Celebrating a Birthday While on Pause

I turn 41 today. Exactly one year ago, I woke up next to Lake Thunderbird on a beautiful sunny morning in Oklahoma, had a wonderful brunch, then drove to Amarillo, Texas while dancing in my seat to Lizzo, my birthday twin. That day overflowed with joy and sunshine and roadtrip tunes, capped up with a night of ice-cold Shiner Bock and jukebox deejaying at a zombie-themed bar. Late into the night, Kurt and I sat on the front porch of our Airbnb, drinking local beers and watching heat lightning zig-zap across the vast Texas sky. The next day, we’d be back on the road to Roswell, New Mexico. This year, I’m  grounded.

Cheers!

We always travel in the spring, due to the convergence of my birthday and our anniversary. It feels strange to be sitting at home right now, scrolling past Facebook memories and knowing exactly what place we were visiting on this day last year, two years ago, five years ago.

I’m someone that likes living in the shoulder seasons. I’m trying to appreciate the quiet, lean into the pause. I find a lot of contentment in burrowing into my home life and surrounding myself with books and hot coffee and dog nuzzles. Days turn into nights, nights turn into a wine blur. All time feels like airplane time, when you’re passing through time zones, warping ahead or falling behind, and you watch dumb movies during this weird slippery gap in time because it’s not really real life. It feels especially strange to celebrate a concrete mile marker like a birthday right now. Sometimes I daydream about catching a wormhole out of this weird, seemingly never-ending flight and traveling back in time to the beginning of 40, waking up the camper and peeking beneath the window shade to see the sunlight glittering on the surface of the lake.

I got to experience so many incredible things in my 40th year. I visited three new states and a new country. I stood inside the ruins of an ancient village that was last inhabited in 1000 A.D., and in the last few months, I witnessed the rapid escalation of a global pandemic that has affected the daily lives of nearly every person on this planet. If there’s one thing I feel confident in saying, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what to expect in my 41st year. I am so grateful for every moment, every place I visited, every person with whom I shared every minute of my year of 40. I feel grateful and lucky to be here now, however weird and precarious this stretch of time may be.

 

Shelter in Place Diaries

When I was around 8 or 9 years old, my family took our first big vacation to Los Angeles, which is also my birthplace. The trip was two weeks of sun-drenched recreation: Disneyland, ice cream cones, face paint, and poolside dance parties to the Chipmunk Adventure soundtrack. When we returned home, I remember laying in my darkened bedroom in suburban Chicagoland, the light pouring through the crack of the door from the hallway, and feeling my heart hurt. I was homesick for another place, invisible strings tugging at my soul, telling me I belonged out west. It was my first ever post-vacation depression. I longed so badly to be back in California that the pain manifested physically, a dull ache filling my chest.

In early March, I woke up one Sunday morning in a listless, melancholy mood. It was still the Before Times, but not for much longer–in a few short days, the NBA season would get cancelled and the dominos of normal daily life would start falling. Though I had no idea of just how much the world was about to change, I had the oddest sense of homesickness for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It reminded me so much of that childhood emotion of being overwhelmed with longing for a perfect memory.

Several weeks into Chicago’s shelter-in-place directive, the shock has worn off and I am now feeling the mundanity of day to day life in the time of COVID. There are so many things I miss, and I can’t wait until the day that I can once again go to a bar and sing karaoke with all of my friends and whoop it up with strangers while losing our minds over a Miley Cyrus song. My anxiety has dissipated into a yearning restlessness, a homesickness for my old life. I want to jump into the van and drive and drive with the windows rolled down and 70s rock pouring out of the speakers. I want to keep going until we land somewhere beautiful, at the foothills of a mountain range or alongside an alpine lake.

