Friday, June 24, 2016

Politics, sort of

I shut away all the noise this morning: the phone, the tv  the computer. I went to bed last night hyped up and flabbergasted over the the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union, but I woke up feeling immeasurably sad.

So I sat on my couch and knit for an hour or so with only refrigerator hum and birdsong resonating through my house. One of the pieces I'm working on now is a tricky one for me, requiring my full attention, and I have been putting it off in favor of less demanding, more facile work. It was good, diving into this tricksy piece, being with it and learning it and figuring it out.

And I realized while I sat there that though I am not a particularly knowledgeable student of history, I am seeing my father's face this morning. I am seeing his face as I imagine it would be today (heartbroken, angry, confused) and am remembering the exuberance on that same face during the week we spent in Germany as the Brandenburg Gate opened, the Berlin Wall came down, and two worlds so long brutally divided opened up to each other again.

I've found myself talking a lot recently about my desire to have a circle of friends -- something I had in spades back in NY, and something I'm still struggling with here. My father was a natural at that -- at bringing people into his circle, at encouraging disparate connections and embracing overlapping friendships and spheres within his world. To him, building a shared history was everything. Breaking down walls and allowing exploration, unification, further understanding was everything. When the Wall came down, and families long kept apart were reunited, and secrets and truths began coming out, he exulted in all of it.

From my little corner of the world, yesterday's vote seems like the ending of an era of yearning for openness, of embracing the unknown, of fighting not be afraid of the other. So I find myself crying, unexpectedly and frustratedly, and wishing again for that face and the moral barometer it embodied. My heart goes out to the people of the U.K. -- to those who voted against this divisiveness and abandonment of a dream of unity, and to those who are so frightened of the world that they voted for it. May we in the US not go down this same path come November.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

small town witch

This morning I woke up early, 6am, and lay happily curled and cozy warm under the covers there in the dark of the guest room at my parents' house. Eventually I got up, ran a comb through my hair, threw on yesterday's clothes and my Aunt Ellen's hand-me-down red clogs and ventured out through the back garden for a walk to the store so that I could get milk for my morning tea.

The world outside smelled of woodsmoke and rotting apples, and chestnut casings crinkled and snapped underfoot. It was cold still, and I could see my breath exhaling in wisps under the streetlights, intermittent as they are here in this funny little town. I know I keep harping on the sky here after so many years of being surrounded by tall buildings, but this morning it was spectacular in its simplicity, in its metamorphosis from the dark of just before dawn to the rosy glowing warmth of just after.

A clutch of children startled at one point as I strode by in the half-light, and I myself startled at their startled look. It was then I looked down at this morning's particular and peculiar get-up: my very tall mother's ankle-length black dress (a mishap with glue during an art class the previous night having rendered my own skirt un-presentable), my favorite black sweater, my aunt's red clogs, my bright red hair, and I couldn't help but feel momentarily -- caught as I was in between shadows and the light -- like a modern day incarnation of the wicked witch of the west. It is October after all, and who knows what might find itself wandering the streets and byways early of a morning before the sun is fully up.

This made me smile the rest of the way to the grocery store, where a lovely cashier rang me up on someone else's club card to get the sale price, and the someone else was pleased to get the extra gas points on his card, which of course I don't need. 

Such is life in a small town, I suppose, saturated in apples and smoke and sky. It's not such a bad place to live.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


I realized the other morning, as I walked by a particularly fragrant patch of the summer's last alyssum, that my annual autumn sadness seems to have gone astray. The alyssum was so sweet, white tufts awash in the morning light, that I couldn't help but smile as I traipsed on towards a job I love, in a town I love, where the sky is vast and beautiful and constantly changing.

I realized in that moment that I have not cried in months.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

in the span of friendships

It was a beautiful day, last week's summer solstice, and filled to overflowing with almost everything good. Oysters and chocolate cake and laughter and fresh local strawberries and crisp vino verde and boundless affection for dear relatives and new and old friends alike.

