthritis. 

That’s why my careful descent halts on the landing where the mailboxes hang. What even is inside that box where the door always hangs half open?

It’s a piece of paper — a card? I might not have noticed it, were the letters Cyrillic. But whoa. The words on this card are in English. And somehow, that feels like a secretive whimsy. Who had a card with English words on it and then decided to dump it inside one of these mostly unused boxes? In recent weeks, I’ve taken to cataloging the items that appear and disappear in the stairwell: there’s the pile of dirt on Floor Three that someone swept into a mountain but then never disposed of; there’s the candy wrapper on the stair about halfway up my climb; there’s the empty vodka bottle behind a radiator; there’s the half-eaten apple on a windowsill; there’s the rusty tin can with a receipt in it.

Daily, as I come and go, I remark the life of the stairwell and try to figure out what it might be telling me about the people who live in the building. Is there a granny who started cleaning the landing by her apartment but, after sweeping up a pile of dirt, realized she was out of steam and needed to go watch her stories rather than finish the task? Is there an adolescent who was eating a piece of candy while helping his mom carry the stroller for the baby, and he couldn’t be bothered to pocket the wrapper? Is there a woozy man who finished his drinking binge but hoped to fool his wife about his sobriety? Is there a nine-year-old who sometimes realizes a whole apple is just too much, much less finding a trash can? Is there a suitor who was bringing flowers and realized twenty-five steps up that he didn’t also want to be clutching a receipt?

Is there someone in the building who was given a card that has a book title in English on it — maybe a teacher handed it out as a reward for a good score on an exam? But then, since the student cheated on the exam, he didn’t want to keep the token of “Excellent Work”? And so he ditched in in one of the mailboxes on his way upstairs?

Made happy by the surprise of the peeping postcard, I grin and continue down the staircase. Huh. Life’s little surprises bring the best kind of joy. Note to self: go back during the daylight and snap a photo of that secret card in its hiding spot. 

***

Two weeks pass, during which I mostly forget about the card — forget to peer inside the mailbox except once or twice. One day I remember because I’ve come home, and there are grocery store flyers hanging from the top cracks of a few of the boxes. Another time, I remember because my bag brushes against the slightly open door of that third-from-the-left bottom-row square. But mostly, my brain is focused on other things: 

What activity will I do with pre-intermediate language learners in the neighboring city when I work with groups taking classes through the language center? What activity will I do with more advanced learners when I am in the room with them? How about beginners? What will I do every week with the 50+ groups of learners enrolled through the center?

How exactly should I be grading the students in my classes at the university so as to align with what the rest of the department does? 

What should I say to the young students at the gymnasium when I go to their auditorium to talk about “American Houses”?

Were the students at the university actually that interested in the Native-American powwow and drum circle I showed them, or did they just give good face?

Which of the four students named Lena is the one who messaged me?

Why do some cultures include etched photos on tombstones and others not?

Why does my microwave die if I use it for more than four minutes?

How did that 65-year-old woman in yoga class do Chinese splits like that? And how come, in any fitness class, when we do something that requires flexibility and balance, not a single person struggles?

Are there miserable unseen lives for those with disabilities here? 

Does everyone genuinely not want to talk politics? 

Why can’t the U.S. crack the sour cream code of Belarus and make a delicious, creamy, slightly sweet product that is then worked into 80% of meals?

Will the natives ever believe I’m a grown woman who can dress herself and, therefore, no, I’m not cold, and no, I don’t need a warmer jacket? 

Why is the Sad Angel on the ceiling of my apartment so inconsolable?

Does the mail carrier have a key for the entrance to every building on his/her route?

Why did it never occur to me before that almost everyone in Belarus who takes vacations has been to Turkey because it’s cheap, and there’s no visa required? Why did it never occur to me that problems between Russia and Ukraine with regards to Crimea mean Belarusians lost their #1 vacation spot?

How come the roads and sidewalks have been built with zero interest in drainage?

How many more days will pass before I drink a hoppy beer?

How do these women who work long, full days and have children with after-school activities mange to find the energy for evening fitness classes?

What is the word for “understanding someone’s heart without sharing a common language”?

***

One day, as I’m heading downstairs, trying to get my head around the idea of “speaking Belarusian instead of Russian” as a statement of opposition, I see something hanging from all the mailboxes. 

There is a half-folded slip of paper carefully tucked into the top crack of each box. Slowing my roll, I assess the papers. The content looks official — except, of course, as is the way here, it’s printed on the back of already used paper. But there is a short paragraph in Russian on each slip, and within the paragraph is a fill-in-the-blank spot that has a number hand-written into it. So. This is maybe, like, a bill? If it is, how do I know which one to take? There are no names or apartment numbers on any of them.

Always afraid of a firm talking to, especially from a stranger, I continue down the staircase.

***

Hours later, when I return home, it’s dark outside. It’s dark inside. There are motion-detector lights for each landing in the building, but it’s pitch black for the first set of stairs, and frequently my motion isn’t detected until I’m well past a landing. 

Ugh. Even though I am moving and climbing, I can’t see anything. Shifting bags to one hand, I grab my phone from my pocket and give it a quick shake; a flashlight beam hits the mailboxes. Well now. It appears all my neighbors have already returned home for the evening. Only one piece of paper still hangs from the mailboxes.

I know of one person in the building who hasn’t taken hers yet. 

This is my kind of math.

Tentatively, I reach for the bill just as the motion-detecting light flicks on. Quickly, guiltily, I withdraw my hand. Did I just get busted? No, no, no. It’s just light, not an accusation.

As I reach again for the slip of paper, I remember to take stock of which box is apparently “mine.” The only numbers I’ve ever seen are a 10 and an 8 at the top of the mailboxes, with the 10 on the left and the 8 on the right. My apartment is 15. Slowly, I start counting boxes from the top row, left to right. Yup. When I get to the box where the lone slip of paper remains, I am at 15. And now that I’ve done the easy, logical counting that has eluded my brain these past weeks, I realize something: there are faint numbers above each box.

Hey. I have a mailbox! And it’s the 15th one! And it’s the one with the number 15 above it!

You all remember I was in my mid-thirties when I figured out that sunflower seeds come from sunflowers, right?

***

So I have a mailbox, and it’s the 15th one, which means third from the left on the bottom row, the one that has no latch and hangs half open, 

the one hiding the surprising, whimsical card with English words on it — the card tucked in there by the kid who cheated on his exam.

Wait.

Which of the four students named Lena is the one who messaged me?

A.

Why do some cultures include etched photos on tombstones and others not?

Minute.

Why does my microwave die if I use it for more than four minutes?

Inhaling to a count of three, I calm the questions and thoughts and observations that keep me from seeing what’s in front of my face. 

The American visitor who has spent the last few weeks twirling dizzily around the margins has a mailbox, and in it is a postcard…sent from someone who speaks English, who knows how lovely it is to receive mail, who realizes a quickly jotted note can feel like a reassuring hug.

Bags hanging from one hand, my phone and a slip of paper in the other, I am both clumsy and delighted as I reach into my mailbox to extract the long-neglected postcard. 

Alone in a dark stairwell in a new country, moisture dripping off my raincoat, tote bags cutting into my wrist, I lean my head against the cool metal of the mailboxes and aim the flashlight at the back of the card.

