This is totally, offensively, utterly, audaciously, fabulously, ugly me

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In the fall of 2013, I was hanging out with Tammie when her daughter, Lissa, showed me a distortion camera app on her mother’s phone. She mugged for the camera, her ridiculous faces made even goofier by the camera’s distortion lenses, then passed it over to me, a moment I now equate with opening a can of juicy worms.

Normally, I run from cameras. I’ve long hated my own image and all the flaws I can detect in it; before then, I had never even used the feature on my own smartphone that would allow me to produce the selfies I saw popping up across social media. No way, no how. But, this was different. I made stretched alien heads with my own image, then blockheads, pinheads and swirlies. I was addicted. I downloaded the app and began trading images with Tammie and another friend, Kim — the more distorted and ugly, the better.

About a week later, it occurred to me that, for the first time since I could remember, I didn’t mind having my photograph taken. It was more than that, though — I didn’t mind having truly godawful ugly shots taken, and I actually reveled in sharing them. What was this about?

That fall, I began peeling the onion. Maybe it was about how I felt inside more so than how I looked outside. Yeah, it was about growing up feeling like an ugly nerd, something that had never left my sense of identity even after I transformed from a duckling into something swan-ish. I was pretty sure this was it, so I made a proposal to Jack Straw that October to create a multi-media installation called UGLY ME about beauty and self-worth that was based on distorted selfies. In March of 2014, my proposal was selected with one caveat: they asked me to compose original works rather than selecting works by other authors to read as the audio component of the installation. Okay, fine.

Since then, I’ve watched other artists stage installations on selfies and celebrities publish books about them. I’ve seen friends and strangers post their own selfies on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but nowhere did I see people sharing on a personal level about the relationship of one’s self-image with her worth, identity and value the way that I wanted to. Still, I struggled to express myself in the poems I was writing. I felt like what I wanted to say was just out of reach; I just couldn’t get there on my own.

Seattle poet Jeanine Walker, who agreed to give me poetry counseling, caught on immediately. When we met to review my work, she said, “I like where you’re going conceptually, but –if you don’t mind me saying– I think you’re hiding behind these poems. These need to be personal; I want to see more of you in them.” She was right: even when I thought I was revealing everything, I was still hiding. After that, I started writing loud and embarrassing poems, poems that delved into my childhood, poems about the effects of the fashion industry on my sense of beauty, poems about being silenced, poems that touched on many reasons why I look at my own image today and feel shame and worthlessness. Reading them aloud, I realized that these were naked poems, and I became nervous then about recording them.

At the end of May 2015, I worked with Christine Brown, an actress who gave me voice coaching, and Tom Stiles of Jack Straw, the sound engineer who recorded and mixed my readings. It was scary and exciting to be in the recording booth again, sharing not on paper but out loud in front of two warm but professional acquaintances admissions that I would even hesitate to divulge to friends. At different points, Christine had tears in her eyes, as did I; I tried to hide my wavering voice as we recorded. A week later, Tom sent me the digital files: there they were, my naked poems that made me feel so shy I could barely listen to them.

Yet, in the weeks since, I have felt exhilarated — so empowered, in fact, that when I had to have my photograph taken for work, I channeled that feeling of being safe in the studio with Tom and Christine, and I didn’t flinch or cringe the way I normally do when sitting for a photo. And guess what: the picture actually turned out great.

I’ve been peeling this onion for decades, and only now can I see how I’ve been dragging myself down all these years. One thing I’ve concluded is that it starts young and words matter; children indeed live what they learn and what they hear — they process and internalize external feedback all the time. The self-image we create as children becomes a deeply entrenched basis of self-understanding as adults; it’s so ingrained that we can pick apart all the good of ourselves without knowing that we’re even doing it, until we know no other way to live. (Ever seen Amy Schumer’s video of women who can’t take a compliment?)

Next Friday, on July 10, UGLY ME opens at Jack Straw New Media Gallery at 7 pm. There will also be an artist talk on July 31 at 7 pm. This installation is two years in the making, but looking back, I think that time was necessary. I am trying not to have expectations — there are still many things to pull together — but I do have hopes.

I hope that you can join me for the opening or the artist talk.
I hope that you will bring your own selfies that you will pin to the wall.
I hope that you will laugh and get enjoyment out of what is intended to be silly.
I hope that you will take something away from this that softens your heart to yourself and those you love and care about.

Click Jack Straw for more info.

Neuroplasticity

I’ve been thinking lately that our minds are the greatest trick we pull on ourselves. Isn’t it amazing that we can have  similar physical experiences and yet perceive them quite differently because of the minds we bring? Two people go on a hike the day after a rain storm; one person cannot stop pointing out the color of the leaves, the warmth of the sun, all the birds tweeting while the other complains that the fallen leaves are slippery, the trail is all uphill, it’s muggy and she wore the wrong clothes, and yeah, a robin or whatever—won’t those #@$% birds shut up?!  (Seriously, I’ve grown since then.)

Truth is a pernicious knot, entwined somewhere between what’s physical versus mental and what we perceive versus what others perceive. It’s not so much a single thread to untie as a strategy for making peace with conflicting input, the goal being the middle way. In the end, truth is not about reaching definitive answers as much as agreeing on what we’re willing to believe.

The word willing is key. Ideas come and go, but to change a belief, particularly an old one, is hard. We have to work to fill in the grooves of our brains before we can decide to dig new trenches in other directions. Think of a story that you tell about yourself again and again. Each time you share it, you further embed the memory, enhancing it with modified details over time – you build the myth of your own experience as you go. The root story remains the same but becomes more dramatic, and the more you tell it, the more you believe, this is how it actually happened. Whether victim, bystander, hero or criminal, you become captive to the self-image you create.

The ability to alter or remap our own neural pathways, which scientists call neuroplasticity, is how we change our behavior, emotions and thinking, yet rewiring our belief-habits takes energy, awareness and the desire for change. We must be open-minded and aware that there are other truths besides those we believe. Humans are good at solving problems but not always at identifying the root cause(s) within ourselves, and even then we can be trapped in self-deceit. This leads my current investigation, namely the interrelationship between beauty, self-image and value – mental constructs that most of us struggle with at some point in our lives.

Humming between these beliefs is the stress of cognitive dissonance: my brain is trying to reconcile the idea of myself today (generally positive) with the many selves of my past, notably those whose shortcomings I felt ashamed about, the veracity of which can also be debated. While I may have left behind an awkward physical appearance or shaky self-opinion as I’ve grown, the struggles of living in the same skin with the same neural pathways runs deep. Whether physical, emotional or mental, the question I keep asking myself when I experience self-doubt is, Is this true of me today?

Awareness is key in challenging those voices from the past that turn us into battered people. When facing down old patterns of thinking, we must demand of ourselves a strict accounting, namely the acknowledgment that we are no longer in prison. Simply noting that I am the only one holding myself to this ideology is a powerful, scary thought. It makes me realize how conditioned I am to flinch at an anticipated strike that has stopped coming long ago, one partially brought on by me accepting what others said. If I am to change, I must accept new responsibilities: I must agree to take part in building and accepting the person I am today, which takes much more work.

As I investigate, I’m also coming up with some surprising (to me) underpinnings for this sense of unworthiness. I’m learning that the link between confidence and appearance actually springs from a deep-seated voice that has told me most of my life that I am less than in some way – less smart, capable, talented, creative, athletic, etc. Before I can change my beliefs and my self-perception, I have to understand what they are and where they originate. This is where my latest project begins.

In 2013, I proposed an multi-media installation called Ugly Me to Jack Straw after taking a bunch of distorted selfies with my friend, Tammie, and her daughter, Lissa, using a camera app on Tammie’s phone. Normally, I’m the first person to run away when someone breaks out a camera, but I actually had fun making myself look ugly. The fact that I was not only taking these godawful photos but sending them to Tammie and others was inexplicable. I mean, really, what the heck was I doing? It started off as an inquiry into the duality of inner and outer beauty and ugliness.

At first, I concluded it was about control, power and freedom a la Dorian Gray. Distorted selfies are ridiculous and fun, a sort of pressure valve that allows us to release our pretense of serious self-image as a mark of stature or worth. In the installation, I will juxtapose my own distorted selfies with large-scale typographic collages of fashion photography – the same pervasive media that encourages us to think (and believe) that we need to be hairless, glossy, tall and smooth in order to be beautiful. (What are we, seals?)

