• Essays

    looping music

    I deleted my Spotify account earlier this year. I cried afterwards.

    The crying was mostly because of my brother Zach.

    After he died in 2021 and we started going through his things, my sister Elisabeth found his private Spotify account logged in on his computer. She made it so his account was following both my and her accounts, to create a new link of connection between us, albeit posthumously.

    It made me happy to have this new insight into his world. I scoured every inch of his playlists, looking for any songs or bands we had in common. I smiled when I saw his “ari” playlist, thinking back on all the times I overheard him singing along to Ariana Grande behind his closed bedroom door (he also loved Taylor Swift). I melted when I saw the Lord of the Rings audiobook playlist, because as a kid he would always fall asleep listening to that exact same audio series—except back then it was a wooden boxed set of CDs and a little CD player he kept by his bed.

    That CD player and boxed set are still in his closet right now.

    I wanted to lose myself in Zach’s playlists, to close my eyes and imagine he was here, but I didn’t really feel a connection to any of his music, even though some of the playlists brought me detached nostalgia. What I really wanted was something we had in common. But I didn’t even know most of his music.

    The difference between my sister and me is that she took all this new information we discovered about him and saw it as an opportunity to get to know him better, while I wanted to find connections between us that had already been there before he died. Just different ways of grieving.

    The only song I found in all of his playlists that I truly resonated with was “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals. Zach had it in a playlist called “loop.” I, too, used to loop that song.

    I listened to it on repeat all of summer 2020, when I moved from California back in with my parents in Nevada. I was furious that my life in California had fallen apart, and the way that I processed anger at the time was to go on a run. But it was blazing hot in Nevada, so I would wait until at least midnight to start running, returning home at 2 or 3 in the morning.

    And that song “Heat Waves” was constantly on loop while I ran, because that song felt like nostalgia and heartbreak and lost things and the inability to say goodbye. It felt the way I felt.

    I was desperate for my life back in California, but utterly heartbroken by the way life there had chewed me up and spit me out during the first half of 2020. It was a weird mix of wanting to go back, but knowing I never could. I felt like such a failure.

    Glass Animals said that “Heat Waves” was about realising it’s ok to be defeated by something.”

    They continue: “we are often expected to ‘be strong’ and to swallow our sadness. failing to do that is seen as weakness. so we try to cover up our feelings and hide inside of TV shows or video games or drink or drugs. but being vulnerable should be a positive thing.”

    I’ve felt defeated many times in my life, but 2020 was perhaps the first time where I felt truly powerless.

    Alongside the excavation of life as we all knew it in 2020, I also lived through multiple implosions of my own life. I kept losing my footing. Instead of just being repeatedly knocked down, yet able to stand back up again, I felt like I was trapped in an avalanche.

    Among other things, during lockdown in 2020, I also dealt with suicidal depression, being quarantined with my narcissistic roommate, and having literally no income which brought debt and food insecurity into my life.

    Later in 2021, while holing up at my parents house and trying to recover, the avalanche was replaced with a painful volcanic explosion.

    I learned I was autistic, which toppled the foundation of my existence. One of my best friends was run over by a semi truck and became a quadriplegic.

    And my sweet brother lost his life.

    I’m not in a constant state of “feeling defeated,” even after experiencing trauma and pain and loss. I get back up because I want to keep going and keep exploring life, because I feel like my life has a purpose for existing.

    But within cycles of falling down and getting back up comes increased levels of vulnerability.

    Layers of myself have sloughed off, masks and forcefields and naivety and blindness. All this shedding is good, because I’m becoming a better version of myself. But still. It all makes me feel more sensitive. Trauma is noisy and the world is noisy and it all makes my head feel noisy.

    In summer 2020, in the middle of all this defeat, looping songs that talked about this pain felt necessary, because I felt too lonely to just stay inside my own head and my own feelings. I desperately needed to know that I wasn’t alone.

    But three years later, I’m feeling emotionally stronger, yet weirdly more sensitive. I feel happier inside my head, but also craving more peace in the world. Which is making me feel like I just don’t have the bandwidth anymore for very much music consumption.

    She tried to concentrate on the sound, but music had always unmoored her, and her thoughts drifted.

    —Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven • (buy on bookshop.org)

    I know there are artists who like music in the background when they work; they use the music to block out everything else. They’re not listening to it; it’s there as a form of companionship. I don’t need a soundtrack to accompany my life. Music in the background nibbles away at your awareness. It’s comforting, perhaps, but who said tapping into your awareness was supposed to be comfortable? And who knows how much of your brainpower and intuition the music is draining?

    —Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit • (buy on bookshop.org)

    I admitted to my boyfriend Ethan several months ago, slightly embarrassed, that I haven’t had the urge to go to any concerts since the world opened back up. Surprisingly, he actually reciprocated that confession.

    I wonder if the only concert we’ll ever go to together is the one we went to years before we met. An alt-J concert here in Las Vegas, in 2018. What a wild moment it was to figure out that we had been in the same room together, though in profoundly different worlds.

    Somehow four years later, the threads of resonance pulled us together. Somehow we ended up in the same climbing gym, on the same bouldering team, on the same frequency.

    We’ve been together for ten months now, but I knew before our first date that he was my one.

    I’m not actually planning to never go out to a concert again. I’m sure Ethan and I will go to a concert together one of these days. But as I get older and feel a little more stable in life, the way that I want to listen to music at home has changed.

    I used Spotify pretty much exclusively as my way to listen to music over the past ten years. It started off just as an exciting way to have access to whatever I wanted to listen to. Then it began morphing into a way to collect memories, especially after I went to bible college in 2014.

    Spotify was the absolute shit at bible college. All my friends followed each other’s accounts and discovered what each person was listening to. We would make playlists based on memories or vibes or the semester’s theme (#lighthasdawned) or our favorite locations (rock tree or the lookout or ofc). My college ex devoted lots of time to make “banger” playlists for him and his fellow campus servers to have good vibes as they set up the dining room for retreats or conferences. I worked in the AV department and compiled songs that would sound really epic on the speakers all over campus, on the days that I had to test the sound systems. We both loved Twenty One Pilots, and the summer of 2015 we unintentionally spread TØP love throughout the entire campus, thanks to our respective jobs and access to aux cords. Everyone was singing “Stressed Out” that summer.

    Playlists were a way to capture a certain vibe, but also to pin down a memory or a feeling. A collection of songs that could accurately collage an experience. Like a musical scrapbook. Even after each semester or season in life came to an end, a playlist made during that time could bring me back, a rush of nostalgia and longing.

    But this playlist building practice felt soured after 2020. I, of course, made massive playlists when I lived in California in 2019 and 2020. My music taste was completely overhauled thanks to my roommates, and I began listening primarily to old school rap, reggaetón, and my now favorite band, Khruangbin. It was total beach vibes there, marijuana plants, surfboards, hammocks, backyard chickens, lemon trees, film cameras, ukuleles, yoga mats, ping-pong table, modelos, shroom smoothies.

    When that life ended, I listened to my California playlists endlessly, obsessively. Hiding in the past, hating the present, not at all hopeful about the future. Just truly embodying the concept of “the best days are behind me.” My intentionally built dream life was over and I was stuck living a life I didn’t want. What was there to look forward to?

    Not surprisingly, there was plenty to look forward to. I started healing from my pain and grief and trauma, as self-help girlies are wont to do, and my life slowly opened up again. I began fulfilling long held dreams of mine like finally getting to rock climb whenever I fucking want and being in an amazing stable loving relationship for the first time.

