Commonplace

Piper Haywood wrote one of those very good posts last week—a cross-section of personal interests that manages to be both minutely specific and widely resonant. It was full of thoughts about female furniture designers I’d never heard of and Joan Didion essays on notebooks and ideas about the distinction between personal blogs and…whatever else it is that we do to try and share ourselves on the internet. I loved reading it. It also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about here.

It seems silly to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how often I’d come face to face with the things that made me now that I’m living at home.

A black and white photograph of a small notebook with a handwritten quote on Monday the 14th of November. "The future may always be uncertain. But paradoxically, the future holds an irrefutable certainty: we know that we don't know what will happen. This grim absurdity diminishes all chatter." (British sculptor Herbert Ward)

My dad never taught me about Commonplace Books or Zibaldones, but he kept one religiously.1 He was always hunting for quotes and anecdotes to fold into his teaching or add to his column in the local quarterly magazine. He also inscribed them on the collaged, abstract bookmarks he made for everyone he met. A great deal of his creative expression boiled down to this magpie tendency—a delight in gathering raw materials and mashing them together into something new.

Piper shared a quote from Didion where she talks about the notebook as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” This certainly seems to have been the way my dad approached his pocket-sized collections. His penmanship makes every page feel like a work of art, but I don’t think they were primarily made to be shared—at least not in this form.

And yet below every quotation about children or parenting there’s a note:

An open spread of a tiny diary with many quotes written in differently colored pen. "McCarthy said he would not have written the novel (The Road) had he not had a son as an older man. "It wrenches you up out of your nap, and makes you look at things fresh. It forces the world on you, and I think it's a good thing." (Hello Lucy!) "Not knowing something essential makes you more involved." (Divisadero by Michael Ondaajte) "It is a wonderful thing to be taken seriously and to be taken seriously for who you already are, without your having to perform." (Robert Lloyd, on Apted's Married in America 2) "Man must sit in chair with mouth open for very long time before roast duck fly in." (Old Chinese Proverb, @ Theater 150) "What's braver than a brave face?" (Aimee Mann, Singer/Songwriter)

There’s no way he could’ve known I’d open to this page, having just read Ondaajte’s poetry for the first time last November. Having listened to Aimee Mann in college. Line after line, I see so many names and themes that have showed up in my own obsessive collecting.

When Didion lists the kinds of people who keep notebooks, she closes with “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” It makes me shudder in recognition.

Growing up, I was all too aware that my parents were the age of my friends’ grandparents. My extended family weren’t down the road, but scattered throughout England and South Africa and Canada. I didn’t have siblings. I’ve been bracing for as long as I can remember to try and make sure I’ll be able to survive on my own. (No wonder I placed such a high value on independence in my career.)

I think I felt that keeping my parents had to be an act of willpower—one I could fail at and therefore had to approach with constant vigilance. But when I see these notebooks, something shifts in me. These words are confirmation of something I’m trying to learn in my bones: I couldn’t lose these people even if I tried. Their patterns made my patterns, at least in part, and as long as I pursue those patterns, I carry them forward in the world.

My inheritance is ubiquitous.

Commonplace.

1. I don’t know how to do tenses with him. He doesn’t do these things anymore, but to speak about any of it in the past tense makes it sound like he’s dead. He’s not dead, but vast parts of him are no longer present. How do I talk about that? I don’t know.

Heroics (Addendum)

Okay well right after I wrote that whole thing about distrusting heroics Zina told me she’d done her first volunteer shift administering COVID vaccines and I will admit that in that moment I found myself whispering “oh my god she’s a hero“.

But that’s not the addendum. The addendum is about SAINTLINESS, which is adjacent to heroism.

I remember my mum telling me that people would say “Oh, you’re such a saint” or “You’re so selfless” or “I don’t know how you do it” when she shared that she was taking care of my dad (and freelancing, and running the household, and so on, and so on). It made her furious because it felt like a classification that divorced her from having the right to lose her temper sometimes, or to find what she was doing impossibly difficult, or to demand (and deserve!) help from her friends.

“Then again,” she added, “that’s probably because I wasn’t complaining to them. I didn’t want to be a downer.”

I do this—play it off when I talk about what’s happening with my dad. I try to put other people at ease because the alternative means engaging fully (sometimes in front of people I don’t know well and maybe don’t trust) with the immensity of my grief.

