The Sign Twirler

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Flickr CC Britt Reints

Just past one of the high schools Elton the sign twirler—although he doesn’t usually twirl so much as sway back and forth as he holds an umbrella—is standing in his usual spot. I’m not sure how effective hiring someone to stand in front of your business holding a sign is because even though I say hello to Elton every week I can’t for the life of me remember what the sign he’s holding says.

“I’m Elton. Like Elton John, only without the fame or fortune,” he said in a strong Tennessean accent upon introduction.

“Or rhinestoned glasses,” I added.

“I could take care of that,” he said. “I have a glue gun at home.” Read More


Verbal Polaroid: Walking to Counseling

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Flickr cc Takashi Kashiwaya

On sunny days I get off the bus at the transit center and walk the rest of the way to counseling instead of waiting for the next bus. I’m more than likely in need of at least little dousing of sunny vitamin D and I enjoy walking through the heart of my quirky little town.

I lived here as a child but then moved away when I was in late elementary school, and by sheer fluke ended up back in the same town again after I’d just graduated from high school. It’s where I met my husband, and it’s where I now live with him. I loved it here as a child, but as an eighteen-year-old who desperately wanted to experience life in a big city I found it as embarrassing as really bad dad jokes. I mean, the biggest events of the year here are things like Good Ol’ Days, the Santa Parade, and a thing in the summer where painted pianos are randomly scattered throughout town (my personal favorite being the Candyland themed one). But it’s grown on me slowly, like the way moss grows on a sloth’s back.

There are random little quirks here and there, things I didn’t notice at first because I was too busy rolling my eyes. Things I couldn’t see as more than embarrassing but now have grown to love.

I walk past the new, trendy yoga studio with its fresh coat of pea-green paint and notice how they’re trying to sell fancy yoga mats and hats that look like something that would be sold at the Tibetan-themed stall at the state fair. You picked the wrong town, I laugh to myself.

It’s not that I mind it. I picked up a flyer once with the hope of adding yoga classes to my weekly routine but it was overpriced, or at least out of my price range. It’s just that it feels a bit out of place right across the street from The Banana Museum and next to the used bookstore that’s loved for the cats who live there and not the customer service. The bookstore often displays eye-catching fan favorites in the windows like The Encyclopedia of Insects That Look Disgusting and Some Old Dude in a White Wig on a Horse. At the end of the street there’s a store dedicated to unique lighting fixtures and clocks. “Party lights now fifty-percent off!” a chalkboard sign out front reads as the wiener-dog clock in the window keeps time with his tail.

Then, I stand at the intersection until the little green guy lights up, strolling across the crosswalk as I enjoy the sunshine. And as I walk across the yellow lines on the road it happens, as it does every time: the street suddenly morphs from Center-of-Town Avenue to Memory Lane.

There’s a little church there, the first one I really remember ever attending. It’d be easy to miss it since it’s sandwiched between an H&R Block and a forest-y themed shoe store. Some of my earliest memories of church involve sitting in the basement of that Foursquare church in a small classroom that was made up of wall dividers. One time, one of the rowdy boys brought in a snake in a can and the teacher put it up on the wall divider so that it wouldn’t distract us—but for the rest of Sunday School I could barely think of anything but that can with a jumping toy snake sitting above us.

I don’t remember much about my Sunday School teacher, just that she was a woman and that she was kind. She’d sit on a kid-sized plastic chair while we all sat on the floor during Bible Lesson. My favorite part was when she pulled out the flannel board—sometimes she’d let me stick the flannel representations of Jesus or the disciples or Moses on the board. I was the religious zealot version of Hermione Granger. My hand was always in the air when a question was being asked. And often times I was right (but when I wasn’t, my teacher would still smile encouragingly and say, “That was a good guess, Kelsey.”).

The doors of the church are glass—not stained-glass, just your regular run-of-the-mill glass. And for a little while when I was very young my dad worked as a part-time janitor at the church, and sometimes I’d help. One of my clearest early childhood memories of my dad is the two of us standing on the street washing the front doors of the church. He let me use the Windex (which was a mistake), and then I would concentrate hard on the art of not-leaving-streaks which I was impressed that my dad had mastered. “Dad, I can’t reach any higher!” I remember saying as I stood on tiptoe. He laughed, saying he’d take care of the high parts.

