Yogic Anxieties

A few years ago, my friend and I went down to Santa Fe for the weekend. My friend is a yoga enthusiast and I am a secretly reluctant participator, so while we were there, she found a yoga class for us which I (secretly reluctantly) agreed to. The studio was impressive, airy, bright, very Santa-Fe-like, with its own café and store selling yoga gear and made-to-order smoothies. The people working the counter seemed only marginally above me on the crunchy scale. I felt encouraged.

Our class was held in a room the size of a high school gymnasium, cavernous, tall ceilings, as wide as it was long, which was different than the squat, steamy, an-inch-from-your-neighbor classes I was used to. Everyone set up their mats in rows facing each other. After getting over that oddness, I was further encouraged to see that there was a nice mix of men and women, all seemingly peaceful and quiet, no loud talkers, just there to start their Saturdays off right. Then the teacher walked in.  She was tall, svelte, dressed in shades of gray, with triumphant tufts of hair sprouting from her armpits and pale skin that had never seen the sun and a turban on her head. I was accustomed to athletic, outdoorsy types in sports bras and Lycra pants and ponytails, but OK—to each their own.

We began the class seated and the teacher instructed us to blow air out of first one and then the other nostril, with the aid of thumb and forefinger. Thirty snot-nosed people dutifully began to make rude noises for at least five minutes. I couldn’t look at my friend; I was biting my lip so hard I was about to draw blood and filled with the anxiety that nervous laughter would simply burst out of me. After the nose-blowing agony, the class proceeded in a familiar way—at least I recognized most of the poses. But at one point the teacher called out serenely that if any woman in the class was menstruating, it was best not to do a particular move. I, in fact, was menstruating, and—slightly panicked about whether or not to heed her advice and what it would do to me if I didn’t—refrained from doing the pose. I was the only one. It felt like middle school again. Sixty minutes later when my patience had reached its limit and I no longer cared that there was a nice mix of peaceful men and women starting their Saturdays off right, we lay down in final savasana—ahh, the best part—while the instructor then began to bang on a giant gong at one end of the room. The ultimate pose of relaxation destroyed by my laughter barely contained for the second time in an hour and a dull ringing in my ears.

Bless the turbaned one, the gong, the clearing of the noses—but my God. I realized again that day, for the millionth time, that I am not a yogi.

I try. I like the yoga sculpt classes at our local yoga franchise which consist of poses, aerobics, and strength training in a heated room with hand weights and dance music pumping. Six-pound weights feel like 50. Sweat pours out of my body and mingles with the sweat from everyone else until there is a river on the floor. Afterwards I feel boiled, woozy, spent. I never actually feel better on the day I take yoga sculpt, probably because I’ve lost all my electrolytes, but at least I burned several hundred calories, I tell myself. And yet even yoga sculpt has its hidden pitfalls. During the last sculpt class we took, my boyfriend somehow got fluid in his inner ear and spent the rest of the weekend with horrible vertigo and nausea. My self-satisfaction at getting through such a difficult workout pales when my love is suffering. Is this yoga? Is this the suffering Buddha talked about?

Living in Denver, the epicenter of health and exercise, there is a yoga studio on every block. I see stay-at-home moms going in and out in the middle of the day, lots of young beautiful single people on the weekends eying each other in the mirror, and even a few old codgers who got hip to exercise later in life and became devoted practitioners—wrinkles, creaky joints, and all. People bike down the streets with their yoga mats on their backs. My mat is rolled up in the trunk of my car for that sudden I-need-to-take-a-yoga-class attack that I never seem to have. At any given moment, in any neighborhood in the city, at least half the people are wearing workout clothes, whether they’re on the way to the gym or not. I include myself in this. I don’t care how much the television makeover experts rant and condemn, there is a reason why we’re all wearing yoga pants and it has nothing to do with trying to look cute (although many of us do accidentally look cute in them). People I know went through a yoga teacher training at one point or another, and even if they’re not actively teaching yoga, they could be. They could have a sudden I-need-to-teach-a-yoga-class attack. Friends take up to seven classes a week—that’s once per day, or doubling up sometimes—and tell me they wouldn’t know how to get through life without it.

But I don’t get it. So all right, it’s a trend. It falls in line with the new push for mindfulness in this hyperstressed, obsessed-with-devices, close-to-dystopian society of ours. It’s meant to be both relaxing and invigorating at the same time, which delights us in its contradiction. It’s meditation lite, complete with inspiring thoughts and sincere connection. Aside from those who have actually studied it, we know almost zilch about what yoga really is (as in its origins and principles), but that’s OK because to most of us it’s just a term for a popular form of exercise that makes us all feel better about ourselves.

But what do I feel? If I’m being dead honest: boredom. Yoga classes with no music make me want to run out of the room screaming. Yoga classes with that gentle New Age stuff are only slightly less irritating (and I like New Age stuff). Yoga classes with 9,000 chaturanga push-ups make me mad. Breathing in and breathing out does not center me; it makes me hyperventilate. My body is accustomed to everything in a turned-out position (thanks to half a lifetime of ballet) and doesn’t want to be parallel and rages against parallel and starts a throbbing in my lower back that doesn’t let up when I have to do something in parallel. My upper body gets a decent workout (from all those damn push-ups), but my lower body takes a nap. I spend the whole class wondering when it will be over. And I’m pretty sure that defeats the point. Yoga sculpt aside (in which I feel like I’m truly getting a workout), I just can’t do it. I need to move. I need a rhythm. I need to dance, people. And if I’m going to meditate, I’m going to do it at home, on my couch.

These are my anxieties.

Which really cover up an underlying layer of anxieties that have to do with this:

“Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from their world, from their work, from themselves. They have been adopting new religions, joining self-help groups of all kinds. It is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination.” – Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States

And there you have it.

So yoga isn’t my thing. But it doesn’t matter because I know why I’m searching. I see the elephant.

And so, maybe, do you.