This is all well and good—and very much about the external; it is the easy part, if there is one. The deeper aspect to the installation are the audio recordings. Writing these pieces has been the real exploration. To that end, I’ve invited outside critique which has revealed that, even when it feels like I’m digging deep (self-deceit) I am still circling the issue on a conceptual level. I needed someone to push me into really answering my own question –why do I feel physical aversion to my own image?— in order to go deeper into my own uncomfortable experience. And it’s very uncomfortable. In fact, it was only by following that discomfort that I was able to break through my writer’s block and start making better stuff.

The details will emerge in the exhibition, which opens in exactly two months on July 10 at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery (yep, this is a teaser) but I wanted to share some of what I’m learning through this process. As I alluded in my previous post, I am realizing how early the devaluing of my self-worth started (“somewhere between six and sixteen”), which actually had less to do with my appearance and more with consistently being stripped of a voice and a sense of self-determination. Chalk some of it up to regressive parenting, but the bigger context was the social norms of how girls are expected act and what culture and society allows them to do and say.

I should add that I’m focusing on women here because that is my personal experience, but also because both sexes cling to a double-standard that is deeply ingrained. The seemingly simple and unalienable right to speak without fear of rebuke or recourse is something that we do not have cross-culturally; we’ve been talking and writing about this for millennia, from Sappho to Sheryl Sandberg, but women around the world are still fighting for agency. While some are successful in breaking through, it is not without struggle. These norms play into our collective sense of what we believe is possible and “acceptable” for women in life.

This idea of voice as a key component of self-image, particularly for women, wasn’t on my radar in 2013, nor was it on my mind in February 2015 when I began writing the prose poetry that I’ll record in a few weeks. It wasn’t even something I considered integral when I proposed the idea to Jack Straw, even though the pairing of audio recording with visual art is the main purpose of the New Media Gallery. I knew it subliminally but it was so far down in the trenches that I couldn’t know it on a conscious level. Again, awareness is key.

That’s why we must take the time to reflect on, examine and –most importantly– share our voices, not to complain but to create opportunities of learning for others. Within our human potential we have the power to explore discomfort without crumbling, to risk revealing ourselves, and we must. Maybe it’s one of the benefits of entering middle age, but my anthem lately is, We cannot remain quiet. I keep coming back to BinderCon and 99U  – What does our culture and the world lose when women’s voices go silent? – and what might we gain if we harness the courage and encouragement to speak?

I’ll admit that I’m nervous about getting emotionally naked in the dark—reading confessional poems and a posting bunch of ugly pictures of myself for the public to see—but the burden already feels a little lighter simply for the idea of sharing it. I think this installation is making me a little more neuroplastic, and I hope that others feel the same way when they experience it. (Spoiler alert: Ugly Me will invite you to post your own photos and confessions, so break out those selfie sticks.)

When I finally agree that I no longer need to hold all this heavy shit by myself in the dark, the journey will get easier, but it is a journey and I acknowledge that it will happen in stages. This week, for instance, I was notified that an essay that I wrote in 2009 is going to be published next month in Bird’s Thumb. In a stroke of timing, “Shifting Gears” is very much about all of this — silence, self-worth and knowing when to walk away from the prisons we make. Re-reading this piece made me realize that, while I had outside influence, my struggle with value is a story I’ve told myself over and over until it became my truth, if an undesirable one.

After sending materials to the editor, I was faced with this old thinking, flinching when she wrote back, “We’ve received your (adorable, by the way) and your bio.” My friend, Nick, had to take hundreds of photos in order to find the one I feel good about using in promotional materials. That flinch of embarrassment reminded me that my perception of my own outsides (and inner value) is different from what other people perceive; it also made me really want to let go of this old, scarred habit.

When I think about neuroplasticity, I imagine gum tissue after a tooth is extracted: first, there’s a raw, open pit where something used to be, but eventually it is replaced by healthy pink tissue ready for new implanting. I can imagine poking at the deep grooves as they repair, like running one’s tongue over the hole where something is missing and healing at the same time. It takes time, but eventually one day it’s possible to start anew.

To that end, I replied to the editor’s email, “Aw shucks, thanks,” and left it at that.

Active Voice

In the past 35 days, I’ve done something that I’ve never done before—twice, actually. At the end of March I attended BinderCon in Los Angeles, a symposium to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers, and I just returned from 99U in New York, an annual gathering focused around actionable insights that help creative people push ideas forward.

What’s different is that I attended these conferences on my own dime and, despite their divergent focus and audiences, I found a common pulse: namely, the responsibility of voice and the power, and price, of silence. On Friday, the founder of Black Girls Code told us that, when polled, 50% of elementary school girls indicated an interest in computer science, but when asked again in high school, the number fell to less than two percent. “What happens to girls between elementary school and high school?” she asked.

Two days before, I posed a eerily similar question while writing one of a series of poems for my latest project, a multi-media installation called Ugly Me that will open at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery in July. These poems have revealed how deep my relationship with silence goes, and particularly how it relates to my sense of value and self-worth. Now I see that this project and these struggles are what drove me to BinderCon and 99U, and more pointedly, why I felt strongly enough to pay for them out of pocket. The lines from that poem go:

something happened off camera between six and sixteen
a tree falling in the forest, no one to hear it, not exactly
breaking in increments
no one recorded or remembered or heard
except me.

Silence has played a debilitating role in my life, I realize, and when I say silence, I mean the kind where a person doesn’t speak for or about what she truly believes in, mainly out of fear. In all honesty, the other reason I paid for 99U with my own money is that I didn’t want to have to make a case for it at work. The person who oversees my department likes to tell me who I am (Gabi, you are very linear) and I didn’t want to struggle, yet again, to insist that I am creative, too, and thus, deserve to attend this conference. Instead, I used vacation days and personal funds, both of which I am thankful and fortunate enough to have.

My silence is a problem, though. Both BinderCon and 99U have helped me see that when I avoid conflict, there is a greater loss. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood opened BinderCon by talking about swagger. “Swagger is something you need in this industry. Talent—and swagger—are genderless.” Five hundred women held a collective breath when she said that. As girls, most of us were not conditioned for swagger; we were encouraged to be nice, polite, well-behaved, obedient, “good” and, of course, quiet.

During the conference, we learned that approximately 90% of op-eds printed in mainstream media are written by men, something The Op-Ed Project addresses. Surprisingly, when the founders studied the phenomenon, they found that it wasn’t gatekeepers eliminating women’s submissions per se but that only about 10% of the submitters were women. The dilemma became less about the suppression of women’s writing (in this instance) and more about why women’s voices were not surfacing in the first place. Some of it comes down to encouragement and education, but beneath that is a lack of belief that our opinions are important enough and deserving of submission. Some people might call that swagger.

BinderCon challenged us to think about our role as leaders who can model the way. Our visibility—voice—is the only path to change. As one speaker noted,

The more we say it, the more we get to say it.

When we don’t experience women’s voices in media, film, fiction, comedy, etc. we believe that they don’t belong there or that they’re not interested; similarly, when we don’t see women in tech, we think there’s not a place for them there, either. After BinderCon, I talked with one of our owners about DigiPen, which offers degrees in programming, game design and computer science and engineering. When I expressed a lack of personal interest in participating in the program, his response was, “Yeah, it’s really more of a guy thing.”

Instead of countering his thinking, I sputtered and said something like, “Just because it’s true for me doesn’t mean it’s true for all women.” Rather than debate the validity of his point, I walked away in disgust. Maybe it’s because he is my boss, or that I didn’t have the hard data to prove it, but I felt uncomfortable saying, No, that’s not true, and here’s why. Rather than face confrontation, I walked away, silent.

At 99U, technologist guru Anil Dash challenged us to ask who it is behind the technology we use. He pointed out a major blind spot in game and app credit in particular which, unlike liner notes or movie credits, don’t list individual makers. Who are these people? What do they believe in? What about diversity in tech? Whose voices are dictating the conversation, and how can we have transparency when there is no visibility, period?

Within his question was a nod to the lack of women and minorities in the tech and venture capital world, all quite similar to what we heard at BinderCon, which offered panels like, “The Only Girl in the Writers Room.” Essentially, what is the cost to us as a society when these voices are invisible?

