The important thing is just to go

When I was debating where to move after college, I instantly ruled out New York City. I’d gotten a car as my graduation gift and I didn’t love the idea of going someplace where I couldn’t have it – where I couldn’t have the freedom of getting in my car and running away for a weekend at the drop of a hat.

But in all the years I spent not living in New York, I never did that. I never just picked up and left for a day or an afternoon. It never occurred to me to try it.

I don’t know why, but this morning I felt like I had to get away. Being in my own skin was claustrophobic and I needed to dig my fingers in and pull it apart, to feel fresh air hit the hidden parts of me and sun-warm my soul. So I left.

I grabbed my keys and my bag and went someplace I’ve never been. But being there didn’t calm me down – going there did. Just getting out of this place made a difference. I got a chance to be quiet in the way that’s best for me: to be in a crowd of people and not speak to anyone and feel their energy around me. I got to see the first bare branches of the year and feel the way winter is sneaking up on the South. (It’s coming in with a whisper this year, like it can sneak right by us and pretend we never saw it, but I’m not fooled. I’ve seen the signs, I know it’s on its way.)

So often I feel as if I need to force myself to be happy ways that don’t feel quite right as if doing anything unnatural will actually help. Maybe it’s time to accept that often the easiest way to make me happy is to be on the road to somewhere with my music playing and letting my mind wander to wherever it needs to go. The only way I can write is by being places that make me question everything – how and why we do what we do. How to get from A to B. The more I question, the more I write. The more I write, the more I understand.

But I don’t question things here. I know how things work, I know what’s around, I know what each day is going to look like before it happens. So I need days like today – I need to remember that sunlight and autumn breezes exist in places that are not here and that I can go find them on my own and sit in the quiet of everybody else’s conversations and let go. I need to fill myself up with questions and play with them over and over, to see the tiny cracks in them where more questions live, and I need to find answers. Because I’m worried that if I don’t I’ll never write anything that scares me again.

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Facing The Ghost of Who I Could Have Been

I believe in ghosts. Not in the usual way, not the ones who haunt the places they lived trying to resolve issues left behind (though, actually, okay – I believe in those, too). No, what I believe in are the ghosts of the lives we would have led, of choices we could have made.

Like the other ghosts, though, I think the only people who believe in these are the ones who have faced them head on. Those of us who are haunted.

What’s strangest, maybe, is that unlike any other haunting, you’re doing it to yourself. The presence you feel beside you is not your long-dead so-and-so or some vengeful spirit trapped between worlds. No, it’s simply the you that was or may have been or, perhaps, should have been.

Even now I’m not sure which. Our lives always feel inevitable – that’s not to say they are, but that we structure our own narratives that way. A leads to B because it had to, we think, but we only think it had to be that way because it happened that way. Had something entirely different taken place, we’d tell ourselves that was inevitable.

Months ago (or was it a lifetime?) I was on a bus in a familiar town, positive I saw the ghost of myself wandering the streets in a caffeine-deprived haze, about to run into a Welsh boy who couldn’t seem to find his way out of a coffee shop. Looking out the window, I debated with myself if, were I able to, I should have stopped myself. If I should have wished myself away, if I should have wished the life I’ve lived since I met that boy in that town away. I’d accepted that it wasn’t inevitable, and since it wasn’t, I was free to wonder if I would have wanted it any other way.

No, I decided. I got too much good out of it to regret it.

What a cruel way to look at things. What does it mean to look at two years of my life – of love, investment, and commitment – and turn it into something completely transactional as if I could comfortably reduce the time we spent together into just what I got out of it? But I wanted to, so it was easy to tell myself that’s all that it was to me. That what I needed out of that relationship is what I got: Edinburgh.

It’s comfortable that way. Easy. But what happens when that doesn’t stand up? When suddenly the story I’ve been telling myself feels wrong?

Because what I hadn’t realised was that other ghosts were waiting for me. Really, I should have known they were there. I should have remembered.

When things ended with my Welsh boy, too much was going on for me to really process what it would mean for me. I didn’t give myself enough time to process and mourn and so when I suddenly had all the time in the world I’d given myself too much else to work through to notice.

