A New Bohemia Birthday ~ Cedar Rapids, IA

It’s been a week since I drove through Yellowstone, and I have felt a lurching my heart to write.  With each new experience, I’ve had to catalog and wait for later.  Or let it go. 

I remember early on, when I was headed from Seattle to Hayden, seeing a sign for Historic Wallace.  I looked at the oddly smokeless sky, and had an itch to go visit.  What’s in Wallace?  I’d never even heard of Wallace.  But I felt the twin desire to arrive at my destination and rest.  That was a day filled with smoky skies and sneezing, and I knew more than anything, I needed to be horizontal.  I wanted to see this town, this place nowhere near my to-visit list.  It could have been, probably was, remarkable.  But I kept driving.  That’s how it goes sometimes. 

I am sitting in a metal stool at the breakfast bar of the best Airbnb I’ve stayed in stateside (the heart house),  The sloped roof is covered in shiplap.  The bathroom is decked out with a clawfoot tub, and textured flamingo wallpaper.  The living room shelves sport roller skates, a typewriter, and a record player.  It’s no wonder I’m warming to Cedar Rapids. But I’m sitting here with a long list of things I’d like to write.  My fingers feel like sentences I’ve yet to tap into existence.

I didn’t write about these things yet because I been moving; making the events occur that I want to write.  There has been a tug of war between the drive to experience, and the drive to write.  Right now I want to slow down.  I want to stay in this apartment in New Bohemia all day.  I’m satisfied to know there are brewhouses and clothing shops all within walking distance.   I’m grateful as can be that the sun is shining, there is no lightning, no low hanging ominous cloud cover. 

Sometimes I think like every experience has multiple layers ~ the prediction/planning, the actual experience, and the aftereffect.  I guess that’s more or less past present and future.  Bear with me for a second here.  Take going to the gym.  Before you go, you think about it, then you go, sweat it up, and then you go home, shower, and bask in the endorphin rush.  The Zen masters may tell you the only thing that matters is the present, but I can’t entirely agree.  I am still planning parts of this journey, and I’m excited, for example, about seeing my friend Steven from Tbilisi when I stay in Madison.  Hasn’t happened yet.  And I’m still mulling over the impact of the drive between Sturgis and Sioux Falls, when I drove for four hours through the worst lightning storm I’ve ever seen. 

In the podcast “A Way With Words,” one caller last week asked about the phrase “this is academic” which seems more or less like a dis.  The idea of the phrase is that something is over, it’s a moot point.  There is no solution.  That just makes me think of the Collatz Conjecture, and other mathematic equations.  Really, how do you know if it’s academic, until you fall upon a solution?  The intention behind the statement “it’s all academic” is that after a certain point, discussion is merely for the sake of discussion.  Isn’t that analysis?  Isn’t that philosophy?  Isn’t the unexamined life not worth living?  I personally like a good discussion, academic or not.

As I’ve driven the highways to a near midpoint of the US, my mind has wandered plenty.  We could call it internal discussion.  It’s a great time to generate what I want to write.  At this point, I’ve spent more time on the road than in any one town.  As I’ve driven, my little dog Hoopla has learned a new word: cows.  Whenever we pass a herd of cattle, she runs back and forth across the backseat, as if it’s on fire.  She barks and barks and whines and generally tries to communicate that it’s time to stop so she can go chase the animals.  She doesn’t know that they are about a hundred times her size.  But she does know, because I keep saying it, that they are cows. 

I bring up cows because I think they are symbolic.  In The Odyssey it’s the murder of the cows belonging to Cyclops, Poseidon’s son, that earn Odysseus his major curse.  Cows are sacred in many religions.  In my own life, I connect the animals to the astrological sign of Taurus, a stable, persistent, caring earth sign.  Even if you don’t dig astrology, you can attest to the fact that cows are indeed, stable, persistent, and earth-bound. 

But lately I’ve been thinking about the fact that cows are always chewing.  Because of their multi-caverned stomach, and the difficulty of digesting, they spend over eight hours a day chewing cud.  It’s kindof gross.  Cud is the food that’s been partially digested, gone through round one of the stomach, and is sent back up to the mouth to be reworked. 

I feel like that’s how my mind works.  Maybe that’s how all our minds work.  I experience something, think about it, think I’m done thinking about it, and then it pops back up.  Here, analyze me, examine, solve.  But you can’t always solve.  There isn’t even always a solve for x.  Solve for happiness?  Solve for love?

None of life’s real problems work like math.  Everything that matters IS academic.  When you experience resistance, how do you know the difference between intuition for bad mo-jo, and simple knee-jerk fear?  You chew that cud for a while.  Or you figure a way to bypass it or let it go. 

I suppose a lot of this is just about decision making, and trusting yourself.  And I keep coming back to the same forms.  I have meditated every day of my journey in some way or another.  I have found my way to a yoga mat every few days in the US, and even landed in a class in Tbilisi.  I don’t always trust my mind.  My overactive imagination makes the present moment myth.  It can blur my vision.  And isn’t the world you see in front of you really just a projection of what you feel inside?

Today is my birthday.  I’m alone here in Cedar Rapids.  I’ve been alone in an airbnb every major holiday this year so far.  I don’t want to be alone always, but right now, this is good.  On a journey like this, I can’t get to every destination, despite how easy it is to imagine this.  I love how people misgauge the reality of a long journey to be inclusive of every destination imaginable.  Brazil?  Sure.  Alaska, why not?  It’s not like that.  The same thing happens as I write.  Some writers like to wait until after a journey is over to jot it all down.  They can’t write “hot.”  I don’t know yet when this journey will end.  And showing up here is one of my favorite parts.  I can’t always determine what I’m writing about.  I can’t visit every destination.  I can’t love every person I meet.  But I can love myself, I can show up regularly to write, academic or not.  I can let go, and trust who I’m becoming right now.   

 

Faith in Old Faithful ~ Two stories about one place

It wasn’t until adulthood that I found my way into a national park.  I have still never been to Yosemite, despite living close to it most of my life.  I don’t think either of my parents owned tents, or hiking shoes.  When I was young, we summered in cabins around Tahoe and Lake County.  But more than any wilderness trails, I remember hiking up and down the hills of San Francisco, and stealing away to the paved footpaths along the American River by my Gold River home.  Destination activities for us involved swimming, biking, or skiing.  But more so, we’d visit historic sites and museums, find places to shop, or hit an occasional state fair.  We weren’t what you’d call an outdoorsy family.  

So the year our family reunion wound up at Flagg Ranch Wyoming, smack dab between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, it’s no wonder that there were some hiccups. 

I should clarify too that this was the year my father was diagnosed with Cancer.  It was the summer I quit my job in New York to move to San Jose and work at my first Catholic school.  I knew no one in San Jose, but it was the only job I found within a two hour drive of my father.  Every night I spent in Wyoming, I called his house to check on him.  Sometimes he was too tired to talk, so I spoke with his wife Linda.  My body was in Wyoming, but my heart was in Sonoma.  Behind every choice I made, every activity I joined, against the backdrop of supreme beauty, the terror of his frailty hummed like the waiting song on Jeopardy.  But I was on vacation, a family reunion in Yellowstone with the other side of my family.

Family reunion is one of those nebulous words that could mean joining your ten brothers and sisters, twelve cousins and oddly named Uncle or Aunt who’s lived in general hermitude until old age.  Ours are not like that.  I have one brother, and three first cousins.  Perhaps that’s why these events matter so much. Our immediate family has dwindled more than it grows.  For my mother, and my Nana before she passed, genealogy is not just a hobby, but a near profession.  My mom is a member of the mayflower society, a number of genealogical societies, and of course, the DAR.  She has traced our ancestors back to princess Eleanor of Aquitaine, and King Edward III Plantagenet.  I can claim witches as ancestors, and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  But far more important to this family research is the way we have come together over the past thirty years.  These reunions have happened every four, and then every three years, for the past thirty years.  A family reunion for us includes second, third, and even fifth cousins.  We have family tree diagrams that spread over thirty feet, color coded.  For my little branch of the family, it’s a chance to be included in the swell of more people, more crazy, more fun.  It feels like the right thing to do.  

The planning for these has rotated over the years between different subclans of the Swedish patriarch Louis Linder.  This year, the Flagg Ranch year, the planning was up to the Frost clan, far more outdoorsy than us.  Some cousins camped in tents, found their way to long hikes in the park, and swam in the lakes nearby.  Some people spent time down in Jackson Hole.  My mother helped organize a shuttle tour of the Great Loop of Yellowstone.  Originally near twenty people signed up for the tour.  On the day of, the number had dwindled to seven.  Hiker or not, I felt happy to have a guided tour of the geothermal areas of the park.  True to form, I had done no research on the park, and the steaming multicolored goop we walked over felt otherworldly.  I never imagined dangers in a park beyond Grizzlies and steep cliffs.  Our bus stopped at six or seven viewpoints, and each one was more exciting than the next. 

The last stop on the trip was the one I remembered from Yogi Bear cartoons: Old Faithful.  When we pulled up to the Lodge, we saw the next time for eruption was in fifteen minutes.  I was torn between staying outside and watching, or going inside with my mom to shop.  The drive to stay with my close people won, and I went inside to explore the Lodge.  I picked out a few trinkets including pencils for student prizes, and a handcrafted mug for myself. 

When we went outside, throngs of people walked towards us, and I discovered I had missed the Geyser.  Because we were on a shuttle tour, there was no way I could wait to see the next eruption.  I was so disappointed.  Here I was in arguably the most famous national park, on a tour to see this one mighty thing, and I missed it.  I had seen amazing Bison and coyote, walked over footpaths of quicksand and green gooey mud.  But the fact that I was shopping when the geyser went off felt like a smack in the face.  Where were my priorities?  How could I miss the thing I wanted most to see?  What happened to the Faithful nature of Old Faithful? 

