DESERT LIVING

What kind of crazy person moves to Arizona twice in one lifetime, both times during the month of July?  That would be me.

 

My first stint in the dessert consisted of two years in Tucson, about ninety miles south of where I now sit.  I came here for graduate school, moving six weeks before classes started in order to house and dog-sit for former professors of mine whose kids I’d babysat in college.  They generously let me stay in their beautiful home while they spent a six-month Fulbright term in Santiago, but with them gone I didn’t know a single person in Tucson.

 

That summer was hard, as I’d known it would be—but there’s knowing and then there’s experiencing, and the former doesn’t really prepare you for the latter.  For weeks, the only person who knew me by name was Bob, the yoga instructor whose classes quickly became both sanity maintenance and a reason to leave the house.  My only friends were Penny and Dillon, the pups with whose care I was entrusted; I loved them both, but Dillon, the boxer, and I grew especially close – both of us snugglers, he could sense my loneliness, and took to jumping up into my bed at night.  Sometimes I still dream about sleeping with one arm thrown across his big barrel chest.

 

I was a recently graduated religious studies major and soon-to-be MFA student at the time, so it shouldn’t surprise you that I took the opportunity to read all of the desert literature I could from Terry Tempest Williams to Edward Abbey to the Desert Fathers of the Third Century.  Though writing across space and time, there were threads in all of these writings that united the authors’ meditations on the landscape—its punishing, harsh exterior, its unexpected and breathtaking beauty, and the resilience it demands of its inhabitants.

 

Perhaps it will seem a little melodramatic to extend my own metaphor here, but I gotta say, those desert clichés feel pretty on-base even the second time around.  My current circumstances are very different; far from moving here alone, I moved with my mom and my child (with my wife to follow once she moves her father into assisted living and readies our Houston house to put on the market).  Instead of knowing no one and being friendless, one of my best friends in the world now lives a mere five minute drive from where I live, after seven years of long-distance friendship.  As before, I will be entering a new school community, but this time as a faculty member instead of a student.

 

And still—it’s hard.  It’s hard in ways that have surprised me, and by which I feel somewhat embarrassed.  After all, I have buried a parent, weathered my spouse’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, adopted a child, and written two books; I have done challenging things, things that feel more justifiable to me in their difficulty.  But here I am, using a TV tray for a desk, eating peanut-butter-filled pretzels out of a bowl and watching the summer lightning storm play against the sky, and wishing this were maybe a little bit easier.

 

But I didn’t choose this for easy, or simple, or routine.  I chose it precisely because I knew it would challenge and stretch and expand me, which it is.  During my first summer in the desert, my friend Kate sent me the following excerpt from Anne Carson’s brilliant work Autobiography of Red; thirteen years later, I find myself leaning on that final line once again:

 

  1. SCREENDOOR

 

His mother was at the ironing board lighting a cigarette and regarding Geryon. Outside the dark pink air was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time. Her cool voice floated over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood at the screendoor. He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell of the screen itself as it pressed its grid onto his face. She was behind him now. This would be hard for you if you were weak but you’re not weak, she said and neatened his little red wings and pushed him out the door.

 

HOME

“The earth never tires, 

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first, 

Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d, 

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” 

-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, Part 9

 

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I flew home on Monday, just a quick trip, less than 48 hours.  I say “home” even though I haven’t lived in Memphis for nearly two decades.  I say “home” even though I am about to live further west of the Mississippi River than I ever have in my entire life.

 

It’s funny—Houston is the city I am about to leave behind, but driving around Memphis in my rented Mitsubishi Outlander I felt as if I were saying goodbye to my hometown instead.  Perhaps this is due to the distance required to see something fully; I know, intellectually, that I will miss Houston, the city where I’ve spent the majority of my adult life, but without separation from it, I am unable to predict the shape that missing will take.

