Problem Relax Okay

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Let me tell you something important: in Slovakia I’ve found the land of beautiful women. Between the women and the landscape, I’m stunned at every turn.

That said, yesterday we hiked down a slope so steep and so rocky I didn’t dare look up. If I’ve learned anything so far it’s that I am incapable of walking and looking at the spectacular vistas — or even of walking and talking — at the same time. I’ve almost bought the farm more than once. More than lots. The other day while hiking downhill in deep mud I started to answer a question and instantly lost my footing. If it hadn’t been for the sturdy branch on one side and the guide behind me, I would have slid right down the bank on my back, and taken a few fellow hikers with me.

Note to self: I think I “hike” at home, but ha! Those are like country meadow strolls in comparison.

Note to self #2: You should have brought your f-ing hiking boots even if they are old and kind of hurt your feet. (poor last minute decision-making)

Note to self #3: At least you brought the trekking poles, so relax, you’re not a complete idiot.

Last night I skipped dinner for a massage. The first big burly sweetheart who brought me back smiled huge and said, “American!! My grandmother in Illinois!” But when I responded he shook his head to say sorry, that’s all my English. This is how I often feel in other countries. I can maybe say hello and cheers and “my name is” but one they answer I’m lost.

When the right guy finally found me he was clearly disappointed. I could not for the life of me figure out what he wanted. I somehow locked him out of the room. I laid down under the wrong towel and boy was it interesting fixing that! Then my head was in the wrong place. The little bit of draping kept sliding off. We finally both started laughing when I tried to turn the table over.

I soon learned that he knew at least 3 words I could understand. When he found a sore spot he would say, with a sad sweet voice, “Problem.” Then “Relax.” And when I let go he would sigh and say, “Ahhhhh. Okay.” Always in that order.

Problem + Relax = Okay.

I’m going to try and remember that on the rocks and mud today. Words to keep me on the path and on my feet. No talking needed.

Big Black Dog Syndrome

At shelters, they have what they call BBD: Big Black Dog syndrome. Potential adopters pass right by the cages and kennels of the black and dark brown as if these dogs (and cats) do not exist, as if they don’t matter in the scheme of things, as if these animals are scary, bad luck. Too much a risk to take home a dark stranger. Unjustified fear.

Last night we went for a wine tasting in Volgy, Hungary. The son wore a black t-shirt and, unlike his parents spoke English, so served as both host and interpreter. We were welcomed into the wine cave by the son, the mother, and the father, where they’d set a simple but lovely table. While the Attila the son (I swear that was his name) poured wines and described each one, his mother served us homemade goulash and sliced peppers and bread and strudel. She sat with us and we laughed and visited and told (sometimes crude) stories and shared photos of our children — because, if you try just a little, you can spend a charming, meaningful, laughter-filled evening with foreigners, even if you start out a little afraid, even if we have no common language.

We hugged and kissed our newfound Mama goodnight. And she pulled us in closer.

Our American culture programs us for fear. I was warned by many a well-meaning friend that this trip was too scary to go on. “You realize what you’re doing is dangerous?” “I wouldn’t leave the country right now.” Israel is bombing Gaza. The Ukraine. Translation: THE WORLD AND ITS FOREIGNERS ARE SCARY. Of course they are. Because our TV news and web news shows a constant loop of danger, because they choose, of the many crimes committed in a day, to show the black faces of people we don’t know. Unjustified fear sells. 

You know what’s scary? Knowing you are locked in a cage and no one cares. You know what’s scary? The Ferguson police force, a mere 2 hour drive from where I grew up. 

I’m so outraged at what’s happening this week in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s hard to go to sleep at night. I read the news online before bed, see the cops in military gear, and feel my anger rise.

Several people told me I was stupid (that’s the word they used) to go on this trip. It’s funny, I went to Chicago last weekend where there were 46 shootings and 3 deaths and not a single friend expressed concern for my safety.

Black dogs. Black cats. Black unarmed teenage boys. Scary, unloveable, unpredictable, dangerous. Beware. Don’t bother to get to know them, to take them in like Mama, like family. It’s easier to pass by, to leave them to die in their cages. To shoot them down.

Today we are driving out of Hungary, into central Slovakia. Yet another dark unknown. But I’ve been here 5 days with 9 to go and, even though I can’t read the signs or calculate money without focused effort or speak the language At All, I feel at home, open to strangers, unafraid, and safe. I’m hoping for the same in the shelters. In Gaza. In Ferguson. In all of your homes tonight. 

