Timing

Lately I’ve been collecting the small good things that happen over the course of my day. A joke with a stranger; an email from a friend; a happy caterpillar on the cover of my notebook.

I’m not superstitious (though I am a little stitious…) but there’s something about a well-timed talk or gift or moment that makes me want to describe it in terms of “meant to be.” I walk along the lakeshore on my lunch break, sunlight glaring off the lake into my eyes, and when I turn around, yellow leaves drifting earthward are catching in scattered sunbeams. It seems so perfect, a postcard moment, and it seems to me like it means something — like if my life was a movie, the music would swell here to indicate significance.

My life isn’t a movie. (If I’m trapped in some version of The Truman Show, I’m petitioning for a better soundtrack… Priorities.) And even though I know it’s just a leaf, just a gift, just a conversation, I always seem to decide that every good thing I have collected is a clue to the larger arc of the story, that each moment means something.

But I am learning — perhaps taking longer than most to learn — that the moments don’t mean anything on their own. We can collect as many moments as we like, but it’s up to us to order them in our own narratives. My leafy lunch break can be a peek into the timeless, or an existential crisis, or a trigger for scientific brilliance (à la Newton, didn’t he have his gravity epiphany under an apple tree?) or a deep breath to steel me for a long night. Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out the rakes. It means what I make of it.

Recently I told the same anecdote three times in a row (to a forgiving audience), rehashing an awkward moment of my week. The first time it was sassy, a nobody-tell-me-what-to-do story; the second time it was sad; the third it was funny. The facts of the story never changed; I was the only variable. We shift our own narratives.

It’s a bit scary to think about. I like thinking that I’m discovering the story, not writing it. And maybe at the end of our lives we’ll look back and see that what looked like scattered moments was really a path the whole time — but if so, it’s something you can only really see in retrospect. We can guess at where we should be and how we’re supposed to join up the moments, but ultimately it’s up to us.

And that’s why I’m collecting moments these days, catches of good things that happen, because I figure the days won’t always be good. I’ll need good things to work into my narrative in a way that I can make sense out of it. (Making meaning seems to be a messy process.)

Yesterday one of my neighbors left a string of colored Christmas lights rolled up on the newspaper outside my door. (It’s amazing how Christmas lights can make any story better — and a gift from a neighbor, at that.) A good hair-and-makeup day helps; and then there’s the joke I overhear while I’m getting coffee that makes me nearly burst with the effort of trying not to laugh because then they’ll know I heard and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I swear. I learn my first Burmese word — va-th-na, meaning “hobby” — and I know I’m pronouncing it with a thick Minnesotan accent, but my teacher smiles so encouragingly that I keep practicing. I find a package of chocolate chip cookies from my mom in my mailbox — even after shipping they still melt in my mouth. A few friends and I get one step closer to perfecting the Anna Kendrick Cups song rhythm. Another yellow leaf hits the sidewalk in front of my feet, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve been collecting them since autumn started, I tuck it between the pages of my notebook.

The pieces, strung together, start to mean something to me.

The letter-writing guilt cycle

I suppose it was inevitable. Befriending writers, literature lovers, historians, theologians, people who assign value to written words — and then choosing to live apart from those friends when we scattered across the country after college. The choices I’ve made have led me directly to this: the envelope staring me down from my kitchen table, containing several pages of matched stationery that a friend has filled from top to bottom with thoughtful, careful handwriting.

Cursive, in fact.

I read the letter, and I loved it. I am always thrilled to receive letters, even the greeting-card kind. Letters mean thought and effort and being remembered. They remind me that I am loved, and I am always grateful.

But receiving letters is only half the equation. Each one requires a longhand reply.

No pressure.

I’ve gotten so used to the backspace button on my laptop that trying to write thoughtfully on paper seems like a daunting task. When I mess up, I can’t rewrite unless I want to start again from the top — and if I misspell a word, or use incorrect grammar, there’s no way to fix it. Scribbles and crossed out words aren’t fooling anyone.

Then there’s the moment, after I’ve finally worked up the courage to brave the risk of syntactical errors, when I look down at the white sheet of stationery in front of me and feel my mind go blank, too. What do I have to write about? What have I done since we last spoke? Come to think of it, what was I doing five minutes ago? Where do I live?

