three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

just a lot of OMGs

In random order, O.M.G.:

  • How have I not read any Tom Robbins as a 57yo person?? Thank heavens Peggy posted a quote by him, which led me to comment on it and led two friends to tell me how great Jitterbug Perfume is, leading me to immediately download the book and start reading it and O.M.G. Here’s the quote that kicked off the whole thing for me (thank you Peggy and Anne!):

beets“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.”

I ended up highlighting the entire first few pages, including the epigraph and the introduction, and throughout the early pages my highlighting is more evident than the non-highlighted stuff. Just, wow. How did I miss him for so long? I think I got him confused with someone else, some writer who does a lot of pulp books, but I can’t quite think of who it might me. OH! Harold Robbins! Yeah, very different.

I’m also newly and re-smitten by Per Petterson — about as opposite a writer as Tom Robbins as you could ever imagine. Where Robbins is out there in plot and inventiveness of language, Petterson is quiet, interior, and dreamy. Here’s my review of I Curse the River of Time, and I can’t recommend it enough. It was my third read of that beautiful book and I know I’ll read it at least a couple more times. I’m currently reading Out Stealing Horses (the guy is great at titling his books, that’s for sure), and moving between Petterson and Robbins is a head-banging experience.

  • I am hardly going to be home in Austin for the coming weeks and months, OMG. It’s all good stuff — my grandson’s birth and the luxury of time helping my daughter and son-in-law, a trip to southern China, and NYC time on either side of those great experiences. Still, I dearly love being home in Austin, in my cozy little place, with my own way of living my life and feeding myself, with my dear friends and family and weekly time with Oliver and Katie, with book club and poetry group and happy hours and brunches and coffee breaks, with nightly walks and an easy stop at Torchy’s Tacos (click here for images, you’ll want to eat there right away). When I’m in NYC or Chicago or southern China I’ll be so happily immersed in all that’s going on, obviously, and my sweet little home will be whispering in my ear. Queenie….come home….. will be home for Oliver’s 2nd birthday, no matter what. That’ll be a big day for us all.
  • I’m so glad I was in NYC for the historic snowstorm! Just, wow. It was amazing. In less than 24 hours we got nearly 27″ of snow. It was pretty hard to take a bad picture that day, but still I think this one I took in my beloved Riverside Park is pretty fantastic:
I took this at the spot I always take pictures of the park, and it was about 4:30pm. It's not a black and white picture, and I did absolutely no editing to the shot except to crop out some sidewalk foreground.
I took this at the spot I always take pictures of the park, and it was about 4:30pm. It’s not a black and white picture, and I did absolutely no editing to the shot except to crop out some sidewalk foreground.
  • We have some amazing travel coming up this year. Southern China in April, so excited about that (and also a little scared), and also the UP in July — the Upper Peninsula of Michigan! We’re going to Manistique Lake, a special place in Marc’s life. His family had a cabin there; actually, his grandfather bought it before Marc was even born, and he went all the time as a kid, and then at critical times during his adult life. Both blogs are set up. We’d been planning to go to Alaska in July so I could see humpback whales, but the places were already sold out so we’re diverting to Manistique and planning for Alaska next year. It’s a gorgeous Plan B, and also without any of the anxiety we have about China.
china
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ditto — click the image

And a final BIG picture OMG. My life is pretty amazing at the moment and so I pause to acknowledge it. My little Katie family is flourishing (and Oliver is amazing) and I am so grateful for my loving daughter; my little Marnie family is flourishing and about to grow and I am so grateful for my loving daughter; my friends remain essential to my heart and well-being; I have work; the back-and-forth pleasures of Austin and NYC are mostly great, and the less-great stuff is a bearable price to pay; I’m in excellent health as far as I know and my eating and yoga and meditation makes me happy on a daily basis; I’m writing my own stuff and it’s good; I’m reading amazing books that enrich me; and my little year-long project has been surprisingly meaningful already. It’s so important to pause and look around during the peaceful happy periods, to see all there is, to sit with it and be grateful for it.

OMG. xoxoxox

on root

When you are reading this, I’ll be heading to New York — a long day of travel door to door, and a move from a 71-degree day to a 48-degree day. Next week, some days have highs below freezing. OH BOY. Here’s a picture my husband took last week of the end of his block by Riverside Park.

UGH. Note the ugly dark piles.
UGH. Note the ugly dark piles.

It wasn’t a black and white photo, and he didn’t run it through a filter. Apparently it just looked like that. But I have a lot of great things ahead in the coming week, people, places, things to do, so perhaps those things will shine enough light to keep my spirits up in the cold, dark, filthy winter. Poor y’all who are suffering through this vortexing winter.

Yesterday I had lunch with my graduate advisor, Jamie; I have not seen him since I came back to Austin. It was the best time I ever had with him, probably because I was not wound up with anxiety about talking to him. The anxiety was always all mine, he’s very low-key and perhaps the least neurotic person the world has ever seen. He shrugs, he understands, he doesn’t get wound up about things. So was relaxed and able to simply enjoy talking to a very smart man I’ve known since 1998. We talked about our families, books we’ve read (he also loved The Orphan Master’s Son), we talked about various experiences we’ve had, we talked about the thing that’s happening to me in the background, we talked about ideas.  We decided that I am the poster child for resilience. We agreed that temperament is more important than anyone believes. It was so very lovely — even though it was a space in an otherwise-stressful chaotic day. OY.

