Thursday, December 31, 2009

Free me from the mundane: A no-traditions traditional New Year's Eve

I don't have a traditional New Year's Eve. My top two favorites so far fall under the categories of best and hilariously worst. Best: Inside a stone church with arched red doors on a cold, clear night in Portland. Listening to music through the ages (including those alpenhorns used in the Ricola commercials), culminating with a candlelit chorus of Auld Lang Syne as bagpipers marched up the aisle. Worst: My sister, friend Teresa and I sitting in my parent's living room watching a dude from high school youth group count down songs on public access TV.

My first New Year's Eve in Kosovo started in the living room of an Albanian friend, sharing sweet, strong tea (caj), coffee and cookies with his family. At 10 o’clock, my Finnish friend and I announced that we were heading downtown to see what festivities might be taking place. The family looked confused as we said our goodbyes, slipping on our shoes and scarves at the door, kissing their warm cheeks and wishing them a happy 2006. They warned us once again that nothing would be happening downtown, restaurants and cafes closed, so that they might reopen at midnight and party long into the new year.

We didn't buy it. It was 10pm on New Year’s Eve! And the main street on the Albanian side of the divided city of Mitrovica, Kosovo was empty. I half expected to see a tumbleweed roll by, and catch the furtive glimpse of a pioneer woman shielding kids behind her skirt from some inevitable gunfight.

I'm happy with no traditional New Year's Eve celebration. It reminds me to be open to whatever might come, not tied to a pattern. It reminds me what the symbolism of the New Year is, excited for the unknown and unexpected. In a sense, to not have a tradition IS my tradition.

How are you celebrating the unexpected this new year? Cheers to all that is hoped for and all that may happen in 2010. Happy New Year!

"Change is good. It invites us to grow, encourages us to experience new things and welcome new people into our lives, and ultimately frees us from the mundane." ~ Madisyn Taylor, Daily OM

(Night Explosions by KidALyn,

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Agave moments: We've got it so good

Today's Portlandian adventures included sister-time shopping at Moxie, a boutique on Burnside that sells beautiful and affordable clothes, hats, jewelry, much of it locally made. An inviting sofa offers a place to sit or toss your bag while you explore the small store. I tried on hats and mugged for the mirror in between giving my best fashion advice on layers for my sister's upcoming trip to the cold climes of Holland and Paris. I think her husband learned a lot as well: how, where and when to wear a skinny belt, why A-line cuts are always flattering, and perhaps to find another errand while sisters shop.

But in the midst of a debate about how a certain cut of fabric fit, I had that sudden moment of realizing just how good we have it. What a luxury to worry about the flattering fit of beautiful clothes, when other girls are happy to have a dress or sweater to keep them warm. And don't get me wrong, I love a great-fitting, figure-flattering dress.  But it's that awareness that I want to foster, to be more than just odd moments in life, but my way of seeing my place in this world.

It reminds me of the idea of "Agave moment" I read about in Philip Gourevitch's piece about philanthropist Greg Carr in the Dec. 21|28 issue of The New Yorker. Carr's interest in theatre led him to a fascination with the Agave moment, the moment one changes, that one sees "themselves engaged in action of a kind that they wanted to believe they stood against." Reading ancient Greek drama, "the play that really blew Carr away was 'The Bacchae,' in which the women of Thebes rebel against the city's Apollonian order (sunshine and rationality) and turn to worshipping Dionysus (night and debauchery). The leader of these women is called Agave, and her son Pentheus is the king of Thebes, and one night, in a Bacchanalian frenzy, the women set upon him, and Agave tears his head off. 'And she's holding this bloody head in her hands, Carr told me. 'And she kind of looks at him, and she goes, Oh, that's my son. And then she has this moment of recognition, like, Who am I? What have I become? I've been fever-following a god and, um, I don't know who I am anymore.  Maybe I've been following the wrong god. What path am I on?'"  ...

"In Carr's own life, there was no severed head, no drama worthy of Euripides, but the chapter that was at odds with the way he thinks of himself was, he said the years he spent as a 'crazed businessman'... ."

That same day I read the first few chapters of Greg Mortenson's story, Three Cups of Tea, about how he came to dedicate his life to building schools and educating the kids of Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

"After the last note of the anthem had faded, the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they'd brought for that purpose. The more fortunate, like Jahan, had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. 'Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?' Mortenson asks. 'I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa. [Mortenson's sister.] I knew I had to do something.'"  (From Three Cups of Tea)

So much of life is paying attention to the Agave moments, and then acting on them.  I feel like the universe is giving me a lot of the moments, and I need to take more action to honor them.  Have you had an Agave moment that changed your path?

(Greg Mortenson's next book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan was released this December. Mortensen is also the co-founder of Pennies for Peace:  "The Pennies for Peace service-learning program includes: a K-12 curriculum, linked to standards with an assessment tool; an implementation guide; fact sheets; printable maps, postcards, stickers & poster components; remarkable videos that open the world of Pennies for Peace; and much more!
By participating in Pennies for Peace you make a positive impact on a global scale, one penny at a time. While a penny is virtually worthless, in impoverished countries a penny buys a pencil and opens the door to literacy. Join Pennies for Peace and give lasting hope to children half a world away!")

