Trigger warning: sexual assault
Today I decided to self-publish a short story I wrote a couple years ago called "Unsavory." If you're up for it, I would love for you to take the time to read it.
In the past, when stories of mine have been published, that's the only note I send along with it--thank you for reading. But I feel the need to share the journey this story and I have been on.
I submitted "Unsavory" 38 times and got 38 nos. I'm not bothered the rejections. However, the kinds of rejections this story garnered are unsettling to me. A few of the rejections came with feedback, which is fairly uncommon and something that I usually welcome. Some of it had to do with my writing. Admittedly, this is not my best work. I've grown a lot as a writer since I wrote this. But most of the feedback read like this:
"It's too much of a political statement."
"It seems unrealistic that the husband would have acted that way."
"The testimony is distracting."
It wasn't the rejections that bothered me--it was the fact that these publications didn't want to have this important discussion. They didn't want to get political. Unfortunately for them, writing and art are inherently political. They engage and react and respond to the world in which we live. Shit, The Iowa Writer's Workshop was started by the CIA. It does not get much more political than that. And yet, this is the feedback that sits in my inbox. Truly, I would've preferred they told me my writing sucked. There's plenty to pick from. More time could be spent with each of the characters. It feels rushed. The story could be interpreted as an op-ed rather than a work of fiction. All would be valid points. But no--the thing that really turned people off was the politics.
All that said, I am not putting this story out into the world because it is a masterpiece or profound--I am putting it out into the world because people did not and do not want to be confronted with the uncomfortable reality that they likely helped build and I'm a fan of confrontation.
2020 was a spectacular literary year for me. On top of getting published a few times, I inhabited many different and wonderful worlds. A welcomed distraction to the current reality. I'm not going to list out all 54 books that I read, but you're welcome to check out my Goodreads page if you're interested. But I am going to share my top seven reads (in no particular order) of the year.
I highly recommend that you meander your digital library or local bookstore shelves and consider these books for reading.
2020 has been, by most counts, hot trash. But, it's also the year that upped my submission game. I set a goal of 100 rejections--I have 128 rejections and 6 publications to show for 2020 & I'm damn proud of all of it.
Nothing gets published without taking a chance and submitting work. This year I submitted 17 stories to 175 different opportunities. 128 (and counting) told me no. When I share this number, often times people are stunned and/or angry on my behalf. While I appreciate the sentiment, please know that I was well prepared for all these no's. It's just part of being a writer. Regarding the 100 rejections goal, it's a bit of a numbers game. The average acceptance rate is about 3%. So if you submit 100 times, mathematically, you're bound to get about 3 acceptances. I was lucky enough to get 6.
The Lottery House - Meg wins the lottery and tries her hand at buying happiness.
Resolute - A woman in her twenties is sure she doesn't want kids and has to convince her doctor.
The Tower Bells - A daughter struggles to find time to say goodbye to her sick mother. (Featured in Vol. 2 Iss. 2)
Velveeta - My grandpa was a man of few works and this is a short memory in his honor. (The magazine is currently updating their website, so I'll update this with the new link when I have it.)
Ovarian Instinct - what happens when you listen to your body but doctors don't hear what you're saying. A creative non-fiction piece about my struggled with getting my hormones balanced.
Separation Squared - My quarantine story about a couple that was in the process of separating when stay-at-home orders went into effect.
Thank you to everyone who has taken time to read my work, past, present, and future. I'm grateful to all of these publications for giving my stories homes in the world. And a special thanks to those that graciously read my work long before it's done and provide thoughtful feedback. These stories wouldn't exist without all of you.
On November 14th, I turn 29. And I can think of no better way to celebrate than by registering Democrats in the state of Georgia in attempts to win the two run-off senate races.
We did an amazing thing this past week and took back the White House. Joe and Kamala are by no means perfect, and they were not my first choices, but we can work with them. We can hold them accountable. We can push them to do more. And all of that is more possible if we turn the two senate seats in Georgia blue.
So with that I ask you to celebrate with me and take action.
On November 14th, I will be text-banking with Field Team 6 to register Georgia Democrats. You can sign up for that event here. There are also events on November 12th and 15th if those dates work better for you.
(UPDATE: All of these events filled up by the time I posted this. Will look for other opportunities to register dems, but I am still matching donations!)
I also ask that, if you're able, you donate $29 (or whatever amount you feel comfortable donating) to Fair Fight, an organization that is fighting voter suppression in the state of Georgia.
I will match the first 10 donations or up to the first $290. Text or email me a copy of your receipt and I will match your donation.
Thank you to everyone who voted Biden/Harris. Thank you to everyone who is pushing for more progressive ideals. Thank you to everyone who is fighting for a better future.
Here's to year 29!
PS, if you're still looking to celebrate, have a dram of whisky in my honor! Cheers!
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented job loss and deaths across the country, the violence against Black and Brown bodies in America is unfortunately not unprecedented. It is our nation's history. And while I've been vocal on my social media accounts and donating when and where I can, I have wrestled with whether my posts, my outrage, do any good. Last night I had a discussion with a white person I went to high school with about the discomfort of seeing these posts, of being called on and asked to use our voices as white people when a lot of people feel that they don't have the words, or the right words, to be helpful. They were asking how to be a useful part of this revolution. Being vocal is the beginning of change.
And white people, make no mistake: we are the ones that need to do the work. We need to confront our biases and help other white people do the same. I do not have all the answers--I too am on this journey. What I have are starting points.
Start with self-reflection: Are you uncomfortable? Good. Ask yourself what is making you uncomfortable, why is it making you uncomfortable, where did you learn this discomfort? These questions need to be answered in order to breakdown our own prejudice and biases. Trevor Noah just released a video that addresses some of these questions and might provoke new ones. It's 18 minutes but I encourage you to watch it if you haven't already.
Start by listening: hear what Black and POC communities are asking for be that time, money, or skills and contribute those things within our means. Here are some of the organizations I've been donating to. Please consider doing the same. Every little bit helps.
Start with research: It's hard to fix something if we don't know and understand how it's broken. Racism is woven into every piece of infrastructure in the US. It's time to tear down and rebuild. There are a few different resource hubs that I recommend checking out and using:
It is not enough to be "not racist." We need to be anti-racists. This means actively talking to other white folks and supporting Black and POC communities. In some ways, this fight is both a sprint and a marathon. We need to help Black and POC communities RIGHT NOW. They need our money and our voices. But this is a long-term journey. Things cannot change overnight. We need to continue doing this work long after George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor's names are no longer mentioned in the media. We need to do this work when there aren't horrific videos filling up everyone's news feeds. We need to do this work every damn day. When Black Lives Matter, then all lives will matter.
Please feel free to contact me if you would like to continue this discussion or have questions.
I was in St. Petersburg for three days in 2013. Three days specifically because it's the longest we could stay in the country without requiring a tourist's visa, so long as we entered the country via boat. We sailed overnight from Helsinki to St. Petersburg on one of the strangest cruise liners and to this day, it's the only cruise experience I've ever had. This post is not about that cruise but also that cruise deserves some space because it is one of the most memorable, weird travel moments of my life.
We checked into our rooms which had bunk beds that were basically Murphy beds mounted to the wall, one above the other. My brother and I in one room, my parents in another. They also had the twin-Murphy beds. The rooms were cramped as you are not meant to stay in your rooms on a cruise. Cruises were for activities. We decided to get drinks on the deck and watch Helsinki shrink in the distance. At the bar, there was both gin and vodka on tap as well as some simple beers and hard ciders in bottles. My dad tried to order a gin and tonic. The bartender poured him a hefty glass of gin. My dad asked again for the tonic water and the bartender asked why. He did not get any tonic water. We went inside for the buffet which was mostly a drab selection of unnamed cold-cuts, cheeses, and what looked to be questionable seafood. I grabbed food from the only two heated trays--potatoes and sausage. There was gambling but it was mostly older men and smelled like they had all been there a while. My parents decided their night was done. I wasn't far behind--I ordered a drink for my room and went back to read. My brother on the other hand, newly eighteen, decided he would stay out for an extra drink and go to the "club" they had on board. He came back to the room a half hour later with a drink in his hand. "That was surreal."
To this day St. Petersburg is one of the most fascinating places to me both in actuality and in memory. There is so much history, tragedy, resilience, beauty contained in one place.