There they are: my name, my address, my location on the earth, all scratched in the familiar hand of my friend Maggie, she who excels at postal thoughtfulness. 

I am official.

I am here.

I’ve got mail, and I have a bill.

This is really happening.

***

Stuffing the card between my front teeth, I bite into the ink as I fumble for my keys and try not to trip.

The taste of home seeping into my mouth, I wonder,

Do those guys fishing in the river need licenses?

———————————-

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Little Pink Houses for You and Me

I can’t keep up with the apples.

Even at my current pace of eating two a day — BACK OFF, DOC! — I can’t keep up with the apples.

Nearly every time I leave my apartment, some kind person slips an apple into my hand, topples a dish full of them into a bag for me to carry home, or greets me on the street with a couple at the ready.

It’s a thing here in Belarus, this business of conveying hospitality through apples.

Of course, culture seeps beyond borders; it’s more accurate to generalize about “the region” than any specific country. In the late 1990s, my sister lived in Moldova for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and she remembers the same phenomenon: her students’ families were constantly giving her bags of apples. And with every other photo I post or tidbit I comment upon now that I’ve been in Belarus for a few weeks, her comment is invariably “That’s how it was in Edinet” or sometimes “I thought that was Romanian!”

I visited her in Moldova; we went to Romania; I’ve been to Poland, Hungary, what was formerly Czechoslovakia, so I had some sense of Eastern Europe. But still. The experience lodges differently when you’re paying rent somewhere. Exposures are repeated, relationships gain depth, and there is a feeling that choices and behaviors have “stakes.”

It all feels more real somehow, to spend an extended period of time in a place. To bring home the apples. To have a fridge to put them into. To think to myself, “I’m not usually one to put apples in the fridge, but here in my new home city of Polotsk, where my apartment has no screens on the windows, where the flies, gnats, and mosquitoes do a number on both fruit and my skin, yeah, I am someone who puts the apples in the fridge.” And then I marvel that I’m in Belarus and that I’m a person in Belarus who has a fridge teeming with Belarusian apples handed to me by Belarusian friends who have sacks of apples they gather at their dachas every weekend when they go to their family homes in the country to work the gardens and fire up the grill for shashlik (kebabs).

From apples to fridges to gnats, I have been marveling at it all.

We Americans are so uninformed about this great country living mildly in the shadow of stomping Russia; the little we are fed in the news in no way reflects the reality of this place any more than a front page article about Donald Trump tells the story of your preschooler twirling until she’s dizzy, just to watch her skirt flare. 

The essential truths of a country aren’t in the leaders. They’re in the apples.

And they’re in the women who message me every night to check in about my day and ask what they can do to for me. 

The truths of this place can be found in the focused, respectful students who are excited and intimidated to have a native English speaker in the room with them, breathing, gesturing, joking, pronouncing words like they’ve never heard words pronounced before.

The truths of Belarus are in the groups of grannies on the benches outside each apartment building, their canes resting casually as they take stock of the neighborhood and catch up on aches and gossip.

The truths are in the stories of people in their mid-thirties who still live in their childhood homes with their parents because there is no way, financially, that they can move out unless they marry.

The truths can be seen in the animated conversation between two “Hey, Tatiana! It’s been a coon’s age! What’s up?” acquaintances in front of the cheese display at the grocery store.

The truths are found in the women who walk the city streets alone after dark without fear.

The truths of this place are evident on the mini-bus marshrutkas, so much like Turkish dolmuses in the way everyone squeezes together to make room for the newbies while an assembly line of passengers hands fistfuls of change from the back rows up to the driver.

The truth of Belarus is in the excitement of a recent college graduate who has confided to an English teacher that she recently found a used copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian and is loving it more than anything she’s ever read. When she is told, one reader to another, that she will inherit some books in English in a few months, there is truth in her squeal: “Never in my whole life did I think I would get to have my own books in English! I do not even know what to say except one thousand thank-yous! I almost can’t breathe right now except I think I am crying first. Books in English are so expensive I could never imagine buying one, and I am so in love with English and reading that I may never sleep again because I cannot believe I will get to have English books in my hands!”

The truths of this place are in the dingy, crumbling stairwells of every building, neglected for decades because “they are no one’s responsibility.”

The truths of this country are seen in the ubiquitous monuments to the national-identity-defining years of The Great Patriotic War, during which 1/3 of the population was killed and 80% of the buildings and infrastructure decimated. When a young woman explains that her family’s dacha was built after the war by her grandmother and the grandmother’s sisters, and not a single man helped, this story is code for the truth of loss.

The truths of this place shine in the excellence of the dairy, the pride in the meat products, the repeated urgings to “try the draniki.”

The truths of this country that Americans know nearly nothing about are seen in the fitness instructors who, although unable to speak a common language with a new student, nevertheless come over for quick half-translated consultations: Are you used to exercise? Have you done a class like this before? Will you please listen to your body and modify as necessary? Did you have fun? 

The truth of this country is evident in a store clerk who won’t sell a customer a shirt because it costs too much.

There is truth in the scooters crowding sidewalks after dinner each night, rolling small bodies along the pavement while easy-going parents meander a few steps behind.

There is truth in every person passing by another — stranger or friend, neighbor or delivery man, grandpa or teen — politely greeting the other with a “Zdravstvuyte” or wishing them farewell with a “Das vendanya!”

There is truth in the hand-knit woolen socks, the hydrating with soup instead of water at mealtimes, the crisply ironed collars, the quick sign of the cross quickly tapped onto the chest when the car flies past a cemetery.

And there is truth in those apples, dispensed so generously because there are plenty, and they come from the plot of land at the family’s dacha, from the garden at that old wooden house that has passed through the generations, that spot supposedly about rest but, in reality, more about the work of growing and fixing and storing and foraging.

These old wooden houses, for me, have become my favorite Belarusian truth. While dachas are “in the country,” many old wooden houses are now within the city limits and are the primary, not weekend, homes of families. Every time I go for a walk or a run, I encounter another pocket of these dacha-like homes, so charming, so whimsical, decaying yet alive. 

When I asked a teacher friend about these houses, she told me the ones in the city require a significant financial commitment, not just to purchase, but also because the owners agree to abide by rules dictating the materials that can be used in renovations and improvements. In buying or continuing to own one of these wooden houses, people are agreeing that preservation merits sacrifice. While the original wooden houses, those dating back centuries, were wiped out during the war, they were rebuilt after 1945 and are now close to 80 years old; these replicas of the houses that were lost are true to the originals in design, right down to the ornate window frames and geometric patterns of the timbers. In most of Belarus, these houses adhere to the original brown and white colors, but the city of Polotsk favors bright colors on its wooden houses, splashes of exuberance next to the placid river. At their essence, though, these homes always must remain true to the traditional Belarus that existed before Fascism crashed through.

All of these houses have apple trees in their yards.

The house is a source of pride; the tree is a source of hospitality.

Together, they tell Belarus’ best truth.  

