What Do You Call It?

“I thought by the time I was doing this I’d be with someone.”

I cried when I told her—another one of the myriad griefs threading through this kintsugi year: that not being in a romantic partnership somehow rendered me incapable of facing my father’s decline.

But when I was writing the FAQ about my move, I kept drafting and deleting a passage about how becoming single had actually given me the freedom to leave Portland.

Because it’s not true. 

I mean, it is, but not the part about being single.

It’s Valentine’s Day as I’m writing this and I feel so far from being “single.” 

“Most other people have a switch that gets flipped between friendship and relationship,” he used to say. “But you love people on a spectrum.”

I felt seen by that (he was good at making me feel seen), but there’s no decent shorthand for that kind of life. Or if there is, it’s couched in the culture of labels, and they’ve never done much good for me.

“Housemate,” for example, feels wholly inadequate for my relationship with Zina. We’ve lived together in one form or another for ten years; just the two of us for the last seven. The term we settled on at some point was Boston Wives, but that often involved giving an impromptu 19th century history lesson on female cohabitation to whoever was doing the asking. When we entered a Registered Domestic Partnership two years ago, I breathed a sigh of relief because I could just call her my wife and let everyone else muddle it out for themselves.

But what does that mean, really?

I’ve told people “Well, we’re not in a romantic relationship—” but then I stop. We take baths together and buy each other flowers and read epistolary science fiction love stories aloud in bed and fuck me if that isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is. 

We turn to each other, in amongst all these activities, and say “We’re so rich.”

The older I get the more wobbly my definition of being “in a relationship” becomes. It sounds so singular.

I used to think I wasn’t very good at making friends. Being liked, sure, but not being vulnerable in the way truly reciprocal, intimate friendships demand. Never to ask, never to need. Far easier to unilaterally support other people to shore up my own sense of being worth something. Far better to fling all my devotion and intimacy into one heteronormative partnership and pin my hopes of making it through any major life challenges on that

It’s a decent plan until it’s not.

Because I’m still going through this reckoning—relationship or no—and it’s forcing me to recognize that somewhere along the way I started figuring out how to be truly vulnerable. I picked up a community of (for lack of a better word) friends.

There are friends who bring me pie when my Kickstarter funds and soup when I’m down with the flu. 

Friends I have flown across the country to support through unspeakable loss, who I know would do the same for me in a heartbeat.

Friends who are also lovers. Whose parents I have met. Whose kids I get to help look after when I visit.

Friends who will yell on the phone with me about books and websites at all hours of the day and night, pacing the block, gesticulating.

Friends who send nudes but also commiserating texts about caring for loved ones with dementia (a potent combo).

Friends who know how to reassure me of my intrinsic value when I think all I’m good for is being productive. 

And these are the people in my immediate circle. Never mind the far-flung folks online, around the country—around the globe—with whom I have shared hotel rooms and letters and meals and Zoom calls. And then the circle beyond that: the strangers who have read my work and feel some degree of connection through that avenue. People I have never spoken to who might, given the invitation, share something heartfelt or helpful out of the blue.

I don’t know what to call all that, but when I stop to think about it I get dizzy and start to cry.

And beyond it lies the thing I hesitate to name because it feels trite: my relationship with myself. This person who delights me the more I get the measure of her, who has words of wisdom when I feel lost, who makes me laugh and brings me intellectual baubles and dazzles me with her tenacity and vision. I love my friendship with her most of all.

So here I am: not single, but communal. A dragon curled atop her glistening hoard. 

Rich.

A Donut

On April 16th, 2018, a friend of mine began a 100 Day Project—a collection of self portraits in ink, framed as a meditation on gender.

The tiny illustrations began to pile up: two weeks, 100 days, a year.

They kept drawing.

At 862, they stopped sharing to Instagram, but said they would probably keep going in private. (We love to see it.)

And then, a couple days ago, a text:

A screenshot of a text message which reads "I'm on day 1006 of my little drawings. Quite something."

I asked how they were feeling about the milestone.

A screenshot of an iMessage chat dialogue. The speaker on the left says: Honestly right now my relationship to these drawings is similar to flossing. It’s something I do every day and then I feel virtuous  And I actually like that I’ve managed to make it that much of a habit  They’re not phenomenally interesting but the continuity and the habit is cool. The other speaker replies: Mm I really like that point where it ceases to be about the art itself and shifts to being the behavior around the art. The first speaker says: Yeah that’s an interesting place. And probably where most art actually comes from.

And now I’m laughing thinking about Benoit Blanc and donuts, because this is how I feel at moments like this—screenshotting a perfectly normal text conversation because something about it makes me think “HANG ON”.

Not the art, but the behavior around the art.

