Ode to Rashida
Photo pending better wifi.

Photo pending better wifi.

It’s sensory overload.  I can’t even take it all in, let alone write it all down.  There’s the baroque furniture in my Giza suite, painted gold woodwork, purple, yellow and red patterned fabric.  There’s the twenty foot high wall across the street from this home, built after the revolution, what we call the Arab Spring, to keep the inhabitants safe.  There’s the regal ginger priestess Katy who is housing me in my first week here.  There’s the plumbing that allows no toilet paper, ever.  There’s the normalcy of Islam, multiple wives living on different flats for one husband who occupies the entire building.  There’s the attention I’ve gotten on the streets, part flirt, mostly sales pitch.  There’s the wash of joy that comes across my body each time I look out from the patio, and see the Great Pyramids, late age wonders from a world 10,000 years ago. 

The Ancient Mysteries of Egypt have pulled countless people here, and I’m one of them.  But the esoteric, the magic, is in everything.  It’s far more apparent than just in the old world. 

This first week I’m staying with Katy Noura Butler, a priestess of these ancient mysteries, among others.  It’s too early to get into the teachings, but her home, where I’m staying, has offered me far more than this esoteric insight already.  I have been learning about Islam, about culture, about what it’s like to live here now.  I could have just hopped from one hotel to the next, and I will soon, but I’m so happy to be her guest, to be her student. 

In this place, sun, sand, and the monuments between, I can’t avoid my shadow.  I also, however, am allowing it to be.  Some of the very things that enthrall me here at first repelled me.  

One of those things is the animals.  I chose my little poodle Hoopla because she is hypoallergenic.  In my life, I’ve often had to load up on Benadryl to visit friends whose homes have cats or dogs.  I grew up with them, but I also grew up attaching myself to an albuterol nebulizer three times a day until adolescence.  I like animals, but I’ve felt that my body might not.  Here in Egypt, they are everywhere.  The highway, a laneless roadway as wide as four cars, includes cars, motorcycles, people walking or waiting for busses, horse carriages filled high with boxes or vegetables.  Trash heaps on the quieter roadsides serve as gathering places for hungry dogs, rams, and a few cats.

Before I came, Katy asked if I could bring cat biscuits.  I thought I’d walk into a home with a cat or maybe two.  But when I arrived in her house, the theme continued. I found more animals than I could count.  The thought did arrive that this could be an issue, I could spend the next week sneezing and wheezing through my stay.  But in my excitement and openness, it floated by like a solitary cloud in this clear sky.  I am beginning to wonder if my allergies are all just farce.

Katy lives with her husband in a four apartment building, with two flats for visitors and students, and a flat on the bottom for servants and shared family.  The rooftop terrace boasts a view of the Pyramids that stops time.  Every time I climb the outdoor stairs, I feel something elemental expand in me.  The terrace is covered, and lined with mature potted greenery, the setup includes a dinner table, colorful night lights, and velour covered furniture.  So far, it’s where we’ve gathered most often. 

But in addition to the human family who live here, there is a robust animal family.  The first to greet me was Nina, the german shephard, and then Hati, the rescued desert dog.  And then, the tiny cats started to appear.  I don’t know how many there are, and I haven’t learned their names.  Staring from the terrace out to the Sphynx, it’s easy to see how important cats are here.  The species originated in Egypt, and hold a more sacred role than any dogs.  Katy’s house cats are half the size of the house cats I’ve seen.  I made sure to hand her my bag of Target cat treats, a sad offering for such a rich feline community.  But as with much travel, I didn’t know what I was walking into. 

For example, the crown jewel of this domestic zoo is Rashida, the middle eastern long tailed sheep.  Yes, a sheep.  As usual, my first concern was that I might be allergic.  And as the pattern continues, I have found myself to be fine around her.  I was flabbergasted when I first saw her inside, and I was worried that she was deformed.  A long tailed sheep, it turns out, is not just long tailed, but more like long-bottomed.  The brown and white hair covers her coat, but there is a soft underside to her protruding rump.  Katy informed me shortly that this was a common breed here, the long “tail” is similar to camel’s humps, and helps them stay hydrated in the heat.  In addition, this breed is smarter than most.  I don’t know what other sheep are like, but I saw her kindness and curiosity.  With as little exposure as I’ve had to sheep, a few petting zoos in youth, and the roadsides along my many drives, I had little to compare her to. But this turned out to be the best thing.  Now, I’m enamored of her.  Rashida follows Katy everywhere, and when I’m in her company, she comes up to my face stares at me, and rests her head on my lap.  She loves to sit cuddled up on couches with the other animals.  After the german shepherd Nina injured her paw in a fight yesterday, Rashida wouldn’t leave her side.  When we’re on the terrace, she often tries to munch on the jasmine or basil, and Katy rushes after her shouting Naughty!  It just makes me laugh.  She is amazing.

As I write now from the rooftop terrace, behind the sound of wind and car horns, roosters crow, dogs yelp, and sheep baa from roof decks nearby.  It’s nothing I predicted, so I couldn’t forsee how I’d respond.  I panicked, as I normally would, to be so close to these animals.  Allergies are no joke, and I have hated it when people say “it’s all in your mind.”  But, somehow here, I haven’t had any issues.  This is one of the gifts of being here, that something dark in me has had light shed on it.  If I had known the domestic animal count, I may not have come.  But because I didn’t know, I didn’t have time to build up a resistance.  And in fact, I have cherished these animals.  And every time I see Rashida, with the ribbon tied around her head, I feel giddy.

It is so different here, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.  In my life I’ve seen myself recoil against the unfamiliar, to protect myself from the very growth I need.  But that’s not why I’m here.  This is the desert, and the wide high sky doesn’t allow much room to hide.  Why not let these animals love me?  That’s the best thing they have to offer.  If I avoid your shadow self, I’ll never see who I am.  Pedestrian as this concept is, it’s so much of why I’m here, staying in a home full of sweet animals and human kindness.  These are the gifts we don't predict, things like Rashida resting on the rug in the sun, keeping me company. 

Alexandra RobertiComment
Full Moon Virgo ~ Home Seeking from Walla Walla
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The sound of rain on the windows of the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla is subtle under the chatter of guests in the elevator next to my dog-friendly room.  But it’s there, soothing like fingertips on my anxious shoulder.  It is late September, and the pumpkins were piled high in barrels out front of the Idaho co-op where I last bought groceries.  I am almost done with this leg of my trip, and feel a strange sense of homecoming.  I have slept in twenty nine cities in two months.  I am looking forward to a night of Netflix without the coordinated guilt of not going out to explore a city I don’t know. 

The moon is now full in Virgo, and that means we must align our hearts with the details, discern the path which is not the easiest, but the most pure.  The work is sorting through what matters and what doesn’t, trashing knickknacks and polishing keepsakes, both physical and metaphorical.  I don’t need all these maps or tickets from places I’ve visited.  But I do need to remember the names, the stories.  I do need to wear the atlas bone earrings I bought in a Kansas City.  The counter clerk told me the atlas bone connects the skull to the spinal cord.  What better talisman for a woman who’s been moving over the land as if she were an eagle?  A full moon is a good time to revisit rituals, to keep in mind the perfection we seek, and still be kind with ourselves when we don’t reach it at the pace we want. 