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Kosovo: Four year anniversary

How can it already be four years since I spent Christmas in Kosovo?  In honor of all my memories, here's a blog-flashback from my "Merry Meltdown" post:

I find myself more American, more time-oriented than I ever seem to be when I’m in America. My tendency to stay on task and on time is out in full force here, since it isn’t a high priority in the surrounding culture. Just past winter solstice, it's already dark when I arrive at the NGO office at 5, ready to head up the mountain to spread Christmas cheer and sugary treats to the families living in the Trepca refugee apartments. But first we find a bag of Christmas decorations and begin decking the halls with garland and tinsel. Then Luli runs to the store to find a bag for his cousin Besim to carry as Santa Claus. I keep checking the clock, fighting the urge to strangle everyone with the string of twinkly lights when something in me snaps, in a good way. It’s time to give up my need for timeliness, and relax. Not surprisingly, staying in the present moment makes everything better.

Elza, Luli’s boss, arrives with her daughters, who are nine and eleven. The girls help Besim with his beard and belly, and decide he should wear spectacles like Father Christmas. After a quick search of the office, they find a pair of sunglasses, and ceremoniously place them on Besim’s face, making him a cross between Surfer Santa and The Terminator.

We pile in Luli’s small car: Elza, her girls and me in the backseat, Luli driving Santa in the front. As we drive out of the city, winding our way uphill, we sing "Jingle Bells." My friends only know the first two lines in English and ask me to teach them the rest. What the hell, I’m in for a whole stocking full of fun now. "Dashing through the snow," I sing, slightly off-key. They cringe and reassure me they know the words in Albanian. And with that, we’re off, squished into the car, jingling all the way. The little girls carry the tune in soft soprano, just what I need to find some joy in my dark little heart.

The refugee apartments are cold, dark and dank. The hallways are concrete floors, and swampy with stale puddles of muddy water. We knock on the door and the entire family crowds to see Santa, many times a couple with three or four kids, plus a grandma or grandpa. I can only assume the apartments are two or three small rooms.

A group of kids lead us through the buildings. One boy has a small blue flashlight that gives off an eerie glow in the dark stairwells. The kids ask Besim/Santa why he only sings the words jingle bells and not the rest of the song. Besim only speaks a bit of English, and happily ignores the kids, singing the first two words, over and over.

Our gift-giving done, we pile back into Santa’s sleigh with its rear-wheel drive and a CD player, with which we all sing along to Ben Harper’s “There Will Be A Light.” We have gifts left over, and as we drive back down the hill to town, Luli pulls over whenever he sees kids walking along the dark road. Most give chase, terrified as Besim jumps out of the car in a beard, sunglasses, and an ill-fitting red suit and runs after them with a black plastic trash bag.

It’s hard to process the juxtaposition of the disrepair and depression of the refugee apartments with the smiles of kids and the fun we had. But somewhere in the midst of all of it, without warning, I’m back in the giving spirit. We go to dinner at a restaurant called "No Name," and the girls, confident and funny, practice their English with me. On the way home, we dance in the back seat as we stalk people on the streets, Besim a little less scary now without his beard and sunglasses, tossing out Christmas cheer to all who stand still long enough to receive it.


Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The right to appear ridiculous

Looking at my birthday month in a 2010 World Wildlife Fund calendar of wildlife babies (insert "awwww" here), I made a squealing sound of delight to see a polar bear cub frolicking in the snow.

Looks just like my baby, my mom said, referencing this picture she took of my last Christmas, when we got snowed in at her house.

♪♪ The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear ♪♪
(U2 - I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight)

P.S.: Sign a petition here to to the Interior Department – and let them know that our polar bears are more valuable than having one more place to drill.  (Deadline is Monday, Dec. 28)

"Rising temperatures are robbing polar bears of vital habitat and melting the sea ice they use for hunting and raising their cubs. In response, the Interior Department has announced a proposal to designate more than 200,000 square miles of critical habitat for these struggling bears – including the vital coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Winter Solstice

A happy winter solstice and shortest day of the year to all my fellow Northern Hemisphere dwellers!  Here are a few fun facts about winter solstice from National Geographic, including that the word "solstice" is derived from the Latin phrase for "sun stands still," and a story about "massive prehistoric monuments such as Ireland's mysterious Newgrange tomb (video) aligned to capture the light at the moment of the winter solstice sunrise." ("20 lucky people a day will crowd into an ancient Irish monument's main chamber. There, they'll bathe in 17 minutes of light put off by the rising sun on the shortest days of the year.)

Amanda at Mocking Bird gives some great photography tips for shooting in winter light and some delicious b&w snow photos from Flickr.

Bathing in light sounds fabulous right about now.  It's a grey, rainy, light-less day up in Portland, which makes me thankful it's also the shortest. But I do love the white sparkly Christmas lights at night.

(From kcicco on Etsy: Each year at Christmas time, the city of Delft in Holland has a special evening where they put up thousands of lights and light the city's Christmas Tree.)


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Long-lost friends

"Tell me, what has come clear to you since we last met?"

That's the question Wordsworth used to greet long-lost friends. It seems a good starter for good, deep conversations over coffee or wine. Perhaps friends and family in Oregon are not exactly long-lost, but I only get to see them once or twice a year, so in my life, they fit the description.  Looking forward to catching up, sharing stories of the year and dreams for the new one just weeks away.

(High school friends who have stood the test of time and many inside jokes.)

(My sister and her hubby Robert)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adventures on Highway 1: Bait, tackle and bloodworms

My mom and I share both a love for road trips and no sense of direction.  We'd made it safely up the 1 from L.A. to Monterey, with a stop to hike in Big Sur, and plenty of coffee stops along the way.  We stopped in one of my favorite towns, Cambria, home of Linn's Bakery and the gluten-filled olallieberry and cream muffins.  (Olallieberries are a hybrid fruit, two-thirds blackberry and one-third European Red Raspberry. Almost worth the celiac attack.  Almost.)