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Notes over the Atlantic


The problem with hypervigilance: as the plane starts to taxi for take-off, I am fretting. Two people on the aisle haven’t fastened their seatbelts. The old white guy in front of me has inflated his pillow and slapped on his headphones, but half his unclipped belt dangles out the side of his seat. Fortunately, the flight attendant catches sight of it on his final walk-through. Old Guy chuckles too loudly as he snaps in.

Three minutes into the air, I begin to dislike the old white guy in front of me when he reclines his seat into my space, the diminished inches between me and my screen (trying to watch Moonlight) casting my head into a vertigo of too-tight viewing. Two hours later, my rage softens when he clinks plastic glasses of Cabernet over the aisle with his wife. We are on a flight to Paris. This is apparently Something for them.

After waiting foot-tappingly long for the black man in a flowing tan “outfit,” dark sunglasses, and a flat cap to emerge from the airplane bathroom, I finally get my turn. Locking gazes with me, brushing past, he nods. When I enter, the first inhale tells me why he took so long — why he looked so much lighter upon exiting. Dude made a dookie. And, just as it was difficult, nigh on impossible, for him to figure out how to open the bathroom door when he first entered, it was, didn’t I discover in no time, completely impossible for him to figure out how to flush. There is a meatloaf awaiting me. Although I am afraid to try it, fearing the mechanism is broken, I push the big FLUSH button. With a roar, the meatloaf plummets into the friendly skies.

The couple next to me has ordered “Hindu vegetarian” meals. When they arrive, the wife picks at her entree suspiciously, eventually flicking out small bits with disdain. They ring for the flight attendant. A long discussion about the labelling known as VGML ensues. When the attendant closes the conversation with a shrug and a few steps down the aisle, the wife focuses on her roll and fruit salad, gesturing with resignation at her tray, complaining mildly but steadily to her attentive husband.

Pressing my head back into the seat cushion, trying to gain an inch of distance, I watch Moonlight and drink an extra pale ale, wondering when I next will have a hoppy beer.

The disgruntled vegetarian on my left pinches a piece of honeydew between her fingers, examining it from all angles, her face fighting off revulsion.

Sipping the foam from the bottom of my flimsy glass, I wonder how screwed up her face would have become if she’d walked into that airplane bathroom after Tan Outfit Guy.

The flight attendant working my section has taken an immediate dislike to me. Whenever he hands me something, it’s with the revulsion and pinched fingers of a skeptical honeydew examiner. He has gorgeous, full salt-and-pepper hair; if I got chatty and complimented him, his attitude would shift immediately. But I’m not in the mood. I don’t want to compliment him. Every time he walks past, I think, “I am never telling you that you have a gorgeous head of hair, you cranky snip.”

Shortly after finishing her meal, my seatmate moans a few times while rocking.

I will not be following her to the bathroom.

_____________

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Highlights

We recently returned from a family trip to Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia — meeting up with Allegra, who’d already been traveling by herself for six weeks. We flew from Minneapolis to Sarajevo, and she took the bus into Sarajevo from Montenegro; easily, beautifully, shortly after we checked into our apartment the first night, she pulled up in a taxi, tan, her hair lightened from weeks in the strong Turkish sun, and suddenly there we were, we four, together again, ready to push the unit of us into new spaces, new places.

And although the list below covers my personal highlights from our 17 days together, I could actually stop this post about “best moments” here, after typing the next few words: my favorite moment of the trip was when that taxi door opened.

Maternal mush aside, there were a host of other memorable, mind-blowing experiences we shared together. TAKE THIS, INTREPID READER:

