It began as jumbled mumbling before it crescendoed to a regular, raucous chorus in the background music of my mind: Write more. You must return to writing. You are a writer, and a writer must write.
The same day I moved into my tiny (more like teeny) home in Santa Barbara in October, after three weeks spent dragging myself between different cheap motels and inns and Airbnbs every other day in just about every neighborhood and neighboring town while I searched for an affordable long-term housing option that was not, you know, a children’s playhouse in a random family’s backyard (but *~GREAT LOCATION!!~*), and one week into my new job that drew me to California in the first place, my dog died.
That morning, I sat — no, I collapsed like a soggy sock — in the front seat of my car in the parking lot at the hotel I’d just checked out of, with a styrofoam bowl of dry Fruit Loops from the free breakfast buffet balanced precariously on my lap, and I sobbed until all of the tie-dyed morsels were mushy. And then I ate some of them with my fingers while continuing to sob. And then somehow, miraculously, I reassembled myself and drove my car to the teeny-tiny home, and I unpacked all of my physical and emotional baggage into it, and I crawled up onto the lofted bed and cried some more.
I’d already sobbed for at least an hour and a half that morning, crumpled up under the curdles of the milk-white hotel sheets with a pillow shoved into my mouth to muffle the noise, so as not to alarm whoever was attempting to sleep in the adjacent rooms. The day before, I’d started crying so hard while driving to work that I had to pull over, so I could properly heave into the steering wheel. And the day before that, walking down the beach, I made a sniffling, sniveling fool of myself in front of all of the perfectly placid couples and families on their Saturday afternoon outings, and then I started missing living in New York (where crying on the subway is no more than a shrug-inducing rite of passage, whereas crying publicly in this palm tree paradise is a conspicuous anomaly), and that only made me cry harder.
All week, knowing what was coming, I was human soup, the way a cocooned caterpillar goes to mush as its young self disintegrates before it reconstructs to winged butterfly.
My dog was 17 years old, and mostly deaf and blind and immobile and uncomfortable. It was time. I hated that it was time. I hated life for being life and doing what life does: take things away. I didn’t want to lose him, even though I hadn’t lived with him full-time since moving away from home for college and leaving him to my parents. I hated that I couldn’t communicate with him in spoken words, that I knew he was going to die for weeks but couldn’t talk to him about it. I hated that I couldn’t be there with him in person in his last moments, the way he’d been there for me throughout my whole childhood, when he slept on my feet every night and healed me from heartbreaks and from the frustrations of chronic illness and from any ache of loneliness and need.
And that’s what I was feeling when he died: all alone, and needy, and exhausted. I was exhausted from the drawn-out mourning. I was exhausted from tearing my suitcases apart in my car’s backseat for three weeks straight, just to find a sports bra or contact solution or a pencil. I was exhausted from not being able to feed myself nourishing meals without access to a refrigerator or stove. Through all of this, I was exhausted from attempting to adjust gracefully to my new farm-to-table restaurant job, which included some days growing and harvesting vegetables on a rural ranch in an unfamiliar climate and others preparing them at the restaurant — my first-ever experience in a professional kitchen, where I was trying to learn all of the complex lingo that nobody actually teaches you directly while simultaneously paying close enough attention to my cutting board to not chop my finger off with the carrots.
I felt so heavy and so untethered at the same time, like I was caving in on myself. And I wasn’t doing the one thing that could have propped me back up, which was writing, because I was too exhausted to do it, and because I didn’t know what to say, and because whatever I could say was too painful. It’s still painful, three months later. You don’t think I just spent 45 minutes flipping back through old photos of my dog, sobbing again, before returning to this long, blank page on my computer screen and the pulsing cursor asking, “And?”
And. And, I have never been a crier, but this past year of my life cracked me open like a seed. I joked recently to a friend that age 27 was my Year of Tears, but maybe what I was doing was watering myself — saturating the split hulls at the core of my being so that all the new selves I’ve collected this decade could sprout. Or, I’ve been the cocooned caterpillar, steeped in her own liquified sludge as her DNA reassembles and all of the outgrown traits — “non-crier” among them — convert.
The walls of the childhood bedroom I once shared with my dog were slathered with shiny magazine tear-outs. I was hopelessly enamored with fashion, with the quirky creativity of it, the colors and textures, all the ways it allowed you to decide whom you wanted to seem to be. It was a way of dabbling in different identities without needing to permanently commit.