A donut! One central piece, and if it reveals itself the fog would lift, the arc would resolve, the slinky become unkinked…

It feels right, at least in relation to my own practice, which is often very much predicated on rules and rituals. (30 Days of Portraits. 100 Demon Dialogues. 1000 words a day.)

These are all projects where the structure of the undertaking supersedes the content. Fixating on the satisfaction of completing another link in the chain allows my less-than-perfect artistic skill to slip past the Watcher at the Gate undetected. Success is defined as adherence to the practice, not excellence in the craft.

The joke, of course, is that they’re one and the same.

The Ritual is the Cab

There’s a paragraph from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit that lodged firmly in my brain when I first read it in college. (I loaned my copy of the book to a friend years ago and it was only recently returned it to me, so this is the first chance I’ve had to go back and reread it in a long, long while.)

A photograph of a page from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit. It reads: I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

THE RITUAL IS THE CAB.

Eh-hem. Anyway. She goes on:

Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.

The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)

This bit at the end! The question of “whether or not I like it” immediately countered with the truth that if this ritual is something I have built that will carry me towards things I have decided are meaningful to me, then it will automatically be the right thing.

But even when the right thing has proved, time and time again, to be rich, pleasurable, surprising, rewarding, and thrilling, I still have a brain that fixates on the times it is not. Sometimes it is infuriating, terrifying, or disappointing (although almost always those feelings come at the start, not during the act itself—or after the finish). I latch onto the negatives, drowning in avoidance, believing I can think my way around them.

Tharp’s model requires a clear-eyed statistician’s view—an assessment of the facts. And the fact is I feel good about the act of creation far more often than I feel bad about it. The ritual becomes a method of tipping over the edge into that inexorable slide—the point where it would be far more work to turn back than it is to go forward. The point where you can’t help yourself.

This is the mantra I need going into my next project, quaking in my boots because it all feels new and beyond my capacity or control:

I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.

Important Bird News

This is an excellent thread that made me laugh uncontrollably for many, many minutes. I share it with you as a gesture of goodwill.

Yours sincerely,

Tiny Sky-Tyrant

P.S. I’ve been working on my marsupial impressions, too.

FAQ

Hi friend! If you’ve landed on this page, you probably just asked me a question about my move, possibly prompted by hearing about it for the first time via my 2021 Hourly Comics. Hopefully your question is answered below:

Whoa, you’re moving?

I have, in fact, already moved! I drove away from Portland on February 4th, quarantined for a week upon arrival, and then received a negative COVID test so I could relocate safely.

Where are you off to?

A dusky digital painting of a desert at dawn. The sky is light blue and there's a tiny moon rising above pink mountains. The foreground is full of yellow, scrubby brush.

Ojai, California, the valley I was raised in, to move in with my parents and my 21-year-old cat.

Is this permanent?

Is anything?

(By which I mean: I don’t know!)

Why now?

I realized I needed to move now the night before I was due to give this talk, so if you’d rather hear me verbalize why I’m making this choice, you can watch it.

The textual version is that my dad is 81 and has moderate dementia. He also had a couple of micro-strokes last November. My mum’s been shouldering the bulk of caretaking for the last few years, barring the odd break when I’ve come down to help. I’m an only child. We’re all muddling through a Pandemic. It’s the right time to be here.

I’m also going to be head-down working on my next graphic novel (Seacritters!) for the foreseeable future. Given that a publishing advance isn’t enough to live on for the time it takes to complete a book, reducing my financial overhead right now is a smart move.

This sounds really hard!

I have a remarkably functional and loving relationship with my parents. Ojai is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful places on earth. (It also has the best bookstore.) I’m near the ocean. I’m in a community of people who’ve known me since I was very small. I get to focus more fully on work that delights me. I’m no longer panicked at the thought of missing opportunities to care for and connect with my dad. This is all, actually, really good.

I don’t want to downplay the fact that caretaking is complex and often devastating. This will not be a walk in the park, but it is 1000% the thing I have been longing to do for several years. Being in this place, with these people, gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment and love that is irreplaceable.

Do you need anything?

If you’ve had parental caretaking experience (especially if you’re also under 40), maybe drop me a line and say hello. Never a bad idea to have allies who know what this is like.

If you want to support me materially while I make my next book, I’m sharing stuff on Patreon and would love to have you in that community.

Can I have your new address?

I have mail forwarding set up for the next six months. If we’re already penpals you can direct mail to my old address and it’ll still reach me, albeit with a slight delay. I’m looking into getting a P.O. Box here in town so I can offer my address more freely.

Three elongated human shadows, holding hands and walking along a dusty trail.

Okay! The end! Thanks for reading!

