The Best Thing to Do

By October, it was becoming clear to me, though I couched it in a sea of maybes, that if we want to build connections and be a part of communities we care about, if life is fleeting and we don’t really know how long we have, if these battles are critical now—and they are—then maybe it’s foolish to think that in my overall life trajectory I would still prefer to have moved away and then come back, when I have no control over the distant future and only some control of what’s coming next. So maybe, maybe the best thing is to finally do the things we want to do right now, live somewhere in our lifelong home state, which has so much going for it and yet so many profit-hungry Republicans stacked against it, to work to make the place above all other places in our lives a better place, see our best friends on the weekends and help out our parents and hopefully be part of the city we have watched and cared for and had so many beautiful memories in already.

Maybe that’s the best thing to do.

* * *

That’s how I ended my post, “Home Again,” where I talked about coming home to Ann Arbor after a long trip, and how soon, I would say goodbye to that city I had lived in for the past decade. The post ended up being more about leaving than returning. On the other hand, I ended by saying that I wanted to stay in this state. I wrote about how over the years we had hoped for the sliver of a chance of a job for Cooper in Detroit, so that we could, in a way, move home again. (Both of us grew up just a few blocks outside Detroit city limits.) That was the ideal next step, for both of us.

In the end, there were no hard choices for us to make. We were insanely fortunate. We didn’t have to choose between a job and our families, and I can still vote in Michigan next year, for regional transit and independent redistricting and a Democrat for governor, and visit Lake Michigan on the weekends. Cooper had one job offer, for a job we had hoped for years would open up at the right time, and he accepted. We moved to Detroit in July.

Now it’s September. It turns out that it’s intimidating to write a blog post for which you’ve picked the ambitious title, “The Best Thing to Do.” It’s even harder when in your day-to-day life, you don’t feel the conviction that this was the best thing to do—not that there’s something I would have rather done! This is the only future I was rooting for, and it’s still the only one I really want: to move to Detroit and make a home here. To learn the people and the streets and the buildings, the bends of the river, and figure out how I fit in. But how do I build that future in the present, instead of just imagining it?

* * *

It hasn’t fully sunk in yet, I don’t think. It’s easy to feel like the luckiest person when you’re about to move into your dream apartment in the city you’ve intended to live in, off and on, for the past seven years. But it’s less easy to feel lucky when the washing machine, garbage disposal, oven, and dishwasher all don’t work on move-in day (I shed many tears, and we seriously considered breaking our lease). You start to feel downright cursed after two weeks of living in a construction zone you hadn’t expected, while the pretty old windows you wanted functional are being torn out and replaced in very messy fits and starts. I urgently wanted to get settled and start living this new life, but weeks later, half our belongings were still in boxes, inaccessibly stacked in closets to keep them safe from hundred-year-old dust. Cooper absolutely didn’t have those weeks to give up: he needs to finish his dissertation.

So Detroit is where I am now, in a big apartment just minutes from the Detroit River, getting ready to live the life I’ve dreamed about. We have eleven new vinyl windows on three sides of our apartment. Our own chickens may still be a ways off, but this home checks all the important boxes I wrote about before (the solar panels feel much more urgent than the chickens these days, but we don’t have those, either, since it’s a rental). Cooper will be a professor at Wayne State University, and I’ll have more time to write at home once I’m settled (and more time spent commuting in a car, but not every day, so that’s okay for now).

On our fourth day living in Detroit, I found myself standing in front of hundreds of people and speaking as one of two representatives from Motor City Freedom Riders at a big public meeting organized by MOSES to hold elected officials accountable (we need regional transit back on the ballot in 2018, along with expanded suburban bus service for Wayne County!). So in that sense, it feels like I plunged right in on one of the most important reasons to make our lives in this city: so that we can show up for the causes we care about, and try to make a difference in people’s lives.

I don’t feel like there’s a lot to show for the weeks since then—it already feels like autumn out there!—and time’s a-wasting. So here’s to getting organized, hitting publish on imperfect blog posts, and plunging in on everything else!

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Home Again

My friend Meg, a translator of Spanish and Catalan literature, was living and working in Barcelona winter semester, so of course I had to visit her. Neither of us had been to the País Vasco (Basque Country) or Galicia, so we decided that beyond Barcelona, we would head northwest to San Sebastián in Basque Country and then to Santiago de Compostela and Fisterra in Galicia, which is the westernmost part of Spain and just north of Portugal. (There are photos on Instagram under #MarisaInSpain.)

