The Joke About Josh Groban

When I was 23 and working my first big-girl job in Chicago, I split my time in the office between two departments. I worked in the department I had applied to be in (the department I wanted to be in) for three days a week, and then a department that simply needed extra clerical help for the other two. My ambition was satisfied by the former, but the latter satisfied my cravings for community and friendship, which felt especially acute at that point when I was new to the city and new to adulting. It also allowed me to persist, for a brief period of time, in the fantasy that working in an office actually was as dirty-glamorous as working in an office seemed like it should be, in a very early-2000s indie movie kind of way.

That department was headed up by professionals but was largely staffed with other folks similar to me who were in some sense slumming it for a paycheck. We were also physically adjacent to the customer service department, which was staffed by a bunch of gorgeous punks, all of whom I fell desperately in love with en masse. They adopted me like a pet, introduced me to their other gorgeous scuzzball friends, and generally helped knock quite a bit of the lingering small-town shine off me. Work got done around the edges of a lot of banter and pop culture references and plans to carouse at the nearby bar at 5:01 on the dot.

Since I knew my time in this department was limited (looking back on it, I think it only lasted about five months total, although my memories of it are expansive and loom large), I didn’t invest much energy in decorating my cubicle. I would occasionally change the background image of my computer desktop, but that was about the extent of it.

It’s maybe worth noting here that, in those days immediately before the ascendance of social media, it was still kind of a novelty to find things on the internet that felt useful or relevant or somehow representative of one’s life. It seems almost impossible to conceive of now, but for so long anything other than, say, a word processing program used to type papers for school seemed like it was exclusively the domain of, I dunno, hackers. Like, you had to be tech-savvy in this very specific way to get computers to “do” anything worthwhile. But as search engines became more sophisticated and user-friendly, it was suddenly possible to see more general interest material at the click of a button.

Around this time, the singer Josh Groban was reaching an early peak of his popularity. I have no idea where I first heard of him. I feel like my dad had seen him perform on PBS or something? And to this day I don’t feel like I’ve ever knowingly heard him sing more than about four notes total. But his image was pretty inescapable at that point, this adorably mop-topped young crooner of light opera and love songs.

I’m not sure why, exactly, other than everything I just wrote about him, but something about Josh Groban struck me as hilarious. I had no beef with him or his fans; I didn’t find him ridiculous to the degree that it became derisive or mocking. Something about him just irrationally tickled my funny bone. His earnestness? His complete lack of being controversial in any way? All that wholesomeness just struck me as adorable. I was endlessly charmed by the idea of him, despite feeling wholly divorced from any access to his appeal in a more direct or visceral way.

So, aided and abetted by a vastly more functional search engine connected to the internet, I Googled up an enormous, very moony photo of Josh Groban and set it as the desktop image on the computer I used two days a week in the department I was temping in.

It made me laugh every time the computer went to sleep and I had to jiggle the mouse to get the black screen to roar back to life.

“She must really like Josh Groban,” someone from another department observed to one of my coworkers who sat near my desk.

“I think it’s ironic,” he assured her.

The thing that I adore most about this memory in retrospect is how much the joke was played for an audience of one, for myself, for my own amusement. To anyone who didn’t know me, there would have been no reason to assume that this sweet, small-town Indiana girl wasn’t a Josh Groban fan. I very conceivably could have, even should have been. I was exactly the kind of person who should have unironically had a photo of Josh Groban as the desktop image on her computer.

But maybe exploring that line between public expectation and private reality, that strange, taut place where they snuggled up against each other, was a process too delicious to resist. The allure of going to that place, diving into that confusion that contained its own clarity, was apparently so irresistible that I was actively willing to court being misunderstood. Normally, I would have avoided that possibility at all costs, especially in a context like that where I would have been concerned about portraying myself as “cool.” But following the joke has always been the most reliable way of finding my way back to wholeness, and giving myself the freedom and grace of that journey unequivocally felt like going home.

***

Queen of Peaches will be going on summer break! Be good to yourselves, and each other, while I take a bit of time to rest and realign with my own creative vision. See you in the fall!

 

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Telling Stories About Myself to Myself

The narrative that I often tell about this blog is that I couldn’t not blog.

I’d kept my first pop culture blog for about six years, and then shut it down when I noticed that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I’d grown bored with simply reviewing the movies I’d been watching, the concerts I’d been going to, the books I’d been reading. I felt like I wanted to be more than a rote recommendation machine; I wanted to expand my writing beyond critiquing someone else’s art. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about instead, only that I wanted to get to a place where my writing was more personal. (I don’t think I realized how extremely personal my reviewing actually was, how much of myself was revealed in my preferences and critiques, but that’s a subject for another time.)

As I’ve talked about elsewhere, I went into clairvoyant training later that same year and quickly discovered that the part of me that was good at giving psychic readings was the same part of me that was good at writing. It stood to reason that as long as I was doing something that involved my third eye, it didn’t exactly matter what the medium was. So I was perfectly content to stop writing for a couple years, just going to psychic school and giving readings there and playing music with my band the other nights of the week. Plus, I’d had a day job in the publishing industry for nearly ten years at that point, and all the reading and editing that I did there seemed to satisfy the part of me that felt most natural with a pen in my hand (or with a keyboard at my fingertips).

But almost exactly a year after I completed my two-year stint in psychic school, I wasn’t giving readings anymore, the band had imploded so I was no longer gigging or practicing regularly, and my job had taken a distinct shift away from editing and into the nuts and bolts of scheduling and budgeting. My creative restlessness was beginning to show, especially in comparison to my boyfriend’s creative output, which was in a phase of huge blossoming and development. He was blogging regularly, writing scholarly articles, and working on his first full-length book. I wasn’t necessarily feeling competitive with him—our strengths as writers are completely different, as are our areas of focus—but I was feeling a bit, oddly, call it, left behind. “Why don’t you just start a new blog?” he kept imploring me. So finally, I did.

But what to write about?

I knew I didn’t want to write exclusively about the arts anymore, but I also knew I would inevitably want to discuss some movie or album that had captured my fancy, so I wanted to make space for that. I had recently taken up perfume as a hobby, and had always loved playing around with makeup, so I thought it might be fun to have somewhere to explore all the ways that I presented and processed my own femininity. And of course there was the psychic stuff. Long before I’d gone through my in-person training, I’d been a religious minor in college and had been attending a Zen Buddhist temple on Sundays. Spirituality had always been enormously important to me, and I wanted to continue to reflect on what I’d learned and how it fit into and influenced my daily life.

So, rather than winnowing any of those things down, I just decided I’d kind of write about them all.

This was in the last little sliver of time when blogs were still a viable way of communicating and building an online following, before social media (in the sense of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook) really took off as the primary way that people not only kept up with friends but also consumed news and reviews. And so I read up on some best-practices for blogging and decided that consistency was supposed to be key. I never kept a regular schedule at my old blog; I posted when I had something on my mind. But all these self-proclaimed blog strategists were recommending that my readership would want to be able to rely on a specific day, and even a specific time, when I’d be posting, so I thought, OK. Let me take those three areas of interest and slot them in for publication on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and then make sure to write something short on the subject every week.

I kept up the schedule for a little while, but it ended up being far too much for me, considering that I hadn’t been actively blogging in close to three years and my writing muscles were way more out of practice than I thought they would be. Writing had ceased to be fun and started feeling like a chore, like something I was doing to keep up with a vision of the me I used to be, rather than a disciplined but ultimately joyous expression of my own constantly churning inner monologue. So I tried to devise ways to make the burden feel lighter. I scaled back to posting once a month and all but eliminated the focus of the three sections, loosely tagging whatever tumbled out of my brain with one of the categories, no matter how little it actually fit. I gave myself fewer restrictions, rather than more, and that somehow ended up being worse. If I’d promised myself to post something once a month, that meant I would start nervously thinking, mid-month, that I really should come up with something to write about, then go into a hysterical panic the last few days of the month as I struggled to write something I could feel remotely proud of that would also be somewhat legible to the handful of people who still, graciously, clicked through to read what I had to say.

So what was the easiest thing that I could come up with to fill the inspiration gap? What could I pretty much always count on if I was at a loss for something to write about? Me. My own past, my own memories.

As you can see if you read the About section linked above or if you scroll all the way down to the footer of this page, I describe this blog as being about “music, film, spirituality, memory, time, love, perfume, and my life in Chicago.” And when I appeared on the “Blog vs. Podcast” episode of A Chatter of Fact, at approximately minute 37, I went so far as to describe what I do here as “memory work.”

I’ve spent literally years writing here and thinking that I was chasing validation from other people who would be interested in what I have to say about a movie or a book or a perfume or cool stuff to do in Chicago. But I finally had to admit to myself that this blog is actually pretty selfish and self-centered. Everything that’s happening here has no pretense of being about anyone or anything but me. I’m finally just now consciously figuring that out!

To be clear—the primary purpose of my writing here has always been to examine and catalog moments and memories and impressions and experiences from my own past. Although I may have tried to connect some of these anecdotes to broader subjects that would be relevant to other readers, I’m mostly just telling stories about myself to myself.