Saints, superheroes, “successful” people…there is a flattening that comes along with these labels—a reduction in interconnectedness. It’s what drove me to give that XOXO talk in 2016, and it’s what keeps driving me to try and talk about this stuff more publicly; to push back against the part of me that wants to make out like I can do it all on my own.

tl;dr: I’m becoming increasingly wary of any label that obscures our reliance on one another and denies us our wholeness as human beings. I think that’s it.

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.

Mind the Gap

This morning I opened Twitter and saw that John le Carré had died.

I don’t know how to talk about this.

He wasn’t John in our house, but David—his given name. I grew up alongside his grandchildren in California, fellow offspring of English parents who had come to LA to work in film and stayed to raise families. Those eight children formed a counterpoint to my existence as an only child; a reassurance that I’m not the only person who pronounces certain words with a different vowel emphasis, or who feels like she needs to have a foot in two countries at once to make any kind of sense.

They’ve also become external sources against which I can confirm my experience of my parents. As dementia alters the way my father moves through the world, I’m more and more attached to the people who knew him as he was before. I don’t believe I’m capable of fully expressing the kind of remarkable and loving man he is and was. I need witnesses.

At 81, the majority of updates my father receives from friends and family are about death.

He and David were eight years apart in age, two patrician Englishmen dual-wielding charm and intellect. They delighted in each other’s company whenever they crossed paths at parties and family gatherings. We’d receive Christmas cards from David’s house in Cornwall and my father would send cheeky handmade bookmarks in return (although, to be fair, he was exceptionally generous with his bookmark-gifting. This week alone I’ve talked to three people who have them sitting visibly on shelves in their homes or offices).

I’ve always had a hard time bridging the generational and international gap between my parents’ worlds and mine. So often, when I go to try and explain my family to my peers, they don’t know the first thing about the people I’m referencing. It feels alienating and strange. Whenever a friend or relative in the UK passes, it feels like losing a fragment of an impossible world I got to be part of as a child.

I remember David taking us to a Chinese restaurant in London where I ate crispy duck with plum sauce for the first time. There was a fountain running down an indoor staircase and everything felt glamorous and grown-up. I’ve never had duck that good since.

I feel strained and strange because the public grief sits at odds with my own experience of this man. It’s not the intimacy of family, nor is it the distanced attraction of fandom. It’s something tangled around the fact that David and my father were of a type, and his death points at something looming in the mist of my future.

The loss of creative people is complex. If we have nothing to do with a creator in person, then our grief is often more to do with the loss of potential future output—the books unwritten and songs unsung. But we are not our work. It is a part of us, but not the whole of us. Certainly no substitute for the love we give—or are unable to give—to our children. No shortcut to understanding our innermost selves, or what we meant to the people who loved us.

The one cult hit my father played a hand in writing is so far from what I want him to be remembered for—but sometimes it’s the only thing I can point to that might help a stranger understand what he means to me.

There is so much about his life that is improbable, delightful, complex. I can’t recount his escapades without feeling like I’m trying to brag. He came of age in the midst of Britain’s satire boom, bucked familial expectation to travel halfway around the world, and ended up touring America as a stage actor and writing movies in Hollywood. Each time I think I know every celebrity anecdote in his arsenal, he surprises me with another.

I can’t tell so many of the jokes he told because my Yorkshire accent is abominable.

How am I going to tell anyone about who he was if I can’t tell his jokes?

The news of David’s passing shakes me because I realize there will be no pageantry of this scale when my father goes, but there will still be some kind of reckoning between what he represented to other people and who he was to me. I’m grieving for my friends, who have lost a father and grandfather, but I’m also grieving this dwindling thread to a place that made me; to something I cannot hold.

My Grandmother’s Beast (Part 1)

First off, happy festive season to all you blog-following types. It’s been a sunny one down here in California, but soon enough I’ll be back in the Pacific Northwest slogging away at the drawing board.

In the meantime, I’ve been remiss about getting these files optimized for the web, but here, at last, is my most recent project! This was a challenging story to tackle, since it deals with my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. I wanted to attempt a full-color rendering technique and practice my watercolor skills (still woefully lacking) while sticking to a relatively simple page layout. I believe the result is more illustrated story than comic, but it was a learning experience nonetheless. I’ll post the story in four updates of a few pages each, since they’re so minimal. Here’s the first!