Books that Changed Everything

My friend who works for a library recently posted this question on social media: What was the book that changed your life? She included a link to an article with writers giving their answers and I skimmed through it, not recognizing most of the titles. But it got me thinking.

I’ve been reading since, well, the day I could read, and really even before that if you count all the hours I spent on the living room couch as a child with a picture book on my lap, making up the story because I couldn’t understand the actual words yet. So I’ve been ingesting information and fantasy and debate and romance and mystery and history and humor and dialogue for nearly all my life…and that’s a really tall order to sift through all those years and chapters and sentences and come up with an answer to this now seemingly trite question.

But as I said, it got me thinking.

Two answers came to mind immediately:

First, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a beautiful, poignant memoir I could say a lot about, but really because it introduced me to Dave Eggers, a man who would become one of my all-time favorite authors. If you’ve seen my Favorites page, I mention You Shall Know Our Velocity, but everything I’ve read by Dave has pricked my soul on some level. Why? Because he writes in this spare, crystalline way that I aspire to, for one. But for two, he writes the truth. Whether it’s the inane conversation between two friends trying to plan a trip, or the innermost thoughts of a young woman unable to think for herself, or a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro by an under-prepared man, he writes the truth. When someone is able to tap into what is true—even if you’ve never experienced for yourself the exact thing being written about—you know it without knowing how you know it. And whenever that happens, it’s like a seam opens up in the fabric of your life and you see into the secret place wherein all the world’s wisdom lies.

My second answer is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I have a story about this. A few years ago I was at a wedding with my boyfriend. We were going through a tumultuous time, lots of ups and downs and breakthroughs in our relationship, lots of vulnerabilities and hurts and doubts, and the bottom line was that I did not want to be at that wedding. I barely knew the couple getting married, I was deeply tired on an emotional level, and that night I was so on edge I could barely speak because I was afraid we’d get into an argument as we’d been doing a lot of back then. As we were making our way around the buffet table, my boyfriend got caught in a conversation with a woman holding a baby. A man, who turned out to be the woman’s husband, turned to me to introduce himself and made a few other polite inquiries by way of small talk. I must have told him I was a writer, because he told me he was a musician. And then he asked me if I’d read The War of Art. I said no, I’d never heard of it.

And you know when you have one of those moments where everything in the room just stops…the background noise disappears…everyone else fades into a blur…and the only thing you’re conscious of is your heart beating and the face of the person in front of you who’s about to change everything? This man whose name I don’t remember, who was a struggling musician as much as I was a struggling writer, who had met me as a stranger and would forget me as a stranger but somehow understood that the vocation I had embarked upon—much like his—was fraught with self-doubt and fear, told me he’d found enlightenment in this book and I believed him. I bought the book the next day and devoured it in one sitting. As with all my favorite books, I’ve read it several more times, and every time I am slapped upside the head and humbled and vow to recommit myself to my work. It’s a book that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It holds you accountable, in your life and your art. It asks how willing you are. It has nothing to do with bestseller lists or profit margins or six-figure deals, all the things we humans deem important.

(Note to readers: whenever you have one of those moments, pay attention. And for heaven’s sake, if it involves a book you need to read, go out and read it. Books are messages; the writing comes not from the author, but from the divine. Steven Pressfield will tell you all about it).

Many other books have left permanent impressions on me. I could try to talk about them all, but such self-indulgence might become a bore to you (and to me). So I’ll just leave you with these. And the original question. And your thoughts.

Gather Ye Roses

I don’t know who started it, who put the word out, how it spread.

One night there were ten. The next night, fifteen. It grew quickly from there. Twenty or thirty of them would gather in the commons area, and seconds before the start of the game, they’d file in. Black sweatshirts, black jackets, black jeans, black shoes. Black baseball caps if they had them. They sat together in the bleachers, spreading across the rows, like a swarm of something new and different on the roses.

When they came in, the hair stood up on our arms. We got that rollercoaster feeling in our stomachs. We were fidgety, our eyes on the crowd. Were they getting it? Were they feeling it, too? We wanted to sit next to them. We weren’t wearing black, but we wanted the proximity to its quiet roar. We encouraged them. Yes, do it again. Next week, and the week after. Keep doing it. The crowd sees. They’re all mesmerized, frozen.  Behold the thrill of solidarity, we thought. The fierce love. Only they—and by association we—are clever enough and brave enough to assemble and to love like this.

It happened all season. Maybe we won because of it. And then it just stopped, the way those things do. The initial high wears off. The original reason fades. The weather turns warmer. Any old reason.

I remember that feeling in the drum circle at college. The children of ancestors, there on our campus, beating the drum, calling out with voices as rich as the earth, and those of us who had joined them spontaneously moving in slow rhythm around them. Drawn in as if by a rushing tide. Wanting to touch them, to soak into our skin something of what they knew, to hear forever their sounds. People stopped to watch for awhile. Those in a hurry hurried less, eyes on us, wondering. Someone from the school paper snapped our picture. We were a part of it. The pictures would prove it forever, even after the rhythm of the moment seeped from our bones.

I feel it now, like a small earthquake in my gut, when I see protests, movements, crowds pressing forward, the impassioned faces of those who know something that I don’t. Yes, gather, do it again, I say inside my heart. I feel it when I see whirling dervishes. When the Man burns. When universal truth brings a hush to the room. When stories are recalled of the 1960s and all that was at stake. When there is an exchange of words between open minds. When reverence emanates from the click of polished boots at a diplomat’s funeral. When the wall fell. When the square erupted. When the park filled. When, despite everything, the women and men walked on. When the brave soul stood alone. When I turn off the television and go outside and look at the horizon. When all of this happens, whether someone is there to record it or not.

Small earthquakes, again and again, when people do what they can do, when they create in singular purpose, when that purpose doesn’t come from personal motivation, but in spite of it. When the thought floats in, light as a silk thread: “We made it all up.” Small earthquakes, because no one alive can take away the agency of another. No one alive can wrestle to the floor and snuff out the light. Or call the poet a criminal. Or shut down the inner mind. Or make one to follow when there is another path.

