Homecoming

I had anticipated last week’s trip to Pullman, Washington, for some time.

Since November, I’ve been working with teams to prepare design proposals and presentations at Washington State University, one in collaboration with a general contractor for a new visitor center, and the other for pre-design services to remodel the school’s art museum. Last week, my firm was also shortlisted on the WSU wine science center in Richland; I’ve had crimson and gray on the brain non-stop for the last quarter.

Though we’ve discussed prospects at WSU for years, it was a rich experience to actually set foot on campus. Set in the heart of the Palouse, the university is surrounded by rolling wheat fields, tawny in fall and gently undulating with powdered snow in winter. It made me recall my trip to Walla Walla last October: the warm sun, the loamy aroma of rich dirt and crisp breezes, the intimate setting of an agrarian community.

During the four days we spent in this small college town, the topic of school spirit was a natural focus. Steven, a principal at our firm who is close to me in age, also stayed the week. A proud alum, he is known for flying the WSU flag over his desk during football season and is an active member of the alumni board for the school of design and construction. When he speaks of his university experience, it’s clear that WSU significantly shaped his thinking and his career as an architect. I couldn’t help but contrast his student life with my own, which is lacking in that area.

All week, we encountered Cougar pride throughout town: on sweatshirts and hats worn by sleepy students headed to class, on banners hung by virtually every local business, in the names of bars and hotels, and in the dozens of cougar icons —stone, metal, fabric and plastic— modeled after Butch, the mascot. For most retail stores and restaurants, a WSU top over jeans was the standard uniform rather than the brand’s own logo wear.

In general, as an alumnus of the University of Arizona, I observe the rivalry between the University of Washington and WSU with neutrality, though it’s easy to fall in with the Cougs. Their enthusiasm and underdog nature plays on my heartstrings; plus, Cougs are usually more fun at parties.

As I did while exploring Whitman College, I considered how my involvement in student life might have shaped me like it has Steven if I had attended a college like WSU. The dynamic of deep fealty surrounding this small-town university —and the university’s small town— felt intriguing when compared with my own attendance at a 50,000-person university in a city with the population of half a million.

Likewise, UW students are distracted not only by the buzz of Seattle and neighboring institutions like Antioch and Seattle Pacific University, but by monolithic brands like Microsoft, Amazon, Vulcan and Boeing, as well as the Seahawks, Mariners and Sounders. While significant, University of Washington’s presence competes shoulder-to-shoulder with a host of public and private Goliaths for students’ loyalty — before, during and after college.

In Pullman, both the town and the university’s focus is much more pure, if a bit exclusive.

After our first project interview, the team gathered at a small tavern dubbed The Coug for celebratory beers. Four members of our design-build team were alums, three of whom served on the board and returned to Pullman often. They filled in the rest of us on the establishment’s traditions.

Only after bartenders get to know patrons —which happens when they tip well, or at all, over a period of time— do they extend the offer for a personalized beer mug, which is stored at The Coug in perpetuity. One of our team members, an ’84 alum, discovered that they still had his mug; the staff encouraged Dave to call ahead before his next trip so that they could retrieve it from storage for him.

After we tipped generously, inciting the bartenders to rap several times on the brassy, grating cowbell, I ruminated on the concept of loyalty in Pullman, which is intrinsic to life both inside and outside of school. The Coug’s system of reward is actually kind of brilliant: you can’t buy membership by plunking down a credit card, you have to get to know the bartenders and servers and become involved in The Coug’s community. One must personally commit to supporting the cause in order to reap its rewards.

While my friends and I frequented one Tucson dive bar in particular, there is no physical evidence of my time at The Buffet Bar and Crockpot, nor would any of the longtime staff remember me. (Ned the Bartender, I had a secret crush on you!) Though I served as an editorial columnist for The Arizona Daily Wildcat, our university newspaper, I didn’t fit in with the journalism staff who produced it, so I spent little time with them in their beloved dungeon of an office. And, while I held down a campus job and developed a close friendship with Dr. Sigmund Eisner, my Chaucer professor, I’ve let virtually all ties to classmates, teachers and staff lapse over the years, save for my friend Tash in Chicago.

To gain from an experience, be it college, work, marriage or friendship, you have to contribute to it. As I examined a WSU T-shirt for sale, I reasoned that my natural tendency to be a lone wolf rather than one of the pack comes with the consequence of detachment. Rather than hollowly proclaiming to support teams, I often eschew wearing the colors of any organization altogether.

Someone asked during our trip if I belonged to a sorority in college. I rolled my eyes and quipped, “Are you kidding? They would have burned me at the stake.” While this is probably true, the other side of the coin is an issue of intimacy; asking to join a group means a possibility of rejection. If you are unlike the others, a non-conformist, then such a fate is inescapable and in some ways self-made throughout one’s life.

Fellow iconoclasts will insist that they don’t want to be like “the herd,” a notion that feels true for me, too. I don’t want to spout someone else’s thoughts or slogans if I don’t believe in them; I’d rather conjure my own than repeat the mantra of others. If something becomes too popular, I stubbornly avoid being caught up in the trend, circling back later to make my own choice (ahem: Oprah’s book club…) which means that I am often a late adopter of popular culture.

Admittedly, part of my pride is wrapped up in blazing a divergent path.

In the end, I refuse to compromise my beliefs to gain popularity. I’d rather be disliked for being myself rather than loved for emulating someone else. But that’s an easy if not petulant line to draw in the sand, isn’t it? The path of self-knowledge and equanimity begins by holding oneself out for others to experience, whether they mirror acceptance or not. Intimacy between individuals or group relies on trust between members, whether they number two or a thousand, and that involves taking a chance.

The real bonds we form in life come from being naked and honest about who we are—and accepting others into our circle in kind. When that happens, as with Steven and I, it’s possible to lend critique alongside compassion and support. This thing called intimacy allows people to grow stronger within a collective than they would alone. More and more, this is what I seek.

Last night, I found myself reliving my college experience yet again as I wrote the first draft of my application to Breadloaf, a writers’ conference held each summer at Middlebury College in Vermont. I’m applying for a scholarship whose criteria includes, “first-time applicants with nontraditional literary backgrounds, who are working outside of academia or without a writing degree.”

As I described my academic path —a science major from high school to the end of college when I switched my degree to English— I realized that my weak connection with U of A stems from the fact that I didn’t find community there. Even as I changed majors, leaving all my scientist friends behind, I didn’t consider studying creative writing; it sounded hokey, like something that one lists on a resume under “hobbies and interests.” Instead, I pursued English literature, which didn’t fulfill me as I thought it would.

For me, community and self-knowledge have come later in life. Only now, seventeen years after college, have I realized the need to surround myself with other creative writers. Outside of class, it’s a lot more elusive a quest than one might think, even in Seattle. Writers tend to be circumspect about their work, save for the few extroverts who will die if they can’t read their short story/poem/essay aloud to everyone they know.

When I meet with writers in situations similar to my own, we speak a different dialect than the rest, one that feels like home. We’re questers and chroniclers, enjoying the show of life and reflecting on what it means more so than being lead actors on stage.

My experience with the Jack Straw Writers in 2012 opened windows into Seattle’s literary community, as did the Hugo House master class in memoir that I took with Peter Mountford. Last month, I applied for Artist Trust’s EDGE development program for literary artists with a similar hope: to learn the business of writing and meet others in a like moment in their careers. It’s been telling to reread the applications I’ve made recently: NIAUSI, Jack Straw, EDGE and now Breadloaf. Standing back, I see a developing honesty that I’m learning to share with others, hoping to be accepted, but willing to carry on if I’m not.

Steven and I shared thoughts like these during the evening we spent between teams leaving and arriving for interviews. We discussed U of A and WSU, work and family life, architecture and writing over dinner at Black Cypress in downtown Pullman, then crossed the street for a nightcap at Rico’s. Steven has always been one of my favorite co-workers, and I feel fortunate that these pursuits have brought us together more in the last three months. His directness and creativity are truly remarkable; he’s one of those level-headed alpha males that you’d want around if your ship was marooned on a desert island.

On our last night, I realized that WSU has helped to cement our bond. The others went to their rooms after dinner, but Steven wanted to chat in the lobby for a while. Over the course of the week, our free exchange of thoughts, ideas and feelings was a means of community building. We were able to be frank with one another, and support each other during the rest of the trip when occasions arose. In college lingua franca, the trust we developed was pretty cool.

