Purity, Idealism, and Why I'm Not Giving Up (an off-the-cuff, over-caffeinated diatribe)

Last night I couldn’t sleep. As has become somewhat normal at 1:30am, my mind got up and simply would not simmer down. One of the monkey bars it latched to was this New Yorker article about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, which I read in pockets of free time on my phone throughout the day on Friday. The article (while I think being fair to Zuckerberg) depicts the social media giant as a growth-hungry company that ultimately cares more about expansion than the consequences of its role in our lives, personally and politically. When I closed the window on my browser and sat with my thoughts, my initial reaction was, Maybe this is it. Maybe this is what I needed to hear to get off Facebook for good. Do I really want to be part of this company’s success?

I’ve become pretty good about tempering my use of Facebook. Over the years, I’ve curated my “feed” and who I “follow” so much, that I hardly ever lose large swaths of time sucked into wedding pictures from so-and-so who I went to elementary school with and haven’t actually talked to in 15 years. But at least once a year I do a social media “detox” where I stay off it all together for a month, and I’m always tempted to delete my account permanently. On principle. Though what principle is never quite clear, and so I haven’t. This article pressed on that impulse. I don’t want to be part of Facebook’s quest for world domination, its supposed mission to “connect” us, when research shows it’s making us more isolated and unhappy. Fuck those guys. This drive for growth at all costs is the worst part of capitalism and it brings out the worst angels of our nature, which I guess that makes them demons.

But as I lay in bed last night, fumbling with this idea of deleting my Facebook account, I thought, Am I being too much of a purist? Nothing is solely good and the article does suggest that Facebook is trying to remake itself, to answer to some of these criticisms. Instead of leaving it all together, would it be better to just use it in a way that is responsible, aware of its manipulations and avoid them? Because if I get off Facebook, why wouldn’t I get off everything else too? Is Facebook that much worse than Twitter? (And they own Instagram.) The idea of totally removing myself from all social media is appealing. Because it would be simple. It would feel pure. It would draw a clear line in the sand. But it also, in a way, sounds too easy. A way of removing myself from the problem, instead of actually confronting and wrestling with it.

And if everyone like me (who wants to use it for good-faith conversations and connections and sharing honest ideas) got off social media wouldn’t it just be an even more concentrated cesspool of hate and toxicity? Don’t we need the voices of those who want to use it responsibly? Who want to use it in a way that potentially bolsters democracy and not undermines it? (The title of the New Yorker article is “Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook  Before it Breaks Democracy?”) I don’t think social media is going anywhere. For better and worse, it is now a space of civic discourse that shapes our national conversations, and if I’m not there, I’m not helping to make it any better. Perhaps the best thing we can do is use it against itself—share articles that criticize Facebook on Facebook.

(That said, I’d love for something better. If another platform came along that could prove it had better intentions, I’d jump ship in a second.)

All of this inevitably sends me down the perennial What do we do with capitalism? rabbit hole. These days I’ve been feeling stuck with it. Like it seems more feasible to reform it than to revolt against it. I understand the arguments against that position. I used to unflinchingly hold them myself. But I’m no longer convinced that a “burn it all down and rebuild” game plan is realistic. It feels too pure, too idealistic, and that makes me skeptical. I am a rip the Band Aid off kind of person—but only when it comes to actual Band Aids and similar small stakes situations. Ten years ago I would have been happy to throw a bomb in the system and watch the whole thing implode—capitalism, patriarchy, the whole shebang up in flames. Maybe this is me “getting old.” Getting more “conservative.” Or maybe the opposite is true.

I am getting older (obviously), but time has been leading me to think more about nuance and the messiness of things. It’s leading me to complexity. Perhaps this way of thinking is its own form of idealism. Just last week I was out at happy hour with friends discussing some of these very issues—capitalism, systemic inequality, technology, the future of democracy and our country. Small stuff. I was clearly advocating for—or really, advocating for entertaining the idea of—a give-and-take, bipartisan, solution-focused (instead of ideology-focused) answer to our most pressing problems. All of this started when I shared with my cohort that that morning at the farmers market (where I work on the weekends), I had indulged in an hours-long thought experiment with a local farmer about whether implementing biodynamic farming nation-wide could address climate change, our health crisis, and the impending massive job loss when automation takes over. Of course, I was positioned as the idealist, the naïve one.

And maybe that’s true. I’m not an expert on anything. But I try to educate myself and be knowledgeable about as many different issues as possible. Perhaps my head is somewhat in the clouds, is somewhat undaunted by the overwhelming forces we’re up against (corporate power, political corruption, etc.), but I can’t shake the deep skepticism that any one system or politician (I love you Bernie, but…) is going to fix us. I have to think it’s something else. Something new. I have to think we need to look elsewhere. Start being creative and willing to put our egos aside for the sake of making something that just works better. Not perfectly.

I’m not saying that those who want a socialist revolution think socialism is perfect, but sometimes the arguments sound that way to me. Like, if we just redistribute all the wealth, that will have its own trickle down effect and solve every manifestation of inequality (poverty, racism, all the isms…). But even if it did, even if it could solve all those problems, it would do so in a way that would leave behind many of our fellow Americans—not just “those people” in the middle of the country, but people who are our families, people we love—and I’m not sure that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

If we are this divided now, I can’t imagine how fractured we would be then. I frequently hear people compare our social schism now to that of the Civil War. I don’t know how true that is, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like hyperbole. And I would much rather do the dirty, messy, exhausting, creative, ingenuitive work of figuring shit out together, than going to war. I’m willing to ask myself, how much can I compromise, how much can I give, to avoid that option? The revolutions of the past were violent, and though I think they were necessary, that doesn’t mean the next one has to be. I don’t want to squelch the revolutionary spirit. I want to funnel that energy into creative problem-solving. I don’t want to follow the scripts of the past, but redefine what it even means to be revolutionary. It might not be as sexy, but if it keeps us together I have to think it’s worth a shot.

And, yes, I see as I write these very words how “optimistic,” even “hopeful” they may sound. And that may seem like idealistic bullshit. But hope and optimism are words I’m tired of. I find them empty and useless. I want ideas, not hollow speculations of the future that justify our apathy, that tell us it will either be fine so we don’t have to sorry, or we are doomed so why bother.

I know our problems are serious, I don’t want to make light of anyone’s suffering. In fact, it’s because I know so many people are suffering right now, that I feel compelled to weigh in this way. I feel the urgency for solutions. There is a lot wrong with many of our systems and institutions (many of which stem from the very founding of the country), but the fact that we are so uniquely, wonderfully diverse and innovative, tells me we didn’t get everything wrong. If relinquishing my allegiance to a pure ideology makes me the idealist, so be it. I’m not ready to give up on this experiment.

Get Uncomfortable

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Watching the Oscars is my annual guilty pleasure. I’ve watched most of them since I was a teenager. I can’t help myself. I love seeing my favorite actors on the red carpet disclose little glimpses of who they are outside the characters they play. I know the Oscars don’t matter. I often dispute their winners and am not blind to the inequalities and gluttony of glamor. Last year I was dismayed to see Moonlight (so obviously the best picture of the year, if not the decade) robbed of its victorious moment. (That said, there was some poetic justice in watching the fair cast of La La Land physically relinquish the little gold statues to their rightful owners.) All of this is to say, I don’t put any stock in the decisions that are made by the Academy, but I enjoy the spectacle of the ceremony. The adolescent in me still eagerly searches the audience inside the Dolby Theater for my love (Harrison—swoon); the grown-up in me is eager to see how politics will play into the host’s opening monologue and who will use their acceptance speech as a platform to champion other causes.

It’s also interesting to think about the films nominated for best picture as a cultural litmus test. Why these stories and why now? What do they say about this moment in America, in the world? What’s occupying our collective psyche? And, of course, what stories are absent? What stories should be told, but have yet to rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood? Every year I try to watch all of the best picture nominees, but usually can’t. This year, however, (thanks to movie pass) I have seen all of them but one (Dunkirk). Collectively, I was underwhelmed by this year’s nominees. Sitting through some of them felt like a chore, and not because of the darkness of their content (I love dark), but because of the way they fell back on boring clichés. Others were delightful but didn’t strike me as “best picture material.” There was no Moonlight this year. But considering them together, as a slice of America in 2017, is interesting. So here are a few of my thoughts. (Oh, and there may be some spoilers, if you care about that.)

First, it’s hard to watch a movie these days without thinking critically about how men and women are represented. The #metoo movement has amplified these concerns and will undoubtedly play a lead role at the Oscars. Harvey Weinstein will inevitably receive another brutal lambasting, which, I admit, I’m looking forward to. He’s the one person we can all agree is a total rat bastard and, if the allegations of rape are true as it seems they are, should be locked up for the rest of his life. But the problem as I see it for #metoo, is that most men are not Harvey Weinstein. Most men—or I should say of the men who have the most to learn about how to treat women with respect—most of those men’s offenses fall into a murkier category of behavior. One that is not so clear cut. Yet we are not acknowledging this and doing the necessary work to parse right from wrong. This was my main criticism of Oscar-favored The Shape of Water.

In the past, feminist criticism has focused on how women are represented—weak, voiceless, “less than” male characters, or totally absent all together. I don’t think that’s a problem this year (though perhaps debatable when it comes to the character of Alma in Phantom Thread). There are so many strong women. The problem is how men are represented, specifically the villains. I was never pulled into The Shape of Water because the villain was too—villainous. Michael Shannon’s Strickland is immediately repulsive. When he covers his wife’s mouth and face with his mangled hand while he fucks her, we get it, he’s the ultimate douchebag. But apparently that’s not enough to indicate Strickland is the bad guy, so he makes sexual advances on our heroine, Sally Hawkins’ Elsa, and says to the mute character: “I bet I can make you squeal.” He’s Harvey Weinstein. I get it.

I also understand that Shape of Water is a kind of fairy tale, that it’s playing with that genre and in fairy tales most villains are usually pretty simple. But it would have been far more interesting to push back against that expectation. There was potential for this. Strickland seems to be motivated by the desire to achieve the American Dream, to provide for his family with a nice house and new car (possibly noble, or at least understandable, ambitions), but the heavy-handed sexism (and racism) robbed the character of any meaningful nuance. My point is that as satisfying as it is to tear down the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, it’s also too easy. We need to imagine and wrestle with more complicated villains, those who cannot be easily dismissed as monsters and that’s what I want from a Best Picture.

Then there’s the good old self-absorbed creative-type who’s allowed to mistreat everyone in his life in the name of his art. For most of Phantom Thread, my thoughts squarely echoed those of Jennifer Lawrence: “Is [Reynolds Woodcock] kind of like a narcissistic sociopath and he’s an artist so every girl falls in love him because he makes her feel bad about herself and that’s the love story?...I’ve been down that road, I know what that’s like, I don’t need to watch that movie.” I was so bored by the tedious dysfunction of Woodcock’s and Alma’s relationship (his Pygmalion attempts to transform Alma from working class immigrant to high-society model; her naive mission to make a husband of Woodcock who clearly states he will not be tamed) that I wanted to leave the theater. But I didn’t and so, unlike Lawrence who never watched it, was rewarded with the eventual “twist” to this otherwise overtold story. But the pay-off felt insufficient. I’ll admit that in the week since I saw the movie, my irritation has diminished. Phantom Thread has provoked more thought than Shape of Water in its aftermath, and ultimately I think the film sought to undermine a tired “love” story, not reinvent it. But I’m still not convinced it did enough to earn a seat in the throne of the Oscars.

Then there’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I really wanted to like a movie that’s about (badass) grieving mother Mildred Hayes (played by the always wonderful Frances McDormand) in her mission to bring the murderer and rapist of her daughter to justice. But from the very beginning, I was lost. When Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that they can’t match the DNA found at the crime site with anyone in the law enforcement database, and it’s the only evidence, it’s hard to sympathize with her when she responds: “Could pull blood from every man and boy in this town, over the age of eight,” and then, “Pull blood from ever’ man in the country...If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby what’s born, stick ’em on it, cross-references it, and as soon as they done something wrong, make a hundred-per-cent certain it was a correct match, then kill ’em.” To which Willoughby reasonably responds, “Yeah, well, there’s definitely civil rights laws prevents that.” After that, it was really hard to be on Team Mildred.

What’s more, the villain for most of the film is the deplorably racist, white trash cop Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who does change, but in a way that feels implausible. One letter from the (spoiler alert) deceased Chief Willoughby, whom Dixon admired like a father, and he’s suddenly a changed man. This transformation struck me as unearned. However, Sonny Bunch at The Washington Post has suggested that the film isn’t really about Dixon’s change of heart, or about glorifying Mildred’s crusade: “What if it’s not about a corrupt, racist cop finding absolution in a cold, cruel world? What if it is, instead, about the dehumanizing effect of pursuing justice without care for who gets caught in the crossfire or which potentially innocent individuals get hurt?” This is an interesting reading of the film and while I want the movie to be about how our search for perfect justice can unleash a bloodlusting recklessness, I’m not convinced that’s what the film actually does. At the end, as Dixon and Mildred (spoiler) drive off to Idaho to kill a man they think is a rapist, they do express some doubts, but they don’t stop. And the fact that there are two scenes in which this suspected rapist is depicted as pure evil, not a trace of humanity, suggests we’re supposed to think their vigilante mission is justified. In other words, I don’t think the film is as smart as Bunch gives it credit.

As for the other films, The Post was a pretty typical, playing-it-safe Spielberg flick meant to invoke feel-good goosebumps for the freedom of the press. It was a clear response to our age of “fake news” and Trump’s attacks on the media, but did little to challenge or expand or complicate my notions of the relationship between government and journalism. The Darkest Hour is a similar kind of underdog story. Just as Streep’s Katharine Graham decides to print the Pentagon Papers despite overwhelming advice and pressure to do otherwise, Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill becomes prime minister despite almost unanimous opposition and decides to continue fighting the Germans against bleak odds and even more resistance from his colleagues in Parliament. While I learned more from this film (I didn’t know Churchill was so disliked) and it somewhat complicated the mythology that’s been erected around him, the project still felt old to me. It was another ultimately comforting story in which we know the good guys will win, and we should laud our heroes who have the courage to make difficult, unpopular decisions. The film puts all of its eggs in the basket of Oldman’s performance, which didn’t live up to the hype.

I loved Lady Bird. As a woman who grew up in the 90s, went to Catholic school for 12 years, and fought relentlessly with her mom as a teenager, I couldn’t not love this film. But I don’t think it’s taking the kind of risks a Best Picture should. So that leaves Get Out and Call Me By Your Name, two films that do take risks. Get Out is all guts. It was provocative and made me uncomfortable in the way an excellent movie should. Call Me By Your Name was emotionally piercing. It was the closest to evoking the kind of sweet pain that Moonlight evoked too. I would be ecstatic if either of these won, though I don’t think they will.

So what do these films say about American culture right now? For me, it’s that we still want our good guys to be good and our bad guys to be monsters. That we’re learning how to make sense of the inbetween. That in this age of seemingly unparalleled uncertainty and instability, we long for the comfort of familiar narratives. I understand this urge; I want it too. Which is exactly why I think I should resist it.

"Character Matters": Reflections on Character with Republicans

The weekend started with a documentary about Ronald Reagan.

Actually, it started when my mother leaned over the table at dinner an hour after my arrival and said, “So, what do you think of all the good things Trump has already done in office?”

I had come up to Seattle to attend the Roanoke Conference with Mom. The following morning we would drive out to Ocean Shores, Washington, where 500 of the state’s Republicans would descend on the small coastal town for a weekend of panels and parties, assessing the state of conservatism locally and nationally.

So I let Mom rattle on in praise of Trump, telling me about her plans to attend CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) in Washington, DC next month, and tried not to grimace when she said, like a lovestruck teenager, “I hope we see Trump there! That would be so cool.”

If I was going to survive the weekend, pacing was vital. Keeping my emotional reflexes in check, crucial. I can’t tell if Mom says these things in order to provoke me. It often feels that way, but I have to believe that’s not her intention. 

After dinner, the plan was to attend a screening of Rendezvous with Destiny, a documentary about the life of Ronald Reagan (hosted by Newt Gingrich and his wife), and an event put on by the Women of Washington, a conservative organization in which Mom is an enthusiastic member. In the conference room of a retirement home on Mercer Island, half a dozen rows of chairs were set up in front of a modest screen. In the back of the room, a plate of cookies and two large bags of store-bought popcorn accompanied by Styrofoam cups were offered for consumption. Mom introduced Dad and me to her friends; I could tell she was happy we were there.

What I knew about Ronald Reagan before seeing this film could probably be summed up like this: saint to the conservative Christian right who praised him for his tax cuts, anti-Christ to the left who failed to adequately respond to the AIDS epidemic, BFF with Margaret Thatcher, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” That’s probably it. I expected the film would be one long, sugar-coated love-letter to the former actor-turned-president and I wasn’t off base. It was a tribute to his life and accomplishments, but perhaps above all—his character.

I saw a man who was, indeed, a “great communicator,” who respected language and could not only speak intelligently and articulately, but read books and wrote letters. I saw a man who exuded warmth, charisma and sincerity, and had a sense of humor. I saw a man who seemed humble, and was lauded by one speaker in the film as not one to chase praise. I saw a man who was no doubt wealthy, but called a  California ranch, not a gold-ceilinged mansion, home. And I saw a man who, perhaps most importantly, was capable of admitting error, taking responsibility and even apologizing to the American people, as he did regarding the Iran-Contra Affair.

I have no doubt that a serious study of Reagan’s life and time as president would reveal far more flaws and failures. I’m sure I would disagree with many of his policies and beliefs. I know I was being emotionally manipulated through carefully chosen images and footage. Nonetheless, I willingly went along for the ride. I was not in tears at the end of the film, as many of my fellow viewers were, but I had certainly been swept away by the narrative of this “citizen president.” I was clearly hungry for such a story. I longed for a leader who seemed competent and careful. Everything about Reagan’s character seemed diametrically opposed to Trump’s. How, I wondered, could conservatives who loved Reagan and Trump, not recognize these blatant differences? 

After the movie, Dad and I chatted amongst ourselves as Mom socialized with her friends, and I relayed these feelings to him. In his view, as someone who voted for Trump (and Obama) but doesn’t like Trump, he argued that the achievements were more important than the man. “Many good presidents have done immoral things,” he reminded me. It was what got done that mattered. And so I wondered, to what extent does character matter? Was I naive in my belief that we should have high standards for our leaders? 

This question continued to surface throughout the weekend. In the car creeping down I-5 on our way to the beach the next morning, windshield wipers lapping at the rain, Mom and I listened to an episode of conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s podcast with Steve Hayward (a visiting professor at UC Berkley), in which they speculated on the value of statesmanship. Hayward said: “I think if we had a Trump administration without Trump, we’d mostly be ecstatic, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Goldberg.

“The idea of statesmanship, of high ideals of political practice, is an intelligible idea,” Hayward said. “And what’s the core of that? The old Aristotelian virtue of prudence...Trump doesn’t have any of those characteristics we described of high statesmanship—an attachment to principle. What are [his principles]? Whatever will work for him.”

Hayward went on to say that we also associate models of statesmanship like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill with, “a profound grasp of the circumstances that they’re maneuvering in.” That’s not the case with Trump. “You can’t tell moment to moment whether Trump has any grasp of things, and so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t blunder into a war with North Korea.”

Goldberg added to this Trump’s dangerous rhetoric. “Ideas and words are the prism through which we understand reality,” Goldberg said. “And the dumbed down nature of the way Donald Trump talks is doing lasting harm.”

I was inclined to agree with Goldberg, that words can do tangible damage, but Mom wasn’t convinced. So how exactly do we quantify the impact of language? 

Once we arrived in Ocean Shores, we checked into our hotel (with 1980s seafaring decor prominently featuring dolphins, and where we were greeted by a woman at the front desk with a Farrah Fawcett blowout) and went across the street to the convention center to pick up our welcome folders, name badges, and join the opening reception. I helped myself to a plastic cup of free wine, and shadowed Mom as she perused the spread of sliced deli meats and cheese wedges stacked like Jenga blocks.