Of course, I can’t do those things right now, so I’m leaning into this quiet little life at home. As I remember from my housebound days post-knee surgery several years ago, a good key to batting back the sadness is to find little pleasures throughout the day that give you joy. Or as Agent Dale Cooper once wisely said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan for it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”

I am pretty excellent at giving myself little presents, many of them mementos from past trips. Big, leisurely pancake breakfasts on weekends. Playing records and enjoying the crackle of vinyl and swatches of album art. The corner of the couch that has the perfect natural light for reading while the dog naps on my lap. Hot, black coffee poured into a rotation of mugs I brought home from New York, or Copenhagen, or Orlando, or Edinburgh. The postcard of Glenfinnan and a kilted yoga calendar that accessorize my home workspace. Mailing pretty postcards to friends. Wearing my Ariana Grande hypercolor t-shirt on a workday. I am VERY good at enjoying gifts of red wine, way more often than I should (lay off me man, this is a crisis).

Local and world news is going to continue to get worse for a while, then it will start to get better. I can’t control any of it except for within the 4 walls of my home, where I am content to stay and wait this out. It’s literally the least I can do.

 

 

Hello From the Other Side

I’m writing this post from a totally different world than the last one from just a few months ago. I don’t need to fill you in on the coronavirus pandemic as I’m sure you’re well up to speed, and if you’re like me, have already spent countless hours panic-scrolling and refreshing news sites. Wherever you are reading this from, I hope you are safe and well and hunkered down at home. I send my strongest positive vibes to those who are sick or who have loved ones who are sick, those working in the frontlines of healthcare and other essential roles, and those whose livelihoods have been profoundly impacted by city and state lockdowns.

I look back on the resolutions in the post I made a few months ago and they’re shot to hell. Taper back on social media? LOL, my screen time reports are effed. Visit a new place every month? I’m laughing until it turns into ugly crying. Travel as much as possible, including that big bucket list-worthy destination? We canceled our big springtime trip to Japan. It all blows, folks. But I’m lucky so far. Kurt and I are both still healthy and employed, with the flexibility to work from home. We have a house with enough space for either of us to be on a conference call and not worry about the other accidentally wandering into the background in their underwear. We have a YARD.

Like everyone, I’m anxious and sad, grieving the loss of normalcy, and worried for everyone I love. I’ve seen a lot of memes calling this current lockdown heaven for introverts, but as an INFJ, I can tell you that this is not the case. Sure, I get anxious at big parties and I dread a networking event full of strangers, but I still love my people. I desperately miss intimate dinner parties and playing board games with my dearest friends. I miss passing plates around a table filled with chatter and conversation. And I do miss crowds!! I miss going to concerts and losing myself in the music, or seeing a play and feeling the energy emanating from the performers. The last place I traveled before the pandemic was New York City, and thinking back to that trip feels like another lifetime, but it was only mid-January. I saw live theater and went to a crowded bar where we sang show tunes, and we talked and laughed with strangers and didn’t think twice about being so close to each other. I wonder how long it will be until that feels possible once again.

I remind myself often that this is just temporary. We have Netflix and the internet and a giant stack of books I’ve been looking forward to on my bedside table. All of those dream travel destinations will still be there, waiting for us when all of this is over.

I keep returning to the memory of nearly 8 years ago, when I was homebound post-knee surgery. More than anything, I grieved the loss of my freedom to move about and ability to live my life as normal. During my 3 months of recovery, I spent increasingly identical days laid out on the couch, watching the summer fade and the leaves change through the glass windows. For a long stretch of time, it got harder, until it finally started to get easier. I used to leave the back porch door open, so I could see the tops of the trees from where I laid on the couch, and feel the breeze from outside reach me indoors. And finally over time, I was able to walk out that door on my own and resume my normal life.

On our second week of sheltering in place at home, I started leaving the porch door open again. 

Whenever we come out on the other side of this, we’re all going to be changed. I can’t wait until the day when it’s safe to find all of our people, all of us waiting for each other with open arms.

Hello 2020!

