Saturday, May 31, 2014

it doesn't count unless you finish

"It doesn't count unless you finish."

I said this to F. while we ran together this morning. The ocean quietly rocked forward and back to our right, and the sun, already done with its own version of warming up, was bright and hot on our backs. We were in the first mile of our 10K race and I was huffing a bit too hard between getting thoughts out. I might need to back off in the second half, I told him. I start strong and fade, this is my problem. We talked about finishing well and how hard it is. In this race, crossing the finish line was the only way the run would count for anything.

I was thinking about running, but I was also thinking about writing. Honestly, the decision to write a blog post every day this month was a spur of the moment decision, and I had plenty of my typical "oh crap what did I get myself into" moments. But with the exception of three days without posts (were you counting?), I finished. And I feel like I finished strong. 

I thought about making a list of the stats from this month: number of words, number of posts, number of page views. But that's not what's important to me. Instead, a short list of things that happened as a result of writing every day this month.

I noticed that my posts can be grouped into a few categories, and writing each type gave me a feel for which I like best, which were the most fun, and some of the things I'd like to work on. Your comments (online and off) gave me a feel for where things were hitting (so thank you).

I actually had something to write about every day. Sometimes I thought of ideas during morning runs or on the drive to work, and other times I just started typing and something formed. This last kind of situation is important practice for me because so often I want to come with clearly formed thoughts and ideas to convey, and that deters me from just starting.

I also made time and energy to write every day, even during a time when work is busy (and taking a fair amount of brain space), while traveling, and while staying fairly busy this month.

Some friends found out about my blog because it was part of my daily routine - they saw me doing it, or I told them about needing to make time for it.

I came up with some new material to explore for publishing. And I realized that I really do want to explore publishing, and that I think I could do it.

Posting quickly and without much editing (and overthinking) helped me to gain both confidence and humility. I'm ok with where I'm at, which is both skilled/practiced and needing practice and feedback.

*   *   *
F. and I reached the end of the bike path in Malibu, touched the bench, and turned around to run back the way we came. Soon after the halfway mark, F. got distracted by water fountains and some other women he wanted to talk to (he is easily distracted, this one). At that point, T. was with us as well, about as quiet and calm and F. is chatty and bouncy. T. and I got into a good rhythm, quiet and steady, checking in with each other every once in a while. I stopped at one point to look for F. but realized he wasn't looking to catch us, so I turned around and kept moving forward. 

T. pulled slightly ahead of me to cross the finish a few steps before. When I crossed, I got some high fives and my finishing number, then looked for some water. 

It felt good to finish and know that it counted.

Friday, May 30, 2014

words are living everywhere, even when i'm not at home

It's coming down to the end now, and I feel empty of ideas. I've been trusting each day to bring one of its own, and only a few times have I relied on old ideas to push me through to the next day, the next time words magically morph together into a picture, an idea, a story. Writing this way (is there another way?) is more difficult, I'm learning, when I'm busy. When I'm not at home much. Last night, I finally opened my door at 9:17 to find my apartment just as I'd left it that morning at 7:30 - on the kitchen counter, an empty bowl with streaks of missed yogurt crusting on the inside and the spoon resting at its side; in the dining room, the sunflowers that told me a week ago that their slow death had started, now hanging their heavy, bald heads while their crinkled yellow petals covered the table around them in memoriam; in the living room, clean unfolded laundry filled a basket, intended for folding, for more order than I was able to invoke. It all hinted at a life that has not cleaned up after itself. At a life that is not at home.

The bowl was still on the counter, the sunflowers bowing their heads, the laundry wrinkled in the basket when I left at 5am this morning for my running group. Two hours later I was at my desk at work, answering emails and greeting coworkers and planning a sleepover with a friend tonight nearly an hour away.

So I write now, in the in between, without much to say, trusting that even that is something to say. Thankfully, words can be found in all sorts of places. They are living everywhere, waiting for me to pick them up and put them together and make them lived in. Even when I am not at home.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

living as someone who wants

One spiritual discipline that I've never been able to get on board with is fasting. It sounds good, all ascetic and holy and deny thyself. But when I take food out of my day I wind up cranky, distracted and wondering where my answers to prayer are. Then (confession) I eat all the carbs in sight. As you might imagine, I feel anything but holy after all that.

I've tried a few different kinds of fasts - no food at all or just eliminate certain kinds of foods, for a meal or a day or for weeks. The shorter ones are easier, because they're over more quickly, but usually they're of the no-food variety. The longer ones sometimes start well but turn into a game of will or wondering if I'll loose any weight.

I suppose part of the problem is that I'm not sure what I'm supposed to expect. I'm more accustomed to fasting as tied to a specific need or request. So, perfectionist that I am, I figure if I can get this down, do it right, maybe I'll actually get the thing I want. But I'm pretty sure it's not as easy as that, or America might not have an obesity problem.

A few weeks ago, a friend gave me a new perspective on fasting. I stood in the kitchen with her as she cut the pie she'd made for our dessert. After she carefully slid the slices of sweet fruit and crust onto a plate, I dolloped some hand-whipped-cream on top and added a fork to the plate. She said the pie was a recipe experiment, and I asked what was in it. She listed a few ingredients, including maple syrup and honey as the sweeteners. Turns out she was fasting from refined sugar until an answer came. An answer to what? I wanted to ask, more to understand how long she might be waiting to eat sugar again than to pry into her prayer life. But I decided she'd offer if she really wanted to talk about it. Her husband was fasting, too, for the same thing, but he gave up coffee instead.

Since sugar and coffee are my two greatest loves (read: addictions), this couple's commitment to receiving an answer stuck with me. I thought about the things I'm really wanting in my life, things that might move me to make that kind of decision - to forego something that I love and brings me comfort and is a part of my daily routine, all because I love this other thing more. I decided (after praying) to try it, and friends, it has not always been pretty. The first few days were pretty uneventful, and then it hit me: this could take years. I might have even cried.

