Here and There. Same or Opposite?

Almost two months ago I posted (as part of The Striped Shirt Review with Emily Walter) ten photos with ten words to describe each one. Some of my photos blasted full, brilliant colors, but a few were black and white with a splash or just a hint of color. Those were my favorites.

Since then I’ve been writing a lot, but also taking copious pictures of all the places I’ve been as I’ve traveled deep down memory lane during my fortieth summer. Some of the stops were intentional and some just happened; as with any journey this one has been juiced with surprises. There’s been some light and dark to each place, to each moment.

I’ve taken photos of amazing sunrises and sunsets with that color that seems too beautiful to be real. That indescribably pinkish-orange enhanced by blue and purple sky, green grass and trees. I love those images—the capture of the moment between night and day—but mostly I’ve been drawn to the frames that capture light and dark together, not just the instant before and after.

It’s the contrast I adore. I love the juxtaposition and how one begs and threatens the other: consider me.

I like thinking about reference points and natural duality. For example, you can’t know hot if you don’t know cold and you can’t really hate something unless you’ve also once loved it.

The light and the dark need each other, but sometimes I need something concrete to assist my absorption of the abstract. For me, my light and dark images confirm what I already know and feel: there’s black and white to everything, there’s sun and there’s shadow, there are two sides to every story. There’s yin and there’s yang.

Shadow doesn’t exist without light; life doesn’t exist without death. Treetops grow toward the light, while roots exist in the dark. When a tree reaches its highest point of growth—its full potential—it falls. Its death becomes life.

Let me not mince words: it’s pretty fucking amazing.

Every single one of us has light and dark within us. For some the darkness is deeper, the light more outward, but it’s there. It’s always there to be discovered.

A friend of mine died the other night in a sunny part of the country almost to the minute that a baby was born to other friends in a place full of light, but where darkness is slowly creeping in. As I received the news I felt simultaneous grief and joy as both tragedy and hope filled the small space of my heart. At the same time, which is about enough to make a head spin and a heart lurch.

Almost two years ago I eulogized my grandfather and ended with a quote from Eckhart Tolle. “Death is not the opposite of life.  Life has no opposite.  The opposite of death is birth.”

There are some things that don’t have exact opposites. Like home, which I’m currently without. The thesaurus tells me the opposite of home is foreign, but I’m not convinced. As I’ve traveled it’s been interesting to see what places just feel right and which do not. You see, I’m currently in the market for a new home, but I’m not so much interested in rushing things so I just kind of go here and there visiting friends and family as I finish writing a book that is giving as much a sense of home as the most comfortable bed and well-stocked kitchen. As much as familiar photos on the walls, a constant view out a window, a toothbrush that isn’t in perpetual motion.

One thing that I know is that even when I’m in a place that  feels calming and comfortable and “good,” it doesn’t mean it’s the right place for me to stay. Or maybe it does, and I’ll eventually circle back.

One place that recently impressed me was Provincetown, Massachusetts all the way out on the end of Cape Cod. I don’t at all want to live there, but I’d like to visit for the rest of my life and here’s why: the place is full of joy. It brims with acceptance and love.

Provincetown is known as an LGBT summer destination, so a lot of the riff-raff is kept out. Provincetown is remote, so most people aren’t going to make the trip out there just to hate on a population they don’t approve of. The result is incredible. It feels safe. It feels happy. It feels like the kind of place where you just want to walk the streets until your paws wear out, which is what Lucky and I did.

What follows are twenty-four photos of light and dark. Most of them were taken in P-Town, but a few were taken in other parts of Cape Cod and in Maine.  There are twenty-four photos because twenty-four is a multiple of six, and I’m currently obsessed with six. Each photo gets a six-word caption.

What’s with six? Well, five years ago I heard about the six-word memoir project, and I played a game where I asked everyone I ran into what his/her six word memoir would be. It was a fun project, but at the time just for sport. Since then my love affair with six-word memoirs has grown and became a structural device for the many-word memoir I’ve been writing. My title has six words, every chapter title is six words, and six-word memoirs are scattered about.

 So. Twenty-four light and dark photos with a six-word memoir for each.

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A closed shop; one man working.

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The Pilgrim Monument. Tall, proud, bright.

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Ambience is everything. Shine a light.

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Art above and below street level.

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Books beg me to buy them.

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Lit windows, doors, steps an arch.

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The light and dark are neighbors.

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Lobster. Every day. Every single day.

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The ocean at Truro was angry.

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There’s always room for one more.

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It looks closed yet still open.

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Date night is a beautiful thing.

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A dead tree full of shells.

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The dock in Portland. J’s Oysters.

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Parts of Maine offer one kind.

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I wanted these. Forgot to buy.

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They sold antiques but now BBQ.

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We pierced ears here in 1989.

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Where I sit today thinking, writing.

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Fishing boats, sailing boats, lobster pots.

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Light and dark in a harbor.

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The brightest Light that I know.

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Where the water changes direction. Love.

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Hands down. My favorite photo ever. 

Safe(ty) is an Inside Job

About a year ago a woman asked me to close my eyes and picture a time that I felt safe. I breathed in and out and thought, but came up blank. This isn’t true, of course—I’ve had many safe times in my life—but I was so caught up in the tumult of the moment that I couldn’t come up with one person, place or thing that made me feel 100% safe.

The woman told me to take my time, and finally I came up with a fixture that has always been a part of my life and in which I feel safe: the bathtub. “I feel safe in the bathtub,” I told her, “I love water. I can go under water to drown out noise from outside. I can drink tea, light candles, read magazines. I can be alone.”

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In fact, there’s a whole chapter in the book I’ve been busting a nut over writing that is about various bathtubs in my life and how they’ve come to represent both safety and freedom. Safety and freedom, like most of what human beings require and desire, are two of the things we need to give ourselves. Options, Acceptance and Love are some others…

I picture brows furrowing and noses wrinkling and bullshit meters flying above the high-water mark. And trust me: I’m hearing you.

We can be given freedom, but if we don’t take it then what’s the use? People can give-give-give, but the action aspect is up to the recipient. We can be protected by circumstances that are intended to keep us safe, but nobody can force safety on another person, so if we don’t feel safe then we don’t feel safe. And it’s the same thing with options, the same thing with freedom, acceptance and love.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is reported to be of the oldest proverbs still in use today. It’s 11th century old, and so ingrained in our DNA that it’s almost impossible to conceive of breeding it out of us. And why would we want to? A leopard can’t change his spots, you know.

Right? So let’s talk about safe. It’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s having an ear to listen to your story or a hand to hold. It’s access to food, shelter and water. It’s knowing what you want and more importantly what you don’t.

Safe isn’t a place you can go to or depart from. It isn’t something you can touch.

We can think we’re safe and then be caught, arrested or harmed. The crowd can cheer because you’re safe or not, then one man in a uniform can say the majority was wrong. It makes me think that we learn more on childhood softball and baseball diamonds than we realize at time. More than hand-eye coordination, good sportsmanship, and how to identify poison ivy when chasing after foul balls.

Safe is a friend you’ve known 90% of your life who ends every conversation and email with a single word: LOVE. The one-word statement doesn’t require an “I” or a “you.” The door swings freely in both directions with that kind of really safe love.

Loving isn’t always safe. It can be an express train to loss and grief. It can lead to sleepless nights (weeks and months) and to questioning the unanswerable. You can retroactively wish your train had made a few local stops. That it wasn’t so fast, so possibly reckless, so potentially unsafe. But sometimes we don’t know the hazards of a thing until we’re in the midst of it.

When I bought my house in Honduras I wanted to get a safe. It just seemed to make sense, except when I was told why it didn’t. First of all, word would spread that I had a safe but no bars on my windows and no watchy; people would think I had something valuable in the safe and they’d want at it.

Truth be told, I only wanted a safe for a couple of items: the deed to my house, the diamond earrings from my grandparents, and the Tiffany watch my dad got me for my college graduation that has engraved on the back: Jaime, KEEP ON BELIEVING. Love, Dad. But in the end what I cared about more than any of that was my US Passport, which says a little bit about how safe I felt on that island.

“Don’t get a safe,” I was told. “They won’t think about what you have or don’t have in there; they’ll just yank it right out of the house and will take half the house with it if they need to. “Apparently “they” will saw through wood or jackhammer concrete to remove a safe.

I’ve learned something about myself in the past year: I feel safe when I trust my intuition. I feel safe when I listen to my heart. I feel safe when I’m being authentically me and not worried about judgment, ridicule or unintended consequences.

But trust me: I don’t always feel safe.

Safety might be an inside job, but humans have a tendency to worry about others despite the fact that worry doesn’t solve anything, and right now my mother and I are worried about how to keep my grandmother safe and in the thick of it I’m also trying to keep myself safe, honest, and authentic.

My mother is more hard-wired to worry than I am, but I worry too, and together we worry about my Mimi’s memory. For two days she told me she liked my dress so often it seemed that every time she blinked her eyes she was seeing me for the first time. Yesterday I found a ring that I liked and knew I could have because she always says, referring to her home, “You can have anything you want, babydoll.” Today she saw it on my finger and said, “I used to have a ring like that, but yours is nicer.”

Yeah.

We sat on the patio tonight after dinner and I was working on this blog post and she asked me when my homework was due then complimented me on always being a good student. She asks when I’m going home and when I’m coming back and all day I told her the same thing. Tomorrow to the first question, three weeks to the second. I’ve told her twenty times that her baby brother is coming to see her next week, but I have a feeling she’ll just have to believe it when she sees it.

Yesterday I told Mimi we needed to have our garage door replaced, and she said we can’t make any decisions like that without consulting with Poppy. My mother and I drew in deep breaths then I just came out with it, “Poppy is dead, Mimi. He’s been dead almost two years.”

She wasn’t really buying it. “Who’s in charge?” she asked, and the three of us froze-up then I pointed to my mother. “Ok,” she said, ”Ok.” I called immediately to set up an appointment with the door company and within twelve hours I’d taken a full garage and made a Jenga-like structure In one corner.

Action makes me feel safe, though the process was iffy. I lifted heavy things over my head as I balanced on wobbly chairs. Dust and debris slid off bags and boxes onto my head and I wondered about asbestos and mold and lead paint. I used my knees like levers and slung huge pieces of furniture around as if they were bags of crumpled newspaper. I thought, “This isn’t safe” but stronger than that was the other voice that said, “This needs to get done.”

My mother worries a lot more than I do about the outrageous amounts of stuff that my grandmother has accumulated, but I’m more fascinated the way an archeologist would be. Her apartment looks like a graveyard for VHS tapes, shadeless lamps, broken picture frames, dustbusters, empty jars, knee-high stockings and thirty-nine years of pictures of me.

The bedroom door opens about 25%, just barely enough for a body to slide in or out. The glass in the breakfront is opaque due to photos, mass cards, lottery tickets and newspaper clippings and only God knows what’s on the other side. There is a pathway from one end of the apartment to the other, but it’s tight in places and I have a strong suspicion that the fire department would deem it unsafe.

In addition to all of the papers, I sometimes run across things that look like they could combust. There are solvents and aerosols and liniments that are decades old. It has to be an unsafe place, but to someone who hoards it is safer than being without these things. She calls them her treasures. These “treasures” provide her with perceived comfort, security and safety, though in reality they’re achieving the converse effect. It’s hectic in there, for me, but I’m not sure it’s my job to judge.

