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.

Monday, January 7, 2013

naked rose bushes

When I came home yesterday, the rose bushes were naked. Just days before the branches were tall and scraggly, and deep green leaves hung off their ends. Most had at least one bud in various stages of letting their petals go, and the red and pink scraps surrounded the bushes on the ground below. It wasn't life, but it looked like it. Now their branches were short and stubby, with nothing left on them. I was so sad I almost cried, and I realized I wasn't crying for the rose bushes, because this has happened before. I know the leaves will come back, and new buds will open into new flowers. I almost cried because I know what it's like to lose things, to feel so empty, to have that little bit of green cut off. (I like to hang on, just like those leaves do.)

Then I remembered this poem, which had been going around in my head since I read it the other night. Seasons are so comforting because they help me to know what to expect or what to hope for. But sometimes, even if I'm not able to hope and I expect something to start dying, new life can start.

Hurricane by Mary Oliver - via here

It didn't behave
like anything you had
ever imagined. The wind
tore at the trees, the rain
fell for days slant and hard.
The back of the hand
to everything. I watched
the trees bow and their leaves fall
and crawl back into the earth.
As though, that was that.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
falling. The back of the hand to
everything.
But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn't stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn't
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.

Friday, January 4, 2013

finding the cracks

After I graduated from college, I picked an apartment in the city. It had the most bedrooms (3) for the cheapest price ($560 - can you believe it?). I hadn't inhabited that amount of space since I left my parents' house for college, so even though the kitchen had no counters to connect the stove and sink and fridge, and even though the floor felt crooked and the windows, when opened, let in the shrieking sounds of the city corner below, I wanted it. I still can't believe my would-be roommates consented, though two of them would rotate out a few months in anyway.

The apartment was the second and third floors of an old house, so we had a neighbor down below. We ran into Raul when we got into our cars, and the locked stairway in our apartment that used to lead downstairs when the house was still a house let his music and marijuana seep into our living space. Eventually we got to know Raul. Or, we got to know things about Raul. Originally from Puerto Rico, 25 years old, suspended driver's license. I imagined starting some kind of neighborly relationship with Raul, and we did get somewhere. A gentleman, he helped us shovel our cars out of snow more than once. I remember being in his apartment with him a few times, I think to talk about cooking Puerto Rican food, but I'm not sure we ever made anything together.

One night, I parked my car on the street after a work holiday party, feeling slightly nauseated, and walked past his windows to the stairs up to my place. He stopped me outside his door. "I made fish-head soup for you and your roommates." His boyish enthusiasm betrayed his Latino machismo. I felt my stomach turn and knew that this was one instance in which I could not forget myself to honor my neighbor. Sitting before a bowl of tiny fish heads looking up at me from a pungent broth was going to require more than a deep heart - I needed a solid stomach. I told him I'd just eaten at my party and he graciously offered to send the fod upstairs with me so my roommates and I could eat it later.

When I moved out of that apartment, I don't remember formally saying goodby to Raul. But I've met other Rauls in the ten years since. We met somewhere between stranger and friend. In some ways, it feels like the things that defined us - language, culture, history, upbringing, opportunity - were walls stronger than the ones that form the buildings we live in. Yet most of those apartments, like the first, have been pretty flimsy, so I wonder the same about what separated us. Maybe if we'd pushed up a little harder, we'd have found the cracks.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

girlfriends

I am almost 33 years old and single, which perhaps more than anything else means that I have lots of girlfriends. Some are lifelong companions, like my sisters and my best friend I grew up with, treasures as worn and weathered as an old photograph or a favorite book. I return to them again and again. Some are surprising, gifts I didn’t think to ask for, and others are unlikely, like chili with chocolate. For some reason, it just works.

What they all are is a light held up to help me see. They light the way forward during dark times, reflect to me what is true of me (the good and the bad), and bring sparks of joy and laughter to what would otherwise be a pretty mundane life. 

And one thing I’ve learned is that, maybe ironically, girlfriends are particularly needful when it comes to boys. Recently, an abrupt end to a budding relationship taught me that again. I would have felt better sweeping the whole thing under the rug to forget the pain, but I knew my friends, who were cheering for me to get what is good, deserved more trust and respect than that. And truthfully, the crush of it — the crumbling hope that wasn’t really about him, but about a struggle turn up a full net in what feels like empty waters — called out for something more than I could offer myself. I was standing too close to it all, and I needed the perspective of one who saw my heart at some distance and could see the whole painting instead of just a few harsh brushstrokes.

They say dating is good for learning, and I thought they meant about myself and about men. But this time I learned something crucial about my girlfriends: they hold on to hope for me more tightly than I can on my own, and I am lucky to have them.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

slow starting


A few years ago, as the year sputtered to its end, I drove along a lonely highway between Lancaster and Harrisburg to visit a friend. After living in Southern California for a few years, I’d forgotten how empty and dull winter can be on the East Coast. Trees abandoned by their leaves and days-old snow browned by gravel spewed onto it by disinterested cars lined that road, while formless clouds sealed a chill in the damp air and made day not much lighter than the night. Heavy with something I couldn’t name, I felt a sort of relief that the new year wouldn’t start with sunshine and bright flowers, but slowly, in the dead of winter.

I get excited about starting things with a big flourish and lots of enthusiasm — though I often find myself waning halfway through something. Maybe nature was onto something, I thought to myself. Why not let the new things remain hidden, underground for the first days or weeks or even months? Instant results provide motivation, we all know that to be true. But maybe we can cultivate something deeper than excitement or momentum, like trust, love and discipline. The feel for the process, and letting ourselves be truly changed by it. A building joy at what we can feel more and more each day is taking place inside. 

There are verses in the Bible that use seeds, soil and fruit to illustrate the process of how things of God grow. I’m drawn to these metaphors in part because they speak to the mystery of that process, and to the fact that we can’t control how or where new things spring up. But these verses also hint to us that we can trust the process. When we plant seeds, we know some may not survive to see the light, but we also trust that the soil and sun will do their part, and that the seed knows what it needs to grow.

So I just wanted to say to you, take heart and trust that new things will sprout in your life this year, even if the start has already been slow or painful. I would venture to say that most starts that bear real fruit usually are that way.