    The more my life opened up, the more stale these old playlists seemed. I felt tired whenever I listened to them. And I don’t think it was because I just overplayed them, but because of the state of mind I had been in when I obsessively listened to them. I had been so isolated in my head, so lonely, I thought there was nothing more to look forward to in life, and I only wanted to revisit feelings and memories of the past.

    Now that I’m healthy again and starting to thrive, I just don’t want to devote as much time to looking back and being nostalgic. It feels suffocating.

    I told a musician friend of mine that I deleted my Spotify account as a way to heal and move on with life, and he was kind of horrified. He said that he used his old Spotify playlists as a marker of how far he’s come in life. Listening to the music he loved at a certain time, lyrics and themes, he’s able to track his growth and feel proud of himself.

    I actually think that’s really cool.

    But for me, I find that a natural part of my healing progression is learning to let things go.

    Which is fine and dandy when you’re healing from a breakup or bad living situation, but absolutely tragic when you’re trying to heal from the death of a loved one. It seems cruel that healing from grief of death eventually means that you stop feeling as much emotion from the memories as you used to.

    In many ways, it feels like the honorable thing to do is to stay in the state of grief and remembrance.

    Part of me doesn’t want to heal, because healing causes you to move on in tiny ways.

    Part of me wants to stay traumatized forever, haunted by his ghost, worn down by heavy emotions. I felt so guilty the first time I laughed after he died, the first day I didn’t cry over him, the first day that I felt pretty again and didn’t look like death warmed over.

    And part of me felt guilty for deleting my Spotify and no longer having access to his music.

    But music nostalgia can quickly morph into just being stuck in the past, or even stuck in a traumatic feeling. And I felt sad when I realized that my music taste hadn’t really changed at all since living in California, how stuck in the past I became. And I felt sad when I saw Zach’s playlists and all this music I couldn’t relate to and thought about all the things I’ll never know about him and how he’ll never get to grow and evolve beyond the 21 year old version of himself. It all just felt so sad and I didn’t want to associate music with catalogued playlists of sadness anymore. 

    So my Spotify is officially deleted.

    Maybe that’s why I desperately want a record player now. Obviously I want one for the aesthetics of it. I love an old fashioned vintage vibe. I feel like it’s my final form as a surly millennial. I already have a tobacco pipe and John Lennon sunglasses, and my sister and I co-own our grandma’s typewriter. Besides aesthetics, I want music to be less of a curated collection of specific memories, and more like an art experience again. I want to listen to albums again, albums, damn it. (I’m saying this the same way that Bilbo says, “I want to see mountains again, mountains, Gandalf!”)

    But I think I also want a record player because you can’t listen to music on repeat on it (unless there are some record player hacks to achieve this). The main intention of a record player is to listen to an album all the way through, and it stops when it’s done. No looping or hijacking of emotions.

    Zach had a song playing on his computer when he died. Playing on a loop.

    We kept his computer on for over a year, the song playing on infinite repeat that entire time. I would quietly slip into his room when no one else was around and sit in his desk chair and put on his headphones.

    The song was always playing, a piano cover he had liked, a sweet solace, his final gift to us. I always cried when I listened to it.

    We had to shut the computer off around Christmas last year. I lashed out at my older brother for turning it off, but he said the computer was crashing and he was trying to preserve as much as he could.

    And the song finally came to an end.

    It felt like unplugging a coma patient. It felt like his breath finally let out and his heart gave its last beat.

    It hurts to heal. It hurts to let go. But we’re still here living, so we need to live.

    The past was beautiful. And so is the future.

    No more looping.

    Time to start living.

    “Elsa,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss her, moving to a song that wasn’t being played. “We are the music.”

    —Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds (buy on bookshop.org)

    I am so tuned to being alive that if you touch me it makes music.

    —Jenny Slate, Little Weirds • (buy on bookshop.org)

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  • Essays

    octopus brain

    I’m currently kind of obsessed with octopuses.

    I look at an octopus and see my brain. Tentacles all moving of their own accord, one head-brain plus eight arm-brains, suckered synapses touching and processing everything.

    I’ve mentioned before that I’ve self-diagnosed myself as both autistic and ADHD. I’ve kind of figured out how to make them both work. My ADHD brain wants to touch and do literally everything. My autistic brain wants to sit down and work on something and not be interrupted.

    The ADHD brain runs the show most of the time. I train it by setting 10-15 minute timers so that I have time to touch everything and then a trigger to move me onto the next thing. When I find something that’s truly worthy of my full attention, I let the obsessive autistic brain take over and prod at the problem until it’s solved.

    Octopuses are incredible problem solvers. They look like they’re meandering around, just your average sea creature searching for food, until you set them upon a problem. One video I watched from a research center who often put their octopus through challenges, said that he would poke and prod the puzzle first to get a feel for it, but then always take a few tentacle steps back to observe, process, and think for a few minutes. Then get back to work.

    Ally Brennan Photo Illustration Author Website Essay Writing Octopus Drawing Blog Post Newsletter Comic 2023 Nevada
    Drawing by me. September 1, 2023.

    Ethan and I watched the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” earlier this year. I ate a mushroom chocolate before the viewing and was kind of freaking out at the underwater visuals, but I was still extremely emotional towards the connection the filmographer and the octopus shared over the course of one year.

    I now know that anything involving an octopus main character is probably going to be a tearjerker. Because I also just finished reading a book where one of the main characters is an octopus in an aquarium, Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. It’s tinged with sadness. It’s the kind of slow literary novel where there’s multiple perspective characters and you slowly see their stories tie together and you fear your heart is going to be shattered somehow by the end of it. It’s a slow, graceful train wreck of emotions.

    The reason for sadness in octopus stories is because they have incredibly short lifespans. The Giant Pacific Octopus, the species featured in Remarkably Bright Creatures, can live up to five years (only if it doesn’t mate), but the Common Octopus, the species featured in “My Octopus Teacher,” has a lifespan of just 1-2 years. Octopuses are easy characters if you want a heartbreak story, easy money.

    It seems like people associate octopuses with sadness or depth of emotion or ability to carry the weight of existence, because I looked up more octopus books to read, and the plots descriptions were all “death,” “cancer,” “for fans of the art of racing in the rain,” and “keep tissues on hand.”

    Octopuses invoke a depth of soul, of emotions, of meaning. They invoke thoughts of death.

    These are such incredible curious intelligent, even affectionate, otherworldly creatures, and it feels unfair that they live such short lives.

    I saw glimpses during my rabbit hole octopus browsing that scientists are bewildered by their DNA. It’s like nothing they’ve seen before. “Aliens,” some of the articles whisper.

    I’ve never before wished for the existence of aliens. Life on earth seemed too overwhelming and magical to think of anything outside the planet.

    But now that I love octopuses, I wish it to be true.

    I find myself hoping that they’re not just another wild and wacky animal species here on earth. The thought of them being aliens, sprouted from seeds of another planet, is comforting. “Tell me we’re not alone here,” I want to ask them.

    I never believed in ghosts either, until after my brother died. But I’d see flickers of things, in the early weeks and months following his death. I felt like I could see him out of the corner of my eye, in certain places like the hallway that runs between our bedrooms. Our two closed bedrooms doors and that hallway were the only things separating us that day when he died.

    Now, as almost two years have passed, I don’t really see him anymore, not when I’m awake. Maybe those types of hauntings are for the freshly bereaved. But he visits me in my dreams. He always seems physically solid, not like a ghost. But there’s always a look in his eye that feels ghostly, like he knows what’s coming. Or that it already happened and we’re just briefly hanging out in an alternate timeline.

    They don’t feel like dreams. They feel like visits.

    And it’s comforting to be with him. Because he has this energy of like, “Yeah yeah, we both know I died and it really sucked. But can we please just get on with hanging out?” We both already have this knowledge and heartbreak of what happened, so there’s no blustering and blubbering. And it’s nice.

