definition: impossible to copy or imitate, not capable of being imitated
example: Sitting on stage, dressed in black from shirt to socks and wearing a pair of silver Birkenstocks, the inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin spoke carefully to her rapt literary audience. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my Macbook, but I keep it in service of an ancient craft: storytelling.”
It is a cool night and you are standing in something that might be called a line outside the can and bottle return station at your local Fred Meyer, picking up your feet and realizing they’re sticking to the pavement with its dried film of beer scum and soda residue. You’re beginning to wonder if it was a smart idea to spend your Saturday night doing this, or if you’re even going to be able to return your three and a quarter bags of seltzer cans tonight.
You often have impulsive ideas but sometimes they are too impulsive and you have to follow through anyway so you don’t feel like a fool but would anyone really notice if you just put the bags back into your trunk and went grocery shopping and then home instead? The only other people feeding cans into the machines are the people who are always here feeding cans into the machines, men who probably don’t have a home to go to, men who are pushing shopping carts filled not just with cans and bottles but with everything they own, men wearing their only clothes.
It is okay for you to be here, you tell yourself, wishing you weren’t, wishing you had the courage to maybe just give away your bagged cans and bottles. Two men approach the shelter and one of them tosses something into the trash and then hands the nearest, most obviously homeless man a $10 or $20 bill and says, hey man, I told myself I was going to be nice tonight, take care. The man takes the bill, but seems unable to know what to do next, looking at the bill and then at the man and then at the return machine. He growls something unintelligible and then returns to his task.
You feel a little nervous, not sure if you’re safe but also aware that you’re not that generous, either, and you know deep down that we are all connected but sometimes it’s easier to click “Donate” on a website than it is to hand a paper bill to another human and you know all of the questions when it comes to reducing homelessness and poverty but you haven’t taken the time to think about the answers.
It’s your turn at the machine now, the kind where you have to feed each can or bottle individually, and the machine only wants to accept every fifth or sixth can, but someone approaches you, saying, let me help, you have to wipe the bar code sometimes.
You’re not sure if you ought to let him help you but he has kind eyes and you’re really committed now and can feel frustration mounting and so you smile helplessly and he pulls a paper towel out of his back pocket, shows you how to clean the can, runs his finger around the inside of your plastic water bottles to remove the dents, points to the camera inside the machine and explains how it’s best if you put cans in tab first. He knows the system, he tells you, he knows that certain bottles were produced in California and so can only be returned in California but if you tell an employee, they’ll write you a slip for reimbursement.
He asks you to watch his bike and bag of cans while he runs in to the customer service counter to ask an employee to fix the machine’s printer, or if you’d rather he can watch your bags while you go inside. You let him go in while you send protective thoughts out over his belongings, reflecting in wonder at the quiet connection you’re making under the cloudy night sky.
He comes back and not long after, an employee named Cookie comes out to shake the bins of crushed cans, reset the printer, count bottles for another customer. Your friend puts your can into the repaired machine and it’s accepted, and at the same time he offers you the other machine that works now, the one that will eat up cans by the armful, and so you take the second one, and he begins to use the machine next to you. He offers you a nickel for the can that he tested, but you smile and brush it off.
You’re accumulating a small collection of unaccepted bottles and cans in the bottom of your cart and you’re wondering how to give them to your new friend, if you should give him your slips or cash instead of pocketing it, but there has to be a right way to do this and you just don’t know what it is. You’ve returned all you can now, so you ask your friend if he’d like the extras, but he just smiles, not meeting your eyes, and shows you where to put the glass bottles that can’t be recycled for a deposit. He gently gathers your damaged cans and plastic bags into the trash and then stands with you for a few moments longer, only occasionally making eye contact, telling you how he came to be here, about his past as a contractor and the times he helped family members move to the Northwest.
You ask for his name, and he says, it’s a Spanish name, Arturo, but I’m also called Arthur. Good night, Arturo, you say, thanks for your help. It was really nice to meet you.
definition: [slang]great in quantity or amount : many, much
example: James looked up from counting his tips as Alex rounded the corner to clock out. James gave Alex a friendly punch on the shoulder, grinning. “We made beaucoup bucks tonight, dude! Let’s go to Shorty’s! Drinks on me!”
example: An eldritch moaning filled the theater, and Joanna knew even before an image appeared on the screen that she didn’t want to watch this movie trailer. She willed herself to keep her eyes on the dark, sticky floor. Joanna hated Halloween season.
I am a creature of habit, a woman of ritual. After lunch, I go for a 30-minute walk in the business park where I work. There are no sidewalks for long stretches, so I crunch through the red cinder rock or walk the white line if the road is open.
