“in order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”*

this post was written on sunday night, september 21. it’s now monday, september 22, and i’m sitting in a coffee shop across the street from chicago’s union station.

cloud gate, aka "the bean," chicago

cloud gate, aka “the bean,” in millennium park, chicago

tonight i walked the few blocks from the hotel i’m staying in with my boyfriend to a diner in a section of chicago called south loop. i’d assumed it’s called by this name because there’s a light rail sort of contraption that hugs the area, but upon doing the wikipedia thing, i found out that the origin of south loop is unknown. but, when i hear the name, i think of a neatly tied ribbon, which is downright pleasant, and it actually is pretty nice, complete with a trader joe’s and elevator-building apartments. it’s also not nearly as filled with homeless people as the other sections of the city we’ve been roaming for the past four days. chicago has so far made new york look, in comparison, positively free of the mentally ill and drug-addicted folks society has abandoned to the streets. ’merica.

at least, on this chicago trip, no one tried to choke me on the street outside of a bar. i don’t remember what i’d said to that girl to piss her off, but, boy, was she mad!

so i rolled up to the diner solo, as my boyfriend was at the time in a large hotel conference room showing and analyzing footage of his interactions with girls as a learning tool for other guys. at this point, i’ve eaten alone so many times, it never strikes me as strange, but when i stood at the please-wait-to-be-seated sign (fuck you, hyphens. why can’t i use small caps in wordpress?), the host (because he was a dude and not a hostess, though host makes it sound as if i were about to attend dinner theater) peeked around me. considering i’m not even 5’2”, the options for who might be hiding behind me were few.

“just you?” is what he said, to which i answered a neutral, unmodulated “yup.”

and then he puckered his lips and crinkled his brows in thought, nodded, grabbed one menu, and led me to a counter seat so my ass wouldn’t take up too much real estate in a booth or at a table. he wasn’t so much judgmental as observant, and i wasn’t offended—only surprised, i suppose.

it seems as if all i hear or read about anymore, especially when it comes to being a woman, is independence. having our own careers, traveling alone, raising a child alone, starting our own businesses from scratch, etc., etc. but every time i look at facebook (which, i’m happy to admit, has been pretty infrequent nowadays), someone has posted yet another fucking article or top five list on how to be happy, and there’s always something on there about being comfortable alone, learning to be alone, spending time by yourself. i wholly give my credence to these prescriptions and similar, but independence seems to be en vogue, something people say more than they practice.

i feel the same way about glorifying the benefits of kale. kale is great for you. kale is delicious, whether sautéed, in a salad, in chip or smoothie form—however you want. eat it with your bare hands out of the bag like i do.

amtrak train (nyc > chi)

this is the snapchat photo i sent to my friend in nj while i was working on the lake shore limited amtrak train to chicago.

i actually whipped out a ziplock of it on the train to chicago and ate it like popcorn (yes, everyone, i took a train not a plane to chicago, so please ask me again why i would do this and tell me why it sounds crazy), and the guy next to me gave me the same look as the host’s in the chicago diner. i guess maybe he’s more sophisticated and makes his pesto with kale (which is a thing i didn’t know you could do until i googled it a minute ago), so i understand his reservations about my low-class kale eating.

but everyone needs just to eat kale if they want to and shut the fuck up about it.

 

the eleven city diner, south loop, chicago

the diner in south loop

anyway, it’s still odd for a woman—maybe anyone, to be honest—to have a meal alone. you can grocery shop alone. you can mail letters and go to bookstores alone. you can pick up dry cleaning and get your nails done and hair cut and buy wine and go running, but eating a meal in a restaurant alone is another matter, especially if there doesn’t seem to be any tangible reason for doing so. i didn’t walk into the diner with a huge backpack to show that i was just passing through. i wasn’t wearing sunglasses indoors, earbuds jammed in my head to show i was either having an emotional breakdown and didn’t want to be seen crying but felt the need to have dinner in public, or i was massively hung over and looked like a hollowed-out avocado. i wasn’t carrying a laptop nor did i have a bluetooth in my ear to indicate that i had important business to attend to on a sunday night.

which i totally did. i had to talk to my friend in california on gchat and eat a huge omelet with spinach.