    It’s like hanging out with someone who has been on a life altering journey, and they come back wiser and more assured. Or being with someone like the Doctor from Doctor Who. He’s been everywhere in time and space. He’s the person you want with you on a journey. People like that, they get confronted with new experiences and new ideas, and they don’t shut down or turn into sheep and look away. They face the gritty reality, they open up and expand.

    I suppose this is why I’ve started obsessing over octopuses. Because they remind me of death and they make me think there’s more out there. It brings me comfort in ways that I never needed before.

    She drifts into a strange world. A dream, it must be, but she’s not entirely sure, for it feels so mundane. In the dream she’s lying right here on her firm bed cradled in her own arms, then the arms start to grow, weaving around her like a baby’s swaddle. The arms have suckers, a million tiny suckers, each one pulling at her skin, and the tentacles grow longer until they’ve created a cocoon and everything is dark and silent. A powerful feeling washes over her, and after a moment Tova recognizes the feeling as relief. The cocoon is warm and soft, and she is alone, blissfully alone. Finally, she succumbs to sleep.

    —Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures • (bookshop + amazon)

    Part of me wishes there was something tangible and wise guiding us bumbling humans. I believe in God and souls and intuition and higher selves guiding us. But the thought of a real being standing in front of me hits different.

    I used to daydream about the Doctor showing up in his TARDIS and rescuing me from a meaningless life. It was during a time in my life where I felt very lost, where I couldn’t make anything stick. I felt very powerless and panicked, like if I didn’t figure life out, I would be slowly, excruciatingly shuttled into one of those cardboard cutout Life Scripts that most people seemed to end up in. So I wasn’t just daydreaming about the Doctor. I was crying and praying for something to happen.

    My sister didn’t know about my ongoing prayers to the Doctor when she sent me this email in 2017:

    Ally Brennan Website Author Newsletter Essay Blog Post Doctor Who Graphic Word Art Procreate Octopus Brain 2023

    Most of me has begrudgingly come to accept that the Doctor isn’t coming to get me, but I still find myself wanting to be worthy of being his companion. Because it’s not just that.

    It’s because now I understand when people ask with concern or even fear in their voices, “Are we really alone in the universe?”

    I want to keep my mind expanded. I want to be on the lookout for wondrous new perspectives. Because I feel like the more someone expands their soul, the less alone people feel around them.

    And until we find out for sure if time lords will come visit or if octopuses are aliens, or other proof of intelligent life outside of earth, we need to make sure we grow into people who make others feel less alone.

    Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.

    —Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures • (bookshop + amazon)

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  • Essays

    the weight of existence

    I’m really not as strong or as brave as I thought I was.

    I’ve been through a lot of evolution shifts over the last few years. I’m not talking about physical experiences I’ve gone through, but of deconstructing my entire view of reality. Deconstructing God and heaven and hell and the bible, considering reincarnation, testing manifestation, and peering at various conspiracy theories. Everything that was off the table in the past, too out there or expansive for my then-self, it was looked at.

    This has been done almost entirely by myself, because I think that’s the nature of these things. We generally don’t have support systems for personal evolutions. We change from the person that everyone knows and loves, into someone they don’t know yet. Even if there’s lots of love, it can be hard to keep up with that and fully support.

    Which is okay. People who want to evolve into a different—hopefully, better—version of themselves need to be strong enough to walk alone. To carry their burden of existence while they grow and expand.

    Entrusting one’s life is not the same as opening up one’s soul, and although I love Manuela like a sister, I cannot share with her the things that constitute the tiny portion of meaning and emotion that my incongruous existence has stolen from the universe.

    —Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog • (bookshop + amazon)

    My first comprehension of the weight of my own existence came sometime in my childhood. I don’t know how old I was, but I remember suddenly realizing that my mom wasn’t just my mom. She didn’t solely exist for me, to fulfill my needs and desires. She was her own person with longings and daydreams and thoughts that didn’t contain me.

    It was a heartbreaking, reality shattering discovery at the time. At first I felt very unsafe and almost a little panicked. I’d spent my whole life being protected and cared for and contained by her. I didn’t have to know anything about anything, because I had my mom. That’s what she was there for.

    But as I grew older and started taking some weight off her and putting it on myself and others, I began to feel happy that she was completely her own person, and not just my personalized carbon caretaker.

    The difficult thing about being a human and not, say, a kangaroo, is that humans have awareness. It’s not just about how to physically survive in this world, but also about handling existence itself. The human mind wonders about every facet of everything, the human mind wants to solve problems not just as they come but in a permanent fashion, the human mind wants to evolve beyond what’s already there.

    That’s why when I come across cynical-type people who say we’re just here to survive and reproduce like animals, my mind goes blank. It can’t compute that kind of statement, because according to my brain’s self-aware programming, we’re here for so much more.

    Sometimes I would like to be nothing more than just a little joey, observing everything from the safety of a kangaroo pouch. Sometimes the weight of my own existence is too much to handle. But as I get braver and experience the joys that accompany bravery, there’s nothing I love more than being an adult human.

    By universal design you are born into a perplexing situation, bewildered, and you have one job as a human: figure this shit out.

    —Will Smith, Will • (bookshop + amazon)

    A realization similar to the one I had with my mom happened to me in my twenties. This one involving my adult friendships.

    Whenever someone would text me asking how I was, I’d start writing a text back about my life. But I would write way too much, type “sorry this is so long” at the end of the text, and then hit “send.”

    The reason I was writing so much over text was because I didn’t have a journaling habit at the time. Writing itself is very therapeutic, regardless of the medium, so I found myself opening up to myself while writing text messages, and not editing them before sending them out. Yikes.

    I finally noticed the pattern I had of doing this when I felt like my friends were slowly pulling away. I was mortified to realize I was emotionally dumping on them and straining the relationships.

    Same thing as with my mom: I came to understand that my friends had their own weights to carry and couldn’t bear the full brunt of me all the time.

    So I bottled up.

    This was a good thing and a bad thing.

    Bad, because obviously there’s an unhealthy aspect to pulling away from relationships and closing off. It keeps people at arm’s length away, and there’s more of a shallowness to the friendship.

    But it was also a good thing, because I was in the murky middle of my deconstruction. Personal evolution, like I said, pretty much requires solitude and a lack of support.

    Partially why I closed off was because I wanted to know I could support myself, trust myself, carry the weight myself. I wanted to be as strong as possible within myself, so I could be that for the people in my life.

    This is around the time I started journaling again, which I hadn’t really done since I was a teenager. Journaling helped me process new beliefs and old fears. It was the suitcase I began to use to carry myself.

    Fast forward to today. I’ve gotten much better with my friendships and relationships and allowing people into parts of my life that I’ve process and healed, but I’m still mostly keeping things to myself.

    I think of myself as so strong and so brave for facing the stark reality of existence all on my own. Especially proud of removing the safety net of religion and walking on the edge of the cliff, standing firm against the furious gusts of wind and not letting my knees shake as I peer down into the endless black abyss of the unknown.

    I’m so good at not being fully known or understood, I tell myself. Now finally, after all these years, I am fully contained like a mysterious island. No longer putting my weight on anyone else.

    Such smugness.

    Until I realized that I was just parsing out tiny fragments of myself without even realizing it.

    I am actually wide and spread out.

    Whenever I find resonance in something—a book quote, a song lyric, an internet comment—I leave a little piece of myself with it. To me, resonating means a crumb of my soul, my existence, has found rest and peace in this world. It has found a pocket to make its home. A little shelf to rest its weight on.