It doesn’t necessarily feel like nostalgia to me; I’m not longing to go back to another time or place that’s now unreachable. For a while I did think it’s because both my parents are dead and there are, in general, fewer and fewer people around who remember me from when I was a kid. I considered that maybe I’ve been trying to foster some sort of personal coherence and permanence through these stories that other people usually get from their families and communities and other long-term relationships. But then I recall that, actually, I’ve always been like this—even when I was small, I loved when my dad would set up the screen and projector in our living room to show old, silent home movies on 8 millimeter film. This fondly remembered ritual from childhood feels intimately related to how I ended up creating this web-based environment for myself in the first place, in that I learned to think about memories not only visually, but also to interact with them by giving them voice.

My mother was a mostly self-taught but very talented photographer. I’m so lucky to have had a thoroughly, beautifully documented baby- and toddlerhood. My father, likewise, was obsessed with self-documentation. He often recorded his band‘s gigs on cassette tape (which I’ve recently been busy archiving on Bandcamp) and was hardly ever present at a family gathering without his 8mm camera and, later, camcorder. These images they captured and created may have been the way in, but when we would look at them later, the conversation and narration they inspired were another art in and of themselves. The images reflected back enough hard data to establish primary facts—who was there, about what year it was, what the occasion would have been—but it was up to us to continually supply the meaning, to tell the story.

A lot of people say they write things down to remember them, but I’ve always felt like I write things down in order to forget. To exorcise them, to get the repetition of a phrase or idea out of my damn mind so that it can stop haunting me. During college, I used to stalk around campus with my head down, internally chanting portions of essays-in-progress to myself until I could get a moment to sit down and transcribe it all into a notebook, where I could build on and edit my ideas. This is still how my best pieces compose themselves to this day. And that’s why I often completely forget about things that I’ve written. Once the words are out of my head and exist on a page or a screen, they’re out of my system, leaving space for a new me to arise and get to know all over again. She’s always teaching me to be a better listener.

Lemon Rice Soup

For at least a decade now, whenever my best friend and I have had to drive from our current homes in Chicago back into Northwest Indiana where we grew up, for weddings or baby showers or, alas, now also funerals, we have a little running joke about it.

We’ll look around at the scenery, usually while we’re tooling down the same roads where we practiced first learning how to drive as teenagers. And we’ll say to each other:

WE’LL NEVER NOT BE FROM HERE. No matter what happens and where else we may go in life, we’ll ALWAYS be from here. If anyone ever asks us, “where are you from?” we’ll ALWAYS have to say Dyer, Indiana.

For some reason, the absolute permanence and finality of that fact always strikes us as hilarious. There are so many ways that we have the power to change and rearrange our lives, but the sheer, literal unavoidability of our origins can never be altered. The nearly cosmic absurdity of it just hits us square in the funny bone.

*

“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” muses Pip in Great Expectations, and, well, not for nothing is it my all-time favorite novel. Though I probably never would have come straight out and said I was ashamed of being from Northwest Indiana, on many occasions have I sniffed something to the effect that it “just wasn’t the place for me.”

And, it isn’t. Or wasn’t. Or.

Suddenly, though, I find myself more simply interested in Northwest Indiana. In the fact of it. In its more elusive, underlying, animating spirit. I guess it’s a similar impulse to when folks get the genealogy bug and start tracing their way through the generations of their family tree. But for me it feels less like I want to specifically reclaim my own Hoosier identity and more like I’m interested in reappreciating the genuine pockets of the place’s uniqueness and specificity that people who grew up in other parts of the country or world would never otherwise know about. A more nuanced take on those clickbaity “You Know You’re From the Region If…” listicles, so to speak.

Part of this, I’m sure, stems from the fact that I’ve been in a relationship for the past six years with someone who was born and raised in Connecticut. In addition to all the other things about him that totally fascinate me, I find his essential East Coastness endlessly intriguing. (My standard line about this is always that I never really got Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.)

I delight in hearing my boyfriend tell stories about his childhood in Waterbury. I see and appreciate more deeply certain facets of his personality that only come to the fore whenever we travel there to visit his family. Just the landscape alone tells me so much about his psychology. And that’s not even factoring in seemingly minor but actually super meaningful stuff like what local grocery chains his family shopped at, what TV stations they watched, and whether the elementary schools he and his sister went to stopped at fifth or sixth grade.

And, much like the American who realizes that she too speaks accented English when she hears a Brit or an Australian parrot her own voice back to her, I began to realize that, of course, my place of birth has stories and history that inform the way that I understand and carry myself in the world too.

Like, just off the top of my head, lemon rice soup.

The constellation of context and meaning surrounding this simple side dish is actually so complicated that I’ve been idly doing research on all the contributing factors that make it such a uniquely Northwest Indiana thing. I mean, I’ve been looking up the patterns of immigration of Greek families to the Chicago area, how and why that community found such success as restaurateurs, and what confluence of factors led to avgolemono becoming a staple of those restaurants’ menus. All these details must then also be funneled through a more personal recollection of why everyone I know from my childhood and teen years is obsessed with the stuff. And how it’s now just as much a part of our identities as it assuredly was for the Greek families who most likely nicked their Yia-Yia’s special recipe in order to cook up thick, steamy vats of it to serve their patrons by the bowlful.

Earlier this summer, my boyfriend and I drove from Chicago to Valparaiso, Indiana, to hear Roger McGuinn play a solo concert at the Memorial Opera House. We had just enough time before the show to grab a quick bite to eat at a restaurant nearby. Overjoyed to see lemon rice soup on the menu, I greedily ordered a bowl and insisted on posting a photo of it on Facebook. “Introducing Brian to the ancestral dish of my homeland,” I captioned the shot, and my friends lost their minds. A flurry of comments and reminiscences began unspooling under the photo, and I felt the profundity of that shared point of reference in a way that I don’t think I ever had before. I mean, I’m Polish, I’m nowhere close to being Greek; but it really kind of is the ancestral dish of my homeland.

I’d wanted to share the specificity of that with my boyfriend, to show him this strange, tiny part of my heart, but in a lot of ways it was more about me finally recognizing the significance of that collective memory for myself.

Growing up, I’d often bemoaned the Nowheresville quality of my hometown. I used to think that if I were from elsewhere in Indiana, I’d at least be able to claim a certain sort of aw-shucks Heartland corn-fed wholesomeness that people would understand. Or that, obviously, if I’d grown up in Chicago—rather than an hour outside the city on the wrong side of the state line—every new person I met would have an easy, instant shorthand for the overall essence of where I was from. “The Region,” as it’s colloquially known, always just seemed to me like an unfortunate armpit part of the state that had no true identity.

But in the grand tradition of James Joyce writing about Dublin while living far, far away in Europe, I suppose I’m becoming a similar sort of more local ex-pat who can finally wrap her head around her place of origin now that she’s no longer living there. The absolute permanence and finality of having grown up in Dyer, Indiana, turns out to be a lot less permanent and final than I’d once thought. Just as new roads get bulldozed through farm fields and seemingly indestructible structures like the high school I graduated from get torn down and completely rebuilt, even if the facts of my past won’t change, my understanding of them most certainly can, and will.

Eating Spaghetti at the Vatican

Really, I’d been planning this trip to Italy since late 2001.

It all began around Thanksgiving-time, the year that I graduated college. I was headed back to Northwest Indiana after several months of aimlessness that saw me go from housesitting for a professor in Bloomington, Indiana, to interviewing for an internship in New York City, to bumming around Seattle for a while with a friend who’d recently moved there for work. I came back both to be with my family for the holidays and to be around for all the last-minute activities leading up to my best friend’s wedding in late December.

The night before her bridal shower, I went with my maternal grandmother to some kind of spaghetti potluck fundraiser being held at a local church. I have no recollection what it was raising money for, or why my grandma had specifically invited me to go. Mostly I remember being in some typical but nondescript church hall or basement, the kind that I’d spent years of my life in, whether it was helping my dad load gear in and out of for wedding receptions, attending funeral luncheons, or performing Christmas carols with various school choirs. Sitting on a folding chair at a long table narrowly butted up against several other long tables packed with folding chairs, I shoved forkfuls of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce into my mouth and stared down at the paper placemat that had an outline of the shape of Italy on it. And I thought to myself, “yeah, Italy. Now that I’ve been to both France and England, that’s the place I’d like to go to next.”

It was a somewhat random thought, likely influenced by a handful of late ’90s/early ’00s movies that were in the airThe Talented Mr. Ripley, Nurse Betty, Life Is Beautiful. I’d even tried to teach myself a bit of rudimentary Italian a couple years before, from an Italian for Dummies book, but I’d way overestimated my prowess for language acquisition and stalled out almost as soon as I began. But beyond that, I didn’t have much of an affinity for Italian culture or history. Even as a film major, I’d never even had a class on Italian Neorealism. Italy had never really been on my radar, until suddenly it was.

As we were finishing up and leaving the church hall, I grabbed a clean placemat from another table and folded it up and tucked it in my purse with the intention of hanging it on my wall as some sort of talisman. Like pinning a photo of yourself in a bathing suit on the refrigerator door as inspiration to lose weight, this would be an aspirational reminder of my next travel goal, which I was sure would come to fruition imminently.

