A Metaphor of Ships

Note: This is story number four of six so far! Only forty-six more to go.

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller 

Let us imagine that we, every one of us, wake up one day, stranded on an island. We don’t know how we got there, we don’t know why, but there we are alone, totally alone, on an island.  

It isn’t a desert island, not by any means. It is, in fact, a paradise. There are fruit trees in abundance, of a variety we didn’t even know existed. Durians, mangoes, and bananas in purple and red and green. The temperature is not too hot, there is plenty of shade and we very quickly build ourselves shelter. But it is also obvious that we have absolutely no means of escape.  

Unless perhaps a ship will one day stop by our shores.  

So there we are, stranded on our islands, keeping always an eye on the horizon, in case, just in case, we might find a means of rescue. 

Time passes, who knows how long. It might feel like months it might feel like years, but we are ready to leave, so ready to return to the mainland and all that it promises. 

(Funny, though, we can no longer remember what the mainland was like. We only know we desperately wish to be there.) 

Until one day, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracle, what do we see on the horizon but a cloud unlike a cloud which is to say sails.  

We leap and shout and holler. We kick up sand and light the biggest bonfire we possibly can and something must work, because the sails are getting closer and the ship is getting larger and sure enough there at the bow steering that wonderful mysterious miracle is another person. We are saved! 

Or so we believe for a while. Yes, the ship lands, and, yes, we are welcomed aboard, and, yes, we set off for the mainland. But the storms blow in with great gray walls of fog and the waves rise and the captain of the ship is not all they seemed to be.  

It might be our fault, or maybe it is there fault, but perhaps it doesn’t matter one way or the other, because it doesn’t work out.  

The lightning flashes, and the captain places us on a lifeboat and sets us adrift.  

We are tossed among the waves, raving, cursing the captain and ourselves and the whole damned world. We believe we will drown, but we wear ourselves out with our ranting and end up falling asleep.  

When we wake up, we are back on our island. We are alone.  

***  

Years pass. We work on our shelter. We build an outhouse and we start a little garden. The local monkeys become our friends. We appreciate the early morning bird song and the smell of rain from a distance. We set ourselves a routine, and we explore our island, finding a new cove deep and tranquil, so blue it shames us. We climb to the top of our island’s mountain and it is from this great height that we see it: the cloud that is not a cloud that is to say, sails.  

Again.  

We are older now.  

(Perhaps wiser) 

We hesitate. We are cautious. But still, the dream of mainland is strong.  

(It is where we were meant to be.)  

We build the bonfire. We flag down the ship. We make contact.  

And, again, the ship draws closer. The sails billow to twice their size, and fill the sky. The ship is upon us.  

This time, though, the ship makes anchor. The captain disembarks. They ask if they might stop over for a while and replenish their stores.  

They may, we say, if we can book passage with them when they leave. The captain agrees. We have a celebratory feast in their honor. We don’t notice is the captain drinks less than us. We don’t notice if they have a certain shifty look. We are happy once again to have company. Happy to dream of the mainland.  

We fall asleep, cautiously optimistic.  

We wake up the next day to smoke and ash. The captain of the ship has set our island on fire, tied us up to die. We can only barely make out the sails disappearing through the sooty air.  

The captain has ruined our water supply, burnt down our shelter, razed our garden, frightened the monkeys, slaughtered the birds.  

We can barely breathe through the smoke. We are choking, our lungs searing, the world is turning dark around us. We think that this must be the end. We and everything we have worked for cannot survive this.  

But eventually the smoke clears. The wind dies down, and we are, again, alone.  

***  

Life is strong. Death is certain. Trees left barren in the autumn bear leaves again in the spring.  

It isn’t easy, but we rebuild. It isn’t speedy, but we recover. It isn’t the same, can never be the same, but we grow.  

Years pass, and we are aging. We can hear the soft footfalls of the next world. Someone moving in the next room. We have stopped thinking of the mainland. We have stopped looking for ships.  

The only rescue we seek is the one we can give ourselves. There are great distances between us. Distances which we are beginning to realize cannot be crossed by ships.  

But one day we see again, the sails on the horizon, and though we make no attempt to signal to them, they are approaching.  

The ship lands, and against our better judgment we walk out to greet the newcomers.  