Yet, even when we do give voice, there’s a price that comes with speaking, particularly for women. In some countries, speaking begets abuse, imprisonment and death; in others, we are fired, socially shunned or harassed. A few weeks after BinderCon, a friend and I watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus sexual assault by Amy Ziering, a BinderCon panelist. When I tweeted my support of the film, an internet troll immediately upbraided my praise with a hook: “if you’re into feminist mythology.”

Big and small, these constant messages that women are crazy, hysterical or talking out of turn support a mythology of us-and-them. Strangely, we as a culture, meaning all of us, all genders, buy into it. The feeling of being held down by this ideology, even just socially, is maddening. I’ve witnessed professional meetings in which women share ideas that are shrugged off only to be reiterated by men and lauded moments later; rarely does anyone point this out, and certainly not the speaker herself. We remain silent because calling attention to our contributions or a point of inequality isn’t seen as polite or acceptable behavior—for women. Perhaps this is why at both 99U and BinderCon they opened the conference by saying that each of us had a right to be there.

After years of attending professional conferences, I finally felt like I could be myself in these spaces. Maybe their assurances helped, but it was also because I registered as a human being and not as a representative; I had a sense of agency and voice. A poet-friend, the fabulous Jeanine Waker of The Drop Shadows, who is critiquing my poems for Ugly Me, made a point just before I took off for 99U. She said that she wanted to see more of me in the works, that the ideas were interesting but too general — that I was, in effect, hiding in the poems. I laughed because I’ve struggled with this all my life. I think I’m being clear about my intentions but I’m not. One of the 99U presenters who spoke on communication, trust and building community reminded us, “You are harder to understand than you think.”

How true. And it means that we have to try even harder. 99U reminded us that consensus is stronger when it arises out of conflict; results are better when we drive toward meaning rather than avoiding discomfort. A comic book artist named Kelly Sue DeConnick with bitchin’ hair dyed red-pink support this during the final session, Changing the World. She told us, tongue-in-cheek, that her method of change revolves around making people as uncomfortable as possible. Lead with your heart and seek discomfort yourself, these are two hallmarks of her practice. Vulnerability leads to the authentic voice that we seek in our art —the movies and books that touch us, teach us empathy, make us look at the world differently— this is why they speak to us, but this is also what creates risk and sets up conflict.

As artists, we have to overcome the fear of attack. Yes, we are putting ourselves out there with our real thoughts, feelings and experiences so that humanity can feast on and sometimes disembowel them. Inevitably, there will be haters and trolls or simply people who are threatened by our personal truths and try to hold them, and us, down. In the words of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men (or women) do nothing.” Today’s the Lives column in the New York Times Magazine features Gabriel González, the creator of Crudo Ecuador, who describes the threats and intimidation he and his family have received as a result of of satrical memes on his website. Right now, his voice is silenced for the sake of their safety; again, fear and silence go hand in hand.

There is speaking our experience and then there is speaking out about our experience; far too often, we fail on the latter for fear of loss, harm, consequences and conflict. Two weeks ago, someone at my firm joked that a female colleague and I should use our feminine wiles to get secrets out of a competitor at an upcoming conference. I quipped, “Fair warning that this is going in my blog,” to which he held up his hands and said he was only kidding. I believe he was and, despite the comment, I also believe he respects me as a professional. Yet, would he say this to a male colleague, even in jest? And now, what do I do with this exchange? I could keep it to myself or make a point of noting that even now, in a liberal nation, city and state, and within a progressive organization, that these subliminal beliefs about what women are good for are institutionalized to a very deep degree. We need to talk about it, to daylight even casual exchanges like this. Yet, I hesitate doing it for fear that this could damage someone — him, me, our workplace, etc. That said, how many times has this happened and gone unmentioned? Even if the consequences feel risky, isn’t it worth speaking out? Isn’t the alternative –more of the same– is actually the greater risk?

Another poem in Ugly Me seeks to find where this encouragement of silence began in my own life:

Seven words:
children should be seen and not heard
tug at my sleeve
demand to know where I get off
thinking I’m worthy to speak

In a house where I was constantly told to shut up, I could write whatever I wanted; in writing, I was free, thus my love of writing was born. What started out as obsessive journaling growing up has become about more than the recording of my personal, navel-gazing injustice. It’s taken me decades to figure out my purpose as a writer, namely that I want to replace the obedient cardboard cut-outs and blow-up dolls we see scattered throughout literary and mainstream fiction with rich, complex female characters who embody the universal struggles in a distinctive way. I’m not interested in writing stories for women, rather I want to write about great women. I want to give readers new and different options to consider when they think about women in the world; I want to use voice, rather than silence, to achieve that.

In the studio of my mind, I have agency and voice and the freedom to explore. Still, though I feel like I can say and focus on what truly interests me, I have to work hard not to hide behind the lines. I invite outside critique of my work to help me move past my own subliminal pre-set of goodness and politeness; if they win, I’ll never make anything worthwhile. Like DeConnick said, I’m here to make myself —and everyone else— as uncomfortable as I can, and that takes effort, but it’s worth it.

In her session at 99U, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna noted that should and must is a choice we are asked to make again and again in our lives; the more we choose should and the less we choose must, the more conflicted we feel. For me, silence feels like a should. When I refrain from expressing myself, a sense of constriction, of physically being held down, wraps my body in tight, prickly anger. A voice says that, if I want to be perceived as easy to work with or remain in someone’s good graces, I should let the moment pass without a fuss. It’s the adult version of children should be seen and not heard.

Must, on the other hand, can feel cathartic, but it’s not easy. There is no road map to must, no promises or assurances; sometimes must involves loss, and even if it’s loss of something that no longer serves us, it’s  always the harder choice. Must is unexplored territory, thrilling in its foreignness, ultimately more rewarding for the boon of learning it brings, yet just as daunting because we are conditioned by our programming to respond to the shadow of should. We pretty much know what happens with should, and as the saying goes, the devil you know…

I could go on sharing what I learned from BinderCon and 99U but I’ll close by encouraging you to do something that you feel in your heart that you must do. Go mountain biking with your daughter. Paint something with your brother. Go outside. Meet a teacher or friend, someone you respect and learn from, for an in-person experience. Tell someone that you love him or admire her, particularly if you’ve never said it or they’re not expecting it. Lend your support, encourage someone’s heart when you see them struggling. Do something —anything— that scares you if only to show a younger version of you that it can be done and that failing is okay, too. Show them by your actions that trying is winning.

Most importantly, please speak. If you remain silent about a great idea for fear of rejection or about injustice for fear of punishment, ask yourself why — is the threat real? Is the risk of your silence more than the reward of your voice? Better yet, when the opportunity arises, consider it a responsibility. You have a unique voice, something truly distinct to give the world: your story, your human experience.

If each of us remains silent, eventually everyone will.

Into the Light

You know how I often allude to the writing I’m doing outside of this blog? And how, in the same breath, I lament that I can’t share it here because that would negate my ability to publish it elsewhere?

Dear readers, I’m incredibly excited to share news that a piece I worked on for most of 2014 was accepted by Works (of Fiction) in Progress Journal and -best of all- you can actually read it. What I love about this particular publication is that they include author interviews so that you can get some backstory (I love backstory, as you’ll read) about their work, the piece they submitted and their creative practice.

My short story, Into the Light, was inspired by a neighbor who moved in upstairs from me in my old place. (To place a finer point on it, he was the reason I moved out.) We had some unsavory interactions that prompted me to wonder how he had come to such a state in life. It didn’t take long for a story idea to arise about two neighbors who come to grapple with each other as they work out some existential crises; what happened after that surprised even me. You can read the story here and the interview here.

I hope to share other pieces with you when I can and, one day, the full collection in book form. Thank you, as always, for reading and for your support!

Hello, Stranger

Two and a half weeks is long enough for everything to go strange. When I returned home last night, our apartment smelled like a hotel room: crisply musty in a way that says no one has stayed there for long. There were no cooking smells or the lingering odor of sandalwood incense. I set down my bags and scanned the furnishings that seemed familiar. It was clean, everything put away. A place in waiting. It smelled like the hotels and motor courts that we had been staying in, the aroma of humanity atomized and intermingled into a bland ozone by industrial vacuums, and so, for a second, I had to reassure myself that I was really home.