It wasn’t just that I missed the geyser, but that I missed what mattered the most, following the conveyer belt of activity.  I wanted to be near my ailing father.  I didn’t want him to be ailing.  I was too busy buying memories to make them.  My mom laughed, because, as she told me, it actually wasn’t that big of a deal.  When she saw how disappointed I truly was, she said I should come back.  Right, when?  It wasn’t about that anyhow, and I knew it.  Everything inside was mixed up.  Great natural beauty and family belonging, and the weight of my father’s imminent death.  I ached to unravel.  To parce out emotions so I could handle them, one at a time.  I wanted to wash my psyche in the rapture of something bigger than myself, something constant.  I felt selfish to be enjoying myself in this wonderous place, when the man who made me was in horrible pain.  

After we got back to the lodge I saw my second cousin Paul, a nomadic man who’s never in the same place longer than a few months.  The geyser felt like a talisman towards clarity, release.  I vowed that I would come back to see the geyser erupt. But I never thought I would. 

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In planning my northern route across the US, I penciled Yellowstone in with a question mark.  I didn’t even recognize the weight of it as I did. 

My friend Christina was so generous in offering me a place to stay with her parents, who live in Bozeman.  The home was gorgeous, Jim and Lynda were incredible.  The day I left I got a personalized tour of the city, including a giant dog park, a few yoga studios, the library, and of course, the co-op. 

But my original intention, as noted, had been a trip down to Yellowstone.  An easy trip down to Yellowstone— hop skip and jump.

Only when Christina’s parents offered a day-long tour did I realize how attached I was to getting back to Old Faithful.  When I missed the eruption the first time, I honestly never thought I’d be back.  But here was my chance.  It’s been six years since my father passed, and the grief of that is something I have learned how to navigate, how to acknowledge, feel and release.  But in this journey I feel his drive for wild and reckless things, and in my uncertainty, I sometimes feel his presence.  I wanted to get back to Old Faithful because even though I’m living nomadic, I’m in my body fully, something I couldn’t declare to be true when I was there the first time. 

True to form, if I was going to be in my body, the universe was going to test me.  I spent some time writing in Bozeman that morning, and hit the road to Yellowstone around 11am.  The journey to the Western Entrance is about two hours.  The 191 winds through Big Sky down to the border through plains and mountains.  I knew it would be a rushed trip, but I felt it would be worth it.  Over oatmeal and french pressed coffee, I told Jim & Lynda that I would show up, and see the signpost declaring I had only five minutes to wait before it went off.  It would be easier this time.  I believed it. 

What actually happened was a bit different.  As I drove south, patches of blue sky dwindled.  The cloud cover thickened and sauntered from white to grey to indigo.  You’d think having family in Seattle would give me a sense of badass courage on wet roads.  You’d think.  I have a tempered respect for rain on asphalt.  On the weekend I graduated college, I totaled my car while hydroplaning on 580.  I was young & distracted.  But I have been careful ever since.  So when I pulled into the parking lot for Old Faithful, I was stoked about the fact that I’d made it past the ominous clouds, more or less dry.  Finding parking still took near twenty minutes.  It was surprising that on a Wednesday, under a grey like TV fuzz, it was still packed. 

When I parked I couldn’t decide if I should take Hoopla down to the geyser or not.  As a certified service animal, she’s allowed to come along, even though pets aren’t typically allowed in parks.  It’s such a mess how this is all determined.  But in parks especially, workers often interrogate me as to the training she has to “serve me.”  The irony is that they exacerbate the anxiety she’s meant to alleviate.  But what if she lept in the geothermal mess of wet goo?   Finally, I rolled down the windows and decided to leave her in the car.  I walked twenty paces out, and turned around to get her.  I will always take the maximum amount of time possible to make a decision. 

Decision made, Hoopla and I walked haphazard, and I began to notice all the visitors walked towards instead of away from the myriad parking lots.  When we reached the visitor center opposite the geyser, I found the signpost declaring the next spout-off time: 4:05.  It was then 2:40.  So much for my positive thinking.  We set about exploring the village that has grown around the underground steam machine.  I sought some coffee, maybe a trinket.  It seems so many of the spots for rest in the parks have turned into shopping spots.  I didn’t want to shop, I wanted to see the earth do things I’d never seen it do.  I wanted to watch hot water pour upwards instead of down. 

Nature is funny like that.  As I held Hoopla in the visitor’s center, faux-shopping, I looked out the window to see, not just rain, but torrential rain.  I stepped out under the awning to see rivers channeled through the gutters.  It had held out for our drive down, but not for no reason.  At closer inspection, I noticed white spots of hail bouncing off the sidewalks.  This was no set of karaoke sing-along balls, but a full blown summer storm.  Californians don’t get visited with summer storms.  Rain comes on slow, and leaves slow.  It’s cold when it rains.  It will be cold after it rains.  This wasn’t a warm rain, but I knew I could navigate it in my Birkenstocks if I had to.  It would be better to go back to my car and grab my Chaco’s.  But I had time.  So, along with families and packs of adult pairs, I hid under the eves until the storm lightened.  At a good hiatus, I ran back to my car to get my waterproof sandals, and, you guessed it.  Water everywhere. 

The car was soaked.  Every window had been open at least four inches; I had planned to leave Hoops in the car.  I looked around as if anyone would be interested, and just started to laugh.  I popped the trunk and grabbed my towel to dry the seats.  I did my best, threw Hoops in her backseat dogbed, and rolled the windows up to a centimeter or less.  I wanted an eruption, and I got it.  

By this time, it was near 3:30, and I knew from experience that the announced spout-off time was less than faithful.  It had stopped raining, so I headed back to the plastic benches set up along the boardwalk near the geyser.  I found a spot to stand, behind a family from Arizona, next to a group of French people.  And waited.  The earth steamed from all over, as if the whole surface were pourous.  The mouth of Old Faithful exhaled a long white cloud.  I looked around the boardwalk circle, and I’d say we were near a thousand people.  We held up our cameras til our hands grew tired.  A cone geyser in the distance went off far before Old Faithful.  Old Faithful sputtered prematurely a few times before it went off, and I giggled with the crowd.  We waited more. 

And then, after standing there for near half an hour, the geyser erupted.  It was as if a firefighter had unscrewed a cosmic velocity hydrant.  The white water rose upwards of 100 feet, and under the grey-white of the sky, it popped forward with urgency.  I found out afterwards that the average water temperature of that water is near 204 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is not the most regular of all geysers, but it is the most regular large eruption.  And even though I thought I’d never be able to see it again, I did.  I felt so immensely gratified. 

As I travel, it’s easy to say I want to go back to places.  But there are so many new places I’ve never been, and it takes something important, or someone important to pull me back.  I didn’t plan this journey to get back to Yellowstone, but by going, I realized how much I’ve healed and grown since I visited the first time.  Not only did I have to wait ninety minutes to watch the eruption, I had to wipe down a deluge from the fabric of my Mazda’s seats, and drive home with a wet ass.  But I did, because I could.  And I still loved every minute of it. 

 

 

Alexandra RobertiComment
No true cowgirl or ski-bunny, but good enough nonetheless ~ Hamilton MT

Main street in Hamilton Montana is clean and wide, there is little traffic at 9am.  The shops are brick-face, two floor, and remind me of pioneer towns like Nevada City or old Sacramento.  Across the street is the Chapter One Book Store, and I write this morning from Big Creek Coffee. This is big sky country.  I have been looking forward to my time in Montana because it is the opposite of what I’ve had for the past, well, long time.  It’s spread out, but not like the sprawl of valley cities along the I-5.  Breweries in Hamilton close at 8pm.  Yards have paddocks, fields, horses, hay.  Restaurants don’t have wait times longer than the meal you’d like to eat.  People are largely white, and largely conservative.  It’s a place where mountains clamp in the low valleys with mythical presence.  I am reminded of the Rock Man in The Neverending Story who claims in sadness that he has “such big hands” but he couldn’t hold back the “Nothing” that destroys imagination.  Maybe these mountains can. 

The thing that called me here was nature, space, quiet.  The work I’m doing to better myself involves a lot of that.  Meditation, hiking, writing, reading, laughing, and to an extent, driving. 

But I forget how easy it is to get off course.  This town isn’t just a landscape, but a hamlet, populated by individual people.  This is a common problem traveling, generalizing ad-hoc.  My cousin, who’s yard I’ve pitched my tent in, told me a funny story about this.  He said during the cold war, Russia sent a spy to Hamilton Montana.  The spy stayed for a few years, and finally went home with a report that no one should ever engage Americans in combat.  Each house, he reported, boasts upwards of six guns or crossbows.  The thought of this terrifies me.  I have never, and will never own a gun.  And that’s not something I want to get into right now.  But it shows how faulty our ideas can be when we have limited access. 

In imagining the beauty of Montana, I didn’t have clear predictions about the people.  And because I lean discernment, and sometimes criticism, yesterday I just began measuring myself against the residents of Hamilton.  Troy moved here six years ago to be a Sous Chef in a big hotel.  He’s insanely talented with food, but working kitchens is a hard job, and it just wore him down.  He told me another great story about working in Martha’s Vineyard, and swimming across the channel to get to work in the mornings.  He is brave and crazy in ways I sometimes aspire to.  In the past couple years he’s quit working in kitchens, lived in his car for a while, and generally redirected his life.  It’s what I’m trying to do.  He’s now eating a near paleo diet, he’s quit drinking, lost a ton of weight, mountain bikes and skis regularly.  He said life doesn’t make sense to him if he can’t shovel snow in winter.  Now he spends his days as a fly fishing river guide, and lives in a fifth wheel, off the grid.  He has inhabited a life I never even knew to exist.  What I mean is he’s happy, and in unpredictable ways.  

It made me wonder.  How do we create the lives we never knew existed?  How do we take the risks to make a home in the world that’s right for us?  I am no mountain biker, no fly fisherwoman, no true cowgirl or ski-bunny.  I love to dance, to perform, to read and write.  Could I live in Montana?  Could I be happy in a small town?  I am full of imagination, and sometimes inspiration strikes me like dusk headlights in my rearview. 

