Monday, December 28, 2015

how much love is involved

last minute gift-labeling with Natalie

"The surprising thing about second grade is how much love is involved."

Natalie said this to me while we walked home from school the day before her Christmas break started. Her backpack was strapped to her shoulders, her winter coat left unzipped in the warm winter air. I had braided her hair the night before, and now strands had strayed to frame her face messily. Beside us, Natalie's mom - my sister - and brother Andrew carried on their own conversation. I had been teasing Natalie about Jamal, her neighbor who I thought was cute and with whom I knew she played often. She replied earnestly with this observation about girls and boys showing affection to each other, then began listing names of classmates she knew liked others: Brandon likes Sophie, Brian likes Lauren. And on and on.

Natalie seemed exasperated by the intrusion of love into her already fairly complicated seven-year-old life. She also seemed a little bit curious. She laughed when I told her about a boy I thought was cute, and agreed with her brother that I should definitely not get married. (Although later, Andrew rolled his eyes while suggesting maybe I should get married because I'm too boy crazy. According to him.) For Natalie, there is so much more than romantic love in second grade. There is reading to be done and dances to make up and friendships to foster and games to play and win.

A few days later, Natalie stood proudly in the middle of my parent's den, the rest of my family sitting in a haphazard circle around her. The Christmas tree sparkled with lights and kept watch over piles of gifts to be opened. At Natalie's side was a small bag with gifts she had prepared for each of her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. She handed them out one by one and watched with a big smile on her face as we all opened the gifts she had made or picked out for us. She was the only grandchild to choose gifts for us, and told each person that she had made that in art class or picked that out or paid her own money for that. There was so much love and thoughtfulness in that small silly heart of hers.

Indeed, so much love involved, I thought.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

dawn breaking in

By the tender mercy of our God,
     the dawn from on high will break upon us, 
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, 
     to guide our feet into the way of peace. 
- Luke 1:78-79

Celebrating all the many ways dawn is growing brighter, and the merciful God who makes it so. Merry Christmas, friends.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Top Ten Things of 2015

It's that time of year when all the Best Of lists are coming out. It has me feeling simultaneously feverish to fit in all the good stuff that 2105 has to offer (only 16 days left!) and quietly reflective, judging the good, bad and in between, wondering if  I've valued it all right. 

In any case, I decided to make a little list of my own. Here it is, with a plain title and in no specific order: Top Ten Things of 2015.

1. City - Minneapolis

I almost didn't go to Minneapolis because - why would I? That was my thinking. I don't remember now what changed my mind about going to the writing conference there. My first day was rainy, cold and without anything interesting to see or eat. But then I got into the little neighborhood where I stayed in a hostel, and all the sudden I could see myself living there. It felt understated, and like there was a lot of personality if you stuck around and dug for it. I can respect that - I'm the same way.

2. PodcastBullseye

I tell everyone I think might be remotely interested about this one. There are many things to love about it: the is host insightful and personable (he seems so comfortable with his guests!) and he curates an eclectic line up of interviewees that revolves mostly around comedy, hip hop and diversity. My favorites were Keegan-Michael Key (of course), the episode shared by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Allison Jones, and Jemaine Clement.

3. Coffee Shop - Found Coffee

Sometime around Easter, I made my first trip to Found Coffee in Eagle Rock. It became my spot for cappuccino, for writing, for journaling. The coffee is great. The vibe is just a little trendy but mostly relaxed. The late afternoon light through the front windows hints at something hopeful. And the music is usually M.I.A. and Lauryn Hill, which gives me a buzz as much as the caffeine.

4. Books - All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Teows; Brother I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat; On Immunity by Eula Biss

All three of these books, I devoured. All of them left me wanting more. All of them made me want to write better. Read them.

5. Songs - All You Had to Do Was Stay by Taylor Swift; Leave a Trace by CHVRCHES; Till the End by Waterdeep

Taylor Swift's 1989 rocked my world not because it is great pop music, but because I finally had to admit that I'm a Swiftie (is that what they're called?). It came out in 2014, but this year I had All You Had to Do Was Stay on repeat, especially in the car or when I was in the mood for a solo dance party.

I also discovered CHVRCHES this year (I know, where have I been?) and loved Leave a Trace.

And Waterdeep came out with a double album. Till the End is so beautiful and funky and true.

6. Movies - Far From the Madding Crowd; Selma; Room

For some reason, no one movie jumped out in my memory. I really loved Far From the Madding Crowd, but what woman wouldn't love the idea of being pursued by three men and ending up with (spoiler alert) Gabriel Oak. Though I have to say that if she'd had more sense she could have married him to being with and saved herself a whole lot of trouble. But then there'd be no movie (or book), right?

Selma and Room both stick out in my memory for the writing. I watched Selma on the flight home from Kenya, which seemed to add an extra layer of intensity to it. I remember being so moved by the scenes where MLK speaks publicly, and so passionately. A week or two later, I saw a friend-of-a-friend film critic at a party and we talked about the film. He told me then that those speeches weren't actually MLK's original words - those speeches are copyrighted by the family. Instead, the director (who isn't credited as a writer - that's another story, apparently) wrote the speeches inspired by his originals. Wow. Incredible writing. And in a completely different way, Room took my breath away. Go see it.

7. Bookstore - Letters Bookshop

When I visited my sister in Durham, she suggested some used bookstores. Yes, please. On Saturday, we drove downtown with the kids, stopped for a coffee, and walked over to Letters Bookshop. Most used bookstores stack books in piles beside the crammed bookshelves. There's a certain charm to that. But this store was different. Books are displayed intentionally, and only ones likely to sell (interesting titles, good condition) are bought to then be sold. And, I have a secret: I also had a little crush on the owner. I overheard him talk to a few customers about books and authors and I totally fell for him. A day later, I called to have another book put on hold and had my sister drive me back downtown. I was too shy to start a conversation, but I did try to smile real nice for him.

