The Slumbering (November)

Now begins the slumbering. The woods behind my house are nearly silent, save for the rustle of leaves or the sea-sounding wind through the increasingly bare limbs. Gone is the fresh jade air of summer, replaced by a warm topaz scent of sunbaked dead leaves on a blustery day.

It is a softer, quieter time before the winter’s tempests rage. I bundle myself in old trusted scarves and jackets against the increasing chill, progressing from hoodie to trenchcoat to peacoat, wondering how long it will be until I give up and swaddle myself in my parka. It’s a gentle time, of putting on long, soft pajama pants after my day in slacks, of smoothing on lotion to combat the dry air, lingering in warm showers longer than I should, a season of slow self-care. I crave oatmeal and hot chocolate, comforted by the warm weight in my belly.

I feel like I live 90% of my life in the dark now. I wake up in the dark. I work in a windowless yellow box of a room. When I leave work, night has already spilled its bottle of navy ink across the sky. I drive home down a dark wooded road. I spend my evenings in soft lamplight, with no tolerance for the glaring overhead light in my room after a day of fluorescent bulbs. No wonder my doctor has me taking vitamin D.

But even in the dark there are snatches of light. When the sun finally crests the horizon each morning it paints the sky in cathedral glass colors in a way that feels unique to this time of year, the glorious pinks, reds, oranges, golds making me think that perhaps there’s a point to the whole getting out of bed thing after all. The slant of the daylight is at such an angle that it almost feels like perpetual golden hour. Although the sky is nearly fully dark by 5 p.m., there is usually still a bright band around the rim of the world to keep me company for the start of my commute. The headlights of oncoming traffic are the bane of my existence, but the tail lights of my fellow commuters are little fires guiding me through the evening. As I steer up and down the many hills and valleys of my daily drive, the line of cars in the distance has the glitter of a string of gemstones and the lights of the houses and streetlamps are a blanket of stars spread out before me crowned by the distant galaxy that is the combined length of the New York City/Jersey City/Hoboken skyline.

Life in my area is all rush and go and plan and compete, and the winding down of the year is no exception. There is the temptation to already begin reflecting on where I fell short this year and where I want to improve the next, but I do my best to tuck those thoughts into their own warm, soft little bed to rest until later and instead focus on the comforting now, the quiet grace of the growing dark.

The Ash Tree

Behind my house there is a strip of woods that separates the backyards of my street from the backyards of the next street over. It somehow belongs to the town, despite being entirely surrounded by private property, and no one I know spends any time in it, as overgrown and deer infested as it is. I feel very fondly for that bizarre little strip of land, a holdover from long ago that was somehow never portioned out for private ownership. There are certain places in my room where I can look out the window, see only trees, and pretend I live in some wooded bower instead of squashed, suburban New Jersey. The trees sing to me, insect song in the summer and a nearly oceanic rumble of bare windblown winds in winter. I don’t spend that much time directly looking at the weird little forest, but it is my companion nonetheless and I enjoy having it.

The ash tree in the morning.

About a year into the pandemic, one of the trees in these woods decided it was finished, that it wasn’t going to bud its green leaves like its brethren. It stood stark against the bright summer sky and the green of the surrounding trees, almost as if in protest. At first I thought that maybe it was a fluke, that it was going to bud late that year for some reason, but spring and summer came and went and the branches remained bare. I sat in my room, withering myself, separated from my friends by the risk of spreading sickness. In the midst of this, a dead tree somehow felt appropriate. The world had changed and so had the view from my window.

It was a pity, but still striking all the same to see the body of the tree continuing to stand strong despite ceasing its growing cycle. It made a memory spring to mind from many years ago at a sleepaway camp tucked away in the woods of northern New Jersey where I learned about the tragedy of hemlock trees. Ravaged by rampant bug infestation, they are a dying breed. But their fallen twigs are the best kindling for campfires. And if you stand beneath a hemlock tree’s corkscrew-like arrangement of branches, even if they’re dead and stripped bare, cool air filters down like a natural fan. Death is a sad, inevitable, and necessary part of life, but there can be a certain beauty in it too.

While the tree behind my house stood dead, life continued around it. Time passed, seasons changed, the trees around it became green once more, and I could see my friends again, although we were all changed by what had happened, what was (is) still happening. The skeletal tree stood tall and silent and watchful, but not really watched by us very much as we moved on. But it has recently grown tired of being ignored and decided to demand our attention. Worn down by wind and weather, it’s been dropping limbs on our and our neighbor’s garage. My mom looked at the deed to our house, determined that the tree was in fact in the town-owned strip of woods, and contacted city hall. They sent the town forester, a man who took one look at the tree and said it definitely needed to come down. He told my mom that it was an ash tree and had likely been killed by a parasite that is felling others of its kind all over the place. Someday soon workers will come cut down the tree, likely just dropping the limbs right there in the woods to save themselves the trouble of hauling the lumber out to the road. The view from my window will change again, but I wish it didn’t have to.

The ash tree in the afternoon.

Change is an inevitable and necessary part of life, but there can be a sort of beauty in it too, like the bold shapes of a tree after it decides it doesn’t need its greenery anymore, yet stretches its limbs ever upward all the same. But I am not a tree, I am a woman, and as much as I want things in my life to change, I feel unable to cast off my own greenery and reach up for new opportunities, even for ones that I am nearly guaranteed to successfully seize. I am stunted by my fear that without the comfortable blanket of my current leaves I will wither and die and watch my own limbs fall off or be cut off by the world around me while I’m reaching out naked and vulnerable.

A friend of mine has pointed out to me in the past that I often talk myself out of things with “what if”s, that I dream of disaster before anything has even started to happen. Maybe I don’t have to worry about being cut to pieces on the forest floor if I change. Maybe I am already that dead ash tree, the world continuing around me while I stand brittle and alone, the parasite eating away at me, held back by giving way to it again. Crumbling, losing pieces of myself because I don’t know how to even consider change without falling apart.

This isn’t how I thought I would be in my 30s, too afraid to branch out, too afraid to stay still and be the only one not blooming, but life is impossible to predict, especially after the last three years. I feel like Schrodinger’s ash tree lately. Do I have it in me to keep growing upward? Or will I collapse?

The ash tree by moonlight.

The Pros and Cons of Concerts

A couple of years ago I had a coworker who really liked to go to concerts. I told her I wasn’t typically into live music, but there were two bands I’d kill to see. However, I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance. The first was Rammstein, a metal band from Germany whose concerts I missed when they were last in America because I was away at college. They’re old for an internationally touring rock band, all in or about their 50s, and I knew they could decide that they didn’t want to do massive world tours anymore or decide to suddenly retire. It had been nearly a decade since they’d been to America and I wasn’t certain they’d ever be back. The other band was My Chemical Romance, a band whose heyday was when I was in high school and college. They broke up right after I graduated college and I was sure that they were gone for good.

And then a few months later in January 2020 both bands announced new tours with stops in my area. I vividly remember getting the tickets for both concerts. Rammstein went on sale at 5 p.m. so I stayed glued to my desk at work, afraid that if I waited the 20 minutes to drive home that all the tickets would be gone. I had no idea who would go with me, because no one I know loves the band like I do, but I bought two tickets anyway, a little nervous to go alone and knowing I’d find someone willing to go. The MCR tickets dropped at noon on my birthday. My friend and I both frantically tried to secure a set of tickets while we were on speaker phone, as I sat in my car next to the sea, a day trip which was my birthday gift to myself. She got unfortunately stuck in the virtual queue, but I managed to snag our tickets. Both concerts were scheduled for September so once the tickets were secured the only thing left to do was wait

And then March came along and the world changed. I would later darkly joke that I had caused the plague in a butterfly effect sort of way by doing something so out of character for me as buying concert tickets. I had never been to a concert outside of two acts at Anime Boston and two Distant Worlds concerts, all of which hardly seems to count in the sense most people mean when they say concert. I know I like to watch a symphony, the concert band high schooler I used to be never getting over the way the bass drum felt in my chest or the blare of the horns or the dainty flutter of my specialty, the flute. On the other hand, going out of my way to attend a rock or pop concert was never quite appealing to me. It just seemed like a whole bunch of expensive fuss. However, there are exceptions to everything I suppose and two of mine happened to turn up in the same year. How could I pass up the opportunity?