In actuality, it's a coastal city that was pivotal in several historical contexts. From afar, the buildings were painted bright colors and accented, punctuated with any architectural flourishes that seemed fitting; when I got up close, the bright pinks and yellows and greens were dingy as though it was covered in cigarette smoke and history. It was the beginning of summer and was either sunny or slightly overcast, and even still the city looked grey.
In memory, the city looks greyer still. In 2013 I had just graduated college. I knew that Putin was the president and that he wasn't the best, but my political acuity and awareness were low. Looking back now, and even then, I think my bias of the city and the country were fairly minimal. I was excited to visit a new place in the world and get my passport stamped. The people were lovely; a tour guide recommended her favorite restaurant and a couple other places that weren't very touristy. But in talking to her, every answer was cautious, which she said openly. This was seven years ago so I do not remember all of our conversations with her in detail, but she shared stories about the education system, how her family lived, what her childhood was like. She shared all of it with a sort of sullen pragmatism. She said she and her family were lucky because she was able to learn English and get a job in tourism but even then tourism revenue couldn't be trusted. I remember her telling us that most Russians would not say they shared some or most of the same opinions.
If you ever get the chance to visit St. Petersburg, there is one place I would tell everyone to visit--The Hermitage Museum. The building had a slight bend and was painted the dingy yellow and white. Hundreds of tourists were outside in the palace square. It reminded me of the Louvre in some ways. When I entered most buildings in St. Petersburg, there was a stark transformation from the exterior to the interior. The Hermitage was no different. Every piece of intricate molding was gilded gold. Wood inlaid floors looked like paintings, fitted so tight together one could barely see the seams. Lapis Lazuli and Malachite urns stood on either side of multiple staircases. At first I thought they were carved. They looked solid and heavy. I was very surprised to learn that they are all mosaics with the respective stones carved to precision to fit the convex surfaces, more fine and intricate than the wood inlaid floors.
Past these grand halls and atriums was the real treasure of the Hermitage. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles--every medium of art you might imagine lined the walls from floor to ceiling with very little space in between. The sheer volume of art was overwhelming and impressive. Highly regarded paintings by canonical painters hung, nearly hidden, amongst the collections. I asked my brother, a history buff, how much of it was likely stolen art. "It depends on your definitions of stolen versus appropriated," he said. I nodded. A lot of it was likely stolen, but an impressive collection nonetheless.
After our three days, we took the same weird cruise back to Helsinki.
In 2013, my brother, parents, and I went on a trip to celebrate our respective graduations--mine from undergrad and my brother from high school. As any other family trip, the itinerary was stacked. Very few open moments to sit and people watch or drink at a café or bar, as is the Kolick family way. If an international plane ticket was purchased, we would see as much as humanly possible in the time allotted.
Helsinki was our hub--where the trip started and ended.
If I'm being honest, I don't remember a great deal about the city. It all felt like a whirlwind of jetlag and hustling to our next destination. I remember that in attempts to deal with jetlag but not overexert ourselves, we took a tram or bus tour of the city where I learned that during World War II the Germans had some bad intel and bombed their own embassy.
We saw a lot of cool art around the city.
During our first dinner, my brother ordered reindeer to which my dad replied, "you best hope Santa doesn't find out." I wish I could chock that up to jetlag, but that's just my dad one hundred percent of the time.
The most memorable thing about Helsinki was the sauna. Typically, this is a luxury amenity but it Finland saunas are very common. According to This is Finland there are an estimated 2 million saunas in a country with a population of 5.3 million people. They take saunas very seriously. The sauna was on the top floor of our hotel. On one wall there were wooden benches to sit and relax. Opposite of the benches were floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city. It was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life.
2020 has been a year--and it's only APRIL. I've seen many posts, articles, tweets, insta-stories start this way and I'm convinced that it still isn't a cliche. It feels especially heavy after the last three years that have felt like six years. There is little I can do about what's happening in the world, other than stay at home (please stay the fuck at home) and donate to organizations trying to get food, shelter, and protective gear to those in need. And so I've been trying to affect change to my world and to the worlds of people I care for deeply.
For myself, this past month has been a bit of a triumph--after nine years and many, many rewrites, I finished my novel. I've had "finished" drafts of it before but they were not even close to finished; they were just getting started. I credit the evolution of this novel to the classes I took at University of Washington and University of Glasgow, to reading the work of my peers and listening to their feedback during workshop, and a great deal to Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, as well as advice she gave to me at a reading I attended. And really I am only done writing this for now. With any luck, this manuscript might be picked up by a contest or an agent and I'll be given a whole new set of notes and feedback and changes that need to be made. But for now, it's onto other projects. Because I need structure in my life, I created a quarantine syllabus for myself similar to the one I made when we lived in Scotland. It includes a list of books I should read, a goal for the number of short stories I want to write, and in a few months I'm going to start writing my second novel.
The other project I've had on my to-do list for a while is updating my travel archives. I find it humorous that my first instagram post of the year, and the decade, was reflecting on places I've been to and all the places I still had yet to see. I was contemplating where we might go this year. January Alli was optimistic. The answer is nowhere; we're going nowhere. But even that answer is short-sighted. I've decided to go back to some of those places.
When I re-built this site, a lot of the older content no longer met my own writing standards. The words didn't capture the experiences, didn't do justice to the great places I've had the privilege of visiting. Time to change that. Over the next few weeks I hope to add stories from places like Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Dubrovnik to the site. I'll also be giving some love to Seattle. I'm missing a lot about my home city these days. Here's to making the best out of a strange and dark time.
I've had a draft of this on my computer for years. It's never quite felt finished; it still doesn't. Every time I revisit Edinburgh I find something new and charming about the city. It's the only place I've truly felt homesick for. Time and again, I've found reasons to go back. But as I sit here, revisiting the words I've written and re-written, I have no travel booked back to my favorite city in the world. I think perhaps that's why it feels like as good a time as any to finally share this post.
Walking through the city, history unfurls itself like a map. From the epicenter of the castle and Old Town are buildings hundreds of years older than the founding of the US. At the edge, overlooking New Town, is University of Edinburgh's New College which was built in 1846. I suppose in the context of the city, it's new.
It's hard for me not to be romantic about Edinburgh, and Scotland in general. Part of me wants to say I feel most creative when I'm there, but I think that has more to do with me spending a focused year there writing and producing than me actually being more creative in a specific place. Since moving back to Seattle, I've written some of my best work. But in each story, a piece of Scotland was woven into the sentences.
This last visit felt like a combination of vacation and stay-cation. Having lived there not that long ago, Reese and I have done most of the touristy things around the city so we spent the bulk of this trip revisiting our favorite spots and catching up with friends.
The fun excuse for going back to Scotland this year was my graduation from University of Glasgow. I'm officially a Master of Letters in Creative Writing! I got to celebrate with my lovely cohort of writers and toast to our year of hard work.
I'm not going to list all of my favorite places and recommendations here, but if you're a first time visitor, here are my musts:
Pack good walking/hiking shoes--Edinburgh has so much beautiful green space in the city like Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill. But even if you're not that interested in the outdoors, you'll appreciate comfy shoes when you're walking up worn stone closes in old town and cobble stone streets.
Coffee shops are plentiful in every corner of the city. Artisan Roast (which has a few locations) is one of my go to's up there with Black Medicine Coffee Company. But if you're looking for some breakfast, my recommendations are on opposite ends of town. Twelve Triangles at the top of Leith Walk is possibly my favorite pastry place ever--I love the cinnamon buns. But if what you're in the mood for is a full Scottish, you have to go to The Birchwood.
If you're curious about where else you should go, I created a public Google List full of dinner spots and local bookstores and pubs. Sláinte.
The bar is unfamiliar. The crowd is older and quieter than I’m used to. They occupy booths and tables in the dim light that hides age and secrets, while I opt for the extra elbow room and more sobering light at the bar. I take the corner spot closest to the bartender and farthest from anyone else. I don’t recognize the faces that sit in booths and crowd the juke box. More important, they don’t recognize me. For one moment, I need no one to know it’s my birthday or that I was supposed to get married in a week or that I have a pending offer on my house.
The first whisky of the night is always smooth. Jura– a young Scotch, only ten years, with a caramel-like sweetness and no bite. I anchor my elbow into the bar suspending my drink just inches in front of my face. As far as home remedies go, whisky is the best I’ve found. The smell of butter and sugar mixed together like the start of a cookie dough and wafts over the rim of my glass. But when it coats my lips and my throat it holds power over too many memories—to make them vivid or disappear. Oliver used to call it a table whisky—drinkable no matter the occasion.