(Obviously if there’s something I didn’t talk about here, please return to our conversation on whatever platform you came here from and ask about it, but at least you have the facts now. I appreciate you reading through all this so I don’t have to repeat myself a bunch 💛)

Hourly Comic Day 2021

Hooray hooray it’s Hourly Comic Day! (Or rather, it was on February 1st.)

I feel so relieved to have gotten back on the wagon after kind of falling off last year. This is my tenth year participating, and the completionist in me is slightly miffed that I don’t have a full run to collect and publish, but whatevvvver. It’s the practice that counts! And I’ll do it again next year.

Going into this round, I gave myself permission to work under whatever constraints I needed to in order to finish and still retain some semblance of sanity while packing and prepping to move four days later. That ended up looking like just putting down pencils every hour, and leaving inking and toning for my week of post-arrival quarantine in Ojai. I also logged out of every social media platform on the 1st, because I’ve found that I often spend the day sucked into staring at everyone else’s work and feeling inadequate and I just didn’t have time! It helped a lot, but it also meant not seeing a bunch of people’s work. If you had favorite hourlies, please feel free to tweet them at me. (I have already seen and loved Danielle Corsetto’s, Katie Wheeler’s, Abby Howard’s, Vera Brosgol’s, and Lissa Treiman’s.)

Also, RE: the FOMO bit, I saw someone lamenting that they’d posted theirs a couple days late because it meant fewer people would see them—they’d missed the zeitgeist bandwagon. And I get that frustration! I do! I feel it! But it’s also been helpful for me to consider what (and who) this practice is for. I do this because I love having a time capsule of the same day every year. I also do it to remind myself that I can Make Comics without it being a huge, stressful deal. I already have everything I need. Why not make comics that bring me pleasure? Even though I’m perpetually nagging myself to loosen up and go straight to ink or get more expressive, I still love the way these came out. My Hourlies from the last few years feel like I’m finally hitting my stride.

Anyway, here’s some comics! I am still deeply dissatisfied with my options for posting artwork on my own website! I’m working on it! (Case in point: this gallery plugin doesn’t have an option to include alt text that doesn’t totally eclipse the image by default. If you need alt text with any of these, the versions posted to Twitter and Instagram are, ironically, more accessible.)

You can read previous Hourly Comic Day installments at the following links: 2019, 20182017201620152014201320122011.

Second Plunge

It’s no good. The sea’s too shallow here—too full of hazardous rocks. I’m threading my way through pudgy, puckered anemones sunk flush with the surface of the sand. It’s getting dark. My car’s parked in a 24-minute parking spot and I’ve already been out here for at least 15.1 I should call it. But I’ll feel bad if I call it. But I should call it.

I try walking down the beach instead, just to feel like I’m choosing something. I know there’s a stretch where the sand smooths out into a gentler and more welcoming crescent, but I misjudge the distance and end up equally far from both my car and the better beach. I jog back along the boardwalk, cursing my indecision through my mask.

I spend several minutes in the car caught in The Waffle—the dreaded space where I justify and wheedle and drive myself batty with excuses and alternatives—until my Wise Self barges in.

You’re not seriously going to drive all the way home and go to bed knowing that you were right here and didn’t do this thing that you KNOW always fills you with an unstoppable sense of power and joy, are you?

Monstrous harpy.

I drive the five minutes down the waterfront, throw the car in the parking lot of the hotel from Little Miss Sunshine, and march past everyone enjoying the last glimmers of sunset. I have a covenant to keep.

I’m bolder with my strip down/stride in routine this time—almost too bold; I nearly enter the water still wearing my mask. A quick return trip to my pile of belongings and I’m running back into the breakers. The water is easy and delicious. It’s not even that cold. Six waves pass before I plunge under the seventh. I stand there staring at the tiniest sliver of a new moon rising on my right for what feels like hours.

She’s right. I’ve never regretted this. Two for two.

A glowing beach at sunset. There are shallow, reflective waves moving up the shore. The sky is apricot at the horizon grading slowly into deep blue. On the right, a headland with palm trees silhouetted against the sky. There's a tiny sliver of moon rising.

1. Why only 24 minutes? Such a specific number. Remind me to look that up later on whatever civic planning blog is nearest.

Right of Way

I got unexpectedly emotional driving home from my COVID test tonight when a line of cars (myself among them) pulled over to let two blaring firetrucks barrel past on their way to make someone’s Very Bad Day less worse.

There it was! An immediate, unspoken acknowledgement that there are more important things going on right now, followed by straightforward collective action to protect and support the people most involved in addressing the crisis at hand.