On our stop in Cambria, we asked a man at the local pharmacy for a map, and were treated to a ten-minute one man show featuring the cost of maps (ridiculous) to the poor city planning in Monterey (why go?) to the rednecks smoking outside his un-airconditioned window.  (Seriously, does Cambria's board of tourism know about this man?)  Finally we got a recommendation of where we should eat:  Phil's, a fish market in Moss Landing, just north of Monterey.

I fell in love with the 1, and especially with Monterey, and the bay, in which we almost quite literally tested the water in our 2-woman kayak.  Decked out in our bright yellow lifevests, we made it through the brief safety lesson, launched our kayak, and promptly lagged behind the group, who seemed intent on a workout.  We preferred to chat and point out the sights. We smiled and waved at the otters happily playing, and watched them swim to safety from a big boat that motored toward us through the passage (paddle! paddle!).

After tackling the kayak, Mom and I were ready for a relaxing night centered around a fresh-fish dinner.  We remembered our friendly guide to the 1, and pulled out our state map, that showed Moss Landing to be vaguely north of Monterey, and west of the highway.  Moss Landing sounded quaint, picturesque. We were off. 

A hand-painted sign announced Moss Landing, so we turned on to the first available street.  Seeing no other signs, we decided it was time to meet another local to find our way to Phil's.  The only obvious market was a tackle shop proudly announcing its ware: Bait, Tackle and Bloodworms.  Appetizing.  How do we get to Phil's, we asked the proprietor.  Phil's Fish Market, he asked?  (Is there another Phil's in Moss Landing, population 372?)  Afraid we might end up at a fisherman's house for dinner, I specified Phil's, a restaurant that has passed all health inspections. The proprietor guided us with "go down this street, then to your left." Knowing our combined sense of direction, I tried to specify, but there are no street signs in Moss Landing.  So it's just on this road, I asked.  Well, no, he said.  Go left across the one-way bridge, veer right, then it's on your left.  I was getting a good, if a little eerie, feeling about this town.

Forget your Cracker Barrel cutesy chains.  Phil's is a true original.  Sawdust floors, fish nets, fish mobiles. We were greeted by the live music of The Cornells, Father and Son Americana Duo, at Phil's every Thursday night.  A sign proudly announced "20 Years Later, Phil's Still Doing Fish."  We passed a large aquarium of slow-moving fish that looked somewhat depressed, probably certain of their fate, forced to watch fellow fish sold, baked, battered and eaten. It was delicious, the whole experience. (Check out Phil's famous cioppino on Food Network's "Road Tested.")

Carmel was lovely and chocolate-filled, the 17-mile Drive featured the promised jaw-dropping vistas, the famous lone cyprus, and oversized homes, though my favorite was a simple, Japanese style home that blended better into the gorgeous scenery.  Back on the 1, lost in the trees we found an old mission / working abbey.  I teared up a bit as we turned away from the coast highway to head home via the faster 101.

Travel lessons learned:  when a bigger boat bears down, paddle fast, and always stop along the road to ask where the locals eat.  I owe that guy in Cambria an olallieberry muffin.  And if you head to Phil's, stop in and say hi to the helpful guy at the bait and tackle shop.

(Photos: Phil's, decked out for Christmas; Lone Cyprus Tree: Travel Plan Idea blog)

The art of the ordinary

"Anything is art, depending on what attitude you bring to it. Art is a matter of picking up on the mundane and giving it form at a higher level of expression."
~Edmund Teske

(Photos: Cupcake Papers - wrenandchickadee,;  Rolling pins - warmwhispers,; The Swedish Girl and her Bike, ashleysummerphotos,

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven

“Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.”

~ Pablo Picasso

(Photos from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Monday, December 14, 2009

The grace of wilderness

"To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause within our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace."

~Terry Tempest Williams

(Top photo: Man on the Silver Mountain by Shane Gorski,
Bottom photo: Thunderstorm over St. Mark's Nat. Refuge, Daniel Ewert,

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love(rs): Get thee to a newsstand to read an excerpt of Committed

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert's follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, "is and isn't a sequel," she told the New York Times.  “It’s the same two characters, but it’s a very different setting and emotional backdrop. The second book has more of an academic contemplation and more of my family in it.”

Committed comes out in January, but O Magazine gives its readers a sneak peek in its January 2010 issue.  In her interview with Lucy Kaylin, Gilbert talks about the success of Eat, Pray, Love, and the pressure that put on her next book. "People want three things simultaneously from your next endeavor: They love what you did, so they want more of that.  But they also want it to be totally different, because you have to show that you're reinventing yourself, a la Madonna.  And they want it to be better.  The same, different, and better.  So, no pressure there.  Done and done."

I loved, I devoured Eat, Pray, Love.  I re-read, underlined, and dog-eared it, feeling a strong connection to a woman who didn't want the typical life, who put into words why a life lived outside the box makes people uncomfortable.  As she said in this O interview, "Where other women hear that tick, tick, tick, and they're like, Must have baby, for me, it was like, tick, tick, tick, boom. [Laughs] It was a biological clock, but it was attached to a bunch of C-4 explosives."

I also connected to her hope and realistic dreams of falling in love.  One of my favorite parts of the excerpt in O is both her description of her love for Felipe, and her practical, no fairy tale ending laundry list of her faults, and their differences.  How no one will ever fill every one of your needs or truly "complete" you, but in spite of that, or really, because of that, what a great, healthy relationship can do for your soul.  Read a bit here, and then go pick up the January O magazine.
"Have I actually gotten this far without having yet said that clearly? I love this man.  I love him for countless ridiculous reasons.  I love his square, sturdy, Hobbit-like feet.  I love the way he always sings 'La Vie en Rose' when he's cooking dinner. (Needless to say, I love that he cooks dinner.) I love how he speaks almost perfect English but still, even after all these years with the language, sometimes manages to invent marvelous words.  ('Smoothfully' is a personal favorite of mine, thought I'm also fond of 'lulu-bell,' which is Felipe's own lovely translation for the word 'lullaby.')  ...