As any university experience should, my week in Pullman has shed light on areas in which I can grow as a student of writing and of the world. I may not have matriculated there, but my time at WSU has granted me pause to evaluate my participation —and lack thereof— in the communities that make up my life today.

Like Steven said during our interview, it’s not just that we’re here in this physical time and place, but at this time in our lives. These years we spend together find us at our most formative, when we’re impressionable and open, sowing seeds of curiosity, experimentation and loyalty into our very nature—a bounty that we’ll share with people near and far for the rest of our lives.

In acknowledgement of this great gift, and my blossoming school spirit, I proclaim with genuine enthusiasm, “Go Cougs!”

- – - – -

Author’s note: in searching for Dr. Eisner, I was sad to discover that he passed away in December 2012, coincidentally on the same date that my mother died. These lines from his obituary say it all:

Sig loved a good book, a good pipe, a glass of Irish whisky, and above all, a good joke with family and friends. He will be deeply missed by all who enjoyed the privilege of knowing him.

Wonder

This past Friday, the Jack Straw Writers were each paired with a musician who used our writing as inspiration for an original musical work of his or her own. Together, we performed them at Bushwick Book Club, a performance-based literary gathering held at the Royal Room in the Columbia City neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, I met up with Joy Mills, the singer/songwriter who selected my work. We traded notes back and forth, and she opted to use one of the short pieces I wrote from my trip to Chicago called “In Transit” as her touchstone. When I emailed her an edited version (below), she responded:

I’m writing from a theme of wonder, much like your character is wondering all these things while looking at the juxtaposition of the man in the street and the privilege around that bustles around him.

Once I read this, I realized that I have forgotten about the importance of wonder in my project. Over the past nine months, I’ve become so accustomed to being out of my element that even the revelation of travel is losing its wonder for me.

Admittedly, my method of writing has posed a greater challenge than I originally perceived: to travel to a place for a few short days, intently poised on noticing every detail about the city and the people I encounter, to seek connections and a constantly unfolding adventure, to persistently think-think-think then to return home to a full-time job and sundry demands… This schedule leaves little time for the writing and reflecting that actually comprise the book. It makes me sorely miss the two months I spent in Civita where I was able to immerse myself into that tiny microcosm and tease its foundational bits apart one by one… and sleep well each night.

That has not been the case with this endeavor, especially the sleeping part. On Monday as I half-snoozed fitfully somewhere above the Pacific Ocean during my 12-hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I inhaled someone’s flu virus from the recirculated plane air. The instant the woman’s sneezing began, I cringed, covering up my nose with my sweater, knowing as a condemned man knows that my prayers of being spared would do no good. Thankfully, the flu shot I got just before departing for New Zealand has reduced the virus’s impact, but I’ve been home in bed this weekend, days before I am to depart for Miami—the last city I am to explore before coming home to write about Seattle.

Honestly, after all these months of anticipating my visit to the Sunshine State, I am not sure that I want to go.

Adding up all the money and time and spirit I’ve spent traveling the nation this year, there’s a part of me that wants to remain at home. Where I once brightened at the smell of airport air as a signal of promise, I’m dreading the tin can of germs that awaits me this week. Admittedly, this is in part because I’m already sick and tired. The other part comes from a calloused perception of people and places, and ultimately, a waning sense of wonder. I’m so close to achieving my goal that I’m wanting to skip to the end just to be finished.

Before Joy explained her selection, I was curious why she picked the piece she did, as I had given her several options. It wasn’t uplifting or romantically touching the way much of her music is. By the time I was done editing it, my prose felt meager and mean, which was also how I felt the evening of the Bushwick Book Club. Before I went on stage, flashes of fever and chills ran through my body; should I have stayed home?

I thought of Slaid Cleaves playing the Saxon Pub before Thanksgiving last year; sick as a dog, he still managed to play a two-hour set. I caught pneumonia from him when Jess and I went to introduce ourselves. I wanted to hear Joy’s song more than anything, so I stuck it out long enough to go on stage with her, blinded by the lights. (For the record, it really is impossible to see much of anything when you’re on a professionally lit stage.)

My heart raced from my illness as much as my anxiety as I read my piece and turned the stage over to Joy. She commented that she liked the idea that my writing was influenced by these people who would never know that I noticed them or that they impacted me. “I think I was also drawn to the notion that we could all be in that position as the person Gabriela writes about,” she added.

Like all of her music, Joy’s song was sweet and haunting, with lines like, “I pushed the door open and let the clouds roll in…” Even in my diminished condition, I felt the sense of wonder that she had made blossom from my words against the gushing rain outside.

I imagined that she sang from the point of view of the man I saw, perhaps just before his life took a turn for the worse—when a kind word or help from the right person might have altered his path. That Joy was able to channel the hopefulness in him through a few of my lines reminded me why I set out to write this book at all. Indeed, it was originally about wonder… and connection.

I don’t feel as good as I might, but I do feel better that I would have without my flu shot. And, thanks to Joy’s infusion of wonder when I needed it most, I think I’m going to keep my reservation and see what Miami holds.

In Transit (excerpt):
I see his feet and legs first, resting akimbo like he’s dead.

My eyes travel up his wiry body, his arms bent awkwardly at the shoulders and elbows. He is both sprawled out and curled up on the sidewalk. His head rests on a grimy backpack propped against the brick wall of the EL station at Adams and Wabash. Lank and hungry-looking even while asleep, he reminds me of a praying mantis that someone squashed with a rock.

I pause because he’s beautiful in a broken way.

Part of me wants to take his photograph; instead, I toss my phone into my bag and commit him to memory with my heart instead.

His shirt is royal blue with red stripes. It’s torn in places.
His brown skin gathers in flaky white patches at the elbows.
His bearded chin juts toward the sky, revealing curly white hairs mixed in with the black ones.
He shudders in his sleep.
His bed is a carpet of leaky cans and bottles, discarded wrappers and sticky pink hills of spat-out gum.
Beneath the dark hollows of his eyes, he looks kind.

What does it take for a person to pass out on the sidewalk at mid-day, to relinquish his defenses against being robbed, abused or arrested? How little must a person have to not fear losing anything?

Before walking on, I glance down at my perfectly pedicured toenails. The throaty purple blush matches both the color of my guilt and my misguided sense of pride at noticing it.

Grasshopper

The Walla Walla public library is quaint and humble and more roomy than one might expect a small town library to be. At night, it glows faintly green like an absinthe fairy.

Turning left at the main entry past the security gates, the interior unfolds into a carpeted piazza flanked by wooden bookshelves in the round. Four banks of seats face a slim podium; as the five of us Jack Straw Writers enter, we find nearly all of them filled by an energetic audience.

Outside, the streets are dark and sparsely populated –everyone is eating dinner at Oliver’s or Brasserie 4– still, a crowd of thirty-five settles in to hear us on a Friday night. The bright-eyed library staff and volunteers pause to introduce themselves, as if we are as important as the published authors who occupy their shelves.

Shawn Wong, our curator, pulls me aside to say that I will go first. I sigh with relief as he introduces me, mentioning as he always does our connection through Civita di Bagnoregio. The room falls intently quiet as I begin to describe my crisis of faith:

Looking back, my own degenerate times began the day I learned that my mom had cancer — long before her surgery, rounds of chemo and radiation, the loss of her speech and, eventually, her death.

Having to acknowledge at 13 that life was impermanent and unpredictable –that my mother’s once-infallible protection couldn’t surmount these forces– began the degeneracy of my own beliefs. Truly, it seemed pointless to build a future that could be so easily swept away.

As my lips form the words, I feel both proud and shy. I’d hardly share these thoughts with co-workers, yet I’m saying them to a room of strangers. Some heads nod; a mother wraps her hands around her son protectively. A 20-something boy in the front row checks his phone and fidgets against his girlfriend’s shoulder; my childhood tragedy doesn’t apply to him. I continue on, pretending not to notice.

“Wishes… hope…” I say, pausing dramatically at the end, “…I think they’re the same thing.” A man in the third row dabs at his eye in the silence before the crowd applauds. Four hours on the road for five minutes of reading suddenly seems like an okay deal.

Nick gets up after I do, reading about “The Big 8” in which one character teases another with the knowledge of the eight keys to life, never revealing what he considers them to be. As Nick sits, I think, How hard could a list like that be for someone like me, who ponders this stuff all the time?