Aside from hostages situations we can’t actually “keep” other human beings, and when keeping another safe all we can do is our best. Safe(ty) is an inside job for everyone except the very young and the very old, and my mother and I are doing our best to keep an old woman safe.

Being in control might make one person feel safe. A lack of space might make another person feel unsafe. We can say to each other that’s too high, that’s too hot, there may be sharks, where’s your helmet, can’t you slow down, didn’t you learn the first time? We can say all these things, but we can’t tell another person what makes him or her feel safe. Maybe we learn that another’s recklessness makes us feel unsafe, and that’s okay too.

Because we’re human we will fall short more often than we’d like to, or we’ll offer help that isn’t wanted, or we’ll confuse our barometer for safety with someone else’s, forgetting that safe(ty), in the end, is an inside job.

INTRO for the non-Facebook readers:

This is the third installment of the Striped Shirt Review, where Emily Walter and I blog on the same topic and post it the same day. We’ve done it twice so far, but got a little off track with summer traveling (me) and home buying (Em). But here’s the thing: we’re not so much on a track anyway. It might be “better” to have a schedule, but as it is the Striped Shirt Review evolves organically and semi-spontaneously.

One of us will have an idea and will throw it out there, say, toward the end of a ninety-minute marathon phone conversation. Then we’ll ping-pong it back and forth until there’s a teensy pause in conversation and then we hush….”Yep…that’s it.” This week’s topic is SAFE.

I pulled my anchor last January in Missoula, the same city where Emily just purchased a home, so you’d guess that safe might mean very different things to us….or not. Our lives tend to run parallel even when they seem to be going in opposite directions. Let’s find out. Find Emily’s blog HERE.

A Long Week in Review: My Old School and Potatoes

It’s been a week. It’s been a week of intense activity and changes of venue and emotion and heart. It’s been one of those weeks you ask yourself, “How was that just seven days? How?”

Last Sunday I scored a surprise day to myself in my hometown, then went with my best childhood friend Debbie and her family to her family’s farm in Roxbury, CT, which has to be one of the prettiest places around.

We watched hot air balloons and speculated on their landing spots.  We ate Indian wraps and kale salad, then just to make sure we weren’t overdoing the healthiness we wrapped up the meal with ice cream sundaes. They’d had a ten-topping sundae bar the night before (which I missed!), but caramel and chocolate sauces hit the spot, and we our dessert around a campfire.  Lucky made himself at home with the kids on the farm’s fifteen fenced acres (how’s that for both free and safe?), and then the sun dipped, the party was over and it was time to close it down.

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I stayed with my beloved Burtons (AKA my second family) for a couple of days, and we walked Lucky, read books, told stories, colored, rode bike and big wheels and chalked up the driveway, where we exchanged notes.

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It wasn’t easy leaving…..

I left on Wednesday for Kent to have dinner with Denny Mantegani (who has been a part of Kent School’s campus for thirty years and who is now the Associate Director of Alumni Giving) at the Kingsley Tavern, a restaurant owned by Anna Gowan, another Kent alumna.

Typical of me, I had a mountain of plans I wanted to accomplish in a couple of hours. I wanted to hike on the Appalachian Trail near campus, take a drive to the former girls’ campus (my year was the last to have two Kent School campuses) and browse the local bookstore. Oh, and change in my car for dinner, but that’s not the kind of thing I usually allow time for, though it always takes more time than I’ve allotted. All that shimmying out of sweaty clothes and into jeans and a blouse is harder when working around a steering wheel or in between two car doors.

Then I got an email from Denny asking if I had time for a quick tour of the new doors before dinner. We were already having an early dinner—at 5:00 so I could drive back to New York—so she suggested 4:30 for the tour, and I said, “Sure! I’d love to!”

But also typical of me was a delay. Debbie’s oldest sister Dorothy was trying to get to her parents’ house with her kids before my 2:00 departure time, and she pulled in right on time, so then I stayed another hour chitchatting around the kitchen island, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. i wasn’t going to be late-late, just too late to do everything I wanted. There’s a difference.

I headed in the direction of Kent around 3:15 and realized that after the forty-five minute drive I’d have, at most, thirty minutes to explore the area. The weather was rainy and I anticipated a crappy drive into the city so I made an excellent, executive decision: I’d stay at a motel near campus. It was $65 plus $10 for my BFF. That the place lacks in zero curb appeal it makes up for on the inside with a king-sized bed outfitted in nice sheets and a down comforter. (Seriously: it’s the little things.)

Lucky and I raced off to Kent (we were late), so I didn’t see the ten-acre backyard and Housatonic River access until the next morning. If you ever find yourself in the area I recommend the Rocky River Inn.

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I’m the secretary for my class and Denny wanted to introduce me to her colleague Tonya, who is now working with the class of ’92, so she joined us for the tour. The tour was great and we gabbed like old friends meandering around campus. We talked about “the old days” and the new dress code and how different it is to have boys and girls on one campus.

My high school is, I swear, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.

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The rain cleared and it turned into a beautiful night, so Denny and I decided to sit on the front porch of the restaurant. I parked in front and opened the window wider than usual, but still only about halfway. Denny and I were choosing our table when I heard a little noise and then saw that the front half of Lucky was outside the car and the back half was stuck inside. His front toes spread on the side of my car and his nails failed (obviously) to get a grip.

He had an “oh shit” look on his face and I stood there paralyzed trying to figure out my next move and what I could possibly do to help, when he somehow compressed his torso and shrunk his booty to squeeze himself out of the car. Then he popped up onto the porch ready for al fresco dining.

At first we were the only ones there, but soon other diners joined us and Lucky was, per usual, a hit. Denny and I sampled quite a few things off the menu and shared everything until it came to dessert and I had my chocolate mousse with cherries and she had her shortcake with peaches, and although we’d very fairly split everything down the middle, neither of us made a move to share out desserts. {LOVE IT.}

Anna sat and joined us for a few minutes and we got a picture of Lucky with the girls.

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We talked about all sorts of things Kent related, but also about her son’s pending move to Missoula and my writing. “Have you ever heard of Joyce Maynard,” Denny asked, “Your stories remind me of hers.” I couldn’t say no, so instead of telling a partial truth I started near the beginning, “Um. Yeah. She officiated my wedding.” And we were off on another tangent.

The next day I woke up to an email from Denny with specific directions to the new cross country course that she’d told me about, and an invitation from Tonya for lunch. I had a lazy morning and made it to the course with barely enough time to run the three miles in this ridiculously gorgeous setting.

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My plan to run three lazy miles was squelched because Mr. Holcombe, the former coach and builder of the course, was there weed whacking. We talked and talked and I thanked him for the stories, but he wasn’t done until he was done. “Wait,” he said, “Let me tell you about the time I was in the Army…”

I kept a stealth eye on the time, and finally had to say, “Mr. Holcombe, It’s been great seeing you, but I have to go.” Then his kicker: “Did we know each other when you were a student here?” I told him yes, but it was a long time ago. He told me it was great to see me.

I ran a quick mile around the fields, then changed in my car and was only five minutes late for my lunch date at The Villager, the hottest lunch spot in town when I was a kid, and still scrumptious and perfectly New England. The date was August 14th, but fall was in the air. I walked Lucky around campus, drove to the old girls’ campus, and browsed around the bookstore.

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Finally, at 5:30 it was time to drive into the city and I braced myself for traffic though I didn’t hit even a smidge. I arrived before dark to surprise my grandmother, who’d been told I was coming, but whose memory is more like a colander than a sponge these days.

The next day we drove five in the car out to Seabright on the Jersey Shore. We hit umpteen spots of traffic that not even the “Beat The Traffic” app could navigate around, and the drive took about an hour longer than it should have though nobody really paid attention to the passing minutes because really, what the hell could we do about it?

We were the five people smushed into a Toyota Camry that the people in neighboring cars must’ve felt sorry for. Gigi drove with Fonzo, her father, in the front seat, and Mimi, Mommy and I sat three across in the backseat. I didn’t dare make eye contact with anyone in another car; I couldn’t have handled a sympathy smile. As we passed around a brown paper bag of cherry tomatoes that I’d bought the day before at a farmstand in Kent I wondered how two adjacent calendar days can have so little in common.

The day before I listened to an Augusten Burroughs audiobook (This is How. So good I’ve also bought the print version) as I drove and felt sorry for the people jammed into shitty carpools while I didn’t have to share a cup holder or adjust the air conditioning. I wondered about the woman driving the SUV overloaded with beach umbrellas and coolers and deflated inflatables, and I wondered about the man with faraway eyes in the passenger seat.

I hoped they’d had a good vacation, but realize there’s a decent possibility they didn’t, and that it might have everything or nothing to do with the way they feel about each other. We can make up stories about the people beside us whether they’re in our car or another car, whether we know them or not. Most times we have no idea what circumstances they might contend with.

One day you’re making up the stories, and the next day the stories are being made up about you. This is life, right?

This has not been a relaxing visit to New York, but I didn’t come here to relax. I came to help my mother and my grandmother get a little situated, though that is a bit like hoping to create peace in the Middle East or resurrect Jim Morrison from the dead. It’s a project with a success rate close to zero. It’s like trying to explain why some people think it’s okay to tell other people who or how to love.

It could be easy to give up, but we can’t. But it’s not about giving up anyway; it’s about looking at the situation from different angles until we find a solution.

A large part of the current “project” is to help my grandmother understand that she’s not as self-sufficient as she thinks. She’s almost ninety years old and can’t be left alone too long and can’t go out by herself except maybe to go around the block in the middle of the day, but even that is pushing it. She won’t use a walked (that’s for OLD people!), but uses an empty, broken-down shopping cart for balance. So talk about pushing it….Oh, and she jaywalks.

She can hardly remember one minute to the next, so when she says she’s self-sufficient she forgets her panic attack of the previous day when I wasn’t home from walking Lucky by 8:00. Most of the time she forgets if she’s had lunch. She sometimes introduced me as her niece. She clearly forgets that she drank three cokes in one day when she says proudly, “I’ve really cut back on my soda intake.”

Another part of the puzzle is trying to get her house cleaned out. And if not her house then maybe the basement. Or at least the garage. This is not just a matter of elbow grease; it’s a matter of getting the goods past the guard.

My mother and I slaved away in the basement and came up with several enormous bags of garbage and a few healthy carloads of books, housewares, clothes, etc. to bring to the local thrift store. It went fine until, which is exactly how long things usually go well for: until they don’t.

I could go into extraordinary, agonizing detail about it all, but this is what it boils down to is this: my grandmother is a hoarder. She’d not hoarding live animals or garbage, but she’s still  hoarding. She’s filled her apartment, the basement, and the oversized two car garage. We used to refer to her as a “collector,” but that’s not a strong enough word for the amount of collectibles she’s amassed.

During the night Mimi dragged at least one of the garbage bags and a kiddie pool into her apartment. She used the kiddie pool as a sorting area for her treasures including, but not limited to, hundreds of curtain hooks from the kind of heavy drapes that were popular sixty years ago.

