I leave Madrid for Santiago de Compostela on a sunny Sunday morning. The evening before, at a Spanish friend’s house, I had admitted that my family was from Galicia, and Lady of the House’s son immediately piped up, But you do not seem crazy! You know that all Gallegos boast they are 10% crazy, right? He shook his head, confused at the idea that anyone could be proud of that. I did not tell him that if what he said were true it would explain Quite A Lot about one side of my family.

I don’t know what to expect in Galicia, other than 10% of the people being nuts. Nearly twenty years prior, my high school sweetheart had studied abroad in London, and capped off the adventure by travelling the Camino de Santiago before joining the Peace Corps in Mauritania after graduation. His trek down the Camino had been fruitful for him, creatively speaking, and it had resulted in a play – a musical – which he’d sent to a select group of readers via his mother. It was the first in a series of many musicals he wrote, and he’d ultimately grown up to be a Broadway composer.

The envelope containing That Particular Play had arrived at my college apartment in a manila envelope with the soundtrack on CD or a cassette tape – I don’t remember which it was and given the era, either was plausible. He’d also sent word that a single bird flying overhead seemed like a sign, and when he reached the church at the end of the trek, the floodgates opened, and he cried, because then he felt like he had found God.

I ripped the manuscript up without reading it; I listened to the tape once, because I loved the sound of his voice more than I hated him; and I burned the postcard where he described the bird, the sky, the church, and God. He had broken my heart – broken me – so profoundly that I didn’t think I’d ever feel whole again. After losing my first love in such a public and humiliating way, I didn’t think that my head and my heart would be part of the same complete person again.

At the time, I didn’t know he was travelling the roads that my family had lived on; that he was exploring the places I was From. Back then, I had no idea how we would both grow, and more importantly, how much work time actually does. I was just angry in the way that Hurting Young People often are.

Before I left for Spain, this past June, I had bumped into him in California. Someone snapped a photo of us, arms around each other, smirking into the camera like we might have done Way Back When, and it reminded me of being on the cusp of all the things we could not contain twenty years ago: Our love; our anger; our fear; our knowing that This Was A Finite Thing.

That’s heavy stuff for teenage hearts.

I am thinking of him again as I land in Santiago de Compostela, in their modern airport nestled amongst the greenery that makes the approach look like I am landing in Norway or Ireland. My heart aches with old fury; untapped grief; with feelings I cannot identify but that feel vaguely familiar.

Is this what it feels like to be a pilgrim? 

I am only in Santiago for two days, so I am only planning to walk the last ten miles or so of The Way of Saint James; of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage derives its name from the patron saint of Spain – Saint James the Greater – whose body is entombed in the grand cathedral at the Camino’s end. The name Santiago itself comes from the Spanish derivation of James from Latin – Sanctu Iacobu – which, translated from Vulgar Latin to local Galician, became sant iago, hence Santiago.

The story goes that after James was martyred at the hands of King Herod in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), his body was returned to Galicia, but was thrown into the sea – emerging covered in scallop shells. As a result, travellers come to Santiago and carry bleached shells on red cords, emblazoned with the shield of Saint James as evidence they are pilgrims who should be granted a safe passage. 

I pick up my red lanyard and hit the trail mid-morning on my first full day in town, the sun bright overhead. When I reach the first scallop-shaped trail marker, a bird flies across the perfect blue sky, and the floodgates open, and the tears come in a tidal wave that I did not know was contained behind my eyes. I snap a photo of the trail marker and I send it to my high school sweetheart, without any text, because I know that in this moment, almost twenty years after his own journey, he is the only person who will understand my heart.

Then I walk for ten miles, crying. I am crying because these are the roads my people have walked for generations and this is the first time, ever, I have been in a place that I know I am From. I am crying because I came all this way, and did all this work, and married all these men, and at the end of it, it is just me here, alone, with nothing to show all these dead ancestors for it. I’m also crying because I’m probably at least 10% crazy, just like the rest of them. 