The conference officially commenced with a slew of introductions and short speeches. During these opening remarks I was struck by the words of Kim Wyman, the Washington Secretary of State, and a recent survivor of colon cancer in 2017, whose brush with mortality framed her thoughts. When asked how she carried on being one of only two Republicans in the state legislature, she responded, “You have to be principle-centered,” and went on to define this as representing everyone in her state (not just those who voted for her), fostering civil discourse, and making an effort to “have the conversation,” to work with, not against, her colleagues on the left. This wasn’t always a popular course of action within her party, she admitted.

The next morning, the first panel, was titled “Year One: An Assessment of the Trump Administration,” and consisted of mixed (conservative) perspectives on Trump’s progress thus far. Steve Beren, from One Spark Marketing, reiterated Trump’s failure to win the popular vote and worried that he had given people a reason to leave the party; Todd Meyers, from the Washington Policy Center, cited Trump’s victories (Supreme Court appointments, regulation repeals) and failures (free trade, not repealing Obamacare and now rising insurance rates), concluding that it was a mixed bag; Katie Walsh Shields, who served as the White House Deputy Chief of Staff from January to March 2017, lauded the president’s accomplishments—and character—without reservation.

Walsh Shields, along with her husband Mike Shields, were the keynote speakers of the conference, and later that night she continued to praise Trump. She said he was “charming,” and that he “brought people together.” She claimed that in meetings with him, Trump silenced the men who tended to dominate conversation so that she and Kellyanne Conway could be heard. (She suspected this was the result of Ivanka’s influence.) But my impression throughout the conference was that the Republicans themselves had mixed feelings on the question of Trump’s character. Some, like my mom, seemed unphased by his behavior. Maybe they didn’t condone his rhetoric, but it was necessary to get the job done. It showed his strength and determination, his willingness to break with conventional party politics (and basic manners and decency, I would argue). Others were skeptical and I took some comfort in that.

But it was Kim Wyman who, on a panel called “Why Conservatives Are Happy,” spoke to this issue in the most compelling terms. Again, she put her ideas in the context of her recent battle with cancer, an experience which altered her relationship to the present, underscored the fragility of life, made her “take a step back” and recommit herself and her family to leading a joyful life. For her, this didn’t mean narrow-mindedly towing the party line and fight to the death on conservative issues. It meant reigniting civil discourse, disagreeing in a respectful manner, and challenging the assumptions we hold of others. It meant compromise and give and take and finding solutions. “We make better laws when we have dialogue and discussion,” she said. “My job is to make things better.”

In case there was any confusion as to where she stood on the issue of character, she said, not referring specifically to Trump, but in general, “How you live matters. Character matters.”

Over 48 hours I listened to discussions on affordable housing, free speech, taxes, the opioid crisis, campaign finance laws, and the right to work. Attending the Roanoke Conference left me with the feeling that my brain was about to explode, but in a “thinking hurts so good,” kind of way. I was challenged intellectually and emotionally. I met people, not caricatures, which offers comfort and concern, but mostly comfort. I was reminded that one’s “enemies” are often just people who (mostly) want the same things as you in life, they just have different ideas about how to get them. And so I left Ocean Shores feeling exhausted, but surprisingly, oddly, optimistic. I’m hesitant to say “hopeful” because I have no sense of how likely an embrace of mainstream responsible civil discourse actually is, only that it’s possible, that I can imagine avenues of compromise, if/when we collectively decide we’re fed up with the status quo.

On the drive home, I seized one last opportunity to engage Mom and played an interview with Glenn Beck from my favorite podcast, OnBeing. In it he says, to the shock of many liberals: “We have to start believing the best in each other instead of expecting the worst.” Then he admits and regrets and apologizes for his own role in stoking the flames of misunderstanding and dividing the country. This seemed to have little impact on Mom, a fan of Beck and the way he’d flamboyantly draw and circle connections between this and that on his chalkboards, even though he seemed to admit in the interview that these connections were somewhat unsubstantiated. At least, that he’d made a mistake in how he chose to tell his stories.

I’ve been thinking about the stories I like, the narratives I want to believe. I’m not under any delusion that our greatest leaders, Lincoln and Churchill and King, were perfect men. Perfection is not a prerequisite for strong character. But I’d like to think a certain kind of humility and grace and respect for language are. Churchill is not remembered as a “humble” man, but he was capable of being humbled by his circumstances, of understanding that he had the capacity to fail and  this weighed on him. 

But perhaps I am too close, too steeped in the present moment, too emotionally charged to judge the situation dispassionately. Maybe ten years from now I’ll be forced to recognize what is now only a terrifying paradox to me: that a voluntarily illiterate, inarticulate, incompetent man could do some good. Or perhaps I’m too idealistic, want to much from the person who holds the most revered office in our country.

Which reminds me of a line from one of my dad’s favorite movies (favorite meaning he watched it so many times he wore out the VHS cassette), The American President. At the end, President Andrew Shepherd delivers the kind of momentous, Hollywood-style, goosebump-provoking State of the Union speech in which he finally responds to the “character attacks” from a villainous Republican. The music swells and he says definitively, with authority and integrity: “Being President of this country is entirely about character.”

In Search of Quiet Spaces (And a Digression)

A couple weeks ago a group of us went to the Namdroling Monastery in Bykulappe, the second largest Tibetan settlement in India. We hired a car and at 6am started the almost 2 hour journey from Mysore, past (what I’m guessing were) paddy fields, sugarcane crops, sandal groves, small huts with tin roofs draped with lines of drying clothes, groups of men congregating for their morning chai, and the usual assortment of stray dogs and street cows.

We arrived in time to see the end of morning prayer in the Golden Temple. Three stunning 60 foot tall Buddhas presided over rows of young, robed, chanting monks. We slipped into the area roped off for observers and sat in stillness. Watching. Listening. More than any other religious building, I feel at peace in Buddhist spaces. I am not a Buddhist, but I’m strongly drawn to that philosophical view of the world. I find it the most comforting and the least dogmatic. Sitting there felt timeless-- I didn’t wonder when it would end or what we would do next. The deep reverberations of their voices, the striking of drums, soothed me. Occasionally a few of the monks looked over at us, squirming on their cushions. Even their break in austerity was refreshing. Afterward, an older monk spent a few minutes chatting with us. He explained the murals and the significance of the three towering buddhas. But what resonated with me more than his words, was his warmth and delight. Always smiling. Periodically giggling.

We walked around the monastery grounds, in and out of two smaller temples, and then went to the first camp for lunch. Ellen, who organized the trip is Buddhist and teaches religion in Holland, so she was a wonderful resource to answer our questions. Over momos we discussed religion-- what’s taught in schools and what’s not and why. I’m curious about the intersections between yoga and hinduism and buddhism. There are so many common ideas and overlapping themes and stories that I mistakenly conflate them into one eastern hodgepodge of aphorisms. I thought about my own religious upbringing-- thirteen years of Catholic education while attending an Episcopal church every Sunday with my family. To my high school’s credit I was also required to take courses on Personal and Social Ethics and World Religions. Even at the time, as I rebelled again Christianity in many ways, I was grateful that my school exposed me to other faiths. It seems strange that such a large part the human experience is excluded from public schools. Couldn’t there be some way to peacefully, accurately handle the subject?

And yet, I’m well aware of why this would be difficult. Even those amongst the religious majority can feel attacked. Many Christians, for example, feel that their religious freedoms are threatened. When it comes to displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings, it’s hard for me to sympathize, to understand how this is religious persecution and not a reasonable separation between church and state. But then there are examples such as the “War on Christmas” that riles conservatives and Fox news anchors every season. I used to roll my eyes at this (I still kind of do). What’s wrong with encouraging people to use a phrase that’s all inclusive? Then we needn’t worry about offending anyone. But is that the problem? Are we too worried about offending people? Are we too easily offended? What if our attempts to be inclusive actually isolate us from one another? What if we’re so worried about saying the wrong thing, we don’t say anything at all? What if we’re just glossing over our differences and missing one another as a result?

I frequently worry about offending people. In June, when I worked at a co-op on Father’s Day, I was hesitant to mention the holiday for fear of upsetting those who might no longer have or know their father. I didn’t want to bring up a painful memory or put a customer in an uncomfortable position. So I carried on with my usual script. But about half way through my shift I wished a co-worker a Happy Father’s Day and inquired if he had any fun plans. He responded: “Well my father is an alcoholic, so I don’t really talk to him.” Ugh! I felt terrible! My fears validated! But as my mother pointed out later, this created an opportunity for him to share something personal. If he didn’t want me to know, he didn’t have to say anything. He could easily have brushed off the comment. It was an uncomfortable moment, but isn’t that where friendship and intimacy are born? 

Of course, this is not to say we shouldn’t be sensitive to others, or that we should say whatever we want with disregard. Having the willingness to offend requires the willingness to follow through with that responsibility, to listen to others, and to the best of our ability handle the reaction with care and compassion. It also requires that if someone says something we find offensive we should take into consideration that person’s intentions, the nuances of the situation. I know my co-worker knew I wasn’t trying to hurt him, that it was a comment offered from a kind, sincere place. 

When I worked at a health food store in Boulder, Colorado in November, we were instructed to offer every customer the chance to reserve a Thanksgiving turkey-- unless they weren’t purchasing any animal products. If that was the case they might be vegetarian and some customers were known to take offense and get confrontational. But I didn’t worry about offending these people because I had a sincere response prepared should they decline: “I understand, I don’t eat meat either, I’m a vegan.” But even if I wasn't vegan I could have found an equally genuine response. 

I understand it gets trickier when we’re dealing with religion. I’m sure many people prefer “Happy Holidays” because “Merry Christmas” has baggage. But instead of restricting the range of acceptible holiday salutations, could we pluralize them? Perhaps if we knew more about religion we’d feel comfortable responding to the person that says, “Actually, I’m Jewish.” Or Hindu, Muslim, athiest, or just vehemently opposed to rampant, mindless consumerism via gift giving…

India is not without religious conflict, but considering how big the country is and how many people are here, everyone seems to get on rather well. In part that could be because Hinduism, the dominant religion, is one that is relatively non-discriminatory when it comes to deities. Many Hindus have no problem honoring Jesus or Mohammed alongside Vishnu and Shiva and the other millions of gods. What if we embraced a similar attitude? What if “Merry Christmas” didn’t have to mean “Jesus is the son of God, our only salvation and everyone that doesn’t agree is going to hell”? Which I imagine is how some people take it (I used to be one).

If secularism holds that politics should be uninfluenced by religion, then I support a move toward secularism in government spaces. But when it comes to religious expression at the grocery store, this is one thing I’d like to give my mother and other Christians who feel muzzled. (I’d also like to stop hearing Fox news anchors complain about it.) If we continue to police what people say about their faith, I worry it will lead to a cultural secularism that comes at the cost of our engagement with any spirituality, religious or otherwise. I say this as someone that went through an intense backlash again not just Christianity, but all religion, following a Dawkins-Hitchens-Maher disdain for most of it. Thanks to yoga, I’ve softened quite a bit and can appreciate any set of ideas that-- at its best-- just offers a way to ease the anxiety of being alive and the big questions: why are we here? what happens after death? how should we live now? Separating religious dogma from politics is necessary, but divorcing spiritual questions from culture seems dangerous. Just because we don’t need our politicians legislating a single religious Truth, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grapple with them communally.

And now for my digression: what makes me worry that this may be the case, is how we treat sacred spaces, which are also quiet spaces, spaces to stop and think and ruminate-- be it a Buddhist temple, a Christian church, or the wilderness. At the monastery, I was shocked by how difficult it was to find a quiet place to sit. In each temple, throngs of tourists entered, either not seeing or ignoring the prominent signs politely, yet explicitly, asking visitors to Keep Silence. One specifically stated that this was a place of prayer, Not Entertainment. But that didn’t stop anyone from talking loudly and boisterously taking selfies with the buddhas behind them. I was dismayed to see such blatant disregard for the monks’ space. My frustration was heightened by the fact that these were Tibetans, who had been forced into exile, whose culture was already facing annihilation. Why couldn’t these visitors respect their tiny space of refuge? Why were they even here if they didn’t want to actually be here? I took pictures too, which was permitted, but I waited until the end and, I'd like to think, the "appropriate" time. And yet, as my indignation (and--honestly-- my self righteousness) mounted, if the monks were irritated, they hardly let it show. They continued to appear calm and content.

I’ve found myself in this position frequently. When my housemates and I drove up Chamundhi Hill to take in a view of Mysore at night we were overwhelmed by twenty-somethings blasting dance music, accompanied by a small laser show to boot, oblivious to others. And back in Seattle I couldn’t go for a hike without the accompanying top 40 hits blasted from the portable radios of teenagers. It feels like a “kids these days” curmudgeonly thing to complain about, and perhaps there’s not much new about this. But it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that quiet spaces are harder to find now for at least one obvious reason: our relationship to technology is drastically different than it was even twenty years ago. And it’s not just “the kids.” At the monastery whole families entered with the sole intention of taking a picture. Even mom and dad exhibited no engagement with the space outside of this purpose. Of course we’ve had cameras for decades, but the selfie-instagram-facebook explosion is new. And music is easier than ever to take wherever we go. We never need be confronted with silence if we don’t like it. And if we never take the time to pause and sit in this discomfort are we avoiding a critical part of life and ourselves? Even quiet is rarely pure silence anyway, but the sounds of a living world, from chanting monks to forest birds to traffic noise, none of which, I suppose, are especially sexy.

I say this as someone that gravitates toward solitude, but is still terrified by it. In truth, I probably like the idea of it more than the experience itself. For months I’ve fantasized about it. I loved being at home with my parents, but I was rarely alone, and if my mother was there that meant the radio was on too-- all the time, in multiple rooms of the house, simultaneously. But now that I have huge stretches of solitude at my fingertips, I find myself grasping for stimulation. At home I rarely went on Facebook. But here the compulsion to “check-in” is constant. It temporarily scratches the itch to connect with others, and yet I often feel doubly lonely afterwards. I know it’s hard to be quiet and alone, even when we want to be. I romanticize it, but it’s not romantic. It’s fucking hard.

I know that to a certain extent this is just the way it is now. I remember when a person talking on a cell phone in a confined public space, like on the bus, would have been stared down with contempt. Now, everyone talks on the phone everywhere and the rest of us have just given up. I don’t want to rant against technology, because I know it’s not really the technology, “it’s the way we use it.” But that seems like an obvious, overstated, sad, futile point to make. I don’t want to slip into doomsday-filled rhetoric about what will happen to us if this continues and how we’ll lose our souls and humanity. But perhaps all of this is to say-- to ask-- if there’s a connection between our reluctance to publicly express religious or spiritual ideas (coupled with an ever advancing relationship to technology) and a decline in our reverence for sacred, quiet spaces? Perhaps this is to say that my own aversion to religious expression is diminishing and that I’d prefer a culture that’s at least trying to engage with this messy, crazy, wonderful world in whatever way it can, to one that is so worried about offending it avoids meaningful interaction altogether, or a culture that just doesn’t care.

On Aesthetics

“Did you just come from a Buddhist ashram?”

I’m in the changing room after practice one morning, and a woman I haven’t met yet asks me this question.

“Because of your hair,” she clarifies. Now understanding, I smile and explain I haven’t, though I wish I had and was in-part inspired by Pema Chodron.

I’ve enjoyed the reaction to my hair. Last week I spent an afternoon at the Regaalis swimming pool (mostly poolside eating Aloo Gobi and reading Shantaram), and in the locker room another woman I didn’t know commented on how easy it must be to dry off after the pool without long hair-- a thought I was just relishing in when she spoke.

So far my short hair has been everything I’d hoped it would be: easy, thoughtless, and comfortable. However, when I cut my hair, a naive part of me thought this was a move away from caring about my appearance, that because I was rejecting a conventional standard of beauty, I was rejecting all standards. That is, of course, not the case, although it has changed and challenged how I think about beauty. I do spend less time contemplating what to do with my hair. There is-- blissfully-- nothing I can do with it at this point, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about what I look like. Or that my new cut doesn’t mean something to me and how I represent myself, and how I perceive others perceive me.

An example of what I mean took place two weeks ago. July 31 was Guruji’s 100th birthday and KPJAYI honored him with a day of celebrations, beginning with a puja (Hindu prayer), followed by family, friends, and students sharing their memories of him, performing songs and dances, and concluded with an incredible lunch of traditional South Indian fare served on blessed banana leaves. It was a gorgeous day and everyone dressed up for the celebration. Not having anything festive enough, and hesitant to invest in a sari, I bought a long kurta and dupatta for the occasion (with the help of some new friends). It was a lovely ensemble, and as we were shopping (in Fab India-- what Jenna accurately characterized as the Indian Anthropologie), it was tempting to go all the way-- to get a pair of colorfully beaded jutties and matching dangly jhumka earrings. Everything was so ornate and visually delicious. I refrained for practical reasons (because unless I get invited to an Indian wedding, I may not have another opportunity to wear any of this again soon), but I was lured by the aesthetics. Instead, I resigned myself to wear the jewelery and accessories I’d arrived in-- the nails in my ears and my necessary black-rimmed glasses.  I took a picture with my friend Ruchi in the shala after the program and imagined how much “prettier” I would have looked with flowing blonde hair. Surely it would “fit” this outfit better. The buzz cut was out of place. But I also liked that it was out of place. I liked the contradictions, the embedded cultural friction. 

Being currently immersed in the ashtanga yoga world, my haircut has also made me think about the aesthetics of yoga, or really, of yogis. In the west, I suspect that when most people imagine a “yogi” she is thin, flexible, white, and perhaps even blonde. She looks just like most glossy magazine models, but she might be serenely posing with her legs behind her head. And she’s not just a myth. I’ve taken many classes with Lulemon-clad women who fit this description. In fact, I’ve had enough teachers that look like this that it’s hard not to wonder if that is really how they express themselves, or if they’re trying to fit a predetermined mold. And unfortunately, I think many people are put off by these aesthetics; they aren’t interested in yoga, or assume it’s not for them, because they don’t look like that. A friend of mine who teaches yoga in Seattle was told by a student matter-of-factly: “You don’t have a yoga body” because her hips were wider and legs thicker (stronger) than our notions allow.

The poster girl for this is Kino MacGregor. I had no idea who she was until recently, when she came up in conversation with the same Seattle yoga teacher, and then again here over breakfast at Anokhi Garden (where I frequently return, thanks to Marie’s open invitation). I still don’t know much about her, but apparently Kino is controversial because of how she presents herself. She embodies the yoga girl most people think of. She is tan and blonde and wears tiny shorts and brightly colored tube tops. She makes instructional YouTube videos and takes sexy pictures with her yoga mat.

What makes her objectionable, and not the dozens of women who fit the same bill on the cover of Yoga Journal, is that her appearance feels contrived. She dyes her hair blonde. She wears make-up to practice. She is Miami pretty with all the props that entails. Of course, the Yoga Journal women are made up too, perhaps even more so, and they get fancy lights and cameras (and a few rounds of airbrushing, I’d guess). But they’re put together in a way that makes the theatrics invisible. They’re designed to radiate the “healthy glow” kind of beauty-- the kind that’s supposedly the product-- the promise and reward-- of hours on the mat and eating kale all day. We don’t object to them because they look radiant and fresh, and they’ve supposedly earned it. But Kino, according to some, is trying too hard. Her authenticity is questioned.

What it means to be an authentic yogi is a deeply fraught question, tangled and torn between a truly ancient Eastern philosophy and a newly invigorated modern, mostly-Western understanding of the asanas (poses). So at the risk of frustrating many camps, I’ll define a sincere yogi as someone who practices yoga as a spiritual path, who understands the asanas as just one of eight limbs, and integrates the core ideas and teachings (like the yamas and niyamas) into her life. And one of these ideas is detachment: we are working toward detachment from the ego. This is why people question Kino. They wonder if Kino’s aesthetics are evidence of her attachment to, perhaps even her investment in, how she looks-- her ego. A year or two ago I can imagine being persuaded in that direction. I’ve always been attracted to ideals of ascetic simplicity and purity. I probably thought you couldn’t be a “real” yogi unless you renounced all material possessions and lived in a bamboo hut.