But the cool thing is that crying over what I gave up made me also cry over the thing I'm asking for. The process (it's all about the process...) has made me even more committed to what I want to see God do. Hell yes, I thought (ironic, I know), I want to see God do that. "Fasting until" has also made me live as someone who wants, someone who waits a little more actively than I was before.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

poets with a press pass

One of my favorite panels at the writer's conference I attended a few months back was one I hadn't planned on going to. (I learned that you can pick your choices ahead of time, but these kinds of conferences - perhaps not unlike shopping at a farmer's market - are best savored by testing and tasting and choosing by feel as you go.) Earlier in the day I'd heard a journalist-turned-social worker, who moonlights (is that what she would call it?) as a poet read some of her work and talk about her life. I was immediately drawn to her because she seemed so earthy, so real, and because we seemed to have some things in common.  She read a poem about homeless kids who live under the Atlantic City boardwalk, and I was blown away by how she'd captured their voices, their aches, their strengths in what she wrote. When she read her poetry, I felt and wanted to act, which is probably what the best writing does to us. At the end, she mentioned that later on in the day, she and a few other poets would be presenting a panel called Poets with a Press Pass. They were all former journalists who now wrote poetry.

I had never intentionally thought about the intersection of these two kinds of writing, but I knew I wanted to hear more of what she had to say (and write). When I got there, I sat close to the front. Three rather homely, middle-aged people sat at the table at the front, their books in front of them. When they introduced themselves, they each explained their journalism background, then read from some of their poetry. The first thing I wrote in my notes from this panel was "look up these authors!" It should also be noted that only in this and one other panel did I sheepishly approach the authors to talk with them and tell them how much I enjoyed their writing and insight.

Here is some of how they explained the connection between journalism and poetry:
  • inspiration, precision, connections, curiosity, empathy, honesty
  • know there is a poem in something just as you know there is a story in something
  • precision - in journalism, related to accuracy; in poetry, related to meaning

Here are some (important) differences I'm thinking of right now:
  • News can be skimmed to get the gist, poetry needs to be read slowly to get the feel
  • News is old after a few hours, whereas poetry is essentially timeless, and each new reading gives you something new
  •  consumption vs. being gutted open

The poets on the panel were Tina Kelley, Susan Cohen and (I can't find his name! but he was good). Go look up these authors!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

unpacking from vacation

When I go on vacation, I find a corner of my room for my suitcase, open it up, and let the contents spill out. It was neatly packed when I left, which happened partly out of necessity, since I chronically over-pack. Space is a premium. But then when I arrive, I rustle around to find my pajamas and my glasses, pull out my toothbrush and comb and products to leave in the bathroom, set my running shoes to the side so I can find them for the morning's run. And then it's all a mess of tops and bottoms and underwear and receipts or whatever I've picked up along the way. But I kinda like it that way. I feel around for what I need, and that's just enough order.

I always forget that it's not just my suitcase that gets spilled out. It happens internally, too. Everything gets jumbled, unfolded, sometimes the dirty mixed with the clean. Somewhere in my head I realize I'll have to re-pack and go home at some point, but let the shirt I don't want to wear stay hidden in the bottom, let the books I read sit right on top, let my swim suit hang, drying, around the bathroom or the bedroom or wherever I can find room, so that I can just put it on again the next morning. Let my eyes wander to stars and my legs to the pool and my hands to the cheese in the refridgerator. There is always the going home to fold things, hang things, put things back in order again.

Unfortunately, the ease of unpacking my suitcase when I get home is no indicator of the work required to settle my soul. Last night, I arrived home around 6pm. By 6:45, leftover food was in the refrigerator, clothes were thrown into the laundry basket, books were back in place and the mail that had arrived in my absence was sorted and dealt with. I was home but still very far away, because I missed my traveling companions, felt lost as to what to eat for dinner, and just didn't know what to do with myself. I got sleepy and went to bed early, hoping the sun would bring not just a new day but a renewed sense of groundedness. But I am still unpacking all of the internal souvenirs from this short trip, finding places in my life to display them or store them, a routine to enjoy them.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

the home of the word

Silence is the home of the word. Silence give strength and fruitfulness to the word. We can even say that words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come.

- Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

Saturday, May 24, 2014

in the desert: on the need for solitude

But soon [St. Anthony] realized that more was required of him. He had to... let himself be totally transformed into a new being. His old, false self had to die and a new self had to be born. For this Anthony withdrew into the complete solitude of the desert.
-Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

Last week tailspin came unexpectedly, like it always does. My friend cancelled dinner out and my internal balance got thrown. She hates spending time with me, I am a loser, I will be alone forever. The emptiness of that night loomed like a dark oblivion ready to swallow me up. I thought about making plans S. or N. or SOMEONE so that my night would be filled again. So that I wouldn't have to spend the rest of my life alone.

But the thing is, I sometimes really enjoy time alone. And - the next day I'd be going away for the long weekend, so the extra time was actually sorta needed to pack and prepare. I know something isn't right when I respond so dramatically. I resisted those sneaky solutions to just make new plans and forced myself to face me Empty Thursday Night.

It was then, in the middle of this past week, that I was absolutely convinced that this weekend away was necessary, and that I had some inner work to do while here. Not coincidentally we are in the desert, the same terrain where Jesus himself was tested and emerged prepared for ministry. I will admit, this desert is probably quite different from the one where Jesus went, or the one where the Desert Fathers fled. Here there are manicured landscapes (and greenery!) and golf courses and swimming pools. Tonight we are headed to a Purple Rain tribute concert and I'm hoping to get a cocktail.

But here I am with Nouwen and my journal and some coffee, wondering about how to create some internal solitude. How not to despise time alone in my apartment. How to not fill up every night of my week with new and old friends to somehow guarantee that I'll never have to live alone.

Here are a few ideas from The Way of the Heart that I'm trying to allow to sink in:

Changing my thinking about my apartment and my time living alone
We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever that may be... We have come to the dubious conviction that we all have a right to privacy... solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion... the place where the emergence of the new woman occurs.

On solitude as a discipline
We have, indeed, to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.

What we can expect in the desert of solitude
It is the struggle to die to the false self... The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Why solitude is important to cultivating compassion for people in my life
Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it... It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows... In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh.