    It lightens the burden to have stories and characters and sentences and lines that feel the way I feel. They express things in ways I didn’t know how, but click right into my being like a missing puzzle piece. It makes me feel safer existing as a human.

    This understanding first struck me a month ago when I was camping in the woods with my boyfriend, Ethan. We were hammocking and reading together, and I was reading The Night Circus which is one of my favorite love stories.

    And I was thinking, this is it, I’m living my love story with my boyfriend, yet I’m ashamed when words fail me and all I know how to say to him is “I love you. I appreciate you.” But after reading the lines of this love story,  I felt suddenly relieved that the words already existed out there. The exact combination of words had already been said.

    I felt supported by the fact of this tiny resonance, that a fragment of myself could rest on a fictional character who’s saying what I wished I could say.

    Obviously this doesn’t excuse me from trying my best to express how I feel to Ethan, how incredible his existence is, but a part of me felt at peace. Like if I die before I’m able to say everything I want to say, just read the lines I’ve loved over the years, because part of me exists in them.

    I am connected to eternity and I am part of everything and although I am with all of it, I am still different from anything and everything.

    —Jenny Slate, Little Weirds • (bookshop + amazon)

    There is love to be resonated with, and there is also pain.

    It’s a specific pain and feeling to lose a sibling. And pain is so isolating an experience that we feel like the only ones who have ever or ever will experience it. Like we’re being specifically and personally punished. Even having my family to go through it with still feels isolating sometimes, because it feels like we’re being singled out to suffer as a unit.

    But I feel lighter thanks to resonance. Like a random reddit commenter who said losing a sibling is like losing a limb—because that’s exactly how it feels. Everything feels wobbly and wrong moving forward in our family without Zach.

    I don’t want others to experience the pain of losing a loved sibling, but somehow, the fact that other people are out there feeling this pain too, it makes the burden lighter.

    I rest some of my pain on that internet stranger, freeing myself of a fraction of the burden I carry.

    It’s good for me to remember that the words I put out onto the internet can also have an effect on others.

    One of the most pivotal moments in my writing was when I got an email last year from a girl I knew at bible college. We’ve sort of stayed in touch, on and off, over the years. She considers me a friend, and even invited me to her wedding, but I don’t reciprocate the feeling. I would love to be friends with her, we’re very similar and I have kind of a protective, fierce love for her, but it’s almost impossible.

    I’m ex-Christian and she’s very militantly Christian, with a passion for theological debate and missionary work. This in itself doesn’t bother me (although in my opinion, Christians should stay in their own countries to do missionary work and stop trying to be third world saviors).

    The thing that gets in the way is that I’m very good at reading people’s energy, and although she’s subtle with it, I can tell very clearly that she will never truly consider me a friend because of our theological differences. She has never missed an opportunity to try to convert me back to Christianity, and I feel I will always remain somewhat of a charity case to her.

    Never mind the fact that God is the foundation for both of our belief systems.

    Because of this vibe I get from her, I have felt bitterness towards her over the last few years. Wishing we could be friends, feeling resentful when she calls me her friend while also knowing she doesn’t entirely respect me. I usually end up ghosting her to get away from the hurt.

    But a year ago I got an email from her. She wrote:

    “I just read your “sorrow and solitude” newsletter, and I’m going to work my way through the rest of your archive, and I just have to tell you that it was probably the most peaceful part of my day so far. I’ve cried a lot in the past 12 hours for some reason, forced myself to work out, eaten food, and nothing really helped like reading your newsletter.”

    That paragraph softened me up like nothing else (although not before I thought, “HA. The words of a heathen made you feel better“).

    But it made me realize that other people are out there resonating with tiny things about me. It does zero favors to hold onto bitterness or judgement towards people who have caused me pain, because it affects my writing in a negative way, making it repel rather than draw in. Making it less of a place of solace and resonance.

    I want people to be able to rest their weight on my words like I have rested on the words of others.

    Something I wrote resonated with her and maybe she was able to leave a tiny piece of herself on my writing and that’s an incredible feeling.

    This thought puts more weight on the Ram Dass quote, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

    A human may not be mentally or emotionally capable of carrying the weight of another person for their entire life. And it would be catastrophic for the person being carried, to never know what it’s like to stand on their own existence, in their own strength.

    But we can all carry tiny pieces of each other, consciously and subconsciously, as we—perplexed and bewildered—figure this shit out together.

    PS: I couldn’t figure out how to gracefully tie this section into the main narrative, but I would be remiss to end this essay without mentioning my sister, Elisabeth. I wouldn’t have gotten very far into my liberated identity-seeking without her steady presence. She has known me my entire life and will always know the different variations of me over the years, so it has subconsciously made it less scary to evolve and shed pieces of myself. She is the Sam to my Frodo, and “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” <3 Also, what a great metaphor of Frodo referring to the Ring as his burden and telling Sam he couldn’t carry it and then later Sam saying “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” *cry* <33

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  • Essays

    finding the way forward

    I want to try to describe how it is that I write.

    I compose all day in my head, when I’m alone. A topic pops into my head, or a memory, and my brain turns into a computer. Just give me a prompt and my brain is racing to artfully structure flowing sentences into an essay. All inside my head.

    . . . they all reeled out of me, those words I’d imbibed, in one continuous ribbon.

    —Katherine May, The Electricity of Every Living Thing

    Often, more than one topic is fighting for airtime. So, usually before I come to a reasonable conclusion, my brain moves on to the next topic. Because I get mild anxiety if I don’t allow myself to think all the things I’m trying to think.

    When my thoughts become too overwhelming to function or sleep (it happens both day and night), I pull out the closest writing tools and do a brain dump. The usual location is the Notes app on my phone.

    To date, there are 125 notes in a folder called “essay fragments.” And that’s out of 855 total notes that actually got properly filed. There are 121 blog post drafts on my WordPress account. And around 100 drafts on my Scrivener app. That’s not counting physical notes written on paper either.

    The intention is always that I just get the words out of my head into a manic brain dump rough draft and then have a focused sit down time to edit these drafts and share them online.

    This is the part that trips me up (as proven by the pitiful amount of published posts on my website), and it’s led to a lot of negative thinking over the years.

    Clearly, I can write. I write three pages of journaling every day. I wrote my book draft for The Simple Path of Journaling in around two months (from August 2022 to October 2022). And then of course the million and a half essay/blog rough drafts I’m drowning in.

    And I know how to edit. I look at my finished essays on my website, and honestly I really enjoy reading them.

    If I was just sticking with essay and blog type writing, I doubt I would have figured out the issue I was having. But when I got really determined that I was going to finish this book and publish it, the stakes got a lot higher and the issues ran deeper.

    After a lot of crying and journaling and asking God/myself/the void for help, I had a breakthrough and finally learned about a method of writing that fits my brain so much better.

    It’s called intuitive writing. I don’t really know much about it yet, but I’m going to write about the little bit that I do understand.

    Intuitive writing is based off of feminine energy, which is very opposite to most mainstream writing practices that are based off masculine energy. Masculine energy writing includes lots of plotting, outlines, structure, word counts, and routines.

    Feminine energy writing is a lot harder to grasp, because it involves more of the subconscious mind and trusting yourself. It’s sort of a bit more like stream of consciousness writing. But you just start with a blank page and see what happens. It’s kind of a scary approach. You have to trust yourself not to get lost. And you have to be okay with being lost anyway, because that’s how you find yourself and your words.

    I began to lean more into structure and order, but Sheree was an artist . . . she was much more fluid, intuitive, and less structured.

    —Will Smith, Will

    There are two things I’ve learned about intuitive writing that I’m trying to put into practice now.