(they didn’t have any kale.)

almost two years ago to the day, i’d been sitting in a dusk-lit square in madrid, staring at a spanish menu and trying to figure out which item(s) could easily be made vegetarian, when i glanced over and saw a women eating alone. she had a book, a meal, and a glass of red wine, and she looked to be in her late forties or early fifties. madrid was the seventh, and last, country of my trip across europe, so by that point, i’d had at least one breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, coffee, dessert, elevensies, second breakfast, and alcohol session by myself, and the first time i’d consumed something alone—when i’d self-consciously sat in a café in rome and had espresso—seemed to have occurred eons, not weeks, ago.

madrid, spain

the restaurant in madrid where i ate my first madrid meal. the woman on the right may or may not have been the poor lady i was hard-core judging.

still, i found myself wondering about the woman, and why she was dining by herself. did she need to get away from her man/woman, did she even have a significant other, was she divorced or widowed, was she a spinster with one hundred gatos, did she have no friends . . .

i guess i could have hypothesized that she was eating alone because her pickup artist boyfriend was teaching the intricacies of game and dating, but the idea didn’t cross my mind for some reason.

then i thought, really? you’re eating alone and you can only wish you had one hundred cats!

in all seriousness, the thing is, that lady looked content. eighty-six that. more than content, actually: happy! happy in the i couldn’t give a fuck way, which, to me, is the height of happiness. i realized my curiosity was laden with judgment, and i thought instead about other things, like ordering patatas bravas and queso fresco and a tortilla española (no wonder i gained five pounds in europe), and what i would do for the last two days of my trip. i was getting closer to independence in that madrid tapas bar than i’d ever been before, and i see it now as the preparation i needed to do what i do now, which is to freelance alone and eat alone and not speak to another soul for sometimes an entire working day. today i’m closer still—though not close enough to ignore when a diner host “observes” my solo status—but i’m nearer to happy, for certain.

someday, may the supermarket shelves be bountiful with kale, stocked end-to-end with kale chips and kale pestos and kale salsas and kale cheerios, and i can gchat and eat omelets and take an hour to drink one cup of coffee sans spinster hypotheses and en paz.

 

*albert camus

“worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.”*

this post was written on june 14, while i was traveling to boston, and has been tweaked many times since. i’ve only recently felt like posting it.

the last time i was on a two-level bus, i was traveling from bangkok to phuket. this thought just occurred to me as i’m now sitting on a bus from new york to boston, a trip i haven’t made since november. the megabus “wifi” is put in quotes because it is, in fact, an illusion, so as of now i’m forced to think of this bus as if it’s its distant cousin in thailand, on which i’m unable to have contact with the outside world. okay, so i still have use of the 3g on my phone, but let’s keep going with this little experiment. i also haven’t used facebook in twenty-four hours, and i’m going to own this pathetic feat and see if i can do without the king of social media for an entire weekend.

i think i’m a pretty unique, superior being, but i know that one trait i share with you subhumans is that i have trouble focusing on the present. i’ll often compare current situations to past ones (both my own and the pasts of my friends or family, because that doesn’t further complicate things) or imagine what shape the future will mutate into. all this causes: worry! worrying if it’ll be the same as last time or worrying that it’ll be different but in a terrible way—of course, why picture anything fantastic? but even imagining a fantastic future, daydreamers, is dangerous. while envisioning achieving your goals is a common tactic for reaching success, i’m going to go ahead and say fuck that and fuck it this instant. i’ll often compare life to running, and i’m not planning to divert from that tactic here. i haven’t run a marathon—yet—but i think that to imagine yourself finishing your twenty-sixth mile is not nearly as important as getting through the mile you’re currently on, employing quick, measured footfalls that conserve your air and energy, empower your psyche, and protect that poor body you’re beating up.