My grandma dropped me off at my dad’s house and then she drove herself the few short blocks back to her own home and that was that.

The next morning I made my way to the wedding shower for my best friend, but a few hours later I got a call from my dad. My grandma had been feeling ill all night and had asked him to take her to the emergency room that morning sometime not long after I’d left for the shower. She was a tough old broad, so this concerned me a great deal, that she’d been feeling bad enough not only to have to go to the hospital, but also that she needed someone else to take her there. Especially since, obviously, I had just been with her the night before and she’d seemed fine. He told me not to worry but that she’d had a perforated ulcer and that while she was in surgery for it, one of her lungs collapsed. She was out of surgery by that point and was stable, but she would need some time to recover and there would be a lot of follow-up appointments to track the progress of her healing.

In the next days and weeks, after a lot of conversation with my dad and my uncles, it seemed to make the most sense for me to be the one to take over my grandmother’s day-to-day care. Since I was back home in Northwest Indiana and wasn’t otherwise employed at that point, I, luckily, would have the flexibility to drive her to her various check-ups and appointments during the day. Of course, right around the time I assented, I finally heard back from the magazine in New York about the internship. They weren’t going to be able to grant me the position after all. I was sad about it but rationalized that, immediately post-9/11, they probably wanted to hire someone who was already living in the city anyway. It made sense that they wouldn’t want to be responsible for flying some bumpkin from Indiana all the way out to the Big Apple just for a couple months of filing and photocopying tasks. So, rather than to the East Coast, I moved into the spare bedroom of my grandmother’s house and embarked upon six months of loose ends and loneliness before her death in June 2002.

So, when, in late 2016, my boyfriend’s father decided that he wanted to celebrate his upcoming retirement by taking a whirlwind tour of several European countries, including Italy, and asked us if we’d be interested in joining him, I waited a demure half-second before insisting that my boyfriend report back to him YES. We would, in fact, be interested in joining him.

This was it! This was my big chance! This was my big chance to FINALLY go to Italy!

My boyfriend’s dad researched a handful of tour group companies and eventually booked us an itinerary that would fly us into London before making additional quick stops in Paris, Lucerne, Venice, Florence, and Rome over the course of eleven days total.

My chance to go to Italy, though, turned out to be exactly that—a chance to go to Italy. It wasn’t really even a vacation as much as it was simply a chance for me to be in Italy for four days before I got back on a plane to fly home to Chicago again. The pace of the tour we were on was so fast and so relentless that essentially all we did was walk past or through the most obvious of tourist-trap highlights, the icons that immediately spring to mind when someone says the words “Venice” or “Florence” or “Rome.”

Although I didn’t do any specific magic for it in the way that I did for my perfect cupcake, all the energy that I’d invested over the years in this idea of “going to Italy” pretty much had the same be-careful-what-you-wish-for effect. Clearly, the fact that I never conceived of exactly what I would want to do or see or experience or feel there meant that the emphasis was on my physical presence in the country and that’s all.

I mean, yes, of course, a lot of the tourist-trap obvious stuff we saw was really amazing! Famous stuff is often famous for a reason! And, bottom line, I got to go to Italy. I’m totally happy about that fact. But still, words matter. As I’m slowing realizing about myself and my preferences for travel, I’m most attracted to experiencing the mundane aspects of any given destination that I happen to be visiting. Staying put in one place for a generous amount of time, wandering through the city streets, finding delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants, poking around used bookstores, basically LARPing what my own life would be like if I just happened to live there instead of Chicago. So, guess what—fast-paced, multicountry, large group package tours probably aren’t the right thing for me. I’ve learned that about myself now! And I can set more accurate intentions going forward for the kinds of trips that do inspire and light me up.

On the final day of the trip, our tour group was somehow granted special permission to tour the Vatican museum before it officially opened its doors. We skipped the line that was already beginning to form out front and breezed right in. It was lovely to be able to enjoy the art without being bumped and jostled by masses of other tourists all trying to take photos of the same things.

My boyfriend and I marveled at the extreme homoeroticism of much of the art.

I nerded out about the fact that there were statues of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in a special display.

I turned on my psychic sense in the Sistine Chapel when we acknowledged to each other that we felt ever so slightly unimpressed by it—and, no wonder—it’s not a place for spirituality at all. It’s basically a board room (for “functionary papal activity” as Wikipedia delightfully puts it). I got the feeling that Michelangelo was like the kid in elementary school that had a knack for art, so all the other kids would ask him to draw sketches of their favorite superheroes for them. Just instead of “Mikey, do me one with Batman punching a shark!” it was “Do me one with all the badass stuff from the Old Testament!” (In contrast, we found his Pietà at St. Peter’s Basilica much more affecting; it seemed very clear to me that he’d worked on that one on his own time to please himself.)

After whizzing through the galleries and St. Peter’s Square, we of course were ferried past a gift shop where we’d have some time to buy trinkets and eat some lunch before the group would be taken by bus to the Colosseum. I picked up rosaries and holy water and candles, then shuffled over with my boyfriend and his father to what was basically a glorified cafeteria.

And when I finally sat down, squeezing myself in at a long table that butted up against a bunch of other long tables, and started to dig in to my plateful of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce, it occurred to me that everything had truly come full circle.

From the first inklings of my desire to travel to Italy that originated in a church basement in Northwest Indiana to the culmination of that desire that brought me to, essentially, the ultimate church basement in Vatican City, there was a comforting continuity to the unglamorous familiarity of it all. It was like some sort of fishes-and-loaves miracle effected not for the sake of a huge crowd, but across sixteen years and two continents, all for the sake of one girl very hungry with wanderlust.

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My Best Friend’s Mother

Press play to listen to me read this post aloud:

 

Earlier this year I put together a zine called Loose Ends and Loneliness: A Zine About Transition Times.

Loose Ends and Loneliness zine

I wanted to explore those occasions in life when things are changing and you’re not quite sure who you are or where you belong or what you’re supposed to be doing anymore. I invited a handful of friends to contribute short pieces and recollections, and they wrote brilliantly about divorce, basic training, spontaneous cross-country moves, and so many other essentially liminal experiences. My own essay centered on the six months after college graduation that I lived with my maternal grandmother before she passed away from lung cancer.

I wrote and revised and scrapped and rewrote multiple drafts of my piece, trying to get at exactly the right tone of confused longing and seemingly thwarted ambition that suffused that time for me. I’m mostly OK with the finished piece and how it turned out, even though I knew I’d probably need to revisit that time of my life in writing again eventually since there’s so much to say about it.

I just didn’t expect to have an occasion to revisit it again so soon.

A big, meaningful chunk of the story that went unwritten in my piece as it stands now was the narration of the actual day that my grandmother died. Not only the narration of the day, but a character study of the major other player in the afternoon’s events, my best friend’s mother, Mary Ann Becklenberg.

I’d known for years that Mrs. B. was a long-time employee of Hospice of the Calumet Area, which was the same hospice team that had been called in to provide care for my grandmother in the last six or so weeks of her life. As a typically narcissistic teenager, though, what did I really know about what hospice care entailed? At least until I was immediately exposed to it.

My grandmother’s physical health went into sharp, sudden decline in the last three-to-five days that she was alive. But that final day, she must have taken a turn for the worse that freaked me out enough to call over Mrs. B. She lived very near to my grandmother’s house and I knew she’d be able to get to me much quicker than the actual case worker who’d been assigned to us.

Many of the details are a blur to me now, but I remember Mrs. B. arriving immediately to help me make my grandmother more comfortable in the hospital bed that had only recently taken the place of her favorite blue recliner in the living room. Mrs. B. helped me adjust the sheets, clean up some bodily fluids, and taught me how to slide my grandmother’s body up to the top of the bed, using the white sheet underneath her torso like a sling.

As my best friend’s mother, Mrs. B. was primarily known to me as an ebullient hostess-with-the-mostess, always quick to laugh, gossip, and revel with friends both dear and recently made, young or mature. But here I got to experience a new, remarkable side of her personality—her professional acumen, her sixth sense for when to offer gentle instruction versus letting me take the lead, her calm certainty in the face of my own grief and panic. How many deathbeds must she have been at over the course of her career as a social worker to have been able to remain compassionate and unphased in the face of this most momentous transition in a person’s life?

“Allison, these will be her last breaths,” she stressed to me, quietly but firmly, as my grandmother began gulping desperately for air.

And, as it became clear, as I clung to my grandmother’s left hand while I crouched at the side of the bed, that she had indeed taken her final breaths, Mrs. B. let me collapse into tears, providing space and safety for me to have my own emotional experience freely, while standing literally beside me, solidly holding the space, lending her inimitable strength, but not rushing to comfort or otherwise distract me. I’m pretty sure she was also the one to have called the ambulance, and recommended that I step outside into the backyard so as not to have to watch them physically remove my grandmother’s body from her house for the last time. She was masterfully efficient and unquestionably authoritative, yet possessed of a supreme delicacy that protected and sustained the bedrock emotional reality of everything that had just transpired.