And it hit yesterday.  Troy told me where he’d take me if he wasn’t working, and I followed his suggestion to a double-lake day.  The morning took me to Painted Rock State Park, the most deserted lake I’ve visited after the putrid smelling Salton Sea.  I expected all rock, and had no idea there was a lake.  Forested mountains fell sharply towards the lake, and the rockface at the lake’s edge sang a flambouyant range of warm hues.  Hoopla and I paraded down to the one walkable area, a muddy grass covered beach with picnic tables behind.  There wasn’t much to do besides a tiny walk, so we took off up the 93.  The second lake, which I drove past twice before I found it, was Lake Como.  Apparently, it was named after Lake Cuomo in Italy by the first Ravelli family members in town.  This was the kind of lake I could go back to time and again.  Because of the smoke, and the inlets on the shore, I couldn’t see all sides of the lake.  But the mountains against it rose up like icebergs, so steep and majestic.  In the afternoon sun, they rimmed the lake in purples, indigos and greys.  It’s possible to walk all the way around the lake, and better yet, swim in it.  Hoopla and I clambered over pebbles and rocks into marshes and soft wooded areas.  She got wet and dirty, which healthy dogs (and people) should do from time to time.  There’s a campsite there, and I ran into a few other people, but that was far less relevant than the fact that I could have sat there for hours.  Not since I visited the eastern shore of Lake Michigan did I feel so awestruck by a body of water. 

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I love it here.  But I’m working on loving myself better.  I think these things go together.  I don’t know how to stop putting myself in a lineup and asking who’s guilty, who’s innocent.  I don’t know if I belong, if this could be a home for me.  I do know that making choices in life is about values, about evaluating.  Right now, at this exact time, I’m glad I’m here, I’m happy to be who I am.

 

 

Where there's smoke... ~Pacific Northwest
Looking back on the Columbia River from the Wild Horse Monument.  Smoke for days...

Looking back on the Columbia River from the Wild Horse Monument.  Smoke for days...

The day I arrived in Seattle, my mother kept saying there was a fire somewhere.  When I arrived, I was easily swept up into the house activities – she and her friend Terry were installing lights on the deck.  I passed along plastic clips that Terry nailed down.  I watered her throngs of potted plants.  The giant metallic containers are big enough to be bathtubs, and house Japanese maples, hibiscus, sweet peas and hydrangeas.  Hoopla and Tala, my mom’s German Shepherd, chased each other on the fake grass.  As we worked, every now and again, my mother would look out at the Puget Sound, and say, look at that smoke.  I saw nothing. 

We see what we want to see, and we see what our five senses take in.  I had just arrived, and I was happy to be spending time with people I love in a city I know well.  At six o’clock, with a glass of chardonnay in hand, and a suite of veggies in front of me to chop for our dinner, I saw comfort and ease.  I just didn’t see it.  That day.

My mom moved from Madison Park to West Seattle about five years ago.  She wanted a water view, and absolutely found it.  Her house sits high on a hill, and the backyard looks East over the Puget Sound.  On clear days it’s easy to see the ferries scooting along between Fountleroy, Blake Island, or Whidbey.  The Olympics cut the sky with a jagged edge behind the water, and sunsets are always magical. 

The next morning, before I’d even poured my via coffee into hot water, my mother told me it was going to be a tough day – her eyes were burning.  I walked out on the deck to discover a swath of white where there should have been water, island forests and sky.  It was as if someone dripped water over a wet watercolor painting, and washed the image away.  We saw the houses below, and bits of the forest north and south, but the water blended into the sky, and everything between them was gone.  I saw the smoke before it affected me.  I was still fine. 

A bit of googling led us to discover that the smoke was caused by wildfires burning across British Columbia, Canada.  A wind had pulled the air south into our range, and the smoke would last a few days.  I only planned to stay in Seattle for a few days.

Along the side of the I-90.

Along the side of the I-90.

For the bulk of my day yesterday I had a Kleenex glued to my upper lip.  If I could have timed my sneezing, I would have had an all day beatbox sneeze-snare.  It was only a couple weeks ago that I oozed through a horrible stomach flu in Los Angeles.  Last night when I checked into my Airbnb I was quick to bed.  My head hurt, I was wheezing, and I felt too stymied to explore.  When I woke up in my friend Amanda’s bed yesterday morning, my eyes felt raw and itchy.  I thought maybe it was her cat Olivia.  If not the cat, the smoke.  But by the time I arrived here in Hayden Idaho, I wondered if I wasn’t actually getting a cold. 

In the past couple days I’ve finally had enough time to work on some of the logistics of my journey.  Some of the places where I planned to stay are no longer feasible.  While it bums me out, I can’t get upset.  Friends and family have put me up for free, and it’s not easy for everyone to take in a guest traveling with a small dog.  So I’ve spent a lot of time hunting for campsites, hotels and perusing Airbnb.  It’s Sunday, and I don’t know where I’m sleeping this Friday.

The restlessness that felt like the seed of this adventure is still so strong here.  I have felt like there is something amazing just around the corner.  I’ve been blessed enough to find that to be true – whether it’s a lake I didn’t know to expect, a snow capped mountain, a field of sunflowers stretching as far as the horizon.  But I’ve also felt uncertain about what I’m doing.  Today I’ve felt a clinginess like codependency – but to nothing in particular.  As the summer weans into fall, I am thinking about school, about endings.  I am maybe halfway through my journey, if even that, but I keep looking forward.  What am I going to do when this is all over? What will last?  What is it I’m looking for that I didn’t have before? 

At Teachers College Columbia, I learned a pedagogical theory called Backwards Design.  It’s more or less goal setting – before planning the activities, texts, and assessments for a school unit, you decide what you want your students to take away from the experience.  In teacher jargon, we often write, “Students will be able to” do this that or the other.  And then, when you know where you want the kids to learn, you plan the trip.  Or, I guess the unit. 

I know I plan to arrive in New York City in a few weeks.  I know I plan to arrive in Hamilton Montana tonight.  But I don’t know where I plan to arrive in winter.  I left in June knowing only that I had to hit the road.  I had a general plan of places I wanted to go, people I wanted to see.  I had faith in the process of discovery.  I felt, and feel, called.  But it’s not consistent.  And to trust a voice in my gut with such unspecific direction is hard.  Am I just insane? 

No.  I’m not.  But doubt works on me like this smoke in the air.  It appears at first from somewhere you can’t identify.  Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t.  It’s insidious, and before you know it, you’re breathing shallow, scratching your skin, trying to push something out that you never owned to begin with. 

Through my travels, I’ve also been participating in an online course run by Gabby Bernstein called Spirit Junkies.  The course is about spiritual growth, and becoming a teacher in your own right.  Lately, I have been crafting my higher power statement.  But in the course, it became clear that some of us just don’t know how to name or identify what a higher power is.  We grow up in churches that damage us, or ping-ponging between our parents’ faith systems and get lost.  Is god within us?  Outside of us?  Both? 

To change my life this much, quit a secure job, move out of a beautiful house, leave the people I love, I had to trust so hard in myself.  Or my higher power.  It doesn’t mean I don’t doubt it often.  Falling out of faith or health makes us appreciate it more. 

I do believe there is an infinite power within and around everything in our world.  Maybe it’s a desert goddess, a biblical god, Jesus, Buddha, or Amma.  Maybe the stars guide us more than we know, maybe it’s just quantum entanglement, and there is a parallel soul in the world so attached to us that we can’t even identify the force of our movements.  But when I fall into smoke, into doubt, I have to remember that this force is so powerful that any name or concept I offer is less than succinct.  It is creative and life giving.  It is trustworthy, generous, and gentle.  It is available.  We are each called in different ways to grow and love through this amazing force, and once we say yes we will be pummeled with miracles. 

I wanted to write about smoke and doubt, and I suppose I ended up writing about divine fire.  Not a bad diversion. 

Where Faith Begins: Love ~ A wedding in the woods of San Mateo
Sameba, or Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbililsi.  It's immensity is hard to guage in the shot, but this Georgan Orthadox Church is visible from everywhere in the city.  Also, in case it's confusing, it is NOT where my friends were married.  

Sameba, or Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbililsi.  It's immensity is hard to guage in the shot, but this Georgan Orthadox Church is visible from everywhere in the city.  Also, in case it's confusing, it is NOT where my friends were married.  

I wonder if god needs our love as much as we need god’s love.  I know it matters greatly who we call god, what we name god, how we understand god.  For me that’s part of why I’m on the road.  I want to know better, who, what, how is god?  How can I do right by the greatest thing in the universe, the universe itself?  I could spend some time asking about the name(s) of god—but that’s for another time. 

What I do know is that there is a wave of love that comes over me sometimes, a sweep of relief that arrives when I feel like a waterballoon about to burst.  That knowing and trust is for me, what I call god.  It is more than me, but still me.  I need that love. 

Yesterday I went to a post-wedding BBQ in San Mateo for my friends Aaron and Jenny.  They married a few weeks prior in a small gathering, and this was the big celebration to share their love and commitment with friends.  The forest area where they shared vows, again, with a few fun changes, was a warm little alcove of the park.  I thought I was in the wrong spot at first, since there were horses tied up near the long tables filled with food.  But I was mistaken, and it turned out to be apropos, as the icon of a double headed rainbow unicorn was all over their schwag.  I had planned my trip back through the Bay Area in part to get here.  But as I drove up, I had a seed of fear in my gut that I’d feel uncomfortable or want to leave early. 

It was about five years ago when I met Aaron at Wild Side West.  We met through Kitta, my old roommate turned friend.  Early in our friendship he left me a fake voicemail, pretending to be an insurance agent with important news for me.  Once I figured out the joke, I knew we’d be friends for a long time.  Since then, he has cracked me up, listened to my sob stories, and overall served as a great inspiration.  He quit his teaching job two years ago to be a full time artist.  As an illustrator, painter and designer in San Francisco, he sells work out of Goforaloop gallery, and on his own, he teaches young artists how to hone their craft.  His girlfriend-now-wife Jenny was living out of town when we first met.  But Jenny, I soon discovered, was just as quirky and fun as him.  This was my dream.  Art & Love. 