I know we made up calendars and decades and time, but I’m excited to start a new year and the 2020s. I am moving most of my non-travelogue writing to a monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to at KiMDB.substack.com. I included a couple of resolutions in it, but I always like to do a blog write-up on my New Years resolutions, so here is my full list for 2020:

  • Taper back on social media usage. I’ll still be active on my usual platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) since they’re the best way to share my work, connect with friends and family, and understand all the memes. But I have definitely reached a compulsive level of feeling like I need to check my phone while in the middle of other activities, which I hate. This month, I’m activating app limits in my phone settings so I have to make conscious decisions about when and how often I check each feed.
  • Learn to cook, and not be lying when I say I’m going to this year.
  • Write every week. Continue to submit work and send out pitches regularly. I’m easing off my goal of 52 submissions/pitches which I set for myself in 2019, in order to allow myself more time to work on potential longer projects (I’m taking a novel foundations class in January, which I am very excited about).
  • The usual nutrition/regular exercise stuff. In 2019, I averaged 15 workouts per month and this is a perfect amount for me in terms of feeling good and keeping healthy while also leaving time for other hobbies.
  • Continue finding ways to decrease my carbon footprint and be more mindful of one-use plastics, etc. This past year I cut back on red meat consumption a ton. In 2020, I want to step it up by decreasing fast fashion and unnecessary purchases, and being better about shopping secondhand.
  • Visit a new place in my own city at least once a month.
  • Travel as much as possible. I have a big trip coming up this spring that I’m super excited about, as it’s been a bucket list destination for most of my life. Travelogues coming soon!

Happy New Year!! ❤

Midwestern Autumnal Realness

Autumn is my favorite season. Much of the reason for this is my undying love of Halloween, but I also embrace the crisp weather and watching the leaves change color. This time of year makes me crave walks in the woods, campfires, and red wine. At home, I light candles on the window sills and curl up under wool blankets and watch movies all day. I am ready to hunker down and enjoy the harvest season. Pretty much since early October and on, I’ve been crafting costumes, listening to Bon Iver, burning forest-scented candles, and rewatching that one Harry Potter movie that’s two hours of our heroes camping while being tortured by existential dread. I’ve been compiling slow cooker recipes and even signed up for a weaving class so I could learn how to use a loom for maximum hygge skills. Autumn is basically prep time for hibernation season a.k.a. winter and I am 1000% here for it.

I do well in the cold. Maybe it’s my quarter-Swedish blood, or my Midwestern roots, but I like to think I approach winter with the stoic attitude of a Viking warrior. Like Lyra Belacqua or Jon Snow, I’m drawn to the North. I prefer camping in the crisp, quiet serenity of fall over the sweaty, sunburnt heat of summer. As the temperature drops, I simply add more layers–wool socks, wool leggings, stocking cap. Wool is magical, and I like anything that allows me to keep staying outside, watching the moon disappear and reappear from behind wispy November clouds. I love the smells of autumn–pine needles, fresh snowfall, campfire, whisky–all enjoyed while wallowing in cozy knit sweaters like I’m damn Felicity. Currently, I’m reading a book set in Kamchatka and reveling in the descriptions of desolate, icy tundra. Earlier today,  I shoveled snow from our sidewalk and wore my favorite winter boots that make me look like a 70’s-era Star Wars extra.

I think what it all boils down to is my love of the changing seasons. I can’t imagine living in a place where the weather doesn’t drastically change every several months. Seasons create rituals, and I fully lean into them. I make playlists for every time of year (currently queueing up “Cozy Winter Cabin” on Spotify to accompany Chicago’s current snowfall). For the next several months, I’ll embrace my favorite knit caps, pumpkin bourbon-scented candles, fluffy slippers, and Pendleton blanket. I’ll enjoy the sound of ice crunching beneath my boots and watching my dog frolic in powdery snow. I’ll go to hot yoga class for that Swedish sauna moment. I’ll spend decadent Saturdays watching an entire season of a television show while drinking a lot of pinot noir.

But most of all, cold weather gives me the gift of time to work on projects. It’s usually when I do the most writing, and when I most enjoy losing myself in an engrossing novel. I’ve said before that winter pushes hibernation upon me and forces me to give up the non-stop social and travel schedule I keep during the spring and summer. I’ve got my cozy home office prepped and ready to go, with plenty of candles waiting for me on the window sill.

