I Looked, And Behold, A Pale…Wasp?

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And so it has begun. The day of reckoning is upon us. The end is nigh. Okay, okay, I’m being dramatic–I’m only moving out of my apartment. But it does feel rather apocalyptic. For one thing, the temperature has soared to a sweltering 95 degrees (with 100% humidity, naturally) as I’ve begun packing up my attic abode. Gotta love a mid-July move. You might be wondering, “You live in an attic in Chicago–don’t you have air conditioning?” Great question! My apartment is technically equipped with central air, but I am woefully at the mercy of my landlords (the system is for the entire house), whom I’ve long suspected are members of an alien race hailing from a planet much nearer the sun, granting them the power to withstand heinous temperatures. That or they hate me and want me to die before they have to return my damage deposit. (Just kidding! You guys have been great! Don’t look too closely at the drywall, though. Or the front door for that matter–I went through a bit of a knife throwing phase and my aim left something to be desired. And maybe avoid glancing down at the carpet–I can’t fathom why I chose to start a collection of rusted scrap-metal, either!)

The second sign of the impending apocalypse is the arrival of the wasps. For the past two weeks they have sent daily envoys from their nest in the eaves and I’m beginning to get the feeling they don’t come in peace. This burning desire to lay siege to my apartment is truly perplexing because no sooner have they entered than they begin their desperate quest for escape. They drift menacingly by as I’m relaxing on the couch, shattering my foolhardy belief that having four walls and a roof might afford me some magnitude of protection from the perils of the outdoors. If they’re lucky, I spot them in time to escort them from the premises via my handy bug-catching jar (every home needs one), but an unfortunate few succumb to the inevitable heatstroke that results from more than an hour spent in my apartment, and their needle-thin corpses pile in the corners of my window sills, forming tiny mass graves. I’ve kept a running count of the wasps–seven dead and twelve live ones. Will I make it to twenty before I move out? Stay tuned!

So, between the stifling heat and the invading hordes of wasps, I’ve found myself wondering aloud as I pack, “What circle of hell is this?” My first inclination was the sixth circle–being entombed in flames– because it feels as though I’m roasting alive. But I’m also knee-deep in a pool of my own sweat, so it’s more like boiling, really, which I suppose would make this the seventh circle–a river of boiling blood and fire. I may be a godless heretic, but I’m no murderer, so I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve this torture. I hear boiling meat retains its nutrients better than roasting, though, so at least that’s good news for the wasps when they come to feast on my molten flesh.

The one bright spot in this ghastly inferno (other than eternal hell-fire) is that the constant, looming threat of heat exhaustion and anaphylaxis leaves little room to feel the gut-wrenching emotions that this undertaking would otherwise engender. It wasn’t until I sat back after four solid hours of dismantling the home I’ve spent the past eight years creating with such love, care, and devotion, that I began to sense the first inklings of heartache. The all-consuming nature of such a monumental task can only draw focus for so long, but eventually the boxes are stacked, the packing tape is set down (after untangling it from my hands and every other available surface–seriously, fuck packing tape) and there’s nothing left to mask the gnawing realization that the time has come bid farewell to a chapter of my life–a chapter that has spanned the better part of a decade and seen me through such innumerable triumphs and tribulations that the notion that its trappings could be stripped bare in a matter of days is incomprehensible. I know the things that I’m packing away are just that–things–but the amassing of material possessions is a means of creating personal history, a living museum where each item is imbued with a certain set of memories, recollected upon sight, touch, or smell. (Or taste, I guess–I don’t know what weird shit you’re into.) The ransacking of that museum feels a bit like having the pieces of your brain and your heart torn apart and rearranged in a heedless jumble, like an ill fitting jig-saw puzzle, then being told, “Carry on–this is par for the course.” I suppose that’s the nature of moving on–it’s impossible to build anew without some small measure of destruction.