"I love him and therefore I want to protect him — even from me, if that makes sense. I didn't want to skip any steps of preparation for marriage, or leave anything unresolved that might reemerge later to harm us — to harm him.

"...Maybe creating a big enough space within your consciousness to hold and accept someone's contradictions — someone's idiocies, even — is a kind of divine act. Perhaps transcendence can be found not only on solitary mountaintops or in monastic settings, but also at your own kitchen table, in the daily acceptance of your partner's most tiresome, irritating faults."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Doc to virgin acupuncture patient - "First I'm going to bleed you."

My understanding of Zen teaching is that no experience is inherently good or evil in that moment. We are to be patient and wait to see what comes of it, and what matters is how one responds to the experience.

Screw Zen.  It was sick day 14 and my tonsils were closing in on my throat, trying to kill me.  I'd been tested for strep and informed it was likely a bad flu that I'd have to ride out on a zen wave.  I'd always wanted to try acupuncture (my sister swears by it) but it wasn't part of my health insurance, and I couldn't afford it.  After two weeks of body aches, pounding sinus headaches, occasional fevers and the aforementioned throat grunge, I was ready to throw whatever money I had to end the pain.

It was my first acupuncture experience, but when the practitioner asked if I had any questions, I said no, with confidence. Bring on the painless needles.  Let's get started, she said.  I answered her health questions, physical, mental and emotional, gave a brief history of the current situation and treatments tried, and stuck out my red, ravaged tongue for her inspection. In Chinese medicine, the tongue speaks volumes.

Alright, she said.  First I'm going to bleed you.

Umm... I have a question.

Bleed me?  I envisioned her rifling through her stately mahogany desk for a box of leeches.

I know it sounds hoo-doo voo-doo, she said, but trust me, it's not much blood.  Which side of your throat feels worse?

She took what looked like a thumbtack and pricked my thumb just to the left of the base of the nail bed.

As she massaged out bright drops of my blood and swabbed them away, she explained that the point was the end of the lung meridian. Clearing it, she was going for immediate relief, to draw hot toxins from my head and chest.

Next came the needles.  I lay back on the bed, fully clothed and felt only slight pinches of pain as she inserted them.  My right hand, permanently cramped around a pen or computer mouse, felt a rush of pain,  (qi?) surge through, then nothing.

Prescribed herbs and complete bed rest, I headed on to a western doctor to see about the infection taking over my tonsils.  A far more traumatizing experience that began with him asking if I was seeing anyone "special" and ended with a mortifying testament regarding recent sexual history.  Apparently one glimpse into my throat and it looked like I had gonorrhea of the mouth. (That's how bad it looked in there, people.  Doctors were repulsed and terrified.)  Too much information?  It was for me — especially since, after one more specialist, it turned out to be mono.

Mono. Much bed rest, indeed. But the acupuncture and the herbs did offer a modicum of immediate relief, and I can only hope for the day when health plans include preventative, alternative treatments. The acupuncturist recommended an affordable option: community acupuncture.  Has anyone tried this?

(Photo: Acupuncture by Mauricio Cevallos, Flickr)

I'm dreaming of a green Christmas

Did you know that you'll need to keep that plastic Christmas tree for about 20 years before it has a lower carbon footprint than a real tree?  O Magazine's December issue has some tips to celebrate a green Christmas this year, including where to find a pesticide-free tree ( - click on Organic Christmas Tree Farms), where to recycle your tree into compost or wood chips (, and cities where you can "rent" a tree that will be replanted for you after the holidays (Portland, Oregon:, San Francisco:

Happy healthy holidays!

(Photo: Gudmann,

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

SWF seeking DLM (Dog-like male)

I rarely blog about my dating life; the subject is exhausted over drinks and dinners and walks with friends.  Take tonight, for instance.  My lovely friend J and I went to see George Clooney be his charming gorgeous self (what deal did THAT man make with the devil?) in "Up in the Air."  Great movie.  Before the film we celebrated my birthday week over tamales and drinks, next to a table where two men set up a travel chess game and proceeded to play during their dinner.  How great would it be if we pulled out a noisy travel game, like Connect 4, where all the pieces clatter to the table and ground, or that game with a timer where everything pops up at the end? 

But I digress.  Catching up, we shared the latest in our quasi-existent love lives.  As I described yet another experience with a man where it just seemed that everything is overthought and overwrought, J summed up my man-traction.  "You attract men who want to talk to you for hours, and it gets to be too much.  What you need is a simple man.  A man who taps his foot when he's anxious.  So pretty soon you just figure out his signs, and you're good to go."

"And wags his butt when he's happy?" I asked.  J nodded.  "Ooooh, I get it.  And when he pees on the floor he's either marking his terrority or angry that I left him alone for three days."

So basically, I'm now seeking a dog-like man, if anyone knows a good one, who likes to play catch and cuddle. Preferably full grown, house-trained and fixed.  That or George Clooney, whomever shows up on my doorstep first.

Monday, December 07, 2009

How do you detox?

According to Healing Hands, where I go for great, inexpensive massage therapy and where I entrusted myself for my first ever acupuncture session, "Just by breathing, drinking, and eating the products of a polluted planet, our bodies accumulate positively charged ions, diminishing our health and energy. 