In order to squeeze the words onto the page, I feign disinterest in the product. (Sort of the way you approach shy farm animals: I’m not paying attention to you, but if you wander over here I guess we can be friends.) The unwritten letter takes on an antagonistic life of its own: as long as it knows I want to write it, it will refuse to be written.

So I ignore It. I clean my apartment, cook dinner, watch television, check email, read a page or two of my current book. I don’t care about you, I tell my empty page.

Sometimes the letter wins these stalling contests — I go to straighten the stack of bills and newspapers accumulating on my table and find a piece of paper with only “Dear ____” written across the top. The shame is overwhelming. I immediately sit down to write… and the cycle begins again.

But other times I manage to do it. I grit my teeth and spit words onto the page, letting the smalltalk portion at the beginning of each letter build momentum and carry into something meaningful or funny or snarky. And who cares if I crossed out three attempts at spelling the word “definite” before it finally looked right, or misplaced my apostrophes, or realized a paragraph too late that one of my stories was a “you had to be there” moment — I have a letter, words scrawled on a physical piece of paper in semi-legible handwriting. I am so proud.

A week later I find the letter again and remember that writing is not enough: it needs an envelope, and a stamp, and to be posted.

The guilt eats me alive.

Giggle, snicker, snort

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about laughter — what makes people laugh, how laughs differ, how sometimes laughter triggers more laughter in a self-perpetuating cycle — the whole idea that some kinds of mental dissonance cause us to explode into undignified sniggers, or guffaws, or snorts.

The irony of attempting to seriously analyze laughter is not lost on me.

So I’ve been doing a lot of, um, research. I’ve been listening to comedy on the radio, watching some of my favorite artists online and playing cheery music a little too loudly in my headphones. On a recent stop at a Barnes & Noble, I casually picked up a book by a blogger I often read … and then spent 20 minutes on a cushion in the kids’ section, trying not to frighten passersby as I chortled into my sleeve.

Some things, of course, are funny to certain people and not others. During college I once spent eight hours in a minivan with a professor and four other students on our way to a literary conference. Instead of normal driving music, our merry band of English nerds brought books on tape to share, and someone pulled out an audiobook of “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.”

My fellow students and I were overjoyed. It’s a Douglas Adams classic, featuring lines such as,

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

That book can always make me dissolve into laughter, even in the most socially inappropriate situations. We immediately put the audiobook on play.

Our professor lasted through one whole chapter before he intervened. The story didn’t make any sense, he said. (We were still gasping for breath in the minivan’s back seats.) The plot didn’t follow, and the characters were inconsistent and confusing. He was glad we had offered the audiobook; but it was time for something new, and would we mind terribly if he turned on a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?

De Tocqueville, it turns out, is a total buzzkill. You feel as if you will never laugh again after 10 minutes of de Tocqueville on tape.

I’ve been on the other side of the laughter continuum, too. In Oxford, one of my professors interrupted me midway through reading aloud my essay on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” to say, “No, don’t you see, it’s funny.”

A little humorous, I said; but Lewis is making a few very serious points —

“No,” my professor said. “You have to read it tongue-in-cheek. Don’t feel bad; most Americans don’t get it.”

That was the only essay he didn’t let me finish. I tried to get “Screwtape,” I really did; I enjoy the book. But I always turn the last page thinking about the dire consequences of seemingly insignificant human choices, while the British apparently giggle and toss it aside. I guess? I don’t know. It’s beyond me.

It’s also fun to listen for people’s laughs. Most of us have at least a few — a social laugh, the sort you use when your boss tells a joke that’s only slightly funny; a caught-off-guard laugh, usually accompanied by a quick grin or a sideways glance; and an out-of-control laugh, the kind you use when you’re comfortable with the people around you and something has happened that is so odd, so unusual, so completely confusing and wonderful that you cannot contain the little joy-bomb that goes off in your belly. Those are the most fun laughs, of course. Those are the kind that trigger a chain reaction.

Making people laugh, though, is probably the most fun. I’ve known people that can immediately own a room, making the outskirts smile and lean in at the slightest phrase. Listeners are primed to laugh when these people walk in, and these gifted souls always deliver.

It’s never been that easy for me. But every once in awhile I get the timing right — the right joke for the right crowd at the right moment. The comedy stars align. Some poor unsuspecting soul is hit upside the head by my punchline, and the impact scares a giggle out of him. He looks dazed; I feel accomplished; nobody else knows what just happened.

It doesn’t get better than that.