It was an excellent spring break, full of seaside vistas and pastries and train travel and tapas and beautiful old buildings. We stayed in nice pensiones with simple, well-designed rooms that surprisingly only cost us each about €20 per night (the nicest rooms I’ve ever booked). We alternated long walks and sightseeing with cafes, park benches, and the occasional siesta, which was a good balance (although it would have been better if we hadn’t been working on our laptops during so much of the downtime).

Coming home, I saw Ann Arbor in a different light. I was surprised by how wide the streets of downtown Ann Arbor felt after crisscrossing the streets of Gràcia in Barcelona for days, where tree canopies shadow one-way lanes that pedestrians fill until a motorbike or car appears. My little city’s streets disappointed me a bit: their width seemed so gratuitous. The parked cars and wide lanes felt like a canyon separating the people and shops on either side of the road. Of course, Ann Arbor’s downtown streets aren’t wide at all compared to many others, but I felt the change from the neighborhood in Barcelona acutely.

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Ann Arbor’s Main Street, packed with International Women’s Day strikers.

Still, Ann Arbor is home, and there are many things I know I’ll miss when that’s no longer true.

For years now we’ve wondered when we might leave. Cooper and I first thought we might move to Detroit several years ago, when he finished his PhD coursework. I resolved to do all our favorite Ann Arbor things then, to say yes to anything fun and enjoy a final summer here, a perfect autumn of cider mills and walks in the Arb(oretum), which we did so often when we were in college. But staying put was easier and cheaper than uprooting ourselves, and once I found a mythical job with benefits, there was another incentive to stay.

So we waited, unsure when Cooper would finish or where he might find a job. More than once I thought the next year would be our last year here. In the moments when we realize our lives could soon take a new turn, the familiar becomes more precious. This encourages us to take advantage of what we can while we’re still here: to go to the film festival during the work week, to visit all the parks and restaurants we still haven’t been to. It also made it difficult to decide last summer if we should postpone our Lake Superior vacation for Iceland. What if it was our last summer near the Great Lakes?

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The Huron River at Island Park.

I’ve looked forward to the adventure of a new place for years. I love my apartment, enjoy living in this pretty college town that is populated by friends and family. But I’ve long looked forward to putting down firmer roots in my next home, living in a neighborhood where people get to know each other, instead of so many neighbors cycling in and out every year as they graduate from college. I don’t have a history of being involved in my community; I am not good at reaching out and making friends, at sharing myself in person, carrying on a conversation when I’m uncomfortable. So for a while, I procrastinated. I wanted to be involved in issues I care about, but I thought I’d wait to lead life differently wherever we ended up.

But I got sick of waiting. I didn’t do as much as I should have, but I helped register people to vote. I volunteered with the campaign to fund our Regional Transit Authority.

Then the election happened. I still didn’t know where we’d be in a year, but waiting to take action was no longer an option. So now I’m putting down roots in the place that I expect to leave. Of course, there’s no harm in doing so, but it feels a little odd sometimes. After ten years here, I’m seeing things from a new angle, getting a more human-centric view of this place, and it makes the looming farewell even more bittersweet.

There’s a lot for me in Ann Arbor. And the more community events I go to, the more people I connect with and things I learn, the more I love this town. I’ve known all along that this city is full of like-minded people, but now that I’m experiencing it more fully, I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to imagine going somewhere else.

We’d imagined life in Cleveland, which could be a good place for Cooper to work and for us to live, and is still pretty close to home. I was excited about a program in Austin that Cooper was interested in, thinking it would be fun to live in a completely different place for a year or two, until maybe he’d get hired at a university back in the Great Lakes region. We were prepared to go almost anywhere, if there was a good job for him. Finding a tenure-track position is no mean feat.

We talked with friends about how we hoped for the sliver of a chance that we could make the smaller move back to the Detroit area; the want was still strong, our hearts were still invested in the city (and our parents who live nearby, and our people across the state). We talked also of how I’d always wanted to move away for a while, experience a bigger city or a different climate, new people and perspectives. That comes with the exciting but also troubling possibility that somewhere else would be perfect for us, and we wouldn’t come back.