8. App - Moon

I love the moon, and bought an app to understand more about its phases. When I got this notification from my moon app, my coworker informed me this is usually this opening line for booty calls. Apparently the moon was loving me back, or something like that. But I don't think that's what the moon is after. He just doesn't want to be a reflection of a thing all the time.

9. TV Show - Master of None

Aziz Ansari will always be a favorite of mine. I binged on all ten episodes of his new show in one weekend (which isn't hard to do if you have three hours to kill while you're babysitting your goddaughter after she goes to sleep...). Everyone is talking about the episode called Parents, which was charming. But my favorite was Indians on TV, partly because I have a crush on Ravi Patel.

10. Day -

I could tell you about the day I spent in a cabin in Ojai, The rain came after a morning hike. I started a fire in the woodburning stove and spent the day praying. Or, there was our last day in Nairobi, when we finished all our clinics. The next day we would leave for safari. Our team went to dinner at our hotel together, where another group had hired a dj. Veena and I took on the empty dance floor and soon our team joined us, along with a soccer team from Zanzibar. There was also the day spent at a coffee shop with my friend visiting from Hawaii, both of us doing our work and taking a break every once in a while to laugh about something together (probably she had a verbal hashtag for something). Her companionship that weekend was just what I needed. There are other days, too, that I could tell you about, but I have a feeling that there wasn't just one day of the year, and that it probably couldn't be identified by things I think make it great. The best day might have only held a seed of something new, and I'll only know the full measure of it in years to come. And really, I wouldn't have wanted this year to have only one of those days, I wanted all of them - the ones I cried too many times to count, the days I questioned myself, the days I felt abandoned or useless. They all count.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

dreaming of books, and the time to read them

This fall, I nearly applied to a grad school program that would have me writing and reading all the time. My dream was to quit my job and hole up somewhere (really dreaming, I thought maybe the woods of North Carolina or along a river in Pittsburgh or in a small village in Kenya) with just books and my computer. I didn't want to be a hermit, per se, but I just wanted to have more time to read, think, write, explore.

That is not happening, and for good reasons. Life is about other things, for now at least. But there is a little violin playing soft, sad songs in my heart during this season when all the 'best of" book lists are being released. I want all of them.

Dreams are still fun, even when the firm edges of reality don't line up with them. This best book list from NPR not only gives you titles of great books, it also helps you pick out the rights ones for you. And this list from Buzzfeed shows the best book covers (and some of the best titles, too, I think). I would also direct you to the bookstore - my photo is taken here - where you can get even more crazy with your book dreaming. Just give someone your credit card before you go in.

PS A trusted friend's list and more recs in the comments. Love it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

the story behind the stories

"You ask me questions I like to answer."
              - Kurt Vonnegut to wife Jane

Loved reading this little love-story-behind-the-stories about Kurt Vonnegut and his wife. Writers' lives are pretty fascinating to me, knowing they're what feeds the books we read. I like how we get to see Jane in this recount, if only as a shadow. (We can conclude that, in reality, she was so much more.)

(And that quote - yes.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

in the shadows of evening

My empty apartment stays quiet until I come home. When I arrive, it speaks in hushed tones of lit candles, running water, whirring ceiling fans, as if speaking quietly of something shameful. When I change out of my work clothes, the late afternoon light is already fading across my bedspread, leaving the rest of the room in shadows.

*            *            * 

There is a potted cactus that sits on the windowsill in my kitchen. In the quiet daytime hours, when I am at work or running weekend errands or trying to make my life exciting and full, the sun shines on the cactus, marking time by the shadows it creates. I water the plant occasionally, when I remember. Mostly, the cactus feeds on sun and time. Its growth is slow, nearly hidden. Some plants sprout over night. Flowers practically bud before your eyes. Bamboo shoots up so fast its reach upwards is audible, a pained and hope-filled creaking. Just the other day, after more than twelve months on my sill, I noticed that this cactus has a few new buds. It is stretching itself. I am proud of my silent cactus, the way it's stayed and grown despite so little attention from me.

*            *            *

When I arrive home, my heart rumbles and stirs in my chest. I carry around small stories that made up my day (the funny thing he did, that meeting that went well, that bold idea I shared, the way they took me seriously this time). Too little, it seems, to warrant a call to a friend, but too big to keep all to myself. Who will see in all these stories that small shoot in me that sprouted, that wasn't there just last week? Who will sit with me in the shadows of evening, candles lit against the dark, their whispers only of hope, of the thing that comes after night?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

running new orleans

One of my favorite ways to see new city is to run it. Running takes you further than walking does. The terrain gives you a feel for the city - how dirty or broken the sidewalks are, the hills or lack of them, the kinds of trees and flowers that grow there. I'm usually doing it when the sun's still rising, which means that streets aren't too crowded - and, just like with people, watching it wake up can tell you a lot about a place.

I got two morning runs in during a quick trip to New Orleans this week. New Orleans is a complex town, both rick in its celebration - food, partying, colors - and disturbing in its desperation - age, disrepair, neglect. I took some photos during my running tours, below. There's a lot that these photos don't capture - the French street names and how they were marked in tile letters on street corners; the strip clubs next to the coffee shops and breakfast joints; the faces of tired men walking to the bus stop for work; the blankets covering people who had slept on streets. But I think they show some of its beauty, some bestowed and other hard-won.