    The first is that I need to make sure I’m completely done writing something before I start to edit it. This is because writing and editing are two different sides of the brain. Editing requires the use of judgment and critique, whereas writing is very open and vulnerable. It can be quite detrimental to be switching back and forth between the two.

    This is how I kind of fucked myself up while writing my book. I started working on a proper outline and section titles and page numbers before I was even done writing it. That led to me feeling boxed in by the structure I’d employed, so my writer side was kind of throwing a fit and refusing to work. And I also felt paralyzed to continue writing, because I would compare my freshly written sentences to the already edited ones and think myself a terribly shitty writer.

    The second thing I’ve learned about intuitive writing is that I need to just work on one writing piece at a time. One piece within each different type of writing I’m doing, I should say. So I can still work on my book, work on my newsletter, do my journaling. But I’m just focused on one blog post at a time, rather than the chaotic pile of drafts demanding my attention.

    (I’m going to write in a future post about what I’ve decided to do with all my rough drafts and how I’m going to capture new ideas going forward, because collecting rough drafts is definitely not the right process for me.)

    I tried it out both things I learned with this post. I did my initial manic brain dump and then stopped when I felt like I said everything that was on my mind. The next few days I was tempted to start new drafts, but I made myself just look at this one, which led me to more brain dumps on this topic. I didn’t allow myself to start editing until I felt totally drained of the words in my head and ready to polish what I’d written.

    It was hard at first, to not write drafts on new ideas, to continue to add this this draft over and over until it felt finished, before I started cleaning it up. But it started feeling natural and good too. And look, I published it!!

    Part of this process is about learning to trust my intuition. Learning to trust my own mind. Learning to trust the way I work.

    The job of a writer, he says, is simple: You write what’s in your head.

    —Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

    I’ll have much more to say on this topic as I implement more of intuitive writing into my life. But this breakthrough shows why I value personal growth and introspection so much. It’s so helpful to understand and trust yourself, because there are such vastly different ways to operate in the world. I would have blindly struggled with the same problems over and over if I hadn’t allowed myself the journey of figuring out who I am. Collecting piles of rough drafts, never finishing anything, feeling like shit during the editing process.

    A sensitive introverted neurodivergent creative individual like myself and many others are never going to thrive by following the rules and structure dictated by rigid masculine energy. Which is what most of society is built off and expects from others.

    But the good news is that feminine energy exists just as strongly and equally in this world.. There is a way forward that will feel perfect for each person’s energy. It just requires trust and an open, insightful mind.

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  • Essays

    wine stains and heart mends

    As the credits played out at the end of Avatar: The Way of Water, my boyfriend Ethan took off his 3D glasses and looked at me. “Are you crying?” he asked.

    I nodded and wiped my cheeks.

    “Aw,” he said, “You liked the movie, huh?”

    “Yes,” I sniffed.

    Then a fresh wave of tears ran down my face.

    Ethan immediately stood up and came over to me. “Oh baby, I’m so sorry, I understand why you’re crying now.”

    He tried to sit in the same theater chair as me, to hold me and soothe me, but instead he accidentally sat on the large Pepsi in my cup holder, knocked it backwards, and got soda all over his butt. He pulled me to my feet, away from the mess, and held me in the aisle.

    I hugged him and giggled a little—both at the situation and because I loved him so much.

    In a matter of like ten seconds, he had already comforted me immensely, for two reasons. The first, because he didn’t let the awkwardness of soda-soaked pants distract him from his mission. And the second, because he knew that I was crying over my brother Zach, the heartbreaking scene in the movie that had triggered my tears.

    It’s awful to admit this, but I initially never expected Ethan to play this role in my life. I never thought that my boyfriend would see me crying and automatically assume it was because of Zach.

    We met at an interesting time in my life—just one day after the one year anniversary of Zach’s death. Once you get past the one year mark, it’s kind of an awkward and terrible season of life to be in. It’s like you have an expiration date on how long you can be grieving, on how long you can hold the identity of “sad sister of dead brother.” Most people stop asking how I’m doing in regards to that and don’t think to bring him up anymore.

    The shock and raw grief is gone, but the ever-present pain of having to live the rest of my life without my sweet little brother constantly bubbles under the surface.

    Ethan is very simple and straightforward in his comfort for me: I know you miss your brother. I’m here for you. Let me hold you.

    “I love you,” he says, and Addie wonders if this is love, this gentle thing.
    —V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

    After the movie, later that evening, I accidentally spilled red wine on Zach’s white hoodie, which I wear almost every day.

    Ethan immediately looked up how to get red wine stains out of white fabric and went to work. Soaking the stain in white vinegar (“not red vine vinegar?” I weakly joked). Scrubbing laundry detergent into the spot. Rinsing it out in hot water.

    The stain was gone.

    I clutched the warm, wet sweatshirt in my hands and thanked him and hung it on his desk chair to dry overnight.

    The next day, back at my parents’ house, I examined the spot outside in the late afternoon sun, in better lighting. The wine stain truly was gone, but I noticed that the area was a bit frayed now. Threads popped out where Ethan had vigorously scrubbed the sweatshirt.

    My heart melted. I sunk into this little patch of white fabric and pinned the moment and the feeling into my memory.

    This is what it feels like to be safe and loved.

    After he had cleaned my sweatshirt for me, Ethan was a little bit restless. It was getting late, I was cozy in bed, and we had planned to watch something together on his phone until we fell asleep. But he was unable to sit back and relax.

    “Why aren’t you getting comfortable?” I asked. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched and cross-legged.

    He stood up and paced a bit. “Because you were crying earlier over your brother and then you stained his sweatshirt, and now I’m just in full on protection mode.”

    . . . we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe for the night.
    —Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

    It was a place where I knew I was loved.
    —Claire Oshetsky, Chouette

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  • Essays

    feel the rope

    When I was first learning how to belay last fall at my climbing gym, my brain tangled up right alongside the rope in my hands. I was trying to remember each step of the belaying process in a logical “think-y” manner, and it caused me to mess up repeatedly. My face would scrunch up in confusion as my staff member friend, Kandice, patiently waited for me to show her the next step.

    It was only when I turned off my thoughts and simply felt the motions of belaying that I was able to get the hang of it. I almost just had to close my eyes so I wouldn’t get distracted by logistics.

    “It doesn’t need to be perfect,” the head setter, Andy, told me, as he swung above me, installing a new route. “You just need to save them from falling.”

    Just save them from falling.

    Once I felt how belaying was supposed to feel and reaffirmed the actual purpose of belaying, the actual goal I was trying to accomplish (save them from falling), that’s when it all started to feel totally natural to me.

    What if this is just the way that I operate?

    Everything feels so much better when I, more or less, shut off my mind and trust how things feel.

    I think this is how I’m supposed to be as a writer too.

    I beat my writing half to death in the editing process, because I’m afraid of the natural way I write. I’m afraid of being seen. I’ve written about this previously, in my essay “Letters to you with love from me.” I’m sure this concept has come out many times in my writing before, but I just haven’t grasped onto it yet.

    The truth is that, for the most part, I much prefer the things I’ve written that are in my drafts folder or in my notes app. The quick intuitive flashes I get, the mad dashes, the rush of energy from my authentic writer self.

    Was this entire life ever really mine? Was my control all an illusion? I think so, but letting go of control isn’t instant and wonderful. Sometimes it gives us rope burns as we slide down trying to hold on like a madman.

    —Lisa Gungor, The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen

    I’m going to hold on tightly while I’m belaying someone on the wall, but clearly some deeper part of me is asking to trust her and let go when it comes to my writing.

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  • Essays


    The large agave plant outside my window fell over and died several weeks ago. Earlier, in the spring, it was revealed to have been housing a rat’s nest. My dogs spent hours digging it up, and were rewarded with a rat snack. Then a gusty wind ultimately blew the agave over, and my dad and I noticed it had been growing over a spinkler head.

