On Pause

Tending to the baby oyster mushrooms

Tending to the baby oyster mushrooms – photo by Kevin Scott

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Maggie Kaplan, founder of Invoking the Pause, the environmental small grants program that funded my CityLab7 partners and I in the ideation and development of our urban mushroom farm.

It’s been a year since our installation closed, marking the end of a long-term project fed by buckets of sweat equity and three grants. Each of us in CityLab7 came from different educational and professional backgrounds and sought diverse outcomes from our involvement, from the desire for like-minded collaborators and a creative outlet to the opportunity for new business entrepreneurship. During those three years together, our needs and relationships grew and changed in ways that often surprised me.

The alternating rhythms of challenge and delight inherent to our Pause experience were truly life-changing. Much of it had to do with the immense freedom that we were granted as creators, and how we as a group reacted to that freedom. It was difficult to fully understand the impact of The Pause in the moment, though; I was in a mode of prospecting the entire time.

When Maggie encouraged me to investigate the impact of The Pause on my life today, I found that I finally had enough distance to do so.

Though we became a formal collective in 2009, our cohort actually came together in 2008, months before we found Maggie’s call for proposals on the Bullitt Foundation website. CityLab7 took its first Pause on a ferry ride to Bremerton during a temperate September afternoon, leaving early from work so that we could spend time together. We were all prospecting back then, with no idea what we would find, nor that our efforts would result in anything as tangible or successful as they did.

With that, I’ll direct readers to the blog post that I created for Invoking the Pause, which describes the lessons learned and the wandering path that led to the birth of our mushroom farm brainchild.

The story begins here.


In a letter to his longtime editor and friend, Pascal “Pat” Covici, John Steinbeck wrote,

“A prologue is written last but placed first to explain the book’s shortcomings and to ask the reader to be kind. But a prologue is also a note of farewell from the writer to his book. For years the writer and his book have been together—friends or bitter enemies but very close as only love and fighting can accomplish.

Then suddenly the book is done. It is a kind of death. This is the requiem.”

I felt the truth of these words last night at CityLab7’s Harvest Dinner at the [storefront] Mushroom Farm, the culminating event of three years of work with my partners. As Steinbeck’s lament suggests, those years have held both love and fighting—sometimes simultaneously—as we took time away from jobs, families and ourselves to make this installation happen.

In 2009, we began as seven and soon became six. In the fall of 2010, when Laura moved to Buffalo to pursue a masters degree, CityLab7 became five. We felt the weight of her absence in many ways, missing her creativity and ability to hold our concepts to the test. She was our gut-check, adding a layer of concerted artistry atop our poetry and science.

Glancing at my partners’ tired but happy faces during dinner last night, I recalled moments from the twisting, turning path that led us to Olson Kundig’s [storefront] space in 2012. If the past three years were a long pregnancy, we went into hard labor in January and it hasn’t let up.

These two months in particular have been a crowning struggle—creatively, energetically, and spiritually. Along the way, each of us has developed our own ideas about what we hoped to gain from this experiment. Lately, those differences have taken on Technicolor hues, clear and distinct. A moot question at the end of the journey, but I’ve wondered if we might have struggled less had Laura remained.

On my way over yesterday, I put a framed team photograph into my bag, thinking that it might become part of our display—a sentimental nod to CityLab7’s beginning and a way of having Laura with us. The photo was taken by a Girl Scout troop mom at the beginning of our Invoking the Pause retreat in 2009 as we stood on the train platform in Portland, unsure of how our four days together would unfold.

Originally, we came together to see if seven people from different backgrounds, experience and education could push and enhance each other’s contributions. Could we make something of value together? Was it possible to step outside our traditional silos or were we too different to truly be collaborative? Our mushroom farm pop-up was a way of organizing ourselves around a project to see if we could pull this off.

In the hours before our guests began to arrive, the five of us scurried to make the [storefront] space presentable, marveling at the sight of mushrooms growing out of spent coffee grounds as we had hoped they would. We had a custom-designed mushroom farm, a table constructed of reclaimed timbers, beautiful graphics, a trough of spent coffee grounds, bottles of wine and a mobile pizza oven cooking dinner outside.

Upon entering the space I realized that was missing wasn’t just Laura, but the seven people who had engendered our beginning.

