I am not writing

Bark

I am not writing about another man with black skin who was shot and killed by a person in a uniform and I’m not writing about the man with orange hair who spouts words like a whale exhales. I’m not writing about the thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced from their homes due to violence or due to flooding or drought, famine or pestilence or illness. I’m not writing about the woman running, running, running and still being judged as not being good enough. I’m not writing about the men kneeling in silent dissent nor the men yelling as spittle flies off their lips. I’m not writing about my city apportioning dollars to lock up more youth and spend more money on militarizing the police.

I’m not writing about how the words all turn into lumps in my throat, because I get to be comfortable and I do not have to give children lessons in how to navigate a system that would rather they are dead.

I’m not writing about the lessons I learned growing up, as a Jewish child, about Auschwitz and Hitler and Nazis. I repeat the stories about people being rounded up, being catalogued and herded on trains. I always wondered why people never did anything, even when they knew. But I know what is happening and I have no fucking clue how to change it. I despair. I fear I’m a coward.

I bear witness to countless stories, the refrains echo, and the chorus grows bigger. My heart continues to break, beyond what I thought possible. This is not my pain. I don’t have answers.

I am not writing, but I am listening.

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Photo Essay

I don’t know where my words are these days. They feel incredibly submerged. So I’m going to share some pics I’ve taken recently that really just please me.

Sunset at Pike Place Market

yellow pink dahlia

Dahlia drops

fibonnaci sunflower

Sunflower

blood red moon

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Resilience and Risk Taking

hanging meadow

Last fall I started developing a severe pain in my left knee, particularly when walking down hills. I could limp through it, but even a mild incline provoked incredible pain. I finally decided to go see a physical therapist in December. Fairly quickly the pain in my knee went away, but it just moved up to my hip and back. This wasn’t any better than the initial issue that brought me in, so I fired that physical therapist and went to another one.

This new physical therapist has a very approach than the two others I’ve worked with. The foundation of her work is based on what she calls “ring correction” which has to do with how the ribs poke out (this is my horrible lay person’s understanding). So when I first started working with her, she didn’t have me do anything with my left knee. Instead, we started work on my right foot.

It’s been an incredibly slow and subtle process. If I didn’t have over 16 years of practice paying deep attention to my body, I don’t know how I would make any progress in this method. It requires a lot of trust (in the physical therapist and myself) and patience.

On Friday my PT  was massaging a very tender and sensitive part of my armpit. I joked about being so sensitive. She paused and said, “You’re sensitive, but you’re also tough.” This led to her asking me about my experience at Amazon and how I recovered from that.

I told her that I have tremendous sitzfleisch which means I can literally sit and tolerate a lot of crap. But at a certain point, if there is no purpose, even I will give up. So to her point about me being sensitive but tough, if the pain/discomfort leads to something better, I can tolerate it.

We talked about resilience, and I told her I spent a lot of time thinking about resilience. I’m pretty sure I made that word my theme a few years ago. At any rate, in my investigations about resilience, here is what I want to say about developing and cultivating resilience in self. First, make sure you are getting enough food and rest. I know when I’m tired and/or hungry I’m much more brittle. Second, having a support network is vital. Third, take risks!

When I was working with my therapist, once I had regained a certain level of stability/feeling of safety, it was time for me to move back into the world. But I was terrified of fucking everything up. I thought any level of failure would mean DOOOOM. I started by taking small risks. And in order to make it easier to try things, I decided to make this my measure for success: did anyone die?

Risk-taking builds up resilience, is what I’m trying to say. BUT, these risks have to be in things that matter to you. If the risks don’t connect to a larger purpose, well, I’m not sure what happens, to be honest. I think that falls under just faffing about. It can be useful in that I can prove to myself that I can take a risk, but if there is nothing at stake, what kind of risk is it?