Friday, May 23, 2014

i don't always need words

A few years ago I was seeing a therapist. To be honest, I didn't like her very much and I never felt like we connected. But as with most things that last longer than they should, I just didn't know how to end it. One thing I do remember is this: During my last session, she pulled out some paper and markers and crayons and told me to draw. The blank paper intimidated me and I suddenly felt nervous and self-conscious. Words I could do, words could be organized and made sense of. Free form drawing was scary. But I went with it, and started to see stars and a sky hanging over green grass. Why did you draw that? And I shrugged and said, I guess because I really love to look at the stars.

Tonight I'm in the desert. As my friends settled into our condo, and as the sun was putting itself to sleep behind the tall mountain, I walked alone to the pool. I swam a few laps, then noticed the hot tub. And even though the rules clearly stated that you not go in alone, I did. What was I supposed to do? It got dark enough to see the stars that are always there, waiting to be seen. After I was warmed up, I tipped the back of a lounge chair down flat and laid on my back to count them. The warm, dry desert air felt cool on my warm, wet skin. Palms from the palm trees rustled in the soft breeze. I remembered that last day in therapy, how relieved I felt to know something about myself (the stars!) and to know I don't always need words.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

following intuition: settling an apartment, living a life

Moving into my own place gave me the chance to decorate my own space, which I was pretty excited about. In my early twenties I went with what was cheap and comfortable and able to be shoved in a friend's borrowed pick-up truck. I also accepted a lot of donations. So basically my apartment looked like a styled thrift store show room, made homey with the few random personal pieces of paraphernalia, like gifted tchochkes and framed photos.

Then, when I moved into a real house (and was at an age when I was finally feeling like a real adult), I dumped a lot of that stuff. The couches went on the sidewalk, the table and chairs I sold on craigslist. The unfortunate coffee table stayed with us up until the time I moved out a few months ago, perhaps a humble reminder of where I'd come from. (That thing was so heavy, not a chance characteristic in my mind.)

One thing I new I wanted in a new apartment was something with character, something other than the white boxes that are so popular around here. I was sold when I saw the hardwood floors (they are imperfect, but they are still not that rough carpet that most places have) and the built-in bookshelf in the dining room and the fold down iron board. There had to be a window over the sink, which there is, and it looks up to palm trees reaching for the sun in the foreground, golden mountains sleeping behind them. The walls are all white, which I thought to be the perfect canvas.

The thing is, all that space - even though there wasn't that much of it - scared me. I'm not a big picture person, so I had a hard time coming up with a cohesive vision for the rooms. I'm much more accustomed to the details, to one thing at a time. I had my rug that I bought a few months before moving, then in my bedroom, now the perfect starting place for the living room. I went back and forth on colors and furniture styles, but settled where I always do, on something warm. Blacks, browns and golds became my focus, with mostly soft pops of color. I collected and sorted and made things fit, which may be a haphazard way to put something together, but for me it usually works.

But there was one piece I just couldn't find: the end table. I have never chosen an end table before and I had no idea what I was looking for. I couldn't name it. But when I browsed the Target website, and when I sauntered around Homegoods, I knew I hadn't seen it yet. A friend, determined to solve my dilemma for me (really, just determined to be a good friend, I think) sent me pins and went on hunts at thrift stores. One day she texted me a photo while she was out shopping. I hastily said, "yes, buy it!" but knew right away it wasn't what I wanted. It was the glass top and the shape of the wood (and did I even want something wooden?). She brought it over and I tried not to cringe.

A few months went by, and then it happened just like I knew it would. I wasn't even looking for it when I found the end table I wanted. It was round and dark and metal and perfect. The price didn't deter me. I knew better than to think that what was right could have the wrong price tag. I brought it home, rearranged a few things to find its right spot. The lamp sits on top of it like it always belonged there, the candle next to it. Every time I look at it, deep inside I hear "yes." This is not a bad way to live a life - piecing it together, searching and then forgetting and then suddenly finding, and in it all, deeply knowing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

here i am, here i will always be

I often sit behind them at church, an imperfect family of four. Him, with a balding head and a belly, she with the story of one lost before she had these two. Both of them older than they thought they'd find themselves when they finally found each other and their two young ones. But then the young ones came and it was like life never existed without them. First a boy who once he started to run wouldn't stop, who has a short round nose and mousy brown hair that makes him look like an excited little puppy. Then a girl with the biggest eyes you've seen, and dimples and thick brown hair to go with them. The boy walks in holding his mother's hand, and the girl rests her head sideways on her father's shoulder as he carries her. During worship the boy stand on the pew next to his mother and puts his hands in her hair, his eyes wide and smiling as he feels the softness of it, and its length. The girl has lifted up her head and is now resting on her father's belly, his arms holding her up. She faces her father and puts her hands on his lips, then his eyes, then his cheeks. It's as if she's blind and is trying to figure out who it is that stands in front of her. She already knows, but still wants to feel all the different parts of him. And I think about how much love and intimacy they are forming in these moments, just being there with each other, the boy and girl feeling around for their parents in the mess of their physical bodies, searching for where they came from and where their home is found. And the parents allowing their young ones to touch them, to know them, saying here I am, here I will always be.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

the beginnings: Edna and her sad world

Not much time for writing today. Here is the very beginnings of what may be a short story. The description of sadness as the color of snow is what gave birth to this character - what would that world, that life be like?

*  *  *

Her sadness was the color of day-old snow, a dingy gray that had settled in places where there had once been such clean, fresh hope. Edna left the house now only for matters of necessity: the grocery store and getting the mail once each week. Her phone rang so little that she thought of disconnecting the line – to save money, of course – but thought that her niece might not approve, since she liked to call every few weeks.

It was rare that the sun appeared from behind the gray blanket of sky, even more rare that Edna got to see it. She kept her curtains closed, out of habit now more than anything else. If you asked her when that habit started, when any of her habits had their beginnings, she’d likely shrug her shoulders and let the question hang in the air, like the bits of dust you couldn’t see without the sunlight. Habits like that have slow beginnings, and you never think they’ll hang out to you so tightly when you first let them stick around.