"The Detoxifying Footbath is a specialized detox system which runs negative ions through the body, pulling and attracting the positively charged impurities such as heavy metals, yeast, mucous and more. A footbath provides cellular cleansing, elimination of toxins, balance of meridians, and harmonizing of the body's energy field.  You will be both relaxed and rejuvenated!"


And after ...

Eww.  I've heard the foot pads "as seen on TV" are bunk. What do we think?  Has anyone tried this, or heard from a trusted source? What else explains the swamp water?

In the meantime, I'm going on Wednesday for the tried and true deep tissue massage as a birthday gift from the bestest best friend.  

Grey is the price of neighboring with the eagles

I woke to text message reminding me to get up and go hiking. The rain and heavy grey clouds had a different kind of morning in mind.

15 years in southern California and I LOVE rainy days. They remind me of my childhood in Oregon, and a poem by Denise Levertov:


I was welcomed here — clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
                                   Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill. I've boasted I would not care,
I'm London-born. And I won't. I'll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen.

(Top photo: The way I see it, v1nz, Flickr)

Travel wish list: Byblos Art Hotel - Villa Armista

In the rural countryside of Verona, Italy, the Villa Armistà is full of furniture as art installations, a "permanent collection of contemporary art." Who's with me?  And who's my generous benefactor? 


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth

What it takes to be a writer: "Three things: something to say, the ability to express it, and finally, the courage to express it all."  ~Maya Angelou

I struggle with this, the courage to express it all.  My people-pleasing tendency rears its ugly head and I worry over each piece of truth.  But bird by bird, I'm trying to overcome that fear and write what is true from my life, what I observe and what I know.

"Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth."  In the midst of existential crisis, Elizabeth Gilbert's friend gives her this sage advice. (Eat, Pray, Love

It helps to meet others who are also telling the truth.  This week I was Handyman-sitting at my friend's new place.  While he installed her bathroom cabinets and curtain rods, Handyman told me a little of his story as an Iraq war vet.  I went over there to find nuclear weapons, he said.  Volunteered for the front line, for recon.  Nothing. He shook his head.  People need to know the truth, why we're there, why we went.

We talked about how important it is to travel, to see the world, to see how other people live, and how that changes you, and changes how you live.  We talked about the military's treatment of veterans, about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Let me tell you just one story, Handyman told me.  Coming back after a year in Iraq, the bus pulls up, and all anyone is thinking of is seeing their family again.  Anxious to get off the bus, the military positions someone at the door, stopping each soldier on his/her way out, and asking them, do you feel that you need any medical or psychological help?  Anxious to just get out of there, to see their families, what do you think the soldiers say?  Of course not!  I'm fine.  The military has them sign a release saying just that, that they don't need any treatment.  Then, perhaps years later, should a soldier realize he/she is experiencing PTSD and goes to seek help?  The military has a little piece of paper that says the soldier signed away any right to treatment.

Every one has truth to tell, a story to share.  Handyman is thinking about writing a book about his experiences; I hope he does.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

This land is my land?

"Dostoevsky explains in his Crime and Punishment, 'Do you think I care if they talk nonsense?  Hogwash! Talking nonsense is man's only privilege that distinguishes him from all other organisms. If you keep talking big nonsense, you will get to sense.  I am a man, therefore I talk nonsense.  Nobody ever got a single truth without talking nonsense fourteen times first.  Maybe even a hundred and fourteen.  That's all right in its own way.  We don't even know how to talk nonsense intelligently, though!'"

In his essay "Contested Ground: How history betrays reality and power obscures everything under the sun,"  Charles Bowden describes life along man-made borders (bolding mine):  "I want to sing a song, but I'm just now learning the lyrics and the band is out drinking and so I must hum to myself, but still there is this song and it has been going on for thousands, maybe millions of years and it keeps breaking into new chords and rhythms once it hits this section of earth we call the border where the sky goes dry and the ground gets gouged into canyons and the mountains erupt from mysterious energies of the planet itself, this song of hunger and love and many peoples who stumble into this country and think they can make it their own and keep it for themselves and beat back anything that threatens their hold on it. And this band of earth disappears, is mutilated by the claims of tribes and nations that cut it up into units and deny what the eye sees, a vast inland realm of desert and mountains and teeming grasslands.  This is the place where we always insist on our power because the enormity of the ground and the hard rules of the sky make us tremble and fear that we do not have power."

(From Orion Magazine - November | December 2009)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

December: A few of my favorite things

So many reasons I love December, my birthday month!  Happy Birthday to all my fellow Sagittarians who follow their own paths and refuse to play by the rules.  The first snow.  Hot chocolate.  White twinkly lights in trees.  The quiet of a night walk in snow that muffles all other sounds.  Scarves and gloves and wood fires and candles.  Memories of snow days and pancakes, running out to see how deep the snow was on my bare legs. Bad Christmas music piping from the tinny neighborhood speaker system that makes me appreciate the quiet, beautiful Christmas music of choirs and Tracy Chapman's "O Holy Night." 

Christmas movies: Will Ferrell in "Elf" (Phone rings, Buddy answers: "Buddy the Elf.  What's your favorite color?") Barbara Stanwyck in "Christmas in Connecticut." Bing Crosby in "White Christmas."

New Year's Eve, the expectations, the parties, and the best New Year's Eve ever:  a night of music in an old stone church with bright red doors. At midnight, bagpipes played Auld Lang Syne as we lit candles to welcome the new year.

(Winter glow - CottageGardenPhoto, Etsy)

The Storm
by Mary Oliver

Now through the white orchard my little dog
     romps, breaking the new snow
     with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited,
     hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
     in large, exuberant letters
a long sentence, expressing the pleasures of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better

(Portland, Christmas 2008)

What are your favorite things about this month?  Favorite winter and/or holiday music? Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." (Admit it.  It's bouncy. You love it.) 

