I Cannot Explain This.

I cannot explain the insects in the south to my northern friends. I can’t. I can’t! I try, and words fail me. Feelings, somehow, fail me. I search desperately for a turn of phrase that will convey the size, the multitude, the tenacity, the sheer prevalence of insects here, as well as spiders, and I come up short, every time. I thought I might be close, recently, to giving an idea of it; the biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen – the length of the palm of my hand plus some – was riding the sliding glass door at the grocery. It was perched on the outside, comfortable and settled, going back and forth like it didn’t have a care in the world or a fear of getting squashed or of human beings and the consequences of their presence, and indeed, it was doing just fine. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I must have stood there for ten minutes. And when I collected myself, I took a picture, thinking, okay, maybe this will at least begin to explain it. Perched just above the long red sticker on the door that says “Push in case of emergency,” the thing had even given itself a scale; it was as long as a four-letter word (“push,” now. “push.”). A few of my northern friends were duly impressed, but one of my coworkers made fun of me. “It’s just a grasshopper!” she said. “What’s the big deal?”

The big deal is a thing I’m genuinely afraid to show anyone, honestly; I’m afraid if I tell anyone the stone cold truth, they won’t come visit. A grasshopper that looks like it was exposed to radiation is weird and a little funny; the much more commonly gigantic things I come across around here really aren’t. Cicadas, for example. Have you ever seen a cicada? They are, with all due respect, the most profoundly ugly creatures. At first it was just one, hanging on the low cement wall that fences in our steep front yard. It was as long as my index finger and utterly grotesque, like something out of a horror movie. It left me uneasy for days, but I said nothing. When three more appeared on the steps, I took it as a sign of the end times and wrote a living will. Ben told me what they were and not to worry, but I worried. I checked the neighbors’ steps; no one else had them. I concluded they were a plague and a sign of some impending personal misfortune and did some research.

Cicadas, it turns out, are, in addition to being unspeakably hideous, also wholly remarkable. Cicadas are, essentially, cool AF. I commonly think of cicadas as on some kind of cycle – seventeen years and the like – but around here, most are not. Around here, most cicadas choose when they will be born. They sense predator levels and choose the most opportune time to emerge. They can rest beneath the ground for years and years, for more than a decade even, waiting until some sense within them says, “Now, it’s safe now,” and then they emerge.

Oh, and predators. Predators. Nothing in this world is so preyed upon as the damn cicada. There is a wasp dedicated solely to their destruction, did you know that? (You did, if you are from the south; you likely did not, if you are reading this from the safety of your home comfortably north of the Mason-Dixon line.) They are called cicada killers and they are larger even than those giant beasts, thin and mean beyond the telling of it, and they hunt the cicadas toward extinction with a terrifying and dedicated zeal. They are horrible.

So, rather than endtimes – or so the internet tells me – cicadas are actually a phenomenally cool sign, symbolic of things including, but not at all limited to: change, metamorphosis, renewal, rebirth, patience, timing, and illumination. Which is to say, of course, that even if I could have before, I can’t bring myself to kill or even relocate the hideous things now. And here’s another fun fact about cicadas: once above ground, they simply drop dead, and quite quickly. Seventeen or some-odd years of stasis and they emerge above ground and kick it in four weeks, sometimes less. And when they die, they leave a perfect, empty shells just lying around, mostly on my front steps. They also shed! It’s a process beloved by science and, I feel comfortable saying, far less by homeowners. They shed their entire selves and just leave it there and walk away – hence the “rebirth.”

The result of this is I can’t kill them, I can’t move them, and I’m trying to figure out how to dispose of their remnants in a way respectful enough not to anger the many gods who so obviously exalt them.

Visit the south. Come up to the porch for some sweet tea. Mind the cicada graveyard on the steps now, darlin’. Stay awhile.

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Various Assorted Wildlife

In a house as old as ours, at this time of year, its sometimes difficult to distinguish between outside and in. Bugs think so – a good number of them cannot tell our kitchen, a place they do not belong, from our yard, a place they are essentially welcome to, there being eff-all I can do about it. We’re tracking in leaves and sticks. We’re dog-sitting for the weekend, so an animal is prowling the entirety of the premises at all hours. On it goes.