Monday, May 19, 2014

amy, who did things slowly

A few years ago I had this officemate named Amy. Amy was a short woman with a small frame, a kind smile and blond hair. But you could be fooled by that exterior because she had some heft to her. She communicated with insistence, like she knew what she needed and wouldn't back down until she got it.

Amy was also slow. I was always out of the office by 5, but she often stayed later, and I wondered what took her so long to finish up. After working with her for a while, I realized it was because she was meticulous and methodical. I had considered myself pretty good at details, but I was also fast. I like to tackle a job and get it done, so of course I missed things sometimes. For me, Amy gave "attention to detail" a whole new meaning. Amy and I hired student workers together, and even in that process, I missed things that Amy caught - a seemingly insignficant comment made during an interview, or a small detail on the application that signaled to Amy that this person did or didn't fit.

Though Amy was slower, when I compared our work, hers was often better. There were fewer mistakes, and she had a confidence and deep knowledge of what she'd just completed that I often lacked in my hurried-ness. Having the patience to do a task slowly was one of the biggest lessons I learned in that job.

The thing is, there are a lot of things in life that require patience. Being slow, waiting, giving full attention, making sure your bases are covered are important ways to go about things. I've started a list of every day activities that would be better accomplished with a bit of patience:

  1. caramelizing onions
  2. painting nails
  3. reading poetry
  4. staining adirondack chairs
  5. assembling ikea furiture
  6. washing dishes 
  7. ironing
  8. writing
  9. closing up my apartment before I leave in the morning
  10. choosing what I'll wear for the day
  11. listening to God
  12. giving friends advice
Feel free to add to my list. I'm going to try to do things more slowly this week and see what difference it makes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

the perfect weekend

The best weekends are that perfect balance between getting stuff done and doing nothing in particular. They are sort of magical and elusive, but come just when you need one. I'm in the middle of one right now, complete with blueberry pancakes, peaches from a friend, coffee (of course) and a freshly washed table cloth. And that light - from the overcast morning that's brought a break in the heat of the past few days.

Hope a magical weekend finds you, if not now, then soon.

Happy Sunday.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

reasons it would not be a bad thing to be like my mom

When I opened the door to my apartment, I surveyed the pieces of mail sitting on the floor. Usually it's mostly junk. But that day I saw a special postal service flat rate envelope, and I remembered: my passport. I opened it up and flipped through the pages, hoping for them to be filled with more than just my stamp for Kenya this summer. Then I looked at my photo and thought, "My gosh, I look like my mom."

Mostly, the feeling was dread. Growing up, I didn't think I looked or acted like any of my family, and in fact was pretty sure I was adopted. But as I've gotten older I recognize that my hips and height are my father's, and my thinning hair is my mother's. (she and I have a running joke about this. Me: You're getting old, see how thin your hair is! Her: Just you wait! Me: laughing on the outside, panicked on the inside.) I've also inherited a lot of habits and mannerisms from my family, like the way my dad rests his chin on his hand or my mom's insistence that tables and counters be wiped clean after meals.

Now, and for most of my adult life, I've felt a little bit of fear when I recognize these things, because however hard I've tried to avoid it, it's happening: I'm turning into my parents. I don't know why exactly I'm so afraid of that happening, other than not wanting to repeat some obvious mistakes I see, mistakes that impact me directly or that are just plane different from what I want for my life. I'm pretty sure there's something innate in this whole thing, too - like, since the moment we are born, we are learning separation (even while we learn attachment). There's something good and healthy about wanting to be myself, not someone else.

But turning out like my mom would really not be such a bad thing. My mother is gentle, caring, creative and smart. There are some reasons it would not be so bad to be like my mom, including:

Her sense of tradition. You could also call it a rut, but I like how my mother repeated (still repeats, sometimes) certain things, mostly around food. Every spring she'd bake pineapple upside down cakes for the high school spaghetti dinner. Our birthdays were always chocolate cake with white icing, and later, Dairy Queen ice cream cakes. Lasagna was for full family occasions. Tuna macaroni salad showed up at every summer church potluck or picnic. I appreciate this for many reasons, but especially now because just a taste or smell is full of so many memories and so much comfort.

Her thoughtfulness. She reserves Little House on the Prairie dvd's from the library when her grandchildren are coming. She sends cards for every holiday, and they're always on time. My first birthday in California, my mom filled a huge box with paraphernalia that represented my old home (Pennsylvania - a tshirt and hat with the name of my hometown, some Amish goodies) and my new (California - a magnet, a Mexican cookbook). She takes her grandchildren to the coolest parks around. This kind of thing can be counted on.

Her simple generosity. This story sticks out to me: On a visit a few years ago, my mom and I drove on some back country roads that winded and twisted their way to where my sister and her family lived. It was summer, so roadside stands advertised fruits and veggies. On stand at a peach farm caught my eye, and my mom quickly pulled over so we could look around. Jam, pie, fresh peaches and lots of other country goodies. I wanted some peaches and my mom was quick to buy me some. I can't say why that meant so much to me, but I still remember it and how loved I felt.

So yeah, maybe it's a little scary to see so much of my mother in my passport photo. But as long as I get more than the thinning hair, I guess it'll be ok with me.

Friday, May 16, 2014

busy and lonely

I had already pressed snooze twice. When I opened my eyes, I could see the sky outside my window just starting to turn from deep dark blue to a lighter shade. The sun arrives so early these days, when all I want to do is sleep in. And the weather has been decisive this week: clear, hot, dry. But I was struggling through my early morning fog, trying to choose between another 45 minutes of sleep or getting up to run, as I'd planned.

Running won, because I knew either way I'd feel tired the rest of the day. I might as well feel tired with some calories burned and some time outside before it gets too hot. Still lying down, I pulled my phone from my nightstand and checked my email. Most of it was overnight junk. But one was from my friend who's getting married at the end of next month. I was copied on an email about sound equipment because apparently I'm "in charge of the soiree, sort of" (her words). How did I go from being the food contact to "sort of" coordinating the whole thing? I wondered. I thought of the wedding that I'm helping to coordinate just seven days after this one, of the bridal showers and travel and other things happening in the weeks leading up to these two weddings, of how tired I felt in that moment and how much more tired all these plans were making me. I put my phone down, but my head back down and my pillow and thought, "I am busy and lonely."