In the past couple years, I’ve drawn closer to this state of mine. I’ve always loved the lakes, but learning about Michigan’s history bored me as a child. From an early age, I disliked Metro Detroit’s massive sprawl (ugly and inconvenient); later, I hated how dull it was to live in a suburb so committed to quiet uniformity, and dreamed of leaving.

In the time since I graduated from college, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed in Ann Arbor, I’ve learned a lot more about the state, its politics, our cities and towns and natural wonders. I want things to get better. I want people to be safe, wildlife to be protected, our governments to help instead of harm us.

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Kerrytown in springtime.

By October, it was becoming clear to me, though I couched it in a sea of maybes, that if we want to build connections and be a part of communities we care about, if life is fleeting and we don’t really know how long we have, if these battles are critical now—and they are—then maybe it’s foolish to think that in my overall life trajectory I would still prefer to have moved away and then come back, when I have no control over the distant future and only some control of what’s coming next. So maybe, maybe the best thing is to finally do the things we want to do right now, live somewhere in our lifelong home state, which has so much going for it and yet so many profit-hungry Republicans stacked against it, to work to make the place above all other places in our lives a better place, see our best friends on the weekends and help out our parents and hopefully be part of the city we have watched and cared for and had so many beautiful memories in already.

Maybe that’s the best thing to do.

Garden Diary: Summer’s Bounty

porch-1Here, we have the citizens of the porch garden, hiding from a potential frost in the dingy hallway outside my apartment.

(We also have, top left, the Icelandic poppy plant I purchased to bring to work, which was super pretty until it got sickly, and then I forgot to ask my officemate to water it while I was in Iceland, of all places. That was its final death sentence. There’s also a resilient plant atop a plant stand—both from Cooper’s dad—that he’s had since college. It survived abandonment while Cooper was in Chile, but can barely survive Haroun, hence its hallway banishment. My dad rescued the Norfolk pine, next to Cooper’s plant, from a garbage bin in his alley. It’s the only plant that I fertilize regularly, which may be why Cooper’s mom always tells us it’s gotten bigger.)

Next to the poppies is an impulse-buy: a dahlia to live on our front porch, which gets the western sun and is unshaded by any trees. I thought its flowers would keep me satisfied while I waited all summer for the front porch sunflowers to grow.

Then, three long, plastic window boxes with nine! basil plants, for basil gimlet cocktails and pesto and pizza. Two sculptural terra cotta pots that I lusted after at Terrain for months, if not more than a year, before they went on super-clearance and I let myself buy them. ($15! Only $15! Sure, they’re just beautiful terra cotta pots that could probably break very easily, but the size I bought started at FIFTY-EIGHT dollars apiece. Highway robbery.) They house the parsley, left, and the thyme, right. Behind them are some bright red geraniums,  a perfect fiery red with a hint of orange, to add color to the green farm on my little fire escape. Not pictured is the under-appreciated tomato plant.

So like I said in this post, the plants were mostly the same as last year, the first year of the porch garden, but with more basil and a few flowers.

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The start of the garden, on May 9th. I also wanted to add plants along the outer edge by the railing, possibly hanging a few window boxes from the slats, but Ikea sold out of the planters I wanted, and I never chose what to plant, anyway. Maybe next year!

On the left is the porch viewed from the stairs, also on May 9th. On the right, just over a month later, the tomato plant had grown several feet and we may have already harvested the basil for a batch of pesto once. The basil got much bigger after this.

One day at the end of June, I set some of the plants up on the railing (including my little cacti from the bedroom window) to catch the morning sun. Because we’re so close to the next house, with a big tree above, we get narrow patches of sun at different angles throughout the morning. Since I was home and able to move the plants around as the light changed, I did. Plus, the plants looked pretty against the yellow house, and I could see them from inside for a change.

The morning outing didn’t go well for those three basil plants. They took a spill, narrowly missing the car parked in the driveway below. We made pesto with the mangled leaves, repotted the scraggly plants, and happily, they survived. (Never again, at least not for the planters that don’t quite fit on the slanty, narrow railing.)

porch-6So all summer, the garden saved us from buying unnecessary bundles of parsley, just to season occasional meals then throw the rest away. Our fresh pesto habit was made cheaper by the homegrown basil (plus Cooper started to substitute walnuts for pine nuts). There was always thyme when we needed it.