The first day, I found a bit of a path along the Mississippi, then ran through the French Quarter and a sketchy neighborhood, then back to Canal Street, a main thoroughfare (where I had plotted a coffee stop at the end of my run). The second day, I wanted to make it over to the Garden District. On my way, I found myself on Magazine Street (boutiques! cafes!) completely by accident, then saw a coffee shop I'd heard about. I might have had a donut and coffee in the middle of my run. It felt like the right thing to do in a place like New Orleans.

Day 1:

Morning, Mississppi!

Sky and water

French Quarter
Louis Armstrong Park
Day 2:
Sunrise over the Mississippi

Shops on Magazine Street
Lower Garden District (I think?)

Coffee stop!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

straighter legs and sustained postures of discomfort

My body doesn't do that. This is what I think when the instructor calls out my name after she says, "Legs straight!" One of mine is on the ground, the other I lift behind me, over and over. I am bent over, back parallel to the floor, arms holding the ballet bar.

My body feels like a bunch of leftover pieces slapped together. My knees ache, my hips are tight, my shoulders broad and arms gangly. My big eyes bulge out of my round face. I hide my long forehead with bangs. My legs, which are slightly different lengths, are always tight, so they never really straighten.

When I sit on the floor at the end of barre class and try to spread my legs to stretch, mine make a tight V while others stretch theirs into nearly a straight line. Others bend over and hug the floor. I hunch over to touch my toes. My hip sockets won't let my legs turn out any wider. I think someone used the wrong kind of glue when they put me together. My joints are stuck.

I wonder if this is something I can change. Can I make my hips more flexible? I google this with my niece and we practice poses named after animals: pigeon, frog, butterfly. All I can think is, I'm not an animal, and this doesn't feel good.

When the instructor comes around to help me with my legs, she pulls the lifted one so that my muscle contracts and my leg lengthens. Suddenly, it is even straighter. I think about how my body might slowly change if I can hold my leg this straight every time. I think about strength, I think about flexibility and bending and molding. I think about sustained postures of discomfort and how quickly I try to escape them. I think about being content with my body, fearfully and wonderfully made, yada yada yada. I think about the process of being made, how it is past present and future, it is how straight I hold my leg, the discomfort I can bear. How being made is still happening.

Monday, October 26, 2015

even after all the evidence is gone

Some days, I think about giving up on writing. It wouldn't be that hard to do, I think. Instead of my writing group every other Monday, I will clean my apartment or start watching a tv show on Netflix. Or I will spend the time going through that top shelf on my bookcase where I keep all my writing books. Bird by Bird and The Writing Life and On Writing. And the poetry books that inspired me, the Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver. I will box them up and take them to Goodwill and display framed photos of my family in their place. Or I will go through the stacks of magazines on my coffee table. The Poets and Writers and the Creative Nonfictions and the tablets of handwritten practice, they will go into recycling. I will rip pages from my journal where I took notes on writing or scribbled ideas for essays. I will take the nametags from conferences hanging on the mirror in my bedroom and put them in the trash. I will go through the word documents on my computer and drag all those essays I've written into the recycle bin, along with pdfs of essays I've loved and saved in case I ever teach a course. I will go through my blog reader and take off all those writing blogs. I will unsubscribe from emails that encourage writing or invite me to writing conferences. I will unfriend all my writing friends on Facebook. I will learn to look disinterested when my coworkers and creative friends begin to talk to me about writing, and I will delete their emails that recommend links to essays and articles before even opening them. I will untrain my mind to wonder about word choice and sentence structure and idea development when I read books.

But then that one tiny thing will remain, the thing I don't know how to rid my life of, and I will wonder how a husband leaves the wife of his youth or how a mother releases her baby into the hands of another because isn't there still that softly beating rhythm in her heart that marks time, that pumps blood, that sustains life only because that other being is now a part of it? How do you forget that internal pressure that made you desire and hope and live for the other? Even after all the evidence is gone, something inside still remembers.

Monday, October 5, 2015

when time is full

Jumping in and out of a person's life - as in, living a country away and seeing them face to face, skin to skin every six or nine or twelve months - has a way of creating snapshots without showing much of what happens in between. My niece and nephew grow up in a fragmented way before me, then they were toddlers and now all of a sudden (or so it seems) they are bigger little people - or is it little bigger people?  They are saying interesting things and cultivating interests I could not have guessed. How did they learn that, I wonder. Where did that idea come from? It's like planting a seed and coming back to found that it has sprouted when you still expected it to be hibernating in the ground.

My nephew Tayte is nearly seven and all boy. On this visit, he has punched, hi-fived, kicked, head-butted and farted on me. Wrapped in a blanket before school this morning (ie being a green lobster of course), he was unaware as I scooped him up into my lap and declared him my baby (not a lobster!) and rocked him in my lap. But the lobster spread his claws and tried to pinch me and found his way to the floor. Tayte expresses himself bodily, dropping to the ground when he is frustrated or hungry or tired. Although he uses words, too, which he forms into expressions that make me stop and wonder how he ever thought of that. For example, yesterday, in response to something unexpected and funny he did, I said to him, "you're so random!" He replied, with a taunting tone, "You're so random. You came out of nowhere." How he became so existential and whip smart, I have no idea. Maybe it's all the Star Wars he's watching.

