saying yes


Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterward. – Tina Fey

Yes. I am saying yes. And it’s an interesting journey. I recommend it.

This fall I spoke at a cocktail mingler about creativity. I was invited last minute and it would have been so easy to say no. There were hipsters and entrepreneurs and movers and shakers. “What should I talk about?” I asked the man who asked me to speak and who is himself in all of the above categories. Cool as could be: “Whatever you’re passionate about right now.” So I spoke about the writing project that is several years in the making – starting and stopping, with me sometimes believing in it and sometimes feeling faithless. And I spoke about the need to inject more creativity into our local schools — another topic that I keep pushing and pulling at, working from different angles as my own kids work their way up the educational ladder with varying frustration and ennui at the relative worth-less-ness of the endeavor.

I said yes to the last minute call for a private yoga session with the visiting couple. He was getting a divorce. They’d reunited, years past their college romance. He lived in California – had just been surfing less than 24 hours before on the beach where I’d gotten married. She lived in New York. They chose Iowa out of a quixotic love of the literary and an intention to meet in the middle. I taught from the hip, which is often the best way, and at the end of our 90 minutes they beamed.

I said yes to my husband’s proposition that we stay out on the beach until after dark under the stars. Which is how we got a little bit lost – or turned around, depending on who you ask, and ended up walking on a path in the pitch black, holding on to each other, singing loudly, and flashing our cell phone lights ahead and behind as we tried not to utter the words “mountain lion.” (“Don’t say ‘mountain.’ Don’t say ‘lion.'”) But at the end of the path was the hostel where a nice Dutchman named Anders who was cooking his dinner paused to drive us to our car — bless that man up and down and may all good things come to him. As soon as he drove away, we took a deep sigh of relief and then  had the best laugh – and have been laughing occasionally for the past two weeks at our selves. Yes to the stars! Yes to the ocean! Yes to fear!

Speaking of stars, I said yes to introducing an astrophysicist who spoke with verve about the heart of the Milky Way. The night before, she sent me a so-called layman’s article to read to familiarize myself with her topic. I crossed my eyes and turned it upside down and then tried reading it with a French accent, but it was still a smattering of chaotic, albeit awe-some star-studded nonsense. And yet I stood there the next day and introduced her and did not completely make a fool of myself. Rather, I said yes.

Which is what I did two weekends ago when we went to California and I joined a group of fifty people for a dance workshop. There were a lot of gray hairs among the dancers, but also lithe, young bodies. Several men looked as though they were draped in suits during the week. I took one woman to be a counselor at a community college. Another man had an IT air. One young woman seemed fresh out of a modern dance degree; another, covered in tattoos and beads, arrived from a commune. Who knows their true stories, their actual lives.There was a lot of quiet – people hardly spoke, just the music and the sound of feet on the wooden floor. What I saw were the selves they shared only as dancing bodies — people vulnerably and yet ecstatically being in their physical selves. Twirling. Leaping. Crawling. Eyes closed. Smiles wide. Tears.  Patches of California sun streaming in through the window of the Finnish Hall. Out on the fire escape, a row of potted plants — rosemary, basil, cacti.

I can’t entirely put my experience of the workshop into words. Which is how it should be — something so about the body should largely remain in that land beyond words. I can say that there were moments of pure pleasure and others of utter panic. It brought forth some mighty teachers — Judgement, Doubt, Boredom, and Impatience. But also Joy. Also Love.  I have no regrets. I said yes, and that took me far. I can’t wait to see what comes next.


800px-Sally_Mann_response_EmilyJust a little glimpse into a possibility, the window open this much of a smidge.

Through it I see a sense that around the corner or up the road, it will all pop into place.

There will be a satisfying sound as the pieces finally meet. THWAP! A sense of relief and of true beginning.

I happened just now onto a short film – a promotional gewgaw with a lot of Wes Anderson thrown in.

Its blip of color and tinny, festive music suggested a way of life that made me think:

“Yes, that. That’s how I want it all to look and feel.”

I read a profile yesterday of a life: Yes, this too. I could be this. I could do that.

And I saw a woman hunkered over a notebook:  Oh sweetness, yes.

Lurking over it all, the shadow belief of how things have not quite connected – near misses that aren’t my fault.

Or more darkly the belief that it’s all in me, these near misses, this almost but not quite.

If only I could rearrange my head, my heart.

mind palace

unnamedSomething I read months ago has been a haunting refrain – “What are we without our memory?” The speaker – an author of repute – was pretty clear the answer was not much.

This bothered me since my memory is ever more lacy and moth-eaten. It is at once flat as Nebraska, oddly without drama, and then it can swoop into a valley of murky melancholic lagoons. It is a Frank Stella monochrome and then dizzingly transforms into a packed Baroque canvas, nearly tipping into the psychedelic.

