Wednesday, May 27, 2015

books as friends, and a city that gives you space

If books were my friends (which, um, they are), I'd probably categorize them the same way I do my friends. I hope that doesn't sound overly utilitarian, but let's face it: hopefully we love our friends as wholly as we're able, but we often appreciate them for those one or two unique and complex qualities that sets them apart from others we know. It's what appeals to us in them, what draws us in. For example, I have this friend at work who is endlessly bubbly and enthusiastic and loves frappuccinos (with lots of whipped cream, of course), and she also has this incredibly smart, analytic take on things. I especially love to be around her when I want dessert, need a pep talk, or feel like my brain is failing me. And because of her, I just bought a girlie dress that I wouldn't say is "me," but that I love.

The same with books. I'm not looking to each book I read to bring the same kind of experience. I guess this is pretty obvious, especially when it comes to choosing different genres. But even when I read, say, two different books of narrative nonfiction, the author's voice and spin and language and images all work together to create a unique feel. What I'm getting at is that, reading Meghan Daum's newest book of essays, The Unspeakable, made me feel like I was with a friend (and actually reminded me of one of my closest friends). Daum's book is interesting, and heartfelt but not overly emotional. She said a lot of things that question the way I usually think about the world around me, which got me thinking. And I didn't always agree with her, but I trusted her enough to keep going along with her.

I came to this book and author through an essay published in The New Yorker a few months back, which is also part of this collection. It's called Difference Maker, and in it, she writes about her desire to remain childless. As she digs through her experiences and relationships to help the reader understand her path to this decision, she remains balanced (not sentimental at all, a leaning that the subject could lend itself to pretty easily) and yet uncovers what she called the Central Sadness (what a universal name!) in her marriage during one season of recognizing what remaining childless might mean for her and her husband. When I first read this essay back in the fall, I sat on my couch for a while afterward, thinking about it - about her process and how I could relate to that Central Sadness she described, and also about how she was able to achieve what she did with her writing.

One of my favorite essays in Daum's new collection is about Los Angeles, called Invisible City. If you're a reader of this blog, you probably know that I have my issues with LA (the traffic! the incessant sun! the fake green! and the metaphor that is!). Daum doesn't so much rant about LA* as see it with clear eyes and describe what she sees. Her premise is that, even though LA is a place where people come to be seen (or known - like, become famous), it's also a place where you can be invisible. She writes:
Now I just think that LA is a place that's hard to see close up. You can't capture it from the street. It's an aerial-view kind of city, best photographed from a helicopter or hillside. There are people everywhere, but they are hidden in their cars or houses, or they are tiny specks hiking on canyon trails, their dogs even tinier specks beside them, the wildlife crouched in the sagebrush unnoticed. LA is a place that will leave you alone if you need it to. It will let you cry in your car. It will give you your space. (emphasis mine, because exactly.)
It might be weird of me to say, but Daum's essay made me a little more sympathetic toward LA. As if I never thought that some of its flaws weren't its intentional doing, but rather just a result of how people have people the place. That is one of the best qualities that a friend can have, isn't it - to help others see more clearly, and as a result, find it in themselves to forgive. To act with grace toward the world around them.

*Ok but she does rant just a little bit, with such fresh imagery: "The surreal effects of watching these [obvious LA] cliches play out before you in real life and in real time can make your head spin. They can make you feel like the one live person in an animated children's show."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

things you should do the morning after a failed first date (even though you won't want to)

Run instead of sleeping longer
Wash your hair
Resist the bagel; eat something that came from the ground
Say something nice about him to your friends
Avoid the temptation to generalize every bad quality to every man you know
Put on lipstick
Wear something you look nice in (even if it's not comfortable)
Agree to dwell on it only for a specified period of time
Recall something you laughed together about
Laugh about it sooner than you feel ready to
Don't take anything too personally
Make your bed
Get to work on time
Be glad for the sunshine
Welcome hope

Friday, May 15, 2015

touch of gold

On Mother's Day, I dug through my boxes of photos to find one of my mom and me. I was looking for one in particular, but I never found it. In it, I am 17 years old, wearing an oversized flannel shirt and a big smile on my face. My arm is wrapped around my mom, whose smile looks happy if a little forced for the photo. My hair is pulled back and gold-ish in color from the home dye kit I asked my mom to apply to my hair, and she which she did, but only after bemoaning my decision to dye my hair. The subtext is her wish that I remain cautious and conservative in my appearance. Don't stand out too much.

