Tuesday, December 24, 2013

the oil that doesn't stop flowing

Having just started a new adventure living on my own, I'm extra aware right now of spaces that are empty and what filling looks like. When I moved into my apartment a few weeks ago, there were blank spaces to fill: a need for kitchen supplies, the bookshelf to unpack and arrange my books on, a couch that needed (and still needs) some pillows. My walls are white and all my frames and art are sitting on my desk waiting to be hung. My month has been spent buying and filling my new apartment to make it a home, functionally and aesthetically. Meanwhile, I anticipated (somewhat anxiously) lots of unfilled time by myself and learning how to adjust to the rhythm of living alone. The rhythm is different, and yet I've realized that time is filled pretty easily (especially once you get the internet hooked up). In many ways, I'm living the pace I was hoping to change when I left a full house: I fill up, escaping any emptiness I forsee. How can something made of nothing feel so heavy?

All this to say, this week I've been thinking a lot about being empty and being filled up. I feel a certain void because I'm spending this Christmas in California, working (all but the day of, anyway). I miss the Food Network cooking shows, sleeping in, baking and helping to plan the big meal, special outings with my nieces and nephews, even (gasp) the holiday travel. These have been my traditions for most of the last 9 years, for most of my adult life, really. Typically, these are the things that make my holiday full.

This morning I read a post in the New York Times about an adoptive parent who is learning how to not try to fill holes in the lives of her children that she can't, or wasn't meant to, fill. It made me reflect on my own life, how there are empty holes that I feel more acutely at some times than others. But it's not really my job to fill my life with things that might at the very least cover over those holes, if not fill. I leave them empty and believe that God will fill what we bring to Him. It reminded me of the communion passage at my church Sunday. It was a story from the Old Testament in which a woman's creditors come to collect what they're owed. But her husband has died, and she can't pay - so they threaten to take her children. The woman asks a prophet for help, and the man of God tells her to pour from her one jar of oil into any vessel that she's able to find. Her children go out and gather jars to bring for the oil, and that oil doesn't stop flowing until all the jars are filled. It's enough to pay what she owes, and then more to live on. The story is a miracle of God, and what is so amazing to me is that no jar is left empty. God fills every empty vessel.

Merry Christmas, and may you experience God filling your life with the light of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

moving out, moving on

So I moved out. I packed boxes with books and kitchen utensils and candle holders. My cookbooks filled their own box, the heaviest of all of them. I packed about five more boxes of kitchen items than I anticipated, and spent more than I'd budgeted to outfit my new kitchen, and still there are things - like plates, like a pot to boil water in - that I am missing. I folded blankets and sheets and clothes into more boxes and my suitcases. I took frames off the wall and used the tail end of the hammer to pull the nails out (is there a verb for that action? I couldn't find one just now). My friends came over and helped me take apart and put together a bookcase, fill a moving truck, carry my clothes still on their hangers and buy a fridge. And now I am moving in, putting all of my things in their own new homes inside my new home, making a home for me and for others (if even just for a few hours of their visit). My last night in my old house I was afraid I'd made one of the worst decisions of my life to date, and on the first evening in my new apartment I drank wine and danced like a fool because no one was watching and no one cared and I love new beginnings.

This is all moving, all the physical placement of things. But I realize I've been putting off some of the other moving, the moving on. And I don't mean moving on like forgetting, but like packing and taking it with me. This is what gets lost in between all of those little boxes I drew next to the items on my checklist. This one can't easily be checked off because it will take time and sometimes it happens not when I plan. It doesn't all fit in a box. But to help it along, I bought gifts for my old housemates (or should I say, my second family of brothers and sisters and nieces), one of which I didn't even give yet. And I keep putting off the writing of notes, the expression of how much they gave me and what I am taking with me and setting up in my new apartment. The generosity and perspective and acceptance and memories that weigh more than my full box of cookbooks and will be what makes this apartment a true home.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

that day we painted four years ago

It was a few weeks after my friends bought a house and invited me and my roommate to live with them. We were all getting ready to move in - packing and gradually moving into the house that was only a few blocks from our respective apartments. I drove home early on a Saturday morning from the Rose Bowl after my running plans were thwarted by UCLA football and discovered that new plans had been made for me: we were going to paint.

That was more than four years ago, and now I realize that day was symbolic, and also indicative. We piled in the car for Home Depot, made our paint choices on the fly, bought our supplies, and were taping up the rooms before lunch. None of us had ever really painted before. Our choice of white to freshen up the trimming clashed with the white of the plantation shutters. I don't remember eating lunch, and at around 7 that evening we piled back into the car for our favorite Vietnamese restaurant (cheap, quick and filling).

The next day, we came home from church and worked on the trim. We finished later that evening and celebrated with bottles of Coronas - clearing the cluttered dining room table and surrounded by brown boxes filled with our belongings. The paint fumes, the delirium from spending all weekend inside together, the alcohol - whatever it was, we laughed hard that night. And I envisioned something good for us together.

The next four years was filled with much of the same. For me, it was often about giving up my hard-fought independence, learning to be flexible and enjoying the spontaneity of going with someone else's flow. Of course, there were times I held my ground and pursued what I wanted instead of going with the whole household, and sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't. More recently there was some conflict about my not contributing to prep for a dumpling party. Where had I been while everyone else was chopping? I'd been at Barnes & Noble, oblivious to fact that the chopping was happening simultaneously because nobody told me. So we learned how to communicate, and how to be beholden to each other and where we wanted the boundaries of our relationships to lie. I've been let down many times, but I've also been happily surprised even more.

In a few short weeks I'll be moving out of this house. My housemate said it's like sending me off to college, and in some ways that feels true. I'll be just around the corner, but I have a feeling it will feel miles away from the family I've become a part of. Hopefully more reflection and photos to come...

P.S. Hence the new ricecooker.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

finishing


When it comes to running, training plans are great for me because they play to my rigid, perfectionist personality. Checking a run off the list makes me feel good about myself. (Whether it should or not is another blog post that I may never write.) They also keep me in check towards the end of things, when it's easy for me slack.

So months ahead, I looked for a training plan for this marathon. And then all of a sudden, the time for training snuck up on me. One Sunday night in July I realized that my training should start the next morning. Feeling the need to start on time with a plan, I picked one that was similar to the one I did last time - and had admitted didn't build the kind of fitness I needed to meet my sub-2 hour goal.

Then, two weeks later my sister and brother in law somehow convinced me to try their ambitious plan, which had started two weeks before mine had. Meaning they were on week four and easily running at least 10 more miles a week than I was at that point. The first two weeks adjusting to the higher mileage and amped up paces were pretty rough and it messed with my head.

By then it was August, and hot. And busy. And then there was Hawaii, and who wants to get up at 5:30am to get a long run in when you're on vacation at the beach? Not me. I ran once while I was there. And when I came back I couldn't find my motivation. It got buried somewhere between the sand in the bottom of my suitcase and the troubling fog of confusion and despondency that blurred the weeks after my trip. I tried to run, but I didn't like it much. I remember one morning heading out at 5:30 to run an 8 mile tempo run. A few miles in I realized the tempo part would probably not happen, and then I found myself cutting the run short at 5. I felt horrible, physically and mentally, and I knew I was in trouble.

