This One Time At Writers Camp

Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.
—WH Auden

During a recent Pacific Northwest heat wave, two hundred writers gathered nightly in a woodsy outdoor auditorium at Reed College to hear readings by some of the nation’s most prominent authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. After full days of craft lectures, panel discussions and workshops, we shifted uncomfortably on the wooden benches, buzzing with excitement until writers like Jo Ann Beard, Joy Williams, Nick Flynn, Ann Hood, Mat Johnson and Anthony Doerr took the stage. The night that Tony read, my short fiction workshop sat close to the podium to cheer him on. I glanced over their faces as we hooted and hollered like carefree children, thinking, We’re at summer camp and I’m actually having fun.

Last week, when co-workers asked about my so-called vacation, I struggled to describe my time at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland. We began each day at eight am in the cafeteria, followed by a lecture at nine, workshop at ten, lunch at 12:30 then craft talks at two and three. Participant readings began each afternoon at four followed by dinner at six, faculty readings from eight to nine-thirty and cocktail receptions interspersed between. We worked our literary asses off, and it was my most transformative experience as a writer yet, but the question hung: Was it really a vacation?

Typical vacations do not involve taking notes, nor do they involve quotes by T.S. Eliot and Joan Didion. Vacations generally do not revolve around topics such as plot or narrative voice. Phrases like point of view, rising action and objective correlative are rarely uttered on vacation and, when employed as it is here, people usually don’t feel shame at using passive voice while they’re on holiday. However, if one’s time away involves a couple hundred nerdy writers (is the modifier nerdy even necessary?), all of this is not only possible but quite certain.

(For some of us, like my short fiction workshop clan, it’s also heaven.)

Led by Tony Doerr, as we came to know him, my ten-person cohort became as close as bunkmates. Hailing from Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Oregon, Texas, Arizona and Idaho, we began as strangers but established trust quickly. I found myself sharing every meal with them which, as someone who needs time for quiet reflection, surprised me. Though we varied in age, education, careers, sexual orientation, ethnic background, family situation and lifestyle, we kept returning to each other again and again, learning each other’s personal stories in addition to the ones we critiqued each morning on the page.

Editor Rob Spillman opened the conference by welcoming us to the Tin House family where, soon after, I came to think of my fiction workshop as my literary family. Bonding experiences like these don’t occur often in adult life, so I marked each gathering with quiet thanks for what I knew was a rare opportunity. My so-called vacation began to reveal what is missing in my writerly life in Seattle, namely a connection with peers on a craft level.

From the start of Tin House, I felt a particular kinship with Jen, who hailed from Vermont. She is practical and straightforward in all the wonderful ways that New Englanders are known for, and equally as generous, insightful and kind. She’s the type of person you could rely on for an extra cup of sugar as easily as a tire iron, if you needed one or the other — and she would have both.

We sat next to each other often, sharing news of the men in our lives and plunging into the conundrum of the work-a-day world outside of the conference—the one we knew was waiting for us, the one we hoped to greet forever altered after this experience. Fueled with inspiration from the faculty readings one night, we parted in front of her dorm, two campers heading back to their cabins to write until lights out, and I thought with both joy and ennui, Why does my new friend have to live all the way in Vermont?

The spark of adult friendship is a lot like a crush. You wonder if the other person thinks you are as cool as you think she is. You don’t want to appear overeager. You reveal personal things that you wouldn’t normally share, at least not without a cocktail. Then, without having to ask, she does the same. On parting, you trade notes that detail the attributes you found lovely about each other, and the flower of friendship blooms. As you hug goodbye, you wonder when and if you’ll get to laugh with each other in person again.

I ask: was it just a vacation?

During my one-on-one consultation with Tony Doerr, we ostensibly met to discuss my short story, but our conversation turned instead to my two lives: my work life, which funded my Tin House experience, and my writerly life, just beginning to bud. The stress and demands of the former leave little time and energy for the latter, something many writers struggle with. When I described how I squeeze in a precious few hours of writing each week between the many hours of non-creative work, Tony shook his head. “I just don’t know how you do it. I could never do that.”

At that moment, something fractured in me for decades broke open. Ten sharp and funny new friends, a deep awe of the gifted artists around me, the shock of truly being seen by someone I admire… Tin House was becoming bigger than I had imagined.

By the end of the week, the temperature cooled and my heart felt more open than ever. I decided to sit out on the second-floor porch of my rented apartment to write Tony a letter, thanking him for his wise counsel and spot-on feedback on my story. Our mini-MFA workshop was coming to a close, and I vowed to change my artistic practice upon returning to Seattle. As I stepped onto the porch, I pulled the door closed —just a smidge— to keep flies from infiltrating the apartment. When I heard the lock click home, my pupils shrank to the size of pin holes before widening into saucers.

I knew instantly what I had done.

oh jesus oh god what do i do i mean what do i do they arent home oh my god my phones inside inside my phones inside holy shit im stuck out here can i jump down no i cant jump down jump down are you crazy who jumps down off of a second floor balcony maybe i can hit the door hit the door hit the door hit the door what else break the window with what besides if i break the window how much will it cost

My heart galloping like a stallion, the door handle grew immense in my vision, that damned silver knob blocking out everything else. What do I do? What do I do? I realized that I was repeating this phrase aloud like a mantra with breathless refrains of Should I break the window? The only response was cheerful birdsong. There was no one on the street, not that they could have helped me, as the front door was locked. I always lock the front door when I come home.

I broke off the silver clip from my pen and attempted unsuccessfully to pick the lock with it. Then I threw myself at the door over and over and over, a series of dull thuds that rattled the frame and bruised my wrist. If I was the protagonist of my short story, I would have kicked the door in. (She’s kind of a bad ass.) Suddenly, I remembered that there was WiFi. My phone was locked inside, but I had my laptop, so I emailed my airbnb host, who was on a vacation of own. Thankfully, unlike me, he was checking messages. His neighbor let me in with a spare key shortly thereafter.

On top of all that had transpired that week, I was panicked from being trapped and relieved from being freed. The more I considered how I felt—deductively paralyzed with fear—I began to wonder how long I was actually trapped on that balcony. In a way, I had been cornered there since high school when my parents urged me to study science rather than writing because writers never made any money. Or maybe it was after college; I had changed majors from molecular and cellular biology to English lit, but there were no jobs for lit majors in Tucson that paid enough to cover my student loans. After I began my career, there was always a reason that writing wasn’t a full-time priority—money, relationships, time, energy. These were excuses. Reasonable excuses, perhaps, but one by one, I exchanged my dream for cars, possessions, a house and a retirement fund.

As I concluded the gushy thank you note to Tony, this time tucked safely inside the apartment, it occurred to me that Tin House was a second opportunity to make the right choices.

Our week closed fittingly with Tony’s lecture about creating a sense of two-placedness in our work. He talked about the way in which great stories unite a dream place and a physical place, the sense of a unique and distinct here contrasted with the world we know outside. The stories that we hold dear bear this feeling of sehnsucht, as the Germans call it—a yearning for that which overwhelms, a longed-for place.

I’m not sure that Tony actually said this, but upon rereading my notes, I found a line that I keep returning to: We’re forever happy when caught between places we cannot reach. During Tin House I realized that this middle space is my opportunity; the foundation for what will happen with my writerly life is in my hands right now, here, in this yet-to-be defined middle place. I have choices.

I can keep doing what I’m doing, attending classes occasionally and submitting work.

I can decide that the writing life is too much to manage and simply revert to being a reader and occasional blogger.

Or, I can wade into a new realm between worlds. Rather than charging ahead with task lists, I can explore this unfamiliar territory deeply and intentionally, step by step with a flashlight. I can throw away the rules, fall and even fail, without resisting or accepting failure or fear as ends. This is a foreign road.

George Saunders once advised, “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.” On my first day at Tin House, I tittered at the endless quotes bandied about by my fellow writers, but by the end I realized that this is how one hones a philosophy. Wise words help us codify what we believe, and from them, we clarify the questions we want to explore.

On the last day, after the craft lessons, readings and cocktails were over, I finally understood the deeper question driving the core of my own writing practice. In my notebook I wrote, How can we bear to go on investing in this life and each other, knowing that we’re all terminal patients? A lifetime in the making, this question underlies all that I do — something I couldn’t see until I found a way to step out of the comfortable obscurity of darkness and into a hopeful yet daunting new light.

During a panel discussion, Joy Williams urged us to savagely dismantle what we believe. This is just what happened for me, though I didn’t go into Tin House with that intent; essentially, I thought I’d come out with a stronger network and an edge for fiction writing. Instead, in the space of seven days, I razed my unwitting architecture of belief to the ground. Now that I’ve returned, forever changed, my task is to rebuild on this newly cured foundation.

I heard recently that the mark of a good vacation is forgetting your passwords when you log in at home. There’s something to that in the very word vacation. A vacation is an extended period of recreation spent away from home or while traveling, but it is also defined as the action of leaving a place or state that one previously had occupied. We place ourselves in the path of transformation when we go on holiday, knowing that leaving the bounds of the familiar opens us up emotionally, spiritually and creatively.

We must let go–leave behind our cathetic objects and empty the vessels of our minds before new ideas can take the place of old ones.
 Perhaps the mark of a good vacation isn’t so much an emptying as it is a catharsis, a release and relief from the used-up thoughts and beliefs that held us down in the past.