Now that I’ve been to both concerts, I can definitively say that they were fun, but it’s not an experience I feel like I need to have again. I could go on at length about why I don’t want to go to more concerts (and in fact a prior version of this post did just that), but I will attempt to be brief and not gripe overly much.

1. Getting to the venue is a nightmare: The public transit sucks in most areas of America, so driving is required to get to a lot of places. Most concerts are in the evenings so you have to fight rush hour traffic to get there, massively multiplying both travel time and frustration, because a lot of people drive like idiots. To be precise, it took me an hour to drive from my brother’s place to MetLife Stadium for the Rammstein show and only 20 minutes to drive him home after. It similarly took probably twice as long to get to the MCR concert at the Prudential Center as it did to get home.

2. You are at the mercy of the conditions in the venue: This is a little hard to explain, but basically you will likely have to put up with some kind of uncomfortable inconvenience in the venue. For instance, some arena seating sections are so unpleasantly steep they activate my fear of heights and make me worry about falling down the stairs and tumbling over the railing to my doom. They air conditioning may be powerful enough to leave you feeling chilly even when you get up to dance. It rained heavily the evening of the Rammstein concert, finally stopping partway through the show, and MetLife Stadium does not have a roof. The music was a good distraction, but between songs it was difficult to not fixate on how uncomfortably damp I was. Thank god it was an unusually cool night for early September and not horribly muggy or I don’t think even the music could have distracted me from feeling gross.

Also, as a side note, while I’m on this topic I’d like to point out that a lot of venues just are just straight up not accessible (or have limited accessibility) for people with disabilities. And they also build these things like airplanes, trying to cram in as many seats as possible to the detriment of the visitor. I qualify as what is known as a mid fat and if my butt was much bigger it wouldn’t have fit in my seat at MetLife, which is a newer stadium, so you would think they knew fat people existed while they were building it.

3. Excessive cellphone use by fans: I understand snapping a few pics or a couple of brief video clips, or maybe taking a longer recording if they play your favorite song. But be fucking reasonable. I paid good money to be here. I don’t want to see your phone in the air for the whole night. You paid good money to be here. Why are you constantly distracting yourself from the experience by fucking around with your phone? Often the lighting in the venue and your probable distance from the stage are gonna result in your footage not being that great anyway. Rammstein specifically had a PA announcement before the show telling people not to film and multiple people around me were poorly filming basically the whole thing. And may I remind you that they were exposing their phones to the rain while they were doing this? Craziness.

All that being said, I would like to reiterate that I did really enjoy myself a lot at these concerts! Both bands are fantastic live, although I did come away feeling that Rammstein lost some of its nuance and became just a blaring wall of mushed together sounds grounded by the drum kit. The members of both bands had good on stage chemistry and seemed to really be having fun, and that energy fed back into the crowd. The MCR concert I went to was in Newark, right where the band was formed, and so that crowd in particular had a fantastic energy because the band are local boys. At one point the singer Gerard even made a comment about wanting to take a drive around his nearby hometown of Belleville.

I’ve been listening to both bands on my own for so long (since middle school for Rammstein and 9th grade for MCR) that it was really surreal to see them in the flesh even from far away. It didn’t quite feel like real life. There was so much feeling in those stadiums, the culmination of two years of waiting, that I found myself getting a bit emotional as the crowd yelled lyrics along with the singers while the drums and guitars pounded in my chest. It felt so powerful to chant the verses to “Du Hast” with the entirety of MetLife Stadium while pillars of fire sprouted overhead. Towards the beginning of the MCR concert when we were all singing “I’m Not Okay” together and I actually weirdly felt tears kind of welling in my eyes.

And while I’m not one to shy away from doing things on my own I’m very glad I got to see these bands that are so important to me with people that are important to me. It was so fun to speculate over what songs would be played and make comments to each other during breaks in the concerts. For instance, at one point late in the MCR concert when they still hadn’t played “Welcome to the Black Parade” I looked at my friends and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they never played it at all?” and then with perfect comedic timing the first note of the song rang out in the arena. My younger brother enjoys Rammstein’s music, but not with the same intensity that I do, so it was fun to give him context like, “This is the song about cannibalism,” or “This is the fucking around the world song,” and hear him laugh.

So I had a great time at both concerts, but I don’t want to go to another one? Yes. I enjoyed myself enough to not entirely begrudge the existence of the bad bits, but all in all I think I can enjoy my music just as well at home. Do I have a couple of more exceptions that I would be willing to see? Of course! I’m interested to see what Orville Peck’s live show is like. If The Crane Wives ever come east there’s no way I’m passing them up. (I discovered them just before the pandemic started and they quickly became my favorite band.) I also think I’d see Distant Worlds a third time, because I will always miss that symphony feeling. However, I definitely don’t see myself buying more concert tickets anytime soon. I understand why people enjoy it, but I just don’t think it’s for me!

And finally, if you like the pictures in this post and want to see more, I posted on Instagram after each concert!

August

At the beginning of August it occurs to me that perhaps the worst of the summer is over.

Yes, it is still hot and skin scorchingly sunny, but I can feel the time shaved off the end of each day, my neighborhood filled with gold earlier and earlier each evening. As the sun begins to angle itself away from the northern hemisphere, the daylight takes on an odd, but lovely, glow no matter the time of day, necessitating sunglasses for both directions of my commute to work. The heat will linger with us until well into September, summer lazily stretching itself over more and more of the calendar every year, a cat in a sunspot abbreviating fall and spring, even as far north as New Jersey, much to my woe.

And yet, I’m not someone who urges on the next season, one of the people who rushes out to buy autumnal merchandise as soon as it hits the stores at the end of July. I make plans that fall under the umbrella of “summer” well past the equinox so long as I have good weather and light, which has often come back to bite me when I realize I need just one more pair of shorts or swimsuit for a mid-September adventure only to find myself out of luck.

After losing more than two years of my life to dreadful global circumstances, I find I don’t want time to rush on by. I want to live in as many days as I can. And yet they slip swiftly through my fingers like I’m standing on a beach and the tide is rushing away from my feet, swift and unstoppable.

That being said, I am glad for the arrival of August all the same. Shortening days means cooler nights, means not waking up drenched in sweat despite the fan blowing directly into my face. It means the floor no longer warm under my feet when I get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom because of cold water I gulped down right before bedtime. It means more nights when I can turn off the fan to fully and properly take in the summer night serenade in the strip of woods behind my house that has finally reached the crescendo I’ve spent all season waiting for. I prefer to go to sleep in silence most of the year, but that gentle forest cacophony is my favorite lullaby and one of the main reasons I keep an air conditioner out of my window. I’m not fully sure what’s back there, but I know that the chirping and croaking seem to pulse in time with my breath, with my heartbeat.

When the conditions are just right in my little corner room I can hear the hum of the nearby highway or the horn of the train, and imagine myself heading off somewhere in the warm darkness, adventure spooling out beneath the wheels. Actually escaping isn’t quite in the cards at the moment, but I’m not bitter. I find ways to be content where I am. I’ve discovered a field near the local trails with a canopy of trees that provide perfect shelter for warm afternoons spent reading books on a blanket with a snack and a big bottle of crisp, cool water. I lay on my bed in front of the fan, eyes on the trees behind my house, watching peach colored evening clouds scuttle along as night steadily spills its ink across the canvas of the sky. I take the long way home after hanging out late with friends, breathing in deeply to taste that lush, green smelling nighttime air.

Yes, I think August is the very best of summer, fire forged and drenched in gold.