At that point, with five weeks until the race, I made some changes. To make sure I enjoyed my runs, I stepped it down to four days a week and I moved my runs to the evenings, after it cooled off, instead of getting up to run in the dark mornings. I also made my own plan and created a simple purpose for each run: speed at the track, easy miles on tired legs, long hills (for the hilly race route), and long distance. My first track workout was encouraging, and the faded colors in the late summer sky during the runs that first week of the new plan reminded me that new, good things can spring up when we're headed into the dark. I remember mounting the last hill in a 9 mile hill run during that first week, my last two easy miles left to run, and I just had to stop - not because I was worn out but because the sky was too beautiful not too look for a while. It was the first time I'd felt truly grateful in a few weeks, and that feeling isn't one to pass up on.

All this to tell you that for perhaps the first time in my short span of life thus far, I finished something stronger than I started, and that without a plan prescribed by someone else. It was a lesson in knowing myself and finding what I needed. These last few weeks of running have been some of the best I've ever had, and they even led to a personal best for me in the half marathon. My goal was to enjoy it and finish - I had thrown out a time goal weeks earlier. But it turns out I ran the race in under 2 hours for the first time, and felt powerful (not good, mind you, but strong) the whole run.

Friday, October 4, 2013

listen, watch, read

It seems like every other conversation this week is about the government shutdown. When I logged into the New York Times website on Tuesday morning, the main scrolling photos featured services outside of the capitol that were impacted by the event. One showed a man standing outside the Liberty Bell, another of signs posted at Valley Forge state park turning visitors away. I heard one man on the radio talk about a trip to the Grand Canyon that had been 18 years in the making. He was waiting outside to see if he'd still get part of his vacation.

All of that makes me kinda sad and angry and like I want to scold those politicians for bickering with each other like children. I'm sure there are factors at play that I'm totally unaware of and probably unable to grasp, but still.

So, the bad news is that some of the beauty of our country is off limits for a little while and there are grown men (and women, I suppose?) acting like children. The good news is that there are still plenty of people doing wonderful and surprising things. So in case you got turned away from a museum or monument or park and are twiddling your thumbs or writing death notes to congress, here are a few alternatives for you.

1. listen
My favorite host on NPR's Morning Edition (a Lancaster, PA native!) interviewed a 12-year-old girl with some extraordinary musical talent. At the end of the interview, he gives her a scenario and she makes up a song for it. The tune comes to her so quickly, so naturally it's like a second language. She speaks in key strokes. It had me thinking about what second languages some others of us have - unique abilities that maybe aren't quite so lauded but are extraordinary nonetheless. Apparently it also had my nephew practicing extra hard for his first solo piano performance (he's in second grade).

2. watch
You may not consider comedians high culture, but watch this appearance by Louise C.K. He's onto something and I admire his honesty, and the way he can help us to listen to an uncomfortable truth through his humor. (I've also picked up my phone a lot less.)



3. read
And lastly, this quote from Isabel Wilkerson talking about her process of finding people with the stories that would eventually make up her book The Warmth of Other Suns. (What a great title, right?) I guess the reason it struck me as so beautiful is because I still try to outrun my mistakes, thinking I can somehow reverse them or make up for them. That's a lot of running. If any of you readers are distance runners, you know that the best part of the run is almost always that moment at the end when you can stop. That's what I imagine she's talking about here.
I wanted people who were beautifully imperfect. Perfection is not real, and readers cannot identify with people presented as perfect. I wanted to find people who were at peace with their mistakes and with the things they had done not particularly well. I wanted people who were willing to be who they really, truly were. Via here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

under the night sky

A [night sky classified as] Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it's bright. That's the great thing - the darker it gets, if it's clear, the brighter the night is. That's something we never see either, because it's so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky. -Via here.
When I was in high school, I spent a few weeks of each summer working at the camp I grew up attending. Those first few years working there, the only thing I was old enough to do was waitress in the kitchen. It was mostly grunt work - in the kitchen three times a day, sweeping and mopping the whole dining hall every night, washing out ketchup lids and reshaping butter sticks (yes, we did that). But we got free time in between meals and at night. In August we served rental groups and had fewer restrictions on our free time, which meant we had the chance to do all the things we'd always wanted to do at camp but didn't want to risk getting in trouble for. One time, a few waitress friends and I slept outside on the dock by the lake. The uneven wood boards were terribly uncomfortable, but we were there for the experience of it. To say we did it. Except that in the middle of the night we woke up wet from dew and unable to really sleep well. So we bundled up in our sleeping bags and grabbed our pillows. We'd forgotten a flashlight, since our plan was to return to our cabin after the sun had risen. The first part of the path back was under a dome of tree branches and leaves that blocked out any light coming from the night sky, and we couldn't see a thing. We held tight to each other and took small steps forward so we wouldn't trip on anything. We'd traveled this wide path hundreds of times before, but without any light it was completely foreign to us. It wasn't long until we made it to the clearing and the night got lighter around us.

I've been thinking about walking in darkness and how scary it can be, and how it makes me want to find some kind of light, any kind, to break the darkness. But really, if I'm able to resist these urges, the night can be light on its own.

Reminds me of these verses from Psalm 139: If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

fall is here

This week fall came to Southern California. Summer always holds on through most of September, sometimes even pops back up in October. That picture of a grinning sun with streaming rays taunts me: tell me you love me, tell me you want me to stay forever, it demands, just like all the celebrities with their oversized sunglasses and egos. But now: a cool breeze fills the house when we open the french doors, I slept with a sweatshirt on the other night, and the sky is an indescribable color at 7pm, light and dark touching and the moon shining and the mountains reflecting all of this off their mysterious ridges.

Finally. Why does it always seem like such a long time coming?

But even with all my anticipation, the shift in season caught me off guard. I had to remember, yes, this is what fall feels like, this is how things change. I have to make room for it. It will be sticking around for a few months.

And it will be sticking around for only a few months. To remember that is reassuring because even though I wanted this new season, it brings its lack. Leaves fall, light wanes, eventually birds stop their singing. But soon enough the season will change again and bring with it new gifts, new growth. The hillsides here are filled with bright green things after the rest and rain of the fall and winter.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

a mercy

It always happens over dishes, this explaining of ourselves to each other. I pumped soap onto the wet sponge and lathered it over the pot as you started, as you told me you didn't know how to start. You explained your piece as best you could while I focused on the dishes, on piling them up carefully on the drying rack so that they wouldn't fall. I squeezed the sponge dry, turned off the water, and turned to stand against the counter. I knew I needed to respond but wasn't sure how I would do it without crying the tears that have been coming so easily, like a deep well with no bottom. We both acknowledged we didn't want things to change, and we both agreed that they probably would, maybe they already had. Just the day before I'd been lying on my bed looking at the bookcase you helped me move into my room when the thought, "what will I do without her" came to my mind, and with it new tears. I hadn't really let myself think about it that way until I remembered the bookcase, how heavy and big it was. It had weighed on my mind for days, how to get it into the house from the garage where I'd put it together. It was a job for more than one person.