I suppose when you put it that way, I would say that my vacation was great. Thanks for asking.

Tin House short fiction workshop with Anthony Doerr (photo by David Anderson)

Tin House short fiction workshop with Anthony Doerr (photo by David Anderson)

Adaptation

With regard to weathering change, I’ve received more advice in the past few weeks than ever before. Major life shifts –birthdays that end in zero, moving households, entering or leaving significant relationships– invite these pearls from friends who hope to save us a little pain. This advice-giving is part of a human tradition that links us as a species and keeps us alive from generation to generation. The admonitions may change over the centuries, but the legacy of knowledge is meant to help us flourish and perpetuate. It can also soften us. Even the most crusty creature can summon a hardship he or she faced and, from that, offer a balm to ease the discomfort of transition for others.

Yet, we share the stories of our battle scars (and wrinkles) knowing that we can’t truly alleviate someone else’s pain. It’s a necessary result from surviving rites of passage, which are essentially circumstances that we are unprepared for: our spouse leaves us, we begin a new job, we move to a new city, we age, we start families, a car sideswipes us as we bicycle home, we face serious illness. It’s not only how we get through these periods of acute change or adversity that’s important; it’s the way we learn to recover and ultimately how we adapt our lives thereafter based on what we learned.

How we cope with change is, in a sense, more critical to our wellness than simply surviving it, for it paves the path of the future. We can opt to ignore or deny it; we can choose to power through it without pausing to open ourselves to sensation. None of these dissolves the pain, nor do they cure the affliction, but instead shroud it in obscurity and thus perpetuate it.

A week past my fortieth birthday, my burgeoning sack of life wisdom runneth over. Add to that the stress of moving and combining households, which comes with deeply systemic life interruption. Each daily pattern that once was, from bus routes and exercise to shopping, dining and sleeping is different and, on some level, uncomfortable. When I mentioned this to a friend, bemoaning my inability to sleep due to unforeseen airplane and environmental noise that come with my new apartment, she offered the notion that adjustment to any major life change requires 1,000 days. The first year is simply finding one’s way, she explained, the second, you start getting into the groove, the third, you know the terrain instinctively.

Three years?! It rings true to a degree, but counting down time is something I try not to do anymore; it makes long periods seem unbearably longer and robs the short ones of their magic. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but I can’t see toiling with my current challenges for that long, even though I know that things change minute by minute in imperceptibly small ways, even when it seems like they don’t.

Eventually, my body will adapt to the thundering airplanes above and the lapping fountain below. I’ll sleep through the night without fans or white noise or the collection of earplugs that currently litters my nightstand. I’ll find a means of exercising without going to a gym, as I have for the last eight years. I’ll adjust my transit schedule and extracurricular activities to accommodate work and living with another human being. I’ll learn to share my space until I no longer identify things as mine or yours. I will not notice when a sense of familiarity or comfort descends around any of these behaviors; instead, one day, one by one they’ll feel better, good, maybe even great. Of course, by then, other departures will be underway.

How any of us moves through change –the way we incorporate coping mechanisms into habit– dictates the quality of our life experience. We will either incorporate patterns that work, or we will inhabit our lives with circumstances that are ultimately distasteful, even as we insist on wanting harmony. While the disposition we bring is entirely up to us –circumstances by themselves are inert, it’s our human mind that assigns them values of good or bad– I would assert that humans subconsciously attract disruption and chaos simply because we’re comfortable with and even addicted to pain, especially the unexamined kind. Stepping back to understand change and how it affects us is key to adaptation — the very gift our friends offer when they share their perspective on everything from love and career to turning forty. These may not be universal truths, but they offer newfound perspectives for consideration.

This is where Bonnie’s 1,000 days comes in, which to me is more about allotting oneself the time to understand change and examine one’s response and adaptation to that change, measure by measure. If I were to extoll advice to someone else right now, it would be the importance of stopping for a few minutes every day –really stopping, no lists, no computers, no tasks, no music or TV– to consider how precious these periods of monumental change really are. 1,000 days. If we knew we’d only get a few of these periods in a lifetime, would we change the choices we make in the small minutes that comprise them, which slip by unnoticed?

My birthday came and went without much observation on my part, so frenzied was I about putting my life on a cross-town truck. I only paused that evening at dinner with friends to consider the threshold I am passing through…and then I moved on to climbing the next mountain. My new wisdom asks that I adapt my behavior: I will stop being too busy to actively participate in my own life.

Today was the first day of the week-long Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland during which a couple hundred writers from across the nation will engage in lectures and interactive sessions where we will share advice and critique with one another. I have a choice: I can breeze through this week as I have been, eyes already on the next task, or I can focus my participation. Each day, I can make a point to appreciate this experience, knowing that it’s once in a lifetime: I may return, but this particular cohort will never come together again. In these few precious minutes, about 10,000 of them, all of us will change constantly and rapidly as writers and as people.

To that end, I can finally share with you the short story that brought me here. (It was the writing sample that accompanied my Tin House application.) Told through the lens of an Gen-X female, my story, “Pas de Deux” was inspired by generational workplace struggles that I witnessed. The main character’s refusal to relinquish the fleeting promise of youth for the role of mentorship is something that many of us are unprepared for; we fear letting go who we were for the [older] people we’ve become, and so cling to our former identities — in some cases vehemently.

“Pas de Deux” was accepted by New Lit Salon Press to an anthology called Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness, a collection that examines intersecting issues that affect the mental health of women, from physicality and sexuality to race, class and motherhood. Filled with spine-tingling tales of women breaking down boundaries that society insists we shouldn’t, the anthology speaks to gender dynamics that are starting to mean more to me than they ever have now that I’m of a certain age.

Because women generally refrain from physical confrontation, our warfare plays out through social manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior. This story wipes the slate clean, granting the central character all the aggressions she might care to exercise, and more. I can’t say that it ends well for anyone, but the choices these characters made have helped me look with new eyes on certain challenges in my own life, and I hope that they help others do the same.

In the end, the question of how we traverse and emerge from change, crossing the threshold from our past selves to the present, is the question of how we want to live. Is it only a choice between conquering or being conquered, sinking or swimming, leaning in or giving up, or is there a third, more elusive option —growth and progression— if we’re patient enough to discover it?

If you’re interested in reading “Pas de Deux” and other fine tales of madness, you can purchase Behind the Yellow Wallpaper in print and digital editions. It might make you think twice the next time you believe you know someone… including yourself.

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness

A Room of One’s Own

While it’s been many years since I’ve shared the cost of rent with someone, this isn’t to say that I haven’t lived with other people.

Years ago, after my ex-husband and I separated, I rented a condo in downtown Seattle, thrilled with the prospect of re-discovering city life. The architect who designed the building, a crusty old gent known for his stylish spectacles as much as his cantankerous wit, referred to my new abode as “one of the bread-and-butter units.” (He still resides in the penthouse today.) He croaked this observation before sweeping out for dinner with his wife, leaving me agape and blinking at the community mailboxes, unsure whether I should be insulted since the condo wasn’t actually mine.

Like all of the multi-family buildings I’ve lived in, we tenants didn’t interact much, at least not directly. The guy below me, whose third-floor unit had an expansive private outdoor space, loved to host parties during the crystal blue summer months, blasting Madonna til two in the morning while his guests guzzled Cosmopolitans. (Sex and the City was still big back then.) Instead of knocking on his door in my jammies, I called to concierge to ask him to quiet down.

Over many sleepless summer months, I grew to despise my fun-loving neighbor, though I didn’t even know his name. At that time in my life, I probably would have enjoyed his shindigs if he had invited me, but instead, I continued to call the concierge every time he partied past midnight. Instead of a relationship, we lived in a kind of denial that either of us existed. He didn’t think that he was disturbing anyone, and I would listen while he informed his disappointed guests that they had to tone it down, as if the edict came from someone else because, technically, it did.

After a few years in gritty Belltown, the economy took a downturn, and my employer cut our salaries. Twice. I broke up with my then-boyfriend. Twice. I was feeling thin in all sorts of ways –spiritually, economically– so I decided to move into a classic brick building (read: more affordable than a condo tower) on the south-facing slope of Queen Anne. So much for the bread-and-butter life.

It turns out that this beautifully restored apartment was exactly what I needed. It was too small to host the gatherings that my condo held, and there was no balcony or view save for the peek-a-boo of the top of the Space Needle from my living room, but it was peaceful and dignified. More than that, it was really, truly mine. During my tenure, I’ve rarely entertained, save for one or two friends or the occasional date, none of which lasted into the throes of boyfriend-dom and the requisite detritus that comes with having a man squatting part-time in one’s apartment. If I was at home, I was generally alone, and it was exactly what I needed.

My one-bedroom aerie was also perfect for writing, which I began to do quite a lot of after I moved in. With the sun streaming through the wood-framed windows on Sunday mornings, church bells pealing in the blissfully silent air, I put my feet up on the ottoman and formed a weekend ritual that has fueled this blog, and many other pieces of writing, for the last five years.

That is, until he moved in. Our tumultuous relationship began as many do, born of misconceptions, pride and a twist of fate that brought us together on a stormy November evening last year.