    1. The Kravice waterfalls: Located about 40 km from Mostar — which helps you locate it precisely in your mind just now, doesn’t it? — this series of falls was easily my favorite “spot” on the entire trip. There weren’t too many people, although it did get more crowded as the day wore on, and there weren’t too many swimmers. After our initial “whoa, baby” shock when the falls first came into view, we took turns swimming out to the base of the pounding water, working our bodies against the strong counter-currents, and that was like no experience I’ve ever had. As Allegra and I paddled towards the first fall, the second, the third, the next, I was buoyed by wonder. By the time we left a few hours later, that feeling hadn’t subsided. Even now, weeks later, my strongest sensation when I think of these waterfalls is that of gratitude: we were so fortunate to be able to get ourselves to Bosnia; we were so lucky to have heard of this place; we were so fortunate that all four of us were strong, able, and willing. Sidestroking through that cold water, I was propelled by awe. 
    2. Cevapi: Is there anything more important while traveling than the food? To put a finer point on it, is there anything more important than food any day, anywhere? Oh, all right. I’ll give you “water.” Shelter. Love. The Netflix password. But food’s right up there, yes? That’s why I was so glad we tried cevapi our first full day in Sarajevo; it set us up to order it again and again throughout the entire trip — because our family has its values in order and, thus, is always enthusiastic about a heap of small grilled sausages stuffed into a bread pillowcase and sprinkled with sharp onions. 
    3. The view, breakfast, and coffee at our guesthouse in Mostar: The place we stayed in Mostar is best called “a hidden gem.” At first, the emphasis was on “hidden” since we circled through busy one-way streets a few times, the GPS always telling us we had arrived when basically there was no guesthouse or signage in sight. Finally, we spooled out of the busy center of town to a wider road where, after a few attempts at finding parking, we left the boys in the car while Allegra and I set off on foot so as to better explore the nooks and crannies that might yield GUESTHOUSE. Fortunately, the girl is a GPS whiz, and her phone turned us into a narrow slot and thirty feet into a dusty lot — and then, HAHA!, we saw a small sign for the guesthouse. Ultimately, it was worth the effort because our room had, hands down, the best view in all of Mostar, the balcony looking straight down the river at the famous, symbolic, and now-once-again-beautiful bridge.Listen, because we are budget travelers, we’re not used to nice things — but that view of the restored bridge, a bridge that connects the Muslim-dominant bank of the city to the Christian-dominant side, was the nicest thing, particularly because every time we looked at the bridge, we were reminded of the deliberate forgetting Bosnians are willing themselves to do in order to move past the trauma of war and genocide. In a country where every open meadow and every former soccer field is teeming with fresh, shockingly white headstones, looking at that rebuilt bridge reminded these heartsore American progressives that trauma is relative. And while the U.S. currently has a callous bully at the helm and is deliberately implementing policy that shouts “la-la-la” with fingers in ears to cover the pleas of the distressed, being in Bosnia made us blink slowly and repeatedly acknowledge: at least the U.S. is not engaged in civil war where neighbors are slaughtering each other. At least our soccer fields are still soccer fields. At least we can leave our houses and not get food only by sending out a runner in the middle of the night who, dressed in black, prays for invisibility. At least their aren’t snipers ringing our cities, ready to mow us down if we dare to open the front door. Looking at the people of Bosnia, not a one of whom lives unscathed, we took their lessons. …all of which is to say: the host at our guesthouse provided a tremendous and lovely breakfast each morning! And Bosnian coffee, for multiple reasons, is soul restoring. As our airport driver, Anis, told us: “In Bosnia, we love our coffee and have many cups each day. During the war, we missed it so much; we wanted it so much. So now, we have many cups each day.”
    4. Dating the Adriatic: The funny thing about Bosnia, geographically, is that it has only 12 miles of coastline (this is due to a convoluted historical agreement; read about it here). Due to this, people visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia engage in multiple border crossings since the Bosnian stretch of coast splits Croatia in half. No matter what country’s name is assigned to the coast, though, there is no denying that the drive is consistently breathtaking. In these next photos, you will meet my new girlfriend, and her name is Adriatic. We get each other. She’s holding my hand right now, in fact. Which is awkward ’cause I’m typing. *shucks off Adriatic in favor of QWERTY* 
    5. The roadside stands where all bottles were labeled with gold-penned script: They just kept coming, these stands did, along one stretch of road in, hmmm, was it Bosnia? It might have been Croatia (see previous mention of multiple border crossings in the same day). Let’s just say “former Yugoslavia” and call me right. At any rate, after we flew past the first twenty stands, we decided to pull over and see if there was any produce for sale that we hadn’t yet seen in the grocery stores; this strategy was loosely titled “My Queendom for Some Broccoli.” By the time we were done staring and considering and pointing and paying, we had a handful of bags and a lovely jar of Lemon-Lime juice, pulp a’floatin’.
    6. The Old Town in Sibenik, Croatia: Hey, look at this next one! I actually know we were in Croatia! I’m super sharp, see! To a one, the members of our family loved the historic apartment we booked in the heart of Old Town in the city of Sibenik. The streets are narrow, the vibe laid back, and the sculpted heads of benefactors decorating the facade of the cathedral totally rad. Even better: the crepe stand is open late, and when we initially couldn’t find the apartment, our host came out and stood on the street (“I will be by the cannons, wearing short blue pants made of denim”). Because I am a paragon of restraint, I didn’t even tell him that one of my mild-mannered husband’s most firmly held opinions is that men should not ever, no, not ever, wear jean shorts.
    7. The half-attentive waiter when we stopped for coffee in some random place, a guy with one quarter of one eyeball focused on our needs, a guy who failed to bring me the panna cotta I ordered, thus saving me from myself. Thank you, negligent waiter. I bet your panna cotta would have disappointed anyhow, especially because I would have gulped down huge mouthfuls of cigarette smoke with every bite, and even if the custard had been grand, I did JUST FINE WITHOUT IT. DOES YOUR ONE QUARTER OF ONE EYEBALL SEE ME BEING JUST FINE OVER HERE? I AM AN ACCOMPLISHED WOMAN WHO HAS GREAT EXPERIENCE DODGING FALLING PEACHES, SO WHY WOULD I NEED YOUR STUPID PANNA COTTA?
    8. Spontaneous finding of a cliff-side path: We loved Sibenik so much that it was hard to leave, hard to adjust our brains and hearts to the next location, in this case a “just fine” town named Senj. Again, in Senj, GPS got us within a few hundred meters of our booking, but after that, it took good old-fashioned rolling down the window and yelling to a frazzled-looking woman, “Do you speak English? No? Okay. Do you know where this apartment is?” while holding Byron’s phone up to her face. Important to any story such as this one is the fact that she didn’t know the location of Apartment Leona, nor did she know where Krcka ulica 2a Villa Nehaj, 2 kat was, but she did know an old guy in overalls across the street — did he have cement on his arms? was he building a retaining wall? was his name Grgur? — and so once she waved him over and three or four congregants had a lively discussion for a couple minutes, we received direction and the helpful advice of “big building” from Grgur and Frazzle, which allowed us to circle the streets a bit more before parking at a new apartment complex and wondering how we would ever know if we had arrived. Of course, as is the way 99% of the time with travel, it all worked out, and soon enough we were up a few floors in a spanking new IKEA-furnished apartment (Hey, Leona!), which actually proved a perfect counterpoint to the historical place in Sibenik. Even better was our discovery of a path running along the side of the cliffs edging my girlfriend. The ensuing ramble provided everything I could want from Senj.
    9. The food and fish in Piran: On the tip of a Slovenian peninsula is a town named Piran, a place described as “Venetian” since it’s just across the water from Italy and has, over its history, absorbed a great deal of culture from that neighbor. Since Piran is popular, it’s expensive, so we stayed in a hostel; the digs were rudimentary, but the guy at the front desk hooked us up with great recommendations, including one for the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and trust me, I’m a well-seasoned pro on the professional ice-cream-eating circuit. Piran also presented an opportunity for Allegra to use some of her gift money from friends Kirsten and Virginia — their urging being to use it for something in her travels that she would never do otherwise. Well. So. When we passed a shop where a few people were sitting comfortably on benches, having their feet nibbled by fish, it was a no-brainer. This was something she (and I) had always wanted to do, and it surely was something she’d never do without that money. Thus is was that the two of us sat, giggling, at 7 p.m., learning that this species of fish is originally from Turkey and lives for three years — although to be honest, one hungry guy took a look at my left big toenail and decided to throw his body out of the tank there and then. Most glorious of all was eating a cheap to-go dinner from a bakery while watching the sun set over Girlfriend.  
    10. Predjama Castle in Slovenia: So you know Rick Steves, right, O PBS Fans? And you either love him or hate him? We at our house decided some years ago to love him since our kid had taken a shine to his untroubled and informative travelogues. So we’ve all watched a whole lotta Rick Steves over here, and in our best moments, we sling a single backpack strap onto one shoulder, tuck a thumb into a belt loop, and make up closing-reel bloopers about public art. Hey, some families play banjo together; ours Rick Steveses together. Anyhoodie, one time Rick visited a place called Predjama Castle in Slovenia, and one other time, so did we. Built into the opening of a cave, parts of the castle itself constructed FROM the cave, the architecture of this place is stunning. Adding to its appeal is a system of tunnels running out the back so that residents under siege could still retrieve fresh food and toss a big nah-nah at their attackers. Most famous is a robber baron named Erazem who brazenly threw the pits from cherries at Fredrick III’s soldiers during a year-long siege. They got him in the end, though, as a servant sold Erazem out, raising a flag to notify the attacking troops when Erazem popped into the WC on the front of the castle. Fredrick’s men blew the bathroom to smithereens with a shot from a cannon, and Erazem never did get to finish reading that article about the best red-carpet looks at that year’s Oscars. Enhancing the wow of the castle itself was our lunch — goulash over polenta with a side of angel-pillow gnocchi– and our post-tour snack — cappucino and cream cake (kremsnita).
    11. Metelkova in Ljubljana: The first thing that struck me about Ljubljana was the graffiti EVERYWHERE. Every surface, from windows to walls to post boxes to light poles, has spray paint on it. The net effect is, naturally, somewhere between cool and grungy. Speculating about why this city seems to have more graffiti than any other place I’ve ever been, I announced, “I hope it’s a way of exerting freedom in a place that used to be quashed under authoritarianism.” I’m a real hoot to travel with, btw. Later that day, we did a free walking tour of the city with an excellent guide named Daniel (Me to Daniel at the end of the tour: “I told my kids that if you were my teacher, yours would be my favorite class.” See how well I follow my policy of Actually Say the Nice Things Out Loud to the People?). At the end of the tour, we lingered so as to ask Daniel a couple of extra questions. When I asked him why there is such an astonishing amount of graffiti in the city, he confirmed that, indeed, it is created by citizens expressing themselves after too many decades where they would be arrested if they so much as painted the letter “A” for “Anarchy.” (RIP, Sue Grafton) Continuing, Daniel noted that he doesn’t much like all the thoughtless, “do-nothing” graffiti, but he absolutely finds joy when it is art. Then he told us about a lesser-known spot in the city — “a former military barracks where artists began squatting after the fall of Communism” — and urged us to walk through it to get a taste of graffiti’s power when it’s done right. And so. At the end of our day, we found this artist’s community and wandered through. “Oh!” I thought, my heart filling. “Oh, oh, oh!” To see evidence that la vie boheme is thriving, that art triumphs over war, that the counterculture can be a force — well, it was the most beautiful balm.
    12. The fact that I can now spell Ljubljana without looking it up because I just say in my head “luh-jub-luh-jana,” and bam, all those letters line right up for me:
    13. And finally, perhaps most importantly, a major highlight for me of our trip to the Balkans was watching The Revenant on the flight home because I delight in any movie where Leonardo diCaprio doesn’t talk much:
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Finally Full