But as I understand it now, it’s not necessarily the aesthetics that are the problem, but the attachment to those aesthetics. And the only person who really knows Kino’s relationship to her looks, is Kino herself. Indeed, that is the task all of us face: an honest inquiry into how we relate to ourselves, including the external shell we show the world. Therefore it may not matter whether we adorn ourselves with colorful powders and bleach our hair, or put nails through our ears and chop off of our hair altogether. If I’m attached to my buzz cut (and whatever I think that signifies) the way I was attached to my hair, nothing has changed.

I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s hard to know. It’s certain that all my caring about beauty and how others look at me didn’t magically vanish. I didn’t leave it on the barber’s counter in a golden nest. But perhaps this is a good stepping stone toward detachment. As I don’t have the option of styling my hair in a way that I think would be more pleasing or attractive to others, perhaps I’ll fall out of the habit. I’ve already noticed myself making the assumption that I won’t be found attractive. I don’t mean this at all in a self-deprecating, boo-hoo me way. I mean it in a realistic way and with a light hearted sigh of relief. There is something liberating about assuming people won’t look at you in a certain way. Like a little invisibility cloak.

Finally, I don’t want to set up a dualistic, mutually exclusive material/spiritual binary, as if we can only have one or the other. I don’t want to suggest that how we adorn our bodies is intrinsically superficial or without meaning. In fact, India is teaching me how fabulous aesthetics can be in themselves. How beautiful beauty can be. There’s something to be said for that. And when I’m feeling lonely or scared or uninspired, a glimpse of my head’s silhouette can be enough to make me feel a little tougher, more capable, and determined. Like I could fight aliens. Or just the little demons I grapple with every day.

45 Hours

“Everyone has a Mysore Meltdown. Give that to yourself.” These were my friend Michael’s parting words three weeks ago as we wrapped up our conversation about my upcoming trip to India. He’s an authorized Ashtanga yoga teacher and was counseling me on the details of practicing at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) and living in Mysore. I knew it was going to be the most challenging trip I’ve ever taken. Not just because I was going alone, but because it’s India. When you tell people you’re going to India, most of them say the same thing: poverty, intensity, safety. Those who have been explain that nothing can prepare you. But I’m a planner, so I was going to do the best I could, knowing my limitations.

When I left on Tuesday morning, I felt I’d done everything I could. I’d read travel books and blogs and packed accordingly. I had my immunizations and a mini pharmacy in my backpack. I made itineraries, contact lists, and copies of everything. I gave myself plenty of time. I checked things off my extensive to-do list little by little in the weeks before my departure, so that when that day finally arrived there was no rushing or last minute crises. As I sat in the kitchen with my dad, enjoying a cup of tea an hour before we needed to leave for the airport, I joked, “I’m just trying to remember whatever it is I’ve probably forgotten.” But I really felt I had remembered everything. India may bring the crazy, but at least I was going in organized, calm, and collected. I didn’t even feel that nervous. I had slept well, unplagued by my usual worries and what-ifs the night before something big. And this was big. I’d been trying to get to Asia for two years. It was the plan that fell through last summer when I couldn’t get an employment visa to work in New Delhi, and since then it was constantly being pushed back. It felt like the trip I was always talking about yet never taking. But now it was finally here and I felt good. The only thing that felt daunting was the time it would take to get there: an hour and a half to Vancouver, nine hours to London, eight hours to Mumbai, two hours to Bangalore, three to four more hours to Mysore. And that’s not including the layovers. But fine, I’d be stiff and bleary-eyed when I arrived, but I had books, a journal, and sleeping pills to ease me through it.

So perhaps you can imagine my horror when, as I was about to board the flight in Heathrow, I discovered that I was not in possession of any of my debit or credit cards. They were not with me. I did have the cash that was supposed to cover my immediate expenses and pay for my yoga registration. But the plastic that was supposed to accompany it in my coin purse was absent. I knew exactly where they were: in the photocopier upstairs in my dad’s office-- exactly where I put them that morning as I was diligently taking extra precautions by making copies of them for myself and parents. Nauseating disbelief stunned me. Seriously? Seriously?! Seriously I forgot them. Oh. my. god. What is wrong with me?! I sat down, opened my laptop, and emailed my dad. This is not the first time I have emailed my parents about missing credit cards in Asia, but at least last time I actually made it to Asia first. And at least last time they were stolen (though really, again, by my own stupidity). I have a robust capacity for self-deprecation and criticism, but as I boarded the flight and settled into my seat on Air India’s Dreamliner, I was unforgiving. I couldn’t fathom how I’d let this happen. I double checked everything else. All my silly lists only to forget one of the most basic, necessary things. I hadn’t even arrived yet and I’d already proven my incompetence.

My mind immediately switched into hyper mode trying to figure out how I would navigate this turn of events. In the email I asked my dad to mail the cards to the guest house where I was staying for the first three nights. I shuttered to think how much that would cost and yet I didn’t seem to have a choice. At least I had the cash, which was enough for the shala (studio) registration fee I had to pay in full the afternoon I arrived, and a little bit more for food until the cards arrived. There was nothing else I could do, so I consoled myself with Shah Rukh Kahn’s ridiculous charm and glistening abs in Happy New Year and slept the rest of the way to Mumbai.

Then this happened: our flight which was supposed to land at 3:45am didn’t arrive until around 4:20am; then I had to wait in line to pass through immigration (twice, actually, because I didn’t have the second necessary form (doh!)); then there was the line for customs; then there was finding the bus for the domestic terminal, waiting for the bus, and the 15 minute bus ride. All of which meant that when I checked-in for my flight to Bangalore at the ticket counter the flight had boarded and was closed. Shit. Now I was having my Meltdown--quite literally, actually, as the Mumbai humidity hugged my clothing to my skin, and beads of sweat started to gather on the small of my back and neck as I made the rounds to various desks. To a manager who sent me to the reservation desk outside the terminal (yet through doors where severe looking guards were checking IDs and tickets). To a nice woman who told me she could get me on the next flight, but I’d have to buy a new ticket, and since I didn’t have the card I’d used to buy the first ticket, I had to pay cash. To a nice man who walked me back past the severe looking guards, over to the currency exchange inside the terminal, and back again, so I could buy this ticket. Ticket in hand, I walked back into the terminal, retrieved my boarding pass, and then sat down with my laptop and hoped for free wifi so I could inform the man who was supposed to pick me up in Bangalore in an hour, that I would now be several hours late, and hope I’d still have a ride. There was free wifi! But because I didn’t have a mobile number (I’d put my Sprint account on seasonal standby with the intention of getting an Indian simcard), a woman at the help desk had to enter a code for me. She did, I sent my email, and was relieved to get the following response from my dad about the cards: I’m on it. I went through security, sat down at my gate, and consoled myself with a chocolate bar and enjoyed the air conditioning.

If I had just forgotten my credit cards, or if I had just missed my flight, the situation wouldn’t have been so precarious, but because both happened, I was now in a financial pickle. I had spent all my extra money on the ticket and had barely enough left for the registration, let alone to pay the driver in Bangalore. I was going to have to delay my practice anyway because I'd now be arriving in Mysore well into the night, past the time I could register. I'd have to wait until I could get more money, and hope that the shala would accommodate me.

Then my new flight was delayed, now departing at 2:40pm and arriving in Bangalore after 4pm.  When I attempted to send yet another email to the driver, I discovered that the code entered by the woman at the help desk had expired and there was no help desk on this side of security where I might get it again, and I couldn’t go back through security. This poor man would be waiting for me all day at the airport, or perhaps he wouldn’t and I would be faced with the issue of hiring a taxi, taking the bus, or staying the night in Bangalore. But at this point I was no longer wound up by the glitches in my plans. It could be worse, I told myself. Though to frame it that way seems like the poor man’s optimism, and while I didn’t have a lot of money, I wasn’t poor. I had made it to India--India!-- and one way or another things would sort out. And for all that had happened in the last ten hours, at least I didn’t cry. Not that there would have been anything wrong with that necessarily, but I felt better knowing I hadn't made (too much of) a spectacle of myself. I managed to mostly keep it together and that felt like a small nugget worthy of redemption for my forgetfulness, which I still couldn’t comprehend, but was no longer angry about.

While commiserating over the delayed flight with other passengers at the gate, I met Shubhankar, who informed me that the airline was buying everyone lunch at the Curry Kitchen to apologize for the inconvenience. Over mild vegetable biryani we chatted about Mumbai and yoga and he let me use his wifi code so I could check my email (I would indeed still have a ride from the airport to Mysore! Hooray!). Once on board, I quickly fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we touched down two hours later. Upon exiting the terminal I immediately spotted a man holding a sign with my name, apologized profusely for the delay, and with haste followed him to the car. I tried desperately to stay awake, but couldn’t resist the drag on my eyelids. Every twenty minutes or so I woke with a start, my head flinging itself back to attention, only to droop again a moment later. I probably should have been rattled by the incessant honking, accelerating, swerving between lanes, avoiding scooters and squeezing past buses, but instead I found it comforting. More like a carefully choreographed dance than a chaotic free-for-all. When my eyes were open long enough to take in the surroundings, we seemed to speed past the same panorama of crumbly lego-like cement buildings, and a vast, drab landscape dotted with palm trees. Each time I opened my eyes it was darker and darker, until only thin strings of lights hung on the buildings illuminated the scenery.

When we reached the Anokhi Garden-- a modest "soft landing" (as Michael had advised) in Gokulam (the neighborhood of Mysore where I’d be living) Marie, the French owner, showed me around the cozy guest house, then led me to my room where I could shower and collapse into the firm king sized bed awaiting me. Outside the street traffic lulled me to sleep-- soothing like the muffled dialogue from the television or my parents hushed conversation in the other room after I went to bed as a child. 45 hours after leaving home, I had arrived.

 

Wild at Rattlesnake Ledge

Yesterday I hiked the Rattlesnake Ledge trail in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The weather was uncharacteristic of February in Seattle--60 degrees and sunny--and I wanted to enjoy it while it lasts. I scoped out my options on the Washington Trails Association website and this one looked perfect: a two-mile climb to sweeping views. As I approached the exit on 90 east, the hazy morning fog started to lift, giving way periodically to stunning glimpses of the surrounding mountains. I arrived around 9:30am and it was already busy. I forgot it was Presidents Day, but that was fine. There’s something refreshing about seeing so many people out, enjoying the park and getting exercise. At least I thought so. I hadn’t even left the parking lot when I noticed the group walking in front of me was playing music. And not just through earbuds, but with portable speakers for everyone to hear. Again and again this happened. I picked up my pace to circumvent these parties, only to inevitably come upon another. By the time I reached the ledge--and the sweeping views, as promised--I was trying really hard not to be irritated. rattlesnakeledge

I felt like an old curmudgeon, judging everyone and wishing they’d gone to the mall instead. But at least they’re out here at all, I told myself. After all, we need more people to appreciate these spaces, so we’ll preserve them. If they need to bring a little music, who am I to say they shouldn’t? Am I the nature behavior police? It was still an incredible day. I had a little space to eat my snack, write, and savor the sun on my face. It was practically spring. So what if a handful of prepubescents needed to embellish the experience with today’s top 40?

I waited for them to leave so I could have at least a little resting time without their soundtrack (and to give them a good head start on the return). Just a few minutes of listening to the wind or birds or whatever was already there. But as soon as they left another boisterous, musical pack of youth replaced them. I collected my things and started the descent. I tried to let it go, convinced I was still being unreasonably cranky, but continued to mull over what it meant on the now even busier trail. More people. More people with music. One guy veered toward me, eyes down, smart phone in hand. As I passed the trailhead at the bottom I stopped trying to suppress my annoyance. I found a picnic table next to the lake and vented into my notebook.

I imagined what I’d tell my parents when they asked me How was the hike? I’d say, Gorgeous! But it was such a zoo! I wondered: what does it really mean to compare something to a zoo? The implication is that it’s wild, like the caged animals. But my problem with the raucous teenagers wasn’t that they were being wild, it’s that they were being too civilized--music, phones, constant chattering without listening. What did make it similar to being at the zoo, was what it implies about our relationship to the natural world. That it’s something for us to dominate, or, at best, enjoy as a fleeting source of entertainment. A pretty backdrop for a new Facebook profile picture. Another place to “check in.” I tried to overlook this because I thought at least people are getting outside. At least they’re appreciating this beauty. But are they? I sensed no aura of awe or mystery or wonder. Hardly any respect, let alone reverence. Barely appreciation.rattlesnakeledge2

However, down next to the lake, it wasn’t so bad. People were skipping stones on the water’s surface; others were napping on the grass; some just gazing off into the distance. Children were running around, running wild, you might say. But there were no gadgets defining the terms of their play, just (I hope, perhaps naively) pure imagination. A man in a bright red jumper and yellow shoes bent over, placed his head on the ground, tripoded his arms and lifted his legs in the air, turning the world upside down. The children giggled and gawked in amazement.

I don’t want to dictate how others “should” act. Surely we don’t need more signage cluttering the park that describes “acceptable” behavior (though I admit this was my initial impulse), or more rules and regulations. I’d like to think we don’t need any of that. I feel like an old lady in church scolding a child for talking. Maybe because this place is the closest thing I have to a church. I may have given up on God, but not on the notion of something sacred. Something that makes me feel small. Something worth pausing for. Listening to. A place for peace and quiet. A place to be wild.

What I Think About When I Think About Running

For most of my life I’ve hated running. Or, perhaps I just couldn’t fathom the attraction to running for the sake of running. I tolerated it as a necessary evil during basketball and soccer, when I was running toward something or someone with a purpose. But I was slow and clumsy and running laps during practice was torture. I’ve also always had weak knees. In middle school I had to wear knee braces because occasionally, without warning, they would give out on me, leading me to feel like running was something that could break me at any moment. Being the tallest girl in my class, with the longest legs, did not yield itself as an advantage. I was lanky and awkward and uncoordinated. In college, I talked myself into spending thirty minute stints on the treadmill a few times each week (during a good week), but only as a means of justifying my nightly bowl of cocoa puffs and weekend beer drinking. Eventually I gravitated toward exercise that didn’t make me feel (quite as) ridiculous or involve pummeling my joints on concrete. Then a few years ago I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (at the ecstatic recommendation of a friend who also hates running) and, like many others, was completely enthralled by the story. I still didn’t like running, but now I wanted to like running. I passed on the barefoot bandwagon, but I invested in a decent pair of shoes. I started paying attention to my form and taking smaller steps. I read training books and books by other runners. I started small. One mile. Two. Three. A 5K. This was doable. I still wasn’t in love, and it still took a lot of prodding and self guilt-tripping to get me out the door, but I felt good when I was done. So I kept doing it.

Perhaps I wasn’t feeling the magic running kool-aid because I wasn’t going far enough. In order to really tap into “the zone” and nirvana-like “runner’s high” that so many people raved about, I had to go farther. So I signed up for the 2012 DC Rock N Roll Half Marathon and bought the “No Meat Athlete” Training Plan. 13.1 miles seemed impossible, but I was assured that if I stuck to the plan I could do it. And at first it was fine. Four, five, six miles. Fine--exciting even. Maybe I wasn’t so fragile. Seven, eight...and then my left foot started to hurt. Really hurt. Not just when I was running, but cycling and walking too. After resting and icing and implementing all the suggestions friends and the internet endorsed, I went to the doctor. Tendinitis, he said. Shit, I said.

So my training stopped and I didn’t run the race. Clearly my body just isn’t meant for this, I thought. Perhaps some people aren’t born to run. But the urge never left and when I found myself in Seattle last March with out my road bike and only my running shoes, I decided to give it another go. I’d start slow. Really slow. Ease into it and see what happens. No expectations. No disappointment. By June I was up to a comfortable 4-5 miles, and in addition to running through my parents’ paved neighborhood I’d found a beautiful network of trails nearby in the Paradise Valley Conservation Area. Trail running was a lot more fun. It felt adventurous. Dodging around Douglas firs and White Pines, leaping over the roots of Western Hemlocks, I found a sense of play. Or maybe I just liked to pretend I was on the forest moon of Endor outrunning storm troopers after having fallen from my speeder bike. Whatever gets you through it.

Now in Boulder, it’s a town with over 300 days of sunshine a year, a moderate climate, dozens of trails, boasted as an “athlete’s dream town” by the Economic Council, and rated “The #1 Sports Town in America” by Outside Magazine. It’s home to some of the best runners in the country. I still didn’t consider myself a real runner, and I still didn’t love it, but maybe the culture in Boulder would help push me to the next level. I had a solid foundation; maybe now I was ready for 13.1 miles. Perhaps the magic kool-aid could finally be mine. I wasn’t willing to lose another $100 on registration in the event I got injured, so while I was tempted by the music and cheering and pageantry of the Denver Rock N Roll, I decided to do it on my own and plot my own course. I excavated my old training plan and started again.

One of my sister’s friends, John, is a real runner. An ultra-runner. I started picking his brain--asking for tips and advice. He’s light years away from where I am, or even want to be, but he kindly humors me and treats my ambitions seriously. In August, when he and his wife were over for dinner, I chatted with him as he stoked a grill full of struggling barbeque coals. I told him I was worried that I might not be designed for running. “I don’t believe that,” he said. He described his own history, fraught with injuries and set-backs and it dawned on me that running isn’t something one is necessarily born to--or not to--do. It’s not that simple. It’s probably different for everyone and I wasn’t helping myself by believing it was one or the other. I don’t usually subscribe to notions of fate or destiny, so why indulge a similar kind of superstition here? He said I had a runner’s build, which surprised me. I still thought of my height as a hindrance and that I was pretending to be something I wasn’t.

The next morning I woke up with a slight tickle in my throat. Maybe I was getting sick. Maybe I should rest. Maybe I shouldn’t push it. But talking to John had inspired me. I had to stop thinking of myself as frail, and I knew if I didn’t at least try it would be for the wrong reasons. So I took off for my long run of the week--7 miles. Back to where I was before the tendinitis two years ago. But this time, instead of focusing on getting to the end, and therefore what it would mean if I did or didn’t make it, whether I was born for this or not, I decided I’d already won the day by showing up. That none of that really mattered and instead I would just put one foot in front of the next. That’s it. I literally didn’t look or think beyond that. And that changed everything. It didn’t taste like kool-aid. It wasn’t magic. But I realized why running for the hell of running might be worth something. I finished that run a little sore-- my body wasn’t immune to the stress--but elated. And I didn’t get sick.

Eight, nine, ten miles. Ten miles was triumphant. It’s a wonderfully round, dignified number. Eleven was fine, but hurt. Not slicing pain, but ok-this-is-fine-but-please-let-it-be-over-soon aches. I followed my training plan dutifully, tapering off my mileage after that. So when I woke up this morning I told myself I was ready. I’d followed the formula. It was only 2 more miles than 11. I’d mapped my course, adding on to what I’d already done and was familiar with. I was excited. If I could do this it would be a significant accomplishment, made sweeter by so many years of self-doubt and the previous failed attempt. Caffeinated and feigning confidence, I stuffed a chocolate Clif shot in my shirt, and left my sister’s house just after 7:30am. The weather was perfect--cool, not cold, the sun just starting to claim the day.The first few miles were fine. Nothing spectacular but nothing discouraging either. My one foot in front of the next approach has taught me patience. Every mile that feels uninspired is often followed by one that feels buoyant and liberating. You just need to ride the waves and keep going. It can be that simple. Somewhere around mile 6 I started the only challenging ascent of an otherwise moderately rolling route. This would be the hardest part, I told myself. After that it was literally all down hill and I was rounding the bend of my loop, heading home. My body was starting to feel it. My knees. My outer hips. Not excruciating, but gradually starting to throb. Soon, I thought, the hurt would be overwhelmed by excitement, and the joy of attaining my goal. Nirvana.