So, in the last four years I’ve been practicing taking risks. At first tiny ones with low stakes. As I developed my risk/resilience muscle, I’ve been taking more risks. My therapist told me that happy people take more risks. Is it because they are happy that they take more risks, or it that taking more risks makes them happy? All I know from my experiment the last few years is that in taking risks I’ve become an active participant in my life again, instead of passively waiting for things to happen.

I’m curious to hear from folks about their experience around resilience. What increases yours? And what risks are you taking toward your own goals?

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Failure, part 3293409

Many of you know that I have spent some time thinking about failure, how failure is defined, what it means, and so on and so forth.

agave

Recently, as in possibly three weeks ago, I was feeling like an UTTER failure. You know, the kind where you think you will NEVER do anything, no one likes you, why are you even BOTHERING? Yeah, that kind. I wondered why my friends liked me, why my employer hadn’t fired me, and if anyone would ever want to buy anything I wrote. I was like: hand to forehead WOE.

I rode it out. I talked to people. I checked reality. An acquaintance reminded me this was chemicals swishing around in my body. Eventually the storm passed, I dragged my weary soul back to dry land and took stock. I was fine. Nothing had changed, really, only my perception.

When I feel like that, in the morass of it all, I still try to keep my agreements with myself. It helps me to not spiral further down. And in the midst of that storm, I applied for a writer’s workshop that is held in the fall. I thought I was unworthy. I wouldn’t get in. But I would bother, and I would let them decide, before I rejected myself.

Last week my friend Nicole recommended the podcast Magic Lessons, which is by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). I was a little skeptical, since I wasn’t a fan of the book. But I’ve heard at least one of her TED talks, and I trust Nicole. The first episode was an interview with someone that Gilbert was coaching. It resonated for me. I had downloaded the last one, and none in between. The last was an interview with Brene Brown, who writes amazing stuff around vulnerability. Gilbert talked about people who had leapt and the net didn’t appear. Brown said, “What’s worth doing, even if I fail?”

“What do you love doing so much the word “failure” doesn’t have any meaning?” Gilbert asked. They go on to talk about inspiration and what it owes you, about being present to the process of creation and not focused on the outcomes.

I was starting to despair about moving to the next level with my writing. Saturday I came home from hanging out with some writer heroes of mine. I felt so encouraged just from those conversations. I checked my email and I found an acceptance to a writer’s workshop on the east coast. I was so stunned I made my girlfriend read it out loud. After so many rejections, it just seemed … so easy.

But when I stop and think about it more, I have been steadily working on improving my writing, however slow my pace might be. Most of our effort is like the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We only see the tiny fraction that sticks above it. And the truth is, most successes are built on many, many failures. There has to be effort and feedback and recalibration. There has to be support and encouragement. And in the process of applying for writing workshops, I have continued to make the effort.

So I’m thinking about my relationship to failure, to my ideas around failure, and the position I hold with regard to it. What would it mean if I take the idea of failure off the table? This is going to be a huge challenge for me. As I told my friend Daryl on Saturday, I’m horribly extrinsically driven. I like pleasing other people. And deadlines. Daryl suggested knowing these things could help me hack my brain into producing. So I’m going to consider that. There is no one right way to do anything. It’s the doing.

So I am going to keep plodding. And plotting.

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Reading the Other

I don’t quite know how to start this, so I’m just going to start. It feels like it’s a tangle of things, but maybe there’s a knife to cut this Gordian knot.

A friend told me last week that he doesn’t like first person POV because he doesn’t like being forced to experience things from another person’s point of view. I can kind of go along with that, but his example really upset me. He said he doesn’t want to read from inside the POV of a teenage girl.

Quelle horror. I mean, what could be worse than being a teenage girl? Apparently nothing.

He went on to justify his stance by saying that third person POV is okay, because it allows him to empathize alongside the character. First person forces him to be the character.