The eight cats who live next door consider our backyard their territory and the dog an interloper. When his back is literally turned, they slink along the wall, eyeing him imperiously, daring him out; the moment he whirls around, they disappear. Every now and again he catches the scent of one of them and becomes suddenly ferocious, following the smell everywhere, leaping in the air and snapping at nothing, enthralled with the imaginary chase.

Louisville is a nice place to grow up and our house is a magical place for small children. They are sure they know its secrets as grown people never will: a whole different family living in the attic we cannot access, a ghost in the basement, an archaeological dig site in the back. B’s nephews and niece played on the porch last time they came to visit and one of them summoned me. We turned left out of our the front door, where a narrow alley between our house and the one next to it leads to a low stone wall, to which he pointed.

“There used to be a cat there,” he told me with great authority. And there will be again. All creatures great and small come and go here as they please.

The River Has Overflowed Its Banks.

Natural disasters must be ranked in several ways in order to determine their narrative usefulness. How much destruction they cause, and how long it takes them to cause it, for example. Hurricanes are excellent for sudden, violent, sweeping change. Snowstorms are about the slow grinding of hope into dust, and the re-emergence of love, and spring, when least expected.

And then, too, natural disasters and their associated adjectives must be measured by the phonetics, by the unquantifiable lyrical qualities that make mere vocabulary sing to the heart. Storms are cold. Tropical storms are humidity and power, a love affair trapped in a hotel room for days, building to a crescendo, only to open the door when the worst has passed and to find that outside, everything has been utterly destroyed in your absence. You will have to rebuild, after a tropical storm.

For the convergence of sheer grindingly aggravating reality and breathtakingly beautiful language, though, nothing will quite beat a flood. Just say the word. Flood. A quiet, paced destruction of everything you’ve known and loved. You are flooded with joy, flooded with grief, flooded with the knowledge of things past and of things yet to be. And the water – it flows, it over flows, it flows over. Over what? Its banks. The river has overflowed its banks. It has made its way into the city and past it, into basements and onto first floors, across low-lying farmland. It has stolen in, in the night, made off with fences and road signs and yes, the occasional car. In the morning when you awaken and the flood has receded, you are flooded with hope. Things can be suddenly untenable and then all at once better. You are flooded with peace. You can’t leave the house anyway. You sit on your once-porch, now lakefront property, and sip your coffee.

Of course, since the Ohio River has, in fact, overflowed its banks, one concern has gripped the city of Louisville, held tight to it, inspired fear and anxiety: how will this effect the NCAA championship games? What about parking? How early must one get downtown if one should have, say, tickets to a 4pm game? What if you’re hoping to buy one outside the Yum Center? Are the scalpers still out where they were last year, or have circumstances forced them to relocate? These are the chief concerns when the river floods a city south of the Mason-Dixon line in the month of March.

To the Ohio River’s terrorist flood. Long may it reign.

Barrel-Bottom Wisdom: Time Travel.

My tagline promises life, location, and hard liquor, and I’ve leaned fairly heavily on the first two while withholding the last, which, especially in Kentucky, is the height of rudeness. As a corrective measure, I give you “Barrel-Bottom Wisdom,” part the first.

In January, two friends came to visit (bless them) and we went out on the bourbon trail to Maker’s Mark. Bourbon is on a boom, you may have heard, but a trip out to Maker’s gives the impression that this is no typical bubble. While the flavored vodka boom was an abomination and an affront to the Gods of Liquor resulting in the final indignity of something sorbet flavored masquerading as an acceptable beverage for adults, most bourbon is lovingly crafted, and time-consuming. Production simply cannot and will not meet demand, never mind exceed it. All of the Maker’s Mark ever sold is still made in the same place, the very one we toured; the only concession to expansion is a building, visible from the original site, where more barrels can be aged. It is possible, in a day, to see every barrel and bottle of Maker’s and trace their origins, excepting those already in stores. The gift shop also allows guests to hand-dip their own bottle.