anyway, i was talking to one of my coworkers yesterday about a situation i’m in that i cannot find a soul to talk to about because i don’t know anyone who can relate in any way to what has been launched at me. i have a pretty extensive circle of friends (you know, because i’m a unique, superior being), and normally i have at least one friend who can say, hey, i’ve been there, but this time . . . nope. i’m on my own. but i did confide in my coworker (by the way, to call her that is half correct, because she’s both my colleague and close friend), and while she sat in my shut office as i cried onto my lap, she told me this:

kaitlin, i love you, but you need to stop. you aren’t enjoying what’s going on now and in the process you are aging yourself. you are making yourself old.

i don’t know what it was it was about that word or the emphasis she put on it—old—but it stopped the crying. she went on to say that this behavior is going to keep me from doing the things i need to do that are in my survival kit. (she always has the best way of phrasing things.) the worrying will carve out the parts of my life that should be reserved for doing what keeps me at my peak and for making me the person who someone is attracted to initially. when she asked me what’s in my survival kit, i said:

  1. running
  2. writing
  3. traveling

and she added, rightfully so: family, and a few good friends who you can call anytime and say, “can we get a cup of a coffee? or take a walk? i need to talk.”

then i added: love. and she said that if i don’t stop how i’m behaving, i’m not going to make myself good for this boy. that i’m going to ruin it now because i’m worried about ruining it later on or not doing anything wrong at all and having it fall apart anyway, just because. worrying, or giving in to your fears, is a great way to set yourself up to fail and to guarantee that your greatest fears will most certainly come true.

just the other day, i was talking to that same coworker regarding my concerns about the plans i have lined up for the next few months, and about what i will do if things don’t work out. she asked me, yet again exasperated (i must do this to people often), what i would do if i were running a relay, and if one of my teammates didn’t show up to pass me the baton.

what would you do? she asked. stand there like a dumbass?

i thought briefly and didn’t say anything for a while. and then i answered, “i’d run anyway.”

and then she clapped. and said:

so when you get to the next girl, you say, “that bitch didn’t show up and give me that stick, but what up? i’m here!

what up? i’m here. hm.

so i’ve decided that while my situation isn’t ideal, at least not on the surface and to outsiders, i’m starting to think that most things in life worth holding on to with a death grip aren’t perfect. it took me years to land myself in the children’s book division of a major publisher and in the department of my choice. it’s easy for me now to look at those “before” years as a hazy clump of time, but during that epoch of kaitlin, i was beside myself, wondering when i was going to get there, get my dream job. now that i have it, i can savor it all the more because i worked my tail off to get it. and i’m pretty sure that traveling by myself, nonstop, through europe, when i hadn’t traveled anywhere, did a lot more for building myself as a person than sitting in a resort and sipping a cocktail would have. adversity creates character and gives you life experiences, and sometimes it can draw you toward just what you need, even if it’s not what you were looking for.

anyway . . . i’d imagine that for me, the right person and the right life are going to be far from boring and far from easy. i don’t want to coast. i want to drive fast sometimes, slow others, and maybe take dirt roads, back roads, and hairpin turns on occasion. i’d like to toss aside google maps and maybe, and this might be shocking, not know where i’m going. one of my frustrations in the past was the level of monotony and comfort that can form in a union or while on a life path, and incongruously, i was very uncomfortable with being comfortable.

so, as i said before, i’ve added love to my survival kit. but not just any kind. and while maybe this whole blog is a form of carrie-fying myself, quoting sex and the city isn’t something i usually like to do, even if i watched that show like a fiend (and wouldn’t ever turn off the movie if it were on tv). regardless, here:

i am someone who is looking for love. real love. ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love.

if i want to keep what i’ve found—and i do, inconveniences and all—i know that i have to stop the comparisons to the past and cease worrying about a future i can’t control. not everyone’s story is the same, and my route may have a few potholes, and really, i’m okay with that. if given the choice between a root-gnarled trail and an even straightaway, i’d rather run on that perilous trail—it’s exciting, more scenic, and unleashes a feeling, deep down, of self-confidence, self-love, and pride, a sense of triumph over having conquered and taken exactly what it was that i wanted to grab—risks for rewards—even it means i might trip and fall on my face here and there, or even right at the end. it wouldn’t be the first time.