One of these new friends, a kind and generous woman, gave me a card that quoted Albert Camus. It struck me as beautiful as soon as I read it, but it wasn't until days later that I realized it's been swirling around up here in my head ever since: In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.

My mind's been casting back to the long nights and gray days of this past winter; of the winding down of a relationship that was the catalyst for a cross-continental move; of a sometimes insurmountable homesickness for the life I so carefully constructed over the course of two decades in New York City; of the strangeness, both disconcerting and lovely, of living again in my mother's house. It may have been an unseasonably warm winter (at least here in the fair northwest) and even an unseasonably sunny winter (or so I've been told by the locals), but until now, with a layer of distance and beautiful June days, I hadn't quite realized how dark it felt.

To have this new person (this wonderful woman, this friend) be aware of some of this was a shining moment I don't think I could have imagined back in December, February, March.

And then the other night I was chatting with an old, old friend -- a man I've known since we were ridiculous young teenagers spending hours on the phone or sneaking out for clandestine after-hours talks down at the lake. I was whining to him, I'm afraid, about lingering insecurities -- of growing old and fat, unattractive and unloved. He scoffed at this, of course, as any friend would, and said, "You are as you've always been." And then, "I remember you. We are from the same cloth."

Somehow these simple words -- this moment of being truly seen, of being known to an other through all our years of overlapping histories -- brought such a warmth that the rest of the evening found me glowing (though perhaps aided by the beer with dinner, the bit of port afterwards to accompany delicious birthday chocolates from another new friend).

So here I am, thousands of miles away from the place I secretly thought would always be home, unexpectedly single again, perched precariously on the edge of a new life. In no small part thanks to the amazing good fortune of having these new and old friends, and much to my surprise, I find myself actually, excitedly, loving it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

the modern age

I am writing this from the modern age: unplugged and sitting in the back garden, feet propped comfortably on an ottoman, glass of perfectly chilled white wine and plate of sliced and salted kohlrabi from the garden close to hand.

A girl could get used to this, I have to say.

Two weeks ago I was chained to a semi-functional laptop with a battery life of approximately zero and an ancient flip-phone that could barely handle text messaging. Now here I am, the pleased and slightly discomfited owner of not only an iPad but also the newest iPhone. (Yay for early birthday presents, generous relatives, and a brother who continues to live up to his reputation of sniffing out the best possible deals on, well, everything.)

Which is how it came to be that one mid-June afternoon found me and my mother hunched over a table, peering intently down at our phones, she offering instruction on the ins and outs of iPhone ownership and me, mouth agape, trying to absorb it all. The humor in this inter-generational role reversal did not escape me.

And so here I sit typing contentedly away in the garden, untethered and unchained, convinced anew (or perhaps for the first time) that the future is, in fact, now.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

the things you miss

It was so unbelievably quiet and dark that night we made love in the funny little hotel in the funny little town of Winthrop, Washington. I was used to city sex, always interrupted by the grating grumble of garbage trucks and drunken brawls, delivery men buzzing the wrong apartment and taxi cabs screeching through the intersection six flights down. The dark and the quiet were overwhelming in the way that they saturated the room -- sinking into our skin and seeping into all the words that could have been said between us, spiking the tears we were surprised to find on each others lips.

The next morning we got up early and headed back over the mountains toward the Pacific, leaving eastern Washington's dry summer heat behind us as we climbed higher and higher into the mountain passes. There was so much love still between us then, at least during that handful of days we overlapped before returning to our respective worlds -- he here in Anacortes, me to the ever-beckoning isle of Manhattan.

These last few months, almost two years on from that odd and lovely little road trip over the mountains and back, have been brutal for both of us. He said once, toward the end, that he felt like I always had all these ideas about us in my head. So many ideas, in fact, that I forgot he might have ideas, too. He said he sometimes felt like there wasn't room for him in the world I'd wanted us to build together. He wasn't really all that wrong, I suppose.