But she was always there, the ghost of who I’d wanted to be. She was always alongside me, looking at housewares and rugs and planning Christmas parties, picking out decorations and a trying to figure out how many strings of lights she can get away with buying before being accused of trying to outshine the sun. (17, I think. 17 is often the answer to these things.)

She was beside me in pubs and coffee shops and a tiny deli 4 doors down from my flat with cake and crepes and free wifi. But I didn’t just feel her, you know? I felt him, too. Anywhere he’d been, his ghost lingered. The ghost of who he could have been. Should have been? But who he isn’t.

(Leave it to me to be haunted by the ghost of the subjunctive. Ebenezer Scrooge only had to deal with simple tenses – past, present, future – but me? No, I get stuck with the freaking subjunctive.)

Everything is inevitable, except when it’s not. We talked about it a bit when I was there last week, we asked ourselves the big question – is this what had to happen? Fault lies on both sides, but our issues were the same. And for that, I’m haunted. Things could have gone a different way, and because I wanted them so badly for so long, they linger. Because my deep, dark secret is this: I’m not convinced there will ever be a life I want more than I wanted that one. 2.5 years on and I still think back to the life I wish I’d had and wonder if everything will always be slightly greyer than that.

But then, everything else has one thing that life doesn’t have: everything else is still possible because ghosts belong in shadows and we cannot change the past.

The story of a story

How far back does a story go? When is it planted, how deep are its roots?

I struggle with this sometimes. Often I write a story and realise that some random thing I’ve read years ago has crept in, that an idea always comes from somewhere and I only find that place once the sentences are written. They’ll come from a feeling I had when I moved overseas the first time or a book I read about space or all the ways I’ve screwed up relationships. And I’ll write it all down and pause and re-read the paragraph and say, “Oh. Oh.

But you can trace them to people, too. To things that I did and choices that I made – a few months ago, when I was in my last week in New Zealand and traveling from Wellington to Napier, we stopped in Taupo. If you haven’t been, it’s a tiny town on the North Island that has a lake bigger than the country I went to high school in and is very popular with tourists in their teens and twenties for being a gorgeous place to go skydiving. The first time I was there, I met my ex. He’s the one who gave me Scotland – who brought me to Edinburgh, who made me get back into writing, who showed me what life looks like when you do what you’re passionate about. It was surreal looking down the street we met on, knowing how it would all end. Knowing what it led to. Knowing that as painful as parts of it were, it was a gift.

I trace a lot of my identity as a writer to Scotland. That’s where I learned to let go, to let emotion into my writing and connect to it, to make it more than just plot. It’s where I learned to bleed onto the page, and where I learned not to let ego get in the way of the story. It’s where I went to learn to write the way I needed to write, not the way I was writing. It’s where I went to become the person I needed to be to tell my stories. It’s where I rediscovered how much I love to perform, and where I finally got to be surrounded by stories.

I have so many stories swirling around in my head right now, but there’s one less story living in there. One that’s made it out into the world, onto paper, and can actually be shown to people (which is as close to done as I ever feel). The rest? Well, I’ve got about 25k of the next story done, and a third percolating – the concept is there, the story hasn’t spoken to me yet. But it will. I’m not too worried – I’ve probably got about a year or two before I need to think about it.

That’s the coolest thing about writing, I think. That this is all just a mess of sounds and rhythms in my head and then…it’s not. Then it’s on paper; then it’s yours. And every step of the way feels like the thing I love best.

There are many reasons I say I can’t cook and they are all called Brussels sprouts

Up until I was planning the move to NZ, I was super gung-ho about living a life of adventure and long-term travel. I was going to NZ and then Oz and then who knows – Thailand? Columbia? Vietnam? It was all up for grabs. Who wants to settle down and stay put and do horrid things like have traditions and friends who can come over when you’re sick and bring you soup?

Me, it turns out. I want that. I want all of that and a house I can decorate and a dog. God, I want a dog. I want a big fluffy duvet and cute plates and dinner parties. I want to cook good food and have a well-stocked pantry and to be able to make more than scones and chocolate chip cookies.

In short, I got old.