I had been through many neighbors by then, both above and below, all of whom stayed about a year. By sound alone, I came to learn their habits, hobbies and relationships over the last five years, thanks to the thin ceiling and floor membranes that comprise this 1930s building. There was the couple who had a baby shortly after I moved in; for months, all four of us woke in the dark for 2 a.m. feedings. There was the Seattle Pacific University student who hailed from eastern Washington, joined on weekends by her Spokane-based boyfriend who came to argue and make love with her in alternating shifts. Most recently, a diminutive thirty-something techie lived above me; meek and shy, he fancied playing electric guitar occasionally in the evenings and on weekends, about the same times I liked to write.

I drew upon my network of musician friends, all of whom independently agreed that I should ask him to plug into headphones during his practice. When I did, he thought for moment as I shifted uncomfortably on the other side of his door. “I’ll turn it down, no problem, but I don’t like headphones. The sound isn’t right.” He paused. “Maybe you can just come tell me when it’s too loud.”

His offer was not acceptable, but what could I do? He was always pleasant and responded immediately to my requests. Defeated, I shuffled downstairs to my apartment and rested back against the tall wooden door of my unit. Begrudgingly, I noted that he had turned down the speaker volume; in fact, I could barely hear him playing. It was almost pleasant, except that I could hear it, thin as ghost music, and the very fact that I could hear it was irritating. I flounced onto my couch with a frown, drawing my warm laptop on top of my thighs, the notes of his guitar distracting me like sirens through the single-pane windows. I said out loud to no one, “But I don’t want to have a relationship with you.”

Wasn’t that it? I didn’t want to tell anyone what I needed, especially if it meant admitting displeasure or asking for something that could be declined. It was easier to be independent, to rely only on myself to make or cease things from happening. I didn’t want a relationship with my upstairs neighbor or anyone else, not really. Wasn’t that why I was alone in this otherwise quiet space where no one asked or was invited to visit? He was disturbing the pact that I had unknowingly created by settling down with Peace and Quiet once and for all, ready to live happily ever after — alone. While I went out almost every night with friends for drinks and dinner, or to shows and art openings, when it came time to leave, I secretly loved coming home to absolutely no one.

My sequestered private life was, of course, in diametric opposition to my oft-advertised and seemingly earnest search for love. Over the years, I went on many dates, some of them bad or at least memorably uncomfortable, which fueled my get-togethers with florid stories of the horrifyingly ridiculous man-creatures I met both online and in person. With enough knee-slapping stories to fill a chapbook, it’s no wonder I didn’t find love. I wasn’t really looking for it, and if it had found me, I wouldn’t have been able to ask for what I needed anyway. While I hate to assign him too much credit, my new upstairs neighbor has had a hand in changing this.

The weekend before I was to leave for Austin to visit friends at Thanksgiving, I spied several young men gathered around a moving truck in the back parking lot. The dull pounding of dropped boxes and hard-soled-shoe-wearing twenty-somethings clodding on the wooden floors above heralded the departure of my reasonable, guitar-playing neighbor. It was then I realized that, other than the notes from his guitar, I had never actually heard him or his girlfriend inhabiting the space above. I suddenly regretted my vitriol-infused tweet strings about him that began, Dear Neighbor… He might not have been reading or heeding them, but the universe had, and it was going to afford me with a new perspective.

Impossibly loud noises –heavy thunks, galumphing steps– rained down from above until midnight. It was Sunday and I had to wake up at five for the gym, followed by work. This whippersnapper was going to learn a lesson, and I was going to teach it to him. I zipped up my sweatshirt and flew upstairs, fueled by righteous indignation. When I rapped on his door, expecting to cow a college boy into respectful submission, I was greeted by a fifty-something man who appeared intoxicated. When I tried to explain in an apologetic, tit-mouse voice that he was keeping me awake, he suggested it was the locksmith who had been there earlier.

“Well, actually… I heard you just now… You know, this is an old building, so sound travels. If you take your shoes off inside, it might help a lot.”

“I’m not wearing shoes,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.

We stood there for a moment silently, facing each other like two gunslingers, he in his stained T-shirt and boxes strewn down the hallway, me in my wonderment of how this arrangement was going to work. The next night, drunken and cavorting with what looked like a barely legal girl at two a.m., my query would be sealed with an answer: it wasn’t going to work. After being asked to quiet down, he threw a fit, slamming the door and absconding with his nymphette down the staircase, which ran along the north side of my unit. “No f’n bitch is gonna tell me what to do!” he boomed, his voice echoing off the walls. “I pay thirteen hundred god-damned dollars a month in rent – no bitch is going to tell me what I can do in my place!”

After another late-night incident a week later, which left me curled up in bed, heart racing with anxiety, I notified the landlady. Our building does not have an after-hours monitoring service, and there was no way I was going up there to talk with him again. Ever. She promised to speak with my new neighbor, which prompted him to leave an ugly flower basket on my doormat one afternoon. It was the kind that men with no taste buy for women they don’t know. The card was addressed: “To Better Future Encounters.” Inside, he wrote, I will do my best, within reason, to accommodate you. My intentions are good.

In the seven months since, his words have proven untrue. It is even more ironic that these words were written by an English teacher who works at a private Seattle school. An English teacher?! As a writer who holds her own English teachers in the highest regard, my neighbor feels like an insult to the profession. That, plus the fact that he regularly smokes pot and gets drunk with young people who can only be former (and hopefully not current) students, adds further insult to the archetype of the Insightful, Caring, Sensitive English Teacher Who Can Be Trusted. On the other hand, how many literary men and women have drinking and substance abuse problems? Maybe his behavior isn’t so surprising or far out there as it is incredibly annoying to put up with.

Thankfully, I won’t have to bear it much longer.

My upstairs neighbor isn’t the only reason I’m moving, but his never-ending blunderbuss did wake me up to a few things. The regular panic I began to experience at hearing his booming voice from above brought me back to my childhood. I realized that, in the face of angry confrontation, I was still thinking and acting like a vulnerable child when, in fact, I am not. I didn’t have to be scared into silent acceptance anymore. I began calling my landlady in the wee hours when he kept me up. After a period of halting improvement followed by relapse, I wrote a formal letter addressing the round-the-clock noise problem. As soon as I began to stand up for myself, at least in my own eyes, I stopped having anxiety attacks at the sound of his thudding feet.

And, when it became clear that my landlady was delivering lip-service rather than actual assistance, I took matters into my own hands and decided to move. It was satisfying to hear her sputter apologies when she received my termination notice, pointing out what a good tenant I had been all these years. “I should have served him with a ten-day notice long ago,” she lamented.

I murmured my agreement and feigned regret, assuring her that there was no way that I could stay, as I had already put down a deposit on a fabulous new place with an in-unit washer/dryer to boot (“But we have a top-floor unit coming available… I guess I should have told you that last month…”) The truth is, I am ready to leave. Nothing she could have promised or said would have changed my mind.

In my complaint letter, I cited the fact that I can even hear my upstairs neighbor urinating, he does it so loudly, not to mention the fact that his tromping footsteps wake me up almost every night and make it generally impossible for me to exercise the quiet enjoyment of my space. In disrupting my sanctuary, the lughead gave me a reason to face and voice what was hurting me, and from that, I was driven to communicate what I needed to others, and ultimately, myself.

However distasteful and thoughtless, we sometimes need these catalysts in life, especially in the face of immense changes like moving… and turning forty. An expensive transition lies ahead this week, but one that I have been building up to, yet not ready to exercise until now. My very private and [mostly] serene apartment was meant to heal me, a Fortress of Solitude where I could quietly pen my memoirs as I figured things out. Subconsciously, I chose it because it reminded me of the cliff houses in the Cinque Terre; halfway up the steep incline of Queen Anne hill, it was protected and remote, two words that describe my lifestyle over the past decade, despite my sanguine personality. It catered to my hidden desire to get away from it all, from everyone.

As I approach my fortieth birthday, my friends continue to assure me that I will come into myself, feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have, and I believe them. For me, the past decade has been about piecing together things that were rendered asunder for most of my life — the kind of stuff that a person does by herself in an apartment like this. From what I sense about the coming decade, more light and space are necessary; this new decade of growth is not done alone in the dark but in partnership and with witnesses.

I cannot help but chuckle (and rankle, just a bit), as my upstairs neighbor thuds back and forth across my ceiling like Frankenstein as I write this post. The sun is shining through my living room window, and he’s blabbing so loud I can almost make out the words as he paces back and forth. Then, his voice quiets uncharacteristically and the disturbance shifts into rhythmic thuds and bedspring squeaks that can mean only one thing: it’s definitely time to move.

With only a week left here, my hallway is starting to become full of boxes, just as his was when he moved in. I’d like to think that, even in my transition, I won’t disturb the woman who lives below me, who I’ve never met, who has never come upstairs to ask me to be quiet. She and I are strangers, as most of my fellow tenants are, all of us together pretending that we are living alone.

That premise won’t characterize my life for much longer. The other twist to the new home awaiting me is that I’ve decided to share it with my main squeeze. The timing of his career and life circumstances came together with mine as unexpectedly as our relationship, and everything that we’ve both learned from each other in the last year. I’ve concluded that, as with all major boons, you must to be willing to enter the contest, present to win and open to accepting the gift when it comes along, which is often not at a time of your planning or preparedness. That’s why I simply said yes and continue to be surprised at how not-terrifying it is to pass through this great window of change, which once seemed gargantuan and impossible to navigate.

