From one creative person to another

A little bit of shameless friend promotion here.

This is the newest single by Morning Bear, a band fronted by one of my very best friends in the world. They are now on tour on the West Coast, followed by Iceland and Europe this fall.

I’m in Bittersweet Coffee in downtown Louisville, for the moment. For the moment.

It’s a hard thing, to be a creative person. It’s hard to find and retain one’s voice. To trust oneself enough to believe that it’s good enough and not cut things short unnecessarily. To work the hours needed to hone a craft. I’m going to follow John’s bravery and make a small, deeply scary personal creative announcement:

I’m working on a novel. 

It’s terrifying to put that out there. I’ve actually been working on it for almost a year. .

I haven’t been writing here for quite some time. Maybe since London. I just haven’t. Things got hard, and honestly I began to doubt my abilities and process. Why do this long-form blog thing in 2017, when everyone and their mom has Instagram (#travel #travelling #traveltravel #travelme #instafamous #nofilter #fml #waithowdoyoustophashtags #waitseriouslyguysimstuck #HELP)?

Why write at all when it’s not like I have anything important to say? Or when everything is shit? Many people were pissed off at 2016, calling for it to just stop its shittiness in the waning months when a job in Busan took over my every waking moment and 50% of my sleeping ones. More than 50%. I read the other day that most psychotic breaks seem to be related directly to insomnia. I’m not sure I didn’t have one in March, to be honest. I can’t seem to call up that month very well in memory.

2017 has felt like I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop since January.

BUT. But. I’ve been told that this kind of horrible time is creatively productive. Maybe it is.

Morning Bear’s music for this release was mostly written in Iceland, which is where I lived all summer up to Thursday. On Wednesday, I leave for Vietnam. The lyrics of the songs capture what it is like to be a long-term nomadic creative person, and how it feels to be in Iceland and forlorn. I got a hefty dose of trademark Icelandic forlorness since August 11th, since the camp we lived on had to be closed for three weeks. 20 km from the nearest city and in the deepest silence I’ve experienced since Patagonia six years ago, it was hard not to succumb to deep dark thoughts like this one:

All along I had dreamed but it wasn’t real 

But it wasn’t real 

And if I could divine a reason why

Maybe it will set me free 

Maybe it would set me free

And if i could just understand where I am meant to go 

And why home doesn’t feel like home

How is a man to know? 

– Traveling, Morning Bear (John Runnels)

I’ve had a fair bit of dreams that flew apart under the winds of life in the last few years. And home definitely doesn’t feel like home anymore. I feel like a foreigner in my ‘own’ country and as welcome here in Colorado as I do in any of my homes left trailing around the world. Which is to say, not particularly welcome.

John gave me a huge shout out at his single release party on Friday night. It was sheer chance that we got to see each other at all, but to see the release show and to hear the artist that this man I’ve known for my whole adult life has become was (don’t be mad, John) practically spiritual. It was like the music I could always hear around just him and his guitar, since the fall of 2007, appeared from the ether and surrounded him.

He called me out by name from the stage to thank me for working the merch desk, and talked about what it is that I do. About my teaching and travelling and how he thinks highly of me. People cheered. They cheered.

I felt vindicated. It’s been really hard in ways I’m not going to go into here, all summer. I’ve been questioning it all. All that travelling and teaching we do. This nomadic life my tiny family lives. The decisions to go, again. To make 2017 the sixth year in a row that I’ve spent on three continents. To go back to Vietnam and make it a home that doesn’t feel like home.

I don’t have a stage, but I do have this blog. Thank you for your music and for the acknowledgement, and most of all for the understanding. From one nomad to another, thank you for helping me to keep going.

What I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know About London

The clouds move so fast in London. They fly and swoop and change with every passing second in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world, a characteristic mutability. I am sitting in the atrium of Chandler House, my new academic home at UCL and already since I’ve written this sentence two more have already eased by overheard. Today they are white and puffy, but diffuse. Lit up by the early autumn afternoon sun, driven on by the breeze which is barely perceptible here at the level of mortals.