Yes, my green sofa was as soft as I left it, and the refrigerator as bare. I picked through the monolithic stack of mail to find new issues of The New Yorker and The Paris Review; so much for catching up on back issues during my trip. A rejection letter from Jentel assured me that, though they were sorry to disappoint a serious writer like me, their Panel of Reviewers rated my work favorably. I smiled and wondered how many other writers received the same message.

I noticed then that the clocks were wrong. Daylight savings had happened while I was away; my apartment was an overlooked pocket of the past. Days and time made little sense to my tired mind anyway. I left Queenstown on a 2:40 pm flight on Saturday, March 14, transiting through Sydney on a 5:30 pm flight and landing in Los Angeles at 12:55 pm on March 14 again. I arrived in Seattle later that evening, still March 14, around 7 pm. I had traveled thousands of miles only to have gone backwards in time.

It was summer in Oceania, so I hadn’t brought a coat, but it was only crisp, not cold or rainy, so I took light rail rather than a taxi. Maybe I wanted to savor the idea of the stack of mail that awaited. Maybe I was too cheap for the $55 cab ride. As we pulled away from SeaTac, a group of four teenagers began to blast rap from their phones. They paused the music at each stop to see if transit security might be waiting to board, then proceeded to fill our car with a battering cloud of fuck, nigger and bitch all the way to Westlake Station.

Compared to this, my strange-smelling apartment was eerily quiet, too quiet to sleep. I put on a movie and rifled through catalogues and bills. I logged in the literary rejections that waited in my inbox. And the letter. Past eleven, I finished the final pages of The Boys in the Boat and read a chapter of How to See Yourself As You Really Are. In it, the Dalai Lama suggests that we should let go of our belief in inherent existence. In my current state, detached and overstimulated, I tended to agree, so I turned off the light and finally drifted off to sleep.

I was surprised to wake past nine. I had been dreaming of work, of running around trying to complete an impossible task that no one was able to assist me with. My scattered attempts seemed to take forever and I kept remarking my surprise that the owner had not yet emerged from the conference room demanding results. The dream melted into the blurry shapes of my bedroom. I roused in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager, a heavy wakefulness that aimed to pull me back down under the current of a thick, dark, black-green sleep. You can’t spend the whole day in bed, a voice murmured from somewhere. Sluggishly, I rose.

The Sunday New York Times, the main reason for rising, wasn’t waiting outside. Maybe this really wasn’t my apartment. Maybe I wasn’t really here. Maybe my soul was still working its way across the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean. They say that it takes three days for your soul to re-inhabit your body after air travel. Today, this feels true.

Back upstairs, I walked to the window only to notice flowering trees in the courtyard that I’ve not seen before. Dogwoods, or maybe flowering cherry trees. We moved in during the middle of summer, so I had yet to see them blossom. What a strange thing not to recognize the plants outside of one’s home, another measure in my theory that I am only a passing visitor.

There was no cream for tea or coffee. What was left in the container, hardly anything, was chunky. There was no breakfast food or milk for cereal, but I wan’t hungry anyway. I retired to the sofa to read the paper online, but only the juiciest bits: the book review, Sunday review, travel, style sections. I missed the grit of pulp and ink between my fingers.

When it came time to clean up, I forgot which way our shower handle went. Nearly every day for the past few weeks was a different shower, a different handle. Ah, yes, hot is up. Afterwards, my fingers fidgeted to locate the little on/off switch above the outlet so that I could power my hair dryer, but there wasn’t one. My American outlet with American voltage won’t give you a serious shock, and my American hair dryer will dry hair in under ten minutes. After applying my American flat iron, I began to look something like myself again.

Three flights in twenty-four hours sucked the moisture from my skin, so I slathered on eye cream and moisturizer, but left the make up off. While visiting Angela in Melbourne, I was still in polite society, and with that comes foundation, concealer, powder, bronzer, blush, eye shadow and mascara. In New Zealand, we were mainly in motor camps, the beach, the mountains, the car. I was the only one who even needed a bathroom outlet, the only one who had more than a single toiletry bag, the only one who had makeup to not put on. One morning, Michael whispered, “Are you okay? What happened to your eyes?” We realized it was the dark circles that I normally cover up.

No makeup, no polite society. I’m still on vacation, if only the final hours. In my drawers, I find clothing that is appropriate for the rain outside. Soft things, black things, things that cover whole arms and legs. I look inside my closet and feel the heaviness of my suitcase; all those clothes I don’t wear, I want to bag them up and give them away. They feel ponderous and unnecessary. What I need to live is less than I brought with me, far less than what I have here.

I am confused at the traffic circle on the way to the store. For the past few weeks, I cringed against drivers turning into what would be oncoming traffic only to find that my instincts were incorrect. Today, I start to turn my wheels left at the traffic circle until I see the driver on the opposite side turn to the right, and so I mirror him with a shudder. Right, turn right, I remind myself. I panic then, wondering what side of the street I had been driving on when coming down 15th. I can’t remember.

Trader Joe’s doesn’t have sultanas, they have raisins. They have mounds of robust Pink Ladies compared to the gnarled crab apples in New Zealand. I can’t remember if I get the raisin bread with pecans at this store or QFC, but I can’t find it on the shelves, so I assume that it must be QFC. Everything looks strange. A few items have been through rebranding while I was away, and so the contents of my cart appears different than I expected it to; I wonder, yet again, if I am really home. The checker is nice and chatty, comments on the rain. Says that my vacation is her dream trip.

Back at the apartment, I unpack groceries and my suitcase. Start the wash. I can’t recall which things were or weren’t cleaned again after they hung on Angela’s line in Australia, so I throw it all in. I should be hungry, but I’m not. In place of hunger, I find parts of myself that have expanded from the excesses of travel, namely drinking beer each night of our road trip through the South Island. Funny, I didn’t even consider buying beer at the store, though I am thirsty for one at the thought of it. I pat down the new lumpy parts of myself and remember the Times article from this morning that said how damaging “fat talk” is, so I say nothing out loud.

A foreigner abroad, at home, in my body, a stranger to this silent apartment that I’m not sure is mine. No beer, no lamb, no people saying heaps when they mean lots or dear when they mean expensive. No one will ask what we’ll have for tea tonight because informal evening meals are not dinner or supper in New Zealand, rather they are tea. Dinner means a meal in a nice restaurant, but I will have neither because I am in America. Maybe I will fix a big salad, something that New Zealand seems not to have discovered yet. I unpack the rest of my things, the Panadol I bought in Australia because they don’t have Advil, the Strepcil cough lozenges I bought in New Zealand to fight my hacking cough. I pour a glass of cold, fizzy water to drink, which our Kiwi friends avoided in favor of tap, as the cost of bottled water, like all foodstuffs there, is very dear.

For now, it’s back to the sofa to finish the thick book I picked up at the Queenstown airport. Normally, I’d avoid such a bulky thing (who has the time?), but the luxury of reading genre fiction is too delicious to resist. The voice from this morning suggests that there are lists to be made, neglected stories and essays to return to, tasks to be accomplished before the work week begins. On second thought, if I really am a guest here, a traveler still on holiday, perhaps I’ll wait. Maybe I’ll wake up somewhere else tomorrow.

Five

When I was seven or eight, my parents bought me a Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia that spanned the top shelf of my bookcase. Since they never went to college, and there was no doubt in their minds that I would, they tried to fortify my childhood with tools they thought I’d need for success, such as an expansive encyclopedia.

Looking back, a lack of experience in academia and the white collar world was the basis of their sometimes misinformed decisions: they thought that, by giving me the very things and experiences they didn’t have growing up in the fifties and sixties, I would be a high achiever in the eighties and nineties. To a point, they were correct, in that my upbringing goosed me into capitalizing on what they offered, and so I made from it all that I could. And I’m grateful for their scrimping and working out deals with my grandmother so that I could have weekly piano lessons and, later, my own instruments to practice with at home. Music, as much as reading and writing, was integral to my developing mind.

I didn’t get everything I wanted, of course. They couldn’t afford many things, like sending me to Washington, DC, for the class trip in high school. I was one of a few students who stayed back in Phoenix with an angry cloud over her head while everyone else toured the nation’s capitol. My parents considered the trip a luxury and relegated travel to the category of fun rather than learning and, thus, not essential to my future achievement. My parents as I knew them were not big travelers, although my mom kept several scrapbooks from the journeys she took before she met my father. After she died, I realized that she had quite a bit of wanderlust, though that’s not how we lived as a family. Maybe that’s what drove me, in part, to want to travel throughout my life, to do the things that she wasn’t able to do, to extend her legacy.