Two years ago, after weeks — nae, months! — of work, I finished writing an essay, and I thought to myself, “This is my favorite thing I’ve ever written.”

So I started submitting it to various publications, hoping someone, somewhere, would like it, too. Would want to publish it. Would feel like my piece was a good fit for them.

Early on, the essay made it to the final round at a dream publication, but it ultimately didn’t make the cut.

For a while, I stopped submitting it anywhere. Then, I remembered how much I loved it and started sending it out again.

Last fall, after fifteen rejections, I got an email one night after teaching an evening class. There was this place. A literary journal. And they loved my essay about food that integrates bits of diary entries and snippets of letters. They wanted to publish it.

Guess what today is? Publication day.

It is with great excitement, then, that I shout, “Hey, guys, if you have a few minutes, maybe click over and read this thing! It’s been waiting for an audience for YEARS!”

Plus, maybe you need a feel-good moment. And while this essay might be about food, it’s actually a love story.

The full issue of Palaver can be read here, as a flipbook. My piece starts on page 89. 

Alternately, a .pdf of just my essay can be read here

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She’s Off


I want to tell you what love looks like.

She is 18, about 5′ 7″ with dark blonde hair to her shoulders.

Love looks like her, fresh sweetness driven by curiosity.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She is 46, about 5′ 10″, a brunette with tints of red.

Love looks like her, powerful directness fueled by loyalty.

I want to tell you what else love looks like.

She’s a horizontal 5′ 3″, maybe 80 pounds, but it’s hard to say since she hasn’t eaten in days.

Love looks skeletal and radiant in her hospital bed positioned next to the living room window, so she can live in the light as the veil between Here and There thins.

I want to tell you how blinding love is when these three versions of her are supported by the same laminate wood floors at the same time, one over by the living room window, her breathing shallow, her eyes half-open as she drifts in and out of medicated sleep, the other two facing each other near the dining room table. 

The brunette by the table has enough vigor for everyone, despite the exhaustion of walking slowly, over years, then days, now hours, shoulder-to-shoulder with her shallow-breathing wife as she eases to the next phase. The brunette by the table not only has vigor. She has a plan. 

The 18-year-old who has just been given a firm hug by the brunette does not know of a plan. All she knows is that she’s come for one last visit with the shallow-breathing love in the hospital bed. All she knows is that the first person to see the top of her head as it crowned its way into this world is now leaving it. All she knows is that she will be one of the last people to see the first person who saw her. All she knows is that something about this business of first and last smacks at the heart. All she knows is that being there for each other at the beginning and at the end feels like a rare magic.

“So,” says the brunette Kirsten to the teen who is on the cusp of three months of travels. “Here’s a deal I have for you. I’m going to slip a big swaaaaak of Euros into your pocket from Ginnie and me, okay?”

Not sure what is happening, the blonde Allegra nods uncertainly.

“And at some point while you’re in some far-off country, you’re going to see something that looks really fun — like something you’d love to do, if only you had the money. Like, it would be a great adventure, but it costs a lot, so you’ll just have to imagine how cool it would be. Except, see, you’re going to have this stack of Euros with you, and you’ve been told you can only use them to do something you otherwise would never be able to. So the whole point of these…” she trails off as she turns towards the dining room table and grabs a stack of colorful notes, “…is that you use them in memory of Gin…” — she tips her head towards the form in the hospital bed, the same form that was bitten by a lemur in Madagascar, that carried pails of ashes up and down staircases in a crumbling French chateau, that hugged a baby sloth in the Amazon — “…so you need to find an amazing thing to do, and when you throw this money at it, you will be taking Virginia on one last adventure, this time with you.”

Having explained the terms of the deal, the generous friend, auntie, wife, soon-widow pushes the money into the 18-year-old’s hands. The girl’s eyebrows lift as she nods. The terms are accepted.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like a stack of Euros with strings attached.

It looks like a blonde teen and a brunette chosen-auntie locking eyes for a brief moment as they acknowledge the lasting imprint the slight form in the hospital bed will leave on them both, with the lessons of generosity and gusto she modeled for them.

It looks like the tears in the eyes of a melancholy mother lurking two feet behind her teenage daughter who holds a stack of Euros in her hands; like the tears in the eyes of a grateful friend watching a pal make things possible for her girl; like the tears in the eyes of a grieving intimate who knows her beloved chum is days from death.

I want to tell you what love looks like.

It looks like four unsteady women united on a laminate wood floor, four women whose lives have intersected in profound and unpredictable ways, four women finding balance by leaning on each other.

I want to show you what love looks like.

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Catching Up

April 15, 2018

Dear You:

Long time, no talk! We totally need to catch up! How’d your last Lone Wolf Howling at the Moon tattoo sitting go? Did your cousin ever return your thigh-high boots? He’s not to be trusted, that one; you might need to swing by his cottage and riffle through his closet if you ever want to see those 24 inches of patent leather again. Oh, and I hope that one scabby spot on your elbow finally healed up real good-like! I swear, it looked like a miniature Rhode Island (haha: “miniature Rhode Island”…redundant much?) for so many weeks I was about to start digging for clams inside that thing.

Me? Oh, I’ve been great! We’re having our usual crazy April weather, and people are being their usual crazy selves, acting like they’ve never seen such a thing before. Sometimes, this time of year makes me feel desperate inside and as though I might need to start clawing at the skin just below my cheekbones, but for some reason it’s not bugging me this year. A mid-April blizzard just feels like a good excuse to keep a thick blanket on my lap, a huge pan of barssss in the kitchen, and three pairs of socks on my feet, and what’s bad about any of that? Don’t answer! Harhar!

