I spent three weeks in Austin last October. I went by myself, to do research for my dissertation. I rented a little one-bedroom house with a black and white checkered floor and I packed up some clothes and my running shoes and flew away. And when I landed in Austin and stepped outside into the mugginess, my hair grew tentacles and said what.

I didn’t know what to expect, driving into town from the airport. I surely didn’t expect it to feel the way it did, like a place I could be. I didn’t know more than a couple of people in town, and I spent most of that three weeks by myself. But I did not feel alone.

Sometimes my head is full of the things I do not know. Mostly they are whys and hows. How is it that I could float through a city by myself and it could feel a little bit like my own? I felt daring. I felt at peace, and full of purpose. This feeling, me in Austin and Austin in me, I carry it with me like a treasure wrapped in a soft cloth, and sometimes I pull it out to watch it gleam in the light.

– – –

Last weekend I was back in Austin for a wedding, and to see friends. Old friends, new friends. Internet-heart-friends where the first hug’s been a long time coming. All the feelings were the same, and on my Friday morning run I found my way through neighborhoods that had stayed in my head over the whole year, and I learned new parts of the city, and I ate at some old places and some new places. I tried Austin on again, and it still fit.

There were moments of bliss. The best comic book store ever, with one of my best girls. The surprising, wonderful interview with an artist whose work I haven’t been able to get out of my head since last year this time. The joy of being together again with old friends, and the pleasure of making new ones.

There were also not-perfect things about the trip. There was pouring rain and flooded streets. There was an almost comically misadventured day of not-lunches; after a series of mishaps, what had been planned as lunch with some dear people I was finally meeting in person became me, sitting away down the table among a group of very kind strangers, gobbling Indian buffet before sprinting to catch a bus to interview the artist, who had finally pried open a window in his crazy schedule. But even in these things, there was grace. I think good hearts reach out and say things to each other without words, even tentative things, so that you can still understand and feel understood. The want-to is there and it’s enough for the time being, so you can clasp hands in good faith and say next time, and your heart can still be full of love without sorrow.

– – –

My last day in Austin, I spent time in some favorite places. I read for a while in my favorite coffee shop, and I watched people walk in and out, stand in line, help each other, do their things, together and separate. I always feel seriously undertattooed in Austin, and it starts an itch to scratching in me sometimes. But the urge almost always subsides. It did Monday. Instead I let my mind wander. I imagined myself standing next to my boy and kissing him on the side of the face while we waited to pay. That’s the feeling that lingered, the wanting to stand next to someone and be me and happy. Even with my gray hair. Especially with my gray hair. Austin or anywhere.

I watched a little girl walk by in black hightop sneakers that flashed pink lights, and I wondered if I had pink lights on my sneakers if I would always be watching them, or if it would be enough just to know that they were sparkling. To let the sparkle hang out there. That’s the thing I want, too. Austin or anywhere.

– – –

This story doesn’t have a perfect ending. It’s not a clear arc. It’s true, there was talk of a job. It came up all suddenly over wedding cake and escalated in 36 little hours and now, it seems, is quietly deflating. It was all (is all?) oh so exciting, but the timing’s not right. And you know what? When the emails were flying back and forth across five states, I was exhilarated and beneath it all terrified, like the floor of my stomach had been replaced with a hunk of slate. It’s ok. I’ve always known the next step would be throwing-up scary+exciting. That’s one of the ways I’ll know it’s the right thing, because I’m running out of time for safe. So maybe this isn’t the right thing, but the right thing’s out there, and it’s really possible. And that’s a piece of grace, too, like putting my foot on a stepping stone where I expected an icy stream.

Friends, here’s to stepping stones.