My memory is not what it once was. And yet it is so much more.

My kids, now 12 and 14, remember all sorts of things from their life on earth that I don’t recall. Conversations. Movies. Meals. Birthday parties. And in my daughter’s case, snippets of her birth. Each detail they present is an enigma to me, though I have no reason to doubt them when they recall what they got for Christmas in 2005 or who where their 6th birthday party took place. Are their memories that much more vital than mine? The part of me that fears my demise thinks YES. I see their brains rosy and pumping with blood; mine is grey and draining of life.

My friend Hope, who is ahead of me on this journey, once said that our 40s are the last time in our lives when we are physically beautiful. I balk at this, and yet increasingly understand her POV. Tonight in the bathtub looking down at my body, which recalled a still from an old Frankenstein movie, I had to agree. But what about our brains? Perhaps they are becoming more beautiful – layered and full of secret passages, textured and ripe. They grow increasingly mysterious, a place we’ve decorated and rearranged for years. What does it look like in Sherlock’s Mind Palace? Is it an orderly Philip Johnson home, or is it a hodgepodge lair of a member of the Bloomsbury group?

My memory has certainly become adept at holding differing versions of the same event – the reality of unreality – in a way that my younger brain often couldn’t or would’t compute. My memory can hold joy and grief, a lie and a truth. It’s a two-fer of sorts.

Those wisps of sensation, images and sounds, smells and felt-in-the-gut emotions may be less reliable in certain ways – forgive me now if you ever want me to recall your name, oh lady in the back row in the red shirt. But oddly, they are also increasingly arriving in the Now. The past is sloughing off. The future, ever closer, is increasingly part of the present.

What are we without our memories? Perhaps we are simply here. Now. Beautifully ourselves. The house and the painting we’ve been trying to become for years. Our own unique style. Without nearly as much care for what was. And with so much reverence for what had been. All at once. Holding it in our Mind Palace lightly.

Note – This post was inspired by an article about new works by Laurie Anderson, which seem to be largely about the memory. And the Sherlock/Watson face mashup is by Bella Epstein!

What if the world told you to persevere? Could you hear it?

Chris turns over on his side of the bed and grabs his computer. It’s the first thing he does many mornings – turn on a device. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says one morning. “The next 9-11. The next something. Know what I mean?”

I know exactly what he means. I suspect many of us do.

I spent much of my life hesitant to open doors of public bathroom stalls, sure that eventually a dead body would roll out from one. And for a year in my early 20s, if I closed my eyes while taking a shower, I was so certain that Ted Bundy would be there when I opened them that I was almost more scared when he wasn’t there.

Jumpy. I used to be very jumpy. My ex tells my kids the story of coming home late at night when I was already asleep and how I’d bolt upright in bed screaming.

Now I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about whether we’ll be able to afford college. And then whether college is even anything worth attending any more. And then whether if you go to college, especially as a young woman, you are safe. And then of how and where and when my kids will find happiness in this crazy world, or whether they’ll be pissed and alone — two things that are certainly understandable given the circumstances. Though of course I hope they’ll discover the path of love – it’s so much lighter.

Hours later, after making lunches and driving people to school, after walking the dog and stretching and sitting and staring at trees, I turn on my computer. I know already from my husband’s earlier scan that that no apparent shoe dropped last night–unless you count the seemingly endless rise of Donald Trump or the refugees out in the sea on plastic rafts or the story shared by a friend on Facebook of marching band members downtown last weekend chanting a song about “gang rape twice a day.”

If you somehow discount all of that as proof that the shoe is falling and make it to opening your computer hours later you may be greeted, as I was this morning, with the annual story of the MacArthur genius awards being given out. The foundation makes direct phone calls to the recipients, telling them that until it is public they can share the news with only one person. There are always funny stories of how the people receiving the calls (and the very cool thing about the MacArthur awards is that these are all sorts of people, activists and scientists, playwrights and historians) not believing the news on the end. Shut up, Bob. Stop teasing me. I seriously did not just win $625K, no string attached.  After the initial news comes the really beautiful part is this: the MacArthur person reads to the recipient WHY he or she has been chosen. That means that you’re standing in a grocery store or picking your kid up from school and a stranger on the other end of the phone is telling you how amazingly beautiful you are, how meaningful your work is. It’s like this message from the world to persevere.

I think we all need to be allowed a few points in our lives where we request that a group of our friends, mentors, colleagues, and perhaps an outside reviewer or two, gather and tell us of our worth. How easy it is to overlook this – our worth. How nice to have a mom or a partner who reminds us, but how hard to believe that this worth extends beyond her eyes. In this Life Review, our work would be collected — work in the absolute broadest sense of the term, including daily acts of kindness, the bhakti yoga that goes so unnoticed and is rarely the stuff of headlines.

