Swimmingly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Things

Never write to settle scores.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rendering by Lissa

Rendering by Lissa

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

Embodiment: You Are Here

You know those large, illuminated maps in shopping malls, the ones bearing a big red dot with the words, YOU ARE HERE? As she does each week, Beth opened our Saturday yoga class with a parable that prefaced the morning’s lesson, employing one of those signs as a metaphor.

Typically, the theme of class ranges from softening judgement on our limitations, like how flexible we’re not, to investigating the need for sensation beyond what’s necessary, known as cranking the dial to eleven. Most often, it relates to being mentally present in our physical bodies, an uphill battle if you consider how early we’re conditioned to drift. As youngsters in school and church, we spend the majority of our childhoods distracted, gazing out windows, picturing ourselves somewhere else. As adults, we zone out in meetings as co-workers drone on about mission statements and the quarterly budget.

From television and digital devices to old-fashioned daydreaming, we live our lives in a constant undercurrent of escape — that is, until we show up for yoga class where we are reminded to be present. We pay spry bodhisattvas to center us in the same world that we seek to avoid the other twenty-three hours of the day. Decidedly undisciplined, we insist that it’s too hard, that we caaaaan’t meditate, can’t focus. Yet we keep showing up, keep paying people to remind us to be present.

YOU ARE HERE, Beth said firmly as we shifted from one asana to the next. Reach up to the ceiling with both hands and lengthen into a gentle backbend. You are embodied. What does that feel like? Bring your hands together over your heart and close your eyes. Fold forward, uttanasana, standing forward bend. Can you fan your feet to feel the edges of each toe on the mat, the outside of your heels in contact with the earth? Step or spring your feet back, adho mukha svanasana, downward-facing dog. Can you feel the places that are tender where you might need to back off? Is it possible to accept those sensations as a moment in time? This is what it’s like to be here now, alive in your body. Do you have to fight it? Judge it? Come forward into plank pose and hover for just a minute.

Plank is a love-hate pose, especially for those with shoulder problems, because it calls for upper body strength. You’re hovering above the ground, realizing just how strong Jean-Claude Van Damme actually must have been to pull off those movie stunts. All the while, you’re negotiating how much longer you can hold the pose (Ten seconds? Five seconds?) Your mind springs into action, the pose becoming a contest to outlast your neighbor instead of an effort to inhabit the form with your body in all of its vulnerabilities.

Is the twanginess in your shoulders more about weakness from disuse, which can improve, or is it the calcified remains of injury? You plunge into the past, replaying circumstances of the hurt, the months of therapy, remembering how easy this pose used to be, how potent you felt. When will –or will it– heal? Maybe you’ve been babying it when the shoulder actually needs to be strengthened. You consider changing your weightlifting routine and off you go: disengaged, disembodied, a rat’s nest of thoughts instead of an integrated, present human being in plank pose.

Beth reminds us, “YOU ARE HERE.”

It’s unusual to turn forty and not have to contend with several minor injuries. You trade these grumbles like baseball cards with middle-aged friends: I’ll swap your corns and bone spurs for shoulder impingement, a torn ACL and a detached retina. Some of you no longer ski or snowboard; others have stopped running. You’re not even old yet and you’re shuffling around like there’s a disabled parking spot out there with your name on it. When a whipper-snapper complains about being almost thirty…in two years…you wish you had a cane to club him with.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast the state of your embodiment today with what it once was; the vigor of your twenties and thirties happened only moments ago. Still, you can no longer press 200 pounds with your legs, at least not without creaky knees or tendons. The college students sharing your lane at the community pool lap you with whip-sharp kick turns like it’s nothing. You mistakenly assume that the high level of function you knew is normal, meaning a baseline for the present and the future, rather than a short-lived pinnacle that comes early in life. You begin to reason that, if you take care of yourself and you’re lucky, the downward slide will be gradual, but underneath you suspect that you don’t get a say.

The fragile decline of embodiment can seem depressing when laid out like this, but it’s funny, too. I tittered as I took hold of the pink box of Phillips pro-biotic pills emblazoned with PROMOTES COLON FUNCTION on the front. It screamed YOU ARE HERE… IN LINE AT BARTELL DRUGS WITH SOMETHING THAT SAYS COLON ON IT FOR EVERYONE TO SEE.

My doctor had sent me in search of meds after the second severe flare-up of fever and abdominal pain, concerned that I might have picked up a parasite or bacteria in Colombia, or that the effects of January’s food poisoning were lingering. While we waited for answers, I had to allay this severe intestinal distress. Grimacing, I waited in line until it was my turn, keeping the box tucked in my hand. “Hello, ma’am, how are you?” the check-out girl asked cheerfully as I placed it on the counter.

I narrowed my eyes and nearly demanded, “Do you see what I’m buying here?!” but instead opted to stew about her calling me ma’am. Doesn’t matter what you purchase –cough drops, lice combs, yeast infection meds– they ask you the same question in that same chipper voice. No wonder why old people are grouchy. We drag ourselves to the store to buy expensive crap to keep our faltering human bodies going, and they’re asking us how our day is, like they don’t see the ailments that we’re plunking down in pharmaceutical form before them. No one buying an enema kit is having an especially good day, even if the kit is for someone else –the implied assistance is worse than the procedure itself, gauging from the couple next to me in line– and by the way, calling us ma’am adds insult to injury.

Then, it sinks in: I’m the same age that my mother was when I thought she was too old to relate to. She was a ma’am, an adult. She had a mom car and a mom purse. She no longer wore cute shoes with heels over an inch high. As I paid for my colon pills in my flat Timberland boots (“Would you like a bag for that, ma’am?”) I realized two things: one, I had forgotten to buy denture cleaner for my night guard, and two, I owned a mom car (still under 40,000 miles after nine years) and a mom purse (damn you, Garnet Hill.) Worth noting that, while I may have backslid into wearing leggings, there is not a power in the universe that can force me to don mom jeans.

So, which was worse, the fact that denture cleaner AND colon medication made it on my shopping list, or that I had forgotten the denture stuff, which might indicate an early onset of senility? Was it the fact that I was buying this stuff at all? And when had I become ma’am to everyone? This week alone, three people asked for my career advice which, I realized, is only something people do when you’re old enough to actually have advice to give. One of them was half my age, which sets me squarely in ma’am territory.

This wouldn’t be the only time that I would leave a place chuckling absently, shaking my head. My symptoms demanded that I produce an –ahem– sample to determine the nature of their origin. I emailed my physician about the dilemma of retrieval. “Dear Dr. X, As a command performance at the lab is unlikely, are you thinking that I should collect the sample at home? Should I use a plastic bag? (Sorry, this is so gross.) Any suggestions you can share are welcome.” As I hit send, I laughed nervously, feeling embarrassed yet entertained by the ridiculousness of my questions as much as the predicament itself.

The elderly deal with these effects of embodiment all the time, which is why health as a discussion topic trumps weather any day. I made this comment to everyone who asked how I was doing. Let me tell you about my digestive tract and how I came down with fever, not just once but twice. I think it’s from the food poisoning, but I might have a little intestinal hitchhiker. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or if it’s just stomach cramps, but I’ve got to eat something, you know? The pro-biotic drinks I usually take aren’t as good as these colon pills (I highly recommend the Phillips brand.)

The joke continues to be on me, of course, wondering when my insides are going to feel “normal” again. I read that, sometimes after a severe event, people develop lactose intolerance or IBS. Someone likened it to upsetting all of the furniture in your apartment – you need to give the good bugs time to settle back in, find their right place between the sofa and the coffee table. While they do, this unsettled sensation is the new normal. YOU ARE HERE, I thought, so get used to it. Despite my attempts to focus, I soon became lost in thought, devising how to collect, package and transport my sample, concerned that I might have to take it with me on the bus.

In all my worry over logistics, I psyched myself out for a few days. There was nary a specimen to be had. On the plus side, it gave me time to get comfortable with my plan as it developed. If things started moving on Friday, was there enough time to stop at the lab before work? I imagined being discovered on the aptly-named Route #2, as several riders had dogs who find me out immediately. Instead of the bus, I could take Car2Go during the week. Maybe I should aim for an evening drop-off when my schedule is more relaxed and I could drive over? The weekend would be best –I could get street parking if I went early– but was the lab open on Saturdays?

In plank pose, hover your knees just about the floor and take three breaths. Now gently bring your knees to the floor and lower yourself without letting your belly touch first. Bring yourself down in an integrated manner; go slowly and don’t allow your core to shut off. YOU ARE HERE. Lengthen your legs, bring your arms to your sides and lift up, arms and legs, into shalabhasana, locust pose. Breathe.

Watching my mother develop a terminal illness when I was a child is one cause for my underlying angst at growing older. It isn’t so much about vanity, although don’t get me started about wrinkles and creases. It’s more about scary math, like how many years are left before I’m the same age that she was at her diagnosis, or how many years until I’m the same age she was when she died. Today, those gaps are narrower than ever. It makes me hope with the kind of fleeting hope that you hope you never actually have to hope with that I will escape her future, the seemingly small complaints that metastasize into a massive and uncontrollable ailment.

Instead, I whip out funny stories and let the gross-out factor guide me. Better to employ humorous revulsion for the task at hand as a means of garnering advice and attention at a time when I don’t want to think about that possible future. This is avoidance, I remind myself. I listen for Beth’s voice: YOU ARE HERE.