At breakfast the next morning, I sketch out my own eight keys over a plate of migas near the Whitman College campus:

1. When something good happens, celebrate it.
2. Be anonymously generous.
3. Say yes: be open to experiences.
4. Fall in love.
5. If you find yourself giving advice to others that you don’t take, question your actions….

As the server warms up my coffee, I smirk at the fresh lines of black script in my notebook, thinking, You couldn’t sell a penny pamphlet with this crap!

After all, how much celebrating of the positive do I actually do? I’m so impatient, I’m always on to the next thing. And, as much as I say yes, I also say, Hell no!! If I actually took the advice that I recently gave to a colleague, I would have cashed in my Roth IRA and quit my job yesterday to be a full-time writer…but I didn’t. And falling in love? Actual love –the kind that makes a person truly naked, the kind where you compromise and stick around through illness and imperfections and arguments, long past the fade of the honeymoon– what do I know about giving myself over to that?

I shut my notebook defiantly.

To escape the crowds of wine-swilling tourists as much the stupid eight keys, which continue to haunt me, I decide to drive to Jimgermanbar in Waitsburg. (It’s impossible to make one universal insight to life, let alone eight! Making them intriguing or unique is another battle altogether. How could they be anything less than trite?)

The architecture changes from quaint small-town brick houses and 1930s factories to a series of late-70s strip centers, tire shops and fast food pad restaurants before pulling apart. Soon, whole blocks go by without any buildings, then several lots at time. (Be anonymously generous? I think I wrote that because of the pay-it-forward coffees and the meals I buy at Union Gospel Mission.)

After a few minutes, as I’m nearing Highway 12 East, I’m surrounded by scrubby hills with barns made with old weathered wood, all unpainted — a palimpsest of ochres and browns. (If I were more open, I would have ridden the ferris wheel when my friends wanted to go.)

The yellow of the centerline is echoed in the dry wheat of the rolling hills; earthy barn tones appear in the rich dirt beneath the fields. The tire-smudged lane lines are mirrored in road signs and buildings painted with flaking chromium, the years of red and blue and green peeking through the forced white that they are today. (I should have lit candles when I won that grand in bingo last year…)

The edges of Walla Walla fade into the hills, and the world becomes an undulating sea of tawny corduroy. I long to touch the rolling mounds of wheat — the velvety Palouse dotted with purple gabled roofs, patches of deep green grapevines and pert silver silos that reflect the clean brilliance of the fall sun. They look like the birth parents of the Tin Man. (Why is falling in love so scary, anyway?)

The layers of brown that surround and mound… How my childhood in Arizona brought me to hate the color brown. Here, it feeds my soul. (Is there some sort of key to life in that?)

I realize that I am only going 45 when a beat-up Ford pick-up whooshes by doing 80 in the passing lane. The gentle texture of the Palouse in all of its shared earth tones may have eased my inner speed demon but not my frenetic mind. (Small buildings, big landscape… the relative smallness of humankind?) I make a noise of disgust at the litany of forced armchair philosophy.

Through the din in my head, the siren song of the landscape calls to a part of me that the cynical city girl usually sublimates with her obsessive/compulsive downtown soundtrack. In an uncharacteristic move, I pull my car to the side of the road. I simply can’t stand to keep passing these fields without touching them, Waitsburg and this stupid list be damned.

Wading into the waist-high wheat chaff, I stride as if pursued, tossing glances over my shoulders. I keep waiting for someone to bark at me to get off of their land. Several yards in, I remind myself that it’s okay to slow down, that I’m not on a mission or a schedule. I think of Sandro counseling me in Civita with his hands raised, “Piano, piano, Gabri! Tutto a posto.” Slow down, girl – everything’s alright.

Once I calm my pace, I realize that I no longer hear cars rushing by on the highway; the sound of their velocity is replaced by the rustling wind and occasional bird calls. The sun’s radiance is soothing, its intensity held in check by the cool breeze. The dry grasses crunch under my boots; the earth is soft underneath, moist and waiting for the next crop. The air is perfumed by harvest-ready grapevines and drying leaves. As I venture deeper into the field, small grasshoppers spring diagonally across my path like dolphins weaving at the prow of a ship.

The last time I felt this way was back in Civita. Time holds no power.

I inhale and exhale deeply, wishfully thinking that I could get lost in this field. Blissfully lost, the kind where no signal can reach my phone. No talk of work or deadlines or appointments. Lost in the sense of found — found time, found clarity, found self.

Up ahead, a patch of grass looks inviting. I sit Indian style — no blanket, no separation between me and the Palouse. We are one.

Journeys of all kinds are about transportation: from one state –or state of being– to another. Change, time, introspection, muscles, mind, miles traveled… what does it mean to go there and back again? We so rarely travel in an ongoing chain; there is always someplace called home that pulls us back to a former state, asks us to assimilate new data while conforming to the rules and norms of a time before that knowledge entered our lives. Yet, like Adam and Eve, there is no unknowing once our eyes are opened.

As I let the imperative of the eight keys melt away, I’m startled by a lone grasshopper who springs onto my knee. In another uncharacteristic move, I don’t shoo him off. I think of the roaches and hairy spiders I’ve smashed, the millipedes and scorpions I’ve crunched under my boots, the beetles and mosquitoes and bees that I’ve flinched at over the years. With a wise expression in his charcoal eyes, the grasshopper seems much more evolved than his insect brethren. Maybe I am, too.

Once alighted, the grasshopper takes a deliberate moment to turn in a circle, folding and unfolding his legs to assess the most favorable perch on the crease of my jeans before settling in. Heads cocked, we contemplate each other. The grasshopper probably has a better idea of the keys to life than I do. After all, the grasshopper is true to his nature; he doesn’t question his own purpose or worthiness. (Be you — and let others be themselves was number 6.)

The grasshopper’s unblinking eyes peer further into mine, which are lidded half-mast against the late afternoon sun. If Michael were here, he would probably comment on the grasshopper’s past life as a lama, at which I would titter skeptically.

When the tiny sage finally moves to leave, he catches a filament of his foot in my pant leg. He quickly becomes desperate, his diminutive ribcage heaving in and out. Praying that he doesn’t hop in my hair or my face, I remain calm and shift my leg to set him free without flinging him asunder. (Identify someone’s need and fill it without seeking personal gain, that was number 7.)

As he springs away, I feel a little bereft.

His sudden departure brings to mind the many meetings and separations that have come before this moment: connecting with Toni and Wesley in Nashville; discovering my earth mother Maya in Boston; rekindling my friendship with Taica and Bettye in Chicago; tapping into deep existential territory with Michael in Santa Cruz. Waves of old and new come crashing together, rumbling sonically in the grasshopper’s wake. Maybe that’s the magic of Walla Walla: a current of earthly energy where life’s lessons become apparent, if only for a few moments.

Except it’s not as ethereal as that. These moments are concrete; they matter. Exploring these cities and spending time with people, watching the transformation of my own thoughts in progress — these are not pretend journeys or mere props for a writing assignment. I realize that I’ve been given the gift of time and adventure to sort out who I am with the help of a series gurus along the way.

There are no eight keys to life and there is no turning back — no do-overs, no second chances. I will never again have the opportunity to re-make these moments, only live them in the present in succession as they appear. One shot for all of it.

That’s when I decide to borrow something more universal for myself than any eight keys ever could be. I could try to make something up, but honestly, I could never say it better than Annie Dillard:

Spend it all.
Shoot it,
play it,
lose it,
–all–
right away,
every time.

I watch the silhouette of his tiny brown body spring forward until it disappears in the distance. Thank you, grasshopper, I think fondly. Very wise indeed.

Jack Straw Podcast

As part of this year’s Jack Straw Writers Program, each of us was interviewed by curator, Shawn Wong, about our projects. Jack Straw combined segments from that interview along with a recording of my first reading covering my trip to Nashville to produce a 15-minute podcast of my book-in-progress, “Hidden City Diaries.”

For those readers who haven’t attended a Jack Straw event, this gives a flavor of what it’s been like to get up and read in front of crowds of strangers this year — which is to say, incredibly and surprisingly fun.

Our last gathering will be held on Saturday, November 10 at 2 pm at the downtown branch of Seattle Public Library. All 12 Jack Straw Writers will give a brief reading that day.

