Stand up straight, it is Charles Darwin’s birthday

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin! I made him this card.

Email001 (2)
Why yes, those are finches wearing party hats. Thank you for noticing.

From the outtakes reel:

“You look like a Homo Sapien… And you smell like one, too!”

“I’d have to be a dodo to forget your birthday!”

I should have included the cha-cha-chas on it. Next year.

Speaking of evolutionary biology and crafts, I’ve been reading E.O. Wilson’s newest book, The Origins of Creativity, about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. It is exactly the Venn diagram I need right now. I wish I could tuck myself into the overlap of those two circles and just sleep there, but I realize those overlaps are called “intersections,” which aren’t probably the best places to rest. My better option is to try to work there as much as possible, play there at the minimum, and in the meantime I need to remember to buy cat food and toothpaste.

I like E.O. Wilson in the same way I liked Mr. Rogers, in that I find him trustworthy and his delivery soothing. I’m not always as interested in his subjects as he is (ants, anyone?), but I appreciate very much how interested he is, and I usually come away having learned something I think is relevant and important, and also wanting to put on a cardigan. In this book, Wilson cites both Charles Darwin and Stephen Sondheim, so you know it is up my alley. You also know this means it is going to be hard for me to determine where to shelve it when I am finished.

He writes:

Drawing on the combined consciousness of our species, each one of us can go anywhere in the universe, seize any power, achieve any goal, search for infinity in space and time. Of course, it is also true that when ruled by wild surmise and the animal passions we all share, our unbounded fantasy can disintegrate into madness.

“Nicoooooole, you said he was soothing.” I know, I know.

It’s a good book.

Anyway. What better way to celebrate evolution and survival of the fittest than with a clip of opposable thumbs opposing each other? (No, that adult thumb isn’t my thumb, and that woman’s voice is not my voice, but it is my bad camera work.)

Here’s to combined consciousness.

(p.s. For those of you playing at home, my Orgone album just arrived. It even came with a sticker. Happy Darwin Day to me.)

On shattering and being swept up


When I found out that Ursula died, I texted five of my people. “Ursula died,” I typed five times in a row. Five different messages. Type, send, type, send, like I was practicing the sentence to get the right inflection. It looked wrong. Funny how “true” and “wrong” can coincide.

One of my people called within maybe a minute, or it could have been five minutes, or twenty. Time gets weird when you put “died” after the name of someone you care about. This person who had dropped whatever she was doing to attend to my two-word sentence said, “Nicole, I am so sorry.” I don’t remember exactly what she said after that, or what I said, but I remember distinctly that I could feel that she was there and I could feel that she was helping. I could feel myself feeling that I didn’t have this when my mother died, because in the situation I was in, I was not able to reach out, which meant my people were not able to reach back towards me, either.

Soon my phone and email were flooded with people reaching towards me. Not just the five, but so many others, too. So much genuine concern for me. It made me lightheaded.

I already had plans to spend the evening with my best friend. She said, “I totally understand if you want to stay home under a blanket.” I told her no, Ursula lived too much of a life for that. I told her I needed to be with my family. My friend, her husband, and their two beautiful kids are my closest chosen relatives. I have known her fifteen years. She reminds me of my childhood best friend, and of my mom in her prime. (She also, mainly, reminds me of herself.) She has seen a lot of my crazy and still lists me as the emergency contact for her children. They speak Spanish and English in their house and call me Tia Nicole.