They Got Claire Right

Outlander-blue-cover-198x300When I heard that Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER novels were being made into a series for the Starz TV network, I was worried.

I’m a self-declared expert on all things OUTLANDER.  I recommend the series to every single woman I’ve ever met.  I’m even a bit of a bully about it:  “You must read these books!”

I’ve read the first few books in the series more than once, and I’ve listened to the first one on audio more times than I can count.  What if the filmmakers ruin this terrific story?  What if they miscast the characters or the filming comes off cheap and campy and cheesy?  What if Claire Randall, the main character and unreliable narrator, is all wrong?!

I need not have worried.

At all.

The premiere is tomorrow (Saturday) night, but if you have On Demand you can watch it now.  Like … RIGHT NOW.  I’ve already seen Episode One — “Sassenach” — three times.  And I. Love. It.

Here’s what Diana Gabaldon had to say about her initial project:  I didn’t intend that anyone should ever see this book.  I wrote it for practice, as a means of learning to write a novel, and chose historical fiction because I was a research professor — I knew how to look things up.  But after all … if no one was going to see it ….

Of course I had no idea this incredible saga started out as “practice.”  That she never intended to publish the book, for anyone to see a single word of it.  From a writer’s perspective, this is such a lesson.  As hard as it is, I believe we should always write our books as if no one will ever see them —- it’s the only way to be totally free of inhibition and expectation.  (all of you who write books, or even essays or short stories, know exactly what I mean)

If you’ve never read the OUTLANDER series, beware, it’s addictive.  There’s history and mystery and lust and adventure and graphic sex and time travel and the Scottish Highlands of 1743 and the powerful, very real and extraordinary Claire Randall. The producers got Claire just right for the Starz series.  Perfection at work.

 *comments are OFF*

That 15 Year Gap

mind_the_gap__12121So it’s a few days before the big Hungary/Slovakia/Poland trip and we’ve received an email from our guides listing suggested equipment.

Rain gear.

Trekking poles.

They even want us to bring hiking boots, for god’s sake.  Because it’s a hiking trip.  The nerve!

When I hike around here, even in steep terrain, I’m so unsophisticated I wear regular old running shoes.  I own a good pair of boots, sure, but they’re so stiff and serious-looking and have been unworn and shoved into the back of many closets for the last 15 years.

I found my boots yesterday.  They are filthy.  There are real live cobwebs involved, and dead spiders in the toes.  I hope like hell they fit.

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IMG_0954 - Version 2Also yesterday, I saw a great good friend I’ve not seen — like my boots — for 15 years.  Because that’s how these things happen, right??

Liz was not just a casual friend.  Liz was in the “best” category of friends.  We worked together.  We played together.  I spent many nights/weekends at her house in my pj’s drinking coffee out of my very own Minnie Mouse mug.  Her home was my home, in every way.  Our husbands were friends loooooong before Liz and I even met.  Which means, of course, that if I didn’t know Liz I wouldn’t have the family I have now.

That kind of great good friend.

And yet, life somehow happened and away we both went.

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As I drove my hours into the city yesterday, to see Liz and her family, I got to thinking about missing years.  How is it that we shove perfectly good boots and perfectly good friends into the back of the closet?  Why are we sometimes so quick to turn our backs and move on with life, to ignore or discard what’s so intrinsically valuable to us?

For 15 whole years.

15 years ago we were still writing 19** on paper checks and terrified of Y2K.  15 years ago I was in my mid-30’s and had no idea my mother was already dying.  15 years ago Liz moved to Montana and I moved to Seattle and Minneapolis and California.  15 years ago her daughters — now in college! — were such babies they hadn’t even started school yet.  15 years ago I was working on my B.A., my husband was changing jobs, my daughter had just left for college, and my son had just gotten braces.

And.  Well.  That’s how we get lost.

Which brings me back to the boots.

I bought my boots in 1999.  I bought them because we were taking our son, understandably irritated by his new mouth-hardware, on a drive across the US of A to hike the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, all culminating in Montana, where we boarded a pontoon boat and followed the Lewis & Clark trail.  We stayed with Liz and her family before getting on the boat.  I remember going to a cabin on a lake.  I remember it was unseasonably hot.  I remember going to Costco for a pie.  I remember riding a horse.

And then 1999 goes blank.

Until yesterday.