Local holiday

When I lived in Bemidji it was the Dragon Boat Festival.
Every year the whole city turns out to watch — or join — the races. The Chinese celebration only took off in Bemidji a few years ago, but it has turned into quite the event. Community teams of up to twenty members print matching T-shirts and practice synchronizing their paddling to the drummer’s beat.
On race day the teams clamber into long, thin dragon boats and pour all of their training (or at least their enthusiasm) into a three-minute paddle to the finish line. You can tell which teams are hard-line competitive and drilled for weeks, and which teams are really just there for the snacks.
I love the festival — I love that the hillside by Lake Bemidji is covered with blankets and picnic baskets and people wearing baseball caps. Everyone cheers, even if the teams are slow or a boat tips. (Especially if a boat tips…) People are there for the spectacle, the sales, the fun of it. It’s one of the times Bemidji’s diversity seems the most united.
While I was living in Oxford I got to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, one of the most politically incorrect English holidays ever. Established on the day political radical Guy Fawkes was stopped from blowing up the British Parliament (“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot…”), the day is traditionally celebrated with fireworks and the ceremonial burning of an effigy of Fawkes. Now the day is often called simply Bonfire Night, and cities compete for the biggest or hottest or tallest bonfire.
I loved Bonfire Night, too — okay, I enjoy most community holidays. Oxford had carnival rides, some delightful fireworks and a bonfire so hot we couldn’t approach it — the kind that roasts one side of your body from 50 feet away while the other side freezes in the foggy English air. That, too, was a community celebration, and it’s one of the days I felt most connected to the community. The whole town was awake late that night.
Here in Worthington, apparently, the local holiday is Turkey Day. All I know about the celebration is what we’ve published in the Globe.
“You’ve never been to Turkey Day?” people keep telling me. “Oh, you have to see it for yourself.”
A parade, a 5/10k and a turkey race in the center of the town?
“You’ll love it,” people keep saying.
I’m guessing they’re right.

Unofficial guide to scones

Shake flour loosely into an average cereal bowl until it is about half-full.

I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. College fostered my nocturnal habits; having a full-time job as a night editor only adds to it. Night — after I’ve been in motion one way or another all day — is the time when I get creative. I read, write, catch up on my correspondence, listen to music, sing, clean, bake.

Add a pinch of salt, a smallish spoonful of baking powder and a splash of cinnamon.

During our last joint semester of college, my friends acclimate to my nocturnal schedule (of necessity, not choice). There simply aren’t enough daylight hours to complete our work in the time provided. Each week we knock back caffeine as we hunch over laptops in the library until the sun peeks through the windows. Then, hungry and slightly delirious, we stumble into the community kitchen in search of real food.

Slice butter — between a quarter and half a stick — into tiny cubes. Stir into the cereal bowl. Knead.

Strung out in various states of sleep deprivation, we band together against the post-caffeine slump and muddle up some survival foods. My contribution is always scones. Easy, messy, inexact, forgiving — the perfect baked good for the half-awake student. I carefully follow a recipe the first time I make them, but the next time — and every time after — I toss ingredients together haphazardly. Scones aren’t a science; they’re an art.

Pour milk into the bowl. Stop pouring before you think you should and stir the ingredients together until dough is evenly mixed. If you have chocolate chips, add them now.

We talk or don’t talk. A few verbal processors rehearse their presentations. Someone surveys the room and starts to crack zombie jokes; we’ve heard them before, but we laugh anyway. We compare the circles under our eyes. When the aroma of baking bread permeates the room, I pull the scones out of the oven.

Roll dough into two-inch rounds and flatten slightly. Place on a buttered pan. Dust each scone with milk and sugar, then bake at 350 degrees until golden-brown.

Someone serves up scrambled eggs; someone else offers fruit. The teakettle whistles. One of the hipsters is still grinding coffee beans. We reach for what we need, slowly coming awake. The sun beams full-force down the kitchen tables, reflecting into our eyes, warming our silverware. We trade compliments, cheer each other on. In twenty minutes the kitchen is empty. Some of us return to our laptops, re-reading or re-writing our work; others have set alarms and fallen asleep. A few with early classes have already left to turn in their work for inspection.

Serve scones while fresh and still hot. Best with jam and cream.