As Chris, Critter, Stephen, Erin and I discussed the evening’s agenda, I realized how much we had changed in three years. Laura’s presence couldn’t have prevented or eased it. She, too, has evolved in her own life and career. I decided to leave the photograph in my bag. For all its sentimental worth, it was no longer a picture of us, but who we used to be.

True to form, the evening brimmed with the kind of energy, emotion, conversation and amazing food that have always made our gatherings special. When Stephen and Chris described CityLab7 to the crowd, their words painted a version of that photograph in my mind and I again felt the kind of joyful sadness that Steinbeck described.

Our love for each other and our collective struggle have enriched my life in profound ways; the overwhelming success of that struggle makes it all the more tender. Seeing our work portrayed in The New York Times, Inhabitat.com, and Crosscut is more than we could have dreamed. Learning that one man flew in from Minneapolis to tour the installation and another found out about it from a friend in Detroit who had seen it on Facebook blew our minds.

Though the recent weeks have been challenging, I wonder if some of our friction didn’t derive from the knowledge we quietly share: this chapter of our steadfast partnership is coming to a close and the result is better than we had imagined. As much as we are all looking forward to reclaiming a measure of our lives, I think we equally dread the hole that the conclusion of our project will create, especially now.

I have no doubt that a business opportunity will arise for us from [storefront] Mushroom Farm. What it will look like, no one knows. In between our swells of pride and relief, I’m not sure that we’re ready to acknowledge the coming transition, but we soon will. Once the farm is deconstructed, our project will be complete. Our final grant report to Maggie will be its requiem.

Balancing that melancholy for me are the eleven partners that I’m gaining through the Jack Straw Writers Program. With our first voice training session complete, we’re hurtling towards recorded interviews with Shawn and the delivery of our anthology materials to Levi.

In preparation for this, I’m invoking my own pause next weekend in a small beach house one block away from Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon. Seemingly in opposition to Steinbeck’s quote, I’m planning to spend my weekend writing the prologue to Hidden City Diaries since I haven’t yet begun my project, but need material for the anthology and to read with Shawn. I see it as an opportunity to clarify for myself what I hope to study during my travels and who I am coming into this project—my version of the train platform photograph that sets the stage for a larger experiment.

If a person’s life is the sum of her experiences, then perhaps what I’m about to write is a true prologue after all: a fond farewell to the great work that has come before—an elegy sung to acknowledge the love and creative struggle to date without which there would be no story.

Endangered Experiences

In October, a formidable woman with dark, wavy tresses and black square-framed glasses asked me and a roomful of then-strangers to imagine that we were tasting honey as she slowly purred, “This…is what time tastes like.”

She went on to talk about the endangerment of honeybees and how, with all likelihood, there would be a generation in the near future that would be the first not to know what honey tastes like. Chris Desser shared many such experiences with us as she explained her project, A Catalog of Extinct Experiences (http://extinctexperiences.weebly.com/index.html) during the Invoking the Pause retreat that I came home to after I returned from Civita.

I thought of that phrase “extinct experiences,” as I left Gary Manuel today, running my hand up the back of my newly shorn hair, pulling my fingers through the long tendrils fragranced with pomade. As I did this, a bald man passed me on First Avenue, shielding himself against the howling mist. As I walked on, I thought, He’ll never again physically feel the delight that the rest of us experience after a haircut.

The feeling of a fresh trim seems small, perhaps not tragic to lose, but it sparked the question of what kinds of experiences—and how many—are endangered or become extinct in a person’s life. Some experiences, like a sunny day, have been felt for thousands of years, and will likely continue to be felt by humans for thousands more. A person’s name or reputation may live on for just as long—Jesus Christ, King Tutankhamun, Madonna—but the lives of those who knew these famous figures only go on for decades.

In some cases, geography and lifestyle force certain experiences into extinction. I know that, outside of Italy, the opportunity to taste real burrata, an Italian cheese made of mozzarella and cream, is endangered. Many people will never taste it. And there ain’t nothing like homemade tortilla chips and salsa from the walk-up window at LBJ (El Burrito Junior) in Redondo Beach, California. It is my hope that someone in the world will always know how to make burrata, and that more people will have the opportunity to travel to Italy to taste it; there is no guarantee that the folks who run LBJ will be there forever, or pass anything down to anyone when they die…or lose their lease.