Avocados (Or, Finding Unexpected Parallels)

(CW: minor knife injury, blood)

My favorite way to eat an avocado is simple. Select an avocado that you think will be edible inside based on its outer color and degree of firmness. Take a sharp knife and cut around the outside to create two roughly equally sized halves. Twist and pull to separate them. Set the half holding the pit on the counter and carefully, carefully use the tip of your knife to remove the pit. Sprinkle salt over the avocado’s flesh, preferably over the sink to minimize mess. Consume immediately, using the avocado as its own bowl.

Picking an avocado at the store is tricky, though. Every time I buy one, I review the array of choices before me, trying to do my best to make a suitable choice, even though I know I can never be fully sure I’ve gotten it right because often even the ones I thought would be good can turn out awful once I open them up, like my local supermarket’s knack for selling avocados that seem perfectly fine, but then ripen unevenly, going overly mushy on one side while still being rock hard and inedible on the other. Sometimes I think the avocado I’ve chosen has reached its ideal ripeness, only to open it up and find out I’m only half correct — part of the flesh is just fine, but the rest is far gone to rot. I have consumed so many partially rotten avocados (carefully eating around the awful bits) just because I didn’t want to waste the good parts.

Lately I’ve been thinking that trying to eat an avocado is very much like my dating experiences. The parallels are almost comical — picking someone I think I’ll be compatible with, nurturing them until the time seems right and hoping they’ll be sweet and tender at the core, the disappointment when I realize that something is rotten between us, trying to salvage what I can for far longer than I should. If you don’t handle avocados carefully, you will get hurt. If you don’t handle your heart carefully, you will get hurt.

For instance, in 2017 I went through a breakup with a guy who to me was like finding that lucky avocado. He treated me better than anyone I’d dated before and while he wasn’t perfect and I did have a couple of misgivings, I thought we were a good match. I wasn’t naive enough to think he might be The One, but after five months I was in love and thought that perhaps he was someone I would be with for a long haul. Until I was faced with the idea that I maybe didn’t understand him as well as I thought I did. He abruptly broke up with me immediately after I spent a weekend in Boston gushing to my friends about how great things were, which honestly made me feel really embarrassed on top of my breakup misery. How could I have misjudged the feel of him so badly?

I’d already been struggling with my mental health because my job was in a particularly insufferable phase at that time and my search for a new one wasn’t panning out. So losing him so suddenly on top of my existing shitty feelings sent me into the tempest and on some strange journeys, like leaving work “sick” to drive down the shore in the rain and stare at the foggy, thrashing sea. Like hopping back into online dating way before I was ready and winding up going another round with a certain Ghost. Like standing in my kitchen on a day I’d called out of work, clutching an avocado in a hand shaking from hunger because I’d chosen the unfeeling void of sleep over nourishing the body that held my struggling mind.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been trusted with a knife, but there was no one home to stop me. My mom didn’t often buy avocados, but there were some on the counter so I went to work opening one because I didn’t have the energy for high effort foods. If I’d been eating under more clearheaded circumstances I would have taken better care with my grip on the avocado and the knife, but instead I held the avocado in my hand as I went in with the knife tip to try to excise the pit. The knife slipped against the surface of the pit and the very tip of it lodged itself in my left palm. “Oh,” I thought dimly, feeling a hollow sort of surprise, but no pain. I inspected the cut, which was small and barely bleeding. I awkwardly managed to keep the wound covered until it healed, which seemed to take a very long time, probably due to its hypermobile location. Over time it stopped being a story of depression gone dangerous and became merely a humorous cautionary tale, although even in the immediate aftermath I was putting a self-deprecating, minimizing spin on it, which I know because I tweeted about it.

The puncture was so small and so clean, as just the tip of the knife had entered. Somehow I stopped the momentum of my arm short of where the serrated part of the blade began. I can’t even tell you now exactly where it was, because it aligned nearly perfectly with one of the lines in the center of my palm. Any scar that may have existed has been long absorbed by the neighboring crease. I’m sure a palm reader would tell me there was some sort of symbolism in cutting whatever line I did, in overwriting it with something new. And besides, the lines in our hands can shift and change over time, so in a way these aren’t even the same hands that were injured five years ago. I am not the same girl who was hurt five years ago.

I’ve learned since then that I got incredibly lucky, that some people seriously damage tendons in their hand due to careless avocado handling. It hurt to have my heart broken, but I know now that I was lucky. Not because of anything about that relationship that has come to light since then, but because there is a certain kindness in cutting someone off when you know it isn’t going to work, as opposed to the torment of drawing out an unwanted situation.

That doesn’t mean I don’t turn it all over in my mind from time to time, hoping that I’ve properly learned how to tell when more subtle signs of rot are setting into a relationship so I’m not so blindsided next time. But admittedly I’ve never properly gotten the hang of choosing an avocado or knowing just the right moment to open it up and get at that green goodness.

I am a woman who looks for meaning in everything. But sometimes an avocado is just an avocado. Sometimes a man is just a man. And sometimes neither one will work out the way I want it to.

Catalyst: Crowley

I just wanted to provide a brief bit of background before you read what is by far the longest bit of writing I’ve ever posted on the internet. When I make a new D&D character I often write an extended bit of background for them, what I call their “catalyst” story, the event in their life that set them on their adventuring path. This is the catalyst story for my warlock Crowley, detailing how he met his patron. The campaign I play Crowley in takes place in The Myriad, a region made of scattered islands in a sea and four surrounding continents. I considered splitting this story into two posts, but wasn’t sure of a good place to split it, so here it is in all of its glory! I hope you enjoy it!

A bit of location inspiration for you. I took this in 2018 at Two Lights State Park near Portland, Maine.

Crowley woke up to find that Kestrel’s bed hadn’t been slept in. This wasn’t inherently ominous on its own, it wasn’t like the twins had never slept a night apart, especially now that they were getting older and occasionally wanted to slip off with someone for a bit of private fun. But it was a bit unusual for her to not at least drop a hint that she wouldn’t be coming back to their little room crammed beneath the eaves of the mansion called home by the Red Rivers.

The mansion had been built by some wealthy merchant when living close to the water had been fashionable and abandoned when the owner got sick of the smell of sea brine and rotted fish and decided to relocate to a more inland part of the city. The room Crowley and Kestrel had claimed was just big enough for two single beds and a table that was just long enough for them to work at side by side without bumping elbows. They were glad for their little roost, glad to have a place to fly under the radar of the gang they’d joined out of necessity when they were 12, after about a year of trying to get by on the streets on their own and barely surviving.

Yes, they had sworn loyalty to the gang, but it was secondary to their loyalty to each other. After all, at the end of the day they were each the only person that the other felt they could fully trust. They did enough work to keep their spots in the gang, but tried to keep a low profile otherwise. Even so, they gained a reputation and a pair of nicknames. Kestrel was The Mind, sharp as a nail, a schemer of schemes. Crowley was The Mouth, the one who took those schemes and made them happen, often by convincing people to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t have done. They hadn’t spent every last moment of their lives together, but it was a near enough thing.

Which is why other members of the Red Rivers were surprised when Crowley started asking around about her when she still hadn’t turned up by dark. “I thought you two was sewn together at the hip, birds of a feather and all that,” said fellow gang member Jack. Crowley’s inquiries didn’t turn up Kestrel’s whereabouts, but he did learn that actually nobody had seen her since the prior morning. A couple of people suggested that maybe she had been sent out on some kind of job, but Gideon, one of the heads of the Red Rivers, told him no such thing had happened.

Crowley tried to smother his growing unease by going to bed early, only to be prevented from sleep by the sight of Kestrel’s empty bed. Even after he’d deactivated the small, bewitched oil-less lamp that was the first piece of loot they’d been allowed to keep for themselves he found himself staring into the darkness at her bed, willing her to magically appear in it. Eventually, just as the sky lightened with the oncoming dawn, he drifted off into a fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of being lost on his own in a large, dark cave.