    Just too much to handle. Roots rotted from water and torn up from dog claws and rat life. It was done giving of itself.

    After the plant died, completely keeled over and showing its underside, new life immediately sprung from it. Or rather, life that already existed but was now choosing to congregate on the agave. A massive cluster of bees crawled over the bottom of the plant, the juices exposed for them to suck up. A steady trail of ants marched up the long curved arms. The occasional fly braved the masses for a taste.

    Perhaps part of me should have felt sad for this agave. Its life was reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s, The Giving Tree. The tree in the story gave and gave and gave until it was all used up:

    “I have nothing left.
    I am just an old stump.”

    —Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree

    But I suppose that I saw the using up as more of a circle of life kind of thing. It was fully used to its deepest potential, and beyond. Life continues on, even after death. The works of the dead can feed the living.

    I saw this dead plant and I wanted to be like it.

    It doesn’t feel like being used and abused when I’m living my fullest expression. Even if all people want from me one day is my written words, that’s what I want to give them.

    I like the usefulness of nature. I feel useful like that agave when I’m writing what I’m meant to be writing.

    This essay is stemming from a recurring sentiment that I seem to have trouble grasping onto. We repeat the same lessons over and over until we learn them, and I’m trying to learn this one. Even if people get sick of hearing about it.

    I’m realizing that I’m not just a plant. A vague, overarching plant. I am a specific type of plant. I can only grow one way.

    The lesson I keep repeating is that I betray my writing. I don’t listen to myself, the things my heart is trying to tell me.

    In the midst of NaNoWriMo, the month of international fiction noveling, the event I’ve participated in almost every year since I was 15, I suddenly quit working on my novel because I truly, truly don’t want to spend my time writing fiction. It was painful to set my essay and memoir work aside this month, and I kept shushing that pain for the sake of my Novel™.

    More than once, I’ve discovered journal entries I’ve written since entering my twenties—that I find fiction writing to be extremely painful, that essay and memoir writing feels so much more flowy and enjoyable. I wrote about it in 2016, while working on a novel over Thanksgiving break in the woods in Northern California. I wrote about it in 2018, the year I discovered self-help and was trying to find my voice as a creative person.

    But year after year I can’t stop being embarrassed by the urge towards this “lesser” “egotistical” form of writing.

    It’s not a unique feeling. Many writers have an aversion to “navel-gazing,” to mining their own lives and stories for the sake of their literary work, which is what the author Melissa Febos discovered while teaching nonfiction workshops.

    She had confronted this revulsion earlier in her own life, and talks about it in her book, Body Work:

    At twenty-six, I was an MFA student in fiction, deep into what I believed was a Very Important Novel about addiction and female sexuality. Then I took a nonfiction craft class for which we were asked to write a short memoir. Though the context of my novel drew heavily from my own experience, I had never written any kind of nonfiction. The twenty-page essay I drafted about my years as a professional dominatrix was the most urgent thing I had ever written. When he read it, my professor insisted that I drop whatever I was working on and write a memoir.

    I cringed. Who was I, a twenty-six-year-old woman, a former junky and sex worker, to presume that strangers should find my life interesting? I had already learned that there were few more damning presumptions than that of a young woman thinking her own story might be meaningful. Besides, I was writing a Very Important Novel.

    “No way,” I told my professor. I was determined to stick to my more humble presumptions that strangers might be interested in a story made up by a twenty-six-year-old former junky sex worker.

    Do you see how easy it is to poke holes in this logic?

    —Melissa Febos, Body Work

    I don’t want to keel over and die and have my insides be nothing but dust, which is what I fear will happen if I keep pushing aside this deep intrinsic desire to write what’s on my heart. To interact with tiny moments in the world. If I look into my future and see myself on my death bed, and all that surrounds me are fiction novels—I feel icy fear. To be clear, it is not the being surrounded by books that scares me. That sounds delightful. But to leave an entire legacy of made up stories is something that just doesn’t feel right.

    My natural mind doesn’t think in fiction. I don’t communicate with these made up characters. They kept me company when I was a teenager, but the more I get to know myself, the less satisfying their worlds are.

    I think, why am I making up a character, a setting, a story, when an entire essay bursts out of me just from watching bugs eat a dead plant? The thought of missing all these tiny moments, of not having the time or energy or focus to expand on the little pieces of life, gives me real anxiety.

    Essay writing is how I like to translate the world. I see something, hear something, experience something, and I wonder how I can distill that thing into a piece of a story. How I can turn this thin slice of life into an experience that can be felt by others.

    The missable moments in life are my favorite ones, and the ones I most want to write about.

    Maybe this is stemming from a need to be seen. A need to speak my piece without any fictional filters. To tell my own story and be my full self. Maybe in several years I will be able to resume fiction writing.

    But I cannot linger there. I cannot give anymore excuses. For the unforeseeable future, I’ve let go of fiction writing. It’s done.

    Since halting work on my novel, I’ve written almost a dozen essay drafts. They flow out of me like honey. I feel lush and full of nectar. Pierce my veins. Lick me up. The world is rich and here and now.

    Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem, Bloom:

    To be a Flower, is profound
    Responsibility —

    —Emily Dickinson, Bloom (1058)

    And I understand that.

    I am a plant.

    I look like a human with unlimited choices and freewill galore, but in actuality, I am rooted to the ground and can only grow one specific way.

    Whichever way I grow, you can have all of me. Just let me grow the way I need to, otherwise my body will turn to dust and won’t feed even one single Bee.

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  • Essays

    haunted home

    If a woman has artificial flowers in her house, flowers that need dusting twice a year but never die, she is closing herself off from any understanding of death.
    —May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

    Yesterday I woke up at 4 am to wild flashes of lightning through my window, the shade pulled all the way up. There has been steady lightning here at night without the accompanying sounds of thunder, and very little rain. The July monsoons have mostly left, but the remains linger. The roses from April are back, but less abundant and more wilted. A few butterfly bush blooms from May are here again, but they look a little lost and confused amongst all their dead comrades.

    The spiral of time is melting into a muddy-colored puddle.

    And the peace I felt here is starting to feel like vines growing around my shoulders and over my mouth. The kitchen is the darkest room in the house—the most central room in the house, how apt. There used to be a kitchen window, but an add-on was built by the previous owner, so where there used to be a window is instead a hole looking into the wall of a hallway and upon that wall is a rainbow-colored zebra.

    Paintings on walls and windows looking into halls will never be able to light up a room.

    The dark rooms are seeped with sadness and the walls here are too thin. But apparently thick enough to be unable to hear a person’s cries for help.

    Things feel like they’re dying here. The dogs are getting old and creaky. The parents constantly discuss and plan their upcoming retirement. The little brother’s ashes sit in an urn, out of sight.


    I cut some perky yellow roses the other day and put them in a vase and the next day they were completely hunched over.

    Same. I don’t like being inside this house either. I’m sorry for doing you dirty.

    Part of me knows this is good. Being uncomfortable is good. Up until recently, I couldn’t imagine myself actually moving out of my parents’ house again. I definitely hadn’t planned to live with them for the past two years, but I lacked the courage to leave. Except when my desire to leave was motivated by shame, feeling like a pathetic 27-year-old loser who couldn’t get her fucking shit together.

    I finally, though, gave myself enough kindness and grace to examine this lethargy around moving out. And I realized I’m carrying lots of trauma from the past, making me feel unsafe out in the world.

    As if to validate the reality of these fears, two weeks ago I finally set an energetic intention to move out *soon* (no deadline yet, but the intention helps put the heat on), and that very night I had a bad dream about it.