Cousin Gigi called and Mimi told her that my mother and I tried to throw away her curtain hooks and she was pissed. Gigi asked if she needed them and where she planned to store them. Aside from my mother and myself, Gigi is one of very few people allowed inside Mimi’s house, so she knows how limited the space is. “I may or may not need them but they’re mine and I’m keeping them,” Mimi said, “I don’t know if I have a place for them or not, but if I need to I’ll hang them around my goddamn neck.”

This is not good.

My mother and I are struggling because we aren’t exactly on the same page though we desire a similar result, and overall it was a terrible day.

Frustrated by a lack of forward motion, I went through some books that were mine when I was a kid and that I were mine to get rid of if I wanted to. It’s ironic, because I have a storage unit in Missoula, filled mostly with books, and now here I am in New York, getting rid of the only thing I really have here: books. A box of my books that was accidentally left behind.

I took out the good ones (Little House on the PrairieBeezus and Ramona) and boxed up the junky ones (Sweet Valley High). Then, in an act of stubbornness, I walked that box six blocks to the thrift store. I used my whole body to carry that box, and it only got heavy when I stopped moving.  I carried it like an offering or a totem. I carried it like it meant something because it does. I carried it because I could. I carried it because i needed to.

We are part of our families, but we are not our families. As children we’re limited, but as adults we don’t have to do things the way they do, the way they’ve done, or the way they want us to. Mimi watched me pack the box and she inquired about where I was taking it, but I was clear; “These are the books I don’t want. I’m giving them away because someone else might like these books. These are my books to give away”

Neither Mimi nor I like to be told what to do.

I made a peace offering of a delicious (wild salmon) dinner, and we ate on the patio like nothing was wrong. Nothing except my grandmother asking me three times in less than a minute if I wanted more potatoes, and each time I told her “No thank you, I have enough.” My mother made a joke and kept offering me potatoes and we laughed because it’s funny and because it’s not and because I’d already cried enough for one day and it was simply time to laugh.

After dinner my mother walked Lucky and I sat on the stoop with Mimi. We didn’t talk about getting rid of anything or moving anywhere or anything besides the moment, which is the only place she can really be.

She asked me when I’m going home and instead of repeating all the details I just said, “I’m leaving Wednesday but I’ll be back soon.” She’s asked me ten times since then when I’m going “home” and when I’m coming back.

But last night she sat in her chair and I sat on the step. I wrapped myself in a too big Irish wool cardigan that I found in the basement, and she was thrilled that I found something down there that I wanted. She cried about the fact that her head is mixed up, but said it doesn’t bother her so much except when other people don’t understand.

She sang “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” and we held hands. She told me that she’s proud of me for being so strong. I thanked her for being so awesome.

Backward in Foward Time

I so enjoyed spending the better part of a month in Rhode Island both for the company and the landscape. For the friends who welcome unconditionally and beaches that are sort of secret and that don’t require residency, a fee, membership or leashes.

I didn’t want to leave RI for the above reasons plus their farm/pond to table food, their “Rogue’s Island” be-who-you-are mentality, and their sweet, salty water, but commitments in Connecticut and New York had been on deck for awhile and the time had come.

A couple of weeks of dealing with car problems (residuals from the elk I hit in January in Colorado, bodywork thanks to a drunk driver’s sideswipe in Florida, rotors that warped after a month, and a whistling windshield) and then my car wasn’t ready until 4:00 on a Friday. In the summer. I prepared for the worst, but made it to my friend Robin’s in record time.

It’s one of life’s great treats when someone who used to be “just” your friend’s kid sister becomes *your* friend twenty years later as a five-year age gap slams shut.

Robin greeted me with snacks and had already set out water for lucky who found the softest spot in the house and, per usual, made himself at home within minutes.

Then we talked for five hours nonstop, only stopping for sips of rosé and bites of eggplant parm pizza.

The next day was a walk and (homemade) lunch with Kate, Robin’s stepmother and one of my mother’s BFFs. She’s as lose to an aunt as it gets, and I’m grateful for her.

Then off to a party that ROCKED and that felt like one part magic, one part reunion and a sprinkling of sparkles, glitter and love. It’s all fun and games until a glow stick explodes in an eye, but it’s nothing a girl like Caraline can’t dance off. The entire party doing “Proud Mary” will make me smile, probably, forever. Ever have cannoli cake? If not, put it on your list ASAP.

I had plans for today, but not a solid timeframe, so that looseness lead to a slight alteration to my plans which lead to some (fair enough) assumptions that lead to a snafu which led to a small miracle: time to myself in my hometown.

I drove through my old neighborhood and then looped around the whole town. The trees are bigger and leafier, the distances shorter and the roads hillier than I recall. There is a bright green here that you only see out west for a hot second in the spring.

The last time I was alone driving around this town was probably fifteen years ago, but the last time I lived here year-round was in 1989. That’s many, many long times. I’ve been away much longer than I was here.

The more I know the more I know I don’t know, but this I’m sure of: perspective changes outside the presence of another set of eyes.

So I had a surprise opportunity to take Luck for another romp in the Pequonnock River Valley and wouldn’t dream of passing it up.

Today we ran, and I connected my legs to the place where my love affair with running began twenty-five years ago.

Revisiting the place and people that made you is an incredible gift, but it erupts all the emotions both good and bad. It can feel a little like being hugged and pinched.

Running in The Valley is awesome, even midday in August. It’s a refuge in the middle of busy Fairfield County with a trail covered by a protective tree canopy and a deep history you can feel.

The hands on the clock have now completed a full circle and I’ve had a very full day in my hometown. It’s been awesome but I’m pretty ready to go.

And this is exactly why I love traveling. I love being flexible, open to surprises, and traveling both in space and in time. I love knowing when it’s time to go.

NOTE: please excuse errors. I wrote this (literally) on a jog with my best buddy. Not sure why all the photos are at the end…..

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Meeting in The Field

There’s a trend going on lately (or maybe I’m just finally paying attention) that says it’s okay to change our stories if we don’t like how things are going. This is not to be confused with changing the truth, and we know it’s impossible to change the past, though we can change our relationships to it. This is about taking responsibility for the future.

Every story has an arc, and if we find ourselves in the midst of a trajectory that’s uncomfortable we can take one step at a time in order to achieve more favorable results. We can say, “This chapter sucks. The next one will be different.” Sometimes we need to get more aggressive. Sometimes we know that the next chapter must be different.

This is hardly a new concept. Orson Welles said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” And like I’ve said here before, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” 

This is good news: we’re in control of our stories, our destinies, our lives. But there’s other news too: so is everyone else. In my case, the someone else right now is Luckydog, my right-hand man, who also happens to be the most reliable person I’ve ever known. But lately he’s done a change-up on his story.

For the most part Lucky has been one of the easiest dogs around. He doesn’t bark. He likes to sleep in. He’s patient. He’s kind. He‘s never met a dog he wants to fight with and will (literally) lift his nose and turn away from provocation. Even when a chunk of his heinie was taken out by a dog on a trail he didn’t bite back. When a dog pushed him into barbed wire and sliced open his inner thigh he tried to hide it from me, and he did. For several hours he went into a different room and licked it. He didn’t want me to worry. He thought he could handle it. And actually, he did.

He’s brave.

He’s quiet in the car. He doesn’t drool. He poops in the perimeter of a yard. He always brings the ball back. People say he smells good, like essential oils, which might have something to do with the fact that I’m constantly hugging him. Or he might just naturally smell good, because he doesn’t get frito-smelling ears and popcorn-smelling toes from me.

He’s not perfect. He likes to walk between people’s legs, and will do this even if he can’t quite fit. It shocks people when he comes up from behind and they think they’re getting goosed, but you know what: he makes people laugh.

If I put down a beach towel he thinks it’s for him. He will get up on your couch; he used to ask permission, but now he just goes for it. If you give him permission once he’ll take it as a lifetime pass. He sheds, but that isn’t his fault.

He humps, and this has increased rapidly within the last three years. Read: he’s a dirty old man.

If he wants you to pet him he’ll bump his cinder-blockesque head under your hand and send whatever you happen to be holding up into the air. Wine, tea, coffee, you name it. Read: He can also be a little pushy. 

He begs. Read: he steals.

Yes, he steals. I never thought I’d say it, but now it’s true and I have to: it’s part of Luck’s ever-evolving story. I used to say that I could leave a ham sandwich on a coffee table for hours and he wouldn’t touch it, and I said this because it had happened and because it was true. I’ve always been enamored with Luck’s patience and perseverance. Now I say, “Keep a firm grip on your cookies, kids.”

It started slowly. Last year I had a box of groceries in the back seat, and while we were driving he helped himself to a baguette. The year before he plucked a croissant out of a kid’s hand. The girl was waving it around and he was gentle about taking it, but still: not cool. Then there was last week.

Last week we arrived at our friends’ place in the Adirondacks. They’d been up there all week and we joined for a long weekend at the end of their stay. We arrived and walked around the house and property—Ady showed me everything that had changed around the place in the past thirteen years since my last visit, which wasn’t too much—and then we sat in the living room with the kids to plot our next move.

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THE LIVING ROOM. Aside from an occasional iPad or lego lying on a hundred year old tablecloth,  the place is slow to change and feels like stepping back in time. It’s anachronistic. It’s amazing.

We were enjoying the space when I heard a small noise from the kitchen. It wasn’t dramatic, just a single tap. I jumped up in time to see Lucky’s front paws drop from the kitchen table and we made quick eye contact. I looked in front of where he’d been practically standing on the table and saw that he’d ripped the top off the last blueberry muffin still in the tin. The tap I heard was the pan hitting the table when he failed to nab the entire muffin. Smart boy though: he got the best part.

He proceeded over the course of the weekend to aggressively beg. I was a little embarrassed, but there was zero shame in his game. The less someone wanted to give him food, the more diligently he sat in front of that person sporting his biggest smile and most energetic wag. It was purported he stole all sorts of things over the weekend including, but not limited to, the fixins for s’mores. It’s possible, but there are some other bellies the graham crackers could’ve ended up in and I’d be surprised if Lucky went for marshmallows. He’s more into savory than sweet.

But Luck’s story had already changed. The following weekend at a friend’s cottage in Maine I had to tell the kids about the change of plot in Lucky’s story. I had to tell them to watch their snacks, and we put things up high. We tucked the crackers into the back of the counter’s space. Cookies went on top of the fridge. We didn’t even risk the butter.

He’s still a good boy. The kids in Maine had a joke, “Lucky’s not a good dog…He’s not a very good dog…He’s not an awesome dog…He’s the BEST dog.”  They said it even after he begged for cheese and pretzels and lobster. Honestly, it didn’t lose it’s oomph even after a dozen iterations, and every time they said it the adults laughed, especially Blake, his other biggest fan.

I’d post a photo of Lucky’s dinner our first night in Maine, but I didn’t take one because it wasn’t pretty. It was dog food and a bunch of castoffs from our lobster and steamers dinner. Gooey bits, guts, slimy parts, stinky parts, juice from inside. It was an unbelievable welcome to Maine and introduction to shellfish. In human years he’s about eighty years old; it’s time to live a little (more).

Here he is the next morning when bacon was on the block. All business. Can you blame him?

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I could try to control Lucky’s story a little more and not give him table food because giving it to him only encourages more begging, right? Maybe. Possibly. When Luck was a pup a million lifetimes (and stories) ago I read an article about how sharing food with your dog encourages bonding, and maybe we would’ve been close regardless, but maybe not.

