National Poetry Month: Roque Dalton, Spiritual Practice, Songwriting

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For the second week of National Poetry Month: Honoring Roque Dalton, Robert McDowell’s Poetry as a Spiritual Practice, and advice from songwriter Mike Rosenberg of Passenger.

  • Texas poet Andrea Beltran invited me to guest on her blog for National Poetry Month.  The subject of the short essay I wrote for her is El Salvadoran poet and revolutionary, Roque Dalton. The piece can be read here:  “Like You” by Roque Dalton. It’s all about how I came upon his work and its effect on me.
  • Robert McDowell book: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

    Poetry as Spiritual Practice

    For National Poetry Month, I’ve been reading quite a lot of poetry (far more than usual) and sharing bits of things that resonate on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I’ve also been reflecting on poetry as a way of life. There’s a book, Poetry as a Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell (2008, Free Press) that I’ve been reading here and there, and I realized that the whole premise of the book is something I’ve taken for granted almost all my life: poetry as a deep source of spiritual instruction from wiser voices, emotional balm and light with which to explore the more obscured self.  As Freud famously (?) said: “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.” But people who are new to poetry and want to incorporate it into their daily lives might find it a useful starting point; it’s full of exercises and simple explanations about forms of poetry, like the sonnet, pantoum, free verse, etc.

  • And lastly: I’ve been listening to lot of new-to-me music, and one of those is the 2012 album, All the Little Lights by Passenger, which is the band name for one man, Mike Rosenberg. (I think there may have been more people in the band once, but they all left). It was random how I was introduced to his music, but I came across this amusing interview with Rosenberg. He says something that keeps sticking with me:  ”I think the idea of a great song is just writing something – usually pretty simple – harnessing a very simple idea and putting it simply to music. You know what I mean? And connecting with people. I think people think songwriting’s a real mystery at times, but actually it’s not, it’s really simple.”That idea of simplicity keeps coming back for me as I attempt more challenging things, and I keep wondering why, the deeper you get into something, the more you need to hold tight to a principle of simplicity just to keep your head above water. Maybe it’s a conundrum, but it bears reflection.  Well, it’s been guiding my writing lately. And aside from all that, I like Rosenberg’s writing and some of his lyrics read well as little poems in and of themselves, so I’ll close this post on National Poetry Month with a few verses from All the Little Lights.

from “Life’s for the Living”

I took myself down to the cafe to find all
the boys lost in books and crackling vinyl
and carved out a poem above the urinal
that read:
Don’t you cry for the lost,
smile for the living,
get what you need and give what you’re given
life’s for the living, so live it
or you’re better off dead.

from “Feather on the Clyde”

Well on one side all the lights glow
and the folks know and the kids go
where the music and the drinking starts.
On the other side where no cars go,
up to the hills that stand alone like
my restless heart.

Well I would swim, but the river is so wide and
I’m scared I won’t make it to the other side and
well God knows I’ve failed but he knows that I’ve tried.

National Poetry Month! Day 1

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I’m excited that it’s April – that means it’s National Poetry Month! And I intend to do a little something every day in observance. There’s nothing planned for specific days – there’s so much going on in the world of poetry, I’ll just allot myself time to tune in and participate.

For the first day of National Poetry Month, an opportunity presented itself:  I saw a tweet from Strand Bookstore -

The Strand Book Store spine poetry tweet

 

The tweet explained that Strand (an old bookstore in NYC that I’ve been lucky enough to visit) was sharing spine poetry, so I jumped up and grabbed some books that looked good to me, and arranged them. Five minutes later, voilá! I snapped a photo and tweeted it and posted it on my IG account. Easy peasy. Pleased with myself, I walked back into my bedroom and almost immediately spied a title that would have been a better choice in the poem I’d just assembled.  ARGH. Rats!  I took the title (The True Believer) into the living room and stared at it for a few minutes before deciding to just make a second spine poem. Another photo snapped. Here are the results! What a fun and easy way to get National Poetry Month started.

Spine Poem #1 national poetry month

Spine Poem #1

 

Spine Poem #1
The stranger,
the confidence man,
the secret agent,
the black unicorn,
the catcher in the rye,
the left hand of darkness,
- six easy pieces talking to God
seeing the known world,
clinging to a myth
metamorphoses
voices a strange freedom,
the shape of things to come.