I have been writing here because it is writing that keeps me grounded, this, my meditation, my yoga, the road, the friends I’ve seen, the dream I have that one day I can actually stay put and feel like I belong.  I write because I have to.  But haven’t been telling the whole story.  The whole story is longer than this journey, and I have to sort through which parts matter and which parts don’t.  

Last fall, before I had all my students’ names memorized, I took my seventh period to Holy Name of Jesus Church for our back to school liturgy.  I looked up at the tiny panels of stained glass above the clean white panels of wall and thought about escape.   The church was built in 1941, and unlike other Cathedrals, it harkens the midcentury modernist tendencies.  Clean lines, hints at gold.  Father Reese stood at the pulpit, delivering a homily about how much we are all loved.  I sat next to my students, unallowed to have any personal reaction besides supervising them.  I thought about the months before that, the writing guide project I had spent all summer supervising and generating, yanked because of one word; I thought about the home I loved so much, where I had hosted literary and music salons, turned toxic from threatening roommates; the collection of poems I’d sent out to contests twenty times, and received back with twenty rejection letters; the last man I’d begun to fall for, who’d spent twice as much time texting away from me as he had moving towards me.  How different I was from the adults monitoring pews next to me, wildly unattached, eccentric florescent in my attempts to find the thing they all so effortlessly had.  How easy it is to use passive voice around the word love. 

“Jesus’ work,” Father Reese had said, “is loving us.  In return, we are asked to love one another.”  My cheeks flushed red, and my chest grew tight.  How dare someone ask me to give something I felt so dreadfully withheld from me?  Who is it that is going to love me through this?  When you give all you know how to give, and you can’t manifest a relationship, a home or a book, to then have that halfway-to-goal life fall apart, what kind of failure are you?  It makes sense to belong for a while, and then break.  That’s divorce.  That’s my parents, many of my friends’ parents, and now a number of my friends. But to never belong to anyone, or anyplace, what is that?  How can you be loved if you aren’t seen, if you don’t belong?  Father Reese continued, “His benevolence is never ending, and he invites us to give the same generosity and care.  Love one another like your life depends on it.”  I sat there in the schism between teacher self and true self, holding space for my young students.  Okay, I thought, can we do this like an assigned partner activity?  Who is supposed to love me?  Who am I supposed to love?  I remember thinking, yes, my life does depend on it – and I’m afraid that under the surface, I’m about to lose it. 

In the year my father died, I read an essay by Augusten Burroughs titled, “How to End Your Life.”  The essay was in his book This is How, and like all his other writing, thick with dark humor and brilliant insights.  After I read it, I wanted to assign the essay to anyone who dealt with real depression.  Later the month of this homily, after making my way through my short list of good friends, I would call the 800 numbers to make sure I didn’t melt into the abyss.  How can you live without love, unknown and invisible, or so visible that no one sees the truth?  But Burroughs essay was my first set of instructions.  He wrote that, “If you believe suicide will bring you peace, or at the very least just an end to everything you hate- you are displaying self-caring behavior. You are still able to actively seek solutions to your problems. You are willing to go to great lengths to provide what you believe will be soothing to yourself.  This strikes me as optimistic.”  He goes on to say that “You are allowed to be alive. You are allowed to be somebody different. You are allowed to not say goodbye to anybody or explain a single thing to anyone, ever.”  The solution is to leave, to walk out your front door, keep walking, and never turn around.  If you need an exit sign so badly, choose a different one.  If your day to day feels like swinging a hopeful butterfly net around swarming gnats, it’s time to go. 

That was how I felt.  In a community where most people my age were Catholic, married with two or three kids, I didn’t belong.  In a house where I tried to be both manager and tenant, I didn’t belong.  In the world of poets, where I’d been splicing together metaphors and rhymes, I didn’t belong.  In the city where I was born, but didn’t work in tech, or make a gobstopping amount of money, I didn’t belong.  In a group of friends all partnered and unavailable or twelve years younger and partying, I didn’t belong.  Shit, at most restaurants when I looked at the menu, I felt pretty clearly that I didn’t belong. 

How had I made it this far?  I sat in the pew next to my students, listening to a priest talk about love.  And I felt ill.  In the rows around me, I imagined all these young people whose lives would be rich, who would know successes I wouldn’t, who would figure out how to be alive, to be together in the mess of life.  I felt like home was anywhere but where I was.  I didn’t know it then, but the seed of this journey was already in me then. 

As I’ve pulled the black zipper around my cobalt rolly hardcase every few days, placed my  bags into the trunk like a game of Tetris, I’ve felt a smattering of comfort.  I don’t have to stay here, or anywhere.  I don’t have to try to belong.  I don’t have to burden anyone with my truth. 

But I do.  And I will.  Just not quite yet.  The comedy of this is not lost on me.  If I keep running, no one will ever see more than my ass as I leave.  I am running towards a solution to this problem of running away. 

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I am after the Exit sign.  I see the way I’m loved.  There have been butterflies everywhere on my journey.  But I am about to drive over the rain or snow at Snoqualmie Pass to get back to Seattle.  I will leave for a New Orleans wedding two days after I arrive in Seattle.  Five days after I return from that trip, I will board a flight to Egypt.  And then Jordan.  And then Athens.  And then who knows.  But I am craving a place to be my own mess, to stop being a mess.  Homecoming.  I have sat in church pews, tree branches, ergonomic office chairs, the laps of men who wanted me to stay, and the drivers’ seat of my car.  I know the salvation I seek is worth seeking, but I don’t know yet where it is. 

I know many names for the Old and New Testament god, for the man who I was told died for my sins, for animal gods of shamanic tribes, for Roman and Celtic deities, for the forces we don’t want to admit we worship in my country.  But I just have to believe under all these names, these faces and stories, there is one.  And that is the one who heals, who takes me as I am, why says stay here and makes me feel like that’s a good idea.  That is the one I seek.  It is to this god I belong, and for this god I live. 

 

Get Ready for Kansas
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Before I left Kansas City everyone told me to be ready.  At Jiffy Lube, when I took my car in, the clerk said the drive would be long and boring.  Outside Starbucks, a group of kids canvasing for the ACLU to protect LGBT youth told me the drive between KC and Denver would be dull.  I made a new friend named Jimmy who showed me around Kansas City, and as I left he alerted me via text:

“Get ready.  It IS a boring drive.”

“Why?”

“It’s just flat.”

“I’ve driven through South Dakota, it’s nothing but corn for hours and hours.”

“Corn is vertical, and aren’t there hills up there?”

“Oh.  Yeah.”

“But pay attention to the toll booths an hour out, I helped build the irrigation canal there.” 

I had something to watch for.  Something small, but still. 

So as I pulled out onto Highway 70, the four lane highway that used to be the Kansas Pacific Railroad, I psyched myself up.  The highway signs in Kansas are strange, less circles or shield-shapes, and more like golden suns with their rays swirling around the number – 70!  I had a new playlist including The Band Camino, Andrew Ripp, Billie Holiday and The Steeldrivers.  My audible que was full of interesting new books: From Sand and Ash, a romance between a Catholic priest and a jewish woman in WWII written by Amy Harmon; Trials of the Earth, the essays of a true pioneerwoman named Mary Mann Hamilton; and Would Everybody Please Stop, a book of comedic essays by Jenny Allen.  But mostly I got ready to prove them wrong.  Isn’t boredom about perspective?