I can’t find the article now, though I only did a quick Google search, but it doesn’t really matter at all, and a proving-article isn’t even part of our story. It’s not about supporting evidence; it’s just about what is. Some people say feeding your dog human food will make them sick, they say it isn’t healthy, they say it isn’t good.

I really dislike when someone says something isn’t good as in “It’s not good to ________ .” Because really: who says? Answer: You say.

It reminds me of this, part of a poem from Rumi, AKA the most over-quoted person in the history of Facebook. But you know what? I don’t so much care. I liked him twenty years ago when I read his words from mildewed pages, but do I really have to explain myself like crazy? Answer: Nope. Not even for a second. To me, for this story, these words are just perfect:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

and rightdoing there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.”

It’s your story. Now go out there and change the parts you don’t like. Change the plot, the characters, the essence. Be mindful of where your story intersects with someone else’s, but don’t confuse your stories with theirs. Meet each other in the field. Meet yourself there too.

Not Alone

After twenty-four days of visiting, I finally had a day all to myself today yesterday two days ago. I’m not complaining; I’m just surprised that it’s taken me a minute to find my own rhythm. For 3 ½ weeks I moved to a beat that wasn’t entirely mine, and although I wouldn’t trade a single minute of any of it, at the end of it I’m tired. And as evidenced by the strikethroughs above, it took more than one good night of sleep for me to catch up. And then there was that full moon, but I’ll leave her out of it…

Between the beginning of January and the end of June I spent much more time alone than not, but then BAM!…there I was…surrounded by people and love and activity. Silence and solitude were subtracted from my equation, and a schedule was inserted. Even my plans started making plans. I crafted an excel spreadsheet titled “Summer 2013” as a guide for mapping my visits and so I wouldn’t have to remember so (damn) much.

Along the way I’ve Facebooked and Instragramed my whereabouts, and in the process have received more (very welcomed) requests to pop by here or there, and I really hope I can squeeze it all in. These New England travels aren’t taking into consideration my desire to see what Asheville, NC is all about or to visit Southern friends in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Or the West Coast peeps who are saying come here, stay, live. Stay.

It’s an absolute joy to be able to reconnect on a physical level with old, long-missed friends, and it’s a surprise blessing to be invited to the homes of folks whose voices I haven’t heard in twenty years but who are suggesting it might behoove me to explore the Concord, Massachusetts stomping grounds of the Transcendentalists or do a cannonball in the Berkshires. These people are offering much more than a pillow for my head; they’re offering connection. It’s amazing.

It requires a lot of planning, which battles with the fact is that I’m not a huge fan of committing to events more than a week in advance. But because my present life is all about visiting other people I have to take their schedules and timelines into consideration. Sometimes even a lunch or a quick overnight requires weeks of advance planning. And because I embrace contradiction: I dig this too. But lately I can’t really plan much more; I’m simply planned out. I have to just trust that it’ll all work out as it should.

Like my TODO lists that get slightly updated titles (“End of May TODO” becomes “End of June TODO” becomes “End of July TODO” and so on…), so too will my travel spreadsheet. I mean, it’s not even August and I’m already thinking about September. Truth be told, I’m thinking about October too.

I’ve visited people whose lives I’ve mostly popped in and out of over the past dozen years I’ve lived away, and it’s been an incredible luxury to stay more than one night. One of the great treats was to see my friend Taylor and her kids at her dad’s place in Little Compton, Rhode Island which is a slice of heaven if there ever was one. Taylor is a fellow East Coaster, but a Missoula friend and it was awesome to see her though bizarre to say goodbye knowing I won’t see her soon. “At home.” Of all the plans I have, returning to Missoula (even for a visit) is not on the current list. (Insert approximately 5,000 words on this.)

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Most of the people I’ve visited are parents of multiple children and it’s been years since they’ve had the luxury of making their own schedules, reading a book without feeling guilty, not feeling responsible every second of every day to hearts beating outside their own bodies. So I feel a little selfish spoiled indulgent for feeling off kilter because I’m operating outside of my “own” schedule.

These stretched and exhausted mothers encourage me to sleep in, but their children have different ideas. Whether it’s the squeals and shrieks of a baby saying yes or no (the sound, to me, is almost the same) or sweet voices attempting to whisper outside mydoor or little bodies crawling into bed with me as they admit with giggles, “We snuck up here….” one thing is fairly certain: there’s not been a lot of sleeping in.

“She has a dog, doesn’t she?” Yes, yes I do, and in more ways than one I’ve hit the dog jackpot. Lucky sleeps as late as I want/need him too, and only wakes me up if there’s an emergency which is a few times/year after a particularly successful dumpster raid.

Throughout my ten years working as a massage therapist we’ve very rarely had a regular schedule, and I’ve usually only had to work early once or twice a week, so our mornings have been more likely to begin with coffee and a walk. It’s civilized. There were times during the winters in Montana that I’d actually have to wake him up in the morning so he could go potty before I left for work. I’d be showered, dressed and fed, but the thing that would hold me up was getting my dog out of bed. It’s an understatement to say that he’s an easy going, adaptable dog.

We’ve been so aggressively visiting friends and traveling around New England that Lucky has become a master at making himself at home. In the beginning he’d tentatively walk around and give me a look as if to say, “Is this it, Ma?” Now he walks right in and drinks from the toilet, scores the shadiest spot on the porch, and (gulp) gets up in beds.

Image {He was shooting for a long face, but couldn’t do a thing about the wagging tail! Busted!}

Aside from our time in NYC, I’ve allowed Lucky to explore his new, temporary terrain. Most of the friends we’ve visited have electric fences for their dogs, which means the absence of a perimeter securing fence. I decided that policing or leashing Luck would be lame for both of us, so I’ve trusted him to have reasonable boundaries as he explores uncharted territory. Sometimes it works better than others.

The other night Ady, Blue and I concluded a long, fun day by sitting on the patio. It had been an oppressively hot day, the sun so blazing that even this sun-lover covered her shoulders with a towel as we cruised back from surfing at the river mouth in the boat…true story. But after the kids went to sleep the adults sunk into the comfy outdoor living room furniture with cool drinks and forgot that we’d also wanted to go to bed by sundown.

We talked and stretched and laughed and even got a little serious until the mosquitos almost drove us inside, but then Ady remember the New York Times article and we decided to test the efficacy of its claim that a simple house fan can deter mosquitos. Prior to the introduction of the fan on the patio we were getting chowed; after: not at all. If you missed the article read it HERE. It works!

Lucky spent most of the evening stretched out on the patio, though toward the end he hit the grass to munch on a prehistoric looking bone he’d scored from a neighbor’s garbage pile. (He spied it one morning on a leash walk and I didn’t let him take it, so he went back on his own time. Smart boy.)

When we realized it was close to eleven (dang, we’re old) I went down with Ady to put the chickens to bed, and Lucky followed us to the coop. We watched him streak across the lawn to chase a bunny into the hedges but didn’t think much of it.

And therein lies one of life’s riddles: nothing is a big deal until it is.

I felt a twinge of nervousness, but talked myself out of it. When I was in New Mexico and this happened I panicked because I was alone. I’d run through my usual list of things to do while waiting for the dog to get back from gallivanting—make fire, sweep, boil water for tea, run bath—and then if he didn’t return I’d start the car and wait a minute. If the sound of the car didn’t bring him running then I’d drive back and forth on the ¼ mile driveway. Only twice in New Mexico did I have to drive a horseshoe around the neighborhood, and only once did I have to drive out on the highway to complete the loop.

Ady and I whistled and called his name as we walked back to the house. “Do you want me to stay with you?” she asked, and I said, “Nah…He’s fine. If I need to I’ll start the car; he runs back like a baby when he hears it.” Even as the words came out of my mouth I regretted them. Jinx.

I wanted Ady’s presence, but didn’t need her; what I really wanted was for her to get some sleep. She goes nonstop all day and must walk at least 30,000 steps, or three times the daily goal for a healthy person. “I got it,” I said, and at the same time I thought about how tired I am of doing it all, being so capable, having such a bitch of a time asking for help.

Ady gave me a flashlight and I walked up and down her section of the street. So confident that my presence would bring Lucky back I didn’t make much noise except an occasional tweet of a whistle and I tried to just enjoy walking among the maples and pines and ferns. But then I became desperate and started to enunciate each syllable of his name. LUCK-y. C’mon, LUCK. Dude…luck-Y. Come back. LUCK?

I didn’t have my phone on me, so went back to get it. I prayed for a message from a cross neighbor asking me to come get my dog or even one from Animal Control, but I had no messages and no missed calls.

Ady and Blue’s neighborhood is small and idyllic. Everyone knows everyone, and when one of the neighbors saw Lucky a few days earlier in front of Ady and Blue’s house he called the number on the tag. “I have a thing for old black dogs with white faces,” Locke told me, “I just wanted to make sure he’s where he’s supposed to be.”

He wasn’t—he was supposed to be inside the house—but he was close enough. Our group was at the farmers’ market and Luck was supposed to be with Bailey (who has an electric fence) but he’d gone rogue. The next day we thought we’d sufficiently battened down the hatches, but he snuck out again. A few days later, in New Hampshire, he moved a piece of furniture that blocked the doggie door and met us on the driveway when we got home. Like a mother I felt simultaneously proud and afraid.

The dogs that live at these houses have “freedom” with doggie doors and electric fences, but there was nothing to contain my boy within the margins. I could hope that he’d follow the other dogs’ lead, but I know my dog better than that and wind up doing a lot of praying and bargaining.

I’m glad I told Ady to go to bed—she’s a busy mother of two—and I felt secure knowing that if Lucky showed up injured or if he didn’t show up at all that I wouldn’t have to endure that reality alone. I thought back to the winter when I was alone in New Mexico’s northern mountains with twenty minutes between me and a cell phone signal and how alone I felt when Lucky was missing on sub-zero nights. How I knew the satellite Internet wouldn’t reset until midnight, and how even then the connection would be unreliable. I thought about the washboard roads and steep ridgelines separating me from friends who wouldn’t mind being woken up.

But Rhode Island in July is different. As I walked the small loop on foot and drove the bigger loops in the car I felt nervous and desperate, but I also knew there were people in the house I could wake up if I found a dead or dismembered dog, there was a phone I could pick up and dozens of people who’d talk me down from the tree. And everything feels a lot less desperate when you’re wearing flip-flops and bugspray instead of a parka and snowboots with yaktrax.

But then I edged my car onto the main road and looked for a black lump. I visited some of the bad neighborhoods in my brain. I planned for the worst. And then the phone rang. I expected it to be a local telling me “We have your dog….”, but it was Emily, from Montana, just calling to check in. I was glad to hear from my fellow thirty-niner-do-it-all-myself friend, but I couldn’t focus on either talking or listening though I really tried and was desperate for something to take my mind off the current situation, or my exhaustion, or the fact that my life could possibly be on the brink of a major change. The fact I could be on the actual edge that I usually only speak about metaphorically. I needed to hear something other than the voices in my head telling me that maybe I trust too much or that he’s a dog not a homing pigeon. I was cruel to myself, “How can you be so careless with something you love so much….?”

It was comforting to hear Em’s voice, but frustrating because I was unable to focus on either the conversation or my searching so I stayed in limbo, which Emily told me a few months ago “is not a destination.”