Until yesterday, when I found my boots and my friend again.  When everything still fit.  When I did my best to mind this inexplicable 15 year gap.

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What, or who, have you left for too many years?  

The Year of Saying Yes

This coming Tuesday, at exactly 10:14 a.m., I will turn 49 and thus begin my 50th year …. which I’m declaring “The Year of Saying Yes.”

Yes to the last minute lunch invitation that I always turn down.

Yes to the late dog walk when I just want to lie down.

Yes to staying at my desk for that extra hour or 3 to write and rewrite when I’m soooo done and I don’t feel like writing anymore.

Yes to traveling by plane or by car (no matter how complicated or difficult) to see the people I love most.

Yes to reading authors like James Michener and Sara Paretsky because I’m bored with the literary darlings and just want someone to tell me a goddamned good story.

Yes to more vegetables and less pizza (after tonight!)

Yes to writing more essays where I have the most unpopular opinion.

Yes to that miserable hike up Hell Hill.

Yes to less news … TV and internet and Twitter.

Yes to calling more and texting less.

I hear that calling — actually ringing someone’s phone and hoping they answer — is now considered rude.  What in the hell is wrong with us?

But I digress….

In this Year of Saying Yes, I’m starting by saying Yes to a last-minute invitation to hike and tour Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland with an acquaintance, 6 people I’ve never met, and 2 guides.

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Which is why I’m reading Michener’s POLAND.

See?

I’m not messing around.

I’m 49.

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What are you trying that’s different, that’s shaking you up?

The Ayelet Decade

I distinctly remember the first time I told another woman that I liked Ayelet Waldman.

We were both “older” students at San Jose State, taking a night class in early 20th century literature.  I barely knew the woman and mentioned I’d found a book that I’d ended up loving on Ayelet’s website — a site I checked regularly for it’s brief, honest reviews —  and the woman went absolutely batshit: Oh my god, not Ayelet Waldman.  I hate that woman!  She’s a disgrace!

This rant came shortly after Ayelet had published her smart and thoughtful essay about loving her husband more than her children, and then appeared on Oprah.  I remember reading the essay.  I remember watching the Oprah episode, live.

I knew she’d be bullied by the masses.  I remember how scared Ayelet looked in the Oprah intro (which Oprah, frankly, did nothing to alleviate) and, at the same time, how very strong she held her body, how brave and powerful she seemed in the face of so much criticism.  Her grace as the hour went on and on.

And, no coincidence, that’s about the time I started writing bolder essays and memoir.  I know that watching Ayelet navigate the aftermath of her essay made me a better writer, a braver writer; watching her taught me that being afraid of the reaction is not only okay, it’s preferred.  That fear is one of the best reasons to write an essay at all.

So I thank you, Ayelet Waldman.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

ayelet-waldman-bad-mother-250 ayelet-waldman-love-and-treasure-2501

 

 

Commitments

51nBWagGhXLBecause I’ll be in the region soon, I’m about to start reading this 30 yr old Michener saga.

Yes, I’ve got a giant stack of fancy new releases, mostly literary fiction and mostly recommended by the who’s who, but it’s still the long days of summer and I have time to dig into 600 pages of historical fiction for no other reason than this:  I feel like it.

I met with a fellow writer this week and we were talking about commitment.  As in, how committed are we, am I, to writing.  He’d recently attended a writing conference where an elderly, well-known physician/writer was asked, How were you so accomplished in both professions?

His answer:  I did nothing else.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation.  How committed am I, what with rescuing dogs and going to visit my kids and spending time with friends and going for daily walks and/or hikes and looking for a farmhouse and writing essays that have nothing to do with my memoir and going to concerts with my husband and having dinner with our neighbors on the patio and, as if that’s not enough, I’m about to head out on a one-in-a-lifetime trip in Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.

Like I said, I’ve been thinking about it.  And honestly all I can come up with is that I am committed to my writing and finishing this memoir, but I also need to be living my life in order to do it.  Life is too short.  It just is.  And — at least right now — I’m not willing to do nothing else.

So I’ll be going to see my kids and I’ll have a beer with our very own Lyra.  And then I’m going to get ready for my next adventure by reading some Michener.  I was looking back at the reviews of POLAND and found this review from the NYT from September 1983.  While no one seems to think the story is perfect — what story is? — Michener was known for his exhaustive research and his ability to weave page-turning fiction through thousands of years of history.

And right now, that sounds just about perfect.