I wanted to find this particular photo to post to social media on Mother's Day because my senior year of high school is what I remember as one of my favorite times with my mother. My sisters were out of the house and my best friend was on another continent. Without them, I felt lost and lonely. At the same time, I was applying to colleges and beginning to imagine life on my own - outside of my parents' home, my high school persona, my stale childhood. I felt eager to connect in light of this imminent emancipation (it was finally clear that I wouldn't be stuck here forever). Asking my mother to dye my hair is, perhaps, the perfect expression of what I experienced that year. I was asking my mom to keep loving me as my mother even while asking her to let me go.

A mother fixing her daughter's hair is one of the most intimate acts of love and service between a mother and daughter, I think. I remember so many warm summer nights of having my mom braid my wet hair before I went to bed so that, when I woke, it would wave along the creases of the braid. I sat on the floor in front of where she sat on the couch, and she would untangle the wet knots with a brush or comb. My head jerked back with each tug, and tears stung my eyes. Sometimes I hated the way it hurt, but I always loved her for doing it. It was a way in which I needed my mom, and a way in which I knew she loved me.

Part of me was glad I didn't find the photo to post on Mother's Day. I was thinking how I would caption it and felt conflicted, because while I love my mother, the warmth in that photo doesn't capture our complex relationship. Maybe that's why I love it. It doesn't hint at another time during my senior year when, after a youth leadership meeting for my church, I drove home feeling so overwhelmed and so lonely that I couldn't stop crying. It was everything: my best friend exploring life outside of our friendship on another continent, my trying to act like I didn't care about my GPA and class rank when, in fact, holding onto those two numbers felt like the only way I could be seen by my classmates, my feeling like the whole world was moving on too fast and I was being asked to move faster to keep up, when all I wanted to do was be held. I came home crying and my mom found me sitting on the edge of my bed, sobbing. She sat down next to me. It is rare to feel so broken that the truest thing comes out of your mouth, but that is what happened then. I asked her to hold me, and put my head on her shoulder. Touch was rare and awkward in our family, and so she made only the slightest moves to comfort me. I kept on crying, unable to explain why.

I know now that my mom didn't know what to do, and I think I get it. But I faulted her for a long time for not wrapping her arms around me and smoothing my hair or wiping my tears. I faulted her for not knowing how to hold me when I needed it. I still celebrate her love on Mother's Day, and I still love that picture. I realize that though she didn't always know how to hold me, or how to let me go, she really did the best she could. I will always remember that she dyed my hair, even against her own best judgement.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

on not quitting

When I started middle school, I decided I would join sports teams. To me, this was the way to make friends and be considered cool, though I really just wanted to gain that persona by association. I wasn't actually all that interested in being friends with most of the girls on the teams (most of them were intense and intimidating). And I wasn't all that interested in the sports themselves, either. I'd barely played team sports before. The drills made me feel self-conscious, I usually froze when it came time to make a play during a scrimmage or game (overthinking, of course), and while the point of most of those games - field hockey, basketball, lacrosse - was to aggressively go after that ball and put it in some kind of net, most of the time I just didn't care that much where the ball went.

Fall was field hockey, so that was the first sport I tried out. It didn't take long for me to realize I wasn't having fun. Controlling a heavy white ball with a long stick isn't all that easy, especially when the grass gets in the way and you have to run while doing it (and in a skirt! I thought that part would be fun, but it wasn't). I don't know if it was my lack of skill or my size or both, but early on I was tapped to try out goalie. This is pretty much torture for a seventh grade girl for a few reasons, the top two being: (1) no 13-year-old wants to look even bigger than she already is (all that equipment!); and (2) no 13-year-old wants to have the pressure of saving or sinking the team by moving her body to somehow, in any way possible, block the ball (that she doesn't care all that much about anyway). I wasn't playing sports to stick out, I was playing to fit in.

