I Wish the Same for You
There’s a mood in here today:
A woman walks into Starbucks wearing a shirt that says FREE HUGS in large letters, and lower, in smaller print: Don’t touch me. She leans back against the wall while she waits for her order, like she’s daring someone to approach her.
Two other women sit in the near dark and don’t remove their oversize sunglasses as they eat their heated muffins and stare at their phone screens.
The table near the bathroom is free, which is great, because it has a power outlet, and not great, because bathroom traffic passes that way, but it’s where I sit.
There’s work to be done, and the clock is ticking.
I have two hours to write before my next Zoom meeting.
Without specifics, it feels like the world is crumbling. In the news, people do horrible things to other people, in the name of their beliefs. Closer to home, people I love are sick and waiting for answers or relief. I’m in limbo, waiting on responses to a half-dozen things. The in-between is a tentative space, like a bridge that might crumble when I’m only halfway across.
It feels like the right time to drink hot chocolate and eat buttery cookies and read some Mary Oliver poems. If there was a button that could stop the world, just for a few days or a few million years, I’d push that thing right now.
Can’t we all have just a bit more time?
In my little corner, I’m down to three more teaching days, one-workshop-discussion-day, one more final to write, one literary magazine launch event, a towering virtual stack of things to grade, and my own life to live around all of that. The list greets me every time I log onto my computer, and no matter how much I pick away at it, it never fully goes away.
“Some of my professors are so far behind on grading,” one of my students lamented yesterday. “In one class I haven’t had an update since week three.”
While this is horrible—I’d be pissed if I were on the receiving end of that non-grade—that did make me feel a bit better. I’m only one week behind, not twelve, after all, and so I have adjusted my level of panic accordingly.
I will get done with all of this, somehow. Maybe it will be with wild, high-fiving success. Maybe there will be failures, hopefully minor, and hopefully the people I have failed will be forgiving. Maybe they will extend me grace as I am learning, always, still, to do myself.
I wish the same for you.
On Tuesdays, We Blog
It’s just me, six baristas behind the counter and on the other side of the building, a Couple Having a Serious Discussion. Neither of them looks at me as I enter. Neither of them looks at each other.
It’s been a week since I sat here with my manuscript, really liking the way that last scene played out. I figured I’d be back in two days, but then some life happened, and all the things I was behind on demanded my attention at once, and then on the weekend there were two conferences at the university, a workshop I was leading, dinner with the poet laureate, a birthday party, a luncheon, and a long overdue dinner with friends, plus all the stress that comes with my commute (2.5 hours due to traffic yesterday) and my Monday classes, and so, I’m almost crying with relief to be back here.
It's been too long, and I have business to attend to.
I try not to let my gaze rest too long on the Couple Having a Serious Discussion, but I notice they have stopped talking. Both sit with their chins cupped in their palms. What’s so weird about this tableau is that they aren’t looking at their phones. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen people together just being together, with no media in sight.
If I could paint, I would paint them. It’s an Edward Hopper, 2023 style.
This morning I started the dishwasher before the dog walk, since LG cannot handle the subtle cycle switches and needs to be out of the house during the hour-long cycle. When the three of us returned, one side of the sink held about six inches of brownish water. I took a picture, texted Will, and then went about trying to drain the puddle, which was only accomplished by scooping water with a very small scoop to the other side of the sink. It was then I remembered we have a disposal (a relatively new addition to our lives) and that the last time I tried to use it, which was pre-fall holidays, nothing at all had happened. No whirring sound, no rumble from deep within.
I’ll deal with that later, I thought at the time.
Today is apparently later. The disposal chicken has come home to roost.
The Couple Having a Serious Discussion is probably breaking up. They look younger than me, although it’s hard to tell. His head is either shaved or he’s bald, and she has the kind of well-kept beauty that makes age difficult to pin down. Maybe one of them has cheated, or both. Maybe it’s a financial thing, a lost job, lost house. Maybe they’re discussing how to split the assets—furniture, kids, dog. Maybe it’s another scenario entirely.
It is, of course, none of my business.
Today’s high will be 62 degrees, and on Saturday, when I have big plans to clean off my patio for the summer, it will be twenty degrees warmer. This has been one long-ass winter, with a smidgen of spring, too much wind, a whole lotta rain that, this being California, we have no idea how to handle, and day after day of grayish skies. Eighty degrees sounds nice. It feels like find-last-year’s-shorts weather, work-up-a-good-sweat-walking-around-the-block weather, get-out-the-box-fan weather. In no time it will be ninety, one hundred, and we’ll keep our A/Cs running all night and still feel sticky underneath the air vent.
I get distracted by an email, and when I look up again, the Couple Having a Serious Discussion are holding hands across the table. He’s talking and she’s nodding, and then she talks and he nods. Maybe it’s not a break-up after all. Maybe it’s one of those “we’ve hit this moment and we need to make a decision” talks. Maybe they’ll agree to disagree. Maybe they’ll agree.
I wish them the best.
Somewhere an Owl is Watching You
It’s 10:15 and I’m in my usual writing spot, only a bit later due to a routine dental appointment. Now I’m sipping my skinny vanilla latte, the old standby, and hyperaware of the fluoride coating on my teeth.