This morning, I was thinking of those Funk & Wagnalls volumes when I went to search for the significance of the number five. If you wanted to research something in 1981 and didn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia, you were stuck. You could go to the library if it was open, or ask friends and family who likely didn’t have the answers either, but there was no truly exhaustive resource of easily accessible information. Sadly, I rarely cracked the volumes of my encyclopedia, as the entries were either too brief to be helpful or what I was searching for wasn’t listed. (Sorry, Funk & Wagnalls.)

A few minutes on Wikipedia reminded me that five is many things. The Torah contains five books and there are five pillars of Islam. A perfect fifth is the most consonant harmony and there are five lines on a music staff. There are five basic tastes. We have five fingers and five toes each on our hands and feet. There’s the five-second rule for dropped food. No. 5 is the name of an iconic fragrance by Coco Chanel (my mother’s favorite, actually.) Five is the number of Supreme Court justices necessary to render a majority decision. Starfish have five limbs. The Jackson Five and the Dave Clark Five. Five elements. Pentagrams. Iambic pentameter. Maroon 5. Interstate 5. Quintuplets. A strong and clear radio signal is described as five-by-five.

Though it was not listed on Wikipedia, as of March 1, 2015, this blog will turn five.

I’m writing now because I will be traveling during the anniversary, which is fitting since travel was the purpose for starting this blog five years ago. In March 2010, I was preparing to live in Italy on a two-month fellowship and I wanted to publicly document my work. Since then, my blog has provided a platform for several projects and investigations which now happen to number five: CivitaVeritas, Mushroom Farm, Hidden City Diaries (for which the site is named), A Novel Performance and, this summer, Ugly Me. The tone and content has changed over the years to match the need at hand, and so I’m grateful that my readers have stuck around from one iteration to the next. As a blogger who began with zero followers, the fact that the site will reach 20,000 views by March 1 indicates that something good has happened between then and now.

So, what will occur in the next five?

I have some ideas. I may document the work of a collective of young Seattle architects working Gordon Matta-Clark-style on artistic interventions in urban homes slated for demolition. Last weekend, I scouted their newest site just across from Pratt Park. It took me back five years to the apartment I was living in whose creaky floorboards reminded me that seven decades of human life had taken place there. I love the idea of cataloging and investigating the ways that the human essence imprints itself on a built place, and how people in future generations interpret and overlay their own marks.

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There is also the documentation of Ugly Me, an immersive multi-media installation that will debut at Jack Straw Cultural Center’s New Media Gallery this summer. This spring, I’ll be writing new work and spending time in the recording studio, in addition to cutting out thousands of figures from fashion magazines. (If you’re bored, stop by and take up an extra set of scissors.) Will it be prose poetry? A series of flash fiction? A literary collage? Time (which is ticking…gulp) will soon tell.

Back to my parents, I’ve also been thinking about legacy. (This is what people do when they hit their forties, right?) What good am I doing for the world and the generations coming after me? Can my work have a positive impact on the human experience today? To that end, I’m considering starting a literary magazine that creates a platform for new and emerging talent in literary art and beyond. (Go ahead, tell me that I’m crazy.) All this to say that, while I have an inkling of what the future holds, I’m leaving room for new things to take up residence where they will. Maybe this blog won’t really be a blog at some point — it’ll be something else.

As an only child with no children, I also think about the things that probably won’t happen, like the catalog of experiences that I would offer to my own children, if I had them: we would travel abroad and immerse ourselves in other cultures; we would go to museums, readings and gallery openings; we would read progressive literary works and listen to a wide range of music; we would spend time hiking, skiing and camping and learn to love the outdoors; we would grow our own food and make homemade edibles from kombucha to bread, pickles and tomato sauce; we’d read the Economist and listen to NPR non-stop so that we were well-informed global citizens. We would not eat iceberg lettuce or go to shooting ranges or staying inside air-conditioned houses all day watching television and reading pulp fiction except maybe once in a while for fun.

Of course, I’d be at least a little wrong in whatever I picked to enrich their lives; advice given is never so much about others as it is ourselves. Every time I add to this catalogue, I realize all that I still want to do and experience in my own life, and much if it comes back to that first item and the reason for this blog: travel.

In five years of journeys, my greatest learnings always track back to temperance and empathy, which is frightening since the more I understand the more I realize I have yet to know. In my blog and journals, this topic is threaded through everything, though they say that it is actually literary fiction that teaches empathy. I’d argue that travel, particularly international journeys, creates a similar effect by stripping us of the power of the familiar. Never as when we are abroad in truly foreign places from our home can we appreciate kindness (of others) and suffering (our own.) If we remain open while in transit, travel helps us become better citizens of the human race.

I’d also assert that the spokes of empathy touch on blogging, too. In the modern world, a blog is a place where everyday people share intimate ideas and experiences with strangers while examining and questioning their beliefs as a means of forging personal connection and self-knowledge.* We appeal to the humanity in others by revealing the human in ourselves.

And so, here begins a new era. Thank you for the thoughts, empathy and humanity that you’ve shared with me over the past five years. I look forward to what’s to come.

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* Okay, not blogs dedicated to revealing naked celebrity photos, but many other ones.

What Is She Doing?

Day one of "A Novel Performance" at the Central Library in downtown Seattle

Day one of “A Novel Performance” at the Central Library in downtown Seattle

The title question is perhaps best answered when accompanied by another: “Are writers really introverts — or do we seek to shroud our craft in mystique?” And perhaps a third redux version: “What the #$%^ am I doing?”

In addition to providing a rich palette of human diversity, the first day of writing a novel in the Central Library surely tested my inner introvert. In the hours after building a stage upon which rests a scene from my living room –yes, in the middle of the library– I was finally faced with answering a question I’ve been dodging for months: Can I actually do this? As a first-time WriMo (someone who attempts the NaNoWriMo challenge) had I had bitten off more than I could chew?

Over the last few months, I’ve studied all the NaNoWriMo tips, deciding that I was somewhere in between a Planner and a Pantser. In reality, I skew more towards the latter, despite my planner nature in all things non-literary. Two weeks ago, under great duress, I wrote a chapter outline and composed half-hearted character sketches for only two principal characters. The whole set-up process felt false to me — how am I supposed to know who these characters are and exactly what they’ll do until I start writing them? My framework for this novel rests lightly on several trips I’ve made in the past few years, so I have a general sense of where my characters are headed… but trying to nail everything down ahead of time — I just couldn’t do it. After all, I was the young woman in design school who filled in her sketch book at the end of the quarter, the night before it was due.

Besides, the physical component of A Novel Performance and all of its moving parts, from van rental and signage design and production to approvals and installation, has kept me sufficiently distracted since July. For someone avoiding the moment where she has to face the task she’s taken on, this was convenient.

For those first few minutes, I sat, waiting. My fingers trembled as I started with the easy parts: title and chapter heading. I knew that the story would open in New Zealand, so I pictured what the beaches are like in November — blustery, wild, pristine. A few words trickled out. Starting with the first chapter, my heroine immediately departed from the script that I had given her. This was exciting if not a little terrifying. How was I -er, she- doing this? I realized that we were deepening the opening of the story together far beyond the initial framework I had set, but it was a good departure. I kept working. Slowly. At several points, people stopped to read the screen behind me; they observed sentence by sentence form (nothing like having a small crowd of people watch you misspell the word privilege three times…) Over the course of the afternoon, I tried to tap into the flow that always feels so easy at home, but it didn’t happen, not exactly. In between paragraphs, I kept asking myself: can I return day after day to do this?

This morning, I used our extra fall-back hour to document yesterday’s work. The prose isn’t beautiful yet, but I can see a portal, albeit a small one, opening up into a new world. This is encouraging. It is hard not to edit, something that I enjoy far more than banging out rough drafts, but that’s also part of the NaNoWriMo challenge: if you’re going to hit 50,000 words in a month, you can’t go back — only forward.