Get this: I stayed up past 3:30 a.m. this morning watching the live stream from Coachella, and Beyonce was headlining. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you don’t get why she’s a thing, but we all have our failings, and that’s only one of your three thousand. Joking. GAWD, you’ve been so sensitive since Marla left. So what if she took the hand blender? You never made smoothies anyhow!! Anyhow, that Beyonce performance (SHUT UP AND JUST ACCEPT THAT FIVE BILLION PLANET EARTHERS MIGHT HAVE A POINT THAT SHE’S SOMETHING SPECIAL JEEEEEZUS YOU ARE SO HARD HEADED) was, like, huge. I won’t describe it too much cuz it’ll be wasted on you, but basically, she performed for two hours, sang more than 30 songs, and had multiple costume changes (Even you would have appreciated how hard she worked to keep her left boob hidden from the audience when the tape inside her costume started failing, threatening to unleash that flawless caramel orb to explore all kinds of public mischief. Did she miss even a single deep squat when Solange came out to dance with her? No, she did not. Did she hit every wa-wa knee bend exactly on the beat while clutching at her chest? Yes, she absolutely did. Did she prove that she is using the stage she has earned to pay homage to black culture and move some white people’s iggnrnt needles? Yes, yes, she did, and if you are unwilling to acknowledge the importance of Beyonce in a racist world, then I hope Marla comes back for your potato ricer.)

April 17, 2018

Sorry I got cut off mid-Beyonce rave the other day. I had to grade a few research proposals submitted by the messiest class I’ve seen in…hmmmm…carry the twelve…erase the seven…a heap of years. These tomfools started at mid-term in a compressed eight-week class, and every week since then, I have scratched my head and wondered, “What is up with this crew?” Like, you know how Marla used to make a big show about Wednesdays being Taco Night, and she’d sigh really loudly about how, as usual, she’d have to be the one to buy the groceries, and then, as usual, she’d be the one to brown the meat and shred the cheese and chop the iceberg? Remember all that ostentatious drama and then how Wednesday night would come, and there’d be no groceries bought, no food prepared? And you’d be all, “Hey, M, I kind of took it that you meant to make the tacos tonight. Did I misundersta–” And then she’d snip in and yell from under the afghan on the couch, “NO TACOS. NO DINNER. NOT HUNGRY.” And you’d be afraid to say anything because what can you say when someone’s all loud and put-upon and then they don’t even do the thing they were being loud and put-upon about, and you feel like you’re trying to show up but you’re kind of nervous because you don’t quite understand  the passive-aggressive complexity of the one who’s puffed up but not actually doing a single thing?

So this messy class is Marla on Taco Night. Get this: there were 25 students enrolled in the class at the start. The first week, for the introduction assignment, 13 of them participated. It’s an online class, so the only way I can get their attention is to rattle the grade book, post even more announcements, and send out emails. But, duh, like that doesn’t work when they aren’t looking at any of those things. By the second week, there were 11 students who turned in the assignment. My brain was all WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON? I teach this class all the time, exactly the same way, and pretty much most of the students get through in fine form. But this crop? These guys paid hundreds of dollars for this class, some of them taking out loans, of course, and yet they keep greeting every activity, every attempt to get their attention, with a shrug. The sheer WTF of this class has me confuddled. But then I got all sleuthy — you know how I still lose sleep over where in the fricking world Carmen Sandiego is — and realized more than half the students in that section are using Minnesota’s post-secondary enrollment option (PSEO) to earn college credits, which means the state pays for their tuition and books. Usually, PSEO students are all fired up and rad and stuff, but this particular messy section seems to have attracted a crew of ’em who can’t be bothered when it’s not making a dent in their fanny packs.

Yeah, so anyhow, as of today (two days shy of two years since Prince passed, kiss my ring and hold it to heaven), there are 18 students still on the roster — the rest withdrew or were dropped for non-attendance — and of those 18, only ten of them have a grade above a “D.”

I swear these studentios are in the grips of some magical-ass thinking that is telling them completing every third assignment is somehow going to tip a “C” their way. What bugs me the most is that I know, when reality comes over to roost on their chests, these some same students are going to believe their poor grades are my fault, and nothing is more exhausting than being held responsible for other people’s lack of effort. I’ma blame them for my shoddy housekeeping, if they come at me.

Honest to holy, pal, I know you thought Marla was a lot, but if you looked at this class each week, you’d be straight-up free-will handing her your spaetzle maker and telling her “Just take it. You ain’t so bad.”

April 19, 2018

Gawd, this puppy is getting long, and I know you hate having to flip the paper over to keep reading. I can just hear you now, hollering as you sit at that sticky Formica kitchen table: “Yer damn felt tip bled through, Jocey! You think I got time for deciphering this this fuckin’ mishmash?”

All right. All right. Just a couple more updates, and then I’ll leave you to dick around with your egg peeler, if you catch my drift. HARdeeHARHAR!!

So you know how I live in a city where we love snow, or else we should shut up and move? Part of my snow love relates to shoveling. Ahhhh, shoveling. It’s a beautiful therapy, that business of shussshing the blade under the flakes, scootching it along the ground, and then hoisting and tossing. With shoveling, there are clear parameters and clear ways of measuring achievement — kind of like how Marla would announce from her laid-back perch at the sticky Formica when you’d sliced enough potatoes on the mandoline?

The suck for me is that I did some hard shoveling a couple months ago during this one week when we got two feet of snow in the course of a couple of days. And since then, bud, I tell you: my left elbow is fucked up. Get this, though: Byron shoveled with me, and so did Allegra one day, and both of them experienced after-effects, too! Hold me close, young Tony Daaaaanza! (I know that was random, but it’s what I was feeling, so relax). Since the girl is young, her elbow bounced right back, but both Byron and I are still battling the pain of tennis “snow” elbow. Check this out: we can go to yoga and lower ourselves in chaturanga just fine, but if we want to, erm, freshen the air in the bathroom with some spray, pressing the button on the pump is excruciating. IT’S A FOREARM ISSUE, this elbow problem. 

It got so bad for me that I was going to order a brace or a strap. I even said “acupuncture” one time. But instead of spending money on something I just wanted to go away, I decided to punt. I remembered I have a bunch of compression socks I was using last year when my left heel was fucked up (note about aging: something will always be fucked up; if you’re lucky, it’s not the whole of you all at once), so I decided compression is compression, so why buy an elbow squeezer when I already have foot squeezers? The upshot is, dear Dickie, that I now spend my days with a sock on my arm, my elbow nestled into the heel section, and whaddya know the thing is actually feeling better by the day. BETTER LIVING THROUGH INVENTIVE PUNTING, SAYS I.

The nice deal about aging — there have to be silver linings when your body is always finding new ways to plague you, right? — is that I have, for a couple years now, been able to get to a mindset of “Howzabout instead of focusing on what I can’t do, I spend a little time enjoying what I CAN do? Howzabout that, O Noggin Fretter?” So my elbow squeals. But: I can still jump. And I do rewy, rewy love to jump. 

4/23/2018

Gad, how time whizzes! Here it is, more than a week later (Beyonce has already done her second amazing Beychella performance, with an even taller Nefertiti crown this time), and I’m still pecking away at this thing. Here I wanted to give you a bunch of recs for things I’ve been enjoying and talk up the mental diversions that give me solace in over-busy days. If I go on too much more, though, it will be another week before I send this. Soooo, quickly then: you really should listen to Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo — the story of a family of First Nation siblings that were taken from their mother during “The Scoop” in the 1960s in Canada, when the government went about fracturing indigenous families beyond the work it had already done for centuries. Young Cleo was adopted by an American family and rumored to have been raped and murdered when she was 13. Her siblings, with no idea where Cleo had been adopted to or what had really happened to her, ask a journalist at CBC to help track down the reality of their missing sister. All I’ll say is that I sat in a chair in our living room at 4:00 a.m., listening to the fourth episode, and there in the dark, I kept muttering, “Holy Shit.”