Crowley woke around noon. Kestrel was still gone. He had some tea and a little bread and cheese even though he didn’t feel much like eating and then set off for the city’s Archives. Kestrel’s schemes were greatly aided by research and she was well known to the staff there for spending hours poring over various books and documents. Crowley had barely spent any time at the Archives, but the clerk working the front desk recognized him on sight, probably due to their resemblance. “She was here the day before yesterday, in the morning, but she left just before midday with a big tough looking guy with dark hair. She said she was just getting something to eat so she left her things on her table, but she never came back. We collected her things when we closed for the night, if you’d like to take them?” Crowley accepted the linen bag the clerk offered and peered inside to see a couple of the many notebooks Kestrel was often scribbling in, as well as the small wooden case that he knew held her portable writing kit. The clerk couldn’t answer any of Crowley’s other questions, so he thanked him and left.

When Crowley returned to the mansion without Kestrel in tow, he found that some of the other members of the Red Rivers were beginning to worry as well. The Mind was highly dependable, it was highly unlike her to just run off with no explanation. Inquiries had been quietly made around the city and Gideon had even reached out to the leaders of a couple of the other gangs in town, but no one had any information. It was like she had disappeared into the mists of the Myriad itself. The one lead Crowley had gotten at the Archives wasn’t much help — most the gangs in town had at least one member that fit the description the clerk had given him.

Crowley wasn’t often one for anxiety, but Kestrel’s continued disappearance had him on edge. He tried to dull it with alcohol, drinking himself into oblivion in an attempt to forget she was missing, or at least trying to become drunk enough that he could plausibly convince himself she was simply traveling and not missing without a trace. He even wound up in the bed of his on again/off again fling Lucille, although he was too drunk to do anything other than sleep curled around her while he got there. He dreamed of the cave again and somehow even in the dream he was too drunk to do much besides sit on the ground and call for Kestrel.

On the third morning since Kestrel had gone missing, the Red Rivers were awakened by a shout. Crowley was vaguely roused by the sound, but shrugged it off and slipped back into sleep. They were a gang, shouting happened. But then he was being shaken awake by Lucille. He blinked at her blearily as he sat up, still somewhat drunk from the night before. She thrust a cup of water into his hands and as he drank she told, “Kestrel’s turned up.” The grim tone of her voice made the water turn to ashes in his mouth. Suddenly much more sober, he followed Lucille down to the dining room.

A body was laid out on one of the tables with a blanket over it and member of the Red Rivers filled the room. Crowley dimly noted that the boots sticking out of the bottom of the blanket were Kestrel’s. Hands shaking, he slowly peeled the blanket back from the body’s head and found himself face to face with Kestrel. She had been roughed up a great deal, her face and neck littered with cuts and bruises. Whoever had laid her on the table had folded her arms across her chest and they bore more cuts and what looked perhaps like burns. They’d even cut off the tips of her pointed ears and Crowley absently reached up to scratch at his own. The small hunk of quartz Kestrel wore around her neck was still there, as were the tiny golden hoops she wore in her lower earlobes. Clearly this was no mere robbery, but instead was likely targeted violence.

Crowley stared at her numbly for a long moment, all sound gone from his world beyond the beating of his own heart, a lonely echo in a vast, dark cave. And something snapped in him and he was hunched over, bracing his hands on the table for support, his breath coming in ragged, heaving gasps. At this Gideon came over and flipped the blanket back over Kestrel’s face, saying “Someone take him out of here, give him something so he can sleep.” Crowley gripped the edge of the table tightly, saying between gasps, “No. NO. I can’t, I can’t leave her.” And then Lucille’s gentle touch was prying his hand away from the table and her soft arms wrapped around his shoulders. “Come away for now, love. She’s not going anywhere,” she said. Lucille brought Crowley up to his and Kestrel’s little room under the eaves and although he didn’t typically like to take drugs, when she offered him one of the sleeping potions from the gang’s stash he swiftly drank it only to be swallowed up by the dreadful dream cave again. This time it was even larger and more cavernous, his cries for help not even able to echo back at him.

Crowley was jostled awake at sunset when Gideon sat down on the end of his bed, his mouth dry from the sleeping potion. He sat up against his headboard and accepted the flask of water that Gideon offered. “Marta’s the one who found her,” Gideon explained as Crowley drank. “She was going out this morning to buy bread and tripped right over her on the front steps. She saw a couple of big guys running off down the street in grey cloaks.”

“Oh, so the Gulls then? We’re going after them?” Crowley asked, perking up slightly at the thought of vengeance.

Gideon shook his head. “The Gulls are dumb, but not dumb enough to wear their own colors to drop off a body,” he said. “And besides, when I was asking around about Kestrel the other day Len told me their base had been broken into the other week and some stuff was stolen. Probably where the cloaks came from.”

Crowley perked up at the idea of having a plan of action. “Then we start there. We find who robbed them, then we find Kestrel’s killers and –”

Gideon shook his head again and raised a hand to cut him off. “Slow down. We’re not looking to get into a gang war right now, Crowley. We’ve got a couple of potentially big jobs coming down the line and we don’t need any extra attention. Maybe we’ll find who did it eventually, but there’s no need to rush into anything.”

Crowley flushed with anger, his voice beginning to rise in volume. “We’re just going to do nothing? Kestrel swore an oath to this gang and –”

“It’s a hard life out here by the Myriad and people die all the time. Why are you surprised? The two of you would’ve died years ago without our help.” Gideon snatched back the water flask and stood. “Look at this like the gift it is. You’re your own man now, no longer shackled to anyone else. I always thought you were holding yourself back because of her, now you get to live your own life. We’re sending her off in a couple of hours. You can stay here and pout or you can come say your goodbyes.” And Gideon left, slamming the door behind him.

When night had well and truly fallen, the Red Rivers bore Kestrel down to the docks, clad in their dark red cloaks, bringing a couple of small lanterns along to light their way. Someone had cleaned her up and tightly bundled her up in a blanket while Crowley was sleeping. One of the gang members had already stolen a small rowboat and they laid Kestrel in it before shoving it out into the Myriad. Once it was a fair distance out Jocelyn, their best archer, used one of the lanterns to light an arrow and let it fly towards the boat holding Kestrel. Her aim was true and the boat was quickly fully alight, the distant light searing Crowley’s eyes. The weight of his grief slammed into him again like a strong wave and he collapsed to his knees. Lucille laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder while the rest of the gang stood respectfully mute for few minutes before gradually dispersing.

Lucille tried to tug Crowley away from the docks and usher him back home, but he shrugged her off. “Then I’ll stay with you,” she said. “No, go home,” Crowley said sharply, his eyes fixed on the flame on the water. He saw Lucille flinch out at his tone out of the corner of his eye and when he looked at her her face was so full of worry that he softened just a little. “I promise not to throw myself into the Myriad. I just need a moment alone.” Lucille nodded, gave his shoulder a little squeeze, and left. Crowley remained at the docks for a long while, fixated on Kestrel’s glowing boat until finally the flame went out and that evening’s chilly mist rolled in off the water. Reluctantly, Crowley wrapped his cloak tightly around himself and returned to the mansion.

When he arrived, a large party was in full swing to celebrate Kestrel’s short life. Not in the mood for a party, Crowley slipped up the back steps unnoticed. He found that someone had been in their room while he was gone. (“My room,” he corrected himself with a wince.) The little magic lamp was on and there was food, water, and another vial of sleeping potion on the table so he assumed it was Lucille trying to take care of him again. He picked up the potion bottle and uncorked it, considering the contents for a long moment. And then another wave of his grief swelled over him and he decided sleep was the last thing he wanted right now. It was too similar to death and, besides, he was scared to dream of that lonely cave again. He tried to re-cork the potion bottle, but his hands were shaking and he dropped it.

The sound of the glass breaking on the floor shattered something in Crowley as well and his grief became overwhelming rage. It made him feel good to break something, so he decided to break more things. The first item he laid his hands on was the little lamp and he held it between his palms and hurled it at the floor with all the force he could muster. From there he made short work of as much of what he and Kestrel owned, smashing small trinkets, ripping open pillows, overturning furniture, tearing pages out of books. At one point in the middle of this maelstrom, an oblivious Lucille came to check on him, his destruction in the attic unheard over the party on the ground floor. He roared at her to get out and she scurried away.