So began my Saturday. The scientist in me felt confident with my established protocol: turn off the water to the toilet and flush the toilet until the tank and bowl are empty, yielding an unimpeded surface for sample collection. Have a disposable transfer device at the ready, as well as a makeshift containment system. While untested, I believed that my three-part system would hold — it had to, since I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up a sterile kit from the lab ahead of time. These items were laid out at the ready like surgeon’s tools.

A phone call revealed that the lab opened at 8 am, giving me plenty of time to drive to yoga after dropping off the sample. As I handed it to the young woman in the white smock, she looked puzzled and tried not to laugh. “I’m not sure this is going to work…” From a brown paper sac, she removed the labeled Ziploc bag with the disposable Tupperware container inside. “What time did you collect this?”

“Six-thirty this morning.”

She furrowed her brow, but it was apparently an acceptable time frame, so she left to ask the technician if they could use it. I waited in the stiff phlebotomy chair where they’ve drawn my blood before. For once, I wasn’t nervous to sit there.

It was kind of funny, after all, how much I had dreaded navigating this sequence of events, completing this extra chore whose doing I resisted more than the actual knowledge of what might be wrong with me. Like in yoga, the mind flees to fields of distraction rather than remaining present with sensation and discomfort. I had fretted for days, which made it all the more anti-climactic when the woman returned to say that it was going to work out fine. “Good thinking to use a clear container!” she praised.

From downward-facing dog, raise your right leg behind you and bring it forward between your planted hands. Bring your back heel down and raise your arms into warrior two. Feel into the edges of your feet and your back heel. Square your right knee above your toes and roll your right buttock underneath you. Enliven your left leg — don’t let it become an inert kick stand. YOU ARE HERE. Soften your gaze and feel your strength streaming out through your arms. Lean back and open your chest to the sky, as if the person behind you is providing support. Give thanks that you are healthy enough to practice today.

As I walked out of the lab, the young woman called after me, “Have a nice weekend, ma’am.” I turned to thank her, ready to begin my day but not ready for the title that everyone agreed to confer upon me –ma’am– or the lot of humanity embodied within it. A developing self-image takes time to actualize, if not practice.

AWP14

Those who didn’t venture near the Washington State Convention Center in the last four days are likely unaware that over 10,000 writers converged in Seattle for the 2014 AWP national conference. (Although, if you found it impossible to enter your favorite bar —or it was out of booze— you may have had a hint.)

Walking over to pick up my badge, I couldn’t believe it: never before had I heard people on the corner of 6th & Pike talking genre, developmental editing and small presses—and I don’t mean for coffee. Someone had opened a Pandora’s Box of nerdy writer speak, topics I don’t usually discuss outside of Hugo House (because… um, why?), which drifted between countless strangers wearing lime green lanyards and canvas tote bags. Some were Writers and others were writers, the strangers noted, but what struck me was that they came in all shapes, colors and sizes, most of them from outside Seattle. Maybe it was my head cold, but I smiled at the dizzying diversity and sameness among them, thinking, These are my people.

My fellow scriveners may not have felt equally enthusiastic about me, as I likely infected everyone I sat next to with my cold. (I keep waiting for Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman to come looking for me dressed in fatigues and masks.) Still, I had purchased a one-day pass and there was no way I wasn’t going to use it.

In the end, the virus saved me from another epidemic, one of blistering hangovers, though I didn’t feel much better on Saturday morning than if I had downed two bottles of wine and stayed up late talking about plotting the realist novel or women’s travel writing. Still, tweets like Tired is the new drunk, Ready for my power nap – this spot of carpet looks ideal and Saturday at AWP: where ‘hungover’ is a perfectly acceptable answer to ‘How are you?’ made me feel like I both missed something and did not.

One of few to emerge seemingly unscathed was Roxane Gay, who tweeted: There is vomit on the sidewalk outside of the Sheraton. Be careful out there. (Not mine. I am grown.) only to find a note and a ‘complimentary amenity’ from the hotel as thanks for the warning. If we are to believe countless blogs, tweets and articles about AWP, including Peter Mountford’s chuckle-worthy round-up for The Stranger, it seems that what makes a writer is not only the ability to write well, but the capacity to struggle, sulk, pine, drink copious amounts of alcohol, attend readings, wax narcissistic about one’s writing career—and repeat. (And, for poets, to be crazy-awesome at sex. Peter, do tell.)

It’s hard to argue with this comical yet sloppy caricature of writers because, from a certain standpoint, it’s true. Many writers I know can out-drink the construction workers I know. And they do suffer and pine (the writers, not the construction workers, whose physical labor boosts their endorphins and helps sweat out the booze.) In the past five years, I’ve come to know more writers than I’ve ever known and I’ve been surprised at how little common ground we sometimes share, perhaps because I, too, am a sufferer and a piner and a loner, and often feel misunderstood (okay, a lot) and, let’s face it, writers are kind of weird, me included. When we’re wrapped up in our own stories, it’s hard to bridge the gap more than superficially.

Yet, the weird-loner-boozy-writer myth is only as powerful as we make it. We embrace that illusion because it loosely fits and it seems cool and because we, frankly, are not. Our fears, not only of failure but, more pointedly, of mediocrity and anonymity, drive us to conjure the spirits of Hemingway and Stein, Plath and Proulx, imagining ourselves living hard-scrabble lives on remote ranches (Ooh – a perfect writer’s retreat! How do I apply?) or yearning to down a fifth of whiskey, believing that it will help us conjure works that are brilliant and life-changing (Breadloaf Scotland, anyone?)

We like the idea that there is a reward (publishing, fame) for our suffering, because what human who lives doesn’t suffer? As writers, we are tempted to let our insight into that universal suffering overtake us, and in doing so, we scout with wicked, solipsistic anticipation for ways to jab our own heads into hot ovens. Anything for a juicy life experience -er- story that will sell millions of copies of our navel-gazing survival journey through it. That’s print and digital, by the way. And film rights. Finally, all of those people who didn’t believe in us will be sorry, sorry, sorry. And jealous. And then we’ll win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Posthumously, but still.

That word, solipsistic, was spoken at nearly every session I attended. Like fashion, language is cyclical, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear this word-cum-meme bandied about at a writer’s conference — a place where we, as artists, assert that we represent the common person when we really represent ourselves in the guise of the common person. Whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry, writers translate the world through sullied lenses, even as we try to distance ourselves from the voice of our narrators or the slant of our story angles. As authors, we are urged to separate from our works, especially in memoir, where we must rise above our own suffering, humble ourselves fast and brutally, and search for something higher and richer while still keeping it entertaining. The few arts that aim to do this –to definitively separate maker from medium, rather than leverage the artist’s identity and art as one– are based on the written word. No wonder why writers drink — and attend conferences in the hopes of finding fellowship with writer-friends who drink.

Each night, I watched them come together at AWP events happening throughout town via social media from my tissue-littered couch. There were too many to attend even if I was well, from a pajama party with Chuck Palahniuk at Elliott Bay Books to readings by my favorite writers at every bar on Capitol Hill. Two more days of panels would have been fun, but these gatherings are what I’m truly sad to have missed. (Is it too early to sign up for AWP15 in Minneapolis? Maybe I can nab an Amtrak writer residency on the trip there…)

Though I didn’t see vomit-strewn sidewalks or writers napping on patches of carpet, I still feel like I had a good taste of AWP. Typically, half the reason for attending a conference is to explore a new city; in this case, AWP helped me see my home town from a different perspective. For one, I was able to witness our brand outside the Pacific Northwest debated constantly: I can’t believe how many Starbucks there are in Seattle – the hype is real! and The sun has been out for two days straight. We’ve been lied to. When someone on a panel euphemistically referred to his employer as “a very large technology corporation,” I whispered “Microsoft” to the confused Kentuckian next to me. In a day filled with insider lingo, at least I knew the local dialect.

That was my biggest takeaway from AWP: as a writer, I am a part of a larger community — not just Hugo House, but bigger. I’m still learning, but I speak the language. The challenges of its people are also mine. We share a common code. The self-perpetuated loner-writer mantra makes us forget that and, other than providing much-needed quiet necessary for writing, only does us a disservice. Being alone (as in lonely) is not cool, and neither is drinking alone, even less so when done in the presence of drugs or shotguns. Or ovens. If we, as writers, are made to open windows into the facets of humanity through the power of story, then we must embrace our nature as a social species: we can’t just write about people connecting, we must make a point to connect. This means pulling a comb through our hair and leaving the house occasionally. It means talking to the person next to us on the bus or at the coffee shop… or the conference. If we’re to write about people with any accuracy, we need to risk relating with them, including other writers.

Every session I attended —from panels on genre to memoir (my favorite: How to Spill Your Guts Without Making a Mess)— underscored the importance of human connection as equal to or greater than craft. While the titles of each varied, the message was the same: Rise above thy [solipsistic] nature and connect. Search for the universal truth, not singular suffering. Keep it simple, keep it real. Be patient. Resist the temptation to submit on the first draft. Other pearls included:

Who is the right person to tell the story—the person at the center, or the edges?

Don’t get caught up in writer’s problems (form, ego) over the driving question, the point of the struggle/story itself.

Memoir is not autobiography: it’s not full disclosure and it’s not about spilling guts. That’s a journal.

Writing that is worthwhile has consequences.

Four rules: Treat people with dignity. Be harder on yourself than anyone else. Never write to settle scores. Write beautifully – it invites its own forgiveness.

Data is not information is not knowledge is not understanding is not wisdom.

Think of plot not in terms of events but cause and effect. What will your characters do to complicate their lives? Plot is a connective tissue rather than a series of milestones; it’s the long answer to a short question that we all wonder about.

