29 September 2016

The Finishing Line

I'm getting excited about my book, as some of you are aware. It's a quirky story and it's all mine. I am loving how it is coming along. I wish I could say I finished it while I was up at my friends' cabin last week, but I did not quite do so. It's OK, though. I'm close.

I titled this post "The Finishing Line" because I am closing in on the finish, which feels familiar, like the bottom of a ski run that I have to navigate carefully because I've picked up speed but the exit of the run is fairly narrow. I see the line I need to take, which helps me see how fast to go now so I don't miss anything along the way but I get there quickly. 

While I'm undertaking my first-ever book-finishing project (and am quite sure there are many more to follow), I am also enjoying the process of making watercolor paintings, as some of you are also aware. 

I find it so delightful to sit down and say, "I am going to make a painting" and have it be finished in one session (maybe two). There's a moment at which I say, "This is finished," and it is true: it is good enough, and I can let go of it. I must confess this hasn't happened yet with that big watercolor of the sunset over the water, but I'm only one or two more painting sessions from finished with that one.

Elk herd #1 by Risë Keller

Also, I have been working from a recent epiphany: If I think of finishing a project as a project in and of itself, I am more likely to finish it. 

I know, that sounds kind of crazy, but somehow I feel I've given myself a mental short-cut or weird trick (Eureka! The one weird trick! I've found it and must share it on the internets!) for making the task of finishing my novel seem finite. 

And painting is part of this process, I am quickly becoming convinced. 

Elk herd #2 by Risë Keller

I picked up my paintbrushes, paint, and paper recently when I realized I couldn't not do so -- I had actually started carrying them around from place to place with me. If that wasn't a hint or clue as to what I should do next I don't know what it was. 

But do you know what else was happening when I picked up my paintbrushes? My inner critic was yelling at me about "not writing." I heard its snarky tone: "You should be writing, not painting." 

That only made me feel rebellious. "No one likes to be told what to do," I like to say (it's one of the things that can make being an editor a challenging occupation, heh heh). I don't even like it when I tell myself what to do!

So I put on some music to drown out that nagging voice and sat down with my simple painting kit and started making paintings.

I loved the meditative feeling and the results. I loved the feeling I have something to share with people. I feel the same way when I cook, and when I made a batch of concord grape jam from our bountiful backyard harvest.

Fall grape harvest, photo by Risë Keller

And I loved putting down my brush after an hour or two and saying, "OK, that's enough. I'm finished!" 

Finite Color Theory #1 by Risë Keller

I think I let my brain trick me into practicing the act of saying "The Thing is done" often -- and with something that felt like the stakes were low in putting the Thing out there. Because writing, for me, has been such a high-stakes Thing! And when working on a book, even if it's not a very long book, it feels like a Big Thing -- even more so if it is a First Book. I have had sections of this book that have had problems that I know need to be fixed for ages, and am just now working those things out or through. So my book is still not "finished" in the sense that the whole thing is complete at once. 

Yet the Thing that is my First Book is absolutely begging me to put it out there! And since this novel and this process are all about trusting the inner voice, and because I like where all this is going, I am going to start doing just that. 

So keep watching this space! Things are happening! Things are in the pipeline! And paintings!

More very soon!

21 April 2016

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Prince*

1. Share everything. Prince has shared with the world some awfully weird-ass corners of his brain. And do we love him any less for it? No, we think of him as someone brave and weird and most of all, willing to let us in to see and hear his incredible array of feelings and thoughts, melodies and sonic textures.
2. Play loud. If playing loud lights your fire, do it -- and do it now. As every death of a cherished musician or actor or public figure reminds us, we may not get another chance to play it again in our wild and loud life.
3. Don't hit people. I saw Prince's Purple Rain movie and fell hard for him at age 20. Talk about a rock god -- Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey suddenly had as much interest for me as dust. I felt Prince was a kindred spirit: we had seen so much darkness and abuse but knew there was something better out there. We wanted more for our loved ones and ourselves -- we were determined to trade bullying and meanness for constructive and beautiful ways to express ourselves and our feelings.
4. Put things where you can find them when you need them. Prince was a master at creating the world he knew existed in the musical persona he dreamed up out of his own talent and the successes of the Jackson family and Stevie Wonder and the Supremes and Soul Train and Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix and every other rock god and goddess from whose wells he drew water. He surrounded himself with great people and insisted that he could do it his way. And then did it.
5. Clean up after yourself. Prince protected his brand, to a fault some say. Case in point: a few months after I posted a video my friend made of me air-guitaring and lip-syncing "Purple Rain" at the Boulder Theater, YouTube removed the video for copyright infringement. But I give Prince a pass because I figure it's because he cared deeply about his image and public identity. Some people let the world define them, but Prince was all about control.
Prince onstage at the 2015 American Music Awards (The Guardian)
6. Don't take things that aren't yours. Prince had an identity that crossed the usual gender lines long before mainstream Americans started paying attention to the T in "LGBT," but you didn't see Prince categorizing himself or making a big deal about whatever it was that he was, beyond coming up with the elaborate phallus-crossed-with-guitar symbol he presented as his name, becoming "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince." Until he returned to being called "Prince" and "The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known as Prince."
7. Be yourself. I feel so indebted to Prince for his incredible mastery of rock and pop and R&B and soul and funk -- and his generally badass songwriting skills. But it was his determination to always be himself that really got me. One day I cried out, "I love Prince!" My husband said, "You love the idea of Prince!" I never quite understood what he meant by that -- I have always felt my love for Prince was something true and deep and automatic ("I not only see you but I recognize you") and innocent -- wholesome, as my dear mother (who also loves Prince) would say. But above all, his strangeness and his beauty and his willingness to howl -- vocally and on guitar -- in front of people, to me represented one Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket after another: permission slips to be my freaky self and go out and share the joy of that deep revelatory feeling with others.
Prince, I thank you. Rest in peace, dear friend. I hope those heavenly jam sessions are as spectacular as the ones I hear and see in my imagination, and I promise to keep your spirit rocking in the here and now.
*With apologies to Robert Fulghum

23 January 2016

Against the Rules

Image result for quotes about rulesYou know how a lot of parents bring up their kids with certain beliefs and as an adults they realize that their parents shared or even imparted their worldview, but they're free to choose from a zillion other views and ideas in the world?

Here’s an example: On a highway, my father had rules about how fast he would go if he thought no one would catch him. He would follow different rules if he thought he might be caught or knew a Highway Patrol car was likely be lurking in a nearby speedtrap. He had rules about going five to ten miles an hour above the speed limit around town.

I absorbed a lot of these anti-rule rules growing up and riding in cars with him. By the time I started driving, I started thinking this way too. If someone was going a couple of miles an hour under the 35 mph limit on Iris, I would always take my first opportunity to pass them, so I could go 39 or 40 or 42 miles an hour. Going faster means getting there first, not to mention getting out in front of other traffic for a clearer view. I still hate it when another highway driver matches my speed and settles in just behind me — or even worse, one lane over.

It came as a revelation when I noticed I didn’t always have to accelerate into the lead; I could drop my speed and let someone pass. Slowing down had seldom been presented as a valid option — unless it was to make a point to a tailgater (as a child when I heard that word, I imagined the terrible green animal that would roar up from behind to chew the car with its spiky teeth).

Breaking rules made people stand out. Sticking to the rules was for squares, or people who didn’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves. My parents came along at the right moment to be swept up in a mass movement of disruptors and rebels and dropouts and sidesteppers and hobos who would rather do anything but get a 9-to-5 gig and dress like all the other cogs in the corporate machine. To my father, not being like his suit-wearing father was on the level of moral imperative. And every rule my father broke put more distance between him and all he rejected.