And standing there in front of this board of appreciation, naked with humility, we would soak in what it means to be alive. We would gain sustenance to keep going on the path, no matter how foggy the next steps might appear. We would know that no matter what shoes drop, we are indeed full of love.

so many stories

pile-of-booksDedicated to Oliver Sacks, whose words live in me like so many stars.

I have gotten to the point in the novel I am reading that I’ve known was coming – the point that the whole book was about. It is when the young German soldier hears the radio broadcast and recognizes it as coming from the same source as the radio broadcasts he magically picked up on his homemade receiver before the war, when he was a boy. He is still just a boy, but now he is a boy with a gun, a pawn of the Reich. What he and his sister had prized so dearly as children were mesmerizing stories about science narrated by a mysterious Frenchman. Those broadcasts had been a suggestion of a larger and beautiful world. The broadcast he picks up now, as he and his unit slowly sweep across Europe listening to the hidden airwaves, is on behalf of the Resistance, riddles and enigmas filled with meaning.

It is exactly the kind of broadcast it is his job to ferret out. But I am guessing he will not ferret it out. Rather, the story will save him by reconnecting him to the innocence of his younger self. The story is the lifeline.

I wonder about all of the books I’ve read that I only hazily recall. So many books especially in that ten-year gap between graduate school, when I could finally put away Foucault, and motherhood, when I was too tired. The novels of Kaye Gibbons, which were published in a smaller format than most books, making them all the more special. The work of Laurie Colwin, which ended all too abruptly when she died young from breast cancer. A Hundred Acres before I’d ever heard the name Jane Smiley and Midnight’s Children before Salman Rushdie became a household name. So many other books that I cannot scrape from memory – books by authors who did not go on to great acclaim. Who perhaps published a single work. That one about the boy and his mother, traveling by night, living in a car. The woman returning to rural Illinois after her divorce. A retelling of the life of Gertrude Stein.

So many stories. Each of them in my veins. Remnants tucked away in the soft reserves of memory. And each containing their own kernels of who I was.

If there is one place that is hard for me to go, it is the children’s room of our local library. The essence of my kids’ younger selves are too palpable. The way it has all gone so fast hits me too strongly. I can’t breathe when I’m there. It’s too much.

All of those books that we would check out in greedy heaps and then the absolute pleasure we would take in coming home, that very afternoon, and going through them, one by one, taking in the pictures, the characters, the words. For a week, we would read and re-read them, before returning and restocking. Fingering the spines. Pulling one from here and two from there until our arms were full.

Now, it takes me weeks to read a book. I’ve always been a slow reader, but I am so far from those 20-something days of nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading is something jammed between other things. A moment to be stubbornly grabbed. And so the absolute riches of those children’s storybooks and how you could devour a stack of them — like being allowed to eat all of the candy on Halloween night – and the way they were a shared treat between my children and me – this was absolutely one of the most joyful aspects of my life.

I wonder:  When I am dying, will I hear all of these stories again. Will some benevolent narrator recount them all, tuning into a hidden brainwave? The books that my dad read to me as a kid and the books that I read to Bella and Tobey. The novels from my Seattle days and the ones I read in college and high school. All of the stories. Each of them unwinding in my memory and filling me with their wisdom, carrying me from one plane back to a place of pure innocence.

here’s what I don’t want to forget…

MeadowThe bee working its way petal by petal around a no longer blooming wild flower high in the Rockies. I watched it for an hour, mesmerized by its wings, its diligence, its low, constant hum. Impressed by how it is at once proverbially busy and in sublime meditation.

Lounging in the sticky heat of August next to the swimming pool in which I grew up. Swimming a few lazy laps down the black line, wondering how many times it’s been repainted since my childhood days of morning practices. Drying off, allowing myself to heat up to the point of languid discomfort, then diving back in, headfirst, bathed in the coolness, my eyes opening into the light blue luminous quiet. Resurfacing and floating on my back, gazing at the clouds, the trees. Knowing that within weeks this will all pass.

Lying in bed, in the hammock, on the sofa, on an air mattress in a tent with a headlamp and reading reading reading Anthony Doerr’s beautiful prose from All the Light We Cannot See. Such as: “And when April finally comes, reeking of sawdust and corpses, the canyon walls of snow give way while the ice on the roads remains stubbornly fixed, a luminous, internecine network of invasion:  a record of the crucifixion of Russia.” Heart stops. Read again, this time aloud. A rose blooming in my mouth.