How did I get here?

As I emerge from the Spanish woods and near the cathedral at the Camino’s end, my phone buzzes with a text message from my high school sweetheart. He has received my picture of the trail marker.

The start of everything, he says.

And I understand, suddenly, in this hot, stark moment in the north of Spain, that who I am is not just a disappointment; not only a litany of failures or a sum-total of endings. I am just at the start.

It is the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter, and my dog, Roo, has gotten into a playful scrap with another dog. The damage at first seems minor (a bloodied ear, maybe) but by Tuesday morning, the dog is incapacitated and screaming, so I rush him to the vet.

Roo has never been seriously ill or hurt in all his seven years of life – an occasional gross stomach bug, but otherwise, nothing – and watching him in pain is excruciating. Once we arrive at the vet’s office, the doctor takes him out of the exam room, still screaming, to take a closer look at his injuries, and I fall backward into the chair, rubbing my temples, furious and terrified at my Inability To Do Anything Useful.

The depth of my Aloneness in this moment is nearly unbearable to me. Since my divorce from Andrew was final seven years ago, Roo has been my one constant companion. He has survived every crisis with me; celebrated every triumph. He has faithfully given me purpose when I felt I Could Not Go On. He sat beside me through all my surgeries; my injuries; my heartaches. He is a dog, and in his dogness has always known exactly what to do to help me when the going gets tough.

I, however, am human, and I rarely know what to do.

A prime example of my Chronic Inability To Know What To Do came early in my marriage to Andrew, when we had had to put my beloved terrier Lilly to sleep. When the critical moment came and the vet prepared to administer the permanent drugs, instead of holding on to my dog, or taking my husband’s hand, I ran from the room like a crazy person. I dashed out on to Lispenard Street; paced the block until it was all over, leaving Andrew alone with Lilly as she died.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of her dying – Lilly had been in kidney failure for months so I knew it was coming. At the Animal Medical Center, where they’d cared for her throughout the last days of her kidney failure, they had taught me to give her fluids under the skin so we’d have just a few more precious days together. In a spectacular display of desperation or denial, I had even gotten her groomed before we put her to sleep so she’d look pretty as she went to meet her maker. I think it was that I was afraid of something bigger; something emptier. I think I was afraid of grief itself.

And now here I am, with my dog who is screaming in pain, and I want to run away but I can’t because it is only me – he has only me – and I have never felt so alone in my entire life. The vet comes back and she gives me drugs for the dog, and tells me his neck is badly injured but he will recover. But it will be hard. It will take time. Everything will take time.

Later, RHJ says to me, It’s ok, I know that going through something like this with a beloved dog is hard…

And I try to explain, It’s not about the dog…but the words don’t come.

It is not about the dog at all. It is about remembering running from the vet’s office and into the street, terrified. It is about how, a week after Lilly died, the hospice called from Florida to say my grandmother was dying and my mother and I left a wedding in California; packing up and flying out the next morning to be by her bed to do the work that women do – bringing lives into the world, and shepherding them out of it.

It is about the fact that on the last night of my grandmother’s life, that Nat King Cole song, Unforgettable, was playing in the background, and I hadn’t been able to listen to it since, but inexplicably, as Paul was being fitted for his wedding suit, the Muzak screeched to a halt, and Unforgettable began to play. I took it as a sign that despite my doubts, Paul was the Right One, because I am always desperate for signs. But maybe that was the wrong sign.

I realise, as Roo recovers, that I have been waiting for signs to tell me how to be Helpful, or Right, or How to Do Things Correctly, like I am Steve Martin in L.A. Story. Symbols that indicate: How to Be Married to One Person for a Long Period of Time. How to Put the Dog Down and Not Run From the Room. How Not to Destroy Your Own Life in 200 Easy Steps.