The weather is changing, and while I don’t idealize the seasons, or at least I try not to, this one is my favorite. I love fall. On a lunchtime walk earlier this month, I realized there’s something about the low angle of the late afternoon sun and the crispness in the air that makes me feel like I can exhale for the first time in months.
My love for fall isn’t about scarves or boots. I’m not that excited to put squash on my stoop. I refuse to drink pumpkin spice lattes. I embrace this season because it gives me what I need. The heat eases and the sky deepens. In the past weeks, I have felt like falling to my knees with relief more than once. Maybe there’s some nostalgia in this, a twinge of rose-filtered longing for new pens and bright maple trees and sitting in classrooms. But there’s also something happening physiologically. The temperature is dropping, sliding back into the 70s and 60s, and I am achy and teary with gratitude.
In the summer, I often come in from a midday walk with my mind refreshed, but my body sluggish. I am overheated and feel soft and round and thick. I gulp water. The feeling eases, but it makes me want to lie on the cool cement floor of my basement. I am not energized.
This week, I have been coming in openhearted and loose and light. Goals feel closer. I can do more, give more, be more. I want to hug my friends and sisters. I want to hand out flowers to strangers.
I feel the cool breeze on my face and watch the sun sliding down the sky. This is coming home.
– – –
After reading Teju Cole’s Open City a couple of years ago, I became enamored of the idea of taking long solo walks through the city. The city I live in is no New York, but it’s walkable and my neighborhood is friendly. Being habitual, I tend to stick to my neighborhood loop. On Sundays, I often hike up Mt. Tabor, a nearby volcanic cinder cone. Mt. Tabor Park is green and quiet and filled with trails.
Some days, I’ll put my earbuds in and listen to an episode of WTF with Marc Maron or Beck’s Morning Phase. On others, I am quiet, letting my mind spool out and dip into new thoughts. It’s best if I don’t have a destination. When I walk as a mode of transportation, I feel bogged down by time constraints. It takes too long to get places and I’m impatient. When I walk as a means of meditation, everything falls away and I can be brought back to myself, to the earth, to acceptance.
Before sitting down to write this, I opened the fridge and scanned my offerings. Kombucha. Cans of seltzer water. Almond milk. I had boxes of tea bags and fresh coffee in the pantry. An insistent part of my brain wanted any of those options, just a little something that would feel like a treat. A hit of sweet. A tart zing.
But I filled a glass with water instead, dropped in a few ice cubes, and sat down at this desk. Water is the only vital thing. Writing often feels that way to me, too.
– – –
I went to Cape Cod last week for a conference. My coworkers and I stayed at the Chatham Bars Inn on the elbow of the cape, which looked like it had fallen out of the pages of The Great Gatsby. The curving, light-filled inn and its surrounding cottages and outbuildings faced the Atlantic Ocean, just across the street. The grounds lay quiet and manicured, the cottages quaint with shake shingle siding and white trim, but it was the ocean that stunned me.
The beach was in a harbor, ringed by sandbars and outcroppings. The water was calm, lapping at the shore. No cresting waves. No roar.
On the first afternoon of our stay, I joined my coworkers on the beach. We waded into the water, feeling refreshed after working outside and sitting in the sun. I could see my feet underwater. I watched minnows dart around and seaweed drift in the tide. I agreed to swim again the next morning.
We met on the beach at 6:00 the next day, jogging barefooted up and down the short stretch of land to get warm. Light was just rising from the horizon, and the air felt thick on my skin.
Bob dove in first and came up gasping. I knew I had to go in all at once or I wasn’t going to do it. I counted to three, clenching up, and then dove. It took my mind and body a few seconds to connect properly. The water was bracing. It made me feel alive. I could taste the salt in my mouth.
We sat, submerged in two feet of water, and watched the sunrise. I told myself, You are in the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise. Pay attention. The sky glowed with a palette of rich, warm colors. I felt myself on the earth, in the ocean, in the moment. Connected. Grateful.
– – –
Water draws together villages and towns and people. We swim and wash our dishes and bathe each other and drink water. Water separates us. Salty oceans sit unforgiving and mighty between the continents. Water carries us to new places. Water is a blessing and a scarce resource.
I drink from my glass and I think about how more of us struggle to have enough clean water. I think about where my water comes from. I try to say no to Aquafina and Dasani and other corporate-fueled bottles of “purified” drinking water. I tell myself I could carry bottled water in my car on hot summer days for homeless men and women in my city.
When I think about water, I see all of us connected. I have questions about our future. I hope desperately for answers. Water is the only vital thing.