I have a child who is in a religious phase (at least I think it is a phase — ask me about this in a few years!). After an hour of discussion, she cried, “But I want to be told what to do!”

What a tightrope we walk in this life, between doing what we want to do, and what needs to be done and what we’re asked to do (because no one wants to be told what to do) — while wanting to be told what the heck we should be doing here in the first place! Each of us has so many counterweights to balance as we travel along our own private highwire.

Scoop Nisker used to say on KFOG, “If you don’t like the news, go make some of your own.” More and more, I feel that way about the rules. Instead of presuming that breaking rules makes life worth living, and that somehow we are all entitled to have this slightly inflated portion of what is officially granted to us, I want instead to try to change the things I detest. As I like to say, "It's your world; I'm just redesigning it."

Of course, as someone who grew up around radical activists, I am well aware that there are a lot of great reasons to break rules that don't make sense. I believe in a healthy mix between following and questioning authority. A lot of authorities have a lot to answer for these days, and I am glad to see more and more people speaking truth to power and demanding change. There's no reason the game should be rigged in favor of white people or men or rich people or Christians or any single group. I just don't feel as entitled as my father seemed to -- whether it was by our smarts or our privilege or our willingness to break rules to get ahead. But we're all in this jam together, and it seems to me a few rules will be more of a help than a hindrance as we try to make our way down the line.

22 October 2015

Lighting the Way Forward

I've been thinking about the Deborah Koons Garcia film Symphony of the Soil, which I saw Monday night at the opening night of the 2015 Flatirons Film Food Fest. I have seen her first film, The Future of Food, a couple of times. It centered on the horrifying dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms in big agriculture. In Garcia's 2012 film, I appreciated the visuals on the topic, but I walked out of the film at the end feeling like I'd just attended a couple of back-to-back college lectures. I appreciated Symphony of the Soil's lesson on the fundamentals of how soil is formed (and dissipated), the difference between soil and dirt, and how plants and soil and bacteria all work together.

The fermentation folks attending and signing books did connect the bacteria in the soil, the bacteria on and in our foods and plants, and the bacteria in our guts and bodies. But I truly feel for those fermentation gurus like Sandor Katz and who are preaching the gospel people used to know but have more recently forsaken. I see the fomenters of fermentation reaching to encompass crowds of recent converts trying to take back their personal microbiomes, and crowds of people still pumping Purex and antibacterial soaps out of plastic bottles, wrinkling their noses, and saying "ew, bacteria." When we first recognized the world of bacteria, we presumed them hostile, just like in one of the original Star Trek episodes. Bacteria, however, turn out to be more like animals. Their risks and benefits to us are significantly more nuanced than early researchers dreamed and the scientific methods available to them at the time could help them understand. 

In my spec Star Trek episode based on this, the Enterprise lands on a planet where civilization is in apparent collapse, most of its people left impoverished on the twin shoals of devastated health and astronomical medical bills. A few people are thriving, however, and they help to reveal the solution to the folks on the Enterprise. That solution is literally right under everyone's noses: The soil and the products of the soil -- and the twist at the end is when they stop replenishing the soil, they start dying and the geniuses on the Enterprise have to remind them of the powers of their own most precious resource: the earth under their feet.

So when I think of what is being pumped into the ground and what leaches into the soil and groundwater when energy companies frack the earth, I am horrified at my own car use. I am horrified at all I do to contribute to that unwavering demand that propels fracking. Films like Symphony of the Soil awaken me to my deepest beliefs and innermost feelings: that each of those tiny little bacteria on those tiny little fibers on all those root systems of our food and foliage underground is just as precious if not more so than the life of each of us humans. Some of us humans are particularly destructive. I worry about the folks who are trying to extract as much value they can from the earth before they die or the earth runs out of resources. It is planetary torture to pump harsh chemicals into the ground the way we do every day. To clearcut rainforests for cattle grazing. And hardly anyone is talking about the dwarfing effects of the billions of cows we grow for food on the planet and its people and our animal population (yes, I saw Cowspiracy on Netflix recently). 

About 10 years ago I interviewed Jim Butterworth about his documentary Seoul Train, which he filmed and produced with a friend, Lisa Sneeth, a nurse working overseas. They had become aware of the plight of the Northern Korean people and wanted to do something that made a difference. They thought about what medium they wanted to work in. A book sounded reasonable, but they realized they wanted to reach a lot of people, quickly, and move them to action if possible. So they chose film to tell the story, and hired an accomplished director and editor, Aaron Lubarsky. The filmmakers took their cameras to North Korea and documented an underground railroad out of North Korea and into South Korea that helped people reunite with families who had sometimes been apart for decades. 

It's true: Film is often the medium that moves me the most. And I am continually grateful to the directors and producers who illuminate my world, even under the ground beneath me. My friend Patti Bonnet (who works with Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove and the new film Chasing Extinction), Jim Butterworth, Deborah Koons Garcia, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn (of Cowspiracy) help me see where I need to shed the light I want to see in the world. These  films are guiding lights, my films lumières, rather than films noirs.

The People in My Neighborhood

I was proud of the many things I did that made me feel independent and self-sufficient. I would visit our friends Jay and Vivian in South Boulder with my family, and anytime we were near their house, I would say, sometimes out loud: “If you blindfolded me, drove me around, and dropped me off anywhere in Boulder, I would be able to find my way home.”
This wasn't true of everyone around me, but my father and I always shared an internal compass that gave us a good sense of direction just about anywhere we found ourselves.
It helped to grow up in a place where the Rocky Mountains are directly to the west. Towering slabs of rock looming over the city? Yep, that's west. The mountain range, which we call the Front Range, in homage I suppose to the pioneers who first met the eastern slope of the Rockies on their westward trek. The Rockies run roughly north to south, with the plains flattening all the way out into the midwestern states. Keep the mountains to your left and you're heading north. With the mountains to your back, you are headed east. Mornings, the sun spills into our living room from the east, and in its evening sink into the west casts its mountain-shaped shadow over us earlier than it does out on the prairie.
By the time I was in my teens, I could walk all over town and feel I knew someone just about everywhere. I didn't spend a lot of time in South Boulder, but in Central and North Boulder, I was always passing houses where my classmates lived, where a teacher lived, where my mother had delivered a baby, where we had friends, where a client at my father's shop lived, or where I'd delivered newspapers.
Some of the friends I remember visiting:
My mother's friend Diane, when she lived in an apartment on Grandview Avenue, at the crest of University Hill, between the University of Colorado campus and the Boulder High School campus. I remember persuading her to buy Count Chocula cereal for the event.
My neighbor friend David, who lived about two blocks away and seemed a little befuddled at being dropped in on by an eight-year-old kid. He was a CU grad student maybe, a little older than the people he roomed with. A black widow bite caused David to go deaf in one ear. That was a shock and changed everything for him. We lost touch after that and later he moved away.
And when I'd come to that Boulder neighborhood and say “You could drop me anywhere and I would know how to get home” was I really wanted to be lost near Jay and Viv's house and have a reason to drop in on them.