The captain of this ship is different, though we can’t say exactly how. They are older, perhaps, and somehow familiar.  

(Is it a mirror we see? Or the mirror of a mirror?) 

We speak to them, and in the conversation that follows we learn that they, too, have come from an island. They, too, suffered encounters with passing ships.  

But how, we ask, did they come to have this ship? And where, perchance, are they headed? 

We built it ourselves, they say.  

We are heading for nowhere and everywhere, they say.  

We look at this stranger, we look at their home-grown ship. We think of all that we’ve suffered and all that our island has to offer. We wonder and wonder, about self-reliance and growth, about living and about loving and about the mainland and the promise of isolation.  

We think and consider and wonder until the stranger grows uncomfortable. 

Well, they ask, are you coming or not?  

And with all the lives we’ve lived since waking up on that island so long ago, all the lives we’ve lived with only ourselves, and this profound knowledge gained from the metaphor of ships, we answer.  

 

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How to Trick Yourself into Being Yourself

I’m a month into the new year, and on my way towards my goal of writing one short story a week.

And already I’m learning a lot.

First, this is not easy. I love writing (duh), but this is exhausting.

People always want to know “where I get my inspiration”, but that has never been my problem. There are hundreds, thousands of stories in my head: voices, characters, conundrums, settings, situations, variables, snippets all colliding and colluding up there. Neil Gaiman once wrote about the many worlds in every living mind, and, boy, do I feel that.

The problem for me isn’t turning on the hose, so to speak, but rather controlling the torrent of water that threatens to overwhelm me.

So I’ve come up with a method of self-delusion.

I’m not doing anything, I tell myself, I’m just writing one short story today. That’s all.

It’s a method I’ve used in the past, willfully ignoring what I’m doing so that I can set about actually doing it.

When I moved to California, for example, I told myself over and over again, while I was preparing, packing, riding in the car across the country, I’m not doing anything. I’m not moving to a new place where I don’t have a job or housing or know anybody. I’m just putting things in boxes. I’m just getting into a car. I’m just getting out of the car.

Because if I told myself what I was actually doing, I’d have a nervous breakdown.

That’s the secret, I guess, to being really brave, don’t let yourself know what you’re doing.

So, yes, I’ve written five short stories so far this year. And if all goes according to plan, I will write forty-seven more. But I’m not telling myself that.

And, yes, I’m planning a solo trip to Europe in the spring, with a limited budget and little knowledge. But I’m not telling myself that either.

I’m just buying a plane ticket. I’m just writing a short story. I’m just living a life.

It’s a new year.

Ambition, Perfection, and the Telling of a Dream

I had a dream the other night that a man was talking to me. I don’t remember his face, but I know it must be a face I’ve seen in real life. The man told me, his voice full of scorn, that I was one of the worst abusers of the comma that he’d ever had the misfortune to come across. I was a sham, a mockery, and I should never write again.

I’ve had my fair share of dreams. Almost every night in fact. Most of my journal entries begin with re-tellings of my most recent dream, and many a short story has found its way to life through the portal of my sleeping mind.

But this dream jabbed at me.

It may be because I’ve never been a great grammarian. Shocking, perhaps, but I’ve always seen language as a moving target, a growing and evolving being full of its own comings and goings. I have never loved to keep my language confined, always wanted to let it flow beyond the strictures of form.

Although I love sonnets.

It is more likely, though, that this dream stuck with me not because of any external chastisement, but because it so perfectly encapsulates my internal monologue.

I have great expectations for myself. (Yes, this is a Dickens reference.) I don’t just want to be the best writer I can be, I want to be the best writer that has ever lived. I don’t just want to write short stories, I want to write life-changing, earth-shattering revelations of the human spirit.

Which might be a bit much to ask of a twenty-four year old.

But my expectations have never been rational.

When I was a child, I took piano lessons for a few years. Every day when I sat down to practice piano I would tell myself a story.

“If I play this piece perfectly,” I would say, “then all my hopes and dreams will come true. I’ll get an A on the test tomorrow. My parents will be happy. Everyone will stay healthy, and I’ll get to eat my favorite food for dinner.”

Kind of sweet, right? Except that right after that I’d tell myself another story.

“And,” I’d remind myself, “if I make a single mistake then everything will be ruined. People will mock me. My family will suffer horribly. My cat will choke on a fish bone and die, and it will be all my fault.”