The one coherent thought in Crowley’s head amidst this chaos was that this is not how it was supposed to be, and it played on repeat, tormenting him. He and Kestrel had plans to travel the Myriad, visiting islands and maybe even the other three continents. He knew better than to think they would’ve lived together all of their lives, but he’d expected her to at least be around somewhere to be a shoulder to lean on when he needed, and he was supposed to do the same for her. Except for the two minutes between when he was born and Kestrel followed, they had always been companions in life and the idea of having to continue without her had Crowley at a total loss. Who could he rely on now? The gang that didn’t consider solving the murder of one of their sworn members a priority? No. He knew he was fully on his own now, but it wasn’t a gift like Gideon had suggested.

And then, at last, Crowley ran out of energy for destruction, collapsed to the floor in the middle of his carnage, and finally, bitterly wept. The strangled sobbing sounds escaping his throat shocked him, but he could not get himself to stop making them as long overdue as they were. By the time he finally quieted the sky outside the window was the blue grey of predawn. The house was silent, the party downstairs over. No one else had come to check on Crowley after he’d scared Lucille off and he wondered if she’d even mentioned it to anyone. He decided he didn’t care. He had a reputation for affability. Let them know he could rage too.

As he laid on the floor, wiping away snot and tears with his sleeve his eye caught on something — Kestrel’s linen bag that the clerk at the Archives had given him, it’s contents tipped out. The wooden case of the portable writing kit was cracked and leaking ink and the notebook looked a bit crumpled, but was otherwise intact. It had fallen open to a page full of Kestrel’s tidily looping handwriting. He heaved himself to a sitting position and pulled the notebook into reading range.

At the head of the page were the words “Ritual for Wish Granting” and the title of the obscure book Kestrel had copied it from. This was followed by a set of instructions with annotations and questions written in the margins. Below this Kestrel had scribbled some thoughts. “Could be promising, but potentially unlikely to work due to the long absence of the Old Gods and the relatively low occurrence of magic in the modern world. Discuss with Crowley?” This was the last page of writing in the notebook and Crowley assumed it was what she had been looking into the day she vanished.

He read the instructions over again. The whole process seemed like it would be relatively simple if he could procure the ingredients. Coming across these notes so soon after Kestrel’s death felt like she was giving him a sign. Maybe she’d known what was about to happen to her, maybe she didn’t, but either way she had left Crowley something that could perhaps reunite them if it worked. And if it didn’t, well at least it likely wouldn’t waste too much of his time and would give him something to do to get him through his first bit of mourning. He tore the page with the ritual’s details out of the notebook and pocketed it along with his money pouch before heading out to the city’s marketplace, leaving the mess of his room behind.

Between the market stalls and the apothecary’s shop Crowley was able to procure most of the components he needed and he only had to go a little ways into the sandy woods bordering the town to get the rest. Finally, around mid-afternoon, he made his way to the docks and pilfered a rowboat that he was reasonably sure he could paddle alone. The Myriad was clam that day, but the rolling waves still gave him a bit of trouble as he rowed himself out as far from town as he thought would be necessary — the instructions were exceedingly vague in that regard.

Once settled, he set about his work, adding the ingredients to the small bowl he pilfered from the mansion’s kitchen and grinding them down a bit with a stone before setting the tiny heap ablaze, spending two matches to do so due to the sea wind. Carefully guarding the fire in the bowl, he watched the various herbs and twigs burn down to ash. Once it had burned itself out, but before the ashes were fully cold Crowley pinched the dust between his fingers and sprinkled it into the water around the boat, taking care not to capsize himself in the process.

And then he waited.

And waited.

It was cold and windy, as the seas in that quadrant of The Myriad tended to be that time of year, and Crowley huddled in his cloak, becoming increasingly aware of just how cold his toes were. He wondered if maybe the instructions were incomplete, maybe Kestrel hadn’t actually figured out the whole ting yet and there were some words he ought to have said. Or maybe the whole thing was a dud and never would have worked anyway. And here he was looking like a fucking idiot alone in a little boat tossing ashes into the sea as if it could really give him what he wanted, could give him Kestrel back and —

As his thoughts reached a fervent kind of despair and desperation, the water around the boat churned and a figure came to the surface. It hauled itself into Crowley’s boat, somehow without tipping it at all, and sat onto the bench across from Crowley. Crowley recoiled a bit in shock as he watched it settle itself, arranging the assortment of tentacles that made up its lower body just so. Crowley’s eyes ranged upwards, taking in the humanoid torso with tentacle arms, the octopus-like head with shrewd eyes and a slit of a mouth, all of it a deep sea blue. With a start, Crowley realized it was wearing Kestrel’s hunk of quartz around its neck.

“Where did you get that?” asked Crowley, voice weaker than he would’ve liked due to shock.

“What? No hello? No how are you? No thank you, oh powerful one, for answering my puny little call?” Its voice was scratchy like sand shifting against itself on the ocean floor.

Where did you get that?” Crowley asked again, more forcefully.

The being shrugged. “It drifted down into my home a day ago. Maybe two days? Hard to say, time doesn’t work down there like it does up here. Are you trying to tell me you did all of this –,” it gestured to the ritual debris littering the bottom of the boat, “– for just a little necklace?”

Crowley frowned. “No. Well, maybe? I don’t know. I didn’t even know what was going to happen when I did the ritual. I just thought it would grant a wish.”

Crowley’s companion laughed, its lower tentacles squirming in a quite unsettling way. “You must be crazy or desperate to do a ritual without knowing what it’ll do.” It eyed Crowley, sizing him up as he shivered from the cold Myriad wind and a bit of fear. “Maybe both in your case. So what’s your wish, if it’s not for this necklace?”

“My sister Kestrel was murdered earlier this week.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” said the creature, grinning.

“You can bring her back?”

Another laugh, this one louder than before. Waves jostled the rowboat and Crowley felt like they were in time with the chuckles. “No, I can’t undo death, kid, but I can get you the next best thing.”

Crowley frowned, his heart pounding in his chest. “And what’s that?”

“Revenge. But it’ll cost ya.”

“But I don’t know who did it.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m a guy who can get things done. I’ll figure it out.”

Crowley hesitated for just a moment, knowing that this whole thing was crazy and dangerous and potentially even all in his head. But he decided he had nothing to lose so he nodded and said, “Okay, how do we get started?”

The creature used its upper tentacle arms to remove Kestrel’s hunk of quartz from around its neck. “Like this,” it said and used a sharp edge of the stone to carve a line across the skin of one its tentacles. Blood welled up, thicker than any blood Crowley had seen on land and so dark blue it was nearly black. “Now you.” It offered Crowley the quartz and he sliced open his own palm. The being wrapped its cut tentacle around Crowley’s bleeding hand, creating a sticky mess that stung with the ocean salt that still clung to the creature’s clammy skin. Crowley grimaced at the sensation as he felt a tingling start to spread up his arm. Just as Crowley was adjusting to that unpleasantness his companion said, “I’m Jeff, by the way,” and plunged a tentacle into Crowley’s chest, a wicked grin on its face.

For the next while, Jeff had control of Crowley’s body. It was an exceedingly odd sensation to watch the world go by, feel his hands do things, hear his voice speak while having no control over it. A part of Crowley considered that maybe the situation should frighten him, but honestly after the week he’d been having it was something of a relief to have all decision making taken away from him. When he looked back later, Crowley couldn’t guess how long Jeff spent controlling him and he remembered only brief flashes of events, feeling as if he was in some kind of dim dream. The weight of Kestrel’s quartz pendant was around his neck. The rowboat somehow propelled itself back to shore as the ritual materials were stuffed into Crowley’s bag. There was a trip to the Gulls’ base and Crowley was vaguely aware that his voice was being used to demand information a bit more forcefully than he would’ve done if he was in control.

Then suddenly they were back on the street and Jeff was turning over a scrap of fabric in Crowley’s hands. He felt Jeff rummaging through his mind, like flipping pages in a notebook. It was a thoroughly unpleasant sensation that made Crowley itch. “Hey, quit that, it’s uncomfortable,” he thought at Jeff, hoping the message would get across.