Also, I wanted to tell you to give the reboot of One Day at a Time a looksie. Listen, you crabass, just know you’ll have to relax into the live audience that feels like a cheesy laugh track, but once you give over, you will find yourself having a tv watching experience that makes you feel like you’re ten again, sitting on the shag carpet drinking Tang, watching any of the kabillion sitcoms that populated our youth. This reboot has been updated, and now it focuses on a Cuban-American family, covering issues that no other tv show has, as far as I’ve seen. It’s super charming, and every episode makes me cry in the best way. You know how Marla was a big effing Trumper and so it was a relief to watch her skitter off with your condiment gun because the news alone is hard enough these days without the negativity living in your house with you? Well, One Day at a Time is the best because it provides the feeling of a safe place in a nutty world.

Damn, I’m short on time again — have to get in the car and drive a few hours to a high school to do a site visit. Also, we had Allegra’s grad party this weekend (so many people and pancakes!), I got a Fulbright to teach in Belarus this fall (I. am. not. shitting. you.), and my most beloved friend Virginia has had her hospital bed moved into the living room so that she can rest in the light as she heads towards the light. She said the other day, “The boundaries between here and the beyond are erasing themselves,” and then she sent audio greetings to Allegra for her party in which she imparted a blessing upon the child who is about to head out into the world, reminding our girl that she, Virginia, was the first to see the top of Allegra’s head emerge from me when she was born. Then the 81-year-old in her last days told our 18-year-old who still has so many days in front of her, “I am holding you up to the face of God,” and every time I listen to her voice saying those words, I sob like you did when Marla bolted with your egg slicer.

Sorry this thing is kind of a sloppy mess. But, hey, that’s how I’m feeling, so suck it up, buttercup!

‘K bye!!

SWAK,

Jocey

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Butt Hurt: Tuesday, February 28

Gack! Here I’d hauled my cookies downtown and raced breathlessly into the lobby, readying myself for a much-needed yoga class, only to be greeted by a sign on the counter announcing a class cancellation. 

What made it worse was that I’d known the teacher couldn’t find a sub and there would be no class, but I’d totally forgotten — my brain full of Jessie Diggins, what to pack for 57-degree temperatures in Tennessee, grading drafts of research papers, and wondering why the city doesn’t crack down on off-leash dogs. 

Well, as long as I was ready to work out, I figured I might as well get return for effort and head upstairs to the Boot Camp class due to start in ten minutes. 

The Boot Camp class I hadn’t attended in more than a year.

The one that leaves me unable to climb stairs for three days afterwards unless I moan and pound my quads with every trudging step.

That one.

Fortunately, although the legendary teacher, Anna, mixes up the class regularly, I was still able to hang in there with all the stations ALTHOUGH FINE I WILL ADMIT I CHEATED DURING THE PLANK WALK EACH TIME BECAUSE I CAN ONLY INCH FORWARDS ON MY PALMS AND TOES THIRTY-ONE TIMES BEFORE MY LUNGS ARE IN MY THROAT SO THEN I HAVE TO STOP AND PRAY FOR A BIT TO THE GOD OF FLOORBOARDS.

But other than the plank walk and the open-mouthed scream lap around the track when I was yoked to a hyper-fit dude named Alex as he dragged my dead weight behind him at a speed faster than I’ve ever run before, I handled the hour.


Now it’s today.

The day after Boot Camp.

Friends, my ass is yappin’. 

I cannot sit, stand, squat, bend, lunge, or move a fingernail without oooooohhhhmaaaannnn. The only thing worse than the day after Boot Camp, in fact, is two days after Boot Camp, which means the oy-vey is getting worse by the hour. Do not tap me tomorrow, even lightly like a feather’s breath, or I might punch you by mistake. 

My ass hurt when I awoke and sat at the computer to grade student work; it yelped when I poached my morning egg; it hated me when I crouched next to drawers to paw for clothes; it yoiked when I climbed stairs to a classroom at the college where a candidate for a position in our department was about to present his teaching demonstration.

Seriously, it was noon, yet the crook of my rear felt 28 hours in.

But then. You guys. As I sat in the classroom, waiting to absorb the presentation of a guy who really wants a job, my glutes relaxed — perhaps to balance out the wild racing of my mind. See, the candidate, before he started explaining how he would teach the concept of “an essay” to developmental students, came around the room and shook everyone’s hand. When he got to me, I said my name, but even as I spoke, he was nodding and waiting, a comment prepared.

“Oh, I know you, Jocelyn. You were my teacher in 1997 at Riverland Community College; we read Memoirs of a Geisha…” — my Novels class! — “…and I still remember the attendance policy on your syllabus told us we could never miss a class for a Beavis & Butthead marathon, but it would be okay to miss if it was for a Ren & Stimpy marathon.”

How could an ass not go soft in the midst of such an unexpected, strangely delightful moment? How could a butt wallow in pain when an English teacher stood in front of an English teacher and connected their dots? Sitting there, shaking this guy’s hand, feeling life inchworm — tail end squinching up to meet the head — my below cheeks went slack as my facial cheeks flushed red. I wasn’t embarrassed, but something about a forgotten past manifesting into a very real present welled up me in a way that made my face red. Maybe it was because my dean and colleagues witnessed the exchange; maybe it was because I’d seen his name announced as a finalist and had a blip of “Do I know that name? Nah.” Maybe it was because his words took me back to a time when I felt more secure in the classroom than I do now, twenty-one years later when my cage has been rattled enough that its bars are less secure.

At any rate, I blushed fully while my tush became mush.

Ahhh, that felt good. For a full half hour as I listened to this fine young teacher explain himself, from the way he teaches essay writing to his personal disclosures about his father’s death, rebelling against his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, finding salvation in the classroom, my rear reveled. When he randomly interjected a quick quip about the way a colleague’s nephews used to call me “Batgirl,” my brain tripped down twelve different paths. At the same time, my hand wrote feedback about the teaching presentation.

And then it was over.

Buttocks re-tautened, I got in the car, left campus, and took myself out for some air at my favorite place to ski. The temperatures were warm, too warm really, but I wanted to unfurl fully into the lovely gift that is two feet of newly fallen snow. 

 

Getting out of the car taxed my ass, as did every two-inch movement necessary to put on boots, hat, coat, gloves, and skis — repeated again fifteen minutes later when I returned to swap out skis, from waxed to waxless, because this was a very clumpy day in the moods of snow.

I wanted to move my body to help the soreness recede for even an hour. I wanted to move my body so my brain could process the emotions of seeing, out of the blue, someone whose life I had impacted when I was 30 and he was 18, someone whose life had gone on to mimic my own. I wanted to move my body because every last thing on the planet feels better when I do. I wanted to move my body because doing so is a gratitude.

Most importantly, I wanted to move my body because I wanted to follow in the steps of someone who affected me during a formative time, wanted to practice the technique of someone whose abilities moved me, wanted to flex my ass in tribute to someone who showed me a new way of being: Johannes Klaebo, that gold-medal Norwegian who takes hills like he’s out for a run with skis on his feet.