Not surprisingly I very frequently made mistakes.

I’d like to tell you that I’m a different person now. That my expectations have been tempered by my increased understanding of reality. That I am driven now only by the willingness to do the work.

And certainly this is true… to an extant.

But the shadow voice remains, dogging my steps and haunting my dreams.

Is there a balance to be found? A nexus of ambition and reality? Or this simply another quest for unsustainable perfection?

Perhaps the answer lies in the medium of the dream itself. The awareness that the brain is constantly learning and changing even during sleep. Perhaps my mind, like language itself, is a moving target.

And perhaps allowing myself the room to make mistakes, to misplace, commas, to fail miserably, is simply another step on my way towards fulfilling my dream.

2017: An Unpopular Opinion

As stated above, I am going to write something that most people I know will disagree with: 2017 was pretty good for me.

Or let me put it like this. There’s a thing called free-fall, when a body is moving only under the influence of gravity. That’s what 2017 feels like to me. In context, yes, I’m definitely in trouble. Going to get slammed by this tax reform, persecuted under anti-LGBTQIA laws, probably won’t have health insurance in the future, family troubles, lack of direction, friends in trauma etc etc

But, if I look only at myself in a vacuum, just me as a body moving through space, it’s been pretty great. The feeling of air rushing past my ears at high speeds.

Here were my highlights from the year: marching in January, eating 3/4 of a giant doughnut, jumping into the Pacific Ocean, meeting David Beckham, participating in my first reading, seeing Hamilton, adopting Scout, moving jobs and houses, family reunion, seeing the Decemberists, visiting Reno, dyeing my hair, cutting my hair, dyeing and cutting my hair, writing a novel, crocheting a floor-length dress, and sharing way more writing than I ever have before.

I accomplished nearly all of my 2017 goals: visited a new state, applied for a writing fellowship, and strengthened friendships.

And beyond this, I had a feeling this whole year, that I was moving towards myself. Was it challenging? Yes. Disappointing? Yes. Terrifying and frustrating? Yes and yes. But still I felt that I was on my way, traveling towards who I want to be.

If I have any major take-aways, I guess it would be this, that even when the world is falling to pieces, living as we are in a kleptocracy armed by a police state dedicated to eradicating people of color and a patriarchy that seeks to punish women and gender-non-conforming people of all variety. But we can continue living life, continue fighting. To quote my third favorite LOTR movie: there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

I feel guilty most of the time, especially when I am happy. I think that in order to create change or to participate in the resistance, I must be suffering. But I’ve begun to convince myself, that I may be strongest when I am happy and fulfilled. That perhaps one of the greatest forms of resistance is laughter. So, I continue loving my life and loving the people I am lucky enough to have in it.

So, free-fall or no free-fall, I loved 2017. And here’s to a better and stronger 2018.

Choking on Forced Laughter

I love laughing. I do it frequently and loudly, with a laugh some friends have described as a bark. I have laughed outside restaurants with such force that people from inside looked to see what was the matter. Often people say they knew I was in the building because they heard my laugh. Heck, just look at my initials if you don’t believe me.

But lately, I’ve been laughing less.

Here’s an example where I did not laugh:

Male Customer: Oh wow, thanks a latte.

Laura: Yep.

Male Customer: Well, I guess someone hasn’t had their coffee yet today.

Laura: Sure.

Male Customer: What’s your problem?

Glad you asked. My problem is that I’m tired of laughing at jokes that I don’t think are funny.

I have felt pressure my whole life to laugh at not funny jokes made by men, in order to be accepted, be seen as “harmonious” or attractive, to do well in school etc. etc. etc. And I almost guarantee that every other woman in the world can remember a time they laughed at a joke, not because it was funny, but because they were afraid not to.

The problem is complex, of course, because men want us to laugh when they think it is funny, but not when they don’t think it’s funny. Here’s a whole essay about the politicization of laughter if you’re interested.

I have often wondered about male comedians. We have been told that women aren’t funny. I think it is instead that women are conditioned to laugh at men’s jokes. And men are conditioned to expect it. That men are funny is taken for granted and if someone isn’t laughing at a man’s jokes, it is not because the jokes aren’t funny, but because there is something wrong with the audience. Think how often you’ve seen women being criticized as thin-skinned, told that they “couldn’t take a joke”.