 

Scotland Diaries: Flying Home and Final Thoughts

Saturday, August 24

Soundtrack: “The Skye Boat Song”

In the morning, we did the last of our packing and tidying up of the Airbnb. I swear that somehow, dirty clothes gain mass because it was way tougher to get all of my stuff back into their packing cubes  (the whisky, cashmere, and woolen goods I had accumulated didn’t help matters).

The entire trip, we didn’t post any driving photos so we wouldn’t jinx ourselves. After returning the car to the Hertz lot, we finally took celebratory photos of our two fearless drivers, Adrienne and Elizabeth, who took us across Scotland and back with nary a scratch in a rental Mercedes. I don’t think the Hertz employee who checked us in had ever witnessed such a lengthy photo sesh in their parking lot.

At the airport, I perused whisky in the Duty Free shops for too long, and ran out of time to fill out my VAT forms. This was a Big Mistake (see my travel tips below). We boarded our first plane to Heathrow and said our final goodbyes to Scotland.

Obligatory airplane window shot

As we descended towards Heathrow for our layover, I serendipitously spotted Windsor Castle on my side of the plane. Gahhh I’m dying for season 3 of The Crown.

Windsor Castle

On the long flight to Chicago, I watched two Harry Potter movies, feeling a little zing of happiness each time they showed the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Scottish countryside. What a magical trip we had. My heart was bursting with love for my friends and the week we got to share together. And now, I was grateful to be zooming home towards Kurt, hoping he’d bring our dog when he picked me up at the airport.

He did!

River!

 

In my final post, I typically share a few tips for anyone traveling to the same destination:

  • Driving: Everyone asks what it was like to drive on the left side of the road. Since I didn’t get behind the wheel myself, I can’t comment, but I think all four of us agreed that our plan worked out for the best. Having two drivers allowed for trading off throughout the trip, while also giving them both enough practice to get confident at the varying challenges (city traffic, narrow winding country roads, all the roundabouts, driving in all kinds of weather, etc.). Whoever was riding shotgun took an active role in assisting the driver by navigating and letting them know if the car was drifting too close to the left side of the lane. Renting a car allowed us lots of freedom to create our own schedule, but it added a sometimes stressful element to the trip. If you’re considering renting a car, definitely balance out the pros and cons of driving vs. taking trains and make whatever is the best choice for you.
  • VAT tax refund: gah, so I ran out of time to fill out the forms that I had been given in shops where I purchased whisky and cashmere. My best advice is to fill these out ahead of time, and allow extra time to find where you need to submit your claim at the airport in case of a line. If I had had my forms ready at the Glasgow airport, their process was quick and simple, but instead I filled them out on our first flight thinking I could take care of it at Heathrow. Once we got there, I had to track down the VAT window, which had a looooong line. They also required you to have the goods you were claiming with you, and I had checked all of my stuff in my luggage back in Glasgow. You can’t claim the refund once you’ve left the UK, so I missed my chance to get about £30 back. Ah well. Learn from my mistake!
  • Packing: The week before we left, the four of us had an ongoing text thread as we figured out what to pack. Be prepared for rain every day in Scotland. However (at least on our mid-August trip), it tended to be the kind of light rain that comes and goes throughout the day, and I preferred wearing a light rain jacket over carrying around an umbrella.  Wearing layers is definitely the way to go, as mornings and evenings are cooler and it warmed up quite a bit when the sun came out. Packing for outdoors activities like hiking, camping, and horseback riding is easy for me, but I struggled with figuring out a second wardrobe for city nightlife while still trying to travel as light as possible. Thankfully, people dressed pretty casually in the cities we visited, and I never felt underdressed in a pair of black jeans with a nice jacket. Here’s what I brought, which fit into 4 packing cubes and in my carry-on suitcase (I ended up wearing every single item at some point):
    • rain jacket
    • fleece layer
    • sweatshirt
    • flannel shirt
    • thin thermal wool camping shirt
    • water-resistant camping pants
    • 2 pairs of jeans (1 blue, 1 black)
    • 1 “going out” v-neck top
    • 4 t-shirts
    • 1 black long-sleeved shirt
    • 1 pair olive cotton capri pants (worn on plane)
    • black faux leather jacket
    • black short boots
    • waterproof hiking shoes (worn on plane)
    • stocking hat
    • pajamas, socks, and underwear
  • I also brought a small backpack which fit beneath the airplane seat, in which I carried my device chargers, universal converter, Kindle, notebook, sunglasses, and toiletries. The backpack has a lot of room to expand, which helped for the return trip and all of my souvenirs.
  • Just do it! This trip all came about because my friends and I first starting talking about going half-jokingly after I got everyone into Outlander, but then grew more serious over time as we started thinking, why not make it happen?. If there’s a place you’re dying to visit, do it–start putting aside money when you can, start doing your trip research, pull the trigger and buy that plane ticket, whatever it takes to make it into a reality. It will be worth it.