Don't be too concerned. The lonely partly is about figuring out this rhythm of living alone. Maybe that's what this is all about. Spending time with people now requires scheduling, and often driving, and often doing something. But really, I would say I felt some measure of this tension even before I moved into my own place. It's easy for me to place an emphasis on doing, because I like to get things done. And I like to do things for people (I think it's my way of showing love). And though I love aspects of living alone - getting to choose when and for how long I will be by myself, cleaning on my own schedule, cooking what I feel like eating for myself - sometimes I want a shoulder to lean against, instead of a pillow that I need to fluff to the right shape, while I watch my tv show on netflix. Just someone to be with.

I didn't linger too long in my thoughts. I needed to get this run done. I got out of bed, rustled through clean laundry to find my shorts, shirt and bra, and pulled my hair into a quick pony tail. Outside, the air was cooler than I'd expected. I ran up my block, made a few turns and headed up the hill toward Krystina's new house to try out the route I'd planned for us to run together, once she's ready to start running again. The climb to her house is long, nearly a mile up hill. But worth it to have some company, someone to enjoy the early morning light with.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

surviving without romance

My best friend Heather lived in Kenya for seven months after she graduated from high school, so I was especially excited to tell her my news. She wondered where I'll be staying and if I would be close to the village where she lived. Then she told me about a book that she had picked off of the shelf in her childhood bedroom the last time she visited home. Our friend Lara had given it to Heather before she left for her trip because it was full of stories of women living in Kenya and a few other East African countries.

I'd been looking for stories and fiction by and about people living in Kenya in making a syllabus to prepare for my trip this summer, so I got off the phone and ordered the book. 

It's called Surviving Without Romance - a slightly misleading, overly dramatic title that, in my opinion, doesn't quite get at what the book is about. But I'm guessing the author was purposeful in wanting the title to be dramatic, in order to draw people in. She explains the title in the prologue:

It is hard for us to understand women who survive, and do so quite happily, without romance. We tend to feel pity or superiority. Our culture tells us, quite insistently, that to be whole a woman needs a lover - and one who will truly understand her, at that.

That explanation makes sense to me. But the women in these stories are doing more than "surviving," they are living. And stating that they are doing so without romance seems to neglect all that they are living with - community, and joy gained through struggles and, for most of them, the love of God.

Here are are a few things this book reinforced for me:

Faith looks a lot of different ways. For one women, it meant leaving her husband, to whom she was a second wife, because she felt that her faith wouldn't allow her to practice or condone polygamy. This meant accepting a life without a husband or children (and so also without a regular form of income, value in the eyes of the community, and family to take care of you in old age). For another woman, faithfulness meant staying with her husband despite feeling betrayed, hurt and neglected when he took on additional wives and abandoned her and her children.

Stories are important. This goes back to the Nouwen quote I shared earlier this month. Each of these women shared stories that were truly theirs, and so very different from mine. And yet they shared things that I could relate to. Their stories each revealed something that is universally experienced. Even though I haven't yet traveled to Kenya or met any of these women face to face, I felt connected to them because of those commonalities.

Africa is diverse and dynamic. These is a struggle to maintain traditional tribal values while adopting the influence of Western culture. Understanding this struggle was timely, given the news about the girls kidnapped in Nigeria.

There's more I could write, but it's getting late and I want to get this post up tonight. On that note, thanks for reading along as I publish some pretty unpolished writing here this month. I don't know if you can tell just from reading, but it's helping me. And I've enjoyed opening up my life a little more readily.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

books change things

It started with a book in a bookstore. Well, I guess it probably started before that. But let's start there. In San Francisco, at my favorite bookstore where some other things started, too. I found a novel I wanted to read, then another (yes, another) Lorrie Moore book, then I saw a book by Tracy Kidder. I'd never read him before, but knew he was a popular narrative nonfiction writer. This book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, was described on the back as a story of a doctor whose work to cure TB in some of the poorest areas of the world addressed not only the body but also poverty, social justice and health policy. This stuff matters to me, I realized. I want to read more about it.

So I bought it, along with four other books on that trip. I'd also received a few others as Christmas gifts. After having moved so recently and feeling the literal weight of all my books, my purchases felt indulgent. I questioned my impulse buys. When I got home, I put them on my shelf, started reading the novel, and vowed that I'd read all the books I bought and received before any others.

A few months ago, I opened the Kidder book. I was at a coffee shop when I started it, and had trouble focusing because the people behind me were talking very loudly about the woman's new engagement ring. But I stuck with it, and a few days later found myself wishing I was with Kidder and his subject, Paul Farmer, as they hiked through Haiti to get to some patients that Farmer wanted to treat. I started thinking of my friend Shannon, a nurse who had traveled to Haiti a few years ago and, while there, felt that God was finally opening doors for her to start the nonprofit He had put on her heart nearly seven years earlier. I thought of her trips to Kenya with this new nonprofit the past two summers.

And then I thought, I want to go with her.

I'd had this thought since she first started Alabaster Mobile Clinic, but wasn't sure how I could be of help. I know how to... put on bandaids? But while reading Kidder's book, I realized I wanted to write about what Shannon does, who travels with her, and the people they meet.

So I asked her if I could come, and she said yes.

This upcoming trip to Kenya - two weeks in August - has been part of the impetus for upping my writing game. It will be a full fourteen days of observing, asking, listening, reflecting and writing - not to mention putting on bandaids (I will still get to help with minor medical care!), bumpy rides around Nairobi and seeing zebras while I pee in the jungle (apparently this will happen). I'm grateful for the focus and energy this trip will give me over the next few months. It feels like good movement forward. I'm thinking about a whole bunch of things that have been dormant for a while - about publishing and interviewing and living overseas and living with people in poverty. Things feel urgent and full.

Books change things. Can we all just agree on that?