 

Spine Poem #2 national poetry month

Spine Poem #2

 

Spine Poem #2
The truth believer: a fierce discontent,
the miracle worker: the will to change
into the rumored spring
to know as we are known
breathless love in the ruins.

 

Salaam Love (Book Review)

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Review number three for the TwitterBooks Project is of the essay collection, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy.

Twitter Handle: ayesha_mattu
Actual Name: Ayesha Mattu
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: 2-3 months
Book Title: Salaam Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy
Book Format: Library paperback
What I liked: Easy to read, unique content, marginalized voices, multiple perspectives within an identity,  groundbreaking, much-needed.
What I didn’t like: Some essays don’t stand well on their own, senior voices missing.

Copy of Salaam, Love

Copy of Salaam, Love

I first heard about Salaam, Love from Beacon Press’s Twitter account. Beacon Press is the indie publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I’m a UU, and Beacon Press has published some cool stuff, such as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, James Baldwin’s Notes from a Native Son, and the Pentagon Papers. I have a lot of respect for Beacon Press, so I keep an eye on their new titles. But what put this book on my TwitterBooks Project list was a twitter pal mentioning Ayesha Mattu, one of Salaam, Love‘s editors, as a #FollowFriday. I began following Mattu on Twitter, and there you have it.

First of all, I don’t think the importance of this book can be overstated. I grew up “orthodox” Muslim which meant a largely segregated upbringing. Also, no one talked about sex except as a negative.  There was a disconnect between the sexes – men were a mystery if you were a woman; women were a mystery if you were a man.

In the wider, non-Muslim American world, that disconnect also exists. The difference is non-Muslims talk about sex and relationships all the time, but the conversations are rarely informative or respectful of the human spirit.  Still, I believe we’re all getting incrementally better at having useful, open dialogue about sex, gender, and relationships. I haven’t yet read Love, Insha Allah, the  book of essays by Muslim women that preceded Salaam Love, but Mattu and co-editor Nura Maznavi are contributing to a healthier environment by bringing us these collections.

All that being said, let’s look at the essays. There are 22 of them, by American Muslim men from many walks of life. My only quibble about the demographics is that the ages of the men seem to go up to ~50. I wonder what my Dad – in his early 60s – would have to say.  And what do men in their 70s think about sex?

That quibble aside, the essayists represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Several writers are gay, and religious practices vary in terms of sects and level of observance. I struggled initially because I grapple with what it means to be a secular Muslim in America, e.g. why would a person convert to Islam, and then be secular about it? I had to suspend my own disbelief, but reading the book was an excellent opportunity to simply listen.

There are good stories here.  The book is divided into three parts. Part One centers around men straining against seemingly inescapable family ties. Part Two presents men as they navigate the sticky web of romance on their own. Part Three focuses on men exploring – often with surprise – how they’ve been strengthened by bonds of commitment.

A favorite essay is Alykhan Boolani’s “A Grown-Ass Man,” which features lavender prose while being fun and sarcastic. Boolani shows us just how hard it can be to find a suitable match, whether you’re fishing in a small pool or the open sea.  In “A Pair of Photos,” Ahmed Ali Akbar isn’t concerned about his love life – he’s puzzling out what made his parents’ unlikely marriage tick for decades.  As he pores over the past, I thought about steadfastness, a familiar word in religious parlance often glossed over when we talk about marrying for love. Ibraham Al-Marashi in “The Other Iran-Iraq War” demonstrates with deft humor how love can work as a muse. In the palpably written “Planet Zero,” John Austin conveys alienation in Japan. And get the Kleenex out for Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” in which it’s not always clear what’s stronger: his faith in Allah or his love for his wife.

The most useful story for me was A. Khan’s “In the Unlikeliest of Places.” I can’t relate much to his account of getting emotionally lost in drink and exciting hookups, but when an encounter shows him it might be possible to live an integrated life in which he doesn’t deny his gay sexuality, his family, or his religion, a chord was struck. I know that need to reconcile all the parts of ones life; but also, he presented one, very clear image of what it can look like to be a secular-yet-believing Muslim in America. As I said earlier, I’ve struggled with that. This essay picked me right up and dropped me off in a place where I no longer doubt this is possible.

Some of the writers are more adept in their use of language and in story-telling. Looking over my reading notes, it’s obvious that the sum of this collection is greater than its parts. The strength of a book like this is that each particular story adds to the narrative, and while I might only re-read seven or eight of these, I wouldn’t remove any of them from the collection. Not everyone’s a writer, but everyone has a story to tell.  