My ass is yappin’.

My mind spirals repetitively through memory.

Somehow, the two are linked.


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Grad Present: Monday, February 26

And so today was lovely, a day full of hours with my daughter, a day when we laughed and were in sync, and it was all so much of everything good. There was no question I would write tonight about this day, even in limited fashion, because I want to remember it.

But to write about today fully and as it deserves, I need 10-15 hours of typing and deleting and thinking. From past experience, I know that.

If I want to dig in and hold it all up to the light, that takes time.

The threat of time being taken would keep me from the keyboard.

I will write what I can now, and maybe it will serve as an incubator for One Day. For when there are hours.

And so the thing about today is that it’s a great story of loving a teenager who is about to launch herself, and it’s a great story of pipping through various environments in tandem and with happiness, and it’s a great story of seeing the ways that my daughter and I may find our way in the world together even after we no longer share a house.

If we can always remember the ease, the joy, the boondoggle of driving around and hitting destinations together, then maybe in twenty years, it can still be this good.

Right now, as I envision a future where she’s grown and gone, being her own self, gaining perspectives that give her permission to chafe against who we’ve been to her, as I look at the detritus of some relationships in my own life that have pummeled deep into my gut the reality that the center does not necessarily hold, I can’t be so naive as to trust that we all will always be okay.

We should be okay.

But I will never trust it.

Then, now, as you’re reading and wondering about relationships in my life and either identifying with my fears or wanting to assure me it will all be okay, there is the fact that this is more than a story of a great day with my dear, dear, dear daughter.

I need another 10-15 hours to write the story of the first time I bought a backpack, a good chunk of time to unpack the weight of that experience — at the time merely a lovely day in a store with a boyfriend with whom I planned travels. It was important to get professionally fit for our packs; we would camp in Ireland, roughing it to prove to ourselves how real we were.

We went to Ireland. We took our packs. We never camped. 

I would always say to him, “I love you,” so he could reply, “I don’t think I love you.”

See, these stories take time.

I’m trying to write fast, daily, out of impulse, in the hopes of capturing moments that might otherwise fade into grey, the foggy horizon of disputed recounting.

And so today’s fast story is about backpacks. And my daughter. Not about the man I loved who didn’t love me for 12% of my life.

Allegra is 17, and perhaps it is boring for you to read again about her glories, but I will tell you again: she graduated high school early, after last semester of doing all college work at the local university, and she works two jobs to save money for three months of travel before she starts college in the fall. She handles her own business, loves color-coding, and, at the same time, doesn’t know how to answer questions about a potential college major because everything is still too unknown. She makes me laugh; she has questions; she will spot your weakness in under an hour.

To celebrate her graduation, we told her we’d buy her a bag.

She wants a backpack — something we can bring to her, already packed, when we meet up with her during her travels. Alone, to Turkey and Montenegro, she will carry a different bag. For Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia, we will be with her. When we see her, we will hand her a prepared backpack —

a bag for when we fly home and she takes off to hike in Scotland with friends, then to Iceland to meet another friend.

And so we are gifting her with a backpack, which feels so right for who she is and where she’s going.

Today was backpack day. Byron had to work, but Allegra and I had some rare open hours together. Naturally, she had done her research, knew what she wanted, and realized it would be best to actually try packs on rather than ordering blindly online. It’s also nice to hand money to a real person in the place where you live. 

We went to the store. Talked to the guy. His name was Pat. He grew up in western Wisconsin. His street hasn’t been plowed yet since the latest 8″ fell. He likes trekking poles. 

With great competence, Pat outfitted Allegra in several Osprey packs (I have an Osprey backpack. I bought it during the 12% of my life when I wasn’t loved but wanted to camp to prove how real we were.). He weighted them, adjusted them, helped her tighten the straps, explained the trampoline mesh against her back.  

And so, patiently, and with an acceptance I never experienced during six years with that man in my twenties, Pat allowed — urged — Allegra to try, consider, step back, re-try, walk around, read her own reactions. Refusing apology for taking so much of his time, he exclaimed, “This is the fun part!”

I’m shifting verb tenses now. I’m not putting 10 hours into this thing, but I am taking time to make that choice.

The store is hot. I’m just standing there, leaning on a counter, asking questions, but I’m sweating. With a counter between us, I can see what’s going on with Allegra better. So we have space, and I am sweating. Is this a harbinger of the rest of life for us?

Is maybe all of life about sweating and space? Is that how it will always be for us, whoever the “us” in question is?

And so I’m leaning onto my elbows on a glass counter that creaks like it’s splintering every time I shift, and Pat is in it with us for the long haul, and Allegra’s trying on her fourth pack. We’ve moved away from the initial idea of Osprey packs, which are the best-selling brand in the U.S., and now she’s trying Deuter packs, which are the best-selling backpacks in the rest of the world. Yup, fit is good. Yup, feels good. But.

She puts on the previous pack again, walks around for a bit. Switches again to the other. Walks some more. This one? That one? Hmmmm. How to know which one is best?

Eventually, it becomes clear: THIS one feels the most right. This is the right one.

So we buy a Deuter, the newest model, and I don’t cry even though this purchase feels like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that starts “I got unexpectedly pregnant after I’d camped in Iceland — because my body had been exposed to around-the-clock light, and even though it seemed impossible for me to get pregnant because my period had ended two days before, I did get pregnant the night your dad, the right one, proposed, and when we found out you were coming, we changed the date of our wedding, and then right before the wedding, I had a miscarriage, and we cried for days, and then we went to the hospital and found out there was still a YOU in there even though your twin was gone, and then my water broke during a Creation vs. Evolution debate, and bam you came, and I cried in the garage when we brought you home from the hospital — my mom, standing by us out there next to the car, wondered why I was crying — and then you had colic, and I held your dad’s hand in the living room and cried some more and wailed ‘I don’t know how I can make it six more weeks,’ and ten months later I shoveled the driveway with you strapped into a pack on my back, and the whole time I sweated and threw snow to create space, I could feel your tiny, gentle hands pulling at strands of my hair as we sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ together, and now today I was shoveling by myself, trying to get my car in from the alley after the snowplow went through, and you looked out the bathroom window and saw me, and then I heard your voice calling ‘Do you need some help?’, and suddenly you were next to me, halving the task, humming happily even when we had to take off our coats because carving space is sweaty work…”

I’m shifting person now. It takes time to keep “you” as the audience when I’ve decided I want “you” to be my daughter.

And so we checked out today after Pat helped us for so long, buying you a backpack as a graduation gift to help launch you into the world. You went with a Deuter pack, so now you are the Deuter Daughter.

This summer, I will bring this backpack to you before you fly to Scotland to meet friends, and I won’t cry because I am so happy for who you are.

But when we part, after hugging you at the airport, as I watch you head one direction while I head another, I will reach for your dad’s hand — he’s not the man I bought an Osprey pack with during 12% of my life when I wasn’t loved; no, he’s the right one — and we will hang onto each other as we watch you walk away from us, down a long corridor, all on your own.

And really, honestly, I promise you: I’ll try not to cry.

But there will never be a day for the rest of my life when I don’t feel the shadow memory of your tiny hands pulling at the strands of my hair.

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