Good Air

Wildfire smoke turns the sky orange over Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, CA. (Photo via Sterling Lanier)

Today, for the first time in almost a month, the air quality meter I have become accustomed to checking every morning (and afternoon, and evening), read ‘Good’. Good! It was an almost unbelievable surprise, after weeks and weeks of ‘Unhealthy’, or the slightly less toxic ‘Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups’, and ‘Moderate’ at best. I couldn’t open my shutters–and my window–fast enough. Once before, during the Tubbs fire that burned through Santa Rosa, two hours north of here, we had a weeklong stretch where we couldn’t open any windows, but this time it has been so much worse. For three weeks, I’ve been staring out my closed window each morning like an animal in a zoo, my room a stale chamber of held breath, looking out at a world that I can’t reach. But now, at last, a reprieve.

It’s amazing what a little non-toxic air can do for your spirits. I want to hop and prance around my yard like the little cottontails who hide under our ceanothus bushes, but like those cottontails, I feel a sense of foreboding even in my excitement. There’s a part of me that’s on constant alert now, no matter how blue the sky looks, a part of me that thinks it would probably be safer to sit perfectly still in the shadow of a curved branch, not moving a whisker until I know for sure that the coast is clear. The human narrative says that I should seize the day, and take this as a chance to reflect, to be grateful for simple, elemental things like sky and air. But the more ancient part of my being, the part that is solely concerned with keeping me from dying, knows that when a single glimpse of clear sky seems like a miracle, you’re probably not out of the woods yet.

So, it’s a mix of emotions today, Good Air Day. Thankfulness, a sense of marvel, of wonder and levity. But also, weariness, heartbreak for all that has been lost and will be lost, and the 1,000-pound mental weight of knowing that we are not going to overcome a raging wildfire season to return to normal, a raging wildfire season is now normal. A few years ago I joked that Autumn should be renamed to Fire Time, All The Time, but today my shoulders drop as I realize how utterly appropriate and un-funny that really is. In California, and much of the West, it really is fire time, all the time–anytime it’s not actively raining, a fire could begin in some corner of our critically dry terrain. Every landscape is now a fire-prone landscape, even the fog-wreathed redwood coast. Last month my family embarked on a short trip to Timber Cove, a rocky oceanside hideaway in Sonoma County, in desperate need for a temporary escape from the monotony of COVID isolation. Shortly after we arrived at our rental, the landlord informed us that the stretch of coastline we had driven up only hours before was now on fire. The fire burned almost all the way down to the beach. The beach! My brain has not caught up to the reality of wildfires that burn straight down to the ocean. I pictured myself swimming out into the Pacific for safety, looking back at the land, helpless, adrift. I thought of all the animals and other creatures around the globe whose brains and instincts can’t keep up either, who are struggling to stay alive for one more generation, let alone another one after that, as they try to figure out how to manage the breakneck pace of disaster. Then today, as I looked up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture wobbling in wide circles above me, black feathered fingers splayed, I sensed that the vulture was as happy to see the ground from up high as I was to see the heights from down on the ground. I sent up a mental hello. Hello, hello, nice day, isn’t it? Let’s just hope it lasts.

Write On: Embracing Geekhood

(via Judith Browne)

I’m finding new ways to be creative as summer wears on, new ways to keep the wheels turning. Calligraphy and hand lettering are the latest entries on my list, although they’re not quite new–I remember the teeth-chattering, geeky thrill I felt one day in sixth grade, when I walked to my desk and saw a thin black calligraphy pen and blank pad of smooth art paper waiting for me. Mrs. Silva announced that we’d be spending the next few weeks learning to create the angled medieval letters I’d seen in books or on diplomas, and I could not believe my luck. It felt like a very fancy and important skill to have. I was delighted when we had extra calligraphy homework on top of our regular homework, which a) was an enthusiasm my classmates did not share, and b) was and still is extremely on-brand.

Even before that, maybe as early as preschool, I was enthralled by the sight of handwritten words. I remember watching closely when my mom made a grocery list or wrote herself a note, or when I saw my parents’ signatures, mystified by this casual magic. When it was finally my turn to learn, I was obsessed, copying the letter-shapes in my workbook with total devotion until finally I could write my name. Once I had printing down, I immediately became fixated on learning cursive, and eventually, crafting a unique signature of my own (I was heartbroken when I realized there are few opportunities for an 8-year-old girl to sign on the dotted line). I loved creating posters, signs, and science fair displays, which not only gave me a chance to showcase my block printing, but flex my layout skills as well. Any kind of task requiring diligence and precision brings out my inner A student, but when you add elements of art, beauty, and design to the pot, I’m in stone cold heaven.