Distractions abound. Motivations shift. Reason eludes. Emotions roil. Games get played. Humanity is trapped, caught, faced with its own hypocrisy, with the fruits of its most fearful labor. Faced with repeating history. With giving the worst it has to offer. Shamed, stunned, angry, unable to understand its own compulsions. Time and again. Time and again.

And time and again, someone dons the black shirt and walks out the door and goes forward down the street, with love, to meet the others.

May we meet again in 2016…

An Abrupt Catapulting

When I published my first novel back in 2011, I had no idea what to expect. Would strangers actually buy my book? How much work would I need to do to market it? What would any of this amount to?

Here’s what I learned: when there’s a vacuum of expectation, the ego is more than happy to step in and fill it.

I’ll give you an example.

At the time my book was published, I worked for a big newswire company. And one of their enterprise-level service offerings (that’s a sticky mouthful of jargon) was to display—for a hefty price tag—an image of your product, your company logo, your coiffed C-level executive, whatever you wanted, on a four-story jumbotron in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square for literally millions of people to see. The end result: unbelievable publicity.

When some people at my company found out I had published a book, they offered this to me…for free. “Send us an image of the cover of your book and up it goes!”

I remember the words of one of my coworkers upon hearing the news: “You’re going to be famous!”  And with a tingle up my spine, I kinda, sorta believed him. I could see my company’s sales and marketing teams salivating over one of their own getting to be a guinea pig in the best kind of way, eventually becoming a case study, a success story they could hock, “an author who saw her sales triple overnight!”

In reality, there was a brief email exchange with a girl in New Jersey asking me for my .jpg, but it didn’t stop me from filling in all the fantastical details.

But wait, there’s more.

Also part of that enormous service offering was the ability to send out a press release about my newly published book to a media list of my own choosing. So, giddy with my impending transformation from unknown writer to bestselling author, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine in PR, thinking she could maybe give me the names of five or six people for a small fee. Instead, she unexpectedly and generously turned over her entire media list of publishing and entertainment reporters, editors, and publications to me—for no charge.

This wealth of free help, valued at thousands of dollars—way more than I could ever, as a single girl with an average-paying job, hope to afford—did something to me. These people were helping me and they didn’t have to. I was getting stuff handed to me when normally I’d be charged an arm and a leg. This had to mean something. It had to. This was certifiable success knocking at the door. The universe was conspiring with me. I was weepy with gratitude.

So I said yes, YES, to it all, and a few days later, there was my book…four stories tall in Times Square…with an accompanying press release whizzing over the wire to all relevant media points. I posted about it on my Facebook page. My publisher posted it on her Facebook page. My company gave me the thumbs up. Any minute now, fame and fortune! I waited by my phone. I waited by my email.

Except…there was nothing.

Silence.

Crickets.

Twenty-four hours later turned into two days, then a week, then two weeks, then three weeks.

And still nothing.

Not a single interview request from a reporter. Not a single inquiry from an editor. Not one mention from the millions of people out there whom I presumed had seen the cover of my book. Absolutely zero came out of that this-has-to-be-a-sign-from-the-universe event.

It was, as they say, an epic failure.

Especially for someone like me who had hoped to skip about a hundred steps and a few more years and hit the bulls-eye on my first try.

Without talking about it to anyone, I retreated into myself to sort out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert says so eloquently in her TED talk about failure, I got “lost in the hinterlands of my psyche.” And for a long time afterward I struggled to find my way out of it and back to my writing—this crazy, hare-brained, frustrating, humbling, soul-leveling thing I had embarked upon, told everyone I was doing, was arranging my life around, speaking openly about (which is always hard for me), and which, God help me, I so desperately wanted to make work.

To another of Liz’s points: like great success, great failure flings you far from your center and leaves you disoriented.

I’ve had to ask myself this question often since those days: do I love writing more than I love myself?

Many times the answer has been “I don’t know.” In fact, I would say most days it’s still “I don’t know.” And that’s because the sting of that failure lives on. The utter pompous naiveté with which I approached my novel being splashed across Times Square still lives alongside the excited little girl in me and the “what if?” hopefulness of my heart.

How do you tell that excited, hopeful little girl not to be hopeful or excited?

I’ve studied a lot of new age theories and esoteric wisdom and quantum physics and great googly-moogly. I’ve probably studied that stuff as much as I’ve spent hours writing. So I wanted to believe, with every Higgs boson particle giving material form to my cosmic self, that the gift of immeasurable publicity was a validating nod to my dreams and aspirations, and surely the very thing that was going to get me to the next level, whatever I conceived it to be.

So when it didn’t work, I took it to mean that I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Yeah, that’s a sad thud of a thought…

(Fast-forward through the Pit of Despair months).

Since then, I have a few more years under my belt. I’ve made it through a few more of those “hundred steps.” I’ve met some really significant people who made me look at my writing and my choices in a new way, and I’ve had a few small successes that mean more to me in their tiny, twinkling purity than that screaming, lit-up jumbotron ever could.

No matter what, a writer wants to be read. A writer wants an audience. We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t want others to read our work and appreciate it. An audience is our Higgs boson: it gives form to the deeply mysterious work of hauling a story out of the ether and onto the page. That’s why an audience—any audience—is all the more sweet because we know, deep down inside, that some of us will labor all our lives without ever getting one. And the vast majority of us sure as hell will never get Times Square. Not because it’s impossible. But because those of us who are truly serious about what we’re doing don’t get serious until our creations stand tall inside of us first, rather than outside of us.

I don’t envy the Times Square miracle for someone else because it may very well be a legitimate stop on his or her journey. In fact, I’d love it to be a stop on someone’s journey because it would give me renewed faith in astonishing occurrences.

It just wasn’t mine.

Mine was an abrupt catapulting into a hell of my own self-doubt.

Then a soft, kind, encouraging walk back to where I needed to be.