 

Memphis is different.  The whole city is animated for me by memory, brimming with nostalgia and obscenely full of feeling.  Driving around alone in my hometown is a cinematic experience, which I alternately delight in and mock myself for; listening to Nina Simone’s “Memphis in June” while visiting Memphis in June, Nishta?  Isn’t that a little too on the nose?  Add to that the fact that I showed up just a few days in advance of Father’s Day, one of the most emotionally loaded days of my personal calendar year.

 

Believe it or not, the timing wasn’t intentional.  I booked my flight so that I might attend a few meetings for Just City, the Memphis-based nonprofit on whose board I am privileged to sit.  (More about them in a future post.)  And I had planned the trip long before I knew I’d be moving to Phoenix.  But if I’ve learned something in these nearly twelve years of being tenderized by grief, it’s that you’ve got to make time to let yourself feel.  Though it would have seemed unfathomable to me in the beginning that I would ever need to schedule time to grieve, the truth is that we human beings are rather adaptable, and we are good at building our lives like brick walls around the inner sanctum that is our vulnerability.  I am as guilty as anyone of busy-ing myself into an artificial sense of being “fine.”

 

As is almost always the case, I find myself needing the exact advice I just finished giving my students.  “Try not to fight off the feelings!  Stay present in this very special moment of your life.”  Ummmm….hi.

 

Since my very first day of teaching, my guiding principle has been: don’t be a hypocrite.  (This may seem like a low bar, but given the hypocrisy of many adults, particularly those in positions of authority and power, it still feels like the right place to start.)  And so, while I was in Memphis, I resisted the urge to schedule a million things for myself.  I didn’t fill my free time.  I didn’t make a bunch of appointments.  Instead, I spent time alone, mostly with my phone in airplane mode, and let myself feel whatever I felt.

 

I drove around my old neighborhood and got out to smell the magnolia blossoms in the yard of a stranger.  I went to my old coffee shop haunt, got my usual order (a cup of Earl Grey & sourdough toast), and did some writing.  I drove down to the river, to where we scattered my father’s ashes, and wrote him a letter.  I didn’t cry then, but I did cry later, when I spotted fireflies in my friend’s driveway; we don’t get them in Houston.  I think I had forgotten they existed, and the sight of them was like a revelation.

BACK AT IT

Y’all.  I don’t even know where to begin.

 

To be fair, that sentiment often applies this time of year – here are past versions from 2011, 2013, 2014, & 2015 (with some pretty good recipes attached!) – but this year…well, this year is a little, as the kids say, extra.

 

We are mid-major-life-transition, with a move to Phoenix happening this summer after 15+ years in Houston for me and 20+ for Jill.  Shiv was born here and has grown up here.  My mom, who arrived in Houston soon after Shiv did, is relocating with us.  Not only coming with us, but moving in with us.  And Jill’s dad, who has lived here nearly four years, will be moving back in Shreveport, where Jill grew up, into assisted living.

 

If you’re keeping track, that’s three Houston houses, two of which we’re planning to sell (the parents’) and one which we’ll lease (ours).  Jill is in Phoenix right this minute, meeting with our realtor and looking for a house to buy there.  Fingers crossed!

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Somehow, in the midst of all of this, I also managed to visit the ER (in Phoenix the night before my job interview), have surgery (thankful to be healthy now!), approve copyedits for my book manuscript (pub date = February 2019!) and spend ten days in Israel with my students as part of their epic, end-of-high-school trip.

 

Like I said, this year is extra.

 

In all of this, I have missed writing.  The irony of working on a book project is that it can take time and energy away from generating new work, and while I have vague, embryonic notions of what that new work might look like, the best way I’ve found to hone my writing voice and brain is to blog.  A regular commitment, with an audience (regardless of size), a place to reflect on everything happening around me, and an opportunity to share thoughts or insights that might be interesting or helpful to others.  So, my plan is to post here at least once a week, on topics that will likely be all-over-the-place, much as I’m sure my brain will be this summer.