I of course saw Mrs. B. many times in the ensuing years, at the holidays, at her other daughter’s wedding, at my own father’s wake. Her Alzheimer’s eventually became discreetly apparent but never overly distracting or disturbing to me. The essential radiance of her personality was more than enough to patch over any memory or cognitive fog that may have been affecting her, at least in those moments when she knew she had to be “on” in public. Even in my final visit with her at the nursing home just this spring, though she was mute and unresponsive, I was fascinated to notice the last kinesthetic traces of her personality still lingering in her muscle memory—the way she would suddenly lift her arm or shift her weight was so persistently Mrs. B. that I found it hard to resist a naïve belief that she might open her eyes at any moment and start chit-chatting with me again like old times.

And so, though of course I’m enormously sad over her death, for my sake as well as her family’s, I can’t help but marvel, admiringly, at how much of her essence still remained present despite the brutality of the Alzheimer’s, at how much she allowed her life force to be felt by her many, many loved ones, right down to the very end. And because, in my own mind, I associate her so much, and so positively, with my grandmother’s death, in many ways I feel like she’s simply gone back to work again, quietly yet authoritatively being the one to show us all how to make a graceful, and grace-filled, exit.

Mrs. B. at Beck Chapel

How to Scatter Your Father’s Ashes

Press play to listen to me read this post aloud:

My dad had a debilitating stroke in the summer of 2004 and then died a full eight years later at the very end of 2012. He hadn’t left much in the way of a will, so my family and I did the best we could with the wake and funeral arrangements, guessing at what he would have wanted.

Terry Felus

(I will always be proud of my insistence on playing The Spaniels’ “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” as mourners filed past the casket for the last time on the day of the funeral. My dad often ended his gigs with a tape recording of the song, and, even though the funeral home attendant rushed, slightly panicked, to turn down the volume on the stereo when that first bass vocal riff DA DA DUH DUH DUNH kicked in, it’s just the sort of impish, slightly inappropriate joke that would have tickled the shit out of him.)

The other major decision that needed to be made at that point was burial or cremation. He’d never said much about what he’d wanted, neither while he was healthy nor after the stroke. My maternal grandmother had at some point purchased, for herself, the plot at the cemetery next to my mother’s gravesite, but then at the last minute, before her own death in 2002, decided she wanted to be cremated, with no funeral, no fuss. But the process of transferring the deed to that space to my dad was never pursued, and then it was too late. Also, it’s not like our family was swimming in money, and the precious little that had been set aside for the wake didn’t go very far, so, all things being equal, it seemed to make the most sense to skip the additional cost of a gravesite and headstone and whatnot and just opt for cremation for him as well.

My boyfriend drove me back to Northwest Indiana in early January 2013 to unceremoniously pick up the cremains from the funeral home on a grey weekday morning. It was a plastic bag filled with ashes inside a cylindrical metal canister, inside a sturdy black box with a lid, inside another slightly flimsier box with a label with his identifying information on it, inside a heavy black bag with straps that closed shut with thick strips of Velcro. We drove the 45-50 minutes back to Chicago with the bag in the back seat. The tiny one-bedroom apartment where we were living at the time had next to no storage, so I ended up putting the whole grim package, of all places, on the top shelf in our kitchen pantry. (Lest you get the wrong idea, we had plenty of other stuff on that shelf as well—art supplies and rubber stamps, a broken flashlight, and one of the cat carriers.)

With my younger siblings’ full agreement, I’d decided that, once the weather got nice again, the best place to scatter his ashes would be in Southern Indiana. We actually ended up making the trip in early September, the weekend of what would have been his 64th birthday.

My dad’s undergraduate years at Indiana University were among the happiest of his life, and at some point early in their relationship, he and my mom started vacationing in Nashville, Indiana, a small town less than 20 miles away from Bloomington, known mostly for its arts and crafts community and for its relative proximity to the Brown County State Park. In a short journal of the first year of my babyhood that my mom kept for me, she lovingly described Brown County as “our place.” We subsequently spent many, many years vacationing there as a family, both before and well after my mom’s death.

black and white 1950s baby photo

There’s a bit of family lore about a time when, as kids, my dad and his younger brother were being so naughty that my grandparents packed them into the car late one night, took off from their home in Hammond, and threatened to drop the two of them off at one of the oil refineries in nearby Whiting. The boys, being young, impressionable, and credulous, were, of course, terrified.

Haha, hilarious bit of parenting, right? It was the 1950s, things were different then, my dad and uncle grew into upstanding citizens as adults, no harm done, right? Sure, I guess, but I’d also argue that this incident did no favors for my dad’s subsequent ability to separate out from the family group and define himself as a man.

terry sign says closed keep out

He spent the majority of his adulthood, until he went into the nursing home post-stroke, living no more than a 20-minute drive away from his parents and two younger siblings. Which is why I think his school years at Indiana University and his vacations spent in Nashville with my mom were so important for him. Even if he would not have described it as such, Southern Indiana represented personal autonomy. It was the one place on earth where he’d had the experience of being, blessedly, his own man. No wonder we vacationed there so frequently! While he maintained his devotion to our extended family for the majority of the year, there was always at least a week or two set aside for a road trip, when, while still being a good parent and caring for me and my siblings, he could also reconnect with the energy of his own first, joyful, youthful separation.

But, because traumas and internalized assumptions that go uninterrogated tend to keep trickling down the family tree until they’re consciously disrupted, I actually was dropped off in the middle of nowhere as a young child, as I’ve written about before. What felt like being abandoned for no reason that I could make any sense of at the time consequently passed along to me that same compulsion to stay connected to my loved ones at all costs, fearing for my safety, while I simultaneously, desperately craved the permission to claim my own sense of distance, of silence, and of personal space.

During the first year of my training as a clairvoyant, I received a profound reading from a classmate—she saw an image of me rowing myself way out into the darkness at the center of Lake Michigan in an effort to get myself away from the tyranny of other people’s thoughts, emotions, and demands. I was astonished that I’d never thought of my need for silence in quite that way before. Despite my years of sitting in Zen meditation and attending silent retreats, I’d never consciously acknowledged that I actually needed silence, that it wasn’t just something that I made do with when there was no one around for me to entertain and/or take care of. And not only did I need the silence, but I was actually allowed to claim it for myself regularly, simply, rather than going to increasingly outlandish lengths to find it. I was relieved and grateful to have had that aspect of my spirit recognized and validated with neutrality.

Photo by Rose Trinh

Photo by Rose Trinh

And so I came to deeply sympathize and resonate with my father’s clear but unspoken longing to carve out a place for himself to be free. After eight years of watching him suffer the purgatory of an uncooperative body, an uncooperative body which of course needed constant monitoring by nursing home staff (that is, the complete opposite of autonomy), I resolved to frame the scattering of his ashes as a significant act of mercy.

It’s not really illegal to scatter ashes on public property. But darting in and out of my boyfriend’s car in Nashville, poking through the underbrush near the Jordan River on campus, and trying to choose the perfect scenic spot on the route between the two towns, all the while looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was going to give me shit about what I was so furtively doing, still felt a bit like a scavenger hunt in reverse. Or like TPing a friend’s house in the middle of the night, or some other bit of benevolent mischief. (Lord knows that the catch-as-catch-can quality of it all would have driven my father’s perfectionist Virgo side nuts.)

But even though the actual, physical process of doing so felt anything but mystical or holy, I knew that, with time, the experience of very deliberately scattering his ashes in three specific places where his biography overlapped meaningfully with that particular bit of landscape would reveal itself as a course correction, a healing on my family line, and most of all, a magical spell to release him back to his own selfhood.

The Perfect Cupcake

Late in the summer of 2010, I found myself participating in a two-day silent Zen meditation retreat.

zen buddhist temple chicago buddha hall

The temple that I belong to periodically hosts silent retreats of varying length—typically either two-day shorties or five-day intensives. This was one of the shorties, and I’d signed up to attend, thinking that it would be a decent way to refresh my practice in the midst of all the other things I had going on in my life at that point. There was my 40-hour-a-week day job, a new band, and a burgeoning interest in developing, beyond mere meditation, my psychic abilities.

I’d recently just completed a five-week course where I learned some basic techniques for psychic development. These techniques included getting energetically grounded, clearing out the layers of my aura, understanding and working with my chakras, creating and destroying energetic constructs, and—the one that everyone in my class was most excited about—manifesting objects and circumstances in my life.

So, though I’d been regularly sitting in meditation since 2007 and had even taken formal precepts as a Zen Buddhist practitioner in the summer of 2009, I now had this host of other techniques I was learning to work with. The two approaches didn’t necessarily conflict, but they didn’t necessarily 100% synch up with each other either.

Zen meditation retreats can be brutal. Not in the sense of Zen masters beating you with sticks or depriving you of food and water and sleep or anything like that. Just in the sense that…you’re left alone with your own mind for hours and hours at a time. The lack of distraction can be really beautiful when you’re able to sink into it, but it can also be really punishing if you find yourself in a negative mind loop for any reason. The weekend of that retreat, I happened to trip into a negative mind loop and just couldn’t get myself out of it.

boots near the door at the zen buddhist temple

Armed with my new roster of psychic meditation techniques, though, I thought I might as well try to switch my approach. I figured if I was going to be stuck sitting in lotus position on my mat and cushion anyway, at least I could use all that quiet time to try to transform the thoughts that were making me feel bad about myself. So I thought, hmm, let me try one of these manifestation techniques I just learned about.