I brought along the new album that I’ve been so excited about. I bought a turntable last month and suddenly there is a whole world opening up in “vinilos.” I’d purchased the album in a record store just down the street from my apartment, after not having purchased an LP since probably 1991. Somehow the record store clerk/magician discerned from my series of “I don’t know” and “I really am not sure” and “I honestly have no idea” replies to his questions about what I was looking for to suggest ESG, a “No Wave, Avant-Funk, Dance Punk” band founded in 1978 in the Bronx. Genre nonconformity is the shit. This could turn into an expensive hobby. My friend’s husband is taking me under his wing:

music request text to frankfrank helps with vinilos

ursulas-bag-e1518140528501.jpgI carried my record to their house in the canvas bag Ursula gave me when my paper grocery bag had ripped the day she signed all the books for my friends. It was the day she’d told me, “Write while you have the energy to do it.” When my grocery bag ripped in front of Ursula in her entryway, I’d felt embarrassed and fumbling, yet now I am glad to have something that once belonged to her. As with other of my secularly-sacred artifacts, I only use Ursula’s tote bag occasionally. It hangs in my kitchen next to the apron my mom made for me out of a vintage U & I sugar sack, which I wear only when I bake, which is seldom. 

My friend’s husband greeted me with the usual big hug and kiss
dance party figsto my cheek that took some getting used to when I was new at it, but now I can return them, and he played my record with his DJ headphones on. We danced in our socks in the living room until it was time for the kids to go to bed, and my friend and I headed out to get a beer. As we were leaving, he gave me one of his records, a Monophonics album, a gift of friendship and an initiation into the world of vinilos, which I put into Ursula’s bag with my record. My friend and I had a nice visit, like we always do, holding four conversations at once, and I only cried a little, and when I did, it didn’t even seem to be directly connected to Ursula.

For the next several days I felt like I was doing pretty well, considering. “Considering what?” I asked myself.  I was sad, of course, but also very aware that Ursula had far, far more people far, far closer to her than I had been. This isn’t really my loss, I kept thinking. I wrote my post for Ursula. I got together with two friends from my book group, a couple in their 70s, to talk about Ursula. (It is handy to have access to the perspectives and opinions of people from a generation ahead of one’s own, and yes, I realize some people call these “parents,” but mine get to be hand selected at this point. I highly recommend adding non-related older/younger people to your repertoire.) Ursula was an enormous energy; it is hard to separate the idea of her from the person of her (and maybe we don’t have to?). In an e-mail to me, the female half of this couple noted about Ursula’s death, “It feels a little like being orphaned, something I supposed every woman and most men knew her feel.” I knew exactly what she meant, and felt, it, too, while also being fully aware that I am already an orphan. I wondered what it would have been like had Ursula mothered my mother. I suspected it would have been a good match. It made my throat tighten thinking about it, the way it does where I can’t talk and I can’t swallow.

two tiny ursulasI’d read that Ursula was given that name because she was born on Saint Ursula’s Day. The word “ursula” means “little bear.” After some searching, I found two carved bear pocket totems and gave one to this couple, so that we could each have a tiny ursula to remind us of our shared Ursula, and of us remembering her together. I went home and put my tiny ursula on my bookshelf.

At the end of the week I received an e-mail from my dear friend in England, the one who was the motivation for me to get my passport in order to participate in her exhibition on bereavement and loss, where, with my dear friend’s hand lightly on my back, I put a small piece of writing about my mom on display for the very first time, whose own mother had died ten months after mine did, to whom I had recently mailed a package that included, among the various tokens and oddities that I had been collecting over a period of months, the book that Ursula signed for her. My dear friend wrote to me that the package had arrived on the Monday that Ursula died, which happened to be her mother’s birthday. She said, “If we ever wondered about connection to a bigger story, then that should silence any doubt.” Indeed! I laughed out loud.

I found two pennies that week.

My best friend’s grandpa died nine days after Ursula. She texted me that her mom had been one of the people by his side, and I was glad for that. By all accounts he was a wonderful man, including by my best friend’s account, which is the only one that matters to me. I ached that my friend had lost one of her giants, and I felt deep sorrow for my friend’s mom. I remembered (I say “remembered” here, but this does not mean that I ever don’t remember) what it was like witnessing my mom’s life leave her body, and how that was the single most amazing experience of presence I have ever felt, which transformed into the most terrible feeling of absence I have ever felt, could ever possibly feel. I was not conflicted in my love and care for my friend, or without a sense that I shared a similar awe to what her mom had just experienced, but I also realized I don’t have the foggiest idea what it is like to lose a grandpa who was a good guy.