The way I see it, that failure may not have been a failure at all. A particle can be in two places at once. I just observed the silence after the hoopla and called it defeat. The other particle was alive and well the whole time, in another place, setting up the band and the confetti for the “You’ve Arrived” celebration. I don’t even need that celebration anymore. I’ll take peace in my heart and courage to go on any day.

Because the Times Square miracle pales in comparison to the miracle of simply getting up every morning and trying to do what you really want to do and trying to love it as hard as you can. If you don’t believe me, Liz has something to say about that, too—only she calls it magic.

It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed. – Ram Dass

Newswriting 101

I was a college sophomore when I took Newswriting 101.

Our professor—I’ll call him Mr. C—was old and pale and grizzled from years of working the beats as a newspaper reporter. He liked to wear khaki pants belted around his chest and red plaid shirts that matched the distressing spray of broken capillaries on his face. He spoke to us in a nasally voice so filled with irritation that it was often hard to understand what he was saying.

We found out soon enough. “You guys are idiots.” In fairness, we were.

The class worked like this:

He’d give us a make-believe event—a fire broke out in an apartment building around 8 p.m., two people injured, one cat missing (and a host of other facts)—and then we’d get 20 minutes to put together a news story following the holy dictates of the who, what, when, where, and why news pyramid. While we sweated and scribbled, erased and squirmed, he’d stand—hunched and troll-like—at the front of the room, leafing through The Denver Post, muttering his dissatisfaction. Then one by one, we’d go to the podium and present our work to him.

He had a big red Sharpie and would swipe it across the page, circling this, slashing through that, shaking his head. In his nasally voice, he’d admonish us. Why did you put the why before the what? Where is the where in the lede? How did you miss all the pertinent facts and only talk about the secondary ones? (All of this punctuated by a high-pitched laugh that told us our ineptitude was making him insane). And worst and most damnable of all, why did you use that word? Couldn’t you see that you were introducing bias?!?

So back to our desks we’d go to sweat and scribble some more, and this process would repeat itself until we had produced a competent story. None of us was spared the red Sharpie. All of us had to make at least two trips to the podium, and for many, three or four trips, before our work was accepted.

I got a B in that class. For an A student, it was the end of the world as I knew it. But since no one else got an A, I quickly got over the insult. I had to.

Because as it turns out, I didn’t know anything at all. None of us did. The simple fact was that Newswriting was hard, the hardest of all the core classes in my major, the hardest because teaching the basic principles upon which journalism was built is like teaching a toddler to walk. We staggered around drunkenly until we got the hang of it, which took weeks and sometimes even months, and even then we’d occasionally crash into a wall or stumble down the stairs. Funny how much we take the basics for granted. Funny how above it all we think we are.

I bet you’re guessing what I’m going to say next:

That crotchety, curmudgeonly Mr. C taught me everything I know and I owe all my successes to him.

The truth, of course, is a little less tidy. The truth is that he frustrated me. He didn’t want to be there, that was obvious. He hated teaching with every breath in his body. Teaching for him was nothing more than a way to make a living in his post-newspaper-reporter twilight years and the minute he got home every evening, he probably poured a tall whiskey and sniveled over some mangy cat in his lap and reminisced about the good ol’ days when he and his compadres cracked open that bank robbery story. His disdain for us—a bunch of know-it-all kids barely out of our teens, thinking we were going to save the world—was palpable.

But at the end of the long, weary day, no matter how little regard he had for us, he still tried to do his job right. Which meant teaching us how to be responsible journalists. Which meant imparting something sacred to us that he feared was going to be lost: the art of thorough reporting, free of emotional bias, with “just the facts.”

Here’s where I grudgingly tip my hat to Mr. C.

As far as I’m concerned, he was right: that sacredness is lost. And though he was one of my least favorite professors and I do not look back on his red Sharpie or his plaid shirts with fond memories, I do think about him on the rare occurrence when I skim a newspaper article or click through the nightly news.

Mr. C’s ideals of journalism are nearly impossible to find in practice anymore, though there are some people making a real and valiant effort. And of course this is not the first period in history when the rabid “reporting” of news with divisive effect as the goal has become the status quo, although the speed of rabid reporting happens faster than ever before as news organizations clamor to dish the details first, whether those details have actually been verified or not. It’s not the first time in history where editorializing is mistaken as reporting or even its intellectual cousin—investigative journalism—and is revered above all else. Everyone’s a pundit; everyone is a narcissist with an opinion that must be shared.

But it may be the first time in history when “bias” is no longer an alarm bell.

Ah, what the hell do I know, anyway? I’ve never earned a living as a reporter. I’ve never had to see what reporters are up against, or feel first-hand the sordid business of news. And it’s been a long time since I was in journalism school, so I don’t even know what they teach the kids anymore. For all I know, there are a hundred incarnations of Mr. C out there, trying to whip students into shape.

But despite teachers like him who held aloft the candles of Standards and Idealism, you can always count on the great fuel of human emotion to spin out the siren song of the news story and crash us all on the rocks. As long as there is something to be afraid of, outraged about, or titillated by, human beings will sell their souls to the media in the name of “wanting to stay informed”…and then in the very same breath call the media the devil.

On the other hand, a lot of people are smart enough to know what’s really going on. They know about the amygdala and Edward Bernays. They know what independence truly is.

I propose this:

If you want a good story, go write it yourself—not for the consumption of others, but for the betterment of your own understanding. Put yourself in the middle of the action, touch the wall, look into someone’s eyes, walk the street, swim the river, sit down with the tribe. Try not to use the word “victim” for one whole day. Try to understand what the color of the pond means, what the houses without roofs imply, what the solar panels are capturing. Mourn the loved one, listen to the stories, dance with the children, eat the food, drink and be merry. Go observe war if you have to, but don’t upset your family needlessly. While you’re at it, be curious, be moved, be angry—but not reactive. Be challenged, and then be open to changing your mind.

Your own experience is all you need. When you can derive from direct, personal experience, you’re less likely to be manipulated. You won’t need someone else to tell you what’s real or what isn’t, what’s important or not. You won’t hungrily consume approved information in all its many guises. You won’t be a consumer at all. You won’t let yourself be used.