We talked for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, each of us saying basically the same thing over and over. You let me feel my pain, which to some might have seemed merciless, but was a mercy to me. You didn't try to dry my tears or cry them with me, but you let them flow, maybe hoping with me that the well will dry up someday soon. Later, I took out the cake you brought home for me the night before, and when I asked if you wanted to share it, you said no. You brought it home for me, not for us. So I ate it alone.

Monday, August 19, 2013

an alternative syllabus for inner city life

I have a short resume of living in ghettos, slums and "the hood," as people inside and outside of these neighborhoods will refer to them. While there, I tried to be more than someone with a mailing address there - I tried to be a neighbor. For me, that meant primarily being a friend: speaking some Spanish (or Tagalog, for the short time I was in Manila), playing Uno, watching tv and eating some really great food. It also meant difficult conversations about cell phones, school behavior and math homework. And now, a few blocks away and a few years later, I realize it also included some misunderstanding, wrong assumptions, and plenty of mistakes. (Some of this I acknowledged at the time, but to acquire insight required a bit of distance.)

Recently a few books have been shelved on my "read" bookshelf that might have helped my perspective and understanding of my neighbors. It may also be that these experiences have helped my reading of these books to be deeper, more full of appreciation. Either way, I imagine that these three books - all different in scope, topic and style - would make a lively and helpful syllabus for cross-cultural, cross-socioeconomic living. Here are quick excerpts from each that, in my mind, capture the themes of these books. (Emphasis mine.)*

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo:

(Abdul, Sunil and Kalu are all young Indian men living in a Mumbai slum.)
"Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?" Abdul was asking the boy who was not listening. He seemed to be in one of the possessions that came over him from time to time, ever since he got locked up at Dongri.

"Like that woman who just went to hang herself, or her husband, who probably beat her before she did this? I wonder what kind of life is that," Abdul went on. "I go through tensions just to see it. But it is a life. Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life. Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, 'If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.' And my mother was so shocked when I said that. She said, 'Don't confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives.'"

Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly - the kind that could be ended as Kalu's had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he'd come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy's life could still matter to himself.
Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc:

(Cesar is in jail, and his young family is visiting him.)
Cesar pulled out the gooey taffy and offered it to [his daughter], but just as she reached for it, he pulled it back. He teased her with the offer again, and just as she reached for it, he swallowed it and smacked his lips. He smothered her hurt feelings with hugs, making it into a game, drowning out her crying with laughter and kisses and silly smooching sounds. In the subtle tyranny of that moment beat the pulse of Cesar's neighborhood - the bid for attention, the undercurrent of hostility for so many small needs ignored and unmet, the pleasure of holding power, camouflaged in teasing, the rush of love. Then the moment passed, and Cesar's three-year-old daughter walked back out into the world and left him behind.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman:

(Neil is an ambitious, highly respected pediatrician who is treating young Lia, a Hmong girl with epilepsy.)
Neil Ernst was a doctor of a different breed. It would have gone completely against his grain to apply two different standards of care to his patients: a higher one for the Americans, a lower one for the Hmong. But might Lia Lee have been better off if her family had brought her to Roger Fife? Might Neil actually have compromised Lia’s health by being so uncompromising? That latter question still bothers him. For example, if Lia’s prescriptions hadn’t been changed so often, her parents might have been more likely to give her her medications, since they would have been less confused and more confident that the doctors knew what they were doing. Neil was pretty sure, however, that because Lia’s condition was progressive and unpredictable, he could treat it best by constantly fine-tuning her drug regimen. If had chosen a single pretty-good anticonvulsant and stuck with it, he would have had to decide that Lia wasn’t going to get the same care he would have given the daughter of a middle-class American family who would have been willing and able to comply with a complex course of treatment. Which would have been more discriminatory, to deprive Lia of the optimal care that another child would have received, or to fail to tailor her treatment in such a way that her family would be most likely to comply with it?

*I intended to say more about each book and what they offer, as part of a syllabus, in addition to the more typical fact-driven expository nonfiction. But I'm leaving on a jet plane in the morning (a real vacation!) and wanted to get this written. So you may see more of this - just a warning.

Monday, August 5, 2013

shake it, don't break it*

There are some dreams that I'm able to wish for much in advance of realizing them, and then there are others I didn't know I had until I stumble into them. One of those dreams found me on Saturday night. My friend, who is nearly 30 years old, decided to celebrate the last few days of her twenties with some dancing at an event called Bootie LA. Apparently this event happens monthly, and has been for some time, but even after living here for nine years I'd never heard of it. Somewhere in the deep, subconscious corners of my mind I think I'd always wanted to attend something called Bootie LA. It would be exaggerating only slightly to say that when I got her email about the event, my heart skipped a beat.

The problem, though, is that I am very obviously not in my twenties, and so "clubbing" is almost a cross-cultural experience for me. Clubs get going around 10pm at the earliest, by which time I have been known to be in my pajamas, glasses on, reading a book in my bed on a Saturday night. By 1am - when most clubbers are hitting their groove - I am awake only if I need to pee. And I dread that weird I feel hung over but not from alcohol feeling I get when I don't get enough sleep. It sometimes takes me a full week to recover from an altered sleeping schedule. (I wish I could say I'm kidding you. I'm not.)

Thankfully music and dressing up does excite me, and at Bootie LA I was able to drum up enough adrenaline to dance for a while. But soon I felt more like a teacher chaperone at a middle school dance: that music was so loud and those kids need to dance a little further apart and why does everyone keep pushing me on their way to the dance floor give me some space and be respectful of your elders!

My friend kept us all going for quite a while, and just when chaperone mode was starting to take over, they played a mash-up of Taylor Swift that had me singing out loud, then some Michael Jackson, so I was saved for another round of dancing. At home that night, I mean morning, my ears were ringing and I had that gross sweaty feeling as I got into bed and discovered the next morning that I forgot to take my contacts out. There was an email from my friend thanking us all for celebrating with her, and I thought about writing a note of warning in response. Then I decided some things - like unwished for dreams, like Bootie LA, and like aging - are better left discovered by accident.

*title inspired by a text of well-wishing (or warning?) sent by my sister before Bootie LA.

Friday, July 19, 2013

the interview: be a great audience

When people ask what kind of writing I want to do (or, excuse me, the kind of writing I do; I'm working on ownership here), I try to explain it without any of the fancy terms the writing community gives it: literary nonfiction, narrative journalism, etc. So I say I write nonfiction, and that I like telling other people's stories more than my own. I like doing research and I love interviewing. Last winter when I took a narrative journalism class, I interviewed my friend, who was my main source and character for my first story, a few weekends in a row. During the second weekend I remember having one of those "in my groove" moments where I felt like what I was doing was not work in the sense of drudgery and labor; it was challenging and satisfying and completely thrilling. That solidified it for me.