The result of this collection is that it doesn’t defy gender and religious stereotypes so much as leave them by the wayside like the unnecessary things they are.  While Salaam, Love is groundbreaking for Muslims, I think it’s a service for non-Muslims, as well. People without a Muslim background might have to get over some vocabulary (there’s a handy glossary) that I didn’t think twice about, but in addition to opening up about American Muslim communities, these essayists ultimately give insight into the American male experience of love.

 

 

How to Be Black (Book Review)

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Review number two for the TwitterBooks Project is of Baratunde Thurston’s satirical memoir, How to Be Black.

Twitter Handle: @baratunde
Actual Name: Baratunde Thurston
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: About two years
Book Title: How to Be Black
Book Format: Hardcover book from library
What I liked: Genuine humor, usefulness, originality and I could relate.
What I didn’t like: A few chapters near the end missed the mark for me.

I’m one of those black people with loads of progressive white friends, most of whom probably read this book before I did, because I’m just that hip. When the book first came out two years ago, there was a long wait through the Seattle Public Library, but I only had to wait a week or two to get it this year (SPL has eight copies).

Reading on the Go: My library copy of How to Be Black

Reading on the Go: My library copy of How to Be Black

Baratunde Thurston is a Harvard grad, tech-head, writer, comedian, and co-founder of things. To illustrate the tech-head part: he has 150,000 followers on Twitter, but 1.5 million Google+ users have him in their circles. I first heard about him through Google+ but I keep up with his writing on Twitter.

From its opening pages, this book had me laughing – including its assumption that I was reading it during Black History Month. As a matter of fact, it was Black History Month, but I swear it was a total coincidence! Or was it? I laughed a lot about this – mostly at myself. Thurston starts off with satire, and launches into how his book will help you – if you’re white – meet your annual “I learned about black people” quota. (If you’re black, the book will help you help white people meet their quota.)

After poking fun at white guilt, cultural divides, and Black History Month cram-fests, Thurston switches into memoir mode. Now, Thurston’s lived a pretty impressive life, and we don’t have much in common as adults, but reading about his childhood was enjoyable, familiar, and affirming in a lot of ways. We’re about the same age. In fact, Baratunde was born on the same day I was – one year later.  His mother sounds like a more intense and industrious version of my New Yorker mom, who had our family eating tofu when most Americans were still calling it, “Toe-what?” And like his mom, my parents moved us kids from the inner city to a black suburb in part to get away from drug-related violence and poverty.  I could even relate to Thurston’s experience of having  an “ethnic” name.

How to Be Black is funny and an easy read, but it’s also informative. I hope many of my non-black friends who haven’t read this book do pick it up. While not all black people have the similar childhoods (gasp!), life experiences, or opinions, there’s real value in having an informed and “happy” black man talk  honestly about race for 200-some pages without interruption. Also, the books conveys some black cultural stuff that I sometimes forget many of my friends don’t know!

One of the smartest things about How to Be Black is that Thurston chooses to shares the stage. The book isn’t all about what he thinks. He refers frequently to his Black Panel, an assembly of 7 people (one of them a white guy from Canada), who chime in to give their perspectives, with a range of experiences and personalities.  While Thurston is a fairly extraordinary person, he doesn’t seem to suffer from There Can Only Be One (Black Person Talking) Syndrome.

There were a few chapters I didn’t find to be funny or that I was unclear about the intent of: How to be the Angry Negro and How to be The Next Black President. But the last few chapters are really excellent, so maybe it’s just a case of burying the weakest material somewhere in the middle of the book.

Lastly, I have to say his dedication is great:

“To my mother, Arnita Lorraine Thurston, who embodied authenticity and taught me how to be black, American, human, and awesome. I miss you, Mommy Lady.” 

He truly does owe so much to his mother. By his account, she was a brilliant woman. She was very intentional with her child rearing and put him in positions where he’d be prepared to be successful out in “the world.” But his early years were rooted in blackness and nourished by her love and attention, and maybe because of that he didn’t lose himself when he had to go and navigate an upper crust, very white world. How to Be Black is part memoir, part how-to, and pretty much all funny.

 

Throne of the Crescent Moon (Book Review)

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And here is my first reflection for the TwitterBooks Project (introduced here): A Throne of the Crescent Moon review.  I’m not sure if I’ll stick with this format; we’ll see.