To cement the fact that I am apparently turning into an NPR-listening, house-decorating, cheese-making homebody, my favourite thing about Wellington is the farmer’s market. It’s down by the harbour, so I get to walk along the water, and there’s food trucks and farmers and butchers. It’s heaven, basically. Not only is it heaven, it’s cheap heaven. Vegetables that would cost $40-50 at the grocery store are $12-15, so I try to pick up a few things that I haven’t cooked before and see what I can do with them. I got tamarillos last week. This week I got Brussels sprouts.

I blame my friend Donovan for my obsession with Brussels sprouts. I went to visit him in March to help set up his trapeze rig (yes, my life IS awesome, thank you for noticing) and he forced them on me the same way he forces me to do things like learn to drive stick shift or try the flying trapeze. He tells me it’ll be good for me/fun/delicious and then he mocks me until I try it. It’s surprisingly effective. Anyways, he roasted a pan of them and fried up some bacon and hello, new favourite vegetable.

But then I got lazy and didn’t cook them. Ever. So when I saw them at the farmer’s market this weekend, I thought, “Why not?” I’ve been inspired by Queen Nigella, long may she reign, and thought I could totally tackle the world’s most finicky vegetable. So I looked up recipes and found this awesome recipe for roasted Brussels sprouts and grapes.

Looks good, doesn’t it?

So I did a little mental math, preheated the oven, tossed the Brussels sprouts and grapes with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar for no other reason than because I’m adore it, and popped them in the oven.

Spoiler alert: I’m apparently really bad at math.

Fail fail fail fail fail
This is what failure looks like

See those grapes? No, not the ones that look like grapes. The other ones. The weird, flat black ovals at the top of Mount Godawful. Those grapes are so hard you can’t even crunch them under your shoe. The ones that look like grapes I added at the end, in the vain hope that I could still eat this charcoal mess. I tried! I really did. But the insides of the Brussels sprouts were as mushy as the outsides were burned and I just gave up and made poached eggs.

Tell me I’m not the only one to fail so badly at this vegetable. Please?

Anybody?

Bueller?

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is

We’ve all seen it a million times, the advice passed along by Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without A Country“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”

The thing about this advice that I find so helpful, though, is that you don’t really have to be happy for it to work. Or at least, you don’t have to realise you’re happy.

I have had a shitty, shitty week. It was one of those weeks that’s death by a thousand paper cuts. I got stew on my new shoes. I bought the wrong chocolate. I kept forgetting about my tea until after it was cold. The temperature was too warm for a jacket but too cold for a hoodie. Nothing was exactly right or terribly wrong. Everything was mostly fine, but just wrong enough to be noticed.

But yesterday the sun came out  and if there is one thing I refuse to be, it’s cranky on the first beautiful day of spring. I put my boots on and I took myself for a stroll. I went to the Botanic Gardens and looked out over the city and wandered through the planetarium and let myself think about how crazy the universe is. I did a little shopping. I bought good bread. I talked to one of my best friends.

I still felt a little off.

So this morning I got up and read for a while, had a cup of tea, and went to the market. The market is one of my favourite things about Wellington. It’s a huge farmer’s market with a bunch of food trucks that sets up right behind Te Papa every Sunday. Fruit and veggies are insanely cheap (I can get a week’s worth for under US$10), there is good coffee, music, and street performers. And today there was sun and just enough wind to make me grateful I’d worn a hat.

So, with nothing exactly right or terribly wrong, why not just concentrate on what was good? I took my veggies and my bag and sat down and just listened to the music and enjoyed the sun. I bought gelato and ate it while people rowed through the harbour. I sat and let myself be grateful. There are horrible things happening in the world right now and I’m lucky enough to have sun and food and time.

It wasn’t an instant attitude change and things still feel vaguely unsettled, but for a few minutes I let myself ignore everything in favour of just appreciating this life that is so big and so small all at once. I may just be a speck of stardust in a vast, unending universe, but hey – it means I was once part of a star. That’s pretty damn cool.

A confession

Sometimes I wander into bookstores for no apparent reason. And when I do this, I know before I walk in that I won’t leave without a book. I know I won’t leave without a book, and often I don’t leave without many books, and it doesn’t matter how impractical it is for me to buy it (especially if I’m buying my fourth copy of a book I know I will probably have to leave in a fourth country), I just know I need that book and I need it for my very own and I need it right that very instant.