In the end, it’s not my bonehead upstairs neighbor who I credit for spurring me into action, but the universal forces that brought him into my life. They provided the circumstances for me to realize that it’s time to go, that there’s another life waiting for me — a relationship that I am, after all this time, finally ready to engage in. Mere days away, our new life is located on the top floor of a brand-new building that faces onto a green courtyard with a fountain. We’ll have a private balcony and even a rooftop terrace where a group of friends can come gather, outside, together, all of us collectively at once in the light.

Weights & Measures

Him:  We have to ask ourselves at a certain point in life if the goal isn’t how far we can push the threshold but actually how little we can do to create health.

Me:  [Blank stare] Doc, this goes against my entire life philosophy.

Him:  [Chuckles] Maybe that’s why you’re here.

The missing part of my exchange with an orthopedic surgeon is why I was at the sports medicine clinic to begin with –acute hamstring tendonitis– but it could apply to anything. It wasn’t the first time I had received similar advice, words that describe the tremulous battlefront of my life: if X is good, isn’t 3X better?

Sometimes solicited, other times offered in a nickel’s worth of free counsel from medical professionals and mediums alike, people often encourage me to back off a bit. They are surprised at how much I can accomplish while at the same time asking if I might consider lifting my foot from the gas pedal, at least on downhill slopes. Given my level of obstinance at the time, I might listen, but not in a way that prevents the same advice from finding its way to me through another channel.

No rest leads to a head cold. A cold gives rise to pneumonia. A few extra minutes in the sun leads to a burn. Exercising six days a week, including evening swim on Tuesdays, creates thrumming-red tendons. Like my one-time fascination with Candy Crush Saga, I admit I have a problem. (I’m on level 92 now, in case you’re wondering, but my drive has withered.)

My awareness of this pattern began in my early twenties when an astrologer read my natal chart. We sat in her stuffy, low-ceilinged adobe office in Phoenix as she worked the astral circumstances of my birth like a complicated math problem. Finally, Mary Ann said, “You seem pretty conventional until I take this into account,” noting a particular planetary placement in the first house. “You like to surprise people, especially if it means upending their safe perception of you.” I shrugged, smiling. Who, me? Then she pointed to another sector and said, “And you go too far, and you do too much.” No one has said it better.

I’ve spent the decades since trying to comprehend why I’m driven to leverage every ounce of energy at my disposal. As the first person in my family to attend college, a lot was expected of me. Or maybe my innate desire to meet these expectations simply landed in the right body; I was genetically programmed to seek out and push at the edges. Inborn or conditioned, this habit has led to trouble on occasion, leaving me gravely ill, over-extended and stressed out. It’s also helped me create a nice life. Who’s to say that driving for the threshold isn’t a valid approach to existence when tempered with a measure of reason and –dare I say– a dash of restraint? That last part takes a surprising amount of will and perspective.

Who isn’t too busy or high-achieving these days? Our world rewards hard drivers and weekend warriors. Those of us caught up in the high-speed matrix see no other way to exist. We have forgotten uttering the words, “I’m bored” as children, which wasn’t so much a complaint, but a secret delight in doing nothing. As an adult, each Friday night, I write a list of all the things I’m going to do that weekend, and each Sunday night, I write my list for the week ahead. What would I do without these guiding documents — sit around and… be? I feel guilty, lazy and flabby just considering it.

In the space of two weeks in 2006, I sold my house, finalized a divorce, moved into a new place and started a new job. When life confers this much change on a person, what else is there to do but ride the wave? Abounding chaos buffered me through the storm of change, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Perhaps this is why Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” irritates me. Can’t she fast-forward through her divorce like the rest of us working women whom she claims to envy for our hyper-scheduled lives? (We’re so lucky to have nine-hour workdays, houses to clean ourselves and errands to run! How quaint.) What bugs is the indulgent manner –the slow-moving progression– with which she has afforded herself in approaching a major life event. Who has that kind of time, to stop and think, let alone feel? And what does it say about the life I’ve created that I would begrudge her that?

If I look hard enough at my own choices, I see that powering through relationships, or particularly, powering through their ending, is my coping mechanism. It’s a popular one, too: you break up with someone and find yourself with too much free time (is there really such a thing?), so you adopt new hobbies like yoga or guitar lessons. Over time, those habits remain, stacking atop each other. Last year, my bus driver confided that she began driving for Metro after a devastating break-up. In spite of her full-time job at Boeing, she had too much time in the mornings and evenings to think of her lost love, so she began picking up shifts. That was 20 years ago. She doesn’t drive for the money, per se, but to occupy every one of her waking moments, even today. She’s still single.

I could try to make some of my over-doing seem more reasonable by explaining that my abundant exercise has less to do with weight management than staving off the inheritance of my mother’s cancer. The cloud of terminal illness hanging over me means that I need little encouragement to go to the gym at 5:30 in the morning. When people commend me for what seems like a daunting feat, I smile and shrug the same way I did with my astrologer, resisting offers of a high-five. If cancer was nipping at your heels, and you sat at a desk for nine hours a day, you’d get your ass on the treadmill, too. The problem is, I’m overusing my hamstrings –for everything, actually– and I’m not letting them rest. I’m not letting any part of myself rest.

Still, in spite of everyone’s encouragement to relax and recuperate, there is limited time to do what we want. Slowing down, pausing, recharging — are these even options when our lives are finite? How many years –healthy years– do we have to explore the world? My mother died at 45; you never know. The angel on one shoulder argues with the devil on the other: what is the quality of my experiences when I rush from one thing to the next, prizing productivity without questioning what it feels like? Am I even there if I simply speed through every event? I think of Sandro, the tractor driver in Civita, who looked at me with horror as I swilled rather than enjoyed a cappuccino on my last day in town. He held up both hands and implored me to slow down: “Piano, piano! Tutto a posto!”

As a writer, I am tempted to despair at how long it took me to come back to writing. People far younger than me who weren’t distracted by non-writing careers have published more works than I have. (On the other hand, they tend to struggle with low income and lack of benefits, often living more frugally than I care to.) Quantity and fame are not the point, I know this; still, I feel like I’m playing catch-up, so I make up for it by working harder. With only a couple of hours in the day to write, I squeeze every creative moment I can from the ether, often borrowing against sleep. Don’t others do this with sports, dance, hiking… ikebana? Maybe not.

The hyper-organized part of me is both fed and made more hungry by my craft. I don’t just write, I keep an itemized calendar of submission dates for grants and literary magazines; I track my submissions and the pipeline of in-progress short stories, essays and poems. Any waking hour that is not spent at work, running errands, exercising or enjoying a meal with friends is spent in support of my writing life — grant applications, residency and fellowship submissions, calls for entry, this blog and, of course, writing and editing something almost every night.

In spite of this effort, much of which goes unseen, it’s hard not to compare myself to others whose success –and beautiful work– is publicly apparent. Roxane Gay, a contemporary writer, blogger, essayist and university professor, recently published An Untamed State, which she wrote in four months. She also has a memoir coming out this summer (Bad Feminist), she writes regularly for Salon and The Rumpus, and is co-editor of PANK, a literary magazine. On top of this, it’s likely that you can find new works from her each week, from book reviews and op-eds in The New York Times to an active social media presence.

I’m continually surprised at the high quality of her work, given the volume. (She admits that she doesn’t sleep much.) With role models like Roxane, whose craft seems to flourish under circumstances that might crush the creativity in others, I feel called to action. How can I justify taking a nap when Roxane (read: real writers, successful writers) would use the time to write rather than rest? Does this mean that I don’t want it as badly, am not dedicated or talented enough? Is anything I do –work, writing, relationships, travel, saving for retirement– ever enough?

When I started physical therapy two weeks ago, it was like someone turned on a magnet. Suddenly, a host of other demands came calling for my attention. After five years in the same apartment, I am moving (thank you, noisy upstairs neighbor), which comes with a long list of to-do’s. A friend urged me to consider applying for a public art project, so I added a quick-turnaround qualifications package to the mix. Leadership Tomorrow graduation and our final project deadlines are looming with our final presentation and report due next week. I received an artist grant from 4Culture for an installation that will [hopefully] come together in November. Did I mention this project involves writing 50,000 words in a month? (It’s a live performance related to National Novel Writing Month.) That means I need to prepare a novel outline, create character sketches, conduct research, find a venue — more applications, phone calls, materials research, written summaries. I’m also preparing for the week-long Tin House Writer’s Workshop in July, and writing and submitting a few essays and short fiction pieces to boot. And planning my 40th birthday party.

I could go on. My big take-away here (yet another list) is that I am embarrassed to reveal everything that I do when no one’s looking. (I could add SIFF movies, professional appointments, yoga class, a second installation project happening in 2015, full-time work… and still more…) Without realizing it, I’ve stacked my calendar for the next year; if I don’t remove my foot from the gas like my ailing body and scattered mind indicate I should, I will collapse from the load. As the doctor suggested, maybe there’s a reason I’ve found my way to physical therapy where I’m learning to start over, retraining my body, and perhaps my mind, bit by bit.

After four years away, it’s clear that I’ve lost the equanimity I established in Italy. There’s nothing like an Italian hilltown as a backdrop for reflection, rest and repose, no doubt, but there must be a way to hold onto that, at least in part, in day-to-day life. With the aid of highly ambitious friends and co-workers, I’ve convinced myself that I’ll sleep when I’m dead; yet, in exchange for my productivity, I am missing out on the rich and wonderfully detailed life that I could be enjoying rather than examining. Even when I read, a seemingly pleasurable activity, I’m secretly trying to analyze and learn from the author’s choices rather than wholly reading for entertainment. Deep down, I know that what I’m doing is not sustainable.