Over the years, I have loved teaching, but not in the capacity I was working, not through grammar quizzes and thousands of lit analysis essays on Catcher in the Rye.  When I was a little girl, I didn’t dream about wedding dresses, about being a teacher.  I dreamt about being an artist, about belonging to a community of people changing the world with beauty with magic.  And more so than ever, after coming back from Georgia and that writing workshop, I know that when I write poems, and to an extent, these blog posts, there is a discovery inherent that feels like prayer.  Curriculum was fun, but it couldn’t uncork the ambrosia I knew lived inside me.  At my Airbnb in Georgia, I sat over one poem for hours, and I felt like I was just at the verge of figuring out what I wanted to say.  I felt like every other line had a soft promise of revision; it was like the computer game I played in the ‘80s, Chronos Quest.  I love words, sometimes too much.  But I wanted to be an artist to funnel and share the insights I felt so lucky to catch.  I wanted art to be the record of the growth and love in my life.  I’m still aiming for that. 

But it’s a mess.  No one person grows in a single direction.  At one time a guilty pleasure of mine was watching the show Millionnaire Matchmaker.  I loved how Patti Stanger had a short clear assessment for the issues of each client.  She diagnosed people as Mr/s. Cuffington—a control freak who “cuffs” everything about their partner; Plumpty dumpty women who refused to work on health and body, and of course, Party boys who cared more about their male friends than any woman they could try to “buy.”  But growth is multi-faceted, and no one has only one issue. 

I have had more of a whack-a-mole experience with my problems; one goes away, and another crops up just as fast.  I open up too quickly, I decide I don’t need a partner, I focus on one, I focus on three, I build communication and trust with the unavailable, I get intimidated with men who actually line up with my goals, I run circles around the powerful who are more concerned with work, and I get judgy of the unemployed dreamers who make me laugh.  We are not cartoons, and our hearts don’t work in cartoon ways.  This is why I’m so happy that Aaron an Jenny found one another. 

Love is the hardest word in the English language to define.  But it’s also the main thing that keeps us alive.  I know I have been traveling for six weeks, and I’ve fallen a little in love with six men and at least one woman.  That’s for another post.  The point is that I have always dreamed making art would unify the disparate.  I have put faith in the fact that sitting down and working through words would deliver me to someplace clear.  I still believe it, and I thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me while I figure out what that clear thing is. 

So, back to the original point, does god need our love as much as we need hers?  At Aaron & Jenny’s wedding, I ambled through casual acquaintances, and spent a ton of time catching up with Kitta.  But a couple hours into it I ended up talking to Teddy and Susana.  Teddy is a writer and artist who told me early on that he was born into the Unification Church, or what he called the Moonies.  This led us down a path weighing the actual search for faith against the mumbo-jumbo cults some people sell. 

I hadn’t seen Susanna since New Year’s, when we sat in a circle at Aaron’s house and shared our resolutions & intentions.  I already knew at the year’s dawn that I wanted to go to the desert, I just didn’t know how I’d make it happen.  A week after we met, Susana texted me a photo of Sunset Magazine’s Joshua Tree issue, and the plan rolled into action.

But in the time since, I’ve changed so much.  I sit now in a cheap-o dog-friendly hotel near Eugene.  I dropped off my passport at the Egyptian Consulate last week to get my visa.  I have begun blogging in this digital corner of the world.  When I named my desire to share my story more, Teddy asked about the niche factor of my blog.  I’m not in marketing, so I valued the question.  And what tumbled out of my mouth was easy, and not exactly what I’ve been writing about: faith. 

Already by last May, I had planned a trip to Egypt to study with an Egyptian Goddess priestess, and a trip to Istanbul to investigate how Islam and Christianity could continue swapping arms of power from the beginning.  I had dreams of getting to India (and terror about the foods there), and Ancient Greece to visit their temples and learn about their faith and approaches to god.  It wasn’t entirely clear, and still isn’t, but I seem to be called to the places where the first faiths were born.  Maybe if I learn the ways to love the god, just maybe, something will unify.  Maybe I will find a way to love myself better, or let myself be loved by one human being the way Aaron and Jenny have. 

Alexandra RobertiComment
Breathe. Walk. Wait.

A few hours before I boarded LOT flight 724 from Tbilisi to Warsaw, I sat next to Ucha, my Airbnb host, talking about group dynamics on the second floor balcony.  He sat opposite the grape vines and the slanted cobblestone courtyard, and told me he had a few friends coming over.  It was 2am.  He had just flown in from Brussels, where he’d hosted a youth empowerment project.  I had just come home from singing karaoke with writer friends.  My flight was slotted to depart at 4:50am.  Why go to bed, I thought?  My entire trip in Tbilisi it seemed the natural bedtime was 3am.  I’d arrive home to the strange half-intimacy of the center courtyard, where grandmothers sat on the balcony chatting in nightgowns, and all apartment doors were open at 1:30 in the morning.  Why go to bed? 

I found out why.  I parced my nut-free airplane food into my backpack, threw my toiletries into rolly-bag, and I was off.  My cab arrived at 2:30, and I began the long transit.  I knew I was bound for around 23 hours of travel: 2 hours pre-board; 4 hour flight to Warsaw; 5 hour layover; and a 12 hour trip from Warsaw to Los Angeles.  Just writing it now feels exhausting. 

I had this mythical idea I’d use this time for writing.  I thought I’d process my dangling sense of my identity as a poet, and make some progress on a few poems.  I hate to come to this page again to write about what a weenie I was, but I it’s true.  And it’s worse.  Not only did I not work on poems, I didn’t read, or listen to audiobooks, or even do more than an hour or two of journaling.  Ariana Reines, the workshop leader, had said the poems I brought in felt clotted.  I felt like my mind was clotted.  And the path in front of me stretched out like a vein that didn’t know it’s way back to the heart.  Thus began the mishaps and delays. 

My first flight was an hour late departing.  In the USA, people only line up when it’s announced time to board.  Not in Tbilisi.  I went to the kiosk to ask about changing my seat – to no avail, only to find I was already at the front of a cue.  I stayed put, standing with my backpack for forty minutes before I figured out what was going on.  People next to me started sitting on the ground, leaning on the bags of their travel companions.  I didn’t want to fall asleep, I didn’t want to lose my place.  In another country, with another language, you have to pay attention to things you don’t know to pay attention to back home.  Where are people going?  Who is making eye contact with clients?  When are people alert, chill?  An announcement was made and everyone moved from the line to the chairs nearby, and naptime ensued.  After I took my place on the long metal benches, I counted near fourteen people napping horizontal.  I wanted to join in, I was already exhausted.  But I didn’t want to sleep through boarding.  So I plugged into my headphones, and stared at the overhead placards, watching for boarding times.  When we finally boarded, I had been awake for 23 hours, and I was beginning to sober up. 

The flight was uneventful, and when I arrived in Warsaw, it was 6:50am.  My first stop was a cappuccino.  No one uses almond milk abroad, so that, at least, is safe.  I managed to find my creamy airport coffee, and then a help desk where I changed my middle seat to an aisle for the 12 hour flight to LAX.  But the new boarding pass said departure time 11:20, boarding time 16:00.  I thought it was a typo, and spent a few hours watching Shelter Cove, an embarrassingly cheesy show on Netflix.  I’d never seen it before, but I knew there would be no emotional iprint, and it would suck me away from the caterpillar like chairs lining the boarding areas.  I walked around the airport a few times, bored off my rocker.  All my drive to talk to strangers, to dig into the present moment, to meditate, to do anything of value, was drained.  I had so much swarming around in my heart and I wasn’t going to deal right then and there.  So I kept the bandaid of boredom placed fully across the present moment.  After a few laps, I returned to the helpdesk to ask about the typo.  It turned out that it wasn’t a typo, my flight had been delayed to 16:00, or 4pm.  Five more hours. 

It was about this time, I discovered that I had mispacked my food, and there was not enough to eat – for the first 23 hours.  As I’ve written before, for the average person, this is an easy fix.  Airports are essentially snack factories with seats, movie theaters with no movies.  But with an allergy this severe, I just can’t.  I don’t eat new packaged food in the USA, let alone in another country.  I read labels religiously, but when everything is in another language, the religion fails.  Sometimes I can find Pringles, or Lays potato chips.  Sometimes there’s fresh fruit.  In Warsaw airport, apparently, these things do not sell.  I made three panicked rounds of the airport looking for more than my last stack of ritz crackers, the can of pre-mixed tuna salad, and single tiger’s milk bar.  Maybe that’s enough food for a strict diet, but for me, for post-drinking, not sleeping me, over the next 22 hours, it was nowhere near enough food.  I wouldn’t just be tired and jet-lagged in Los Angeles, I’d be ravenous.

And I was.  The flight was actually another two hours late, and I didn’t arrive in LAX until 8pm.  I didn’t sleep at all.  I thought I’d be delirious, but I was just a bitch.  Getting off the airplane, I sneered left and right, took every chance to cut ahead.  My stomach churned.  My head throbbed.  I texted my brother when I arrived, thinking maybe he could tell me if there was food at his house, and surprise! he wasn’t even home, but away for the night at a conference in San Diego.  I asked the security guards at LAX if I could get to the stores and restaurants in the building for something to eat, but all my safe restaurants were downstairs, in departures.  Nope. 

And that was the one word swarming in my head.  Nope.  I had no concept of what day it was, how long I’d been awake—if you could call this awake.  Under the layers of dizziness, the solid part of me had to lead.  Walking up the gangplank, I told myself I was capable.  It would be over in a few hours.  I was capable.  I had to be, I was alone.  Although it wasn’t at the forefront, I knew that this was temporary, that I’d be someplace else in a few days.  As I waited for customs, and grumbled at the agent, I tried not to think about bed, about food.  I tried not to think about the fact that three days later, I’d be driving for six hours to work with Aidan & Tre’Von on the film Anatol.  Nope.  I wanted a century of rest, a suite of habits I could rely on, a sense of clarity that ran deeper than an address, but I had to focus on one thing and then the next.  Breathe.  Walk.  Wait.  Get out of the airport, get food, get to a bed.  Anything I had to do beyond this was too much.  By the time I walked out the front door, I had been awake for 54 hours.  I walked up to the taxi line, and I had one word: In’N’Out Burger. 

@ Kazbegi

The word friendship comes from Old English frēondscipe, which means mutual liking and regard.  By that measure, the word stretches itself around many kinds of relationships.  It is the barista who always remembered my name and drink order.  It is the strangers who smile at each other across a metro station.  It is family.  I don’t know if I define it that way though. 