Beware making writing too beautiful too early; certain passages will become unmalleable and lend themselves to breaking entirely before the work is done.

Memoir is a response to the silences we encounter: the family memoirs of the 1970s are a response to the “perfect” families of the 1950s like the motherhood memoirs of today are a response to the have-it-all 80s.

Only the shallow know themselves. (Oscar Wilde)

You’re writing to bridge, not to highlight yourself. Allow some room on the page for everyone who isn’t you. Keep your own suffering in perspective.

In the eight years that I’ve worked with architects, I’ve heard many people sigh, I’ve always wanted to be an architect. I’ve heard an equal amount wish to be writers, including a few architects. My answer to both: No, you don’t. If the lawyers who wanted to be architects knew how many late nights they’d work drawing window details for low pay, their notions of cape-flinging bow-tied fame would disappear with a puff of e-cigarette smoke. Likewise, if those who dreamed of being writers knew how many hours it took to write a blog post or a shitty first draft of a short story –or the ten, twenty, fifty drafts between that and the finished piece– likely for no pay even if it was accepted by one of the forty publications they submitted it to, they would reconsider their wistful plea.

The difference between the wishers and the doers is exactly that. Some of us are up past midnight sketching or marking up that fiftieth draft because we can’t not do it. That’s what the solipsistic part of me insists, the part that feels only her own struggles, the side that wants people to know just how hard she works — the small, mean person who wants to flick those who take her life’s endeavor lightly through their boastful wishing: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I should write a book.

It’s because of those innocent fantasies and greedy myths —the bohemian author tripping the life fantastic awash with big ideas and interesting friends slurping booze in a Paris salon— that even writers have trouble seeing what it really takes to be a working literary artist. Rather than a life of leisurely boozing and dining, it means a separate career during the day, whether you are Charles Dickens, Charles Lamb, Richard Hugo or contemporary authors like Peter Mountford or Frances McCue. Each time any of us wishes aloud to be Hemingway or Stein, Plath or Proulx, we’re selling ourselves on a fiction, hastily convincing ourselves that writing comes easy for those meant to write, and that, as writers, we are owed a moody fantasy life that simply doesn’t exist.

Being a writer isn’t about notebooks or laptops or coffee shops or master’s degrees or agents or even best-sellers, but a relentless drive to create, no matter the cost or how long it takes. It’s about rejection, which means that you’ve attempted something. It’s about accepting risk. It’s about failing. More importantly, it’s about the desire to connect, if only we can get out of our own near-sighted way.

That’s why it takes a few turns at AWP, and a few decades of getting our hands dirty actually writing, to really get it. Some people’s careers take off early in life, and they are the exception. We need to hear that loud and often: writing takes work, it takes giving and receiving support from other writers, and it is mostly unglamorous. However, if it’s what you love, then writing is its own reward; it will, in its own right, eventually give rise to the universal truths that we all seek. If you really are a writer, not just a wisher, then by definition you cannot stop writing, and thus, you will not be able to avoid happening upon them.

One panelist quoted advice by Annie Dillard that stuck with me: Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.

In other words, let’s get it right, let’s tell it true. Get to it –how can we not?– but don’t rush.

Rules

Must the Gun Always Fire? (And Other Rules of Writing) was the theme of Friday night’s Hugo House Literary Series installment. Three writers, including the terrifically witty Anthony Doerr of Four Seasons in Rome fame, responded to a prompt fueled by one of Chekov’s famous rules:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.

As someone who prizes organization but distrusts rules (the former is mindful, the latter merely obedient) I couldn’t help but think of my time in Colombia last month. There, rules and disorganization actually go hand in hand, for where there is process, there is also evasion. Everyone knows that everyone else appears to abide by the rules while conspiring to best them. Trust between strangers is thin.

While strolling through the secure government zone in El Centro, Brad smiled when I revealed my secret street crime deterrent. Chuckling at my dented silver whistle (Seriously, Brad, you should hear this baby!) he explained that, if I was really in trouble, blowing it was unlikely to summon help from passersby. Bogotanos are not hard-hearted people, but to aid a stranger –especially in the event of a violent attack– opens the possibility of injury to oneself. In Colombia, these are the rules: take care of yourself and your loved ones, as it is unlikely that someone else will. Better to shield yourself than draw the scorch of flames meant for another.

The value of human life is thinner in Colombia; you can sense it walking around. It’s not a cloudy evil or ghost of ill-will, but a hazy inward turn. People avert their eyes equally to flirtation, need or confrontation. The life –or footpath– of another matters little, which is why you’ll get winged at least once a day without apology or acknowledgment that a collision has occurred.

When clipped by a fast-moving Medellina near the Plaza de Cisneros, I shouted, “Ow!” more from surprise than hurt, evoking an almost-sympathetic giggle from someone next to me. Like all injury (Que pena! What did you do?) the fault derived from my lack not hers (I should have avoided her path); when we forget the rules, we receive our just desserts. The woman didn’t flinch at my complaint, not even an eyelash. Colombia’s rules are layered: there are the written and spoken guidelines, and then there are rules that are quietly implied and silently understood. Only after you have broken them, sometimes irreparably, do you learn that they exist.

I arrived aware of many such rules, some of them my own, others hand-me-downs: do not use iPhones or cameras in public, do not flag down taxis on the street, do not wear open-toed shoes in Bogotá, do not carry all of my money or credit cards when going out. Some friends insisted that, if I was being tailed, I should turn around and face the person while others believed the opposite. One person suggested looking into hostage insurance. While walking between Brad’s apartment and a restaurant called Chopinar one night, we traversed a few sketchy blocks and sketchy people who had me running through these rules: Step confidently. Look them in the eye. Or, don’t look them in the eye. One of the two. Keep moving. Stay close to Brad. Should I have bought hostage insurance? If they demand money, I’ll hand it over without a fight. Forget using my whistle.

During my first few days in Bogotá, I was on high alert trying to abide by these and other local codes. Good morning, good day, good evening — the distinction matters. Que pena or perdóne, not lo siento. Con gusto not encantada. One cheek kiss, not two. On the street, I kept a casual but constant scan on my purse and my surroundings, which were constantly abuzz with people and traffic. At the same time, my lungs and brain were adapting to the high elevation, whose thinner concentration of oxygen and abundant pollutants left me wheezing from time to time. Brad and I played language games, me testing Spanish words and him confirming or correcting, as we came upon signs and directions and objects. The whole time, a husky sotto voce whispered: You’re on your own, mija. Stay frosty and alert.

Reading my mind on our way back to the Art Hotel in Medellín, Brad asked what I would do if he disappeared. Would I know how to find my way from Medellín to Bogotá? In Bogotá, how would I get into his apartment? At first, I was irritated – was he toying with me? No, he was checking to see if I was prepared, if I had read the rule book, or if I was relying solely on him. As we walked uphill in the tropical afternoon air, I produced the card with the hotel’s address, and confirmed that I remembered the route back through the Poblado neighborhood. I had cash for the 60,000 peso taxi ride to the Medellín airport. I had our flight number and departure time, and more cash for the Bogotá airport taxi. I had Brad’s address. I had Enrique’s phone number to get Brad’s spare key. The doormen at Brad’s building knew me and would let me inside. The rules meant leaving nothing to chance. They meant knowing the steps one by one that would bring me safely back to Brad’s bower in Chapinero and eventually home. They meant paying acute attention at all times, everywhere.

On journeys like these, when safety is questionable, rules are abundant and oxygen is spare, beauty becomes an important cure-all. It may not be possible to have complete peace of mind, meaning a passive urban existence, on the streets of Medellín or Bogotá, but their beacons of colorful graffiti make a person feel connected and cherished in spite of the chaos. Art is an offering, a means of dialogue about the things in daily life that go unacknowledged: love, war, drugs, poverty, politics, family, history, economics, assault. They are attempts to communicate rather than turn away. Some are memorials meant to call attention to the artists slain while making their art.

Once you know what to look for, you see them all over the city, commissioned works on restaurants or commercial storefronts, splashes of color on freeway walls, lively paintings in alleys, nooks and crannies. The murals are effective deterrents to taggers, proving that beauty is a universal symbol that the vulnerable, human part in each of us is loathe to destroy, no matter what else we put asunder.

Some of Bogotá’s muralists are university professors, a few are women, several work in groups; each artist’s style and message is different. What holds them together is their use of aesthetics to spark a deeper awareness. Their power is evident in your gut when you realize that the playful stenciled silhouette of a boy is not holding balloons but hand grenades with the pins pulled, a nod to children pressed into warfare. A large multi-colored bird bursting into three dimensions makes more sense when you discover it was painted by a woman who was brutally raped, her art a means of rising from a violent past. There’s magic in their colors and meaning in their forms that some could dismiss as mere graffiti, but it’s not. It’s so much more.

When people ask why I liked Bogotá, I point to this spirit: that life goes on there because it must, that beauty happens there because it must, that people climb to the top of Monserrate on the pilgrim trail because they must, that street vendors sell mobile phone minutes and sliced fruit to feed their families because they must. Despite Bogotá’s history of violence, political instability, drug wars and corruption, I love the undeniable endurance of its people, impossible to quash.

Maybe it’s the constant current of cool breezes beneath the intense sunshine that feeds Bogotá’s undercurrent of optimism. The very movement of the air suggests that things are in motion, always changing, that the Bogotá you know today will retain a sense of itself as it evolves into something different tomorrow and the day after that. It’s a city whose change bears watching.