But the crux of humor is its unexpectedness. The surprise of a comment jolting free nervous, excited energy into a spontaneous release. I’ve seen literally dozens of white male comedians, and male comedians in general. It’s awfully hard for them to say something that hasn’t been said a million times before.

Often, male comedians hide behind the idea of “political correctness”. As in, “all these women can’t take a joke, they don’t realize that nothing is out of bounds.” Meaning that the male comedian in question wants to make jokes about sexual assault and harassment and doesn’t understand why the women in the audience aren’t laughing.

But for women, sexual assault and harassment isn’t unexpected. We’re on the edge of our seat every minute of every day waiting for it to rear its head. In our commute to work, at our place of work, on the commute home, in the media we consume when we relax, and often in our romantic partners. Even when we close our eyes at the end of the day, the trauma of our harassment remains to haunt our dreams.

See, to us, sexual harassment isn’t funny, it’s lived experience.

Perhaps, you think, talking about it in a public place is unexpected.

But again, it isn’t. How many women have in a public place, with their female friends, sat around telling their stories. You know the ones I mean: being followed home, being harassed at work, the things men have said etc etc etc. We’re used to these discussions, almost a right of passage to unburden them with newfound female friends.

Just because you have never thought about harassment before, doesn’t mean we haven’t.

This is why I’ve never cared about Louis C.K. I’ve heard his jokes a thousand times before. This is why I didn’t care about Breaking Bad. I had all I needed in a tormented anti-hero from Hamlet. Or heck, even before that, Oedipus Rex. I’m tired of hearing the same stories over and over again and being expected to applaud.

And I’m tired of hearing the same jokes over and over again and being expected to laugh.

It if I don’t laugh, it’s not because I don’t have a great sense of humor. It’s just that you aren’t funny.

 

 

Smoke and Silence

 

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller 

The problem is I can’t breathe. Three years ago nothing would have kept me from having a good time. Three years ago—pfft—nothing.  

But now.  

Now I’m sitting on the curb, outside the bar, wishing desperately for a cigarette, head still throbbing from that godawful-country-crap-cum-music, wondering how the hell I’ll make it home. If I even want to make it there. 

There’s something desolate about a Montana sky at night. The orange haze hovering above the horizon. The stars close and achingly far.  

I try to focus on the feel of the sidewalk underneath me, still radiating the day’s heat. I feel the urge to pace, but the sky, somehow, keeps me pinioned where I am.  

I am staring idly at my fingers, wishing they were covered in ash, brown with tobacco, when a woman sits down next to me.  

She doesn’t look Montana to me, not with her Day-Glo skin, vibrant even in the dying light. Certainly not her hair, cropped short and spiky, platinum blonde to silver. She looks as though she’s flown in from some tropical paradise.  

A half-moon hangs from one ear.  

I look at her side-long. She is sitting close to me, but not so close as to necessarily invite a conversation. Still it is a big sidewalk under a big sky and she sat next to me.  

I speak. 

“Evening,” I say. 

“Cowboy,” she says.  

“You got a cigarette?” I ask.  

“Coffin nails?” She says. “Are you sure you want one?” 

“Pretty damn sure,” I say. 

She eyes me for a second then summons a cigarette as if from thin air. It is wrapped in a sort of fine tissue I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t matter though, because I hold it in trembling fingers and she flicks a lighter underneath and it’s ablaze. 

The blessed nicotine.  

I haven’t smoked in three years.  

“You needed that, huh?” She asks.  

“You have no idea,” I say.  

She smiles slightly but doesn’t say anything.  

“What brings you out here on this fine night?” I say. “Shouldn’t you be in there making eyes at some fella?” 

“Fella?” She says. 

“Or gal,” I correct. 

“Not my scene,” Day-Glo says. “In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not from around here.”  

“No shit,” I say. “Where are you from?” 

“Here and there,” she says with a shrug. “Most recently, Texas Panhandle.”  

“What is that,” I say, “Austin?” 

“Huh uh,” she says. “Think Amarillo.”  

“How come you haven’t got an accent?” 

“Ya’ll don’t seem to take too kindly to strangers in these parts,” she drawls.  

