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.