Later this summer he's probably going back to Winthrop with someone else -- a good friend of ours, a buddy of his, but still.  They'll probably go to the places we went to: the pizza place that we walked to from our hotel along the river in the lengthening shadows and golden evening light; the bakery in Twisp so that we could try their famous (and rightfully so!) 'cinnamon twisps'; the power plant on the river with its beautiful surrounding forest gardens and cooling waterfall-induced breezes.

It's not that I'm jealous, exactly, but learning of their potential road trip sent such a pang of sadness through me that I had to go into myself, just sit and be quiet in the dark for a little while. I want so much to be going with them, to be driving through the mountains in his beat up old Subaru with these two people I love so much, with the windows rolled down and the radio playing and my feet propped up on the dashboard like before.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

on knitting

I've been a bicoastal creature most of my life -- born in Oakland, CA to hippie parents who relocated to the Bronx when my father got a faculty position at Barnard College, then moved again to a quiet, leafy suburb of New York City; summers spent on Idaho's gorgeous Lake Coeur d'alene and driving up and down the Oregon and Washington coasts. But mostly I've been a New York City woman, having moved there at the age of eighteen for college, taking on a library job at Columbia University, and never looking back.

My grandmother was an avid, if quirky, knitter who for decades tried to pass along her love of the craft to me, her endlessly stubborn granddaughter. Finally, as I approached thirty and she wasn't getting any younger, my mother and I went on a little road trip to spend a ladies weekend with her, our dear matriarch. We armed ourselves with a couple pairs of size 11 knitting needles and some pretty wools and decided to finally let her have her way with us. And lo, by the end of the weekend we were well on our way to knitting our very first scarves.

After I first started knitting on that trip ten years ago, I couldn't believe the pleasure to be had in making these things -- these simple blankets and striped scarves in beautiful natural fibers -- and I had this insatiable desire to just bundle them around all the people that I loved, to keep them warm and cozy and safe. Somehow this seemed even more necessary in the face of bitterly cold New York winters, saturated as they are with an icy frozen-ness of concrete and glass. 

Eventually practically everyone I loved had an Emma-scarf, so I began selling my work and branching out into more complex forms of knitting. Teaching myself how to knit lace was a whole new experience, and I became entranced with the idea of these delicate silks softening the harsh edges of the concrete Manhattan world that surrounded me. I began focusing on bridal wear and chuppahs (traditional Jewish wedding canopies), eventually started Emma's Bridal & Lace, and grew to love this type of work most of all.

And not long after that, the siren call of my west coast relatives -- mother in Anacortes, brother in Portland -- became too difficult to ignore. So here I am, having traded in my beloved Manhattan and a career at Columbia University for an entirely new way of living, here on beautiful Fidalgo Island. These days, I wake up peacefully in the mornings to birdsong and the salty wind coming in off the ocean, the scent of lavender and peonies having permeated my sleep . 

This new piece, my seaweed girl, is an attempt to embody some of this newness -- this clear air I've come to love so much, the greens of the forests and the tangling weeds washed up along the shore, the beautiful snarled essence of living here, tentatively, on the edge of the briny deep.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015


The peonies are amazing here -- huge clusters of them frothing all over the garden in the early morning light. Their scent lingers in the air as I stand out there with the hose, watering before the sun is high enough to burn the moisture off. I've been gathering them in, taking armfuls to the shop, keeping a few on the dining table until their petals begin to drop.

The poppies, too, are amazing though I've been leaving them outside. Bright orange and crimson and salmon and pink, glowing against the blue sky if you catch them right. I always wondered about that scene in the Wizard of Oz, even back when I was a little girl. What was it exactly that made them all fall into such blissful unconsciousness? And, honestly, why would they ever want to wake up?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

hobbled, and missing the city

Woke up yesterday morning to a shooting pain in my right leg, no idea why. This morning found me hobbling to work in a particularly awkward fashion even more ungainly than is the norm, forced to slow down my usual brisk pace.

It felt like such exposure -- to weakness, to vulnerability, to visibility -- and made me miss the half-block walk from my old New York City apartment to the bus stop that would get me to work every day. It made me miss, too, the anonymity of the teeming streets there, where no one gives a second glance to a hobbling girl (this I know from experience).