We stayed on the phone for a little while—and it was an enormous help as I continued my physical and mental looping—but at midnight I finally said, “I have to give up. I have to go to bed. I’m so tired. I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but I’m going to go to bed without Lucky. I’ve never done this before.” Em told me it was okay. She told me he’d be back. She said it was okay to put my head down. I needed that permission, and it felt good to receive it without asking. Really: I’d done everything I could.

I’d spoken to two neighbors walking their own dogs (responsibly, on leashes) and asked them to keep an eye out for my renegade. “He’s wearing a tag,” I said, “Please call if you see him.” I’d startled a group of teenagers with my headlights as they scooted around the yacht club gate to drink on the dock. Most of the group picked up the pace when they saw an unknown car, though one kid stopped to talk and promised to call if he saw my dog.

Nobody called, and I fell asleep just after midnight with my phone in the bed. I woke up within the hour and remembered instantly that I was alone, so I grabbed a flashlight to go downstairs where I hoped Luck was waiting to be let inside. I shined the light up and down the leafy corridor next to the house and he didn’t appear. I did that two more times during the night, and then at 6:30 I woke up again, guilty that I’d slept an hour past sunrise, and suited up for a run. I said to myself, “I’m going to find this fucking dog.”

I walked across the street to get my running shoes from my car/mobile closet and he very quietly slinked up to me. All of the adrenaline I’d possessed to run like a crazy person disappeared and I immediately wanted to fall back asleep, as the few Zs I’d gotten during the night had been bloated with guilt and fear.

I turned the fan on and blew cool morning air into my room. I put my arm around my boy—with whom I’m never actually alone—and thought about how to proceed. I slept for a little while, but it was bright. It was time to be awake, regardless of sleep or lack of. Lucky seemed drained, exhausted, and a little hung-over. He didn’t want his breakfast, and became a rug on a rug on a rug for a few hours.

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I caught up on some reading, and came across the news that Schoep had died. Schoep is the dog that became famous last summer as a result of the photo that showed his owner, John, holding his arthritic body in Lake Superior. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share the photo or if this is the proper way to do it, but am crediting Hannah Stonehouse with this shot:

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Schoep lived a month past his twentieth birthday. I also couldn’t help but resist stealing this picture off Schoep and John’s Facebook page. He had fish and ice cream.

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If you need a good cry, take a look at THIS.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed once my naughty dog slept off the previous night’s bender. Trust him? Leash him? I decided to trust, but also to keep a closer eye on him after dark. Luck and I are usually pretty good about trusting that the other will come back, but we’re both human alive and sometimes we panic and do things like move furniture with our heads or walk circles thinking it’ll get us somewhere new.

But in a way I did get somewhere new. I feared the worst-case scenario the other night, but I also knew that somehow I’d survive it, which wasn’t something I was capable of a few months ago.

This love is scary, but it’s also impossible and inspiring. It is big and often debilitating, and its strength sometimes feels like an internal natural disaster, but at the same time it affords me a way to access the courage I didn’t know I had.

And so I’m sitting still, gathering my thoughts, and writing again as I enter the next phase of book writing and (hopefully) publishing. Ady and Blue have gone to the Adirondacks and I’m alone at their house staying in the sweetest apartment over the garage. I have a view of the Narragansett Bay and a dog heart beating by my feet. I’m the farthest thing from alone.

Waiting On a Train

Emily and I gave our co-blogging experiment a name: The Striped Shirt Review. This installment is ten photos with ten words for each, and the title we’re both using is “Waiting On A Train.”

Nine photos are from eight recent days in NYC, and one is from Connecticut. I’m fairly certain that Emily’s are from her time living in Italy and Poland, but she’s surprised me before. Check in with her tonight to find out: Em’s middleWest.

WAITING ON A TRAIN

1. Driving in through Brooklyn: “Ignorance is NOT Bliss.” Truth? Fiction?

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2. I ate some of the best meals of my life.

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3. Walking Lucky I explored Sunnyside more than ever. Loved it.

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4. Hunting light and dark has become a habit of mine.

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5. Homeless, stylish, color coordinated. A discrete snap. “Pendleton?” No matter.

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6. Listerine, toothpicks, cigars, cassettes, peroxide. Condoms, spoons, Sunny-D, lighter-fluid, frutas.

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7. I waited for the train as the sun went down.

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8. Silhouetted Manhattan from the platform in Queens. On my own.

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9. More light and dark in the city. Can’t help it.

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10. Connecticut before and after. Feels like home because it is.

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It was hard to pick and choose but I did.

And now I can stop thinking in groups of ten. ♥

My Essence is Lost in The Mail

Before I moved to Missoula, Montana—halfway between Denver and Seattle and a long way from anywhere—my social circles were limited. I’d lived in bigger, more diverse places with deeper pools to pick from, yet I’d tended toward friends who were my own age or with whom I shared a common bond over something solid—like education, geography or sport—and I hadn’t reached very far outside my comfort zone when looking for friends.

But things were different in Missoula. Missoula’s population is colorful, eccentric and dynamic. Boundaries that exist in other places are non-existent in Missoula, where I became friends with felons and strippers, addicts and people in recovery, homeless folks and millionaires hiding out. I learned a lot about people and their goodness. I discovered that virtue, values, and humility wear a lot of different costumes.

I made friends with a woman originally from South Africa who’d lived in many exotic places before following a man back to Missoula. (Moving to Missoula for a man doesn’t make a woman exotic, and is more cliche than not. But that, my friends, is a story for a different day.) She had a clothing company and organized parties where she’d display her designs around wine and cheese. The label on her designs said NKA, which I found out stood for No Known Address

At that point I’d moved a fair amount, but my moves had been organized, calculated, and based more on common sense than on whims. Even my limbo had a method to its madness. Now: not so much. At last count I’ve had thirty-five addresses.

It occurred to me the other day that I’m about to change my address for the third time this year. When fall turned to winter I was in Missoula, but heading for San Cristobal. When winter turned to spring I prepared to leave for Naples. And now, spring has just turned to summer and I’m preparing to leave again. But this time it’s different: I’ve planned a summer of visiting and there’s no one destination. I will use my mother’s address for my mail, but as it stands right now I have No Known Address.

I’m fairly certain that a few things will get lost in the mail, which brings me to the title of this post: My Essence is Lost in The Mail. It’s not, of course, because that’s impossible. An essence isn’t something that can be lost. It’s what’s realized when everything else—like an address, a job, a home base—is stripped away. The greatest gift we can discover about ourselves is who we really are. What fires our engines? What feels right when we’re doing it and wrong when we’re not? Who are we when we’re vulnerable? (Note: by vulnerable I do not mean weak…)

I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time writing these past six months, which means I’ve been alone, and because I left Missoula to do this I haven’t had the opportunity to walk out my door to be surrounded by familiar faces and places.  In my aloneness and vulnerability I’ve discovered a lot about myself, and one of those has to do with my ability to trust.

I’ll do almost anything for a person—even someone I barely know—unless (or until) I discover that person is untrustworthy. Over twenty years ago a friend described me as someone who’ll be “Your best friend until she’s not,” and I think it’s still spot-on. Translation: I trust out of the gate, but I’m not a doormat.

Two and a half years ago I was working as a waitress and a woman came in alone and ate and drank, but when the time came to pay her bill she realized she didn’t have her wallet. I paid her bill and trusted that she’d pay me back in a couple of days when she found her wallet or got to the bank. It wasn’t that seamless, and I wrote about that experience and the ensuing mayhem HERE last October.

People told me to let it go, reminded me that it wasn’t even about the money, and all sorts of things I already knew, but I really wanted to give Nicole a chance to make right on her promise to pay me back. I didn’t want to pencil a tick mark in the “people suck” column. In the interim Nicole and I have exchanged some words that haven’t always been kind, but we moved beyond it. She told me that she simply doesn’t have the money to pay me, but that she’s been designing earrings to raise money for a permaculture project and wanted to send me a pair, not in lieu of payment, but as a wearable-art gift, and I was delighted. Because really: it’s not about the sixty bucks. It’s about accountability.

(NOTE: I’d go without food to pay someone back, but the fastest road to disappointment is expecting people to act the way you want them to act or to do things they way you would. Ain’t gonna happen…)

Nicole and I recognized some similarities in each other and accepted a few differences. We started to really speak to each other and acknowledged the likelihood that we could have been friends if we hadn’t had our “misunderstanding.” I made an about-face and went back to trusting, which is a state I’m more comfortable with than doubt.

Nicole’s earrings are made from recycled materials and incorporate stones and bits from around the world. She told me she was making a pair for me that symbolize “my essence” and I wasn’t sure what that meant–we hardly know each other–but I liked the concept and appreciated the effort. She told me she’d just gotten her hands on some materials that came from South America and wanted to incorporate them into my gift and I started to wonder about my essence weighing down my ear lobes, but still…Trust, right?

She gave me a choice between hammered silver or copper and it was a tough call, but I told her to make the decision because I couldn’t and anything representing my essence was bound to work, right? Three months later—and preparing for another change of address note to the USPS—the earrings representing my essence hadn’t arrived, and to be honest I’d forgotten about them. Last week I wrote an email to my friend Emily, who has been a part of this journey with Nicole and me (and my journey at large), and I said, “It looks like my essence is lost in the mail.”

I was mad at Nicole for a minute, but got over it and wrote to her to tell her I’d be moving on soon. I mean, when the earrings representing my essence travel across the country I want them to be able to locate me. Nicole let me know that she’s still working on the earrings and has one more piece she wants to add. She told me “the essence continues to brew and evolve” and will look great with my hair and skin. I sent her my mother’s address and three emojis: the flamenco dancer, the crystal ball, and the setting sun. And that was it.

One thing that Nicole and I chatted about during our “make up texting” was that we’re both from the east and we’ve both traveled a lot, and that all of the places you’ve been make you who you are, but at the core you’re still you regardless of geography. There’s only one person who can write and sign your permission slip for authenticity.

Yes, it can be easier to let your freak flag fly in a place like Missoula, and easier to lose it in a place where most of the population dresses like every day is Easter. Or not. Your essence—your boiled down version of yourself—isn’t something you can lose or gain. Not in the mail, in the air or in affairs of the heart. Your essence can be masked, hidden, and disguised, but what it boils down to each and every time is choice. Are you going to be you or are you going to try to be someone else? What feels genuine? In the end there’s no hiding and the truth flushes out: Wherever you go, there you are.

It’s you in your glasses and sweatpants, it’s you blown out and dressed up, it’s you crying because you’re happy and laughing because you’re scared. It’s you at your best and your worst and the line in between is in sand, which means, of course, there’s no line at all.

There are infinite ways to define essence, but one thing remains true: it’s not something you can lose. Not even if you try.

Emily said recently, “Limbo is not a destination,” and I inhaled her words. Limbo can be ignorance or it can be bliss. It can be fleeting or it can be agonizingly protracted. It can be a state that is emotional or physical. It can be scary in a feet-off-the-ground, head-in-the-clouds way, but it can also be that beautiful moment right before you make a decision to go in one direction or another. As Willie Nelson says:

“Still is still moving to me and I swim like a fish in the sea all the time/But if that’s what it takes to be free I don’t mind/Still is still moving to me.”