I’m going to go on a slight tangent now. In the last couple of years there have been a lot of calls on social media for diverse representation in fiction, television and movies. More recently there has been a call out of whitewashing, which is using white actors to portray characters that were originally non-white. (Hashtags: weneeddiversebooks which spawned the site We Need Diverse Books; whitewashedOUT is from the Asian-American community. More on that in this piece from the NYT. ownvoices is another hashtag commenting on the need for people to tell their own stories.)

I said this on Twitter the other day, because there were some people who expressed a desire to see Captain America get a boyfriend.

I’ve seen similar sentiments about giving Elsa (from Frozen) a girlfriend.

Okay, back to my point, and I DO HAVE ONE. When I was in high school, I read Catcher in the Rye. I don’t remember if it was required reading, but it was required in my mind. IT IS TOLD FROM THE POV OF A TEENAGE BOY. OMG. And let me say, further, that almost nothing I read in high school reflected any of my identities or realities. I have read countless stories from the POV of people who are nothing like me.

Gah, this makes me so angry and frustrated. For me, one of the reasons to read is to experience something different than myself, and since most of what’s available doesn’t reflect my identities, I’ve learned to enjoy those things. It is a privilege to have so much material to choose from and still have things left over that all reflect one’s identity.

I’d also like to make the case for reading (and otherwise enjoying various types of media) that don’t reflect white heterosexual cisgendered male realities. As I said in my tweet, we are tired of scraps, of hints, of winks and nods. We are tired of only being sidekicks and punchlines. None of this is new. I’m nowhere near to being the first person to say any of these things.

Since I’m ranting specifically about first person, I’m going to keep it in the first person. I am tired of not getting my happy ever afters, of always being the villain, of being alone, or being the monster. I’m exhausted at being seen as less than, as other, as subhuman. And it’s incredibly painful to not see myself reflected in the world around me. It makes me feel quite lonely. Literally one of the most comforting things I can hear is, “You are not alone.” There are many ways I can tell I’m not alone, and seeing reflections are constant reminders of that.

A couple of years ago there was a fantastic essay written by a woman about how she hated the strong female character.

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

Men get to be complicated and messy and all kinds of things in fiction. Women, not so much. Same for other groups. As an aside, I think strong means fully-fleshed out and humanized, but it’s come to mean what the writer above defines.

I want to touch on erasure and ownvoices a little bit more. There is media that is not made for you. I’m not saying you have to understand it. Or like the experience. I’m asking you to consider the possibility of a world that is different and richer for having these representations in the world. There are people, like me, who don’t understand your world, and we are crowbarred into it from a very young age.

I’m also going to recommend a few titles written in first person that fall under the ownvoices umbrella:

  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death by James Tiptree (I’m not going to get into gender identity/policing, if you weren’t aware, Tiptree was a male pseudonym for a female writer)
  • Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
  • Tides by Betsy Cornwall
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemison

Although these works aren’t written in first person, I recommend checking out Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno­ Garcia and Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, too.

Consider this an invitation, my friend, into my world. The lenses may feel uncomfortable and alien, but I can pretty much assure you this: it isn’t going to kill you, but the lack of representation makes it a hell of a lot harder for the rest of us.

If any of you reading this have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments! My preference would be to for works that are written by a member of the group presenting that POV. Thanks!

*The title of this blog post is an oblique reference to the fantastic work of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward: Writing the Other, which is a program to help writers understand how to better represent people who are different from themselves in their writing.

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Favorites

Last week a friend of mine asked me what my favorite song was. I have to admit, I’m not much of an audiophile. I enjoy music mostly as a sensory experience, and if it doesn’t sound pleasant, I tend not to like it much. There aren’t many songs where I listen to the lyrics, too. So when he asked me that question, I had to go with “Long Road/Long Ride Home” by Patty Griffin (I’m not sure what the actual title is; I’ve seen both).

car lights

I started to tell him the story in the song, about a man whose wife has died and he is thinking back about their marriage. It’s this verse that gets me:

Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed
Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said
How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead
I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

I love this song because it makes me feel something deeply, and there isn’t a lot of music that does that for me. Also, I feel grateful that my relationship isn’t full of regret, like the person in this story.

