Night Owl

I’m lying in the dark, brain whirring. Too much Borges before bed.

There’s a dog baying at regular intervals somewhere down by the river—a canine foghorn. There are crickets, and the wash of cool night air already filing the room. I’m on the edge of going under when I hear the faintest echo of a Great Horned Owl.

It jolts me awake. Ears pricked. Eyes wide. After a moment’s hesitation, I climb out of bed, unlatch the window, and slip into the garden.

There’s no moon in the sky—just a riot of stars, all dull amber and icy blue. I pause, the night chorus seethes around me and then: the owl. Resonant and distant. A warm, mournful sound from the end of the drive.

I pace the gravel in the dark and I am eight years old, flush with the freedom of having snuck out after bedtime, certain I am running away to go on adventures only to stop, as I do now, at the edge of the road. I am wrapped in the scent of pepper trees and dust, soles pricked by scalloped oak leaves. The owl sounds again, but it’s across the street, lost in the tangle of houses that was once an elaborate bed and breakfast.

I remember hovering on the edge of this curb, young and dreaming, aware that everything in the dark was held in a kind of suspended animation. A sacred in-betweenness. I wanted to go further, perhaps even knew that I could, but I was too enthralled with what was here. Every time I’d walk back to my room, or whatever part of the property I was nesting in at the time, and return to bed, as I will now.

Perhaps that was what I came looking for in the dark. Not the owl, but the reassurance that slipping out would still grant entry to this surreal and weightless darkness. Would let me pass my former selves in the drive, circling farther and farther from the cradle, always coming home before dawn.

Compound

Back in February (oh, those heady, pre-COVID days…) I rewarded myself for bashing through my eighth tax filing as a self-employed artist by meeting a friend for tea. She listened patiently as I rambled about estimated quarterly payments and Roth IRA maximums, but when I bemoaned how much I still had to learn, she scoffed.

“I always think of you as someone who has this all figured out. You must’ve been into it as a kid or something.”

I laughed.

I did not like math as a child. I struggled with rules and numbers. Even today I have to fight to stay present when learning a new board game or trying to parse any kind of technical data. So it’s always a shock when someone thinks I’ve got this figured out. And from childhood? Yeah, right.

But as the conversation flowed on I realized there was something that had given me an understanding of how this practice could be pleasurable. I’d just never joined up the dots.

When I was about eight, I started receiving pocket money. Two dollars a week. Enough, if I saved for two weeks, for one of the smallest LEGO sets at the local toy shop. They were $2.95 a pop, the tiny, round-cornered price tags handwritten in loopy script. I’d generally save for two weeks and then blow my savings on a pirate brandishing a miniature blunderbuss or a deep sea diver sporting weighted shoes.

It was a peaceful time—until my mother introduced me to the concept of compound interest.

It started with a safe: squat and glossy and cherry red, with a tiny combination lock on the door. I can still feel the catch of the latch as the dial spun—this way, that way, click, open.

“You’re going to have an account with the Bank of Mummy and Daddy,” she explained. I was busy caressing the smooth red box, but I tried to pay attention. She handed me a narrow booklet. “This is your check deposit book. You write down all the money that comes in and all the money that goes out. Every week, when we give you your pocket money, you’ll put $2 in the deposit column, like this. Then you add up your new total over here.”

An unfolded checkbook with columns for Number, Date, Transaction Description, Debit, Credit, and Balance.

“If you buy a LEGO set,” she went on, “you write $2.95 in the withdrawal column and subtract that from the total.”

So far, so good. I could handle basic arithmetic.

But then she dropped the bomb:

“The account also has a weekly compound interest rate of 10%.”

I gave her a blank stare. Brave woman, she soldiered on.

“Earning compound interest means that the more money you save, the more you’re rewarded for saving. Every week we’ll see how much you have in your account and then take ten percent of that number and add it to your pocket money.”

I can’t imagine that I took to percentages like a duck to water, but after a few weeks the equation had become very clear. If I didn’t spend any money, I earned more money. Fast.

In ten weeks I’d saved $20—enough to double my weekly allowance. Then it became $50. Then $100. The entries in the withdrawal column thinned. The total balance went up by leaps and bounds.

Often, I would open the safe just to pull out the stack of bills and smack the soft, dense bundle against my palm. A tangible accumulation of patience. I remember how proud it made me feel. Secure and in control.

This went on for a long time—perhaps indulgently long—until I’d saved so much that my mother called a moratorium.

“The bank,” she declared, “has gone under. Let’s go get you a real account.”