As I prepare to head back to the library today, I continue to ask myself why I’m doing this. Underneath the obvious –I want to produce a novel– there is something else: as artists, we need community. Writer Richard Hugo, for whom Seattle’s beloved Richard Hugo House is named, put it best: Writing is hard and writers need help. Within the word help, I see the words connection, relationships and support.

Sometimes, watching someone do something a little crazy is all a person needs to feel emboldened to take on a challenge in her own life. This week, Tina Hoggatt at 4Culture invited me to write a blog post about A Novel Performance which allowed me to revisit this question –why am I doing this?– and reaffirm my quest. Indeed, writing is hard, but thanks to everyone who has already voiced support, be it on Twitter or in person, I can feel the strength of the writing community behind me. Support is what writers of all levels need. My profound thanks to 4Culture and Seattle Public Library for supporting A Novel Performance — and to everyone who I will meet along the way.

For more on the origins of A Novel Performance, read the 4Culture blog post here.

Vision

As a dying hurricane flings gusty winds at Seattle, and with them, tree limbs, power lines and a pantheon of multi-colored leaves, everything feels off-kilter. Daylight savings time is about to fall back, autumn has us wriggling in her damp, chilly grasp, and Renée Zellweger is sporting a new face that no one can stop tweeting about. This last turn has emerged between the paparazzi’s cooing over George Clooney’s long-awaited wedding, something I admittedly find irresistible to read about in People.

To the media, I think it mattered little that it was any one particular bride, though she seems lovely, intelligent and spirited, but only that someone, anyone, finally, presented a complete enough package (in Clooney’s eyes, at least) that he might commit. (While it may be true love, my cynicism says that Clooney is a betting man, and at 53, he sees the wisdom of leaving the singles scene on a high note.)

About Zellweger, the host of blog posts, op-eds and commentaries blowing through the media recall the red, yellow and orange leaves cascading outside my window like giant Technicolor snowflakes. Some writers insist that it’s no one’s business what a person does with her face while others use her plastic surgery to lambaste society, suggesting that Zellweger, under emotional pressure to remain beautiful, succumbed to what she believes we demand of her. If she doesn’t, she won’t get work in Hollywood, some say. Certain journalists criticize her for being weak, some take pot shots at both the publishers and readers of magazines for perpetuating the cult of impossible youthfulness, and yet others see Zellweger’s actions as a strike for feminism, both pro and con. A piece in the New York Times sums up what I believe is at the heart of this disturbance, no matter the point of view: “Ms. Zellweger looks beautiful but she does not look like Ms. Zellweger.”

We come to believe that we know a person based on labels: her name, appearance and attire, what she eats and reads, where she lives and works, the vehicle she drives (or doesn’t), her associates, and certainly, her words and beliefs. Over time, we amass enough data points that, as a collective, appear to form a definition of identity. Zellweger’s transformation shows how much we rely on sensory information as a definition of character, but it also shows that these definitions are by no means stable, and that no one views herself the same way that she is perceived by others.

On the drive home just after midnight last night, we spotted a large tree downed by the storm, not yet understanding that the tree had taken down the power in our neighborhood. We pulled up to our parking garage, pressing the button for the gate to no effect. Idling in the driveway, we were told by a man walking his dog that the building had lost power, so we parked on the street and navigated our footpath home by the flashlight app of my iPhone. The streets and buildings were eerily dark, the wind whipping wildly about. With each step, I anticipated cry of hounds in the distance. As we approached home, I felt relieved to see the red glow of the digital lock on the back gate, which meant that we could gain access to our building, but the hallways and stairs were completely dark. It felt like we were the lone survivors of an apocalypse.

Our apartment held an unearthly quiet in the darkness –true darkness– and, for some reason, I expected to find people inside looting our things. What would I do? There was so little that I’d fight for besides life and love; if they wanted my clothes or the red decorative bowl I bought at Pier One ten years ago, they could have it. But my unease, thankfully unfounded, wasn’t really about being robbed. It came from a change in my sensory perception of a place I’ve come to know well. Remove the visual means with which I encounter my home –extinguish the light– and I begin to question its definition as a safe retreat. Fear creeps in. I begin to wonder if there is any place in the world that is truly safe. On the outside, a homeless man shuffles by and looks up at my building, a new apartment complex, as a lush fortress, secure against theft and the wild weather. Which of us is right?

Earlier that evening, I paused in the powder room to look at my face in the mirror. I thought of Zellweger’s surgery and doubted that I would ever consider doing the same. Perhaps that’s because my forehead is still mainly unlined and the crepe paper creases beneath my eyes are superficial, but it’s also because I’ve always pictured myself on the edges. My self-perception of the figure I cut in the world is a quiet and blurry one, maybe even elusive –I don’t believe that I lead with my looks– but this is not necessarily how others perceive me. Whose perception is true?

As a concept, point-of-view has taken center stage as I prepare for National Novel Writing Month, which begins next Saturday, November 1. On that day, and for the 29 thereafter, I’ll appear in the Central Library downtown as I attempt to pen 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30. After a major snag this week, I realized that my perception of what I’m about to do –write a novel as public performance– no longer appears to me as a feat of writing, but one of art installation. This process of planning, designing and implementing A Novel Performance has not been easy, nor has it been as enjoyable as I thought it would be. With a story, I can create, demolish or remodel a given world as I wish it to appear, but in the physical world, I am powerless without the consensus and approval of others. (One might suggest that what I don’t enjoy is the lack of absolute control, or at least, the perception of it…) Nevertheless, as November 1 nears, I must shift my focus once again, this time from installation back writing. Whether I am actually able to effect change in that world is yet another question of perception. Who’s story is it? Who is in control? The performance begins…

Perhaps after all this, Zellweger’s physical appearance is now aligned with a self-perception that she’s long held inside. We squawk about how different she looks, but in her mind, she finally looks right. She’s as relieved about her reflection as the rest of us are about Clooney’s nuptials, sighing as if we are exhausted matchmakers. (At last, we’ve married him off!) At once, the skies clear and turn blue, the winds draw back the carpet of leaves from the sidewalks and we get the opportunity to reassess the world around us, which we believe that we can know.

This week, amidst the swirling leaves and celebrity upheavals, my eye doctor gave me toric contact lenses to try. The visual haloes I’ve become used to, caused by astigmatism, have disappeared. Every word I read appears crisp in ways that words never have before in my left eye. Is this how vision is meant to be, only I didn’t know it? Until now, everything has appeared with a blurry aura that seemed to belong there. This is what sight was for me until a clear circle of plastic, thinned at the top and bottom, changed everything. Now, I’m forced to ask how accurately any of us envision anything, including ourselves.

Last night after dinner, six of us gathered in our friends’ living room to let a homemade Greek meal settle along with the wine we had just enjoyed. As a group, we daydreamed in a way that felt like the dinner parties of my mid-twenties: we talked exuberantly about future plans, what we hoped we’d become, the adventures we hoped to have, places that we wanted to see. Peppered with laugher, our conversation was energetic, full of promise, like the last amber sunset before the blue-gray rain clouds of fall set in.

Spontaneously, one friend said, “When I think about you, the first thing that comes to mind is a writer,” to which another agreed. I paused. This is something I’ve tried to make happen my whole life, in spite of every title I’ve held that has not contained the word writer. As they spent the next minute agreeing with this assessment, I wondered how long my self-perception has been outdated. When had I achieved this? That’s the thing about setting your eyes on a goal, be it beauty, marriage or accomplishment; your vision can become so obscured that you don’t realize when you’ve arrived at the very destination you set out for. You have to look up from the trail markers every once in a while to assess your actual location, and it may look different than it once appeared from far away.

Often, we only know that change has occurred in our lives when someone else alerts us to it — Zellweger looks different and somehow I’ve become a writer. Just because we’re on the inside doesn’t mean that we know everything about who we are or all that we’re capable of. We can look up, down and out, but it is sometimes hard to see clearly within. With that, it’s time to get down to business.

By all means, if you’re near the library next month, please stop by and sit with me a spell; writing implements encouraged but not required. (See A Novel Performance for hours.) If you’d like to talk about writing, stop by on Mondays when I’ll be hosting conversations from 5 to 6 pm in the Chocolati Cafe on Level 3. In the spirit of my friend’s generous and timely observation, the sign next to me will read, “The Writer is IN.”