Happy December!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stripping for strangers: Instant community in Loehmann's fitting room

If you haven't shopped at Loehmann's, a heads up:  the fitting room is like a ladies' locker room, mirrors, discarded clothes, and women of all shapes, sizes and ages modeling clothes for each other.  You can wait for one of the private dressing rooms, but when it's busy, it's best to just get naked.  Plus, if you're shopping alone, you have an instant audience who will tell you whether you should splurge for the shirt. 

Taking off the tee-shirt that hides the stomach bulge, putting your granny panties on display, there's something about showing a little skin that develops instant intimacy.  My new best friend today was a woman in her 60s, who sat in her bra and pants and watched as I tried on a little blue strappy shirt.  Unasked, she offered her positive opinion of the shirt.  When she asked me where I'd be wearing it (birthday drinks) we found out we're both sagittarians.  After we discussed my lack of a rack to properly fill out the top, she asked for my opinion about a cowl neck sweater that unfortunately showed off a bit too much of hers.  Thinking how I wouldn't want my mother to leave the house baring her breasts, I suggested she try on a shell.  Exchanging happy birthday wishes, I walked out to find my best friend shopping for shoes, and got a slightly more honest opinion.  Hanging up the ill-fitting shirt on the nearest rack, I was still thankful to be pushed a little beyond my comfort zone and into community.

(Photo: "Mirror, mirror" by Equinoxphoto,

Saturday, November 28, 2009

At home in L.A.: Griffith Park community

"Maybe you should stop watching," my mom said over the phone line, listening to my sobs while I watched the news coverage of Griffith Park burning.

The 2007 wildfire that burned about 820 acres of one of the largest urban parks in North America, burned through the route I used to hike almost every morning with Stacy, my co-worker, friend and Los Feliz neighbor.   At 5a.m., armed with with a cup of instant oatmeal and bottle of water, I'd run out to meet Stacy, waiting in her warm Volvo idling in front of my house. We'd drive a couple minutes up the hill to park at the base of the tennis courts and start our walk in the dark.  In the winter we were bundled in hats, coats and scarves.

Unlike other more crowded L.A. hikes, where the object is to see and be seen, and half the women are working on their tans as well as their prominently displayed abs and glutes (Runyon Canyon, for those men who have a sudden urge to exercise), people at Griffith Park take the time to say hello.  Councilman Tom LaBonge was a regular on our walks, as were dogs and their humans, photographers, and Sol Shankman, a 93-year-old man when the Los Angeles Times wrote this piece about him. His back bent over his cane, he never missed his morning hike.  ("'... the way I see it, you've got two choices," he said the other day. "You can sit at home and weep for yourself. Or you can get out and do the best you can.'")

I've never felt such a gut connection to land.  I felt sick and out of control watching it burn, knowing animals were running from the fire destroying their green home.  Whenever I'd return from months away from L.A., I'd go "home," to my hike.  To smell the earth at the first dip in the trail, where it was always 10 degrees colder, shadowy and green in the midst of a glade of fir trees, just before the first big hill. It's more than a park, it's a place open to everyone, families picnic, kids discover both the majesty of the observatory and lizards on the trails.

Having moved out of the neighborhood, I don't hike Griffith as frequently as I used to.  I love public transportation, but it does enforce the idea of local living. This week, I'm giddy with the use of my friend's car while she's out of town, and planned a Griffith hike for this morning.  Waking up to the sound of the bush outside beating against my window, I knew the winds would blow all the smog out of the air.  Perfect day for Griffith Park.  Starting up the hill, I was welcomed with a "good morning" within the first climb, and huffingly grunted a greeting in reply.  Though there are still blackened skeletons of trees, and the hills are mostly bare, there is more green growth than when I was there a couple months ago.  My glade of fir trees is gone, and with it that specific smell of the dirt in the shade.  But it still feels like home.

(The former fir glade, a few trees survived.)

(The hillside today.)

(The unbelievably perfect puffy clouds today.)

(Top photos May 2007, L.A. Times, from TheScroogeReport)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Timing: The universe conspires

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
~Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Almost two years ago, I wrote an email to three friends with whom I'd had similar conversations about living outside the conventions of society. I had recently become a convert to an Eat, Pray, Love philosophy, soon to discover Eckhart Tolle. The conversations were about living the life we dream of: travel, service, living on the edge and not necessarily pursuing the 2.5 kids or dog, led to the obvious question. "How do we GET there?"

Today I woke with a strong sense of purpose, but of course, no clear plan, I wrote to my friends. My main sense was to ask other women who are of the same mindset, who are finding their own path, to think and dream about what kind of work you want to be a part of, if you could create something and work within it. To start this conversation.

Two years later, I'm still on that path, paying attention to the present moment for hints of where to go, when to turn, when to move, when to be still. The changing of seasons has something to do with our timing, if only I lived where there were seasons. Thanksgiving eve and it was a balmy 75 degrees in Los Angeles today. But I know from living elsewhere that with winter and shorter days one takes more time to reflect, to light candles and fires and dream. (I'll post an excerpt soon from my "learning to winter" in Kosovo.) Perhaps my inner seasonal clock is still keeping track, telling me it's time to slow down, to dream, to envision what I want.

Time to dream about not just how to get there, but how to be there. Right now. Martha Beck writes about timing in this month's O magazine.

"One of the things that changed my mind about timing was the recent book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. The calculating part of the human brain, Lehrer writes, 'is like a computer operating system that was rushed to market.' It's slow, clunky, prone to errors — at least compared with the brain region associated with emotions. This highly developed area 'has been exquisitely refined by evolution ... so it can make fast decisions based on very little information.'"