My first job out of college was with a New York-based public relations company that specialized in high-end footwear, and free shoes were one of its few perks. I took such care in compiling my outfits each morning and matching them with whatever most recent pair of shoe samples I’d inherited. Somewhere on my computer, I still have so many of the photos I took of myself in front of the flimsy mirror that hung on the door of the office bathroom, where I’d pose and smile, pretending that those heels and that life made me happy.
A few days ago, as I was lugging a heavy crate full of just-harvested kale up the hill at the farm, I looked down and realized I’d paired my cherry red Crocs with neon green socks like a horrific throwback to Christmas season. There could be no worse combination of eyesores. I snort-laughed at myself and kept walking.
It’s not that I’ve stopped caring about the costumes I wear. It’s just that the caring doesn’t eclipse all else. The fanatic obsession — all of that time and energy spent on studying and perfecting the craft — no longer grips me. Fashion doesn’t belong to me anymore, just like New York doesn’t belong to me anymore, or I don’t belong to them. I was theirs and they were mine for a long while, but now, they’re like exes I’ve stayed chummy with while we’ve watched each other move onto new things.
Exactly what have I moved onto, though? How did I go from spending most days with my head of painstakingly straightened hair stationed just a few inches in front of a computer screen, with my heels clacking against the hardwood floor to the rhythm of the thronged sidewalks of the Flatiron District that thrummed behind the shut windows of that third-floor agency, to spending hours julienning onions in central California, which might as well be Disneyland, with my short curls tugged into a sloppy half-bun, my nails (and all my shirts) permanently dirt-stained, in the span of just five years? Is this who I am now? How can anyone lose and gain so much and still stay grounded on this earth?
There is so much I don’t know. There is so much I don’t know. There is so much I’ve failed, so much I’ve let go, so many places I’ve thrown up my hands and surrendered.
This is why I must write, though. Once recorded, a compendium of failures is also an encyclopedia of resiliencies.
I’m starting to get confused about whether this has been brave, all of this allowing of self-transformation, or whether it’s the opposite — whether I’m just a commitment-phobe disguised (so she thinks) as a bold shapeshifter. I haven’t been writing because I’ve been afraid to admit all of my most recent confusions, but it’s the only way I know how to understand myself, to grasp my roots in the mud, to see that I’m still miraculously grounded here. I could be sunflower or blackberry bramble, butterfly or snail — at the base of my DNA, I am still the same, still Writer, always, thank Mama Nay who made me, always Writer.
After one of those yearly “30 under 30” lists came out at the end of 2018 — cringe-inducing at best, and panic-provoking at worst, to all of the rest of us who are still trying to figure ourselves out — I saw this comforting Tweet by a writer named James Hamblin, who said, “I’d be more interested to read like 60 People Under 60 Who Were Totally Lost at 30 But Figured Out What Makes Life Meaningful Without Being Obsessed With Their Careers But Also Still Paid Down Their Student Loans and Managed to Afford Real Estate in A Major U.S. City.” (Amen. Amen. Amen.) He followed up by sharing a reply he received from a stranger in response to his original post:
“James, at 30 I was a former big firm attorney trying to figure out my life. In my 30s I became a junkie. Then I reconnected with my passion for theater. I auditioned for, and got cast in, several plays. I started studying the Meisner technique when I was 42. I kept studying my craft. I am 58, teach the Meisner technique in NYC, six full classes and personal coaching, and have a place in Point Pleasant, NJ. My recipe? When I was about 38 my therapist said, ‘Ted, every time you talk about theater, you sit up straight.’ So I followed the things in life that made me sit up straight. I still do.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
My supervisor at the farm-to-table restaurant is brilliant. He’s one of only two from his culinary school class who’s still cooking professionally and now holds the title of Chef de Cuisine at a highly lauded establishment. (I say “still,” but he’s younger than I am.) His technical skills amaze me, but more so, his mind. He can rattle off the names of countless iconic chefs like they’re mere marbles tumbling from his mouth — Do you know this person who founded this restaurant? That person who jumpstarted that culinary trend? This other one who wrote this cookbook? I always have to respond, “That sounds familiar, but…not exactly,” and then he explains everything, every date and detail, with giddy enthusiasm.