I employed a therapist during the final month of editing the second draft of NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR because I needed a little help making sense of my past and my future. Truth be told, I needed a little grounding. He gave me a lot of valuable advice, but one thing that’s come up repeatedly is this: “When you don’t know where you are or what you’re doing look down at your two feet. That is where you are right now, and right now is all that matters.”

Right now is all that matters

Emily and I are both writers who support each other in a process that is dauntingly solitary. It helps to know there’s someone else out there fighting the same good fight. We’ve talked about blogging on the same topic before, and this is our kickoff to that. Please go check out Em’s blog at for her take on “My Essence is Lost in The Mail.”

Soul Sisters

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.” ―Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I’ll start by being blunt: I have issues with time. Ok, now I can meander around this space in a circle, because seriously: screw the straight line.

H. Jackson Browne, Jr. said something that really ticks me off: “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”

(NOTE: Don’t confuse the above (possible lunatic) with Jackson Browne the writer and performer of Before The Deluge, Running on Empty, Somebody’s Baby, In the Shape of a Heart, Doctor My Eyes, etc. Oh man, that guy has my heart. The other? I’m not so sure about him. He seems a little short-sighted. Or maybe it’s me, because what he’s really saying is: No more excuses. Get out of your own way. He’s saying you can get it if you really want.)

“He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time” ― Oscar Wilde

I rarely feel like I have enough time, and tend to severely underestimate the amount of time it takes to do individual tasks. What this translates into is that I usually run late. I don’t like waiting; that seems like a waste of time, so I push limits. I bargain. I tell myself I can go to the bank and the post office in twenty minutes, and because I was able to pull this off once I believe I can turn it into something more than a fluke.

“Time is the longest distance between two places.” ― Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

I will die trying to recreate something that was, but here’s the thing: comparing to the past muddles our decision making. But you know what else muddles our decision making? Comparing ourselves to other people. So while we may all have the same number of hours in a day each day, every person is different in the space of time. But I don’t even need to explain that like a crazy person. What it boils down to is stop comparing. It’s unhealthy.

Duh. Right?

When time couples with worry or anxiety a single moment can feel like forever. On the contrary, when time is combined with love and joy it goes so fast. Sometimes we want to turn back time for another chance, and sometimes we want to crank the clock forward because we just. can’t. wait. any. more. These desires fall on opposite sides of the spectrum yet have one thing in common, their most significant characteristic: they’re impossible.

Because of that impossibility we’re left with one really fine option: Seize the moment. BE. HERE. NOW. (I swear I will get that tattoo one of the days….)

“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” ― Dr. Seuss

Sometimes I’m so in the moment for so many consecutive moments that I forget to do basic things like shampoo my hair for days on end or give the dog dinner before the sun goes down. But then as stealthily as it started—it’s over. I’m snapped away from my focus by the darkness settling around me. Turn on light, feed dog, wash self. Reality check.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “Flow.” He studies happiness and creativity, and says a good way to get there is through achieving flow, which is when we’re completely immersed in an activity and though we’re working hard, we are given a break from the worst time and soul suckers of all: worry, anxiety and fear. I’d suggest reading Flow or listening to Mihaly’s TED Talk because my summary doesn’t do his research and findings a bit of justice. For starters you can think about the six factors that must happen to have flow:

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

I love that in flow the hardest work can seem like the greatest vacation

Time is a storm in which we are all lost. Only inside the convolutions of the storm itself shall we find our directions.― William Carlos Williams

I’ve thought of a type of flow that I haven’t heard Mihaly talk about: the achievement of flow when you’re with a good friend. Like when two hours or ten hours or five days can pass and you can hardly believe it because you’ve been so there, so present, so with this other person.

This is what we call a lovely way to spend time because time is, after all, a currency, and in my opinion it’s the most valuable. Of all the things I enjoy spending like it’s my last day, time is at the top of the list. I’m getting pickier these days about how I spend my time. I’ll spend time I don’t really have (although that’s just an illusion, right?) to spend time with someone really worth it, but when I’ve spent my time on someone who might not respect it, or me…. Ick.

It’s a waste except for the lessons learned, though those days are ending. Because although time takes things from us—flawless skin and endless energy—it also gives us one of the greatest gifts: experience. And you can’t buy that with greenbacks or credit. It is only available with time.

“But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” ― Prince, 1999

When I first got to Florida in April I had a lot of people to see and didn’t know how I was going to squeeze it all in. My mother and I ran around non-stop my first week here, and after I dropped her off at the airport I continued two hours north so I could visit my friend Caraline, who I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. I was going across Florida the next day to visit my friends Kate and Kim, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Caraline who had—another lifetime ago—been very important in my life. We’d been mostly absent during the adult years except for our recent connection on Facebook we learned that we both love dogs and sunshine and delicious food. But for years we never actually talked; it was just the voyeur-friend thing.

It may be impossible to turn back time, but Caraline and I got damn close. The way we talk, the way we move, the way we interact with each other…it’s a connection and a bond that two decades can’t touch. The beach house was a little tricky to find, so she said, “I’ll be the nut in her bathing suit in the middle of the street.” And she was. And I loved it.

We posted up on the beach with her boyfriend and his family and never shut up for ten hours. Flow. Love. Friends. Later I sat on the bed while she did her hair and makeup—talking to both of our reflections in the mirror—and I got the goosebumps. We’ve done this before. Here’s us then and now:

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It makes my heart burst to see that Caraline and I are still linked via the soul after all these years. It makes me wonder too; about both the power and limits of time and the extraordinary expectations we have for it. If time can’t break bonds, then how can it be expected to heal wounds? But yet it does.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi

Time isn’t the only one that plays tricks and makes magic. Our hearts and minds do to, and our eyes….oh the tricks. About a month ago I was deep in the trenches of writing and editing my book and flow seemed 100% unattainable. I was itchy, irritated and unsettled. I posted this on Facebook:

It’s impossible to know how the future will flesh out and where or when I’ll settle somewhere permanently, but right now not a day that goes by when I don’t miss something about Missoula. Usually it’s my friends, but I’ll tell you, Missoulians, your photos of lilacs and balsamroot and greening hills hit me hard.

I was at the gym tonight, and out the window I caught a glimpse of the condos across the street lit up by the setting sun. For a hot second I thought I was looking at Mt. Sentinel, as I’ve seen that mountain lit up in *exactly* the same way hundreds of times, and each time I fell deeper in love with it. Or at least that’s what my memory told me until my brain said, “Girl? You losing it?”

A laugh was followed by nausea over my mistake, but there was something about tonight’s color and light and the way the slope of the roof mimicked the ridges of the mountain that tricked me good.

I left the gym and grabbed Lucky for a walk around the neighborhood. While we were out the sky became impossibly beautiful. First a rainbow, then the sky looked like a marble with a fire inside, and the condos that in silhouette looked like mountains. There may be no end to the tricks our minds can play. I took a picture that needs no filter. In fact, I snapseeded it, but reverted to the original because I liked it better naked and untouched.

I broke the rules and let my boy off his leash, and as we walked home a bald eagle flew over us. Life: it’s amazing. The mind tricks. The contrast between eagles and condos. The opposition of the sky over a manmade lake. That moment when it’s impossible not to believe that everything will be okay in the end, because really: everything’s okay right now.

And I love this: if it’s not okay then it’s not the end….So we carry on in a world that seems strange and confusing. In a world that is more beautiful unfiltered.

Here are the accompanying pictures.

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The condo photo reminded me of the light on Mt. Sentinel, but the cloud picture didn’t remind me of anything until after I’d posted it, when it became apparent that the silhouetted roofs looked a lot like a Montana ridge line with the sun at its back. My friend Amy was tricked too, and commented that when she saw it she thought I was back in Montana. Tricks.

I almost didn’t include the line “if it’s not okay then it’s not the end,” but after deleting and undeleting a few time I decided I wanted to. Within moments I had a text from Caraline:

“You know that’s my favorite sayings, right? I have a card with the saying framed in my bedroom, and a magnet in my office cube with it. I read it almost daily. Did you know? Are we really that closely aligned after all these years apart?…”

I told her I didn’t know, and that I had chicken skin after reading her message. She sent me a photo of the card that night, and told me that inside is a note from her mother: “We were all waiting with you. You were not alone.” The next day she sent a photo of the magnet, and we’ve been steadily communicating since then. We send quotes and jokes and pictures of the dogs. We send words of support.

When NWA comes on the shuffle while I’m running I text her because it makes me think of her, and she tells me she still knows most of the words to the songs and raps them Office Space style in the car. (TRUTH: I made that last part up about her rapping in the car, but it’s not outside the parameters of possibility.) We also talk about serious things, and that’s how it’s always been with us: balanced.

It’s like we never missed a beat. I’ve been invited to her mom’s 70th birthday party in August in Connecticut, and because I’ll be spending the summer in New York and New England I’ll be able to make it. Really, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

My summer travel schedule is going to be capital-I intense and I can’t wait! In case there was a miscommunication: I may have some fun here and there, but I have not been on vacation for the past six months. Some people think because I’m not clocking in or working for someone else that I’m not working. News flash: I’ve never worked so hard in my entire life. Stringing letters and words together to represent thoughts and ideas and hope that they make sense on the flip side is kind of like building a spec house of materials that may or may not have proven themselves. Writing sure can be a great path to flow, but when it’s not it can be the exact opposite: it can be a waking fucking nightmare.

Time never passes so fast as when there’s a deadline looming and you’re not sure you’re going to make it, but it’s not like you to miss a deadline so you push and push and hope and hope and then it comes. And after a brief moment of elation you hit the deck, exhausted, where you stay for days. But you need a facial and a massage and the dog hair tumbleweeds get caught up in the breeze and start looking like tarantulas and rats and so you think about sweeping and then decide to make some juice. You make cantaloupe juice and watermelon juice. The nectar gets the blood flowing again. You juice kale, apple, parsley, and lemon. You are convinced you discovered gold or invented the wheel. At the very least you’re convinced you’re going to make it. The life comes back. The skin clears up. The back straightens and the head lifts. You go to yoga on a paddleboard when you’re not even sure you can lift your ass off the couch and it turns out to be just what you needed. That standing on a moving object, that balancing, that falling in the water. The surprise, the laugh, the eyes on the horizon.

And in the end when the sun sets and the dust settles and you get around the wrangling the dog hair it becomes clear: Your friends are still there. You were never alone.

There are the old friends who are soul sisters, but there are the new friends too. The ones who got you thirty years ago still get you, and that’s awesome. But then there are the new friends. The people you’ve hardly spent any time with, but out of the gate it’s easy, comfortable and eerily familiar in a good way. My friend Jill, who teaches SUP Yoga (and a bazillion other things) and I are like that. That she’s married to a good high school friend helps, but now Jill and I have our own little thing going on. We’ve been quietly “helping” each other since we met, and today I sat writing and sweating and writing and bleeding words and sweating and she walked up and commended me on my diligence and I because I think I only accomplish a fraction of what she does I got awkward, but (see above) it’s not about comparing to the past or to each other. It’s really about what Jill said next, “Let’s help each other.”

Jill organized the sunset SUP yoga that also got me out of my exhaustion funk the other night. It also happened to be a photo shoot and she needed bodies there, so I took one for the team and showed up for her without realizing that I was also showing up for myself as I let my stress worries leave my horizon along with the setting sun. Does it get any better than this?