I nurse the first dram. Each sip tingles around my teeth.
It’s nights like these when my ring feels heavy on my left hand. I spin it around my fourth finger with my right hand as I consider my options. Everything seems vast and open ended. Even after seven months I can’t remove it. With it on, he is with me—still sitting next to me. With it on, the grey-haired men with droopy eyelids peering at me from a few seats over do not approach me, just stare at a distance. A lonely but preferable existence.
Oliver used to chat men like that up. They would talk about whisky and then business. “They’re harmless,” he’d say always thinking the best of men he thought he would look like one day. Harmless until you’re not here, I’d think.
Before Oliver died I’d often receive the unsolicited advice that people shouldn’t get married before they’re twenty-five. “Not that you two will have an issue, just something I’ve observed,” they’d say to try and soften their judgement. Since his passing those same assholes have the audacity to tell me that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. I think even Tennyson would’ve given side-eye to their callousness.
Oliver probably would’ve planned some quarter-century party for me or done something embarrassing in public to acknowledge that I’d spent another three hundred and sixty-five days on the planet. He found a special amusement in making me blush, for which I could never be annoyed at for too long. Even in a crowded party where I keep to myself, he would come over and make it feel like it was just us two and no one else. Instead I sit here acknowledging that it had been two hundred thirteen days without him. Two hundred thirteen on its own doesn’t sound like a big number, an intimidating number. But waking up two hundred thirteen mornings when it feels like I’m missing a limb or a quadrant of my heart still remains the worst injury I’ve endured. Even with two hundred thirteen days between then and now, my emotions are only secured by the skin of my teeth, only to be beckoned forward by the inquiries of curious strangers.
It’s a daily chore for me, heaving my body out of bed and going about the day. Some are more put together than others: I get up, shower, put on make-up, go to work, and interact with others in an almost cheerful manner. Others feel as though I have a wound that has yet to scab, still raw and ripe for infection. Those days I request to work from home or claim a sick day.
The last sip is more smooth than the first.
Today is Tuesday. Oliver’s mom, Nadine, calls every Tuesday. I missed her first call because my wispy blonde haired real estate agent came over for a fourth time and asked if I had made a decision on the pending offer on our– my – townhouse. I decline her second call. She leaves a message this time.
Oliver was without a will when he passed. We both were. Because no one tells you to create one when you’re in your twenties. But when he passed his parents didn’t magically forget that I existed and had created a life with their son. It was nothing like you see in the newspapers or families fighting over the end of life decisions of their deceased loved ones. At the end of it all, there was just the house so they couldn’t argue much about it if they wanted to. My name is on the deed and mortgage next to his. We both emptied most of our savings and retirement funds to afford it. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea initially, but Seattle rents weren’t any cheaper so we decided to be poor with equity.
The equity looms over me. Every month that passes, my mortgage mocks me. My bank accounts taunt me with only half as much income deposited every month when the expenses stay the same.
I put a coaster on top of my empty glass and go outside. There’s a group of people reminiscing about a time where one of them did something stupid. They’re all in a fit of laughter while their cigarettes teeter between their fingers. I light my own cigarette and play Nadine’s message. “Nora, it’s me. Nadine.” She started every conversation this way. “I hope you’re doing something nice for your birthday. I know—I know that’s what he would’ve wanted.” I want to call her back. I owe her that much. But pulling myself together long enough to order my drink, let alone having a coherent conversation has been hard enough today. I know I can’t be the strength she’s looking for. She hasn’t let go yet, not that I know how a mother would go about that task. It’s not like I am a shining example.
She used to be one of my favorite people. Her hugs are tender and her voice thoughtful and kind. Her heart was bigger and more welcoming than any other I’d encountered. But in her, I only saw Oliver. Her hugs were his. Her words were his. Her heart was his. Every so often we get together for a meal. Her eyes always look sad, not like she had been crying, but like her soul was broken mirroring my own hurt. There is a time coming when I will no longer take her calls. It is a day I dread. I delete her voicemail. Oliver hated when I did this. “But you’re not here to give me shit about it,” I mumble and exhale a cloud of carcinogens.
I go back to my stool at the bar and order a Highland Park twelve year. The barkeep tilts his head towards me wondering if I actually like Scotch this strong. Moreover, if I can afford it. Fuck off. I nod at him assuring him of my order. When I ordered a Scotch with Oliver next to me, no one questioned me. Will I have a lifetime of this so long as I sit at the bar alone? I don’t remember people questioning my taste before I met Oliver.
The first sip is bold. Whisky coats the back of my throat. The glass suddenly feels slippery between my fingers. My palms are sweaty thinking about the house. I stare at my glass sitting on top of the rich, mahogany bar trying to distract myself from the thick business card I can feel burning in my back pocket. “The couple that submitted the offer really would love to live here,” the wispy blonde-haired lady said, giving me yet another business card before I left for the bar earlier.
I didn’t live in the house—not the whole thing anyways. Our life is now a relic that I view like a museum exhibit. The occasional observation to see what had collected dust and where our dog Winston decided to nest while I am away working. I occupy our guest room and guest bathroom and most often our couch while Winston tries to find a way to comfort me another night. He wallowed with me at first for a couple months after Oliver didn’t come home. But he knows it is just us two now.
Winston knows the new routine. Without fail when I return home he will sniff my knees to inquire into my whereabouts that night, usher me to the kitchen counter for a nightcap then to the pantry for the stale cookies, that I haven’t given up on yet, before we end the night on the sofa.
The mortgage and the house attached to it are the emergency brake I’ve refused to pull. They kept things steady and predictable even as they stood as a constant reminder of the person I love and the life we had built even though I can no longer afford it.
Outside the same group of people are still reminiscing—a new story now. I tap my pack, flick my lighter. Inhale. The smoke blends with the whisky that still coats my mouth. It is not an adequate replacement for the conversation I miss but it beats standing alone with nothing to keep my hands busy while my mind churns through what-if scenarios like cogs churning at a factory.
One more. “Talisker, neat,” I request. The peated whisky compliments the smoke that still lingers on me as the glass touches my lips. It was Oliver’s favorite and the most expensive one at the bar. I have a bottle of it, still two-thirds full while the others hovered just above empty, on the kitchen counter.
He wanted to serve it at the wedding but I was quick to squash that request. Between us two, I am the frugal one. He was the one that didn’t mind added expenditures so long as there was an experience to be had.
Our three years were the fastest I’d ever lived. Filled with endless pints and spending money we didn’t have on good Scotch and rooting for our home teams and fumbling through our unkempt Spanish skills while we backpacked through Spain and asking serious questions while we’re drunk and eating cold pizza. These months after him have been the slowest – filled with more whisky and fewer memories to prove it.
They say there’s beauty in hindsight, but I suppose that’s when people have the luxury of being nostalgic with their chosen person. Guilt is temporarily washed away with each sip of smoky whisky. Now all I wish is that I could tell him yes. Replace Marie Antoinette’s words with Let them drink Scotch and see the simple yet expensive joy it brought him.
Two hundred thirteen days ago, I had no regrets. Now they stack upon one another like the wooden tiles in a game of Jenga waiting to topple and destroy what was left of my solitary existence. When I think of him, the part of my heart that was missing aches as if it still existed. Unsaid words burrowed through my thoughts and appeared when I least expected reminding me of the goodbye that would never be uttered for him to hear.
Winston is waiting for me behind the narrow window next to our front door. He sniffs my knees and ushers me to the kitchen counter for a nightcap. I forego the cookies and instead grab the last cigarette from the pack. Winston cocks his head to the side as I flick my lighter and release a cloud into the middle of the kitchen. We never smoked in the house. It’s someone else’s now.
*This story was first featured in From Glasgow to Saturn, Issue 43
This week's episode of Last Week Tonight couldn't have been more poignant for me. It was about bias in medicine and how women and people of color are often not believed about their symptoms or trusted with proper methods of treatment.
And before I go further I'll just acknowledge my privilege right here. For starters, I'm white. I grew up with insurance and access to healthcare, currently have insurance via my partner's company provided healthcare, and live near high end medical institutions. My experience is by no means as bad as it gets. Which should be fucking alarming because it can be, and is for many, so much worse. Serena Williams's story is a perfect and horrific example of this and how socio-economic status is only a fraction of the problem.
I'm not going to list out all of the appalling details from the episode, but please watch it. It's 20 minutes long and eye opening. John Oliver has an abundant list of outrageous statistics and real life experiences of bias in medicine that has or could've resulted in someone's death. And as he points out, these biases increase medical risk the further you are away from white and male.