I haven’t done it in a long time, but today’s post has a song attached to it. I know, Bastille for God’s sake. What a predictable cop out, being that they’re from London and all. It’s a good song, I promise. Take a listen.

This first week of classes was frenetic, hard work, and more than a tad overwhelming. I feel rather confused as to how I am able to guess so precisely what in the hell is going on in my wide variety of modules that cover all the major areas of Linguistics. Thus far, Pragmatics and Phonetics are the favourites…though I am apparently best at guessing in Syntax. Some underlying rationale in my brain appears to intuitively know the proper button to push on the clicker, even if I have no conscious idea of what role SAI/SVI play in Dutch. I assure you, I barely know more about those acronyms than you do.

I’ll admit, I never saw myself living here. I had a blatant bias after studying abroad the very first time in Perugia over six years ago…why would one ever want to live abroad in an English-speaking country? And London is so expensive! It’s such a massive city and it’s dangerous and it’s got terrible food. And it rains constantly. More than I’d like to admit, I probably steered students away from studying in London when I was a study abroad advisor, pushing them toward cheaper, “more foreign” options that would “challenge” them more.

I didn’t know that I didn’t know the real London.

I didn’t know that I would someday call a two-hour commute “normal,” or that I would worry more about how much I needed to pay TfL than how much groceries cost. I didn’t know that signal failures are a daily disruption on the Tube that can cause situations to put claustophobics in hysterics, with pushing thousands jammed into the seven feet between the wall and the MOVING FUCKING TRAIN. I didn’t know that my toes would often fall asleep on the morning commute while I train-surf and refuse to lose a hand on my newspaper to stability.

I didn’t know that my morning smash in the Tube could become an exercise in compassion. This morning, smashed into a train without an inch of breathing space at Bank after another goddamn signal failure, I had to remind myself that humanity is a single family in order to stave off a panic attack. Being pressed up against strangers head to hand to foot to arse is a lot less annoying if I tell myself we are related.

I didn’t know that I’d be getting heat rashes on a daily basis. How could I have expected that, in this supposedly foggy city? It’s been unseasonably, ludicrously, obnoxiously hot practically since I arrived. As I commute two hours, I don’t have the luxury of popping by my room to pick up or drop of a jacket when the weather turns on a dime. I end up carrying and cursing a coat all day, only to freeze my arse off the next when I refuse to bring it along.

I didn’t know that London has unbelievable food. Expensive, I suppose. But amazing. Name a food. You can get it in London. From all corners of the Earth, and with remarkable ease. A little work, and you can even eat cheaply and healthily. I bought two huge butternut squashes from the African grocery in our neighbourhood this week and paid a pound for each. I can get kimchi, espresso, camembert, and Chipotle all in one day and wash it down with Chilean wine.

I didn’t know that London has more top universities than any city in the world. And I am at one of them!

I didn’t know that gambling was as prevalent as it is. Perhaps the word is pervasive. It’s everywhere, and as someone raised in Puritan-Cultural-Continuance-Land I am both uncomfortable and shit with it. Last time I managed not to lose all ten pounds of my dog-racing money, but only just.

I didn’t know that I’d be eating my lunches with the dead in between classes. That sounds morbid and sufficiently Dickensian, but it’s literally true. My building borders on St. George’s Gardens, which is a former cemetery converted into a public park and dog wee collection centre. I eat lunch there at least three times a week, sitting on a bench in front of the relocated headstones, the names worn off with age.

I didn’t know that “Pub” is short for “Public House.” Felt like a right idiot for that one.

I didn’t know that use of space would be so efficient. I’m in the atrium of a university building right now, but I”m looking into the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Our local post office is also a convenience store (and it sells liquor for while you wait!). I get the sense that taxis are also half ambulances or that the UCL Main Library doubles as a massive nightclub in the evenings, but have yet to see any concrete evidence.

I didn’t know I would hear so many wonderful languages every day.

I didn’t know I already dressed a bit Londonish.