I found this cool little ditty about interviewing that frames it as a guided conversation. Totally. Part of what made those interviews with my friend so great (and fun and insightful), apart from the fact that this friend is articulate, thoughtful and totally interesting, is that we already had rapport and she had some trust in me, so we got right to the conversation part - the "center of the onion" - without needing to spend time building a relationship. But that building part is fun, too, if a little awkward at times. I like to think that interviews help "subjects" (if you can call them that) get more insight, and so benefits them, so that it's not a one-way street.

Anyway, here's what some of the link says (emphasis mine):
So, because of that, I only really interview in the strict sense of the word when I have to. I try to do everything else that I can to make sources feel comfortable enough to talk with me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t ask questions. It means I ask lots of questions. But what I mainly try to do is to be a great audience. I egg them on; I nod; I look straight into their eyes; I laugh at their jokes, whether I think they’re funny or not; I get serious when they’re serious. I kind of echo whatever emotion they seem to be sending to me. I do whatever it takes to get them talking.

Friday, July 12, 2013

at it again

Mike Tyson: Discipline is doing what you hate to do, but nonetheless doing it like you love it.

Interviewer: And how do you that?


Mike Tyson: [Smiles] With discipline.
– from an interview in Details, July 2010

I am taking another writing class. Are you surprised? You shouldn't be, because that's the reason for a lot of the posts you see here these days. I'm not ready for class, I'm out of practice, I hope this class whips me into shape. Blah blah blah. (If you are still visiting this blog, thank you. And why?)

I'd hit a serious wall during May. There were lots of things I had no motivation to do, including reading and writing. Which was a problem that I chose to attack by ignoring it. I did have momentary freakouts. (Like, what will I do with the rest of my life if this desire is fading, along with all my other ones? Why can't I sustain any venture? And why doesn't netflix have the second season of Girls? It was a dark month.)

In June I avoided the issue by redecorating my bedroom, watching more tv on netflix, and making social plans to get out of the house. And then, just like I thought, one day I closed the netflix tab in my browser, and the next I went to the library and picked out three books. I sat in the reading room for 30 minutes to start one and felt my heart beating faster, in a good way. I recognized that feeling as pleasure. And later that afternoon, I attended my friend's book launch for her very first book of short stories, which she published herself. As she read from it, I recognized humility, pride and (here it is again) pleasure in her voice. At home, my housemates and I talked about her publishing company, and one said, "She should publish you, Betsy." Now, my housemates have barely even read what I've written, so I didn't take this very seriously. But I did hear myself say - holding the book I'd started reading in the library earlier that weekend - "this is the kind of book I'd want to write, one that requires research and interviews and that tells real stories."

Well, ok then.

I still don't know how to get there, but I took another small step and signed up for a four-week writing bootcamp, which started on Monday. Three hundred words (what a pittance!), five days a week (totally manageable!), and plus one essay of 1,000 words each week. On Monday I was hopeful, on Tuesday I started to resent my computer screen, on Wednesday I seriously considered dropping the class and getting some of my money back, on Thursday I woke up dreading life. I had some extra time that morning to get my 300 words out, but the thought made me find every excuse to not open a word document. I checked my email and saw some feedback from a classmate on the previous day's 300. I have to say that I think this woman might be deluded or need reading glasses, but nevertheless her response included exclamation points and the words "could win an award." I walked to the kitchen to get my coffee and realized this woman had just given me the courage to write that day - 300 words in the morning and my 1,000 word essay that night. And I actually kinda like what I wrote.

Tyson is right, and I'm guessing you all have your own stories to prove it, too. Love can grow from discipline, even if it was lost for a little while, and especially with some exclamation points from your friends.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

recoup the joy

“I don’t actually look for inspiration. I look for ways to recoup the joy of writing when that joy is lost to me. Whenever I find myself stuck or just without any ideas, it’s because I seem to have forgotten how incredibly fun it is to mess around with words. So to remind myself, I read. But not just anything. I have to read fiction that is exuberant—not in content but style. Writers who howl on the page so loudly, you can hear them for miles. Barry Hannah and Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor and Angela Carter. Jose Saramago and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy. Faulkner. Joy Williams. Annie Proulx and Nicholson Baker. Writers whose work feels alive and fresh and a little nuts, so that before long, I'll start to feel more alive, too. Alive to possibility, which is generally when I start typing.”

Fiona Maazel, on Writers Recommend

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

being 14

On my birthday, a few friends asked what my favorite birthday memory was. I've had some good ones, like when my sisters flew out to surprise me on my 25th, my first one celebrated in California. And on my 30th I celebrated at the awesome house I live in right now, with all of my favorite people making personal pizzas and spilling out through the french doors that open from our dining room to our front yard. And when I turned 21, on Easter, my sister and then boyfriend (now husband) stayed up with me the night before and took to me to some bars at midnight. 

But the memory I kept sharing was from when I turned 14. I don't have a great story, or any super specific details. It was more the feeling of being seen and accepted. Growing up, I was a wallflower, or as much of one as I could be when I was taller than everyone else. That spring, during my 8th grade year, I played lacrosse, a game I loved. The popular athletic girls all played, too, and though we were friendly with each other, we were hardly friends. But that day, when I turned 14, during practice the team all made a big deal about my birthday. That's all I remember, really. Did they sing or do a team cheer or ask me about my celebration plans? I have no idea. But there was that feeling. I belonged.

It's possible this memory was so accessible because I'd just finished reading two books about 14 year old girls. And by happy coincidence, I just finished another. I love reading about girls at this age because so much happened for me during that year. Again, I don't actually remember specifics, but I do remember being able to make decisions for myself for the first time. I remember understanding relationships and consequences and desire in a completely new way. I remember deciding I would spend my life following Jesus and realizing that my childhood best friend was not just a convenience or coincidence but a friend who would stick closer than a sister.

I've been meaning to write about these books. They were all terrific, especially the second two. If you have an appetite for coming of age stories, these will satisfy you.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore - Not as good as her short stories, in my opinion. The story is a little loose. But some really sharp writing, as always.

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard - Someone in a writing class recommended this to me, and they were spot on (thank you!). I loved it completely, maybe in part because I could devour it on the plane rides during a trip east, where I was visiting my best friend, which relationship reminded me so much of the one in the story.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - part family epic, part coming of age story, it's told from the point of view of the narrator at age 41, but the second half is set at age 14. This one is so so good - the Pulitzer committee and Oprah both thought so, too!

Friday, May 10, 2013

poetry heals

Every once in a while I suffer from bouts of anxiety. To look at me you might not notice when I'm in one of these funks. I still go to work, do my hair and eat mostly the same. But say I could draw some expression of what I feel and think inside - I'd show you something with dark colors, confused, messy strokes, and trust me, it would not be pretty. Actually - and I'm sorry to be graphic - it might actually look a little like puke, because that's what I often feel like doing, physically and verbally. That's what anxiety feels like.

But let's pull back for a moment, because I'm certainly not trying to share any kind of dark demons with anyone here. I'm just acknowledging - hey, they're there (and we all have some of some kind, right?). What is hopeful is that the simplest, unsuspecting experiences can punch holes in our darkness and allow some light to shine in.