 

Scotland Diaries: Last Day in Glasgow

Friday, August 23

Soundtrack: “Scotland” The Lumineers

Itinerary:

  • sleep in
  • late breakfast
  • sightsee
  • souvenir shopping
  • dinner
  • final nightcap

Finally, the first morning of our trip where we could actually sleep in!! It was sorely needed after the previous night’s karaoke journey. Our only plans for the day included some final sightseeing and shopping, so we had most of the morning to get ourselves together and properly turn back into functioning human beings.

Necropolis/Glasgow Cathedral
For our day of sightseeing, we met up with Elizabeth’s friend (hi Erik!) who had recently moved from Chicago to Glasgow, his wife’s hometown. We grabbed a pint in a beer garden near the Cathedral to catch up/chat for a bit, then walked to the Necropolis, a Victorian-era cemetery situated atop a grassy hill.  Among the crypts and headstones are monuments from various architectural styles, and from the top of the hill, you get an incredible 360-degree view of Glasgow.

I am almost as obsessed with medieval cathedrals as I am with castles, pretty much ever since reading The Pillars of the Earth in high school. Glasgow Cathedral first opened in 1136, and it’s one of the few Scottish medieval churches to survive the Reformation intact. With dozens of other tourists, we walked through the nave, gazing at the intricately carved ceiling and admiring the way sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows. It’s impossible to capture the beauty and ornamental details in iPhone photos, especially with a bunch of other tourists wandering into the shot, but I tried my best. I also lit a votive candle (something I do in every church I visit).

Outside near the St. Mungo Museum, we spotted a Clootie Tree, covered with pieces of cloth that have been blessed in a holy well and left as offerings by people seeking healing.

We walked back to the city center to get some food and do the last of our shopping. A sausage roll and a Diet Coke was exactly the fuel I needed to finish up my shopping and make important decisions like, Do I need this cashmere scarf? (yes!), and Do I need this kilt yoga calendar (decided no but I already regret it!!). Erik pointed out the statue of the Duke of Wellington, which locals consistently top off with a traffic cone on his head. The prank first began in the 1980s, and in 2017 the city gave up fighting it and proclaimed the cone an official part of the statue. This is a true story and I love it.

After walking all day, we were ready to sit down and eat a real meal, so we made a quick run back to the Airbnb to drop off our purchases and begin packing up some of our suitcases (insert all the sobbing emoji). We headed back to Argyle Street and made a few stops for pre-dinner cocktails, including a nice outdoor gin garden (as Elizabeth put it, “Scotch is like the deep dish pizza of Scotland because everyone who lives here drinks gin”).

For our final meal, we went to Fanny Trollope’s Bistro for traditional Scottish food (I highly recommend that you read their story because it is great). I ordered cullen skink,  a thick soup made with smoked haddock, onions, and potatoes, and it was delicious. Seriously, anyone who claims that the food in Scotland isn’t good didn’t go to the right restaurants, because I loved just about everything. We all felt the emotional weight of it being the last night of a fantastic trip, and so we went around the table and shared all of our favorite moments. After dinner, we walked to another bar for a final nightcap and a toast to our Scottish adventure.