I finally listened to the Monophonics album, the gift from my friend’s husband, and sadness and sorrowtexted him how much I liked it, and as happens with my friend and her husband, my comment turned into plans. Another band he knew I would like, Orgone, was coming to town, and so it was decided that my friend and I would be honoring Ursula and her grandpa at a funk show. As my friend often says, “Perfect!”

But then I had the days before the concert to get through. I was already overstimulated, with too much thinking, remembering, missing, and keeping track for my brain to take in, which was careening towards overload. All of the connections I was making, and connecting I was doing, were outpacing my ability to manage it all.

I thought about how we send sympathy cards, not empathy cards, because it is impossible to be in someone’s shoes when they are experiencing personal loss, and it would be inappropriate to take their shoes during this difficult time, now wouldn’t it? Later is the time to find common ground, when there is ground again.

At 88, Ursula was 21 years older than my mom was when she died.

I felt robbed (which of course is not a new feeling).

I hate knowing that the only people who could possibly understand where I am coming from with certain aspects of my life, and my mother’s life, are people who have endured similar hardships. I wish my mother had learned stamina through other means. I wish this for myself, too, and have grown to despise the word “resilient.” I hate the isolation, hence, loneliness, that comes from my particular set of knowledge. This does not mean I wish more people had more hardships, although I do wish there was a rule that people were not allowed to say, “I understand,” unless, like on a math quiz, they show their work.

I know all of us have parts of ourselves that others cannot possibly understand, and that having others who are willing to try to understand makes a universe of difference.

What hit me hardest was that, through no fault of her own, my mom did not get the luxury of standard, crushing grief when either of her parents died. They didn’t just not love her. They hated her so much that she broke into pieces. They hated her so much she became other people. She loved them, though, because they were her parents. She had to learn, over time, to unlove them. Her mother died at age 56, when my mother was just 29, and I was three. By the time we learned that her father the devil himself had died at 91, she was too sick to even dance on his grave.

Sometimes I think I should start a Grave Dancing Unfuneral company.

I could feel myself shattering, and was feeling bad because this was not my “turn.” Ursula was not close to me like my friend’s grandpa was to her. My mother has been dead for five years. I was mad that I never got a turn to watch my mother live to 88, or better yet, 92, and that the word “grandpa” makes my shoulders twitch.

As happens to me when I am more emotionally overloaded than I realize, I got physically lost. In this case, after purchasing a sympathy card for my friend’s mom, I could not remember where I’d parked my car, even though it was in my own neighborhood, near a bookstore I go to at least once a week.
lost car katie textIt felt good to do a couple of normal things for normal grief: I mailed the card to my friend’s mom. I made lasagna to bring to their house.

We made Valentines with the kids while her husband spun records, on this day that also valentine heartshappened to be the birthday of my childhood best friend. We talked a little bit about my mom, who loved Valentine’s Day (Susan, an insider, age 6, in particular), and of course this was heavy in my heart. We talked about how my friend’s mom and grandma were doing, how her grandma and grandpa met, who would be flying in from which parts of the country for the memorial, where everyone would be staying, what the kids were going to think about all of it, including the Catholic Mass and military Veteran’s funeral, about how the boy of the kids was going to need a new tie, and if they needed a ride to the airport.

I keep my mom’s ashes with her cookbooks, on a high shelf that I can see from almost everywhere in my apartment. There was no funeral. I didn’t think I could do it adequately, and doing smaller acts over time in different places for them, individually and collectively, makes more sense to me, anyway. I don’t want closure. I did take the box of her ashes in my backpack on a hike at Eagle Creek on the first of my birthdays after she died. In August, I go to a favorite spot on Mt. Hood. I make jam when strawberries are in season. I do other things, too. I don’t think I will ever scatter the ashes; the insiders were so organized, until they were unable to be, that this would feel like an insult to them. Plus, I want her remains to remain with me.