Monday, May 12, 2014

just walk beside me

So you have this friend. There are, of course, things you love about this friend, that's probably why she's your friend. But the more you get to know her, the more things you see that she should really think about changing. You don't think about this in a mean or proud way. You firmly believe these changes would be for her own good. Your perspective could be very valuable to her. You could have those words of gold, those gems that make her nod her head slowly as a light bulb appears above it. As a result of these astute observations and thoughtful pieces of advice, she could one day write your name in the acknowledgements of her book, or toast you at her fiftieth birthday, or even put you in her will.

But it's not as straightforward as you thought. You ask a question to get at one of these problems you see so clearly, and she answers with a shrug of her shoulders. Apparently it's not a problem to her. But how could it not be? When clearly it's what's keeping her from every good thing in her life.

Your approach isn't working. And so you decide to walk with her. Literally. You drive to her apartment after work once a week, you both put your sneakers on, and you walk around the block a few times. You see where she lives, she points out the house across the street that her mother thinks she might have lived in all those years ago, you hear the highway traffic along the street two blocks away and agree to never make that one part of your route again. Let's stay where it's calm and pretty, you both agree. Taking steps forward, even if they are slower than you would normally take, feels like it is taking you both somewhere.

They say that walking opens up your mind, connects the two sides of your brain (that rigid left with the flighty right), and you think this might be true for your friendship, too. You and your friend laugh together, find new things to talk about. Like the vending machine at work. Like the flowers you see and smell along the way. You learn things about her you never knew before. You see her with more love and compassion than you knew when you started walking that first day.

Now you understand better that metaphor for friendship: Just walk beside me.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Board-game playing

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

on wanting: holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. - Psalm 23:1

*  *  *
I am full of wants. I am a child with a never-ending list for Santa. I have a belly that has never known fullness. I am at a restaurant but wanting a buffet, one of everything, please. I want a house, a husband, a child, a new phone, shoes and bags and a car and friends that will always love me and a bedroom makeover and a body makeover and a whole life makeover, while I'm at it. My shelves are never full enough, my cabinets can always hold more. I want bags full of nice things and packages waiting for me at my door every day. I want to discover things I forgot I had and receive gifts I never knew I wanted. I want to feel full and high and happy and pleased. Yes, please.

*  *  *
I have a friend who has been learning lately that the Lord is her portion. When she says this, I nod and smile and think how glad I am for her, after all she's been through. And then I think of the things I have been asking God for in prayer, and He asks the question of me, "Can I be your portion, too?" This question makes me nervous and sad because I assume that means my list is null. If I agree that God is enough for me - and when I say God, I think I mean His love, which sometimes I don't even recognize, I don't even know if I've every truly recognized - if I agree to this, then does that mean I won't get those things? If God is my shepherd, I shall not want, but is that a description or a command? Mostly I have been treating it as the latter.

*  *  *
I have been wondering if all of this wanting, if all of this list-making, finds it's origins not in an empty stomach but in a lonely, fearful soul. It is when I feel truly alone, or when I am fighting my fear of being alone, that I find myself wanting most. It is then that I go shopping online, or stop for coffee and a cookie, or rent a movie or frantically call or text friends who will spend time with me or give me words that can soothe me.

*  *  *
Jesus said [to the man who had many things], “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.” The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.  -Mark 10

Friday, May 9, 2014

celebrating five years of running with four hours of torture

Two months ago I completed a marathon. The idea of running the 2014 LA Marathon had been in the back of my mind for over a year, because it would be a way of celebrating five years of running. So in the after glow of my fall half, I signed up.

There were about 4 months between the time I signed up and race day. In that time, I moved to my own apartment, took two and a half weeks off because of an injury, traveled to Seattle for a writers conference, and got ready to host my sister and her family in my new place (they arrived just days before the race; my brother-in-law ran it with me). I also logged around 300 miles (I think??? though that number should have been higher), including both 18 and 20 milers. Those days were pretty great because, aside from spending three hours running, I had the rest of the day to justify every lazy or indulgent desire with, "heck yeah I'm gonna do that, i just ran 20 miles." Mostly that meant eating popcorn and drinking alcohol.

So, race day. Was crazy and awesome and a little disappointing all at the same time. I knew not to expect to hit my original goal time (sub 4:15) because there were so many variables, including the fact that my injury had taken me out during a crucial time in training. I also woke up at 1am the morning of the race trying to figure out what time I really needed to get up. I'd set my alarm for 2:30 (we needed to leave at 3am) but then realized that because it was daylight savings time THERE WAS NO 2:30. Trippy. And only 4 hours of sleep. On my couch. After hearing my nephew barf the night before.

Even if you're not a runner, you probably know that while a marathon requires physical training and endurance, it's equally a mental challenge. That was definitely the case for me. Here's what I remember thinking at each mile:

Mile 1: I saw Ben! Hi Ben! And wow, there are so many people running.

Mile 2: Get out of my way! Oh and there's Mandi! But she doesn't see me! MANDI! (didn't see me.)

Mile 3: Running downtown is fun when there are no cars. But so many people...

Mile 4: I'm tired already.

Mile 5: There are still people in my way!

Mile 6: I hope my 10K time is good because people who are tracking my progress are getting a text right now.

Mile 7: Echo Park is so cool.

Mile 8: I can't wait to cross mile 10.

Mile 9: Am I at mile 10 yet?

Mile 10: Omg there's Lori and Andrew and Natalie! (My sister and her kids, didn't expect to see them here.) I almost start crying because I'm happy and scared and exhilarated.

Mile 11: What does the fox say? I hope this song isn't stuck in my head the rest of the race.

Mile 12: Hollywood is so weird.

Mile 13: I wonder what my half marathon time is? Again, people are tracking. And where's Judy? I need to see Judy!

Mile 14: There's Judy! I need to pee. (Stopped to use porta-potty, which, with the line, took about 6 minutes!)

Mile 15: Downhill, yay! And holy crap, why is the sun out?

Mile 16: I can't believe I still have 10 miles. It's getting really hot.

Miles 17-18: A blur.