Then I took a wrong turn. The trails in North Boulder weave through neighborhoods and around schools and still looks the same to me. I’d only done this part once before and evidently didn’t remember it well enough. Somewhere I zigged right when I should have zagged left, and suddenly found myself on Iris which I knew was not where I should be at this point. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. I found the Diagonal and made it over to 47th, and roughly back on track, but how many miles had I cut off? How could I compensate for them? My neat, precisely planned course was fucked. FUCK. There would be no triumphant home stretch if I didn’t know if I was actually finishing the full 13.1, and I wouldn’t know until I got back and could re-calculate. And now my legs really really hurt. Nothing was broken or sprained but everything was screaming. I took a break to walk, but that was worse. My patience was gone and my head was spinning with stories about what to do and what it would mean if I failed. I couldn’t, I reasoned, couldn’t celebrate 12.9 miles, even though it would still be the farthest I’d ever run in my life.

When I made it back to the Goose Creek Path where I was supposed to turn right for the last mile home, I turned left and decided to take a short detour to Cottonwood Lake and back. It would add something and then at least I tried. I knew once I got back I wasn’t going to want to run out again to make up the distance, even if it was just a lap around the block--a decidedly unsexy solution. I continued to swear and sulk in the disappointment I had tried to avoid, wincing with every sluggish step. The prairie dogs chirped at me as I shuffled past, no longer the supportive onlookers I’d imagined they’d be. And then, somewhere in the last mile, I gave up.

I gave up on the stories and went back to one step in front of the next because I couldn’t muster the energy to berate myself anymore. It hurt too much and I was tired and hungry. It was what it was. Just before 10:30am I climbed the steps to my sister’s house and immediately logged in to Map My Run. I erased my planned course and started over, making the necessary changes and watching tensely as the mileage increased with each marker.

13.55 miles.

I still don’t necessarily love running. Even with my relief at having surpassed my goal, getting it didn’t feel like I thought it would. And that’s probably why I’ll keep running. It’s messy--and that’s what makes it meaningful.

The River

“I don’t want to scare you, but you should know that last week a man went missing.”

Devon works for an outfitter in Moab and tells us this as he’s driving to Potash, where we’re about to put in to the Colorado River for a three day canoe trip. One of my best friends, Keri, is getting married in a few months and this is her “bachelorette party.” It’s us, our other best friend, Strother, and her sister, Kelly. Devon has just finished his regular safety spiel and this is his last word of business.

“The park service has been going up and down the river looking for his body and you might run into them.” He doesn’t know the details of what happened, only that a hiker was separated from his group, alcohol was involved, and he likely drowned. The story sobers our excitement, but since it appears he was a victim of his own poor decisions I’m not too worried. We have a cooler full of beer and whiskey, but I don’t plan on getting drunk and wandering off alone. After a two day road trip down from Montana, through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I’m just grateful we don’t have to worry about grizzly bears. The only recent incident that required an emergency evacuate on the river, was when someone went into anaphylactic shock after being stung by a bee. Otherwise, it seems like the worst we have to fear is tipping our canoes, and Keri has promised us a smooth, easy ride. When Devon offers us some general paddling instructions, she tells him: “We plan to do as little paddling as possible.”

But this is not the case. Even though this stretch of the Colorado has few rapids, an intense wind greets us immediately. Strother and I share a canoe, and even though this is our first canoe trip, between the two of us we have a decent amount of kayaking and whitewater rafting experience. He’s steering from the back and I’m paddling per his directions in front, but we still spin in circles, barely able to stay straight, constantly feeling like we are on the verge of capsizing. In addition, the sun is as relentless as the wind.  I bought a hat to keep the sun off my face and shoulders, as Keri advised, but it doesn’t have a chin strap, so I have to keep my head down to prevent it from blowing away, severely limiting my vision. I’m reluctant to remove the hat altogether, exposing the skin I doused in sunscreen hours earlier, but I’m sure has sweated off by now. I’m fair skinned and had a tryst with melanoma in college, so I heed Keri’s warning: “You don’t want to get sunburned on the first day.” So I keep paddling, paddling hard, head down, hoping we don’t tip and forfeit our provisions for the next two days to the bottom of the river.

There is no rest. The river is high and the banks barriered with thick foliage and high canyon walls. After nearly two hours we finally come to a break, following a side canyon further and further back until we can pull our canoes onto sand and enjoy a respite. We settle into what shade we can find, open beers and retrieve lunch from the coolers. We’re thrilled to be off the river, but the wind doesn’t relent. Huge gusts carry walls of sand through the canyon, into our faces and hair and food, requiring us to clutch our hats and close our eyes. We study the map that Devon let us borrow, but we don’t know where we are. The stress of just staying upright in the canoes prevented us from taking much note of our surroundings and identifying landmarks that would locate us on the map. An hour later the wind hasn’t let up and we dread going back out, but decide to push on and pull off at the next available side canyon where we can set up camp for the night.

This time I abandon my hat, reapply sunscreen, and borrow a bandana from Kelly to cover my forehead and scalp. At first, part two of the journey isn’t much better. I paddle as hard as I can, my shoulders and arms throbbing; Strother and I are exhausted and frustrated. I am sure I’m doing something wrong. Kelly and Keri aren’t nearly as put out, and Strother is much more water savvy than me. I’m the novice, I’m the weak link, if the boat goes over it will surely be my fault. At Keri’s suggestion I switch with Kelly and join Keri in her canoe. After that, things get better. The wind subsides. We start to enjoy the scenery--the towering red walls against a simple blue sky, the now easy gliding of our canoes through the water. The next turn off leads into a side canyon suitable for camping and we eagerly unload, open another round of beer, and find rocks with comfortable curves for reading and napping.

As I wind down and release my anxiety, I’m grateful for the wind. Grateful for the chance to use my muscles. Grateful that our planned day of cruising and beer drinking took on an edge of adventure. And even more grateful that neither boat tipped, and that it’s over. I’m drawn to the outdoors for these moments: a draining physical/mental/emotional challenge, followed by total peace and relaxation with nothing to take you out of it. The cool, hard rocks feel so good against my spine after teetering and wobbling in the water all day. I pour my little 50ML bottle of Johnny Walker Black into my camping mug and open Lonesome Dove, the novel I’m reading at Keri’s recommendation, and immerse myself in a quintessential epic western--a fitting literary choice about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, as I’m working my way down from Montana to Texas. After an expertly prepared dinner by Keri, we’re eager to go to bed early. Strother shares my tent and we leave the fly off, both of us fighting sleep to watch the stars arrive.

In the morning we take our time getting up, preparing maté and granola for breakfast. A few strong gusts of wind ripping through the canyon make us nervous, but fortunately, this day is exactly what we hoped--calm, easy paddling. We resume our original positions, I’m in a canoe with Strother, and when we’re not chatting, we fall into a meditative gaze and pace. The lap of the paddle pets the water. The sun’s warmth hugs without smothering. We have two definitive landmarks to watch for that will locate us on the map-- two signs at different points along the river welcoming us to Canyonlands. I wasn’t expecting neon flashing lights, but the first sign is so small and unobtrusive that if Strother hadn’t caught it we’d have missed it. We stop at a sandbar for lunch and try to guess what time it is. Everything is going so well. So beautiful, so fun. We’re in no rush to get off the river, but there’s a popular campsite just beyond the second sign so we set that as our destination and continue on.

When we see a powerboat approaching we veer to the right so it can pass, as Devon instructed us, but as it approaches we realize that it’s the park service.

“Has anyone told you that we’re looking for something?” asks one of the two rangers. “Yes,” Strother and I nod, reminded of the missing man.

“Well, we found what we were looking for,” he replies.

“OK. Thank you.”

Strother and I stop paddling and wait for Keri and Kelly to receive the same news and catch up. There’s not much to say. They found the body. And yet we are all struck by the delivery of that information. The tact and reverence and non-sensationalizing of those limited words, but also the non-naming, non-identifying, non-human ambiguity. They didn’t find a person or a body. Just what they were looking for. I am relieved that the case has closure, but I suppose I was hoping he might still be found. Afterall, if Aron Ralston survived 127 hours pinned in a slot canyon not far from here, cutting off his own arm with a dull knife to free himself, then perhaps an equally terrifying/amazing scenario would discover this man alive. We paddle on, thoughtfully, holding a silence for the lost man a little longer.

The campsite we are looking for is occupied, and as Keri explains it would be poor river etiquette to intrude, we keep going. Around the next bend Strother and I, still in the lead, see a small structure on the right bank. We quickly veer in that direction, and once we pull our canoes on shore, discover it’s a developed campsite, with shaded picnic tables and the structure is an outhouse. Looking at the map, it’s clear we’re at Lathrop Canyon. We explore the area, and Keri and I follow a dirt road that supposedly leads to a hiking trail. We hear voices ricocheting off the canyon walls, disguising their source. At first we’re certain they’re coming from above and any moment we’ll see a group of people look down on us, but we turn a corner and find two men and their teenage sons in cycling kits walking toward us. They’ve abandoned their bikes in search of the river to rest and cool off. We lead them back to the river, chatting along the way about where they’re from and where they’re going.

That night we open a bag of wine, and talk about relationships and children and reminisce about the life Keri and Strother and I shared living together in DC group house. We plug speakers into our ipods, dancing in the desert dusk, and prompt Strother to rap along with Nikki Minaj until the speakers run out of batteries. It’s usually hard for me to sleep outside, but I’m a little drunk and pass out quickly. I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Outside the moon pours grey light on everything and I don’t need my headlamp to see where I’m going.  When I camp in the woods I hate getting out of the tent in the middle of the night. The shadows and darkness and thought of suddenly coming face-to-face with a bear terrify me. But out here it’s different. I feel small and insignificant, comforted by the space and expansive star-clad sky. I never get back into a deep sleep and around 6am Strother rolls onto my side of the tent, prompting me to get up, collect wood for a fire, and prepare breakfast.

We get ready for a few more hours of paddling before our pick up, but as we’re breaking down camp Devon pulls up and we decide to load out then. It’ll clearly make things easier for him, and this way we can relax and see more of the river. It’s another hot day, but the wind created by the speed boat makes it chilly and I lean into the sun. The rhythm of the boat cutting the water is hypnotizing. We go all the way down to the confluence, pick up another group of canoers there, and three hours later we are back at Potash.

In the shuttle on the way back to the outfitter we learn more about the deceased hiker. Apparently they found mountain lion tracks alongside his. Apparently this all happened at Lathrop Canyon, where we camped the night before. A story that had already been hovering over our trip suddenly felt even closer, and I’m struck by our physical proximity to what happened. I didn’t realize how close we were to mountain lions. We’d been warned about snakes and scorpions, but not mountain lions. As much as I love going out into the wilderness, trading my phone and connectivity for space and solitude, I also love coming back. There’s always a sense of relief at having “made it.” I feel the same way every time I land on an airplane, like I’ve cheated death once again.

Several weeks later I look up the story of the drowned man online, wondering if any other details have been made public. The incident occurred at dusk, just three hours into their trip. Only a few of the longer articles mention the mountain lion tracks. According to his friends, it looked as if he’d started to run, then crawled through thick tamarisk brush to get to the river. “He didn’t have a life jacket on, he wasn’t a good swimmer and he didn’t like the water. The mystery is why he would go into the river,” said one of them. Apparently he had started up the trail to follow his friends, and they heard him call out to them, but never saw him. I recall how the canyon walls can throw sound, playing tricks with your hearing. Another article stated that “alcohol is also believed to have played a role.” The San Juan County Sheriff said, “It is our understanding he had consumed about eight to 10 beers in a relatively short time. We believe it to be a contributing factor.” I wonder how. If he did see a mountain lion and got in the river for protection, was that a poor decision? What should he have done? The Sheriff doesn’t believe the mountain lion theory. He thinks it’s more likely that he thought his group left without him, and went down to the river to be spotted by another passing boat. But that seems even less plausible to me. Of course, it’s impossible for me to judge; there’s so much I don’t know. And now, when I think of that man, even after seeing his picture, and reading his name, I still just hear the park ranger’s voice telling us they found what they were looking for. I still just hear that silence.

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More Adventures in the Moral Matrix: Climate of Doubt

Not only did learning to really listen improve my relationship with my mother, it helped me to start sorting out where I fit on the political spectrum. Liberals love to think of themselves as “open-minded” and the kind of people that “think outside the box.” But it may be more accurate to say they just think in different boxes, myself included. I don’t think I actually have enough information to truly “think for myself.” For example, I still don’t fully understand how the economy and capitalism work, so how can I make a strong case for or against what I know so little about? I’m drawn to leftist concerns about ethics and distribution of wealth, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of how it all works, I’m at a loss. After all, some conservatives, like Arthur C. Brooks, will argue that capitalism is actually the most moral system. And, as someone that isn’t an economist, that position can be compelling too.

So basically I think I’ve done very little genuine thinking for myself. However, I have resisted pledging allegiance to a single party. I’ve always registered as an Independent, though only now am I starting to embrace that ambiguity. I’ve been skeptical of Democrats and toted the notion that “they are part of the system too,” but I’ve still voted for them. I’ve still defended them. And now as I look at the opposing philosophies that govern each party-- specifically as they pertain to the role and size of government-- I find sincerely myself standing apart. I want everyone to have health insurance, but I worry about the government’s competency to manage it. I want some limitations put on how businesses do business, but I don’t want independent small ones to suffer under too much regulation. I want the government to protect our rights and safety, but I also want local communities and people to take responsibility for themselves. There really is no party for me, except the amorphous Independent. I would have thought this would make me more akin to conservatives, that it would make me less threatening and easier to talk to than a typical Obama-thumper, but apparently this is not the case.

“That’s a cop out!” Faye declares after she inquires about my political leanings and I tell her I’m an Independent. Faye is one of my mother’s good friends. She’s older than my mom, short, stout, with a terse smile and thinning strawberry-blonde hair, but the fierce attitude of a redhead. She speaks her mind unequivocally and unapologetically, which is refreshing--to a point.

“I’m an Independent too,” Dad chimes in. I’m grateful he’s sitting next to me. We’re at happy hour before a WOW (Women of Washington) event, and he’s usually my partner in solidarity at these things. I’m put off by Faye’s retort, but try not to let it show. I’m not a confrontational person anyway, and I have no intention of getting into an argument with a woman I just met that’s old enough to be my grandmother, no matter how much she needles me. As Tea Partiers who are in many ways disillusioned by Republicans, I thought Faye would appreciate my attempt to distance myself from Democrats, but apparently unless I think just like her, it doesn’t matter. I know my mom appreciates my efforts; I also know she laments our differences. She talks about how she’s coming around to see that her parents were right, as if it’s inevitable that I will one day do the same, so I might as well give in now. It seems like everyone agrees that we should “think for ourselves,” but what everyone really means by that is, “you should think like me.”

As I listen to Faye and my mother and their friend Dorothy rattle off their list of political complaints (many of which concern me too), I think about Thoreau’s response to his elders:

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof...Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe...I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

I can’t help but find humor in Thoreau’s tenacity and abrasiveness. He’s as indignant as Faye. I agree with him in one sentence and chuckle at his gumption in the next. Certainly we shouldn’t trust something simply because everyone before us has; but just as certainly the old do have important advice for the young. I, too, now have lived some thirty years on this planet and not only have I received incredibly valuable advice from my seniors, I crave it! Not so that I can swallow it mindlessly, but so that I can experiment with it. Not all advice is useful-- the trick is developing your own wisdom to tell the difference. Even more tricky still, is respecting your elders, even if you think they’re being ridiculous. Nowhere was this more challenging for me than when I agreed to attend my mother’s book club, featuring the climate change denying book, The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism: Mankind and Climate Change Mania.

I can appreciate my mother’s rants about big government, but when she skoffs and and screams about the absurdity of global warming, “not reacting” as my dad (or any Buddhist monk) patiently advises, seems impossible. And yet I signed myself up to do just that when I agreed to go to her book club. I was determined to read the book and listen to how and why these women deny global warming. But I wasn’t going to leave it at that. Listening is important, but so is conversation, and when it comes to the environment I feel I have a moral obligation to say something. Indeed, the stakes don’t get much higher. So I was going to listen, but I was also going to speak. And I was going to be prepared.

I started by reading the book and approaching it as I would any academic text: who is the author? what makes him an authority on the subject? is his argument supported with evidence and clear reasoning? Perhaps this was unfair since it’s not an academic text at all. The cover makes this pretty clear, but if that’s not an aesthetic tip, the author, Steve Goreham, is, admittedly, not a scientist. He has a degree in electrical engineering, and he’s a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is known for its defense of the tobacco industry and denying that smoking causes lung cancer. So not only do they have a track record of denying well-supported scientific claims, they’re also funded by Exxon. But what’s tricky about reading this book, as a non-scientist, is that he includes graphs and charts and figures that are difficult to question if you’re not immersed in the field. However, I knew what the citations should look like, and while there are ample footnotes, none of them are included in the book itself. You have to look them up online, and once you do, you see that he doesn’t cite any scientific literature. He refers to peer-reviewed scientific literature, but doesn’t actually cite studies that support his claim. Because I’ve spent the last four and a half years teaching college freshmen how to appropriately use sources in academic writing, I knew how to do this, but someone that is completely divorced from academia probably wouldn’t, which seemed to be the case when I stepped into a gorgeous living room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Lake Washington on Mercer Island, to discuss the book with my mother’s friends.

First, everyone is incredibly kind to me. Incredibly generous and happy I’m there. As we socialize and pour ourselves tea and coffee, they ask about my life and my plans the way moms do. I tell them about my job in India, and I feel like I’m 18 again, getting ready to go to college and leave home for the first time. I appreciate their interest and support, even as some of them express muffled concern or confusion at my choice. Eventually everyone takes a seat and discussion turns to the book. No one mentions who the author is or his expertise. No one discusses the footnotes. They question who stands to profit off global warming being “real,” but not who stands to profit off it being denied.

What became clearest to me as I listened, was that these women are scared-- not that the oceans will rise and flood $6 trillion worth of property on the east coast, of course, but that global warming is being used as justification for government control, thus threatening our liberty and freedom. I can hear my liberal peers balking at this notion, dismissing it as conspiracy theory paranoia. I’ve thought so too, and to a certain extent I still do. But these are real people with very real worries. And we can’t honestly say that the prospect of a government getting too much power and doing terrible things is a ludicrous idea. We don’t need to cite examples of when this has happened. We all know it. Indeed, skepticism of the government is essential for a healthy democracy. In fact, we may need that kind criticism as we look for solutions, but by denying the problem all together you’re excluding yourself from that conversation. That’s what we need right now, and that’s what I tried to tell my mother’s book club.

When the conversation started to wrap up, I raised my hand. I thanked them for letting me come. I said I shared their concerns-- that I valued liberty and freedom, and didn’t want to see those sacrificed. I tried to agree with everything that had been said, with which I could honestly agree. Then I explained why I questioned the author’s credibility, the lack of peer-reviewed scientific literature that supports his position, his connection with the Heartland Institute, and their connection to the oil industry. I recommended the Frontline documentary Climate of Doubt, which fairly gives voice to the prominent climate change deniers, specifically the Heartland Institute, while illustrating how they fit into the larger scientific conversation. A really nice dialogue followed. Of course, I didn’t change anyone’s mind, and they didn’t change mine. At one point our hostess said to me sweetly, “It’s clear you’re trying to think for yourself.” And while it didn’t seem like I could say the same to them, I knew they were trying to too.

Climate change deniers are often painted as obscenely rich oil tycoons, or backwards, ignorant, nature-hating, fundamentalist, evolution-denying Christians. But my mother isn’t stupid and she doesn’t hate nature. She’s an avid gardener. She composts. She recycles. She loves birds and has been spending hours--literally--online watching a nest of eagles give birth to and raise their young. She might prefer sleeping in a bed to sleeping in the woods, but she values the natural world. If I was to borrow Thoreau’s bite I’d say denying climate change is simply beneath my mother’s intelligence. I cannot follow her reasoning. It’s one thing to disagree with the proposed responses to climate change, but it’s illogical to say: climate change doesn’t exist because I don’t like how liberals propose we fix it, and that’s all I hear from her and her cohort.

My mother’s parents were right about many things. I value their thrift and “waste not want not” attitude of conservation, remnants of the Great Depression that seem to have fallen away in a culture driven by consumption. Steve Goreham paints liberals as lunatics that want to revive a horse and buggie stone age in order to save the planet. But what most of us want is actually a conservative notion; it’s a return to my grandparents’ wisdom. So why are we fighting about this?

