Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing & Life Advice: Anne Lamott on Making Time

Finding time to be creative, to give yourself over to whatever feeds your soul, means making time. And according to Anne Lamott, that means giving up something that you may feel is a necessary part of your multi-tasking life.

"I sometimes teach classes on writing, during which I tell my students every single thing I know about the craft and habit. This takes approximately 45 minutes. I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

"Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.

"This means you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity—cell phone, email, text, Twitter—steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement. That multitasking can argue a wasted life. That a close friendship is worth more than material success.

"Needless to say, this is very distressing for my writing students."

Blogs are good for creating that space, and reminding you to tend to your creative side. When it is ignored and outdated, a blog eyes you with the forlorn look of a neglected puppy, eyes deep pools of hurt and confusion. Blogs keep you coming back, to find community, to feel you're sharing a bit of you with the world, and to keep up the hits (and we allll crave the hits, stats are how you know you're not just shouting into deep space).

My friend Paul has created a blog for just that sort of creative accountability. Get a hit of inspiration from him at Pablo's Doodles.

Anne writes,
"I often remember the story from India of a beggar who sat outside a temple, begging for just enough every day to keep body and soul alive, until the temple elders convinced him to move across the street and sit under a tree. Years of begging and bare subsistence followed until he died. The temple elders decided to bury him beneath his cherished tree, where, after shoveling away a couple of feet of earth, they found a stash of gold coins that he had unknowingly sat on, all those hand-to-mouth years.

You already have the gold coins beneath you, of presence, creativity, intimacy, time for wonder, and nature, and life. Oh, yeah, you say? And where would those rascally coins be?"

Read the rest of Anne's advice on how to find time here.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

When There Is No Flow: Haruki Murakami

I felt decidedly out of the flow of life last Sunday.  Parking the car my friend so lovingly loaned me, I griped and grumbled at people who couldn't park perfectly, leaving three feet on each side of their car, and no room for mine. For making me walk an extra three blocks to Larchmont Avenue, which on a farmer's market Sunday morning is packed with people who have the gall to stop mid-sidewalk, kissing the air hello, clustering in groups of strollers, stray kids and dogs. Side walk people. Walk. I'm truly surprised they didn't scatter at the sight of the dark thundercloud that must have been brewing above my furrowed brow, or run from the Wicked Witch of the East soundtrack that surely accompanied my angry, determined, weaving walk up the cafe-lined street.

The smell of ripe peaches and flowers filled the air as I neared the open-air farmer's market, mingling with the faint smell of puppy dander and pee from the makeshift, mobile pet adoption park.  Pushing past strollers of babies giggling and clapping at playful puppies and tumbly kittens, I was caught off guard by the gaze of an older girl with Down syndrome.  She sat quietly on the bench, completely still in the midst of the madness, her legs crossed like a Yogi. 

Her serene look made me pause, to take in the orange tabby kittens (but not take them home), little toddlers wagging their whole bodies in time with the puppies' tails, begging. To take in both the hopeful faces as well as the sad reality that most of the animals would not find homes.  She reminded me of what I'd just read in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, when Mr. Honda tells Toru about being in the flow.

"The law presides over things of this world, finally. The world where shadow is shadow and light is light, yin is yin and yang is yang, I'm me and he's him. 'I am me and / He is him: / Autumn eve.' But you don't belong to that world, sonny. The world you belong to is above that or below that."

"Which is better? I asked, out of simple curiosity. "Above or below?"

"It's not that either one is better," he said ... "It's not a question of better or worse. The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you're supposed to go up, and find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you're supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there's no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up, the world is darkness. 'I am he and / He is me: / Spring nightfall.' Abandon the self, and there you are."

(From The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami)

"When there's no flow, stay still." That might be the hardest thing to do, especially in our society. I wish I could draw better than I do, to capture the stillness of the girl I saw, to remind myself to stay still, to pay attention to the flow of the present moment.

Old wooden boat!, originally uploaded by CyrusMafi.