    I dreamt that I found this amazing old two-story home for rent in a valley in Idaho, overlooking a river and a field of horses. The rent was only $500 a month, and it sounded too good to be true, so I asked the realtor to explain the pricing to me. She started pointing out a lot of flaws with the house, including the fact that it was cluttered with the previous owner’s possessions, an old man who had died in the home and no one came to claim his stuff. Haunted house? I can handle that for $500 a month. Easy.

    And then the day after I signed the lease and moved in, my neighbor broke in and stabbed me repeatedly with a butcher knife and then I woke up. The end.

    It’s what happened the last time I moved out. I mean, I didn’t get physically stabbed with a knife, but definitely did emotionally. Everything was magical in the beginning, everything was working out perfectly, it felt too good to be true, and my happiest adult memories were made. And then everything went to shit. Everything broke down, and my most traumatic adult memories were made. I didn’t feel safe in my own home but I had nowhere else to go and I’m still trying to process everything that happened because writing it all out sounds like the suffering olympics because there was just so. much. shit. And I hate that.

    But now I know. I’m afraid of good things because I think they’re going to turn bad. I don’t trust myself to create a stable home environment away from my parents. I’m projecting fears of the past onto my future and it’s keeping me stuck sitting at a desk in a room in my parents’ home like Emily Dickinson. I resonate with her so much, I feel her in my soul as if I reincarnated with bits of her in me, I love her deeply—but I don’t want to live like her in that sense, with my parents, for the remainder of my life.

    I don’t have a specific location in mind for when I leave. I want to get in my car and drive. Pretty much every day in my journal I find myself writing, “I just want to be free. I want to slim down and have independence.”

    Slim down, minimize, zig while they zag.

    Like the very first concert I ever went to (Skillet, in 2009), me and my friends were all in the mosh pit and I quickly learned how to move with the crowd so I could move through the crowd. I felt like a little water bug: flow with the mass and then dart through the narrow gaps to get to the front. Until some skank bitch yanked on my ponytail to jerk me backwards so she could take my spot at the front (but that’s beside the point . . . I just feel sad that there are people in the world who must resort to such measures to get ahead in life . . . but I digress . . . lol).

    Life is not so slim and zippy lately. It’s heavy and slow. I feel tied to the crowd.

    There are so many packages being delivered to the house. Several packages a week. New ones arrive before old ones are even completely opened and unpacked and dealt with. Boxes everywhere. Boxes to fill the hole created by the death of a son.

    The amount of stuff in this house is at a level that makes me feel pinchy and claustrophobic. Even my room started getting uncomfortably full. Which is weird because I’ve long been a minimalist vagabondy type person. Nothing makes me happier than sauntering alone through the world with a single backpack.

    Plus I hate shopping, so I’m really confused as to how the fuck there came to be so much shit compiled in my room. Are people giving me stuff? I really can’t remember. Very rarely are the boxes on the front porch addressed to me.

    But the fact remains: there is too much stuff and I find it difficult to leave the house.

    The reason the stuff accumulates and life stops flowing is due to trauma. Everyone’s favorite buzzword. Trauma traps your emotions leading you to re-live that shit on a loop, causes health problems, leads to addictions.

    Finally starting to admit that the past got me fucked up and I was too wounded to deal with it, has helped me to slowly untangle from the pile of stuff everywhere. I find it an easier task now to compile things to donate, shred papers, let go of attachment. I even have a budget and am contributing to my IRA and savings each month. Pretty adorable of me, I know.

    I don’t want to be stuck with stuff. I want to be free flowing.

    A frozen, stuck-with-stuff life terrifies me.

    When my brother Zach died last year, we fought over . . . the remains. My dad wanted his ashes stored in a mausoleum in Idaho. I told him that was creepy as fuck. His ashes, for now, are stored in a purple urn, somewhere unknown in the house, as I freaked out at the idea of them being on display. My mom asked us siblings if we wanted little mini urns with some of his ashes. I told her absolutely not.

    I’ve been an ornery bitch throughout this whole process.

    I’ve always found “death stuff” to be fascinating in a general sense: open caskets at funerals, this dead body display we saw at a museum in Portland when we were teens, skulls and bones, walking around cemeteries at night like every other anemic insomniac writer chick.

    But when it comes to my brother, when it’s fucking personal, I hate everything. Associating this shit with my brother sucks.

    We’re not supposed to cling to the remains of death like this. Not when it’s done as a coping mechanism for pain.

    These two concepts are colliding.

    My brothers ashes being trapped inside an urn, and me feeling like I’m slowly being buried alive at my parents’ house.

    I love my parents, I truly do, but I need to be free. I’m trying.

    I’m not ready to settle down like a coffin in the ground or an urn on display. I want to be unfettered like ashes on the wind. Under a tree or in the river. I want to explore the earth before my body becomes a part of it. I’m not scared of death personally. I’m scared of other people’s fears. I can feel their fear like a palpable substance in the air. I’m scared of a frozen life. Gone too soon. Trapped by hasty decisions and restrictive belief systems and heavy fear.

    Ghost house, get out.

    I think I’m afraid here because Zach didn’t get to live enough life. And now they want to store his ashes in the same house where he died. I just . . . want him to be free. And I want my parents to be free.

    Grief can bury us while we’re still alive.

    I feel more myself again after facing my fears and traumas. Meditating, journaling, crying. The usual. Whatever it takes to get the weight off. I feel more like the me who hopped on buses and trains, slept on benches and in parking lots, dumpster dived for groceries, hitchhiked.

    I don’t have to sit at a desk in my parents’ house for the rest of my life like Emily Dickinson. I really did accept that as my fate for a while. But the fire is coming back. The heavy greasy lethargic layers are peeling, healing.

    This poem by Laurie Halse Anderson, from her book Shout, perfectly sums up how I’m feeling now, so I’ll leave you with it:

    I can’t stand this
    bled into
    I can’t stay here
    trickled through
    I should leave
    swelled into
    I want to leave
    rose into a tidal wave of
    I’m going

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  • Essays

    the heat and the flood

    The desert rat carries one distinction like a halo: he has learned to love the kind of country that most people find unloveable. Call the desert barren, harsh, bitter, dreary and gloomy, acrid and arid, lifeless, hopeless, ugly as sin, ghastly as the gates of hell—he will happily agree with you. Because in his heart lies the secret belief that the awful desert is really sweet and lovable, that the ugly is really beautiful, that hell is home.
    —Edward Abbey, Beyond The Wall

    Storm clouds overhead? Good. What’s July in the desert without a cloudburst?
    —Edward Abbey, Beyond The Wall

    I tried to describe impossible things like the scent of creosote—bitter, slightly resinous, but still pleasant—the high, keening sound of the cicadas in July, the feathery barrenness of the trees, the very size of the sky, extending white-blue from horizon to horizon, barely interrupted by the low mountains covered with purple volcanic rock. The hardest thing to explain was why it was so beautiful to me . . .
    —Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

    If the bible has any sort of truth to it, it would appear that humans originated in tropical areas. The vapor covering the earth, keeping everything cool and hydrated. Maybe people who are living in tropical lush geographies in present day are living much closer to heaven on earth than the rest of us. That elusive Eden.

    I wonder what that says about me though, drawn to the most hellish landscape that exists.

    Drawn to the desert.

    It was after I began my exit from Christianity at the end of 2017 when I started to realize my pull towards the desert. I had just left a more heavenly place, too. I’d been working at a camp in the woods near Salem, Oregon. It was green and lush and I was even learning about foraging in the natural landscape, a hands-on experience to how life-giving the earth is. I dreamed of putting down roots there.

