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)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Widen out the boundaries of our being

"To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life.  But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things."

~Pablo Neruda, from "Childhood and Poetry."

I felt this sense of unity with strangers at a candlelight vigil for Tibet during the 2008 Olympics.

I feel it at community celebrations, outdoor concerts where kids dance together and food is shared with strangers, instantly making friends.  I teeter on the introvert / extrovert line, and after days content being alone I'm suddenly desperate for community. Thank god for farmer's markets that make me feel a little more connected in our individualistic society. 

Reading Neruda's words in O Magazine, I first thought of the new online community I've found on PulseWire.  In the last week, I've read the stories of women from Africa, India, Mexico and here in the U.S.  I've never seen them in person, or walked into their homes, but I feel a sense of friendship and an even greater sense of responsibility that we all have the space to thrive, to continue to share our stories.

(Top photo: Candlelight vigil,, Bottom photo:  Festival lanterns, Chiang Mai, Thailand, from preposterous,

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Global community and global issues, through the eyes of women

I recently had a hit on my resume posted on To sell life insurance. Really, Omaha? What about my resume says that I'm a salesperson? Maybe I should list introvert in the about me section, thus ruling out convincing people to buy what they may not want or need.

There should be a term for a job that would drive me to drink (more) and possibly put me in a home, unbalanced and muttering. (Freelance writing?)

I have found, however, when I care about something I am shameless when it comes to promoting it and/or asking for help. World Pulse magazine and PulseWire, its online community, is my new found favorite.

World Pulse was founded by journalist Jensine Larsen, after she realized that "some of the world's most important stories are rarely mentioned in the mass media." The magazine and the online community offer women a voice, to be heard in their own words. PulseWire is hosting My Story: Land, where women from all over the world have the opportunity to write a short piece about what the word "land" means to them. The question sparks stories of war, personal loss, joyful memories mixed with sorrow, protecting the environment, and magical touches of nature. 6-8 stories will be chosen for publication in the Spring 2010 edition of World Pulse Magazine. The top three published stories will receive a $100 honorarium. The submission period ends this Sunday (15th). I've begun reading them and am always touched, informed and challenged by these stories.

PulseWire offers the global community of women (and some men) I was looking for in a blog community. Each profile has a journal for women to write and share their own stories and thoughts and connect to others. There are groups to join to make a deeper connection based on issues or locations.

I'm reminded of the video I posted earlier, in which writer Isabel Allende asks "What is truer than truth? The story."

(Photos from World Pulse)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Writing and life advice: What is truer than truth?

Words to live by: "Nice people, with common sense, do not make interesting characters. They only make good former spouses." ~ Isabel Allende, Tales of Passion (

Laugh out loud funny, beautiful and passionate. Allende shares beauty advice from Sofia Loren and tales of strong, passionate women around the world. I'd quote more from Allende's talk, but don't want to take away from your experience. Watch.

"I'm here to tell you a few tales of passion. There's a Jewish saying that I love: 'What is truer than truth?' Answer: The story."

Sushi nazi - All work is empty save when there is love

Unemployed, I'm trying to find how to do work I love. Speaking of work in "The Prophet," Kahlil Gibran writes, "For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

"... Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.

"But I say to you than when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,

"And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life. ...

"And all work is empty save when there is love."

Chef Kazunori Nozawa may not look like he loves his job, but TRUST HIM, he does. For a first date a few years ago, I was taken to Sushi Nozawa in Studio City, promised not just great sushi, but an experience. Chef Nozawa is fondly known as the Sushi Nazi, whose raw fish masterpieces inspire lunch hour lines winding out the door.

Sitting at the sushi bar indicates you are willing to eat whatever the Sushi Nazi puts before you, no questions asked, no adding of soy sauce, no removing of wasabi.

We sat at a table, and thus received dirty looks and a shaking of the chef's head, posed in front of signs and a couple of license plates that told patrons, "Trust Me." I shook my head, gave him my "I'm sorry, I'm scared" look. As the Wall Street Journal quotes Zagat, Chef Nozawa "makes the Soup Nazi look polite."

After we ordered our rolls and a few pieces of known, trusted sashimi, Chef sent over a tiny plate of the freshest, melt-in-my-mouth albacore I've ever tasted. Biting in, I looked up, a look of pure love and trust, and nodded. He nodded back, solemnly accepting our unspoken agreement. Next time I'll sit at the bar.

(Photo of the Studio City Sushi Nazi from WSJ.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Definition of success: turning apocalypse into grace

In Valerie Reiss's blog post "How to Be a Sacred Activist," she admits to feeling overwhelmed in the face of global crises and the awareness of all that needs to be done.  I know this feeling, watching the news, paying attention, it's enough to send your head spinning.  And head spinning is not the place to work from.  Rather than leading you to the front to fight, it leads to the fridge, to the TV, to curling up with a glass of wine and a jar of nutella (or whatever your vice of choice might be).