Countdown

Today is one of those fall Sundays in Seattle that I live for: the sky is bright white with a thick cover of clouds, and with all the windows open, it’s about 65 degrees inside. I am bundled up in my sweats on my couch with my favorite sage green throw wrapped around my feet, which are deliciously cold from the breeze spilling in. My laptop is propped on my knees and occasionally, I pause to take a sip of tea and look out the window. This is very much the sight that visitors to Seattle Central Library will see in November this year.

Thanks in part to an award by 4Culture, I will install a recreation of my creative space (in this case, my living room) on Level 3 of the public library as part of a performance art installation in which I plan to write a minimum of 50,000 words in a month, a challenge also known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.) The idea began when I realized that, as an English lit major, I had only ever studied the work of dead people in school. We were never able to talk to the creators of the works we read; we could only guess at their process by reading intercepted letters or through anecdotes and hearsay about their lives.

In my journey as a writer, I’ve struggled for mentors as much as I’ve wrestled with developing and understanding my own writing process, especially of late. Meeting contemporary authors at places like Hugo House and the Tin House Summer Workshop has emboldened my hunger for connection. Yet, as a creative discipline, writers are often secretive or reclusive, bemoaning their loneliness at the same time as they encourage misanthropy and, in my opinion, an undervaluing of our craft. My installation, called A Novel Performance, is a way of challenging writers, including myself, to move beyond all of this — to reach out to others by showing what we do.

(Side note: I hope you stop by starting November 1 or follow on Twitter where I’ll be tweeting about the experience at #LiveNovelist. For more info, click on A Novel Performance.)

I say this as a lead-in to what’s come to mind lately, and that is ritual. I once maintained a weekly habit of blogging, often starting a post on my couch on Sunday mornings and publishing at my favorite coffee shop. When I began this blog in 2010, I wrote and edited directly in the WordPress page editor. Today, I no longer post weekly. I rarely go to Caffe Fiore since I moved — and, in fact, don’t go to coffee shops anymore to write. I compose posts in a word processor to perfect them before I paste them into WordPress. Over time, my ritual has changed with my shifting lifestyle, and now today, I question the benefit — both the steps of the ritual and well as its end result. I’ve become complacent and comfortable. The ritual of blogging no longer has the same impact, except for a regular deadline.

These questions of purpose, result and significance have become important as I try to encapsulate how and what I do in order to explain it to others. For me, writing starts with so many mundane factors, like the fact that I require a couch or any other non-desk-like setting in order to write. Ambient noise is okay, but not music, conversation or television. I struggle with large type and I really can’t write productively in double-spaced text (I need to see large swaths for context), so my work typically begins as single-spaced text in 10-point font in paragraphs without indents separated by a single line break. Or, if I’m working in my field notebook, then it’s all by hand in eerily parallel lines on a blank (and unlined) page.

What any of this actually has to do with my writing process, I can’t say. These obsessive/compulsive control factors are different for everyone, yet they do exist, and maybe that’s enough to justify their importance in my process. Only when I stop to examine them do I realize that there are many other nuances that go along with writing that, on the surface, have absolutely nothing to do with craft. Yet, when everything is in place, I can sit for hours with my brain in another world and, if left undisturbed, the sun can go down and I can become very hungry without rising to do a thing about it. Being in the groove feeds me in another way, and it’s only when a story or essay feels a certain degree of settled –or, settled enough for a particular evening– that I can leave my work without feeling interrupted.

This brings me back to the purpose of ritual. In yoga, we practice a sequential physical exercise in order to calm the mind, similar to ritualistic practices to ease anxiety. A systematic repetition of behaviors can quell and neutralize excitement while other rituals actually build energy. Think of the holiday progression from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas when you were a child: a certain buzz arose during mid-October as everyone wanted to know what costume you’d wear for Halloween, then fall foods like sweet potatoes, stews and pies would appear, then it was time to watch football games, parade floats and eat a gargantuan meal at the end of November. By Hanukkah and Christmas, the frenzy of December was dizzying. Like the ancient Greeks who celebrated the states of ekstatis and enthusiasmos with wild dancing, rituals can be a means of exciting and altering one’s state of creative consciousness.

As the kick-off of my installation nears, I realize how frenzied and erratic I have become in both my writing practice and my preparation for it. I’ve let the world enter my sacred space and transform it with the same to-do lists and rules that measure my non-writing life into equal amounts of duty, responsibility and limits. These things are not the same as rigor, which is important in an artistic practice — they are soul-killing weeds that have sprung up in my garden over the summer. I have forgotten to nourish the soil that makes writing possible. I’ve become too busy for a ritual whose result is deeply important to me.

There is no turning back from the tasks ahead, and I’m not suggesting that I want to, but I do want to make A Novel Performance into a dividing line. It will mark the end of five years of a certain kind of practice that has served me in its time. What happens over the course of November is an experiment. It will test the means and methods I have established to date, and from it, I will form a hypothesis about how I’d like to shape my writing future.

What do we really need to blossom? What is extra? What pushes us out of our comfort zones, just a little, and helps us reach new places we didn’t think we were capable of finding? What should we remember? What should we let go? What brings us pleasure? What makes us lazy? What do we need to feed ourselves every day? What is so important that it’s worth sacrificing for? These are questions a ritualist asks as she creates a new space to test, research, reflect and play.

That’s what ritual is for, in my mind — not a place of dogma or religion, or a means of withdrawing from stimulus — but a space where the spirit is free to join and create, whether with the body, the arts, materials or the mind. A safe place that allows us to jump higher, break things and fall down without dying, to spill paint on the floor, sing off-key, run down the wrong path. It must be someplace firm and soft, nurturing yet stimulating, a place that emboldens us to meet the challenges we fear. For some of us, this place also includes a plush couch and a warm throw.

Can We Talk?

If last summer was the season of shoulder, this summer was the season of the glute. Each year, I learn more about how the human body functions via injury and physical therapy, so when it was time, once again, for PT in June, thus began the summer of 2014.

Like a team of sled dogs on meth, it seems my enthusiastic hamstrings have been first to volunteer for tasks that other muscles –larger muscles– should have done over the years. Hearty little things, it took four decades before I burned one out, but they should have known better. What were they thinking taking on the work of my glutes who rested back like regal pillows all these years?

My hams worked so diligently, so quietly, that I never noticed, only enjoyed the forward propulsion they provided. The poor dears were martyrs, really, suffering in silence yet begrudging every request I made. Oh, she wants to walk faster now? We’ll show her! A half marathon? Fine! Swimming?! You know, no one else down here is lifting a fiber, but if she wants power, we’ll give it to her! We’re struggling, but don’t mind us!

Even if my hamstrings had raised an early alarm, I probably would have powered through any twinges that limited my exercise. Aches are something to be worked through, strengthened. We’re accustomed to a certain baseline of fitness, after all, which we imagine will be ours always; it’s surprising when our bodies change, since they do so gradually. Our minds resist altering long-held expectations of health and fitness (or even lack thereof) because we believe we’re the same today as we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

And so, an ache arose this spring that I couldn’t quite place. For months, I treated it with massage, thinking it was a pulled muscle, but the pain increased to an unbearable state. I couldn’t move my leg, let alone squat to pick something up or even get out of bed, without discomfort. After all was revealed –acute hamstring tendonitis– my glutes, who should have been doing more work, and I had it out. You’re the biggest muscle in the body and you just laid there? This whole time I thought we were working together, but you were faking?!

During the first session, my PT asked me to fire one glute muscle by itself, but it just sat there in its sweat pants licking the potato chip grease from its fingers. I turned to gaze back at it, but it shrugged and took a nap. “Normal people can do this?” I asked, willing each cheek to move independently without calling on any other muscles. She nodded, gravely. “We have some work to do.”

How could this be? After all the squats, stairs, walking uphill… how could I have been so deceived? All this time, it was my hamstrings taking the brunt of the load while my lazy glutes fanned themselves and ate bon-bons? They had been hiding back there all this time like stowaways in the trunk, knowing that I wouldn’t go looking unless I was quite determined to find them — and that, as it turns out, would take years.

Rehabbing this part of my body made me think about all the things that we subconsciously turn off or buffer in our lives. We grow calluses and blisters in response to friction and pain, but they don’t cease the mortification to our bodies, just insulate us as we solider on. We grow cynical or emotionally distant in the face of break-ups, finances or losing loved ones, but that doesn’t stop the challenges from coming or help us meet them as they pile up. As embodied beings, our instinctual response to stress is to shrink, harden or redistribute effort in the hopes of avoiding suffering. We trick ourselves into believing that we’ve conquered challenges or that they’ve gone away when what we’re really doing is avoiding and deferring pain.