I'm not sure anyone noticed here either, but when you're practically the only one walking out along the streets and there is absolutely no teeming to be seen, it's sometimes hard not to feel like the entire world is looking at you. Every car, every passer by.

It reminded me of all the times I shaved my head after having let it grow out. For the first few days immediately following the latest hair follicle massacre I was absolutely positive that people were staring as I got on the M4, walked along the A-train platform, traversed Canal on my way to Chinatown. I could feel their eyes, hear the whisper of turning heads trailing in my wake. And then, a couple days later, it would stop -- no more stares, rude or curious or otherwise; no more startled looks or averted gaze. But the thing is, of course, in a place the size of New York City it wasn't the fact of being around strangers that changed, it was me. Which means it was either all in my head in the first place and no one was ever staring, or people were still looking and I just stopped noticing.

I've thought about this now and again over the years; the ways in which we inhabit a real or imagined gaze, the ways in which we let this shape us.

And so I spent the awkward, painful walk to work this morning telling myself that even here in this not-New-York-City people surely have better things to do than gawk at a hobbling girl, and that this uncomfortable feeling of being exposed in my weakness must also be in my head.

I suppose I could have just called someone for a ride, but therein lies the McNeil stubbornness: if I can't damn well take care of myself, what business did I have moving out here?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

'i can't seem to see through solid marble eyes...'

I was walking home this morning squinting through an unexpected barrage of tears, swiping frustratedly at the silly salty things, trying to keep them from dripping down my nose, my cheeks, my lips. The wherefores of it are not important, really, but I found myself wanting to turn west on 10th Street instead of going directly home. I  wanted to walk up the steps to the ex-boyfriend's house, knock on the door, hoping for some sense of welcome, some sense of warmth, maybe even a hug. I guess I've been feeling a bit lonely, of late.

Instead I came home and spent a surprisingly satisfactory few minutes deadheading the rose bushes in the back garden before coming inside for a cup of tea and a blaring of this song, which for some reason  always, always makes me feel better.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

this & that

There are moments of clarity, sometimes, when you realize that despite nothing going the way you expected it to go -- the man, the work, the great westward migration -- you are still, somehow, miraculously, exactly where you're supposed to be.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

on being a work daughter

I've been thinking about her a lot recently -- Mary of the wild hair and sometimes surprisingly wicked humor -- as I went through the process of applying for, being secretly sure I would get, and then not getting a library job I thought should be mine.  I've found myself wanting to take my humiliation to her, to drop my hurt and disappointment at her feet and demand of her, "What the hell happened?"

For years Mary wanted me to do more with my life, to pursue a higher level of librarianship, to live up to a potential she saw in me that, for whatever reasons, I didn't want to fill. Last fall, after her death, a colleague referred to me as her "work daughter," and though I scoffed at this at the time (as though I had some claim on her!), I wonder if in some ways I didn't turn her into a work mother.

I started working for Mary when I was twenty-three years old, grew into true adulthood on her quiet but observant watch, went through heartbreaks and joys in the world she so carefully kept an eye over. I think she would have been proud of me for leaving, in the end; for following my heart even if it was a misguided heart, for trying to decide what was true. Mary was a woman of formidable practicality, after all, and the idea of wallowing in stagnant unhappiness would not have appealed to her.

Is it ever too late to eulogize a person? Months after leaving her world, months after her leaving ours, she's been so close to the surface again lately, demanding the good solid cry I couldn't give her back in the autumn time.

We worked together for fifteen years, watched each other with reserved affection through illness and loss, through depressions and accomplishments and the giggling fits of just life. I spent her last days at the library shredding documents for her and wanting to say, "You are dying." Wanting to say, "Mary. No one cares, no one will ever care, about documentation for your travel expenses from 1995." Wanting to say, "Please stop. Stop shredding, stop hiding, stop protecting us, stop building your walls of privacy. You are dying. Be here with us now."