I heard Ursula’s daughter interviewed on the radio a few days after Ursula died and thought that her voice sounded a lot like Ursula’s. I thought, “She is one of this club now, of people whose mothers have died.” I listened to an interview Ursula gave in early January, where I was reassured when she talked about how reading the author José Saramago was difficult for her at first (Blindness was the third book I read for my book group, and all I can say is thank goodness I started this group with Sherman Alexie), but that once she learned how to read him, she felt like he was writing to her. Complicated stories can seem impossible, but if you keep going back to them, they belong to you more indelibly, if incrementally. It is up you to decide if the story continues to seem worth it to keep trying. I remembered that I don’t remember much about the week after my mom died.

The evening we ate the lasagna and made Valentines and listened to records was not the time to put all of the stories together, but to let the fragments emerge however they came. I sat in my usual spot next to “my” beautiful kids who know they are safe in their own home.

My friend and I went to our concert that night. We were both exhausted and “off,” and laughed when we decided maybe we could just nap in the warm car for a few hours, then tell her husband what a fantastic time we had. But of course we didn’t.

We made our way into the theater, where for the next three and a half hours all we had to do was be there and let someone else do all of the work of performing, and engaging, and connecting. We didn’t have to think about anything other than what was going on around us. I felt a little guilty. I had to remind myself that this was why we were there – to watch and absorb.

Maybe it had to take a nine member funk band I’d never heard of, with a horn section, two percussionists, and a female lead singer with enormous hair and an even bigger voice, a little black dress, and complete command of the stage, up there giving it all they had to reach every single person in that room, singing about being happy to be alive, singing we are so glad that you’re here with us tonight, singing you can do it, to interrupt my relentless brain, but holy fuck it worked. For those three and a half hours, it fucking worked.OrgoneI had been worried that I would be too tired, or that I would feel like crying, or that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the crowd, or that I would be counting down the time until I got to go home. What happened, though, is I was taken aback by my own sense of relief. (How long had it been since I had felt like that?) I could feel myself letting my guard down, and I couldn’t believe how good it felt. (Is this how some people live all the time?) Awareness crept over me: There I was next to my best friend at the end of a big, hard, maxed out week, being washed in sound, and light, and vibration, and, yes, surrounded by people of all kinds, enthralled. All of us were there taking it in, together. They were doing this for us.


Screen shot 2018-02-09 at 1.38.32 PM

My LP should be arriving on Monday.


Ursula parts 1 – 4

The spectacular and inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday.

I’ve decided the best way to post about Ursula is to do it in installments. Here are Parts 1 – 4.

Part 1

Ursula died text from StephIt seems impossible that this person who was so noticeably and vividly alive can be so startlingly and incomprehensibly deceased.

I’ve been writing this post since Tuesday.  I haven’t known where to begin, because Ursula was a giant, because who am I to say anything about this icon, this legend, this Ursula, who was already so many people’s favorite before she entered my life and became my favorite, too. She had that effect on people.

I was not one of her closest friends. I have not read her major novels. I only knew her briefly. We met in September of 2015 when I joined the book group to which she and her husband, Charles, already belonged. The group is as well-read, well-traveled, well-informed, and intimidating as one might imagine a Le Guin-calibre book group to be. I do not pretend not to be out of my league with them. At my first meeting, I knew Ursula’s name but had not read any of her writing. I respected her from a distance because I associated her with Sci-Fi (which I avoid because all the metaphors stress me out) and fantasy (which I have never been good at in any form). I knew that she’d won a lot of awards. I knew Portland was very proud to claim her. Little did I know when I sat with her in a circle of chairs to discuss a book by Sherman Alexie what a profound influence she would have on my life, how she, and her writing, would reach me, would change me so much for the better.

Our book group is, of course, feeling very much like we lost “one of our own,” because we have.  I honestly think, because this was Ursula, the planet itself shares in this consensus. I know our group is not the only Ursula-affiliated entity with long e-mail chains of memories, articles, interviews, and, sadly, obituaries right now.