And so I walked myself through the steps of creating a thoughtform that I would release with the intention that that thoughtform would eventually come back to me (hopefully) as an actual, physical object in the real world. One of the many things that often made me feel down on myself was my lack of skill with money, and my tendency to carry more credit card debt than I would have liked. So, I began to think, how can I create a thoughtform for enough money to pay off the remaining debt that was sitting on my credit card?

And in the process of creating the thoughtform, I realized I had to ask myself, if I had the money to cover that debt, would I actually give it to myself? Like, if I, as some hypothetical third-person construct, were to ask myself—the true me, the inner me—for that specific sum of money, would I be willing and able to give myself, with kindness and generosity, the amount of money that I needed? And I realized that, sadly, no, I wouldn’t. Through whatever trip of bad self-esteem I was on, I was convinced that I wouldn’t have enough compassion to get my own self out of debt if I somehow actually had the immediate means to do so.

Obviously, this left me feeling profoundly bad! And once I started feeling bad, self-flagellating over my perceived lack of money sense, it wasn’t long before I started to feel like a straight-up bad person on top of it, thinking about how much, under my perky exterior, I secretly loathed myself, how despite all my highfalutin ideas about being a virtuous meditator and whatnot, I was actually a crummy person full of self-hatred. And if I hated myself that much, then, hoo boy, my logic went, I was probably not a very nice person to everyone around me as well. Shit upon shit!

baby buddha statue

So, after quite some time dragging myself mentally and emotionally through the mud (while outwardly sitting quietly in lotus posture, ostensibly tracking my ingoing and outgoing breaths over the course of several 30-minute sessions), I thought, OK, let’s back this up and try again with something easier, something that won’t make me feel so completely horrible about myself. So I thought, when I get out of this retreat and head home at the end of the weekend, I just want a cupcake. Pulling a little bit of sugary comfort out of thin air felt both achievable and necessary. Crucially, however, since I am an absurd overachiever in all things, as I was going through the mental/energetic techniques to create the thoughtform, I processed it with the intention that I would manifest “the perfect cupcake.”

In my innocence, I was simply conceiving of the perfect cupcake aesthetically. I wanted a cupcake that would be gorgeously crafted, with the ideal proportions of frosting to cake, in an inventive flavor combination, decorated beautifully and lovingly, like something out of a Zooey Deschanel movie.

vanilla frosted cupcake

And so, that’s where I left it. The retreat eventually ended, and though I didn’t feel that much better about myself at its conclusion, at least I was free to go home and zone out a bit.

But first! The bass player/principal songwriter/covocalist in my band had wanted to meet up with me after the retreat to hand off a burned CD with some new demos on it.

black and white bass tiny magnets by wade saathoff

Even though I was fairly exhausted and wasn’t in the best mood of all time, thanks to all the self-flagellation I’d been putting myself through over the past few days, I showed up at the restaurant we’d chosen, which was about halfway between the temple and my apartment.

I remember sitting down at the table and saying something to the effect of, “I don’t even know why I’m here right now.” Which probably sounded rude and dismissive, when in fact it was an expression of self-hatred. As in, “why would you need to see me right now, don’t you know that I am garbage, why am I even in the band, who would ever need or want my horrible, ill-informed opinions about anything, much less anything as sacred and important as music?”

He just kindly told me about the handful of new songs that he’d recorded at home with his four-track Fostex, described how he thought I could fill them out with some backing vocals and/or harmony lines in a couple places, and told me he’d e-mail me the lyric sheets subsequently.

four track tascam and headphones

I went on my not-so-merry way back to my apartment. No cupcakes fell out of the sky that day, or that week, or that month. Stupid manifestation technique. I couldn’t even seem to get that right.

Time passed. My attitude regained equilibrium. Life was good. Over the course of the next few months I took a trip to Spokane to visit some dear friends who’d just had their first child. I got on an Edith Wharton kick after reading The House of Mirth for the first time. I signed up for a yearlong training program to formally develop my own clairvoyance at the school where I’d taken my first psychic meditation class. I reached the end of my second year as a volunteer on the advisory committee at the Buddhist temple. The band continued to play gigs, including a monthly residency at a tiny club in a slightly out-of-the-way part of Chicago, and we decided to self-record and self-release a full-length album.

tiny magnets time to try album

I’d wanted to be in a band for so long. I grew up enthralled with my dad’s life as a musician and desperately missed that world. For better or worse, my father always basically treated me like an adult, even when I was very small, and there was nothing I loved more than being allowed to hang out with him and his musician friends while they talked shop, rehearsed, or listened to music together. I struggled for years to find my own musical comrades, and I was overjoyed when I met the bass player through a mutual friend and he told me that he’d been wanting to add female harmonies to his songs and wondered if I might want to join the new band that he was putting together.

And though I struggled with low self-esteem about it, perversely feeling like this was maybe too good to be true and living in fear that he and the guitar player and drummer would all soon realize what a horrible mistake it was to have invited me to be in the band, at the bottom of it all, I was thrilled to be back among what I felt were my people—the show folk. Playing music was a big part of it, sure, of course, but it was also the kinship, the agreed-upon acknowledgment that we were all chasing a lifestyle at odds with regular, respectable society (what with all the rehearsals and gigs in crummy shitholes, the specialized vocabulary, the time sacrificed on nights and weekends when other people are usually hanging out and relaxing).

And so, sitting in the car for hours after rehearsal with the bass player, talking about music and books and anything and everything else, felt like this huge, triumphant validation that I’d finally ended up in the kind of place, in the kind of life, I’d so desperately been looking for. Not only was I finally in a great-sounding rock band after years of failing to get any traction in other musical scenes in the city, but I’d also made the kind of forever-friend I hadn’t made since my days performing in musical theater as a teenager.

But in the same way that, during the previous year’s meditation retreat, I was so distracted by my inner monologue that I was incapable of enjoying what was happening right in front of me—namely, an opportunity to commune in silence with my fellow practitioners in a peaceful, supportive urban Zen temple—I was so myopically focused on my own agenda for joining the band that I didn’t realize that, over the course of the past year, the bass player had fallen in love with me. And whoops, whaddya know, I’d actually fallen in love with him too.

After we played an eerily perfectly timed mini-tour as a duo in Lawrence, Kansas, we realized we were going to have to contend with our obvious attraction to each other. It wasn’t long after that that the truth finally had to come out. Feelings were aired, declarations were made. Chronologies were compared: “When did you know?” “When did you know?” Life felt like it jumped onto a new and exciting track.

guitar rug houseplant

Our band’s next gig was actually the final date of our monthly residency. We’d had the third Thursday time slot for about a year and a half, and it was time to move on. I had nothing but gratitude for the bar’s gracious hospitality for our weird little band and our weird little group of fans. Month after month, it had been a reliable place for me to regain my confidence as a performer.

The night of that final show, I’d had to race to the bar from an event at my psychic school, and I rolled up in a cab, beaming, in love with my crazy life, ready to sound check. The rest of the guys had set up their gear, and the bass player was waiting near the stage for me. “Oh, I got this for you,” he said casually, pulling a small plastic container out of his bag. It was a vegan, gluten-free cupcake that he’d picked up at Whole Foods on his way to the show that night.

And in that context—newly in love, celebrating the end of a great residency with a great band, sparkling with the hard-won ability to start to see things psychically rather than just focusing on the darkness inside my own headspace—I’d finally manifested the perfect cupcake.

AF BC brick wall black and white

 

My Road Trip Religion

I am an extremely impatient person.

looking impatiently at the time

Oh sure, I pay lip service to the importance of process, to letting life and art and healing unfold in their own magical timing. But like so many things I believe in and recommend to other people, I feel somehow exempt from allowing that truth into my own life.

I want the learning experience behind me, the knowledge and growth safely implanted in my head. I want my artwork to be finished, polished, and ready to share with the world. I want my challenges accomplished, the stories of their unfolding ready to turn into pithy anecdotes.

teller of pithy anecdotes

I’m very good at starting things, pretty good at ending them, but squirrely, angry, and itchy about their middles.

Just about the only place where I can embrace being in the middle of anything, actually, is when I’m physically in motion—most especially in a car.

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My family never flew anywhere when we went on vacation. There was no reason for it. We couldn’t afford expensive or luxurious trips to exotic places (like, say, the East or West Coasts), and anyway, why would we need to go anywhere so far away? Where, outside the Midwest, would my dad even want to take us?