While I was horrified at my new interest rate—a paltry 0.01% per year—the lesson had stuck. I was saving religiously, perhaps even a little compulsively. Over the next few years I started working lighting design gigs in my tiny hometown, socking away cash for international travel rather than bigger and better LEGO sets. When I finally felt ready to spend my savings, I had eight thousand dollars at my disposal—more than enough to cover the solo journey I’d planned around Europe for my gap year.

When I think about my drive to understand retirement accounts, investments, and budgeting, I think about that little red safe. The neat columns in the balance book made me feel like there was logic and order to this process. The increasing weekly deposits gave me a dopamine rush every time I resisted the temptation to spend. Even if I still struggled in high school math classes, I got a taste for the power and pleasure of making my money work for me.

I may never find a bank with rates to rival that first account, but now I can point to the thing that started me down this road. And if I ever have a child of my own, I will absolutely buy her another one of these.

A squat red safe with a piggy bank slot in the top and a black combination lock on the door.

Unselfing, Grief, Birds

I came to Helen Macdonald’s work late—long after H is for Hawk had graced bestseller lists and garnered awards and been subject to breathless recommendations from friends. Somehow these trappings make me less likely to pick something up in the moment, until I get to it years later via my own circuitous means and become a breathless proponent myself.

In this case, those means involved stumbling across a gorgeous edition in the gift shop of the V&A during a trip to London in 2016.

I mean, look at it. It’s perfect.

Vintage Classics edition cover of H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, illustrated with an elegant goshawk on a blue background.

It was also the right size. It fit my palm like a secret, and I carted it out of the museum in triumph.

The next few days were a blur. I downed the book like the titular goshawk, fierce and ravenous. It danced through so many threads of literature and loss and nature, cataloguing the strange places we go when we can’t cope with our own grief and must instead contextualize it within older networks of meaning. I absolutely fell in love with it. It mapped a landscape of parental loss I’d been dreading my whole life and, in doing so, humbled me with gratitude.

I’m probably due a re-read.

Macdonald has a new essay collection out this year called Vesper Flights. I’d tuned into a chat about it between her and Robin Wall Kimmerer (of Braiding Sweetgrass fame) earlier in Quarantine, but hadn’t been able to give it my full attention. The gist I left with, though, was that in addition to being a magnificent writer, Macdonald is also one of those people who feel deeply human when placed in front of an audience—funny and self-effacing and smart and real. It’s something I put a lot of stock in, that little waggle of the antennae that says “Here. Pay attention. These are your people.”

Imagine my delight on Monday when I found I’d forgotten about buying tickets to hear her in conversation with Jeff VanderMeer! Smart move, Past Lucy.

The conversation was wonderful. Macdonald endeared herself to me forever by revealing that while all her childhood friends were pasting rock stars on their bedroom walls, she venerated pictures of kestrels. As someone who scrawled lines from Dryden on her wall as a youth and never understood the appeal of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I relate.

Early in the conversation VanderMeer asked “Do your enthusiasms find you? Or do you find them?” This kind of emergent question feels loud right now. It’s not so much that I’m on the warpath, hunting down a particular line of inquiry, rather that every book I open seems to suddenly be in conversation with everything else I’ve read in a given week. The threads start talking to each other. This is always The Sign.

Macdonald and VanderMeer also explored the dangers of projecting human emotion onto animals, leading Macdonald to refer to the “strange unselfing that happens when you see a wild creature.” What was the last thing that unselfed me? The great horned owls calling to each other in the meadow preserve. The western fence lizards skittering across the drive. The moon, unexpected and sharp, hanging low in the sky.

When an audience member asked if she’d be returning to writing poetry, she paused. Her poetry, she said, had been a sort of lovechild of cryptic crosswords and abstract expressionism (HI WOW HELLO). But she went on to explain that “things are really urgent now” and that essays were where she wanted to focus her energy because they allowed her to speak to the current moment most directly. “Essays,” she said, “are about being puzzled by something and needing to work it out.”

Of course the mediums we chose reflect the times we live in—I feel it in my frustration with the glacial pace of making comics—but it was refreshing to hear someone say it outright. It feels adjacent to how I’ve been approaching Rambles on Patreon. Crafting written updates was taking too long. Talking is swift and personal and correct for what I’m trying to do in that space. But it’s been two years and now I’m beginning to wonder what comes next.

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about how we can balance a sense of wonder at the natural world with the immense losses of climate change. Macdonald was blunt in her response: sometimes wonder simply isn’t accessible. Sometimes we are flattened by grief.

“The banked grief at the back,” she called it, and something cracked open in my chest. This was the backbone of H is for Hawk: “You grieve things because they should be there and they’re not.”

A stand of eucalyptus trees silhouetted against the sky at dusk. There an owl perched on a high branch. A crescent moon above.