I started to dread practice. My stomach hurt for the last two periods of class every day, and I would try to figure out whether practice would be easy or hard based on how we'd practice recently or how soon a game was coming up. I moved into self-protective mode and just tried to get through the whole ordeal. One day, I stood on the sidelines and suited up in goalie gear while the rest of the team prepped for a scrimmage game. Down the hill, the cheerleading squad practiced their cheers. I looked on at their practice and the fun they were having, carefree. Then, I realized my coach had been calling me onto the field. I turned away from the cheerleaders and hobbled onto the field in my gear, stick in hand. I just wanted the whole thing to be over.

So you might see where this is going. Soon, I told my mom that I wanted to quit. But she wouldn't let me. I remember standing in the kitchen with her one night after practice, shoving bread in the toaster to eat with my dinner. Outside, the evening was dark, and the windows reflected ourselves to us. I demanded a reason to not quit, and her reply was that she wanted me to learn to stick with something. At the time, this seemed like the most ridiculous reason to me. And in the years to come, I wondered why she didn't trust me to know myself.

Here is where I'm really going: when I think about writing, I sometimes feel like that girl standing on the hill in goalie gear, gazing with longing toward where the cheerleaders are practicing. My stomach is in knots, I know I won't be able to block the ball, or write anything that makes sense, and I want to be on the other side where I might have fun and be popular. The metaphor breaks down somewhere, because I really didn't like field hockey, while writing gets me kinda wired, in a good way, when I get really into it. I wonder how my mom

became so convinced that persistence was valuable to learn - was it more than a general lesson she knew to be good, or was there a story, a desire, lying underneath it for her, too?

Friday, May 1, 2015

old has moved in and i didn't even know it

The day after I turned 35, I flew to San Francisco to meet my sister and her family for a weekend of fun. It all felt very carefree. I wore skinny gray jeans and nude flats. I took only my cross-body bag and a small rolling carry-on. Getting to the airport was a short walk, a metro-ride, then a bus to LAX, during which I read poetry and ate chocolate. The Virgin America terminal played pop music and was peopled mostly by young professionals in nice clothing, probably heading home after a day in LA for business. In San Francisco, I hopped on the air tram to the Bart and watched the late evening sun set over the low, brown northern California hills. I walked from the Bart station to my hotel in the Financial district, walking slow to take in the lights and warm air, needing only my denim jacket to keep me warm enough.

Somewhere in the journey, I had the though, Isn't this great? Young and uninhibited, free to whatever I want, my only burden for the weekend something I can easily just wheel from behind.

But then it hit me. I am not young.

Something about my situation, my un-attached-ness, maybe my clothes and accessories, too, and the book in my hand and my indulgence in chocolate and my company, made me feel young. And yet, I have gray hair. Weight is settling around my hips and butt (I mean, it always has, but this is something new). You don't have to look as close to see wrinkles or skin spots. Soon, if not already, I will be the not-so-young person (the old person?) taking public transportation either because she can't afford her own car or taxi to the airport, or because she is liberal and slightly hippie-ish and believes public transportation for the environment's sake. I will not be wearing nude flats but instead shoes that look a little clunky and better support my aching, blistered feet.

It's not that the thought of growing old has ever really bothered me. It's just that, in a lot of ways, I don't feel old. Or, maybe it's that the feeling of old has crept up on me, silently moved into my body over a number of days and months - leaving its toothbrush one night, making space in my underwear drawer a week later, like a live-in paramour afraid to have the conversation with me. Now, it's around all the time, and I never got to have a say in whether I wanted that kind of relationship.

Do I ask him to leave? Put his belongings in a box? Too late for all of that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

tell me who i am

1. Tell me who I am
When I was young, I thought I was adopted. I realize this is not unusual. Others have their stories of assumed outsider status. There must be something deep in our psyche (or spirit) that tries to convince us we don't belong. But there are signs we do, or at least there were for me. I was tall like my dad, with the facial bone structure of my mom. Then, I looked almost identical to my sister 18 month older than me, and now when I hear her on the phone, I hear my own voice talking back to me. Our smiles, our cheeks, they are all the same. And though I don't remember birth, my mother does. She knows I came out of her.

Adoption is not the most horrible story to make up about yourself. Though the implication is, "I am the one who is not like the others," the story could also be about being sought out, acceptance and love. Not left alone without a family, not ultimately separated from all others, you are now part of a family that is trying to convince you that you are one of their own. Why not just believe them?