Yesterday about sixteen writers stuffed ourselves into a white van headed for Kazbegi, Georgia.  We knew we had about three hours to drive before we arrived at Stepansminda, the center of the Kazbegi municipality.  The small town rests high in the formidable Caucus mountain range and directly below the Gergeti Trinity Church.  As per usual, I didn’t know shit about this place before we went, just that it was beautiful.  It was a joy to let myself be shuttled around and not run the operation. 

My airbnb hosts had a few Estonian friends crashing on the couch last week.  One of them told me it was on the way to Kazbegi.  The pic that lit me up was of something I’ve since learned is the Russian Friendship Monument.  The building looked like a silo, cut in half, with graffiti everywhere.  It evoked a sense of youthful rebellion from its swatches of color, and hermetic patience for its position high on a green mountain peak. 

So when they announced a trip to Kazbegi, I signed on.  Somehow, I took the last seat in the bus, in the back, in the middle.  There wasn’t enough room for my legs to cross or go straight, so I had to bend them into my neighbor’s seats.  And since the last row sat above the wheel cavity, we were elevated, above the windows.  To see things out the window, I had to lean crudely over someone next to me.

But I did.  When I came to Tbilisi, I knew no one.  But I was already comfortable enough with my neighbors Annie and Eden to lean into their laps to photograph cows napping on the bridge we were trying to cross.  I whined plenty because I wanted to see more out the window.  My legs hurt, and my tailbone sang a song of avoidance over each bump in the road.  I was so physically uncomfortable.  But we played a dumb game called Horse Damnitt, which is like an I-Spy drinking game with no drinks.  We talked about our families and our writing life.  We did what friends do. 

When we all finally arrived in Stepasminda, we split up.  Half of the group took a utility jeep up to the Gergeti Trinity Church.  The road out had already aggravated my tailbone injury, so I stayed in the lobby at Rooms Hotel for the afternoon.  Along with Rachel, Noor and Josip, I practiced the art of public napping.  What is it in me that allows this easy intimacy with strangers?  Is it friendship, courage, fatigue?  What facilitates this trust?

With such flood of new connection, I have been wondering about this mutual liking and regard that leads to friendship.  I always hope to stay close to people, but life back home can make it challenging.  Even if your back home is a set of highways in the US.  In Tbilisi, our inconsistent cell phone data has limited us in good ways.  We make plans here and stick to them.  My complaint in the Bay Area is that many of my friends are flaky.  I am flaky.  But over the past year, I’ve shifted my values in friends, and limited my circle a lot.  I have always enjoyed talking to new people, but conversation doesn’t always lead to friendship.  I have literary community friend, friends I only see at parties or on the dance floor, work friends, yoga friends, in-another-city talk-on-the-phone friends, and my favorite, there-for-you friends.  The last group comes from all the prior.  But in times when I’ve needed help, and people have recoiled, I’ve done the same.  Two years ago I was hosting salons, participating in many readings, dancing weekends, dining with friends on weeknights.  My social sphere had a high traffic rate.  Tbilisi has been much more like this than my US travel.  Here we travel in packs.  We are new to each other, and for now, this feels like friendship.  So, there I was, in the back seat of this bus, asking new friends with window seats to snap pictures of things I couldn’t see.  

The road we took to Kazbegi is called the Georgian Military Highway.  The route runs from Tbilisi to Russia, passing countless mountain hamlets, herds of road-loving cattle, the lakeside Ananuri Fortress, and of course, the Friendship Monument.  Although Pliny the Elder mentioned the route as a trade artery, the current name makes sense.  For a long time, Russia controlled this road.  I’m still uncertain who controls the freeways in the US.  But that’s nothing.  It wasn’t just the road that Russia seized, but the country.  Georgia is still 20% occupied by Russian military.  Over the centuries, Georgia has been claimed by many other nations and nation-states.  

This is where the friendship monument comes in.  I was very young when the USSR fell, but I remember a sense of shock and gratitude from the adults in my world.  The beast we’d hidden from in the Cold War was now tamed.  The friendship monument was Georgia’s promise of this.  Constructed in 1983 by Russia as a friendship offering, the giant circular platform looks down over Devil’s Valley.  The inside is not graffiti – or not Only graffiti – but a tiled mural depicting the history between the countries.  At one time, Russia had Georgia’s back.  Maybe it kinda does now, but I won’t bank on it.  The border between the two countries at the top of the Georgian Military Highway was closed for many years, but reopened in 2006, mostly to trade with Armenia.  I guess these countries are good friends.   

And while I’ve thought about personal friendships, the history here has made me question political friendship.  I’m afraid of what is happening in my home country; the rise of xenophobia, sexism, and cultural sanctions for fraud and mismanagement of funds.  I know I have so much.  I don’t fear bombs or rifles in my front yard (at least not from political leaders).  I don’t feel anxious about being annexed into another bigger country.  Last winter, a meme floated around Facebook that the West Coast would secede the union; the new country would be called Cascadia.  For a while, I wondered if it was possible.  How can things change so much?  My values are not reflected in my leader right now.  We are not friends, but he’s the HMFIC.  Will he be able to maintain friendships with other countries?  And as importantly, what would be the consequences if not?  Georgia is a small country, the US is huge.  I don’t know.  That’s what I keep ending at.  I don’t know.

I do know that on this day trip, I wanted to see the friendship monument because it seemed like art from the people.  I imagined manifestos and messy art in a beautiful setting.  Resistance and splendor.  On the way there, as I leaned over Annie’s lap, and then Eden’s towards the other window, the amphitheater-like construction grew in visibility.  We had already rolled up switchback after switchback, risen thousands of feet into the otherworldly Caucasus Mountains.  People on the bus began to squirm as we passed more cattle and run-down hotels heading towards this vista perch.  

But the offramp came, and then it went.  We didn’t pull over.  We didn’t even slow down.  Georgi translated to us that it was closed.  In the back of the van, we looked at each other awestruck and disappointed.  But it wasn’t our true destination, and we sucked it up.  I was pissed, but glad to be collectively pissed – we were together.

An hour later, we pulled into Rooms Hotel, and all sat together for lunch on the balcony.  I ate my pre-made meal, and everyone else ordered kachapuri and khinkali.  Off the hotel deck, the view eclipsed my disappointment at not seeing the monument.  I was exhausted, in pain, and then, somehow, sneezing at the verdant vertical in front of me.  But I was happy.  Before us was the entire town of Kazbegi, the fairy-tale Gergeti Trinity Church, and the snow-capped Mt. Kazbeg itself.  You can’t always know what will open your heart. 

After lunch, I asked my friends headed to the church to light a candle for/from me, and I collected some much needed rest. 

I sat on the deep couches in gratitude for this new place, these new friends, the work we would be reading in our poetry workshop next week.  I remembered what my Poetry Slam Team used to shout at each other in support.  Sierra started it by saying, “I’m at-ing you!”  It’s a reference to tagging people on Instagram, twitter or other social media.  You might say, “Loving it here @Darius.”  It’s a kind of testament to seeing someone.  Looking at that view, I felt like I was seeing something new, looking out at a poem.  @ a poem.  Every relationship is actually a preposition.  I didn’t stop at the Friendship Monument, but I passed by it.  Sitting here in Tbilisi, I am with, for, and to my friends.  But I like @ because it’s broad.  It’s applicable to all, fits the mutual regard we all crave, complicated as it may be.  And surrounded by my new people, beauty unlike I’d known before, I was @ Kazbegi, and @ Friendship – Monument or not.

 

The Eyes of Tbilisi
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So much of the job of the writer is to be what Emerson calls the ”transparent eyeball.”  I’d add that the post requires being both in the word and sideline witness to it.  However, in Tbilisi, a largely homogenous city, I have been ogled like I’m unaccustomed.  I’ve made a life of reading and responding to body language, eyes.  But, here I’m unclear.  The way I’ve been read in this world has dangled beyond my control. 

I came to Tbilisi for a summer literary program, to work on poems.  But I could have done that back in San Francisco. I came to shake up my take on the process, to imagine that writing poems isn’t throwing lyric like stones in the ocean.  To recall the way that poems have not only cloistered me, but luminesced in my soul.  I came here to walk through new streets, to map out a new route and routine in my mind.  I came to revitalize my community.  In supplication to an unknown. 

What I’ve seen so far is that Tbilisi is a city in the midst of reinventing itself.  On Giorgi Leonidze, the subtropical trees rise up above the four floor buildings.  The stone and plaster facades show both the heyday of Georgia’s wealth and the present of its post-soviet chagrin.  Once pink, teal, or yellow walls speak to me through tarnished window arcs and cracked plaster.  Through this debris, life is more visible, unapologetic.  Looking up, I can’t read the signs; the letters dance along like circular harmonies I can’t grasp.  It’s the only place I’ve been where I walk into a near ruined building, and find an urban oasis from Dwell magazine.   Women in long dresses hunch together in alcoves to sell their fruits and vegetables.  They don’t have to brag about local organic sourcing, it’s a given.  Behind every street façade, secret courtyards reveal ornate balconies, grape vines for shade, laundry lines and feral cats.  Scent sticks in fancy jars sit beside sinks on public bathroom floors.  Doors get stuck, no matter what side you’re on.  And people are unabashed with their eyes. 

In the past few days, I’ve sat in workshops with poems about sufficiency and acceptance and the bramble of my mind projected on the world I see.  And every day as I’ve walked down Pavle Ingorovka to the Writer’s House on Machabeli, I’ve been straight up stared at.  It’s made me question myself.  As a performer, a flirt and all around attention-seeker, I’m not against this, but the eyes I’ve had on me don’t carry the same message.  I don’t feel certain.  I’m reminded of the stranger I am: visible, thick, peculiar.

My eyeball isn’t transparent.  I am taking up space, being seen as much as I see the world.  And there is a comedy to this.  To be a great writer, a great teacher, a great anything, you have to take up a lot of space.  You have to look, listen deeply, and respond.  I remember Father Ronald Rolheiser saying that to be powerful in the world, you have to have a big ego.  But to use it well, you have to keep it in check.  He cited the difference between Jim Morrison and St. Theresa.  I’m neither of these.  But I am human, fragile and curious about this place that’s my temporary home.  I am wary of taking up too much space for fear of not seeing what’s right in front of me.   