Thinking back to Civita, I arrived knowing that that my experience was endangered—and that knowledge allowed me to throw myself boundlessly into the adventure. I believe that my foreknowledge of that preciousness is what made my adventure so meaningful; while I was there, I often compared the sensation of moments passing to dripping honey—long, sweet, thick. I savored every second.

Yet, from a certain point of view, every experience is endangered and therefore dear, and all will become extinct—eventually.

What experiences are endangered or extinct? There are countless in even a single day. A popular song that you’ll never hear on the radio after its ratings fall. Places in which we live or work when we trade up for different digs. Friendships. A bottle of Chateau Margaux’s grand vin, vintage 1985. Perfect eyesight. The first time you kiss someone—or the last.

Each has a unique worth, a weight all its own; the first of discovery and excitement, a wondering of how many times that you’ll get to do it again, and the last as a siren song—the culmination of every experience before it wrapped into one amalgamation of sensory memory.

Yet, while memories can evoke pleasure, they are nothing compared to tactile experience itself.

When sharing my latest news with Dan, my stylist, I realized that today is the last day in my life that I’ll anticipate what it will feel like to write a book. Despite all of the emotional wrestling I’ve felt since age six when I knew that I wanted to be a writer, there was also sweetness in the anticipation of how it would come to pass. After giving up on trying to write fiction in my 20s, I believed the possibility to write a book had already become extinct. Several years later, I recognized how much I loved writing from life.

Tomorrow, after the file is uploaded to Amazon, the driving endeavor of the past year—the past 30 years, actually—is over. I will wait on pins and needles to receive that first copy to check for color correctness, but I will never again be able to wonder if or when I will write a book someday.

As I luxuriate in these final hours of not knowing—long and delicious—I am beginning to see that the only thing sweeter than relishing precious moments of endangered experiences is dreaming up the new ones that will replace them.

Heart Is Where the Home Is

While reacclimating to Pacific Daylight Time, I spent the past four days in Northern California for a grantee retreat related to my collaboration in a program called Invoking the Pause. Our funder drew her grantees together so that we could meet each other, and so that she and her staff could know us personally.

Though we didn’t know what to expect, it was no surprise that the experience was emotionally turbo-charged. Our first meeting began with each of us taking turns sharing information around a double circle of about 30 people, answering questions such as where we were from and where we called home.

The first speaker began to cry as she talked about her home in Pennsylvania, unwittingly establishing a safe and open tone for the rest of the convocation. Others were moved to tears in their speeches before these then-strangers, including me, feeling my eyes grow wet and my voice tremble when I spoke of the concept of home.

I explained that I was returning from two months in a place that made me rethink where I belonged. My biorhythms were still set nine hours ahead (which meant that it was 1 am when I spoke), my brain was wired to think and speak in Italian, and my body was already shriveling with the lack of touch in every interaction.

“What is home?” I asked aloud, hearing the despair in my voice; “I don’t think I know anymore.” I talked about Seattle and how much I’ve loved returning to it for the past nine years — until now. Leaving the warm Lazio light to return to a cold, rainy, dark Seattle felt like moving from heaven to purgatory.

I arrived in the late afternoon last Saturday and left for California on Monday morning, happy to reemerge in Santa Rosa’s 85-degree heat. And now… I was unsure where home was. Was it in Civita where I bloomed as a writer and an individual? Or was it in the place I once loved, which now seemed more like a storage locker for an apartment full of things I didn’t miss?

Later in that first session, a woman named Ann suggested that, for her, a woman who has lived all over the world, “Home is not a noun. Home is a verb.”

It was cold again when I arrived in Seattle last night, stepping inside my Queen Anne apartment just before midnight. After experiencing insomnia and dizzy spells in California, I wasn’t sure what I was in for. Yet, within the sense of spinning, my surroundings seemed dull and familiar — and in that familiarity, pedestrian. As I fell asleep last night, I heard my words to Iole as she and I walked on the Rialto Bridge arm in arm: when there are places like Civita and Venezia, what does the rest of it matter?

This morning, the sun’s brightness made up for me pulling boots and a sweater on; likewise, hearing my friend Critter’s voice on the phone at the bus stop –one of my first phone conversations since August– instantly evoked my smile. Getting my hair cut with Dan for the first time in nine weeks was a welcome albeit routine task, which brought me to a chance meeting with an old boss. Sitting at Le Pichet, I sipped the first good cappuccino I’ve tasted since leaving Italy just as one of my favorite peers popped inside to welcome me back after seeing me sitting in the window.