(Oh and before you read further--I know not all doctors are like this and that white men can have bad experiences too. Keep the bigger problem in mind.)
Since I was a kid, I've had a slew of ridiculous doctor's experiences. Let's go down the list.*
When I asked if I was able to get pre-measured doses to administer myself, at home, I received a quick and forceful no. We trust patients with blood clots to take home two weeks worth of Warfarin and diabetics to take insulin (both injected medications with potential catastrophic side effects) but don't trust women to administer their birth control. I pointed this fact out and both the doctor and the nurse did not argue with my point but said they could not send me home with the shot.
I'm hoping that I'll feel more like myself in the coming weeks and the pain will subside, but in the meantime--it's 2019. Doctors should be required to take bias training. We should believe women and people of color about their pain and symptoms. Women are perfectly fucking capable of making decisions about their bodies.
Please listen to your bodies and talk to your doctors about what you're experiencing. If they're not listening, and you have the option, find a new doctor. And if all else fails, listen to Wanda Sykes and bring a white man to your appointments.
*None of this is medical advice, just my journey of advocating for myself.
On the train from Edinburgh to Inverness the view was quick to shift from medieval city to farmlands to the rugged, rich cliffs of the Highlands. About fourteen miles east in Beauly sat a restored croft house devoted to writers. At the top of a hill, it was nestled between snowy peaks and blanketed by clouds. We were meant to spend the week discussing short stories and indulging our writerly whims.
I heard him before I saw him. The image I’d conjured in my head didn’t match the tenor of his voice. A brown trilby hat rested on one knee while he balanced a full glass of wine on the other. He looked like a long-ago model from a hunting magazine. I sat down on the couch and listened to the conversation when he handed me a glass of wine. “Mark,” he said, offering a hand shake before continuing his discussion.
Over dinner and wine, we got to know one another. The conversation was lively and pleasant. Everyone still on their best behavior as they sought out who was friend or foe.
After dinner, we were to interview a fellow writer about our work and ambitions and report back to the group. The tutors paired me with Mark.
“Ladies first,” he said.
I gave him my elevator pitch—I’m writing the second draft of my debut novel, developing a short story collection, and am partial to literary fiction set in the modern day.
“So like Outlander,” he said.
“No, that’s more like historical fiction with a magical realism twist.”
“Yes, but their historical details are realistic and very important to the story.”
“I understand, but that’s not what I’m looking to write.”
“She’s very popular. It’s now become a television series,” he said.
“That’s great but that’s not what I’m looking to do.”
“What are you looking to do?”
I repeated my pitch. He nodded. I was unsure if he actually listened to me or pretended. A bell rang. My turn to listen.
He wanted to write a memoir about his wrongs and the wrongs committed against him. “That’s what I’ve come here to work on,” he said. He digressed about his time as a journalist, his first marriage, his second marriage and how he saved it, hunting trips, estranged children, love for substances (but not addiction). His words filled the air between us and all I could think about is how his objectives opposed those of the course we were attending. I nodded and retained the few relevant facts to present to the group.
Mark offered to speak first.
“This is Alli and she wants to write the next Outlander series.”
For fuck’s sake.
Guest author David Constantine joined us that evening. Over dinner, most were on their best behavior and asked innocuous questions—what books he’d recommended, where he liked to write, how he knew when something was a good idea. Not Mark.
He gestured with his fork. “The four of you, I believe to be quite shy and quiet and I cannot judge your intelligence because of that,” he said, singling out the women he was referring to before blocking his words with a fork-full of food.
We were on the opposite end of the table from Mr. Constantine, but Mark’s voice reached every corner of the room.
I looked at the other women sitting around me. Anger filled their eyes, but no one wanted to waste energy confronting his unsolicited judgements. I leaned forward. “I’ve never been called shy a day in my fucking life.”
My words pushed him back in his seat as though we’re still in his heyday and women just didn’t talk that way. Another woman stepped in to my defense, but Mark was daft and childish and continued to offer an opinion that no one requested. The women and I traded glances with one another.
After, we took our drinks out to a round, thatched-roof house warmed by wood stoves to listen Mr. Constantine read In Another Country, from his collection by the same name. A love story during world war two; two people separated by tragedy and time but brought together, in a way, decades later by a natural phenomenon.
Our tutors thanked him profusely for sharing his work. Mr. Constantine offered to stay a while longer to answer questions. A shared dread filled the room. Instead of a question, Mark offered an assertion.
“It’s about anti-Semitism.”
“No it isn’t.” Mr. Constantine was steadfast.
“Yes it is.” Mark continued, defiant and erroneous. “The girl had a Jewish name but the boy was not Jewish. I would know, my mother was Jewish.”
Mr. Constantine spoke slowly, annunciating each syllable as though talking to a child.
“Though they could seem as star-crossed lovers, being from two different faiths, the nature of this story is how their love outlasted war, natural tragedies, and death. Their faith had nothing to do with the story.”
While Mark battled Mr. Constantine about the subtext of his own work, I debated whether or not I was surprised by Mark’s actions. Having studied literature, I’ve witnessed my fair share of pretentious intellectuals debate the intentions and realities of an author’s words. But we were not around a long table discussing the works of those, living or dead, that were not there to verify our assumptions. Sitting before us was the author clear as day telling us exactly what his intentions were.
The brave among us tried to shift the conversation until Mark tired at last.
Several of us stood around the kitchen, talking and drinking coffee and tea as we prepared the communal meal. Mark burst into the room. “I’ve had a success! I need to kiss a woman.”
The women looked around at each other, some more nervous than the others. I answered on behalf of the group. “No.” A complete sentence.
Mark complained that it was a simple request, nothing sinister, before he sauntered off. He left us alone for the majority of the night. Or maybe we’d been successful in avoiding him. At that point it was a concerted effort.
His general presence and my combative nature wore on me. I ate, cleared plates, cleaned up the kitchen – anything that maintained distance – while he passed around another bottle of mediocre wine.
He had brought his own stash. A self-proclaimed burgundy man. “I like fine wine,” he told the group, though the bargain-store label suggested otherwise. I declined a second glass and extracted myself to write in the comfort and relative silence of my room.
Noises deadened. Windows turned black as lights were extinguished before I ventured back to the common spaces of the croft house. I made tea and sought the solitude of the quiet, bench out front. Beneath me, the wooden slats were cold from the crisp autumn winds that had blown through the highlands. Balancing my mug between my thighs, I cupped a hand and flicked my lighter. The embers raged in the paper as it crept towards my fingertips.
Between bouts of wind that rustled through the shadows of bare tree branches and tall grasses, the night was mute. The deep silence ensconced me in the unfamiliar landscape. I paced my breath with the stillness of my surroundings, careful not to disturb the established peace.
The door flew open as if propelled by his voice. He did not notice me. He lit his own cigarette and checked his phone. Like an animal confronted by unexpected head lights, I froze. My breaths were shallow and quiet. My tea grew cold and the cherry on my cigarette neared my fingertips as I sat motionless.
He spotted me. “I didn’t know you smoke.”
I released the air from my lungs. His declaration had no care for the calm he was disturbing in the darkness.
“Only occasionally. When I want some quiet.” I inhaled pulling the embers closer to my lips.
He put his hands up in surrender. “I know when to shut up.”
For a few moments we sat in silence though silence had never felt so arduous. In attempts to refocus myself I looked everywhere else but his direction. The clouds as they floated under the moon. The moon in its various shades of brightness as the clouds passed underneath sometimes creating rings around it like a halo, first white then orange then red. My cigarette was out.
There was one left in the pack. Lighting it in that moment would seal my fate. I would say something. I couldn’t not. Not after the few days I’d spent listening to him go on about everything and nothing.
I flicked my lighter.
“A few nights ago you said something to me,” I broke the air between us. “You said I was shy and therefore, possibly, unintelligent. I paid six hundred pounds to come here and learn. I can’t very well learn if I’m the loudest one in the room.”
He nodded. “You make a great point.”
But I had opened a door. He began in on his philosophical feelings of emotions he trusts and doesn’t. He trusted intuition. I reminded him that intuition isn’t an emotion so much as a judgement call.
He changed his word. “I trust uneasiness,” he said. He didn’t trust anger, fear, people who are too loud and too confident. In that moment I seemed to agree with him. For a moment, I wanted so badly to be a mirror.