I realize this all sounds lofty. It is. I have no plans to observe war myself; I don’t have the means to travel the globe for a year. But I think you get the point, which is that the stories out there are just stories until you live them yourself. This means something. It means perception is in the eye of the beholder. It means there are a lot more shades of gray than there are black and white. It means there are a lot more professionals earning a paycheck from your unchecked emotions and not your actual knowledge of events.

But we also know this: that rational humans don’t really exist, not in the way we’d like to believe. It’s why the earning of profit from our primary anxieties is too tempting. It’s why bias is ubiquitous. So we have to go out in the field. We have to start traveling. We have to do our own information-gathering and write our own stories, as much as we can.

Here’s one for the class: Go visit a farm. Or a glacier. Or the border—our border, anyone’s border. How about a place of worship you know nothing about. Another country is a given. A country you’ve never heard of is even better. Take part in someone’s most sacred ritual and see what it brings up for you. Read the books and lengthy investigations of those who have gone before you and done the same thing with the same purity of intention. At the very least, have a gathering with your Republican and Democrat friends and make a rule that you will not talk politics, but instead will find out something about them you never knew before. Dive deep.

Afraid of what you’ll uncover? I know, me too. Who would we be without our tightly held, partisan-approved, socially sanctioned ideas? We’ll uncover anyway. We’ll write about what we saw and what we learned.

Here’s the part where I go soft:

Mr. C, wherever you are, don’t give up hope. Intelligent life still walks on this earth and not all Newswriting students are idiots (OK, well even if they are, they at least mean well). I’m certain you were a good reporter in your day. I’m sure you took your job seriously and were rewarded for it. I think they still try to use the news pyramid somewhere, so all is not lost. Above all, you believed in the sanctity and integrity of news-gathering as both a duty to the public and a civil right, and I thank you for that. Wow, am I thanking you for something?

I’m sure you understand, though, that it’s up to us now. You taught me that. It’s up to me to be a responsible journalist.

Kismet

When they were younger—the age of loud bars and late nights and Sunday afternoon despair—they hardly had a chance to consider where their lives were going. The routines of childhood had given way, at some point after college, to the routines of adulthood, which is to say waking up at an earlier hour, thirty-minute lunches, bills due at certain times, the rare moment to run the vacuum cleaner or dust or clean out a closet. The routine sometimes included dates or romantic encounters, sometimes even a relationship. But those all fizzled eventually, leading to nothing except more Sunday afternoon despair, making them wonder: did I miss school the day they explained this?

No, it simply meant that more was on its way, more they couldn’t see.

For example, it meant climbing Kilimanjaro.  “Are we almost there?” “I don’t know!” And then they were there, the altitude pounding in their heads.

It meant diving into the Mariana Trench. “What’s that?” “I don’t know!” As the giant milky creature with blind eyes swam by.

Not to mention the hot air balloon rides over the Australian outback, and snowshoeing in the Arctic Circle, and floating on a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean under a slow sun on top of warm water, with the Maldives—not yet sunk—in comforting view.

And then there was holding the orphans and saving the dolphins and watching endangered birds and talking to the elderly to find out what they knew.

A certain amount of danger—the pipelines!—and the tongue-in-cheek signs, the front lines of the protests, gas in their eyes, near misses and almost-arrests, the books and pamphlets and the dire talks in a circle wondering how the human race got to where it did and what else could be done.

This, they were never going to learn in school either, whether they missed the day or not.

And when their lives approached the last quarter of a continuum of years that had peeled back like an onion skin, they finally sat down one day—without an immediate destination, without a pressing cause—and said, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” was the solemn answer.

Because what was there to think?

“I remember when I was living in London and you were roughing it in the desert in Chile,” She said to Her, as they sat looking over the orchard.

“The desert is a hard place to live.”

“And I kept going to this one rug store every day to look at rugs I didn’t want to buy, and couldn’t afford anyway.”

“A rug in the desert is a useful thing,” mused Her.

“And I couldn’t figure it out: why this place? I have other things I could be doing. I could volunteer somewhere, I could go to work and earn a living, I could look for a cheaper apartment, I could do any number of more useful, responsible things. But this rug shop just kept calling my name, and every day I’d go in and stand on a rug and look over all the mountains of rugs.”

“I never had a rug in the desert, of course.”

“And it bothered me. The colors—they were so loud, so hard to distinguish one from the other. All those variations of red and blue and green and orange. Rose. Mint. Sky blue. Apricot. Millions! They swirled together in front of my eyes, and I’d get so irritated. I wanted to yell: ‘Why the hell did you use all of these colors and patterns?! Why couldn’t you just pick one damn color and go with that?! Who needs this?'”

“An odd thing to be irritated about.”

“It is, isn’t it? But I was irritated. And the rug store owner came up to me one day and asked me if I was ever going to buy a rug, or if I was just going to stand there, on top of his merchandise, with a furious look on my face.”

“But not an odd thing for him to be irritated about.”

“And I ‘fessed up and explained my dilemma about the colors.”

“What did he say?”

“Well, he said this to me. He said that the rug is not meant to be looked at from the perspective of the individual colors, but that the rug is meant to be looked at as a whole. That all the colors in the pattern are meant to convey a bigger picture, so that when you look at the rug from a distance, it feels like a world, an entire universe encapsulated in the skillful rendering of woven thread.”

“Very sensible.”

“And you know what else he said? He said that I could buy one at half price since I was his most faithful customer who had never bought anything.”

“And did you?”

“I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for one. I needed a cheaper apartment and a job first, remember?”

The sun was setting over the orchard and the last sounds of the birds at dusk echoed in the valley.

Her turned to She, put a hand on her arm. “You still have time to buy that rug.”

But they both knew it wasn’t about time. Not really, anyway. Because yet another thing they’d missed in school was how to recognize a path, and then actually take it.