It strikes me that I did a lifetime of persuading in my first 13 years. 
What did I look for when I met people and right away tried to gain purchase with them? Only many years later I recognized that's how my father worked. Pour on the charm, and then try to extract proof of their commitment to your shared relationship. It was a very presumptuous model for a friendship and it took me a long time to excise phrases like “You have to tell me how it was!” (no, you don't -– that's up to you) from my repertoire.
Did I pin my huge hopes on these friends wanting rescue? Or distraction from my disasterland full of minefields? I wonder how many calls or visits my parents fielded from people whom I started dropping in on to get me to lighten up. Did that happen? Or am I remembering a couple of mortifying occasions that I've blown up into a character flaw in my narrative?

15 October 2015

I Come By It Honestly

This phrase, I come by it honestly, keeps insinuating itself into my mind. (After watching a PBS show about the brain last night, I’m wondering, “What the heck do I mean by that?” Really, I blithely say the phrase comes into my head -- but how does a phrase or a song or a notion heard or read or seen corkscrew itself into a brain? Doesn’t it take someone operating the proverbial corkscrew, a being, me, to think “I come by it honestly” over and over? Or is there no volition but rather a physical phenomenon, a pattern of neurons refiring in sequence to echo something that resonated with my thinking? What in the physical world is an earworm?

As for its meaning, it’s largely a letting of myself off a certain hook: I have inherited from my parents but have been towing (not toeing) a family line until now, a presumption that we’re all these almost Calvinistically virtuous, respectable, and upright people, which turns out to be a façade covering a whole other spectrum of behaviors -- bizarre, addictive, aggressive, abusive -- in our collective history. My broken-off relationship with my father is freeing me to speak out too.

The blog post I wrote about my dog Pig a few years ago is about this. He disappeared some of our animals; some of them may have disappeared to save themselves from him. As low critters on the totem pole, they were most likely to get crushed by my father's brutality.

Today’s Huffpost Politics story about violence against animals as an indicator crime — one that points to other kinds of aggression and violence against human animals, too — gives me great hope and furthers my feeling of freedom. Every time we share this information, we are freer to stand up to bullies. Even bullies with weapons.

More power to us. Clearly, we’re going to need it.

25 September 2015

An Aesthetic

What would my design philosophy look like?

I wish we had tools and resources that invited us to play with them, to joyfully discover new possibilities with them. So I very much favor form and function over strict utilitarianism, strict minimalism, or strict anything for that matter.

In my aesthetic universe, beauty is a reward for everyone who encounters it and harmonizes with its expression. Of course we don't all agree about what is beautiful. If we did agree, what would we deem "art," and what would we not categorize as art? Surely not only works that are aesthetically pleasing, and surely not exclusively works that are disturbing or perturbing, shocking or simply unexpected.

I like things that tell you how to use them, or that fulfill a need I hadn't thought of but wished I had. When Apple makes iTunes unfathomable to someone who hasn't been steeped in Apple's design and user experience world for decades, I feel a sort of double betrayal. I feel the "You said this was going to be easy" whine pushing me downslope as if I was trying to climb up scree so loose I wound up churning my legs and landing below where I'd started. Apple products all looks so clean and so good but sometimes you can't find what you need on those smooth, blank surfaces.

Color makes my world go around (or 'round, more musically speaking). I can think of no reason I would not wear or use fabrics and paints in bold, vibrant colors. Color adds something unique to the atmosphere. Perhaps you could get some of the same benefits from a constant parade of fresh flowers arranged everywhere. I remember feeling shock at the beauty of the tall, dramatic, gladiola-centric bouquets artfully arranged throughout my grandfather's formal dining room and living room because I knew they seldom used those spaces and most people hardly saw them. Did they receive the same kind of arrangements through the winter? I'm sure their florist provided them with seasonally appropriate bouquets, but how many people enjoyed their bright colors? So I share the wealth and try to dress colorfully, to cheer up me and everyone else around me.

04 September 2015

The Body Remembers, But Does the Self Know What to Do Next?

 “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

For a couple of months, it has felt to me like there is something wedged somewhere in the vicinity of my collarbone and jaw. I just now checked in with that feeling and said “Aha! That’s your throat!”

Hm. I feel I have something stuck in my throat.

“Duh,” says the university-trained literary critic. (Smarty-pants. She can’t help herself.)

Today’s writing prompts were a Facebook post with the above quote from Bessel A. van der Kolk about how awareness of what’s going on in the body is a tool for healing trauma in our pasts, and a Dear Sugar radio episode featuring a query from a wounded mother of a young child.

So I check in with my body.

Three things call to me right now. OK, four. I’ll start at the top with a headache. I woke up with an achy head that is just now beginning to feel a little less like a sack of concrete I am carrying on top of my forehead. Oh, who am I kidding? Not me, apparently, as I notice that the pain has settled into my left sinus.

Then there’s this hinky jaw-to-clavicle thing. It’s making me feel halting and restricted.

My right palm (on my space-bar hand) complains, deep in the pad at the junction of my thumb and its hand.

And I have a knee injury (official diagnosis: IT band syndrome) I am just starting to rehabilitate.

So not only do I feel a bit unsteady on my pins, but I’m also experiencing pain in the areas associated with talking and writing and thinking.

That assessment makes me check, and feel again: Where am I not feeling pain?

My heart feels good, warm, safe, and surrounded by loving beings, including me (a slightly fearful being of late but deeply loving, and lovable). My bum feels fine, thank you very much. My feet feel solid on the floor. My strong thighs feel like camshafts, ready and able to execute my brain engine's directives. My ankles are happy and my back feels neutral and relaxed. My waist curves in at one of my body’s crucial boundaries, a spot I feel protective of and pleased with all at once.

At the same time the literary critic goes to town on deconstructing my physical self, I also remind my emotional, Id-ish self not to draw too many big conclusions from small details. Not to make grandiose pronouncements given my limited temporal and psychic understanding. (I come by that honestly, my compassionate self says. There, there.)

Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond's discussion of the unmothered mother's letter and conversation with her Portland writer friend Renee was another great reminder that so many of us have experienced terrible interruptions in our care and betrayals of our innocence. When I talk to my teenager these days, I sometimes say, "Don't do something you'll regret, especially if it's something you can't undo." I feel some things were done to me that can't be undone, but somehow being able to say this is again freeing and releasing. Because I said it, again, and will you look at that! The Universe didn't throw any lightning bolts at me, nor turn me into a pillar of salt.

But now what do I do with it all? “What’s next?” as van der Kolk asks in his book.

Do I go back to bed and try to sleep off the headache?

Do I push through the headache into the list of chores for the day (make another coffee, eat, cook, gather gear for the weekend, and clean)?

Do I go to my dance class in an hour and try not jumping and traveling — just exercising my upper body?

My first instinct is to write, so here I am.

But (true confession) between when I started this piece and now, I had a cleaning impulse, so I hung and reorganized a few things in my closet. I’m starting to think I don’t need as many things as I used to think I needed, which is a relief and a burden, the latter because the process of getting rid of things is an effort. It is many efforts over time.

In the midst of the closet and the writing creeps in the fear of “not doing enough about the future.”

Then I pulled a hanger out of the handful I was relocating in my closet and saw that I had assembled a beautiful and complete outfit that I hardly ever wear.

Lots of people tell me that Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has you ask yourself about each of your things, “Does this thing bring me joy when I see it?”

For me the answer is seldom simple.

Yes I feel joy because of the colors of the fabrics and the other materials, and because of the completeness and elegance of the outfit. I remember finding the dress while shopping on Berkeley's 4th Street at a clothing outlet in a happy moment of freedom and independence. When I feel something other than joy it is because of the way the items fit me (the slip isn’t all that comfortable, and the jacket is just a little too short for my torso).