HOME: Out of the Moral Matrix

During March, April and May I was living in Seattle with my parents. My plan was to stay here until I figure out my next step: getting to Southeast Asia. And right now, that looks like New Delhi. A professor and colleague of mine from American University is part of the English Department at a new university in India and encouraged me to apply as a tutor. I did, and was offered the job of Coordinator for the Writing Center. I eagerly accepted. The position consists of managing the tutors, and helping them develop the critical thinking curriculum. That’s basically all I know, and that’s probably all they know too. Because they are opening for the first time this fall, I expect much of my job will be figuring things out as I go. I’m naturally drawn to order, stability, consistency, and predictability, so taking on a position like this, in India, of all places, should sufficiently challenge my sensibilities. And when I’m not working I have the rest of Southeast Asia next door to explore.

Aside from a few summers during college, I haven’t lived with my parents since I was 18. Since then I’ve had a five day rule: five days is the “just right” amount of time during which I can enjoy my parents without going stir crazy or fighting with my mom. So while I was genuinely excited to see them and settle in somewhere, I was also aware that my enthusiasm might have an expiration date. I hoped to keep myself busy enough that we wouldn’t step on one another’s toes. I eased into a really nice routine: getting up at dawn, writing for an hour or two, going for a run, going to yoga, lunch at noon, more writing and reading, practicing the guitar, then preparing dinner. My mom happily “gave me the kitchen” and to their apparent delight, I made them a vegan meal every evening. Afterward my dad and I watched a movie or I went back to my room to read until bed. This was peppered with other things too: twice a week I taught a yoga class to three women in the neighborhood; when it wasn’t raining I’d pull weeds in the garden, listening to various podcasts; I took a 6-week nonfiction workshop at the Hugo House on Sundays in Capitol Hill; I also--finally--learned how to drive stick shift.

For the most part, everything went better than I expected. Living at home was like being a kid again, except I got to do everything right and I didn’t take it for granted. I was eager to do my “homework,” practice my instrument, and I always ate my vegetables. I was happy to take on household chores: feeding the cats, cleaning the kitchen, and other tasks as they arose. I used to cringe when I heard my mom call me from across the house: “Catherine!” I knew she needed something and I resented the expectation to drop whatever I was doing and assist. But now it was easier to quell that reaction. My patience surprised me. Now I can truly appreciate my parents, I recognize what a luxurious safety net it is to come home, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to reciprocate as much as possible. I was thrilled to be there to properly celebrate their birthdays, Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day. My mom aptly commented: “You’re a lot more fun to have home now than you were when you were sixteen.”

That said, living with my mom sometimes feels like being in a Luigi Pirandello play--I started to question reality. Our skies often seemed to be different colors. And when someone insists that the sky is purple, again and again, you start to wonder if it really is. To a certain extent, this is fantastic. I loved my Modern Drama course in college precisely because it was a total mind-fuck and I left each class feeling like my head would explode. But this mind-fuck was different. I’ve spent most of my life in one liberal bubble after another--college, my friends, graduate school, DC. There have been shades of difference in those communities, certainly, but overall I’ve been surrounded by people who hold similar views. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense to surround ourselves with people like us, that share our values. However, as a result my perception of the conservative position has been painted in broad strokes from afar. I suppose I felt that my mother sufficiently filled the conservative quota in my life. She embodied that voice, and one was enough. I felt like listening to her was an adequate demonstration of my “open-mindedness.” I read the emails she’d send to me, I even listened to Rush Limbaugh (once--an incident that ended in tears). The problem is I was still allowing that perspective to exist as a caricature in the political landscape. I allowed them to be those crazy people that hate gays, want to control women’s bodies, and let the rich prosper while the poor suffer. I was hearing my mom without really trying to understand her.

My mother has always voted republican, and she’s always been reasonably informed about politics, but when President Obama was elected things changed. In part she became more politically active because she could (her children are gone and she has the time), but her engagement also seemed motivated by a deep fear that I’d never seen in her before. She was terrified that Obama’s “socialist agenda” would “destroy” the country. And it wasn’t just that, as a democrat, he had a different vision for how to achieve a prosperous country; she believes he is intentionally trying to destroy the country. This is where our skies start to turn different colors. If Obama was as leftist as she claimed, then shouldn’t liberals be elated by his performance as president? But they’re not. Most progressives are actually disappointed, though for different reasons than conservatives. They claim he’s compromising too much, while republicans say he’s not compromising at all. So what’s really going on? What’s the reality?

My mom’s terror and distrust of anyone on the left is very real. For awhile now I’ve accepted that my mother won’t change. I have no illusions that I can change her mind about certain things. But I have started to hope that maybe I can ease her fear. It’s one thing to think that liberal policies will destroy the country, it’s quite another to think liberals are trying to destroy the country. The intention is important. And just as she is the only conservative in my life, I am one of the only liberals in hers (she actually has a lot of liberal friends, but I think they avoid discussing politics). Her world is just as polarized as mine, and most of what she knows about liberals comes from the conservative talk radio she listens to--all day, every day. But I knew this had to go both ways. If I was hoping to assuage her fears, I had to be open to seeing conservatives in the same light. In other words, I had to honestly seek to understand her world as much as I hoped she’d understand mine. Again, not to change anyone’s mind, just to really see each other, and maybe not find “common ground,” but at least a common reality.

I think part of what feeds political fear, is the sense that you’re not being heard, that you’ve lost your voice in the national conversation. My mother feels that the media is overwhelmingly biased in favor of the left and that universities are grounds for liberal brain-washing. Conservatives feel bullied by liberals. So my first project at home was just to listen. Really listen. Listen, without the intention of talking back or defending myself. Listen, with the intention of putting myself in her position. Listen, so that before we had any conversation, she felt heard. When five days was our typical visit, this was hard to do because whatever she said inevitably upset me and led to an argument. I didn’t want to fight with her in such a short amount of time, so I avoided listening and thus avoided these conversations. I just wanted to keep the peace. Occasionally we’d exchange long, thoughtful emails about various issues, but that was time consuming and I couldn’t keep up with it. Now I had time.

The best part about listening is that it actually ends up feeling amazing. Not at first. At first when someone says something I disagree with or angers me, my entire body gets tense, I get that swelling feeling in my chest, I can feel my blood pressure rise. It’s terrible. But if I ride that out, and breathe, and ignore the urge to talk (yell) over that person, to tell them they’re wrong, then eventually that wave of frustration dissipates. Eventually it goes away, and afterward I feel better because I exercised control over myself. I didn’t lose it. And because I am not thinking of what to say next and trampling over what that person says, I hear more too. Maybe even listening long enough to hear something new, something that resonates. And because I don’t say anything in the heat of the moment, I have time to carefully put my thoughts together before--if--I respond. I’m not a particularly articulate person verbally. Especially when I feel flustered or pressured, I fumble and stutter, and probably end up sounding incoherent and undermining the very point I’m trying to make. Listening helps me slow down and takes the pressure off saying anything.

My mother is not an idle woman. Between two book clubs, playing violin in a symphony orchestra, working in her garden, working in the church garden, being secretary of her DAR chapter, and attending Women of Washington functions, it’s amazing she ever ate, let alone made dinner each night. As part of my resolve to listen I accompanied her to most of the events she invited me to, especially those hosted by the Women of Washington, a conservative organization “focused on empowering women to analyze local, national and global issues...and inspire confidence to articulate our core values and the virtues of America’s founding principles.” These core values are: free markets, limited government, personal responsibility, and strong national defense. I heard Grace Marie Turner from the Galen Institute talk about health care reform; Catherine Englebrecht recount her experience with the IRS and voter fraud; Washington State Rep Matt Manweller advocate the free market; Dr. Jonathan Matusitz explain the threat posed by Islam. I also went to this debate downtown between conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro, economist Paul Guppy, Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, and lawyer Rebecca Smith over Seattle’s proposed $15 minimum wage. (That will likely constitute a blog post of its own.) At each event I just listened, earnestly, and in the car on the way home we’d talk about it.

It was easiest to talk to my mom about economics. First, because we both, admittedly, have a limited understanding of it and are seeking to learn more, together. And, because I don’t fully understand how it works, I don’t think I can have a firm political position yet. Indeed, of all the issues this is one I am sincerely “open-minded” about--I’m really trying to figure out where I stand. So while my mother is firmly in favor of free markets and limited government involvement, I’m not invested in opposing that. I know enough to be very skeptical of capitalism (very skeptical), but I also know it’s not going anywhere and so I’m more inclined to figure out how it can work--ethically--and she is too. We come to ethics and morality from different places, but we’re heading in the same direction.

However, there are some issues that I’m not open-minded about and think it’s pointless to discuss, like gay marriage. I’m happy to discuss the institution of marriage in general, but I’m simply not going to entertain the idea that some of my best friends shouldn’t be allowed to marry the people they love, just like I wouldn’t entertain the idea that some of my friends shouldn’t sit at the front of the bus. And I think that’s reasonable. “Open-mindedness” is all well and good, but it has limits too. Liberals have a reputation for being universalist to a fault, and I don’t want to fall down that hole. The problem with gay marriage is that my mom and I really are living in different realities. Her reality is one in which the Bible, the word of God, explicitly states that homosexuality is wrong, and my reality...doesn’t. Game over. When she engages me I can talk about it as a matter of constitutionality, but this doesn’t go anywhere productive. I may also still be too immature. It gets very emotional, very quickly. I still can’t not take her position as an affront on some of my closest friends and family. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing (the personal is political, and we needn’t divorce our feelings from reason), but at this point it isn’t good for my relationship with my mom, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on.

Last week’s episode of OnBeing with Krista Tippett featured Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at the Stern School of Business at NYU. He has a fascinating explanation for why liberals and conservatives are so divided. He divides moral values into five categories and illustrates how these inform where we stand on the political spectrum. According to him, we’re all concerned with creating a moral society, but what specifically constitutes that morality and the values we emphasize differ from right to left. This alone was interesting, but what really drew me into the conversation was how Haidt’s research had drastically affected his own politics:

I was a self-righteous, conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal. And, in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist, with just, I’ve got to understand this stuff, over time, I realized, well, they’re not crazy. You know, these ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see. The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before. That’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.

Losing that anger really is freeing. And addictive. My mom didn’t drag me to these events; I was eager to go. Once you start understanding another point of view, it’s like a puzzle that you can’t stop piecing together. That’s not to say I don’t still think some of it is crazy. I do. But it’s not all crazy and now I can start to decipher between the two. And not just on the right, on the left too. Jonathan Haidt describes the way we get trapped inside our own moral paradigms as like being in the matrix:

The matrix is a consensual hallucination...it was just the perfect metaphor for the moral world that we live in. It defines what’s true and what’s not true. It is a closed epistemic world. What I mean by that is, it has within it everything it needs to prove itself. And it has within it defenses against any possible argument that could be thrown at it. It’s impossible to see the defects in your own moral matrix...And that’s why foreign travel is so good, getting disoriented is so good, reading literature can be so good. There are ways of it getting out of your moral matrix. But it’s hard, especially in the context of any — any sort of intergroup conflict. Then it — we’re just locked into it, and our goal is defend the matrix, defeat theirs.

I had to learn to get out of my own moral matrix. This is scary and hard and exhilarating. It’s a mind-fuck in the best possible way. We love to talk about “thinking outside of the box” or “thinking for yourself”--but I don’t honestly think I started doing that until now. And, of course, the media completely derails this ambition. Unless you’re listening to all of it all the time and spending hours sifting through the various talking heads, it feels impossible to get an accurate sense of these huge conversations. Most people are just trying to defend their matrix. And I’ve come to think that sarcasm is the true enemy of civil civic discourse, from Rush to Rachel. It’s lazy rhetoric that avoids sincere dialogue and understanding. It preaches to the choir and cements the echo chambers we already live in. (Unless you’re Jon Stewart working within the genre of satire. And--ironically--for being a “fake news show” I’d argue he engages in some of the most respectful political conversations on TV.) Haidt goes on to say that we need to acknowledge our limitations and embrace humility. Sometimes we’re going to jump to conclusions and they’ll be wrong. He states: “To live virtuously as individuals and societies, we must understand how our minds are built. We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness. We must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own.”

Lions, and Tigers, and--Jobs?--Oh My!

I planned my cross-country trip to end in Seattle the last weekend in February so I could attend AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference for the first time. Not only was I hoping this would give me some practical guidance and inspiration as I started to write about my travels, but several friends from DC would be going and I was looking forward to that social interaction before hunkering down in my parents’ house for three months. My very good friend, Chet’la, would even be staying with me. But I was nervous. For years I’d heard by creative writer friends look forward to and discuss the event. It sounded intense and I started to worry I’d be overwhelmed and eventually discouraged. Right now I had this beautiful, intact fantasy that held writing as my next direction in life. What if AWP made me realize it was all a joke? Despite encouragement from friends and my workshop peers in the fall, one essay in progress and a handful of blog posts hardly qualified me as a writer. Part of me felt that I had no business going. Chet’la assuaged some of my worries. It was so great to see her, so great to have a partner for the weekend.

Each day was overwhelming, but in the best possible way. I packed my schedule with as many panels as I could sit through (several about travel writing, a few about feminism and nonfiction as a queer genre), and spent the rest of my time wandering around the book faire and visiting the tables of MFA programs I’d scouted online. By the time 5pm came each day I was ready for a happy hour. Chet’la and I would reconvene and share our day over drinks and food. We went to the Rumpus Reading one night, and had dinner with a colleague from AU another night. Each day I felt less discouraged. In fact, the collective self-doubt that most writers face was frequently mentioned. I felt less alone in my fears and more determined to get over myself.

On the final day I was tempted to skip out on the last two sessions. I was tired and eager to release myself from the inundation of information. But I’d feel better if I pushed through (getting as much as possible for my registration fee). The first was about the Creative Writing PhD--which is relatively new and pretty rare. As I entertain the notion of going back to school, this seemed especially appealing. When I finished my MA I thought eventually I’d go back for a PhD in Literature, but as I no longer saw myself wanting to be a scholar and instead was gravitating toward writing creative nonfiction, this seemed like it might be the best option for me. However, the panelists’ conversation made it clear this wouldn’t really meet my needs. They agreed that if you want time to write and focus on the craft of writing, the MFA is better. A PhD program would keep me busier with literature classes and teaching than in workshops. It was satisfying to get such a clear nudge in the MFA direction and home in on what I’m looking for. But listening to them another anxiety started to swell. I started to worry about what I’d do afterward.

One reason many of the panelists had pursued PhDs (after receiving their MFAs) was to give them an edge in the job market. Everyone spoke disparagingly of the tenure-track job search and the mounting odds against getting one--the assumption being that, aside from being a successful full-time writer (with even slimmer odds), this was the holy grail. I knew these jobs were difficult to get from my administrative position at AU. I coordinated those searches, collecting and organizing hundreds of applications for just one or two openings. As the conversation continued, I started to feel beaten before I’d even started. What was I getting into? Was it pointless to even try? As the session disbanded and everyone shuffled out, my urge to cut out on the last session and nurse my frustrations with a drink was even stronger. Yet, I also didn’t want to end my AWP experience feeling utterly defeated so I pressed on to the last session: “Isolation & Community.”

This panel was about the themes of isolation and community in writing, as well as the process of writing, and the position from which we write-- about being an insider/outsider/other, in addition to self-reliance and persistence. Most of the writers were from Alaska, a state geographically isolated from the rest of the country. One writer in particular, Seth Kantner, brilliantly responded to my newly stirred angst. He recounted how his father warned him of three dangers growing up: bears, thin ice, and--a job. His father asked: “if you have a job how are you going to live?” I was instantly reminded of why I decided to take this “life sabbatical” in the first place--because I want to find a way to live, not a single, previously-defined career path.  I want to cobble together a life in which I can do what I love and live the way I want. A tenure-track job might seem more stable and secure, and to a certain extent maybe it is. But ultimately there aren’t any guarantees so I might as well pursue the life I want, not the one I’m willing to settle for. A tenure-track position is certainly appealing in many ways, but I’ve seen that it also comes with a significant amount of stress and pressure.

Perhaps I’m just being lazy. Perhaps I’m chasing a lifestyle of leisure and lack of responsibility. But it’s not work I’m avoiding, it’s the job. Jobs and work are, as Kantner was quick to clarify, not always the same thing. I want to work, and work hard, but a job may actually hinder my ability to do this. Kantner said that when he was growing up (in a sod igloo in the Alaskan tundra), everything was hard. It all seemed hard. And then when he got older he didn’t like things if they weren’t hard. It occurred to me then how much we complain about hard things. Our culture of convenience and technology embodies this, which is tragic because I’m inclined to think that the hard stuff, is the stuff. That’s the heart and soul of our crazy existence.

The conversation also touched on self-reliance. There are many ideas I clung to in my youth that I’ve since let go, having been revealed as over-simplistic responses to complicated problems (pacifism, for example). But self-reliance, especially as it conjures Thoreau, continues to resonate profoundly. The “real world” is a swift executioner. I’d just ended my travels feeling confident and open to possibility, and only a few days later one conversation about PhD programs and the job market plunged me back into a mind frame I’d spent two months trying to unravel. Fortunately the pendulum was still free to swing the other way, and I left feeling restored to my prior optimism-- but with a difference. It’s not that I want to throw caution to the wind and ignore reality, thinking that I just need to “follow my dreams” and everything will be OK. Part of my attraction to the MFA is, indeed, that it would open up new job opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s just being practical. But I think I can be practical and see the world for what it is, plan accordingly, and still do what I need for myself. Still go for what I want, even if it’s hard. And that it being hard is not a reason to avoid it; it’s a reason to go for it.

The conference ends and I cherish an additional day with Chet’la before driving her to the airport. When she leaves I’m going to start what I hope will be a rigorous schedule for the next few months, consisting primarily of writing, reading, and yoga every day. I finally sit down to write and all I can hear is the Pacific Northwest rain. The room of my own has a view of my mother’s garden. I’ve tried to create a nice space: my desk has specific piles of books I’ve read, books I want to read, magazines and journals. I’ve propped up a card next to my computer to prompt me: “Begin Anywhere.”

After a couple weeks I start to worry about money. My spending has slowed considerably since staying with my parents, and even though I have some savings left and it looks like I’ll be working in India and earn money to travel further, I’m anxious anyway. Maybe I should get a part-time job. Just a little something, nothing overwhelming, nothing that will hinder my work. I scan Craigslist and it turns out the restaurant attached to the golf course in the neighborhood is hiring servers. It’s close and convenient. That could be perfect. I fill out an application. I go to an interview. I’m offered the job. I hesitate. Is this really what I want? To spend twenty hours a week serving french fries and beer to polos and khakis-clad men? There’s nothing wrong with that work and I think I could make almost any job meaningful--perhaps it will give me something to write about or help me make interesting connections...I try to reason. But when else in my life will I have this time to myself? To finally dedicate myself to what I really want to do? I turn down the job and get to work.

Portland: The 90s are Alive...

When I wake up, soft gold fingers are reaching out from behind the train car window curtains. I pull them back and a thin layer of blushing pink sits on the horizon, patches of snow mark the ground, stoic mountains wait in the distance. I didn’t sleep particularly well. Though I was lucky to have two seats to myself, I was curled up and contorted between them. But I’m eager to watch the sunrise. So I retrieve some hot water from the cafe for my yerba maté tea bag and set up in the lounge car. It’s 7:30am-- eight hours until Portland. I put on the Lumineers and start working on my blog post about Charleston. Blogging is far more difficult and time consuming than I had expected. I’m so slow, and still trying to understand it as a genre. It seems more informal, but I fuss and tinker endlessly. I know very few people will read it, yet I feel paralyzed by how public it is. I don’t want each post to read like a boring list of what happened: “then I did this...then I did this….” I want each one to have a focus beyond where I went and what I ate. I want to practice using the devices I learned in my creative nonfiction workshop, like creating characters and writing scenes, which is hard because I often don’t remember the necessary details. It’s also difficult to distinguish between what I should disclose and what I should omit. How personal should I get? What would actually be interesting to a reader (even if they are my friends) and what would be self-indulgent? How do I respect the privacy of others and still be true to my own experience? When I get stuck I let my gaze fall out the window.