JACK STRAW WRITERS PROGRAM
Hidden City Diaries: A Podcast

http://jackstraw.org/blog/?p=324

Gabriela Denise Frank takes a closer look at American cities; ruminating on the character of a place. Her travels abroad inspired her to capture regional distinctions in the United States.

SoundPages is produced by Jack Straw Productions as part of the Jack Straw Writers Program. All of the writers heard in this series are published in the Jack Straw Writers Anthology, and featured online at http://www.jackstraw.org/. Music by Rachel Matthews and produced as part of the Jack Straw Artist Support Program.

Degenerate Times

Before I left Santa Cruz, Michael drove me to Land of Medicine Buddha, the mountain retreat where he studies. The higher we rose on the skinny road, the faster he spoke, fueled by a brew of farmer’s market chai and enthusiasm.

He slowed the car’s pace as we ascended the switch-backs. My acrophobia suggested that we were barely clinging to the edge of the red-dirt slopes. I wondered if the densely planted redwoods would catch us if the car slipped down the embankment during a turn.

Given my recent thoughts on religion, it amused me to hear Michael explain the Buddhist faith with such zeal; clearly, he had been paying attention during his dharma classes. During our conversation, I affirmed that, while my world views are compatible with basic Buddhist philosophy, its metaphors and those of the Catholic church are virtually interchangeable for me, like most organized religions. Trade Buddha for Jesus, the boddhisattvas for priests or apostles, and so forth. There’s value at the root, which is where I am content to remain.

Still, as we inhaled the fresh mountain air, I could feel the reverence of the place. In my mind, it had nothing to do with the specific religion practiced, but the intention of those gathered. The loamy earth and the buildings felt peaceful and cool, dappled with gentle late morning sunlight and the slightest trapping of fog. Everyone we met had smiling eyes.

We spoke in hushed tones as we approached the Mani, a giant prayer wheel for celebrants to turn by hand. It felt like Michael was letting me in on secrets of the universe as he showed me how it worked. We walked in a clockwise circle, taking the grab bar by hand and turning the wheel with the energy of our bodies. He told me that saying mantras while turning the Mani sends the power of healing and peace into the world.

Buddhist or not, I liked that idea.

We left our shoes outside before we entered the Gompa, the center of spiritual activity. I was surprised to watch Michael bow, kneel and kiss the floor. I was still getting used to him as a religious man. He prayed silently for a moment with his head down.

Two women sat in meditation as we tip-toed around the room. We paused in front of an image of the Dalai Lama; before him was a multi-colored sand-drawn mandala and a series of offering bowls called yonchaps that contained water. Michael explained that, for Buddhists, the point of any offering is to cultivate generosity; these tributes embodied the idea all offerings should be given as freely as we would give water.

“True generosity is hard to come by,” he whispered. “The joy we receive in making others happy is actually a selfish act – we do it to feel happy ourselves.”

We paused before each of the saints depicted around the room, who had their own yonchaps. Michael explained their areas of influence: some helped the poor and destitute, the ill, and the injured in ways akin to the Catholic saints. It was familiar territory in brightly painted packages and saffron vestments.

Michael and I re-emerged into the light, donning our shoes again. He took me to another prayer installation composed of small metal mani wheels set to form a square under a canopy. We walked past each of the wheels, turning them in succession. The brass felt cool and almost abrasive as I turned each mani with my fingertips, watching them spin in our wake.

It wasn’t religion in my mind, but intention. We are sending out positive energy to the world, I thought, feeling a swell of my own selfish generosity.

“There’s one more thing I want to show you,” he said, stopping to pick up a key for a special temple. “Since you are wearing your girly shoes, we’ll drive up.” I glanced down at my heels and smirked. I rarely feel like a girly-girl, but my outfit that day –a sporty striped dress and 3-inch banana heels– wasn’t exactly Buddhist mountain retreat-appropriate.

We sailed upwards again, the switch-backs seeming even more acute, until we arrived at the top of the compound. As we approached the shrine, which was enclosed in glass doors, Michael explained that Buddhists believe we are living in degenerate times.

“The Buddha predicted that his teachings would disappear over thousands of years, resulting in theft, violence, murder, greed and poverty. Some people call it Degenerate Times or the Age of Dharma Decline. The teachings of the Buddha are still correct, but people will no longer be capable of following them. But, Buddhism is cyclical. At some point, a new Buddha will be born to ensure the continuity of Buddhism. That’s why this temple is important.”

As we entered, I craned my neck to take in the humongous gold statue spanning thirty feet above, seated squatly in the middle of the shrine. Red, green and white ribbons were strung through his hands; he held the right palm-up on his thigh while the fingertips of his left hand were raised to form the “OK” sign.

“Who’s that?”

“That’s the next Buddha. He’s making a spiritual sign with his hand; it’s called a Mudra. It’s a sign of teaching and transmission of philosophy.”

We stepped gingerly in our bare feet around the temple as Michael explained the series of images on the walls. Like the Stations of the Cross in hyper-color, the pictures told the story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. They depicted his self-mortification and suffering in images akin to Christ’s crucifixion, ultimately leading to his enlightenment and leadership.

We locked up the shrine and stepped quietly past a group of people learning tai chi on the lawn. I couldn’t stop hearing the phrase degenerate times in my mind. Degenerate has so many shades of meaning. Here on this mountaintop retreat, it was a lessening of potency leading to chaos. Back in the city, it is something aberrant or perverted; some look on counter-culture as degenerate. This is what society thought of surfers, hippies, socialists, communists and the Beat Generation. That’s how apostles were portrayed.

But, a sense of degeneracy depends on perspective. Something pure is lost, which indicates that, at some point, there was something ideal enough as to be considered pure.

Isn’t that how everyone sees the past? An era of better days that the imperfect present cannot touch? We white-wash memories of old loves, our high school or college days, cities we’ve lived in and times of good health, forgetting the twisted road that ran before and after those moments. We ignore the fact that those seemingly perfect eras weren’t so ideal when we were living them.

Even the struggles of our past are deified and purer in purpose, but only because we know how they turned out. It’s easier to review them in hindsight when we can give them context, when the pain is less raw. Perspective even lets us wonder at the possibility of alternate conclusions so that we can affirm our choice of the path at hand, as if true self-determination were possible and not left to the unfolding of nature and our mere responses to it.

Looking back, my own degenerate times began the day I learned that my mom had cancer — long before her surgery, rounds of chemo and radiation, the loss of her speech and, eventually, her death. Having to acknowledge at 13 that life was impermanent and truly unpredictable –that my mother’s previously infallible protection couldn’t surmount these forces– began the degeneracy of my own beliefs, and truly, what I came to see as a certain pointlessness in building a future that could be so easily swept away.

Privately, I felt that all was lost, and I hoped to be lost, too. I encouraged the universe to throw whatever it had at me. The harder the crucible crushed, the more resolved I became to defy it. I quietly hoped all the while that it would defy me.

I went through the motions of living for years. On one level, I clung to certain circumstances and people in a desperate attempt to force a sense of solidarity; on another, I smirked at the idea of ever living a happy, conventional life like most of my friends seemed to do. I spoke out of both sides of my mouth: afraid to let down my guard by trusting and investing in people who could hurt me or disappear without warning, though I desperately sought their intimacy. Yet, even in wanting that closeness, I assured myself that I could live much easier as a lone warrior, taking solace in my comfortable solitude.

Unlike even my close confidantes, I knew that I was the only person who I could count on to never let me down. I could demand anything of myself –even the seemingly impossible– and always deliver. Every day was a test of self-reliant brutality.

It’s only been in this year as I’ve traveled back and forth across the country that these two sides have begun to knit together. My friend, Angela, commented at a recent Jack Straw reading that this book is all about finding my mother; in a way, she’s right. Now that I’m fast approaching the age of her diagnosis –the age that changed everything for my childhood self, when the magic began to fail– I’m also meeting her for the first time. I’m picking up where a part of her left off, taking us both in brave new directions that we might not have otherwise traveled.

For the first time in decades, I don’t see it as a solo journey, and I don’t just mean me and my mom.

After all, when circumstances slip into degeneracy, no matter how low –or, perhaps, especially when all seems lost– they also present the opportunity for redemption. On the flip side of decline is hope.

“What’s this shrine called?” I asked as we got back into Michael’s car.

“It had another name before, but now they call it the Wish Fulfilling Temple.”