The weekend we visited had been a trying one in which our nightmarish roommate allowed our electricity to be shut off through negligence and poor financial planning, then became irate when I insisted on turning it back on myself rather than wait for her to do so at her leisure. When we dipped our bottles, I earmarked mine for our first home together, the one that would truly be ours, that would mark living together as a dedicated project rather than a tetchy experiment. When we moved, it was the very first thing I unpacked, tucked back in the freezer until we were ready.

We opened it this weekend at our housewarming party, where, with the aid of the ever-helpful bourbon, I time-traveled to the life I had envisioned in that moment almost a year ago: a house, with a front porch, and a library, a lit Christmas tree, full of warmth and laughter and friends and family and love, happy and content to be perfectly where we were. You might say that’s not the bourbon, but I will tell you this: the bourbon sure doesn’t hurt.

Some Thoughts, As I Do Battle With the Abandoned Field We Call a Yard.

1) People are always sharing this little sign on Facebook, “Discipline is good for kids! Share if you were DISCIPLINED as a child!” Why? What does that prove about you, or your parents? Notice that this does not imply that the discipline was useful in any way. Maybe you’re a serial killer. I don’t know you. No, no more of that. How about this: SHARE if your parents made you do yard work as a kid, so that as an adult, you could look around at what closely resembles an abandoned field next to a Walmart parking lot, sigh deeply, go out to Target and get the good trashbags – outdoor, 30 gallon capacity, it’s all they have – return, and spend the next three hours engaged in what often feels like a futile battle with the knowledge that it is certainly not, in fact, futile, because you did the yard every fall in New England with your family and every year it always got done and it looked perfectly fine. SHARE SHARE SHARE.

2) There was broken glass under piles of dead leaves that must have been there for a decade. Who were these previous tenants? Savages.

3) PILES OF DEAD LEAVES ARE WHERE THE MICE LIVE. UNACCEPTABLE.

4) At various points over a decade or more, people have attempted to tame this 20×20 ft wilderness with the following: decorative concrete, bricks, cement blocks. It is sweet. Past tenants who dreamed of a lovely backyard in which to spend time with friends and loved ones: I salute you, and I go forth in your honor and in your memory.

5) Final tally: 665 gallons worth of trashbags filled to maximum capacity with leaves, sticks, and assorted debris.

6) We measure trashbags in gallons, which is a foolish invitation to fill them with liquid. This seems worth reconsidering.

My Year of Magical Thinking

I left my friends and my family and my job and everything else that anchored my self-identity on October 27, 2013, and moved to Kentucky. Six days later, I turned 29. One day after that, the loneliness hit me, hard and fast as an elbow to the face, knocking the wind out of me and sending me reeling backwards, straight into bed, where I stayed for the better part of the next week.

On November 6, three days after my birthday and two days after The Loneliness and I became suddenly and intimately acquainted, a package arrived.

I left it unopened for hours, comforted by the knowledge that something good was inside; comforted by the knowledge that when I opened it, something good and special would certainly happen. Knowing that you are in the moment right before something good happens is rare under any circumstances. In the middle of the desert of The Loneliness, it might as well have been the only glass of water I would ever have again, held right in front of me. I held onto the knowing like a prayer that was going to be answered.

I pulled open the box that night, sitting on the still unfamiliar floor of our new room. Inside were tiny tissue-paper packages held with string, each marked by a sparkly silver tag, each from a different friend. I cried as I opened them. Each one of them felt like being home and each one of them was perfect. Coffee from my favorite shop in New York and the most perfect birthday mug in the world to go with it. A Buzzfeed tote bag (The 15 Greatest Philosophers Ranked by Hotness) just as I had worn holes in my old beloved one. Three kinds of tea that smelled like home. A tiny package of magic from the witch, with a candle that smelled like patchouli and tobacco, and a little potion called “boundaries in a bottle.” Sweet handwritten cards and letters.