An older man sits down across from me. Talk to strangers, I remind myself. I remove my earbuds and try to open myself to conversation. Eventually he asks, “How do you like your chromebook?” We talk about that and his camera. Periodically he tells me the name of things we’re passing. He’s returning to Eugene but he’s from Virginia and we chat about that too. After making my third cup of tea, I return to my seat to read and be alone until lunch. The woman across from me has a fussy baby. I still have no patience for crying and this one smells. The entire car reeks and though I’m put out by this, I feel terrible for the mother. She desperately tries to console the child to no avail. She seems pretty incompetent, but I can’t blame her. If I were stuck alone with a screaming child I’d be more clueless than she is. She nervously rocks it and pats it and talks to it. I’m sympathetic, but the stench is so strong that I have to leave.

I go back down to the cafe for more hot water and chat with the attendant there. He asks if I am going to Portland and I say I am (I’m on the “Coast Starlight” train that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle). He says he had the best gyros there.

“From a food truck?” I ask, having read that those are popular.

“Yes,” he says, “one downtown after a show when I was drunk.”

“Sounds like a good night.”

“It was. I didn’t have to worry about calling the gyro again, or buying Plan B for the gyro. I had another gyro for breakfast.”

“...”

I laugh, probably awkwardly, thank him for the water and return to my seat, hoping the baby smell has dissipated.

When I arrive in Portland I easily walk from the station to the International Youth Hostel at 18th St and Galison. I was tempted to couch surf, but since I couldn’t find anyone to host me for both nights, I go for a cheap dormitory bunk instead. I have two more nights before I reach my parents in Seattle, and as this leg of my travels concludes, I want the freedom to do what I want without being a guest in someone else’s home. I deposit my belongings and head straight for Powell’s--the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. It’s overwhelming in the best way possible. I wander the stacks for an hour and then head down to Vegetarian House. It’s grey out which means I want something warm and comforting and right now that means Chinese food. I crack open my new purchase, Annie Proulx’s Close Range, and enjoy my Broccoli and “Chicken” with chopsticks. Afterward I mozie back to the hostel, taking in all the stores and restaurants in the Pearl District, and stopping at a cafe for some herbal tea to cut the caffeine that hasn’t tapered off yet. I look forward to a good night’s sleep, stretching out in a full length bed.

The next morning I’m up early, get coffee, and go back to Powell’s. Since books get heavy, until now I’ve only bought books that I’m going to read immediately and I’ve unloaded several along the way. But as I’m just one stop from home, and Powell’s selection is incredible, I don’t hold back anymore. I get 3 books (for only $15!) and then head to Yoga Pearl for their noon class. Afterward I eat at the attached restaurant, Prasad, that has all the obnoxiously healthy food I could dream of--elixirs and juices, salads and raw platters, and bowls. Bowls are everywhere in Portland. The basic formula is simple--a grain (brown rice or quinoa), a protein (beans or tofu or tempeh), a green (kale, broccoli…), all drenched in a yummy sauce (peanut sauce or garlic tahini…). They are hearty, filling, and the combinations seem endless.

I go back to the hostel to change and plan my evening, my last night out. I sit in the hostel lounge with my computer and tea. “Empty yourself and let the universe fill you,” says the tag on my yogi tea. I simultaneously scoff at and appreciate these little tid-bits. Sometimes they are nice reminders, other times they seem ridiculous and don’t mean anything. But right now I decide to take this as a sign to stop planning. I’m overwhelmed by the options and driving myself crazy trying to figure out what to do.  I choose a bar for a happy hour and a restaurant for dinner and the rest I’ll leave up in the air.

I hop a bus to the east side of the river, to Swift Lounge for a cheap glass of red wine and plate of brussel sprouts. When I walk in, the bartender and a woman at the bar are talking about mathematics and quantum physics. I really want to join the conversation, but can’t muster the nerve, or the knowledge, to do so. I love reading and listening to podcasts about this stuff, but I don’t know how proficient I’d be in discussing it myself. So I retreat to a stool by the window and open my book.

Then I go to Blossoming Lotus for dinner. I’m hoping to sit at a bar, but it’s a small restaurant and they don’t have one. So I take a table and feel like my singleness is taking up too much space, like my small check isn’t worth the waiter’s time. Maybe it’s just in my head. I get another bowl--quinoa and kale and avocado and sesame seeds with a tasty dressing.

I head back to the neighborhood and go to The Pope House, a bourbon lounge up the street from the hostel. I sit at the bar where an older man is chatting with the bartender. When I open my book, he asks me what I am reading: Michael Crichton’s Travels, which Jeremy recommended to me and I found used at Powell’s. I tell him that the first 50 pages are about his early years as a doctor, and the rest are about his travels.

“Are you reading it because you want to be a doctor?”

“I’m reading it because I’m traveling.”

With an accent I can’t place he tells me he’s a corporate financer and so he travels all over the world. It turns out he’s from South Africa, but he’s lived in the US for over twenty years and loves Oregon. “It’s a special place,” he says. I explain to him where I’ve been and where I’m going. “What are you looking for?” he asks. I hesitate. I don’t like this question. “I never did the backpacking thing when I was 25. But I’ve always wanted to travel more and I thought I should do it before I get too comfortable.” He extolls the wonders of Asia, especially India, where I tell him I might be working. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he says as he leaves. At first I feel like he still doesn’t get it. I’m not on a journey to “find myself.” Apparently I’m really invested in resisting that cliché. But maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I am looking for something-- the possibility of connection, some kind of magic--muggle, as my couchsurfing host in Richmond would have said. It’s always in the back of my mind. I am happy being alone, but is that because it feels like I’m hovering on the possibility of not being alone? Like that bubble could burst at any moment and it’s exciting? And I do want that. That’s the truth.

I chat with the bartender too. Her name is Sarah and she’s finishing her BA at Portland State University after years away from school. It sounds like many of the students there are in a similar position. “Now I have perspective and actually know what I want to study,” she says. She’s an English major, so I ask about her classes and she tells me about her literary theory course. I ask about Foucault, one of my favorites, probably because he was one of the few I felt like I actually understood. When I leave it’s around 8:30pm, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d like to meet more people, talk to more strangers, but I don’t really want another drink. I walk to Burnside Street, passing another bar I’d read about online, Matador. An OPEN sign is illuminated but the windows are dark and I’m hesitant to peek inside. I keep walking. I come to a bus stop and sit down while I contemplate what to do next. I start to feel like the night was a failure. I’m a little lonely. Shouldn’t I be out chatting it up with strangers? Meeting interesting people? But this is what I wanted. This loneliness. The reality is that loneliness sounds more romantic than it feels, and traveling isn’t always going to be sexy evenings out with fascinating new people. In fact, more often than not it’s going to be just this-- sitting alone at a bus stop because you don’t want to go home, but you don’t know where else to go.

So I go back to the hostel lounge and write. I might as well take on the whole cliché of romantic solitude and make a night of it. In the Imagemorning I go to Prasad a second time (for an Oatmeal Bowl); then back to Powell’s for a third time, wandering, writing, and buying three more books; then back to Prasad (for the Dragon Bowl).  Portland might be my “just right” city. Not too big, not too small. It would be easy to make fun of the DIY-eco-friendly-free-range-vegan-homegrown-conscientious-living culture, except Portlandia already beat you to that punch and they don’t seem to care. They are sincere yet self-aware, and unaffected by your irony. I’ve been sending postcards to friends and family from each city (especially thank you’s to those I’ve just visited). I send one to John, my old boss and friend at AU whose son lives in Portland and with whom I used to exchange quips from Portlandia. I write: “The 90s are alive in Portland--and I LOVE it!”

The scenery from the train between Portland and Seattle is stunning. Water, trees, mountains. It’s a grey day, but serene, grounding, comforting. I’m ready to nestle in somewhere. My train rolls into Seattle’s King Station and I see my parents walking toward the platform to meet me. A surge of excitement hits me, right on time. I made it.

Home in the Bay Area: "Free and Uncommitted"

“Amy C!!” I exclaim as I unload my unwieldy backpack and slide into the passenger seat outside of San Jose International.

Amy is my other twin. Just like my sister (also Amy) and I are often confused, when I worked with this Amy (Amy C) at the California Theatre Center (CTC) we were frequently mistaken for one another, especially on stage. Our birthdays are also exactly six months apart, somehow confirming our twin-ness. I’ve known Amy’s family since I was a child, but we didn’t become friends until we worked together. Her father founded a non-profit theatre company in Sunnyvale, and it was through their summer conservatory programs for children that I was introduced to acting when I was nine. That’s what I did every summer, until high school when Amy’s older sister, Holly, was my mentor and director in their “Intern-in-Training Program.” Upon graduating from college, I joined the company as a full-time member, performing children’s theatre throughout the school year, often touring the west coast, and teaching at the same summer conservatories I’d started in. That’s when Amy and I got to know each other and she became one of my best friends. We shared a deep love of Star Wars, and the desire as girls to replicate Indiana Jones’ frayed-- yet ornate with scribbles and pictures-- grail diary in our own journals. A typical weekend included champagne and artichokes, a Jane Austen movie or Friends marathon. Amy was a few years older, and in my eyes, one of the most talented actors and best teachers in the company. I looked up to her professionally, and was flattered that she would be my friend.

When I decided to leave California for graduate school in DC, leaving Amy may have been the hardest part. But she was moving on to the next stage of her life too. She and Jeremy (another good friend of mine and actor in the company) went to work for Apple and were married the following autumn. Now they live in Morgan Hill, just south of San Jose. They have a beautiful new home, an adorable four year old daughter, Ava, and a rambunctious yellow lab, Barkley. Eight years ago, when Amy and I were both single, both somewhat mystified (if not skeptical) by family life and how all of that happens, we’d talk about who are parents were before they had us, and how we’ll never really know them because having children changes you. I know I’m still anxious about that, but perhaps unnecessarily so, because seeing her now, with the whole package deal, she is pretty damn happy, and not that different. She’s still cool and collected, her house is still spotless and organized, and she can still put away the champagne.

Once we’ve done all our hello hugging and Ava escorts me to my room and gives me a tour of her room, the first order of business is, naturally, happy hour champagne flights at Bubbles, a local wine bar. Then we make artichokes for dinner as Jeremy plays the piano and accompanies Ava in a sing along. We wind down with several episodes of Friends. It feels good to be home.

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The next morning Amy and I go out for brunch at a local Mediterranean restaurant and finish catching up. That afternoon all of us go to a local winery, where Ava begs to be chased through the grass, and I oblige. She is an all around hilarious, delightful little person. A few hours earlier Amy told me that even though she loves her job, the only thing she’d change about her life now, is getting just one more hour a day with Ava. I can see why. Jeremy mentions a few times that Ava is trying to impress me, and while I’m sure she’d do that around any guest, this still makes me surprisingly happy. I’ve never thought kids liked me much; I think they’ve sensed my hesitance and uncertainty about how to act around them. But now I’m trying to be better. On the way home, Ava and I play with broken popsicle sticks in the backseat. And that evening, I’m utterly delighted as she acts along: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” “I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you!"

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The next morning we get up early and I drive them to the airport. They are going to Florida for Jeremy’s father’s surprise 60th birthday party and a trip to Disney World with Jeremy’s sister and her family. They generously invited me to stay in the house and use the car while they’re gone. I was prepared to couchsurf, and use CalTrain and BART to get around, but this will give me considerably more freedom. In the afternoon I drive up to Redwood City and meet Ginny, another former Communiverserian from DC, for a hike with her dog, Suzee, at the Pulgras Ridge Reserve. She recently moved to the Bay Area to pursue a PhD at Stanford in Environmental Science. She’s engaged to be married in the fall, and while she’s been here since August, her fiance just arrived a month ago. Moving from coast to coast is hard. There’s more culture shock than one might expect. When I moved east I was alone, which meant I didn’t have much immediate support, but it also meant I didn’t have to navigate someone else’s needs. What if one person is happy and the other isn’t? And making a place feel like a real home takes a lot of time. I didn’t feel like DC was my home until I finished graduate school two years later. But just a few weeks ago I was heartbroken to leave. When we get to the top of the hill we can see Stanford’s Hoover Tower in the distance. It’s a beautiful, clear, 70 degree day. When I’d tell people in DC where I was from most of them immediately responded: “Why would you leave California?” I know now that I took living here for granted.

We get back to the cars around 4pm and I head east over the San Mateo Bridge to meet up with another friend from CTC, Patrick. He went through the same conservatory program, but several years behind me, so when I was a company member he was an intern, and that’s when we became friends. That June, the summer before I left for DC, I broke my foot. It was one of the first performances of the repertory season, during the play Woman in Black. I was on stage, and I took a step. Just one small step down from a platform, landed wrong, and broke my foot. There went my plans for a summer of ambitious bike rides and making the most of my last three months in California. In addition, another actor had to take over that role (fortunately my role in another show was an old woman, so I could hobble around stage with a cane). Now bound to crutches, Patrick would frequently pick me up and take me to and from the theatre and office. We’d drink Fat Tire after rehearsals. He is a huge sweetheart of a human being.

After a tour of his Oakland apartment and cocktails, we splurge on an insanely delicious dinner--splitting an entire Mackerel and bottle of wine. I’m thrilled to hear about everything he has going on. He has a band. He’s kept a steady stream of acting jobs-- independent films, performing in the San Juan Islands, even an Audi commercial. Conversation is easy and engaging and spans everything from string theory and Neil deGrasse Tyson to why artistic failure is underrated. Patrick is also comfortingly optimistic. We get into politics and he sees his/our generation as capable, caring, and eager for serious change. Since I was often discouraged by the apparent apathy of my freshman students, I’m thrilled to hear this. Before I go he gives me his band’s cd and it becomes the soundtrack to my jaunts up and down the peninsula for the next four days. It’s great.

The next morning I drive through Menlo Park, past the house where I grew up, and it’s….anti-climactic. I’m bracing myself for twice the emotional gut punch as wandering around Whittier, but there’s not much. My old house looks like just another house. Whoever lives there now hasn’t kept up the rosebeds to the right of the driveway or the flower box to the left that my mom worked so hard to maintain. I drive through my elementary school and high school. Nothing. I go to Cafe Borrone, where my friends and I went for coffee once we discovered coffee and that’s what you did. I try to think of other places I want to see again, but few come to mind. I don’t feel a turkey sandwich on dutch crunch from LeBoulanger, or a toasted poppy seed bagel with extra cream cheese from Posh, and I’m definitely not willing to put down two Big Macs for the sake of nostalgia. So I head over to Palo Alto and go to Lyfe Kitchen, which I googled. I walk around, happy to see the historic Stanford Theatre is still there, but generally unmoved by everything else. I spend another hour or two at a Peet’s on University where I give a (presumably) homeless man $5. I rarely do this because I never know if I “should.” Whenever I find myself in this situation my mind reels into a flurry of conflicting sentiments: I don’t have any “extra” money, what if he uses it for drugs, wouldn’t it be better to give that money to a shelter or organization, but who am I to attach stipulations to helping other people, you’re just thinking of excuses not to be generous...Today, being surrounded by all this affluence, seeing the way a woman on the street shrinked from him as she passed, and five other people uncomfotably denied him before he got to me, I just couldn’t follow suit. So it was probably more because I didn’t want to be like them, than a sincere gesture of compassion. Maybe it doesn’t matter why I did it. I think about paying it forward--actually-- paying it back. People have been so generous to me that I need to reciprocate what I’ve been given. I think about my resolution to ask for what I want, and that perhaps I should add: and give to others what they ask for if I have it.

I go to Town & Country Village for dinner at Calafia Cafe and then Books, Inc., where my former professor and colleague, Rachel Snyder, is giving a book reading. Afterward, I go out with her and four other women for drinks. I tell them about my trip and they, like many people I meet, express sentiments of jealousy, longing for the kind of freedom I have now. I appreciate that Rachel says what I always want to say, but never do for fear of sounding patronizing: “Everyone can have that kind of freedom. It’s our choice not to seize it.”

The conversation turns to relationships and they discuss how important it is to have space from their partners. Most of these women probably have at least ten years on me. Most of them are married; I think they all have children. I listen attentively, eager to hear their reflections. Some people, they say, keep separate homes from their spouses. One woman explains how good it was for her marriage that her husband commuted to LA for several days each week. I’m relieved to hear the various ways people are adapting their domestic situations. That it doesn’t all have to work this one way. And, of course, it doesn’t. Of course. But I imagine it’s a very difficult grain to go against. I’m reminded of Thoreau: “As long as possible live free and uncommitted.” I imagine my mother telling me that’s selfish. Immature. I recall my best friend’s mother-in-law last Halloween asking if I’m afraid of commitment. Not afraid. I don’t think. Or no more than reasonable. I like the notion of a lifelong partner. Eventually. Thoreau doesn’t say live free and uncommitted FOREVER. Just as long as possible. I guess I’m just still working on that part.

I spend the rest of the week bouncing around the Bay Area: writing in coffee shops on Valencia Street, a yoga class in the Haight, perusing the aisles of my favorite Rainbow Grocery, walking along the Embarcadero and through the Ferry Building, reading on the dock of the bay, gorging on vegan food at Herbivore and Source, joining Ginny and her fellow graduate student roommates for house dinner, hiking in Uvas Canyon County Park, dinner at Gracias Madre and drinks in the Mission with another good friend from CTC and poet, Karen. I also take a “night off” to just relax at Amy and Jeremy’s house. I take a bubble bath, eat popcorn for dinner, and watch Friends sprawled out on their plush leather sofa until I can’t stay awake.

Amy, Jeremy, and Ava are supposed to come back on Friday night, but their flight is delayed until Saturday morning. Their flights to Florida were also delayed, so by the time they get back they feel like they’ve done more travelling, than actual vacationing. They’re exhausted, so we spend a relaxing afternoon at home with more artichokes (and champagne), acting out various fairy tales with Ava (I get to play the prince), and a Friends inspired game of who can name all 50 states (I lose).

As the time draws closer for Jeremy to take me to the Amtrak station in Santa Clara to catch my Portland-bound train, I cherish my remaining hours with them. Parenthood might not have abducted Amy in the mysterious way that we once feared, but certainly having a family changes things. Time away from work is reserved for visiting parents and grandparents and siblings, all with their own families, and when everyone lives on opposite coasts, you’re spread doubly thin and alternating holidays. It’s harder to visit friends, or just see new places. Fortunately Amy’s sisters live in Seattle and so I have a greater chance of seeing them again there, but it might be a few years. I think this is where some of my anxiety about being in a relationship and having a family still resides--the thought of being so spread thin, being obligated to twice as many people by default of my commitment to just one. But if we can claim space from our partner in order to sustain the relationship, might not this distance from in-laws be possible too? I’m frequently seduced by the notion of family as something that restricts and inhibits. But while I’ve had a wonderful time here visiting with friends, doing whatever I want, going out to trendy bars, and having sexy intellectual conversations over lavish meals, I’ve been equally wooed by my time with Amy and her family. Just as we have the choice to seize freedom in the form of travel and independence, we also have a choice to seize freedom as something we already have, that is just as much at home as it is far away. After all, even Thoreau, for all his talk of being “free and uncommitted,” never wandered far from Concord:

If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them. Many a weed here stands for more of life to me than the big trees of California would if I should go there.

Los Angeles: "I Forgot My Mantra"

It’s February 12 and when I step outside at LAX it is 70 degrees and sunny. I’m going to be staying with Annie, a good friend of mine from graduate school at American University. She and her husband, Anthony, moved here a year and a half ago because he was accepted into the MFA program in Sculpture at UCLA. Annie is in Westwood, holding office hours where she teaches at a UCLA extension school, so Anthony picks me. I adore him. He’s sweet, easy to talk to, and radiates patience. He takes me back to their apartment in Culver City so I can get settled, trade my boots for flip flops, and then hop on a bus to meet Annie for dinner before her class. Riding down Westwood Blvd, another wave of excitement comes on. I register where I am and who I’m about to see. In many ways, Annie was my lifeline during grad school. We lived in the same apartment building, took many of the same seminars, and her humor and sarcasm were invaluable stress relievers.

