the year in things and feelings: 2018

field notes by missy j. kennedy

Around this time last year I was in the Dallas–Fort Worth airport, on a layover on my way back to Boston, in my big fake sherpa coat drinking coffee and typing up my goals for 2018 in a spreadsheet.

They were all to do with money, or with running, reading, seeing movies, and going to museums. I did alright with the money, I guess, because there’s a bit more of it now. And with seeing movies—I saw most of them by myself, many of them with friends, some of them twice. Once I even strolled past the theater on my way home and popped in on a whim! But no such easy grace with the running or reading, though the few things I read this year have been some of my favorites, like Lucia Berlin’s first story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women (which I started in 2017 but finished in 2018), and second, An Evening in Paradise. I started reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson on a bus ride home from work and cleared my entire evening to do nothing but continue. I dragged Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life onto a stationary bike and wept openly as I pedalled through “The Happy Years” in the middle of the gym. And I somehow took most of the summer to get through two of Tim Gunn’s books: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style, and Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work. These were uplifting, if a little dated, because Tim Gunn is kind but firm where a lot of people are mean yet flimsy.

As it turns out, I did very little writing of my own this year. I spent most of it working through my essay for HUMANxNATURE, which also became my magnum opus on deserts and an addendum to my master’s thesis. (You can read it if you ordered or order the book, or maybe elsewhere, or online, eventually.) The rest of my time was spent laying out the book and its logistics, which is soothing to me like a puzzle or putting together furniture.

In April, I was asked if I liked being a woman (Really!) and it became clear to me then that I have reached the point in life where people begin to ask very blunt questions about what you are doing and whether you are happy. My mother has always asked personal questions as though she is ready to burst from not asking so HERE IT COMES—which applies to matters ranging from the parting of your hair to the fact of your happiness with equal force—which I see now has been good practice in composure, because this is how a lot of questions are asked when the dust of your life begins to settle, but not with the density necessary to suggest final patterns. When a discernible pattern has yet to emerge. I see you’re doing something here, but do you mind if I ask what it is? I was in Maine when this particular question was asked, and I happened to be busy plucking the sheath from the neck of a steamed clam, happened to be absorbed in the very fact of anatomy at the smallest and strangest of scales, and I told them sure or maybe that I was not sure. Because I would rather shrug and say something pleasant yet noncommittal in response to a well-meaning “Are you happy _______?” than launch into a hapless inventory. The answer is so private, it’s beside the point. It’s the whole point, the whole singularity inside this husk. That’s for me to know and you to find out! (Also: Arabelle Sicardi’s “My Gender Is: Mind Your Business” is just about my favorite thing to have read online all year.)

I don’t know if I like Boston, either. It’s been over three years and I still don’t. It’s fine! But I like the Charles River. I like taking buses and trains. And I like the shellfish—the steamed clams I was eating in Portland, the frozen clams and mussels that are sold for four times less than what they would cost in the Midwest, the canned clams that even taste wonderful in their brine to the palate that was, until recently, landlocked. I ate a lot of clams this year—raw, steamed, fried, or cooked otherwise. I found I prefer them to oysters. I cook for myself mostly on Sundays, something hearty to heat up at work all week, like a stew or a soup or some preparation of a pork loin with tortillas. But beyond that I am either cooking special because I am sick (which calls for thin pasta in reserved boiling water with a whole lemon, as much of a whole head of garlic as I can stand, and as much chicken bouillon as will dissolve), or because it is a free Friday night or a nice morning or afternoon when a window can be opened to release steam from cooking beer over butter and herbs and lemon:

1 serving linguini,
or 1 can cannellini beans
1 can whole Maine clams, plus ½ the brine,
or 1 can mussels, rinsed and set aside in ½ cup salted water
1 whole lemon, juiced
1 to 2 tablespoon(s) butter
½ to ⅔ bottle Miller High Life
2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence,
or 1 teaspoon ea. of rosemary, thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (optional)
garlic cloves to taste

Melt butter with herbs and juice of lemon. Heat cannellini beans over crushed garlic cloves and red pepper flakes in olive oil, or boil salted water for linguini. Add beer to butter and herb mixture and bring to boil. Add shellfish. Reduce to simmer until accompaniment is ready. Combine and serve—with toast and/or Miller High Life. Substitute ½ to 1 cup white wine if you’re fancier than me, which is likely.

Yet I am still afraid of the ocean, and the sight of the river when it is choppy and lapping over the docks can make my knees weak. But I dream of it less now; I began the year armed with an oil diffuser, melatonin, and an electric tea kettle (read: sleep hygiene). I also got very into ear plugs, though historically I’ve never had a problem falling asleep amidst noise. I have the opposite problem; I’ve fallen asleep at parties and in the middle of conversations. This year, however, a real nightmare of a young man moved into the apartment above me. Unfortunately ear plugs are kind of like tampons in that they require a certain amount of baffling trial and error. But if you are wondering whether there is a superior ear plug, an ear plug above all the rest, there is—in general, it’s the cotton-candy-neon industrial Howard Leight’s by Honeywell. The problem with other “slim-fit” (Really!) earplugs is that they don’t fill your ear canal and block the sound; the problem with the ones that do is they make your ears ache. But the Howard Leight’s are soft and transport you to the moon in the total soundlessness they create, away from the apartment you occupy beneath the charmed boy who wishes he could still live in a college dormitory and is chaotically working through that—in any case, I ordered 200 pairs to get me through May.

I bought three small perfumes this year: Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette(incredible but not at all long-lasting—still, I will probably buy another bottle next summer), Lush’s Sikkim Girls (a concept that is not unproblematic, an "other" jasmine full of warmth and spice and the kind of powdery something I always think I will like more than I actually do—I will probably try Kerbside Violet next instead), and Commodity’s Orris because I am still searching for the scent which smells exactly like the sweet iris my mother planted beds of around my childhood home and which I watered in the summers, which in my memory smells exactly like cracking open the dispenser full of grape-flavored Pez candies. Which, in my mind, will transport me to childhood as if in a dream, without the heaviness, without the duties, of home.

I wore a hole through a pair of Birkenstocks, and then my bank tried to block my purchase of a new pair for three days, which made me laugh so hard I cried. Somehow all my shoes are orthopedic and range in color only from beige-to-brown. All my clothes are black, gray, denim, or tan—with a few patterned exceptions. I suppose these last two observations should fall like indictments upon my head, because I’m young! I should be more fun!

Well, I’m not!

I probably drank over 300 cups of dark roast coffee from Starbucks this year. My birthday was terrible! I made the most of spring, but not of summer or fall. But I bought a tiny Christmas tree and I have a second bookshelf on the way. This week I will put the tree away and heave the bookshelf in its box up three flights of stairs to assemble. This is it! The up and down, of your days, on your stairs. The slow accumulation of a life of one’s choosing. Calling out to the women in the faded, framed pictures on the walls. This is it, guys! Generations of mothering so this offspring could cram another piece of furniture into the tiny apartment she lives in, alone, and crack open a beer. Is this it? They’d ask. Yes, this is it! Isn’t it something?

I had my aura photographed again this year, too, in July. It was just as it had been the year before, and the same as it would probably be today—blue and green. Which is to say: Relax, honey, and eat more oranges. I don’t really know how to relax, but I think I’m getting a little better at it every year. And I do eat more oranges now. But you could always eat more oranges.


This letter was originally sent via TinyLetter on December 31, 2018.