nine05

life in balance

On the Road: Austin, or an elegy for my breakfast

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Every year since we’ve been married, we’ve come back to Austin. Not because we’re feeling any sort of deep-seated call to go, but just out of simple nostalgia. Austin as it was when I lived there was the cradle of my civilization – a place I came into totally unencumbered. I remember how wild it felt when I arrived – to be totally free, thousands of futures to choose or not choose; each moment felt so important and sharp-edged and cavernous.

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I don’t say I don’t still feel fresh-made these days; the world is so full of beauty and my eyes are so newly formed. It’s enough to make a person go positively bacchic with gratitude, and I often do lose myself and lose the weight of my history in joy at all the good fortune I’ve been given. But in the ten years since I’ve left home, none of the sea changes and none of the earthquakes have felt so full and rich as that first one, that move to Austin. Like first falling in love, your first adult life is like none of the lives that follow. Balanced up in the balcony of the Paramount, in a plush velvet seat, watching Sufjan Stevens forget what city he was in, in a crowd of strangers with their gorgeous, unknown lives. Sitting alone and unfamiliar inside this shell that had seen a hundred years of performances, thousands of bodies before mine. The history of it and the lack of history of me. The exhilaration of my first real drive alone through the city; in fact, as I learned to drive late and still really hate it, one of my first real drives alone anywhere. How detached I felt from the graduate program at the University of Austin that had brought me to the city until I sat in the Harry Ransom Center holding an autographed volume of Robert Frost from Virginia Woolf’s personal library in my hands. So far from my family and so friendless – no ties of love binding me to any place at any time. That first declaration of independence has a newness, a shine, a violent richness to it that is simply untwinnable and I love to revisit that moment in time through place. And so every year we go to Austin.

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Every year before this one, I’ve been carrying baggage of some sort; I’ve never known what it was like to be in the city without feeling at least a modicum of angst over something or other. I really excel at angst, though I do try my hardest not to inflict it on others. But now that I’m standing at the end of a big life cycle, what I’m feeling isn’t angst, it’s this soul-rocking joy and lightness. It was so strange to be in the city and feel so light and free. Just as I’m at the end of a cycle, though, the city was as well, and I found that a lot of things that felt fundamental to my experience of Austin were shifting. And do y’all know which made me feel the most shaken? This is embarrassing to admit, but stick with me, I will explain myself. Kerbey Lane has changed their menu. My breakfast of seven years? Gone, baby, gone.

Of course, the problem isn’t truly that the meal itself is off the menu; the problem is that my place is gone and the breakfast was the last piece of the puzzle still in the box. When I lived in Austin, I went to the Kerbey Lane on South Lamar, and after I left the city, they moved to a new location. Everyone who actually lives in Austin has gotten over this ages ago, I am sure, but I’m still mourning the place I used to love. It had this absolutely horrid tiny parking lot, with two spots in front that were at peak times parallel parking nightmares for a crap driver like me – but in the off hours they were easy to get into. I tell you, there were so many times when I’d pull into that lot and whatever larger existential issue I was dealing with would narrow like a pinhole. All my angst would focus itself on the status of those parking spaces. Such a thrill of victory every time I could just glide right into the space. Such nervous tension when I had to navigate instead the tight spaces at the side lot. I’ve always been fond of hiding from my big problems within smaller problems. It’s so much easier to be upset over the parking space than it is to acknowledge how lost we are. Those little problems, sure, sometimes they obstruct us. But sometimes they serve us. Sometimes while you’re hiding inside of them you’re growing strong. It’s just not the same parking your car in an old Blockbuster lot, man.

And then the inside – quiet wood furniture everywhere and the dark of early morning pressing in against the big windows – that one guy nursing his coffee at the bar and the same old booth with the ripped seat held together with a strip of duct tape. Same waiter, who still remembered me on our first trip back to the city, even though I had been gone for a year. I never sent down roots in Austin so my people in the city are like this, waiters whose names I don’t know, the ticket attendant at the Paramount in the summer, and so forth. I’ve never seen that waiter at the new location, with its neon furniture and windows that do nothing to keep out the glare from a series of glowing chain-store marquees. No darkness, no awful little parking lot that always made you work for it if you showed up after 5am. And now, no breakfast.