Maybe I enjoyed Bogotá because I’ve always been drawn to juxtaposition, because I see beauty in hard places. I loved watching couples speed by on bicycles when Carrera 7 was closed to traffic for Ciclovía, the same street that Brad and I played pedestrian Frogger on near his house, dodging fast-moving vehicles across six lanes. I loved choking on exhaust-polluted air on one street and entering a sky-high fresh fruit and vegetable market on the next. I loved the gritty parks that were busy with lunching uniformed workers by day and flocks of men on their way to neon-lit gay bars at night.

Maybe I loved being surrounded by chance. I secretly thrilled at riding the unofficial busses, knowing that they would take off while we were still stepping inside, the door open precariously behind us as the driver’s wife took our money before we moved through the turnstile, trying not to fall as the bus tumbled over potholes and screeched to a halt at red lights. I loved hanging onto the ceiling-mounted panic bars in taxis as they swerved in and out of traffic, gritting my teeth and feeling naked without a seatbelt as we sped through the city. I loved the thudding fear in my chest as we swung from gondola cables and funicular wires, facing the deep trepidations I avoid easily at home.

Mine are not new feelings about Bogotá. Brad’s wonderfully charming friends shared an equal number of stories about loving and struggling with life in this circus of a city. Navigating its rules –socially, politically, economically and interpersonally– takes stamina not required in other places. To live in Bogotá requires a strong constitution and the ability to find beauty in its choppy sidewalks even after taking a tumble. There’s a lesson available in every experience; chances are you’ll lean on that knowledge again and often — or pay the price.

Bogotá made good use of my street smarts, but I was fortunate, too – nothing bad happened that left a mark, like a car accident, a broken cable, a mugging, a palm sliced open by a dagger. A swirling eddy of fortune and fortitude are as endemic to life in Colombia as its system of rules. This is why, after absorbing everyone’s advice, I left Bogotá with a single tenet of my own –a loaded rifle on the stage that, by Chekov’s rule, I must eventually fire– and that is to return some day.

Elevation

They say that, to remedy a fear of heights, one should concentrate on looking left and right like windshield wipers. This contrary, concerted act breaks the physical stimulus-response to phobia, granting the body a temporary reprieve in which to halt the self-perpetuating fear cycle.

What is acrophobia but a fear of vulnerability, of losing control, of falling into an abyss? It’s rooted in a reasonable reluctance towards bodily injury and death, but it goes beyond that to a decidedly unreasonable and paralyzing reaction to heights. I silently debated this as Brad and I waited in line for the gondolas in Medellín. Was I actually getting on board this thing? We had ridden the commuter rail from the communa of El Poblado to San Javier station, scaling a flight of steps that would have had us panting in Bogotá where the elevation is an additional 3,700 feet.

As I discovered within my first few hours, the elevation in parts of Colombia dramatically impacts one’s entire physiology —cognitive ability to headaches and physical performance— especially for those of us who live at sea level. Walking in Bogotá, I’d find myself out of breath mid-sentence, even on a flat street at a normal pace; talking excitedly felt like running a marathon. While the elevation of Bogotá proper is 8,600 feet, its mountain, Monserrate, actually surpasses 10,000 feet, the barrier at which one typically reclines her airplane seat and turns on electronics.

At 4,905 feet, Medellín has more oxygenated air, which we were thankful for, given the hills and stairs we traversed during our time there. Still, in the city’s outskirts, the height differential from valley to hillside is quite steep, making daily errands challenging for residents. Brad and I decided to visit Medellín, rather than Cartegena or Cali, to investigate the transit system and urban design improvements that made it the 2013 City of the Year by the Urban Land Institute. (Yes, we’re nerds.)

What I didn’t consider, even after reading that the other finalist cities were New York and Tel Aviv, was what it meant for Medellín to achieve this distinction. I haven’t visited Tel Aviv, but I can say that it’s unfair to compare New York with Medellin in terms of urban development. On the web, one sees photos of modern gondolas inching up the hill and a few blocks of carefully landscaped streets, from which it’s easy to assume that Medellín is now akin to Manhattan, which it [blissfully] is not. Upon arriving, I had to recall my expectations back to earth and start again.

Brad and I discussed this as our gondola arrived in the chute. It was our turn. My heart beat faster. Six passengers coming down from the mountain got out casually as the cable car turned through its path. A transit monitor nodded at six of us to enter the car as it came around the curve. Just before ascending, the door slid closed and latched in a way that should have been reassuring. Still, I wrapped my fingers tightly over the edge of the bench seat. I tried not to picture the cable snapping, the car dangling, and the supposedly secure door coming open, leaving us to tumble to our deaths on the rooftops below. In the seconds before, I would hang onto the metal car by a sweaty, slipping grasp until, one by one, we would succumb to the fatal and quite inevitable fall.

Brad asked me something like, You having fun? or You doing okay? to which I nodded unconvincingly. Inside, I cringed, wondering if our car would sway in the wind the way that ferris wheel cabs do, giving the sense of unprotected weightlessness that some find thrilling. For me, the vertigo that comes from heights stems from a perception of vulnerability — how perilously close we are to hurtling down even though we aren’t. This feeling abated slightly from one mid-station to the next, the trip becoming slightly less frightening the closer we hovered above the rooftops; I convinced myself that we might somehow survive a twenty-foot drop.

Thankfully, my fear didn’t prevent me from finding beauty and awe in the larger sense, even under duress: as we ascended, I occasionally peered over the edge to notice rooftops where families laid out clothes to dry, the piles of ruddy bricks they used to build precarious cliffside houses, and the streets filled with people walking to work or to drink jugo at nearby fruit stands. These people are very poor and, until recently, traveled hours on foot and busses between home and the city center, journeys that were unsafe, unsavory or both. This is not to say that the gondolas or rail system have solved the larger social inequality, but life for many in Medellín has drastically improved because of them.

We got off at one mid-station to see the Spain Library only to find it wrapped in construction sheeting; apparently, its building envelope is a total failure (so much for value engineering in the design-build process.) I wasn’t sure what to expect of the surrounding Santo Domingo communa. This was a neighborhood we absolutely wouldn’t walk around in at night, yet it wasn’t squalid as I pictured it might be. The last decade’s modernizations have brought storm drains and sewers, so the streets were relatively clean and clear of debris. Like everywhere else in Colombia, I felt conspicuous as a gringa, but not threatened. (Admittedly, Brad by my side helped immensely.)

There were colorful buildings, commerce and activity on the steep, narrow streets that wound to the top of the mountain. Upon summiting the Parque Biblioteca España, we found unimpeded, sweeping views of the city available almost nowhere else. In Seattle, the wealthiest people live on high in neighborhoods like Queen Anne or Capitol Hill, but here the poorest do, starting as squatters who eventually take hold of the land legally or through the inaction of the owners. Families live here for generations, handing down make-shift houses from parents to children, happier for some kind of roof over their heads even if that roof is made from overlapping sheets of corrugated metal. Woe betide those afraid of heights.

On the way back down, I had trouble looking out as the valley opened up. It was too vast, too possible for us to drop off the cable as the car gave a little hiccup between one pole and the next. The calm passengers with us in the car might as well have been sitting at a café. They reminded me that my perspective was not a universal reality, but in fact, all in my mind.

This is the nature of human perspective, not just phobias but values and social standing, which Brad and I discussed a lot during our time together. Colombia’s caste system is a rigid stratification that hard work alone does not necessarily overcome. The value and meaning of skin color is one such example for, as it seems the world over, the whiter one’s skin is in Colombia, the more elevated one assumes the person’s caste is. I was surprised to discover that the portraits of Colombia’s former presidents depicted one white-looking man after another, descendants of Spanish colonists who overthrew the indigenous peoples and pillaged the country’s riches in their “discovery” of cities like Bogotá.

As a child of first-generation American grandparents, my role was to rise. I was programmed to achieve, to lift myself above their industrial and manual labor lives, as if their destiny wasn’t good enough for me. My mother’s family didn’t talk about our Italian heritage; they suppressed this past in favor of blending in as Americans, speaking English and severing all ties with the mother land in the hopes of a brighter economic future. It’s ironic that my knowledge of Italian customs and country has only come about through my own adult study and not from heritage passed down by my family, which I can confirm, became as inertly cultured as any Midwest family could be. Just before my uncle died in 2011, he read my book about Civita and asked, “What’s that word basta mean?”

“It means, enough,” I said. Though my grandparents spoke fluent Italian, they decided not to teach it to their children, who they feared would be held back from integrating with other kids.

My uncle chuckled. “Your grandmother said that to us all the time, and I always thought she was calling me bastard!”

While this story makes me laugh, it also makes me sad. Shouldn’t multilingualism be an enrichment or an advantage rather than a detriment? When we separate from our roots, decidedly deny our family’s history, what other things do we lose? In Colombia, a divorce from one’s lineage is difficult in that lineage is evident (or at least decided) by skin color, if not by name. Brad noted that a person’s given name can reveal all, as many who are considered lower born in Colombian society are given foreign first names. It’s possible to compartmentalize someone purely by a grouping of letters without even meeting him.

It’s hard not to feel a misplaced sense of injustice at this. In Bogotá, you are judged by what neighborhood you live in. The poorest districts have reduced utility rates, which is great, but if you tell someone you live in district one or two, they can guess your economic status. Your very name can restrict your social and political mobility. (I can’t imagine what it involves to change it.) Jobs, clubs, parties, schools, restaurants, friendships — they are open or closed to you depending upon where you’ve come from rather than who you are and where you’re going. Building a life through sweat equity is something that the truly elite in Colombia do not have to do. Though things seem to be shifting in the Millennial generation, the possibilities are still far from what can happen in a city like Seattle today.