Amelia is my niece. She just turned nine. We have talked about dying our hair funky colors, the art of wearing skirts over leggings (always with shorts, too, she explained, in case you want to do cartwheels), and she's impressed by my shoe collection. When she told me about some of her life goals, she explained it's between being an Olympic gymnast or America Ninja Warrior. Then, after thinking a minute, she realized she could do both, and I agreed. I tried to get information about her love life as she pointed to her friends in her school yearbook, but she just blushed and turned the page. (I was satisfied.) On my second night here, we moved my blow-up mattress from the play room to her room. She dragged her pillow and propped it against the wall next to mine, and together we read until we were sleepy. The next night, she told me it was time to read together again. Now I am wondering, can I be best friends with my niece?

These glimpses of who they are and are becoming always makes me a little sad about missing all the in between. I want to see how those ideas formed, how those desires got planted. Yet, there's something important about the distance and moving time that helps me to see the changes more distinctly. Time can feel like a thief that steals moments when we aren't looking, but maybe all those moments weren't mine to have in the first place. It was in those moments we had apart - when time was full and ours for the taking - that we got these crazy ideas that we can share when we're together. Farting and reading before bedtime and all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

how to live with hunger, or what could have happened if i hadn't quit basketball

Because I am tall, people often ask me if I play basketball. Usually, I simply say yes. But I feel like a bit of an imposter when I answer that way. I know they are probably imagining me powering through the baseline with the ball in my hand, shoving my shoulder into the chest of a defender who's planted herself to get the foul. Then I fake and pass to a teammate, or take the hook shot, or fall with the defender as the whistle blows to call my trespass. Or they see me jumping for rebound after rebound, hungry for the ball. They are reading athleticism and aggressiveness into my profile. 

Here is the truth: I tried out for the team in seventh grade without ever having played a game of basketball in my life. The closest I got was probably shooting a round of Horse in our front driveway with my best friend or older sister. During those early practices, I felt clumsy during the drills. It took me time to get the hang of dribbling the ball in a figure eight around my spread squatting legs and the coordination of a two-step lay up (lift off the inside leg, pull the outside leg up). 

I made the team, which I guess I wasn't too surprised about. My coach may have seen some promise in my game, but I'm sure he wanted me on the team for my height. I was already close to my full 5'11" in seventh grade.

But here's the thing - I never quite felt like I belonged on the court. I can't jump high, I'm not that aggressive, I usually choked and passed the ball instead of being eager to take the shot myself. At game time, I was uncomfortable holding the ball in my hands. 

I played for a few years, had some fun and convinced my mom to buy me some really hot black nike high top sneakers (they were so cool). But after tenth grade, I quit.

Since then, I've played intramural games in college with a stacked team of really tall friends and a few co-ed pick up games. I'm still not that great, but I love the pace of the game and the slap of the ball on the ground and the arc it makes headed for the net. I've wondered many times what might have happened if I'd kept playing. Would I have found my groove? Would I have gained confidence? Would I have learned how to live with hunger, how to allow it to move me forward and jump high and act like the ball really should belong in my hands?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

one of my favorite poets gets long-listed, and crying during poetry readings

The week-long announcements of the National Book Award long lists was created for book nerds like me. (And yes, I realize 90 percent of my readers just stopped paying attention with that opening sentence.) Each morning, I've eagerly scrolled my feedly feed for a blog entry to show me a new list of stand outs. Monday was young adult literature, which I don’t really follow. But Tuesday was poetry, which promised some new-to-me writers to check out. And at the very top of the list beamed one of my favorite (if one of the only ones I read) poetry books this year. I might have fist pumped while yelling the author’s name. I was at home when this happened, just so you know.

You see, I’ve actually been wanting to tell you, to tell everyone really, about this writer. Meet Ross Gay. I first encountered his writing through an essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy. It was waiting unassumedly in a magazine I’d subscribed to, and in an evening of disciplined reading I opened the magazine and didn’t expect much. Then, I started reading and was startled and also drawn in by his tone, which seemed to communicate an incredible amount of grace — for the police who profile him as a criminal for the color of his skin, for his country that has allowed this behavior to remain the norm, for himself and the wild range of emotions he felt in response. And then the ending. The ending is what got me because he starts talking about his early attempts at bee farming, which at first seems an odd way to reflect on the intense personal experiences he shares. But then you catch onto the emotions he’s describing in his encounter with these bees is so closely reflective of how he responds to the world around him. I can’t do it justice, you just have to read him.

The emotional power and fresh use of imagery in including that scene should have told me this guy was a poet at heart. And he is. But I didn’t really get into his poetry until just a few months ago. The writer’s name had tucked itself into the back of my mind because I kept that wonderful essay as an example of the kind of writing I’d like to emulate. Then, at a writer’s conference, his name jumped out to me when I skimmed the program for seminars to attend. He was doing a reading from his new book. I earmarked the page and put it on my schedule.

The reading included five poets. The first read her over-serious poetry in an over-serious tone that nearly lulled me to sleep. But Ross sat at the end of the table, his long legs splayed before him, his grown out hair tucked into two small buns like martian, his impossibly wide grin spreading the length of his deep jaw. His graciousness was written all over him. I listened as the other four poets read. And then Ross stood up and the energy of the room changed. He smiled and bounced slightly. He set his timer for his 15 minute time slot, and explained he would read one poem from his book, the title poem: Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. And off he went.

This wasn’t a reading, it was a performance, a full embodiment of the feeling he meant to convey, which was a joyful thanksgiving for things that most consider quite simple, but in which he recognizes a deeper gift. It was for the words he spoke, and also how intimately and fully he felt them, that I started to cry right there in the brightly lit convention center room. I was a bit embarrassed at first. I feel deeply, but usually not publicly. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and overconsumption of sugar, I reasoned. But then I realized that this is what poetry is: an invitation to live fully and be thankful for all you receive.