For the first time in sixteen years I won’t be going back to school. I’m so glad I’ve graduated — school felt like training, and I was ready to compete. But it feels wrong somehow to step into autumn without a heavy backpack on my shoulder and a working playlist cued up on my computer. I impulsively check out classics from the library; I put scones in the oven at 2 a.m. before I remember no one else is awake. I find myself researching literary theory just for fun in the wee hours of the morning and have to remind myself to sleep. I’ve lived in academia so long that I forget I’m already on the next page. I was lucky enough to find a job that incorporates my love of writing and my penchant for late nights — and let’s be real, I can fit the baking in on my free time. Study period is over; the exam has begun.

It’s going to be amazing.

Starscape

My father taught me it was called “light pollution” — the glow that surrounds Bemidji at night. You can see it for miles away. It’s a natural byproduct of cities; lampposts and neon signs, localized populations and businesses simply require more light. Bemidji’s haze is nothing compared to St. Paul’s, and Worthington may have a little glow, too.
Despite the brightness, I could always see the major constellations — Orion, Andromeda, the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) — from my backyard. As a kid I loved the constellation stories. I eagerly absorbed the Greek myths and memorized Native American legends.
Constellations felt like puzzles, scavenger hunts worked into the outer surface of our planet. We connect the dots and tell the stories, passing on some ancient tradition. It felt like being an insider, knowing a secret. I don’t think it occurred to me for quite awhile that I might not know the whole of it.
My family takes an annual camping trip to Clubhouse Lake, a trip I had to miss this year for work. The campground lacks basic amenities. We pump water and haul it to our campsite, and the only available toilets are outhouses. If you want electricity, you have to provide it yourself. We do all the normal camping things — swim, cook, fish, sing songs around a campfire. But sometimes, after campground quiet hours force us to stow the guitar, a few of us walk down to the lake.
We feel our way along the lake paths, whispering and tripping over each other. We bring flashlights but don’t turn them on. The tree canopy opens up when we reach the beach, and if there’s no moon, we can see the sky.
From my backyard, all I could see were the brightest stars, the ones able to compete with the glare of city lights. At Clubhouse, the outer rim of the Minnesota wilderness, the dimmer ones are visible. The sky is not a black curtain with scattered pinpricks, identifiable, classed into textbooks. It’s an untidy mess, stars bumping into each other, interrupting the approved constellations, overlapping, spilled carelessly upward and outward from treeline to treeline.
I remember the first time I saw the sky open up like that — the constellations I knew still recognizable, but suddenly less significant.
I’ve never felt so small.

Life on a Post-it

Some people write weekly to-do lists; some people keep up-to-date schedules in their iPhones. Some people (with freakishly accurate memories) simply remember everything they plan for the coming day.
I write Post-its. Each night I write everything I need to do and remember onto a three-inch-square piece of paper and stick it to my kitchen table, where I’ll see it when I wake up in the morning.
I don’t limit the note to calendar events: I write everything down, from the song I want to play as I make breakfast to how far I’ve progressed in this week’s existential crisis. People I want to talk to, messages I need to return, suggested library books and ideas for my next painting. Sometimes I think of my Post-it notes as messages from past versions of myself, offering me a glimpse into who I was yesterday — a person I’ve usually already forgotten.
I often neglect to throw my notes away, and every once in a while I wake up to four or five of them peeling up from the table. Sometimes the messages make me laugh.
Take, for example:
Go to work.
Now, why did I need to write that down? Did past me think future me was likely to forget?
COFFEE 8, 11, noon meetings
A busy morning; I clearly thought I’d need the caffeine.
Sometimes the notes are unnecessarily cryptic:
Pick up book with red cover
…because that’s going to narrow down my options at the library. Past me could have been a bit more specific.
Sometimes it seems past me wasn’t too happy with herself, and was looking for people who were:
I bet God still loves you.
And sometimes past me seems to know more than I do.
Chill out. Everything is going to be amazing.
I wonder what I’ll have to say to myself tomorrow morning.