As foreigners in Colombia, people like Brad and I are granted a special caché in social circles. Yet, when we were offered the opportunity to join a party for those in a higher echelon, we declined. Something about it felt disingenuous; neither of us wanted to play the part of exotic animals on display, I think. Even at home, I find it difficult to participate in this crowd, no matter how lovely the setting. Whereas I once aspired to rub powdered shoulders with the elite —part of the programming to rise, rise, rise— my perception of glimpses from the top is that the elevation change is drastic. The separation between that life and the way most everyone else lives feels as precarious as a faulty cable wire. I sense this within my own stratum, even — how easily it is to lose sight of the world beneath my vantage point, to forget the people who paved the way before me, or the ones who never will.

Do I want to be the kind of person who asks —and adjusts my value of another human being— based on her answer to, “Where did you go to school and what does your father do?” Who makes these glass ceilings we spend our lives bumping up against, and why do we tacitly uphold them? Why do we fear falling from them if they derive from values that we don’t necessarily agree with? I also ask this of my fellow female colleagues as, apart from race, the same dynamics can be witnessed between genders.

In spite of perceived barriers, the concept of social and economic ascension seems hardwired in the very American way I experience it. A hopeful (and naive) part of me wants everyone to have access to self-betterment no matter where they’re starting from, if it’s something they truly desire. Growing up, my family didn’t talk about race or class, but achievement. Then again, they had the luxury of doing so. While my family wasn’t wealthy, I was born into a privileged life in a privileged country where opportunities were possible for me that weren’t possible for others living in the same places at the same times.

What I’m coming to understand is that my life comes with responsibility as well as benefit: I can use my privilege to help others rather than remaining blind to inequality because it doesn’t inhibit me personally. If all the good I do today is inspire someone to consider the power they unknowingly wield, it’s a start. Colombia opened my eyes to this, and for the privilege of privilege, I am grateful. This is why travel, no matter the destination, is so important. It affords a means of empathetic inquiry and testing between the lives we live and those we encounter elsewhere, teaching us to be better global citizens.

Teetering from that gondola forced me to question this as much as my fear of falling. As a self-made person, perhaps I am more afraid of losing what I’ve worked so hard for: my job, savings, career, relationships. Knowing what it takes to rise above the circumstances of one’s birth makes a person keenly aware of not only what she has, but what life is like without those comforts and how quickly they can disappear, no matter the work that went into establishing them. Learning to trust in the resilience and determination beneath these worldly gifts is where real power lies. Perhaps the only way to exorcise the fear of falling is to realize that those things cannot be taken away if our sense of self is strong.

Back in Bogotá, Brad used his Tapsi app to call a cab on my last morning. “What’s the driver’s name?” I asked, pulling my bags together.

Brad smiled and said, “Giovanni Arroyo.”

“Think he’s Italian?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” he replied. “No, I don’t.”

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Que Pena: A Gringa’s Absolutions

As a seasoned European traveler, I have become too comfortable with that foreignness. (A transit strike? Ah, well. Let’s pause for a cappuccino instead…)

Vacations to the Mother Lands are nearly a hundred percent enjoyable, no matter the country, predictable in their quaint unpredictability. But what is a vacation if not a series of surprises, gaffes and mishaps, punctuated by a sigh of relief when you finally crawl into bed at home? Anything less than that means that you haven’t returned with good stories that will become good memories, and memories are the true currency of a worthwhile voyage. I am dangerously close to being able to plan for the unplannable there, having had my share of memorable adventures from the UK across Western Europe.

Don’t get me wrong: I am no sky-diver, bungee-jumper or mad thrill seeker, a life philosophy that seems both boring and pointless in spite of potential death and loss of limb. We’re all going to die anyway, right? Why hasten it? I’m not interested in something extreme for its own sake like I won’t see a movie purely for the special effects. If it hasn’t got a plot, it’s staying at the bottom of my Netflix queue. (Breaking Bad is still kicking your ass, Avatar.)

My hopes for travel are likewise pointed: absorb and get lost in a culture totally apart from my own, which is always thrilling in a way I couldn’t have planned. Bonus points if it involves speaking another language and soul searching. This leaves open many possibilities, something that I had to remind myself in 2012 when I set out across the United States. (Don’t tell me that they speak the same language in Nashville as they do in Boston and Chicago, because they don’t.)

All this to say, going to Colombia in January was very, very good for me. My yardstick for measuring the impact of a vacation has now been amended to personal growth and a treasure trove of memories plus the number of times that I had to relieve fear-pee based on otherwise mundane activities. Colombia, you have stolen my heart and tested my bladder control.

Fittingly, my education began on the cab ride home when Brad explained the bathroom situation, as in, “Gabbi, remember that you’re in a developing nation now, so you can’t flush toilet paper. That’s what the waste basket is for.”

Me (whispering, brow furrowed): “You mean even for number two?”

Balancing the week’s fear-pee with my heroic attempts at hydration to combat the change in altitude (sea level to 8,600 feet in Bogotá, and over 10,000 feet atop Monserrate) I had to catch myself nearly every time, programmed to toss the paper in with the rest. Admittedly, I went fishing occasionally. It’s hard training to break, and at one point, I finally understood –and for the first time ever wished for– a bidet. (I’ll save you the story about the chorizo from Chopinar.)

For breakfast each morning, Brad cooked heavenly arepas and eggs served with plates of luscious alien-fruits studded with slurpy seeds or crunchy seeds or tangy seeds that he noted might reappear again in my daily absolutions. We chuckled over this innuendo then, so proper a term for such an activity, like I’m chuckling now. It makes me realize how being in Colombia reconnected me with bodily functions that most Americans try to ignore. As soon as our kids are capable of holding and disposing of waste by themselves, we don’t discuss our daily absolutions. Yet, in this new paradigm, it was hardly embarrassing when I had to ask Brad for Imodium following the Chorizo Incident.

Daily absolutions aside, I was intrigued by the constant tension between order and chaos all around me in Bogotá. Like Rome or Paris, you have to keep an eye out. Unlike those places, it’s also a city where people are robbed of their mobile phones and slashed across the palm in broad daylight, which happened while I was there. You cannot be complacent, and if you are, the consequences are your own fault.

Brad’s counsel on this was steady: do not make yourself a victim. When Bogotanos hear that someone has fallen to foul play, their first response follows that line. In America, we ask, “What happened to you?” whereas in Bogotá they say, “Oh no… What did you do?” There’s something ironically right about that, as oftentimes we are the cause of our own mischief yet believe that someone else should pay for our bad judgment. Were you twiddling about with your mobile phone at a busy street corner when you ought to know better? Well, what can you expect?

Bogotanos don’t tend to say I’m sorry (lo siento) except on occasions when the grievance is dire. Don’t expect anyone to acknowledge that they’ve run smack dab into you on the street, for instance. Rather, if they say anything at all, listen for que pena (loosely, what a pity for your pain) which places the focus where it should be: on those who are inconvenienced at hearing the injured’s plight. No offense, but if you had stepped out of the way, you wouldn’t have been run into in the first place.

The darker side of this attitude speaks to the low value of life in a fast-moving city where everyone is responsible for her own misfortune. Who should take the blame when one of the famously daredevil taxis hits a pedestrian and flees the scene after breaking his leg, which happened to one of Brad’s friends a few months ago? You leave your house, you accept risk. Pedestrians might as well be pigeons to drivers, whose skirting of catastrophe is as regular as breathing. Crosswalks and lane markings are suggestions, stop signs a mere caution. It would have been my fault, then, if I had gotten injured during one our hair-raising taxi rides because I knew that none of the cars had seat belts, but chose to get in anyway.

Bogotá does this well, keep you on your toes. It makes you confirm your decisions as much as the things you take for granted. There are no “Mind the Gap” signs or “Look Left/Look Right” markings on curbs, if there’s a sidewalk to begin with. Some places are paved with broken brick or concrete, ending in severe grade changes or simply dirt and rubble. Blind pedestrians, you’ve been warned: we’ve installed a tactile strip of uneven bricks for you to guide yourself through the middle of city sidewalks, which are interrupted with telephone poles and bollards, to let you know when you’re coming close to the unexpected foot-and-a-half drop-off blocked by construction fencing. Stay alert. Que pena.

There are other signs, though, that uplift, and by this, I’m referring to the graffiti murals that enliven the entire city. Once you begin to learn the language of the artists, as we did on a graffiti tour, you see stories unraveling everywhere. They tap you on the shoulder in bursts of vibrant colors and familiar figures peeking out from storefront facades, walls, tenement buildings and transit byways. They speak of this tension, hardly a new phenomenon in rugged Bogotá, in ways that give even a cynic some hope, though the murals often bear somber messages and come at the occasional price, including death. The beautiful tension in these works and their history make our public art programs at home seem antiseptic. In Bogotá today, murals are often directly commissioned by business owners to defray property defacement, and it is actually effective. If individual life doesn’t have much value, at least art does. It strikes something chromosomal in everyone, even in those who value little else.

One afternoon, with a few hours to myself, I went in search of a different kind of art at the Botero Museum. Brad had done some pushing-out-of-the-nest on my first day, allowing me to navigate solo from the Museo del Oro to his home in the Chapinero neighborhood while he was in class. The Botero Museum is close to the same starting point, so we both figured that this would be another small victory for me, the Gringa Adventurer. Using Brad’s bus pass, I took the J-72 from our lunch in Zona G to El Centro and got off at the Museo del Oro. I was feeling good. I had learned to boldly step in the direction I was headed, no maps as it leaves a person distracted and vulnerable, no phones as it makes her a victim.