I nodded. Wishes, hope. I think they’re the same thing.

Dancing Shoes

When I think of my childhood, I often want to scream.

The urge flickered in me Friday night as I stepped up to the line of broken tape on the bar room floor, four paces from the dart board. I tried to distract myself with humor and bravado, with pints of Manny’s and with the classic funk that THEmediocres played on stage.

It didn’t work.

I curled my palm around three yellow darts, strutting past my friends with a swagger that said how confident I was. “Watch this, bitches,” I said, raising an eyebrow before focusing my eyes to aim. Inside, a small voice pleaded, Please don’t watch this.

I felt the weight of the first dart leave my hand instants before a rush of thankfulness when it stuck. It wasn’t just the three of them looking at me, but most of the regulars at Poggie Tavern who watched, their eyes heavy on my shoulder blades.

I threw the second dart and Kristen let out a whoop, jumping into the air. I didn’t care what my score was, or even know how the game worked, honestly. All I cared about was getting the darts into the board. I dreaded the thought of missing.

I rolled the last dart in my fingertips and smiled. Not because I was happy, but because I wanted them to think I was at ease. I glanced around at the barflies, all of whom were much older—gray-haired and pattern-balding men with paunchy beer guts next to wizened old ladies with creases seared deep from decades of smoking. They were the reason that all the bar stools sagged.

Then there was us: four late 30-somethings with whiskered denim and form-fitting shirts that showed off our trim bodies. We ate salads; they ate Funyuns. They watched us closely, interlopers who had conscripted their banged-up dart game.

I held my breath and let the last dart fly from my hand, looking away with relief as soon as I heard it hit home. When I looked up, I couldn’t believe my luck. There it was, still wavering from the force of my throw, right in the bullseye. There was a gleam in Matt’s eye as he double high-fived me, saying “Daaaaamn girl!”

I shrugged and acted as if it was nothing, mugging for an invisible camera. I prayed that no one noticed my hand shaking as I drank from the pint glass, already apprehensive about my next turn.

In that instant, I cursed my formative years, which I had spent avoiding my father and the blistering Arizona sun. Together, they sent me running inside an air-conditioned ranch house to get lost in books rather than exploring what I could do outside. Over time, I learned to over-inhabit my mind and under-inhabit my body.

Looking back, it makes me damned angry.

This disconnect—finding more comfort in thinking, reading or writing instead of playing or doing—comes up often as an adult, especially in Seattle where people climb mountains, run trails, ski, bike and snowboard, and lob all manner of balls at each other. Underneath my sometimes forced participation in these activities lurks my fear of heights, falling and revealing my utter lack of coordination. I even cringe at small feats… like throwing darts in front of an audience.

Public speaking, which is in itself a physical sport, has always felt equally uncomfortable to me. That same deep-seated apprehension is one of the reasons that I applied for the Jack Straw writers program; it’s something that I’m struggling with as I learn to reshape what I write for performance rather than reading.

Let’s face it: writers are cowards to a degree. Most of us prefer to work behind the scenes. Sharing my thoughts in a book or my blog may seem brave (and on a certain level is), but I’m far removed from my readers’ reactions despite their ability to post comments. I’m broadcasting rather than conversing with or physically entertaining someone.

Learning to perform stories that engage a live audience… that takes coordination. It takes training and skill. It takes guts. To perform, you have to condition like an athlete. Sometimes, like at my practice reading, you have to fail a little to improve.

We gathered at Jack Straw Productions in the U-District on Saturday for our workshop with Elizabeth Austen of KUOW. As she walked us through methods for practicing and performing our readings, she addressed our fears in ways that I wasn’t sure someone else could.

She didn’t sugarcoat our anxieties. Instead, she named them and gave them validity. She acknowledged feeling naked and, at times, paralyzed with fear herself. She said that this was a common amongst writers—also known as shy people who push pages of well-crafted thoughts under other people’s doors (…or computer screens.)

She shared her own experiences and how she continues to work through fear. From the outside, she seemed perfectly at ease; no one would have guessed what she wrestled with inside. As I studied Elizabeth, her mid-calf Frye boots planted firmly on the ground, I no longer felt alone in what I’ve always considered as the stunted childhood of a quiet kid who didn’t know how to play.

After hearing me read, I wasn’t surprised when Elizabeth suggested that I practice performing my work while doing something physical: take my essays line by line and climb stairs, dance or just move. She was somehow able to pinpoint the root of my fear, though I hadn’t shared a word of it. Actually, it scared me that she could perceive it, as I usually have people fooled.

I think she knew that, too. Elizabeth looked directly but softly into my eyes and said, “Wear comfortable flat-bottomed shoes—do all that you can to ground yourself, to be in your body. The nervousness you feel is your body giving you the energy you need to perform the task at hand.”

Trying to integrate my mind and body is what my life’s struggle has always been about, but I never expected that writing might be a way of doing so.

“It may bring you ease,” she said, “to remember that, while the performance requires you, it’s not about you. You are the vehicle and not the subject, even when you’re performing something personal.”

Hearing her say that reminded me of a man we couldn’t help staring at the night before at Poggie Tavern. Writhing like a charmed snake, he was drawn past us toward the live music, slithering this way and that, his long brittle hair reminiscent of Neil Young, his papery skin like Keith Richards. He was a hard-ridden late 50-something, the kind that still had a little muscle tone under his unbuttoned shirt. Maybe he fixed motorcycles or drove cranes.

He wore homemade denim leg warmers over black pants and layered several long necklaces over his bare tanned chest. When his movements pulled his shirt open, the chains and medallions jangled together, brushing over his chest hair and nipples, which stood erect. We couldn’t see his eyes at first under his mirrored sunglasses. As he whipped his head down, he removed them with a sweep of his arm, like it was all part of the act. It probably was.

Kristen and I stood transfixed, smiling not so much as to make fun of him, but because he was so wild and unfettered. He was a good dancer, or—more aptly—his body and the music danced with each other. Though there were other people swaying nearby, all eyes moved to him.

What I realized was, his body was telling a story that we couldn’t have perceived without him. The music was around all of us, but it wasn’t until we saw what he could do with it that we truly understood the energy behind it. His dance compelled us. It made people get out of their chairs and join him.

I respected that he was so overcome by the story of the music that he freed his body with it. He was a conduit for an experience that entertained us; it required him, but it wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about perfectly executing the dance, either; if he was self-conscious about making mistakes, we couldn’t tell.

Instead, his dance was about sharing something that we could all identify with and wanted to connect to ourselves. True to Elizabeth’s rule, I remembered that he wore a pair of flat cowboy boots that kept him grounded between every twist and reel.

On the way out of our session, I thanked Elizabeth and thought, I may not be at his level when I present my first reading at Jack Straw next month, but I sure as hell plan on wearing my Timberlands.

Stepping Outside the Circle


Cannon Beach, Oregon
10 March 2012 / 7:35 am PST

In spite of wise words by John Steinbeck, I originally came to Cannon Beach to write the prologue of this book rather than the opening chapter.

Though I’ve not embarked on or chronicled my first journey, I needed to produce an essay for the Jack Straw anthology. My brain quickly wrapped the conundrum in a tidy bow: take a weekend to write the prologue.

What nagged at me was the truth in John’s quote:

“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 experienced that feeling when writing the prologue to my first book in 2010. Summoning a faint memory of yolky Italian sunlight, I said goodbye to my two-month residency in Civita di Bagnoregio on a chilly night in Seattle. It was relentlessly rainy—a dark, bitter farewell to what had been the warmest, most productive time in my life.

Today, tucked away in a toasty cottage on an equally dank night on the northern coast of Oregon, I’m standing at the edge of a new journey—not the end. There’s no sense to be made and nothing to make sense of. In fact, it’s the first time in months that I have left sense-making behind; no grocery lists, no work (it’s waiting in piles at the office), and no companions.

This is a season of beginnings, not conclusions, though there is stage-setting to be done. While I’ve sequestered myself for functional reasons, there are also philosophical ones: understanding where the coming months will take me—where they will take us—is why I’ve come. It’s time to dream up questions, not answers.

This book began as a wisp of an idea two years ago as I prepared for my Italian sojourn… something about investigating the great cities of my home country. Then, I left the United States behind and fell in love with a tiny hill town founded 2,500 years ago by ancient Etruscans. Each day, as I carried groceries on my back up and down a steep footbridge, pausing to greet my neighbors in Italian, my desire to return home disappeared completely.