That's what happened this morning. My particular current stream of anxiety has something to do with getting it right and carrying a certain fear that I'm messing up my life. Heavy, right?! No one should carry that, because messing up a life is a pretty hard thing to do, especially when you believe in the reality of a forgiving, redeeming, all-powerful God (which I do). But then I sat down at my computer and read a poem that came to my inbox today. It started with these lines:

I wish that there were some wonderful place
In the Land of Beginning Again.
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
and never put on again.*


So that's what this is, I thought, a shabby old coat. One that I can take off and leave and never put on again. And just like that, the tight feeling eased a bit. I forget that poetry - and writing in general - can do that. The personal becomes universal and helps us to feel not so alone. It's still pretty mysterious to me, but somehow the written word is so healing.

Are there any poems, verses or words that have brought you relief or healing?

*From "The Land of Beginning Again" by Louisa Fletcher

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

the third thing

What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing... Of course: the third thing that brought us together, and shone at the center of our lives and our house, was poetry—both our love for the art and the passion and frustration of trying to write it. 
-Donald Hall, writing of his marriage to poet Jane Kenyon in The Third Thing

Friday, March 29, 2013

the waking up is like that

The past ten weeks have been full - of writing class assignments and co-leading a ministry at church and trying to stay connected to friends and trying to keep my bedroom live-able and my clothes washed and dealing with some messy emotions and feeling like I wasn't doing anything well enough and ...

Still, I had some Big Plans for this week, the week after the crazy ten. On Saturday I went to Barnes & Noble to buy some writing books and look through some magazines. I had essays and articles to write, ones I'd been putting on the back burner and that I promised I wouldn't procrastinate on any longer. On Sunday night, I sat down to read those writing books and my eyes wouldn't stay open. I went to sleep soon after 8pm, thinking that I'd be ready to start early morning writing sessions at 5 the next morning.

And then I slept in.

And as if my body knew better than my mind, which is constantly in motion, I just kept sleeping. Sunday night, 9 hours. Monday night, 10 hours. Tuesday night, another 9. For the better part of this week I showed up at work feeling like the haze that hid the mountains was fogging up my brain, and it was all I could do to stay sitting up. I just wanted to sleep.

I've been thinking a lot about sleep and my complex relationship with it. I love it and yet resist it. I've always had difficulty taking naps because I can't seem to settle down. I set my alarm earlier and earlier, thinking maybe that will help me get ahead, get control. I think something's wrong with me if I do it too much. When I was first diagnosed with Crohn's disease, and my body was a mess (and anemic), I would come home from work and take naps. I remember having anxiety dreams that I was sleeping my life away, afraid I would always be that tired. In fact, my anxiety dreams are often about being tired, being sluggish, not being able to wake up fully.

After I had knee surgery, and was so very tired, my friend reminded me that the body heals itself in sleep. I was still young then, not yet a prisoner to being tired. (That was 26, and that same friend told me that it all started to change at 27, and she was right!). I try to remember this now, that my body (and mind and spirit) must need those hours of being covered by that heavy blanket of darkness. I think of Adam, whom God put to sleep so that He could take something out of him. The result was Eve. And so I wonder about what God's  up to when I'm asleep.

The sleep is working, I think, because the past two days I've been alert and ready. I feel that spark when ideas come and I'm excited to write about them, when I read and think, how did they know that put those words, that idea next? When Adam woke up, he recognized the beauty and relevance and for-him-ness (what's a word for that?) of Eve. Sleep is so wonderful for many reasons, but maybe mostly because the waking up is like that.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

more than any words can show


photo(3)

The inside says:
And hoping, somehow, you will know
that more than any words can show,
you're loved because you're
such a special daughter!
Today this card came in the mail, from my mom. She still sends cards for every holiday. If you could see inside, you'd see a few words underlined twice, including the word "special" before daughter. At the end, she wishes me a happy whatever holiday it is, then punctuates the wish with two exclamation points made to look like bunny ears, with a smile underneath the two dots. (She does this for all holidays, not just Easter.) Then she signs the cards "Love, Mom and Dad, xo xo."

I used to open these cards looking for the twenty dollar bill she'd include. But right around the time she stopped including the money (did turning 30 cut me off?), I started to not care because it was the overly sentimental poetry that became the gift. I used to roll my internal eyes at this fluff, but at some point I remembered all those times standing with my mom in a Hallmark, CVS or Kmart while she picked through cards to send to relatives for holidays. She seemed to agonize over these decisions, while I impatiently told her that both of the choices she showed me would be fine. (They all said the same thing anyway, didn't they?) Maybe she got quicker at picking out cards, I realized, but also maybe not. She might have actually spent time choosing these words for me, even if they weren't her own.

The thing about my mom is that she has very unique ways of caring for people, including her daughters, including me. Her love is both so very pure and broken - and for both reasons it is hard to accept sometimes, but it also wholly hers to give. This took me a long time to understand because, growing up, I guess I expected my mother's love to look a certain prescribed way. Now I understand that driving me all over the greater Philadelphia area for freshman traveling team basketball games, dying my hair against her better judgment and sending me holiday cards with lines under words that she would speak if she could is her way of loving her moody, wandering youngest daughter.

Friday, March 15, 2013

the way to do it

Friday night hadn't gone as planned. The short version is I had a date that flopped. This outcome was unexpected, felt like complete u-turn from where I’d sensed we might be heading, so that it was the surprise, and not the situation itself, that had me feeling disappointed. The next morning my body woke up before the sun rose very high, and yet I felt like pulling the covers over my head as if it shined too bright into my room. I layed in bed texting my sisters about the night before, hoping their messages back would change everything. One said, “That stinks, Bets,” which felt as close as she could come to putting her arm around me, considering she was 2,000 miles away. Those kinds of gestures do change everything, just not in the way you thought you needed.

I should emphasize that things were not that bad. I hadn’t even had enough time to really fall for this guy. Like I said, I was just disoriented. After a few more minutes of lying in my bed, I threw the covers off to get ready for my running group. A steady pace, clear direction, the sound of others around me, and a challenge were things I knew I needed. And it was a good run, only I spent most of it replaying moments — embarrassing ones, confusing ones — instead of shaking the whole thing off. 

Later, after I’d run and showered and was putting away clean laundry in my room, Abby came in. Whenever she comes in my room, she hums a few notes and bounces up and down, her indication that she’d like to dance. That’s what we do together in my room. I put my phone into a speaker and chose music while Abby closed the door and climbed onto my low bed. By this point, we had our routine down. The words to the music were something about moving and shaking, and that’s what we did. She giggled and laughed and fell down and got back up. So this is the way to do it, I remembered. Dance it out, laugh and always get back up.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

on being stuck

One winter during high school, when I was at a weekend retreat in the mountains with my church youth group, our two fifteen-passenger vans got stuck at the bottom of an icy hill. It had snowed before our trip that weekend, and temperatures stayed cold, which meant that the weather was perfect, really. Perfect for a bunch of high schoolers to get in snow ball fights and go ice skating and then warm up by a fire with hot chocolate and card games. But on our way to the ice-covered lake, those two monstrous vans, filled with us teenagers, skidded down a hill. And when our leaders tried to drive them back up the hill, the wheels just turned over and over in the same spot on the icy road.