This brings me to my birthday resolutions. Each July, I make a list of what that I hope to accomplish in the new year, the length of which is based on my age. During the twelve months that follow, I delight in crossing off achievements one by one, reviewing the completed list the following July with pride. These lists are supposed to make me feel like I haven’t wasted my time on earth. They are also a habit that I’m going to discontinue at 40. My list will consist of a single question that I will ask no matter what I’m doing: Am I enjoying _____? Perhaps I’ll learn that it’s not so much about accomplishing many things, but engaging more deeply in the few things I do.

I will not evaluate the worth of activities based on their productivity. I will not plan for fun; I will simply have it. (If you don’t plan for it, you’ll never do it! Yes, I actually said this.) I will learn how to say no. I will not schedule activities every night of the week or back-to-back on weekends. I will not feel guilty when I blog only once a month. I will not treat my life as a master schedule whose every minute needs to be filled. I will not judge my commitment or ability to write based on the high proportion of publications that Roxane Gay, Zadie Smith or Junot Diaz rack up compared to mine.

My list of things for today is quite long. In fact, there are things I should or, rather, could be doing right now. Instead, I’ve decided that writing this post –or, more importantly, pausing to think through what it really means and practicing it– takes precedence. Not everything is going to get crossed off today, and I will learn to be okay with that. It’s a single, small choice, but a person has to start somewhere.

Inspiration

It’s a rare opportunity when I can daylight the writing that I do that does not appear in this blog. (In order for literary magazines and anthologies to publish new works, they generally cannot be published elsewhere, including online.)

Last Tuesday, I was delighted to receive notification from Lisa Niver Rajna of We Said Go Travel, that my essay was chosen by judges Richard Bangs and Amy Friedman as the winner of the 2014 Inspiration travel writing contest. The prompt that fueled my essay was:

We are looking for an article about a place that inspires you to spend your time with no regrets. In Arnold Bennett’s book, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, he writes about how time is the ideal democracy. “No one can take [time] from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.” Every morning we have a new day, as he says, “The supply of time is truly a daily miracle.” Where and how do you wish to spend your time?

I had just returned from visiting Brad in Bogotá, our many conversations still fresh in my mind. His friends, Filipe and Nico, had taught me a wonderful phrase over Sunday lunch –echar los perros– which translates to release the dogs, something that hopeful future lovers say at the beginning of a courtship–release the dogs, let’s get together, I desire you, etc. What I love about this phrase, which is basically a sexual proposition, is that it sounds playful and melodious rather than lurid.

Echar los perros encapsulates the feeling of jumping in with one’s heart without hesitation or regret. Like the prompt suggests, many of do this when we travel, but within each journey comes individual moments where a person has the opportunity to release the dogs and become an adventurer.

With that, I invite you to leave the work-a-day world behind for a moment and join me on a secluded little side road. I promise, it’ll just be the two of us. Come on. Or, better said, “Echar Los Perros”

What a Mother

Within the pantheon of idyllic perfection looms a lofty figure, one who overshadows beloved English professors, high school football coaches and even Oprah: O Paragon of Grace and Beauty, thy name is Mother.

For those of us who have lost our mothers, Mother’s Day takes on a different meaning forever afterward. We learn to celebrate favorite aunts or grandmothers, female friends who have become mom-like, or perhaps we are the ones fêted by our children as we make our own families. Silently in the background, we pause to remember our own mothers, dreaming of what we might be doing with her if she were still alive.

This has been my experience for the last twenty-three years. On Monday, when everyone comes to work with stories of Mother’s Day, I’ll feel an echo of longing and a lack of tales to reciprocate. I will delight vicariously in my co-workers’ exchanges, predictably colored by festive brunches and family reunions, remembering what it felt like to bask in the love of my mother. Having a mom means that you’ve planted a flag in someone’s territory for life. It’s a hard habit to break.

Some will tell stories about tradition or small rituals they perform each year, like a family walk at Green Lake. I will envision them presenting bouquets of flowers and dining out at favorite restaurants, making memories over quiche. They will talk about visits to mom’s house in Leschi or Tacoma or Mount Vernon, or an afternoon at the assisted living facility because mom is unable to drive. Even in the latter cases, I will be happy-envious. In these stories, there is still a mother to be hugged and loved, even if her vitality is diminished.

When your mother dies at a young age, meaning that you are young as well, you naturally collect mother figures throughout your life, though the replacement roles are hazier. You don’t hold these women to the same standards, a phenomenon that goes both ways. While this means that you’ll never find someone who fills her shoes, it also means that you won’t judge them by the same rigorous standards and expectations that you held for your mother. No one can can replace the woman who raised you; in the same moment you complain about one thing, you’ll defend her because she is, after all, your mom. She wins at all contests, whether for the most loving or crazy or judgmental. Don’t try to convince someone that her mother isn’t 100% at the top of her game, no matter what it is.

If nothing else, we are creatures who learn from infancy a single version of how life and love should be; imprinting is inescapable. If our mothers made cinnamon toast on Sunday mornings, then we will find ourselves inexplicably comforted when our Airbnb hostess in Boston offers us cinnamon toast, even at age 40. Cinnamon toast means safety. Yet, while someone else’s cinnamon toast may be tasty, it’s not the same as we remember it. Our mother’s cinnamon toast was just a little better because she used real butter rather than the heart-healthy kind. The impostor-toast is not perfect.

In eastern traditions, this phenomenon is called samskara, a pre-conceived impression. We cling to certain ideas, forming memories that sink from the conscious into the unconscious, becoming embedded in our subliminal mind. These ideas pass from our active thoughts into a background data loop that informs our actions in the present without us realizing it. When we crave affection, we may hunger for a piece of cinnamon toast, then think of our mother, concluding that it would be nice if she were there. We taste the sweetness of the bread, conjure the sense of her love and appreciate from afar how kind she was to make us something to eat before she tended to her own hunger. We play this tape over and over again, never fully sated by someone else performing the same act. With every replay, mom’s cinnamon toast –and mom herself– becomes more of an impossible ideal.

Our lives are embedded with these samskaras; they are our conditioning. The more we repeat them, the deeper the grooves we carve. Every year that our mother is no longer there to make cinnamon toast, the more we crave it, the more delicious it becomes in our memory, the more we try to make the same toast ourselves — and ultimately fail because her toast was perfect, and now, quite impossible to duplicate. This is true of our first loves, our childhood best friends — the firsts of all things. How can what we receive from others ever be enough if it doesn’t match the impact of these samskara-setting experiences? Can we ever be loved, then, if we don’t allow anyone else to measure up — or change our definition of the ultimate ideal?

The key to samskaras is that it’s possible to break them, as well as make new ones. While on one level, samskaras represent order (itself, not a bad thing), the ability to regularly shift our patterns, expectations and habits into a state of constant self-renewal presents the possibility for a dynamic version of samskaras. Busting through our calcified beliefs takes intentional work, to be sure, but anyone who has heard her Gloria Gaynor anthem play after a bad break-up knows it’s possible. After dislodging the scar tissue of entrenched patterns, we feel exhilarated and fluid — anything is possible. Changing our physical and mental patterns is as scary as it is empowering (if I let go of what I believe, do I lose myself?); as creatures of habit, we don’t do it as often as we should.

Thus, the perfection principle conferred on all things Mother.

In my memory, my mom will forever be frozen in her mid-40s. As I near this age, I’ve come to suspect that she wasn’t so perfect –in fact, I’m realizing that she was terribly imperfect– a conclusion previously off-limits. The problem with people dying, especially when they die young, is that we martyr them. Multiply this a thousand times when it’s your mother, who started off as perfect to begin with. The notion that my mother wasn’t always logical in her decision-making, or that she lacked vigilance, was impossible for most of my life. A person doesn’t go there, especially not on Mother’s Day.

The ideal of my perfect mother is a samskara as deep as my entire being. Looking back over the past four years of essays, not only in this blog, but pieces that I’ve submitted for publication, I witness myself supporting this notion over and over again. The gaping groove of my devotion has become a bottomless crevasse, fueling my writing into increasingly more intense and personal chasms as I try to understand why such a perfect person would end up in less than perfect circumstances. No wonder these works haven’t been picked up (and thanks to my readers for bearing with me.)

Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Just a year ago, I would have insisted the same of these essays about my mother — and I would have been wrong. I wasn’t writing to understand what I thought, or even to suss out my own life choices, but to prove a faulty hypothesis that my world view depended on. It turns out, my mother was not perfect. She was also not a victim of things that happened to her, like I wanted to believe, but decidedly imperfect in her choices that brought about those events. She was funny and kind and rebellious, yet she was also uninformed, fearful and inhibited. She didn’t always make the best choices despite her intelligence. In the end, she was as fallible in her life decisions as, say, me. Or any of us.

It was shocking to realize this and have the world not end. It was just as surprising –cleansing, even– to let myself feel frustrated with her shortcomings yet discover that I could still love her and hold her in esteem. Imagine: it’s possible to look up to a person –a mother, no less– who isn’t perfect.