I wondered with hesitation if it wasn’t so bad to be back in Seattle.

When I complimented the cappuccino to my server, I learned of her impending trip to Italy, which made for spontaneous conviviality and instant delight. Talking about Verona and Civita made my heart swell; the conversation itself reminded me of Italy, where it was possible to share smiles, warmth, and generosity between two strangers.

As I mixed my coffee into the pert foam, I thought back to Ann’s words, and a later echo of them. Before departing our convocation, we each made an oath by adding one word to the phrase, “I will…” It was no surprise to hear, “I will home,” as one of the promises shared within our group.

Perhaps if home is a concept we carry with us –if we make home into an action, a place in our hearts, a stronger sense of self– then it’s possible to be at home no matter where our bodies or our possessions might temporarily reside. It’s that concept of being a Citizen of the World: it’s not so much about finding one place where we belong forever or “losing” something when we leave, but about possessing the emotional intelligence to identify when we’re in the right place at an appropriate time — and when to move to the next right place.

If heart is where the home is, then there’s no need to lament our departure from one country for the next, no matter how beloved it may be. If we’re always home, then the world is a menu of experiences that we can order up as our hunger inspires us — again and again, if we desire, or when appropriate, a new dish altogether.

Enough! / Basta!

On my 23rd birthday I saw my first astrologer. Maryann was the first to read my birth chart, which is an experience that I recommend to everyone—whether you believe in astrology or not.

The reading of a birth chart is a metaphor all about you. It is the description (vis-à-vis the angles of planets in signs in relationship with each other) of the major distinct points of your character and personality as you were born—it’s an amazingly sharp tool for self-development. Like anything in life, you get out of it what you bring to it, and if you bring a thirst to better understand yourself, then that’s what you get.

Sitting in a warm, stuffy room in a non-descript stucco strip office complex in Phoenix with a red tile roof, Maryann revealed many things that have made even more sense with time and reflection; after all, we only become more of who we are. One thing I’ve hung onto was her naked assessment: “You go too far, and you do too much.”

It’s so damned true. (My friends and family reading this will lovingly chuckle and agree.) When I plan to do something, my tendency is to over-do it. My nature is to over-commit and over-deliver. When I love someone, I really want to *LOVE* them, even if that’s not what they’re ready for. And, ultimately, I feel a need to remain on course with things/people/relationships/progress simply because meeting one milestone is not enough—it has to be everything in order to be merely okay. Anything less is failure.

Or so it would seem.

Living in  a world of gray, a world of “I don’t know”—and feeling good about it—is relatively new.

After all, a birth chart only describes the influences a person was under at the time of her birth. It doesn’t describe the person she’ll be, or if she’ll be able to overcome those challenges in order to be something more; it simply describes what those challenges are.

Talking with Stephen tonight, I felt good about letting go of pursuing the Fulbright scholarship in Italy, which I’ve been eyeing—and agonizing over—for months. I don’t have time to do it, I’ve put off actually acting for months, yet I couldn’t let it go. Even though the timing is off, I subconsciously refused to allow myself the space to say that it’s not something I should pursue right now. (After all, it’s on my 36 at 36 list!)

What I realized comes back to The Pause exercise that I completed last summer with CityLab7 down in Portland. This experience that I’m about to have in Civita hasn’t happened yet, and I need to stand there and let it happen without thinking about what happens next.

If I keep my eye on the future, I will miss what is happening in the present.

Truly, whatever happens down the road with my career and my relationships—and what I learn in Civita—must happen on their own time and without being shadowed by anything else. Planning is one thing, but being too busy with what might happen as a trade off for what is happening is a mistake, especially in this rare opportunity.

It’s hard to make these decisions, to say no. It’s difficult not to over-do things, or not to grasp for things that seem in reach—if only I had more time, were “more motivated,” or could think a little harder. I realize now that this is the old model of thinking and acting, and I’m beyond it. A more abundant model is one that incorporates a lot more gray in between the black and white.

One might say that such a world, with fluid, molten lines, ever-moving and in flux, blending and changing with each other to create something that cannot be frozen into black or white, is much more Italian.