Walking by those doors always reminds me of Dad. Sometimes, the memories make me smile, while other times I want to cry. And sometimes, often times, it’s a little of both. Grief—one of many reasons I’m on my way to counseling.

Today I don’t stop to pay my usual momentary homage to the front doors that I cleaned so many years before. Today there’s a man who I think might be the current pastor standing directly in front of the door preaching to the man standing next to him. The pastor-esque man’s arms are going like he’s rooting on his favorite football team and his voice is booming with excitement.

I hear small snippets of their conversation as I get closer—words like “sin” and “blood” seem to be on repeat. I can feel my Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome kick into high gear. The same momentary panic races through my body as when I’m going to have to pass a very large dog on the sidewalk who doesn’t seem to be accompanied by any of its humans. I want to run across the street, but traffic is heavy. So I look straight ahead, walking briskly until I’m safely out of earshot.

I wonder for a moment what the old pastor I knew over twenty years ago would think about me now. I used to take notes during his sermons before I could even write by drawing illustrations. I would then wait in line to show him after the sermon was over. He used to be one of my favorite people because he loved Jesus, was smart, and patiently addressed all of my precocious theological inquires. He’d probably be disappointed if he knew where my life and ideologies have taken me. He’d probably be disappointed at my Christianish-ness—and the fact I’m really more “ish” than “Christian” these days. He’d probably be confused if he knew I was on my way to counseling specifically because of all of that sin and blood talk.

And this is why I’m going to counseling, I think. I look up at the blue sky and remind myself to breathe. Just breathe.


Verbal Polaroid: Where I Lived

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Flickr cc seiichi.nojima

 

“It’s that one, right there,” I tell my husband Ian as the car slows down and we peer out the window. “That’s where I lived.” I moved back to town nearly ten years ago, so I’ve seen my childhood house as an adult before. But every time it’s still jarring. It feels like when I run into someone I used to babysit and they’re now in high school and my brain sort of cramps up like it can’t begin to process that they’re no longer five-years-old and just learning to read. It’s the same with my old neighborhood; it’s aged, too.

Several of the small two-story houses on the block, originally built by the railway, have been painted and none of the neighbors standing in their yards are the same. Some have moved but the elderly woman who lived to the right of my childhood house passed away about 15 years ago. Looking at her house flashes me back to her funeral service. But I quickly yank my train of thought in the direction of happier recollections: her short white hair and friendly smile, and how her house always smelled like old person soap—the kind that sits in a fancy dish in the bathroom and is shaped like shells and starfish. I find myself wishing we hadn’t run through her garden so much. And I wonder if whoever lives there now loves her forest of rhododendrons as much as she did.

My old house is a small, white two-story home shaped like a square with its front door smack-dab in the middle and a pane window on each side that gives the impression of eyes, and a triangle roof perched on top. This is what all the houses on the block look like, although they come in a variety of colors. This is how children often draw houses, and I felt proud because it was how my house actually looked. It was as if this meant my house had achieved some high level of aesthetic perfection.

My mom’s green bird feeder is no longer hanging from the tree. The yard feels incomplete without it. I remember how the bird feeder would routinely spill seed all over the yard, which I’d incorporate into games with my toys. Usually it was food for stuffed animals, but one time I tried to eat a piece, myself; I discovered it wasn’t nearly as tasty as a bag of sunflower seeds. A pig my neighbors were babysitting, however, felt differently about the uncooked seeds. They brought the potbellied pig down so that we could take turns walking it on its leash. And the pig, to our delight and amusement, sucked up those pieces of bird seed just like a vacuum.

The front porch is no longer a lively brick red and is instead sporting a new coat of boring old grownup-grey paint. For anyone else driving by it’d be just a small porch, just like any other small front porch on the street. But I know that in a past life it was a clubhouse, a detective agency, a shelter during extreme—and extremely unrealistic—natural disasters, and a queen’s throne when my bossy best friend got to pick the game and wanted to spend the afternoon sitting smugly on the steps of my house as she ordered us around. It was also where I’d stand as I screamed at my best friend when we fought: “We’re not friends anymore! I’m never going to play with you again! Never ever!” After melodramatically slamming the front door behind me, I’d be greeted by my mother with that you-just-disturbed-the-entire-neighborhood-and-I’m-not-happy-about-it look that I was a little too familiar with.