But I learned something from this outfit. The fact that it was 20 years between when I bought the dress and found a slip for under it and a jacket for over it told me I should avoid buying anything I can't wear as is. Clothing that requires more clothing is seldom smart and results in garments that occupy space in my closet for years, unworn, while I say, "Hmm, I wish I didn't have to wear tights and a camisole under that."

Then I thought: What if I put together outfits and sold those? I guess that is what those glossy fashion magazine stylists do. I can understand why that is a coveted and rare job, but so many of us are good at combining what we have and assembling something more beautiful than the apparent sum of its individual elements. More than just Vogue employees are doing this every day.

I suppose this is what we do when we write, too. We make meaning out of a bunch of individual symbols (“signifiers,” we called them in lit-crit school). And it is what we do when we live. We take the animal shell we are given and fill it with ourselves, and then we use the whole animal-and-self being to love, play, learn, work, give, show -- all those things that make our lives and maybe even others' lives more meaningful or more loving or more delicious or more beautiful.

So it is now time to feed this body some food, drink more water, and make a coffee with coconut oil in it. I don’t want to do too much but I don’t want to do too little, either. I am going to hang a few things up, pack a few things, and cook a couple of delicious things for later. I will do my exercises and contemplate what healing looks like, and feels like.

“More to be revealed,” as my mother loves to say.

“More soon,” I always concur.

17 August 2015

Here She Comes

Any moment now I am hoping to hear news of a new niece, the new daughter of my brother and sister-in-law.

And I can't help feeling sad about saying that in this moment I am thinking of a missing limb in her family architecture. My and my brother's father is my about-to-be niece's grandfather. But of his four surviving children -- me, my sister, my half-brother, and half-sister -- not one of us wants him around us.

I tried for years as an adult to get to know my father when my husband and I moved back to our hometown. I wasn't willing to simply extend forgiveness to my father without first being asked for forgiveness. So I took steps toward rebuilding a relationship with him. I had dinner with him at his house and hosted him at mine. I went river rafting with him.

And after all of that benefit-of-the-doubt giving, and getting to know him again, I decided I still did not trust him with my well being. I found my line in the sand: I knew I never again wanted to be in a car with him at the wheel.

Once this became clear, I sat down with him on the banks of Boulder Creek one day and asked him to apologize for subjecting me and my mother and our whole family to extremes of exposure to danger and abuse and neglect.

If he apologized that day, it was purely perfunctory. My father never acknowledged half of what I asked about. He explained himself, and proffered disclaimers: "I don't remember that at all," he said about my claims that he had hit my mother and stepmother and slammed my mother's head against the kitchen door until she saw stars.

When my sister told me she was molested when she was little, I felt waves of terrible, complicated feelings. I felt sick and angry for her, for what had been taken from her. I had the terrible thought: "I should have been able to protect her" -- all the more terrible because I had already lost another sister to an accident that happened when I wasn't with her. (I was miles away at the time of the accident, but for many years felt things would have turned out differently if I had been there.) I felt worry: "Will my sister ever think of the time I rubbed up against her in the car that day when I was 11 and she was 4 as being molested?" For a long time, I felt a kind of survivor's guilt: "Thank goodness I wasn't molested when I was a kid."

But then I remember.

I remember how extremely limited my power was as a child, limited by the sounds of my mother's and stepmother's shrieks, my father's shrill verbal lashings, and his smashing of fists and slamming of heads against walls.

I remember my fear as I listened, frozen in agony about whether to try to do something or stay still and quiet in my room. Only later did it occur to me that everyone screaming must have known we children weren't asleep. By then my sister would have silently come into my room and we would have huddled under my blankets together in our fear cave and waited for the storm to end. I had visions of someone ending up dead but usually our father either melted into a puddle of self-pity at the end and passed out drunk in his recliner or he bolted in anger, slamming the door behind him and roaring off in his car to disappear for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days.

I remember wondering why my mother and then my stepmother wanted him back.

I remember not wanting to live with him anymore because I never knew what was going to be happening at home.

I remember not wanting my friends to come over in case they crossed his path on a bad day. If they met him on a good day, it was worse because then they would never comprehend how scary he could be. Because my father could be so charming after he'd washed the day's dank auto grease off his hands and had a cold beer and a hard day's work behind him and my mother or stepmother was in the kitchen cooking dinner. He could be so smart and curious, so expansive and erudite. (I see now that a neighbor of mine who recently moved away unnerved me sometimes. My neighbor shared so many of my father's positive traits that part of me was on guard, waiting for that proverbial other shoe to be drop at any moment and he would turn brutish or explode in familiar counterpoint to a joyfully intellectual conversation.)

I remember a day when I was in bed trying to nap one afternoon about ten years ago. I couldn't let myself go into sleep. My mind raced, my heart pounded, and as I lay curled up on my side although I was fully clothed I felt my bottom was exposed and vulnerable. This felt more like a flashback than any other experience I have ever had. When I understood I was feeling I had been molested, I cried and wailed with grief and fury. To this day I don't know if what I experienced that afternoon was a memory of what happened to me or a reaction to feelings constructed from my experience and my sister's history.

Tonight -- just tonight, at the age of 52 -- I thought, even if my father didn't molest me personally, I am still angry. I am angry at him for crowding me and my sisters and our mothers into small spaces where we were supposed to stay weak and scared and violable. I am still angry at him for subjecting me to a culture that excuses the sick and twisted things powerful men do and minimizes opportunities for women and girls to do great and beautiful and meaningful things. I am angry because he hid his wealth from his family at his family's expense. I am angry because my mother is poor and suffers while he's off enjoying his millions.

So: I admit, I still haven't forgiven him.

I'm just now learning to forgive myself for not having fully let go of all of this attachment I feel to that flaming, righteous anger that flares up or surfaces as PTSD, causing flashbacks or crippling crises of confidence. It took me from age six to about ten years ago to forgive myself for not being there when my sister died. I have to forgive myself for not being able to protect my little sister from the man or men who stole sex from her when she was far too young to give consent.

I have found help and compassionate understanding in Brené Brown's work on vulnerability and shame and Byron Katie's process of taking apart the stories in our heads. These give me some perspective on who holds me back when I feel fear (big hint: it's not usually fathers or parents or ungrateful kids or partners or passive-aggressive friends or mean bosses). But even with these great tools readily at hand and heart, it is still not easy to forgive and let go of these feelings.

Yet every day I know I have to be kind and compassionate with myself and all my sisters. And I have to keep surrounding myself with people like my brother and sisters and husband and friends and family -- big-hearted people who believe in giving our children and women and men opportunities to grow and flourish. I know I have to work every day to make this world a safer and sturdier place for my nieces and sisters and mother and me. After all, my new niece might have big dreams. I want to make sure our world is ready for her.

07 August 2015

What I Like About Planned Parenthood

I have shared many times since my parents' good advice. When I was about fifteen they sat down with me when I asked them to, and they said: "Don't sleep with anyone you're not 100 percent sure you really like and trust. If you feel reservations, listen to those instincts and don't do it, because there's no going back."

So I didn't sleep with the person I was seeing then, or another person I dated after that. And I was glad, during and after. Those guys both broke up with me after that, which was fine with me. A while later I fell in love with someone I had known for several years. Suddenly he just looked so interesting and he had stuff going on in his mind that was funny and sharp and smart and he liked music maybe even as much as I did. We were in the same friend group and had started pairing off with other people when we looked up, looked at each other, and said, "Wait, you're the one that I want."