I’ve never been particularly drawn to Kansas.  Or not drawn to it.  It just didn’t register in my mind.  Perhaps that’s why I was surprised to enjoy Kansas City so much.  But that’s for another post.  And besides, the city’s name is a misnomer, as most of it is on the Missouri side.  It seems, according to the people near this state, that Kansas is just a state people find bland.  In a world of high couture, this state is the Target.  Kansas was the first state to ban alcohol, with a prohibition starting in 1881, near forty years before the 1920 passing of the 19th Amendment.  That could be part of it.  Or, with a population of just under 3 million people, it might just be hard for Kansas residents to defend themselves against the rest of the country.  If you think about it, the state hovers in the background of our collective psyches as the place Dorothy escapes from, and returns to, in The Wizard of Oz.  Which would you choose: Oz or Kansas? 

As I drove along highway 70, I paid more attention to the terrain.  It didn’t start out flat.  In Wichita swaths of green trees lined the highways, and the corn alongside was alternately half dried, or golden and ready to.  Only a few weeks prior in Iowa the corn was young and rich. There were a few patches of Kansas sunflowers, heads heavy in prayer for harvest.  Roadkill, a common part of any trip like this, varied, as I passed a dead coyote, armadillo, and sadly, tabby cat.  The billboards hinted at local values shared and hidden:  Super 8 Motel, Boots for sale, Truck-Henge, Historic battle sites, Lion’s Den Adult Store, and something you don’t see in big cities, biblical quotes sharing Jesus’ salvation, and god’s damnation.  As I drove west, I noticed how the low crops hugged the earth.  It was wheat, more than anything.  Some of the fields had been tilled already.  And here and there I noticed a gorgeous red-tipped crop, which I later discovered was Sorghum.  Heavy at the crown, the fields undulated in the wind like ocean currents.  But it was, without a doubt, flat.  That song from the Dixie Chix rang out in my head, no, let’s be real, in my voice, “I need wide open spaces, room to make big mistakes.”  I wondered if a land this flat would feel like it’s own mistake if I stayed, if it would set me free, or trigger some odd kind of agoraphobia. 

My new friend from Kansas City told me the day before to watch for the majestic windmills.  I thought first of the traditional windmills, steel frame towers and wooden vanes that rose near outbuildings, windmills famed from the photos of Dorthea Lange.  No, he’d attested, saying those are beautiful too.  He then described the same turbines I fell in love with when I was sixteen, driving down 101 with my mom to visit colleges.  The clean white towers rise from the prairie like religious icons or church spires.  In a landscape like this, it is natural to look skyward.

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That’s where everything changes.  That’s where we point when we talk about heaven.  Where we sit at dawn and dusk with romance in our eyes.  But in the great plains, like in the south, it’s also the origin point for so much danger.  No American gets out of high school without reading some excerpt of Grapes of Wrath.  The unit I taught included background on Black Sunday, the April 15th Storm in 1935 that carried winds upwards of 60MPH, and air so thick in dirt you’d suffocate if you weren’t wearing a mask.  People didn’t know how crop rotation could help, how irrigation could be run differently.  Shoot, I don’t know how I’d do it, just that it was a perfect storm that led to years and years of migration, poverty, and early humanitarian activism.  This journey I’m on, I don’t take for granted, is one I’ve chosen, not one I’ve been forced into.  Something always got under my skin teaching that unit – it felt eerie that a land could seem so peaceful, and be so dangerous. 

A couple hours into the drive I pulled into a rest stop and noticed a strange hiss in the car.  All the windows were up, and I’d just had the car checked in Kansas City.  With the next rest stop 90 miles away, on a 100 degree day, it would be a grave misadventure to have something go wrong.  I have gone overboard in taking care of this car, in part because I read about the jalopies in Grapes of Wrath.  Or perhaps it was that in my college years my Subaru XT blew heating cords, tires, and all kinds of other things I can’t name.  I once heard a pop and saw smoke in the Caldecott Tunnel between Oakland and Orinda, coasting to the side of the highway twenty feet west of the tunnel.  I grew up in used cars, unable to fix them, always needing help.  I cross myself and say a prayer each time I pass someone stopped on the road side.  I pay close attention to my car.  Right now, it’s my most consistent home.  At the rest stop, I tried to forget the hiss as I took Hoopla on her walk and made myself a turkey sandwich.  But it hadn’t been hissing until I got out of the towns.  What was it? 

It may be a unique skill of mine to catastrophize.  In a state known for being boring, I think it would almost be my duty to generate drama.  But I am a reader, a listener, and I live boldly.  Not only have I driven cars that felt like monsters, I have seen monsters written in novels and film scripts.  As I sat at the picnic table in the middle of nowhere, I mused about how we adopt each monster as our own.  I have a Scylla and Charybus swirling in my imagination because of Homer.  I have poison ivy in my panic box because of my friend Raven.  I have the destitution of “living in a van down by the river” in my one-liner of fears because Matt Foley said it on SNL.  I have counted clowns as demons forever because of Stephen King, or maybe because that shit is archetypal, and goes far beyond it.  Anyhow, a hiss is a million things.  And nothing.

Before I pulled over, I had been musing that this trip has been so fast.  I have slept in near 40 beds in the last few months.  I want to write about each place I’ve been.  But the place I’ve seen the most is the road.  The USA has over 4 million miles of paved roads, and in the recent months I’ve seen near 20,000 of them.  

It has taken me a long time to get here, but I have wanted to be a nomad from before I knew what the word meant.  When I was in fourth grade, my class performed a song and dance to the tune “Love Potion Number 9.”  I was voted, hands down, to be the gypsy woman.  Since then, I’ve dreamed of this.  When I traveled to Seattle in high school, I met a young hippie couple traveling with their mut cross country in a VW bus.  I dreamed that for myself.  As my musician friends booked tours with bands, I imagined myself a witness to a moving landscape and a servant to recording it.  This is not the same road Kerouac wrote about.  It is not the same path charted by Voltaire’s Candide or Cohelo’s Santiago.  But that’s why I’m here. 

This is the asphalt and the reality of my imagination and attitude.  My windshield is a veritable graveyard for bugs.  Under the front seat tote bags of dog supplies and my non-fridge food, crumbs of BBQ flavored potato chips are stuck to the mat.  The trash bag is stuffed.  The truck in stuffed.  Since my old phone, stolen in New York’s West Village, had the only magnet I kept with me, my magnetic cell phone stand is useless until I return to Seattle.  At any given time, Hoops is either napping, or barking at some livestock or busted tires on the roadside.  I have an address plugged into the GPS, but it’s not always where I’m truly going.