Part 2

Things I want you to know about me and Ursula: She had me over to her house. She signed books for my friends. She sent me postcards. She touched my wrist and I can still feel it. I loved her very much.

What you should know about Ursula: Everything you’ve ever heard about how cool Ursula was is absolutely true, only she was even cooler than that.

Part 3

I wrote an earnest and inadequate card to Ursula’s husband, Charles, and mailed it, noting as I surrendered it that the “forever” stamp I used had the shape of a heart with the word “love” on it. It was not a special stamp, it was the one I found in my desk when I went looking. I’m glad it wasn’t a forever Christmas stamp, or a forever American flag. That shouldn’t make any difference, but it did. I had a hard time writing the card. I was worried about what to say. I was worried my hand would shake. I didn’t want anything crossed out, so I had to get it right in a single take. A single take with several practice drafts on scratch paper.

I told him that Ursula had been one of my most important Unteachers, and that she had made an enormous impact on my life, and that I am so sorry for his loss. I told him I was thinking of their cat, Pard, too. I signed it, “Sincerely,” which I meant wholeheartedly and also felt was too weak, or overused in times of less intense sincerity, but I could not think of a stronger one, so that is the word I used.

My signature looked strange to me, like perhaps I was imagining this person who had written a letter of condolence to Ursula K. Le Guin’s husband. I had to remind myself that I had not imagined Ursula, or Charles, or Pard, so chances were I wasn’t imagining myself, either. The evidence I used was that I had their address because I had been to their house, and I had Ursula’s postcards right there on my bulletin board. I was worried that my letter seemed mechanical, because I felt mechanical, as happens to me when something is a big deal. Ursula was a Big Deal. I did not need to tell this to Charles.

Charles is one of the kindest people I have ever encountered, with a gentleness that makes my heart break as I think about him in this week that Ursula died, this week with so much rain. For a minute as I reviewed my letter, which I could not change because it was already in ink, I thought about how this is why some people say, “I’m keeping you in my prayers” at times like these, when there is such a strong inclination to provide comfort when comfort is impossible, or minuscule, or, shall I say, when the comfort we are wishing to convey needs to be so much bigger than what we have to offer.

As I heard the card drop into the mailbox (mailboxes don’t let you reach back into them if you change your mind), I felt a pang of distress, like I had forgotten something, like maybe I’d sent him an empty envelope. I knew that I hadn’t. I check for these sorts of things. Forgetting wasn’t the problem. What I was worried about was that I had done it wrong. Not the mailing, but the writing.

Part 4

This is the first postcard Ursula sent me:

ursula's postcard

The entire earth is reverberating with this very sad news:

This, yesterday:

ursula powells bestsellers (1)

The world’s largest independent bookseller, today:

powells ursula marquee

Thank you, Ursula:

thank you, ursula

I’m not very good at departures or arrivals, so whichever this is, let’s get this first post over with.

home office – 1:12 scale furniture, actual-size ouijaed ghosts (results may vary)

(Editor’s note: I just spent an inordinate amount time trying to determine if it should be spelled “overwith,” which was my first inclination, or “over with” in the heading of this post. According to the internet, which I don’t need to remind you is quite large, my inclination was wrong, and this has my Internal Committee of Self Doubt already snickering about the untrustworthiness of my inclinations overall, which they are now pointing out is evidence this entire blog is probably a horrible idea. Bunch of dicks, The Committee. Please just ignore them when they start asking what an “ordinate” amount of time would be to spend on something like basic spelling of a common phrase, leading them to then point out that attaching qualifiers such as “ordinate” or “inordinate” to time in the first place is irrelevant and, frankly, irresponsible, much like this post so far… As I shuttle them out of my tiny office (shown here in the photo), they are calling back over their shoulders that the sentence ends with a preposition…)

This is going well, I see.

This is not why I have invited you here.