I didn’t know that the DLR is my favourite line of the London Underground.

I didn’t know I would love it so much.

The clouds are still slipping by overhead, silently as far as I can tell. Do clouds have language? That might be a metaphysical question to save for the second term, but for now the adjustment to life in London rolls by in imitation of the white weather above. They certainly aren’t sleeping furiously, not yet.

Welcome, new home!

Sit Down At the Table With Yourself

23 days until India and I can’t find any music that makes sense to me anymore except remixes of the music on which my adulthood was weaned. The possibile implications of this are numerous: I’m confused as to what year it is, I’m alternately pleased I escaped those years and nostalgic, I’m living at least partly in the past. The purposeful mis-placement of the “i’ in possibile above, persistent after three attempts to change it, is the manifestation of other times, of other languages.

It’s a conversation with my younger selves.

I’m not so much living in the past, as I am being blocked from living in the immediate future. Everything lifted off the ground in late December and hasn’t settled down into its proper places at the table yet. I felt it take off on Christmas night, a great lifting and soaring much like the one that I felt arise within me in a van filled with club volleyball players years ago. The great awakening of the next part of my life, or destiny if one believes in such things.

I have to say that the magic of changing circumstances is not lost on me although my feelings on the providence of such changes is lessened. At 16, it was high Destiny taking off. At 25, it appears to be more of a chain reaction. One thing leads to the next, to the next, inevitable and guided by circumstance if not by the hand of some unseen force. Tonight I am sitting with other Coleens at the table, trying to pull myself back into riding that unseen chain and not being smashed underneath it.

“Me defundí, no hay duda,
me cambié de existencias,
cambié de piel, de lámpara, de odios,
tuve que hacerlo
no por ley ni capricho,
sino que por cadena,
me encadenó cada nueva camino,
le tomé gusto a tierra a toda tierra….”

-Pablo Neruda

Maybe the conversation includes my silent future selves as well, witnessing me holding up the ways it has all worked out thus far in defiance of the different mes who were so certain it wouldn’t ever get better.


There’s the 13 year old me, certain that high school was going to be a disaster. There’s the 17 year old me, trying to hit back at critics of her choice of university who said she was “wasting her talent” by going to an in-state school. There’s the 18 year old me, fresh off feeling the world lift up and turn over already before the actual changes began in college in the fall of 2006.  21 year old me, still teary from the outburst in Aspen and sure that there would never be a harder decision than choosing between study abroad and early graduation.

22 year old me, convinced that love was a fool’s pursuit and that I’d never find my missing puzzle piece. 23 year old me, counting rice grains silently at the end of the table and verging on running in the night from the camino che hicieron mis zapatos in Chile.

Each time I was sure that it would never work out, and each time I was wrong. I hope that the silent future Coleens are paying attention. After a year basking in the glow of at least assumed stability, the time for Adioses grows near for Korea. As usual, it appears to be putting up a fuss and kicking out in the last days, between bureaucratic craploads for the National Pension Office and a tenuous hold on a five day working week. In the floating uncertainty of the certain end of the Korean Adventure, I can’t even find songs to lead me on.

There are only the reassurances of the past Coleens telling me that they aren’t shitting me, they were every bit as lost and stressed as I am in the present. A couple of them (2006 Coleen and 2010 Coleen both seem to speak up the most) assure me that they were much more stressed, much more sick, much more confused and lost. I’m not sure that I believe them, but they have a point when they remind me that this time I am much less Alone in the Unknown.

Someday the future Coleens will no longer be silent and they will have the same conversation that I’m having with 13 year old me right now, something along the lines of “I told you so.” But nicer. More understanding. A longing to reach into the past and give myself a hug, and tell me that it won’t all fall apart. Or at least that I won’t.

It will work out. My teeth will stop grinding, I’ll figure out how to house and feed myself, and I’ll find a way to live in the same country as the man I love. Someday many years from now, I may even have a real table and not simply a shared gray desk at which to host my selves and have it out over tea. We all look forward to it.