Here there be dragons

A love lost in a bagel shop. That’s where I was – ordering an everything bagel with egg and scallion cream cheese – when I watched from outside my body as my heart broke in this relationship for the last time.

As the woman behind the counter passed me my order, I realized with a rising sense of panic and urgency that I had to get out of there. I had to leave that shop and also this relationship immediately and if I didn’t? I was going to die. A suffocating rush of pink started to flush up painfully through my chest, into my neck and up my face as I tried to hold back the searing tears that by this point were pushing through my eyes and catching in the back of my throat. Time slowed down just enough to acknowledge what I had been resistant to believe or accept for months: This is all just utterly and spectacularly over.

As this realization silently fractured like a thunderbolt beneath my ribs, I looked up at my boyfriend’s face as he chatted and paid the cashier. I love you, I thought to myself. And also I have to leave you now. I do not understand how we got to this place.

Jay looked up and smiled, waiting by the door so we could walk back to the car together, his sneakers squeaking on the worn linoleum as he casually strolled outside totally naive to the disaster that was about to unleash. It was in this moment – the moment that is now seared like an iron brand into my memory – that I realized sharply and suddenly and with an irreversible sadness that this thing we were trying to do, this relationship, is done. I would never, ever get what I need from this man or this life. 

In the aftermath of it all weeks later, after I had moved out of the big house at the end of the cul-de-sac in silicon valley and banished myself about as far away as you can go without disappearing entirely – to a town 250 miles north near the sea – with nothing more than my dog and a pile of boxes, when I finally had the time and the emotional willingness to sit with and start to examine the disoriented pieces of my life, it is that moment I think of, standing outside a bagel shop on that Sunday morning in December. The moment – when something solid and something real, when an actual part of whatever it is that makes us all human – split apart in my soul and set my life adrift through space like an untethered astronaut alone in the galaxy.

***

It was not the announcement of Jenna and Will’s pregnancy that got me, or even the news – shared as though it were a bonus gift in the same sentence – that another mutual friend couple were also having a baby, due the same week in the spring. It was Sunday, and we had run into Jenna and Will in the parking lot on our way to the bagel shop in old Palo Alto. Jay and I had just picked up an old desk from someone on NextDoor to put in our guesthouse which I had been redecorating all winter. We had planned to grab some food and walk the farmers market before heading home. To our surprise and delight, we happen to run into Jenna and her husband as we passed through the parking garage. Of all the couples in our friend group at Stanford, Jenna and Will were by far my favorite people and I had known for awhile that they had been trying for a baby. Only a few weeks earlier, Jenna and I had been in my kitchen commiserating about how triggering the seemingly endless onslaught of baby shower invitations could be when you are childless – even temporarily – and not by choice. 

Now the four of us were standing in a parking lot as Will gushed with excitement over their pregnancy news, and Jenna announced that Ricardo and Fatima – another couple in the PhD program – were also having a baby. My initial reaction was real joy: I was so genuinely happy for them. How could you not be? The look of pure love on Will’s face when he looked at his wife, the way Jenna’s eyes teared up with what I imagine was a combination of sheer happiness and also relief as they told us – it was impossible not to share in that kind of palpable excitement. A new baby. They were going to have chubby, beautiful new baby and that was their everything right now.

But as we said our goodbyes and started to cross the parking lot towards the bagel shop, something inside me shifted. In hindsight it almost felt like someone had lit a match which had started a deep burn, as if there was a kettle in the middle of my chest whose top was starting to tremble and groan under the growing pressure of the hot water underneath. And while I had a sense of why I was feeling those feelings, I had no idea how hot or how fiercely it was about to explode.