Alice might as well have been there with us. We went down a rabbit hole with the convers-ation diverting to women’s rights and experiences in general. “Women have always had, at least since I’ve been in the business when I started in the seventies, equal opportunity in the workplace.”
I couldn’t take it. “You’re going to actually sit there and make that statement to me with all the Harvey Weinstein bullshit going on right now?”
He did so happily. He prattled on with a story of how he once was up for a promotion against a woman for two roles, one junior and one senior. “She got the senior job because she had more talent,” he said.
“I don’t doubt it.” None of his work over the week had suggested that he would have been the more qualified candidate. “But you don’t know if there was anything else your management considered before she got the senior job.”
“Well, she never told me.”
“Why would she?”
I was surprised when he paused, considering my question. Maybe he hadn’t considered himself a member of the patriarchy before. “But I don’t think she was ever propositioned,” he said, failing to understand my point or the weight of the words that tumbled from his smoky, inebriated mouth.
Without many departing words, I excused myself.
All at once I had won and lost a battle. I felt strong and resilient yet small and nauseous.
I showered to try and rid myself of the smell on my fingertips, the anger in my blood, the pit in my stomach knowing that I had actively given up on someone. The idea that someone was past repair, or at least repair that I would witness, made me ache. I sat in the shower basin, hunched over as the hot water came down, unmoving until my skin turned red, purifying only the top layer. I was as small as I felt.
A week I had eagerly awaited had nearly gone. I laid in bed trying to decide if the end was a good thing. The previous days had been as sweet and sour as a take-out dish. I did not want to part with the weathered hills that surrounded me, but I made a silent wish for the day to end as quick as it started.
The evening was meant to be a ceilidh of sorts. Large bowls of haggis, neeps, and tatties sat in the center of the table. Drams of single malt were handed out. In true tradition, To a Haggis, by Robert Burns was read, glasses were raised, and we toasted to our literary week.
There was an unspoken truce amongst us twelve. The dinner was reflective of the week we spent together—things we’d learn, stories we hoped to write, ways we’d attempt keep in touch with one another. Even Mark was thoughtful when he spoke. I wondered if maybe I had given up on him too soon. If perhaps our discussion had resonated with him, settled into some nefarious groove of his ignorant mind. Each of us of course were trying to keep our nerves at bay prior to our reading.
Mark read second. His voice filled the room of a story that really happened on a race track that really existed with people he really knew. All of us attempted to give him dedicated attention.
Nine other writers read pieces that they’d written before it was my turn. I had done a reading before, but it never seems to be less nerve-racking. I held my five-minutes worth of pages in front of me. Despite my nerves, I managed to keep my voice steady and at a normal pace for the first few paragraphs—until his phone rang.
Mark jumped up. “One moment! I’ll return in a jiff!” The front door open and closed between us and him, leaving cold evening air in his place.
My hands fell to my side, still clutching my pages. I asked the tutors if I should keep reading or wait. Manners overruled anger at the start. “Let’s give him a moment.”
People whispered about his rudeness and his transgressions over the week as if he were standing just at the other end of the room.
After five minutes, they told me to read on. Seconds after I finished, he walked back in the house. Any merriment being shared by the group was deflated in an instant.
“Thank you all for a lovely week, but I’ve got to be off.” Mark placed his remaining two bottles of wine on the dining room hutch and tipped his hat.
His desertion hung silent in the air.
The croft house grew lighter.
Huddled around the kitchen with the remaining writers, I stood taller than I could the night before.
This story first appeared in Issue 42 of From Glasgow to Saturn in Spring 2019.
This past weekend, I attended AWP for the first time. AWP (Association of Writers & Writers Programs) is an annual conference that takes place in the US, changing cities each year. It's a place for writers to converge and talk about the characters in their head without anyone questioning their mental status. Moreover, there are hundreds of panels, readings, discussions, and exhibition booths to attend and learn new things.
With 12,000 attendees, it was overwhelming at times. I don't like big crowds and I like having time to process my thoughts, but I would absolutely go again.
Since getting back to Seattle, there are two piles that I've sorted my thoughts into--how to get the most out of AWP and how to navigate being a writer.
How to get the most out of AWP
How to navigate being a writer
I don't actually have the answer to this. It probably looks different for everyone, but here are some things that were useful for me to hear.
If you attended AWP this year or in the past, what things did you learn? Share in the comments!
On the west coast of Japan, a few hours from Kyoto, is a small town--Kinosaki Onsen. We were only in town for about 24 hours and you can't take photos in the baths, so this post will be a little lighter than the others.
We took a train from Kyoto to Kinosaki that dropped us off at the edge of town. The air was thick with mountain clouds and impending rains and the streets were quiet. Through the center of town cuts a quiet river filled with koi. They seemed excited as more people arrived and would gather under bridges and near the banks in hopes that people would throw food down to them.
We stayed at the Mikiya Hotel which we were allowed to check into at 3pm--not a minute sooner. Normally check-in wouldn't be a featured part of any blog but when we arrived in town around noon and tried to go to the hotel early because it was pouring rain there was no one around. The lights in the lobby were off. The front desk seat was empty. So we walked back to the center of town to have lunch and sit at a coffee shop and wait.
After 3pm, we checked in. The hotel gave us a much more traditional experience with shoji screen walls, tatami mats, and a futon on the floor. Our room looked onto a shared garden bringing nature a bit closer to us during our stay.
Prior to our dinner, we used the hotel onsens. Like many things in the Japanese culture, there's a process to be followed when using the onsens. First, the baths are gender segregated as everyone is required to be nude in the baths. Then everyone must wash themselves so that the waters remain clean. If you have long hair, it must be tied up as it is not supposed to go in the water. Finally, each person is given a small towel to bring with them--this must also remain out of the baths. So you either put this on your head or on a ledge of the hot springs.
After our first onsen experience, we enjoyed a kaiseki, or seasonal, dinner. Winter time means crab. This was a night of me eating many new things. We gathered in the dining room in traditional yukatas, or robes, and prepared for a meal of wonderfully strange (for me) foods. Over the course of the night I tried new types of sushi (amberjack and seabream), fresh raw crab, eggplant and eel jelly, and yam tofu. There were some things, particularly at the beginning of the night that I just couldn't bring myself to try. Namely the whole fried fish and sea snail. Couldn't do it.
But as a whole, the dinner was delicious and I'm proud of all the new foods I did try. Maybe next time, sea snail (but probably not).
Kinosaki is a town with a purpose. When you look it up on Google Maps, be sure to type Kinosaki Onsen to get the right town. In town there are seven public onsens, or hot spring baths. In addition to the onsen at our hotel, we visited the Goshonoyu Onsen. From the outside, it looks a bit like a temple and greeted us with a soft waterfall feature as we walked inside. At this onsen, there were baths both inside and outside. I opted for the outside bath. The cool mountain air surrounded us and met the steam rising from the hot waters. The onsen was easily 105-107 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving a red line on my skin dividing my body into hot and cold. Women of all ages gathered and talked. The younger girls seemed to be learning the traditions of the onsen. Some had been going for most of their lives and were teaching their younger sisters the rules.
While my mom and I waited in the lobby, we watched the families come back together. Little kids changed into their pajamas and fell asleep in their parent's arms. A family ritual to end the week. Not too dissimilar from our own evening as we concluded our time in Japan.
While Tokyo has something for everyone, Kyoto was more my speed. I could've spent weeks browsing pottery shops, visiting some of their hundreds of temples, and eating my way through Nishiki Market and been a happy lady.
Kyoto, Japan's ancient city, was spared during World War II giving present day travelers a glimpse into the past. And for this reason, and many more, Kyoto feels much more like a tourist destination. If you want see all that Kyoto has to offer, start your day early and be ready to walk.
There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Kyoto but I think a good place to start the day is Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were fortunate enough to stay nearby, but even if you're staying elsewhere in the city, this acts as a great starting point. We arrived in time to see the vibrant, autumn leaves decorate the city and surrounding mountains. The garden at Kiyomizu-dera was no exception. The temple was surrounded by the richest reds, oranges, and yellows. Even with all of the other tourists, the grounds were peaceful and quiet.