Throughout my childhood, truly as early as I can remember, I knew about bodies and sex because they were all around me. I spent a few of my formative years in the middle of seas of people who were exploring their bodies, minds, senses -- you name it and they were exploring it. I spent hours in Golden Gate Park, and in the flow and swirl of a hundred parties and concerts and love-ins when people ingested substances, dropped their inhibitions, and did things they never would have done back home, wherever that was.

But my personality is now as it was then both flamboyant and joyful as well as shy at the core. Back then I felt some dissonance. There was tension between what I wanted and what everyone around me wanted. One of my mother and father's friends, a tall, bearish fellow with frizzy honey-colored hair whom I loved and trusted like a dear uncle, once told me, "You don't have to be modest," when I covered my chest after realizing I had worn overalls with no shirt underneath. His well intentioned advice had the exact opposite effect on me, however; I felt exposed and embarrassed about wanting to be modest.

Because my mother had become pregnant with me back in 1962 without knowing much about how babies and anything else worked, she didn't want me to be a victim of that kind of ignorance. She gave birth to my sister at home, and she became a midwife when I was about 10 to help other families have their babies at home. The facts of life were all around us. My mother spent many hours telling me things at various times I was ready and not ready to hear. I am still grateful for her help diagnosing and solving a potentially dangerous problem I had once.

One of the best tools my mother ever gave me was Planned Parenthood. From being a midwife, and her own experience, she knew plenty about people who had babies before they were ready. She was always grateful for the existence of Planned Parenthood and she made sure I knew it was there if and when I needed it.

These days, clinics tend to mark out the names of the people who checked in before you at their reception desks, but back when I was fifteen and went to learn about my contraception options, seeing my classmates' names on the sheet made me feel good about checking in at the Planned Parenthood clinic. My mother asked whether I wanted her to come along and I had my first clinic visit with her present. I felt comfortable going on my own after that. When I was sixteen, I had a stressful moment that ended a week later when my Aunt Flo finally arrived . Not that we called my period that back then -- no euphemisms at our house! And everything worked flawlessly after that -- I was scrupulous in my use of contraception, and got to know the loving man who would nine years later become my husband (and to whom I am still married). Planned Parenthood was there for me -- for us.

I know some of our relatives might find my personal history shocking, but I am still so thankful for that time and space in my life. I had so many stresses at that time with trying to do well in school in preparation for college, and a custody battle in which I was finally standing up to my father and asking to live with my mother for a year before I graduated high school. I still feel that the intimacy my sweetheart and I shared during those difficult years made all the difference in how bearable my life was.

I saw more and more of my friends' names on my Planned Parenthood clinic's sign-in sheets over the next few years. I appreciated the support I felt for my teenage self's need to explore and be protected, and I appreciated having that support into my adulthood. Even though I now have insurance coverage and can see a network specialist for my gynecological needs, I continue to support Planned Parenthood because I appreciate their support fo my and other women's reproductive health and our autonomy and self-determination.

22 April 2015

Communal History: Gene Bernofsky's Gifts

We went to the KGNU Community Radio​ thank-you party at the History Colorado Center in Denver last night, and during the talk by historian Bill Cowern, I had another little a-ha moment that helped me fill in a little patch of the jigsaw puzzle that is my history. I was delighted to learn that one of my primary school teachers, Eugene V. Debs Bernofsky, and his wife JoAnn Bernofsky, were among the group of folks who settled near Trinidad, Colorado, in 1965 to found an experiment in living and doing art free of commerce. They and a couple of college friends and a growing community built a few geodesic domes they called Drop City. (Incidentally, they didn't call it Drop City because they were "dropping out" or because they took or "dropped" acid in the parlance of the day, but because their performance art origins involved literally dropping small objects on people as a way of getting them to pay attention, pelting people with things -- or ideas -- they called "droppings." Also, don't confuse this Drop City with T. C. Boyle's fictional version, set in California and Alaska, and containing more of the vibe of Olompali or Morning Star, the communes where we lived, than that of the original Drop City.)

I knew Gene Bernofsky because he was one of my teachers at Upland School, which I attended for grades 4 and 5. This teaching trio, comprising Gene and Suzanne Marsden, my new stepmother, and Lisa Johnson, made a valiant effort to keep up with my appetites for reading, writing, geography, and math. I remember Gene as enthusiastic, energetic, and a little unpredictable but in a good way -- you knew he was looking out for everyone. I remember his wife JoAnn as a centered, owl-eyed companion, a smooth and steady rudder to complement and direct Gene's churning energies. At Upland, I don't remember whether I knew Gene and JoAnn had also lived on a commune -- or maybe that made me feel a bond with them. I cringe to think it's pretty likely I asked him if he smoked pot. Gene told us stories about growing up in New York, about his Jewish heritage, and about being named after labor leader Eugene Victor Debs.

We then had a wonderful Gene-by-proxy experience when I went with my father, stepmother, sister, and brother to New York in about 1977 on an epic road trip from Colorado to the East Coast (22 states altogether! Plus Montreal!). Gene offered his Aunt Mary and her apartment in Brooklyn as a base for us during our stay in New York City. "Call her Aunt Mary," Gene assured us, which we debated about whether we should do but which actually did seem to delight her during the three days she so kindly hosted all of us. The worst part of that trip: I was on crutches by the time we got to NYC -- I had just broken my leg a couple of days earlier in Pennsylvania. The best part: We rented a wheelchair and people were incredibly nice to us, on subways and streets all over Manhattan and the boroughs. A man saw me in my wheelchair and foot and ankle in a big cast with my rain-soaked family huddling near the Gotham Hotel, dashed back into the hotel, and emerged moments later with a collapsible umbrella he insisted we keep as he jumped into a cab and sped away.

Like Gene, Aunt Mary was sweet and smart and interesting to talk with. And Aunt Mary worked for Bantam Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, so she had shelves and stacks of popular paperbacks all over her cheerful garden-level apartment. As we were leaving, she let me pick out a stack of books to take with me. I chose about 10 books. Some was fiction I enjoyed very much while my leg started healing over the next few weeks and umpteen states, including a suspense novel about a top tennis player who becomes the target for a sniper at Wimbledon. It's very modern for its moment: to throw off the sniper, the heroes do some trickery that depends on stretching out the gap between what is broadcast "Live" on TV and what is happening in real-time. And a dictionary plays a major part in the action -- what's not to love? But for some reason I remember equally vividly devouring the books Passages, by Gail Sheehy; Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer; and a book about what your favorite and least-favorite colors say about your personality.

Since last night I have learned that Gene and JoAnn Bernofsky (Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, the namesake of the labor leader Eugene V. Debs) now live in Montana. He worked for the post office for a while and has been making films since before his Drop City days, but in more recent times has pedaled hundreds of miles around the region on his bicycle to record environmental abuses on camera.

I love discovering these things about Gene, a teacher to whom I have always been most grateful for sharing with me and the other kids Pete Seeger songs and Woody Guthrie songs, and playing us Ella Jenkins and other Folkways records we sang and plunked and clanged along with. What rich veins of musical and social history he shared with us youngsters. I wonder what the other kids remember.

Photo of teachers Gene Bernofsky and Lisa Johnson with children at Upland School, courtesy of Lisa Johnson
Gene's story reminds me that absolutely anything is possible in a lifetime. We are always getting fresh opportunities to do what matters most to us. To paraphrase Alan Watts in talk on "Intellectual Yoga," "Karma is not the law of cause and effect: 'If you do this, that will happen.' Karma simply means action. That you do whatever it is you do -- whether playing tennis, climbing mountains, or nursing sick patients -- as your dharma." Or, as I saw in one of those little photo-and-quote memes that sail around the internet, "Pray with your feet."