This is how I became very lost in a very bad neighborhood for what felt like a very long time. (Cue the fear-pee.) I picked up a few crazy ladies along the way who followed me, shouting and covered in pigeon shit, through one of the large plazas, and a man who seemed less crazy and more determined to tail me up and down the streets of low-end shops. I passed through hosts of people shoving colored advertisements in my face, who I dodged like beaded curtains from the 70s as they pelted my senses with offers for mobile phones, sex shops and soft drinks. It seemed as if I had found the center of the universe, as the same road converged on itself over and over again — how could I have been at the corner of 11th and 11th not once but twice? Was this even possible?

It was hot enough that my body should have absorbed the fear-pee. In Bogotá, the temperature can be 65 but the intensity of the sun at elevation on the equator makes it much warmer. I stopped in the shade of a pavilion and discreetly tried to orient myself with the map that Brad gave me until a guy pestered me for cash. I asked a guard at the Finance Ministry for directions, but he sent me blocks in the wrong direction. (Que pena… What did you do, Gabbi?) I asked a kind-looking woman who, like Brad’s maid Angela, hadn’t the foggiest idea how to communicate with me, a beginner at Latin American Spanish without a sense for the dialect. I even found the yellow church that Brad had pointed out as a marker, but was completely turned around, as if the streets of Bogotá had become the final Jenga-like movie set of Labyrinth.

After two hours, I wondered if I would ever find my way. Nothing looked familiar, and Brad had drilled it into me never to get into a strange cab that we hadn’t hailed through Tapsi, the local dispatch service. I was screwed. Eventually, I would have to ask one of those abuelitas on the street corners with the 200 MINUTO signs to use her cell phone on a cord to call Brad for help, the Colombian version of a pay phone. At that moment, the stoplight turned red and I stopped short to avoid being taken out by a cab racing through the intersection. It forced me to look up. When I did, I noticed Iglesia de San Francisco, the church across from the Museo del Oro. I knew where I was. I also knew how to get to the TransMilenio bus station where I could grab the M-80 home to Chapinero. The fear-pee took on a new urgency.

When I finally made it to Brad’s apartment, sticky with sweat, pollution and exhaust, it felt good to take my shoes off and sit for a moment. As the spring-like breeze swept the clouds across the mountaintops, Angela bustled in the kitchen saying things I couldn’t understand. For the first time that afternoon, I felt relieved, sighing to myself, Ah, I’m home.

The Hand of Botero

Dialogue, Monologue, Soliloquy

Scene: A small theater in the early morning hours. A bank of empty seats faces a scuffed black stage framed by red velvet curtains. A single spotlight illuminates the stage, raised three feet above the main floor. Dust motes dance in the air.

Act I
Enter a WOMAN with shoulder-length brown tresses. She takes the stage, a thick book in hand.

Woman: [clears throat] He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, will yearly on the vigil feast with his neighbors and say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.” Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars—

Enter GHOST.

Ghost: You didn’t write that, you know.
Woman: Huh? [WOMAN turns around, scanning backstage] Of course not.
Ghost: You’re reciting it like you did.
Woman: It’s fitting to read Shakespeare aloud, given the setting. Who are you?
Ghost: A ghost.
Woman: Where are you? [Turns to scan the empty seats]
Ghost: In your mind. That’s how I know you’ve never been in a fist fight, let alone a war. Saint Crispian’s day, indeed. Why not read something more your speed?
Woman: Maybe you’re right. [WOMAN shrugs, flips through book] To be… or not to be, that is the question—
Ghost: Oh, please. You have about as much in common with a mad Danish prince as Miley Cyrus.
Woman: [Grumbles and turns pages] O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Ghost: Pree-dict-a-bull!
Woman: [Eyes narrowed, her rapid page turning rips the onion skin paper] There would have been a time for such a word, tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. [WOMAN pauses, anticipating GHOST’s interruption, then continues] Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Ghost: You didn’t write it, but it sounds familiar.
Woman: Gee, thanks. So, why are you here?
Ghost: It’s two-thirty in the morning and you’re pacing on the stage of an empty playhouse reading Shakespeare. Cue the ghost. You tell me: why am I here?
Woman: To be or not to be… [WOMAN shrugs, sets down the book] I want to be that good. I want to make something that gives people chills when they hear it in the dark.
Ghost: You want fame? Adoration?
Woman: Not exactly. I want to get it right. With one sentence in a hundred, maybe two, I really hit it. I can feel it when I’ve made something good.
Ghost: And?
Woman: Those moments are few and far between. I’ve received so many rejections that I could wallpaper my house. If I was really good, wouldn’t I have an agent or a book deal? A essay in Modern Love?
Ghost: The best writers in the world are rejected thousands of times, just like you. Are they really untouchable geniuses? Or maybe they wanted it more than you? Enough of the bard. Where’s your material?
Woman: Not ready yet.
Ghost: So, how’s anyone going to hear you?
Woman: Point taken.
Ghost: I mean it. Get to it, girl. We could both use some sleep. [WOMAN scrapes the toe of her shoe on the stage] Well?
Woman: I’m capable, but it’s harder than I thought. That’s a sign, isn’t it? I write for hours and my work is still filled with cavities of stupid and mean. Some nights, it feels like I’m so close, like if I could just throw off this heavy thing, I could fly… [WOMAN steps to center stage under the spotlight] You have dreams growing up —everyone has to be good at something, right?— and this was it for me. But being good isn’t enough. Maybe I’ll never be anything more than a woman on an empty stage reciting someone else’s words because they’re always better than her own.
Ghost: That’s only true if you don’t write them.
Woman: What if they’re never worthy?
Ghost: I guess that’s up to you.

Act II
Like most high-performing self-made individuals, I believed writing would be easy when I finally did it my way. My Midwest work ethic also said that I would find success through diligence, like in my daytime career. I mean success in the sense of a progression of upwardly mobile milestones, such as title, salary and responsibility — things tangible to others besides me. I only needed to show my work to be discovered, and thus, promptly rewarded with a book deal that would transform me into Stephen King or Anne Rice.

In preparation, I read books on craft and the philosophy of writing. I attended workshops, submitted work to literary journals and applied for residencies, grants and fellowships. I read contemporary authors, something I had never done in college, and got to know some of them personally. In the last four years, I laid the groundwork, waiting for a defining moment, some sort of coronation that conferred a title: Writer. I didn’t realize that, in my actions to become a writer, I was making myself into an artist. (And that I would write and edit more drafts of my work than I had imagined possible.)

To me, the title of Artist was equivalent to mystic celebrity. Artists had styles, grappled with taboo issues, rattled off statements of purpose, experimented with processes and implements that no one has considered before. They worked all night. They appeared on magazine covers and event listings. They had fans and websites. They won commissions. A turn of phrase overheard at a party could inspire a brilliant series of paintings or new book heralded as genius. It looked effortless for them and impossible for most everyone else.

To make a plan that yields an established artistic career as if it were a tin of muffins is unrealistic. There is no formula, no how-to book. You can read a thousand interviews to suss out a common strategy, but all you’ll find is that artists are simply people who absorb what’s around them and are capable of getting lost in it. Their work is rooted in observing, exploring and reinterpreting their experience as embodied beings. They use this process to understand the world, posing questions that many of us don’t stop to ponder, let alone identify. First lost, then found. That’s where the hard part really comes. Artists spend an awful lot of time wading through with no promise of an answer, let alone one others agree is correct or worthy. They allow themselves to be fascinated, obsessed. They ask, they try, they risk, they learn, they share, they repeat.

In between, there is a lot of failure. It’s not easy, not for anyone, including the masters. When, after hundreds of hours spent on a single piece, the artist realizes it is intrinsically flawed, that it will never be born in its current incarnation, that the only way to save the good parts are to pick them out piecemeal and use them elsewhere, or never—but she can’t stop making the art because she learned something in failing—that is hard. The risk and process of failing makes it difficult for some to view art as anything but idle play or a waste of time. After all, if a goalie missed more balls than she deflected or a lawyer lost more cases than she won, would either keep her job?

Like many, I grew up believing in rules, order and safe choices. I was raised to be obedient not expressive. I was not encouraged to challenge the process, empower others besides myself or pursue an artistic voice; I didn’t think the former or latter was possible, frankly. Thus, my greatest challenge as a writer is to ignore the Swiss watch that powers my thinking. My lizard brain doesn’t like tiptoeing through tulips or doubling back on blind alleys. Those activities are not efficient and ultimately distract from a short path to success.

For a long time, I didn’t understand that the diligence my parents drilled into me —the planning, checking and back-checking, the persevering work ethic— doesn’t contradict with an artistic life, but support it. It’s what holds the tiptoeing together rather than restrains its expression, unless I let it. I was under the misconception that “real” artists did far more luxurious exploring, receiving bursts of brilliance on command. They knew which alleys were dead-ends without having to traverse them; to be creative meant already knowing the answer. Imagine my surprise at learning that artists actually use struggle to discover things — that the outcomes often surprise them, that their work comes from training and rigor rather than ease?

Since my re-start as a writer in 2010, I’ve been so focused on establishing legitimacy and success (again, whatever that means) that my practice evolved without me realizing it. My goal —get published— spun off unplanned experiences that helped me develop as an artist. Turns out that, by writing, I became a writer. In four years, I’ve written and self-published a book. I’ve started this blog. I’ve learned spoken performance. I’ve sold a fiction story that will be published this year. These are tangible outputs. Yet, underneath it, writing is the hour equivalent of a part-time job, most of whose activities will never meet the light of day. Am I succeeding or failing? How will I know when I’m there?