I’m here to climb into my power, work on my voice; and maybe these strangers see what I don’t.  Maybe they just want to take something from me.  Maybe they are fascinated the same way I am.  It’s true that my physical body is not the body of my creative work.  But the former creates the latter.  And here’s the truth – I want to be seen.  Who doesn’t?  My friend Kaan said maybe that’s the best thing you can expect of love, someone to see you for who you are.   I am trying to see Tbilisi, but it’s looking back at me.  It’s scary, I feel oddly objectified, vulnerable.  But I feel grateful.  I will not learn their language, or even grow through my own, unless I have someone to eye me back.  

Boundaries needed for travel ~ Nuts to that!
Georgian Instructions on how not to kill me ~ from my host Ucha. 

Georgian Instructions on how not to kill me ~ from my host Ucha. 

“Seriously, Xan, you can’t eat at Subway,” my friend said.

I was driving through the Mojave at 2pm, reaching for ways to distract myself from the alarming 120 degrees glaring in the driver’s dash.  With the AC blasting, I alternated between listening to Gabrielle Bernstein’s spirit junky lectures, and calling friends.  Hoopla sat on the center console leaning up against me for balance, and forward into the cool vent air. 

“What would you recommend?” I asked, as another kind of heat rose in me.

“Japanese?” he offered. 

“You know I’m allergic to shellfish too?”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.” 

I have had the allergies conversation so many times.  I have had the thyroid disorder and body weight conversation many times.  But I am always surprised when people aim to offer me advice on a diet that is already so restricted.  Food is what the Catholic Mass is based on.  Food is what we are told will nourish us, and what we are told to limit if we grow too thick.  And perhaps as personal as the place you call home is the food you eat.  Either way, it’s a choice than no one can, or should make for anyone besides themselves. 

On New Years Day of 2016, I went to meet the man I was falling for, and walk around the Mission where he then lived.  We’d only known each other a few weeks, and each of us had already planned to host our own New Year’s parties.  So, we decided to squeeze in a walk that afternoon.  When I greeted him at the door, I got the kind of kiss you always want from your new lover, sweet, deep and vulnerable.

But for me, this kiss was a different kind of vulnerable.  Within fifteen minutes, my mouth began to swell up, my tongue began to have a strange internal itch.  This is no metaphor; this was the beginning of anaphylactic shock.  I have always been allergic to tree nuts, among a suite of other roving, less drastic things.  But only after adolescence did the allergy elevate to the realm of epic and life threatening.  People don’t know until they see it.  And without the super-sensor in his mind, my man had been eating cashews before we met.  That day he got a taste of what it means to have a  tree nut allergy.  He was sweet as could be, ran to the drug store to buy me Benadryl, and when that didn’t work, sat with me in the hospital while the doctors monitored me to make sure I didn’t explode into full-fledged anaphylaxis. 

Allergies are common in the USA.  Fifteen million Americans have one allergy or another.  However, less than one percent of those with allergies have tree nut allergies.  Doo-wap ditty doo-wap for me.  There are entire aisles dedicated to gluten free foods in most markets I’ve frequented.  But for people with allergies as severe as mine, the world is a very different place.  Eating new foods, is my number one most anxiety provoking act.  Among my foodie friends, trying new foods can be a sensual pleasure right up there with good sex.  But I’ll pass – on the food.  I have been to the ER upwards of twenty times for severe allergic reactions, and each time it was to an ingredient unlisted, or an ingredient I was told never existed in the dish.  My worst reaction came in college, when I was unconscious for a few days, with machines running my body for me, and possibility that I’d get fast tracked to the next life.  Tree nut allergies are no joke.

Road tripping with Hoopla, I’ve followed a few rules to avoid anaphalaxis.  If I don’t have someone to sit with me at a new restaurant, I won’t go.  It’s just too risky.  Maybe if I spend more time on the road, I’ll change my tune, but there have been so many times when restaurant staff just didn’t understand the gravity of my allergy.  I don’t get hives.  I don’t start to sneeze or wheeze.  I don’t puke or have food poisoning-like symptoms.  I get all of these, and then my throat and lungs swell shut.  It’s like drowning in the swollen parts of your own body. 

So, I’ve toted around a cooler where I’ve put my salad fixings.  My grocery sack has salty items like sunflower seeds and tortilla chips, a jug Jif peanut butter (I know, in a cosmic joke, I CAN eat peanuts) and some English muffins.  But when I eat out alone, it’s often fast food.  These are chains who’s menus are safe.  My favorites lately are In-N-Out, Subway and Taco Bell.  And I have no shame here.

For my trip to Tbilisi I packed a duffel bag full of enough food to eat three basic meals a day for my entire journey.  My goal is, sadly, to avoid all local food.  No, my goal is to stay alive.  For most travelers, this sounds like torture. 

But, as I drove through the tumbleweeds and sand, I didn’t want to be told which road food I should and shouldn’t eat.  To his credit, I had my friend how he’d done this, how he’d stayed sane and healthy on the road for so many years.  Beyond the inspiration and wonder of travel, there is a ritual I’m discovering of managing self-care in unique ways.  He was sharing his latest discovery: how wonderful he feels when he eats all organic raw foods.  It’s commendable.  When I have an controlled environment, I might do the same.  But at this juncture, when so much of the rest of me is opening up, I feel wonderful when my throat doesn’t swell shut. 

Wholeness and Javelinas ~ Grand Canyon

At 3am, on the Fourth of July, I found myself barreling north along highway 180 from Flagstaff Arizona.  The sun was nowhere near rising.  The star-wave above held down my anxiety like the hand of a good friend.  It was one of those nights I wished I could photograph the sky, that I had actually excelled in photography class and understood the F-stops and whatnots.  But I didn’t want to stop, I was driving north at seventy to eighty miles an hour.  Sunrise at Grand Canyon on Independence Day. It wasn’t my original intention; but now it was hard line.  Hoopla had barked at odd intervals between my going to bed at 11pm and 2am when she finally woke me for good.  The airbnb where I was staying felt and smelled strange, so I just packed up and left.

The road was barren.  The lines on the pavement pulled me forward against the dark dark of the terrain around me.  I hadn’t expected forest, but there were trees along the white lines, and the Moose crossing signs gave me pause.  From my medicine cards, I’d learned that the moose totem is one of self-esteem.  Moose represent a grand sense of self, and usually spend time with their own gender, until mating time.  What if in the middle of this adventure, I collided into a giant regal Moose?  What if my main memory of the Grand Canyon was ending the life of another animal, and destroying my car, or worse, myself? 

Now, to be fair, I’d been ruminating in a dark head space.  And I didn’t want to write about it.  It feels ungrateful.  Despite the fact that I have been exactly where I’ve needed to be this whole time, my sense of displacement has shuttered me more in the past couple days.  I felt lost in San Francisco, so I left.  Life is a guess-and check, so if one thing doesn’t work, you try another.  How many times have you heard “get back up, wipe yourself off, and start all over again?”  Well it turns out that lost feeling can follow you like a broken bumper on your car.  I have felt lost in basic ways, like where do I put down my purse when I walk in a new door?  Like, where will this highway detour lead, and when will I get cell service again?  I have felt lost in trying to decipher if each new person I’ve met will be my travel friend, be annoyed with my desire for conversation, be wary of getting close because s/he may like me too much.  There is a song by Kings of Convenience that I’ve been singing lately, “A song for someone who needs somewhere to long for, homesick cause I no longer know where home is.”  I’ve traveled and moved enough to know that feeling “found” isn’t a place, it’s inside me.  But it doesn’t stop the restlessness.  I have been homesick for something I can’t name.  Leaving a stable life didn’t deliver it to me on a platter. 

So maybe, I thought, the wonder of the Grand Canyon would settle me into the home of my present moment. 

Except that those signs were not just a hoax.  I was not worrying for no reason.  Intuition, it turned out, was spot-on.  Sometime before highway 64, my headlights, and then my car, collided with a living thing.  Brakes have little recourse when a wild thing appears so quickly.  The thud of the animal against my front bumper happened before I even registered what I’d seen.  Was that a porcupine?  An armadillo?  A pig?  It looked like a hairy, spiky pig!  It must have been 50 pounds, but the thud registered the way it would if I had hit a large skunk.  I didn’t veer off the road, and didn’t go back to check.

I had killed a living thing.  A large living thing.  The shock gradually solidified into something else.  Anger?  Sadness?  Why, when I was already hurting, did this happen?  The story of defeat gradually crept in.  The story that I should have trusted my instincts, but didn’t.  The story that fear begets the thing you fear, but I was incapable of quelling it.  I said a prayer for the life of the animal, which I later learned was a javelina.  I said a prayer for myself.  And I drove. 

Within 20 minutes the sky began to warm, blueing and orangeing into day.  After this collision, I felt even more desperately that I had to get to the canyon by dawn.  The fervor overtook me, as if I could arrive and drop all my negativity into this hole.  As if the sun warming into this giant wound on the earth’s surface would fill the hole in my heart with light. 

It took another forty-five minutes to get to the gate, where no one was working.  There was no map handed to me, so I drove in circles for a while looking for Mather Point.  Or Hermit’s Rest?  Or, what would be best?  It didn’t matter.  I had to get to the rim.  This is the one park that allows hiking with a dog, and both Hoopla and I needed it.  I just needed to arrive.  After circling campgrounds and the canyon medic, I finally found a sign that said “Overlook” and parked.  I snapped Hoopla into her harness and we walked through a long maze of paved trails.  At the first sign, I remembered, I killed a strange animal.  Three hundred feet, another sign, I had no home.  Five hundred feet, I was alone on a national holiday.  Another three hundred feet, and then I saw the chain-link fence.