In the general sphere of “what the hell am I doing?” I have created this blog because I have decided that, while the process of writing is an intensely personal endeavor, some of these ideas I have been incubating may be ready to leave the nest, with more ideas fledging all the time. They may plummet, or they may fly, and it is time to see what will happen. If they plummet, I will make better sentences; I love words too much to do anything other than work harder to bring out the best in them. If they fly, I will be flying, too.

Am I nervous? You bet. I am curious more than worried, though, and if I were to allow it, I might even admit that I am kind of excited. But please, for my sake, don’t make eye contact with the excitement, because it may turn into a panic attack, and then next thing you know I will go from curious to breathing into a paper bag.

As we get started, I should probably tell you some other things about me, in addition to the fact that you have determined that I am an anxious person who makes unfortunate bird analogies.  I am providing some of the basics, in part, so that next time I write you will have a bit of the backstory.  I’m looking forward to writing to you in shorthand, but first there is this longhand for me to deal with until I get the hang of things around here. I hope you will bear with me.

So here goes.

My mother had multiple personalities, and is dead.  Being raised by a multiple is something I will be incorporating into my posts, including anecdotes about some of the insiders, and thoughts about what their life and death meant, and continues to mean. They loved me, and I loved them, and I really, really miss them. That said, this blog will not be “about” them; I’m writing a separate book about my moms, or, rather, about me in relation to them, so most of the more intense stuff will go there.  And yes, that book is as hard to write as it sounds.

From a writer’s standpoint, I have been provided a wealth of experiences in terms of subject matter at my disposal, but have faced the dilemma that many of the topics I know most thoroughly are not those that people necessarily are comfortable talking about, thus, hearing about (or vice versa). “One person’s writing prompt is another person’s emotional trigger,” as it were.  It is, indeed, a balancing act.  I say that I am “trauma-informed,” and use phrases like “lived experience” when I am in “mixed company,” and throw in that I have an “actual certificate” from a university program to “prove” that I am “legit,” mainly because I am cognizant that self-identifying as “epigenetic sweepstakes winner” would flaunt my …ehem… “privilege.” Also, PTSD really brings down the mood. (Editor’s note: I am aware I have used “too many” quotation marks in this paragraph. When I talk I am making an effort to employ more finger guns, and fewer air quotes, but I have not figured out yet what the punctuation equivalent of a finger gun is. I realize both finger guns and air quotes are annoying.)

Next, I am an atheist, but a superstitious one (when I say this, it makes me worry that Christopher Hitchens is going to grab my ankles while I am sleeping). It doesn’t mean that I am right by any means, and I know this. I’m not here to convince you. (And I most certainly hope I don’t ever have to convince Hitchens. I can only imagine what an arrogant ghost he would be…)

In complete contradiction to what I just told you in that last paragraph, I also believe my mother leaves pennies for me to find. You don’t need to take my word for this, either.

I have had OCD since third grade, which likely has something to do with being superstitious.  (The “C” in OCD gets most of the attention, but the “O” is the brains of the operation, and I won’t get into now how the “D” label bothers me, and not just in this diagnosis…)  We can talk more about this later, or maybe I will just post a list of acceptable hour/minute combinations for setting one’s alarm clock, or give you a pattern to replicate repeatedly with an accompanying assignment of counting to a certain prime number until it “feels right.” Whatever that post is, it will be typed with freshly washed (and washed) hands, I assure you.

For the record, and because it is going to come up, I am mostly (usually?) gay.  Sometimes I will get a little political about this. Generally, I will just talk about it like it is normal, which it is. It took me a long time to figure out that part, and that still makes me both happy (that I figured it out) and sad (that I had to). And kind of pissed that I didn’t think I was normal all along, when it comes down to it.

Being normal has come as a bit of a surprise overall.

In short, I know some stuff, and I give a shit. I have not been able to shake my optimism despite my best efforts.  (The Committee is rolling their eyes right now and daring me to add “chagrined by positivity” to my LinkedIn profile. It’s actually kind of tempting. – Ed.)

Lastly, I have a cat. You’ve undoubtedly already assumed as much.