I asked myself this throughout our Leadership Tomorrow Arts and Culture Challenge Day earlier this month, which we spent in the Cornish Playhouse (formerly, the Intiman Theater.) Listening to the wisdom and performances of professional artists and arts administrators, it felt like I was still at the beginning. They discussed with confidence the importance of story to leadership, taking us through kinesthetic exercises that illustrated the dynamics of teamwork, creativity and trust. We heard live performances from musicians and writers whose abilities conferred on them the title of Artist. Did someone tell them that they were worthy, or did they just know it? Did any of them feel that they were there yet?

As artists, there is always more to do, not in the sense of winning, but uncovering new territory through both intuition and stumbling in the dark. It also means clarifying one’s perspective. What questions are worth exploring, and what unique stance do we take to yield focus to that questioning? Life is art is life, which becomes more interesting as one’s perspective changes over time. Age and experience supply us with new material, and hopefully, enough vision and fortitude to make something from it. Art can grant us purpose and drive, but we have to risk staking a claim, or it’s useless.

That’s where there is. There is risk. There being in flow. It’s not knowing an answer as much as it is knowing how to explore and translate a question, whether into a play, a sonnet, a glass bowl or a song. There is not forcing the process to happen in a given time. It means accepting failure in plumbing these depths when impenetrable bedrock forces us to find another way. There is the pure love of making, whether someone applauds or agrees or not, whether you get picked second instead of first every single time—or not.

In a risk-averse world that prizes completion and consensus, artistic pursuit –and failure– can seem pointless, perhaps even shaming. We fear being fired, losing friends, getting dumped, being laughed at, making public mistakes and being wrong. We sometimes fear living as much as dying. We fear not knowing. It’s a squalid mess in which to find inspiration, unless we see how fertile the squalid mess actually is and fearlessly embrace it. Artist, know thyself.

When I entered the Cornish Playhouse, I saw a cover of CityArts on display featuring Tomo Nakayama, lead singer of Grand Hallway. I was first introduced to his hauntingly beautiful music at a Hugo House Literary Series event a couple years ago. That weekend, when I ordered a latte at my neighborhood coffee house, I realized he had also been my barista for quite some time.

Since then, I’ve watched Tomo’s talent unfold into a host of new venues, including Lynn Shelton’s latest movie, Touchy Feely, both as an actor and a singer. Now focusing on his solo career, he’s making an album and touring while balancing other jobs, a common phenomenon for most working artists. (Consider how many gigs has Stephen King worked in his lifetime.) Each time we chat, I feel proud to see a truly talented and hardworking local artist make good. It gives me hope.

Does Tomo think he’s there? I bet not. Something about there indicates an end, and there’s never an end for artists, just evolution. There holds a false mystique, like once you’re an artist you don’t have to work anymore, or that art is effortless, something that every writer, musician, painter or sculptor that I know continues to prove otherwise. Being an artist doesn’t mean you get to take a vacation, but actually work that much harder—deeply, searingly, achingly. I suppose the difference between art and having a j-o-b is that you don’t mind when it keeps you up until two a.m. In fact, you’re so energized by what you discovered, that you feel exhilarated rather than drained. Then you go back to work the next day.

Last week when friends asked about my writing, I found myself explaining why I don’t have a book after traveling and working towards it for the last two years. The resulting 70,000 words may form the basis of future essays and stories, or they may simply be necessary tulip tiptoeing. I often return to the nearly-completed draft manuscript (a series of essays collectively titled The Year of the Tiger) to borrow passages. It’s a touchstone rather than a polished gem. I cringe while reading some paragraphs but feel compelled to use others. One or two sentences in a hundred are good, and I’m okay with that.

This back-and-forth sewing of material is certainly not what I had planned to produce, but from it I’ve forged a writing practice. I’ve learned to leave some things behind. When I feel relief rather than regret, at doing so, it confirms that they were not for me. Other times, I lift up a rock that I had passed by a thousand times only to unearth something beneath it that I hadn’t known was there. These smaller treasures are turning out to be worth more to me right now.

As I return to my writing each day, I’m finding stronger themes beginning to emerge, particular viewpoints not born from a static plan but the ability to leverage past experience to inform the questions I’m interested in and ready to explore today. It’s less a rule book and more of a florid tip-toe-tulipy dance, which is to say that, while I haven’t arrived, I’m getting there.

Risk

Picture this: TSA agents staring slack-jawed at monitors, screening for dangerous weapons like guns and suntan lotion in bottles larger than 3 oz. A factory worker pulling a defective toy from an assembly line so that a child doesn’t choke on the loose piece. A business manager reading a request for proposal, evaluating the cost of pursuing the project versus the fee it pays. We live in a world where every employee is hired to mitigate risk, from the guy who places the wet floor sign over a spill to the asset manager who oversees our retirement funds.

As animals, we are bred to avoid physical danger long enough to propagate. As sentient beings, we create families who will care for us emotionally and physically in our dotage. We buy houses or businesses and insure them against the cost of their replacement in case they are destroyed. Day to day, we are encouraged to avoid risk, whether by choosing to use a crosswalk, marrying a spouse with a high-paying job or having an annual physical exam. These tactics are effective for staying alive, but not necessarily for living.

Travel is one way to break free of this paradigm, if only for a few moments. As adventures are wont to do, foreign circumstances help us grow, at least until we learn to overcome and eventually predict inherent traps like lost reservations or pick-pockets. If humans are good at nothing else, it’s adapting to our surroundings, even if those surroundings are constantly changing. This means that we are always upping the ante, knowing that risk is only a teacher until we conquer it.

Trouble arises when life becomes about moving chess pieces (this job or that one? this house or that one?) rather than testing mental boundaries or exploring psychological terrain. For artists, this mindset heralds creative decline. Built to filter options, if we can only imagine solutions rather than quandaries —if we cannot allow ourselves the space for legitimate threat or the real possibility of failure— how can we create compelling art? Who wants to write, let alone read, about characters who don’t take chances, whose decks are stacked, who must merely follow the smell of cheese to find the end of the maze?

Yesterday, I met with Peter Mountford, the writer in residence at Hugo House, for commentary on the first draft of a short story. From the start, he counseled me to incorporate more risk in my work. He suggested that I allow my main character to be weaker, more diminished at the start to afford her the ability to transform rather than handing her a defensible position. While my main character is not me, I do identify with her; ultimately, the way she faces her predicament is more reflective of my own mindset about risk than hers.

What is risk, then, but an exposure to chance, to loss, to injury — a manmade concept based on attachment to physical conditions that are truly beyond our capacity to govern in the first place? Though the impact of loss is a mental construct, it’s none the less powerful enough to affect our behavior and our unconscious thought as well as our creative expression. Win or lose, the way we process risk affects the underlying nature of our existence in all its forms.

It’s not just choices like running a red light or traveling to developing nations; we believe that we can run statistics on everything. This is why the realities of middle age hit us hard. Life is a game of odds, and that is where our streak begins to fail. We think that we are in control of our bodies, for instance, until we face disease or injury in our 40s and 50s. The reality is, no matter how we maintain our physical form —with alcohol, fried food and cigarettes, or through regular exercise, an organic diet and drinking eight glasses of water each day— each of us will die. Despite efforts to avoid it, all of the yoga in the world can’t thwart this fate, although they could probably bend you into a smaller coffin.

Thus, we grow to believe that we control our careers and finances with smart, considered choices (until the economy tanks and we are laid off), or our marriages and relationships (until we divorce or move away from our friends) and the very course of our lives (until that thing that we couldn’t see coming suddenly happens.) We define risk by the fear that life will elude our projected notion of control, that we will “lose everything” if we open our bodies and chattel to chance. Is this true? Or is it more true that risk is all around us, inside and outside ourselves and our homes, if we would only acknowledge it?

For those living in Syria or Afghanistan, leaving the house is risky; do they stay inside for the rest of their lives? In China or North Korea, speaking one’s mind is risky; should entire countries remain silent? In places of civil or military strife where tensions are heightened and visible —where daily loss of limb, liberty or life is sure— risk is an easier choice in that it is unavoidable. By facing it, these people inspire the rest of us; the Dalai Lamas and Nelson Mandelas of the world are the ones we write stories about. Everyday life, in all of its chance, becomes an opportunity to do what the rest of us might only do once or twice in a lifetime: find and profess what we believe is worth risk. Usually, it’s not a suburban tract house or a Toyota.

I admit that I am thankful, as only a pampered Westerner can be, for the brand of risk we have in the United States, the luxury to be sated and unsatisfied at once. Still, there is a spectrum of threat here. You don’t see me quitting my job in Seattle to start a business in Detroit or New York City even though the scrappiness of the idea appeals to me. You don’t see me walking alone though the Central District at 2 am even though I’m curious what happens there at night. You don’t see me spending my retirement to travel the world, even though that’s exactly what I’d do if I money wasn’t an object. Am I a coward? A hypocrite? Wasting my life?

How many would say the same: that if money (read: the illusion of security) was no object —if there was no perceived risk to their standard of life or wellbeing— they would not live as they do today? Does this mean that we should quit our jobs and become explorers or vagabonds — and that anything less is settling? Should we give away our possessions or renounce the institution of marriage? Would we feel any more fulfilled in these scenarios than the ones in which we currently live?