A deeply sentimental man, he was capable of feeling nostalgic about something he may have done that morning before breakfast, so unsurprisingly he invested the locations of our previous vacations with a nearly mystical reverence. Their repetition always had something of a fated quality. “Let’s do the things we used to do. Let’s go to the places we used to go to.” The highways of Indiana, lower Michigan, and western Ohio became a rosary that we would make endless loops around, their deeply ingrained familiarity a comfort to me even now so many years later.

midwestern sunset_square

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, we traveled in a brown, boxy full-sized van that my dad also used to haul his musical equipment to gigs in. It had a driver’s seat and a passenger’s seat up front, a U-shaped bench seat in the back, and a seemingly cavernous expanse between them. When not filled with his PA system and other gear, that’s where we’d throw our duffel bags and ancillary belongings before we hit the road.

There was also a square plank of wood that could be inserted into the cut-out portion of the U bench, with two rectangular cushions to cover it, to make a flat bed—a convenience for traveling with small children who needed to nap or have their diapers changed.

village candlemaker nashville indiana

This plank also, inadvertently, created a small cave underneath. At some point my dad realized this and learned to tuck a lightweight blanket at the end of the makeshift bed, creating an incredibly enticing hiding space for little bodies to curl up inside.

So, as a small child, for vast portions of our road trips, I would crawl into this cave and lay my head against the pungent rubber of the floor and listen to the hum of the road underneath us, feeling the soothing vibrations of the chassis flying along at top speed down the highway.

Lulled by the steady rumble of the road, I was left to bask in my own interiority. What did I think about or dream about or conceive of while I was in my little hermit’s cave? I don’t really remember. But what I do recall is the desire to return—the excitement that would bubble up inside me when we were leaving on another trip and I knew I’d get the chance to disappear into my favorite little place again.

asleep and dreaming_NEW

In later years, I of course not only physically outgrew the ability to fit in that small space but also outgrew the child’s privilege of not having to give a fuck about anybody’s happiness but my own. After my mother died, there was an unspoken understanding that I was expected to take her place as my father’s confidante and copilot. My siblings and I argued about who would get to sit in the front seat, like all siblings do, but it defaulted to me more often than not. (I was kind of snotty enough to assume I just inherently deserved it since, after all, I was now saddled with so much unwanted emotional responsibility. Like any asshole first child, I can get very rigid about pecking-order dynamics, especially when they’re set up to work in my favor.) The front seat brought pleasures of its own—watching the world fly by through the front windows, listening to and talking about music with my dad, kicking my feet up on the dashboard, being the first to see what was coming at us around the next bend in the road.

It was from that vantage point that I learned to love the small, temporary societies that emerged within the confines of a moving vehicle. I saw that it was possible for a whole world to be created in a car when you were settled in for a drive of any significant length. A cozy, often mute togetherness would descend, uniting the travelers, even when already genetically related, in a bond of deep care.

getting into the car_NEW

And it was more than just an acknowledgement that, yes, we’re all stuck here together until we get where we’re going. Despite the fact that we were very visibly traveling through a specific landscape, making progress that could be tracked on a map, there was also a feeling, oddly, of stasis. Being confined to the car, especially in those days before smart phones and GPS, actually kind of paradoxically made the world disappear. It was like the weird emotional truth of disaster movies—the people you were stuck with in these small spaces became your allies in a deeper, more intimate way than you usually had access to during the humdrum routines of everyday life.

Handing a bottle of water or a granola bar across the length of the vehicle to one of your fellow travelers took on a delicate intimacy that felt more like true generosity, honoring someone’s very human, immediate hunger or thirst. Because, after all, when are you ever more conscious of other people’s bodies in space and time than when you’re stuck in a somewhat cramped space with them? I think that’s part of what also makes a road trip feel like this tribal journey; you’re all literally, physically heading in the same direction, as a unit, everyone privy to each individual’s snores and farts and motion sickness and smelly feet as part of your unignorable collective experience.

tomas zagorski unsplash

I got my own driver’s license pretty much the moment I turned sixteen. The logic was that it would eliminate the need for me to beg rides home from friends’ parents after all my extracurricular activities, as well as allow me to run to the grocery store and help out with other chores that my dad otherwise couldn’t take care of until he was able to commute home from his job in downtown Chicago. And, yes, of course, being dutiful and obsequious to a fault (as I learned to be as a survival tactic in my family system), I ran plenty of errands and drove my siblings to and from their own extracurricular activities. But I was also suddenly…free. Free to exhale all the parts of my personality that I otherwise felt like I had to repress in order to make myself the model student, the model daughter. I now had the means to call the shots, and to build my own little motley society in the car with me.

Between the ages of 16 and 18, and even after that when I was home from college for summer and winter breaks, that car felt like my everything. It was the place where I listened to my favorite music (and sang along to it, loudly), exchanged heartfelt confidences with my dearest friends, made out for hours with my boyfriend, and wolfed down fast food on my way home from late-night theater rehearsals.

With gas prices still being relatively reasonable in the mid/late ’90s, I would often also just drive for the sake of driving.

dayne topkin unsplash

I’d pick an arbitrary destination (often just some wide-open stretch along southbound Route 41 where it was easy to do a U-turn and head back home again), and I’d revel in the sense of purposeful aimlessness. I’d listen to music and allow my brain to simmer down from whatever full-throttle obsession it might have gotten stuck in, whether related to friends or family or school or my seemingly unreachable general ambitions. In these days before I’d developed a more formalized meditation practice, driving was the surest way I knew to connect with an expansive grace and a neutral yet observant regard for the world around me.

I lived with my maternal grandmother for about six months right after I graduated from college (which you can read more about in my brand-new zine, Loose Ends and Loneliness), and in the last hasty update to her will that she made right before she died, she left me her burgundy Cadillac Eldorado. It was a hell of a gorgeous car that made old men weak in the knees whenever they saw me in it on the street. I dutifully registered it with the city of Chicago when I finally, officially moved here on September 2, 2002. It mostly sat, though, undriven, in the space I paid for behind my first apartment near the corner of Chicago & Damen. I found that the CTA was easier to negotiate on a daily basis and that it offered, actually, more opportunity to develop that empty-minded meditative expansiveness than the stresses of city driving did. So, I eventually had to admit it was wisest to pass the car along to my brother, who needed a more reliable set of wheels for himself at that point anyway.

Thus my mobile meditations were then transferred to the trains and busses of the city, as well as my favorite paths to walk through the neighborhoods where I lived, worked, and explored.

brown line paulina stop BW square

But I still get a surge of excitement once I’m in a car on the open road—whether that’s a simple spin down Lake Shore Drive headed to Hyde Park for the day, or a longer trek outside the city for one reason or another. On especially gorgeous evenings, when the sky is full of pink clouds and the music on the stereo sounds just right and the miles are uninterrupted by gridlocked traffic, my love of the road will get the better of me, and I’ll shriek impulsively to my boyfriend, “let’s gooooooo! Let’s drive to Milwaukee!!

sunset over uke village 2007

We, um, don’t, what with cats to attend to and more rigidly booked schedules to maintain and astronomical gas prices to be mindful of. But like anyone with a lapsed religious practice, my early, formative experiences of life on the road continue to color the ways that I most intimately understand myself, moving me forward even when I’m sometimes, often, not exactly sure where I’m going.

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Dreaming About Architecture

I can’t remember when I first started dreaming about architecture.

Was it as early as middle school? Later in high school or even college? Regardless, I’ve always been intensely interested in my dreams, and at some point I made the connection that the closest I ever got to having recurring dreams was the fact that place was usually the most vivid aspect of them. (This was even something “quirky” about me that I highlighted in the bio section of my first blog.) Sometimes I would dream about specific places that I’d end up seeing later in my waking life, but more often it was just a strong sense that I’d very clearly visited a very particular location and had soaked up a ton of information about its layout, floor plan, expansiveness, the way it smelled, etc. It was the first and earliest way I developed an inkling that my psychic perception was tuned perhaps just a bit higher than the average person’s.

(Funny story—a few years ago, when I was formally studying my ability to work with and in my dreams in a class on astral body healing, I had a dream that I was watching a coworker and his husband hang a large piece of art in their home, which I’ve never been to or seen pictures of. The next day at work, I told my extremely logical, agnostic/atheist coworker friend about this, mostly as a joke, and he sort of softly blanched and told me they actually had been hanging up a new piece of artwork the night before. I brushed it off in the moment with him as a funny coincidence but howled with laughter about it later with my psychic classmates, wondering, self-deprecatingly, why I apparently didn’t have anything better to do in the vastness of my dreamworld than fucking watch people redecorate.)

magic hour tiny house by inspiration de unsplash

I have very little interest in actually studying architecture, so I’ve never felt like this was some kind of latent hobby trying to express itself through my dreams. The importance of it as a pattern for me was more in the way it provided a container through which I could receive a lot of sensory information, almost like the memory palace mnemonic device in reverse.

This ability to describe the details of these kinds of elaborately rendered mental images ended up being a boon to the eventual conscious development of my psychic abilities when I was repeatedly exhorted by my teachers to just describe whatever pictures came to mind when I was in psychic meditation or giving a clairvoyant reading. I took to the technique quickly and easily, not because I’m so extra magical, but just because it felt similar to the highly detailed dream recall that I’d already been doing for myself for years.

black and white tall buildings by john cobb

A new friend recently asked me what it’s like to be psychic, and I verbally swam around and around in circles, flailing through anecdotes and explanations, not really knowing how to most simply and effectively get to the bottom of how utterly non-special the whole thing is. Well, non-special to me, inside my own brain, that is. I’ve given enough successful readings by now to know that they can be profoundly moving and touching for people who are being read by me, and I’ve of course received my own share of magical, transformative, right-on-the-money readings from other psychics and healers. But, much in the same way that it can be super boring to hear the details of someone else’s dream, I feel like it can be super boring for me to try to describe, rationally or intellectually, what getting, or giving, a psychic reading is like. It’s best to just experience one.