I have seven more days of class/three-and-a-half weeks/one lit mag launch/one creative nonfiction workshop/one 47th birthday party/one grant-funded discussion/one writing retreat to plan until the end of the semester, and Lord knows I am ready for it all to be done.
The older I get, the less I understand how time passes. It is April 11. Yesterday it hit 80 degrees for the first time, and my students, arriving sweaty to class, pronounced it the official beginning of summer. I have planted some seedlings in the raised bed, and other than two squash which look very sketchy, nothing has died. I’m still in the leggings-under-dresses phase of my annual wardrobe, and it seems both too late to be wearing warm clothes and way too early to be thinking about the punishing heat that will soon be here.
I wrote in an essay-in-progress about something that happened to me recently, followed by my question How the hell did I get here?
“What did you mean by that question?” my writing partner asked, tapping her pen against the line. I suppose she was looking for the short-term answer--I got in my car and drove, which was more or less how I’d intended the line when I’d written it, but the answer didn’t seem right to me now, at the moment we were considering it. It seemed more of an existential question, something meant to probe years of decisions and coincidences and accidents, family history, the branches leading backward to the beginning of time.
This is the story of how the hell I got here.
At the Starbucks where I park myself for four hours every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as some Fridays-Sundays when life permits, they have a keypad lock on the bathroom door. At times, the baristas sing out the five-digit code to anyone who asks, and at other times, like now, that information is strictly need-to-know. Something must have happened, like vandalism or a patron who wouldn’t leave, and so now when they are asked, the baristas make an effort to conceal their annoyance, come around the corner, and punch in the code for each guest.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I say when I arrive, fresh from an hour in the dentist’s chair, the orange juice I consumed before that heavy in my bladder, “but could you let me into the bathroom?”
The barista, her impressive head of hair piled in a high bun on the very top of her head, glances left and right and leans forward. “I’ll just tell you,” she says, and whispers the five digits that I immediately commit to memory.
I have passed a test.
I have been deemed worthy.
Yesterday, after my last class, three students stayed to talk to me—one making a plea for leniency, another providing an explanation for the wrong file that had been uploaded, the third just needing someone to listen.
I was lenient with the first, assured the second that we all make mistakes, listened to the third. I left exhausted and made my way straight to the parking lot.
It was still warm—the unofficial start of summer, after all—and students were out and about, sitting on benches, skateboarding past. Two students were taking pictures on the sidewalk next to the building with the owls’ nests, and I stopped to ask if they had seen the owls. It had been weeks now since I last spotted them, before the time change, back when I was leaving campus in the dusk.
In response, one of the students pointed—not up to the third floor where the branches from their nests still hung over the louvred shades—but straight ahead, just behind the hedge, to where an owl was watching us.
It wasn’t one of the parent owls, with their impressive wingspans and weathered faces, and it wasn’t the baby owlet that had blinked down at me weeks earlier. Except, of course, it was—bigger now, maybe an adolescent, with the cool gaze of a teenager.
And once again, I don’t understand how time passes.
Post-post Spring Break Malaise
Yesterday, a student emailed me to ask if we had class—basically, if spring break was really over.
And while I barked a laugh of amazement at her question, I was kind in my response.
We do, I wrote back with a smile emoji. We’re in the home stretch now!
But on a deeper level, I get it. I entered spring break with a to-do list a mile long and finished about half of those things, some which I’ll push to summer (closet sorting in the spare room) and some which I’ll scramble to finish this week (notes for a presentation I’ll give next week).
For a combination of reasons—tooth infection, lingering cough, exploding sunroof—I’ve felt wrong-footed all semester, only a step ahead when I should have this in the bag.
But here we are, back at it.
Yesterday, I left a mandatory department meeting twenty minutes after the hour and rushed to my class across campus, arriving five minutes late, while my students were clustered near the door debating whether to leave.
“It’s only been five minutes!” I said, breathless. Wind had been gusting at 45 mph, and my hair was a tangled knot I itched to work my fingers through.
“But you’ve never even been one minute late before,” M. pointed out. He is over six feet, a gentle giant, and his gaze is sympathetic as it travels over my windswept appearance. “It felt momentous.”
Today I’m at Starbucks for a few hours ostensibly to write, but also I’m behind on my grading, and if I don’t finish at least five papers, I’ll be well and truly screwed by tonight, when I need to read/skim sixty poems and short stories for the lit mag class for which I’m the faculty advisor. These are the kinds of motivational bargains I make with myself: grade one paper, answer an email, grade another paper, five minutes of online browsing for a new area rug. Grade five, and I get to work on my novel.
The other day, meeting our nephew’s new girlfriend for the first time at a hotel bar, my husband said, “Paula has a more interesting job than I do” and I nearly choked on my martini.
Grade, hate myself for assigning so many words in the first place, repeat.
But even though I’m trying to focus, I can’t turn off the fiction writing part of myself so easily.
Two people just entered in full winter coats, hats and boots, abominable-snowman style, asked the barista for the bathroom code, and as I watched writer-eyed, entered the same single-stall bathroom. Was this the perfect setting for a romantic tryst? Were they naked beneath those heavy coats? Would they buy coffee afterwards? Ten minutes later they emerged, hoods clinched tight around their faces, and exited the store.
Sometimes the stories just write themselves.
Paula Treick DeBoard