But I kept shredding decades old papers as she gagged and drooled, her weakened fingers puzzling at handfuls of handkerchief. We loved each other, she and I, but we were not a demonstrative pair, and I had made a promise to her weeks before not to make her cry. It just made her already difficult breathing more so, and I didn't want to be a part of that.

At the end of her last day I helped her put on her jacket and gathered up her bags and walked with her through her library for the last time. I looked on as she smiled graciously at everyone we passed -- our staff of so many years, professors whom she'd known forever, students who didn't realize she wasn't coming back. We walked across Amsterdam Avenue, across campus, across Broadway in the October dusk and finally into her apartment, me carrying her bags and not really knowing what to do with myself during those moments when she had to pause to rest, to catch her breath.

I wish that I'd understood then that she was down to weeks. If I'd known (I tell myself now), I would have forced myself awkwardly through our reticences.

Later, after finding out that she had died -- at home in her beloved Columbia apartment, surrounded by her siblings -- I would obsess over never having gotten a job recommendation from her. When I finally realized last summer that I would be leaving New York I went to Mary's office and told her of my unplanned plans for heading west. She asked then if she should start working on a letter for me and I said no, not yet, I'm not quite there yet. She just got weaker after that, needing more and more days off, causing ever increasing busyness on the days she came to work, and I never brought it up again. Later, I felt like The Outsiders' Two-Bit obsessing over losing his favorite comb in the rumble that led to his best friend's death. It felt easier, of course, to obsess over the lack of recommendation than to obsess over the lack of Mary.

Now, as I am dealing with the fall out from failing to get this library job I'd been banking on more than I'd quite realized, I am missing her good sense, her support, her forthright trust in my abilities and my judgment.

I'm trying to believe (to steal a phrase from a feel-good view of the world I've never quite bought into) that the library thing is 'just not meant to be.' The library thing is old school, my old life, and maybe not what I'm supposed to be doing out here on the western rim, in my new life, in this new world. Maybe it's time to let that go, to dive perhaps into writing, to get more serious about my fiber work, to throw something creative and achingly beautiful out into the world.

I'm not entirely sure that Mary, in all her good sense and solid practicalities, would approve of this, and I am missing what surely would have been a righteous indignation on her part when she heard about this job fiasco. But I know she would have appreciated whatever beauty I come up with, and would have loved watching her work daughter finally spreading some wings and daring something new.

Friday, May 08, 2015

in the library

In the library I've been working upstairs of late, doing searches and straightening during my volunteer shifts. I love it up there in those early morning hours before we open our doors for the day. I move things around, neatening, looking behind for long lost books, running my fingers happily down shelves and shelves of mysteries, romances, fantastical science fictions and all the other fictions -- all new curiosities to me after so long in a university research library.

It is quiet up there. Sometimes Sydney or Linda or Brian will wander through with an armful of magazines or books to re-shelve, but usually it's just me rustling about among the stacks.

It is empty and quiet and sky-light bright, and I get the sense sometimes of being safely tucked away in an aerie. The seagulls must have a similar affinity for the library's roof, and as I wander I find myself smiling at their raucous, riotous squawking from up top. So I work my way through the rows of books up there on the second floor, listening to gull music and the wind and the quiet of this tiny city perched here on the edge of the sea. I work and listen and wonder what it is they're squabbling over, what it is they're saying, what exactly they're looking for up there. Of course, sometimes I wonder the same thing about me.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

lost in translation

I am wishing that we had learned the same language, or at least pidgin versions close enough so that we might understand each other.

When I propose a plan in my sometimes neurotic overly-planning way -- a meal, a walk, catching up on The Walking Dead -- I am saying, "I care about you, and I am missing you, and I would like to spend time with you."

When you bring me a loaf of bread, your first baking in months and months, you are saying, "I care about you and am bringing you this offering of love -- love for myself, love for you."

I am saying here now, "Let's have lunch tomorrow, Wednesday," but I am also saying, "Please acknowledge soon this token of my affection, this desire to see you and break bread with you. Please don't leave me here alone."