I’ve recently been revisiting the writings of one of my favorite mystics, Simone Weil, and was totally tripping out on the brilliance of her “Spiritual Autobiography,” and especially loved this bit:

“[T]here are two languages that are quite distinct although made up of the same words; there is the collective language and there is the individual one. The Comforter whom Christ sends us, the Spirit of truth, speaks one or other of these languages, whichever circumstances demand, and by a necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them.”

By necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them. I feel like this sums up so much about the way I communicate, and so much of what was at the heart of my difficulty describing how I give a psychic reading.

jackson united states by robert ostheimer unsplash

I used to have this whole elaborate theory about what I would tell different people when they asked me what my favorite movie was—to a little kid I’d say Toy Story 2 whereas I might say Back to the Future to one of my dad’s friends or Eyes Wide Shut to a particular kind of film-nerd peer. But, I recently read a short blog post saying that you shouldn’t temper your responses to different audiences because it marks you as an annoyingly inconsistent people-pleaser, that you should give people the chance to experience “the real you” and be OK with not being liked by everyone.

And I felt ashamed of myself when I read that, since I so admittedly do have people-pleasing tendencies that stem from growing up in an emotionally abusive household where it was easier to agree with the existing power structure in order to remain safe rather than risk a controversial statement that would result in my getting screamed at. Now, long since removed from the source of and reason for that defense mechanism, I know that I can still default to giving people the answers they want to hear, just because the energy of disagreement is still so exhausting to me, even though my safety is not necessarily in question. I often feel guilty about not standing up for my own likes, preferences, and opinions more avidly, since I feel like it’s a sign of weakness and lack of character, and that blog post certainly played right into all those fears I have about myself.

But the more I continued to consider it, the more I couldn’t convince myself that I’m actually wrong about it at all. There’s some kind of highly conceptual and philosophical interplay between the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and non-self and this Christian mystical idea of the fundamental incompatibility of public versus private language at play for me here. My people-pleasing habits notwithstanding, I am a different person around different people. Certain aspects of my likes and preferences do feel stronger around different people (I’m not wholesale lying about liking any of those movies). The way that I portray myself in the context of a group is of course different from the way I operate in an intimate conversation with one or two other people, which is of course also different from the way I communicate with myself inside my own head.

black and white windows hallway by padurariu alexandru unsplash

So anyway, this is kind of a long, digressive way of getting myself OK with the fact that even though I’ve been wanting to write more about my psychic services and psychic experiences, I’ve been running into trouble figuring out how to split the difference between the private revelations that happen during these magical conversations (and that includes the magic of dreamtime) and the publicly straightforward and expressive way I always try to write here on my blog. (My Gemini Rising in my astrological chart certainly both helps and hinders me here as well—it makes me want to communicate all the time, but I also, always, perpetually see all the different angles, often to the detriment of my ability to squeak anything meaningful out onto the page without completely torturing myself, and my loved ones, about it.)

I love to write! And I also love to talk. I’m incredibly glad that you’ve spent time with me here on my blog, and I would also be happy to talk to you in the context of a psychic reading or healing some time. My Mercurial zippiness is really only sated and balanced when I’m doing both.

After I’d been living in Chicago long enough to see, with my own eyes, the neighborhoods start changing due to new construction (and, yes, gentrification), I started to realize that though we tend to think of cities as being unchanging and solid, they’re actually completely mutable. (Which is why we marvel at these kinds of before-and-now photo essays, right?) Such is the preciousness of our dreams as well. So seemingly solid in so many ways, but also so ephemeral, charged only with the meanings and memories we choose to assign them.

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The Yearly Halloween Hassle

As I’ve written about before, my mom died when I was eight years old.

mom wedding

My dad never remarried and though we had plenty of much appreciated help from local relatives, friends, church members, and neighbors, a lot of responsibility naturally fell on my shoulders as not only the oldest child but also the oldest daughter. I was in many ways my mom’s mini-me and I learned to crave the praise and validation that came from being told I was “just like Sharon.”

As the years went by, my dad began to resist and abhor anything that broke the comfort of his routine. Regularly scheduled activities, like weekly church band rehearsal or games and practices during the years my brother played Little League baseball, were fine and posed no problem. But unexpected hassles, like doctor’s appointments or science fair projects, especially if they cost money, increasingly threatened his ability to hold on to his temper and, more than that, his ability to continue fooling himself into believing that he had a handle on, y’know, his life.

Which made Halloween, with its multiple layers of variables, a particularly stressful occasion in our household. Getting three kids dressed up in their outfits of choice was a pain in the ass; candy and costumes cost money that wasn’t always in abundance; the weather was often unpredictable; someone both had to be available to take us kids trick or treating and to give candy out at our front door. In other words, hassle upon hassle upon hassle.

allison fairy godmother

In an attempt to mitigate some of this hassle, it wasn’t long before it started to make the most sense for me to stay home, giving out the candy at our front door, while my dad (if he got home from work early enough) or one of my grandparents took my brother and sister trick or treating. I still got to dress up (the year that I wore a huge, borrowed fur coat and sprayed half my hair white as Cruella de Vil got a particularly enthusiastic response), and I usually still got to go to the costume contest held annually at the middle school gymnasium down the street, so it never felt like that much of a sacrifice to me. I either ate candy from my siblings’ stash or pilfered from the bowl of whatever we were giving out, so I didn’t lose out in that respect either.

But still, I eventually felt myself adopt my dad’s point of view about the holiday—it began to seem like a ridiculous hassle that I saw the point of less and less as I got older. Never one for large parties as a teenager, or the bar scene once I hit drinking age, there seemed to be little point in even attempting to put together a costume, especially since, always self-conscious about my weight, I never felt like I would have been able to pull off the “sexy” costumes that were increasingly de rigueur for girls older than, say, about 13.

mary mike allison pumpkin patch

Yes, there was a lovely year in college when my best friend and her fiancé and I spent a few happy weeks leading up to the 31st carving pumpkins and watching movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula together, but the best thing about Halloween for me, after a while, was the slashed price of leftover candy at the grocery stores on November 1.

So, even now in my mid-30s, as Tumblr and Instagram begin to fill up with all manner of #spoopy enthusiasm for Halloween, I find myself slogging through a persistent, inherited, but now groundless sense of avoidance. And honestly, it bums me out that I’ve allowed myself to become so Halloween-resistant! This holiday should be right up my alley! It happens during my favorite season and it’s a significant energetic threshold for so many spiritual traditions.

Not to mention, there is almost nothing I crave more in life than being seen. I love being the center of attention. I love wearing strange or outlandish clothing and getting noticed and complimented for it. (Not for nothing did I dye my hair bright pink for several years.) So, Halloween should be a natural for me, right? A day specifically set aside for looking one’s craziest, right? Well, yeah—but I’m contrary enough that I like looking crazy on the rest of the days of the year when muggles aren’t usually competing to get in on the act as well. It’s like the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the gang learned that real demons traditionally take October 31 off. Yeah, me too.

autumn on greenview

I’d love to give you an optimistic turnaround here and say that I have plenty of things that still make October meaningful for me. But I’m not sure that’d be entirely true. Sure, I love the color of the changing leaves and the crisp air and the fall wardrobe staples and the hot coffee and early sunsets that make it a particularly sensual and invigorating month. But in terms of feeling specifically compelled to observe any kind of annual ritual honoring the slide into the dark part of the year, I sadly find myself coming up short.

Mindlessly replicating old family patterns seems a particularly ineffective and self-defeating way to justify my admittedly, unpleasantly sharp-edged, high-pitched refusal to join in on the Halloween fun. But maybe that serves, in its own perverse way, as my own method of observing the Day of the Dead—communing with the spirit of Hassle and invoking Stagnant Predictability as a way of inadvertently reminding myself that, yes, there’s plenty of darkness in my life and memories still left to explore, no matter how much I may dress myself up in optimism otherwise.

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The End of an Era: Goodbye to Lincoln Square

I often like to boast about how infrequently I’ve moved during my life.

There was the house in Indiana I grew up in. The same dorm room for all four years of college. And just three apartments during my nearly thirteen years in Chicago.

Looks simple, right? Looks like I don’t ever move anywhere, right? Looks like my life could be described with a very linear narrative arc focused on my tendency to get grounded in one place and stay there until absolutely compelled to leave, right?