(Note: There was a bit of a hiccup with my blog, during which time it DISAPPEARED entirely because the company that hosted it went bankrupt and shut down without warning. This has been resolved, so I’m back online!)

Author’s Name: Saladin Ahmed
Twitter Handle: @saladinahmed
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: About a year
Book Title: Throne of the Crescent Moon
Book Format: Audiobook via Audible, read by Phil Gigante

What I liked: People of color as protagonists, excellent female representation, manageable length, great dialogue, rapid world-building, 
What I didn’t like: Resolution was tidier than I expected, denouement felt a little long.

Last year I read Saladin Ahmed’s very good collection of short stories, Engraved on the Eye (available for free in Kindle edition),  and in one of the short stories the reader is introduced to ghoul hunter Adoulla Makhslood and his young dervish assistant, Raseed. These two are the main characters in Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon.

Throne of the Crescent Moon review

Throne of the Crescent Moon coverMy experience with fantasy novels is limited and I won’t go into all of the whys, but a big issue for me is  that they tend to be long, very long, or way too long. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a slow reader. I like to take notes when I read, pause to daydream, and look up vocabulary that’s unfamiliar. Now that I have a five-year-old I’ve had to adapt my reading to countless interruptions. Throne is 304 pages – less than 10.5 hours via audiobook. That’s right up my alley. I can do that! I can risk venturing into someone else’s world for only 300 pages


One thing I liked about this book right off the bat was that the characters have names like my own and the world they lived in was faintly familiar. Throne is a fantasy inspired by the old Arab Muslim world, and I grew up with an Arabic Muslim name in the Islamic faith; the spiritual language of these culturally religious characters was connected to a huge part of my own past.

As the story continued, I appreciated the quick world-building. A pet-peeve I have about a lot of fantasy is the pages-long descriptions of terrain, cuisine, castle walls, royal lineage, etc. I don’t require that level of detail in my story-telling – I don’t want that level of detail. I’ll skim over it if I have to, because I want to get back to the characters, the premise and the plot. I don’t know why Ahmed escaped getting bogged down by these things, but I’m grateful for it – and I certainly had a strong impression of what things looked, smelled and otherwise seemed like in the city of Dhamsawaat, in the land of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

Another point of appreciation for me is that like Engraved on the Eye, the female characters are well-written – not less thought-out than the male characters. As a woman, I can’t even express what a pleasure it was to have three female characters in a novel who were just amazing in their own ways. One is young, and the other two are probably in their 40s? Wow, an age range?! Imagine that. And none of them too holy to get mad and yell at somebody. And despite the fact that each of them is loved by a man (and each of the primary good male characters is loved by a woman) there’s not that creepy obsession of going on and on about their bodies and how beautiful they are.

A real strength of the book is the dialogue. Hearing it read by Phil Gigante – holy smokes, is he fantastic! – was a treat beyond treats. I often hit the 30-second rewind just to relish over the snark, barbs, leering, and praises the characters exchange in language barely veiled by formality.  For example, a wealthy spell-maker named Yassir tells Litaz, also a spell-maker (but not wealthy):

“If I’m going to be praised sycophantically when my skill succeeds and called charlatan or witch when it fails, I’ll at least have some coin in the bargain, thank you very much.  Should I bother telling you yet again that there are much handsomer places in the world for you than in that filthy alley with that gnarled husband of yours? Places where your unmatched skills and your more-vital-than-its years body would receive all the appreciation they deserve?”

I was really happy with this story. The writing is solid, the characters are interesting, the Crescent Moon Kingdoms hold much possibility. And I’m not the only one who thought it was good – this book was nominated for the prestigious Hugo (2013) and Nebula (2012) awards. So I’m really behind the times on this! But Ahmed is working on a sequel, which I plan to read as soon as it comes out. Who knows, maybe I will learn to *love* fantasy as a genre, after all.

 

TwitterBooks Project: An Introduction

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From February 13, 2014:

Some of the books I already have and have read by writers I follow on Twitter.

A few books I already own and have read by writers I follow on Twitter.

I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter, where I follow a variety of writers who, between being hilarious, grumpy, chatty, sweet, morose, philosophical and informative, are always working on one thing or another. One day I was retweeting the announcement of a tweep’s new book when I thought, “Hm. Wouldn’t it be cool to read a book by every writer I follow who has published one?”

It’s one thing to follow a person on Twitter, another to read their blog posts or magazine articles – to read their book? Well, that’s just another level of listening. (I’m working on becoming a better listener.)