You can go listen to the song here.

What songs do you love?

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The Long Con

I’ve been thinking about seduction, falling in love, and the creative process. I keep thinking there are multiple strands I have to weave together, threads to embroider, knots to untangle, but it turns out there aren’t.

I’ve written about distractions before, so I’m not going to spend time on that. I’m just going to say it’s easy to get pulled away from the things I want to focus on – to a point. And that is what I want to talk about.

Heart birds

For the last several months I’ve been tweeting a good night/morning message. Last night it was: “good night existentialists. Good morning absurdists.” I do this because it amuses me. There’s no reward. Sometimes one or two people will respond. Mostly I feel like it just gets lobbed into cyberspace. It’s enough for me that a couple of people here and there seem to like it. I probably ignore a ton of stuff or don’t let the creator know necessarily that I liked something they did. I don’t take it personally that I don’t get much feedback.

It’s easy to get discouraged, to think no one cares, but it matters less and less to me as I let myself fall in love with the work. I feel the pull of the creative process and I’m resisting it less.

This is to say that a slow, steady, persistent effort turns into something else. Recently I had a few friends tell me how much they like these tweets. Individually they don’t stand up to scrutiny, but together, they’ve turned into something else. A little ritual. It’s something I love doing. And even though it might seem like no one else is noticing the effort, it turns out when I raise my head up out of the sand, they are.

There is a second part to this immersion: valuing what you love. I think it’s easy to get distracted when I don’t think what I want to spend my time on is worthy. Over the course of a year there was construction going on across the street from the yoga studio where I practice. I went to a morning yoga class, three times a week. The construction noise was constant. At the beginning of class, I would notice all the banging and clanging, but by the end, I had become so absorbed in my effort that all the noise faded away. It didn’t even bother me in savasana.

Having had this experience, I know I can create the same kind of focused effort in other areas, in areas that I care about. I just want to make a note that I’m not discussing the financial component of making art in this post. I will probably get there one day, but I’m not to that point right now.

Part of my effort this year is enjoying the seduction, and not just in the passive “oh look you brought me flowers and chocolates and wine” way, but bringing myself as an active participant in the process. So I’m doing what I love, and not worrying if anyone else will love it or not. Because just like the tweets, the truth is, there probably are people out there who will.

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Push, Pull, Release

Last spring my friends Otts tweeted this:

That last line resonated so deeply for me. “I’m still trying to figure out who I am without the struggle.”

We had a brief conversation on Twitter which led to a collaboration that I’m super excited to share with you. Otts is a visual artist, and I work in the medium of words. He encouraged me to write something up and said he would draw a comic based on what I wrote. I had never worked with a visual artist, and I didn’t know what to provide. I barfed up a bunch of words about resistance, righteous anger, defending the boundaries and self care. I don’t want to say too much about what I wrote, but instead share what he created:

Push, Pull, Release

Panel 1

Panel 1

Panel 2

panel 2

Panel 3

panel 3

Panel 4

panel 4

Panel 5

panel 5

Panel 6

panel 6

Panel 7

panel 7

Panel 8

panel 8

Otts shared his process with me, and I will post that in a couple of days. In particular, I love that he included the tea ritual in this piece, since many of you know what an avid tea drinker I am!

Here are a couple more examples of Otts wonderful work:
Sisters – animation for LoopDeLoop
Motion Corpse No 3

Please let him know what you think! Personally, I think he is a wonderful person AND artist.

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Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum

In December I made the trek down to Tacoma with two friends to see the Art AIDS America exhibit. I expected it to be intense, but beyond that, I had no idea what it would be like. The week before I went down, a group protested in front of the museum to express their anger and sadness at the small number of artists in the show who were people of color, since 40% of people living with HIV/AIDS today are PoC.