    But I was quite sick. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Working for another Christian corporation right after bible college when I barely believed in any of it anymore made me ill. I was often bedridden and unable to work. I swallowed too many pain pills at night to help me relax enough to get to sleep. Every time I took a breath, I had a coughing fit. I was so allergic to the area, to the constant drizzling, to the belief system I was contractually obligated to pass onto young children—that I was sick for months. One day after work a fellow camp counselor slipped me one of his allergy pills, thinking it would help me. I took it without hesitation, zero clue as to how it would affect me. That evening I had a date in the car of my make-out buddy, a different camp counselor. Just a little bit of squeaky clean virgin angst to help the both of us survive a place that we weren’t meant for. I nearly fell asleep in his lap once the drug kicked in. The blurry chemical exhaustion thrilled and terrified me—the feeling of not having to think, of not having control.

    A few days later I was put on mental health leave by the camp directors. They learned about my pain pill popping and figured I was depressed. After a week of resting at someone’s house, away from camp, I decided I absolutely could not go back.

    My parents flew me back to Las Vegas. I left behind most of my possessions for my roommates, in order to fit a couple duffle bags onto my budget flight.

    Within two weeks of being in Nevada, I was completely cured. Two weeks of solitude, no pressure to go to church, no one peering inside my mind to see what I believed. Just rest. Just me and my body on a bed in a warm room. I felt safe and happy and healthy.

    Thus began my official deconstruction from Christianity, and the realization that my body and soul felt at peace in the desert. Not a passive peace. One that subtly sunk its claws into me, distorting my vibrations and rearranging them into a new pattern. One that would require everything I had—and more—to be able to reap the benefits of it.

    I left Eden to enter hell, and it turns out I like the heat.

    The desert requires a sort of mediative state to gracefully live through it. This place makes me dry out and crack and it smoothes me out like a pumice stone on calloused soles. Calloused souls, kicked out of Eden, have a home here.

    It’s a lovely hostile house.

    There comes a time every summer, though, where I just can’t fucking stand the place any longer. Usually in July, the hottest period. The cicadas provide constant background noise for weeks on end, a buzzing electric sizzle that grinds on my nervous system. The dogs are restless and panting all damn day and I just can’t stand to be around them, their hot breaths and neediness blowing in my face. The white sound of oscillating fans and the frigidity of fake conditioned air irritate me to no end. A heat-driven compulsive hustle builds in me and I end up making rash decisions.

    In hindsight, July is the month where I should be doing very little. Be still. Conserve water.

    In reality, halfway through July is when I hit a breaking point.

    To set a silly scene: there was this guy I was “talking to” last winter but then he ghosted me but then I found out I was going to be in his part of the world at the end of this summer for a wedding so I thought maybe I’d hit him up to go on some of the outings we’d talked about and maybe when he saw me in person it would reignite all the sparks but then I found out he was actually dating someone so I started bawling because of the fact that he got to know me super well over FaceTime but then obviously found me to be lacking and then found someone better.

    Well . . . I thought I was crying over him but then fifteen seconds later all I could think of was my dead brother. His face, his name, his absence.

    This crush was good friends with my brother back in the day and he has unaccessed memories of him that I crave. When we first starting talking more consistently last year, he told me we could talk about my brother anytime I wanted. It felt good to have someone in my life who was connected to him.

    Being ghosted felt like a betrayal. How dare he close himself off from me and hoard his memories of my brother. It’s not right for anyone to do so. Line up at the door and tell all, please.

    Breaking point: no one wants you and your brother is gone and everything feels like death.

    In addition: your period starts, it’s hot as fucking shit, and you can’t stop crying.

    Literal blood. Sweat. Tears.

    You think maybe it’s time to move again. Run away and start fresh, again. Maybe it’s time to go north again.

    And then: BOOM.


    That feeling of aliveness. Shock to the system. Drenched to the soul fifteen seconds later.

    The streets flooding. Earth shattering thunder. Lightning that could split the sky in two. 

    I am so big. I am so small.

    I am in Eden after all.

    This, for me, is heaven on earth. These two polarities. The heat and the flood. Because they’re so dramatic, they cleanse me to my bones.

    And I think this is why, though I thought Oregon was like my soulmate state or something, it ended up being a rather torturous place for me. The constant dripping, poking, prodding. I thought I would mimic the lush growth of my environment, but inwardly I felt a little bit dead. Stalled out. Just waiting waiting waiting for the rain to stop. Never feeling at peace. My second day at this camp, I asked my roommate Savannah when the rain was going to stop. She, naturally, gave a great belly laugh and didn’t answer my question.

    I am not the tortoise in the parable, but rather the hare. I didn’t then and still do not understand the steady plodding constant pace of the rain. I was born in the desert and will likely die there and that’s all I know. The desert is a place where you dance in the rain every single time, because it’s mad and rushed and short-lived and wonderful. A quick sprint and a long rest.

    That wretched Saturday when all emotional and physical hell broke loose, I slept better that night than I had in a long time. After the rushing rain, after the healing tears, after a warm shower, after the period pills, the earth has cooled down, the ground smells good—and I had a breakthrough on my energetic pattern around romantic relationships and I felt at peace finally reaching a starting point to deal with this issue. An issue that had been dead and fused into my belief system had cracked open from the heat and washed out from the flood.

    I slept so incredibly good that night. Blissfully good. I felt giddy and happy, with a squeaky clean body and soul.

    It’s a strange soul that’s drawn to the desert. A place that’s known for its cliches of lone tumbleweeds blowing in the wind, abandoned ghost towns, wild west gunslinging, and random animal skulls just chilling on a fence post or something. A place that looks like death to many people. (It sort of seems to me like there couldn’t possibly be many evangelical Christians who love the desert like I do. Religion is muggy and has a large immaculate green suburban front lawn.)

    One of my earliest memories as a kid is walking alone along the barbed wire border of our ten acre property in the high desert of southern Idaho and stopping in my tracks to watch dozens of maggots crawl over a coyote corpse. (I grew up saying “kai-yoat” rather than “kai-yoat-ee.” Apparently it’s a rural thing.)

    Disgusting, I thought, at the kai-yoat carcass. Fascinating, I thought.

    Maybe that experience set me on a course for my life. The more I get to know the desert intimately and the more I look death in the eye without any of its heavy perfumed niceties, the more alive I feel.

    There is life in the desert and death completes the cycle of life.

    It is beautiful and painful, joyous and heartbreaking.

    I feel emotions more prominently in the desert. Everything is sharper here. Here is where I left the foggy haze of religion and found the stark reality of God. The shadows are darker here because the light is stronger. I don’t want to drip and drizzle my way through life. I want to be at peace in the heat or I want to rage within the storm.

    This pattern shows up in many ways in my life, this ebb and flow, this parable hare. In my love of rock climbing and hatred of hiking. Why endure a sickening steady plod up a mountain when you could instead rip your way up a boulder and then kick back on a crash pad and watch your friend do it next?

    Of course, I am learning to implement small consistent changes and routine in my life. Not everything is dramatic. If my life was a movie, the day-to-day stuff would either look really peaceful or really fucking boring. And I like it that way.

    But in matters of the heart, things that bring out the strongest emotions in me like writing and rock climbing and nature and romance—I am not steady at all. I welcome the heat and the flood, the cracks and the blood, the ebb and the flow, the stop and the go.

    Secretly I think I’m a phoenix, and that burning is good for me. Burn me to a crisp. Douse the heat with a storm. Emerge from the puddle, dripping black ash and red blood, a wobbling fledgling. Dry off in the heat. And take to the sky once more, stronger and sharper and freer.

    I promise to love the desert with all my heart, until death do we part.

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