I was in Colombia at the time, but returned home to Seattle several weeks later, where this thought came up again and again, until I decided to really do it. And now – midway through February – I’ve started. First I went through my follows list of 850ish accounts and tried to identify all the writers. That came to about 130 people, though I suspect I’ve missed a few. (Twitter’s web app doesn’t make searching ones own follows very straightforward). Later, I’ll sort out the ones who haven’t published a book, but it’s easy to leap right in.

Several days ago I put on hold three or four books by people I follow. One or two should be available for pick-up tomorrow, probably Kinky Gazpacho by Lori Tharps or How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. After a long Twitter convo with local Seattleite Stephen Robinson, I purchased his novel Mahogany Slade via Kindle. This afternoon I finished listening to the audiobook of the debut fantasy novel by a pretty entertaining young writer.

I follow some writers whose books I’ve already read – take @campcreek for example. Her book, Project Based Homeschooling, is one I’ve talked about a lot here. Or @everettmaroon and his sweet memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair. A few people I follow are fairly famous authors whose accounts I follow because I read a book they wrote (e.g. @Oliver Sacks and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or @bellhooks and where-to-even-begin-with-her-stellar-body-of-work), so I can tick them off the list if I want.

I follow a few big-name authors whose books I’ve never read – short stories, individual poems or articles, yes – but not books, the majority of my writer tweeps are emerging writers,  indie, niche or “struggling writers” who have only published one or two books through small presses; these are the folks I was really thinking about when I decided to do this.

So I’m going to start a new series here called the TwitterBooks Project. It’s pretty simple and there’s no goal in terms of numbers. I just want to find and read books by the people I follow. One by one. Initially I thought it would take a year, but now that I’m seeing how many writers I follow, I’m thinking it will probably take two years. I’m not a fast reader. But that’s okay. What’s the rush? And as I read them, I’ll come back here and write a little “review” – or to be more truthful – a “reflection” of the book. Why not? It should be fun.

The first book will be @SaladinAhmed’s Hugo and Nebula nominated debut,  Throne of the Crescent Moon

 

 

Rowing Diary: An Almost-Full Moon Vanishes

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I woke up at 4:15 this morning in the midst of a dream, turned off the alarm and fell back to sleep. It was that strange sensation of waking up busy - I can’t recall what was happening in the dream, but I was definitely working and waking up was an interruption.

Boats in a boathouse

Boats in a boathouse

When my second alarm went off at 4:25 I realized what was happening and rose easily. Waking up early hasn’t been a problem since my return … easier than I remembered. Maybe my body is still a bit on Colombia time (three hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time); if so, I’m grateful for this advantage.

The wind forecast had me believing we’d be doing a land workout, so I dressed for the ergs, in a short-sleeve tee and capris. I wore my club’s fleece vest, but when I arrived to the boathouse and joined in on core exercises, Coach was putting together a lineup for an on-the-water row. Luckily, a new member of the team whom I knew from a previous program lent me a long-sleeved, high-necked, fitted jacket. I owe her a debt of gratitude because the wind was biting.

This was my first day touching an oar in nearly three months and I was nervous about stepping into a four. I’ve rowed in fours before, but not much, and I had a perception of them as tippy. And I lacked confidence in the skill-set of one of the people in the boat. This is all a problem, a psychological problem. Being tense, looking for confirmation of ones biases about another rower, not owning ones own flaws, expecting any moment to end up in the water, in short – waiting for something bad to happen: it’s all a distraction!

The sky was mostly clear at first so the water was dark; the wind blew from the south and southwest, and I could feel the apprehension pooling around my feet and beginning to rise. Past experience said to me that this was not the way. Caution is one thing, being freaked out is something else, so I took a few deep breaths and threw my fears into the water, then pictured them drifting away. I settled down, and the apprehension dissolved but for a few puddles.

As we warmed up, the boat was more set than I’d expected. Ahh, the difference between being in a four with members of the local women’s competitive team and being in a four with … people who were definitely not on the competitive team! I tried not to think about my stamina and whether muscle memory would kick in. I decided to focus on what was happening now and not what might happen later in the boat. I floated trust as an option, and trust came through for me.

The water felt heavy at the start – the oar felt heavy!  I didn’t remember having to pull so hard in the past, a sure sign I’m not as strong as I was three months ago. But everything else felt familiar. My foot stretcher and oar required no adjusting, so I didn’t fiddle with or even think about them.  I didn’t feel wildly out of tune, there was no confusion.  