When the emotions hit, they ricocheted like a fiery, physical tidal wave of sadness, anger, disbelief, guilt, and grief that stunned me into a suffocating silence. I hid behind a pair of dark sunglasses, knowing that if I tried to say anything – no matter how mundane – the dam would break and I wouldn’t be able to stop whatever kind of nuclear reaction was happening inside my body from spilling and spinning totally out of control. It was a terrifying sensation of being emotionally burned alive from the inside out. Everything hurt. It was becoming hard to breath. My world was a Dali painting and the clocks that I had so desperately tried to ignore were now melting down the sides of time, screaming and shrieking and begging me to listen to the reality of my life. By the time we left that cafe, I knew that my four-year relationship was over. 

Weeks later, while in the process of packing up closets of clothing and belongings, in this bewildered state of resignation and confusion I came across a long silk dress that Jay had bought me last spring before our trip to Hawaii. It is a beautiful dress, with a high neck that parachutes down to the floor in long, flowing folds of gold, green, and crimson colored fabric. I remember looking at that dress in the Anthropologie catalog as Jay peered over my shoulder and coyly placed an order that he surprised me with the night before we left for the big island. I remember thinking how perfect that dress would be for a Hawaiian holiday…and also to hide the signs of an early pregnancy at a friend’s wedding later that year. I also remember how much this thought pleased me when I wore it for the first time on that vacation, thinking that the next time I put it on we would be halfway to having a baby. I thought about this all with a sense of detached sadness and numbness as I gently folded the dress into a box and sealed the top with shiny clear tape.

Looking back on all of this – from that moment in the bagel shop to the act of packing up a life into storage – it is amazing to me the kind of mental gymnastics we allow our minds to accept in order to maintain the illusion of what we want to believe. The reality was that when I put that dress on in Hawaii last April, we were no closer to having a baby than we were when we broke up 8 months later. At the time, I was simply just more willing to ignore the emotional sirens going off everywhere in my life than to admit that we were broken beyond what love and therapy could ever possibly hope to repair. How could all of this time, this love, this work, this building of a life simply add up to…nothing? How could we have absolutely nothing to show for this four years later? And most troubling…how could I have done this to myself what feels like yet again?

In my experience, the willingness to get real honest about why a relationship ultimately falters doesn’t actually happen in the moment the relationship finally dies – it’s all those cliche stages of grief, ultimately cumulating in a come-to-Jesus moment usually well past the relationship expiration date. In this case, it was a recognition months later that I had done this, all of this, to myself. It would be easy for me now and really forever, to craft a narrative that basically paints him as bad and me as blameless, and I know this because this is essentially every story you’ve ever heard me tell about every boyfriend I’ve ever had. They were shitty, and I was shiny, and that is more or less the order of things.

It is easy to make this your truth because everyone – your friends, your family, sometimes even HIS friends – are conditioned to accept this version of reality. It provides a scripted role to for everyone play in the aftermath of relationship catastrophe, including and perhaps most importantly, carving out a character for yourself that reiterates your own blamenessless because Christ. How do you accept that you did in fact do this to you? You chose to stay in spite of waking up to a red dawn day after day, in the face of all of the booming red parachutes falling from the sky, as your own body and life splintered apart hollering over and over that this relationship was not enough no matter what your heart and your mind continued to lie to you about. But those lies are a call to arms to comfort you in your despair, to assure you that everything will be all right, and to insist that the next time – the next man – will be so much better than what you’ve left behind.

How would any of us ever leave a relationship if not for the lies we tell ourselves.

But be warned because here, in those false stories, there be dragons. This final chapter you have bought into, this narrative you have not even had to convince yourself or anyone else is true because it felt so easy to accept and carry on, is a cautionary tale. It is the moment of truth. The choice between the red pill and the blue pill, when you have the option to emotionally burrow and go underground and shut down your consciousness yet again. Or?

Or not. Or you can listen. Or you can take a breathe and take a peek at what really just happened here. You can decide to look at what really went down in your life and the role you played in getting to that point. That break in your soul might be what catapults you into the darkest night of your soul but also the blessing that gifts you into the rest of your life.

My heart broke in a bagel shop. And through all those cracks, somehow gave me permission to let the light in.