The patch of grass in the front yard looks so tiny now, but I had the biggest front yard out of all my neighborhood friends. This meant all the good games took place in my front yard. During the summer we’d sometimes flip our bicycles upside down and place them in a circle and pretend it was a fort. During the winter, when it finally snowed, we’d attempt making the snow equivalency of our bicycle fort. But because we were in the Seattle area our winters weren’t very snowy, so by the time we’d built a snow-wall we would’ve used up all the snow in my front yard. We’d have half a fort, a wall we were proud of, but the snow would be gone, the grass would be showing. And there’d be nothing left to have a snowball fight with. There was never enough snow, I think.

“Well, this is where I grew up,” I tell Ian with a shrug as the car begins to slowly pull away. “It’s changed a lot since when I was a kid.” I can’t explain how much it’s changed, and I don’t try. It feels smaller now, duller. It’s as if that wild, vibrant childhood magic faded, dried up and left an ordinary, run-of-the-mill neighborhood standing in its place.


Pike Place Market: A Love Story

Flickr CC Travis Wise

Flickr CC Travis Wise

It was fall 2010 and it was raining — a light misting rain. The tourists pulled out their umbrellas undoubtedly feeling as if they were getting the full Seattle experience, while the locals pulled their hoods up and hunched their backs to protect their newly purchased treasures and others walked on completely unfazed. We strolled down the street, a busy and tangled mess of cars and tourists darting into traffic in an attempt to get the perfect iconic shot in front of the glowing red Pike Place Market sign. Just below the sign a gathering watched the men in white aprons at the seafood stall tossing fresh salmon the way a street performer tosses juggling pins.

Just a few shops farther down on the right side of the street a women’s-restroom-sized line waited to set foot inside the original Starbucks, money for lattes and coffee-themed memorabilia likely already in hand.

As we continued swimming upstream, pausing to listen to a busker here and there, some of the people we passed were carrying brown paper bags in various sizes containing home-made jewelry, fresh Washington apples, expensive kitchen gadgets, and previously loved books; many of them juggled bouquets of freshly cut flowers, some of which sported bright, chubby sunflowers.

We stopped at some of the shops long enough to really admire their wares, but mostly we just breathed in the scent of hand-made soap mixed with the smell of leather journals and overpriced organic produce. We breathed in the relaxed yet upbeat rhythm of the city. We breathed in the colors and the sounds. We breathed in every moment together as if we were savoring the fresh, fleeting smell of rain.

We found an often completely overlooked alcove just outside the market, sandwiched between a Tully’s Coffee and something I can’t recall. The aesthetics mainly consisted of concrete and a few potted trees. But when we stood right up next to the fence, peering over a manicured bush, we could see the freeway and, beyond that, the Seattle skyline — complete with the Space Needle and a ferry on its way in. You wrapped your arms around me, and we stood together — for the first time that close together — breathing in the moment.

I fell in love with you there, standing in the rain.

As the cars on the freeway below us hurdled by and tourists hurried for shelter from the rain, as no one watched or cared, you and I became us. It happened slowly and then, when I wasn’t expecting it, all at once.

As we left our spot, forever that will be our spot, you reached for my hand as we walked towards the pier. Only a few minutes before my hand had been empty but now it was laced with yours.


Verbal Polaroid: Don’t be a Stranger

2122878328_dd2017be9a_oThe green and yellow bus lurches to a stop, the doors swing open with a whoosh of air. “Good morning!” I beam at my usual driver as I step on the bus, monthly pass in hand. The doors close behind me. “You know, I think you’re the only person on my route who looks like they might actually like mornings,” he says shaking his head in amusement.

As the bus lunges forward I walk down the aisle with one hand over my head as I lightly finger the bar overhead. After several years as a proud strap-hanging public-transit-riding commuter I’ve earned my sea legs; the jerking and swaying doesn’t faze me as I make my way to my usual squeaky leather seat. I always sit where the rows of bus benches face each other because it provides the best view of the entire bus.

A few sleepy heads look up long enough to acknowledge me but not long enough to say anything.