16 April 2015

Instincts vs. Impulses

The other day the brilliant and brave writer Elizabeth Gilbert (forgive me if I call her Liz -- she does so in her communications with her fans on Facebook and other social media platforms) posted about not following your instincts everywhere they lead.

I commented that in my dictionary, instincts are the things that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck when you know you are being watched, or the sense that tells me to reply, "No, thanks, I couldn't possibly" when certain people offer me rides or favors, or the tickle of gooseflesh on my skin when I hear a story about a manifestation created by the requester and the benificent forces of our universe.

But I think it's worth thinking about the difference. If I can be honest with myself about what I am feeling, I can ask myself questions like, "Do you want to go to this event on Saturday? Do you feel you should go, or does it feel like the wrong thing to do?"

In learning self-defense, I was grateful not only for the advice that your instincts often give you a lot of information about a situation, but also for this piece of advice in particular: When you have options, choose to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. I was glad to get this advice early in my adult life; it has served me incredibly well. I don't know how many times I have instinctively sought out a safer situation when my instincts told me something was awry or I was particularly vulnerable.

But I can think of plenty of instances when I chose to interpret my desires to do things as signs: Giant, flashing, neon signs saying, Yes! Yes, I should do this thing!, which I've noticed over the years can create an unhealthy feedback cycle. Because once you've started doing something, it's easier to find confirmation bias that affirms your brilliant choice, and ignore other signs that say, "You really don't need to take this four hours away from your writing to go shopping at thrift stores."

I maintain that what makes me want to say yes and ignore all those pesky indicators to the contrary are my impulses, not my instincts. My impulses tend to obscure my instincts. Does this ring true for you?

01 April 2015

Baroque Pop and Me

This morning, Uncle Jeff, the DJ on KGNU's Morning Sound Alternative show, is playing Baroque Pop, a favorite genre from my childhood and into the present. His show is placing songs I didn't appreciate before in context with all these other favorite sounds (like the Rolling Stones on Flowers/Ruby Tuesday/Those Satanic Majesties; The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper) that I loved so very much then and still do. A backing track version of Ruby Tuesday by Studio Sound Group is revelatory -- I used to listen to that song so closely that this version feels like something I was listening for, despite my great love for Mick Jagger.

I have a deep love for disco and funk and even some R&B, but I think my love for these genres may have originated with these gender-bending Baroque Poppers and Psychedelians, all the Prog-Rockers and Glam-Rockers I grew up with and listened to. Uncle Jeff talked about wanting to be one of those guys, the glamorous fops in their Carnaby Street fashions (remember Mary Quant?) with the red velvet jackets and the big floppy hats -- I did too.

That's one of the multitudinous reasons I have to write fiction, and why I remind myself to weave this kind of richness into my work wherever I can. I also listen to music, and have been trying my hand at lyrics lately, too. I said to myself, "Self, if I were to write a song for OK Go, how would it go?" That's not too high a bar. It sure is fun to explore, and to make things come out the way I want in the end in songs and stories.

So go listen to some music or do something that turns your imagination loose and wild! And I hope you'll come back and share with me what makes you tick creatively.

24 February 2015

Eight Things I Learned from Painting My House

Ah, the listicle--the article comprising a list of elements that all purport to answer a question. What did you learn from painting your house? I need to know! Why? Because I might paint my own house someday. Because I might find a lesson I can use in some other Big Endeavor. So they always seem useful, full of potential, these so-called listicles (Listicles sounds a little obscene, doesn't it?)

But I did learn a few things from painting the interior of my house, and I am happy to share them with you.

1. The preparation and restoration takes about 80 percent of the total project time. This means moving stuff around, patching, sanding, removing hardware, and masking. Once you get to the 20 percent--the painting--it feels great! But be sure you save some energy for the unprep work: removing tape, putting away the drop cloths, vacuuming up all the bits of paint and dust, and reinstalling your drapery hardware, shelving brackets, lightswitch and outlet covers, and picture-hanging hardware. Oh, and moving all your stuff back into place. 
2. Coverage: If the can says the paint will cover 350-400 square feet, it probably will. Barely. Don't assume you can stretch it. Even if you add water to thin your paint, as when applying paint using a compressor-powered paint sprayer instead of brushes and rollers, you only add a small amount of water (1 part water to 32 parts paint). So estimate conservatively or suffer the consequences: your paint won't cover, and you'll certainly need two or three coats--more time.
3. "Do not overwork" is one of the instructions on the side of the bucket of spackling paste I went through in doing this project. It applies to painting, and lots of other activities, too. Before your drywall putty or paint is starting to dry, you want to get your final smoothing strokes in with your putty knife or damp finger, or with your brush. Or you'll end up with a bumpy surface that attracts dust and dirt over time.
4. Be patient. It may take a couple of passes to get it right. I patched several places on walls and doorframes that required more than one application of putty to fill the dents. And when I painted our accent walls, I ended up going over every edge that butted against a contrasting color with a 3/4"-wide art brush to get the edges to look sharp. I couldn't mask the edges because our walls have too much texture--the paint would have seeped under the masking tape. So it was worth going over each edge, but it took time, especially for the bits that required the 20' extension ladder.
5. Get the right tools for the job. After painting a couple of rooms with a roller that kept pushing the roller cover off as I worked my way around the room, I went to the hardware store and found one that cost $6 and had an easy-to-use extender. Not only did it keep the roller covers on throughout the project, it also saved me unnecessary trips up and down a stepstool to paint the higher parts of the wall. Another cool product I learned of is Ramboard, a sturdy cardboard that protected our newly refinished wood floors from the insults of the bathroom-remodeling process, and then we kept it around a little longer for the interior painting project. It really helped.
6. Take care of your equipment. I learned this when I painted houses during college. That means rinsing brushes for minutes, until the water runs mostly clear
7. A corrolary of #6 is: Your equipment won't necessarily last forever. Brushes last pretty well, Most roller covers I've found can't be used for more than a few rooms before you need a fresh one. 
8. Do the work in order. Clear stuff out of the path and away from all walls. Remove hardware (lightswitch and outlet covers) and tape over the outlets and switches if you tend to slop paint around like I do when I'm working at a fast pace. Scrape, patch, and sand, and then vacuum up the dust before you start taping. Tape off woodwork, light fixtures, and contrasting walls (if the walls don't have a lot of texturing). Paint from one side of the room to the other and from the top of the wall down, so you know what you have already done and where you still need to paint if you have to stop in the middle to answer the phone or the door. Wait for the paint to dry completely (see the instructions on the paint can) before applying more paint or replacing the hardware on newly painted surfaces.

Once you've done all that work, you are rewarded for years by beautiful, fresh walls, in any color you like. For me it's worth the trouble.

13 August 2014

That Was Zen, This Is Now

“Fuck it! It was only a hobby!”
    –Carolyn See, Golden Days

I experience my life in multiple modes. One of my modes is action. I need to go to dance classes and ride my bike and keep doing little chores and projects and tackling work obligations to keep my life moving and my interactions with people fresh. When I was a newish mom and was feeling like I wasn't getting quite enough movement in my life or my kiddo's, I thought, “What would Sporty Mom do?” and it helped me think about myself differently, and have more ideas. I go to my dance class several times in any given week. When I'm edgy, my family will ask me, “Do you have a dance class?” in the kindest way. If I put myself in the “sporty” category in my mind, I'm more likely to be creative about finding ways to move. 