Sometimes, when I wander into bookstores to buy a book that I probably don’t technically need, I stop at exactly the same section. It doesn’t matter what bookstore it is or if I’ve ever been to that particular store before. I go to the fiction section and I stop right at the end of the Gs and just before H begins. I stop and I find the exact spot where my books will be, and I see the names that would be on either side of mine.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I technically don’t need and look at the books that would be surrounding my book, I pick them up and read the backs and sometimes I’m disappointed. They’re often normal, much like all other books in the store. They deal with normal people having normal problems. My stories, and you’ll know this if you’ve read them, are not normal. I have tried to write normal ones, and they’re fine – really, they are. But normal stories don’t excite me. I am constrained by reality enough in day-to-day life, why have to obey the same rules in fiction?

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I technically don’t need and I am disheartened by how normal the books are that surround where my book would be, I go and I touch the covers of books I love. I find the books that stick with me, that give me hope that strange books and literary books can be the same books, and I left myself remember them. I remember the moments that they touched me, I check out the differences between hardcover and paperback and US vs Commonwealth editions and I remember all the things they’ve given me, these books. I cling to them.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I don’t need and am recovering from my disappointment in the normalcy of books by visiting books I think of as old friends, I remember the authors. I remember the way they talk about their stories and the silly conversations I’ve had while vaguely tipsy in a bar (often about them, but sometimes with them) and I smile. I smile because I know this is my world. I smile because I know these are my people – that we have friends and hobbies and passions in common.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I don’t need and have spent time visiting old books and remembering authors I love because the disappointment about how normal life can be is just too crushing, I stop and remember how lucky I am. Lucky that this is my life, lucky that I have a safe haven that I can escape to, lucky that I already feel that this is my world. That there is no barrier to entry because I can already see a crack of light where the door is open and all I have to do is figure out how to open it the rest of the way.

And to be reminded of that, I think, is worth the price of a book.

Writing is a strange beast

The first time I tried to write a novel, it was NaNoWriMo and I had a vague idea about writing something. Mostly I just wanted to see if I could write that much and possibly string together a narrative. I had a (terrible) idea and I got to writing.

(It didn’t go well, if you’re wondering.)

I have it somewhere, I mine it for parts when I need to, but for the most part? It sits there, doing nothing. But I learned from it – I learned the dedication I’d need, I learned to let myself just write and let it be shit sometimes (all the time), I learned how to enjoy watching the word count stack up. It was a vital exercise, but that’s all it was. An exercise.

Now I’m writing the book I want to write. Now I’m writing the story I’m passionate about, the story I’ve lived with for just over two years. (I’m not kidding about that, by the way. I got this story idea in July of 2013 when a friend put out a call for kind of creepy stories for a magazine she was starting.) I know this story backwards and forwards. I know where it starts, I know where it ends.

If anybody has ever written a book before, they’re laughing at me. I know they are.

You know how I know they’re laughing? Because novels do not do what you expect. Characters do not do what you expect. They have minds of their own and you just have to sit back and let them do what they need to do. You might have a plot point in mind, and it might be the right thing, but they have a totally new way of getting there.

I tried explaining it to my friend Jen a week or two ago. Jen is kind of the perfect person for me to try to explain things to when I want to get really concrete images because we think really differently. She’s also basically the biggest cheerleader I have when I’m working on a project, so even though I don’t really talk about big projects while I’m working on them (people don’t seem to accept “I don’t know yet” as an answer, nor do they love “Well, it’s kind of about arranged marriages, corrupt societies, what happens if you separate justice from mercy – or if you even can – feeling out of step with your surroundings, anger management, the Japanese space program, and the line between love and obsession”) and I was trying to explain this phenomenon to her.

“It’s like you’ve been given directions and somebody told you where you were going, but you got distracted and didn’t totally hear them. So you’re following the directions and you see where you thought you were going and say, ‘Oh! I’m going to New York! I thought I was going to Newark.’ Same basic direction, totally different destination.”