How to stop that spinning monkey mind?  Ask yourself, "What breaks your heart?" Reiss writes about hearing Andrew Harvey speak for Buddhist Global Relief, "about how the world is in crisis and we all need to kick our apathy to the curb and do something. Now. He's not a total gloom-and-doomer, though. His latest book, "The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism," outlines practical ways we can align our soul and spirituality with the service we give to the world.

"In his lovely, activating, howling talk last night, he suggested that it's possible to step away from 'the collective false human self that has lost connection to our own sacred nature.' To take advantage of  an 'unprecedented 'opportunity... to turn apocalypse into grace.' He said one way to begin is: Wake up at 3 am one night, and in the silence ask yourself: 'What of all these causes breaks my heart the most?' And then 'you will find the deepest, most radiant voice of your soul.' Then you can 'join other people of like heartbreak and do something real.' "

I love that, "turn apocalypse into grace."

The phrase "to join other people of like heartbreak" reminds me of the Wendell Berry quote I chose for this blog, that "where we live and who we live there with defines the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity."  We can't save the world alone, we can't spread ourselves so thin to try to touch every person in need.  But we all have different people and issues that break our hearts, so that if we act on that, perhaps we can really change the world.

I'm also reminded of Frederick Buechner's advice on trying to find God: "Pay attention, especially to what brings tears to your eyes.  Keep your life open." 

What brings tears to your eyes?  I was aware of Buechner's words a few weeks ago, watching Christiane Amanpour's special report "Generation Islam."  Tears welled up in my eyes watching children wave their hands wildly in the air at their makeshift schools, watching them eagerly take take pens and pencils and paper from a soldier.  And their looks of pure joy when a new school was built and they had acutal desks to sit behind.

In Gaza, a child gives a tour of the remnants of his home, destroyed by war, and we visit John Ging in Gaza, the director of the United Nations relief effort there. Amanpour reports that for two short weeks during the summer, "kids from some of Gaza's poorest neighbohoods can escape the boredom of their lives." We see kids playing football (soccer), splashing in a shallow pool, playing games with brightly colored parachutes, making music on drums.  "What they will be when they grow up is very much shaped by what we do or fail to do," says Ging.

Reiss quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The definition of success — to laugh much; to win respect of intelligent persons and the affections of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one's self; to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm, and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived--this is to have succeeded."

What brings tears to my eyes?  The education and empowerment of women and girls, education and hope for all children.  What breaks your heart?

(Photo from CNN, Generation Islam.  See videos and more photos here.)

The happiest place on earth?

My dad shot these at a cemetery in Japan.

Does this mean those within went to the happiest place on earth?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Best writing and life advice: Bird by Bird

Sitting outside, drinking wine, discussing writing.  I'd much rather do that than the torture of sitting in front of my laptop or notebook, paralyzed by my perfectionism, that what I see in my mind will not be translated onto the page.  My friends fellow writers, we agreed that part of the challenge is simply to sit down, shut out the distractions, and be present.  (A lot like life, no?) One of my friends said she has little note that reads: "Ass in chair."  If you sit, it will flow? And somehow, it does, and being present, pen to paper, really is better than talking about it.

I think all writers have prompts scattered about the desk, ranging from the encouraging about what it takes to be a writer: "Three things," says Maya Angelou, "Something to say, the ability to express it, and finally, the courage to express it all," to the downright threatening, hostile notes: "How else do you plan to feed the cat?"

When I bought Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird in college, I found not only great writing advice but also a kindred spirit.  About halfway in, I called my sister, who also had just discovered the book, and we spent that night quoting passages to each other and belly laughing. 

"I suspect that he (Lamott's father) was a child who thought differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grownups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot.  I think that this sort of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal.  Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about.  It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.  I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books.  Books were my refuge."

Lamott warns her students that "writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for.  It will not make them well. ... My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment.  Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested."

On the plus side, "Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. ... What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. ... An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift."

But what about that paralyzing perfectionism, those tapes playing in my head that tell me it will never be good enough? 

Lamott offers "the two single most helpful things" she can tell us about writing. 

Short assignments.  "I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.  It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being."  Lamott quotes E.L. Doctorow, that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

And secondly?  Lamott tells this story: "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.' "

Bird by bird.  Just finish what you can see in that one inch picture frame.  Best writing (and life) advice I've ever read.

(Photo: Workspace that I long to recreate, with Boho writing desk , Sevenstar Amat,

Monday, November 02, 2009

'Roid week & wish list: Polaroid camera

It's Polaroid week on Flickr.  A few of my favorites from the collection 'Roid Week 2009:

(Birthday bouquet and Harry Potter from bottleitup)

(Ueno Park, Tokyo, rob.spicer)

I'm longing for a Polaroid camera.  Susannah, the creative force behind the blog Ink on my fingers, has a post with her recommendations for either the SX-70 or the Polaroid 680, both to be found on Ebay.  Anyone have a preference? 

Sunday, November 01, 2009

But this is what I see

"Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.  It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself — struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: 'But this is what I see; this is what I see,' and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her."  ~ To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

(Unfinished painting, Geoffrey Olsen)