Adaptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness

A Room of One’s Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weights & Measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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