That’s what this is like. I think I understand things, I think I understand the characters and then I have these all-caps revelations (no, seriously, my notes in Scrivener are often in all caps because I just can’t get over the shit I’m figuring out about this society) and suddenly I’m as surprised as anybody else about what’s going to happen. I mean, sure, I know it a little sooner, but dang. Daaaaaaang.

But, as my friend Stuart tells me, first thoughts are wrong thoughts. Projects should change and grow as they develop, and that’s reassuring. I’d hate to think I had everything figured out – if I did, there’d be no reason to write things down.

A 6% kind of day

So if I had to guess, I would say 94% of the time I am perfectly happy being single. I like setting my own rules, charting my own path, that kind of thing. It’s cool. It definitely beats being with the wrong guy – I know my mom worries sometimes that I’m quick to walk away from things (hi, Mama!), but really it’s just that since I haven’t legally committed to anybody, I can look at the life I’d lead with the guys I date and think, “Mmmmm….better not.”

But on those 6% days? On 6% days, I’m not really totally okay with being single. On 6% days, I just want somebody to come home to who will pour me a glass of wine and listen to my day and then cuddle on the couch with me and watch stupid TV shows.

If you couldn’t tell, today is a 6% day.

It’s not even like anything is wrong. Things are going well. I have a job and I have a roof over my head and I have food in my cupboard and I’m writing. I’m doing the vast amount of emotional work I haven’t realised I needed to do and I’m feeling better about the choices I’m making every day. I see where my life is headed and I’m excited, and (for once) “where my life is headed” is not tied up with “the guy I’m dating wants to be here”. Not dating is an excellent way to make your own choices. Two thumbs up.

But doing all that is exhausting sometimes. New jobs and new living situations and new countries and new everything mean I generally want one familiar thing, and right now that familiar thing is to cuddle with a dude who thinks I’m cool.

That was the hardest part about a long distance relationship for me. That whole “staying faithful” thing was a piece of cake – if I want you, I only want you. Blinders are on, everybody else is invisible, done. But going without being able to hug the person I loved? That was hard.

Because when you’ve had a bad day at work or somebody has called you stupid and told you that you’re lacking integrity (thanks for that, random dude on the phone today), even when it’s dumb, you want to tell somebody. You want to tell them and roll your eyes and know that you’re seen and cared for and that tiny flicker that almost-for-a-second thought maaaaaaaaaaaybe this angry dude isn’t wrong? That shuts up faster. And when you’re having a 6% day and you get a stupid call and you don’t have the budget for a glass of wine and what good is it anyways if it’s just you alone at the bar talking to yet another bartender you don’t know that well? Then it’s no fun. Then it sucks, actually.

And tomorrow will be better and this weekend will be better, but for today? For today I’m going to sit in my room and blast my heater (being warm always makes me happier) and finish my chocolate.

Take that, world.

Not a whole lot to report, to be honest

It’s been a slow few weeks. I’m not doing much, trying to save money, and I finally moved into a place where I have my own room. I still don’t have heat (which, let’s be honest – WTF), but I have my own room and that’s a step up.

The last few days have been kind of insane. I started my new job and I really like the people and I’ve been asked to help figure out how to improve things which is basically my favourite thing, but…I dunno. I think I came out here wanting a certain thing and it turns out I’m just living a similar life to the one I left behind but with fewer friends. Once I get a few paycheques under my belt and can plan some travel (Sydney! Dunedin! Queenstown!) I will feel a little better. The past few days, though? The past few days I wanted to pack it in and go home.

I rarely have homesickness like this, but man…I’ve got it bad. Normally when I get homesick I miss food or places or tiny little things. Not this time. This time it’s more like, “Well, this was dumb, Gundle.”

Because it turns out, that’s the weird thing about realising you have a home. You miss it. You miss the people and the comfort and all of it. I thought that if I couldn’t have Scotland, I could at least have adventure. But really, I think it’s more along the lines of “If I can’t have Scotland, I can still have home.” I keep hedging my bets, saying I’m 97% sure I’m coming home at the end of this, but actually? I’m 100% sure. Maybe 110%. Doing this shit on my own is exhausting and boring and lonely.

So yeah. I guess the decision is made. Charlotte…I think you’re home (at least for now).