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My sister texts me when I’m at the gym to tell me that her pap smear is irregular. She’s going back for a biopsy in a couple of weeks. Don’t tell Mom, she says. It might be nothing, but I don’t want to have that conversation with her yet. This is the hardest part of being an oldest sibling, and I imagine the worst part of being a parent, too: the feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to protect her from the bad things in the world – or, in this case, the bad things inside her own body.
Blue ballpoint pen, University of Texas bathroom: Glory and bask in every single moment of your struggle.
I take pictures of the words on bathroom walls, sometimes copy them into my notebook. Some are written in smudgy pencil on the inside of the stall wall, some printed in bold marker over the hand dryer, some scratched into the mirror. Some of it’s ridiculous and banal. I love dick. Call for a good time. Some of it feels strangely profound.
Black sharpie, Epoch coffee shop in Austin, Texas: Hell is always getting what you want. Hell is the reward for free thinkers. Heaven is the reward for sheep.
I am good at procrastinating, good at doing everything except what I know I should be working on. I cook frequently, I work out almost compulsively – tasks that are just productive enough to assuage the guilt I feel for not writing or looking for “real” jobs. I have never thought of myself as someone who was afraid to fail, but it has not escaped my notice that it’s much easier to bake cupcakes than it is to write a decent story.
Black sharpie, heart drawn underneath, New Orleans coffee shop: You don’t have to be better than anyone else. You just have to be better than yourself.
I used to get up and meditate every morning while the coffee brewed, but lately my yoga practice has fallen to shreds. I’m lucky if I do an hour a week. I tell myself that the reason I haven’t joined a studio in Seattle yet is because they’re so damn expensive.
What I miss most, though, isn’t the structured classes or the earthy, lavender-y smell of the studios, but the feeling of someone else holding space for you. The knowledge that, if you were to collapse right there on your mat, someone else would hold up the sky.
Stenciled black spray paint, sidewalk curb in Austin, Texas: Transcend.
A couple of weeks ago I turned the shower up hotter than usual and sat down in the tub with my forehead on my knees. When I was a teenager and my parents were fighting or I felt unloved and inadequate, I would close my eyes in the shower, put my head against the tile wall and repeat “I’m okay” until the words drowned out everything else, until I believed it enough to wash my hair and shave my legs and carry on.
Now, sitting on the shower floor under the too-hot water, I run my hands over my whole body, squeezing calves, feet, hips, chest, arms, face. I thank my body, as I have been taught to do, before standing up and moving on.
Black eyeliner, strip-club locker room, Austin, Texas: Don’t forget: you are a queen, you are so fucking beautiful.
I am slightly tipsy, skyping my best friend Katie in Texas. It’s late at night, even later for her. She’s talking about the wedding she’s planning – a destination wedding in Ireland – and how she and Ryan are starting to look at houses. She tells me she’s rethinking her decision to apply to PA school after she graduates with her Respiratory Therapy degree. She doesn’t want more school to interfere with having children. I ask what’s the rush, why can’t she do both? and she reminds me that she is prone to ovarian cysts and that testicular cancer runs in Ryan’s family, so they really do need to get started sooner rather than later. The longer you wait, the more likely your gametes are to turn on you and mutate, coding nasty secrets into your unborn children’s DNA for you to unravel later: things like cystic fibrosis and Fragile X syndrome and sickle cell anemia. I learned this as a junior in college, wide-eyed and awed even at 8 AM as my Genetics professor drew diagrams of all the ways that things could go terribly, terribly wrong.
Talking about houses and babies, even in the context of someone else’s life, makes me vaguely uncomfortable – me, whose biggest commitments in life are my dog and my student loans. Still, I love her and I want to be involved in her life so I make the effort to be interested even though all of it sounds like a series of small domestic deaths to me, things I have spent years consciously training myself to despise and resist. She asks me about grad school applications, whether I’ve heard anything back yet. “I know you really want an MFA,” she says. “But if you do get in, what are you going to do with it?” I suppress my annoyance and say I don’t know, maybe more school after that? and insert my usual quip about wanting to avoid being an adult as long as possible. She makes a motherly sound and says, “Well, you know I support you, but I just don’t want you to look back and regret your twenties.”
Red sharpie, La Tazza coffee shop, Austin, Texas: I don’t feel at all like I thought.
When I am stressed or anxious or having an existential crisis I remind myself that I am a bag of blood and bones on a spinning rock in space that is hurtling around a burning ball of gas (or incandescent plasma, if you prefer that version) and that nothing I do matters. Also, entropy is constantly increasing and the heat death of the universe will eventually kill us if we don’t kill ourselves first. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Black ballpoint pen written at a slant, dive bar, New Orleans: Too weird to live, too rare to die.
I started dating again recently, out of boredom or loneliness – it doesn’t really matter. I’ve kept a list of my favorite things men have said to me recently:
“It’s weird, because you’re so cute and energetic and then you say really dark shit.”
“No offense, but – most of the girls I’ve met who are into the stuff you are have daddy issues.”
“Even if I didn’t already know you were a writer, I’d have figured it out anyway. You just really like yourself.”
After this last one, I fight the urge to tell him the price of this hard-won self-love, patchy and incomplete as it is. I imagine giving him an itemized receipt detailing the cost of my self-acceptance: the alcohol consumed, tears shed, sleep lost, miles run, scars acquired.
Black pen, all caps beneath a drawing of a stick figure with horns and a pitchfork, Epoch coffee shop, Austin: Hell is forgetting yourself.
At a stationary shop in Seattle’s International District, I buy a sticker with a hairless sphynx cat on it for my sister because I know she likes them. I’ll mail it to her next week with a note. It’s nothing, a tiny gesture, but hopefully it will make her smile. I do not consider myself to be exceptionally nihilistic, but it has occurred to me lately that most of life on earth seems to consist of making infinitesimal gestures of resistance against the inexorable overtures of an advancing darkness.
White paint, big blocky letters, Aspen coffee shop, San Antonio: Hell is empty. All the devils are here.
Alison Miller is a born-and-bred Texan, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, a current MFA student, a witch, and an adventure-seeker. Her writing has previously appeared in Study Breaks Magazine. She currently lives in Alaska with her rescue pitbull, Zeus.