..."Your nonverbal brain, then, is continuously registering incredibly subtle predictive clues. It communicates with your consciousness through emotions and hunches ... It can speed you up with anxiety or excitement, slow you down with fatigue and confusion, or help you feel balanced and relaxed."

"If you ask people how they make decisions , 'lucky' people will talk about tuning in to information and instincts, while 'unlucky' people often mention pushing away the uncomfortable feeling they were headed for trouble."

How to become someone who pays attention to instinct? Beck offers a few ways to practice being in the present moment. "Ironically, the only way to access your inner guide about the future is to fully occupy the present," she writes.

"Pull an Eckhart Tolle," Beck writes. "Shrink the focus of your attention to this present moment. Are you going through a divorce, bankruptcy, or similarly difficult experience? Maybe — but right now, you're just reading this. Be here now. When you plan, plan here now. Don't preemptively grapple with circumstances that don't yet exist. Living this moment in peace, tuned in to your inner timekeeper, will lay the groundwork for the best possible future."  (From O magazine, December 2009)

"There is so much about my fate that I cannot control, but other things do fall under the jurisdiction. I can decide how I spend my time, whom I interact with, whom I share my body and life and money and energy with. I can select what I can read and eat and study. I can choose how I'm going to regard unfortunate circumstances in my life-whether I will see them as curses or opportunities. I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts." ~Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

(Photo: Snowfall Symmetry, CountryDreaming, Etsy)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I met the Lord God Almighty today

I met the Lord God Almighty
on the corner of Lake and the 210.
He was grizzled and grey and overweight
under his baggy dirty flannel shirt
that filled the air with the smell of his smokes.

This is the magic kingdom he told me
as we watched the cars exit the 210
drivers and passengers sitting
staring straight ahead.

I sent my son down here for awhile
but I was disappointed, he nodded
looking at me sideways.
I know, I nodded,
an eye on the light that would tell me to walk away
but I didn't know.

I had just come from the train
where I saw a woman give up her seat
a young mother and a rowdy boy sat. 
I tried to see the god in him but
he was kicking my bag.

People crammed in a car
sitting next to others
they may not like
but prejudice on trains isn't practical.

A man reaches out to balance the blind man
who had tripped who thanked him but then hollered
Hands off! in self-sufficiency.

Maybe it is the magic kingdom.  My light
changed to walk and my friend sent me on my way
You can call me L.G.A. he said
as I walked in front of the stopped cars,
their windows closed tight against the Lord God Almighty.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Following mystery, not maps (and the elusive blue heron)

The elusive blue heron was the subject of many a story of family road trips.  My dad was a preacher, but when I think of what I learned from him in my childhood, it isn't the Sunday after Sunday of sermons and stories that comes to mind, but practical lessons about making space for mystery.

Dad was a contradictory traveler, ready to start the day of sightseeing at dawn, so as not to lose any time.  I couldn't understand the need to schedule, to wake at 5:30 which seems to go against the very definition of vacation.   He loved history, and a trek through a humid WWII submarine with a sweaty, exhausted bored teenager was a highlight for his trip.  But he also had an artist's eye, and from this, I learned the importance of getting lost in order to find the really fantastic sights to see.  To ignore the map for the longest short-cuts in the history of scenic routes.  To pull over, no matter where along the twisty coastal highway, to capture the beauty with a photo, especially a shot of the elusive blue heron.  The bird of Snavely legend.

I always imagined the herons saw him coming.  They watched the tall man unfold from the compact car, set up his tripod, hurried but paying attention to the details of the perfect shot.  Wait for it, wait for it, the heron alone on the river, tensing its muscles in preparation for flight, waiting for dad to remove the lens cap, focus the camera and Now!  The elusive blue heron bursts into flight, the photo a blur of wings and water.

After a childhood spent in the world of the American Protestant church, I have stopped attending, finding my faith outside, off the beaten path.  Stopping in the middle of the road, being aware of fleeting beauty and open to mystery does not seem a part of the current institution of church.  I'm not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  But I'm not willing to settle for politics and rules that are not of love.

Mystery does not coexist well with living by the letter of the law.  Mystery is stuff of the spirit.  My faith-filled father taught me to pull over on the side of the road, absorb the beauty, and wait for the blue heron. 

(Photo: Great Blue Heron, Mal2009, Etsy)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Live more musically

I had this Christmas card up in my Times cube year round.  It seemed necessary.

"In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism, skepticism & humbug, and we shall want to live more musically."
 ~Vincent Van Gogh

(© Sarah Sheffer, published by Doc Milo Productions.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Journal diving for memories: Forgotten story of a sexist man and his life-saving pretzels

I'm in the midst of re-writing my stories from Kosovo, trying to tell a seamless travel memoir mixed with the stories of the people I encountered there, blended with the recent and ancient history.  Easy-peasey.  I'm also deep cleaning my files, shredding old bills and discovering bits and pieces of memories I'd forgotten.  Tucked into different journals or sometimes scribbled on an envelope, I'm trying to develop a filing system for these pieces, as well as let them do their trick of taking me back in time.

Reading an entry I began by simply stating "I miss Kosovo," I was reminded of an experience I'd completely forgotten, or blocked.  Thank god for my slightly insane diary habit.  "Before, I missed friends, but now I miss the place," I wrote.  "The streets.  Passing the internet cafe, the grocery store where few people speak English, and where I had my first experience being a woman in an Islamic country."