Eventually, the fellowship ended and I did return. For the first time, I hated being home.

American food tasted flavorless, like ash. I dreaded speaking English and I even loathed Seattle. A month later, at the end of November, I exited the bus on First Avenue near the Lusty Lady during its final days of operation. I was daydreaming about an Albanian man I met in Venice when I turned the corner of Harbor Steps, headed down to my office on Pier 56.

As I began my descent, I was pelted by a brutal gust of rain, a slap of reality so brisk that I gasped. It wasn’t only the dismal weather. That was when I admitted that I was really, truly no longer in Italy; pretending could no longer make it so. By the time I made it to work, drenched and forlorn, I couldn’t tell the difference between tears and raindrops dripping from my eyelashes. I knew I was ready to write my prologue.

Thankfully, the brutality of my feelings faded with time and America worked its way back into my heart. In March 2011, I traveled to Detroit to spend time with my uncle, who was dying of liver and lung cancer; I returned in April for his funeral. The assembly line of his life made me feel raw: his 40-year career at the Chrysler plant, the physical pain of his demise, the bleakness of the Midwest and its endless bingo halls and urban blight…but I was intrigued at the kind of place that wears its strife so well. After all, this is where I came from.

While visiting friends, I was romanced by the honeyed warmth of Austin: salsa and chips, barbecue, the dulcet notes of Texas drawl, Zilker Springs Park, being called darlin’ and sugar, sipping hoppy beer and tapping my toe to Slaid Cleaves at the Saxon Pub, and hearing phrases like, “Aunt Stephani is upstairs takin’ her beauty pill.”

My greatest surprise came during a rendezvous with a college friend in Las Vegas—a city that I had written off after a series of regrets, too many cigarettes and blistering hangovers. This time, old vices looked new; the ugliness of Sin City was as captivating as its pimped-out beauty. After a long walk, I dined al fresco on crepes with fresh fruit on Las Vegas Boulevard, watching passersby waddle from casino to casino. My thoughts were poised on America.

Last summer, I returned to Italy, too. I fought the August swelter to reunite with friends in Civita and brushed elbows with the paparazzi at the Venice Film Festival. In moments conjured from a dream, I found myself walking arm-in-arm with Denis, the man who I had daydreamed of while descending Harbor Steps into reality. We wandered together through that floating labyrinth, pausing on bridges and falling in love. As I boarded the vaporetto at the end of my stay, I turned back to find Denis standing on the dock; he leaned against the rail, smiling. He waved and I waved back.

I was finally ready to come home.

Like my trip to Cannon Beach, I had returned to Italy for reasons both logical and esoteric; I needed to close that chapter of my life. On the flight back, I transferred through JFK and my heart surged at hearing the TSA agents bark orders at us with accents from Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey. Something in those harsh vowels felt like home.

They were, like me, American.

Europe and I have had a good run for a decade. I know that I’ll be back, but now it’s time to explore that which is both domestic and foreign: the country of my birth.

——————-
11:58 am PST

For a while, the driving concept behind Hidden City Diaries had a patriotic bent (can I love America as much as I love Europe?) with a hint of Jane Jacobs (what elements makes a great city great?) It was influenced by my time in Civita (find a local patron with connections) and my experience as a blogger (use personal storytelling and social media to inspire dialogue.)

Over many months, I’ve refined this idea to a personal investigation of the space where people and place unite—the hidden cities inside each of us. How does place make us who we are? Why are we drawn to certain cities, and what do they say about us? Where does our psychological landscape end and the sidewalk begin?

As a member of Gen-X, I’m part of a so-called Lost Generation that author John Ulrich describes as one “without identity who face an uncertain, ill-defined and perhaps hostile future.” I’ve come to see that exploring these questions, finding out what lies beneath, studying how we’re all lost to a degree, and discovering the threads that connect us as a people is the kind of searching I was born to do.

Hidden City Diaries isn’t a tell-all in the sense of travel writing or traditional memoir, but it is an investigation into who we are and how we are made within the context of modern-day America. I hope that my discoveries reveal something true to readers, no matter where they’re from or what generation they belong to.

We are detectives peering into the mysteries of our own origins. Ours are but a handful of stories amongst billions.

——————-
3:12 pm PST


Hidden City Diaries. I debated the name for some time (Is “Diaries” too dramatic?) but if this shit ain’t confessional, then I don’t know what is.

Yesterday afternoon, upon buckling my seat belt back in Seattle, I breathed deeply and whispered the name out loud. It seemed fitting that a collection of essays based on my travels should begin with a journey itself, even if this trip isn’t about exploring Cannon Beach, but about invoking a pause.

Once exhaled, I pulled out of the parking lot in Pioneer Square and hit gridlock as I eased onto the interstate with only the voices of Madonna, the Eagles and Lucinda Williams to guide me. I felt excited. Apprehensive. Frustrated at the slow and go… then calm, like I had all the time in the world. I brought only a few belongings and, with every minute, a growing sense of lightness.

Rain coated the road and my windshield, then it let up. It sprinkled again; then ceased. This went on for a hundred miles. I began the journey at Exit 164 on I-5, and headed south towards Exit 40 to Kelso/Longview. Those were a long two-and-a-half hours filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic and never-ending neon signs announcing off-ramp strip mall retail and fast food.

It wasn’t until I approached the Lewis and Clark Bridge, with its elegant latticed trusses of gray, cream and white, that my trip began to feel epic. As we ascended, I could smell the massive piles of cut timber on the shores of the river below. All became gray: water, landscape and sky.

In a single lane, hundreds of us traveled upwards, leaving our worries behind in Washington as we passed a small green sign that read, “Now entering Oregon.” No passports or security checkpoints, only a humble welcome. The road twisted and turned, becoming Highway 30W; my heart raced when I took the curves at 60 miles per hour, thinking, This is the farthest I’ve ever driven alone.

Surrounded by evergreen thickets, each branching road seemed to lead to rustic campsites without running water. After ten years in downtown Seattle, I felt out of my element; yet, what is a journey if not relinquishing the familiar for the unknown?

Beyond the Oregon border, temperatures dropped and the expanse of freeways on-ramps and gas stations fell away. There were two lines of cars—one in, one out—and an occasional passing lane for speed demons who took the snaking roads at 80 miles an hour. Mists fell low and the road was ensconced in alternating marshes and forest. I pictured how the Oregon coast might have looked thousands of years ago, still under water, muddy and fertile with prehistoric fish poking at the muck with their giant barbels.

I remembered The Goonies as I drove through Astoria with its New England-style homes nestled into the cliffs. The heady charm of inns and fishermen called for me to linger, but the night was falling quickly, and I was miles from Cannon Beach.

South of Astoria on Highway 101, the road turned away from city lights towards obscurity, accompanied only by yellow and white lines and a series of green signs that didn’t provide guidance, only suggested that there were other paths. There was no hint as to their outcome or what travelers might find along the way.

The sky turned ultramarine, then fell to pitch, making it impossible to discern trees from sky from ground. The mists rose again, splattering my windshield with millions of pin-prick drops. Fog billowed in from the forest as if propelled by a giant breath, sweeping blindness across the road. There was nothing but me and my headlights, feeble lamps against the claustrophobia of a heavy velvet curtain hurtling towards me, a lone actor on stage.

I was on board a ferry to the underworld.

Half an hour later, the sign for Sunset Boulevard stood as a dim beacon of relief. When I finally reached the Hidden Villa Cottages on Van Buren, my stomach growled but my head was clear. After leaving my belongings inside Unit 2, the Seashell Cottage, I found a small fire-lit bistro. A glass of cabernet in hand, I leaned back in my chair, exhausted, listening to the waitstaff speculate who might have knocked up a local girl.

While I sipped my wine, dreaming of crawling into bed, I doodled in my notebook. First, I drew a small circle with an arrow pointing to the words, “This is your comfort zone.” Then I drew a larger circle with an arrow pointing to the words, “This is where the magic happens.”

I glanced at the facing page. A few days before, I had written a note about my impending trip: “Stepping outside the circle this weekend in Cannon Beach… Who am I and where do I come at this story from?”

All journeys require that we step outside a place of familiarity to discover something. We realize that, the more we leave our creature comforts and predictability behind, the more open we are to understanding ourselves and the world around us. It’s a dichotomy: outside the bubble, we find perspective, yet inside the bubble is where we’re rooted, where our families, friends and careers thrive.