Monday, June 07, 2010

An Eye on the Sparrow

I'm afraid. Afraid when I consider what is happening in the world, and my place in it.  I get overwhelmed when I read about collapsitarians and the peak oil crisis in light of the gushing gallons of oil in the Gulf Coast. I read about political unrest, babies dying from treatable diseases, and fear and ignorance.  And I'm afraid that God's eye is not on the sparrow. 

One year, we discovered a dead baby bird on the floor of the fireplace at my parents' house. A family of chimney swifts, small, sparrow-like birds had made a nest in their chimney.  My folks forgot to seal it before the next season, and they came once again. We heard more fluttering in the firebox. The cats were elated to have prey trapped so close, frustrated that we wouldn't open the glass fireplace doors to let the birds out to play. 

Peering inside, we saw two little birds clinging to the metal netting of the screen. I worried they couldn't fly, but when my dad looked inside later, they were gone.  The chirping and thundering of wings grew louder and louder until it was an alarm clock at feeding time, early in the morning.  Then one day, silence.  The birds had flown the chimney.  But the cats were still on patrol outside the fireplace, poised to pounce.  Looking inside, I saw one bird, quiet on the floor, and one fluttering next to it.  Dad put on gloves and picked them both up -- tiny, the two barely filled one of his palms.  I was sure the one was still alive, and we took it outside, placing its head near a shallow saucer with water, thinking it was dehydrated and hungry.  I crushed almonds into easy to eat almond-dust. I know nothing about birds.  It lay propped on the little dish we used for soy sauce, breathing tiny shallow bird breaths. 

Wearing vinyl gloves to protect it from my human-ness should its parents return for their abandoned baby, I took a small garden claw and dug for worms.  Tears welled up as I prayed to find a worm in one breath and demanded that God honor the promise to keep an eye on the sparrow.  As far as I could tell, only my eyes were on this one.  I found one small worm, and dangled it near the bird's beak, alternating that with drops of water.  I rearranged her, trying to aim her beak for the shallow pool of water.  Every time I turned her on her stomach, she would struggle and flip on her side, then on her back.  Her beak opened, and occasionally when I dropped water on it she shook her head, making her whole tiny body shake like a dog coming out from a swim.  Watching her tiny claw feet grasp, I was hopeful.  She made two brief chirps, and I thought if her wings were broken from the fall, she could be my new pet, kept safe in a roomy cage from the kitties. 

She took one last gaspy breath, and when I moved the almond dust towards her, I noticed she was no longer fighting.  I couldn't admit my nursing hadn't worked.  It was getting cold; I warmed a fluffy old towel in the drier and wrapped her in it.  I had a glimpse into Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, where she could not throw away her husband's shoes the year after he died.  If she did, what would he wear when he returned?  I couldn't think that I had watched a helpless creature die and been impotent to save her.  Not yet willing to admit the physics of the world, I wrapped her lightly in the towel and placed her in a shoe box in the shed.  When my dog had died earlier that year, I'd learned that I am physically and emotionally unable to bury a pet.  I felt like I was suffocating with the finality of throwing dirt on top of his body. If it weren't for my mother burying the dog, and her promise to bury the bird that night, I might end up the crazy lady with all the dead pets boxed in the shed. 

I am the crazy lady who hopes that death is not the end. Perhaps that is where faith kicks in for me, not that God will save every creature, but that there is something beyond this, for the little soul of this bird and my clumsy cocker spaniel.  And that God's eye on the sparrow is us, looking out for each other.  That we can make positive changes to live in community, growing local food, relying less on oil.  That we can support and care for those around the world for whom our way of life and war have left in poverty, helping to find what it means to live sustainably.  That we do all we can to feed, water and wrap each other in warm towels (shoe boxes optional).

(Photo: "An eye on the community," Carf photostream, Flickr)

Friday, June 04, 2010

Take a Hike: National Trails Day

Stairway to no where, originally uploaded by jandazzatron.
Tomorrow (Saturday, June 5th) is National Trails Day! Find an event at

I have fond, very green memories of Silver Creek Falls in Oregon, wandering down the mossy, damp paths to be lightly misted as we stood behind the sheet of the waterfall.