Kosovo is a nominally Muslim country.  Though people practice their faith, for many it is simply the culture in which they were raised, much like America's celebration of Christmas. The call to prayer doesn't stop or interrupt most daily life, but adds a distinct soundtrack to the days. Few women cover their heads.  Though there were definitive rules about the way I engaged with men and generally the role of women in domestic affairs, I didn't see too much of the sexist behavior the media often showcases in Islamic countries.

That is, until the day a woman clerk helped a man behind me in the market checkout line.  Because I didn't understand the language, I assumed he must have explained his hurry, his desperate need to step in front of me without even a nod of acknowledgment, so that he might rush home to his deaf, dumb and blind child and/or dying mother with their — what was he buying? — pretzels. His life-saving pretzels.

It wasn't until it happened a second time, standing in line with my Finnish friend who immediately growled about the frustration of it, that I recognized it was understood we should wait, because we were women.

It makes me growl remembering it, reliving it, writing about it here.  I'm also reminded of the brilliant satire from The Onion in honor of the author of "The Feminine Mystique."

I know my experience and feelings of outrage were just small ripples where other women are knocked over by waves of sexist behavior, trying to make them second-class citizens. Have you had such an experience?  How did you deal with it?

(Photo: The Onion)

Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow

Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. 
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

~The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

(Photo from Flickr, pixieclipx)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vagina warriors: Speaking out

I've written before about one of my favorite scenes in the documentary "America the Beautiful," where Eve Ensler, famous for her feminine strength, "The Vagina Monologues" and V-Day tells about her travels to Africa. There she met a woman who was absolutely in love with all -- ALL of her body. When Eve complained about parts of her body she was less than thrilled by, the woman pointed to a tree and asked, "Is that tree beautiful?" Of course, Eve answered. The woman then pointed to a different tree. "Is that tree any less beautiful because it is different? ... I am a tree. You are a tree. Love your tree!"

Loving my tree comes not just by accepting my physical being, but embracing my voice and being confident to speak out.  It's becoming easier to do the older I get.  Right around 30 I realized I didn't care so much what people thought.  I still have moments where I worry too much. In fact, most days I feel the world really is a stage, and I have to play and look my part perfectly. (This could come from life in Hollywood, surrounded by actors and wanna-be's.) But with each day of being more aware, and with each birthday, I feel a little more free to dance to my own rhythm.  To learn the freedom of being me, of saying no to what doesn't fit with who I am.

Just a few weeks ago I joined the online community PulseWire, and have already found encouragement and inspiration from strong women speaking out, sharing their personal journeys. 

After I admitted being a born people-pleaser, whose goal has been to keep the peace, no matter what the cost, Julie, who works for International Development Exchange (IDEX), sent me this message:

"I think we as women are often conditioned to, just as you say, 'keep the peace' in the short term, regardless of the violence and deception that it can generate for ourselves (and others) in the medium and long term. I'm trying to condition myself to think in terms of exactly who keeping the peace serves, and at what cost. And yes, it has certainly been a lifelong struggle to recognize that my voice is worthy of being heard, and that getting it beyond the confines of my own mind in fact reinforces my values and resolve to do good in the world."

At what cost, indeed?  Looking back, my keeping the peace never resolved an issue, but covered it up.  It's a lifelong process and a journey of learning to let go of that scared little girl tiptoeing through life, and instead to be a presence, to speak my truth.

Reading Ode magazine's April issue, I came across Eve Ensler again.  In the short piece "Breaking the Silence," writer Carmel Wroth asks the question, "How does anyone find the courage to speak out against unspeakable crimes?  Eve Ensler's answer: Mobilize a movement to support the victims and stand by them while they tell their stories."  In speaking out against the brutal rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ensler says "I've seen the power of vagina warriors all around the world to transform their situations and become great leaders in their communities.  The women in the DRC are so fierce and so ready.  With a little bit of support, there are so many powerful women there who are ready to emerge."  "I am speaking today so that women who have been raped can come out, so they can be taught how to live," said one survivor.  (Read the entire story at Ode.)

In Glamour, Ensler struggles to tell us what she witnessed in the DRC, to make personal the horrifying statistics.  To "tell the stories of the patients (Dr. Mukwege) saves so that the faceless, generic, raped women of war become Alfonsine and Nadine—women with names and memories and dreams. I am going to ask you to stay with me, to open your hearts, to be as outraged and nauseated as I felt sitting in Panzi Hospital in faraway Bukavu."  (Read the entire story at Glamour.)

She also provides ways to help:
  • Write a letter addressed to His Excellency, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila Kabange; demand that he take action to stop the attacks on women. Send it to U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, P.O. Box 3862, New York, NY 10163, and it will be delivered to Kabila.
  • Donate directly to Panzi Hospital through
Money donated to Panzi also goes to establish a City of Joy, a safe haven for the healed women, where they’ll learn to become political leaders.

I want to help women share their stories, find confidence in the truth and to speak out, but I know that the first step begins with my confidence to speak my voice.  It might sound different than yours, but I want to add to the choir of voices raised.  It might not even be loud, quiet action often speaks louder than yelling.  Sometimes it's a leap, and sometimes it's baby steps to the megaphone, to the march, to join in the dance. 

(Photo: Eve Ensler at Panzi Hosptial in DRC, courtesy V-Day.) 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Writing and life advice: Believe the impossible (L'Engle)

"The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is he is doing. A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself." (Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet)

"The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs, but in truth.

"...It might be a good idea if, like the White Queen, we practised believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast, for we are called on to believe what to many people is impossible." (L'Engle, Walking on Water)

(Top photo: Child playing by Gerla Brakkee, Flickr, bottom photo: Children playing under sprinkler by Bill A, Flickr)