I wish you could have been there with me, but second best is watching a different reading of the same poem for yourself. Go here. Minute 23 is the good stuff. (Well, it's all good stuff, but you know what I mean.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

how much i still have to learn

Near the end of our stay in Endoynolasho, I asked one of our translators how to say the word "beautiful" in Maasai. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it earlier, when over and over I'd searched for some way to communicate with the mothers and babies who had come to our clinics. If I had learned the Maasai word for beautiful earlier in our stay, I’d have used it many times more. It would have been circling in my head when I sat in a room full of thirteen and fourteen year old girls from the school in Endoynolasho. This was earlier in our stay, after a full morning clinic and then a round of health trainings with students and teachers. The women on our team – four of us – had decided to extend our training with one more session just for the girls. We would give them the chance to share their experiences of being girls in this community, and a chance to ask us questions. We would share our wisdom.

We gathered the girls in one of the rooms of the small clinic. The girls sat on the patient exam tables and in chairs pulled into the room. A few put an arm up on the shoulder of a girl next to her. Each wore her blue-gingham school uniform and had hair cut close to her head. The girls were shy, and, unprepared, the four of us stumbled with our questions, which were likely culturally skewed to our American understanding (or misunderstanding) of what being a girl in rural Kenya might be like. Still, we wanted to make up for an obvious lack of female leadership at their school and in their community. All their teachers are male. The government will not post a female teacher in this remote area for safety reasons. And while the local community also sponsors a few young teachers at the school - young people who had come from and still live in that same community - no female in Endoynolasho had ever continued schooling past class eight. That means no woman in the area has an education past fourteen years of age.

Eventually, a brave girl broke their silence and our awkwardness by telling us, “We need sanitary napkins.” A few more girls joined in. We pieced together the story: the school provides every girl with a package of eight pads each month. But none of the girls had received a package since the beginning of May. Now, it was nearly August. We didn't ask them what they did without the pads. I’m not sure that any of us had expected to hear such practical concerns. I nodded slowly as one of the other women promised to work with the local NGO we partnered with, who would be able to provide the girls with a regular supply of sanitary napkins.

Here is what I might have been expecting to hear from these girls: boys try to have sex with me against my will. I am worried my father will marry me off young. I want to keep going to school even though my family tells me I should marry or stay home. None of these are concerns I have had to address in my own life, and yet we – the four of us women, all of us now middle-class Americans who were either born in this country or to immigrant families who successfully settled here with reasonable ease – we all assumed these worries were tantamount to anything else in these girls' lives. Instead, the girls expressed needs that are practical, bodily, universal among women: I need something to absorb my monthly bleeding. Now, I am pricked by my ignorance and wonder at their faith in us.

After we had talked a little while longer, all of us stood on the porch of the small clinic to have our photo taken together. Now, when I look at that photo, I think of how much I still have to learn. When the translator had tried to teach me the Maasai word for beautiful, I'd botched it. A few hours later, I realized I'd been saying the wrong syllables and sounds. Unfamiliar with having the language in my own mouth, I thought I heard letters that weren't there, and made it one word when really it is two. Later, one of these young girls wrote down the words for me. And when I look at the photo, I always think of the Maasai words for beautiful: ira sidai.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

write for joy

On our flight home from Kenya last year, I found myself seated next to a tall, handsome German man, whom I eventually found the courage to talk to. On hearing I'd been in the country with a medical team, he perked up and asked with increased curiosity, "Are you a doctor?"

I responded with pride, as I always do, "No, I'm a writer."

He seemed let down. The conversation lost its momentum. Eventually, we both put our headphones on and looked for a movie to watch.

I share that story first as an example of a time I've intimated conversation with a tall good looking stranger. But more, because I find not only pride but also identity in my pursuit of writing. Like most pursuits, it's more than a job; it's a vocation. It's how I make sense of the world, live out my desire and hopefully touch the lives of others. 

But I have days. Days when I'm not feeling it, when I am failing, when I hear feedback that convinces me I've chosen wrong. And it's on these days that I remember that writing doesn't define who I am. Whether I succeed to move people or make them laugh or think differently through something I've written isn't the thing that gives me value. If I write or if I don't write, I will still be who I am. I will still be loved.

Over the past few weeks, I've been noticing how much my mood depends on how successful or recognized I feel as a writer. I've been comparing myself to other writers and creatives and professionals to understand how I measure up, but this little game is dubious. This year in Kenya, on a team with some really gifted doctors, nurses, and a videographer, I got myself a little mixed up in this comparison game. The doctors and nurses were so skilled and helpful during clinics. I mean, they had a real, concrete, in-the-moment impact, and as a result, patients expressed their gratitude. Team members congratulated each other. And our videographer - he was shooting and uploading constantly, which meant there were photos to see and videos to watch, along with excited team members watching them. And I - had nothing except for a few ideas born in conversations with people, a few notes scribble down, and some dreams. Writing can feel slow, inefficient, unpractical, ineffective, laborious. In other words, don't go into writing if you're looking to feel good about yourself, kids.

I could tell you other stories from the past few weeks when I have felt like quitting and just living a small, normal life where I come home and watch tv on netflix after dinner every night. But then I come home and open my computer and try to find a few words to piece together, and I remember, I write because I love to do it.

So, my motto this week has been write for joy. Not for identity or value or proving my skill or impact in some grand way. Find the joy in it. And just keep writing.