Then She said, turning to Her, “What was going on in Chile back then?”

“Nothing. You were missing whole worlds in the rug store, and I was missing them in the sky above the salt flats.”

The sun had fallen, and the orchard was lavender-colored.

“So what do we do now?”

“I don’t know.”

Next week they were supposed to go on a ship that would deliver them to an island chain populated with reptiles and animals no one had seen except in a zoo, where the air smelled like the underside of a patch of grass, and the waves crashed against volcanic rocks, and they would don hiking shoes and scuba masks on alternate days, and explore every inch of this place the Earth had coughed up in a fit of expressive desire.

They had never married or had children or spent more than six months in any one place. They had looked all their lives. They had trekked in one way or another forever, which made all the stops along the way seem like deep breaths. They had remained friends, sometimes only in theory, sometimes in present, perfect communion. But they had never paused to consider the paths in seriousness, to remember those old Sunday afternoons, to ponder their choices. Because what was there to ponder?

“I think I’ll go back to London soon,” She said.

“I could use a rug in Chile, you know.”

The Fourth Decade

One of my closest friends turned 40 today. I’ve been thinking about this one, trying to figure out why we put this much significance on a birthday, why we decorate this particular mile marker with lights and flowers and well-meaning phrases full of pith, borrowed from antiquity or Sex in the City, one of the two. I’ve had this conversation before with friends in their late 30s and early 40s, and we all say the same thing: “I don’t feel 40. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, but whatever it is, I don’t feel it. Does it mean we have to wear longer skirts now?”

Whatever cause for contemplation there is, I’ll take the bait. I know that, at minimum, turning 40 gives us permission to take stock and see where we are, to ask of ourselves: What have I learned (if anything?) What have I gained or lost? What am I contributing (if anything)? What’s necessary?

There’s a great book (I’m forgetting the title now) which is a compilation of letters from writers, artists, philosophers, and other notables giving advice to the young. Advice is sticky, and everyone knows it. Who are any of us to say what someone else should do or not do? How to live or not live? My path was certainly as circuitous and contradictory and clumsy as anyone else’s. I can’t very well tell a purported mini-me to make all the same choices as I did, or not, whatever… And while I’m at it, who’s to say that I’m not still young myself? (as I bristle, with a toss of my head). I mean, geez, if someone out there has any advice for me that I haven’t already heard and ignored, I’m listening.

But in the interest of my friend’s birthday, and all the thinking it’s got me doing, and the fact that it’s the end of June and I need to produce something of consequence on this blog, here are a few answers to those questions above, from my corner of the world, as I understand things to be, at this moment in time—realizing that I haven’t yet entered my own fourth decade (though it’s fast approaching), and knowing full well my answers will probably change at 50. Or with the next election. Or when Saturn moves (come on, Saturn—I learned my lessons already, OK?).

And if the following smacks of advice, don’t worry. You are free and clear to take from it what you want and leave the rest. You are even free and clear to leave all of it and go watch whatever’s on HGTV. And you are free and clear, of course, to scoff at mine and come up with your own answers, even if you’re 23 and just graduated from college or spending your 88th year in a rocking chair remembering the time when…

So here goes.

What I’ve learned:

1.    We are what we eat. Not just a cliché! I should’ve started eating better at an earlier age. But knowing what I know now has saved me doctor visits, money, extra pounds, and sanity.
2.    On that note, exercise more. Even when it aches. Even when you’re tired. As my chiropractor used to say: “Life is motion. When you stop moving, you die.” (I may have added that last part for dramatic flair).
3.    And on that note, drinking alcohol is highly over-rated. Nothing served by a bartender is truly pleasurable unless in the smallest possible quantity. Yes, this includes wine. Yes, this applies to anything over one glass. Besides, a hangover means you’re probably not moving too well. See #2.
4.    No one really has a clue what they’re doing, ever, including me. That’s why we look around at everyone else all the time.
5.    Which is why suspending judgment, of ourselves and others—even for a millisecond—is a worthwhile endeavor.
6.    Stress, fear, frustration—they’re all largely self-created. I’ve learned to get a handle on these through meditation, prayer of a non-religious sort, nature walks, silence, writing, reading…whatever mechanism feels good to me at the time.
7.    But just when I feel I have a handle on something, I discover I have much, MUCH further to go.
8.    Some things in life require discipline, including but not limited to setting aside money for quarterly taxes, getting enough sleep, following a calling, parenting, meeting a deadline, doing a good job—at anything. The rigors of life are no picnic if you don’t have discipline. Fortunately, growing up a dancer, I learned this lesson early on.
9.    The world is both bigger and smaller than what I previously thought it to be.
10.    The older I get, the less I know. (Someone said that—a person named Pam Ferris, I think). And may I add: never a truer statement there was.

What I’ve gained so far:

1.    Trust—in the mysterious ways and workings of the universe, in myself, in others (albeit in a less generous dose)
2.    Love in all its guises—sappy, humble, confounding, fierce, heart-pounding, all-encompassing, exhausting, accepting, amazing
3.    A few crow’s feet and occasionally grumpy vertebrae
4.    Skills—some useful, some not; weird habits; odd cravings; stubborn rigidities—some admitted to, some not
5.    A whole lot of stories, best told around a table late at night to my sister or my girlfriends

What I’ve lost:

1.    Unchecked cynicism
2.    That horrific sense of panic when something doesn’t go right (I like to think)
3.    Deep sadnesses, old hurts, festering wounds…to the extent that I may still remember them, but don’t carry them with me daily
4.    Hatred—of myself and others
5.    Reliance on anyone or anything to tell me how things are or should be (including the news, self-proclaimed experts, women’s magazines, popular blogs, politicians, social media, conventional wisdom of all kinds, consumer product companies, and what can be deemed orthodoxy in industry, government, religion, economics, medicine, and culture)

What I’m contributing:

1.    My writing, as much as I can, as much as gets out there
2.    The female role in an undefined, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants family unit, and the “intergalactic wife” (not yet recognized by the state) to a wonderful, lovable man
3.    A number of possibly aggravating, possibly unanswerable questions posed often and without remorse
4.    Not enough yet, evidently

What’s necessary:

1.    All the best human attributes of kindness, compassion, humility, bravery, surrender, and resilience
2.    Preposterous theories
3.    Laughter
4.    Art, science, and mysticism—in equal measure
5.    Free will
6.    True friendship
7.    Whatever you conceive a soul mate to be, but only when ready
8.    Whatever you conceive family to be
9.    A white sand beach, undiscovered…as yet…by me
10.    Deep breaths when the wheels are coming off
11.    Deep belief that the wheels will be replaced
12.    Taking stock from time to time
13.    Wishing a happy birthday to a dear friend, cleverly disguised in the form of a random blog post, which is to say, inserting reverence and appreciation for the human connections we have in whatever ways we know how

The Laugh

A couple of summers ago, my sister and her daughter and I were at a Rockies baseball game. Beautiful evening. Big crowd. Just the girls—our significant others and her son sitting together in another row.

Up on the jumbotron, a game: what’s the next line in the “Beat It” song by Michael Jackson? Three choices. Two ridiculously wrong answers, and one obviously right one. Behind us, a couple of twenty-something guys who may or may not have been high (this being Colorado and all), decide “No one wants a beef fajita” with a certain kind of earnestness in their voices that makes it hard to tell if it’s coming from a place of mockery or sincerity.

My sister and I hear this, look at each other, and start laughing. The problem is that we keep laughing for the next 20 minutes, she and I both crying, our stomachs aching, shoulders lurching up and down, and her pre-teen daughter looking at us with the kind of agony only a pre-teen girl can have in the company of her mortifying mother and aunt.

The Mininger laugh, it’s called. And it’s both a blessing and a curse.

In eighth grade, during Student Council, we’re tying name tags to balloons that had been purchased for a fundraiser. My friend Megan picks up a tag and reads the name: “Spiff Dart.” This strikes me so funny that I spend the next hour on the floor howling, saying the name over and over, and howling harder every time. It can’t be real! I am tickled with the fantastic absurdity of it, while everyone rolls their eyes at me, not amused.

I remember being in stitches with my dad once during a church service. I was an adult by then. I don’t even remember why we were in church—since I’m not religious and he hadn’t been a churchgoer in years. But something got us going and off to the races we went. Or the time when I moved to San Francisco and couldn’t figure out how to use my first cell phone. Exhausted from helping me move, about to leave his middle child in a strange city, watching my increasing frustration with the instruction manual, my dad started giggling like a lunatic and I couldn’t help but join in.

My brother got the laugh, too, and he’s adopted—which makes the case that some genes are catching. In church again, this time at an Easter service. I was probably 16, which made him 15—that irreverent age range where all decorum goes out the window at the first opportunity. During communion, he was passing the tray of grape juice (standing in for wine, of course). Keep in mind it’s a cavernous place, filled to the gills with the pious, quiet enough to hear the proverbial pin drop. And as he passes the tray to me, I fumble, or he fumbles. In any case, we fumble, and the damn tray tips, the fake wine sloshing, and then the whole thing proceeds to crash to the floor…whereupon all you can hear is a million tiny glasses tinkling on a hard surface as they roll under people’s feet to the front of the sanctuary. Stunned at our haplessness, my brother and I then laugh so hard we are close to barfing. The thing is, you simply can’t “settle down” in those moments, no matter how sternly your parents are looking at you.

My mom has it, and she married into the family (see what I mean about genes being catching?). You get her started on something, she’s unlikely to stop. We remind her of slipping on the ice, and the picture-worthy pie she was carrying doing a full arse-over-tit flip in the air before landing upright in a snow bank, not a crumb out of place. Put a fork in her (no pun intended) because she’s done—and so are we.

Back to my dad. He got the laugh from his dad—my grandpa—who was surrounded by it as a child in the form of siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts. When you survive the Great Depression, as they did, moving from Texas to California to try to scrape together a living (I always say The Grapes of Wrath could have been written about my grandpa’s family), you have to see the humor in what could otherwise be too tragic for words. You learn to laugh so that you will not cry.

Back in those days, death was not feared so much as looked upon with a certain kind of cheerful curiosity and potential entertainment. My grandpa told a story of being electrocuted in bed at night. The older brothers had rigged up some wires from a windmill outside to the inside of the house where they were placed under the younger boys’ mattresses. In the dry, blowing heat of the prairie, quite a lot of power could be generated, startling the literal pants off of someone. He told another story of his younger brother, strung up to the rafters, about to be hanged (those older brothers were merciless). He was beside himself with fright until their father walked in just in time and put a stop to it.

What is death, though, if not the next, more interesting town down the road? Why not go out with a bang and guffaw? In the absence of money and toys and leisure activities, looking at the world through the Jester’s eyes is a skill that gets cultivated and honed. Words take on new meaning. Character traits become amusing. Sober events are looked at from a mirth-filled angle. Everyday strife can be born much easier when born with humor. These attitudes, these genes, get passed down, whether you like it or not.

And then there are the chances to be deliberately funny, in the windswept flatness of my grandpa’s youth.

Play a practical joke on the teacher—sure, why not? Dig a hole, cover it with weeds and sticks, then ask to take her for a walk (as young doting school boys, admiring of a female teacher, will do). Lead her right over the hole and watch her fall in. Laugh till your sides ache and hope that she gets the joke.

What’s funny to the next guy? Better question: what’s funny to a Mininger? What about a cat wandering down the aisle during the middle of a sermon? Or a bull getting loose into the bed of a pickup truck while hurtling down the highway? How about losing the same trailer on a mountain road—twice? The stories become hazy. I don’t even know what’s what anymore, they’ve been told so many times. All I know is that the Mininger laugh is famous for its inopportune timing, its inappropriate arrival (laughing at a funeral, anyone?), and most of all its infuriating meeting of imminent crisis with that first twinkle-in-the-eye chuckle. A blessing and a curse, I tell you.