When a parent dies in your youth, a common coping mechanism is to become a control freak. Your samskara reasons that, if you can play dungeon master in your own make-believe fiefdom, things will be okay. If you were already a high-strung type-A control freak –a samskara learned from your parents, say– you will take this trait to a new level if your mother dies. Your life goals become perfection (there’s that word again), order and control, so that you will not be surprised by unforeseen events again — or, if you are, you will have established and pre-positioned every needed resource at the ready.

The worst thing for people like us is to not be in control. We don’t wish to dominate for the sake of power, rather we don’t want to be let down [again.] The price of devastation is too high to entrust our hearts or livelihoods to anyone else. The only way to safeguard oneself is to be at the top of the tower, always. Other sentries will miss the tiny movements that our eagle eyes detect out there in the dark; our lazy-eyed compatriots will fall asleep and let the raiders invade the village. To survive, we must execute all tasks ourselves. We must be perfect. Above all, we cannot trust others. Trust leaves us open and vulnerable, and vulnerable means fallible, penetrable, weak. Vulnerable is the feeling of the earth liquifying beneath your feet before the landslide smothers you all the way down the hill.

This idea, too, is a samskara from childhood, only I didn’t inherit it, exactly; I set down the grooves myself. My mother was perfect, so I should be perfect, too. She died, so I should be even more perfect in her place. The problem is, as a writer, if I am to explain her decidedly imperfect life, I must either reveal her personal imperfections (impossible – she has none!) or make her more perfect so as to distance her from the events that befell her. Watch as my mother becomes inert and, frankly, not very interesting… and I, in my quest for perfection, become the same.

After reading through my essays about her, and the many rejection letters that accompany them, I now see a need to understand her as a whole person, if I am ever to write about her convincingly. Just as writers should never write to settle scores, we should quit trying to preserve memories of people as they never were.

Maybe Joan Didion would correct me here and say that all this writing about my so-called perfect mother has helped me figure out what I’m thinking, but I think it’s the opposite. Writing about her over and over has actually deepened the groove, allowed me to mine the depths of the samskara that insists that the only way I can love my mother is to insist upon her lily-white transcendence. This deep-set belief restricts me as an artist as much as a daughter.

No one is all good or all bad –at least, not people who make interesting characters– and she certainly has potential if I let the light of reality shine. With distance and age, perhaps I can allow her character enough space on the page to inhabit more of who she really was: a woman as emotionally complex as the rest of us, and for her complexity, that much more compelling.

This Mother’s Day, I will break the samskara in which I relegate my mother to the blameless, snow-white Virgin Queen, and instead forge a new habit: I will recall her many facets –caring, affectionate, silly, a good dancer– and above all, love her for everything she didn’t get right. In the name of coming clean, I might even confess a secret: in spite of her Italian heritage, she was an awful cook. Her salmon was as dry as the Sahara desert, her liver and onions as desiccated as salt-packed eel. I used to beg her for a plate of plain ground beef with salt and pepper just to avoid whatever new concoction she was trying.

Or, on second thought, maybe I’ll save this for the book.

mom grad

I Do Not Have a Problem

They say that the first step to kicking addiction is recognizing that you have a problem, however when I looked up twelve-step programs it turns out that the first step is actually admitting that you are powerless and that your life has become unmanageable. I use this as my first piece of evidence that I am not addicted to Candy Crush Saga because I am able to resist playing it —now, for instance— and when I’m asleep. Plus, I can still hold down a job.

Step Two is believing that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. That power, I would offer, comes in many forms. For some, it is Gaia, the earth/mother deity, or an old man with a white beard in the sky called God; for others, it’s Vishnu, a multi-armed blue man dressed in flowing orange robes. Given that the maker of Candy Crush Saga is a company called King, and king is a euphemism for god, I would argue that I’m not addicted to Candy Crush Saga because it is made by a higher power, which can restore me to sanity. In fact, I’m doing the lord’s work just by playing.

I find this especially true after a stressful day at work. When I take my seat on the bus and whip out my phone to play Candy Crush Saga, my nerves instantly calm. Aligning those primary-colored shapes until they explode with sweet goodness calms my nerves and makes me forget the ball of snakes that I’ve spent the day unwinding. Playing Candy Crush Saga feels better than drinking a glass of wine, although the two together on a Friday night (or any night, really) are unbeatable. Other than more lives to play Candy Crush Saga, what else could a person need?

In order to advance in the program, twelve-steppers must turn their will and lives over to the care of said higher power, which is especially easy for me, since we’ve established that I don’t have a problem. Even if I did, King would take good care of me, so I am fine with turning my life over to Candy Crush Saga. In fact, to prove that I don’t have a problem with resigning my will to King, I will pause here to play a game.

Crap—I am never getting past Level 86!

After the first two tasks, the twelve-step program requires that I make a searching and fearless moral inventory of my life, which is pretty easy when I consider it through the lens of Candy Crush Saga. Sure, there have been mis-steps. How many times have I sacrificed a conversation for playing just one more round of Candy Crush Saga? How often have I passively watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones just so that I can make it to the next level? How many times have I let my boyfriend prepare an entire meal while I lazed on the couch playing game after game until I exhausted all of my lives?

Clearly, King is asking me to try harder, to be better at this game, otherwise why would it encourage me to keep playing? Every time I run out of lives and that pink timeclock counts down to my next available turn, I feel agitated, antsy, borderline homicidal. Thirty minutes is too long to wait! My lesson learned from Step Four is that I must apply myself. I vow never to give up on Candy Crush Saga, no matter how many times or friends I lose. If they were really my friends, they’d understand.

Ooo—new life! Hold that thought.

Okay, I’m back. Still on Level 86. Talk about being crushed.

To save time, I recommend combining Steps Five, Six and Seven, since they involve admitting the exact nature of my wrongs to god, myself and someone else, then letting god know that that I’m ready to have these faults removed, then asking god to remove them. From a time management standpoint, this is wasteful. Think of how many games of Candy Crush Saga I could play in the time I bustle back and forth between admitting, thinking and asking!

I say we simplify: let’s go to god once and make it a three-fer. And, honestly, I’d get rid of that third party. If something’s not right in my life, like I can’t get past Level 86 of Candy Crush Saga, whose business is that? In fact, my real problem isn’t so much Candy Crush Saga overtaking my life, but that I don’t have enough turns in order to clear all of the jelly in Level 86, and heck if I’m going to admit that to anyone else! Thus, I’m skipping straight to Step Seven. Dear King, I beseech thee: remove this obstacle. Help me clear all of the jelly in 35 moves, and dammit, I am not paying you $.99 to get more lives.

Alright. Time for Step Eight: make a list of all persons harmed and be willing to make amends. This is also proof that I don’t have a problem because I haven’t really hurt anyone by playing Candy Crush Saga. If my coworkers are setting up a GoTo meeting and there’s an extra minute when no one needs me, are they harmed if I play Candy Crush Saga? If yoga class hasn’t begun and I want to play one more round before we all chant Om, are my yogamates injured? (I have the sound off, after all.) And when I’m stopped at a light, I’d argue that there’s nothing else to do but play a partial round of Candy Crush Saga. I always put my phone down before tapping on the gas.

Okay, Step Nine: make amends. Another opportunity for streamlining. Why not make a list of wrongs, and while I’m at it, just say sorry? Although, in my case, I don’t have a problem and I haven’t done anything that warrants an apology. Say, it looks like I have another life available; I’ll be back in a sec.

Argh! Damn you, Level 86!!

It might seem that I’m distracted while writing this post, and maybe you’re waiting for me to beg your forgiveness, but I can tell that you’re texting or looking at Facebook or whatever, and you’re actually ignoring me. I was just playing Candy Crush Saga because you were doing something else, so in this case, I don’t need to apologize. This does not count as Step Nine.

(Technically, I’m supposed to continue to take personal inventory and admit when I’m wrong, but I’m not. I don’t have a problem, and I’m not putting down my phone until you put down yours, and not a minute before.)

Sigh. You’re right. I’m sorry, too. I think we’d understand each other better if you would download Candy Crush Saga. I resisted for a long time, too, but see how great it is? Once you start to align those red licorice pieces and shiny yellow pears, you’ll know what I mean. Here, try mine. First shoot for three in a row, and you’ll feel good, but then see what happens when you get four in a row (power up, girl!) and then five (sparkly crystal ball blasts away everything!)

While you’re downloading the app (free in the iTunes app store, but watch out for that $.99 upcharge), let’s move on to Step Eleven: seek to improve conscious thought with god through prayer and meditation, praying for knowledge of his will and the power to carry it out. Snap! I do that every night. Just before I go to sleep, I pray, Dear King, how many more lives will I waste trying to best Level 86? I’ve made it through levels that I thought I’d play forever, like those expanding chocolate blocks, but I can’t seem to get past this one. I’ve been on Level 86 for, like, three and a half weeks. Please give me the power without making me pay the $.99. I know I can do it on my own. Please King, help me just this once, and I won’t ask for anything again.

(Eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two…) Free life! Hang on just a sec.

Okay, I’m back. Still stuck on &*%$# Level 86!! Step Eleven is clearly not working. I’ll pray harder next time. No, I’m not paying $.99 to move on! Of course, this is all pointless, since I don’t have a problem and I am not addicted to Candy Crush Saga. If I was, I’d pay that $.99, but that’s what weak addicts do. I only check my phone every few minutes to see how much longer I have to wait until my next free life is available. That’s just being attentive. And economical, I might add.