After three weeks, Roo is walking again; acting like himself again. As I watch him lounge comfortably as I write, I am suddenly confident that there is no playbook for this. We are all just fumbling around, all of the time, blind like newborn kittens, mewling and suckling, with no earthly clue what we are doing. This revelation doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving my ex-husband alone with our dead dog in Tribeca Animal Hospital in 2006, but it at least gives me the sense that I am not nearly as alone as it sometimes feels. That everyone else is just as clueless and afraid as I am; just as prone to running screaming from the risk of loss.

Can I tell you a story? I text RHJ. I am in a south-bound Uber, in a rainstorm, headed to meet JRA at a Richard Shindell concert.

Sure, I will read it – I am on the treadmill, RHJ replies.

I am listening to Lyle Lovett’s If I Had a Boat, which I disclose for context.

I love Lyle Lovett, I say, I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, all over the country. And I call “If I Had a Boat” the “Pony Boat Song,” and most people have no idea what I’m talking about. But there’s a verse in it about Roy Rogers. Which is what this story is about.

My dad is the kind of guy who stops at weird roadside attractions – who will even drive us out to the middle of nowhere just to see some off-beat museum. One day, he drove us to Victorville, with his parents who were visiting from Pittsburgh, to go to the Roy Rogers Museum. I have no idea why he did this, but I think he thought we’d like it; maybe we were headed somewhere else and it was on the way. But I think he thought he was capturing some America that he wanted to live in as a kid.

I am definitely my father’s daughter. For years, I pretended that I hated those side trips, but they grew on me; got into my consciousness. When Andrew and I drove across the country when we were in law school, I took him on a detour to Mt. Rushmore, which wasn’t that odd, but I made him stop everywhere along the way – from the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, SD; to Wall Drug, to Carhenge, in Alliance, NE. This was back before GPS; back before you could simply plug an address into the super computer in your pocket. We’d gone to AAA and picked up stacks of maps and guide books. The navigation was all done by hand.

Even as I got older, I continued the family tradition. On the way back from my hen weekend in Newport a few years ago, I’d stopped at the Pez Museum in Orange, CT, and dragged Jade and eee into the cavernous factory for a look at How Pez Was Made (in truth, they were happy to do it). Those sorts of things were just part and parcel of Being My Friend.

So we walk around the museum for hours – HOURS – pretending to be interested in Roy Rogers and we lose Grandpa Henry. Finally, we find him outside chain smoking beneath the larger-than-lifesize fibreglass statue of Trigger, Roy’s horse, in the parking lot. And then we get back in the car to go home, and my dad’s in a huff because the trip has been something of a failure, and then my grandfather says: “Tommy, did you see the set on him, Tommy?! Did you see the set on that horse?!”

Because the horse HAD had a set on him. The horse had been not only anatomically correct, but perhaps exaggerated to show what a MAN’S MAN Roy Rogers had been. (Trigger, for his part, had been taxidermied and was located inside the museum for anatomical comparison).

At the time, my dad must’ve laughed; he must’ve agreed with his father – my dad probably pointed out the set on the horse as well, because in the deeper end of thirtysomething years I have known my father, my dad has never been one to shy away from a dick joke.

I must have been younger than 10 when we took that trip. They closed the museum in Victorville and moved it to Branson, MO and it closed for good a few years ago. But even at like, eight years old, it dawned on me that day that families were much more complicated than I had previously understood.

Now whenever I hear the Pony Boat Song, I think about how families are not very simple.

It is funny to me, to think about the West like this, in the context of Westerns. Of growing up in the Land of Reagan, and being one of those Didion-esque girls who moved East for school and then became lodged in the New York orbit – at first uncertainly and then intractably. I think, growing up in the West, you develop a weird sense of nostalgia for things that never happened. Everything is new, even the history, so maybe you struggle to find a sense of Where You Fit In, especially if you are not a native.