(Tall, goodlooking German men on airplanes be damned!)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

just kinda hanging out

hanging out before church with the girl who wanted my sunglasses

During our 12 days in Kenya, we held only four clinic days - two in Nairobi and two in the rural area of Kajiado, what I lovingly (though maybe somewhat ignorantly?) refer to as the bush. What were we doing during all the hours in between? That's a question I'm still thinking about. Here are a few of the things we were doing: packing, planning, preparing, traveling, meeting, painting, cleaning, and celebrating (i.e. launching a bricks and mortar clinic).

The rest of the time, were just kinda hanging out. There was that Sunday in the bush, right in the middle of our time there, when we lingered over breakfast and then drove a short distance to have church under a tree. Some sat on the few backless benches staked into the ground, with woven reeds that served as seats. The rest of us sat on old plastic chairs that the kids had run to their homes to find and bring for their guests. We were the first to arrive for the service, along with our young preacher. While we waited for the handful of other church goers to arrive, we sat and played with the kids. One particularly bold girl took my sunglasses, which fell lopsided on her small face.

Soon the service started. There was singing and dancing and clapping, then testimonies and a short sermon. Afterward, we all walked to a nearby boma (a homestead where an extended family lives among a few small huts). The bold girl - who still wore my sunglasses - and another who had brought me a chair earlier grabbed either one of my hands. Children gathered around most of my other teammates, too, eager to connect with us in some way. After we visited at the boma, a whole group of us sat just outside by a tree where a baby goat had just been born. Some sat on rocks; I sat on a large tin can someone brought for me. The baby goat practiced using her legs and finding her mother's milk. We waited for our van to come to take us back to where we were staying, which it did about thirty minutes later.

That afternoon, we ate lunch together, a few talked about a hike. I took a short nap on a patient exam table, then journaled. Later, our team played uno and ate pringles we'd brought from home while we waited for dinner.

I could tell you about other times when we hung out: that time I stood by Nathan, a teacher, while he taught me to make ugali (a much loved Kenyan dish); that time a few of us joined the students for a game of soccer; that time I sat by the breakfast fire drinking my coffee while Tonny told me about his grandfather's travels around Africa as a freedom fighter. Being with our friends and partners in the bush was easy and delightful. They hosted us generously and welcomed us completely and forgave our ignorance (probably more than I even know). They helped us to be ones who didn't just hand out medication to people in their community, but grew to know it, even if just a bit, in the short time we were there.

That is what sticks out to me now. When I think about the ratio of medical-to-other time we spent in Kenya this year, it can feel like maybe we were inefficient. But what I know now is that hanging out was likely the most efficient use of that time. Hanging out with people in a place helps you to put roots down. It builds an affection that requires slow time and shared experience, a knowing that a task-only mentality skims over. I would argue that this hanging out time was the foundation of everything else we did. It helped us to see our patients as our friends, it helped us to ask deeper questions, and it gave us the compassion and joy to serve when we grew tired or weary. It is also what makes us want to keep going back.

So what did we do the rest of the time? We laughed and befriended and asked and understood. We grew in love.

Monday, August 10, 2015

holding pictures in my heart

Our second night in Kenya, I didn't sleep. I knew this might happen. In my experience, the first night after more than 24 hours of travel, exhaustion covers me like a lullaby and heavy blanket. Then the second night my body resists the cues of dark and night, insists on its own internal timekeeping.

I slept (or tried to) in a tent with the seven others on my team, pitched in the middle of nowhere, Kenya, near the Tanzanian border. We'd staked it in a clearing of dirt next to the new clinic my friend's nonprofit had helped to build, a small three-room building a few hundred yards from the teacher's quarters, and then the small four-room school a few hundred more yards off in the distance. The ground surrounding the clinic had been mostly cleared of rocks and stones surrounding the clinic, though some stubborn rocks remained. By the light of our headlamps, we carefully felt around for a space that was flat and clear so that our tent wouldn't get a hole, and we wouldn't get bruised during the night.

First, it was my bladder that kept me awake, though I had peed just before settling into the tent for the night. I woke my friend, and with headlamps and baby wipes in hand, we unzipped the tent door and stumbled just far enough from the tent to not disturb the others. Back in the tent, we tried to not trip over the strangling limbs and curled bodies of those still sleeping. I settled into my space in the corner and hoped I'd still get a few hours of sleep. But then the wind started whipping the side of the tent, and some strange alarm that only activates my imagination when I am overtired in the middle of the night told me that an animal might be making the tapping noises I knew I kept hearing. Just as I drifted off to sleep, another whip or tap woke me again and reminded me of my irrational fear. I started to give up on sleep.

I turned from my side to lie on my back. I looked up through the mesh ceiling of the tent and, without my glasses, saw what seemed to be bright blurry dots poking through the night sky. I found my glasses next to me and put them on. The sky was more full than I'd ever seen it before. It burst with stars. And I did what I had been doing for so much of the trip so far - I reached for my phone to take a photo. But the light of the stars was too far away for a camera phone, and the image came up all dark.

I put my phone down and just kept looking. My teammates snored and shifted in their sleeping bags. They all slept while I tried my hardest to imprint this view of the sky in my mind. How would I describe what it was like to wake up to this incredible sky to my friends at home without a photo to show them? And how would I remember it for myself?

The truth is that even our photos are too flat, too still to capture the truest things about being in Kenya. I worry that the same is true of my words. How do I say what what it's like to look out the van window and see the red red dirt, the green grass and fruit trees, the women selling bananas, the same huge sky that somehow, amazingly, seems to stretch even further here? How do I tell you what it feels like to be welcomed so warmly by people who are so different, who laugh when we say their words and give us goats when we care for their children and mothers and sisters? How do I make you understand how full a heart feels, and yet how it wants to hold so much more, after being in this place? I try to hold these pictures in my heart and describe them to you the best I can.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

what makes the food so good

Albert's goat and potato stew

At a party last night, I told an acquaintance about my travels to Kenya. Knowing some Kenyans here in California, this new friend related to me what he knows about Kenya culture: the generosity and friendship, and the differences in spirituality. And then he says to me, "And Kenyan food is really good."