I didn’t focus on any one particular thing, instead reviewing all the basic movements of rowing. My body did remember how to row and the mechanics weren’t a problem. I felt a small strain near my hamstring where I’d pulled my popliteal muscle months ago. I paid attention to that, but the twinges decreased as practice progressed, to my relief! I kept reminding myself to sit up tall, to square up early, to be ready for the catch. Our coxswan was good about reminding us to have fast hands out of bow, so I focused on that as well.

As we headed west toward the ship canal, I could see what appeared to be an almost-full (full moon is tomorrow) moon – bright and yellow in the dark sky – right behind the Aurora Bridge. It was large and really yellow. But by the time we got to the other side of the bridge and I glanced up, it was gone. I couldn’t even tell where it had been. Even though the patchy clouds looked to be flimsy and stretched thin, I couldn’t find that yellow moon anywhere again.

Being in bow, I could see just about everything without feeling self-conscious. The lake was windy but Coach took us and the two 8s toward the Locks, and the shipping canal was largely sheltered and calm. We did warm ups to Seattle Pacific University, then began three minute pieces of 26 spm (for two) and 28spm (for one minute), then upped it, 28spm for two minutes, and 30spm for one, several times … and then upped it again, 30spm for two minutes, 32spm for one, several times, and then ended with 32spm for two minutes and 34spm for one.

Our boat’s stroke coach stopped working right as we began this regimen. I’d had this issue with a stroke coach when I’d coxed on Tuesday so maybe it was the same device. What this meant was our rates were not as challenging. We were able to do the 26 and  28, and probably the 28 and 30, but I have a pretty decent sense of stroke rates and we were not doing 30 and 32 or 34. This was perhaps in my favor – wouldn’t want to pull a muscle on my first day out!

I felt slower than the woman in front of me: was her slide too fast or was my slide too slow? I couldn’t tell. I may have been shortening my stroke, even, to sync up with her without sliding too fast (not good). It was difficult to fix a point in terms of slide control, but I erred on the side of slowing my slide because going into the stern too rapidly is the more common problem. The surprise of the day was my right hand, the pulling hand, began to ache; my wrist felt weak and crinkly. In between pieces, I shook my hands at the wrist to loosen them up, and stretched them. This seemed to help, but my upper body definitely needs strengthening.

Well, it all worked out. My first day on the water worked out okay after all. I didn’t feel hopeless out there. I don’t know how I looked to Coach but I didn’t feel I was so much worse than the rest of my boat.  For the moment, that’s good enough for me!

Being Home Again

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Today marks one week after our return from Colombia, and I don’t feel used to it yet – to being home again. I don’t feel unsettled, either, but without a workplace or school to set the pace, getting back into “the rhythm” is slow and a little strange. Maybe it just won’t happen. After all, how do you get back into the rhythm when the rhythm is your household and 2/3rds of that was away, being re-set?

Hubster says he feels that life is back to normal, but Kidlet and I are still “adjusting.” People keep asking “Are you feeling back to normal? Are you feeling adjusted?” The answer is no, and I’m okay with this. Isn’t that why I left, in part, to have a shift in perspective, to see things a little differently? I think so.

Snow Angel

Snow Angel

One thing is I’m very relaxed! Part of it is Hubster being home (he took a week off work to spend time with Kidlet after being apart for so long), and part of it is the relative ease and comfort of life after all the work of the past two months. The things I fretted about most – keeping tabs on our belongings, acquiring food, locating safe lodging, transportation, and understanding what people were saying – are no trouble at all in Seattle, where we are fortunate enough to have a home, a car and food security.

How long can this feeling of riding the gravy train last? At some point the relativity of it all must wear out? I don’t know, but I’m savoring it and learning from it.  One thing I took away from our trip to Colombia was the belief that it is possible not to be anxious about what’s going to happen next. I observed people living in such a way that they didn’t talk about things not-yet-done as symptoms of a personal problem or even an economic problem, but simply a fact of life.

There will always be things that need to be washed, put away, dusted, repaired, replaced, discarded, learned. Always. So what do I get out of feeling guilty or angry about that? The guilt and the anger don’t need to be present for me to do the work. I keep going back to what that Seattle monk said, “What is the difference between having a problem and having something to do?”