While I’m waiting, Step Twelve says that I have to have some sort of spiritual awakening and carry the message to others. I think it means that, once I get past Level 86, I’ll be at Level 87, and I should tell all my Tweeps and Facebook friends. Actually… since I told you at the end of Step Ten that you should download the app, I’ve already reached Step Twelve when you think about it. Awesome! Now I have more time to play Candy Crush Saga.

All of this fuss in the media about people being addicted to Candy Crush Saga is ridiculous. What’s so bad about an innocent single-player game? I’ve come to learn that you can half-listen to people while playing and still hear most of what they said. If you miss anything, they usually yell it at you again. And how can it be bad to amuse oneself while waiting for the bus or riding the bus, or even while walking home from the bus stop, so long as you look up for traffic? Is it a crime to play a round or two before bed as long as I turn down my screen brightness? Or in the bath, so long as I have an OtterBox phone case? Or while eating lunch when I’m all by myself, since everyone else at the counter is busy playing Candy Crush Saga, too? I think not.

In the end, these games stimulate the problem-solving parts of our brains, if not our dogged persistence. After only four months, I can feel my cognitive abilities blossom like the orange circles and the green squares I clear from the screen four and five at a time (So close!!! Only two jellies left that time!) Thank you, Candy Crush Saga, for giving me a reason not to pay attention to everything else.

After reviewing the twelve steps, I think it’s clear that I am not addicted to Candy Crush Saga. Seriously, I can quit any time I want. If anyone has a problem, it’s not me, it’s — hang on a minute. I just got another life.

Swimmingly

It’s taken me twelve years in Seattle to swim in an indoor pool. Or, more accurately, it has taken me thirty-five years to return to one.

In Arizona, where I grew up, no one had indoor pools. In the desert, the primary point of water is cooling more so than sport or recreation, though they follow closely behind. The only rightful place for pools in Phoenix is outdoors. The 300-plus days of sunshine and fair weather ensure they will be used virtually year-round whereas in Seattle, ninety days of traditionally defined summer is a tenuous proposition hardly worth the expense.

While I shuddered to imagine daring an outdoor swim here on a frigid, rainy December night, I also balked at the idea of swimming indoors. It was simply unnatural. Each time I longed for the water, I conjured the acidic stink of chlorine held captive by a cavernous brick building rather than set free into the sunny blue sky. No thank you.

My first indoor pool experience happened in Michigan where my mother took me for swimming lessons as a toddler, determined that I would learn things she never did. While I didn’t mind being in the water, I refused to put my cherubic face under. For weeks, my mother and swim teacher cajoled and begged with no success. I would wade and dog paddle, but not submerge. I was plenty nice about it, no fussing or crying, but there was no way I was going under. Then someone brilliantly suggested bribery. One flip of a shiny quarter into the water, followed by a guttural glug! as it submerged, and down I went.

In my defense, twenty-five cents was a worth a lot more back then.

After we moved to Arizona, I was thankful that mom sprang for those lessons, since most of my friends had pools. I went to so many birthday pool parties growing up that my fingers are still pruny. Those of us who didn’t have our own pools gathered frequently at neighborhood pools in our master planned community. They weren’t quite public pools –they were only for residents and guests, and were well maintained– but they weren’t luxurious, either. The metal gates and restroom cabanas had been painted beige far too many times, and the palm trees that provided scant shade had seen enough seasons as to be gangly. There were always too many kids splashing around to do anything useful, like swimming laps; mostly, we went to get tan or flirt with boys, or practice underwater tricks like handstands.

The gentle baking sensation of the sun drying beaded water from my skin goes hand-in-hand with swimming, even today; without the sun to warm me, it seems daft to swim inside. It’s a lunacy akin to driving to the gym in order to walk on a treadmill. Each morning, I think, Really? but it’s 5:30 am and dark and rainy and cold, so I do it, just like I drive myself to the community pool at night, bundled up in fleece. As soon as I arrive, I head for the dry sauna rather than shiver on the sidelines as they pull the lane markers across the water.

Not only has my swim venue shifted in adulthood; so have the outfit and accessories. In Arizona, I wore an off-the-shelf suit where today most one-pieces are designed to be alluring rather than functional. Nothing like noticing parts of oneself floating by to send a girl to the Speedo department pronto. Back then, no one bothered with shoes, which were usually left outside someone’s back door. Our hair flowed free, growing more brittle and light each summer as our eyes reddened from whatever hazardous chemical cocktail they shocked pools with.

Today, I wear a swim cap, which is essentially required in a public pool. What a hilarious dance it is to get my shoulder-length mane inside the tight black cap, something I attempted for the first time ever in December. After minutes of desperate tucking, I looked like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman at the end of Batman Returns, frizzy strands poking out every which way from shreds of black rubber hugging my face. Somehow, she managed to appear crazy-sexy while I looked deranged and old, the cap pushing down my forehead into a stack of Shar Pei wrinkles above my eyes. I snapped a selfie only to realize later that I looked like aged elephant seal. (To be fair, Michelle had lipstick and eyeliner working for her in the movie.)

Then, there are the goggles. No one wore them when I was a kid, except for Olympic athletes on TV. We wore cheap, leaky plastic masks for a few seconds in order to explore the bottom of the pool, then quickly ditched them to play Marco Polo. Wearing contact lenses as an adult, there is no way to swim without goggles. At least I don’t stand out, since everyone wears them in Seattle, even kids. We look like a hive of near-sighted soggy bees buzzing back and forth to the hive.

To top this off, I can’t forget the hot pink Croc flip-flops with massaging soles. While I cringe at wearing anything by Croc, I really cringe at contracting ringworm and foot fungus. I stand on top of my Crocs even while changing, fearing diseases that friends have caught in gym locker rooms from going without footwear. In Arizona, we ran barefoot across the Kooldeck with abandon, but here, I won’t step on the concrete floor until the last minute when I am forced to leave my shoes next to my towel before dashing into the water. Admittedly, I live by a bizarre and wholly unscientific five-second rule by which I am safe if I madly tiptoe-dance across the surface because surely ringworm takes at least ten seconds of full-foot contact to set in.

This is a lot of effort for the actual amount of swimming I do, which is about forty minutes. Of course, when I say forty minutes, it’s closer to twenty-five, given all the panting and pausing between laps. In the last few months, my friend Amie and I have given a new definition to the SLOW lane, urging the septuagenarian who had clearly claimed it for his own to join the MEDIUM lane next door. On our first night, grandpa lapped us several times over; on our second, he tried to pass me on the inside, only to face a near head-on collision with the portly side-stroke floater going the opposite direction. Frustrated, he splashed under the lane marker to the MEDIUM lane, which is where he now remains, shaking his head when he looks over at us.

Our strokes are another matter entirely. The teenage staff guffaw as we slap our hands into the water like geese downed by jet engines. On our first swim night, the sixteen-year-old lifeguard suggested that I not lift my head out of the water so much during my crawl stroke; I nodded and thanked her, thinking, When was I doing the crawl? Had I inadvertently mastered a new stroke? At home, Google told me that the crawl and freestyle, which is what I thought I was doing, are the same. I studied the diagrams, not sure that I had been doing anything that resembled any of the images.

The next time I swam I wanted to explain to her, Just so you know, I keep my head up too long because I am close to dying each time I gasp for breath between strokes. It turns out that swimming is much more of a workout than I imagined. As a kid, I remembered being pleasantly tired coming out of the pool before gorging on hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and soda served by someone’s mom after hours of play. Swimming laps back and forth as an adult is altogether exhausting, and quickly so. I can barely catch my breath at the deep end before turning around. With each lap, and I use that term loosely, I alternate strokes –breast stroke or freestyle, er, crawl– so that I can make it back to rest on the shallow end. Sometimes, I use a kick board for alternating laps, my tired thighs becoming slabs of veal, smooth and creamy, without an ounce of short-twitch muscle in them.

Anyone who shares our lane is thoroughly confused, wondering why Amie and I spend so much time huddled up against the wall at the shallow end, panting. We seem awfully polite, smiling and nodding, Oh no, you go ahead, as the other swimmers splash forward with their fluid strokes and fancy kick turns, going back and forth across the water like skates. Last week, the eight-year-old Chinese girl who swims under her parents’ watchful eyes paused and tilted her head at us, close to asking why we never take our turns as often as we could. I wanted to say, Hey kid, it’s not that we’re all that nice, we’re just old and tired, but I think that my outfit gives that away already. At least Amie has a pink cap so she looks like a cute water ballerina next to my tar baby seal head.

When you start out swimming, your body is inefficient. Without synchronous mastery of the strokes, you’re working harder than you need to, working against yourself to go the same distance that an efficient swimmer like my auntie can cover in shorter time with less effort. Watching the Seattle Pacific University men’s swim team in the FAST lanes reminds me of this, their lean Michael Phelps frames gliding gracefully back and forth across the water like mer-men — zip, zoom, paddle, kick-turn, zip, zoom, paddle, kick-turn, zip, zoom, paddle, and so on, like it was nothing. Conversely, my moves consist of push-off, ka-blam, ka-blam, gasp, pause, ka-blam, ka-blam, spit, gasp, pause, ka-blam, ka-blam, sputter-spit, gasp, ka-blam, ka-blam, oh-thank-god-I-made-it-to-the-deep-end. Occasionally, Amie and I look over at the boys in their Speedo briefs, not an extra ounce of flesh on them, and feel like Mrs. Robinson.