Besides the endless supply of pesto pasta and pesto sandwiches and best of all, pesto pizza, my favorite part about the porch is that it’s a simple, refreshing place to sit—the best place for hour-long phone calls. I’d bring out a big pillow and lean against the railing, legs stretched out in front of me. Sometimes I tried to write this blog. Sometimes I did stretches on the colorful, woven mat. When I was tired, I’d lie back on the pillow and just stare up at beautiful patterns made by the tree above me. Happy to be outside, and alone.

plants porchThis photo is from early October. The planters are full of dead leaves from the tree. Today, November, the basil still hangs on, though it’s not as impressive as it still was a month ago in the photo. The parsley, thyme, and geraniums have moved indoors, to try to live on winter’s western light, à la The Unexpected Houseplant.

Then, there were the sunflowers.

Back to early May and the impulse-dahlias, their deep red petals looking elegant with the dark shingles and sleek galvanized steel bucket behind them (à la 66 Square Feet). I planted the sunflower seeds in the buckets in mid-May. (No, please pretend my shingles look like a chic, black- or charcoal-painted Scandinavian home; it’s what I do, powerless as I am against the actions of the landlord.)

Some of the websites I came across cautioned against growing anything larger than dwarf sunflowers in a container, but others thought I could get away with it, so I bought a pack of autumn mix something-or-other seeds. The plants should grow six feet tall or more, some with red accents on the petals, if their petals weren’t red outright (I wish I’d had some crimson sunflowers). I planted three groups in each bucket, with two or three seeds each group, and a bucket on each side of the door. I thinned them out eventually, reluctantly. Neighborhood animals thinned them out some more, so my reluctance seems merited.

I tried to follow the watering directions linked in the previous paragraph, (so much water! don’t do this if you don’t have an outdoor faucet and a hose!), and then I stopped taking pictures until the end of June, when the tallest plants were already door-height (above right). Most of the summer, we were lugging a water bucket down the stairs twice a day to keep the soil moist (woodchips or something on top might have helped.) The first bloom opened at the very end of July, days before we left home for a week in Iceland:

One of the sunflower plants did its best to one-up Jack and his beanstalk. It only made it partway up the second story, but I think that’s pretty impressive for a nonmagical sunflower seed from Lowe’s:

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sunflowers 8 portrait.JPGThe last bloom from the last plant still standing, this week. Perfect for the kitchen table. Farewell, summer.

What Do You Want for Your Next Home?

I know what I want next. In fact, I want so many things for my next home that it’s impossible to reconcile them.

There are the bare necessities: a dishwasher, on-site laundry, a bathroom guests can use without having to walk through our bedroom. A bedroom big enough for a queen-size bed complete with headboard and footboard. Enough space for my desk and papers and Cooper’s desk and papers to coexist comfortably along with a living room and a dining table that fits more than four people.

Whoa now, that’s already asking a lot, especially considering that we’ll still be renting at our next place, and it will most likely be an apartment. Let me make it more fantastical for you, though.

pinterest-2pinterest-1I dream of a guest bedroom/office, with a beautiful iron bed, an extra sofa or at least a pretty bench at the foot of the bed, a wall of bookshelves. I want a restful place for my friends to sleep when they visit, safe from cat fur and early wakers rumbling in the kitchen. I want doors that really close, sometimes, for the guests and for me.

I imagine a kitchen that can be clean. Fresh paint, truly flat and smooth surfaces, no weird grime. I think we might need a hood over the stove because of all the grease our current kitchen collects, but maybe cabinets without sticky paint and grooves in all the surfaces, without a forced air vent on the floor directly next to the stove, would be easy enough to clean. There’s a big table in the new kitchen, so we can cook dinners to share, with a bench or maybe a corner banquette on one or two sides.

(A home built with right angles, perhaps, although I plan on it predating World War II, and so maybe it’s too much to ask for straight floors.)

I hope for a real porch, if not at least a weird fire escape like we have now. I want to eat outside and each year, grow a few more plants than I did the year before. (All I really added to last year’s garden were prettier pots and some geraniums.)