Whatever you do, make westing

I drove down to Menlo Park yesterday, as I do now every week, once a week, to take care of my regular physical therapy, and therapy appointments. Therapists of any kind – much like hair stylists – are not people you can just swap out of your life willy nilly so is driving 250 miles round trip once a week fucking bonkers? Yes, but also demonstrably no and I just have to live my life.

Also, 3 hours one way in the car driving down a coastal highway through redwoods and dairy farms and vineyards leaves a lot of time to think about all the reasons why you’re now living in a remote part of the coast of California that is hours away from nowhere and any town larger than about 7,000 people.

So on this long drive I was thinking about the name of this blog, and why something I pulled out of my brain as a 28 year old grad student now feels almost more important and applicable to the life I’m living right now, 10 years later, in a tiny town on the edge of the pacific. When I started SideStreet, is was really just going to be a medium to communicate back to people in the states what my life in Malawi looked like – I thought of it as a travel blog (which now feels naive and embarrassing and as a former aid worker, let this be the last time we ever describe or discuss it in that way again). 

What I wanted to convey was that feeling you get when you stumble upon something new, in a different place, as a stranger or a foreigner or whoever you might be. When I started traveling – I mean really traveling alone as an adult – it was 2003 and the internet and cell phones were barely a thing. The iPod did not exist, let alone a handheld computer with a camera that we now call a phone. My cell phone at the time was a Nokia (the fancy one with a flashlight, I’m not a savage) that by contemporary standards was about the size of a vaping device and was useful only for texting, finding things in the dark, and playing snake. When I left for Bolivia in January of that year I got on the plane with a backpacking pack, a Panasonic  “shock proof” CD Walkman, 12 carefully curated CDs, a film camera (real film!) and two Lonely Planet guides: Bolivia and South America. Those last two are important because as anyone older than 35 might recall at the time, there wasn’t a lot of reliable information on the internet about places to see, stay, eat, or how to get there and particularly for a country like Bolivia, having a consistent internet connection was barely a thing. You relied on what was in that lonely planet book and the notes you took from the advice of other travelers you met along the way. 

And you know what that advice nearly always had in common? Stay off the main drag. Hit the alleyways. Wander your way up the hill. Explore the side streets because that’s where the real treasures – the discoveries that make it feel like your heart might explode from the the mere magic of stumbling upon the beautiful ordinary of a city’s every day life – are hiding in plain sight. The ceviche place in La Paz that I cannot show you on a map but can only get to by memory on foot in that city. The morning I got lost near the cathedral and turned a corner into the weekend flower market where baskets overflowing with white and yellow flowers, and vendors selling coca leaves by the pound filled up almost a entire cobblestoned hill. The hostel that looked like a cross between Tatooine and Casablanca on the edge of the lake run by a crazy German guy that served the best trout filet I’ve ever had in my life. The memory of laying on a boulder at 15,000 ft in the Dali desert holding my friend Alyson’s hand and knowing that taking a photo would never capture the joy of feeling so small in such a vast, never ending space – that is a physical memory that can only exist in your body and in your heart. 

The main streets will try to capitalize on all of that. They will try desperately to communicate through flashy ads and loud music that THIS IS THE PLACE! The Hard Rock Cafe is the true character of this town. United Colors of Benetton have captured the nature and culture of this city scene. They will try, but no matter where you are in the world, it is always a frenetic farse, a poor imitation of something original and grand. Broadway in Nashville. Market Street in San Francisco. The red light district in Amsterdam. The Prado in La Paz. At its best it’s all just an amalgamation of mediocrity, a sea of buzzing neon reds and pinks and greens trying desperately to convince you that it has something new and different to offer, to trick you into feeling as though you have found something special and to draw you away from the rest of the city that is extraordinary in its ordinary-ness. What you see is bright and loud and screaming in neon, but the only thing you feel inside is an endless sea of beige.