In the end there are fine lines between commitment, attachment and value. I think it’s possible to honor society’s norms —jobs, marriage, family, commerce— without becoming slaves to them. One can enjoy the fruits of labor without being so inured to physical possessions that their absence makes life unlivable. As adaptive creatures, I also believe it’s possible to survive without needing as much in spite of the fact that our species falls prey to pleasure and a widely held belief that possessions are the source of it. Assigning value to such things is unwisely risky if you ask me (and there I go, evaluating): a house or a car do not signify worthiness, and their absence doesn’t confer failure. Yet when we lose things, we bring ourselves low.

Family and relationships are similarly burdened with expectation for producing contentment. As I watch my friends propagate, buying first and second homes for their expanding broods, I naturally question my own choices. Settling down and raising a family seems wisely selfish from a certain perspective, not the least love. Sometimes, I envy what they have, or at least, I can feel the value of their choices. Should I make a point of starting a family so that I don’t miss out on motherhood? Will I be sorry that I didn’t do what most everyone else is doing? Will I be more alone at the end of my life if I don’t have children? In those moments, I pause to confirm my own priorities. In the happy times, their lives look attractive, but in practice, I don’t want it enough. Maybe that’s being wisely selfish, too.

In reality, either path involves risk. There is no eluding it when people or possessions are involved, and I certainly have both. Call it a soul or an essence, the spirit inside is the only thing that cannot be lost or destroyed and is, if anything can be, the only thing we have dominion over. This is the gold.

For me, risk resides in this third place, the domain between experiencing, loving and losing — the space where resilience lives. A chasm surrounds it, breeding greed and desire in its depths, the illusion that it’s possible to govern our physical world, or that doing so will lead to fulfillment. This is where mindless habits arise, where ego and expectation thrive. Distracted by bus schedules, grocery shopping and perfunctory affection, we lose our way to the core of ourselves, and with that, a genuine connection with others. How many times do we say, “I love you,” as automatically as we say hello? The charm and benefit of risk is lost when we resign ourselves to everyday distraction.

Risk is about being awake, of not accepting things as they seem, of finding passages that deserve our energy and effort to navigate. We are not the authors of our lives but the narrators. Our power resides in revealing character, in shifting the point of view and in translating dialogue and action. We cannot be so attached to the story —especially not the story we tell about ourselves— that we cannot adapt when the plot shifts, when our characters become lost, when calamity levels everything in its path. As narrators, we cannot hold tight to a single perspective. We must learn to inhabit multiple viewpoints, or wind up trapped and oblivious to the rest of the cast and the story.

More so than gambling or eating day-old sushi, riding this wave is what’s risky, if you ask me. We may find that we don’t know ourselves, that we have a thin support system; we may discover that we have a lot of work to do if we truly want to change. While risk is different for each of us, it’s hard not to cling to what we own and know, no matter how positive or dire our circumstances are. Life without chains is unthinkable, it seems. Even as we seek liberation –by this, I mean freedom from fear– we have come to rely on it; even when we’re successful, we find it difficult to release burdens that we call ours.

Maybe what’s risky, then, is to search in the first place — to try and fail again and again to find what is true for ourselves rather than accepting what is true for others — to attempt to rise above both peace and war, to search for the unfamiliar, whatever and wherever that is, every day of our lives. As narrators, we should seek characters capable of shedding preconceived notions in all the forms they take. There is not a single right answer as we are taught to believe; we can learn from them all.

In training ourselves to question rather than accept, to meet rather than defray risk each day, to embrace its shiny Janus head for the good of ourselves and others, perhaps risk will come to hold a different meaning, and with it, so might our experience of the world.

Yo no hablo español…todovía

Hello everyone. It’s been a while.

Despite what you haven’t seen, this summer was productive for writing — I wish I could share more of it here. A few new pieces are circulating in the ether of Submittable and the bowels of Hearst Corporation, however publishing them on my blog negates their eligibility elsewhere. If they do find homes, I’ll post an update in News and set off several flares in the sky.

With grant and residency application season likewise past, I’m beginning to consider the future, at least the near-term future, which will lead to Bogotá, Colombia, thanks to Brad, who has offered to put me up in January. With that, I’ve also been thinking about closed doors and open windows, the kind that one finds in dense pedestrian-oriented cities established before the automobile.

I’ve just started a piece that begins in Venice, retracing my steps through that sceptered isle full of mysterious doorways that most will never enter. The last time I visited, I had the good fortune of renting an apartment in the Castello sestiere with two Juliet balconies that faced onto Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, a main drag between the Arsenale and the Giardini. For a week, I possessed a clunky skeleton key that unlocked the brown outer doors leading to a tight marble-lined staircase inside.

When passing through the commotion of two restaurants with sidewalk tables, my street-level door located squarely between them, I felt the gaze of tourists observing me, seemingly a Venetian resident. My shopping bags and self-assured gait said that I belonged there. Once the outer doors closed behind me, a motion sensor light illuminated the dark passageway tinged by a metallic odor of old water on concrete. As I neared the staircase leading up to my apartment on the third floor, those floating lights began to blaze, as if commanded by sorcery. After repeating this sequence several times up and down, I felt like I knew what was happening in other palazzi nearby.

The same was true when I appeared on the balcony, looking out first at the shimmering lagoon and then down at the couples making the afternoon passagiatta. The Italians rarely considered me –the sight of a person on her balcony is ordinary– but the stranieri took notice, longing to live in such a place and for the time to sit leisurely, enjoying the warm humidity when others were off to work. When our eyes met, it was easy to place myself down with them on the street. How many times had I, too, passed by quiet street-level doors, wondering who lived there and how much it cost to rent such a place? How often had I paused beneath open windows to hear the symphony of an Italian family making dinner, the clattering of dishware laid on wooden tables, the dull clank of silverware and the sloshing of water and wine into pitchers and glasses?

The voyeur in us seeks these portals into the lives of others. What kind of furniture do they have? What spices does their house smell of? What shape and pattern are the electric plugs and the bathroom taps? We picture fresh vegetables and meats from the butcher gathered on the counter for dinner, perhaps ones that we have never prepared nor eaten before. Americans especially are intrigued by international dining cultures, as we tend to lack ceremony beyond the bookends of religious blessings and store-bought ice cream. One street-level door leads to eight or twelve homes filled with these wonderful secret legacies that many of us will never know.

As my language skills developed over four visits to Italy, these eavesdrops become richer, for I not only absorbed the significance of sounds (making dinner, eating, cleaning up), I understood bits of conversation and radio programs. The Italians discussed politics and romance, family obligations, labor strikes, the Mafia, work schedules. As I came to identify and employ their idiomatic speech, I discovered a doorway leading between them and myself, one that had remained in shadow my whole life. This tenuous passage was akin to the narrow alleyways of Venice, the kind that one scans peripherally and immediately forgets once out into the light; the memory and bonds of a common tongue are both hard-won and delicate.

Though I studied German for four years between high school and university, I have not yet used it in travel. When I came to study Italian in adulthood, I thought often of my German lessons, feeling frustrated that, while German is a language of rules, Italian seemed to be a language of exceptions. Hard as it was to set aside my inborn affinity for systems and rubric, when I left the classroom and language CDs behind, something gestural happened with my communication, both in Italian and English. In living Italian, I began to think and write more passionately, learning to trust in a family of words and ideas that came with few rules and guarantees, and thus, few unforgivable mistakes.

I was also exhausted at the end of each day. Language acquisition, especially for adults, calls for new neural pathways that our aging brains find it tiring to establish and maintain. Now, where I once reached for Italian words only to find German equivalents, I search my cranial card catalogue for Spanish words and find their Italian cousins. This time, there are similarities to build on, or so I hope, as I only have four months to learn a new language that is both familiar and foreign enough to tax my brain. A new door has revealed itself.

On Brad’s recommendation, I’ve begun reading The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a beautifully written novel about the impact of the Colombian drug wars on a man’s life, love and family in Bogotá. I also ordered it in Spanish so that I can read back and forth, [hopefully] absorbing colloquialisms and modern forms of speech that my instructional books won’t necessarily provide.

This will be my first foray into a developing nation, a trip that calls for more attention than I have paid in the last few years. Whereas Italy was once foreign to me, I’ve become complacent even in that; many of its doorways are sprung open, at least for now. I can recommend the easiest flights from Seattle to Rome or Venice (Delta/KLM transferring through Amsterdam), I can tell you which train stations are best for transfers and which lines to avoid, and I can navigate my way through the cuisine and streets of numerous cities with relative memory and ease. When in country, I even have a few native friends who I can meet up with for dinner or contact in the event of trouble.

Though it wasn’t that long ago, I recall psyching myself up for those journeys, especially as a solo traveler. While exciting, the tasks of research, language learning and trip planning also seemed gargantuan. This time, enough of my past experiences remain relevant that I can stand atop them. Of course, the assurance that Brad will gently guide my assimilation of language and culture when needed is significant; I won’t be operating as blind as before.

I suppose that’s it, really: there are times when we need to develop a second sight on our own, discovering a sense of self-reliance and resilience via our own means. When combined with the largesse of strangers, independent travel makes small victories seem triumphant and one’s time out of country more meaningful. Other times, friendship is a path to self-expansion, granting a different kind of freedom that empowers us to explore places we couldn’t reach alone.

Where I would have insisted a few years ago that I wanted to do everything myself, alone, on my own, there’s a special delight in knowing that a friend awaits me at the trailhead of this new and foreign road.

That, too, is a wonderful and mysterious door, and an auspicious beginning.