Mile 19: I'm so hot. Where's Mirna? I need that gatorade. Mirna, Mirna, Mirna... There's Mirna! Also, I'm really tired of injesting sugar (gatorade, shotblocks).

Mile 20: I swear I see mirages. Long, hot, unshady stretch.

Mile 21: Holy crap.

Mile 22: This is how I felt:

Mile 23: Cramping, running under hoses that spectators are holding out for us, I don't know how I'm gonna finish this thing.

Mile 24: I stop to walk next to an older gentleman who starts encouraging me. But then he won't stop. Decide to start running again so I don't get stuck with this guy.

Mile 25: I don't know if I will ever run again.

Mile 26: Who decided to add that freakin .2 to this race?

Ten minutes after I finished: I want to do another one!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

polishing the stars

My sister Andrea sent me this text this morning. Some context: Amelia is her seven-year old daughter and one of the coolest second-graders around (I'm biased, but still...). The maps and water is my other sister, Lori. The poetry and Shel Silverstein is me.

I was a little surprised to hear about Amelia taking the book to school. If you've been following along, you may remember reading about my nieces and nephews opening gifts at Christmas last year, and how they seemed a little disappointed with the seeming dullness of the books I gave them. I didn't necessarily blame them. Books just kinda sit there, looking all rectangle-like and unmoving. There's some work involved in getting to the fun of them.

Anyway, apparently Amelia opened the book and found the fun in the Shel Silverstein book I gave her. I knew she would like it, because like Mr. Silverstein, she is a little goofy and giggly (her laugh is the best), and she also thinks pretty deeply and makes astute observations. Did I tell you that the last time I saw her, she recognized a painting on the cover of one of my books as a Van Gogh? She was six at the time. I know.

So, in honor of Amelia and her budding love for poetry, and just because Shel Silverstein is great (and should still be read by adults), here's one of his poems for you today.

Somebody Has To (from A Light in the Attic)

Somebody has to go polish the stars,
They’re looking a little bit dull.
Somebody has to go polish the stars,
For the eagles and starlings and gulls
Have all been complaining they’re tarnished and worn,
They say they want new ones we cannot afford.
So please get your rags
And your polishing jars,
Somebody has to go polish the stars.
~Shel Silverstein
(via here)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

being better than we are

The past few Mondays I've been running with J. He's one of the homeless guys in my running group. J's always a few steps ahead of me, and I would run faster to keep up  with him but I can never be sure that the next traffic light will turn red in time for us to stop and get a breather. So instead I huff and puff just a little bit behind him and hope that we'll talk a little bit at those red traffic lights, and for the thirty seconds after we start again and I'm able to keep pace with him.

This arrangement, and the fact that J. is reserved, means that after a few times running with him, I am just getting to know about his life. This week we talked some about running, and how he ran track in high school, the 100 meters. "I could run fast then. Before I started smoking." He's tried to stop, he said, but stress makes it hard. I agreed - I have my own habits that are hard to kick.

My run this morning was solitary, in the quiet neighborhoods around the Rose Bowl. The sky gradually turned from black to gray to light blue. The air was cool. I heard birds singing, and occasionally passed some runners or walkers, but otherwise I was completely alone. I've been trying to pray during these morning runs, and this morning J. came to mind. I prayed for him and his job interviews and his smoking habit. During prayer, I found myself wanting J. to know that he can be better than he is, and not just in a pull-yourself-up kind of way, but in a deep, life-changing, spirit way. I wanted him to know that God changes things.

As a writer, I love revising pieces. I love seeing where sentences are out of place, or where words can be cut, and then seeing how those changes make the piece completely new, and stronger and more powerful. I think that's why, as I was praying for J., I started thinking of God's process in our lives as revision. A different thought - one from God - during stressful times could help J. kick that smoking habit in a decisive way. A new way of seeing himself and his life is a key to being better than he is.

I wanted to share this news spot from Indianapolis, about the local Back on My Feet chapter. One of the guys interviewed says that, before he started the program, he found himself "just doing the same thing." The program was an opportunity to get in on the revising that God wants to do in his life.

Monday, May 5, 2014

varied conversations with men about height

1. On a blind date

When I arrived at the restaurant, I spotted him at the hostess station. I approached him, and he turned and recognized me and we gave each other a quick, awkward hug. Then his first words, after saying hi and how are you, were, "Huh, I've never dated a tall girl before. How do you feel about being tall?"

2. At a friend's birthday party

The subject of my height came up in an indirect way. First, the the taller one and I talked about people we knew in common, then of my friend - a female who happens to be a baller (his words, not mine, and meaning really good at basketball). The taller one and shorter one, both guys, were roommates, and so knew each other fairly well. I knew them only marginally, as friends of friends, though I'd developed a slight crush on the shorter one when I met him a month or two before.

"So do you play basket-"

The taller one started to ask me if I played basketball, but I cut him off. "You're not really asking me that, are you?" I thought he'd hear the flirting at the edge of my voice, and that, as a tall person, he'd get the joke. We started laughing, and his smile and mock-shocked look in his eyes told me he felt both sheepish and pleased.

After we'd joked about it, the shorter one asked, "How tall are you?" And always more earnest and direct with men who make me feel nervous, with men I like, I told him. He said he was the same height, and never considered himself tall. I said something about being a tall woman and the strange mix of responses my height draws from people. Like when I wear heels at work, I said, and everybody automatically looks down at my feet to understand where my height is coming from. What I was getting at is that I stick out, people look, and there's no way to avoid it.

We endured an awkward silence, neither of us knowing what to say next, and moved on.

3. Shopping in downtown Los Angeles

"How tall are you?" He asked this while my friend, the customer at his store, looked at shoes for her fiance. "Six foot?"

This was actually the second verbalized response to my height that afternoon. Maybe it was my short dress that made my legs look especially long that day? Just an hour ago, while we were walking around downtown, a homeless man had yelled at me from across the street, "Yo, did you play basketball in high school?" I'd ignored him, and my friend had laughed.

I answered the store owner's question about my height, and he thought me lucky. "Most women are five foot, five foot two." I smiled and tried to decide how frank I wanted to be with this man about the "luck" of being a tall woman. My friend interrupted by asking for a shoe size in the model she was interested in.