When I was in graduate school, I remember one brief exchange with him very clearly. I was telling him that I believed I was better than I’d ever been before, and he said that he imagines I always feel that way. I remember it because it startled me — and he was right. I do always think that, but don’t you? When I’m in the midst of big trouble, I may be in a segment of my life that’s worse than x, y, or z, but I generally come to believe that it made me better than I’d ever been before.

The final chapter of The Goldfinch is strange, not entirely successful, and kind of full of sentences and passages that are surely destined to be stuck on pictures of sunsets or kittens and fly through Facebook feeds. But some of those pre-destined sentences echo some of my own feelings, and so those I feel kindly toward. I’m like that. Here’s one:

That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.

Amen. It is a glory and a privilege to be here, every damn day. When I was talking to Jamie at lunch, we were talking about the terrible thing that’s going on for me right now and I said (and believe) that one day it will be behind me, it will have ended however it ends, I will be OK and different because of the experience, and it will just be a strange story to tell from my strange and long life. I’d rather it weren’t happening (SERIOUSLY, I WOULD), and when it’s all inflamed it’s impossible for me to feel like it’s a privilege to get to be going through it (because I am not insane), but it does not make me want my life to end. I’m too curious about what tomorrow will bring, and if it’s more crap then perhaps the next day. Or the next one. Or the next one.

I’m not saying this because of any premonition (mine are always wrong, anyway), but if death finds me before I write again, I have so loved my life. I hope to love it for decades to come. I’m grateful for it all, and for you who go through it with me. See you later, from another zip code.

flyaway day!

Today I fly back to New York City for a few days. I’ve been so holed-up here in the palace, so busy getting it set up (doing all that shopping, ugh), so busy getting work done, I don’t really feel like I’ve been in Austin so the idea of “leaving Austin” makes little sense. I’m flying back for a couple of reasons: 1) to pack up all my books and few belongings (I only took my clothes when I left), and 2) to attend a party given by my friends Temma and Yvonne, so I’d have a chance to say goodbye to friends. It’s a tough time for a party, thick in the holiday season and on a Friday night to boot, an evening that was likely set aside for something else weeks or months ago, but I will be so happy to see any who can come.  (If you are in NYC and want to come, email me for details — see the about page for my email address.)

I probably won’t post while I’m there — way way too much going on, too many people to see and things to get done, and I need to do some work in any spare moments — but I’ll be back in Austin Monday night, the 17th, so I hope to be back to posting then.

In the meantime, I’ve been collecting some links and I thought I’d share them with you! That’s a good sign, right? I’m beginning to be interested in things again? Yeah? Feels good to me.

OK! With this, I close up Austin shop. Have a good few days, y’all; get some rest, eat something good, read something that moves you, talk to someone you love, and have some fun.

OK, 9/11

I hadn’t planned to write about 9/11 today, because I don’t have anything insightful to say, no mournful words, I didn’t live here then. It’s hard to avoid the memorials today here in New York; 10 blocks of Riverside Drive (where we park) are blocked off because the city is having a big memorial service at the Firemen’s Monument where they’ll be reading the names of the 343 firemen who died. Small petty me, I’m aggravated that it’s nearly impossible to find a place to park the car. The sky is as brilliantly blue and clear as it was 11 years ago, I’m told.

On that day I was living in Austin, and attending graduate school at the University of Texas. I got to school early that morning because I was running an experiment. I was standing in the hallway, waiting for the participants to show up, when one of the professors ran into the hallway shouting that a plane flew into a building in New York. Of course we thought it was an accident. Then he ran out again and told us more, and we all went to his office in complete incomprehension.

As the news unfolded, and it became obvious that whoever was doing this was taking out symbolic targets — and as it just kept happening, now here, now there, now there — we, like most people around the country I gather, believed we were next. After all, UT Austin is the biggest campus in the country, how’s that for symbolism. And even worse, one of GWBush’s daughters was a student there (the party girl, so she probably wasn’t even on campus not that it mattered). One plus one = we were surely next. Remember that, how we all thought we were next? We were sitting there waiting for it, wondering when it would come.

I was scheduled to teach my social psych class that afternoon, 3:30 (so 4:30 NYC time), and I sent out a message through my class network that students should come to class, we had a lot to talk about. The students sat in their chairs with gaping mouths and stunned faces, and none of us knew what to say. No one in my class had friends or family in Manhattan or the other locations so we weren’t dealing with that immediate fear. Just the disbelief and incomprehension of the incomprehensible act.

Though, of course, it was comprehensible. It’s still difficult to say what I believe, which is that our country’s politics set us up for it, that it was only a matter of time until our policies came home to roost. It’s hard to say that without sounding insensitive to the victims — I’m not, at all. What a horrific thing for them and their surviving loved ones, I can’t imagine their experiences without feeling the falling feeling in my stomach.