There is no sweeter moment than when we call time, high-fiving each other for showing up, tossing our kick boards onto the pile before huddling into the hot box to warm up, our reward before we hit the showers. After listening to us discuss our struggling performance, one denizen suggested that we practice our kick turns, insisting that they would be game-changers. After he left, we laughed, agreeing that we first needed to be able to swim back-to-back laps before kick turns would be of any use. I pictured us executing perfect kick-turns before sinking to the bottom, out of breath. On the plus side, maybe the SPU students would give us mouth-to-mouth.

It’s a nice idea, though, that some day this might be easier. Some day, Amie and I will be the old ladies making a big splash, ducking under the floating markers to the MEDIUM lane. I bet you’ll marvel at our kick turns.

Little Things

Never write to settle scores.

This, of course, is a great temptation for writers abused in some way. Rather than fisticuffs or face-to-face confrontation, we seek our pound of flesh through the weapons we know how to wield best: words.

This week, my own poison pen was dripping with the ink of outrage stemming from a sexually explicit and altogether inappropriate joke told at a business meeting. The experience brought to mind the dark side of the construction industry where I once worked. When someone made a racy joke, you had to laugh or be seen as uptight, uncool or –heaven forbid– a Nazi feminist lesbian, as one former coworker suggested. (I am still unclear how lesbian feminists and Nazis go together, but he seemed sure of the assertion.)

If you didn’t go along with these jokes, you weren’t a team player. To succeed, you had to be one of the guys, spunky and energetic, but also ready to fall in line. Ingrained in the culture, off-color remarks were uttered so casually that calling attention to them felt more hostile than the jokes themselves. It was all in good fun, right? Why single someone out, especially if he has more seniority? Talk with HR and you’re labeled a hyper-sensitive traitor. Shortly before I left my job, I reported physical sexual harassment to my boss who smiled, shrugged and said, “I guess you know now to stay away from Jerry.” Institutional harassment and sexism perpetuate in this quiet, fetid dark; the older generation teaches the younger how to behave, both men and women. Rarely does someone speak up to stop or question it. Some of us just leave.

So, there we were, this professional acquaintance and I, discussing new project leads. Suddenly, he felt compelled to tell a joke about a rival college, warning me that it was really bad; he accepted my go-ahead nod as absolution for its content. The joke ended up being less about a particular college and more about a shaming sexual slur aimed at a co-ed. If he had changed the butt of the joke from a female to a black or a gay student, the NAACP and Human Rights Campaign would have been on him in two seconds. In fact, he probably wouldn’t have brought it up outside his circle of white, straight male friends, knowing on some level that it was wrong, at least in the sense of not wanting to get caught saying it. Thus, I sat in dazed wonderment: why would he think that I would find a joke about a wanton, dim-witted girl having sex with her father funny?

I masked my shock with a polite moving on of the conversation, but as I considered it later, I became irritated, both at him and myself. What right did he have to tell that joke and why didn’t I say something? He mentioned it was an old one, meaning that he had been telling it for years — meaning that no one else had called him on it before. Though he sensed he was toeing a line, he was betting I wouldn’t, either.

This week’s blog post was going to be a well-argued evisceration of our exchange, detailing the hours I spent composing a response to him, balanced with evidence of institutional sexist hierarchy reinforced in the workplace today. Despite feeling self-righteous, I chose my words with painstaking care; I didn’t want to come off as militant or angry, which made me angrier. Why did it feel like I was doing something wrong by addressing his inappropriate joke? Why did I feel the need to minimize what was clearly a continuation of an old-boys’ industry that objectified and disempowered women? I felt a need to point out that small things like this mattered.

I came home Friday night with links to a host of articles that would substantiate my position. Then, on Saturday morning, my yoga teacher cried as she opened class. She didn’t mention the landslide in Oso by name, but as soon as her voice cracked when she talked about loss, we knew exactly what she was referring to. It’s been impossible to escape the coverage on television, social media and radio, but for the strong news presence, I realized I hadn’t taken a moment to acknowledge the loss experienced by the Oso’s families. I was too busy feeling outraged.

“Even as a teacher, I don’t know how to talk about this,” Beth said in between sobs that she tried to calm. She suggested that we dedicate our practice to those who had lost loved ones. “Use this opportunity to send something good out into the world.” After a few hitching sentences of guidance, she admitted, “This hasn’t happened all week, but I feel a bond with this class; I need you all right now.”

As soon as she revealed her vulnerability, tears appeared in my eyes, too. All week, I listened to journalistic reports, feeling a sense of concern, but not empathy; I read articles to stay informed but I didn’t exhibit deep caring. The gift of Beth’s emotions filling the room pulled us from our apathetic stupor; if everyone else was like me, their thoughts had been on trivial matters, like the day’s errands or the blog posts they were going to write. She wiped her cheeks and concluded, “Picture that there is no tomorrow. This is the last practice you will ever experience. Bring whatever you have to that. Practice like it’s the last time you will ever be in your body.”

Her request took me back to 9/11. I had just started art school and was taking an introductory course at The Art Institute of Seattle. Our assignment was to apply a certain style of painting to an original work; I chose cubism to depict a frozen-in-time moment of the twin towers mid-implosion. I transformed the plumes of smoke and licking flames into black and red shards, the buildings into pointed green-gray stalagmites. The painting’s elements were sharp and angular, the warped windows of the buildings becoming daggers.

When critiquing the work, my teacher was puzzled. “I hear you talking with such passion and emotion,” Tony observed to the class, referring to my tears at describing the scene I portrayed with acrylics, “but I don’t see it. I see something restrained, stilted. It’s like you can’t reach the place you’re trying to go. Maybe it’s not the right vehicle for what you’re trying to express.” At the time, I accepted his analysis; Tony, after all, was a professional artist and generally wise in his counsel. I shrugged, disappointed in my lack of ability, and threw away the painting after class.

Looking back, I understand why I chose those flat, crystalline forms to convey my heartbreak. It was too big to feel all at once, this empathy for strangers who jumped out of broken high-rise windows to their deaths, gave their lives to subdue terrorists armed with box cutters or shepherded people down smoky staircases of the World Trade Center without concern for their own safety. I absorbed their suffering deeply, feeling proud of their bravery and devastated for the children who clung to voicemail messages from parents they would never see again. I didn’t know what to do with all of that; I had to freeze frame. Turns out, my painting was not about what happened on the ground but the shock I was feeling inside. Though I didn’t know any 9/11 victims personally, I continued to cry months later when I thought of them.

On any given day, world tragedy –terrorist bombings, military coups, natural disasters– happens so far away that the stories read like fiction if we don’t stop to consider them. I realized in Beth’s class that, even in the case of the Oso landslide, which happened far closer to my home, I had accepted the news reports like plot lines about characters I would never meet who experienced trauma that I would [hopefully] never understand. It wasn’t until she cried that I was reminded of the power of human empathy; that being alive is indeed a precious and precarious state, the loss of which is worth tears. She reminded me that Oso is a tragedy, not just another tragedy — that each of us can be snuffed out so quickly that we wouldn’t have time to remove our hands from the steering wheel before the mudslide hit. Events like this are worth mourning, worth sitting with even for a short time, rather than skipping over altogether.

Whether constructive or petty, the small things that we do matter — the pay-it-forward coffees as much as snarky gossip, the sexist jokes or helping neighbors recover photo albums after a disaster. Small good things, like the willingness to be vulnerable in public or to speak up for what you believe is right regardless of personal cost — these acts are worth doing, no matter how busy we think we are. This is the legacy we should be sharing from one generation to another.

Last night, I spent the evening with Tammie and her family, an ongoing ritual that involves her kids helping to prepare dinner (better sous chefs you have never seen) and playing board games. They have an original game of Life, perennially a favorite, although last night they taught me how to play the Settlers of Catan. On another night, I might have complained about the inappropriate joke to Tammie while chopping vegetables, darkening my colleague’s villainous portrait. Instead, we talked with the kids about school dances, sports and life. Suddenly, the small things seemed more important than confirming again with another audience that I was right.

The tumult was over anyway. On Friday, I suggested to my colleague that he consider how the joke reflected on his personal brand and that of his employer. He agreed quickly, if with lukewarm atonement (I had been warned it was a crass joke, he reminded me) that it might be time to retire it. In the end, saying something was the victory, an act I haven’t braved when faced with similar situations in the past. It wasn’t about settling a score, but about the possibility of change based on a single, small act.

Last night when I looked across the table at Tammie’s children –funny and talented and creative– I realized what substantial little things our game nights are in comparison. Chocolate-smeared and messy, these precious moments are what makes life worth living and tragedy so tragic when they are lost. They are venues for the kind of learning that blossoms, bit by bit, over a person’s lifetime. They are the reason that we wade through this destroyed, muddy world, hope beating in our hearts, even when people insist that it’s pointless to search on.

Here in the little moments, we teach each other empathy, integrity and selflessness — strengths we’ll draw upon when big moments come. They are what guide us to look out for others, to do what is right. There is nothing small about that.

Rendering by Lissa

Rendering by Lissa

P.S. While I don’t endorse any particular organization, I encourage you to donate to the relief effort for the town of Oso, Washington. The American Red Cross is one of many organizations accepting aid for the families affected by this disaster.