But I realise, too, that maybe it’s not just Growing Up in the West. Maybe we are all Fundamentally Lonely and trying to connect with each other and with our memories of things past; things that never existed. Sometimes the adventures form new memories. Sometimes they’re abject failures.

But sometimes, they connect us in other ways. Like how the Great Roy Rogers Incident of Nineteen Eightysomething made me realise how intensely my dad loves us; how much he loves to explore; how deeply ingrained in me that Loving-by-Doing is.

I think this is a blog entry, RHJ texts back.

(This conversation actually happened, but the messages have been significantly edited & condensed for privacy and clarity)

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

Sundappled Sunday on left and right coasts,
Beautiful from
Griffith Park to
The Staten Island Ferry;
Sunset strip
To
SoHo
I rode a painted pony in the sand.

Saddle slapping tender in-thighs,
I endured your stings.
Silent father shouting
At distant mother
Loving
Present daughter;
Riding roughshod on a tender mare.

Slow stumble upon whip-worn trails,
Round and round
We go again.
Carousel horses,
Sundappled Sunday ponies,
Perfectly painted; ready to ride.

(April, 2009)

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

They don’t tell you
In the basement;
In the belly;
Of the Cathedral;
Silk-lace-beads-satin pillowed at your feet,
As the warm streams out of you;
Out of your marriage parts,
They don’t tell you what it feels like to have emptied yourself.

And years later,
They don’t tell you
In the silence;
In the tundra;
Of Battery Park City;
Surviving the simulacrum of seven years together.
As the life surges into you;
Back into bones and blood and complexion;
They don’t tell you that the belly-moment
Was the moment to say No.

(December, 2009)

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

Holiday Eats // What dish do you look forward to each year at the Christmas party?  Share the recipe if you can!

I have told some version of this story before, but it bears retelling: Most people in my family think I cannot cook.

This is untrue, but my real skill is letting them think I cannot cook so at family holidays, I do not have to lift a finger. This played out most recently at Thanksgiving, where I voiced my preference for the Traditional Thanksgiving Vegetarian Lasagne, and crowdsourced recipes on social media. After selecting one, my mother and I went to Whole Foods to buy the ingredients, got into the Traditional Holiday Argument at the checkout stand, and went home to prepare it in advance of the main event. Since we spend our Thanksgivings in the mountains, some of the foods must be prepared in advance to save on prep and cooking time due to limited oven space.

As I anticipated, my mother cooked the entire lasagne. I did not do a thing except to make a suggestion here and there and throw shred cheese at a casserole dish when the time came. This was by design. While I am a competent and perhaps even a good cook, the myth circulating in my family is that I am rubbish at all things domestic, so expectations of me are sub-basement low. For many years, I found this insulting, and now, I find it hilarious and I find every way possible to shirk domestic duties because people expect so little of me.

With that context in mind, for many years, I used to host dinner parties where I would slave away over every detail – perhaps to compensate for my family’s low opinion of Me as a Traditional Woman. I would make fancy hors d’oeuvres and some kind of well-planned main dish. Now, when I have friends over, it’s more likely that someone insists we just order in Thai food (which, frankly, is awesome by me). But for years, I would have parties, and people would skip over all the fancy stuff and insist I make…chilli dip.

The dip came about as a variation on something a friend of my mother’s used to make – I made it once as a joke to complement a “cheesy foods” party I was hosting. There were piles of fancy cheese, and a brie en croute, and then this terrible dip. The dip is nothing more than a can of canned chilli and a brick of Velveeta melted together. That’s it. My mother’s friend served it with meat chilli and Fritos – since I don’t eat meat and I hate Fritos, I used veggie chilli and Scoops.

No one ate my fancy canapes. People ate two Costco-sized blocks of Velveeta that night. I was left with two pounds of Prima Donna Gouda that went bad in my fridge. It has been at least ten years since the first time I made chilli dip and I am still angry.

After that, at every party; every holiday – Meredith, can you please make chilli dip? Can you please melt together two horrible things in a microwave safe bowl and bring us some chilli dip, and bring it right here?