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(Photo by Erik Kellar)

In lieu of knowing how to end this circular meandering path, and because I’ve already quoted half a dozen people, I’m going to end with a few lines from one of my first favorite books, a book that deserves a rereading now that I’m past the age of twenty, or whatever I was when I first got my hot little hands on it: Jitterbug Perfume.

“If New Orleans is not fully in the mainstream of culture, neither is it fully in the mainstream of time. Lacking a well-defined present, it lives somewhere between its past and its future, as if uncertain whether to advance or to retreat. Perhaps it is its perpetual ambivalence that is its secret charm. Somewhere between Preservation Hall and the Superdome, between voodoo and cybernetics, New Orleans listens eagerly to the seductive promises of the future but keeps at least one foot firmly planted in its history, and in the end, conforms, like an artist, not to the world but to its own inner being–ever mindful of its personal style.” ― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Underground

I was going to write a post yesterday about how I’ve “gone underground” to finish up the next version of my book, and how I’ll be on lockdown for the better part of the next week. But then I went to the Cuban Cafeteria for lunch, and just had to share.

I posted a couple of pictures on Facebook of the scene, my gorgeous carne asada tacos, and Materva, which is a Yerba Mate soda that originated in Cuba and that is made in Miami.

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Honestly: there’s a lot to love about Florida in the food department, but I I have a bit of a love/hate with the rest of it. In the past few weeks the place has gone humid and buggy. The nighttime temperature is only about ten degrees less than the daytime temperature and more often than not I feel like I’m in desperate need of a swim or a shower. Just when I think I might brave the heat for a run the thunderclouds start brewing a storm.

Since 6:00am wakeups “aren’t my thing” I’ve been unable to run outside, so am stuck slow walking or inside on the elliptical. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and definitely classifies as a White Girl Problem.

But mostly I write. I took a break for a few days last week when my mom was here and we went to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary  for a beautiful walk in the rain on the 2.25 mile boardwalk. We mostly talked, and if other walkers hadn’t been there we would’ve missed the alligators altogether. For real. Here’s my mom in her poncho that we bought at the gift shop.

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We went to Clyde Butcher’s gallery and all I have to say is WOW. If you ever drive the Tamiami Trail across south Florida it’s worth the stop. His photos are timeless and evocative. Check them out HERE.  You can also go on a walk in the swamp behind the gallery—no boardwalk on that walk. We couldn’t go, it’s October-March only, but here’s a photo of my soul sister Caraline thigh deep in the swamp with her mother, sister, and friend. These girls get around in the best way.

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My mother’s final words at the airport: “Promise me the swamp walk.” I love this and look forward to that experience. I might even get a GoPro for the event so not a second is left uncaptured.

Then we went to the awesome Rod and Gun Club in Everglade City, where time seems to have stopped in a very good way. I had surf and turf, and didn’t expect my turf to be topped with onion rings but you don’t argue with something like that. I focused on the broiled lobster tail and brought most of the steak to a very lucky Luckydog.

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But really I came here to talk about the Cuban Cafeteria. I’d driven by a few times, but finally today was the day. It didn’t disappoint.

In addition to the tacos I bought Nescafe Instantaneo (because I love the stuff. true story. i drink it with sweetened condensed milk.) and three perfectly ripe (and 1/3 of the price at Publix) avocados.  And I took some pictures. Honestly, I could’ve been back in Honduras. Central America is big on mops and brooms. You can buy then absolutely anywhere, and there are even trucks that drive around selling them. I’m not sure if the wheelchair is for sale, but the old ceiling fans are as well as a slew of old stoves by the front door, which I couldn’t discretely get a photo of.

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They also sell Florida Water cologne (which apparently has a wide variety of uses) and product for slicking back the hair. I passed on both. For now.

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All this got me thinking about Florida. Before lunch I stopped at the Two Step Shop where I had a great conversation with Gary, the owner. I no longer have my Montana plates to identify with, but I wanted him to know I wasn’t your average Floridian in pink pants and a white shirt, so I told him I love boots and dancing.

I was the only customer at the time (and possibly all day), and we got to talking. Gary has been around some, and he told me that when he went to Wyoming he and his wife went to Jackson first, but didn’t like the scene and he said, “Let’s drive until we hit a roadside bar with dirty pickups out front; then we’ll stop.”

I couldn’t help myself. “Is there any place like that around here?” I asked him, and he told me Florida is short on cowboys, but does have its fair share of rednecks if you head east of the interstate. Then he gave me a tip about a place called Porky’s, and was clear that I not confuse it with the Porky’s on Marco Island, which is an entirely different scene.

He told me Porky’s (full name: Porky’s Last Stand) has great BBQ, great people and live music every weekend and some weekdays. He gave me some precise directions and even included how to enter the place. “You’ll see a bunch of Mercurys parked out front,” he said, “They’ll be all clean. But if you drive around back you’ll see the dirty pickups and the back door. That’s the door you want to go in.”

We made some jokes about entering through the back door just in case a quick getaway is necessary, and Gary said, “Nope. If you’re in trouble you go out the bathroom window.” Good to know.

I also couldn’t help but ask Gary about good places to let Lucky roam off leash, but he said that when you leave the developments “You’re only ever 30 feet–at MOST–from a snake. And I’m talking Copperhead, Diamondback, Rattlesnake, and Coral. 30 feet at the MOST.” Also very good to know. Gary couldn’t let me leave without telling me about the Swamp Buggy races that happen in the fall and spring. “More confederate flags on t-shirts, hats and belt buckles than you’ve ever seen in your life. I sell out of flags there every year,” he said. My visit to the Two Step Shop turned out to be far more informative than anticipated.

But it’s true: I’ve had a bit of a strugglefest with poor Florida. There’s a lot of good here—there’s no doubt about it—but nothing yet has compelled me to want to stay here long term. My mother bought a beautiful, comfortable condo and it’s been a long time since I’ve had such a nice bed to sleep in night after night, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t drive by the 1950s motels and crisp, white trailer parks with a bit of longing, and I understand that may be hard for some heads to wrap around.

In the “resort community” there’s a pool and a gym and more amenities than I’ve ever had at my disposal. I like the fact that I can play tennis with a ball machine whenever I want. It’s pretty here. The flora and fauna are magnificent. The grocery stores and restaurants teem with the best of the best. There’s really everything a person could want here, except something is missing for me: grit.

Downtown is gorgeous with palm trees wrapped in lights and terrific shops and restaurants. But there isn’t a single homeless person. There’s nobody playing a guitar for spare change. Everyone is remarkably well behaved.

Shortly after I arrived here I discovered a taco stand not far from where I live which is next to the John Deere shop and in front of a bar that feels about as far away from the glitzy downtown as a person can get. This is the back door:

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I can already predict who’s going to wave a few yellow flags in my direction, and I love ya’ll for it…

As it turns out Southwest Florida might not have everything I want, but it certainly has a lot of what I need. It’s not in your face screaming “I’m grungy!” “I’m cool!” or “I might be a little dangerous…” (Okay, some parts might actually yell that last one….) But that isn’t actually what I ever like about a place; the overtly hip isn’t my thing. So what, I must ask myself, is my thing?

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It’s nice, right? There’s a sweetness and simplicity to it that I adore. But really what I want—what I always seem to pine for—is to have been born fifty years earlier, and in lieu of that being a possibility, I’ll do my best to Be Here Now, and one of the best ways I know to connect with myself and the present moment is to do what I’m here to do: Finish the book. So….on that note…I’m going back underground, which also happens to be the place where some of the best surprises are found.

I’ll be back next week with a post about the awesome, serendipitous nature of my old-as-the-hills friendship with Caraline (pictured above in the swamp), and will also link to a piece I wrote as a guest blogger for Shaunanigans’ Taboo Tab, which she’ll post on 6/22. The topic: Body Image. In the meantime, check her out: Miss Shauna has a lot to say and she says it well. 

Learning is Winning

Yesterday was a good reminder. I was reminded of patience, joy, trust, fun, and the thrill of learning something new. I went to my first SUP (standup paddle board) Yoga class. I’ve been on a paddle board a couple of times—on a pond—but despite a dozen years in a state with some of the best rivers and lakes, I never learned much about wielding a paddle. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed many long river days, but was content in my role of handing out snacks and beers.

There was another first-timer at the class, and while she focused intently I mostly spaced out during the demonstration. She did some on-land paddle practice, and positioned her feet properly on the board while I gazed at the horizon and spied pelicans. The fact of the matter is, I acted like I knew more than I did and exhibited something akin to false confidence. I’m more than aware of my tendency to do this in various arenas, and I could say that historically that behavior hasn’t served me well, but the truth is I’ve found greater success (I think…) in acting “as if” then wondering “what if.”

But that’s a different story….

The Gulf of Mexico isn’t known for its waves. As far as Florida is concerned, the surfing is on the Atlantic side, but there is surfing here too—mostly during hurricane season and cold fronts—but occasionally the wind is just right and we get a little swell. Yesterday was one of those days. Ok, swell might be an exaggeration, but we had some rollers.

The three seasoned SUP yogis had been cruising around on their boards for a while, and when it was time to go I pushed my board into the water, hopped up on my knees and started to paddle. The instructor’s voice came behind me, “You’re a natural!” Then I laughed, tried to stand up, and fell. The other newcomer, who I later learned is a yoga professional, took her time getting started. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I guess it had something to do with wanting to feel confident on her board so she’d be better able to practice the poses she knows so well. Me: I just wanted to get the party started.

Jill Wheeler is the wife of a high school friend of mine and the leader of the class as well as many others she offers through Wellfit Institute.  She offers wellness coaching, therapy, adventure travel and workshops. She’s definitely a badass with a wide smile and infectious exuberance. You get the immediate sense that some of that will wear off just by being near her, and after ninety minutes playing in the water with her I can confirm that it’s true.

She wrote a blog post recently about her last month which included running the Boston Marathon and witnessing from close range the events there, then she went straight to leading a group of women on a Kite.Yoga.Love Adventure Camp in Costa Rica. After that she was home briefly then off again to yoga teacher training in Mexico. {And I thought my last month was exhausting. Perspective is an interesting thing. But here’s the real thing: it’s useless to compare ourselves to other people. Absolutely useless. The other new student and I took different approaches to the same thing, but in the end I think we had equally fun and satisfying experiences.}

Jill wrote:

Getting to Costa Rica was both a blessing and a curse. Good to be away from the trauma and drama, but hard to be away from my daughters. It was the first time I didn’t feel ready to shine as a leader…but I put on my big girl panties and planned not to miss a beat. I am really good about digging deep and pulling it all off, often at my own cost….I realized…how inspiring am I going to be if I am not leading by example and getting into that salty bay to ride, splash and play? How can I hold back and expect others to face their discomfort?”

Many of us connect to ourselves through nature, and Jill and I both fall into that camp. We don’t necessarily do it in the same ways—she’s more of an athlete, while I’m more of a feel my toes in the sand and the water on my skin and the wind in my face kind of girl—but sometimes there’s sameness in the difference and we both know one thing to be true: nature and movement are what help us keep it together when things seem to be falling apart. Or, in a more perfect world, what we use to prevent the seams from coming undone.