Kayaking down the Mississippi with Tobey in the rain. The day growing quieter as we move away from the core of Minneapolis, moving down river mile after mile. Peering into the deep green of the banks, imagining a life lived in the reeds, apart from the city, on borrowed scraps and found objects, dinner from tins of beans and edible plants, nights with the stars and the constant of the river.

This was a summer of quiet and reflection. Trees rustling against my window. Tomatoes growing lazily. Letting slowness seep into my being. This is what I don’t want to forget now as the calendar becomes layered and time literally seems to be queued to a higher frequency. Just this week I can feel Speed scraping its feet nearby, nervously awaiting the race that is the school year. Can I hold a thin cord to these days of ease? Can I live among the reeds?


11223624_10207617678906804_4526121224993734212_oLast week, Chris and I took a walkabout to Colorado. We got in the car loaded with unlikely gear, a few maps, and no set destination. It was just what we needed – this spontaneous adventure. I am turning 50 next year and sometimes I find myself thinking that there’s perhaps something I can’t or shouldn’t do. Does one do “this” at 50? The pain I’m having in my elbows lately – that’s 50. The graft for gum recession – definitely 50. But sleeping in a tent, hiking all day, eating PB&Js, then staying up late staring at the stars and riding an inner journey – that doesn’t feel so 50.

It’s just a number; it’s actually all about how you feel, right? One of those sayings that is easy to believe when you’re ten years away from it. But here I am, knocking on the half century door and it’s harder to believe from here. I’d hoped that by now death wouldn’t be so scary. Or that I’d have a handle on my kids’ growing up and moving away. By now, I’d be thumbing my nose at age. Not so.

And so last week when I was up in a meadow at 11,500 feet above sea level, I was struck by abundance. If you hang out much in the world of spiritual seekers, this word will pop up – sometimes annoyingly so. My midwestern pragmatist roots have a hard time with “abundance.” Part of me wishes I could embrace this way of thinking – it will all come! – but the granddaughter of a farmer whose father lost his farm in the Depression only to have the son earn it all back and lose it in the farm crisis – I am too often focused on dearth – the money I don’t have, the trip I’m not able to take, the house repair that is just around the bend, the medical procedure that might be necessary. I am definitely grateful, but I manage to hold gratefulness and this profound fear about lack in my palm at the same time. One reigns during the day, the other inhabits my 3AM mind – that mind of clouded thinking when everything seems just almost wrong.

In the meadow – which was vast, stretching in one direction to the Medicine Bow mountain range and in the other to the Snowy Range – I sat and took in the wild flowers. I could identify scarlet Indian paintbrushes, plum lupines – much daintier than the ones I’d seen in meadows in Maine, and then there were small purple daisies, a lemony sunburst of a flower, a white fuzz of a flower. So many! And these were just the ones in bloom. They were interspersed with the carcasses of the recently deceased – a kind of lily that was now but a hard green pod filled with seeds and some kind of long clover that the bees were still trying to suckle despite being a week or two away from its height.

The flowers were a blanket dotted with rocks. An impossible array of shapes, sizes, and hues. Right next to each other were flat gray slabs; ropy, rosy blobs; and sparkling white castles. How could so many different boulders, stones, and pebbles have been pushed up from the earth in one place, as though God were starting a rock shop right here in this meadow?

And the clouds. As much as my attention was on the ground it was also skyward. Fat cumulus clouds took on the shape of a pig’s rear end – an elephant’s profile – a mittened hand. Higher up, cirrus clouds pulled themselves apart like cotton candy.

This meadow, so quiet and yet so overcome with activity, so eternal and yet ever changing, was a reminder to me of my constant becoming. The fears that are now present are relatively accessible because I have faithfully, mindfully worked to clear the internal woods. Once there was so much brush, so many heaps of pebbles, so many tangles of vines and bramble that a particular fear didn’t have a chance of being keenly felt. Or if it was felt it was so confusing as to disrupt the entire system, whereas now there is a much sparer field in which I can relatively easily identify that which terrifies me. Hard as it is – it is better to see the monster clearly than to continue to approach it as a mysterious force hidden from view.

Abundance was one lesson of our walk about, the other was the beauty of one’s own backyard. We searched one day for a suitable place to spend a few hours in meditation only to end up several hundred yards behind where we were camped. That same evening, we got in the car intending to seek a vantage point for watching the sun set, only to drive less than 45 seconds and realize that just around the bend was the perfect spot. Simultaneously, a friend back in Iowa who has been searching for a place to which to move his business found a spot literally around the corner from his old office; this after weeks of heart-wrenching searching.

Right here. Right now. You have enough. You are enough. So simple. I know this and yet I clearly do not know it. It took 11+ hours of driving, high altitude, and some sleepless nights on an air mattress for me to remember again – eternal, infinite, whole.