It doesn’t take a lot, on a day where I’ve passed a boisterous group of twelve unmasked diners on a restaurant patio, to feel overwhelmed seeing people do something that comes from an ethic of mutual care.

I know pulling off the road for 30 seconds isn’t the same as asking the entire populace to avoid human contact for twelve straight months, but I still wish it could be this easy. We’ve clearly figured out how to do this as a society sometimes, y’know? It’s just a question of extending that behavior in a wider circle.

First Plunge

I’m pulling into Santa Barbara, 940 miles of highway behind me, as the sun dips low to the west. On my right: occasional glimpses of the sea, tantalizing and unreal, but ahead there’s only bumper-to-bumper traffic. 

I’m racing the clock as I inch through Montecito, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. The sun’s fully below the horizon by the time the cars thin out, but there’s still time. I’m navigating by instinct across overpasses and down twisty back roads. I’m ignoring the sign that says “Park Closes at 5:30” (it is after 6) and flinging my car across two spaces in my haste to get out. I’m scrambling toward this place I’ve been coming to since I was 3 because I am giddy with disbelief and this is where I need to go to know it’s real.

James calls right as I reach the edge of the sandstone cliff. The sea is mirror-bright and full of sunset. I show him my view (an inadequate FaceTime mockery) and babble about the impossibility of it all. The prickly scrub is catching at my ankles as I stare out at this thing I’ve been unable to feel like I deserve to be near for so long. I realize there’s no time for talking, make my apologies, hang up, and start running down the slanted track to the sand.

There’s barely anyone on the beach as I kick off my shoes. The light’s failing. Everything smells of salt and woodsmoke. 

Up close, the colors in the sky and the immensity of the water make me dizzy. I feel simultaneously tiny and expansive. Opening. Unfolding. 

What’s the rule?

If I am near a body of water and I can feasibly get into it, I must get into it.

I didn’t think to grab my towel—or my bathing suit, for that matter—but I don’t really care. There isn’t time. I strip to my underwear as the dark closes in and stride toward the water. The sand is gleaming blue with light. The waves are gentle at first, waist high and cold, but I’ve braved worse. I can’t believe I’m here. I shuffle my feet, wary of stingrays, and move deeper, chattering to myself. To the water. To the sunset. 

“Hello. Wow. Hi, hello. Oh my god. Hello. I missed you. Okay. Woof. Okay. Okay okay okay here we go. Here we FUCKING GO—“

And then I am under the onrushing breakers and nothing matters anymore. I am not cold. I am not alone. I am not uncertain.

I come up laughing, and I am home.

A gleaming ocean at sunset. The sky is blue fading into fiery apricot at the horizon.

Turncoat

“I’m so tempted to just go—not tell anyone, just load everything up and leave.”

She narrows her eyes.

“Can we unpack that for a minute?”

Maybe I protest too much, but it’s not what it looks like! I’m no thief in the night! I’m not trying to desert my friends! We do all our socializing on Zoom these days anyway—what difference does it make?

But the truth of the matter is that I want to up and go without any fanfare because I’m dreading the endless cycle of small talk. Why should I keep telling people when the first thing out of anybody’s mouth is “Is it permanent?” and I have to throw my hands up and do the same dance over and over yelling “I don’t know, is anything?!” 

The shock in people’s voices also nags at an ongoing pattern of worry: that I have somehow neglected my duty to Keep Everyone Informed.

This happens often: the people closest to me are surprised when I share things that I think I’ve been talking about non-stop, but it turns out I’ve just been thinking them very loudly for a very long time. Not the same thing.

But it is exhausting to always be informing on myself. If I share a thought in progress and then change my mind five more times before coming up with a decision (common), I condemn everyone else to the same vicissitudes of anxiety and overthinking that I’m busy contending with in my own head!

And then even when I have come to a decision, there’s still so much performing. There I am hemming and hawing for the benefit of communicating to other people the complexity of the situation and how I came to this decision and all the factors at play and before I know it I’ve bought into my own mummery. I’m believing the hype that this is terribly difficult and I am terribly conflicted—oh woe is me!—when perhaps if I am quiet and listen only to myself and act only for myself it turns out not to be so difficult or conflict-laden after all.

My word for the year is “flow; or, the sensation I get in the center of my chest when I watch footage of starling murmurations” which, yes, isn’t just one word, but it is a word plus a feeling, or a word distilled from a feeling, which I think still counts. Maybe counts more.

So I am flowing downhill to Ojai. Swimming upstream through my own history to land back where I started. I’m grateful that the blogging urge rekindled when I was down there last summer, because I can see it in my own paper trail—the rightness of this.

I don’t know how to tell everyone, but I do know that tomorrow morning when I am driving south with a car full of unread books, I will feel light, and I will be singing.