How many journeys are necessary to keep life fresh without becoming disruptive? Is there a point when all that contemplation and travel prevents us from establishing relationships or developing who we are?

I wondered how someone like Odysseus, the ultimate seeker, spent his days after returning home. Once the euphoria of resting in bed, embracing his wife, and eating his favorite meals had passed, was he content to remain—or did he tempt fate with sailing trips, hoping that winds might overcome his vessel again?

——————-
10:49 pm PST


Like Odysseus, perhaps, I’ve been in port too long. I can feel it that it’s time to get back out on the road, which leads back to my original question: what is it about places like Seattle or Cannon Beach—or Nashville or Boston—that makes us who we are?

Why do some people choose to live in small towns, suburbs or large cities? What do we learn from downtown streets, local cafes, skyscapers, victory gardens, working waterfronts and farms, urban cemeteries, sports fields, and homemade pie? How does this all fit into being “American” even if we haven’t visited most of the cities that make up our country?

Maybe it’s a ferry, a car or an Alaska Airlines flight, a divorce or a graduation, a marriage or a death… a childhood memory or a movie we’ve watched that takes us there. Somehow, each place that we see, touch, taste and smell becomes a part of who we are. As places pass into us, so we leave parts of ourselves behind like landmarks. We refine—and redefine—who we are by where we live and visit.

For me—a woman traveling alone in this chilly town, laying next to a roaring fire and a windy beach, down the street from Haystack Rock and a warm restaurant with a local band—I’m glad to have stepped outside the circle of my comfort zone. I’m grateful for the magic that happens when I least expect it, often far from home. Tomorrow, I’ll be back on the highway to Seattle. I’ll revel in the knowledge that it won’t be the last stop—that we’ll explore many cities together.

We’ll head to Nashville and Boston first, then Highway 101 in California and eventually, Santa Fe, Charleston, New York, Chicago, and Miami. We’ll even explore Seattle. It may be home, but there’s a hidden city underneath it… several, actually.

After all, home is what we make it. The barrier falls away quickly when we step out the front door; the world is our home, street by street and city by city. That’s why we find pieces of ourselves in every place that we go.

Warmth

Image

For weeks, I had been looking forward to Thursday’s barbecue lunch with Andrew.

Prior to my first mouthful of moist, shredded meat at Hole in the Wall, I had taken steps to begin my project —new promotional photos, Jack Straw gathering, Facebook page, redesigned website— but this was the first week that Hidden City Diaries felt like more than a conceptual dream.

Andrew’s warm drawl was the beginning of my introduction to Music City—Nashville, Tennessee—his birth place and home for 18 years, and my first scheduled stop. I couldn’t help being charmed right off the bat. When I asked, What places in Nashville feel like home?, he laughed shyly and said, “This is gonna sound funny, but one of the places that’s always felt like home to me is the Cracker Barrel. It’s the first place my parents take me after they pick me up from the airport.”

Perhaps snort-worthy in another context, when he put it like that, a comforting meal at Cracker Barrel didn’t sound ridiculous at all. (Yes, it’s on my list.)

“There are other places… my house, my high school. You should know that people in Nashville are very into sports—not just professional or college, but high school.” He took a swig of Diet Dr. Pepper and added, “Another spot that feels like home is church. I don’t go in Seattle, but I always go with my folks when I’m home. It’s not about religion, but community culture, if that makes sense.”

We spent the next hour and a half talking about the Cumberland River, the Tennessee flag, Music Row, Germantown, the Civil War, Ryman Auditorium, Vanderbilt campus, fried green tomatoes (…and fried catfish, fried okra…) and the full-scale concrete Parthenon where his parents, who I now call Ma and Pa Ellis, serve as docents.

“Nashville is known as the Athens of the South,” Andrew told me, due to its many colleges and universities. The townsfolk found such kinship in the symbol of the Parthenon that they tore down the temporary structure when it began to fail so that they could erect a permanent one in its place.

Walking back to the office, I agreed to take him up on his offer for his parents to give me a tour. “They’d love that. They’ll talk your ear off and probably offer to cook you dinner and pick you up from the airport, too.” I laughed, thinking that only people from the South would be so kind to strangers. (Preconceived notions, here we go!)

During my research this weekend, I reviewed the notes of our conversation several times, but the point of my meeting with Andrew felt elusive. Instead, my notebook held recommendations of where to eat and stay, and a bevy of historic details (“Battle of Nashville – capitol building with bullet holes” and “Civil War hospital/plantation house on Franklin-Hillsboro Road.”)

Standard fare, but not a grand idea or theme to be found.

Yet, I had walked away from lunch feeling emboldened about this leg of the journey, somehow sure of something. After several more readings, I found a clue in my loopy black scrawl between the phrases, “Germantown – farmer’s market, old town, near the projects” and “slow-moving Cumberland, working waterway, city turning back to the river.”

One word: warm.

That’s the thing about Andrew: he is one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. He stands just a bit taller than me, light blond hair cropped close to his head except at the top. His skin is equally as fair, fairer than mine with a tone that is light but… well, warmer.

His accent, his work ethic and sense of honor, his easy smile and good nature come together in a way that could only be described as all-American. Andrew is the kind of guy who plays sports, opens doors for women, appreciates good design, and speaks his mind respectfully and intelligently. He’s a modern gentleman.

Before our lunch, I had equated these traits with Andrew as an individual, but as I re-read that word—warm—I realized that I had hit upon the crux of my project without knowing it.

Lately, I’ve been haunted by questions: How will I make this experience unique from what I did in Civita? How will I figure out the next step for myself as a writer? Will it feel like the same thing in different locations? Will podcasts actually help me break new ground?

After leaving the coffee shop this weekend without a finished blog entry, I felt annoyed—not just at my broken concentration, but at not having an answer to those nagging questions. When I played back the beginning of this essay alongside the transcript of our conversation in my head—played back Andrew’s voice back, to be exact—that’s when something clicked.

From the beginning, I’ve said that I want to peer underneath, to delve into the hidden places of America—to explore the things that make us who we are as individuals and as a quilted nation of diverse peoples. This tapestry is not made of hotels or cafes—or art, sports, counter-culture, religion, accents, or food—at least, not on their own.

What I realized was that Andrew’s warmth speaks not only of his personality, but that of the community in which he was raised. He learned it in part from his family and those around them who all contributed to the creation of a warm culture—the kind found in his church, on his street where neighbors wave and in the grocery store where employees know all of their customers and stop to say hello.

My question that elicited his response—warm—was, What do you think will surprise me about Nashville?

That’s when he began to talk about his community and I wrote down: warm, easy-going. Enraptured by his honeyed accent, I set down my pen to listen as he described the kind of people I would encounter on my trip. He didn’t speak ill of Seattle (no all-American guy would talk shit about his new city, even to praise his old one), but he did compare and contrast it to the way he was raised.

While he admitted that I might find the fashion a bit behind the times, Andrew couldn’t say enough good things about the people I’m about to meet.

That’s when I got it. What I’m doing is different, and I won’t be able to foretell what I’ll learn until the journey unfolds and I start talking with people.

It’s one thing to have written this in my creative brief, but to feel certain in that knowledge will take a bit longer, and I can’t force my way there. That’s another reason I’m glad that it will take a year to make these trips—and to write about them. I’ll need that long for any conclusions of worth to percolate.

Like with Civita, one experience will build on another in ways that, thankfully, I can’t yet imagine. With podcasts, I’ll be able to capture aspects of the journey that have been lost during other explorations. Somewhere underneath it all, I will come to understand, if only a little better, what it means to be American in both a larger sense, and for myself.

How the journey ends is anyone’s guess, but beginning in the warmth of Nashville seems like the best way to start.

With that, I’m looking forward to the next twelve months even more than I had been. I’ll reconnect with a few old friends and make new ones along the way, city by city; they’ll introduce me to their friends, and the circle will grow. At the end, Hidden City Diaries will be characterized by slow, rhythmic segments—word by word, trip by trip, conversation by conversation. 

Normally, such a thing would be torture for someone as impatient for bliss as I am. However, if I’ve learned one thing from Civita, it’s that everything happens in its own right moment.

Two months in that tiny Eden taught me that savoring the slow unfolding of time brings a deliciousness that, while daunting in its arrival, is much more fulfilling when it lingers on your lips, usually because it involves sharing those moments with excellent company.