When I went to deliver that kale I was harvesting the other day, he was in the process of preparing a cheese plate, and no sooner had I placed my crate on the counter than he was teaching me about the source of each cheese variety, gushing over the clothbound cheddar from a particular dairy co-op that has won a particular award for a particular number of years in a row, passing me small slices across the metal counter even though he knows I don’t eat cheese, because he couldn’t help himself. He can wax poetic about veal broth, about fermented radish tops, about homegrown oyster mushrooms. He can brandish his knife with the finesse of a ballet.
I can cook well. I adore cooking. I’ve been cooking for other people for years. But I do it based almost entirely on intuition, because that’s what feels good to me, and with purely plant-based ingredients, because that’s the palette (and palate) I personally believe in. I resist written recipes and precise technicalities. I’ve been known to burn things slightly when high heat fits my mood. I throw the ugly, uneven coins of the stems in with the broccoli florets. I am interested in nutritious soul food and in the energetic exchange that occurs when you place a steaming bowl of something you’ve just stewed in front of the person who’s going to eat it. The expense of my stubborn, narrow-minded approach is my limited grasp of the full depth and breadth of the culinary world and my lack of reverence for its rules that surely exist for good reason.
There’s this story I keep telling people when they ask me about the job. One day in November, during one of my first few weeks, I’d been assigned the task of chiffonading chives (a verb too specific for even spellcheck to recognize) to be sprinkled (there’s no fancy term for that one, as far as I’ve learned) on the two varieties of deviled eggs that are among the restaurant’s most popular appetizers. I was halfway done when my supervisor, who was in the middle of butchering a hunk of meat, glanced over at my cutting board and literally gasped, then stepped in to stop me.
“I have to show you how to do that. Oh god. Oh, thank god I caught you.” He laughed and looked up at me with his earnest smile. “No offense, but that is literally the worst handling of chives I have ever seen, ever.”
He laughed again, and I laughed and threw my hands up and did a tiny curtsy and said, “Thank you, thank you very much!”
I got out of the way. He demonstrated. I’d been slicing those wispy green threads too wide, like shrunken penne noodles when they should have been shaped like tiny ant-sized hula hoops. And I’d been forcing the knife down too bluntly, bruising the edges of each verdant little ring. His blade bobbed up and down, buoyed on air, with enough graceful cadence not to necessitate pressure.
“See the difference?” he asked, and I nodded. But something in me said silently, I see, but I don’t care. I love that you care, and I wish that I cared, but I do. not. care. how the chives are sliced.
That was also one of the first times I heard the inner voice insist, Write. Write. Write.
Walking on the beach the following weekend, I spotted a seal drifting in the ocean, just mere meters from the liminal space where the surf hit the store. I stood there, squinting at her gray head floating above the surface, unsure whether I was hallucinating or confusing a seagull for something it wasn’t. Nobody else seemed to be watching.
Just when I was almost certain I was seeing straight, she would retract her head back beneath the water, then show up again within a minute or two, a few extra meters to the right or left. It was as if she was biding her time, patiently waiting for someone to meet her so both could retreat together to the depths.
Seals symbolize subliminal creativity. As totem animals, they urge us to listen to our own quiet insights and to allow imagination to arise. They show up, supposedly, to encourage us to pursue our wild and watery dreams, but also to teach us to attend to our natural bodily rhythms the way they surrender their own big bodies to the undulations of the tides.
I just kept staring at the mystery of her, the same way I’d been watching my true self pop her head above water with increasing frequency. “Write,” that seal was saying to me. “To stay buoyant, you must write.”
A week later, a great white heron came to visit me in the garden. It was the flap of her wings I heard first — the three slow thhhhwwwacks, like a deck of cards being shuffled, and then a soft landing. I’d been…what was I doing? The moments at the farm have all swished together now, all the times I’ve tugged doily bouquets of mallow from the edges of the pathways, plucked bubbling froths of nasturtium blooms from their vines, scraped earth (heavy, so heavy with clay) into raised beds for planting, and planted, weeded, planted, weeded. And on the farm, unlike in the restaurant where the full kitchen staff moves in hurried coordination like a crew of ants, I work alone, slowly, drowned in the cacophony of my own thoughts.
In the moment that the heron landed, I think I was standing with a shovel and rake, piling soil into a raised bed for beets. I turned, and she was no more than ten feet behind me, over by a once-majestic floral shrub that was wilting its way towards winter. She looked at me sideways with one beady black eye as she lifted a spindly leg and stepped across the cabbages, the sharp point of her sweet marigold beak pulsing forward like an arrow on that white bow of her neck with each light-footed stride towards — what? If the seal seemed to be waiting for something, the heron seemed to be searching for something. Her aimlessness felt intentional.