During a conversation over lunch the other day, I mentioned this to a friend who said he really did need those ugly feelings of inadequacy to be motivated. But shame and inadequacy have never been quality fuel for me. We’re all different! This is what makes the world the way it is.

Early this morning I went to the boathouse and coxed an 8 – last night I was apprehensive and studied my coxing manual to refresh my memory. The water was good, the practice was light, and coach and my teammates were sensitive. It all worked out, and I look forward to resuming my sport. I’d wondered if maybe it wouldn’t feel the same when I returned. But I still wanted to be on the water.

Later in the morning, Kidlet and I watched a ten minute film by Yori Norstein called Hedgehog in the Fog. She loves hedgehogs so I figured she’d like it, but I didn’t expect to be so enchanted. In addition to being a beautiful little film, the story – specifically the ending – touched me. It made me think of all the times we go away and have a lasting experience, and then return to our loved ones who simply haven’t had that experience.  Anyway, if you have ten minutes, I think this animated story would be a good use of your time.

Hedgehog in the Fog – Yuri Norstein (1975) from O.C. on Vimeo.

 

Home from Colombia: Discomfort and Parenting On the Road

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Dear Friends,

This morning I woke up on the edge of a dream. In the dream, I was falling out of a hostel bed in a sunlit room, but instead of hitting the floor, I just kept falling. The sheets unfurled furiously as an endless roll, their energy holding my body aloft through some kind of physics. When I opened my eyes, it was pitch-black. Where am I? Then I heard Kidlet, who was cuddled against me, talking to a stuffed doll and sounding very awake. What time is it? My body told me it must be the middle of the night, but my cell phone said it was 5:30am.

The word "LOVE" written on a rock between two boulders, in a Colombian river,

Love on a rock.

I lay still for a moment. I’m home. The sun doesn’t rise in Seattle until almost 7:30am, hence the darkness. It was my second morning home but everything still feels strange. I look around and am struck by how unreal it seems. How cold it is – Seattle is in the midst of an “arctic blast”, as it was when we left -, how white the walls are, how much stuff there is in our flat, and how it’s all mine. Nothing here seems to have changed, it’s been like stepping into a showroom of memories.

Hubster did a great job of housekeeping – coming home to steam-cleaned carpets and a mildew-less shower is wonderful. Kidlet has latched on to Hubster as playmate and companion, freeing me up to unpack and run laundry. I spent much of yesterday taking out my braids while watching the live streaming video coverage of the Seahawks’ post-Super Bowl championship celebration. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Seattle to observe the parade. We live just 2-3 miles away but after 16 hours of travel, I was not ready for that kind of outing – especially not with a windchill of 18 degrees. I enjoyed watching the festivities in warmth and comfort.

 

On Being Comfortable

The incredible thing about modern day travel is the speed, of course. And, compared to the last time I traveled internationally, there is wi-fi and social media that can make it feel as though you haven’t quite left home.  Initially, I’d planned to abstain from social media for the most part, wanting to feel truly immersed in Colombia. That lasted a few weeks, until I couldn’t resist the siren call of connection to the familiar.

I have mixed feelings about it, and am not sure it was a good idea to use social media so much. On the one hand, it helped me keep sane with a young child; on the other hand, I looked at backpackers spending an hour or more in the evenings, logged into their FB pages, doing video chats with friends back home, and otherwise “connecting” and saw the reflection of myself. To connect with fellow travelers – the people we’d traveled thousands of miles to encounter – took a lot more effort. And at the end of a long day of stretching your mind with a foreign language, testing your patience with foreign customs, and aggravating your stomach with foreign food, “more effort” isn’t always appealing.

Days before returning home, Kidlet had to go to hospital

Hospital visit.

One thing about our 56 days in Colombia is that I felt like so much happened, yet I’d wanted so much more. We didn’t go to the Amazon (I’m okay with this because BUGS), we didn’t make it to the desert, and we didn’t make it to a white sands beach (this I truly regret). My Spanish, though it improved dramatically, did not improve as much as I’d wanted – because I didn’t study the way I’d planned. I’d underestimated key things, like the amount of time it would take to travel around the country; and overestimated other things – like how well we’d handle the heat.

There were days I thought, “I give up; I just want to go home.” And if I’d had the ability to instantly transport us back, I’d have done it. There were nights with scary bugs, and frightening rural animals, and vomit, and sickness and discomfort. There were days when Kidlet and I would literally be standing in the street, glaring at each other; if we possessed horns, they ‘d be well-worn by now. And yet, as easily as one might turn a page, the next day we’d be smiling together in the sunshine, hands swinging together, feeling like the most fortunate pair of people to have each other and this experience.