“Boy howdy,” I say. “So, what’s your name?”
“What’s yours?’ 

“Alan,” I say.  

“Alex,” she says, with just enough hesitation to make me doubt her. “You got a car, cowboy?”  

“Even if I did,” I say, “I’m too drunk to drive.” 

“No problem,” Alex says, “I’ll drive.” 

“Forward aren’t you,” I say.  

“You want to get out of here,” she says. “I want to get out of here. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting on a curb having this conversation.”  

“Well,” I say. The itch has got ahold of me, the urge to move run shake scream breathe. Anything anything except to wait there for June to come out and find me. Another conversation ending the same way with tears and threats and pleas that I attend therapy etc etc etc 

“Shoot,” I say, “let’s go.” 

It is technically June’s car. But I have her keys. And damn if I don’t feel owed right now. Owed by the breathless sky and the bleary light of the same old bar full of the same old people waiting for their turn to die. 

Three years ago could I see myself here? Sliding into the passenger’s seat, tossing the keys over to a complete stranger, reaching out a casual hand to crank up the AC? 

Three years ago could I see anything?  

In the car I catch a whiff of her scent, not perfume, not unpleasant, but bizarre. The smell of sweat and salt and something vaguely rotten. It contrasts sharply with June’s smell, a clean soapy smell that has to me now a soporific effect. Sending me continually to sleep in the way only things too familiar can.  

It isn’t June’s fault. None of it is ever June’s fault. 

The thought pin-balls around in my head, threatening to shake it all lose. I turn to Day-Glo, Panhandle Alex. New, different, driving the goddamn car.  

“Where are we going?” I ask, aware by now that we have exited the parking lot, turned left at the stoplight, cruising down Main towards the bridge.  

“The river,” Alex says. “I need to get down there, and maybe some ways past.”  

“How far past?” I ask. 

“Scared?” She asks. 

“A little,” I say. 

“Good.” 

We sit in silence, the dull roar of the air conditioning, the occasional flash of passing cars. Outside people enter and exit bars. Dogs are being walked. Stores stand empty and dead.  

I wonder if June has started to worry about me yet. If she’s left the bar, noticed the car missing. As if in answer my phone begins to buzz. 

“Your girlfriend?” Alex asks.  

I don’t answer. 

“All right,” Alex says. “You’re lucky you’re here with me and not my sister. She hates cheaters.” 

We are crossing over the bridge now, the iron railings whipping past.  

“You have siblings?” I ask. 

“Just the two,” she says. “Sisters.” 

“Pull off up here,” I say, “if you want to get down to the river.”  

“Roger that,” she says with an exaggerated drawl.  

Alex steers June’s car into the gravel turn off, leading it down past the scrub trees to a low impromptu parking space. A steep overgrown path drops down to the water’s edge.  

“How old are you, cowboy?” Alex asks stopping the car. 

“Old enough to know better,” I say.  

“Good,” Alex says. She gets out of the car, leaving the key in the ignition, the engine still purring. I watch as she makes her way to the water, shedding clothes as she goes, silhouetted by the blaring headlights.  

I sit for a moment, not sure what is expected of me. The feeling between us isn’t exactly sexual but it certainly is intense. I feel drawn, pulled to her like a moth drawn to the proverbial flame. But I have learned by now not to think too often of fire. And more importantly not to think too often.  

I reach over and turn off the engine, dipping everything into an inky darkness. I drop the keys back into my pocket. I unlace my shoes and awkwardly pull off my socks, wincing when I step out on the rocks. They poke and prod at my feet attacking from odd angles. 

I hobble after Alex’s retreating form.  

When I catch up to her, she is already calf-deep in the river and completely naked.  

I see a pale scar tracing its way down the length of her spine, as if she has been sliced open and sewn back up. 

I roll up my pant legs and wade in after her.  

“Oh,” she says, as if surprised to see me, “hello.” 

“Hi,” I say.  

“Still craving a cigarette?” She says. 

“Not anymore.” 

We stand silent for a long moment, the water lapping at our legs. On the bridge cars roll by sporadically. If anyone looks down and sees us, they don’t stop. Perhaps we are not the strangest thing they have witnessed. Perhaps we are not strange at all, simply a man and a woman standing in the water.  

“Cold, isn’t it?” I say at last.  