I didn't respond right away because it surprised me what thoughts came to mind. They were mostly disagreements, something like, "well, it's not spicy enough for me," or, "we ate a lot of rice" or "what I really wanted was to find some good Indian food when we were in the country" (there is a lot of good Indian food there). I asked him to elaborate on what kinds of Kenyan food he's had and we talked a little more about it, then moved on to some other topic.

Now, it's not that I don't like Kenyan food. I eat when I'm there - a lot. There is this dish called mukimo that is a mash of potatoes and spinach and corn in one dish, which for me is a combination I would imagine might be in heaven. For vegetables, there is lots of sauteed cabbage and carrots, and also some really tasty sauteed greens. My favorite are chips (french fries), which are so much better than here in America, I'm guessing because their potatoes are different and the oil they use is probably tastier, though possibly not that great for me. Still, I indulge freely. And then of course there's nyama choma, or roasted meat, most often goat in the places where we stay. It's especially good with ugali, which is a bland corn dish (similar to polenta, but less rich) because it's the perfect simple, starchy food to eat along with the fatty goat.

And this brings me to my point, because I've eaten nyama choma in a restaurant in Nairobi, and then I've eaten it around a fire pit where it was roasted by generous friends hosting us and hands down it is tastier around the fire pit. That's the whole point for me - it's about the food but it's also about the people preparing it for us and enjoying it with us. Albert is our cook (among many other roles he plays) when we stay out in the bush. There, the accommodations are a lot like camping. We pitch a tent, and bring bottled water from the city (there is no running water), and meals are cooked over a fire. The sun sets each evening around 7pm, leaving us to eat in the dark with the fire and headlights from our van as our light. Dinner in the cool, dark evening around a fire is our time to shrug off our long, full, hot days. We tell stories and laugh. Or, sometimes I find a quite space to myself and watch the fire as Albert cooks. The fire crackles and Albert moves quickly between pots and a bucket of water, and every once in a while we catch the smell of our food cooking.

We know dinner is close when someone comes around with a pitcher of water and a shallow bucket holding a bar of soap. One by one, we rub the soap between our hands as our host pours water and the dirt from the day washes away. Then come the bowls and spoons and the invitation to scoop rice and whatever it is that we're eating: lentils, cabbage, meat stew.

Albert is hesitant to give us his recipes, and maybe it's because he knows. He is clued into the fact that, though his food is very good, what makes it special is less about the ingredients he puts into it and more about the way that sharing a meal with people you love, in a place you love, is, when you get down to it, what makes that food so darn good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

traveling home through ten time zones

I am back from my second trip to Kenya. In the past twenty-four hours, I have done mostly basic things: sleep, laundry, mail sorting, unpacking, a to-do list, a few groceries to eat. I have also texted my teammates, sat and stared out a window, cried, and made lots of coffee.

As I walk around in a haze of jet lag and memories, I keep thinking about all of the ways that the physical adjustment of returning from a big trip mirrors what happens internally. The travel required to get home from being half way around the world - moving through ten time zones with two long flights, a layover, drives to and from the airport, not to mention checking bags and going through security and customs and... - all of this can feel cumbersome and disorienting, but I'm glad for it. With the long travel and accompanying jet lag, I remember that I have just lived in a space a world away from my every day life, and that to incorporate everything I saw and felt and desired will take time and intention. It is unpacking and putting all my things back in their places, it is telling my body to stay awake when I'd rather be sleeping, it is allowing myself a day off before returning to work. It is sharing photos of my trip and digging up words to accompany them. It is letting the stories start to take shape so that they can be shared. And it is knowing that what has just taken place these last two weeks isn't only in the past, it is also something I now carry with me, a precious souvenir that beckons the people I laughed and cried and prayed and walked with to be with me always.

Monday, July 13, 2015

a steady gaze

Sometimes I settle in a pew in the back of the sanctuary. The musicians start playing on the stage up front, and families and couples and friends walk down the aisles and file into rows. I watch them from my spot in the back, friends greeting each other with hugs and parents settling their children next to them. The littlest of the children stay in their parents' arms or stand up on the seats and face the back. I know these children from those times I talk to their parents, the children shyly hugging their moms' legs or demanding their dads pick them up. I also know them from helping in the toddlers' class once a month. I give the kids wipes before serving them snacks in tiny paper cups and make revving engine sounds when we play cars together.

Ethan is one of these young children. He just turned three. He has many words, though most of them are slurred together. I have heard him say guacamole and tortilla, but the rest has been a guessing game. Except for when his mother leaves him in the toddlers' class to join the rest of the adults in the sanctuary - then I hear him clearly and loudly call for his mommy, whose neck he was tightly hugging just a few minutes ago when she brought him into the classroom. Most of us know that Ethan is one of the children who will be consoled by our picking him up and distracting him with a toy, so when I am in the class with him, this is what I do. Soon enough he's wriggling free of my arms and making pretend breakfast in the play kitchen in the corner.