It was always remarkable, the way things turned around. By the end of the trip I’d begun to anticipate that experience of dawn after the night. A horrible, lousy experience would seem to be followed by an especially wonderful one. A case of comparison, or was it objectively the case? It’s hard to say, and I can’t claim objectivity. On this trip, state of mind accounted for almost everything.


Parenting on the Road

I took Kidlet on this trip for many reasons: I missed traveling; I wanted to improve my Spanish; I wanted to introduce her to Spanish; I wanted her to see the world; I wanted her to understand that life is different in other places, and not to take her cushy life in Seattle for granted or assume it was the same way for everyone everywhere; I wanted her to develop patience, learn to do without so many things and get used to schedules and plans that didn’t revolve around herBut as is often the case when I, as her parent, try to “teach” Kidlet anything, I discovered that my determination for her to learn certain “lessons” was a cosmic joke. Two weeks into the trip and I was constantly and miserably aware of my hypocrisy. After hearing myself irritably and even aggressively tell Kidlet, “I need you to be patient!” over and over, I began looking at myself with the same wary look she was giving me..

Kidlet contemplates torture at the Inquisition Museum in Cartagena

Inquisition Museum in Cartagena

Kidlet, to her credit, met me head-on with obstinate, outspoken and downright rude behavior the likes of which I had no idea she was capable of. It was a struggle. Traveling solo for two months with a five year old was far more challenging than I’d imagined. There were days when I resented her so much, right alongside feeling that she was the saving grace of the entire experience.

Night after night I’d lay in bed feeling like a failure, as a traveler and as a parent. But day after day, the sun rose and I could try again. We began to start the mornings off with the words, “Today, let’s love each other and be kind to each other.” A futile exercise? It felt so, at first. I tried so many manipulative methods to get Kidlet to do what I felt I needed her to do, methods I’d barely entertained at home – bribery, threatening, intimidation, guilt-tripping; bribery with threatening and guilt-tripping, etc!

Kidlet threw them all back in my face. She gobbled up my bribes and then demanded more while refusing to do what I’d “asked.” She repeated my threats to me at the most embarrassing, ridiculous times. She started saying horrible things about herself that I’d originally said about myself in useless attempts to elicit sympathy from her. There was no escape. Whatever one of us threw out, the other would be hit with, and it would just continue back and forth like a ball bouncing between two walls placed irrationally close together.

The whole while I kept waiting for a breakthrough, an epiphany, that tremendous a-ha! moment – in part because I’m writing a book about the experience, and that kind of thing is convenient. But I should have known by now that in my life things don’t happen like that. There is no sudden storm, relief from the drought – there is no drought! There’s just one not-too-dissimilar day after another, lined up like beads on a string. And so finally, towards the end of our eight weeks on the road, I began to surrender to the reality of moving forward one half-step at a time. Some moments or hours I wanted to throw a fit, “I just can’t anymore! Why do I have to be kind! Why do have to work so hard to be the parent!”

Brave Kidlet

Brave Kidlet

But eventually I was able to get to the point where I could surrender with dignity. I could refuse to say something cruel or manipulative, I could abstain from churlish demands for “respect,” I could resist the urge to throw my weight around. I could just say, “That is NOT okay,” and leave it at that for the moment. One foot in front of the other. And I apologized more, and when I apologized I found she would often immediately apologize for her actions. And by the end I was very amazed, and very proud of Kidlet for pushing me to parent smarter and demanding better of me than what was easy.

When I was her age, I wouldn’t have had the fortitude or self-regard to withstand the badgering she suffered from me for weeks on end. I was a good little girl, who never caused anyone any trouble; I had no guts at all.  It’s become apparent over the last two months that my daughter is very different from me. She is already starting off on her own path, and the influence I have over her is more and more about what she observes me doing on my path.

Was it a good experience? Yes, obviously. (Is it obvious?) Would I do it again? Well, that’s like asking me right after I gave birth to Kidlet if I would “do it again.” I’m glad it happened, and I don’t regret it, but I’m not ready to do it all over again right now. It was a lot of work, and there’s still a lot for me to reflect on and collect from the experience.

Besos,

HSofía

Boyacá, Colombia

Boyacá, Colombia