Well, as with any story I tell myself over and over again, I’ve started to realize that it’s not actually the whole truth. I’ve started to realize that the places I lived during the liminal zones in between those big, stable chunks of time are actually some of the most vital parts of my life story. The temporary locales that aren’t as easily defined as “places” where I lived, more like stopping points, are nevertheless key sites where I spent significant time and learned significant lessons. Reviewing them now, they provide unmistakable evidence that gives lie to my insistence that I only feel comfortable if I can put down roots, that I like to be surrounded by my stuff, that I inherited my father’s lack of flexibility, that I suck at moving, that it’s hard for me to find the adventure that my heart yearns for.

How do I quantify the influence of the flat in London where I stayed during my summer studying abroad after my junior year of college? The influence of the insanely beautiful house in Bloomington that I lived in for a few months after I graduated from Indiana University while the married professors who owned it traveled for research? The adorably shitty apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood where I crashed for a while with one of my best friends from high school, temping and going to movies while she traveled for business and while I waited to hear if I was going to get an internship at a high-profile magazine in New York? The spare bedroom in my maternal grandmother’s house where I lived for six months while she was rapidly dying of lung cancer? The two apartments in Chicago where I’ve unofficially lived with my boyfriend while I maintained the lease on my own studio apartment so that my high-functioning autistic sister could have somewhere safe to stay until she could be placed in her own housing for adults with disabilities?

These are all extremely important places in my life, but other than my memories and maybe a handful of photos (that are currently in storage because I’m, ahem, moving again soon), there’s basically no tangible record of my time spent in any of them. This is not the story of a person who has trouble with the idea of impermanence and rootlessness.

Even though the past three years of caring for my sister have been ridiculously stressful in so many ways, it was a complete blessing to walk into my apartment after she’d moved out and be struck with the realization that I didn’t give a crap about half the stuff that was still in there. The apartment had become a time capsule of my life circa 2012. The events that had driven me out of the apartment in the first place had now become the same events that had neutralized my perceived attachment to so much of what was in it. How elegant the effects of the passage of time!

And not only that, but there’s clearly a connection between how personally fulfilled I feel, how avidly and actively I’m creating and adventuring and loving, to how much I ultimately care about where I live and what I have. My being able to happily travel through London or bash around the Pacific Northwest with just a couple small suitcases proves that I carry my own groundedness and sense of at-home-ness with me. I allow other people to make me forget this truth at my own peril.

Long before I consciously started developing my skills as a clairvoyant, I used to joke that the only recurring dreams I ever had were about architecture. And it was true—location was usually the most powerfully felt feature of my dreams, the shape and layout and design of a building the aspects I would remember most vividly the next morning. And sometimes, months or years later, I would even see a place in real life that I’d long since forgotten that I’d once dreamed about. I think the first instance of this phenomenon occurred on a road trip through southern Indiana with my family when I was probably thirteen or fourteen.

“I had a dream about that house,” I matter-of-factly stated when we happened to drive past a beautiful, open, green clearing with a simple ranch house tucked back a nice bit from the road.

“No you didn’t,” my dad shot back. Not angrily or even incredulously. Just as simply and matter-of-factly as I had spoken up in the first place.

I wasn’t usually one to talk back all that much, even at that age, often assuming that there was so much about the world that I didn’t know, that it was best to trust the word of people who were older and thus had seen and experienced so much more of it than I had. So, I didn’t deny his denial. But I do remember very clearly thinking to myself as we sped away down the road, yes, I did. I know what I dreamed.

And so even though I am happy to be moving with my boyfriend to a gorgeous new apartment in a gorgeous new neighborhood, divested of so many of the things that I’d been dragging, with borrowed sentimentality, along behind me from both my childhood home and my grandmother’s home, I also know what I dreamed about the building that I’ve lived in for the past eleven years.

Both the two-bedroom where I lived for six years with roommates and the studio apartment I subsequently moved into across the hall were beautiful places to live and grow. I’ve expressed my gratitude to my landlady, and have energetically cut ties with the building itself, and have even sent some love back in time to myself circa 2004, to promise her that there’s so much juicy wonderfulness waiting to be experienced in this location and beyond.

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My Path to the Tarot

When I first moved to Chicago in 2002, I moved into an apartment on Chicago Avenue that was above a storefront called Beloved.

Beloved was a magic shop. Not presto-chango, rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic, but witchery. Voodoo. Gris-gris and powerful herbs in enormous glass jars. Though at the time I was just grateful to have found a place to live, now I think—of course. Of course that’s where I’d end up upon officially relocating to the city.

chicago avenue in 2002

I lived in that apartment just shy of two years. The shop eventually relocated down the street, then went out of business altogether, then briefly resurfaced online, and now has no web presence at all after some blog entries circa early 2012. The woman who owned the shop was probably not that much older than I was, wore her hair in soft dark dreadlocks, and had an adorable spitfire of a young daughter.

In the time that we shared the same building, I not only often stopped in at the shop just to chat and say hi, but also took kundalini yoga there a few times, asked her for a spell that would help clear out the bad vibes after a particularly disagreeable roommate moved out of the apartment’s third bedroom (which involved me and my remaining roommate smashing open a coconut at the Chicago and Damen intersection late one gorgeous summer evening), and got a couple tarot readings from her.

Rider Waite Magician

Despite having developed a fascination with energy work in my early teens, I was never really exposed to, or gravitated to, tarot. The Craft-esque idea of groups of teenage witch girls summoning spirits, playing Ouija, or dressing up in Stevie Nicks-style shawls and capes could not have been further from my personal experience. Aside from attending some karate classes at a local rec center that first introduced me to the whole concept of being able to consciously direct and influence energy in and with my body, I mostly studied these things on my own. Plus, thanks to that karate class, I was initially more interested in Eastern religions anyway, preferring to read about Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism rather than Wicca or herbalism.

Anyway, I’m not sure at what point I even learned what tarot was. But, after I graduated from college, when I was the primary caretaker for my maternal grandmother as she was dying of lung cancer, I somehow stumbled upon a set of Titania’s Fortune Cards. The deck had far fewer cards than a traditional tarot deck and the imagery immediately resonated with me—there were boldly colored images of a house, a four-leaf clover, a heart, a book, a tree, and other iconic, solitary objects.

titania's cards

The deck of course came with a guidebook to the symbols, which I pored over, trying to force my brain and hands into a fluidity with their meanings—but also secretly hoping that the cards would reveal my own magical identity to me, that in laying them down, I would suddenly read the Cinderella-like truth of my power, my imminent rescue from the depressing circumstances of my life, and my assured destiny as someone very talented, very powerful, very appreciated, and abundantly loved. I don’t think I ever really got the answers I was looking for, and the deck was eventually tucked away on the bottom of a bookshelf.

I also have to believe that some of the distance I felt from that deck and from tarot in general is that they just seemed like so much damn work. Learning the intricacies of the symbolism of the cards, how the cards relate to each other when juxtaposed, then the various elaborate layouts giving structure and narrative to a reading—it just all seemed so much like math. I wanted to talk about emotions and relationships and memories—stumbling through a guidebook to learn all these esoteric meanings seemed like it would take an awful lot of time and effort and discipline to get to the good stuff.

I am not a very patient person.

And though of course I worked hard during my clairvoyant training to learn various methods and techniques for giving aura readings and energy healings, I had such an immediate sense of familiarity with what I was learning there that it rarely felt like work. It just felt like a clarifying of instincts that I already knew I had, rather than stuffing new information into my brain that would need to be slowly processed and assimilated.

By Thunderwing Studio of Design

By Thunderwing Studio of Design

That being said, my natural, voracious curiosity trumps even my aversion to the idea of strenuous effort, so I’ve been recently trying to familiarize myself with some tarot basics. I have some card apps on my iPhone, I received a Tarot de Marseille deck last Christmas as a gift from my boyfriend, and I recently ordered a Spirit Speak deck on the recommendation of the marvelous babes who run Spinning Wheel Apothecary. (I seriously regret having missed out on the last printing of The Collective Tarot, which is powerfully and brilliantly put together.)

Though I don’t think I’ll ever feel adept enough to give tarot readings to others in the same way that I give psychic readings and energy healings, I have to believe it’s useful for me to at least have a passing familiarity with how the deck works, especially since “tarot” is the first thing that people probably think of when a woman about my age has witchy, energy-working tendencies.

More than that, though, I’m actually enjoying just having this new toy that I can play around with. I’m such a perfectionist in so many areas of my life that it’s enormously freeing to look at this one thing where I can tell myself, “you know what—there’s absolutely no way you’re going to master this, so just enjoy it to the degree that you can manage.” Giving myself a break in this way, these days, is just about the most magical thing I can do for myself.

titania star

PS! If you’ve read this far and now are jonesing for a tarot reading of your own, let me unreservedly recommend Angie Yingst. Though she’s physically located in Pennsylvania and gives in-person crystal healings and leads workshops at the Alta View Wellness Center, she does have an option in her online shop for tarot readings done via e-mail. I’ve gotten readings from her for my past two birthdays. She lays a spread out for you using her own intuition for the card pulls, then sends a written PDF report detailing everything that came through. The information she brings in is so rich that the energy seriously lasts me the entire year—I frequently go back and reread mine to reconnect with her inspiration and wisdom. Her readings speak straight to my heart thanks to her abundant intelligence, good humor, and great sensitivity. I highly recommend her blog as well.

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