When I was done looking over everything, I took what I needed immediately – the tote bag, the tea and coffee, the bottle of boundaries – and put the rest back. For months, on a bad day, I would glance at the box, weigh the pleasure of opening another gift on that day against the inevitable day the box would be empty. I took things out one at a time, once a week, once a month; I smoothed each piece of tissue paper out when it was no longer needed and saved it. I kept one shiny silvery tag hanging over my desk. It said, “Northern Downpour.” I went back to that box and I went back and I went back until May, when I took out the very last gift, and then I turned the box upside down and shook it just to make sure I had gotten every last tiny little bit of magic out of it.

It got harder for a long time instead of easier. I thought about moving. When our roommate was being particularly awful or the stress of being severely underemployed felt like too much, I thought about going home. I thought about selling everything I owned and burning the rest and heading even further west, out to a state I’d never lived in, or another country. If I was going to be lonely, it would be better to be alone. My loneliness was crushing everyone else near me. I was a happiness liability.

Everyone told me how friendly southerners are, and they are right – southerners are all greetings and warm smiles and my northern tendency to consider a terse nod plenty of interaction for a grocery store is taken well by no one – but no one ever said they were polite. A clerk at CVS checked my ID and commented in the most upbeat tone of voice that she “could just never live up North – I had a friend who moved and she just hates it.” Did I hate it, she wondered? Had I moved south to escape the Northerners? She had heard they were rude. And the cost of living. So outrageous. Yes, I thought, seething and counting change, but the drivers who don’t take to snow like a homicidal maniac locked in a haunted hotel all winter takes to an axe, well, it sure runs stiff competition to all the people here asking me where I go to church and why I’m not married to the man I live with. I sprayed myself with Boundaries every time I left the house. In March I ordered a new bottle. For months I couldn’t get a job at all, not to so much as sweep sidewalks; a real improvement was when low-wage labor accepted me as one of its own and allowed me to work as, in short order, a retail associate, a barista, a nanny, and back to retail. Attempts to pick up pieces that resemble whatever life I knew before have had the feeling and ultimately the same results as raking my soul slowly over hot coals.

I would think of a Lori McKenna line all the time, the one where she says, “Well but God only gives us as much as we can take… I guess.” There’s another unspoken truth there; not quite that we get what we need, but that we get what we need to do what we must. I got Emily Mowery. Acquaintances through a mutual best friend, we ended up in Louisville at the exact same time, accidentally, each knowing no one else. We eyed each other wearily for a few weeks, circling, expressing ourselves gently, before realizing that we were two pieces of the same puzzle and going all-in.

Emily’s a kinetic learner. We had to go everywhere, touch everything, try every restaurant, have every adventure. We drank beer at Holy Grale, out back in a secret garden with twinkling lights. We stumbled onto First Friday at Garage Bar, where it became apparent that Emily Doesn’t Understand How Bars Work. We did a weekend trip to Columbus, OH, where, on Friday the 13th, under a full moon, I taught Emily how bars work, and we were both made of magic. We went rock-climbing at Red River Gorge and stayed up all night drinking beer with the summer employees of the hostel where we stayed, grown-up campers with no responsibility beyond having fun and making sure everyone else did, too. I insisted we go see a free show at 4th Street Live, something no self-respecting local would ever do, because the beautiful man playing that night was going to blow up and be so huge and we would be able to say we saw him way back when, I just knew it. We got into the meet-and-greet; buried somewhere in my files is a photo in which I look totally insane, arm around the performer’s waist. The show was incredible. The kid had the number one country song on the charts two weeks ago.

Without a steady job, I found projects. I wrote for myself and for other people. Someone published something I wrote. The witch got a little business off to a rollicking start and sent me some magic in the mail; a friend and I started the back-end work on an organization; another friend and I got into the planning stages of a business of our own that might someday come to be. Other friends and family members made things that inspired me to keep pushing; one friend’s fully-funded kickstarter will soon be a podcast I cannot wait to listen to; my brother and sister took a pilot they co-wrote from east to west coast and won Best Pilot at the LA Comedy Festival. I accepted that life isn’t going to look like it did before, even though I don’t yet know what it will look like in the future.