Now that I'm an L.A. girl, I'm in love with Griffith Park, but still need to discover new trails.

What/where is your favorite hike?

(Photo of Echo Mountain in Pasadena by the lovely and talented Janelle Randazza)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Summer Jobs: The customer is always right

Waking early in the summer, my job was to open a mom&pop cafe, just off the highway that led from our bedroom town to downtown Portland.  Still half asleep, I let myself in the back door.  Tying a brown apron lettered with the white script "Herbs & Spice" over my jeans and tee shirt, I spread a crisp white coffee filter into the basket, measured fresh ground coffee beans and hit brew. I flipped the switch on the yogurt machine and the open sign, taking chairs down from the three cafe tables.

Herbs & Spice sold espresso drinks, coffee, the aforementioned herbs and spices, as well as home brew kits in the back.  The married owners, Doris and Jim, seemed never to age over the years of hiring high school kids to man the store. Jim taught us the basics of brewing your own beer in your basement.  So we could help customers, of course. Doris taught teens the basics of customer service.  No matter what you were busy doing, the customer came first.

Every afternoon, like clockwork, a tall elderly gentleman with a full head of white, wavy hair arrived to order an iced latte.  To go.  He shuffled in, placed his order, smiled, and shuffled out, clutching the red coke cup already sweating in the summer heat. 

One day he arrived, on time, only to berate my coffee making, ice-shaking skills.  "Every day, I order an iced latte, and every day I take it home to my wife, and it's COLD!" he bellowed at me.

Confused, I smiled.  "But sir, an iced latte is cold."

He barely let me finish, a man on a mission.  "All I know is that my wife is complaining that her coffee is cold."

"You are ordering an iced latte, yes?"

"I know what I order!" he yelled.  I'd never seen him like this.  I called for my manager.

Hearing his complaint that his iced latte was always cold, my manager offered him his money back for his most recent purchase, and suggested he might want to try another cafe.  Perhaps one where iced lattes came hot.

Looking back, I wish I had simply honored his request, and made every iced latte he ordered for his house-bound wife piping hot.  It seemed a small order to keep this customer happy in his routine. Because, of course, the customer is always right.

NPR's All Things Considered is asking the question: which summer job influenced you the most?  Click here to submit your story

(Photo: Yami Yugi, Flickr)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Shopping for Singles and Online Dating Tips for Dudes

After hearing that most all my unattached acquaintances are shopping for singles (for free!) at OkCupid (or OkStupid, as one friend said in a Freudian slip of the tongue), I decided to check it out. Just like other sites, you can enter certain criteria for a search, and scroll through pages of photos and catchy phrases. Unlike other sites, you answer a few questions, say how you'd like your date to answer them, and whether the question is highly relevant in your quest for a mate or a date for Friday night.  Some of them involve math, in hopes to weed out the OkStupids. Or science, such as, "Which is bigger, the earth or the sun?"  (To weed out the super-sized egos?)

After just days of being online, I have a few tips for the men playing the mating game.

Photos. If you have a photo of you lit only by the light of your computer screen, erase it immediately. My friend has challenged me to respond in total honesty to all emails, e.g., "Your profile photo is so frightening, I'm afraid if I met you for coffee I may not make it home alive.  But for the sake of your dating happiness, take another photo: more smile, less psycho."

Don't LIE, about your age, your current marital status, your allergies to cats.  We will find out immediately.  Especially if you posted an out-of-date photo.  It's gonna be obvious.

Write in full, complete sentences ("Hey" is not a sentence).  For fun, check your spelling.  Girls go for good grammar.  Find something in her profile to ask about. Don't be obscure. I have no response to "Travel with me" or "Cute."  (Also, not a sentence.)

I'm still baffled how to answer this email, written to my "handle," Rebecca_LA. 

"Hi, I'm Jack.  What's your name?"

Err... Rebecca. 

I got nothing. Was that fact not clear?  I'm worried about his answer to the earth vs. sun size question.  And suddenly, that seems very relevant. 

(Photo: Flickr via Writers Free Reference)