He felt Jeff use his face to smile. “Oh, good, you’re awake. That will make this easier,” Jeff silently said to Crowley, the sandy sound of his real voice gently brushing against Crowley’s consciousness. “That Len man gave me this, said it was caught on a trap when something stolen was put back? What does it mean?”

Focusing hard to really properly see through his eyes, Crowley noted the deep green color of the fabric. “Green is the Bolts,” he told Jeff. “Unless someone stole their cloaks too?”

“And where do these Bolts reside?”

“They tend to move bases more often than most gangs. Last I heard they were somewhere by the Archives.” Crowley’s stomach dropped at the realization.

Jeff must have felt it too because he asked, “What? Why do you feel this way?”

“The Archives were the last place Kestrel was seen alive.”

As they set off for the Archives district, Jeff grinned so broadly it felt unnatural on Crowley’s face. It was fully dark by this point and they settled in at one of the major squares in the district, huddling in Crowley’s cloak in the shadows cast by a large fountain statue. Crowley Before long someone came by in a Bolt green cloak. Jeff tailed them, cornering them in a nearby alley. They were young, likely a relatively new recruit, and when they saw Crowley’s face they squeaked out a little scream and blurted out, “I swear I had nothing to do with it. I knew taking her was a bad idea, but you know how it is with gangs.”

Crowley pushed his way to the forefront of his mind and spoke. “Why did they take her?”

“They wanted her for the Bolts, but she said no because they wouldn’t take you too. And they couldn’t have her saying anything so, well, you know what they did.”

Crowley felt a surge of rage and he felt Jeff’s approval at that emotion. United in purpose they used Crowley’s mouth to say, “Give me your cloak and show me how to get inside.”

The Bolts’ hideaway was currently in an old grain warehouse complex and when Crowley and Jeff, newly dressed in green, let themselves in they were in sync. The Bolts’ door guard fled at the sight of Crowley yelling, “Oh shit, how did you find us?” Crowley had never had a knack for magic, but with Jeff’s aid it flowed out through his hands as smoothly as water, sprouting spectral tentacles from the ground that pummeled their enemies, blasting people with ice as cold as the Myriad depths, firing off wicked blasts of crackling energy that flung the members of the Bolts to the floor. Crowley’s blind rage had returned at the prospect of further destruction and Jeff reveled in the feeling, suggesting further ways for Crowley to use the magic. Crowley didn’t send spells after anyone who fled, but otherwise he attacked indiscriminately, considering all of the Bolts to be culpable for Kestrel’s death.

Before long Crowley was surrounded by splintered furniture and the bodies of people who were either dead or convincingly pretending to be. Breathing heavily in the silence and the sky outside the windows the pale grey color of early dawn, he decided their job was done and finally left, but not before knocking a kerosene lantern onto the floor, and setting the building ablaze as a final message. When Crowley reached his room in the Red Rivers’ mansion, he found that someone, probably Lucille, had made an attempt at tidying the mess he had made and the beds were set properly upright on their frames. The beds were made and Crowley had a new pillow on his to replace the one whose feathers littered the floor.

Exhausted by everything that had happened, Crowley was barely able to get his boots off before he fell into bed asleep. He did not dream of the empty cave, as he feared he might. When he woke up, he thought that perhaps the prior day’s events had all been a deeply unsettling dream and that Jeff was nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Maybe when he got up he’d find that the last few days hadn’t happened and Kestrel would be asleep in the bed across from his, as she was supposed to. But as he stirred the palm of his left hand felt tight and itchy and when he looked at it there was a thick pink scar where he had sealed the deal with Jeff. He sat up and saw that Kestrel’s bed wasn’t empty after all. Jeff had evidently vacated Crowley’s body and was asleep on top of it, curled up like some kind of messed up cat. It was a rare sunny day for that time of year and Jeff’s translucent blue skin glowed in the light. Crowley was considering what to do next when he heard a commotion downstairs and Gideon yell, “Where is he?” and his gut and the feet on the stairs told him they were looking for him. He nudged Jeff awake and mouthed “hide” at him. Jeff dropped to the floor and slithered into the shadows under Kestrel’s bed.

Crowley casually sat back down on his bed just in time for Gideon to burst into the room and haul him to his feet by the front of his shirt. “What did you do?” he said firmly, not yet fully raising his voice. Crowley tried plastering an innocent, confused expression onto his face, but Gideon apparently didn’t buy it because he shook Crowley forcefully and said, “Half the Bolts are dead and their base is burned to the ground. The survivors say you were there doing magic? I told you it was a bad time to do anything that would bring attention to us.”

“Don’t worry,” said Crowley, “I wasn’t wearing my cloak at the time. I was just a grieving brother, on my own, giving those assholes what they deserved for killing my sister.”

“I gave you an order!” Gideon yelled, shoving Crowley down onto the bed so hard he nearly hit his head on the wall. Crowley sensed Jeff stirring as if maybe he was considering coming to Crowley’s defense, but he stayed put.

“Well somebody had to do something!” Crowley shouted. “Even if she wasn’t my sister, she was a member of the Red Rivers and her murder was disrespect. Can’t have people thinking we’re weak, can we?”

By this point a number of the gang members crowding the doorway trying to see what was going on, including Lucille, who looked to be on the edge of worried tears. Crowley was thankful that in the midst of his argument with Gideon nobody noticed the creature under Kestrel’s bed.

Gideon considered Crowley for a moment, looking like he was weighing up different options. Then he said, “You deliberately disobeyed me. I told you to leave it alone and you didn’t. Pack your things.” He glanced around the wreckage of Crowley’s room. “Or what’s left anyway. And then get out.” He took Crowley’s red cloak from where it was hanging on a hook on the wall and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Crowley listened to the footsteps of the crowd in the hallway dispersing and when he felt reasonably certain that everyone had left he muttered to Jeff, “You told me there would be a price? Is this it?”

Jeff slithered out from under Kestrel’s bed, his response in Crowley’s mind. “We can still talk like this even though we’re separate again. But no, that is not the price I had in mind.”

“Then what is?” Crowley thought back at Jeff. “I assume it’s not my life since you haven’t killed me yet.”

“I need you alive for what I want, but in a way I do want your life.” Jeff used his arm tentacles to haul himself onto the end of Crowley’s bed. “You see, I’ve been down in the deeps for…well, I’m not quite sure how long. Except I do know it was a very long time. Time doesn’t quite flow the same up here as it does at home. And it’s so dreadfully boring to stay in one place for so long. I’d like to see the world, but, as I’m sure you can guess by looking at me, it would be difficult for me to do that on my own.”

“But surely it will be just as hard for me to take you with me considering you’re…?” Crowley gestured vaguely at Jeff’s octopus-like form.

Jeff flapped a few of his tentacles dismissively. “I can just go incorporeal again like last night,” he said. “No big deal.”

Crowley recalled the sensation of being out of control of his body. It was one thing to mind speak with someone, but another entirely to have that being’s spirit inside of his skin alongside his own spirit, fighting for control of the same space. “I’m not sharing my body again, no more mind melding,” Crowley told Jeff firmly.

Jeff sighed and rolled his eyes. “Mortals. Always so touchy about their forms. Fine, I can travel in an object just as well.” He looked around the room before settling on Kestrel’s hunk of quartz hanging around Crowley’s neck. “That rock will do just fine, and that way I’ll always be with you. I’ll need to come out every so often and stretch my legs, but we’ll work that out when we get there. After all, I can’t see the world if you get thrown in the brig because some backwater island thinks you’re cavorting with demons or whatever.”

“Okay, I can live with that,” said Crowley. Jeff held a tentacle out to shake on it and Crowley shook his head.

Jeff rolled his eyes as he slowly faded out of sight. “I wasn’t going to snatch your body, idiot,” he said teasingly. “Not this time anyway.” Crowley could practically see Jeff smirking as he felt the quartz around his neck grow ever so slightly heavier with Crowley’s spiritual weight. It also felt somewhat cooler, like someone had thrown it in the sea for a brief moment.