*corrie ten boom

“now my head won’t stop / you wait a lifetime to be found / now my feet won’t touch the ground”*

the first night of my freshman year of college, my two ca’s (known as ra’s, or resident advisors, at most other schools) led us to a grassy area outside our dorm, our new home, and asked us to sit in a circle. in order for us to quickly “get to know” the other kids on our floor, we took part in an icebreaker. everyone had to pick an adjective that described him or her, and the word had to begin with the same letter of his or her first name (think marvelous melissa). i picked kooky, because there are hardly any decent adjectives that start with kkeen sounded too snobbish and/or british; the misspellings krazy and kool would either drive the point home that i’m most certainly the former and definitely not the latter; and kinky seemed both inappropriate in mixed company, not to mention inaccurate for my eighteen-year-old self. the word kind never even crossed my mind, of course, though kleptomaniacal did, so please process that information however you wish. after we gave ourselves our new adjectival aliases, we then had to repeat all those that came before, thus ingraining into our gray matter the names of our fifty floor mates, most of whom we probably wouldn’t talk to again after that year. either way, the icebreaker worked. i still remember a few names, including loquacious lindsay, who really didn’t ever shut the hell up.

two years later, when i was a pa (sort of like a ca but with fewer responsibilities and thus a smaller room and a smaller paycheck), i participated in a number of icebreakers, my favorite being two truths and a lie. it’s more of a get to know the real you icebreaker than a name helper, but an icebreaker nonetheless. if you don’t know the drill, basically what you do is state two truths and one lie about yourself, but you let your new soon-to-be best friends guess which statement is the lie. i always said the same three things (if only my first name began with a p so that i could have used predictable as my adjective back in 2002): one, i’m an only child; two, my hair is naturally straight; and three, i’ve never been on an airplane.

out of those three, almost everyone guessed that number one was the lie because, well, my hair is pretty freakin’ curly and no reasonable person would believe that i’d made it that way on purpose, and two, who the hell hasn’t been on an airplane by the age of twenty? (i’m not going to comment on how ethnocentric that last assumption is. i’m just going to get on with my little story.)

i included the airplane fact every time because it never ceased to stump people, and, because, back then, i wasn’t bothered by it. as a kid, my parents and i took vacations, but we always drove, even when that meant a twenty-four-hour-long road trip to key largo in an old car with no air conditioning when i was three. and because we drove, we were able to stay with family and friends along the way, solidifying relationships with people from up and down the east coast and ensuring that i’ve probably passed south of the border more times than any other white girl from new jersey, save my mom.

you passed us, amigo. go back!

i escaped aviatorial virginhood duringsouth-of-the-border-advertising my senior year of college, at age twenty-two, en route to key largo with five of my friends for wooooo! spring wooooo! break wooooo! due to my zero experience with air travel and, at that time, my tendency toward suffering from severe anxiety, i was petrified of flying. i thought, and still sometimes think, that human beings have no business zooming around in the atmosphere, mimicking birds and pretending that being tens of thousands of feet above the earth is at all normal.

armed with only dramamine (i didn’t yet know about the wonders of xanax), i sat on my first-ever 747. one of my best friends sat next to me and held my hand like i was a child. when the aircraft began to taxi, i tightened my grip; my silent question of is this it? was answered with her eyes: oh, no. you’ll know when it’s it. and then, about five minutes later, when i was pretty sure a rocket had just exploded under all of us and we were going faster than any other people in the history of the world, i asked more questions—is this supposed to be happening? are we all going to die?—which were met with kind yet pitied looks of yes and no and please, someone, get me through the next two hours and forty-five minutes with my hand intact and without me killing my friend.

