Catching My Breath

Life is different now.

It’s different from what it was before.

And I already know what you’re thinking: Michelle. Life is always different. It’s in its nature.

Agreed, but listen. Right now, today and the last six months, it’s big different.

And yes, I’ve been avoiding you. I’ve been avoiding you and this coffee shop and my favorite latte, because life is different. I can’t sit here and write about something else until I can first deal with all this differentness.


I belong to Maryland, now. Write about the MVA! everyone keeps telling me. You really want to know? Part of me died there, and I’ll never get it back.

There were non-helpful employees that kept changing the rules on me, I went broke for a plastic card and two metal plates, and some lady unceremoniously cut my Louisiana license in front of me. Well, that just happened. Hello commitment.

But there was also beauty: a teenage girl passed her driving test with a 94% and everyone in our section cheered for her when she told her father (although his smile seemed sad). Another father talked to me for a while about his own daughter moving to New Jersey, and he asked how my parents took my seven-states-away move. Well, I told him, they took it really well. (I think it’s okay to lie sometimes.) I also got a nifty mug for filling out a survey concerning my satisfaction with Maryland drivers (very dissatisfied) and my new license picture doesn’t look half-bad.

The man who finally gave me new tags was nice. While handling my paperwork, he sang Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and talked to his friend about their mutual acquaintance who was hiding out in Ocean City. It seems this acquaintance was in trouble with the law and a bunch of angry bikers. I was intrigued by the story and I was also tempted to tell him that, yes, we do belong together; that’s why I need to secure my Maryland residency. But I didn’t.

Instead, I just cried like a girl who’s been in the MVA too long and said thank you! Welcome to Maryland! he congratulated me.

Welcome to Maryland: different.


Life is different, and sometimes it’s also a bit confusing. I spent my summer writing a character named Amelia. I gave her my history and my memories and I watched her relationship play out just like mine did. And I called her “fiction.”

We like her people said, but something’s not quite right. They couldn’t believe her as a person they said; she just isn’t believable. Who is she? What does she want from life? Where’s she going?  

I don’t know.

She doesn’t know I told them. Well, that’s kind of a problem, isn’t it? they asked. Oh, I said, is it?


I ran a half-marathon. That happened. That’s definitely different for this wanna-be ballerina. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I won’t even downplay how amazing it was.

At one point they gave us bananas and everyone dropped their banana peels on the ground and all I could think of was Mario Kart and how bad an idea this really was. I then started considering what the marathon might be like with green and red turtle shells or mushrooms. This line of thinking gave me the giggles for a while, but it also got me through miles 8 and 9.

There’s more I could tell you, but this is the point: you can’t cross a finish line like that and not be different. Big different.

Michelle about to cross the finish line of her half-marathon
I still can’t believe I was able to run across the finish line. I thought I would crawl.


And then there were some changes that didn’t happen all at once. Someone recently asked me why I wasn’t funny anymore. I was inclined to disagree with her assessment, but then it came in like waves: Why so serious? Write something funny! You’re always funny when you’re funny.

It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. But listen: I can’t just be funny. And once you’ve demanded it, it’s almost impossible. (Although, this has more to do with my stubbornness than it does with my life circumstances.)


Life is different right now, people. And it’s rapid. Constantly changing. And it reminds me of my first memory of the ocean:

I toddler-walked in, holding my father’s hand, grinning as the sand and water rushed through my toes. Then all the sand was gone, and the water took my feet, my legs, my small body. I wasn’t standing on anything, and the next wave took me from my father’s hand.

I tumbled head over feet—forward and then back again—my eyes and mouth wide open. All I could see was the dull brown-blue of the sand and water mixing around me, and everything was strong and fast. I was little, but I remember understanding that this is what the word “drowning” meant.

Write something funny!

Michelle as a child
You can see I was thinking big thoughts even then.

Okay, fine. This is funny: I didn’t drown that first time in the ocean. My father’s hands reached into the cloudy water and brought me back into the sunlight with his arms around me. He was laughing, unafraid. Whoa! That was a big one he said. He’d been there the entire time; I was never drowning at all.


And this is kind of funny, too:

This morning, my car drove me here, to the coffee shop that’s been at the back of my mind for months. And there was only one spot left in the parking lot. And there was only one table left unoccupied in my favorite waiter’s section. But he won’t look at me because the last time he did, I was crying in a public place. (I can’t really blame him; it was admittedly awkward.)

And all of a sudden the trees are on fire with oranges and yellows and reds again, and I’ve only just realized it’s fall. To write to you in this place is to remember that winter is coming again. More change. I’m not drowning, but the water is rapid and sand is sliding beneath my feet. Foundations are shifting.

Life is different is what I’m saying. It’s changing before me and often without my consent. And here’s the thing about being or not being funny: sometimes, different means serious. And I think that’s okay.


Here’s the last thing you really need to know: two months ago, I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in my life. I stood at the water’s edge just as I did in the gulf when I was a toddler holding Dad’s hand.

I put my feet in the water like I did then, but this time the water was much colder. It was thrilling. I edged in, a beach of people behind me. I let the sand wash from my feet, but I soon realized the pull was stronger here, or maybe my feet were bigger and that had something to do with it. Surface area and all that.

Before I knew what was happening, my feet, my legs, and my still-smallish body were being beat up by the waves on the shore, the beach full of people watching.

Well that’s kinda funny.

This time was different than when I was a kid because I immediately knew just how funny this was and I knew this wasn’t drowning. This was pride dying, sure, but drowning it was not.

I couldn’t regain my footing because I was laughing and my friends couldn’t help because they were laughing, too. I couldn’t catch my breath and it suddenly occurred to me that, actually, if I didn’t take action soon, this time I could actually drown. A few people stood up and asked if I was okay.

I waved to them and gurgled fine, I’m fine! waves…great…fine!

And then I dove deeper. I dove deeper, swimming face-first into the waves. It was not graceful, but there was a moment of calmness and I caught my breath. And I laughed some more, my face red from the sun and my injured pride, because what else can you do?

Michelle making a funny face in response to the cold water.
The water was surprisingly cold and every time I turned my back on it, it snuck up on me again.


I’ve been avoiding you and this coffee shop and this poor waiter, because life is different. The waves keep coming in and that feels scary most days. Sometimes, it feels like heartbreak and sometimes it feels like drowning. But other days, it still feels thrilling. And funny—even if it is the Oh Michelle, why haven’t you written about that yet? brand of funny.

And I’m learning to catch my breath.

Life changes. It’s in its nature.

I was once a little girl afraid to grow up. My mother told me this was silly. Everyone grows up. And she was right.

Here I am, sitting in a coffee shop that has become my favorite, drinking black coffee because I’ve finished my latte. And the brown-blue haze of the water and sand is starting to recede and I can see that the trees are on fire with color. Fall is almost over, and winter’s coming.

And I feel like I’ve only just woken up.

Michelle smiling on the beach
This was a really short trip, but it was one of the highlights of my summer.