One of the questions I keep getting from friends and some family members is, why Fort Bragg? The insinuation in that question runs the gamut from “why the fuck would you want to live THERE” to “are you having a nervous breakdown?”. The simple answer is that I needed to get away, far enough away and out of my comfort zone to get some perspective not only on the deterioration of this relationship that I thought at one point I would be in forever, but to take stock about what my life looks like naked, as it were. Without a relationship, without a job, without the baby I thought I would have right now, to define me.

That, and trying to find affordable housing in the Bay Area in 2019 is like being an unwitting actor in a terrible dark comedy that went straight to DVD and no one has the energy for that kind of d-listed garbage. And so if I had to move, and it wasn’t going to be San Francisco-adjacent, well then fuck everything I am going to live in a forest near the sea.

Fort Bragg is not a place where people from the Bay Area go. It is so far away and so removed from the day-to-day hustle of SF and Oakland and Silicon Valley that it almost doesn’t exist at all. It is, for all intents and purposes, not a destination along the main drag. No bright lights, no neon signs urging you to buy trinkets or to even stop for that matter. It is a side street. It is the place you end up because someone told you once that Glass Beach is beautiful. Or that taco Tuesday’s at North Coast Brewing are worth checking out. Or that the city in all of its transition and identity crisis between a once-upon-a-time logging boomtown to just a regular place dealing with pot and poverty and daily life, is still beautiful and vibrant and teeming with a tender realness that big city dwellers simply can no longer connect with because it makes so little sense in contrast to their own intensely urban lives. 

But it made sense to me. I walked a metaphorical Main Street for a long while – for years – waiting for the moment where I would finally feel settled, like I had found where I was meant to be. But somewhere in the act of looking for that place I derailed my own nature and needs. I managed to – in all of those tiny daily incremental decisions – to deny who I was. I cannot grow or thrive under Budweiser signs and tubes of artificial light because few things ever can. And maybe that’s why the idea of being a stranger in a strange land in a town I didn’t know felt like relief instead of fear.

In the midst of this massive, unexpected life pivot in which I now find myself, trying to figure out what I do next, or who I am now, without all these labels or ideas that I tried so hard to make work but was not able to make stick, I needed to get off the main road. It is the only place, really, where it felt right to just be, away from the neon beige of everything 130 miles south. In a cabin in the woods. With a tiny dog. Walking the beach. And staring out to the bright blue sea. 

Entry stamps

“Wow. You’ve been a lot of places.” This waitress in Healdsburg, CA is flipping through my passport, seemingly unaware that every time she touches another page and opens her mouth I come one step closer to kind of wanting to punch her in the face.

“Tanzania? Bolivia? That’s a big visa from Kenya, huh?”

I smile politely and ask her, again, if she could possibly deliver on that order of zinfandel I just put in. Oh right. She smiles and hands my passport back to me before day-dreamily walking back towards the bar, totally unaware that I am sending her stabbing eye jab looks at the back of her head the whole while.

This scenario played itself out twice that night, again at another bar with another server who felt entitled, when I handed her my passport as identification, to flip through the pages and discuss the contents of the last 9 years of my life while I sat on the other side of the bar listening to my internal commentary switch come dangerously close to “f**k it” and “f**k you.”

I suppose bar patrons, particularly Americans living and drinking in America, don’t often use passports as the common denominator of identification. But I don’t really have much of a choice at the moment. My Massachusetts-issued driver’s license ended up on the losing end of a battle between me and a Malawian cop who for various reasons (ranging from me having an expired “certificate of fitness” on my car at the time to a streak of obstinance that prevented me from bribing him purely out of my own stubborn principle) resulted in my license being impounded sometime in July, effectively vanishing into the abyss of the Malawian police system never to be heard from again. Hence, the passport as my principle form of I.D. – As it turns out, it also now functions as a passport into my life when placed into the hands of complete strangers. Zikomo. You are certainly NOT most welcome.