Alex shrugs. Her Day-Glo skin, I note, stops chastely at the t-shirt line leaving the rest of her body pale. Her breasts are small, the nipples puckered against the night air. 

“I always need to go to the river after I’ve killed someone,” she says.  

“Ha,” I say.  

She doesn’t reply and the silence stretches.  

“Do you miss Texas?” I ask. 

“Are you sorry?” She asks.  

“For what?”  

She turns to look at me with silvery eyes, and I see within them a smoldering anger. A delicious invitation to slip out of my sleeping skin and into madness.  

I stand for a moment breathing in deeply, the cool damp air and somewhere far off the tinge of smoke. 

“Yes,” I say, “every day.”  

“Hmm,” Alex says.  

I shiver. In my pocket my phone jangles again, insistently. 

“Tell me,” Alex says. And it is a command. 

It was dark, I think. 

“I don’t know how to begin,” I say.  

Three years have passed, or maybe I am still trapped, trapped in that same room. Nothing to break me loose. 

“I don’t, I don’t have a drinking problem,” I say, “whatever June says. It’s just that—I don’t.”  

Alex says nothing, her body glowing against the dark.  

“It was a little over two years ago,” I say.  

Two years, eight months, and a handful of days.  

“I was drunk that night,” I say. “I’m the first to admit it, and I did.”  

The smell of smoke, thick, and somehow enticing. Inviting me to stay, sleep, drift off into that sweet surrender. If not for June, I could have slept forever.  

“I passed out,” I say, “dead drunk. Lit cigarette. Curtains. I made it out. June made it out. Shit everyone made it out except–“ 

That feeling of relief, disbelief, standing there out under the same Montana sky. Who knew so much smoke could seep out from such a small, slow beginning, writing great thick messages on the underbelly of the universe. The quick-cut red-blue of police cars and fire trucks. Wrapped in that yellow blanket, guzzling down oxygen. And all that time, in the adrenaline-buzzed midst of it, all that time– 

“The old woman, our upstairs neighbor. You know, we used to complain about her all the time. Her television turned up too loud. And her cats smelled so bad. And then–“ 

I could still feel the vice closing around me, choking, suffocating. Dreams of endless smoke-filled hallways, two lefts and a right, no, two rights, then—and never reaching the door in time.  

I turn at last to look at Alex. A slight smile plays on her lips.  

“And how did that make you feel?” She asks.  

I close my eyes, suddenly nauseous. A wave of stomach acid crawling up my esophagus.  

I went to the funeral, against my better judgment, against June’s advice. Like a bystander, eyes drawn to the sound of a car crash, needing to know, to satisfy that deep question: how bad is it? 

Closed casket, maudlin lilies, pitiful little family arrayed out on the pews. The drone of a church organ. The blood of the lamb. 

How bad is it? 

The sum of a life: a cloud of smoke and silence.  

“It was my fault,” I say bitterly. “How do you think I feel?” 

“Hmm,” Alex says. She turns to look at me, and I become suddenly aware of her body. The Day-Glo orange now almost painful to see, and rising behind her as if unfurling up from the cut in her spine, an aura, hazy and uncertain. If only I could focus, perhaps I could understand what is happening. 

But things are confused and Alex’s eyes drag me back, pinioning me where I stand.  

“You need to say it,” Alex says.  

“I am guilty,” I say. 

“And what,” she says, “do you deserve?” 

The tug of the river against my legs, dragging me, dragging me down. Alcoholic, June said. Help, she said, you need help. But she never understood, never saw that I didn’t want help. That what I wanted was–  

“Death,” I say. “I deserve to die.”  

“Dramatic,” Alex says. “But perhaps not incorrect.”  

I turn to her again and see her changing. The scar on her back split open and dark wings pushing outward, feathered and oily. Her eyes darkened, ringed with midnight fire.  

“What?” I say. 

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?’ Says the creature who was Alex. “A deserved death, to wipe clean the slate. Free yourself from guilt.”  

I stumble back, lose my footing, splash, flounder in the river.  

Overhead the stars stars stars and the creature wading, moving, oh so slowly, towards me.  

It is speaking now, in a voice of stones, low, rumbling, grating. Tectonic plates shuddering past each other through the slow roll of centuries.  