The woman directly across from me is reading a well-highlighted leather Bible. Once, when she wasn’t reading she told me she worked at the Starbucks headquarters; she’ll get off at the transit station in order to transfer to the northbound commuter train. The preteen girl sitting next to her with her earbuds in—the universal bus sign for “No, I do not want to make small talk actually”— is clutching a pink backpack on her lap; she’ll get off at the middle school. Several other students are also lugging around heavy, bulky backpacks on their way to high school or the local community college. Sometimes they read their textbooks or flip through flashcards, always with their earbuds in.

The man next to me is sipping his regular morning coffee, obviously still trying to wake up. Sometimes he’ll nod a “G’mornin’” but that’s about the extent of his 6:30 am socialness. Several riders are slumped up against the windows, likely still dreaming of the pillows they had to leave too hastily. The only sounds are the creaking and whooshing of the bus doors and the occasional contagious line of yawns.

When an older gentleman steps on the regular riders audibly groan. He’s hauling his weekly recycling: a giant neon-orange cloth bag with pictures of jack-o-lanterns all over it. The person next to me mumbles, “Better pull your legs in,” as the man walks down the aisle with his scary Santa sized bag bumping along behind him. It barely squeezes down the aisle and when it gets stuck he gives it a tug, which elicits more moans from his fellow riders as the can-filled bag has a run in with several people’s knees. He sits down, and then the bus is quiet again.

I pull my black Beatle’s tote bag, complete with Bob Marley pins, onto my lap to make room for other passengers. A man in his late thirties slips a CD into my hand as he walks past. “I burned it for you because I saw your bag,” he says shyly before continuing down the aisle. The CD reads in blue hand-written ink: The Moondoggies. I’ll later find out they’re a local Seattle band. The album is entitled Don’t be a Stranger. (The title likely isn’t ironic because the next several times I’ll run into him on the bus he’ll ask for a date.)

As I slip my new CD in my tote bag everyone else is still slowly waking up. They read, catch up on podcasts or listen to their favorite songs, drink their coffee, and stare out the windows as the sun is just beginning to yawn and stretch right along with them.

They are close enough that I could touch them, but they are always in their own little worlds. So many potential acquaintances, friends, and lovers just within their reach. And they never know. I’m surrounded by people—sometimes uncomfortably close to people—but alone just the same.

As the bus rolls on I continue people watching and when I happen to chance on someone who is awake enough to visit, encourage them to not be a stranger.


Photographs I Didn’t Take {Dad}

Flickr CC Easa Shamih

Flickr CC Easa Shamih

I stand behind a line in the pavement like a twiggy blonde racehorse about to burst out of the starting gate. I’m barely school age but I feel like a champ because I’ve been running down this half a block five days a week for a long time. Or what at least feels like a long time to me.

Dad and I make eye contact and he smiles, eyes twinkling like Santa. I see dad put the key in the ignition and the engine wakes up sounding like an irritated adult in need of a coffee. And before dad can put the car in drive I’m flying down the street — running awkwardly, ineffectively, with every part of my body the way children my age so often do.

I whip my head back around to see the car getting closer and I laugh and try to force my legs to run a little farther. Dad sneaks up a little more, and I can see him smiling like he does every day when I race him.  “I’m catching up!” he says. But I’m just too fast and manage to hold onto first place.

I run past our next-door neighbor’s house who has a rhododendron forest instead of grass that I’m not supposed to play in. (I still do sometimes; all of the neighborhood kids do. The adults just don’t understand the play-potential that would be wasted if we didn’t.) I run past one of my friend’s houses and the tree we always climb. I run past the last house on the street; it feels so far away from my house even though it’s less than half a block. And I come to a stop right as I reach the end of our street, just as dad pulls up behind in second place. I’ve won again.

(I never suspect that maybe he lets me win.)

“Bye, Kelsey. You have a good day now. Love you!” Dad says, as he pulls the car onto the street.

“Bye, Daddy! I love you! Have a good day at work!” I’m jumping up and down, waving as hard as I can like a fan trying to elicit an encore. “Bye, Daddy! Have a good day at work! Bye! Bye, Daddy!” Dad sticks his hand out the window and briefly waves back at me, flashing me one last quick grin. “Bye,” I whisper one last time as I watch the car drive out of sight.