Reverse culture shock this time around is creeping up on me in ways I didn’t anticipate. Some things are the same, like the fact that my first trip to the local supermarket nearly gave me a heart attack. (Are you aware of how many kinds of blue cheese there are? Or the fact that a pint of sour cream is only $1.69?! It’s criminal — CRIMINAL. Someone needs to stop the insanity). But the emotional ebb and flow of being back in California this time around is hitting me up side the head a bit differently, I suspect mostly because I am having to dually reconcile that this time it isn’t a vacation. This time, I’m not going back to Malawi.

I was standing in line at Peet’s Coffee the other day, waiting patiently to order some sort of ridiculously fancy and overpriced cup of coffee/espresso/tea/whatever when I had a little mini “WTF America” moment of unpleasant zen. The couple behind me were talking about repainting their house. The two women in front of me were discussing the sale going on at the local boutique where they were apparently headed to next. The entire place was packed with people, chattering, jabbering, gibbering people. When the cashier at the front said “hello” to me he looked genuinely surprised when I answered back, “Hi. How are you?” (Because greeting people in America is apparently akin to holding them up at gunpoint and demanding the soul of their first-born child). At any rate, it was your typical yuppie coffee shop scene, and all I could think about the whole time was, “jesus, this is utterly ridiculous cacophony…and there is a panic attack lurking riiiiight around the corner as a result.”

It’s only been a little over a week since I left but I miss the sense of living life in my own personal observation bubble. When you live abroad and don’t speak the language, the daily sound of life is almost like friendly white noise. It’s like a chipper background tune in a foreign tongue that buzzes around your head in an odd, yet soothing, urban symphony that you don’t realize exists until it’s no longer there. Or you’re no longer there. Instead, you’re in a new place where you suddenly understand EVERYTHING being said and demonstrated by nearly everyone around you almost all the time. I find this incredibly unnerving and kind of intrusive. Quite frankly, I’m having a really difficult time concentrating on the internal when everything external is just so incredibly chaotic, rapid, and irritatingly “loud” both in an audible and lurid sort of way.

And as “American” as this place so obviously is, so much of it sends me right back to thinking about people or places, even specific moments in Malawi. My friend J out there always says that even on the worst days of work, in the afternoons where you feel totally depleted as if the inanity of Malawi has actually, finally, crushed you, there is always this moment at the end of the day as the sun is setting where you catch a glimpse of something bigger. When you can suddenly understand the reasons you’re there and why we all do the things we do. The sun dips low on the horizon. The sky turns orange…then pink…and ends in a sea sky full of deep blood-orange red. You are conscious of your heart as all this is happening, and the sense that it is expanding, bursting, and breaking all at the same time. Everyone around you could be talking total bulls**t but that one moment in the day is clear and nothing, absolutely nothing else in the world could bring you more peace and clarity than the site of that sky and that sun setting in the distance.

I’m having trouble letting go of those sunsets out east and embracing the ones out west. There’s too much background noise here. Too many people, too many cars, too many kinds of blue cheese. I underestimated the learning curve getting back into the groove of American society. It’s not bad, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard and I have moments where I feel torn and tired, and a bit compelled to hibernate from the world and my friends and LIFE for a little while I retune my internal radio settings. None of it is unexpected but that doesn’t seem to lessen the fact that it kind of sucks. 

Which is where the passport situation comes in. I am putting barricades up against the noise. I’m plugging my ears to the dissonance. I’m fighting NOT to have panic attacks at the supermarket and do normal things like have a nice glass of wine with friends I’ve known for over a decade and haven’t seen in a year. And yeah, I know you’re curious about all those pages and all those stamps, and god knows you probably don’t come across them all that often, but those 22 pages of my very old American passport are a little summary of my life, one that I don’t have an obligation to share with you and one I am clinging to while the discord of my new life in America knocks on my door as asks to be let in.

So, madam bartender, if I may? Please just serve me up that glass of vino. Go back to your banter with the other patrons. Comment on the weather. Wipe up your bar. Do whatever is you need to do while I take a second to myself here. I need a moment with this part of the sky, with these new 7 p.m. pinks, oranges, reds, and blues. Because I’m looking for that heartbreaking moment on the horizon where it all makes sense…so far, it still feels a world away.