“May your sins be washed clean,” it says. “May the waters of this world carry you pure into the next.”  

“Wait,” I can hear myself saying over and over again. “Wait.” 

June, I think. 

It is upon me. And, god, I can’t breathe.  

This Barista Life: Part 3

Here we are and there we are and we are all together.

What was it like to once again pull up roots? This time moving back across the bay, closer to home and into the heart of the beloved Oakland.

If I haven’t made it clear, I love Oakland. I am less convinced at this point that Oakland loves me, but I will do my best to earn its love by fighting for it with every breath that I have.

I was excited, nervous, queasy to be meeting a whole host of new baristas, that first day of school feeling: what if they don’t like puns? what if they don’t like me? But I’m repeating myself.

And, of course, the thirst to prove myself, to put into play everything I had learned over the last nine months. My desire for perfection and cleanliness, my attention to detail, my abject humility.

They let me into a shining new cafe, and I was like a kid in the candy store. No problem was too small: should the for here set ups go under the espresso machine or somewhere else? Which way should the cups be facing? What does internal hospitality even mean?

I had too much fun nerding out, making puns, pulling faces, doing my cappuccino dance, etc etc etc. It is testament to my fellow baristas that my Ferry Building homesickness, though still intense, was not all-encompassing. I had the honor of helping to inaugurate a new cafe, and to welcome in a whole new neighborhood, hoping that we could learn from them, grow with them, and earn a place in their hearts.

I’m a little bit sentimental right now, if you couldn’t tell.

Anniversaries will do that to you.

So that’s where I’m at. A year at Blue Bottle. Still with so much to learn and so much to do. But I’m proud of all that I’ve accomplished. Proud that I went from steaming my first ever latte to competing in a latte art throw down. Proud that I went from tasting notes like “chocolate?” to participating in production cuppings. Proud that I went from knowing no one to pulling shots for our founder and CEO.

I’m so lucky and so grateful and so overly-caffeinated, and I can’t wait to see where the next year takes me.

This Barista Life: Part 2, Ferry Home Companion

If you spend much time on this little blue dot called Earth, and especially if you live somewhere in the vicinity of that cacophonous nation called the United States, then tides and times will likely wash you up onto the shore of the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

My first day to work was also my first ever visit to the building itself, although I had heard of it, even looked it up on maps before moving out West. There was nothing to prepare me for the reality of it, though.

Picture the train station of your imagination, it’s huge, bigger than any building ought to be, and the ceiling is made all of glass, cut through with iron supports. And sunlight falls in and turns everything golden, catching in the dust beams. This is the Ferry Building.

Picture, too, everyone you’ve ever met. They are all there, many times over. I can’t count the number of people, those I’d forgotten, or those I think about every day who I ran into completely unknowingly at Ferry.

Not to mention the vendors. If the Island of Misfit Toys were real, it would be there. These honest, messed up, pantheon of people.

I didn’t know that first day, walking awkwardly through the crowd, that these people would become my best friends, this magical building my home.

The first weeks passed in a haze. Here I was and there I was, inside the building outside the building, learning names and faces and how to brew a cup of coffee. Stepping on toes literally and metaphorically. I can never thank everyone enough for their patience and compassion in teaching me.

Every day walking to work was like diving underwater again, never certain who or what I would see. Whether the woman trying to steal our tip jar for the umpteenth time, two men picking a fight outside the window, or David Beckham and family attempting to slide unseen through the crowd. Some days all three.

But time passed, and I grew as a barista and as a person. My latte art started looking like latte art, and my extraction levels were sometimes deemed adequate. People I respect started commenting, supporting me to look for new ways to grow.

When my manager approached me about going to help start a new cafe, my immediate first response was “no way”. It felt like being asked to move across the country again. Everyone I knew and loved was in the Ferry Building, everything I’d built was there, I felt comfortable, safe, supported. Which, of course, is why I knew I had to say yes. As with all of my life, if it scares me, I probably should do it.

I know I speak for everyone who has ever worked at the Ferry Building when I say it is a unique experience. Working there will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But as with all things, this too, must pass, and it was on to Henry House!

This Barista Life: Part 1

As always I feel compelled by the passage of time, an hour gone, or a month, in this case it has been a year since I started working at Blue Bottle Coffee.