 

To start, I thought I would share a few items that made my recent trip more comfortable, since summer tends to be a travel-heavy time.  No sponsored endorsements or affiliate links, just stuff I was genuinely glad I had with me on my trip!

TRAVEL PRODUCTS:

-My friend Courtney told me about Kavu bags a couple of years ago when I admired hers, and this trip was my excuse to buy myself one.  I bought this size, though I found it on sale at a local store, and am glad I didn’t go a size up.  This bag holds a surprising amount of stuff, but also kept me from carrying way too much around with me everywhere.  The convenience of being able to either throw it over my shoulder or strap it across my chest made it perfect for airports and crowded markets; same principle makes it the perfect bag to take with me to the playground or on adventures with Shiv.

-While I’m sure I would have enjoyed a cushy set of noise-cancelling headphones for plane and bus, my budget dictated finding a cheaper alternative.  I settled on these, made from real wood and less than $25.  They are remarkably comfortable; they come with several different sizes of rubber caps, allowing you to customize the fit, and the sound quality is excellent.  I kept them in for many hours at a time (11 hour flight from Tel Aviv to Newark, anyone?) with no discomfort.

This portable charger (thanks, Schoen!) is worth every penny.  Fully loaded, it charged my phone and two others, bringing the battery percentages from the 20s into the 90s, and was still at more than half capacity.  Doesn’t take up much space and means you don’t have to always jockey for seats next to outlets everywhere you go.  You might spring a few dollars extra for the jazzy red one; I didn’t and I sort of regret it.

-Silly as it may sound, I was really glad that I had a travel-sized container of hydrating face mist with me (I use Luminance Skincare’s rosewater toner, but I know some folks who swear by the Evian face mist), along with a pack of really soft and good-smelling cleansing wipes (the Burt’s Bees ones are affordable but good quality, and come in several scent options).  I always feel kind of gross after being on a plane, and the misting toner actually helped me feel refreshed.  We also did a lot of sweating on this trip, so the wipes came in handy when changing clothes mid-day without the opportunity to shower.

-Last but not least, there were a few clothes purchases that made a believer out of me, brand-wise.  I’m not generally a big shopper (anymore – there was a time), so it’s worth it to me find places with consistently good quality and customer service, even if I have to stretch my budget a little and take advantage of sales/discount codes.

-In my search to find a bathing suit I could feel comfortable wearing in front of students, I struggled to find something that wouldn’t be overly revealing, but that would also be cute instead of frumpy.  With little luck elsewhere, I discovered Albion Fit.  The brand carries lots of one-piece options, some more revealing than others, but all in really great prints and colors.  Disclaimers: their sizing options are quite limited – I wore a L, and they only go up to XL – and their bathing suits are not cheap.  It gave me serious pause to spend $128 on one bathing suit, but once I received it and tried it on, I knew I wouldn’t be sending it back.  Honestly, the quality of the material is over and above what I’ve encountered elsewhere, even at J. Crew, which used to be my fancy bathing suit store of choice.  The fit was likewise excellent – I felt contained, but comfortable – and I will definitely be buying an additional suit from them in the future.

-Having heard good things about Athleta’s travel/athleisure pieces, I bought a long, breezy dress and a pair of exercise shorts; both packed like a dream.  Though I rolled the dress and crammed it into a plastic bag, it still looked great when I put it on.  The shorts were a lifesaver; I could rinse them out in my hostel sink after a sweaty day, hang them up in the shower, and they’d be dry and ready to go the next morning.

-My last find was the online store Title Nine, whose name belies a mission that’s easy to love.  Among their clothing and gear specifically curated for active women, I found a great sports-bra (their selection is AMAZING), an extremely cute and comfortable pair of slip-on shoes, and a sporty dress made with dry-fit material, which packed super-well and was very comfortable.  The best part?  It has a zippered side pocket, which is how you know this company is run by women.  DRESSES WITH POCKETS FOREVER.