There’s something that opens in my chest when I turn the ignition and pull onto a long road.  Back in SF, I would dream some mornings of just overshooting my destination, and driving until I ran out of gas.  To be that free. The aphorism rings true that it’s the journey that shapes us, not the destination.  William Butler Yeats made a living on the theme of impermanence.  It’s bravery and cowardice alike.  But the road feels like the right kind of inbetween.  It’s where I can leave behind all the failed relationships, the random Airbnb that smells like cat litter, the constant pulse of a bar under an old apartment, the music venue where they know my name, and I have amassed a suite of joys and disasters, the job where my voice was heard but not heeded, the slope of disagreement between income and outcome.  I don’t want to let go of everything, my life is rich and blessed, but I know there’s something I’m still trying to shake.

When I finish my lunch at the rest stop, I get back into the car and listen for that hiss again.  As the speedometer nears 60, 70, and then 80, the whistle resumes, and the volume lowers.  I look at the Sorghum waving on the roadside, and take my place in the community of drivers en route to their own somewheres.  It dawns on me that this hiss is the wind.  The last time I drove over a country so flat was South Dakota, and I was attacked by rain and lightning.  I looked at the clouds dotting the blue sky, and felt grateful. 

Dorothy’s famous line from the Wizard of Oz is “There’s no place like home.”  We all understand that, but at times forget that she had to leave, to face her demons, to discover her gifts before she knew what home meant to her.  In 2017 most people I know have called upwards of three cities home.  Which one will be mine?  Five days out from a hiatus to my cross country trip, I am aware of the home I’ll have to choose when I finish this journey.  It is still uncertain.  I am alive in this moment, here and now, in an unfamiliar land.  As the land keeps changing around me, I feel myself change along with it.  I feel right on the road, lucky, gifted.  But I’m a nester, I love setting up my space, hosting my friends and loved ones.  When the time is right, I have to trust, I will feel as at home as Dorothy.  What I have to get ready for is not the boredom of this road, but the building of my own home.  Ironically, right now, Kansas is still Oz.

Grasshoppers, Work, Music ~ Nashville, TN
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I found a giant grasshopper in the tub this morning before I washed myself.  I thought, immediately, of the fable the grasshopper and the ant.  My first impulse was to save it.  And my second impulse was to question whether I’m playing too much, and need to get to work.  The universe communicates in odd ways. 

I jetted into Nashville a couple days ago, and I have one more day left.  This has been, by far, the most fun I’ve had in any city.  Ridiculous fun.  I found out recently that it is second only to Las Vegas as a destination for bachelorette parties.   The city touts over 150 live music venues, and most of the gigs are free.   For a city of around 55,000 these are good odds.  The median age is 33.   It's comfy too, I was pleased to find a few great coffee shops, including Portland Brew in the Five Points area of East Nashville, and Barista Parlor over in Germantown.  

The nights here are seem a bit more dramatic.  My first night here I hit the Oddyseo, an acrobatic Cirque-de-Soleil run by Cavalia.  The show runs under a big top with horses, trapeze artists in swinging hoops and gypsy musicians.  It was an expensive ticket, but I relished the way that horses could walk in pinwheels, and girls could stand on the backs of two horses walking side by side.  After so little time with horses in Lexington - and so much time at bourbon distilleries - I thought it was a requirement to see some trick riders.  

Before arriving, I booked a ticket to see Tanya Tucker and the SteelDrivers at the Grand Ole Oprey House ~ again, no cheap date.  But the story of Nashville is the story of the Grand Ole Oprey House, a venue that began in the 1890s as the Union Gospel Tabernacle.  The venue was part of what saved the town from pioneertown standoffs and alcoholism.  On Sunday services, the venue's pews held near 2000 people.  But after the great space was built, the construction debt had to be paid, and the directors began to host evening shows.  For over 50 years, Lula C Naff managed the venue, for budget, publicity, and more.  She helped set up the radio show and choose musicians like Johnny Cash and Elvis who then became famous.  It makes sense that Country Music overlaps with religion and church values, in large part due to this venue.  The venue downtown closed for a few years in the 70s, and then relocated up the Cumberland river as the new Grand Ole Oprey.   The same space still runs shows, inside the stained glass windows, but now it's called the Ryman Auditorium.  From what I hear, the spirit of the Grand Ole Oprey is the same in the new venue.  I hope so, I loved the feel of seats like pews, and as a past musician, I can still be so moved by good people on stage. 

But probably the most raucus fun was last night, the unplanned adventures of a single girl in Nashville.  I went downtown and wandered Broadway, a street lit up like the Vegas strip, until the live music pulled me into Honkey-Tonk Central.  A Sam Hunt song pulled me in, and it drifted easily into George Strait.  I was surprised to know almost all the songs the cover band played.  The musicians on stage hustled the crowd more than any street hustler I’ve seen, demanding $20 for any request – and getting it!  At the bar, I met my travel buddies for the night: Kelsey, from Chicago, and Jody from Australia.  My new friends invited me to go to Coyote Ugly, and true to form, we all ended up dancing on the bar with the bartenders.  It has felt so indulgent.  And so delightful. 

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So when I saw that grasshopper, it made sense that I felt a tinge of guilt.  I didn’t come here to spend a fortune, but I have.  I don’t know anyone who lives here - yet.  Nashville was a late addition to my itinerary.  Yet, it’s had that pulse of potential that I’ve only felt in cities like NYC or Los Angeles.  This is a city where dreamers come to let loose.  There is a layer of fantasy and prayer here that pulls in people who’s real worlds aren’t quite in line with their imagined worlds.  Here people put their talent to the test.  This is music city.

So here I was, standing next to the tub in my Airbnb in East Nashville, trying to catch the grasshopper to take it outside.  It’s not an easy task.  I followed it with the plastic tub stopper, hoping to encircle it for rescue.  It jumped and jumped, the restless critter.  Little Hoopla wanted to get involved in the rescue, but it wouldn’t have been rescue if she did.  After a few minutes, I finally snagged it and took it outside.  When I came back to the bathroom, I remembered that there had been ants in the tub the morning before, and in fact there was still a lone ant this morning.  So the cosmic metaphor isn’t entirely clear.  My take was that it’s time to re-envision what work means to me. 

This morning I woke from a dream wherein I’d been hired by a new principal, and stood at a table for back to school night, clueless about what grade I was teaching, how many sections, or even the location of my classroom.  Right now my teacher friends are all memorizing names and setting up classroom protocols.  I am dancing on bars and catching grasshoppers.  This is the third autumn in my thirty-some-odd years when I wasn’t settling myself into a classroom environment.  It’s peculiar.  Learning has been my occupation for all but three years of my life.  Learning in cubed rooms.  

But so much learning happens outside of those rooms.  Still, I’m feeling a quiet sense of guilt that I’m not doing the work I’ve always done.  The work of researching, reading, and planning arcs of experience.  The work of finding and sharing the pith and nuance.  The work of charming my pupils.  The work of listening to new people who seek guidance.  It’s not that different from what I’m doing now.  I am committed to the act of discovering and sharing new ideas, but I have to hammer it into my head that it’s as valuable here as it is in a classroom of sleepy seventeen year olds.  Artists, writers, philosophers and musicians have all had to hustle from the beginning.   