All these stories and many more like it are legendary in my family. And every single one of them—whether mild in subject matter or blood-curdlingly dangerous—can barely be told for all the laughter in the room. My grandpa, face red, white hair springing off his head, little round belly shaking, was like a “hee hee hee” Santa Claus. My dad, on the other hand, has the blubbering, knee-slapping situation going on. My sister and I cry our eyes out while tossing around as if stricken with some kind of palsy, while my brother’s eyes screw up until they’re nearly closed, his high-pitched laugh sounding like a Looney Tunes character. Or take my mother, who bends over at the waist while simultaneously putting one hand over her mouth, as if pushing the laugh back in will solve the issue. Others in my family—cousins, aunts, uncles, my grandma—laugh until they can no longer breathe, until they and you are tortured by it, helpless to stop.

Like the hiccups, we try all sorts of maneuvers to end it. Take a deep breath, but that laugh, insistent, just rises right up again. And whatever you do, do not look at your sister.

A life spent appreciating the hysterical, right up to the sunset.

Then, at death’s door, when it’s no longer frightening to contemplate, when the curiosity is more than just a pastime of the young, my grandpa, in a nursing home, near-catatonic for years, wheel-chair bound, hasn’t stood or walked on his own in weeks or maybe months, they tell me, and a week or two before he dies, someone goes into his room and sees him standing up, walking around, and laughing. Perhaps it was long-deceased Hiram who was with him, right over there, sitting on the bed—see?—reminiscing about the time the bats were in the house. I don’t want to say for sure. Not being a religious person, I can’t attribute this miracle to something Bible-ish. But I know that whoever was there laughing with my tired grandpa was pointing him into the bright light of the All Right. Which, in the end, is the only way to go.

If there’s one thing you learn in this family, it’s that the other side of the sad coin is always and only hilarity. Boundless, restorative, calling-you-home hilarity. We know this as intimately as we know when to plant and when to harvest and when to gather.

And the Mininger laugh, perhaps for this reason, was never a curse at all…but the best, most beautiful kind of blessing.

In loving memory of Gerald Mininger, my grandpa, who passed away on May 17, 2015, and who went—I hope—with a humdinger of an amusement beckoning.

An Ode to Roots in a Clay Pipe

The wide world of your dreams. The strange things
that happen in your sleep.
The way your heart beats and heat throbs where it shouldn’t
in daylight.
And the cry: what does it all mean?

In some ways, I remember him like yesterday.
In other ways, I cannot conjure
his face, his smile, mouth, lips, hands, walk…
all the best parts of him.

I think it’s because I sent him away.

It’s nature’s cruel trick—making you forget—as punishment
for the breaking of a heart.
But sometimes I think
it’s my heart that was broken.
It must be, for the procession of dreams that come
when I am most at peace,
and then the days of wondering, the moments
lost in memory afterward.

He is gone. Married, children…all the usual things.
And I have been gone even longer, looking
away
walking
away
going after “mine,” whatever “mine” was. Now,
when I scramble for just the right words,
I think it’s because they are stuck, lodged
like roots in a clay pipe,
too entwined from the years
to be pulled from their safe
dark
damp
splendor.
Life flows by and around, but they are there
all the same.

Many days I have been happy. Many days of contentment
and even bliss.
Many loves have passed leaving their marks, or
stayed as it has now, overflowing.
But none has been
so insistent, so sure
so gone as mine for him.

When he said, “I have always been
in love with you,” the universe righted
itself, a puzzle piece
slid into place
and shook the foundations of all time.

I don’t know what happened when I left
him, bereft.
I wasn’t listening.
I didn’t feel.
If foundations shook, I skipped over the ripples.
I don’t know what happened, but
something did. And so I cry, years later,
after days of wondering and memory:

What does it all mean?

Checking Back In

I just did what you’re not supposed to do as a writer.

I checked out.

For over a month, in fact, which is significant. That’s 30-some days I could have spent in front of my computer putting words on the page, and not a single one flowed out of my brain to any meaningful degree.

Instead, I helped my boyfriend after an unfortunate ski accident mid-March. Then I nursed him back to health after his knee surgery last week. I spent a weekend in Florida with my boyfriend’s parents riding around in golf carts and shamelessly enjoying the weather. I tried like mad to stay on top of a sudden and overwhelming influx of work after a winter of almost nothing coming in. I panicked, wondering if this career I’ve set up for myself just so that I can write is even working. I signed myself up for a class to learn how I can make this career work for myself a little bit better. I worried about taxes and finances and the pitfalls of being self-employed (and listened to my accountant’s fatherly lectures about the pitfalls of being self-employed). I reminded myself to take deep breaths, to work out, to read books, to stay sane…but I wasn’t doing the thing I most needed to do.

In the writing world, they’re all called “excuses.” In my world, it’s called “life.” If Steven Pressfield were here right now, he’d kick my ass. I’d kick my ass, too. But then I’d sit down and take stock and realize that sometimes you just need to pay attention to what’s happening in front of you, to participate in the ebb and flow of the world you inhabit with your loved ones, to honor your emotional wheelings and mental dealings, and to know that there will come a week, a day, an hour when you can, in fact, return to the page.

Which is what I’m doing right now.

This post is not going to win any awards. It’s boring. Everyone has shit happen. Every writer goes through these struggles whether they admit to them or not. Nothing I’m saying is interesting, insightful, or new. The guilt I feel about temporarily abandoning my calling is irrelevant.

The important thing is that I’m saying something right now. When readers go back and look at my archive, they will see that in April of 2015 I broke a streak of hedging. I summoned the energy from somewhere. I did what I’m supposed to do as a writer, which is to eventually check back in and let everything else go.

If you’re not writing right now, make sure you know why. Make sure there is a why. If there isn’t, get to it. If there is, it’s OK.

Soon, it’ll be better.

Soon, it’ll all come back.

Soon, we’ll forget we ever had anything to worry about at all.