I remember freaking out. At the time, I was pretty scared and unresourceful about most things out of my comfort zone, so I couldn't imagine how we'd get up that hill again. Our leaders organized us to gather brush and sticks from the surrounding forest, so while we traipsed around the woods I held back tears and prayed desperate silent prayers that we wouldn't end up dead at the bottom of a hill in the Poconos.

One of my most irrational fears is being stuck. It keeps me moving. I like a plan, I like to know what's next, and I like some forward movement, or at least the appearance of it. On a related note, I can't stand running on a treadmill - it's like a human hamster wheel, all that work to stay in the same place. I usually crowd the front of the machine and end up almost tripping myself that way. Sometimes I wonder if this is a metaphor for life, but then I remember that running outside is the more natural habit, and that moving forward is a good thing.

But then I also need to remember that getting stuck is almost always temporary, and usually comes with some growth (and a good story).


My pastor sometimes talks about how quantum physics is a metaphor for our lives. The idea is that atoms often stay in the same place while energy builds, and then all at once are able to make a definable leap to another state. So they might look inert, or stuck, but something is building that helps them move up.

I guess that's sort of what happened that afternoon at the bottom of that hill. Eventually we gathered enough brush to put under the wheels, so that with the weight of us inside and some of the men pushing from behind, we got enough traction and somehow moved those huge vans up an icy hill. We didn't go ice skating that afternoon, but we did get our hot chocolate back at the cabin. And a good story to tell.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

update on the rose bushes

I've been wanting to take a photo of the rose bushes for you. Two months ago the branches were cut back to bare brown nubs. You should see them now. Dark green and reddish leave are sprouting all over the place. You can almost see them soaking in all the sunlight, which has been showing up earlier and sticking around later each day. Weekends here have been warm. Spring is making a slow and steady comeback, which feels just about right.

Friday, February 22, 2013

writing about food, and so much more

I've been chewing on some food essay topics to get started on after my current writing class is over. There are quite a few publishing opportunities for short pieces about food (and about more than just food), and it's a topic I think I can write about, so I figure I'll give it a go.

In said writing class, we were assigned to read a profile of Mr. Rogers. It turns out the link broke (or something?) just a week before we were assigned to read it, which left me so very disappointed. Fortunately, the author, Tom Junod, didn't write only one great piece, so our instructor directed us two shorter essays he wrote. They were both about family, and both were jaw-droppingly, pen-stoppingly good (as in, I don't think I can write now that I've read his stuff). Ok, maybe I'm being dramatic, but they're good. I'm taking notes on his characterization, which is for sure one of my weak points.

All that to say: Junod's essay on his mother and cooking is the kind of writing I aspire to. It's about food, and about so much more than food. Here's a tiny taste:

My mother, Frances Junod, was not just a mother, not just a mom. She was a dame. She was a broad. She was a beauty from Brooklyn who wore fantastic hats, when they were in style, and furs, even when they were not. She went through her entire life as a Harlowesque platinum blonde, and I never knew the real color of her hair. She liked go to the track, and she liked to go out to restaurants. She did not like to cook

(After I read it, I turned to one he wrote about his father and liked this one even more, which I didn't think possible. Get ready to laugh.)


Monday, February 18, 2013

small graces

I woke up on Saturday morning afraid that that was faint light I saw trying to peek through the slats of my blinds. I turned over and opened my eyes just wide enough to read the time on my phone: 4:56. My alarm would go off just a little over an hour later so I could get out the door and to a new running group by 7am. Joining any new running group would give me a few jitters, but my intention was to find a story to write about in this group — an assignment that’s been causing me some worry because I’m afraid I won’t be able to pull it off — so I felt an added pressure to make this group count. When all I really wanted to do was do a long run by myself, on a course that was familiar and that I chose. So instead of falling back to sleep, I spent the next hour fitfully willing morning not to come. Not a good way to begin my weekend. Who starts a Saturday already stressed out?

But I was committed, if not for the writing assignment, then because I’d told my housemates I was going. And I hate not following through on things I say I’m going to do when other people know about it. About ten minutes before I needed to leave, I laced up my shoes and sat on the couch with my warm coffee and thought about my writing assignment. I asked God for a small grace, some easy way into the day that had already started off so rough internally. Outside the sun was bright and gentle, offering a new day to anyone who was ready for it.

At the group, I met a few people but ran alone, which in the end is what I prefer anyway. I didn’t find anyone who was quite my pace (story of my life, eh?). But listening to my own rhythmic breathing and the natural soundtrack that belonged to this new-to-me course was soothing. The first four miles was almost all uphill, and that felt right: a challenge, but one I could meet and that made me feel like I was working.

That small risk — and receiving God’s small graces — set the pace for my weekend. There were other things I didn’t want to face, but like morning, came whether I was ready or not. I guess I could choose to stay in my room with the blinds shut, but I’m finding again and again that the best way is straight through. In the end, I was given precious conversations with two lovely women, a fun movie night with the ladies, dinner with a family from my church, and prayer from someone who could empathize with wounds I’m trying desperately to heal.

During a short nap late Sunday afternoon, I started to wake up and sense the light through my blinds slowly dimming, and I felt that faint, nameless sadness that comes with evening and I thought, I don’t want these graces to end…

Thursday, February 7, 2013

learning from Abby

Abby is learning to speak. Her words don’t always sound like we think they should. For example, she refers to the park as “swing slide,” as in, “Abby, what did you do today?” and she says, “swing slide.” Only it comes out as “singside.” Sometimes we don’t always understand her. She repeats her words over and over until someone understands. Sometimes she points or shows us, but mostly she repeats words. Right now, her response when we finally guess right is a long “yeah” accompanied by a bright smile. She is finally recognized. There are other times when she says things over and over just for the joy of it. She’s not trying to get anyone to understand her. If anything, I think she wants people to join in. I wonder if she just enjoys the sound of her own voice.

****
Abby is pretty cute, so when we have visitors at the house, they want to play with her. But with unfamiliar people, Abby is shy and cautious. I joke with these visitors that the two easiest ways to earn her affection are to pull out food or an iphone. She will be in your lap in two seconds flat. And on seeing an iphone, she will ask for pictures, meaning, of her (show or take, your choice). Sometimes this is cute, and sometimes Abby gets chided for it. She is almost two, so her parents are teaching her boundaries, and I understand how important that lesson is. But it’s also just the tiniest bit heartbreaking, because I wonder if telling her no or redirecting her to ask instead of assume will dampen her instinct to get what she wants. I admire her focus.