This most recent foray into the world of word-drawing began just a few days ago, and I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, except it is part of a larger trend of resurging childhood interests. I signed up to audit an online paleontology course last month, which is a sophisticated grownup way of saying I think dinosaurs are really cool again. I’m amassing a pretty impressive pile of graphic novels, which is a sophisticated grownup way of saying I’ve really been enjoying picture books. And I’m pretty sure all the big, themed meals I’ve been cooking (New Mexican night! A journey to Northern Thailand! A classic American barbecue feast!) all harken back to the multicourse Victorian dinner I made for my family as a kid (with a generous amount of help from my mom), following recipes from my American Girl cookbook.

At first I figured I was regressing back to childhood because it’s comforting, my version of the security blanket we’re all looking for right now. But I think it’s also closely related to the reason I refuse to wear pants with a firm waistband or zip closure any more, unless expressly necessary: in the absence of peer pressure, when dire circumstances have made artificiality of any kind feel like an utter waste of time, all I’m left with is the stuff I genuinely like. Underneath all the socially mandated trappings of adulthood, it turns out I’m still that geeky 12-year-old homework enthusiast.

As a kid, I secretly admired the people who owned their geekdom or nerdiness rather than trying to fit in, but I was not one of those people. I lived in fear of being disliked, being made fun of. I desperately wanted to be cool, or at least cooler (which is, obviously, an inherently uncool thing to want), always feeling like I needed to be someone else, like I had to keep making adjustments to stay ahead of the curse of my authentic self. I’d proudly and happily do my calligraphy assignment, and then quietly feel ashamed for liking it; I’d raise my hand in class and be teased for knowing the right answer, spending the rest of the day in embarrassment, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.

Scraps and shadows of that strategy have managed to follow me even well into adulthood, as I suspect they do for all grownups who were once terrified kids. But lately, for the first time since I sadly recognized that being a teacher’s pet and budding Victorian cuisine (and manners!) buff was not going to win me tons of friends my own age, I feel free to let my geek flag fly at full mast. Let the other kids say what they will. Art geek, writing geek, dinosaur geek, book geek, bird geek, food geek…line up your geek boxes, and I will proudly check them, with a clean, calligraphic flourish. I thought wearing elastic waistbands all the time was liberating, but this is next level.

Tonight, I am proud to announce to the world, I’m going to sit down at my desk, put on a Dungeons and Dragons podcast, and practice my pen strokes: first on graph paper, with a pencil, then with brush pen on smooth printer paper, moving the point silently upwards for thin lines, and pressing the brush firmly downwards with a noisy squeak for thick lines, holding it at just the right angle, over and over until my muscles remember how to draw on their own, and the art made of letters I imagine in my head appears on the paper in front of me. My own personal paradise, a reprieve from the outside world. The wheels are indeed turning, summer is slipping away, and my past is catching up with me just when I need it most.

Goodbye To All That

Grow, rest, repeat. (Photo: Dakota Roos)

I’m going to be honest with you friends– getting a blog post out in late July has been absolute torture for me. Not because I don’t like writing this blog, but because every summer I fall prey to a phenomenon I can only describe as “getting weird in the brain”.

Weird in the brain is hard to explain, but basically what happens is that my ability to focus or adhere to any kind of set schedule totally evaporates by mid July. What’s funny is that if I don’t write myself any kind of to-do list, oftentimes I’ll find myself busily doing all sorts of cool stuff, so clearly, it’s not that my summer brain hates activity. What it hates is being told what to do. If I ask it to go left, it takes off to the right. If I try to do something I enjoy, it tells me I don’t actually enjoy that thing anymore after all. There’s no distinct rhyme or reason to it, but it seems to impact my ability to do creative work most of all. I’ve chatted with other creatives about this, and it seems to be a fairly common thing, which is comforting. Still, we all handle it differently.

I get really down on myself when my brain gets summer-weird, telling myself all kinds of mean stuff about how I’m not measuring up, not doing the things I should/would/could be doing if I were a different, more focused person—that I’m failing at that most beloved American pastime, being productive. I can go for weeks in the summer, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, wracked with anxiety that I’m not doing life right, I’m not succeeding as a creative person. I’m not exaggerating. It is truly exhausting, not to mention a bad way to nurture the creative self. This is supposed to be fun, right?

Continue reading “Goodbye To All That”