Yesterday, from my spot in the back of sanctuary, I saw Ethan and his mom and dad and sister make their way down the aisle to the front where most of the kids and their families sit. Ethan was in his mothers arms, and when they turned into the pew, she deposited him in the seat next to her so that she could unload her bag and reach up to fix her hair. Ethan scooted himself around and put his hands on the back of the pew to pull himself up and look back. His eyes met my gaze and I smiled at him to signal I remembered him from our times in the toddlers class together. His mouth turned up in only the slightest smile. Then he ducked his head behind the back of the pew. One hand still gripped the top. And then, a few seconds later, Ethan slowly lifted his head again so that one sparkling eye met mine again. Though his mouth was hidden from me, I detected a smile. He was having a little bit of fun with me.

This makeshift game of hide and seek went on for a few more short rounds. Soon, Ethan moved on. He turned to his dad at his side and allowed himself to be lifted up so that he could rub his tiny hands against his father's bald head.

The music still played on stage as the rest of the church-goers faced the front, read lyrics from a screen, sang and clapped or swayed along. I listened, but was still thinking of Ethan and how he met my eyes with his over and over, his delight slowly growing at knowing that he'd see me there each time. This is worship, these childlike attempts to see God, as delightful as a laugh that grows in our bellies and spreads a smile across our faces. I wondered how often I peer over the edge of what's in front of me and expect to see Him holding a steady gaze, looking right back at me. I wondered at His joy in being the constant one, in waiting for us to lift our eyes to him again, and again, and again.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

coffee, rest, reading: my fuel

Life has felt especially full these days. This is because of really good things happening - promotion at work! some lofty, exciting goals on the writing front! good friends, fun travel, fulfilling ministry! And yet, on more days than I can count, I end the day wondering where the time went, when my laundry will get done, and who I forgot to call or text. My oil change reminder sticker shows a date and mileage that have both passed, and deadlines for some important things are coming fast. It feels counterintuitive to take time for things like rest, reflection, and doing nothing. And yet that storehouse needs to be filled. Time will start to feel thin if I don't take time to refuel.

So today is my day for coffee, for reading, for walking slowly. How are you resting this weekend?

Friday, June 12, 2015

get gripped

“I could either shut up, that’s the end, get on with dying. Or, get gripped, which is what happened.” 

-Jenny Diski, on the decision to keep writing after being diagnosed with terminal cancer

This quote really spoke to me this morning. Though Diski is speaking of death quite immediately, I'm thinking of it in more generally - like, isn't that one of two choices we face? The other, I think, is living with desire - or getting gripped, as Diski says it. Facing obstacles or impossibilities - that vast roiling sea on the shores of which we either die or find a way to the other side - forces the choice of allowing the end to come or finding the way forward. The problem with desire is that, often, it feels like it is bringing us to the end, too. Do you jump in the sea and swim? And even if the waters are parted for you to walk across on dry ground, the columns of water at your sides could crash in on you at any moment. But then there is what's on the other side that keeps calling to your heart, gripping you, and you keep walking.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

the echo that did not die away

Loving this:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. ... All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it - tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest - if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself - you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeads, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all. 
...Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you... Your place in heaven will seem made for you and you alone, because you were made for it - made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

-C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

i would miss this all so much

A few months ago, I traveled to Minneapolis for a writing conference. This wasn't so much a destination as a stop on my way to somewhere else, namely, becoming a better writer. The day I landed, April was acting more like February, keeping the sun hidden with a think layer of clouds and blowing cold wind to stir up the leaves and trash along the sidewalks. From the airport I took the light rail downtown, and dug my winter coat out of my suitcase to put over top my denim jacket while I waited for it to come. After the light rail, I crossed the street and took the bus a few miles to my hostel. Bare tree branches hadn't yet sprouted their new leaves, and the hostel had an old, creepy feeling (made even more so by the quirky characters who worked there). I looked at my room and one of my first thoughts was, I hope there are no mice in here.

The first day, it rained so hard that my boots and pants were soaked through by the time I walked the mile to the convention center from my hostel, and my coffee had turned cold and stale along the way. Later that day, it snowed. There wasn't much good food to eat or anything interesting to see, and though I liked my conference, I was eager to leave Minneapolis behind.

The next morning, I went for a run. Running a city forges a special relationship between you and it - you feel its roads, see more of it up close, get some of its wind in your hair. I stood by the Mississippi and took photos of the sky and bridge. Later that day, the sun came out. After the conference was over for the day, I walked in the sun's warming glow with some new books in my hand and full of new words and ideas. After dinner, I went to a coffee shop. And I think that's when it happened that I fell in love with Minneapolis.

It was familiar, in its brick and gritty city and white and black and trees and sky. And it was decidedly not Los Angeles, the city which has been my home for nearly 11 years but against which I still like to rail, an adopted daughter who still stands on the edges of her new home. The coffee shops were open late, people weren't trying to make statements, there were old brick churches and skyways and so many things inside instead of out. I liked that it was new and that I didn't have to learn to love it in the long-term kind of way one has to settle into home.

I suppose I have a bit of a wandering heart. On the flight home, I considered what it would be like to move to Minneapolis and have coffee not just one Sunday but every Sunday at that coffee shop I visited and to run along the Mississippi and buy a heavier winter coat. This was still on my mind when I arrived at Union Station from the bus that drove me there from LAX, ready to catch the light rail to Pasadena. I rolled my suitcase behind me and looked up to the cloudless sky that seems so big here. The sun painted the sky pink as it left for the day, and jasmine flirted with the early evening air that was cool, not cold. And I remembered, this is why it's good to call LA my home. I would miss this all so much.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

books as friends, and a city that gives you space

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2015

touch of gold

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 7, 2015

on not quitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 1, 2015

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

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

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

But then it hit me. I am not young.

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

tell me who i am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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