The indignity.

This is all to say, I really dislike holiday foods. I will grudgingly make you chilli dip if you ask me nicely. But wouldn’t you really rather I make something less horrible?

Or maybe we can just Seamless some Thai food instead.

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

Cosy // Some of us live on the Tundra, while others live where the tumbleweeds roll.  Either way, we still have to nest when December rolls around.  What keeps you cosy through the wintertime?

We were in Scandinavia in September and recently, eee reminded me that we had intended to become hygge enthusiasts this winter. That we were meant to get together in each other’s homes, like we were doing while we were in Oslo and Copenhagen.

This reminded me of the moment the hygge conversation first came up: We were sitting in a mediocre Thai restaurant in Copenhagen the night before the Copenhagen Half Marathon. As we chatted, our friend Nat casually asked How do you two know each other? referencing me and eee.

Nat, Smplefy, eee, and I had run together all over the world – Oslo and Copenhagen were the latest in a series of races, and would likely not be the last.

We went to high school together, we said nearly in unison. Through a series of give-and-take questions, we soon discovered that not only had eee and I grown up together, but Nat had grown up in our town as well; had gone to high school with eee’s younger sister.

It had only taken us a number of years and several trips to Europe to discover that we were all from a tiny map dot in Los Angeles county.

Hygge, roughly translated, means cosiness. There’s no exact translation – it’s a Danish word for the simple and coveted intimacy of people and objects. The Danes are good at this. Danish life is uncluttered; slow-ish. The view from my last trip to Copenhagen showed that Danish life looks like a Le Pain Quotidien and a Design Within Reach had a baby.

And while most of the world romanticises this convivial Scandi happiness, there are a few among us who would burst that bubble and inform us that the Danes have no corner market on the concept of cosy: that happiness is “complicated,” and that hygge exists because “[Danes] are rich, sexy and don’t work very much; they also take more antidepressants than virtually anyone else in the world…”

I think, too often, we mistake “winnowing down” for “simplicity.” We mistake a lack of crowdedness for cosiness. We think a lack of clutter will bring us that peace we crave. That richness, sexiness, and a mostly-Danish living room will finally bring complete and total happiness (I may be projecting on that last point, but still…).

I am not sure these things are true.

Over the past year or two, I had a bunch of friends read the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. And everyone embarked on a Marie Kondo-inspired quest to streamline their possessions; talking to their cardigans to see if they brought them joy. I got like two chapters in and had to quit.

In truth, I am a champion thrower-outer. There is probably no one who likes to get rid of stuff more than me. But the book’s idea of simplicity and cosiness did not make a drop of sense to me. I like to entertain at home; to be surrounded by piles of books and blankets and dogs and friends. I had to admit that I like a little bit of comfortable clutterthat the road to comfort was not paved by paring my life down to spotless cupboard full of joy-inspiring grey cardigans.

We are still in the season of Advent – the season of expectation; the season of making room – but I think this Tidying Up is a mistake I have been guilty of during the season of Lent as well – and perhaps more obviously so then: Thinking that getting rid of things will bring me the clarity I’m seeking. As if giving up dessert will bring into my life that sacred comfort I’m looking for.

I once had a very wise person explain to me that the purpose of Lent was not to give something up, but to take something on. So giving up sweets is usually beside the point.

What I am trying to say is that during this season, and others, I am trying to be conscious of drawing in, taking on which is what eee had reminded me of during that trip to Scandinavia and afterward, not just making room. The clearing space is the easy part – the drawing in your friends; attracting people to your home and yourself – that’s a much harder thing to do, isn’t it?

After all, it took only a few years to make room to have the conversation with Nat about how eee and I had met; but once that room had been made, it took only minutes to draw us all in to discover our deep, shared experience; our same home town, and our rival high schools. That intersection; that cosiness; that comfort – that’s what I’m hoping to find more of and create.