After hellos and hugs we go for an early dinner at Native Foods (again), around the corner. Meeting up with friends on this trip I’m always more eager to hear their news than recount my own. “What’s new?” or “How are you?” seem like impossible questions to answer. Everything is new and “great!” doesn’t begin to capture how I am. Where do I begin? So I say I’m having the time of my life, that I’ve been overwhelmed by kindness and generosity everywhere I go, and wait for the conversation to open itself to other stories and revelations. I tell Annie about the job opportunity in New Delhi and we talk about India. Annie’s father is from Northern India and she’s been there several times to visit family, so I’m particularly eager to hear her thoughts.

At 6:15 Annie has to leave for class and I decide to wander around then post up in a coffee shop until she’s done at 9pm and Anthony picks us up. I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, which I borrowed from my sister, about cultivating creativity through building habits. I’ve been on the road for about six weeks now, and I’m not tired yet, but I am looking forward to settling into a routine and focusing on developing my own habits when I get to Seattle. I’m also nearly a third into Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder; it’s really good. It’s the true story of Dr. Paul Farmer, who dedicates his life to curing infectious diseases in Haiti. His commitment to treating the poor is his life. He’s the kind of person that takes an invocation like “Love thy neighbor as thyself” seriously. He’s unsympathetic toward those who avoid thinking about the poor in order to remain comfortable; he believes the rich ought to be made to feel guilty so they give more; he believes that “Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” But he’s complicated and often surprises Kidder, like when it comes to WL’s--white liberals: “I love WL’s, love ‘em to death. They’re on our side...But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”  Kidder not only captures Farmer’s complexity, but ideally positions himself between Farmer’s guilt-inducing saint-like commitment and the white liberal that’s likely reading his book. Kidder is frequently torn between admiration and frustration. At one point, as they look out across land that has been drowned by a dam, thus displacing the people that lived there Kidder explains:

Education wasn’t what he [Farmer] wanted to perform on the world, me included. He was after transformation...This view of drowned farmland, the result of a dam that had made his patients some of the poorest of the poor, was a lens on the world. His lens. Look through it and you’d begin to see all the world’s impoverished in their billions and the many linked causes of their misery. In any case, he seemed to think I knew exactly what he meant, and I realized, with some irritation, that I didn’t dare say anything just then, for fear of disappointing him.

Farmer is the kind of person that forces you to reevaluate your own purpose, the good you do or don’t do, and if it’s enough--often against your own will. We love that people like him exist. Most people would laud his work, yet we rarely hold ourselves to comparable moral standards. And what’s more, while we see him as going above and beyond, he doesn’t: “People call me a saint and I think, I have to work harder. Because a saint would be a great thing to be.” It’s easy to find a million reasons or excuses why we can’t do more. Obviously this is not to say we should all become doctors, but how would we help others, what problems would we go after, if we didn’t feel limited by one thing or another? And for myself, I can’t get over this. What are my standards, what can I do, and how do I hold myself accountable?

The next morning I pick up a rental car. I’ve never owned a car, and since college I’ve been proud of relying on my bicycle, but I love driving. I feel like a freed 16 year old again. I park the car at Venice Beach and walk the rest of the way to Santa Monica. The temperature is climbing toward 80 degrees. I’m in flip flops and cut offs. Did my six and a half years on the east coast erase my memory? I don’t remember it being this warm during the “winter.” Did I really just take it for granted all that time? I can’t get over that people live like this, even hating them a little for it, distrusting their lack of seasons, like a wrinkle-free, perm-pressed Stepford Wife. I look for a glossy, detached glaze over their eyes. The trouble with weather like this is you get too comfortable. And when you get too comfortable, I wonder if you can really be grateful. You can know it’s a beautiful day, but you don’t feel that gratitude in the same way. In DC, the first day of spring is utterly euphoric. Suddenly there’s people everywhere soaking up every square inch of sunshine. The sheer joy and happiness is palpable.

When I walk into Rawvolution, the woman behind the counter greets me with a friendliness that is either that sincere and fresh, or rehearsed and routine. I can’t tell. When she brings me my yerba mate latte and raw cookie she lightly touches my shoulder and softly smiles: “Enjoy.” Women walking down the street wear skinny jeans, flowing t-shirts, dangling earrings and big sunglasses, with heels or designer sandals. Joan Baez’s doppleganger (circa 1960) passes. There’s an old VW bus parked outside with a crystal hanging from the rear view mirror.  Granted, this is Santa Monica. By no means does it represent all of LA--a huge, diverse, multifaceted city that’s much more than Hollywood and palm trees. But the stereotypes are there too. I should love it here, I’m a sucker for all of this stuff-- fancy foods, yoga studios, urban gardens, funky coffee shops-- but I suppose I worry that with so much at your fingertips to make you a healthier (“fitter, happier, more productive”) person, do we risk getting sucked into a vortex of self improvement and floating away on a cloud of kale? I do believe that we have to take care of ourselves first, but I also know that it’s easy for that to turn into unbridled narcissism, if not obsession.

For lunch I meet up with my friend Danielle, a good friend from college whom I haven’t seen since the weekend she graduated (she is two years younger than me) and got married (I was a bridesmaid in her wedding), which was about seven years ago. We’ve kept in touch via the interwebs, and while we had plenty in common then (theatre, feminism), that now includes vegan food, yoga, and writing. Talking to her now is like just another one of our many conversations we shared over a meal in the cafeteria. She’s eloquent, ambitious, brimming with ideas, and I love hearing about her numerous creative projects-- screenplays, blogging, a memoir. She’s doing it. After eating at Thai Teak we walk along the oceanfront bike path. We talk about yoga and being vegan and I’m refreshed at how level-headed she is about it all. She doesn’t presume these choices are miracle cures that work for everyone. I’m a geek for healthy living, but even I get uncomfortable around people who preach it. The sunshine hasn’t gone to her brain; in fact, she knows more than most her age about hardship and struggle. She’s been battling cancer on and off since high school, when it cost her her right leg. She’s recently divorced and navigating the challenges that come with not only ending a serious relationship (he was her high school sweetheart), but also the stigmas around dating women and reorienting your identity. Danielle was always vivacious, but now she’s a full-fledged bad ass.

Several hours later we say our goodbyes, promise to keep in touch, share our writing and recipes, and not let another seven years pass before seeing each other again. I walk back to the car along the beach, with plenty of time until I meet up with Erik (the son of Dick and Jan, whom I stayed with in Austin). I arrive at the coffee shop early and I’m nervous. I haven’t seen Erik since we were kids; I don’t really know him. But I want to follow through as I told his parents I would. It sounds like we’re pretty similar and have a lot in common--we’re both English majors and have driven our parents crazy with leftist politics. I swallow my social anxiety and end up having a great visit with him.

Afterward I pick up Annie and we go to Ugo, an Italian wine bar in Culver City, where you can pour yourself wine by the ounce from a huge selection on tap. Anthony joins us for dinner, then takes us to his studio and shows us his work. He’s in the middle of creating his thesis project. I love looking at artists’ studio spaces, perhaps just as much I like looking at their art. I love to see how they create a space in which to create. And while I’m grateful that my “art” only requires a laptop or pen and paper, I’m a little envious of all the materials and tools and dirtiness that are involved in working in those mediums.

The next morning I return to Santa Monica. I stop at Groundwork for coffee and some writing time before a yoga class. Today feels different. I wonder if the hipster barista with the Jennifer Aniston hair crushed a blue pill in my drink, because I’m enamoured by all the pretty-artsy-funky people coming and going. Perhaps all this sunshine isn’t such a bad thing. The YogaWorks class is huge and packed. Before it starts, half the class chit-chats while the rest are already flowing through their Surynamaskara B’s or standing on their heads or meditating. After yoga I pick Annie up a few blocks away, where she also teaches at Santa Monica College, and we go to lunch at Cafe Gratitude, a veritable vegan mecca. She’s a good sport about my diet and humors the waitress when she asks us, seriously, what we’re grateful for before taking our order. Yesterday I probably would have balked at this-- but today I don’t hesitate: “I’m grateful for Annie,” I tell the her, trying to save a potentially too precious moment with straight-forward sincerity. But I’m stupid giddy over the menu, where each item has a name like MAGICAL or TRANSFORMED or--of course-- GRATEFUL. Yesterday even I would have been a little nauseated by this, but not today. I drank the LA Kool Aid, and I’m salivating over everything: kelp noodles?! cashew ricotta?! hempseed pesto?! Afterward I drop Annie off at the apartment and head across town to my alma mater (and Nixon’s), Whittier College.

I haven’t been there since 2007, when I went back for Danielle’s graduation and wedding. When I get off “the” 605 on Whittier Blvd my memory is my GPS. I’m not expecting to feel particularly nostalgic. I mean, I enjoyed my time there, but college was a little strange for me. I spent the first two years drunk and stoned, failing classes, dating jerk-offs and generally being stupid. At the end of my sophmore year I had some kind of come-to-Jesus moment, dumped the boyfriend, and when I returned in the fall I didn’t mess around: I worked and studied and did theatre, and that was about it. The primary reason I’m going back now is to see my favorite professor: David Paddy. He’s the reason I went to American University; that’s where he got his MA. Professor Paddy taught the kind of classes that make your mind explode--the ones you’re sincerely distraught about missing when you oversleep. And I’ll never forget the day he walked into our Modern Drama class, picked up a desk, hurled it across the room at us, and jumped out the window-- just to properly introduce the theatre of cruelty. He had a cult-ish following of English majors. The last time I’d been in touch with him was when I graduated from AU, so when I emailed him a few weeks ago I was thrilled that he a) remembered who the hell I was and b) was willing to take time to see me.

As I get closer to campus, an eerie deja-vu-ish feeling comes on, and butterflies wielding knives hopscotch in my stomach. I park a block from campus and walk up Philadelphia Street, over Painter, and then right toward the Hoover Building. I gather myself in the bathroom and then creep around the corner to his office, still in the same place, where the door is ajar. When he welcomes me immediately and greets me with a hug, 75% of my nervousness subsides. We talk about AU, the professors that we shared, some who are still teaching, others who have retired. I eagerly ask about his recent project, a new book on J.G. Ballard-- one of my favorite writers since his senior seminar introduced me to him. When I sense it’s been half an hour I initiate my departure, thank him profusely for his time, and am thrilled that he suggests keeping in touch on Facebook.

The campus is quiet and nearly empty. A few students loiter on the quad. The sun is starting to sink, and the campus’ palm trees and Mediterranean style red tile roof buildings strike me as stunning. It’s beautiful in a simple, unpretentious way. I get lost trying to find the bookstore, wandering through a newly built student center and remodelled “Campus Inn.” As I walk toward the Shannon Performing Arts Center, feeling displaced by re-treading a path I walked daily for four years, my eyes start to swell and my throat gets small. I have the urge to call my parents and thank them. I’m overwhelmed, not by a flood of great memories, but all the mistakes I made, the poor decisions. And instead of judging myself, I’m just grateful.

I need to get back if I don’t want to be stuck in the worst of LA traffic, but I have to drive up the hill before I go. Turner and Harris Halls, the dorms I lived in for three years, sit on “Fire Hill” and--on clear days when the smog lifts--boast panoramic views of LA. I pull into a parking spot and turn off the car. It’s not especially clear, but I take in a good view nonetheless. I need a moment to just sit and be there. I think about how open my life was in college, and upon graduating. I had plans, but they didn’t really mean anything. And I’m relieved, nearly ten years later, to be in a similar place. Yesterday Annie had, partially in jest, commented on how she thought she’d have everything figured out by this point in her life; I’m so glad I don’t have any of it figured out. That at 31 my life is just as mysterious, if not more so, than it was when I was 21. Except now I might have the balls to embrace it.

When I turn on the car Axl Rose croons: She’s got a smile that it seems to me, Reminds me of childhood memories, Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky.... I chuckle, thinking the universe is being a little heavy handed, or I’m just being ridiculously sentimental. This was the music I listened to in college. I even did morbid things like create the playlist I wanted at my funeral, and “Sweet Child of Mine” was the opening song (“Dreams” by The Cranberries was the last--duh). I roll down the windows and turn up the volume as I accelerate over the speedbumps down the hill. Where do we go, where do we go now? The past few weeks have been like taking a survey of my life, visiting the friends and family and places that have gotten me this far. Tomorrow I’ll be flying to the Bay Area, where I grew up, coming full circle. I vow to myself to take a life sabbatical like this every 10 years. A moment to step outside my routines, retrace my steps, remember what it’s all for.

That evening Anthony takes us to LACMA with free tickets he received as a UCLA grad student, and I pick his brain about art as he guides us through the Alexander Calder exhibit. We go out for Indian food after, continuing the conversation about Delhi and what I can expect and how I should prepare if I end up going there. I appreciate Annie’s counsel. She is one of the most level-headed and straight-forward, yet caring, people I know. Her honesty and candidness is always refreshing. In the morning we return the rental car, and enjoy a leisurely breakfast across the street at Green Peas, Annie and Anthony’s last obligatory meal of “hippie food.” Annie can be snarky in a way that rabbit food eaters like me need in order to keep our feet on the ground. Southern California needs more Woody Allens. Whatever spell had my head in the clouds yesterday has broken. I can see beyond the gratitude-infused raw food yogi sunshine lifestyle that now strikes me as too self-indulgent, too Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall: “I forgot my mantra.”

On the plane I return to the story of Dr. Paul Farmer. Kidder explains how Farmer’s choice to stay in Haiti, and to practice medicine as he does, is, in a way, about being able to live with himself: “This matters to him, I think--to feel, at least occasionally, that he doctors in obscurity, so that he knows he doctors first of all because he believes it’s the right thing to do. If you do the right thing well, you avoid futility….I think Farmer raps into a universal anxiety and also into a fundamental place in some troubled consciences, into what he calls ‘ambivalence,’ the often unacknowledged uneasiness that some of the fortunate feel about their place in the world, the thing he once told me he designed his life to avoid.” This might not be a pithy mantra, but I’d like to think I’m striving for even half of Farmer’s integrity.

In less than an hour I’ll be back in the Bay Area, where I might still get away with flip flops, but at least I can count on San Francisco for some cloud cover.

Boulder Birthday

The last place I expected to find myself on my birthday was in a strip club getting a lap dance with my sister’s boyfriend, after taking speed-laced ecstasy.

I hadn’t really thought much about my birthday this year. Usually I start generating ideas months in advance. I love planning parties. And since my birthday is in early February, after the adrenaline crash of the holidays and during the peak of winter darkness, it’s something to look forward to. But being as everyday has been one to look forward to, I thought this year I would just keep it mellow--do some yoga in the morning, perhaps see a movie in the afternoon, and have a nice dinner and a few drinks. Nothing crazy. And while I love planning my parties (actually I prefer planning parties for other people’s birthdays), when the day arrives I often find myself a little overwhelmed by the attention, even a little anxious. So this year I was glad to navigate that via facebook, kind text messages, and a few phone calls. I was just happy to be in Boulder, Colorado, with my older sister and brother. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually spent a birthday with them (technically they are my “half” brother and sister, they are 11 and 9 years older than me, and they grew up in Georgia while I grew up in California), so that in itself was a tremendous gift. Just to be with them.

And that was the plan. My sister, Amy, and I got up reasonably early and went to a yoga class, followed by lunch at my new favorite vegan “fast food” joint, Native Foods. Then we took on a double feature at the movies: Her and The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s Oscar season and I always try to see as many of the nominees as possible. Her gave me so much to think about. I didn’t always find myself as emotionally invested as I felt I should be (my sister and I agreed that it would have been better if we didn’t recognize Scarlett Johansson’s voice as one that is attached to her body), but philosophically I was fascinated, and visually I was captivated. It was beautiful.

But The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand... I really wanted to like it. But I didn’t. The performances were great, and I don’t doubt that Martin Scorsese is a great director. But going into hour three I was exhausted by the characters and didn’t give a shit about any of them or anything that was happening, and I was bored. It illustrates the corruption and abuse and power and greed of capitalism without seeming to say much about it. If anything, the tone and rhythm of the film seemed to make light of it, maybe even glorify it to a certain extent. The dialogue seemed to hit the same note over and over. If there was much more to it, then it was lost on me, and perhaps that’s my failure, but I missed the nuances. Fortunately Amy’s boyfriend, Stash, is an incredible film buff. He and his friend, Chris, joined us for that one and so I employed him afterward to help me understand what I’m perhaps too dense to get. I just saw lots of tits and drugs.

Afterward we all went back to Amy’s for a drink before meeting up with their mom, Jeanie, our brother, Peter, and his girlfriend, Rachel on Pearl Street. Zeal-- “food for enthusiasts”--is my kind of restaurant, emphasizing local, organic ingredients, and plenty of vegan options. I have a Kombucha Cosmo and a Vegetable Tempeh Curry Bowl. I am touched that everyone came out, and that it’s shaping up to be just the kind of birthday I was looking forward to. After dinner, Jeanie says good night, and the rest of us head over to “the Downer” (the Sundown Saloon) for a few games of darts and more drinks. I’ve been in Boulder for about a week now, but since I’m staying with Amy, this is the first opportunity I’ve really had to see Pete. He tells me about his new business venture: a marijuana research and development company he’s starting with our dad. There is a lot of interest from potential “angel investors” and he’s brimming with excitement-- not just because it seems like a promising start-up, but because he’s doing it with dad. He’s practically glowing.

Pete has an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. For ten years he owned The Foundry, a bar and billiards club in Boulder. When pot was legalized in Colorado he opened a dispensary. He always seems to have something new on the horizon. And since he’s lived there for near twenty years now, he knows everyone. He’s good at meeting people, and taking care of people. As a child, Pete was this glamorous jet setter to me, always on the move, playing in celebrity golf tournaments, vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. For at least two years he gave us pictures of him and Matt Damon for Christmas. And he has a huge heart. He’s incredibly generous, always orchestrating the variables to ensure everyone’s having a good time. If your drink is even thinking about being empty, he’s bought you another. If you seem bored, he’s going to mix things up. He is also the ultimate Big Brother-- unceasingly protective of his little sisters. And since we weren’t together much growing up, this is still somewhat novel to me (that said, he also didn’t beat me as he did Amy!) and I relish being looked after the way he does--to a point. I’m also a control freak, and a night out with him is an exercise in relinquishing control.

And I have, so after a few games of darts, two rounds of shots, and a whiskey on the rocks, we move on to the Absinthe House. We pile into a huge booth and order the next round of drinks. I feel great. There’s a dj and I’m bouncing in my seat to the music, when Chris pulls out a small vial of what looks like crushed sea salt. Stash takes a little. Amy takes a little. When Chris offers it to me I ask, “Could this kill me?” That’s usually been my line with drugs. If something could potentially kill me from only one dose (even if those odds are incredibly low), and if I don’t really know what’s in it (as you often don’t), I won’t do it. And I haven’t honestly had much interest in doing many drugs. Whatever “gateway” pot and shrooms supposedly open, never presented itself to me. But tonight, Chris’ brisk confirmation that this won’t kill me is enough and I take a little too.

We haven’t been there long when Pete decides we should go to Nitro, the strip club next door. I don’t want to go, but I know it’s futile to argue. It may seem like a conflict of interest for Peter: how many protective brothers take their little sisters to strip clubs for their birthday? But I know that this must mean he knows the owner and that we will likely be “taken care of” there. And we are. Our drinks are free. And once we get settled and find that it’s not full of the sleazy clientele I’d imagined, I actually start to enjoy myself. I’d never been inside a strip club before. I don’t actually have any objections to them, as long as the women are treated well. I know some might find that to be a contradiction in terms, but I don’t think it has to be. The woman who gave me my cat was a lesbian stripper in San Francisco working on a PhD in Gender Studies and she loved her job.