What gets to be called work anyhow?  What can we be paid for?  Isn’t it up to me to determine this?  My good friend Alexis Sottile just published an article about the women who may run for office in the next presidential election, and I’m reminded how for centuries, the work of women was home-work: child rearing, housekeeping, etc.  It was, and is, just as valuable as the work of any Fortune 500 business.  It’s just smaller scale.  It’s just what kept, and keeps, us alive as a culture.  It’s strange how, even in 2017, the occupations that relate to caretaking, to youth, to the home, usually pay far less than those that don’t.  Women still get paid less than men.  I am writing this not as a political rant, but as an observation of society and social casting structures. 

But the point here is that I feel a subconscious pull to work, and I have to redefine what that is.  The gnawing sense that I should be elsewhere, doing something different is ever present.  But that’s exactly why I’m on the road.  I am elsewhere, learning.  And the work I’m doing now is writing.  It’s putting faith in something that’s been in the subcurrent of my soul forever.   It's going entrepenurialista.  It’s believing that if I do what I love, the funds will come after.   Isn’t that what they say?  That’s what I say.  The first work of all is inhabiting the moment, paying attention.  And since I’m a writer, in the next step is in writing it down.  Then, well, you'll have to wait to see what comes next.  

The downside of falling in love every day
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In Lexington Kentucky, as I sat down to begin a waterfall of light meditation, the deep roll of thunder exploded in consent.  The porch of my Airbnb began to tap out the drumbeat of a gutter filled with rain, and then the sky opened up in downpour.  It was time, is time, to let go. 

I haven’t written in so long, and the guilt of this is one of many weights I’m wading through.  I haven’t pulled off a grave sin like robbing a bank or seducing another gal’s man.  But I feel off.  My friend Nick used to say he never felt angry, just irritated.  I make mistakes left, right and center, and I can get so caught up in fixing them that I forget what’s working, or what I have done right in the first place.  Why do I stash my suffering in a to-go bag from every place I enjoy?  I feel guilt for anything falling short of my goals, for anything that causes pain in others, even when it’s unintentional, or at times required as a way to teach boundaries.  Every bag of chips I’ve eaten, every second beer I’ve had, every friend who wanted to visit, but for whom I didn’t make time.  Every time I packed up before dawn to hit the road as if I could leave my troubles behind.  

But it’s not that movement, it’s something else that lets it all go.  In the Catholic church sacrament of confession has been part of the Catechism from the early days of the New Testament.  I’ve never entered a dark booth to speak to a priest like this, but I’ve bowed my head over beads, spinning them between fingers in prayers of my own making.  I wonder if the need to let go has existed before the sins were named and categorized.  I think therapy is the way we’ve shuttled confession into the secular realm.  What is the path to absolution for polytheists?  For Muslims?  For atheists?  For me, to release the negativity that holds me back, I meditate, I write, I yoga, and I play.  I have missed this, the time when I get to tell my stories in a quiet miles from anyone I know.  But I’ve been collecting stories to tell ~ I could sit here for three days straight.  Who knows, I may opt out of the bourbon tastings and artwalks I had envisioned, simply to sit here and fess up.  For me, this feels like forgiveness. 

Outside the rain falls light on the teal umbrella.  Hoopla is growling at the sirens that keep blaring in and out of earshot.  The thunder is back, rumbling the walls of this 200 year old house.  And my heart. 

The tag line for my home page is fall in love every day.  And I do.  Legit.  But I’ve spent the entirety of my life defining what that means.  I fall into wonder, into joy, into excitement.  In yoga, the term Namaste means I bow to the light in you.  That’s how I live; most of the people I have met glow in their own ways, but seeing the light doesn’t mean I want to parallel their paths.  I fall into the divinity I see in each person.  But I don’t always fall into relationships.  I haven’t figured out how to avoid getting hurt, or hurting other people in the process. I don’t think it’s even possible.  Fascination and infatuation are easy.  And maybe because I’m on the road, I feel gratitude, joy and love in so many people. 

Even a couple days ago, as I filled up my tank at a station in West Virgina, a trucker joking about our different feul bills, said that I came from the Nazi state out west where they hate truckers and the second amendment.  I had driven nine hours the day before and four that morning.  I was tired of driving.  As my eyes followed the yellow lines, the foggy hillsides and forests, I had thought about how hard it would be to pilot a semi for a job.  Would I be lonely sleeping the truckbed alone?  Bored with the same tasks?  Grateful for the scenery?  Who knows.  But because of these thoughts, I just smiled at the man and said, I think you’re using the term Nazi wrong; I’m a Californian who doesn’t hate truckers. 

But that’s not what has me twisted up.  It’s the way people’s desires can be in disharmony, and the role I play in it.  I have a business card with the address for this website, and my email, and I give it out often enough.  I’d like to share my writing, my voice.  I count my lucky stars that I can travel like this, but the point is to unify the journey through storytelling.  Though I try, I can’t share my voice without attachments.  It’s not possible.  People who message me want to stay in touch.  I have wanted to stay in touch with people who have felt otherwise.  I’ve definitely garnered some friends in this journey.  But I’ve also garnered some suitors.

A couple weeks ago my friends said they wanted to set me up with someone.  I thought it was bad timing, but I just forgot about it.  A few days later, I got a text and then a phone call from a man who also quit a teaching job to travel, let’s call him Postdoc.  We spoke for a long time, and I found his story fascinating.  He was well-read, and had a keen sense of analysis and storytelling.  Unlike me, teaching was his third career, after two highly prestigious jobs before.  He was planning his journey to begin in Asia, but hadn’t left the USA yet.  We agreed we’d try to meet up.  A couple days later, when Postdoc and I spoke on the phone, he reneged, saying it was a bad idea, given that we were each on our own journeys.  In the same conversation, it became clear that we had very different ideas about religion, I having chosen travel because of faith and a calling, he an atheist retiring early from a workplace that didn’t fit.  But still, when he changed his mind and asked if I’d meet him, I did.  In the Greek myth, Hope was the last thing left in Pandora’s box.  You can’t shake it.  Seeing him was romantic and awkward.  We had an amazing time walking around his coastal town in Southern Boston, and discovered that we disagreed on politics, money and even, to an extent, family.  We argued and made out and generally confused each other into distraction.  There was fire.  I am a double leo; he is a scorpio.  To me, our disagreements felt like an intellectual challenge.  Here was a man I didn’t understand.  But when I de-emphasized my spiritual beliefs because I knew he would see me as naïve, I didn’t bat an eye.  That’s not who I am, and I don’t want to have that fight.  I am on this journey because of my faith.  I left feeling that this trip was good for the sake of the adventure.  Here was someone who I might be able to count as a friend.  But despite the chemistry, this was not a man with whom I could grow into the person I want to be.  And here I am, on my own, still somehow longing for a man who’s all wrong.  It’s embarrassing to be over thirty and still feel pulled towards someone who’s values are so oppositional to your own.   