****
Sometimes I get jealous of Abby, which I know is pretty ridiculous. But let’s be real: the girl stays home every single day, spends most of her time playing outside and reading, and most of her trauma is over being forced to eat her egg at breakfast. She also gets a lot of love. Her mother recognizes that most of Abby’s acting out is resolved with the reminder that she is loved and safe, and so she shows Abby this with pats on her back, answers to her cries and questions, and lots of cuddling. Adults don’t get too much of this kind of treatment, though I think a lot of us (and I really mean me) could benefit from it. I’m afraid to admit this, wondering if I’m psychically stuck at age 2 and Abby will soon surpass me in maturity. But I’m already taking cues from her, so I guess not much would change.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

watch the light come

I, at first, thought I didn’t have a [writing] ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. ... For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
 - Toni Morrison

I'm not going so far to say that Toni Morrison and I are kindred spirits, but we do have the morning coffee/watching the light come thing in common. I like this idea of transition and how she uses it to prepare herself to start writing. With so many mental (and spiritual?) blocks that keep us from doing what we really want to do, a slow, gentle rising - the way the sun does it - sounds just right.

For more gleaming gems of her wisdom, read her interview with Paris Review.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

starting new

A few years ago, I spent January 31 at the beach. It was windy and overcast. My housemate and I laid our blankets too close the industrialized port and wished for summer too early in the year. After an hour or two, we gave up hoping for sun and shook the sand off our blankets and shoes and walked to the car. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I called my mom, and we both lamented the short January days and how long February can feel, even though it's the shortest month. With a sigh in her voice, she told me how she'd meant to start walking in January, but the dark, cold mornings don't exactly encourage those kinds of new years resolutions. "Maybe I'll start tomorrow," she said, with a ray of hopefulness warming her voice like the faint sun on late winter days. February 1 felt like a new chance. Only one month lost.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

neglect

This writing class is requiring a lot of time. Some things that are being neglected as a result:

Dry cleaning piled on my floor
Dust on my dresser and nightstand
The pile of stuff on my desk to sort through
Books under my nightstand waiting to be read
Clean laundry, unfolded in a washbasket
Some friendships, including my housemates (sorry, if you are one of these!)
Magazine I subscribe to
A few extra miles I'd like to run each week
A few extra minutes I'd like to sleep each night
TV shows I'd like to be watching on netflix

For the most part, it's been worth it...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

oh sh*#

A few months ago, I signed up for a 10K race. It's a small event in a neighboring town, and I'd heard about it for years, but somehow that weekend always filled up. As soon as I saw registration open, I sent in my check and looked up the route. The route was described as having "challenging hills," and I thought to myself that the hills I routinely run up and down from the Rose Bowl have me in great shape for this kind of race.

After signing up, I decided to run the route to see for myself. The first half of the race is the same course as the 5K, a flat and even course around town. No problem. The course takes you past the high school track as you close mile 3, where the 5K runners veer off to end their run, while the 10K runners continue on and turn left. There was a slight incline as you near the so-called "challenging hills," then another turn left into some neighborhoods. On my practice run, I made that second left turn, looked up, stopped and said, "Oh. Shit."

That was the biggest hill I'd ever considered running up.

I've told you before that I'm not one for cursing, but I've found myself saying "Oh Shit" a lot lately. This is the sentiment that has come when, as they say, Shit Got Real. What I mean is that I can talk a lot of talk about writing, dating, running, etc. But then when an opportunity comes up to act on something, ie to run up that hill, reality hits real quick.

That first practice run, I walked up the hill.

Leading up to the race, my running wasn't what I wanted it to be - shorter days, health issues and a writing class meant that intentional training for the race took a back seat. So when race day rolled around, all I could think was, "Oh Shit." I called my sister the night before the race for advice. Should I go all out on the first 5K and just settle for being slow the second half? Or save energy so that I can run the hills - when, even running up them, I'd slow down? My sister didn't tell me exactly how to run, but she did suggest how I think. Don't get it in your mind that you'll be miserable, or you probably will be. Just be open to how you feel and how the race goes.

Under the circumstances, that was the best advice. I felt pretty good and ran the first 5K a little faster than I probably should have, but it was because I wanted to. The high school girls who were stationed along the race gave me a thumbs up for my pink hat, shirt and socks, and some guys that passed me around mile 2 yelled, "nice socks!" about my tiger print neon knee-highs. I had energy going into the first hill, then slowed and kept pace with an older guy. Together we watched a 13 year old boy pass us, then yell, "You're almost at the top!" After the second descent, I slowly walked down a slippery bike path, then ran all out into the stadium for the last loop around the track. My time wasn't great, but I finished, and later found out that I had even placed third in my age group. For the rest of the weekend I made self-deprecating jokes with my housemates about always being "third in my age group." Inwardly, though, it felt good to have gotten over another "Oh Shit" moment, and with a paperweight to prove it.


Monday, January 28, 2013

working with the world as we find it

Clearly, the facts get muddled in creative nonfiction. That's how humans are. Conversations get constructed from ten-year-old memories, scents and scenes are rebuilt from imperfect neurons, tastes are retasted and touches are refelt. None of that is done with absolute accuracy.

That doesn't, in my opinion, detract from what we call creative nonfiction. Rather it adds. Creative nonfiction is about human experiences, real human experiences - the ways we recall things, the ways we revise things, the ways we relive things. And creative nonfiction fills a niche that will never be filled by either fiction or traditional nonfiction. An important niche about the things that happen to people in real time and the ways those things change us a day or decade later.

For me, that is the great allure of creative nonfiction - working with the world as we find it. Piecing together a moment when it seems the world offered a glimpse behind the curtains and we saw, for an instant, some sense in it all.
- Gerald Callahan

I like what he says about working with the world as we find it, because that's what I like so much about writing. I'm not very good at fiction because I get all turned around in trying to figure out what really happens. When the pieces are there, and my job is to recreate it into a mosaic that has some kind of new meaning, that's when I find joy.

PS This guy is kinda my new hero. He is an immunologist and a writer, and holds a dual professorship in science and English. I read his essay Chimera last night and was amazed by how he tied science and feeling together. Usually when I read the science I write for work, I want to poke my eyes out with a sharp object. His, I wanted to keep reading.

Friday, January 25, 2013

a story is a promise

Last week, I started a new writing course. I've noticed a pattern when I take writing classes: I start out incredibly excited and eager to soak up everything. Then after a few days, usually spent comparing myself to my new classmates, I get shy and unsure about my writing ability and realize that everything I'm writing sounds boring / unimaginative / unthoughtful / etc. I hit the delete button a lot in those few days. I rarely pick up a pen.

I'm doing my best to push through this ugly self-doubt phase because this weekend I have a goal of finishing a first draft of my 3,5000 word assignment due next Sunday night. The class is narrative journalism, and since I'm not a journalist and I work full time, I've felt my limitations in collecting material for my story. And honestly, some days I think about the topic I've chosen for my first story, trying to formulate in my head where I'll start and what the story is really about, and it sounds just plain dumb. Especially when I compare it to what my classmates are working on. (Theirs will discuss issues of immigration, living as an artist in a restrictive society, etc. Mine is about a cat.). Still, I'm convinced there's a story in there somewhere, and though I may not get the interviews and face to face contacts that will make the story really come alive, I'm reminding myself that it's all a learning process. Is my story going to be award-winning material? Definitely not. Am I learning something? Yes, a ton. So there you go.