Charlie’s retirement

My car and I have come far together. Charlotte, affectionately called Charlie, has been with me since high school. I’ve gotten used to her quirks and foibles — the way she runs out of gas before the gauge signals she’s low, the way she locks out anyone who tries to borrow her (proving, of course, her fondness for me), and the way she surprises me every month or so with a new repair bill. We have a history, Charlie and I.
Now the time has come to bid her farewell.
One rainy day a few weeks ago, I started home from visiting my sister in St. Paul. As Charlie and I crawled along in stop-and-go traffic, I noticed a wisp of smoke rising from the hood. Well, actually, more than a wisp — turns out the pounding rain had masked the sound of boiling antifreeze.
Parked on the side of the road with Charlie’s hood popped and pungent steam billowing into the rain, I fielded advice from the drivers inching by and questions from the tow service over the phone.
It took two hours for the tow to arrive.
The parts I replaced last month were insufficient, it seems, and I borrowed my generous sister’s car so I could make it home for my next workday. She agreed to drive my car once the repairs were finished, and we arranged a date one week later to switch back.
Before the week was up, I got a call from the parents.
My sister had apparently called them in concern after spending a day driving Charlie around St. Paul — no AC, broken window controls, a gas pedal that takes a few seconds to engage — and my parents had a proposition for me. Why don’t I take their minivan, and they’ll see if they can find a few long-term fixes for Charlie?
I agreed.
The minivan has character, but its personality is nowhere near as loud as Charlie’s — problems are limited to a broken clock/radio display and a weird noise when rounding corners. I haven’t feared for my life (or my pocketbook) once since I gave up Charlie. And, of course, the minivan doesn’t have a name yet — I’m open to suggestions!
Incidentally, after driving around Bemidji for a total of one day, Charlie found a new way to inconvenience my parents — the ignition key no longer starts the car. They have no idea why. (Charlie’s last practical joke?) In frustration, my cheap, penny-pinching, frugal-to-the-death parents went out and bought themselves a new car. This is so out of character for my parents that my siblings and I are still a little confused. Charlie, it seems, is doomed to remain parked in the driveway, collecting dust and dead leaves until she finds a new resting place.
“We’re trying to sell her!” my mom exclaimed brightly over the phone. “We have an ad out, but no takers yet!”
I am not surprised.
Rest in peace, Charlie. We had a good run of it. Happy retirement.

Wedding daze

People told me the summer after my college graduation would be a flurry of weddings.

I guess I didn’t realize how true that was until I was already in the thick of it.

College friends.Relatives. Family friends. It seems like a third of the people I know are offering or showing off rings this summer, shopping for taffeta and wedding cake and cummerbunds. I’ve spent the last few months chatting with grooms and brides and in-laws that aren’t mine, brainstorming over bachelorette parties and perfect gifts.

The bride of my next wedding told me last week that, as an attendant, I’ll be running point on her big day.

“I’ll give you a list, and you’ll tell everyone what to do,” she said.

She’s the boss, after all.

Sometimes it seems like a lot of effort and expense to pour into trivial details. I mean, you only wear the dress once. You don’t get to keep the cake. And what’s with all the taffeta, anyway?

From a distance, I try to be cynical about weddings — so many twitterpated people, and I can only summon so much emotion to put toward other people’s family drama and fabric preferences.

But in the end, I always enjoy weddings — laughing with (and at) the happy couple, gift shopping, running errands, rounding up extra party favors, getting to watch my family and friends celebrate each other.

Taking care of the details so the people I love can focus on being happy — it’s worth it, every time.

Even if it means I have to form an opinion on differing shades of taffeta…

It’s their day, after all. I just get to be there.

The wind and the waves

I don’t know anything about windsurfing.
To be honest, I’d never heard of it until I came to Worthington. In Bemidji, my hometown, lakes are as common as puddles, but there isn’t much wind.
The novelty of Worthington’s windiness wore off on my very first visit in early February. The snow blew so hard I couldn’t see to drive, filling my eyes with tiny ice particles when I ventured outside my car. (The weather didn’t do wonders for my car, either, but she’s a survivor.)
Since then, I’ve treated the wind as a minor inconvenience. I gave up on my pitiful attempts at hairstyles, started wearing sweaters whether or not the sun was out, and life went on pretty much as before. I got used to bracing for the wind — the gust when I open my car, the steady pressure along the lake shore — just necessary obstacles of living in prairie country.
It’s not an obstacle for the windsurfers, though — it’s a tool for speed and steering. They’re working with the wind; it looks like it takes every muscle of the body to harness that power. And watching them scattered across the lake, sails sticking out of the water like sideways dragonflies — it’s making the wind look valuable, purposeful. Fun.
Today, I hope to take advantage of those free windsurfing lessons. I’m sure (if they let me near a board, despite my obvious lack of skill) I’ll spend more time in the water than out. Still, I want to try.
It just looks fun.