/////

“I’m confused,” I say and dad puts the book down for a moment. We’re sitting on the couch in the living room. We always have a chapter book that we’re slowly working through together, and lately we’ve been reading through the Anne of Green Gables series. “Why is Anne wearing the green dress?”

“Because Gilbert likes it,” dad says, repeating what the book just said.

I feel like he’s saying nonsense. I have no idea what wearing a pretty green dress could possibly have to do with Gilbert Bylthe.

“Anne likes Gilbert,” dad says by way of explanation.

Has dad not been paying any attention to this entire series? Gilbert called her carrots! Okay, so we’ve finally gotten to the point of sort of forgiving Gilbert and deciding that he isn’t so awful but like him? No, no one is at the point of liking him yet.

Dad tries to explain further but I don’t believe him.

Dad keeps reading. When it turns out that Anne does in fact like Gilbert, I’m shocked. It feels like the biggest plot surprise in the entire history of literature. Dad looks amused but I’m not sure why as I rant about the utter confusion and stupidity surrounding this sudden plot development.

/////

“What are the girl toys and boy toys today?” dad asks into the speaker at the McDonald’s drive through. The employee answers, the speaker makes it hard to understand even though it’s kind of loud. Dad turns to me, “Do you want a Barbie or a Hot Wheel with your Happy Meal?”

“Uh, a Hot Wheel!” I say. After he’s done ordering I ask, “Hey, dad? Why are they called boy toys and girl toys?”

“Some people are weird about toys,” he says pulling around the corner. “They think cars are only for boys and dolls are only for girls. But girls can play with cars and boys can play with dolls. They’re just toys. They’re for kids. So you can have whatever toy you want.”

Dad doesn’t know it but it’s as if the world (or at least the boy aisle at the toy store) has opened up to me.

/////

“My shoe laces are glowing!” I nearly yell in dad’s ear. We’re on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. I’m ten and this is the first time I’ve been to Disneyland; dad’s first time, too. And this is the very first ride of our trip.

I’d expected Disneyland to be like the rides and attractions at the fair with the addition of Mickey Mouse and a beautiful princess castle. But the Peter Pan ride is breathtaking. It’s like we’re in the movie! It’s like we’re flying right over Neverland!

And then I notice the lighting is making our white clothing glow. “My shoe laces are glowing!” It’s maybe even more exciting than seeing Peter Pan and Captain Hook. “Dad, your shirt is glowing too!”

“I know!” he says with a laugh.

“Look! Dad, look! It’s Peter Pan!”

“I know! I see!” he says smiling. He looks happy. He always looks happy when I’m excited.

/////

Dad and I sit in Starbucks. It’s early March so it’s still pretty cold out in the mornings. I’m in middle school and I’m drinking a vanilla steamer because coffee is gross and bitter. Besides, I’m a morning person like dad, so I don’t need the caffeine.

“Happy birthday!” dad says as he hands me my non-coffee and a brown paper Starbucks bag. I pull a coffee-brown bear dressed like a barista out from behind the tissue paper. I’ve always loved teddy bears.

We sit and talk as we sip our warm drinks as everyone else is yawning, stretching, and rubbing the last crusty bits of sleep out of their eyes. This is how birthdays are supposed to start; this is how mine always start. Dad’s been taking me to get a special non-coffee drink on the morning of my birthday for as long as I can remember.

A morning date with dad. A present just from him. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans. This is how birthdays start.

/////

“Who gave you flowers?” a friend asks.

“My dad,” I say sheepishly. When I was little I did ballet and it was expected that parents would give their little dancers flowers after they’re performance, and I’m not sure my dad has realized that same rule doesn’t apply to everything else.

I’m fourteen and I was just in a church play and I only had a handful of lines, but he bought me a bouquet as if I was the title lead.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” my friend says.

I smile, feeling awkward and a little embarrassed. I don’t like standing out and walking around with a bouquet makes feel less invisible that I’d care to be, but despite the embarrassment I love that I stand out as the teen who has an encouraging dad. The truth is that if I didn’t get flowers, I’d miss them. Flowers have become a ritual, thanks to dad.

/////

I’ve been gone for three and a half months. I spent the summer after high school volunteering abroad. And I’m home. I’ve missed home so much.