Once I’d met my quota of necessary destruction for the day, I headed to the sailing center in search of respite from the heat and the heartache. I went for a restorative paddle, drifting lazily beneath the balm of cerulean skies and hare’s tail wisps of cirrus clouds, relishing the lap of cool water as my board bucked beneath the muddled chop of Lake Michigan waves. After, as I wandered home along the lakefront toward Chicago with its skyscrapers standing tall like giants, gaunt faces of steel and stone, I knew another pang of sorrow–not just for the home I would be leaving, but for the city, too. I recalled countless nights at the beach spent lying on the bed of a catamaran, hair still damp and smelling of seaweed, a bottle of beer in hand, slick with condensation in the summer heat. Off in the distance the traffic would hum, the El trains grinding along their rails, but the water’s edge invoked a hushed reverence–a sense that these were hallowed grounds. I’d pass hours watching planes take off from O’Hare, arcing out over the water in trails of blinking light–the only bright stars you’ll see in a city where it is never truly night. So much of my life has transpired along this small stretch of shore–how can I possibly leave it? But I know I have my reasons. Drowned as they are by fear and uncertainty, I’m sure they still exist. I need only to summon the faith that they’ll resurface once more when this period of upheaval has passed. Besides, what’s the alternative–languishing in a blistering apartment, trapped with a swarm of stinging insects? Better purgatory than hell, I suppose.

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Sea Change

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Walking in the tracks of the surf rake this morning, the freshly-turned sand crumbles beneath my feet like brown sugar.  Elwood has scavenged a chicken bone from the remnants of a late-night gathering–bits of peanut shell,  watermelon rind, and an empty box of fireworks scattered across the sand.   Discarded beer bottles glow like torches in the light of the rising sun, mirroring the reflections that flicker across the water in the ripple of waves.  The disgust with which I view this ubiquitous trash lends a sense of irony to the delight I find in spotting the glint of frosted glass along the shoreline, relinquished from the steady churn of the lake.  Sometimes the difference between trash and treasure is merely the passage of time.  How often our tales of woe become our most winsome stories.  Through their retelling, they are honed and polished like bits of sea glass, made small and palatable, their rough edges smoothed.

I hope this is the light in which I will come to view this transition from Chicago to Arizona, sea glass to red rock, cynical high school drop out to open-minded denizen of the world of higher education–colorful, shimmering, and imbued with the magic of hind-sight.  Because right now I feel the sting of jagged glass, unweathered by the passing of time.  It feels like performing surgery with a broken bottle–dissecting the tissues that bind me to this place with artless and imprecise strokes until all my tethers have been loosed and I’m ready for transplantation.  I worry about how slowly this connective tissue regrows, how long I’ll spend adrift before I begin to feel some sense of belonging in a new place.  More than that, I worry that the sinews joining heart and home can never truly be slackened enough to allow for this distance.  I fear that I will live with an unbearable tautness in my chest, forever calling me home.

I try to remind myself that it’s better to dive into the unknown with grace and daring than languish in the comfortable monotony of the devil you know.  Better the vast potential of open water than the stagnation of refuse-strewn shores.  (Speaking metaphorically, of course–people need to stop throwing their shit in the lake.)  With any luck, I will one day emerge from this rough and tumble sea of change honed and polished with my rough edges smoothed.  Whether the waves will spit me out on distant sands or those of my local beach, only time will tell.

You May Ask Yourself, “Well… How Did I Get Here?”

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Today was one of those days where change hung palpably in the air, like catching the first scent of an oncoming storm. It could be, in part, because summer has finally arrived in earnest: cottonwood seeds drift lazily through the air, collecting in the un-mown grass like banks of snow, fat, black pincher beetles gleam from the sidewalk’s edge like onyx cabochons, and one week into this Chicago June, I finally felt secure enough to put my winter coat in storage. (So, expect snow tomorrow, obviously.) But while the dawning of a new season always feels ripe with alteration, more than that, I think the impending changes in my life that once shimmered nebulously on the horizon, small and unobtrusive, are no longer mired in the benign haze of distance. They loom before me now like the Annapurna Massif–a stark and formidable imposition on the landscape of my future.