But tandem to this jaunt, I feel guilty for walking away from a kind man who wasn’t glaringly opposed to my values.  Between Detroit and NYC, I stayed in Pittsburg for one night.  This man, let’s call him Banks, drove in to show me around town.  I had met him in a bar a few weeks earlier.  I’m sure that after a few drinks, I sauntered from friendly into flirty.  But this happens all the time, even when I’m not drinking.  I’m a people person, a people pleaser.  I love improv theater because it feels so easy to say “yes, and..” over and over.  But he was, and is, a salesman, and conversation is one of his talents.  Before he drove in, I made sure to say that I wasn’t sharing my room.  I wanted to see him, but I didn’t want to give the wrong impression.  I was nervous because he was kind, and had driven a long way to meet up.  But seeing him was easy as pie.  We wandered around town, ordering fancy drinks at the Ace Hotel, laughing through the abandoned Station Square, hiking through the rain at the top of one incline, to the fancy restaurant at the top of the other one.  He teased me about my sense of direction, but we didn’t argue at all.  After the night was over, I gave him a hug and said thank you.  And while I was glad to see my friend, I felt a tug in another direction.

I felt like a schmuck.  I don’t know if I misread the situation.  I don’t know if I led him on.  Or if I entertained the idea of dating this good man.  As much as I liked him, I just didn’t feel that fire.  If I game him more time, maybe I would have.  But mostly, I felt cared for.  Every time I talk to my girlfriend Christina, every time I open the pages of a book about love, this is what it’s about.  Caring.  What am I looking for then?  I genuinely like this guy, but something in me, or in him, is blocking any romantic cohesion.  I have to trust that feeling in my gut, right?  

The life I’ve led, mostly single, or navigating a newish relationship that might last up to a year, is atypical in my community.  But in relationships, I have always had a hard time trusting myself.  Have you heard the Beastie Boy’s song “Sabotage?”  It’s not so much my style of music, but it’s my style of romance.  I’m working on it.  I am not twenty two, so I’m not looking for my first love.  I believe we have multiple soul mates.  I have grown into a self sufficient woman with opinions and drives.  And of course, issues.  Any relationship I settle into will not be one in which I grow up, but one in which I simply grow.  I am on this journey, in part, to learn to trust myself better.  And while I want, ultimately, to love one person, I think I still have some growing to do on my own. 

The sky here is still grey, but the rain has stopped.  It’s time to hit the dog park, and I may have time to roll through Frankfort this afternoon.  I never set out to toy with anyone’s heart.  I am tired of denying good people, inviting in those who won’t last.  My unavailability is so transparent.  But so, I hope, is my genuine warmth for the people on my path.  Love is a tricky word: a feeling, an act, a name for god ~ I don’t know.  But it’s why I write.  It’s where I finger the prayer beads of keys on my macbook over and over.  Please forgive me.  I have screwed up again.  And again.  But I’m still grateful, still hopeful, still willing to grow. 

The overturned flower rack is meant as a gate to keep Hoopla inside. 

The overturned flower rack is meant as a gate to keep Hoopla inside. 

 

 

 

 

A Man Who Rides ~ a Flashback to Sturgis, SD
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A couple days ago, as I payed the reasonable $3 toll to enter West Virgina, I had a flashback of something from my travels that I’ve yet to scribe into being.  I was inspired by a group of motorcycles parked together like a group of military horses, two by two.  The bikes were Harleys, every last one, and the riders popped saddlebags and situated themselves in their sexy leather pants.  I couldn’t help but think of Sturgis. 

Sturgis was founded in the 1870s in the Western Expansion, but it didn’t become the Sturgis people now recognize until the late 1930s.  A motorcycle racer and businessman named J.C. “Pappy” Hoel decided to stir up fun with a dirt track race.  From there grew the biggest motorcycle rally in the world.  I’ve never heard anyone name the town who wasn’t a rider.

So, how did I end up in Sturgis?  By chance.  By fate.  By audacity.  My stay at the Gold Dust Hotel in Deadwood, a town thirty miles away, has still been the most expensive night on my journey.  I didn’t plan on arriving during the motorcycle rally, I wanted to see a simulated pioneer town.  I’ve taught American Literature for years, and I’ve long imagined the landscape of Bret Harte’s “Luck of Roaring Camp,” or Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.  At the age of eight, I panned for gold in the American River on a school trip to Old Coloma.  The legends of the Old West, a society still in the midst of making itself, fascinate me.  That was my plan: see the streets where standoffs were customary.  Sit on benches where ladies sat a hundred years prior holding new-bought bolts of fabric to make dresses, with knives hidden in their corsets.   But that was not the Deadwood I landed in.  Every sidewalk was lined with bikes.  I had walked into Easy Rider on steroids. 

In the second week of August the entire Black Hills region of South Dakota turns into an extension of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  I didn’t know what that meant, I still kindof don’t.  When I asked the hotel concierge, she said the same thing I guessed – it’s a giant party.  I figured it was like the gay pride march, but for motorcyclists.  I wonder how many bikers would want to slap me for saying that.  Every countercultural group needs to party, right?  I envisioned concerts, shows, and food trucks, and I found that.  But it was the first place I felt alarmingly out of place. 

I grew up riding motorcycles.  Or rather, on the back of motorcycles.  On weekends I spent at my dad’s house, I’d coerce him into taking me on rides to the coast, where we’d get coffee and lemon cake at the Tomales Bakery.  At one point, he handed me his beat up copy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I never finished, but still loved.  If you haven’t read it, the book covers a journey two men take on motorcycle and poses some philosophical theories.  I didn’t agree with the fact that “classical” bikers who can repair their own bikes are of greater value than “romantics” who cannot.  I wonder if today it would be applicable to the macbook I type on, which I certainly can’t repair, but have used well to write poems essays and curriculum.  Anyhow, my father loved his motorcycles, and he liked fixing them as much as riding them.  I remember one year he and his friend David Traversi rode out to the Sturgis Rally from Petaluma, cruising the blue highways of Nevada, Utah and Wyoming on their Honda Goldwings.  They came home sore from the ride with wonder in their eyes.

With my dad’s encouragement, when I turned eighteen I took the discounted motorcycle training course at the old coast guard station by Stinson beach.  I passed the course, but I didn’t get the license.  I wasn’t ready.  Drop a bike five times, and you’d think twice too.  At that time I was smoking weed daily, and drifting through hallucinogens on weekends.  I could barely drive a car, let alone a bike.  I was, and still am, a romantic.  So I settled for riding shotgun when the opportunity came my way.  It just didn’t come my way all that often. 

And at Sturgis, it wasn’t just the bikes on parade, but the romance of life on that edge.  It’s wonderful to splay out our weirdness in the company of those who share it.  It blew me away to see riders cruising long winding roads without helmets.  I stood out terribly.  First of all I was driving a small blue commuter car.  I don’t wear or even own, any logo clothing.  My single tattoo is business-safe: a giant compass rose on my upper back.  I walked in like I was wearing a shark costume to a fancy dress party.  All of this I saw on my way to reception.  So, at the hotel I whipped off my yellow sundress, stepped into skinny jeans and a tight black tank top, and viola!  Time to pretend.

After a windy cab ride from Deadwood to Sturgis – where would I park a car!?- I took it all in.  I strolled up Main Street and looked towards the Sturgis sign on a hillside in the distance.  I was still in mountainous terrain.  The air was clean and temperate.  There were more bikes parked on the street than I’d seen in the past ten years.  Most bikes were standard cruisers, Harleys, Hondas, etc..  But I saw one tricked out with comics painted on the sides of the saddlebags.  There were bikes with flames, bikes with bodies shaped like taxidermic animals, bikes with three wheels, and even a few bikes with flashing night lights like Vegas or Burning Man.  And then there were the bike clubs.  I couldn’t help but notice the vests with hand sewn patches with codes like the lingo under senior portraits: belonging as easy as a strip of fabric.  But it’s not, never is.  I was pitched tattoos, bandanas, stripper heels, corndogs and even a cell phone charger.  But I just wanted to walk around and talk to people.  Who is a biker today?  Who is a Sturgis biker I wondered? 