During those years when I wanted to belong just as much as I wanted to break apart, I just needed my family to keep telling me who I was.

2. Nature of a hunch
At a writing conference I attended a few weeks ago, I noticed a theme of the "hunch." One writer used it when telling the story of her Polish family, and how she felt in her gut that their story of immigration had deeper, more traumatic roots. This leading depended not on words but clues she subconsciously gathered and stored somewhere inside. Eventually, her hunch led her to keep pressing until she confirmed what she had already come to assume: her family was Jewish, and her grandmother had left the country to escape the genocide during World War II.

Another writer spoke about how he didn't talk until he was relatively old, 4 or 5 even. There are things he learned with his body that he couldn't (or didn't need to) put words to. Much of what he feels is pre-verbal, or extra-verbal. It is knowing outside of words that define.

A hunch is like a kick from inside the womb of a pregnant woman. It helps you know you carry something living, though you don't know yet who or what it will be.

3. Brave is something else
A track olympian has told us that, "for all intents and purposes," he is a woman. He is following what his gut is telling him about his true self. Following that hunch, if you will. And people are proclaiming this as brave. I can't help but think that brave is something else. I admit that I have little personal experience with transgender issues. I have never wanted to be any gender but female. But I have felt myself trying to be someone I know now that I'm not. I think we all feel, to some extent, that we are stuck in bodies that don't express all of who we are. I am tall but I often feel average, and wish my height reflected how I'd like to be seen.

I wonder if being brave means knowing which hunches are really whatever it is that tells us we don't belong, and choosing instead to listen to the voices that tell us who we really are. The living things, inside us and around us.

Monday, April 20, 2015

the 100 day project: like basting a turkey, and other creative thoughts

A few of you might have heard about the 100 day project. For those who haven't, the rules are simple: pick a way to be creative every day for 100 consecutive days, then document it on social media for accountability/community. Remembering how fun and useful and focusing other streaks I've done have been (my blog every day in May streak, and then my #rwrunstreak, documented on Instagram), I knew I wanted to join in. A day or two later I used Instagram to post part of a poem that had become meaningful to me and used a photo I thought had the feel of the poem and that's where I found my 100 day task: caption an original photo (by me) with a poem I choose (not by me).

(Yes, this blog post is in part a plug for my Instagram feed. Follow me! My nieces and nephews keep asking how many likes they get when I post their photos, and they are clearly un-impressed by my following. I promise photos of cute kids, scenic runs and, now, poetry.)

But more than a scheme to get more followers, this project is about fostering creativity. The image of basting just came to mind when I thought of the term "creative juices." I'm not a huge meat eater, so the image isn't the most appealing to me, but it's a true one. This creative streak is about keeping things juicy with the hopes of serving up something good real soon.

It's been two weeks since the 100 day project started. Time to reflect:

  • Choosing a poem a day requires me to read lots of poetry. And poems require slow, sometimes repeated, reading. Some days I'm not so discerning, and may just skim a few before I find one I want to post. Other days, I've sat with a poetry book and read deeply and slowly.
  • Being quick and dirty about creative work is useful. It helps me to let go of perfection, and sometimes even understand a hunch or gut response that led me to match a photo with a poem, or take a photo from a certain angle, etc. (Or sometimes it's the opposite, like, there is nothing of value in that - which is ok!)
  • Choosing two mediums that are not my own craft (not a photographer, not a poet - though I love both images and words) helps me to disconnect myself from the product. Both also refine the way I see, hear and think, which has been fun.
  • I like that I'm promoting the reading of poetry. Posting poetry on Instagram makes me feel slightly subversive because it's all about scrolling, quick looks, a tap for a like. I don't know if everyone who likes the poetry-captioned photos are reading the poems (or just liking the photo itself) but if I can help one person to discover something or slow down while reading a poem they wouldn't have normally read, that's a win.
  • Reading more poetry has helped me get more words in me. I think of it as eating, swallowing. I have more heft as a writer. My mind sings more. I have been thinking in story and image. This is a very good thing for me.
I may have more to say as the project goes on. But for now - see all of my poetry-captioned photos here! And if you have a favorite poem, I'll consider requests.