Crowley gathered what items he wanted to salvage from the wreckage of his room and then left the Red Rivers’ mansion for the last time, his former gang mates eyeing him with suspicion or outright shrinking away from him in fear in the hallways. As Crowley set off down the road towards the port, his heart ached for the loss of his home and from the uncertainty about his future. Evidently he and Jeff were still somewhat emotionally linked because he heard Jeff hum thoughtfully in his head.

“What?” he thought back.

“I’d forgotten how deliciously dramatic mortal emotions can be,” was Jeff’s delighted reply.

Before turning the corner at the end of the lane, Crowley stopped to look back at the house one last time and saw Lucille dashing up the street after him, a parcel bundled up in her arms. “I’m so glad I caught you before you disappeared,” she said breathlessly when she reached him. “I don’t know where you’ll go, but it can be dreadfully cold this time of year so you had better take this.”

Crowley opened the parcel she handed to him to find his arms full of red fabric. “My cloak,” he said with a sad smile as he wrapped it around himself.

Lucille shrugged. “Gideon’ll be furious with me, but he won’t do anything to me that I can’t handle. And if he kicks me out too, I think the Bolts might be recruiting.” Crowley flinched at that and Lucille laid a soothing hand on his arm. “What you did was terrifying and extreme, but you had a good reason for it.” She cracked weak grin, trying for a little levity. “It’s a shame you’ve been kicked out, I don’t think anyone would’ve messed with us if you were around.”

Crowley half-smiled back and then leaned in and kissed Lucille on the cheek. “Thank you for looking out for me. I just wish I had something to give you.”

Lucille reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand. “Don’t worry about it. Just go live your life, Crowley. Take care of yourself. And wear the damn cloak so you don’t freeze to death.”

“And the same to you, Lucille.”

They shared a farewell hug and then Crowley headed down to the docks to see about getting hired onto a ship’s crew.

“Hard labor?” whined Jeff.

“We don’t have that much money, I can’t waste it on booking passage,” replied Crowley as they walked past the docked ships. “If you don’t like it you can always leave.”

Jeff laughed inside of Crowley’s head. “No way. This is only the beginning for us. You and me are gonna be hanging out for a long time.”

The Dog Days of Late Winter

The glittery, distant urban sprawl, taken at an overlook spot in my area.

There’s something dreadful about the way the latter part of winter drags on. The weeks are filled with seemingly interminable strings of grey days, even when it doesn’t actually rain or snow. The trees are still bare, allowing the skyline to shimmer temptingly in ways it can’t when covered up with foliage. The light in the backyard behind mine is able to make its way through the woods separating the properties and into my room like a dim distant spotlight into my mind, exposing me to myself in a way I don’t like.

Invariably, this time of year fills me with restlessness and I find myself browsing apartment rental websites. I’m not even seeking someplace sunnier or warmer, just contemplating making a new life closer to the shore or to my distantly flung friends (despite feeling guilt about the idea of leaving my local loved ones). But such a change feels impossible to make when I can’t even afford to rent alone in the area where I currently live on my slightly better than average salary, and when I know the housing situations elsewhere are just as dire.

I’ve read so many times about how in decades past people would just decide to move someplace new with nothing but a little money and a few possessions, but I don’t know that such a thing is possible most of the time anymore. Life has too many prerequisites. People need jobs to get experience, but can’t get hired because they don’t have experience. Landlords want proof that you’re employed, but local candidates who can start immediately are often more desirable than the person who has to delay their start date to relocate.

A friend once told me that if I want a new job I just need to make a list of places where I want to work and call and ask if they’re hiring. That isn’t advice that particularly works for my field, but I wish I had that kind of courage, that kind of audacity, the chutzpah that this same friend has told me I have. I wish I knew how to just go for the things I want without talking myself out of them by telling myself the reasons they won’t work. I want my life to change, but feel so overwhelmed by not knowing how to place my first step that I just stand still. Meanwhile the world keeps rushing by, leaving me feeling left behind, and stagnant, and choking on the recycled air in the little bubble I’ve created for myself. Caution served me relatively well in my 20s, but now that I’m in my 30s it feels like just another bad habit to break, if only I were any good at doing that kind of thing.

I don’t know where to go from here, only that I want to. I don’t know how to change from here, only that I need to.

To Do in 2022

I think that even if I wasn’t born in the same month that people usually set their yearly goals I would still choose to do so in whatever my birth month was. Beginning my own personal next trip around the sun just feels like a good time to set intentions for myself, which is why I always wait until the end of January, closer to my actual birthday, and have a god long think about what I want (and need) to achieve instead of rushing to decide the first week of the month.

When I look back at what I wanted to get out of 2021 the results are pretty mixed. I carried over some goals from 2020 and those in particular went especially poorly, but I’d like to focus on successes instead because there are good reasons for (most of) my failures. For instance, while I still have games in my backlog, I did in fact play games there were not Red Dead Online. I did clear the backlog of physical books I owned and even (shocker) started getting books from my local library again after several years of not doing so. I managed a whole year of bullet journaling (which you can read about here). The various weekly online game nights that started during the pandemic are still going pretty strong and are some of the highlights of each of my weeks.

This year is my “golden birthday” (turning 31 on the 31st) and while part of me wants to declare grand intentions re: my job, my living situation, or my love life, the ongoing pandemic has me hesitant to reach out in those areas. I know I shouldn’t let it hold me back because covid is probably going to be part of the rest of our lives, but somehow the situation still feels too precarious. I somehow don’t feel too bothered by the idea of getting sick myself, but I am terrified of the idea of being the one to infect my loved ones. I will likely slowly, casually try making some progress in these areas (especially on the job front because WHOO BOY it’s been rough there lately), but I’m not formally declaring them major goals.

So what am I hoping to accomplish in 2022? Well, there are two really significant bad habits I’ve been grappling with, especially over the last several months, and there’s no time like the present for squaring my shoulders and starting to deal with them.

The first thing I need to do is divorce myself from my fucking cell phone. I don’t even want to think about how many nights I’ve lost to tapping back and forth between Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube and I feel really awful about myself when I realize I have yet again wasted an entire evening to that nonsense. I could be using that time to pursue my hobbies instead, and yet I’m not! My idea for accomplishing this is simple: when I go up to my room after dinner, my phone goes into my pajama drawer until I take it out at bedtime to charge. This way, I should be able to hear it if it rings or if my messages start blowing up, but if it doesn’t then it is basically out of sight, out of mind and that is what I need.

The second thing I need to do is to stop revenge procrastinating everything. You may have heard of the concept of revenge bedtime procrastination, which is basically staying up way too late to do more of the things you don’t get to do during the day. My issue is that I do not just revenge procrastinate at bedtime. Sleep is probably the most significant thing I procrastinate, but I am messing up my own life all day long by just not doing things when I am supposed to do them. Turning up a few minutes late for work is a less consequential one because we don’t clock in/out and my bosses don’t seem to notice or care, but I’ll put off cooking myself dinner until I’m so hungry I forget to put butter in the pan before I crack an egg in it (a real thing I did this week and it was a minor disaster, fml). Dealing with my phone issue will help immensely with this, because my phone is my number one accomplice in this procrastination.

If I can just get these two bad habits under control, I should be able to more successfully do some of the other things I want to this year, because I will simply have more time on my hands. Keeping up with both my daily journal and the one where I write little notes about the books, shows, and games I’m consuming is relatively simple. I did it last year and I’m confident I can do it again. But I want to write more, and try getting better at art, and maybe get back to playing music. I want to play more with photography as well. I did a couple of photoshoots of myself 2021 where I played around with different lighting setups (the photos in this post are from one of them) and it was pretty fun!