After leaving my job on Friday, I spent the past week in merciful limbo. My parents were off vacationing on the McKenzie River in Oregon while I lay low at their house and looked after Elwood, our dog. Following the hellacious rollercoaster ride of employment under a mercurial boss, I was relieved to finally come to rest in the valley of my parent’s couch cushions where I whiled away the days drawing, writing, and consuming an obscene quantity of smoothies and espresso, one after another, in much the same manner one might chain smoke a pack of cigarettes. There were long, solitary (save for Elwood) walks on the beach and the odd foray into socialization, but for the most part I had nothing to do and nowhere to be, and the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, without the intrusion of obligation, was a luxury nearly as delicious as those 200 ounces of smoothie. (The Jetsons era blender I have at home doesn’t get used on account of it smelling like a tire fire, so unfettered access to smoothie making equipment is kind of a big deal for me.)

This retreat from the daily grind was restful at first, meditative even, but without the dread of an insufferable job clouding my every conscious thought, my mind finally turned to my swiftly approaching departure for Arizona. My god, there is so much to do. I’ve begun hacking away at this seemingly infinite to-do list, grateful for the delusory sense of control that productivity affords, but my daily duel with progress feels rather like attempting to chisel Michelangelo’s David from a hunk of marble with a blunt pair of safety scissors and Trumpian hands. For every infinitesimal grain of stone that falls away, countless more surface and it’s all I can do not to collapse at the foot of this stubborn behemoth of rock and concede defeat. But I know that, just as this whirlwind of anticipation and preparation has sprung upon me in the blink of one myopic eye, so too will the end result of all this toil. Honestly, I’m not sure what’s harder—the laborious slog through an infinite sea of errands, tasks, and other accouterments of heart-rending life change that manifest, paradoxically, in such mundane and tedious fashion, or the knowledge that, in hindsight, it will all have passed so quickly and I’ll find myself thrown to the wolves of an unfathomable future with barely a moment to ponder, How did I get here? Such is the nature of time—it plods along like a dull film while you jam your finger against the fast forward button to no avail and then, when you’re finally ready to hit pause, it skips ahead in a blurred series of flash-frames and the end credits are rolling before you’ve even sussed out the plot. So, despite the dance with drudgery that a large move entails, I’m trying to relish the calm before the storm and use this opportunity not only to plan ahead, but to reflect, as well.

After emerging from my limbo and transporting my belongings from my parent’s house back to my apartment, I took a break from the evening’s chores to walk by the lake. I had just spoken with my landlord and received some surprising news (which they currently wish to keep private) that left me marveling at the serendipity of it all—the crux being that the agonizing uncertainty I faced when making the decision to leave Evanston turns out to have been for naught. I don’t believe in fate, but I won’t deny that every so often the timing of things can engender such awe as to give the impression that life is a well-choreographed play whose script we haven’t seen and, for the most part, weren’t aware existed, but whose occasional stroke of artfulness has the capacity to break the fourth wall giving us no choice but to applaud its wit. As I was musing over this on my way to the lake, waxing nostalgic for the eight wonderful, terrible, and tumultuous years I spent in my apartment in a way that only the end of such an era can inspire, I spotted two of my grade school teachers walking toward me like guests appearing on an episode of This Is Your Life. I hadn’t seen these women in years and it was a sentimental delight made all the more poignant for its contribution to that fortuitous sense of timing. We reminisced fondly before I carried on my way, continuing this jaunt down memory lane with a visit to the sailing center–a place so haunted by the specter of memory as to be imbued with an aura of anachronism, making it difficult to reconcile the tangibility of recollections with just how much time truly has moved on. As I gazed out across Lake Michigan—a view at once as familiar as my own reflection, yet never ceasing in its evocation of wonder–I felt a small frisson of longing course through me. Whether this was longing for the past, present, future, or some confluence of the three, I can’t really be sure. I quelled the synchronous urge to laugh and cry and said one of an endless series of goodbyes before making my way home.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn And Face The Strange)