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It's strange, because though I am not a biker, I am a traveler.  I know, and love, the pull of the road.  At hour two or three, when your body gets uncomfortable, and you weary of your music or book on tape, you have to fold back into yourself.  I understand how the new scenery invites us to see more of ourselves.  I have a hard time staying in one place, conforming to one set of rules.  I like rules, I just don't know which ones are the right ones.   Here at Sturgis, it seemed that there weren't many rules at all.  Park your bike close to the one next to it.  Eat, drink, play.  

Anyhow, after a slice of pizza, I found myself front and center at the Loud American Bar.  I scored a prime location in the front porch, perfect for people watching.  I looked at the groups of people—lots of couples, and groups of men.  I was surprised that most of the people were over forty, and wondered if biking is something people begin now later in life.  Millenials and Gen-Xers seem happy to live in big cities, which is a terrible place to ride any kind of cruiser.  But the average age could have also been due to the early hour of 8pm.  I sat down on a bar stool holding my silver bottle-can of Budweiser, and eyed the group of rowdy men in front of me.  They all clinked their glasses together and shouted “Oy oy oy!”  I though, holy hell, I don’t want to talk to these guys. 

And of course, twenty minutes later, I had been subsumed by the group. It’s been a few weeks now, and I don’t remember all of them.  But the person who brought me into the group was a goateed man in his mid forties, six foot five, from Australia. 

“You came from Australia?  For this?” I asked. 

“Yes!  Of course,” he’d said.  “Look around, it’s the biggest rally in the world.  So we saw you from over there, and we agreed.  You can’t come to Sturgis and sit alone at the bar.”  Shortly he’d introduced me to a few friends, and his wife, who’d been sitting further down.  It became clear that this wasn’t one group of men, but a few who’d piled together.  A party is a party, and this was a good one.  Most of the men there were married, and left their wives at home.  With each man, I asked about why he came to Sturgis, whether he’d come before, and what kind of bike he rode.  I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t riden into town on my own bike.  But I wasn’t ashamed - I was there in homage to my father.  And in dumb luck. 

In this cluster, there was a group of guys from Ohio, one of whom visited the SF Bay Area often.  It was pleasant to talk to someone who knew my old world.  This man worked in sales, and like many who do, could coax a conversation out of anyone.  There is a gift I wonder if I possess that sales people have – just putting their conversational partner at ease.  He gave me the most hassle about coming to Sturgis in a car, and it cracked me up.  He also lifted his eyebrows at me when I said I wouldn’t do shots when fifteen tequila shots arrived at the tiny bar table.  Was I going to shout “Oy oy oy?”  Sure, but no tequila. 

“Wild child, huh?” he asked.

“Adventurer, yes.  Tequila drinker, no” I said.

“It’s Sturgis.  Really?  Come on.”

“I have to find my way back to my hotel solo.  You have a posse of travel mates if you get wasted.” 

“Okay, fine” he replied.  

At that I felt both respected and seen.  Here I was in the middle of the rough-and-tumble community of motorcycle riders, and they were some of the kindest men I’d met.  I felt I with someone who could be a real friend.  I left shortly after, and made sure to say goodbye.  I had in front of me a six hour trip across South Dakota, and hopefully a visit to Mt. Rushmore National Monument and the Badlands National Park.  

I’m still traveling, and every time I see a cruiser on the highway, I smile.  I roll down my windows and imagine what it would be like to be part of that world, to be that vulnerable on the road.  It still feels like rebellion, like James Hurley, Laura Palmer’s secret boyfriend in Twin Peaks.  I carry so much comfort in my car.  The restlessness that invokes speed on a bike is one I can relate to.  I’m just not skilled enough to pilot that adventure.  I’ve always thought of my dad when I see bikes on the Sonoma highways.  But lately, as I pass these big groups of motorcycles on the highway, I think of the good men I met at Sturgis.  There’s something damn cool about a man who rides motorcycles. 

Yes, Everything is Okay ~ O'Fallon
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“Is everything okay?” Jack asked as I paused three steps past the front door.  It was dusk.  I had bounded up the steps from the parking lot of his Bed and Breakfast in O’Fallon, Missouri.  The nightly news buzzed in the background from the three big screen TVs in the living room and bar.  The scent of grilled meat hung in the air.  Three dogs sat hopeful at ends of the dining table.  On the honeywood walls upwards of thirty geese, ducks, deer and fish hung in their permanent poses.  When I arrived a few hour prior, I had wondered what it would be like to be a taxidermist.  What an artful way to handle death, I’d thought.

With clutched toes at the entryway, I stared at Jack.  On the other side of the long counter, he held a dish in his hand from the hamburgers and sausages he’d made for us not long before.  Four of the guests, visitors like me for the Great American Eclipse, put down their utensils at the ten foot dining table. 

I clenched my car keys tighter and said, “Yes, I just need some help.”  It has been my habit for me to say yes, always yes, everything is okay.  I hate asking for help.  I hate admitting when things aren’t okay. 

But I’ve found it can be easier to tell a stranger you need help than ask someone you care about, over and over again.  Even though I know better, I feel in any given relationship you only get so many “help” cards to play.  I always feel like I have more cards I need to play than I actually do.  I try not to pull them out unless it’s urgent.  But this was urgent.

The night before I had woken in Chicago from a nightmare about arriving at the end of my journey, only to find my little dog Hoopla near death.  I have had anxiety dreams like this all my life, but you can’t control what happens in the dreamtime.  I have also had psychic dreams about major events in life: I dreamt about 9/11, about a car crash I had in college, and my father’s death.  But I’m not always clear which dreams are prophetic, and which are just anxiety.

So there I was, looking down the long table at my dinner-mates, patiently frantic.  All eyes were on me; it was embarrassing. 

“Can I just get a few people to help me push my car?” I asked. 

Maybe twenty minutes before I was sitting around the same table.  Another guest, Carrie leaned over and told me there was a rainbow outside.  Her husband Brian was across the gravel path at the lake with their Boxer.  He texted her to come outside and see it.  Carrie and I had been chatting about our journeys and where we were going to watch the solar eclipse.  But after that comment, I decided it was time to step outside for Hoopla’s evening walk.  A rainbow was surely promising. 

I snapped Hoopla into her leash, and walked down to the Lake with Carrie.  Her dog Chelsea was diving in and out of the water, swimming like a champ.  His short legs and thick torso were perfect for water.  Hoopla took an interest, and when I walked to the edge, I thought I might just take off her leash.  The drive from Chicago had taken seven hours, and she had sat in the backseat bed like a trooper.  She needed to play, and here was a playmate.  Where was she going to go?  We were two miles from the highway, and the property was a huge hunting site of forest, prairie, and lake.  Why not? 