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I eventually left Austin to marry my then-boyfriend and go home with him to DC, and in my last week in the city, I went to that old Kerbey location every morning before work, and I ate my usual and I processed everything that was happening around me. I had heard a lot of fear and worry over our plans from both of our families. I was moving during one of the worst phases of the recession, with ten thousand dollars in graduate school debt on my back. I had no job prospects in DC and would be giving up a robust and supportive professional network in Austin for a blank slate in a city whose rents average four times what I paid for my place in Austin. I knew it would be on me to support us and I worried that I was guessing wrong about the state of the job market in DC. And on top of the worries professional, I was afraid to marry my husband. I’ve never felt like I was made to be somebody’s wife. When we got together, I told him I was a flight risk. Matter of fact but true: I like to run. I told him not to get too serious about me. But we got serious. He was my right hand, my right brain, my whole world. In the end, I simply wanted to be with him, and I had to trust that I could be steady enough to make him happy. So I gave notice. I felt my fear. I drove to Kerbey every morning in the dark before the city was awake and I ate my breakfast and tried to have faith.

That place that held me is gone now. Right? Momentarily traumatic. But then I started to see the cycle in it – that just as I was transforming, the city was transforming, and that I could still be at ease and at home if I worked with that cycle instead of against it. I think the truth of it, deep down, really is that we all spin around the cycle together, and that whole is beautiful when you let yourself see it.

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So I consoled myself with the living city and I reminded myself that there’s hope in change. I went to End of an Ear, where I used to buy records when I lived in the city, and I went to South Congress Books, which opened after I left and which I first discovered two trips back, and I went to the Herb Bar for the first time. Building a chain of places that spanned the years I’d been gone, burrowing down through the strata of businesses coming and going. Giving love to the city for what it is and not just what it is to me. South Congress Books is an amazing place – they’re very selective about what they take in and they have beautiful used books, books that qualify as art, really. At the Herb Bar I was able to find borage and mullein and a number of other dried herbs I can’t get at home to stock my herbalist’s pantry; the place is an Austin institution with such kind and helpful staff.

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To replace my insomniac breakfast-at-all-hours, now departed, I went to the Bouldin Street Cafe for the first time and wandered on foot down Mary Street in the pitch-dark, then returned over and over for a grilled cheese with jalapenos and ginger miso dressing on the side. Building a new framework around south Austin, even embracing places I used to dislike. Adoring an expensive Ciro-flex camera at Off the Wall, stocking up on cobalt blue apothecary bottles at Uncommon Objects. Uncommon Objects used to be one of my big ho-hum places on South Congress, but perhaps I wasn’t looking closely enough before – I now find it one of the most intriguing antique shops I’ve been in. The organization has a curiosity shop feel, an artistry to the way the stock is displayed that soothes some aspect of my aesthetic sensibility. And I found a silver cream pitcher, etched with flowers, so beautiful that I have not been able to bring myself to put it away for a month. I walked across the bridge over Town Lake in the early morning, in out-of-character 30 degree weather, in an inadequate jersey cotton hoodie, to try out an incredible coffee place downtown. And finally – perhaps my favorite thing of all – he and I went to my favorite Austin market and picked up twenty pounds of extremely cheap tomatillos to bring home to make salsa. He really wants to begin canning while actually on vacation, but this time we took all four pounds on the plane with us; they completely filled a carry-on suitcase all by themselves. The trip as a whole was an incredibly healing exercise, the soul-work of connecting the past to the present and future.

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And so now I’m done travelling for just a bit. Perhaps three months; the next workshop I have my eye on is in March, though there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to attend it, just as there’s no guarantee I won’t take flight sooner. But right now I’m settling in at home. I haven’t talked much in this space about my writing, but I have been working – adjusting – slowly shifting things into focus. I’m envious of any writer who can work without the work taking over their day-to-day schedule; I am not that person. My fiction writing takes everything and it’s quite an adjustment getting used to its greed. So now I’m going to take some space – to breathe and absorb all the momentous changes, all the beauty that’s rocked through my life this year. Has anyone else had quite the transition year this year? I truly do tend to believe that many of us – cities and people – go through these things together.

Final note: If you’re writing, if you’re reflecting as we wrap the year up, may I gently nudge you towards Susannah Conway’s Unravelling workbook? I’ll be filling mine out on New Year’s Eve as I did last year, though of course you can work on it over the course of a few days as many other people do.

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