Another mode is rest and recovery. Whether spent on sleeping, eating, reading, or sex, this is time that brings me back to equilibrium after interactions or activities become frenetic or fraught, and time that reminds me that while I have the ability to be extraverted, I'm truly an introvert at heart.

Another is the emotionally ruminative mode. In the background, behind the emails and chores and calls and projects and research and internet rabbit holes, I am working through a tricky problem or idea in my head over time, chewing it and stretching it into different orientations and sizes and shapes to see where it leads me.

Today, in my ruminations, I circled back to the topic of forgiveness, which I remembered was the topic of the first piece I had my last writing group read.

At the time, I wanted to set the stage with that group, to tell them I had been through something exceptional and had issues with the whole forgiveness position. I understood how the Dalai Lama teaches you to let go of those grudges and resentments for they only serve to bind you more tightly to that person, but I thought, surely there's more I can do than just to turn the other cheek or walk away!

Again recently I started thinking about forgiveness, in part because I am spending more time with my sister and we're talking about our memories and feelings about what we survived, and it's the first time we've spent big swaths of time while both sharing the same perspective. For a long time, we'd say, “It's like we had different childhoods,” which was true for many reasons, yet saying it tended to reinforce our differences rather than emphasizing what we had in common. Now, we look at our father's issues, and our mother's issues, and we say, “It's a freakin' miracle both of us are alive and well!”

So both of us as we age are finding peace in being ourselves and following our dreams and paths and coming to terms with what we lived through and who we are today, but at the same time there's still a voice in that rumination asking, “Is there something more I can do with this?”

The answer is pretty much always yes; for me it's a matter of picking something, and keeping it positive. I am not writing my book to get revenge on my parents for being who they were, even though to them it may feel like it when they read it. I can't help that, I see now, but I can help myself by speaking my truth and telling the story as I saw it. And I hope by doing so, I'll be making the world a little safer for others who need to tell their stories.

So back to forgiveness. I asked the other night as we were doing dishes, “What's the flip-side of forgiveness?” and had to go chew on that for a couple of days. This morning I thought about the work it takes to judge others, how exhausting it is to continuously decide who's doing it right and who is doing it wrong.

Aha! That's what it is about forgiveness that is so insidious to me, I realized. It takes a lot of energy just to say whether you think someone deserves forgiveness. It requires you to judge another person.

I know my nearest and dearest will recognize I am pointing at something I do all the time, but what I noticed looking at it from this perspective is how exhausting that process of judging is, how far it pulls me from my center and my passions.

In her eyes and on her face and lips I can see my sister has found some peace, too. I think she and I are feeling peaceful because we are not engaged and actively judging and resenting but getting on with what we need to do. And it turns out that getting on with what we need to do is not always about forgiving those who have trespassed against us or neglected us in times of need but about giving ourselves what we need, which enables us to see what we have to give ourselves and the families and friends to whom we devote ourselves today. Maybe that is forgiveness, but I see it more as a kind of grace, which I probably wouldn't recognize without some help from the brilliant Anne Lamott.

Grace lets me move beyond the notions of attachment versus letting go. This is fine with me because I feel strongly that there are times and places when it is appropriate to be attached – to feel and react when we have been wronged or neglected. If we didn't have those feelings, how would we know to act on what we know in our souls is right and true?

For me, the less time I spend judging people, the more peace I experience. Where's your peace?

25 July 2014

Godfamilies are good families

24 years ago today, I learned that our dear friend and former college housemate Erica was in labor. I was living in San Francisco and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. At Marin General, I learned Erica had given birth very recently. So I got to hold Mark and Erica's tiny baby, named Rachel Stella, when she was just a couple of hours new. It was a joyful moment, especially in light of the fact that Mark and Erica later asked me and my husband to be her godparents. They clarified that a catastrophe for them would not result in our becoming her custodial parents – an uncle was already signed up for that role – but would mean we would be in the circle of friends and family who would become her tribe as she came up in the world.

Sadly we moved away from the Bay Area shortly after we accepted this honor, and it's a little harder to be active in someone's upbringing when you're a thousand miles away. But it's been lovely to become acquainted with our goddaughter over the years, and see her sister grow up into herself too. We've hosted them for a couple of ski trips that we'll always remember fondly.

As a kid, I had a lot of people who loved me and looked out for me everywhere I went, maybe because I was enthusiastic and curious most of the time and willing to chat with people a lot of the time. When I was a teenager, my mother realized she hadn't named a godparent and decided her best friend Marcia was the one. Marcia accepted the honor, godmothering me and my sister. That has become a source of love in my circle many times over as my godmom has two beautiful daughters. Now one of the daughters has three kids of her own, and so the circle keeps expanding to admit more.

As an adult, my circle shifted dramatically away from all those people I grew up with at different times in my childhood – people like Vivian and Hari way back at Olompali, and my family's friends Frank and Phee, Diane, George, Bob and Barbara, Marcia, and many others. There was attrition as people died or moved away or joined different circles, and my circle filled in with other people my age, some of whom have remained close to me. My own big moves back and forth between Colorado and California seemed to exacerbate that.

Few of those non-family members know me well today. I loved Judy dearly, and remained friends with her until her very end, but she's been gone for more than four years. I did some of the shifting by moving to California after graduating from high school. At the time I could not fathom staying in Colorado. I knew every nook and cranny of my town and wanted to go elsewhere. I'd never pictured myself staying.

But we have been friends ever since we met our roommate Erica, and she later married our mutual friend Mark. Having been appointed a member of their daughter Rachel's inner circle continues to give me warm feelings. I like knowing I am there not only for my husband and daughter but also for Rachel and her sister as they set out in the world. It feels good to know my godmother and godsisters are there for me, too. And I know my friend whom we chose to be there for our daughter as her godmother will live up to her pledge, no matter what happens between her and me.

We godfamilies are always a place where members our tribe can land. We will always have room for the others. How fortunate we are for these tribes, for loving and being loved by them.

23 July 2014

Scenes from this year's Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

Here are a few scenes from my experiences at the 2014 Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, just to give you a little more of the flavor of Camp.

On Thursday evening, the first night of Camp, most families arrive at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA near Tabernash, Colorado in time for the barbecue dinner (grilled hot dogs, burgers, and veggie burgers), held indoors or in the park, depending on the weather ("If you don't like the weather in Colorado, wait five minutes and it will change," we like to say). This year the dinner was inside, in the Kiva, a cavernous building area that houses a rollerskating/games/climbing wall at one end and at the other end we have tables and chairs, a stage and a sound system, tables for a registration/administration area, and a village of little painted plywood buildings for the littler kids. The Kiva is the all-purpose room for several of the gatherings and groupings of our 100 families, plus counselors, and community members. A variety of additional camp activities are distributed elsewhere around the YMCA campus over the next two-and-a-half days.

I was in the Kiva filling my plate with veggie burger, watermelon, and dessert. At the condiments table, a teenager I knew asked for help.

"I don't know you, but could you please help me get some baked beans?"

"Of course," I said. As I shook some ketchup onto his plate and scooped a spoonful of baked beans out of the giant can, I added, "You might not remember me, but you know me. I saw you when you were still at IMH." He thanked me politely, perhaps looking at me a little more curiously because of my comment, and then went to dine with his family and friends.