And then sometimes, I dream really big. I see us buying a house that would be a lot more work, but probably also a lot of fun. We plant trees and fill our yard with flowers and herbs and vegetables and put solar panels on the roof. We try having our own chickens, like Ali and Drew, so we know the eggs we eat every day come from animals who are healthy and appreciated. We could host our parents for weeks at a time and give a dog a home and throw big parties.

laundry cat.jpgBut that’s a completely different life from the one we’re living now, and it’s not a life I’m really ready for. I want a little more space, and a different layout; I’m sick of coming up against the same limitations every time I try to make our home work better or look different. Mostly, I want to be able to better accommodate friends and family, and ease some burdens in our daily life (laundromat trips!!)—but without spending a whole lot more money, or widening our carbon footprint. I don’t want to upsize just because we can. I don’t want to accumulate anything we don’t need or truly want. I get frustrated now sometimes because we have too much furniture, not enough space for our things to breathe, no room to pull out couches to clean under them. It’s so easy for the cats to run from one piece of furniture to the next as they chase each other wildly in the evening, following the furniture packed into the perimeter and endangering the plants, the lamps, the external hard drives I haven’t put away because I’m not done with them yet. It’s only a matter of time before they cause a cataclysm.

But, you know, I really don’t know where I’ll be living next year. Anything could happen, be it a real bed or a laundry closet next to the bedroom or three bedrooms, a garage, and a chicken coop.

What else? What do you plan on changing when, or if, you move again?

Here, Saturday

The wind is strong, the air is silver. Or is it grey? The sky is grey, in that bright, impenetrable, there-is-no-more-sky-only-blankness way, but the wind jostles the trees and comes in to swirl in my clean apartment, and I think the air is silver because it feels like such a gift to feel the season start to turn like this, to hold this day in the palm of my hand, to hug my world to myself, a new world after all the sun and heat I’m now accustomed to.

It’s September now. There’s time for burrowing into the couch, or spreading my limbs as I lie on the carpet. A dark morning asks for lit candles on my desk, and I oblige. I know that lighting a different mood can make for magic sometimes; it could trick me into writing.

I look forward to hot evening baths on winter nights. I’ve tidied the apartment day after day because I want to welcome friends in whenever I can, and to feel the peace of this refuge every evening. I still dream of road trips, of lakeshores and bare feet, but also of fiery trees and warm scarves. My wanderlust will not be sated, but now that things are different, I’m trying to hone in on home, on here, instead of my focus always flitting around with all the different theres.

Home the Way I Want It

tiny cacti in windowI’m someone who gets energy from her surroundings. I’m a person who wants to be surrounded by beauty, maybe needs to be, most of the time, to be happy.

I feel silly, and embarrassed, to write that, because art museums make me nervous sometimes; because I gave up on being an art person in high school; because I remember the several-sizes-too-big jeans and baggy K-Mart tees I once wore; because I know how rarely I clean out the sink or even brush my hair; because for all my yearning for mountains again, mountains, Gandalf, there have been years since leaving my puppy-dog and pretty neighborhood when I didn’t take any walks just for the sake of walking and looking; because I know there are things more important than beauty, like equity and justice and peace; and because beauty isn’t a word that comes naturally to my tongue.

Of course, beauty is many things to many people. I know not everyone would agree that my apartment, with its weird, green linoleum countertops and the crooked, widely-spaced boards that make up the floors, is better-looking than the ones you find in the brand-new high rises or in the boxy, post-war apartment buildings scattered across this town. You might not call the many layers of old white paint caked onto the baseboards of my apartment beautiful, and I would agree with you if you didn’t, at least as an isolated feature.

But despite the built-in grime that comes with a rental like mine—built in 1858 and managed with minimal upkeep for maximum profit for decades, at least—for me, this apartment is pleasant, while so many newer, cleaner spaces are not. Sitting in the little grey room that used to be my office, I’d think of the windows and the gentle lamps and the old walls and the well-situated couches and my tiny white desk by our bed, and I yearned for them. Sitting in the bright, tall, walls-of-windows office I have now, I still yearn sometimes.

I gather strength from my home, from the way I’ve made it look and the ways I’ve made it mine. Continue reading “Home the Way I Want It”

Porch Season

The first year in my current apartment, a small but sufficient one-bedroom, I avoided opening the door that leads straight from the bedroom to the outdoors. Shortly after move-in, a large population of wasps threw me, Cooper, and the overly-curious cats a deranged housewarming party, with that back wall of the house as its epicenter. (The worst day, Cooper counted something like seventy-eight wasps in their death throes, writhing on the bedroom carpet while a sadistic feline looked on.) I let eighteen months pass before I ventured out onto the fire escape again. So last year was our second summer in the apartment and the first summer with a garden.

Continue reading “Porch Season”