From Kiyomizu-dera, we walked down the main road leading up to the temple, Matsubara Dori, to visit some of the many pottery shops and food stands. I could spend hours looking at pottery--and I did. So many of the shops featured beautiful, handmade pieces, some of which came home with me. We made a lucky right turn and headed down a staircase towards Masuyacho. These pedestrian walkways are packed with tourists wearing kimono in search of an authentic Kyoto experience and lined with artisanal tea houses and incense makers. Almost in camouflage, a Starbucks stood in plain sight beneath a tile roof and wood siding. But this isn't like every other Starbucks in the world, it's the only one in the world with tatami mats for seating. The drinks and food were the same but it was interesting to see a big company try to blend into their surroundings. Even in the midst of hundreds of people, all enchanted by the side-street, I couldn't help but feel like a new part of history, a new part of the world was seeping into me.
Not far from Kiyomizu and Maruyama Park is Gion. The Gion neighborhood straddles the Kamo River. It's home to the Kyōto Minami-za, a kabuki theater, and many fantastic restaurants. But my favorite place to eat in Kyoto was, without question, Nishiki Market. The market, known as Kyoto's Kitchen, runs six blocks. For about a half-mile, we were surrounded by fresh seafood, pickled foods, wagyu beef, and the most vibrant fruits and vegetables I've ever seen. While in Kyoto, I fell in love with persimmons. Persimmons are a winter fruit that's about the size of a peach and tastes, in my opinion, like a peach crossed with a cantaloupe. They are delicious! I could've eaten them by the handful.
Reese and my dad enjoyed some of the freshest, and cheapest, sushi they had ever eaten but it came with a catch--they had to eat it at the fish stand. Some markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona have counters where patrons can eat their freshly ordered food. But at Nishiki, they were invited around the counter to eat at a small clearing on a table next to where they were preparing other cuts of fish. It was a different kind of ambiance.
Two of the mornings, we started our days a bit outside of the city. The first morning we headed east to Arashiyama Park, or the bamboo forest. By 9am the town around the park was already filled with people. Walking along the path, surrounded by bamboo stalks was incredible but in my opinion there are two spots along the way that are far more incredible--the Ōkōchi Sansō Garden and Tenryuji Temple.
The Ōkōchi Sansō Garden was built by a silent film actor in the 1930s and 40s. Nestled on the side of Mt. Ogura, this villa and tea house are privy to sweeping views of Kyoto and has some of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen. The forests around us were bursting with reds and yellows and oranges as if it were on fire. It was the most peaceful fire I have ever witnessed.
On the way back down, we stopped at Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. If I stood in the right places (like I did for the photo above) this was one of the most serene places we stopped at on our trip. However, behind me were thousands of other eager visitors clamoring to see the vivid trees reflected on the lake. Despite volume of tourists, I highly recommend visiting.
After walking through the bamboo, and tea houses, and temples, we headed to Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. Lining the fence around the koi-filled pond were bus-loads upon bus-loads of tour groups fighting for space to see the gold-leaf covered structure. Patience is a virtue when one wants calm photos (that's how the saying goes).
By mid-day we were back to city center visiting Nijō Castle, the residence of the last shōgun. Walking around the main building we saw paintings on the shoji screens and listened to the tweets of the faux nightingales summoned by each step visitors made. In order to prevent covert attacks, they built the floors in such a way that each step someone takes, the floors squeak to sound like a bird, warning occupants of unwanted visitors. With all of the tourists walking around, it sounded like a flock of nightingales were following us around the palace halls.
The second morning we headed south to the Fushimi Inari Trail, dedicated to the god Inari--god of foxes, sake, tea, and fertility. Though it is clearly listed at the top of the Wikipedia page that this trail goes up a mountain, we went here under the recommendation of several people and did very little follow up research. I absolutely echo their recommendation--it was a spectacular way to start the day. Though it's safe to say that none of us were as prepared as we should've been to go on a wee hike that morning. The hike takes about 2 hours (despite all the signs saying it's 20 minutes to the top) and is lined with orange Torii gates the entire way.
By the time we were leaving Kyoto, I couldn't get enough. I'd fallen in love with a new city for its old-world charm. For me, there will always be a beautiful balance between the ancient and modern coming together.
If I'm being honest, I was nervous about Tokyo. I don't like grocery shopping during peak hours because it feels like I have no space to process what's going on around me. As someone who's never lived in a city with over a million people, the thought of being in one that's 20 million strong was daunting. I was nervous about not knowing cultural traditions (and things that might be considered disrespectful). I was concerned about hitting a point of sensory overload in markets and neighborhoods that had countless bright signs in a language I can't read in a city I'd never been to before.
But Tokyo didn't end up being all that I was nervous about. Don't get me wrong--Shinjuku and The Robot Restaurant heightened any anxiety that I thought had been managed. But I did okay. I even enjoyed myself. Tokyo is a multi-faceted city. In many ways, it felt like any other international metropolitan city. Then you'd turn a corner and knew you couldn't be anywhere else but Tokyo.
For starters, Tokyo is organized unlike any other city I've lived in or visited. If you need anything, you go to the corresponding district. Need a book? Go to Jinbōchō, home to 160+ bookstores. Need a camera? Television? Obscure electronic part? Head over to Akihabara and get lost in one of the many humungous electronics stores. We went to Yodobashi Camera. Don't let the name fool you--only one corner of one floor (out of eight) was dedicated to cameras. It was heaven. I've been debating what kind of camera I'd eventually like to upgrade to and I got to try out all of my prospects and all of the lenses I've had my eyes on. It was magical. But on that same floor were designer handbags, high end pens, cosmetics, scrapbooking materials, kitchen gadgets, and hair styling products. There was not an inch of exposed wall. Each shelf was stocked and well organized even though it looked like a Black-Friday spectacle. We didn't even make it to the TV floor.
One of the things that I loved about Japan is that everything was art--from everyday, utilitarian items to the niche interests, it seemed that everything was made with the intention to be consumed as art. At Meiji Shrine, sake barrels were intricately painted and displayed. Manhole covers were casted with illustrated scenes of their purpose. Wrapping cloths were folded around gifts as if they were paper origami. Everything seemed to have a purpose and an intent to delight.
There was no better display of this than when we went to Roppongi Robataya, a robatayaki (meaning fire-side cooking) restaurant. From the moment we walked through the front door our eyes were greeted with a colorful array of fresh vegetables, meats, and seafood (including a tank of still-swimming tiger prawns and abalone). Two chefs knelt in front of their charcoal grills and made each dish to order. This was not a line kitchen--each chef knew how to prepare, cook, and plate each dish masterfully, treating every ingredient with respect. From start to finish, each bite was delicately seasoned to heighten the true flavors of the main ingredients. If you have a few hours in your schedule and some room in your budget, please do not leave Tokyo without eating here.
I'm not an overly adventurous eater but in Japan I pushed past my comfort zones. For me, Robataya was not only an artful culinary experience, but the start of me trying new things. It felt wrong to travel all that way and not taste things that were of such significance. That night I tried raw tuna, tiger prawn, lotus root, and mochi for the first time, all of which I would eat again. The seafood was a particularly big feat for me as I do not like fish.
For an entirely different experience, I give you The Robot Restaurant. After Reese and I went, people asked if we liked it, which is usually a yes or no question. But neither answer felt sufficient. There was too much to take in to just like it or not. Instead I've decided that I experienced nothing else like it and it will forever be engrained in my memory. It felt like a live-action version Dance Dance Revolution combined with a story line from the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. For 90 minutes colored lights flashed and electronic music filled the air while the characters of the show danced and interacted with the animatronic robots.
The Robot Restaurant is filled with 99% tourists, however I still think it's worth going. While they serve food, book your show before or after dinner and enjoy some drinks instead. There's too much good food in Tokyo to waste a meal here.
If you're interested in visiting shrines or temples, make sure you plan a trip down to Kyoto (there are hundreds). But we visited a few in Tokyo as well. Meiji Shrine and Sensō-ji Temple are the two larger spiritual monuments in the city that we visited. But my personal favorite was Hie Shrine in Akasaka. There's a large white gate that you can enter through, or if you walk north for a bit, you will find a smaller staircase lined with Torii gates. For a couple minutes, it didn't feel like I was standing in the center of a giant city.
Planning a trip to Tokyo?
Life has changed a lot in the last few weeks. We moved from Edinburgh back to Seattle and last week I started my master's program at University of Glasgow as part of their distance learning program. And as I embrace these changes, I've also spent a fair bit of time reflecting.