I can’t wait—or, shall I say, I look forward to—what’s ahead.

Jack Frost, Jack Straw

Sunday snow in Seattle

I’ll refrain from allowing the snow in Seattle to conscript this week’s writing, much as I’m tempted to wax poetic on the lovely ways that our fragile (and serially surprised) little burg shuts down when faced with freezing precipitation.

Been there, done that―which is not at all the theme this year. If the first few weeks of January are any indication of what’s ahead, it’s less about reflecting on the past and more about building the present atop it.

For one, it’s no small occurrence that the grant project I’ve been working on for three years with my CityLab7 peeps, a pop-up installation called [storefront] Mushroom Farm, is leaping from our heads and laptops into reality.

In partnership with my employer, Olson Kundig Architects, and Schuchart/Dow construction, we’re designing and fabricating an urban mushroom farm inside a Pioneer Square storefront space.

As February turns into March, we’ll host a series of events that culminate in a harvest dinner headlined by our partner, MacArthur Genius Gary Nabhan. All of this will take place in the historic Washington Shoe Building amidst living walls of mushrooms growing on reclaimed coffee grounds from nearby cafes Zeitgeist, Caffe Umbria and Starbucks.

As if the realization of this project isn’t enough, this week was also the kick-off of my participation in the 2012 Jack Straw Writers Program, which brings together twelve Northwest writers to create original works that incorporate audio recording.

For me, Jack Straw is new territory on many levels, including voice training and learning how to create podcasts of my work. I’ve never had a strong opinion about the quality of my voice until I lost it temporarily in December. Like breathing or walking, one’s ability to speak is taken granted until it disappears.

Now scratchy and hoarse at times as my voice recovers, I’ve been thinking about its timbre and cadence. It’s definitely different than it was before, but it’s unclear whether it will remain that way. How will my words sound on the radio or on podcasts? Will it be a voice that people want to hear?

I’m not nervous so much as contemplating the translation of my words from the page and the screen to the ear and –hopefully– the heart. One reason that I pursued the Jack Straw fellowship was to find a way to connect more deeply with readers over the course of “Hidden City Diaries,” which will take a year to write. By transmitting stories through the filter of my voice, I want to offer a more intimate connection to those near and far — and to those whom I haven’t and may never meet in person.

What I didn’t expect was to be so touched by the other writers who have been chosen for this program–or to find an engendered pocket of community at Jack Straw. Whereas my NIAUSI fellowship was about retreat and reflection, my Jack Straw experience will be characterized by gathering and broadcasting.

Over the course of 2012, the twelve of us will convene in the studio for training and recordings, and at Seattle Public Library, Seattle Art Museum, and Elliott Bay Books for readings. This year’s curator, University of Washington professor Shawn Wong, will record interview podcasts with each of us, and some of our work will be included in KUOW’s “Sound Focus” program.

At Friday’s convening, we were encouraged to consult Shawn for mentorship as we work on our projects and to hold informal gatherings throughout the year so that we can bond as a group. Naturally, I couldn’t help from offering our future [storefront] Mushroom Farm as a possible potluck venue.

Listening to their stories ―the lawyer who was raised as a drug mule and later ran drugs herself before she was convicted, the Highline Community College teacher who was born in a Japanese internment camp and is writing in a voice inspired by her father, the journalist who became obsessed with writing about a multiple murderer such that her boyfriend left her and she moved to Seattle to begin a new life― it dawned on me that I’ve entered a new arena. I’m beginning to see my writing as more of a balance between art and science ― the rational and the poetic, to borrow a phrase.

While I wrote my creative brief and planned out my project’s schedule, budget and approach during the past month, “Hidden City Diaries,” has gelled into a story that is much less about fanciful escape and much more about reality and engagement, a logical next step. This weekend, I began to wonder if my “new” voice, still developing in many ways, isn’t related to this change―the by-product of a fusion between poetry and rigor.

Knowing that the twelve of us are there to push each other as much as for support, our meeting confirmed that the game is on: with help from Jack Straw, our writing will be shared with a broad audience who will indeed be listening. We’re not in competition necessarily, but we’ll have spectators who observe, compare, and respond to what we create.

It feels like our projects matter more now; we’re no longer writing ―or speaking― for our own amusement and self-exploration, but for the entertainment and consumption of others. Looking around our circle, each of us has taken that distinction seriously.

One of the last people in the room on Friday night, I walked out with a UW student who saw her participation in Jack Straw as a learning experience rather than the culmination of a work-in-progress like that of several others. As we discussed our first readings, she complimented the snippet I shared from Venice Revisited.

As much as it felt great to hear her say, “I liked your piece; you brought me right along with you,” my first thought ―in response to myself, as much as to her― was: Just wait ‘til you see what I do next.

The New Year

Old Tony's on the Redondo Beach Pier

Zip and LuLu

Darrell and Ellen

Over the past few years, my family’s annual holiday excursion to Old Tony’s on the Redondo Beach Pier has become a thing of legend. This sweetly ramshackle institution serves a dangerously tart concoction called a Fire Chief, whose power has catapulted us into laughable adventures.

(For those not in the know, a Fire Chief is a mai tai made with 151.)

The Fire Chief, a time-honored drink

Still recovering from pneumonia, I proudly made it through two rounds at Old Tony’s on Christmas Eve with enough energy to continue on to The Bull Pen, whose kitsch has assured it a permanent place in our future outings. (If nothing else, it’s a step above Pat’s II…)

As we drove home with cheer in our hearts and bellies –and souvenir 60th anniversary glasses– I felt deeply thankful for the bond that has always surrounded my aunt, uncle, cousins, and me. Despite being part of an emotionally far-flung family and becoming strangers for many years ourselves, we’ve managed to retain the depth of what we forged during my teenage years.

I realized that this is what it means to be a real family: no matter where you live, it’s the one place you can go home to. Even if crowded, and preferably so, there’s always a place to sleep. (Thanks again, Alix, for letting me crash…)

Today, while sniffling through a cold on my couch in Seattle, I smiled to see text messages from Zipper and Ellen as I struggled uncharacteristically with my New Year’s resolutions. It was then that I remembered an exchange with a janitor at SeaTac the day I flew out to Los Angeles to join them.

He wiped my table as I finished my latte, wishing me a merry Christmas. I smiled politely and wished him the same, not expecting anything more. “Are you going home to see family?” he asked.

“Yep, I am.” I smiled again and went back to reading my New Yorker.

“It’s good to have family,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t. I see a lot of sad people here, especially around Christmas. They don’t have anyone. My mom lives here, so I go to her house. I don’t have to travel.”

The pretty young woman at the next table, who was waiting for her husband to return from the bathroom, flinched at our exchange. He was mentally disabled and talked with a slight lilt to his voice. She pretended to look away, watching us out of the corner of her eye; she hoped he wouldn’t come over to clean her table.

“Do you make New Year’s resolutions?” he asked, cleaning the other side of my table.

I put down my magazine and gave him my attention. “Yeah, usually. Do you?”

“Nope, never.” He paused then told me, “I don’t make resolutions; I just have faith. People like me, we just have to have faith that we’re going to do the best that we can do. That’s what I do – not try to be as good as someone else or make up rules that I never know if I can keep.”

When he was done, he wished me a happy holiday and moved onto the next table, asking similar questions and wishing similar wishes to the man next to me.

In struggling to encapsulate my goals for 2012, I realized that simply having faith that I’m going to do the best I can do is the only resolution I need to make this year. Starting out the New Year this way means that outdated thoughts –the fear of my own failure or that of my partners– suddenly hold little weight.

With that, I’m pleased to announce my selection as one of 12 writers chosen to take part in the 2012 Jack Straw Writers Program. Over the next year, I’ll receive voice instruction and training in equipment and software to create podcasts, which will accompany a series of essays as part of my next project, Hidden City Diaries.

Many new experiences lay ahead: a website redesign, a Kickstarter campaign, public presentations, tackling audio craft — and, of course, traveling across the US in search of adventure and inspiration. The future is a minefield of opportunity and chance — one that I’m excited to traverse, even if it means a misstep or two… and perhaps because such things will be unavoidable.

With this newfound mantra in hand, I move forward armed with the faith that I will indeed strive to do my best. It’s all that any of us can do, really. Somehow, I get the feeling that it will be more than enough.