The exhibit felt overwhelmingly white and focused on gay men. I have a few theories as to why, related to who had access to support, whose voices were and are being listened to, and how the early AIDS activism was fueled and driven by white gay men.

Altogether, there were over 100 pieces in the exhibit. Apparently I took pictures of about a quarter of them. There was a lot of staring death in the face, like Tino Rodriguez’s Eternal Lovers, which also took advantage of lack of gendered markers. Many of you know I love calaveras, and I loved the interpretation of this one.

Eternal Lovers

The Tale of 1000 Condoms/Geisha and Skeleton flirted with the macabre, again, staring death defiantly in the face.

Tale of 1000 Condoms/Geisha and Skeleton

Many of the pieces I saw engaged with death and dying, bodies wasting away, the corporeal husks that so many people turned their eyes from, but the gaze was unflinching and loving.

Some pieces invited us to interact:

In the sand

In the sand
write the names
of those you
loved and lost
to Aids

So I wrote “Jerry” the sweet doorman from the Timberline, and Mark, another doorman at the Timberline with his Tom Selleck mustache and gentle spirit, and Jim, my dad’s college roommate. After each name I swept my fingers through the sand and thought of Keats’ gravestone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Glenn Ligon’s “I am not an invisible man” was particularly chilling after the protest:

Untitled (I am an invisible man)

I’m only going to talk about one more piece: Silence = Death:

Silence = Death

I had this on a button when I was in college. I wore it pinned on my backpack. During the summer of ’92 I traveled around Europe. I remember being at a hostel, I think in Switzerland, and someone saw the button and said to me, “Sometimes silence equals life.” I kept silent, but I wish I hadn’t, because now I understand in a way I never could have then, that the price of silence is the death of the soul.

I really encourage you to look at the entire album. I included a lot of the plaques that give a lot more explanation. Or you can read this write up from The Stranger that gives a lot more context and information. It was what made me want to see the exhibit.

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Hermes and the Tyger

In the spring of 2001, my girlfriend took a trip to France. At the end of her visit, she called me from Paris and asked if there was anything I wanted. I told her I didn’t want anything, but she kept bugging me, so I told her to get me an Hermes scarf.

One thing you should probably know at this point. In French, Hermes is pronounced differently than in English. English speakers are more apt to say something like “her mees”; but in French, it is pronounced like “air mez” or “air may.” I explained to my girlfriend this difference, so if she asked someone, they would understand her. In my experience, not using the French accent on a word means that no one will understand you, even if the word is essentially the same, like “vegetarian” (true story). On the flip side, I couldn’t understand a French speaker saying Richard Chamberlin’s name to me, so I have complete sympathy for pronunciation.

Back to the scarf. I really didn’t want anything, and I told her to get an Hermes scarf because a) I knew they were super expensive and when she saw the price she would balk; and b) I find their scarves aren’t really to my taste.

It was J’s last day in Paris, and it was a hot day. She wore a tank top and shorts and carried a backpack. Nothing terribly glam. She and our friend went to Le Bon Marche, a department store. J searched the store, trying to find an Hermes scarf, but had no luck. She is fiercely independent and doesn’t like asking for help, but finally reached the point where she had to.

She found a saleswoman and asked her if she spoke English. The woman said she did a little. J stumbled through her request, her self-consciousness over the pronunciation adding more stress. J murmured to the saleswoman, “I’m looking for a scarf. We say ‘Her-meez’ but I think you say ‘Air-mez’.”

The saleswoman didn’t understand what she said, so she asked her to write it down. J did, and when the saleswoman turned the paper around to read it, her demeanor changed entirely. Where she had been brusque before, now she was solicitous and friendly. She said, “Oh no, we don’t carry those here. But let me go ask someone else and I’ll find out where you can get them.” It turned out that the Hermes store was closed by the time J got there. I was spared her spending any money on a scarf I probably wouldn’t like, and even better, we got this fantastic story!