I can’t not laugh at myself. Only a few hours earlier I was criticizing a movie for boring me with naked women and drugs, and now I found myself having a delightful time--drunk, stoned, and chatting with a stripper about writing while she gives me and Stash a lap dance. Whatever Chris had given me didn’t make me touchy feely the way I thought ecstasy would, but I was happy--alert, energized. Obviously this pales in comparison to the caliber of partying in the film; it’s not even close to that league, but I was still a little out of mine. When Amy and I had talked about my birthday in the days prior, we contemplated board games, not boobs. But there we were. We closed the place down at 2am and took a cab back to Amy’s where we snacked on peanuts and watched YouTube videos, finally falling asleep around 4am.

I woke the next morning to Jeanie’s dog, Maggie, nuzzling my face. She frequently drops her off at Amy’s on her way to work and this was one of those mornings. I’m camped out on the floor in a hive of pillows and blankets and I stay there until Amy emerges from her room. Slowly we take the necessary steps to correct our hangovers: water, caffeine, food. We watch a movie, dosing in and out of naps. When Jeanie comes back for Maggie that afternoon, we haven’t moved. Finally we pull ourselves together, rouse Stash, and go to his place to meet up with Chris, make dinner, and watch the olympics. This is when Chris nonchalantly tells me, “Oh yeah, the ecstasy was probably laced with speed.” I’m sure my jaw dropped slightly and I roll my eyes at myself. I didn’t die, but I feel validated in my “don’t do drugs because you don’t know what’s in them” stance, even if I fumbled sticking to it. In any event, it’s been the perfect lazy recovery day.

In fact, every day feels perfect here. I’m in Boulder for almost two weeks, one of the longest visits I’ve ever had with Amy. ImageSince we didn’t grow up together, we’ve never lived in the same city, and I long to eventually have a day-to-day relationship with her and Peter; I planned my visit this way in hopes of getting a small taste of that. But despite the geographical distance and age difference, Amy and I are very close. In fact, it’s funny how similar we are, and how similar our youngest sister, Margaret, is to Peter. Though they are separated by gender and thirteen years, they share the same kinetic, extroverted, outgoing, entertaining bordering outrageous energy. Pete and Margaret are more mac and cheese, while Amy and I are all kale and coconut water. Pete and Margaret are more likely to be the life of the party and shut down the bar, while Amy and I are hiking/cycling/camping/yoga-ing or reading a book. Margaret and Pete got the tall/skinny genes, and Amy and I frequently shock people with our resemblance. But when we’re all together, it’s the ultimate quadfecta. The energies balance-- and sometimes explode-- but not without fits of laughter too. Few things make me happier than being with all of my siblings at the same time, which unfortunately hasn’t been much recently.

But while it’s just me and Amy, it’s easy to share her routine-- yerba mate + coconut creamer start every day Image(Amy introduced me to this brilliant beverage combo and I’ve been an evangelist for it ever since: the grassy bitterness of the mate and creamy sweet coconut are the ultimate combination in taste and caffeination power); she solders and hammers upstairs for a few hours, as I try to put sentences together downstairs; we sweat and stretch through a yoga class at her studio down the street; I’ll make lunch, and introduce her to a new recipe, while she puts on Democracy Now! and engages my political conscience. Even her cat, Patty Hearst, is like a twin to my Mizu--vocal, playful, with big worried eyes. We often talk about creativity and artistic process and teaching. Last year Amy completed her MFA in Metalsmithing, and now she’s teaching classes and aggressively building her jewelry line. I love these mellower days, but Amy and I have gone out quite a bit during my stay too: a Superbowl “party” (more like a Superbowl Slaughter); Imagemargaritas (at the Bitter Bar) and a brussel sprout heavy dinner (at The Kitchen Next Door) downtown followed by a show at the CU Planetarium; an excursion into Denver including lunch at WaterCourse Foods and a stop at Tattered Cover Bookstore; a day trip to Laramie so I can see the University of Wyoming; and on my last night we go over to Pete and Rachel’s house for dinner, virtually including Margaret via Skype. I’m always reluctant to leave Boulder, but comforted to know I’ll likely be passing through again over the summer on my way to New Mexico and then Austin. One day, I’m determined to share a zipcode with them.

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My trip to Los Angeles the following day includes a layover in Las Vegas. A group of passengers on that flight are particularly rowdy, advertising their plans for a weekend of drinking and gambling-- birthday celebrating. The plane sits on the runway for 10 minutes before pulling up to the gate and they can’t contain their irritation at this inconvenience, reminding me of my favorite Louis C.K. bit about how we take technology for granted, especially flying. When I think of Vegas I think of sidewalks paved with naked women--literally. I remember walking down sidewalks covered with advertisements for strip clubs and shows promising provocatively posed ladies. I’ve been there twice, both times for work (which was, ironically, performing children’s theatre). I was happy to go as long as someone else was paying me to, but I wouldn’t go back on my own. As my fellow passengers become increasingly boisterous, their excitement mounting, I’m totally judging them in my head, probably even rolling my eyes as I look out the window. The strip seems like a stone’s throw away. I can see the Luxor’s Pyramid, Excalibur’s Disney-esque Castle, and the Paris Las Vegas Eiffel Tower. I breathe and laugh at myself.

I wish I could remember my conversation with that stripper.

New Mexico: "Road Full of Promise"

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Some people say that all airports are the same. And to a certain extent I can see how that’s true: Starbucks, Hudson News, and McDonalds are staples just about everywhere. But I also think that each airport tries to embody a condensed, often Disney-like, representation of its city, and Austin’s airport is a good example: there’s an independent bookstore, a coffee shop with neon signs, and 10 ft tall Gibson Guitars on the baggage claim carousels. Albuquerque’s Sunport is an even better example. The flat roof, adobe-facade, and muted turquoise blue accents overwhelm you with a Southwestern aura before you get outside. The airport boasts over one hundred pieces of art, but Lincoln Fox’s “Dream of Flight” is undoubtedly the most memorable, with the following inscription:

The dream of flight is born within the heart of man, embracing the desire to be free from the confines of the earth’s surface. Hopefully the dream includes the possibility of freedom from limiting thought and action. As our imagination is freed to receive greater truths, then fear, closed thinking, and poverty of spirit will be left behind … far below.

I’m touched by this and think it’s a fitting prologue to my time with Keri. Moving from one place to the next every few days (instead of spending weeks looking forward to a single trip), I often don’t register what’s about to happen until it does. I don’t process the excitement until the plane actually hits the tarmac. I’m about to see Keri is suddenly I’M ABOUT TO SEE KERI!!! Keri and I lived together in the house in DC for about a year and a half. She was an attorney for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a fierce cyclo-cross competitor, and my partner in crime in for culinary and outdoor adventures. Our desk jobs allowed time for emailing one another recipes from food blogs and plotting our next gustatorial creation, and our weekends were devoted to getting away whenever and however we could--backpacking in Shenandoah and Vermont, hiking in West Virginia, camping on the beach in Assateague. We scoured the surrounding areas for destinations and made it happen, sometimes with others, but usually just the two of us. She drove, I queued up the music, and we were gone.

Five minutes after I pick up my bag, Keri rushes in to greet me. Her hugs are signature. She’s short, so she dives in low, wrapping her arms around my waist for the squeeze. The car is packed with welcomers--Ryland behind the wheel, and Hayduke (Keri’s rhodesian ridgeback puppy) and Arlo (Ry’s dignified yellow lab) in the back. My flight was delayed by several hours so it’s almost midnight.

“What did you think of Austin?” Ry asks me as I get settled in the front seat. “I’ve decided I want to marry a hipster cowboy,” I reply. He laughs and agrees that’s a fitting description of the men there. “Stoic” would be too strong a word to describe Ry; he is comfortingly calm and composed, easy to be around. He is all kind eyes and “darlin”s for Keri. Nonetheless, I’m thrilled to get a chuckle out of him. We talk up the 30 minute drive to his parents’ property where we stay in a cabin behind their house, which is where Ry lived when he was in law school (that’s where he and Keri met). Keri and I stay up for another hour talking, stoking the wood burning stove, and eventually falling asleep around 2am.

We are up early the next morning because Ry has to get back to Aztec to meet with a man about drywall. Keri and Ryland are building their own house. They’ve purchased a beautiful piece of land on the Animas River. When I visited them in October they were preparing to pour the concrete, and worrying about how a harsh winter might impact their plans. Building the house is currently Ry’s full-time job. And aside from a few specialized projects, and help from friends and Keri’s father, he’s doing everything himself. It’s incredible and I can’t wait to see what it looks like now. Keri insists we go to her favorite diner in town for breakfast, where I order the huevos rancheros, pacing myself with the green chilis, but eager to finally experience one of her favorite meals.

When we get to Aztec, Ry drops us off at the house where they are staying, across the street from Keri’s parents. Their neighbors are selling their house, and offered it to Ry and Keri until it’s sold. There we meet Ry’s sister, Jessa, and her boyfriend, Jonathan, and his dog, who arrived the night before from Steamboat and are visiting for the week also. Then the four of us, dogs in tow, meet Ry down at the property Keri gives us a tour, describing her vision: a library with a rolling ladder, a bar with two beers on tap, a vegetable garden out back. They’ll have two guest rooms and we playfully start claiming the ones we want. I imagine going back to help her start her garden. In fact, I imagine a life in which I could just visit friends and help them with cooking or gardening or babysitting, or whatever would make their lives a little easier, or give them more time to themselves. In exchange for a place to sleep and a few hours to write, being a vagabond domestic assistant sounds like a lovely way to spend a few months, or years. And at this point it’s all feasible. The future now seems to me a veritable playground of possibilities. I fantasize about all the options, each scenario coming together like tetris blocks, before disappearing, and new pieces manifest to replace them.

Ryland still has some business to finish so we take the dogs for a walk on a piece of BLM land a short 5 minute drive away. It is gorgeous, like having a national park in your backyard. No one else is around and the sun is starting to set as we park, walk down a stretch of dirt road before veering off to hop from boulder to boulder. Jessa and Jonathan asked me more about my plans and we talk about travelling and places we’ve been. After an hour or so we start to get hungry and Keri and I contrive dinner, something delicious but not too labor intensive: fajitas. We meet Ry back at the road and he gives us a lift in his truck back to Keri’s car, the dogs delightfully bounding behind. That evening we drink Tecate and I happily zen out chopping and sauteing vegetables as Ryland grills avocados, mangos and venison that he shot himself. It’s a true feast. Afterward we get into the hot tub and Ryland plays Biggie. I am winding down, getting quiet, blissfully content. Shower, pajamas, tea, bed before 10pm. After a full, fun day, I read until I fall asleep.

The next day Keri and I are driving to Rifle, Colorado, where she has to work tomorrow. Then my sister, Amy, will drive down from Boulder to collect me. We make paleo pumpkin waffles for everybody, say our goodbyes, load up her car with our stuff and Hayduke, and we’re off. Per routine I man the ipod and start with one of our favorites, the Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”--a song that has kicked off many of our road trips together.

There was a dream and one day I could see it

Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demanded that somebody free it

And there was a kid with a head full of doubt

So I'll scream til I die and the last of those bad thoughts are finally out

The drive is beautiful and for the first three hours it is perfectly sunny and warm. When I think of my friendship with Keri, these are the moments that seem to define it: in the car going somewhere. Keri and I were great housemates and we loved being homebodies together-- testing new vegan, gluten-free, protein-rich recipes in the kitchen, snuggled on the couch with a glass of wine and a book, feasting on NOOCH drenched popcorn and ogling over a Ryan Gosling or Harrison Ford movie-- but we really lived for these trips. And especially since she moved back to New Mexico, we’ve crafted our visits around specific adventures together (in October we spent three days backpacking and playing in slot canyons in Utah). I save my real questions, the real “catching up” for these long drives, the space in between things.

We talk about money and how they impact relationships. She and Ry have a true partnership. I can think of no better word to describe what I see.  They’ve created roles for themselves that work to build the life they want. She’s working a lawyer job and he’s building their home, but she still gets dirty and he still brings home the bacon--or venison, as the case may be. This is a huge undertaking, which will, of course, put more pressure on any relationship, but it also makes it stronger. It gives the grit. “My relationship with Ry just gets better and better,” she tells me. I’ve never seen her happier.

We talk about her upcoming wedding and what she wants and doesn’t want--specifically the challenges of creating a meaningful, beautiful day without going broke. I love weddings. And I’m lucky because, so far, I’ve never been to a bad wedding. Though I still hold some reservations about marriage as an institution and I’m not invested in the prospect of getting married myself, I unabashedly love basking in the joy and happiness that these events create. I always cry. I always drink a little too much. I always get sentimental and a little dopey.

I ask Keri about her job. She works for ConocoPhilips, which might be surprising since she’s an Edward Abbey-loving environmentalist. But, she explains, working for them actually gives her the power to make meaningful change from the inside--perhaps more direct change than working for an environmental non-profit. For example, at the moment she’s working to save the habitat of the Greater Sage Grouse, a threatened species where ConocoPhillips drills. They have an interest in protecting them because if the species thrives and it doesn’t need to be listed as endangered, then regulations on that land won’t be necessary. Everyone wins and Keri gets to be a key figure in doing what she loves most: protecting the natural world and fostering respect for it.

She also meets with the people who own the surface land under which ConocoPhillips drills. Keri explains to me how, when the West was settled by homesteaders unders the Homestead Act, they were given the option of purchasing the Surface Estate with or without the Mineral Estate. Since oil/gas hadn’t been discovered yet and finding gold there was unlikely, most just bought the surface at a lower cost. Therefore these properties are “split estates,” and the federal government owns most of the minerals, leasing these properties to oil/gas companies who then develop the minerals. The mineral estate takes legal precedent over the surface estate, thus leading to some potentially nasty conflicts when the landowners have to relinquish control to companies like ConocoPhillips. And she understands better than anyone because her parents confronted this situation on their homestead, a cherished piece of land that has supported four generations of her family. Unfortunately, they were treated terribly and the land was egregiously abused: placing the oil well near their drinking water well, using the land for recreational use of four wheelers on the weekends, poaching deer and elk, spilling oil and even defecating. But Keri insists that it doesn’t have to be that way and her job gives her the power to make sure others don’t have to endure what her family did. That’s what she’ll be doing tomorrow near Rifle--meeting with landowners and making sure they’re treated justly.

I tell her that she reminds me of the character Walter in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, who also works for an oil company in order to save an endangered species of bird. I appreciate Keri’s position because it illustrates how complex our environmental/energy situation is right now. And I’m very compelled by her reasoning. She has identified the change she wants to see and put herself in a position to realistically, tangibly induce that change (more so, arguably, than suing people and creating more federal regulations). It’s hard for me to not vilify big oil and gas, but I’m also increasingly skeptical of “simple” or all/nothing solutions, as in simply shutting down all oil and gas production, which just isn’t going to happen. And I resent the way conversations like this are cast in two-sided reliefs that are either “for” or “against” and ignore the complexity of reality. I think we do need people everywhere: environmental non-profits, activists, and people working within energy companies that really give a shit about the land. People like Keri.

We stop in Telluride for lunch.  It’s an obscenely adorable (i.e. obscenely wealthy) town in the San Juan Mountains. We walk Hayduke up and down the street, perusing each menu before deciding on La Cocina de Luz, a restaurant featuring “Whole Foods Taqueria-Style Mexican Cuisine” with a vegan platter including pesole, salsa bar, and homemade coconut ice cream we can’t refuse. I stop in Between the Covers Bookstore and buy Into the Wild for Keri (they didn’t have Freedom, and this was another book that came up in our car conversation) and Lonesome Dove for myself (Keri and Ry sold me a convincing recommendation of the book on our drive from Albuquerque to Aztec, and despite its nearly 900 pages I’m dying to read something rich in characters that captures the West as they promise). As we carry on through the mountains, the sky becomes grayer, and the air gets colder. By the time we reach Rifle, it is 7pm and dark. We check in to our Hampton Inn (courtesy of ConocoPhillips) and Keri runs Hayduke. We pick up questionable seaweed salads and sushi rolls from an empty Thai restaurant downtown. We start watching TV (a novelty/luxury to both of us), but the cable cuts in and out so we read instead. MY bed is incredibly plush and I sleep well.

The next day, Keri has to work and I’m determined to finish my application for Ashoka University. I meant to do it before leaving DC so I didn’t have to worry about it while I was travelling, but of course I didn’t and now I have two days to get it in. I don’t know much about the job yet, except that it’s a new university outside New Delhi scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, and one of my favorite graduate professors at AU is helping to build their English department. She’s encouraged me to apply as a tutor at their writing center. I don’t know if I even want the job, but I do want options. Several inches of snow have accumulated during the night and it’s still coming down so I’m resigned to stay inside anyway. I force myself to sweat a little on my yoga mat in the room for an hour, take a bath, and then set up in the lounge downstairs with my laptop and a cup of tea. When I’ve completed drafts of my materials (and reached the limits of my sanity) I email them to my mother for her feedback and put it away for the day. Back in the room, I post up on my bed with more tea, curtains drawn so I can watch the falling flurries outside, and open Lonesome Dove. It’s already funny and the characters immediately suck me in.

While I love watching the snow fall, I wonder what this means for traveling tomorrow, and so does my sister, Amy, with whom I’ve been texting throughout the day. She has to come through Vail pass to get me, and at this rate we don’t know if that will be open or even that her VW bug can make it without snow tires. Normally, she says, she might try anyway, but she can’t afford to get stuck since she teaches a metalsmithing class early Saturday morning back in Boulder. It makes more sense for me to just go to her; however, a Greyhound bus might not fare any better. But a train might. So I buy a ticket on an afternoon Amtrak out of Glenwood Springs, the next town east.

When Keri returns we venture out in search of dinner. But our options are limited, since we’re not keen to eat at Rib City Grill or Shooters Grill or WingNutz Bar & Grill. So we opt for an Italian restaurant, with at least two other customers. They pour us huge glasses of wine (I don’t think the waitress knows you’re supposed to stop at the glass’ widest point--but I’m not complaining) and I enjoy a lentil soup and broccoli-laden special. I hate to think it’s my last night with Keri. Our friendship hasn’t suffered from the distance, but it’s still hard to leave her. I’m comforted to know I’ll be back in June for her bachelorette party--a weekend canoe trip in Utah. The next morning I’m up by 7am, and downstairs making the final revisions to my application materials before pressing “send” and being done with it. Keri drives me up to Glenwood Springs and deposits me at the Amtrak station. We are all hugs and thank you’s and, “See you in June!”

The train is delayed an hour, but I couldn’t be happier with the weather that forced me to get on it. I’ve never taken a train this far and the scenery is phenomenal-- sitting in the lounge car, the windows extend up and overhead, so it’s like being stuck inside a snowglobe. We follow the Colorado River where only small patches of water try to run, the rest is frozen over. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard states, “Appealing workplace are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” I love Annie Dillard, but I disagree. A room with a view invites me to imagine possibilities, stokes my courage, diminishes limitations. Even better if that room is slowly weaving through a panoramic winter wonderland. There’s no wi-fi, but I’m better off staring out the window anyway.

The conductor, Brad, is walking through the lounge explaining how the area we are passing through was almost flooded, but President Roosevelt, an avid hunter, somehow stopped the plan and saved the railroad. An Amish family behind me playing Boggle strikes up a conversation with him about his family history. Brad’s wife is from Austria and his family is Pennsylvania Dutch. Two women sitting across from me ask him how fast we were going. “About 28mph at that moment,” he replies. This leads into an hour long conversation about the train routes and where he’s from and where their children are thinking about going to college. There’s something really refreshing about the conductor taking the time to talk to passengers like this, and I happily eavesdrop.

A wave of gratitude mixed with awe mixed with excitement tickles me. Every morning I wake up so excited for the day ahead. I know one day I will settle into a routine again. I actually like routine, but some days it will feel mundane. I’ll feel trapped. Landlocked. Static. Bored. The challenge of traveling, then, will take place long after I’ve come home. It’s easy to see the novelty in new things; it’s retaining that sense of wonder and freedom and promise without the open road. And my time with Keri, though brief, has given me a glimpse of that. She and Ry, in literally building a life together, haven’t abandoned adventure. It is the adventure. I stop writing and gaze, mesmerized, out the window, recounting the aphorisms that have gotten me this far.

Muggle.

Life starts with a question.

Decide what to be. And go be it.