This year was a lot of things for me. Most notably, it was a lesson in failure, resilience, flexibility, and patience. My original plan was to attend the University of Edinburgh and get my degree while Reese was also attending to earn his MBA. I applied, and was rejected, twice. That sucked. And, as many know, I don't do well without a plan. In no reality would I just twiddle my thumbs for a year, but I wanted something to show for it. So for everyone that asked me what I did for a whole year without a job, this is for you:
This year I…
If I'm being honest, I had hoped the last three points would've had higher numbers, but that's where flexibility and patience came in. I had a goal of reading 40 books, writing 2 full novels, and 15 short stories. I didn't create a goal for submissions because I wanted to focus on creation this year.
This was a year of learning for me. At no other time in my life have I had so few external factors structuring or influencing my time. The only things that were truly mandatory in my life this year were feeding and walking the dogs, feeding myself and Reese, and occasionally cleaning. The rest of it was up to me.
So me being me, I made a syllabus. Admittedly, it was overly ambitious (a common observation my manager often made when I was at my previous job). But honestly, I work better that way. I epitomize the carrot-stick philosophy. I will always strive to hit the mark. So if I set the bar higher, I'll likely get more done than if I set it at a more reasonable height.
To help me attempt some of these goals, I also attended a few writing courses and retreats organized by University of New Orleans and Moniack Mhor, respectively, where I gained invaluable experience from practiced writers as well as my peers.
And in attempts to complete my syllabus, I stumbled on some unexpected lessons.
This year, I'm looking forward to having some structure imposed on my life by someone other than myself. Having completed my first two weeks of classes, I can say with all honesty I missed having hard deadlines. I manage my time so much better.
I'm sure there's plenty that will come up over the year that I won't expect. There will be new lessons that I learn and irrevocably change the way I live my life. I can't wait.
The literary canon, I mean. What canon were you thinking about?
Anyways, today I saw one of my favorite authors speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Lauren Groff, promoting her new collection of short stories, Florida, had a lot to say about reading, readers, and intersectionality.
There's a phenomenon amongst readers where women will read a variety of authors but men typically only read other men. If you look in the New York Times By The Book column, male authors rarely cite female authors as influencers while female authors tend to have a more varied list of inspiring artists.
When I think back to my English Literature undergraduate classes, the only female novelist we read was Mary Shelley (whom I admittedly really dislike) and a handful of poets, like Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in our core classes. Only when I took a Women's Literature course were Virginia Wolfe, Alice Walker, and Jeannette Walls on the syllabus. It will come as no surprise to most people that the course was comprised of 100% women. There was not a single man in attendance for the semester. Moreover, it was and still is an elective and not a required course.
And this only covers a single divide in society--gender. And even the discussion about gender is often limited to cis-gendered men and women.
Syllabi rarely incorporates work written by people of color, people of the LGBTQ community, and/or people who subscribe to non-Christian beliefs unless you elect to take a class that focuses on those specific communities. And with that, the canon is undeniably white and male.
I feel fairly confident that if you ask any male author, they will say they're well read. But as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett points out, how can you be well read if you don't read women? And to take it steps further, how can you be well read if you're only reading books set in whitewashed America or Europe? You're missing the majority of what the world has to offer.
Intersectionality is where we learn. Where boundaries are illuminated and we get to decide whether to push against and shatter them or leave them in place.
And I think Groff articulates it best: "And it isn’t because male writers are bad people. We know they’re not bad people. In fact, we love them. We love them because we have read them."
Changing the canon doesn't mean removing the old, white guys from the mix. It means adding other perspectives to the collection.
Not sure where to start? Check these books out:
The dogs are sleeping--Islay curled up on the bed and Nala laying on the cold spot under the window--and Reese is interviewing people for his dissertation at his desk. I am working at our table trying to finish a short story I started this summer so I can send it off to literary magazines. I haven't written a word in an hour and a half. Instead I've stared out the window watching the mist cover the leaves in flowers in a thin layer of moisture.
In 23 days Reese and I and the dogs are moving back to Seattle.
I struggle writing that sentence because, even as a writer, there's very little you can do with punctuation to evoke bittersweetness that is this transition period. Of course I'm elated to go back to Seattle and see family and friends, to live in our house again, to drink really good cider again. But going back to Seattle means missing the life we built in Edinburgh.
This past year has been a constant unknown. As a planner, it's been a year-long life lesson in patience and flexibility. It's also been one of the best years of my life. For both Reese and I it's been a big life shift. This year started out as a goal, as a dream to live abroad somewhere. We wanted different life experiences and opportunities. And when moving costs, living expenses, and tuition is cheaper than staying put, take the opportunity!
And what an experience it's been.
Over the course of the year, Reese has worked towards his MBA which he's been finishing up this month and I've been writing a collection of short stories, working on a novel, and preparing for my masters program that starts in a month(!!!).
In between all of our academic goals, we took advantage of being so close to so many wonderful places. Since we've been here we've visited:
I don't think I can pick a favorite. Tromsø will always hold a special place in my heart. Watching the Northern Lights dance above us while we lay in the snow was one of the most magical experiences of my life.
That being said, living in Edinburgh and getting to spend time in the Highlands was magical in a different way. The gothic architecture will always make me swoon. The rugged richness of Highland terrain will always captivate me. The whisky will always be delicious. The storytelling will always be enchanting.
And of course, there was a lot of park time with the doggos. I think they'll miss being able to run around off-leash all the time and chasing golf balls at the park. We'll find a way to make it up to them.
Scotland will always be my second home. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful friends we made while we were here and for all the experiences they brought into our lives.
Moreover, I'm grateful to have had this experience with you, Reese. Thank you for getting into your program so we could have this adventure. Thank you for being my forever travel partner. For being my life partner. I love you.
If you're reading my blog, this post is not the first, but it is the inaugural post of Pen & Lens Collective.
A few months ago I was notified that my previous domain was going to expire. While I still wanted a personal site, I had no desire to renew under that domain name. In the two years that I ran the site the way I curated my thoughts and photos changed.
I had two options - I could rebuild the site with the content as it stood and rebrand or start from scratch. Being a glutton for creative punishment, I chose the latter.
Even if my readership remains an intimate group, I wanted a site that reflected the things I've learned over the past few years. I spent several years working in marketing - the least I could do is create a site map that made sense for the user experience I wanted. Not to mention all of the life lessons I've collected at the same time.
What I learned during my time as a marketer is what inspired this change. That coupled with my constant mission to keep my life relatively clutter-free, I wanted to simplify things. Gone are the attempts at posting daily adventures while I'm traveling (sorry, Dad). No longer will I set goals for myself based on quantity over quality. Though I know Google's algorithms favor frequent post, that's not my end game.
Thoughtful content - that's what this site is about. Be it my writing or photography, I want to put thoughtful content into the world.
So to that end, I made some changes.
For the most part, I've kept my archived blogs as is. Blogs I kept aren't necessarily evergreen and forever relevant; they're just a little more thoughtful and reflective rather than ranting and reactionary. The biggest updates made were to my travel posts. Over time, the blog style of mine that changed the most was how I talked about my adventures. Somewhere in 2016 the current style began to take shape and I really found my groove in the summer of 2017.
Even how I approach writing blogs like this one have changed. Since I work better with deadlines, I used to set them for myself with every blog. But they felt rushed and offered little insight or perspective. I wrote this over several weeks as I redesigned the website. When an idea crystalized and I thought it was important to share, then I added it in (or edited something out).
Photos are organized in a similar fashion, by geographic regions, however I've designed it so only one photo is consumed any given moment. One of the things I've enjoyed about this redesign is that it forced me to go through my collection of work and see how my creative eye has changed over the last ten years. Even though my older photos might not be up to the same creative standard I set for myself these days, they hold some of my favorite memories.
Some things to look out for:
All that being said, please peruse and enjoy!
For the past five weeks, I've been across the Irish Sea from Reese and the dogs, writing in Cork, Ireland. What started off as a solo adventure ended up being an adventure of community and camaraderie. As far as spending time away from my family, this was well worth it.
Each summer the University of New Orleans meets in Cork, Ireland for their Writer's Workshop, hosted at University College Cork. Luckily for me, the program is open to writers outside of the program as well. Throughout my time there, I participated in two writing workshops, one fiction and one non-fiction. Both were led by published authors who also happen to be wonderful teachers. For weeks, my peers and I immersed ourselves in each others work, learning new craft techniques, asking questions, pushing each other to create better work.
On free weekends, I took the chance to do some exploring. The first weekend I headed up to Belfast, but the rest of the time I enjoyed some little day trips to Cobh and Kinsale. Both are little seaside towns that are less than an hour by train or bus, respectively. While many go to enjoy the delicious, fresh seafood (so I've been told), I went for a change of scenery while I write and people watch. Both towns have charming cafes and pubs with some of the most friendly people I've ever met. If you're traveling through southern Ireland, these should be on your must visit list, even if it's just a fly-by.