for the next six years, i took whatever my doctor would prescribe (xanax) or whatever my coworkers at the time were willing to give me (klonopin, valium) on any flight i took. the drugs usually made me a half-asleep and loopy—kooky, even—imbecile, who invariably had a drink or two after landing, which might as well have been five or six drinks, after having popped two antianxiety pills less than eight hours earlier.

in october of 2012, sans xanax or any other med, also known as “going commando” according to my mom, i boarded my seven-hour plane ride home from madrid totally wired but too tired to care that i hadn’t planned ahead (shocking) and was therefore drug-free. i stayed awake for most of the flight—i mean, who wouldn’t when they were showing rock of ages dubbed in spanish on repeat?—and despite a bit of palm-sweating and heart-fluttering during takeoff, i was calm.

i’m not going to sit here and type that going to europe changed my life and all that stuff that white yuppie people claim after they’ve been abroad, but after having gotten lost in venice for an hour while lugging a sixty-pound backpack, taking a fourteen-hour night train from italy to the netherlands in a tin can sleep cabin shared with two german girls and a canadian dude, and running up a 550-foot incline (that’s more than half the height of the eiffel tower) in paris after three nights in amsterdam (never, ever a good idea), for the first time in my life, whether it was because i was too exhausted to care or what, i didn’t give two, or even one, shit(s) about being on an airplane.

this past thursday, on a connection from washington, dc, to nashville, and my fifth flight since the one from madrid, i looked out my window, underwear on but xanax-free, at a skyful of crisp white stars. above the smog and the lights, they were truly cosmic and celestial, living up wholeheartedly to the adjectives they helped to inspire. i tried to take a photo through the glass, but when the image developed, all i could see was a fuzzy near-blackness. i didn’t attempt to take another photo; i realized it was unlikely that i’d ever forget how the sky looked that night, or how i felt as i continued to stare out the window, hands cupped around my eyes, feeling simultaneously minuscule and giantlike.

three weeks from today i will be getting on sixteen-hour- and four-hour flights to hong kong and phnom penh, respectively, with the real first leg of my trip including phnom pehn, siem reap, and bangkok (solo) and the second, phuket and various thai islands (with one of my best friends). the first flight will be the longest i’ll ever have been on, with newark to hawaii a distant second, clocking in at eleven hours. i am not planning on taking any meds, but i do plan to get up and walk around every two hours to avoid deep vein thrombosis, which my friend, who is a doctor, so kindly warned me about earlier this weekend. thanks, bud, for both educating and scaring the bejesus out of me at the same time.

as i look back and think about what i would have missed out on if my parents and i had flown to our various vacation destinations, i don’t regret not having been on an airplane until after i was able to legally drink. but when i think about the places and people i may have missed out on because i was too afraid to fly, because i let my fear define me, i feel more than a twinge of regret. i wonder, sometimes, if now i’m making up for that lost time, and if i am, if it’s not really such a bad thing. i understand now why people use that corny phrase “bitten by the travel bug.” i want to go everywhere. seriously.

while i can no longer use “i’ve never been on an airplane” as one of my truths, i’d be more than content to use it as one of my lies. and if i were to take part in one of those moniker icebreakers again, i think that, instead of kooky, i’d choose something like killer, which merriam-webster lists the definitions of as “strikingly impressive or effective” (“these are killer brownies!”) or “extremely difficult to deal with” (“that exam was killer”). it isn’t exactly what i think i am now (at least, not the first definition), but what i hope someday—like those burning balls of gas in the sky do so easily—to embody, one city, one country, one continent at a time.

*”now my feet won’t touch the ground” by coldplay