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There’s a saying in my family: Change is bad. That’s it—that’s the whole saying. I believe at one point my mother requested it be engraved on her tombstone. But, while I ascribe to such charming family mottos as, “Why bother doing something if you can’t be the best,” and, “It’s better to work harder alone than to collaborate with others and cede control,” I never really hopped on board with this one. The way I saw it, I lived in such a state of misery that change, at least, held the (seldom realized) potential for relief. Because when you’re staring up from the bottom of an agonizing abyss you think, Anything would be better than this. It’s like the god-awful horror movie I watched last night, Would You Rather. If your present situation, option A, involves having your head held underwater for two minutes and you’re presented with an option B, your foolishly optimistic mind thinks, Anything would be better than this–let’s go with option B! Of course, when option B turns out to be slitting your eyeball open with a razor blade, you realize that your mind is an idiot and really you’re just shit out of luck. But despite appearances to the contrary, life isn’t a low-budget horror movie (the production value is better, at least) and most change doesn’t result in grievous bodily harm (no guarantees, though). In reality, change is the very nature of existence. It is how we evolve as a species, how we grow as individuals—humans are designed to adapt. And while change can sometimes be scary and uncomfortable—or even so downright awful as to feel like having an explosive duct-taped to your hand with the fuse lit (this movie was a real masterpiece)—the alternative is, at best, boredom and stagnation, but at its core it is a living death.

I’ve always taken great solace in the ephemeral nature of life. It reassures us that whatever pain we’re in, it won’t last forever, because no condition is permanent. As morbid as it may sound, even the impermanence of life itself has always brought me a sense of peace. No matter how insurmountable our problems may seem or how unbearable our hardships, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that one day we’ll all die and none of this will matter. (Unless you believe in an afterlife, but that’s between you and your god/gods/mythical pagan swamp creature—whatever deities you bow down to.) Dark, perhaps, but this understanding of our insignificance in the broader scheme of the universe, the transience of our existence, has always felt like a consolation in the face of life’s difficulties.

Of course, this ultra-zen, kumbaya, go-with-the-flow approach to change was all fine and dandy while I was clawing my way up from rock bottom, but now that I’ve made it out I’ve discovered that, along with the sunshine, fresh air, and scenic views, comes the very real possibility of stumbling ass over tea kettle (What does this expression mean? Why is this in my lexicon?) off the edge of the cliff. I’ve got this voice whispering in my ear, You did it! You made it! After all that struggle, is now really the best time to rock the boat? But a larger, more courageous part of me knows that I’ve been drifting along in this boat for years (I know, I know, I’m mixing metaphors—first it was a cliff, now it’s a boat—just try to keep up, okay?) and as I learned while sailing on Lake Michigan one fateful, stormy day—sometimes the only way to let go of that old, ill-equipped boat (the bow wasn’t sealed, for fuck’s sake) and finally make the move to a more sea-worthy vessel is to sink it beneath the waves in a thunderstorm and have a little faith that there’s something better out there. And hopefully you won’t be struck down by lightning before you find it. (We weren’t! Yay! And before you get on my case for sailing in a thunderstorm–we were performing a last-minute, emergency rescue because our rescue boats were out of the water.)

What I’m really referring to with all this talk of change is my impending cross-country move. The truth is—I’m scared shitless. I thought the new and improved me would handle this with grace and aplomb, like the grown-ass woman I imagined I’d become. Instead, I’m finding real appeal in the whole ostrich-style, head-in-the-sand, hide-under-the-covers-with-a-bottle-of-wine-and-write-panicked-emails-to-my-mother approach. It’s a bit of an inverse equation—the nearer I draw to this transition, the further I recede from any semblance of poise and maturity. I find myself growing defensive, ducking for cover and taking aim at each change looming on the horizon with a shotgun loaded with cynicism and contempt. I try to remind myself of my once-present (and wholly out of character) optimism in the face of change, that my resistance is just nerves amplified by a bout of spring-fever-induced anxiety and that everything will look better through the lens of restored sanity (whenever that decides to grace me with its merciful presence). But in the meantime, I’m trying really hard not to run the train off the tracks. I know this move is sorely needed—that I’ve been slogging along in this rut for years now and drastic measures are needed in order to move forward with my life, to escape this comfortable death and get on with the business of growth and progress—to really live, rather than merely exist. So I’m trying very hard not to buy into this particular, “Change is bad,” family motto. I’ve resisted it for so many years. I just have to keep reminding myself that change is growth, change is potential, change is excitement, change is good.