As I walk into my bedroom and notice that my bed is made, which I know is thanks to my dad. (Making my bed is not high on my list of priorities.) And there’s a tiny card in the center of my bed, and when I open it up in simply reads:

Welcome home! I missed you.

Love, Dad

He has no idea how much it means to me. How much I feel welcomed and home now. He has no idea how his little sweet, thoughtful gestures aren’t just nice, for me, they are home.

/////

“Now let’s do a picture with Ian and his parents,” the photographer says. My now-husband, as of a matter of minutes before, poses with his mom and dad for a couple of photographs. “Okay, good. Now one with Kelsey and her mom.” Not parents. No dad. Only mom.

Mom and I stand together. I feel a sharp twinge in my chest that I breathe my way through.

Several people had suggested that I could light a candle in honor of my dad at the wedding but I knew I didn’t need it. I don’t need it. Yes, I’m standing here in my wedding dress with a new gold ring on my finger. Yes, I’m happy and overwhelmed and ecstatic. But I don’t need a candle to notice that my dad isn’t here; there’s no way I could ever forget.

I take a private moment of silence as everyone poses and smiles and the photographer continues clicking away. I take a moment to whisper deep inside of me: Daddy, I miss you. 


Telling Myself I’m Beautiful

Flickr CC Emily

Flickr CC Emily

I drip some cold body lotion on to my hand and rub in gently on my upper arms and elbows — the part of my body that no matter how many times I drench it in lotion probably hasn’t been hydrated a day in my life. When I was a kid the dry bumps embarrassed me so much that I’d sometimes try to pick them off (this never ended well). And eventually I swore off tank tops in order to keep the dry bumps under wraps. Rubbing the lotion into my arm I take a moment to whisper, “You’re beautiful.”  Yes, you. With your super dry skin and not-exactly toned arms. You. Yes, you.

I squirt some more lotion onto my knees and work it up to my thighs. I used to refuse to wear shorts in the summer because I thought this region of my body was too knobby, too dry and bumpy, too flabby and cellulite-y to be allowed out in public. It was too ugly to be allowed to run free and wild about town; it might frighten the children or the old ladies. But I work the lotion in, gently, and whisper kindly, softly, “You’re beautiful.” Yes, you. You don’t need to be hidden and kept out of sight.

Rubbing the lotion into my stomach feels like a silent apology. I’ve said so many unkind, hurtful things about it. I’ve called it ugly, called it flabby and fat, and declared it the most embarrassing region of all. I realize as I work in the lotion that I’ve never been gentle, loving with it before; I’ve tried to suck it into jeans that were too tight, grabbed at the bits of loose skin in disgust, and I’ve put it on several diets. But never been gentle. I rub it with lotion and whisper softly as before, “You’re beautiful.” Yes, you. I’m sorry. I love.

I nearly, accidentally, skip my breasts completely. I’m so used to trying to ignore and conceal them. The goal for years was to minimize and hide them because breasts, I was told, caused men to stumble. They were the part of my body, more than any other, that could cause sin. When puberty hit, I hoped they’d barely be visible when they were done growing because that would make the goal of hiding them easier. Every time I had to go up a bra size I nearly cried. “Please, stop growing,” I remember silently pleading. Curvy. That’s never seemed like a good thing. But I said it to them as well: “You’re beautiful.” Yes, you.

I rub the leftover lotion that’s on my hands on my neck and under my ears. The skin under my left ear is bumpy, scared from an old surgery. I’ve tried every type of scar-be-gone cream from the drugstore on it. But it’s still there, hiding just under my ear and jawline. I’ve always planned my hairstyles and haircuts around hiding it; I’ve never wanted people to know it’s there. But I tell it, for the very first time, “You’re beautiful.” Yes, you.

I pull out my face lotion and squirt some in my hand, starting by rubbing it into my cheeks and then working outwards. I’ve spent so much time analyzing that face in the mirror. The scar from an old pimple I shouldn’t have picked at; the large pores around my nose; those hairs out of place; the dark lines under my eyes; the uneven patches of skin. I’ve spent so much money and time on trying to fix it or at least hide it. But I gently rub in the lotion and say, “You’re beautiful.” Yes, you.

As I put the cap back on the lotion I look over my skin one last time and remind myself, “You’re beautiful.” Yes, you.