I also want to actually post 12 blog posts again. I only got 10 done in 2021, although one of them was a video so it took more time to put together than writing and editing a normal post. It was the first video I’ve made since quietly quitting YouTube a few years ago and I’m quite proud of it. I’d like to make more videos in the future if I have ideas, but I’m not putting pressure on myself. And speaking of proud, I’m actually especially proud of some of the writing I did in 2021. The first one that comes to mind when I think back to my favorite posts of last year is the post I did in June about my biological father, but if I were to call out two other favorites they would be the one I wrote in February about being touch-starved and the one from the beginning of May about how lonely and isolated I’d been feeling that winter/spring. I reread my 2021 posts while writing this one and I can honestly say I still like all of them, which is its own accomplishment.

So that’s what I’ve got cooking for 2022. Is there anything you’re trying to accomplish this year? I hope you can get it done! And I hope I can succeed with mine as well.

My 5 Favorite Reads of 2021

If you read my blog post about the bullet journal I kept in 2021 then you’ll know that one of the things I used that journal for was to keep track of the books I read. It’s possible that I missed noting down a book or two, especially books that I read on my Kindle during my lunches at work, but I’d say that I’ve kept a good enough record to be able to share a list of my favorite things I read last year. These books didn’t necessarily come out in 2021, I just happened to read and enjoy them over the course of the year. I tend to gravitate towards mystery/thriller books, historical fiction/non-fiction, and books with fantasy/magical elements and while those aren’t the only kinds of books I read in 2021 when I reviewed my journal and made this list there was definitely a pattern.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: I feel like with a list like this the expectation is to build up to my favorite read of the year, but I don’t want to wait, Ninth House is it for me. This is a mystery/thriller/modern fantasy novel centering on Alex Stern, a 20 year old freshman at Yale University who was recruited to study and be a member of the secret society tasked with overlooking the activities of the other secret societies on campus after she experiences a supernaturally-tinged traumatic event. As you can imagine, weird stuff happens and a mystery needs unraveling. I don’t want to say much more and risk giving something away. I read this book in June in less than a week, which is surprising because I usually only read physical books for 20 minutes or so at a time in the mornings before work. There’s a note in my journal from June 21 that says, “Tried to stretch out/savor Ninth House, but the only thing I wanted to do was read it, so I devoured the last 25% tonight.”

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater: This series is the reason this post is called “5 Favorite Reads” and not “5 Favorite Books.” I know I’m very late to this series, so you’ve probably heard people gush over it before. I myself actually read the first book a couple years ago and enjoyed it, but never managed to get to the other three. This year, though, I finally went back and read them all, spreading them out over April, May, and June, reading other books in between to make them last. These books are another supernatural/fantasy mystery, this one about a group of high school kids in Virginia trying to find the tomb of a long dead Welsh king. Apart from just wanting to know how the mystery turned out, I really enjoyed the dynamics between the characters and seeing how their relationships shifted over the course of the books. Everyone, even the side characters, feel very distinct and left an impression on me. The value of found families is a theme in these books, which is something I always love to see in a book. Stiefvater knows how to spin an immersive world and I look forward to exploring more of her books in the future.

(I’ve had my Kindle for about 5 years now and it’s been great to not lug books to work. The Pokemon stickers were done by miski, but they’re not available anymore.)

Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons: I read this book on my Kindle in September, starting it when I was on vacation in Cape May. When the book begins Constance D’Arcy’s clone wakes up and needs to piece together what happened to her and what the original Constance had been up to before her death, as Constance hadn’t been in to do a mental upload in 18 months. As she tries to sort things out she discovers that there are more suspicious events happening than just the fact that she was brought online with such an out of date backup. The near-future sci-fi world building is really neat, and this book really made me think about the ethics and ramifications of human cloning in ways I hadn’t really considered before. For the record, no, I would not like to be cloned, thanks!

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore: I was vaguely aware that this book existed for a few years, and when it came up on Prime Reading (which is where most of my Kindle reading comes from) I was quick to snap it up and I read it in the fall. This is a non-fiction book about the women who were exposed to radium in dial painting factories in the early to mid 1900s, particularly during WWI and WWII, and the struggles they had getting justice from the companies they worked for once the radium made them ill and even killed some of them quite young. This book is actually local history for me — the portion focused on New Jersey actually happened in my county and when I looked up where the factory was I realized I’ve driven past it multiple times and it is now (after a lot of remediation) a soccer field. I have rarely been so angry reading a book. The things these women went through and the reactions from their employers were outrageous, but at least it all led to changes in workers’ rights laws. However, shit like this still happens today all over the place and it was kind of disheartening to read this book and realize that ultimately not much has changed overall.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia: This is the last book I read in 2021, literally finishing it in the early afternoon on New Year’s Eve. This novel, set in the 1950s, centers on Noemí Taboada, a privileged young woman from Mexico City who is sent into the countryside to visit her married cousin Catalina who has written a concerning letter home. Noemí stays with the unsettling family her cousin has married into and tries to figure out what’s going on without losing herself in the process. This is another novel that I couldn’t put down and can’t say much about without ruining the mysteries in it. I thought I had figured out the main twist part way through, only to be proven very, very wrong. It’s a tense, fun, quick little read that I can’t recommend enough.

I don’t actually know how many books I read in 2021 because I can’t be bothered to go through my journal and actually count them, but I know that when the pandemic started I got back into reading again in a way that I hadn’t done for years, so I did get through a fair few books. I’m excited to keep reading and find out what great books I’ll be able to share with you at the end of 2022!

A Year of Bullet Journaling

(The journal pictures in this post are of my fresh, start of the month pages because I didn’t want to share all my little notes.)

Way back in January I wrote that one of my goals for 2021 was to keep a bullet journal. I usually wait to reflect on my goals for the previous year in a post at the end of January, but have enough to say about this one that I felt like it needed its own space.

Part of the benefit of doing a bullet journal is that you can set it up how you like and don’t have space taken up by habit trackers or goal boxes that are irrelevant to you. I knew from the outset I wanted to do just a few simple layouts. Every month naturally starts with a title page. Obviously, a monthly calendar grid was absolutely necessary, as was a spread for each week. It took me a couple of months of experimentation to find a weekly set up that I liked, and once I settled on one I saw no reason to change it. I didn’t keep a traditional habit tracker per se, but I did round out each month of pages with a color coded list of whatever books I’d finished, shows/movies I’d watched, or games I’d beaten that month, along with little notes of what I thought of them. All of the pages were decorated as much or as little as I had the energy for at the time.

(My vast array of bullet journal supplies, lol.)

Energy is a lot of what bullet journaling comes down to for me, to be honest. Some months I was totally gung ho and happy to spend the time drawing out my layouts each month. There were many months where it felt peaceful and meditative in a way. However, other months, especially towards the end of the year, I had trouble getting myself to take the time for it, feeling like it was a tedious chore that I didn’t really want to do, but had to so I could write my little notes in it.

I’ll be honest, there isn’t really enough going on in my life that I feel like I need a planner to keep track of it, especially since ye olde plague sees me spending even more time at home than I did before. I did of course mark in appointments and events as they came up, but I got a lot more use out of my bullet journal as an actual journal to write a little bit about what happened every day. I don’t know why this had never occurred to me with the planners I’ve owned in the past, but I ultimately found that having a size limited box made it easier for me to keep up with regular journaling more than the intimidatingly expansive pages of the blank lined notebooks I’ve tried to journal in before. I’ve kind of fallen off of journaling for the past couple of months, but I’m glad that at least for a large part of the year I have a record of the things I’ve done and things I’ve felt.

So, to sum up, did I successfully complete a year of bullet journaling? Yes. But will I be doing it again? No. By the end of the year I found it kind of annoying. I’d rather just buy a new planner for 2022 and use it as a journal. However, I do intend to fill up the remaining empty pages of my bullet journal with more notes about what I’ve watched, read, etc. I’m not making a goal to read a certain number of books or anything like that, but I like that I have a record of not only the media I consumed, but also my general impressions of it.

Even though in the end I’ve decided not to continue bullet journaling, I’m glad I tried it. I’ve satisfied my curiosity about whether I was capable, but I’ve found out that it isn’t for me and that’s fine! That’s just how life is sometimes.