I stood at the front of the store, looking at something on my phone, and joined my friend when she paid. He gave her a business card, then handed one to me and said he'd like to take me out sometime. "I really like tall women," he said. I said ok, or thank you, or something like that, eager to leave, but also strangely grateful.

"You should call him," my friend said as we walked to the car. His card is still in the cupholder of my car.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

sundays are for things like this

Sundays are good days for taking a day off and doing things that on the surface my not seem to directly improve or inspire your writing, but that you know keep those creative juices churning.

Like wandering downtown. Like laughing with a friend. Like eating ice cream.

Happy Sunday, friends.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

i'm trying to be smarter than i am

I promised to post every day this month. And in my mind, I vowed to not give in to cheater posts - like, just choosing a quote to throw up here for days I didn't feel like writing, or something like that. Something substantial, something thoughtful, every day.

But then this afternoon I was talking to a friend about writing and how I have this "weird secret desire" (aren't most of our desires weird and secret in some way?) to write short stories, and she said that based on what she's read of mine (that being one piece) she'd assumed I already write short stories. And I heard myself saying, "Well I've had this idea for one, maybe I'll just write it and see what happens." This friend and I are in a writing/creativity group together that has its second monthly meeting next week, so I thought - hey, why not write it for that, but also for my blog. It will be flash fiction, just a few hundred words. I'll whip it up today, get it on the blog for the day's post, then tighten it up for the meeting.

Uh, wishful thinking. I'm a few hundred words in and nothing's really happened yet, it's all background (which I'm afraid I'll end up cutting in the end) so really I'm just getting to know the character, who is pretty intense.

SO. No short story for you today. Instead I have (drumroll please) chosen a quote for you! About writing short stories! (And making art!)
Stories expect us to be smarter than we are. We need to see what we could not see until, as we furiously squint and rewrite and squint and rewrite, we finally find our way to something that we had not seen before, and that is beautiful in the truest sense of stories - full, wise, satisfying.

And we are changed as well. Tired and exhilarated, we have been shown by our own words that the world is different from what we thought, and that our first thoughts - which had seemed so fine! - were only the beginning of a long road. It is an exceptional lesson that every story proffers. It is the business of art, always.
                                                                              -Erin McGraw, contributed to A Syllable of Water

Happy Saturday, friends.

Friday, May 2, 2014

a spiritual lesson from my $4 cups of coffee

The new coffee shops that I like (and am slightly ashamed to like) are in LA’s up-and-coming Arts Districts, that strange little industrial area tucked behind Little Tokyo, east of downtown. Like most things hipster, the Arts District likes to be gritty yet new, hidden only to be found out. Sometimes when I need an afternoon pick me up, I go to the hipster places, because let’s face it, the hipsters know about a few things, including coffee. There, bearded men and women wearing messy buns right on top of their heads and bright red lipstick are waiting to charge me $4 for a cup of coffee, and I readily give it to them.

But this isn’t about coffee, it’s about how I get there. I have to drive, since it’s a little over a mile from my office. First I pass through the Financial District, with its tall buildings and fast-moving business people and lawyers. Then, briefly, the Jewelry District where bright signs sell bright wares. Then a sign for Gallery Row, an area where art galleries, artisan restaurants and lofts are giving old theater buildings their second chance at a spotlight. Things change fast, within a block or two. And here is where it changes most — only a block after Gallery Row there is trash littering streets, and makeshift housing, made of boxes and shopping carts and tents, dots the sidewalks just a few hundred feet from the luxury housing that young people are moving into. This is Skid Row, a city unto itself, its own culture and rules and geography. 

This drive to get coffee, this weekly passing through, is a large part of the reason I’m running with my new running group in Skid Row. Over the past year or two, every time I drive by, I’m reminded of a parable from the Bible about a rich man who ate good food and wore nice things. Right outside of where he lived, there was a poor, hungry man with sores all over his body. Later, after they both died, their situations seem to have flipped: the rich man is tormented while the poor man is beside Abraham, the Father of Israel (the implication is that the poor man has it pretty good if he’s next to Abraham). In his agony, the rich man calls out for mercy, but Abraham tells him that he’s already had his good things, and now there is a chasm between the rich and the poor in the afterlife, one that can’t be crossed. Their lots are fixed. 

Intense, I know. Like all of God’s Word, this story has layers to unpack. But one main point I think Jesus is getting at in sharing this parable is that right now, during this life, there isn’t an impossible chasm. Rich people can give to poor people, and vice versa. The story also says something about how and when we choose to seek comfort. It has a lot to say about our hearts. I'm still buying that hipster coffee on occasion, but I hope I'm also seeing things a little more clearly as I reflect on this passage, run with guys from URM and cross boundaries that aren't really there.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

the month of may: a way to make my life available

One of the arguments we often use for not writing is this:   "I have nothing original to say.  Whatever I might say, someone else has already said it, and better than I will ever be able to."  This, however, is not a good argument for not writing.  Each human person is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived.  Furthermore, what we have lived, we have lived not just for ourselves but for others as well.  Writing can be a very creative and invigorating way to make our lives available to ourselves and to others.
We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told.  We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will want to live them.
                                                                                                             -Henri Nouwen

This is definitely one of my excuses. Other ones include the lure of recent episodes of The Mindy Project and About a Boy, the felt need to read more so that I have more interesting things to say and more writing tricks to use, and my lurking fear of being alone the rest of my life. And so I watch, read, text, shop online and make popcorn.

Notice the tendency to turn inward. All of these excuses/complaints are about me, my lack or need or desire. But Nouwen turns our attention off of ourselves and suggests that when we understand that our writing is for others - a way to make ourselves available to others (and this, I would argue, involves a laying down of those desperate needs, those pressing desires) - the new purpose can drive our creativity.

I've decided to practice this new way of seeing writing for the month of May, and am hoping to post something every day (lucky you!). Hope you'll read along and comment (i.e. make your story, your thoughts available to us) if you find that the writing may have been, in part, for you.