What began as an attempt at stable income has transformed into my life and family in the Bay Area. And more, a way of interacting with the world.

I began with no knowledge of coffee beyond the fact that I liked it and drank it in large quantities to make it through college. I first started drinking coffee the summer after my freshman year at Carleton, when I had snagged a job that required me to regularly be awake at 5:00 in the morning. My old roommates can attest, I am not a morning person no matter what I want to believe. From there coffee became more about a place, Blue Monday, of course. How many conversations, hours, laughter, tears, memories all tied up in that crowded little room with the mismatched chairs, all taking place over steaming cups of bean juice.

And I found coffee in my travels. Whenever I got a chance to explore alone, I would look first for a coffee shop and a bookstore, places in which I felt at home. This led me to coffee shops in Queenstown, Christchurch, Sydney, Dublin, Vienna, Lima, and all across the United States.

So when I was on the job quest last August, I felt drawn to coffee jobs. Little did I know all that would be in store.

I first experienced Blue Bottle down in Palo Alto, meeting with a friend of my sister. Of course, I walked past the place a few times before realizing where it was. (Blue Bottle never has the name on the building, only the symbol.) Once inside I felt as though I might be trespassing, these people seemed to know what they were doing, to be operating with some sort of purpose, to be achieving at high rates. Meanwhile, I was struggling to shower regularly.

But the feeling I came away with was warm and genuine, so when I saw that Blue Bottle was hiring, I jumped at the opportunity. I can’t remember what I said or did in the series of interviews, but something must have worked because a month after I applied, I was in training.

I was intimidated, but the training felt like school, so I sat front and center, took notes, asked questions, and was generally obnoxious as usual. And I found myself unbelievably entranced. Coffee brought together ecology, evolution, social justice, feminism, perfectionism, art, and people in this amazing combination. In one day we could talk about supply chains, extraction levels, and women in coffee all in the same setting.

And in addition to the intellectual stimulation, I got to make something with my own two hands. How rare a gift was that? For a person who has spent most of my life locked up inside my devious and ever-moving mind, to work with my hands is no small gift.

It was one of the things I loved so much about working in the prairies of Minnesota. To go out and touch the stalks of bending grass, smell the scent of bruising leaves after rainfall, listen to the gunshot of startled pheasants exploding into the sky.

I found this in coffee as well. All my creativity, my scientific inquiry, my people skills, and my drive were put to use here. Especially at my first cafe, the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Charlottesville: The Continuation of White Terrorism

Driving a car through a crowd of people is an act of terrorism.

But the United States as a nation is profoundly racist. Terrorism is only ever associated with brown people. Hence the white men who continually perpetrate the worst shootings in the United States are never labeled as “terrorists” but are instead labeled as “mentally disturbed”. And the white men who use sexual assault as a weapon of terror often against trans women and/or women of color are not written about as “terrorists” but are instead labeled as boys who have made “mistakes”.

And a crowd of white supremacists are labeled not as “rioters” but as “protesters”. Because white people can’t riot. And white people aren’t terrorists.

Bull shit.

This is the time, has long since been the time, to face our country fully, to look deep into its eyes, our own eyes, and recognize the evil that long has been lurking. It is not an evil of darkness, it is an evil of whiteness.

I’ve been told to not call people racist. To not paint white people with a broad stroke. To listen to the other side. To show respect. To be a quiet, polite, good white woman. To keep to my lane. To not cause waves. To disappear.

I will not.

White people, we are the problem. This is about race. This is about gender. This is not going to go away by spouting slogans like “all lives matter” or talking about “absent black fathers” or saying things like “PC culture” or “overly sensitive”. This is not going to go away by telling me that being gay is a choice or that gender is fixed. I’m a biology major. There are a variety of genders and sexes controlled by a multitude of factors, genetic and environmental.

This violence of reality denial, the violence of physical and verbal oppression, has been in existence since the very first white explorers. It is not acceptable. And it will end. Now.

The terrorism in Charlottesville is not the beginning. But it is the sign for the end. No more. Fuck Nazis, fuck white apologists, fuck rapists, fuck gender excluding morons, fuck all of that.

No, I’m not giving up on love as an answer. But I’m also done with this bull shit. What happened in Charlottesville was terrorism.

Time to keep donating my time and money and life.