While we're talking about award-winning narrative journalism, I just finished reading this three-part series about a mother and her micropreemie (is anyone else tired of the prefix micro? but it may actually be applicable here, since the baby is the size of a barbie doll, if you can imagine). So many ideas and themes are explored in this story - the cost and worth of a life, motherhood, miracles, what is it that gives us the fight to live, and so much more. I cried at the end and at one other part, but if I tell you more it might give the ending away, and you need to read to the end. As the author's husband (also an award-winning writer) explains, "A story is a promise... It's a promise that the end is worth waiting for."

The author shares some of her process here, which is incredibly helpful as I try to understand what kind and breadth of research and reporting goes into telling stories like these. She worked for months and scoured hospital records as well as her husband's notes and her own journals. That was all before she started writing it. I love when she talks about the excel spreadsheets. I couldn't have thought up a better combination for a job for me - spreadsheets and writing. How can I also fit paid travel to destination locations in there?

I promise to let you know if I have any revelations about the cat story this weekend. In the meantime, if you can tell me anything about what makes somebody a "cat person," leave it in the comments. To me, this is like trying to understand French. (Huh?)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

watching while others open gifts

My family celebrated Christmas on December 26. So already, we'd made the kids wait. Then, that morning we gathered at 10am for brunch and kept the kids out of the gifts with some sugar and fat in the form of my mom's famous sticky buns that my niece and I had made the day before. In the end, the sugar may not have been the best idea, because 30 minutes later we headed to the family room - finally! - and the kids started pulling out gifts they'd spotted for themselves. The ones who couldn't read their names nagged their parents to find them gifts.

And they were off. Paper flew, fists pumped in the air, cries for help shot up.

Easily stimulated, I sat in the corner, sipping my lukewarm coffee and quietly observing. After a few gifts, the frenzy started to slow, along with the sugar that had been coursing through veins. The mood began to drop when a child realized a big, exciting-looking gift had someone else's name on it, and worse, when they had to watch that other kid open it and respond with excitement. And one niece, on opening the gift I bought for her, realized halfway through opening it that it wasn't anything she'd been excited to receive, and almost left it only half opened. My sisters hugged and chided their children. I tried distraction with a game of wrapping paper basketball (the basket being the trash bag, of course). And soon enough the kids were outside getting ready for the park before the snow and rain trapped us inside while parents piled the abandoned gifts back under the tree.

I watched all of this and thought about the gifts I've been asking for, and how some of my friends have gotten them before me, even friends who weren't asking for them. If there is a Big Issue I've struggled with in my adult life, it's a variation on this one: why do some people get exactly what they want, while others have to wait? Jobs, relationships, children, accomplishments. It's a tricky question, asked from the perspective of the person who feels slighted, which distorts it with blame-placing and an inward focus. In the weeks before Christmas, one friend had received a really big gift in a pretty exciting way. I'd been asking for it for a long time, and yet she hadn't even been looking for it. So I could empathize with my nieces and nephews as they watched others open gifts and didn't have the heart to share in their happiness.

But I also remember gazing at my nephew as he watched his cousin open a gift and willing him to be happy for her. To experience the joy of joining in her gratefulness. It's not exactly instinctual, but I bet it could become so. I've been trying, and though it feels uncomfortable and unnatural - much like practicing better posture, shoulders back, stomach in, no slouching - it feels right. Like I'm standing up straight.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

photo-2

When I heard my housemates were planning a trip to San Francisco without their young daughter, I said, "Can I come?" I was sure they would pick up on the playfulness in my voice.

"Sure. Yeah, you should come." And that was that.

I figured it was meant to be. I had been thinking about San Francisco and the magic it's brought me the past two winters. Now I'm convinced that when it calls, I should go. It knew, I think, that I would need some clarity, that ability to see for miles and understand the geography around me, how things fit together. The city can be overcast, misty and foggy, but this past weekend I understood the phrase crystal clear. Things were sparkling. The water in the bay when I ran along the Embarcadero on Saturday morning. The sun bouncing off rooftops and windows as we stood on Twin Peaks, seeing the whole city spread out before us. The stars in the open night sky as we drove through central California on our way there.

San Francisco also knew I needed a destination and a clear way to it. I was a bit stressed when I woke up on Friday morning to hear that the I5 was closed through the grapevine because of snow and ice. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen in California, at least not the California that I know. And the only detours would take us hours out of the way on unfamiliar routes to get around the mountains. I'd had enough of detours in life recently. But the ice melted and the freeway opened up. We drove through the dusty mountains as the sun dropped behind them. And when we were through, just like that, they dropped off into flat land for miles, the mountains only hugging us from a distance to our side, reassuring us we were headed north. We drove and drove, nothing before us but flat land, and I was grateful for an easy way forward, for arriving on time, for the dependability of the road, the map, the timing. I was grateful for an expanse that helped me think beyond the little life I try to tuck myself into so often.

On the drive back, I felt ready to go home. Trips are always bittersweet because, while they're a fun escape, there's always the returning that's so hard. But somehow San Francisco knew what I needed to return me back home with excitement for what lies ahead on this journey.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

out of eden

"After jetting around the world as a foreign correspondent, after flying into stories, after driving into them, helicoptering in, even, I thought about what it would be like to walk between stories. Not just to see the stories we were missing by flying over them, but to understand the connective tissue of all the major stories of our day."
-Paul Salopek, journalist and National Geographic Fellow

You've got to read/hear this. Mr. Salopek is dedicating his next 7 years to walking the ancient path of migration to uncover stories and understand how they're (we're) connected. The pace of his journey is striking. He's choosing to walk - the slowest, and most natural and original form of transportation. I find walking to be meditative, and it's true that you see and hear things you miss. Like when you walk a stretch of your neighborhood you typically drive through? It's a whole new place. I wonder what he'll see.

The length is also significant. In the interview, he notes that he's "planning it basically year by year. On a seven year journey, it's hard to plan for year six. You start with year one and year two." Just like any journey, I guess. All you can do is head in the right direction.

Learn more about the Out of Eden project here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

shake it

Two-thousand-thirteen has clobbered me like an over-eager laborador. I thought I was ready, but now I find myself on the floor, wiping up drool from sloppy dog kisses. It meant well, I believe that, but I might have gotten a bit bruised.

But what I do know is that dear old dog wants to play, so let's do it. After letting some more leaves go, like the rose bushes in my yard, I decided I needed something light, so I started composing this blog post in my head. It started out as a Top Ten Dance Scenes, but I couldn't narrow it down to three, and I didn't trust that you all cared enough to watch this six minute segment that I would have included in that one. Then it was going to be an ode to one of my favorite actors. But he hasn't been my real favorite for a while, and instead I refer you to this movie to watch when you have some time. (The last scene is so good. And did you know that Emma Thompson adapted the screenplay? So talented.) Eventually I was led down a rabbit hole to Jimmy Fallon videos and I could have been down there for days. I still don't know how I made it out of that one.

Really, all of this was just an excuse to show you the video below. But then I realized I need no excuse. White men dancing enthusiastically and slightly off-rhythm has the power to brighten anyone's day and pick you up after a little tumble.

May 2013 bring you the happiness that makes you want to shake it.