I walked up to it, I took a giant deep breath and looked out into the abyss.  Nothing could have prepared me for this.  My imagination had not gone to this kind of depth.  To the north, I saw layers of warm grey.  To the west, the greys divided into the colors of dirt, rock, and greenery like a washed out photo.  To the East, I saw the sun crest the horizon.  I caught it.  I could simultaneously not breathe, and took the deepest breath I’d taken in weeks.  I felt a wave of love that swept over me like a permission slip to be broken, be frail, be lonely, be human.  The sun began to hit the sides of crags and peaks in the canyon, forming sharp angles of shadows.  I began to hear the animals scurry and sing around me.  I looked down at a pair of ravens flying half a mile below me.  I have never seen two flying together, but I was happy that I did that morning.  As the sun continued to rise, I walked along the fence, out to the overlook.  At its deepest point, the canyon is a mile down.  At its greatest width, it’s seventeen miles across.  How could something as hard as the rock before me, be worn down and shaped like this?  How could land be lack of land?  How could the earth divide like a layer cake jostled in the back of a car on a hot day?  Something so broken down be whole?  I felt small, but important.  The vastness humbled me.  I was part of this amazing world.  I am part of it still.  Amazing and misshapen as I am.

Arriving in your Dreams ~ Southern Utah

In the past few mornings, I’ve woken to a rooster crowing in the distance.  In Junction, Utah, the sun rises later than the internet tells me, because there are mountains it has to ascend.  Sometimes I feel like that, late to the game, but better for it.  This town is so small, the population is half the freshman class of St. Ignatius, the high school where I worked in San Francisco.  There are ATVs parked next to most homes, sprinklers cascade across vast country lawns.  I let my little Hoopla play with the dog who lives at the main house, and she of course ran down the street.  But later on in the day, I saw other dogs running through the street, visiting the other dogs nearby.  It’s the rural version of an afternoon walking group.  I woke before dawn today because I have missed this, time to write to process the beauty I’ve taken in.  Time to finesse the experience into story, into truth.  Right now the sunrise shadows on the Western range cut crisp and deep like a bluesy melody.

But the main attraction, the reason I came to Utah, was the National Parks.  I planned this stop because it’s close to Bryce Canyon.  Two months ago I stared at my map of the Southwest, knowing I had about a week and a half to do a loop from Los Angeles.  The plethora of options was overwhelming.  Bryce?  Arches?  Zion?  Capitol Reef?  Grand Escalade?  My googling was led by which parks were the most dog friendly.  Bryce won – in the plan.  But in my heart, not so much.

Bryce Canyon is above everything.  Like many parks, there is a long road you can drive down, with various viewpoints onto which you can pull out.  From each viewpoint, you can see down into the greener canyon to the trails (I was unable to hike, because dogs are forbidden).  But the bigger feature is the rusty red hoodoos, which according to Wikipedia, are “(also called tent rock[s], fairy chimney[s] or earth pyramid[s]) [are] tall, thin spire[s] of rock that protrude… from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland.”  The first viewpoint I pulled into was Inspiration Point, and it was breathtaking.  It was like being on the surface of an invisible air ocean, looking down into the coral reef.  More so, it was just so big; if the canyon was a set of lungs, this land would be a badass athlete.

On July 1st, however, the throngs of people hampered my communing with nature.  I suppose I just wanted to hike down into the canyon and be in it.  I snapped my obligatory pic, and drove on.  I did this for another six or seven viewpoints, and while they each differed, they blended together in my mind like names of the ten new people I’d meet at a party.  The drive is not a loop, but a seventeen mile in and out.  On the way back, I decided to hit Zion too. 

This was a bit ridiculous for me.  I like to be nestled into a home-like space by dusk, to relax and stop the doing of my day.  In a self-guided tour through life, I usually give myself lots of time to decompress.  I am an expandable water toy, except with time.  When traveling, I can take a day or an hour to do something.  I knew to get to Zion, I’d have to drive another two hours, and to get back to this sweet town, it would be another two hours.  I wouldn’t even arrive there until 4pm.  So, this was a bit nutty. 

On the drive between the parks, I had no cell reception, no Spotify.  I pulled out my ten sleeve CD case from the early 2000s, and found a CD I made for my friend Pants on her 21st birthday.  She just turned 32.  I sang along with Imogen Heap, Train, Louis Armstrong, The Be Good Tanyas, the Dismemberment Plan and Tegan & Sara.  I wondered if I was a better person when I was making mix-CDs for friends.  This feels like a lost art form now.  Curating a musical experience was one way to know you loved someone.  Looking at the variety in the playlist, I wondered if my taste had narrowed along with so many other parts of my life.  Or if I’d gotten lazy in the age of MP3s.  Funny, that the lack of options, the legitimate narrowing of my choices, made me listen to music I hadn’t heard in maybe a decade.  Again, opening doors.

When I finally pulled into Zion with my new Inter-Agency National Park Pass, I was not ready to be floored the way I was.  Unlike Bryce, this park has a road that goes directly through, so you don’t loop back. Also, this park isn’t above a canyon, but in it.  As park-goer with a dog, I appreciated the scenic nature of the drive itself.  I pulled off every stop I could.  The mountains to me looked like god put down a washcloth she’d been wringing out, and it just solidified.  The twisted tilted lines on the rockface lit me up.  It was like staring at the face of a well wrinkled loved one.  Hello grandma, it’s been a while.  The day’s heat rose, and looking up at Angel’s Landing and the Three Patriarchs my heart expanded.  I found out that Bryce and Zion are actually connected through something called a Grand Staircase, a twisted colorful erosion that took over 200 million years to form.  The bottom layer of land at Bryce is actually the same sedimentary layer as the top at Zion.  It’s twisted, literally. 

But what mattered more to me was that it felt right.  I wanted to come back.  I wanted to stay. What would have happened if I stuck to my little plan, and drove home after Bryce?  It's been so good to push beyond what I expect of myself.  So much is in the world that I've just slept through.  I have gone my entire life without seeing Zion, but dreaming of a place like it.  The last time I felt like this was last April when I drove into Joshua Tree.  When I drove through there this time, a local man named Kevin said, Joshua Tree is some of the oldest exposed earth around.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that these points feel like electric sockets, where you can plug into god.  So now, the morning before leaving Junction to head to Flagstaff, I feel exhausted – I got home at 8pm, and drove 330 miles yesterday – but fully charged. 

Sound Bathing is Nothing like Bathing

Yes, the website is called eclectic heart.  Yes I feel like I have an eclectic sensibility, but I think sometimes you need a unification point, a spine.   

Today in Joshua Tree, I went to a sound bath.  I didn’t know what it would be, but the point here is to do things I’ve never done.  So, bring it on.  The Integratron is famous for these, but I went somewhere else in this little town.  I have nothing to compare it to, so please don’t take this as wisdom.  Like with all travel, the things I see in front of me are merely a projection of my internal landscape. 

I’ve been in J-Tree now for six hours, the stars are up, and I’m happy to be done with the 107-degree heat.  Hoopla is busy hunting for scraps from prior visitors on my Airbnb porch.  But I can’t help but wonder how this sound bath thing is a thing. I heard such glowing reviews.

I love music, but music has melody, harmony.  Even a quality soundtrack has a suite of movements.  That’s not a sound bath.  The stuff of a sound bath is bowls, bells and gongs each rung in different tones in different lengths of time.  Cool, right? 

I entered the toasty room for this auditory adventure, and followed all instructions.  I lay flat on my yoga mat, eyes closed, easing into the process.  In my woo-woo nerdy way, I wondered how the tones aligned to the chakras.  I still kindof wonder about that.  In the half hour I heard some of the other sound bathers begin to snore, but the greatest relaxation happened for me when it was finally done.

The first note was a low long ring, and in listening I felt a blue-green color in my throat and chest.  It went on and on, and my ease leaned into impatience.  I began to wonder when it would be done.  It was an opening tone, but I felt like after a couple minutes I was good and open. 

And then – the abrupt change from that to the next tone, a space-age horror film kind of sound, was jarring.  Imagine a wow-wow timber rising and falling.  I thought, okay, I guess I’m only supposed to relax for so long.  It’s like a night hike through the desert with partial cloud cover.  Maybe the relaxation is amped up by the tension? 

Then I thought, relax into your visualizations.  For me, that’s easy.  My overactive mind is always screening new images made of hybrids of the past.  So, when the haunting sounds of the last wow-wow tone switched to a suite of new bells, I let my mind go.  I think the gong played heavily into this movement.  So, naturally, I visualized a Fantasia-like scene.  Flowers bloomed, bubbling up in strange psychedelic ooze, and out of one, a Pegasus Unicorn appeared; it was a beauty, a majestic thing.  I knew my seven-year-old self would be happy for me.  But I kept trying to figure out the name for this kind of animal - does it have a name?  I imagined riding the mythical creature over land and water, but then wondered, where is the harness?  Do I need one?  The Greek god Belleraphon used Athena’s golden bridle to tame Pegasus, and then kill the monster Chimera in the barren scorched earth nearby.  Should I reread the myth, I wondered? 

Here’s where the snoring of my compatriots began to rise.  Another bowl had been added to the mix, and the tone combination was complimentary.  I then began to plan dinner, and berate myself for indulging the monkey mind.  In a sound bath, I should stop thinking about anything. I should pay attention to my breathing, breathe in, and out. Inhale, exhale.  Be here now.  Practice gratitude.  For a while, it worked.   

And then, the minute I felt in the zone, the bells turned.  All of a sudden, I heard Nana’s doorbell sound from the house on 38th Street in Sacramento.  I knew it wasn’t the doorbell, but the mallets hitting instead of rimming the bowls sounded too similar.  I had the visceral urge to get up and let someone in. 

And then my tailbone began to throb.  And I thought holy hell, I’m a nut-job.  Last May, when I broke it again, I had to get an MRI.  The horrible sounds of that tube felt like a cocoon of war bombs.  Each beat felt far more dangerous than it was.  But there I was, in a sound bath, thinking about the power of sound.  The point was to relax.  Either I’m crazy, or this is just not for me.  The sounds rang in eclectic, and I thought, well, sometimes you can go too far. 

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The Mystery of Neighborhoods
Aren't California Fan Palms a little like sparklers that never go out? 

Aren't California Fan Palms a little like sparklers that never go out? 