There were so many good moments that came out of these past weeks, but here are my top three:
And while I had an amazing time this summer, I'm happy to be reunited with Reese and the dogs in Edinburgh.
The more I travel, particularly in the last year, the more I approach adventures with fewer expectations. I start by looking at where I'm situated in the world and my research usually follows a path spurred by the curiosity of where I can take cool photos. And while I love posting the photos online, it's always about the experience and I have yet to be upset by beautiful places in the world. So what piqued my curiosity of Northern Ireland? The Giant's Causeway.
While I've been staying in Cork this past month, I had a couple free weekends. So few weeks ago I booked my train tickets and headed north. I love traveling by train. It was about a six hour trip with a transfer in Dublin. For six hours I got to see the Irish countryside while I wrote a story for my non-fiction class. It was a lovely way to spend travel hours.
Belfast was a wonderful little surprise. Coming from Cork, I naively thought that the architecture might be similar--that there would be old buildings nestled together oscillating between bright and pastel exteriors. But between WWII and the troubles of the IRA, the city has essentially been rebuilt over the past several decades. It resembled a city closer to Dublin--more industrial, modern. The city sprawled further than I thought it would but walking more than thirty minutes from the city-center would likely put you in a residential neighborhood.
I stayed near the River Lagan, not far from the train station, at Bullitt Hotel. It was such a fun find. If I'm being honest, I didn't look through the reviews of the hotel past the star rating. But the bar and restaurant were packed to brim every night with locals who were there for live music and delicious food and drinks. If you're a light sleeper, this is not the place for you. Music and bar banter were roaring until at least 1 AM every night.
Church Lane was my home for the long weekend. It also happened to have every bar and restaurant locals recommended to me. Muriel's Café and Bar as well as Pablo's Burgers were my favorites.
Over the course of my time in Belfast, I kept wondering if I was in the tourist part of town, but in talking to some locals and my own experience, tourism is only just starting to pick up in Northern Ireland in the last ten years or so. A lot of this has to do with the fact that popular shows like Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones have filmed in Belfast or surrounding areas. Which brings me to my favorite part of my trip to Northern Ireland--my Game of Thrones tour.
As hokey as it may be, this is my third Game of Thrones tour. I've taken them in Iceland, Croatia, and now Northern Ireland. I will always recommend these tours. In every case, I've seen part of the country that I wouldn't have on another tour, and it usually doesn't cost that much more than a standard tour. For instance a tour to The Giant's Causeway was £25 and stopped at two locations. My tour was £35 and stopped at seven locations. It was great.
Of the locations we visited, my favorites were The Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (and surrounding beaches). The Giant's Causeway is essentially a break wall consisting of over 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns on the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. Depending on which direction you're facing, you can see some of the Scottish Isles. The Isles of Mull and Islay are the easiest to spot, especially on a clear day.
The Carrik-a-Rede Rope Bridge was a very different experience. Where the Causeway kept us close to the waters, the Rope Bridge put us high above them, letting us marvel at the clarity and colors of the frigid waters fifty feet below (for the GoT fans, this is the same bridge that Balon Greyjoy gets pushed off of). The bridge connected us to a small island with landscape similar to the ones it had separated from centuries ago. The view was not all that changed. But walking across a wood and rope bridge made it a special place to take in the sights.
Overall it was a quick trip, but I was trilled that I decided to take the long train ride there and back. If nothing else, I got plenty of writing done on the train (obviously not this blog. It's so late. But my homework was done).
I originally wrote this post in 2015. When I was deciding what content I wanted to keep and update, I was annoyed that this post is still so relevant. Not because my feelings about the subject have changed - I stand by every word I wrote - but despite the work being done through amazing organizations like Time's Up, The Women's March, and Emily's List, there is still so much work to be done.
So one more time for the people in the back:
A while back, I read an article written by a mother asking parents of her son's girlfriends not to threaten her son just because he's a hormonal, teenage boy.
I don't disagree with her plea. The idea that someone's father or mother might openly threaten a teenager that's dating their daughter is pretty antiquated. What I disagree with is the fact that she leaves a lot of responsibility to the girl and her parents when it comes to educating people how to behave in a relationship. She only hints at the boy's responsibility in a single, vague sentence.
In college, I took a course called Leadership in a Diverse Society. A portion of the class covered how leadership was impacted by gender and assumed gender roles. One day we had an activity where we examined experiences that were directly impacted by gender. The whole class sat in a circle so that we could immediately have an understanding of the different experiences in the room.
The conversation turned towards leaders in relationships and I will never forget the question that baffled every boy in the room: How many of you have ever felt intimidated or endangered on a date, not because the person is known to be act violently, but due to their size and gender?
Every single girl in the class raised their hand.
I recall several of the boys visibly disturbed by this statistic. They had no idea, let alone understanding, of what it must feel like to sit across from someone at dinner and wonder if they were capable of physically hurting you.
"It has never once crossed my mind on any date I've been on," one of the boys said.
The average height of men in the US is about 5' 10" while women are average about 5' 4". That's a significant size different, especially when you factor in weight. It makes sense why men might have never thought about the potential of physical abuse when they go on a date.
I agree with Kasey Ferris that we should not be threatening teenage boys when they start dating. But I wonder Ms. Ferris, did you ever consider what the girl across the table might be thinking about your son? It has nothing to do with the young man as a person; it just comes down to physicality.
What we NEED to do is educate both boys and girls appropriate ways to interact in relationships:
My mom always told me that it takes about two years to really integrate something new into your life. So I think it was alarming to her that in one year I got a new job, a boyfriend, moved in with said boyfriend, went on a vacation together, and got a new puppy.
This was back in 2014. Like every twenty-something I was sure I had everything figured out. And to be honest, things went about according to plan. But looking back I can see what she was concerned about.
Separated by three years, I watched my brother do something similar. And in both cases I witnessed the same outcome. We saved, planned, puppy proofed and in the end the puppies shaped our futures.
But Islay was ready to make up for those missed moments.
The first week that she was crate training full-time while we were at work, she took it upon herself to throw shit-parties, as I called them. She'd poop in her small crate and then roll around and decorate the walls around her. All of the books said that dogs don't like to foul where they sleep, but Islay had her own agenda.
When she got old enough, we decided that we'd let her stay out during the day while we were at work. For the first 8 months, she slept all day and hung out with Nala. It was perfect. Then she decided to chew off a zipper from a couch pillow. Not great, but it was a small time offense. We tested it the next day - nothing happened. But then a few weeks later she mulched a baseboard and we couldn't find the nail until after we had already paid for x-rays.
But those moments, good and bad, taught me so much in the almost four years she's been in our lives. Patience, compassion, responsibility. I can't imagine a day without her or Nala.
If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel — as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them — wherever you go.
I am not someone that usually mourns the deaths of those I have not met. But hearing the news of Anthony Bourdain's death shook me in a way I did not expect. As I read the tributes and news articles, I couldn't help but feel like I had lost a mentor.
Like many people, I grew up watching his CNN shows exploring various parts the world - unknown, underrated, trendy, or otherwise. In a time before the boom of smart phones and social media, he was a guest in my house, A friend in our living room, teaching us not to be afraid of what we don't know.
But I don't want to spend a lot of time mourning him - I don't think that's what he would have wanted. I think he would have told us all to have good food and drink with those we hold dear and keep exploring the world. And as I thought about that this morning it baffled me that I felt as if I knew such an intimate detail about someone I had never met.
Bourdain shared his perspective and opinions with candor and prolificness that made people feel like they could call him a friend, even at a distance. His social media accounts were full of behind the scenes footage sharing the stories of those he worked with. I cannot think of a single person that did not talk, post, tweet, share about their grief in the wake of this tragedy.
He was and is a great unifier. And while that says many great things about him and the legacy he leaves behind, I'd like people to think about this as well - while he is a shared connection for many, Anthony Bourdain is not what we have in common. What we share are the values he lived by.
Embracing new experiences
Seeking out the unfamiliar
Creating memories with friends, old and new
Eating damn good food
These values are the foundations for building bridges, making friends, understanding different world views.
So as we all come to terms with this loss, remember that you share these values with millions of other people. Be honest but be kind. Do no harm, but take no shit. It's what he would've wanted.