Which brings me to March 2015. Last year my mom gave me money for my birthday to buy an Hermes scarf, in part motivated by this story. In the pit of my stomach I was sure I wasn’t going to find any scarves I actually liked. I looked at their website, but it was so awful and I couldn’t figure out what they might look like. I kept putting off going to a store. I really wanted to go with my mom, so we could share the experience, but our only chance to do that was last summer, and there ended up not being any time.

Last week I made plans to meet up with my friend Lauren, who lives on the Eastside, because I had something I wanted to give her. I decided to combine meeting her with a shopping trip, since there’s an Hermes store over there. Saturday was a cold and dreary day. I headed out in the rain and dodged the raindrops. Since I don’t have a car, I took the bus over.

Hermes store

Bellevue is very different from Seattle, even though it’s separated by a small body of water. The Hermes store is in a high-end/designer shopping center. Everything there is so foreign from my daily life. It’s hard for me not to be super judgmental about all of it. I arrived at the store around 3:30, expecting that it wouldn’t have many customers. How wrong I was. The small space at the entrance was filled with women who surrounded the scarf case. They were throwing scarves in the air, one after the other, gesturing and talking loudly. In retrospect there were probably about five women, but it felt like twenty! I stood in front of the case amidst the melee for a good five minutes, hoping that a salesperson would appear out of the fray, but none did. I finally went over to a young man standing to the side who wore a suit. He seemed to be a cross between a security person and concierge, and I asked him if he could help me find a salesperson. He welcome me to the store and then apologized profusely for me having to wait.

A salesperson was procured and began helping me. She started by asking me if I wanted a classic scarf, etc. etc. I asked her about the size, because I don’t understand centimeters. Then she took me back to the case and asked me about colors and what I was looking for, what colors I liked, etc. I told her pinks and reds, even though before I got to the store I was thinking I wanted something with blues and greens. I don’t know why I didn’t just say that. I was so overwhelmed by the frenzy! She pulled out one scarf and tied it around my neck. I looked in the mirror and didn’t feel anything. I pointed out another scarf that had a cheetah on it, with bright pink splashes. The saleswoman said, “Let me get that before it gets snatched out from under us,” but that also produced a meh reaction when I looked in the mirror. You can torture yourself by trying to figure it out on their site. I can’t even find the scarf I ended up buying.

While I was feeling meh and overwhelmed and starting to get a little fed up with the whole thing, the saleswoman came back with something totally different. No pink or red at all. It had a giant tiger with a green background and these bright, lush orange lilies.

Hermes scarf

Some people know I’m not a fan of green. I don’t really wear it that much. I don’t gravitate toward it. I will pass it over for pretty much any other color. But I have a thing for lilies, and so I decided why the hell not? She tied it on, and I looked at the mirror, and something in me sang out. I told her, “This is the one.” She showed me five different ways to wear it and was super willing to show me other scarves, but I just knew. This was it. No matter what else I saw, it wouldn’t please me.

Hermes scarf

She rang me up and I left the store, feeling completely triumphant. When I got home, I posted a few pictures of the details on the scarf, including the one above. And when I was taking the pictures, I saw that it has the line from William Blake’s poem: “Tyger tyger burning bright in the forest of the night” … which you can just make out here:

Hermes scarf: tyger tyger

That line also has a special resonance for me (and possibly for many people), and was such a delightful surprise. On top of that, a friend posted this lovely piece about the symbolism of the tiger:

The confidence of the tiger is contentment. Contentment comes from discernment, the virtue of touching our feet to the earth of every moment. As we slow down and consider our thoughts, words, and actions with the question, “Will this bring happiness or pain?”, we become like tigers who carefully observe the landscape before pouncing. In looking at what to cultivate and what to discard, we are remembering our precious human life and deciding to use it well.

And that perfectly sums up the theme of the work I did with my therapist, so now this scarf has become a talisman for me, too!

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