It’s the day before I leave Los Angeles, and I’m sitting at Verve Coffee on Melrose.  The coffee is solid, I’ve tasted it in the SF location.  On the drive here, and most of my time here, I kept thinking about how I wanted to know what neighborhood I was in.  Is this Beverly Hills?  Is this West Hollywood?  The café itself is gorgeous, window-filled, chevron-floored, a warehouse-like ceiling, a patio with twinkle lights lace trees, and geometric patterns of shade fabrics above.  It’s hot, busy, and quiet.  But the street is barren.  There’s a fine art gallery opposite, luxury appliance stores around the corner, but nothing that invokes desire for me to swipe my credit card.  

The question, though, isn’t so much what neighborhood am I in (my table mate told me it IS West Hollywood), it’s what neighborhood should I be in.   Driving around this mammoth town, I’ve been overjoyed with homes or walkable business districts, but have no name for my location.  I’d be nonplussed or downright annoyed, and think, well, I should avoid this place.  But what is that place?  

In the act of traveling I itch to identify with my surroundings.  I'd like to be jazzed about the place where I find my feet walking.  If there’s a name for it, I’ll remember it, and maybe become it.  But Los Angeles is too big.  It’s not A place.  It’s A LOT of places. I want to belong.  Not to a street, but to a set of streets.  A neighborhood is a collective.  It’s a mirror of who you think you are.  Not necessarily who you are, but who you think you are.  

Perhaps there’s a leaning towards homogeneity in this.  If these folks look like me, I look like this place.  But that depends on what we’re used to, what we desire.  Conformity drives me nutso.  So maybe not for me.  I don’t want to be surrounded by only white folks, or only women, or only queers or heteros.  I’m staying with my brother and his boyfriend here, greeting gorgeous disheveled gay men on mornings as I walk Hoopla around the block. 

Another take is that if this place looks like my past, maybe it can be my future. The strip where I went to a poetry reading in Atwater Village reminded me of blocks along Shattuck Ave in Berkeley.  This café where I write reminds me of El Beit in Williamsburg.  Boom, I belong, right?  No, it’s not like that.  The internal and external worlds overlap, but they aren’t the same. 

And maybe this is why I’m traveling in the first place.  While I was loved, I had familiarity with my setting, a diverse and ever-changing cityscape, an easy climate, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  What triggers that in us anyhow?  Is it knowing the streets?  Is it the right number of activity partners?  Fulfilling work?  Being cared for?

For me it is the sense of possibility.  Hope.  It’s less about consistency or understanding than it is about the idea that I will grow here.  I will survive, and more, I will thrive.  I wonder if that means there must be unknowns, mystery.

The Tom Robbins novel Still Life With Woodpecker has as its entire aeda that love is mystery.   It's been years since I read it, but I remember Leigh-Cheri's, princess of the Kingdom of the Heart, keeps asking how you make love stay.  By the end of the philosophical pseudo-fairytale she takes as a partial answer, mystery.  Mystery invites an opening up of the soul.  Mystery catalyzes desire.  

So maybe it's the fact that I don't know where I am that has made me begin to like this city.  

Saturated with Creativity
museum doppleganger

Today I rode the metro downtown to meet my friend Sarah for brunch, art and poetry.  Sarah is a copywriter, proofreader, screenwriter, fiction writer, and more.  But since I’ve read little of her work, I’ll just say that I love the conversations we write together in the air.  The last two days I’ve been solo, and it was a welcome return to human interaction.  Also, what better way to explore than with someone who knows the city. 

So, I found the red line, and took myself to RedBird on 2nd Street.  On the way there, I thought, the only thing missing in this day is a visit to a church or another spiritual building.  It turns out Redbird is a restaurant in an old Cathedral.  Score.  The modern mimosa uses clarified orange juice, and looks no different from straight champagne.  Try it.  And the bacon, best I’ve had in years.

After brunch, she took me to the Geffen Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA.  We walked over there, which was a feat in the pulsing sun.  But we got a two-for-one discount using our TAP cards. 

Unplanned, unsupervised, we wandered into the Kerry James Marshall Exhibit: Mastery.  The art was a stunning and unusual depiction of Blackness.  With paint, black characters were not the natural brown tint that we call black, but actually capital B Black.  The images, as I understood, were meant to reveal the invisibility and ever-presence of Blackness.  In a time of Sofia Coppola’s erasure of Black characters from a Civil War era film, I’m glad to have artists like Marshall showing Black culture, beauty, and mystery for all viewers.  In one painting called “Bang,” three young figures stand by a barbecue pledging allegiance to a flag over what looks like a long shadow or a black hole.  The docent informed us, however, that these were not shadows of the sun, but shadows of how people interpret the characters due to their blackness.  Another, called “Black Painting” is completely black, until you get close, when you notice tiny gradients of tint to denote a couple in bed at night.  Sarah and I agreed, we could stare at that for days.  But my favorite was called “School of Beauty, School of Culture.”  I found it to be the most realistic, and the most traditionally beautiful.  The women here were women I’d want to know, compelling, brave, characters beyond the composition itself.  In the foreground, a cartoon of a slanted white woman hovers, invisible to all but the children.  She is there, but the real women in this painting do not see her anymore.  Then, the last compelling part of the painting is the flash dead center.  Marshall puts the viewer in the painting, as if s/he holds the camera her/himself.  You can’t help but participate when you’re turned into part of the painting.  And if that weren’t enough, the last part of the exhibit had magazine cutouts people could actually move around, so the viewer in fact becomes participant. 

We spent so much time in the Marshall exhibit that we had to rush through the rest of the museum before heading out.  We quizzed each other and both did well.  I posed next to the giant Giacometti sculptures.  Sarah lingered in front of the Joseph Cornell shadow boxes.  We snagged an Uber, and headed to another neighborhood I didn’t know.  My friend Ginger was hosting a reading and salon at Alias Books.

I’ve heard Ginger Buswell’s work before because she came up to San Francisco to do a few readings.  I wrote about her for LitSeen at the One Lone Pear reading.  As usual, she didn’t disappoint.  She was gracious introducing Sarah and me to friends, and her prose was smart and insightful.  Other highlights were prose by Deenah Vollmer and Ryan McBride, poetry by Erin Mizrahi and Alan Hanson, and music by Johnny Houx and Yoko OK.  I particularly liked Deenah, Ryan for compelling characterization, and Erin for her split screen lyric.  But to be honest, by the time we arrived here, we were close to saturated with creativity.  So by the time it was done, I was happy to call another car and head to my temporary home. 

Carmel and Movies ~Weird.
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Filming a movie is so different from what I’d imagined.  I don’t know what I imagined though.  I was so panicked I wouldn’t have the lines perfect, the movement just right, the meaning clear.  But this isn’t something one person is meant to do alone.  In my years of navigating creative fields I’m used to all kinds of ideas bubbling up, and over, and into nothingness.  But in film, you can do it all.  Ideas can be caught and wrapped into the production, at least that’s how Aidan’s crew was worked.  It’s slow. It’s imperfect.  It’s chemistry and emotion, parsed together by the genius of director, camera man, sound man, and actors.  We started working on the script at around 5pm, and finished the first part of our shoot at 2am.  Since we filmed outside in a California coastal city, I was cold and tired by the time we left.  But I was jazzed.  I was playing with human interaction, emotion and language, for the sake of a creative endeavor I believe in.  I’d never asked to do this out loud, but the opportunity came may way like fate. 

Carmel Valley is about ten miles, and fifteen minutes, inland from Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea.  It’s warmer, it’s quiet, with a few shops in the village downtown.  Every time I’ve visited Monterey, I’ve spent hours window shopping or expensive wall art.  It’s like Chelsea relocated to the place where all people have buying power to support the artists.  The one and two-lane highways that meander down Monterey Bay are slow going, with more traffic than I expected.  So when I pulled into Aidan’s house, and saw him sitting with Tre’von drinking wine in the wide wild yard, I was pleased.  More than pleased.  

I met Aidan years ago at a poetry reading in San Francisco.  I snapped twice in the middle of a great poem, to support the poet—something done often in slam, and rarely in page poetry.  He saw my embarassment, and gave me a knowing smile across the small crowd.  He’s the kind of man who can drop lines from poems in casual conversation, who can connect symbols in real life with lyric already canonized.  I loved his smile and his mind, he loved my openness and my verve.  We clicked into a connection we still can’t name. 

So when I told him I’d be driving south, Aidan invited me to not only stay at his house, but to act in his film Anatol.  Having taught theatrical terms for Shakespeare, required students to memorize and film lines, this felt apropos.  Also, I’ve now studied improv at Bay Area Theater Sports for eight months; how could I pass this up?  But how the hell do you act in a film?  And did I have my lines memorized enough?  Was I even supposed to perform the lines I had read, or were we modernizing them? 

Anatol is a film written by an Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, a characters study about a man who struggles to find love.  He meanders through many women, all of whom he loves in some way.   He seems always to be wondering if each is his soul mate, or if he just doesn’t want to be alone.  Along with every other woman acting in this film, I could relate to both Anatol, and my female character.  

Aidan cast Tre’von as Anatol and I understand why.  He oozes charisma.  Conversation is art for him—he listens like a student, and merges into each person.  He laughs easy, smiles often.  He did with me.  Tre’von boasted a suite of bulky gemstone metal necklaces, the king of which he’d made of a stone found only in Czechoslovakia.  He's a jewelry maker, and told me of the stone's healing properties.  At that, I knew we lived in a similar world, one where metaphor and sound reality blended.  

In Travels with Charlie, when Steinbeck talks about Fargo, he says, “I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.”   All of us live, to varying states, in the world we imagine.  In my late thirties, I have squirmed against and towards the rules of how we should live.  Fit nicely into reality.  My peers have already decided so much, settled into permanence with spouses, city of residence, occupation, children.  Try as I may, I’ve been unable to do this.  In Carmel Valley, as I sat in a gravel driveway, spotted with foxtails and crabgrass passing a joint back and forth, I couldn’t help but wonder why we limit ourselves.  These men both a decade my junior believe in a world that's theirs to create, far more many people my age.  Is it youth, or just faith?  Aidan told us as we piled props and filming equipment into the car that the word Weird comes from a greek word that means fate.  Like when the universe throws you a curveball, and you say, “Oh, that’s weird.”  Some of us have that door open more than others.  The choices don’t narrow, our minds do.