I feel like we already know each other on some level because he had been at the orphanage when we had come to adopt our daughter. There, everyone we met said he was the little prince of the orphanage, that he was always at the center of things. At the orphanage, I saw the massis (caretakers) and sisters (nurses) chuck his little chin and cheeks, saying affectionately that he knew everyone's comings and goings and he had a say in everything that went on there. At the time, I felt the complicated mix of pleasure and remorse about our being there to adopt a little five-month-old baby girl, when here were one-, two-, and three-year-old children who still needed families, some of whom had disabilities, special needs, or all of the above. It had been a long time since I thought of that.

That Thursday night as we pumped ketchup and mustard out of large plastic jugs onto our picnic plates, I wondered what it was like for him to be plopped down at age two-and-a-half or three into a family in the United States with several other kids after being master of a universe in an orphanage in India. What does he remember about his toddlerhood? I remember him and some of the other children so well; I see the ones who come to Camp grow up into themselves a little more every year, while they still look out from the same eyes and faces they had when they were babies and small children. I saw one girl whom I'd met when she was a toddler with close-cropped hair. Now those same glittering eyes crinkled as she laughed with her friends and tossed her dark ringlets, which reached halfway down her back. I wonder when I see my daughter and her orphanage mates every summer whether any of them still remember when other parents and people came to take the little babies away. Did any of their little best friends get adopted before they did?

So it started early at INHC, all the thinking about all the facets of our shared journeys, all the wearing of different shoes.


On the second day of camp, I looked for people who needed help but no one did, so I went into the Kiva to see what was happening. One of the community members was setting up a clay lantern-making craft and four women were seated in front of slabs of cool, soft terra cotta. People in India make little lanterns like these to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, and this year's camp theme was the festivals of India and Nepal. A little cool clay appealed to me greatly, so I sat down to my own slab of clay and started mashing it around to see what it wanted to be.

"Some people paint them after they have dried. Someone made a bird on theirs," the instructor said.

I started forming an elephant's head and legs. Another person made a paisley shape and paved it beautifully with shiny gemlike stones. Another person made an elephant head. A fellow joined us and made a clay hand, modeled on his own. I made my elephant's body into a dish and attached four stubby, squat legs that wouldn't come off. I made a head separately, thinking I would attach it later. I squished clay into ears, trying to make them look India-shaped (because Indian elephants have ears that are shaped like India), and pinched and poked clay to make a trunk. I found a way to hang the head on the body, which was the dish for the candles to rest in. A few times people remarked on how soothing it felt to work the clay. One of the directors saw us crafting quietly and called us the "rehab group," which cracked her up, and us too.
Diwali clay elephant lamp

Later I said to her, "That was one of the most fun activities I've done at Camp in years!" I felt a little bad for saying that when we've done huge projects with grand conclusions like building houses and making movies in our recent past, but sometimes it's those quiet, contemplative shared moments that unfold into peace of mind and heart.


On Friday evening, we attended the party the camp throws to feed and thank the coordinators and their families, who all sacrifice on some level to contribute to Camp, whether financially, with supplies, or with physical labor or attention during Camp. I felt funny in a way about being there this time, even though officially I had a coordinator role. But this year every time I offered help, I was gently told, it's okay, we have that handled. So I went to sessions and made myself generally available if anyone needed me. But I sure didn't feel like a coordinator this year, so going to the coordinator party made me feel a little squirmy, like I shouldn't really have taken advantage of the offering. At the same time, we have repeatedly declined offers to stay in one of the reunion cabins, the multi-room cabins rented by the camp to house all the directors, community members, dance teachers, and counselors at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA. We prefer camping so that we have some time outside, with the astounding variety of skies and colors and clouds and views of the Indian Peaks in the distance. So we really appreciate the coordinator party because it is lovely having someone else cook for us that one night.

One hour later, my husband and daughter and I had all eaten our fill of savory foods and the trays of rich, honeyed baklava glistened on the table, no one yet hungry enough to take the first piece. I had changed out of my camp t-shirt, which I wear most of the weekend, and put on a casual salwar kameez (loose pants and tunic dress) of light cotton. I felt a little dowdy. My daughter teased me about already having spilled on my outfit. We chatted and joked with my daughter's crib-sister and her family. We were joined by one of the directors and her daughter. We bantered and chatted and laughed about the day's events, in-jokes, and whatever else caught our fancies. I thought: I'm so glad I do this. I do this so my daughters can feel comfortable in this place, in this way, with all these people.

My friend Fran, the mother of my daughter's crib-sister, so a kind of family member to me over the past decade-plus, asked what my favorite thing about Camp is. I looked around the room and said to her, "It's really about this right here: the rainbow of people who come here together to do this every year."


In one of the adult workshops, we learned what middle-school and high-school kids had talked about in their sessions called "This Is Me." A social worker and psychologist presented posters the kids had made during their session that listed first all the annoying stuff they had to deal with as adoptees or members of mixed-race families -- or simply as teenagers (some of the kids who attend are siblings of adopted kids, some biological kids and some adopted from countries other than India and Nepal, and some of the kids are the kids of the community folks who present many of the workshops for kids and adults). Then the kids had listed some of the good things about their culture and being adopted. In the negative column were things like "Dumb questions" (e.g., "So, did your parents not want you and that's why you were adopted?") and "Stereotyping", and in the positive column were things like "Music", "Dance", "Skin", and "Education" or "Information".

At one point during the "Dumb questions" discussion in the adult workshop, I raised my hand to share an observation. "Looking at this as an adoptive parent," I said, "it seems like our adopted kids have a double burden in terms of self-advocacy. I mean, first everyone has to learn to advocate for themselves, which isn't easy in and of itself. But these kids have to do this extra layer of self-advocacy. It makes me see how important it is for us to support them, as their parents and community."

"Yes, this may be," said the presenter, "but we don't ever put ideas in the kids' mouths about this. We try to ask them open-ended questions and let them come up with the answers. We never put words in their mouths." Ah, yes, I thought, nodding. I can just be there for them, because it can be exhausting over time to field all those "where are you from?"s and those double-takes people do when they see our family (the ones that always prompt me to say, "Mental math! They're doing their mental math, trying to figure us out."). But I see how there's no need to give anyone a chip on their shoulder. We just need to help our kids get the information they need to be informed about their history and culture and food and current events, and some emotional-intelligence tools for fielding the dumb questions and stereotypes, so they can keep moving beyond those and toward what they truly want and need to do in the world. The kids feel pride in what they know of their cultures and often have the attitude that with a little more information, everyone could be more comfortable in their skin, including them. This is truly what INHC is all about.

Namita Khanna Nariani, one of the facilitators of the teens' workshop, who also happens to be the head of the Mudra Dance Studio, described a situation with a student from India she had learned about who had moved to a new community and was at a new school. He had special needs, and brown skin, and was persistently getting bullied by his classmates. He was fearful and small, in danger of fading away. He didn't want to live.

One of the student's teachers called Namita for help. Namita came to teach the students in his class about Indian dance. She did a performance with her dance troupe, and then led the students in learning a couple of styles of Indian dance -- Punjabi, Bhangra, etc. As she taught them dances and explained some of the history, Namita was delighted when one of the Latino students in the class noticed, "This is a lot like our salsa dance." By the end of the dance instruction, the class had completely opened the boy and his culture up to his classmates, and their relationship changed completely. The boy felt proud of his culture, and felt cool for coming from the place where these fun dances had originated, and his cultural pride spilled over into pride in himself. The students learned more about him, and the bullying stopped. After the session, I talked with Namita, and teared up as I thanked her for all she does.