It was bizarre. You’d expect to see a heron at the edge of a marsh with her feet in the water, not within a garden plot. They eat fish, not plants, don’t they?
You don’t belong here, I thought, and then smiled. This place wasn’t exactly a native habitat that any guidebook would have placed me, either. Besides, that’s what’s special about herons: they can reside in any element, whether with their wide wings whipping air, their knobby knees bathed in water, or their long toes on earth. She wasn’t as out of place as she seemed.
She stuck around for at least an hour or two. I’d get back to work, then turn again to see she’d wandered to a different spot. At one point, she was paused just a few feet from me, facing the fence she could so easily have flown over, with the whole perfect pitcher of her body balanced on just one of those two gangly matchsticks. She lowered and lifted her opposite leg, gently padding the foot on the ground before raising it again, over and over, like she was trying to find the ideal soft spot to place it before stepping forward — just feeling out the texture beneath her, calm and cool as silk, while looking up and ahead.
Whenever she eventually flew off, I missed it.
The spiritual significance of herons, then. Those with herons as totems are built to dabble — to experiment with diverse activities and explore multiple dimensions of life. To most people, they can look like oddballs as they follow their unorthodox paths, where they comb for opportunities that would seem too off-course for others to grab.
To hunt their finned food, they stand in the shallows, grounded to the earth while simultaneously exploring the watery realms. And the longer their legs, the deeper they can immerse themselves.
Those skinny limbs represent the capacity to evolve and progress. It’s their peculiar legs, not sturdy, muscular pillars, that maintain their steady balance and stability. The heron-inclined human must also learn to trust the inherent security in standing alone on their own two feet in a myriad of contexts and capacities. Their wings carry them distances, yes, but it’s their legs and feet that somehow, in what looks like an illogical impossibility, support them where they land.
Write more. You must return to writing. You are a writer, and a writer must write.
One of my earliest visual memories is of the giant Big Mac made from multicolored poster cutouts that was pasted on the wall of my elementary school classroom. It was a visualization of the “hamburger model” we were taught for writing paragraphs, with the intro as the top half of the bun, the conclusion as the bottom half, and all the meat and garnishes of the subject matter sandwiched in the middle.
This structure was so blatantly obvious to me, and so natural and easeful, that I was mystified by how much my classmates struggled to comprehend and implement it. Their confusion made no sense to me. How can you not get this? Can’t you see?
I still have zero tolerance for slapdash writing, for sloppy commas that chop sentences in the wrong places, for unrefined phrasing. I handle words the way my supervisor handles chives: with a meticulous and insufferable obsession. It’s just who I am. It’s the way I’ve always been. It’s the most consistent thing I always come back to land on, even as all other facets of my work and world transform.
It’s how I know I’m not lazy for not caring how the chives are sliced. Chives do not belong to me. Words do. Which does not mean I’ve mastered them, or even come close, or ever will. It just means that they’re mine.
And it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating to care so much about something so isolating, so time-consuming, and so economically impractical as a professional path. Writing is an entirely preposterous vocation, the way a heron’s eyelash legs are preposterous. It’s a seemingly nonsensical and flimsy foundation on which to base one’s life, but it is still, somehow, the only thing that holds me up straight.
That’s how you stay steady as life takes, and takes, and takes away. It’s how you lose and gain so much and still stay grounded on this earth. You figure out the thing you must do, the thing you must do, the thing you love to do so much that you almost hate it, and you do it. You keep coming back to do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s making 12-layered eggplant parmesan or mastering Dance Dance Revolution or plugging stethoscopes into your ears. If it involves hula hoops or Elmer’s glue or 13 times your bodyweight in books. Whatever. Seriously, whatever. You have to own what’s yours.
It will infuriate you in the magnificent way that writing infuriates me, in the magnificent way that cooking probably infuriates my supervisor, because it will not seem to make sense in the context of all other practical obligations. It will seem too whimsical, or maybe too laborious, or maybe both. It will seem too particular. But you have to do the thing you can’t not care about. You can only abandon your legs for so long before that voice starts mumbling at you madly, or else shouting. You have to teach other people the way to chop the chives. We can’t chop the chives the way you chop them. You must do what you do. Please stop slouching.