I went to New York to see friends and family and stopped by the MADRE office, where I used to work. I walked 50 extra blocks when I left, circling all the way around to the Flatiron building and back up to Ktown, so I could walk by the museum where B and I met. I got confused and took an inefficient side street to get back to the metro, a block lower than the one I needed. Everything looked familiar. When I stopped to think why, I found myself in front of St. Francis, the church my coworker Roxana attended, where we held her memorial service and where I sometimes went to sit and think after she passed away. I went in and lit a candle for her, and told her not to get any ideas. I’m still Jewish.

When we were looking for our house, the one that took forever to find, I pictured it over and over. I saw the two of us painting and unpacking, how bright and how warm it would be, felt the wood floorboards underfoot. A psychic told me it would have three steps leading up to it, but the day we found it, it had closer to twenty – until, at the landing, when we turned left, we were facing three steps leading up to the porch, and the front door. To paraphrase the witch, when you don’t have a dentist, a primary care physician, or a 401k, but you do have a psychic and a pack of tarot cards, that is magical thinking.

The other night I was reading in bed when I heard a scratching sound. I sat right up, looked frantically around for mice, of which I am hateful and terrified and which were, in fact, a huge problem when we first moved in. I called out for Ben; he heard the scratching too, but insisted it was coming from outside. We have eight cats next door, but I know their sounds now and I find it comforting. The backyard is more theirs than ours, and they patrol it regally. They are not prone to scratching and squeaking. We listened for another moment. “I think there’s a dog out there,” Ben said. He headed for the door. I had a moment of panic. “Where are you going?” He looked at me. “I’m going to check on the dog.” I should have thought of that, but I was busy keeping all of my appendages on the bed, where nothing could reach out from the dark and grab them, the commotion outside was making me that nervous. Ben called from the back door, “He’s trying to get in.” I got out of bed. “Does he have tags? You might as well let him, we have to call his owners.” The tiniest, most perfect little beagle mutt came bounding towards me, then away from me, trying to smell everything and see everything at once. “Come here boy!” I pet him while Ben tried to read his tags. He accepted the petting while simultaneously attempting to be in a completely different room, smelling more things. “Good boy! Sit!” Ben grabbed his face while I made a grab at the collar. I looked up. “Ben?” I held the tag for him to see. “I think the dog’s name is Ben.” The puppy licked my face. I wanted a dog so badly I called one to us by name. His owners were very happy to hear from us.

Every now and then, maybe five times in my life, I’ve been sitting in a moment and realized, “I have dreamed this. This has happened before. This has happened before in a dream.” I had one of those moments walking down a street with B’s sister-in-law and sister – I recognized the street, the houses, the exact moment itself that we were in, even though I had never seen any of it before. Then it happened again during a weekend in the catskills for my friend’s 30th birthday. Then again, back in Louisville a few days later, three times in just ten days. If I’m not where I’m supposed to be, something sure wants me to feel like I am. In the nearly seven months since I ordered that second bottle of Boundaries, I’ve used only a little more than half.

There’s an eloquent line from Cheryl Strayed about what Amy Poehler aptly calls time travel – that thing we do where we find ourselves in a moment we forsaw. “Who we become is born of who we most primitively are,” she says; “we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.” I knew we would find the house. I knew someday, someone would publish some of my writing, and then some more, and then some more after that. I both know and cannot possibly know that there is success in many bizarre forms in my future, in ways and shapes I would never have anticipated; I both know and cannot possibly know that there is travel, and family, and warmth and laughter, a dog, more challenges, houses full of people we love, enough money, rewarding work.

I did not know I would still be working holiday retail at the age of 30, one year after I began. That I am afraid I did not anticipate.

I’ve spoken to one friend almost every day since I moved here; probably not coincidentally, he is a therapist by trade. We were talking last night about an irrational fear I sometimes have, which goes along these lines: My intuition has always told me the right place to be and the right thing to do before, but what if it stops? What if that feeling that drives me is finite? What if I only get so many of those, and I used them all up? He laughed a little and said, “Yeah, under circumstances like these we get into some magical thinking.” I stopped. “It is so weird that you just said that,” I told him, “because I’ve been working on this post for the site…”