I have never in my life been as challenged as I have been writing this book, that has a new working title recycled from a previous (unfinished) book: NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. I joke that I’m the toughest boss I’ve ever had, and I’m not even close to kidding. I’m relentless, ruthless, critical and sometimes downright mean. I have everything I need to be successful, yet I still sometimes manage to get in my own way. If I had a choice I probably wouldn’t work for me.

I have a solid 96,000-word draft of a book, and a perceptive editor who gave me some terrific advice and a decent road map that I can use to guide me in my rewriting. He seems to understand me and suggested I do a quick rewrite. He didn’t say it in these words, but the implication was there: Don’t agonize. You’ve got this.

Sometimes I sit in front of the computer twirling my hair, and I wonder why my mind spins in a million directions as if I have nothing to work with, as if I’m starting from scratch. I worry if I have too much material and what I can do to skim some off the sides and create a more manageable manuscript. I worry that I’ll never get this done. I worry about what happens if I fail. I worry if I suffer from a Jonah Complex, or a fear of success.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow said of the complex,

“So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried—in vain—to run away from his fate”.

I came to Naples for cutting, revising and adding a few additions to the book. I didn’t expect to like the place, but have been pleasantly surprised by the nature here—the proximity to The Everglades, the Gulf, the abundant wildlife—yet I struggle with some fundamental things about the place. If I’m being real here, and that’s the point, my struggle most likely has more to do with the rising tide within me than with geography, but it also has something to do with being able to connect to a place, and this place is so, so different from the Rocky Mountains I’ve called home for most of the past dozen years. So we change perspective a bit: big whoop, right?

Yesterday it was clearly time to dunk myself into the water. It was time to learn something new and to connect with the nature that’s here. It was time to feel like a ten year old. The summer between my junior and senior years of college I moved across the country alone to work on my thesis project. I chose Hood River, Oregon (for a magazine internship) and learned to windsurf while I was there because it was available and because I tend toward a “When in Rome” attitude.

Learning to windsurf in a world-class location known for its cranking wind has built in challenges, so most people learn to windsurf in places like Aruba where the water is warm and where you can beach start. You need a wetsuit in the Columbia River, have to watch out for barges, and the only option is to water start in deep water.  The result is that you get tossed around a lot and do a tremendous amount of face planting. But one thing is true: there’s a much greater success rate (with anything) if you focus only on what you’re doing, and keep your mind off how you look or if you’re doing something wrong or what’s for dinner. The bonus of a wetsuit: you don’t have to worry about wedgies. {There is always a silver lining.}

I found immense joy in that “mind vacation” as a twenty-one-year-old, and I hoped that I could tap into it again as a thirty-nine-year-old.  So finally, yesterday, I took Jill up on the offer to join her SUP Yoga class. And here’s the good news: it worked.

It absolutely exhausted my body, which I’d taken to the gym the night before and given a run for its money. I didn’t realize how fatigued and muscle-torn my quads and shoulders were until I was on the board paddling, but after a few strokes I forgot. I also forgot about the stress of writing and focused on the simple act of moving through water and balancing on the board.

I’m a decent yogi because I have natural flexibility, but I was not given the gift of balance. Strength yes, balance no, but the only option is to work with what we’ve got. Yoga on a moving object was not going to come easy to me—I knew this—but every time I fell off the board I smiled inside and out because I knew it was a direct result of will and effort. And sometimes, despite those things, we fall. Hoisting myself back on the board time and again I was glad to have the strength and will to do it. I didn’t get hurt, though I did bump and bruise a knee one time. The reason: I tried to stop myself from falling when I should have just let it happen. Lesson learned: submit a little.

I’d cried on the way to SUP Yoga and on the way out, but I didn’t cry during. I’m going to quote Jill again, “Nature has a way of just being without attachment to outcome, without apology for being real. Nature levels the playing field–for everyone.” I’ll add that nature and learning something new in the constantly changing environment of moving water levels our internal playing fields. Taking this lesson off the board is the next challenge, but if we can then we’re definitely winning.

I didn’t go back to SUP or yoga or even the gym today, but after writing this morning I did go back to the beach with a friend to read, rest and reconnect. It’s good for my writing and I’m getting to the point where it’s not necessary to apologize for doing what I know will work, when sitting in front of the computer and twirling my hair for too long clearly doesn’t. Learning is winning.

Jill took a picture of me trying to get up into Urdhva Dhanurasana (AKA wheel or backbend) on the board, and then another one of me after Shavasana (AKA corpse pose), the only yoga pose I never forget the name of. It’s the one where you lie back, let it all go, and experience gratitude.

Shame is a real crippler, and embracing it does nothing but breed more of the same. On my journey of trying to feel less of it I choose disclosure as the antidote, so here’s a picture of me either on my way into or out of wheel (does it matter?) and another, sitting happy, Buddha belly and all, at the end of the session, fresh out of Shavasana.

Namaste.

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White Girl Problems

The other day I was riding down a ¾ mile boardwalk in a stretch golf cart, sitting next to my friend, Ned, with his girlfriend Kim a seat away. We chatted as the cart whisked us through the mangroves to a long-waited Missoula reunion beach day at the Waldorf Astoria’s beach.

(NOTE: We all miss Missoula. Everyone who ever lived in Missoula and moved away misses that special valley city. We can hardly talk about it sometimes, though we do. When I walked into Ned and Kim’s apartment they were streaming Tracy Lopez on the Trail 103.3. It’s almost enough to snake the wind out of our sails, but with the promise of a $5 Veuve Clicquot happy hour we kept the canvas taut.)

“I’m so happy to be hanging out with you guys today,” I said, “Mostly because I want to see you, and partly because I don’t have to think so much.” I didn’t want to think about writing or where I’m going to live or if I’ll be a gypsy forever. I also didn’t want to think about which beach to go to, where to park, or where to potentially have happy hour, though I never do that because I’m mostly alone which I added to the list of things I was glad not to think about.

Then I laughed, “I really have some white girl problems, don’t I?” Ned suggested a sitcom based around my WGP, and it didn’t sound like a bad idea. I have a good life. It hasn’t always been easy, but a lot of the complications, difficulties, and quandaries I’ve encountered have been of my own creation, which have been mostly fueled by a fear of boredom.

Fear of boredom is a real thing. I Googled it, just a second ago, because I highly doubted it could be a real thing. But it is and it has a name: Thaasophobia. And a definition: fear of boredom, fear of being idle. It’s real, people.

Now, I don’t have a full-blown version of this phobia—I don’t actually have heart palpitations and sweating and shortness of breath—but I don’t exactly sit idle much. I manage my phobia by keeping my brain and/or my body in constant motion. The idea of a movie marathon makes me nervous, and I can barely sit through a television program (unless it’s HBO’s Girls) without doing something else. Folding laundry, filing my nails, anything but just one thing.

There’s just so little room (or excuse) for idleness in our modern lives. While waiting anywhere from twenty seconds to five minutes we do not have to just sit and breathe. We can facebook, text, email, check weather, check stocks, and shop. We can plan, punch items into calendars and plot the next umpteen years of our lives. We forget to just Be. Here. Now.

I have no tattoos, but I’ve thought that if I were going to get one that’s what it would be: Be. Here. Now. (My mother is one of the biggest fans of this blog, and I know she’s among the first to read this, and I will say that so far I’ve abstained from getting that reminder on my person but if I was going to it would be at the top of my neck up around my hairline. We’ll just have to pray (if I got it) that I won’t go through a head shaving stage or get cancer and lose my hair during treatment. But seriously: if I lose my hair to save my life I hope that a tattoo will be the biggest WGP that we have.)

Anyway. Here’s the thing: I’ve never been bored. I attribute this mostly to intrinsic loves of reading and observation. I started reading early and I’ve never stopped. A boyfriend once teased me for traveling always, everywhere, with a book and a booklight. Now I have an iPhone and an iPad and I will never, ever run out of things to read. People watching is one of my favorite past times, and I’ve never been much of a bird watcher but I’m not dead yet.

There’s just no reason to be bored. But there is a damn good reason to stop all this multi-tasking and perhaps find more joy and value in uni-tasking. I’ve never been diagnosed with ADD, but I have a lot of the symptoms and also managed to unconsciously develop some of the coping mechanisms.

I can do a lot and I can also do it fast. When I worked in office environments a million years ago I usually was able to get more work done than was expected in half the time, and that left a lot of time for emailing friends, shopping, and chatting with my favorite co-worker of all-time behind the closed door of our office where we worked as researchers. When the door was closed folks knew we were busy “researching” and/or discussing marriage, the absence of, and places we’d traveled to and still longed to see. We ate apples and did squats and we laughed; we were very busy. Massage was a great career choice for me because there are no shortcuts: an hour massage is an hour massage. Simple. Plain. Coping.

I wrote a 96,000 word book-baby in three months, and now I’m working hard to edit that baby into having some walking legs, and I think there’s a good chance there’s been a bit of a post-partum situation going on so I’m doing something new: I’m being gentle with myself.

Today I announced on Facebook that I was going to reward myself FIRST by going to the beach, and then could write later. Of course I couldn’t just sit on the beach (!!!) listening to the mullet fish bodies slap the water. I couldn’t just watch the egrets and sand crabs. I tried, then I Googled “Do egrets burp” because I swore I heard it and the answer was yes.

What I did do on the beach was read. I read in my chair but was *this close* to a shoulder injury so mostly read tummy down on my towel and have the stinging back to prove it. And the reading made me feel okay about the writing break because, as Stephen King said in his seriously awesome book ON WRITING:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Perhaps and I could have or should have gone to the beach sans phone, sans book, with only a towel. Maybe one of these days I’ll give myself a true break. Maybe I’ll go to Thassos, the northernmost Greek Island. It’s in the Aegean Sea, geographically part of Macedonia, and once ruled by the Turks.

The wiki on the island lists the communities that have over one hundred inhabitants, which leads me to believe that there are lots of small towns where a girl like me could enjoy a cup of coffee, a book, and some people watching. The island produces honey, olives, olive oil, wine, and goat/sheep products. {I could live there.}

The beaches sound delightful. Some have lots of pines, some white sand, some turquoise blue swimming holes. There is camping as well as restaurants, bars and nightclubs. There’s quiet and there’s life. There’s honey and wine and goat cheese. {I could live there.}

There are monasteries and archeological sights and a folklore museum. Painters, poets, authors and scholars lived there. Hegemon of Thassos is from there. He “transformed the sublime into the ridiculous” by slightly altering the words in poems; he’s known as the inventor of parody. I mean…seriously…I love him. And don’t make me say it again, but don’t try to stop me: I could live there.

Or at least visit. The island is rich in history, resources, and minerals. For goodness sakes they mine calamine there, which has been the official skin soothing lotion of my life what with my allergic reactions to bites and the poisonous vines and pretty much anything that can sting and/or inflame the skin. It’s occurred to me on more than one occasion that perhaps my highly reactive skin is a symptom of my overactive brain. It’s a possibility for sure, and let’s just say: my skin isn’t nearly as reactive as it used to be.

In the meantime I’ve poached a picture of the Giola swimming hole on Thassos, and will go for a sunset run with Lucky dog and dream about international travel. I’ll ponder the possibility of going for a run without music, just to hear the sound of our feet and breath. Just to Be. Here. Now. without ink on my skin to remind me, without the thumping of bass in my ears to keep me going (and pretending that I’m still a teenager). And that, today, will be my biggest White Girl Problem.

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