This is the most true of stress. We power through a tough work week then go to yoga only realize that we’re strung tighter than guitar wire, hunched over and mentally frazzled. We’ve told ourselves a story that we’re fit and resilient; instead, we’re burning through our physical and mental resources because we’re too numb to realize what’s happening. We’ve shut off our awareness to our own bodies. Then, one day, something small occurs and the house of cards falls under a light breeze. Stunned, we wonder why.

The human body is both highly intelligent and quite lazy. It strives for efficiency, so we must constantly challenge it in new ways, otherwise it adapts and relaxes under routine demands. Rather than calling upon every muscle to collaborate on a task, it learns to draw upon the few most willing and easily accessible to carry the load while the others rest. This was the year that my hamstrings were bucking for best actress, best supporting actress, best screenplay and best director at the same time my glutes took a sabbatical. Rather than becoming more fit from all my (ahem, over) training, I had unwitting created a cause for injury.

The cure? My glutes had to attend summer school. Everyone else was splashing at the pool while they stayed inside doing clamshell extensions, Romanian deadlifts, bound squats and bridge poses so that I could understand what it felt like when they were actually working. When a sensation has been absent long enough, or never there, it’s like discovering a new part of your body. As hikes and long walks resurfaced in my exercise regime, I found I wasn’t able to move as quickly as I did when powered by the fan boats that were my hamstrings, but I did move more steadily. My entire body felt more engaged; I could even sense the connection from my big toes all the way into my deep core muscles. This ability to not just look but feel these relationships body allowed me to explore my body’s function and sense its weaknesses more deeply.

As atrophied as my glutes were, my core was as well. It was deceiving how many stability-based yoga poses I could execute yet, when asked to do something different, like lower both heels to the floor in boat pose, I had almost no strength. I had to face how hidden, weak and unused much of my core was, even after decades of exercise. So often we call upon our extremities to do much of the work –they’re accessible and willing– that it’s easy to forget the very center of our beings, which is where real power, poise and health come from.

Our cores are so much more than muscles, though. They contain the central column of energy that weaves together our mental, physical and emotional systems. Our souls, or whatever you may call the forces that animate us, thrive deep within the center of these three. Think of someone you really love and you feel a warm, effervescent glow inside. When you press their body to yours –you hug your child, your lover, your dog– you can feel the same elixir stirring in them. Our cores are made to recognize and respond to each other, but when they are damaged, we shield them from the world, and even from ourselves.

With the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of comedy as it relates to our cores and how we view ourselves. After news of Williams’ passing, I listened to several interviews that touched on his struggle with addiction. I suppose I knew or heard about this over the years, but in comparison with his larger-than-life talent, it seemed like a footnote, or at least, predictable for someone in the entertainment business and thus, regrettably dismissible. He struggled, he conquered, he moved on.

But he didn’t. This is the lie we tell ourselves. Listen to him here, gracious and wildly funny as always, but beneath the quips, he’s tired. There’s something happening beneath the surface of his words that he’s not acknowledging, and neither do we; it’s enough for us to absorb the richness of his thoughts and wry perspective.

This interview made me question how I wrestle with challenges in my own life. How often do I cover over pain with jokes that cushion whatever tender spot has come up? Humor doesn’t make the root cause of the pain go away, but everyone feels good for a minute, including me, laughing at my lazy glutes or what a bad swimmer I am. When I want to distract someone from asking about what’s really going on with me, I’ll get us both laughing until we move onto the next task. As with physical injury, I don’t pause for a rest or to really consider where it came from and how to heal it; there isn’t time, and so I move on.

The key to comedy is self-deprication, and Robin Williams knew this deeply. Similar to memoir, if you want to be a successful comic, you must throw yourself under the bus first — then you peel yourself off the asphalt, poke yourself in the eye, drop a hammer on your foot and do it again. Few have achieved this as masterfully as Williams or Joan Rivers. It took her death to remind me that she went deeper into her core than most comedians do, poking at tender places to bring joy to others. She made fun of her own looks, her physique, her femininity, menopause–anything and everything to connect with her audience, especially women.

There are blue comics and then there is Joan Rivers, real as you want to get, banned from The Tonight Show for 26 years. By the time I was coming of age in the 80s, I knew her more for her fashion commentary than the performances she gave in the 60s and 70s (there was no You Tube back then, kids.) As I did just weeks before when Williams died, I took time to watch some of her clips to remind myself of what the world lost.

Recorded in 1967 on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first clip was stunningly relevant to life today, 47 years later. What struck me was not how depressing it is that dating, especially from the female perspective, has changed so little from the 1960s, but how well-pointed Rivers’ humor about it was and is. Her comments speak to an existential struggle related to the value of women in our society — a struggle that is little more resolved since then. Yet, it’s possible to listen to Joan Rivers and know that we are not alone, that someone else is paying attention; she sheds light on what many women experience. The power of her comedy comes from a central place of strength, offering not just laughter but connection.

Nothing with Joan was taboo. Over her career, she flogged every part of her body, her looks, her lifestyle, her intelligence. Similarly to Williams, she did this by accessing places that are often hidden or weak, places we are loathe to explore. Yet, she was able to turn on her emotional core muscles and make them work hard, work together. She offered up herself as sacrifice, not from a means of distraction or displaced shame, but strength.

Without a mother or grandmother to turn to as I get older, I often find myself searching for mentors of their ilk as I age. When I watch reels of Joan and her daughter, Melissa, I see something extraordinary happen between them, the kind of spark I imagine that I would have with my mother if she were still alive. They share a tenderness and sharp honesty that goes beyond a familial bond. It’s a master and her apprentice at work, the former encouraging the latter to follow in the honored tradition of the craft while making it her own using her own unique strengths. This is something missing in my own life, I realize: a safe place to test theories of how our bodies work and what happens to them over time, which is distinct between genders. I’m beginning to understand why women form coteries as they age, if only to discuss –and freely laugh about– such things in the closed company of those who can empathize.

Watch how she engages the audience on the show that got her banned, praising women as she abases herself. We trust her because she acutely pursues her own flaws, yet she uses the harsh light of her reflection to encourage us to go easier on ourselves and each other. No one –not our coaches or even our detractors– is ever as hard on us as we are on ourselves. We cover over what feels ugly and weak with the facade of material success, camouflaging ourselves with careers or spouses, community stature or finances, even our looks, to obscure our hidden weaknesses. They fade deep inside but don’t go away; we forget they’re there until we’re called upon to address them, often at the point of injury.

I feel blessed to have witnessed and learned from Rivers and Williams, who brought so much of themselves into their work. While I enjoy an occasional lampoon where people talk from their butts or throw wrenches at someone’s head, there is no substitute for the deep and true humor that these two masters gifted us with. They made careers of reaching into dark places that are inaccessible to most of us on a given day, sporting the wisdom and fortitude to examine what they discovered and the nerve to share what they found. All this for the purpose of tickling that same spot deep inside us and, I do believe, assuring us that we are not alone.

Every time they made us laugh, they helped us see that someone could know and understand all of the things we hold inside — and still love us anyway. The ride always felt perilous because their observations were so dead-on, but we kept coming back because it was based in truth. Especially with Williams, who could get at the soul through surprising channels of insight, I always felt like I needed a seat belt. His gentle personality is what made his humor that much more powerful. Audiences trusted him to take them to the brink of discomfort because they knew he wouldn’t abandon them there.

As summer comes to a close and my physical form continues to organize itself beyond the bounds of anything I can control or predict, my approach is to listen more than I ever have. I’m meeting a new version of myself in the body I have today; it’s not bad, just different. From my head and heart to my deep core, I’m capable of much more than I ever thought or tried to do before. The knowledge of one’s potential only comes with time, I think.

Upon releasing me from treatment, my PT underlined the importance of allowing my body to rest, noting that this–not just physical training–is how to build strength. And so I’ll continue to seek the places inside that I have overlooked all these years and find ways of getting my parts to work together instead of apart, and I will make time for rest, maybe even an afternoon nap and, most especially, I’ll make a point to stop and laugh at it all.