When I unclicked her leash, she was ecstatic.  She pranced down to the shoreline and barked at Chelsea.  I took a deep breath into this pastoral wonderland.  In all these amazing places, I’ve kept Hoopla six feet from me on her leash.  She gets the recall commands, turns her head, and often runs when I shout “come!”  But her little huntress desires are hard to beast.  If there’s a bird, a squirrel, or a rat, she’s off.  She always comes back, but she doesn’t listen when there’s something to catch.  She’s can’t handle the freedom she wants, but she’s still a happier dog when she can run at her own pace.  And here she was, doing exactly that. 

As Hoopla rolled her nose along the shore like a dust-buster, I stood on the shoreline relishing the company.  Brian and I walked up to the ferry-like motorboat and mused about a life where this was your front yard.  He told me he and his family planned to stay the next night too.  I wondered about changing my plans and swimming here post-eclipse.  After spending the few days in Minneapolis uncomfortably lonely in the company of others, and my birthday solo in a quiet Iowa city, and I appreciated this.  I feel too old to stay in Hostels, I’m cranky and private.  But when you travel solo, it’s not always easy to find kindred spirits.  This was the first time since Georgia I found myself in a group of open minded travelers.  We were all here to witness an astronomical miracle. 

When a group of guests pulled out of the parking lot to drive back to town, I was caught off guard by Hoopla’s redirection.  She bolted away from Chelsea, the lake, and me.  I’ve seen her do this once before when we stayed in a gated complex in Los Vegas.  That time, the car slowed, and I got her to come back to me with a loud shout and a dog treat.  The women on the gravel road noticed Hoopla, and slowed down.  Again, when the car stopped, I got her to come my way with a visible dog treat.  But as she chewed it from my hand, the guests gassed their car to drive to the highway.  I didn’t even have time to grab Hoopla before she was off again.  The car sped from 15 to 20mph, and so did my little dog.  She moved like a tiny cheetah, and kept pace like tin cans jangling behind the painted car of newlyweds.  

My nightmare came to mind.  I had a flash of dog carcass, an embalmed poodle head on the side of a wall.  I envisioned ending my trip the next day.  And I moved. 

With my sorry-ass bad-knees pace I ran after, shouting “Come Hoopla, come!”  I waved my treats in the air, and even threw some after her.  She was impervious.  As the car turned from the property’s gravel driveway onto the public road towards the highway, she followed.  “Hoopla!” I shouted.  At nothing but dust.  She was gone, and I my panic escalated.  Brian asked if my keys were handy, and I said yes.  I always say yes.  He told me he’d go down the street on foot, and so I went back to get my keys and drive after her. 

Back in my room, I couldn’t find my keys.  I couldn’t focus on anything.  My mind was hurtling worst case scenarios at me.  It was only two lanes, but a mile or so up from the property was a main artery.  Were they in my purse?  If my dog ran after one car, what would she do with many cars?  Maybe I threw them on the bed?  How many dogs die getting run over by cars?  Were they in the bathroom?  What would be the point of this spiritual journey if I lost my K-9 copilot?  Why did I have a dream about her getting hurt last night?  Jacket pocket, the last place I checked. 

I walked past Jack, past the guests still eating dinner, and down to my car.  In the driver’s seat, I backed up for my three point turn, and heard a loud thud.  Then I couldn’t pull forward.  I gunned the gas, and smoke rose up behind me.  Fuck.  Seriously? 

The lot was on a hill, and around the outside were breaker bumps, what my family calls “road tits.”  I was stuck.  I bounded back into the B&B, and that was when Jack asked if I needed help.  Yes.  I explained the situation, and Jack leaned in intently. 

“You’re going to need more than a few people pushing your car to get out of that pickle, “ he said.   “I’ll help you drive after your dog, but let’s wait to take care of your car.”  Jack has two dogs, Lexie and Snowbell.  As a hunter, he prizes himself on hosting hunters, families and travelers with dogs.  

I walked back outside, and everyone else followed to see what I had done.  Who does this?  Me.  Another guest, Homa, came out a second later, and told me to get into her car.  Jack, she informed me was getting his truck to tow me over the curb.  I didn’t give a rat’s ass about my car right then, so I climbed into her 4runner and we headed down the long driveway towards highway 79. 

And then, before we even reached the end of the driveway, Hoopla turned the corner, and hurtling towards us.  Homa stopped the car, and I got out to catch her.  Now I had to deal with the giant ordeal of my car.  But I didn’t care, my dirty misbehaving anxiety-provoking anxiety dog was tight in my grip.  She was wet, happy, covered in mud from the lake.  It took everything in me not to cry.  I clicked her into her leash, and began walking towards the B&B.  Homa asked if I was okay, and yes, I said, yes.  And I was. 

She went to go get Brian, and I walked back.  At the parking lot, I found Devin, Carrie & Brian’s fifteen-year-old son, hunched next to Jack by the hood of my car.  I stood for a second at the bottom of the hill with Carrie, and Homa’s sister Nida.  Carrie said the men wanted to be men.  If that means they want to help, I thought, great.  But at the bottom of the hill, we agreed it would be best to just push the car.  I had backed over a curb like you’d find in any grocery store parking lot between two opposite spots.  I stood with the women watching the boys prod at the front of my car.  I asked Carrie to hold Hoopla’s leash so I could go investigate.  Jack and Devon couldn’t find a great place to attach the tow line to my Mazda 3.  Jack said he found one spot, but it might be plastic under the engine.  He asked if I was okay with it.  I just didn’t know. 

About then Brian and Homa arrived, and Brian hopped into the mix.  He told us he is as a firefighter, and I felt like this would be over in no time.  He is used to this kind of thing.  Great.  With the tow-line attached, we all agreed on neutral, if it didn’t work, Brian said, we could push it.  Yep.  He asked if I wanted to drive, or if I wanted him to.  I gave him the keys.  He hopped in the driver’s seat, and I watched.  With the door open, Brian shouted, “I’m in neutral.”  The next second, Jack pulled slowly, and the line snapped off my car. 

At that, Brian and I agreed, manpower – or as it turned out – womanpower.  Jack moved his truck out of the way, and Brian stayed in the driver’s seat.  Devin took Hoopla’s leash.  Homa, Nida, Carrie and I all stood at the back of the car, ready to lift.  Brian shouted “I’m in 1st” and we all heaved.  With a giant harrumph, the car was clear.  Brian pulled into the spot I had backed out of twenty minutes prior.  And we all clapped. 

 

I came down to St. Louis to watch the solar eclipse.  I chose this place to stay because it was gorgeous.  I had no idea I would be surrounded by so many helpful people.  In envisioning my copilot’s end, I confronted my paranoia about being too much work, too frantic.  After a shower and a shot of bourbon, I sat around the fire later with the same guests.  Homa offered my a pair of eclipse glasses as she’d heard I had none.  Carrie invited me to join her family at the Chesterfield Amphitheater the next day.  I don’t know where I picked it up, but I have always felt like I should be able to handle everything on my own.  I simply can’t.  I don’t want to anymore.  Asking for help is not admitting insufficiency, but admitting you are part of a collaborative human organism.  A clear gift of this eclipse, and this journey altogether, is learning how to be frail and brave at once.  People want to help, I’m learning to let them.  

 

 

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.