The Beginning

The Pilanesberg game preserve in South Africa sits on a volcano that imploded millions of years ago before there was anyone around to understand time. It forms a large circle somewhere between the city of Johannesburg and the Botswana border, marked by mountains, hills, valleys, and open spaces—geographic entrails coughed up from the inward heave.

During the rainy season, everything turns green and tuberous; in the dry season, sun-baked, hard, yellow; so that there is a constant shift between green and yellow, wet and dry, give and take. Watering holes appear and disappear. Skies scatter into cloudless blue, then gather into towering thunderheads. Gullies and washouts scar the red dirt tracks. The animals, no stranger to cycles, breathe deeply and usher newly dropped young into rhythms determined long ago in some tectonic age.

Scrubby bushes hide sprawled lions, bellies swollen with a kill. Tall grasses are crushed underfoot by marauding rhinos. Hippos surface, spouting mud, then sink again. Herds of wildebeest, impala, and zebra roam the hill sides. They are often seen together in threes, compatible species who have learned to travel, sleep, and eat together, and warn each other when danger is close. Giraffe stand motionless in all their strange alien beauty, staring without concern across the valley, unaffected by the things we believe to be true.

And the elephants. These lumbering creatures, touchable and yet completely untouchable. Matriarchal families with complex and rigid social structures, belying uniquely human emotions, carry a deep sadness that comes from their unwanted collision with our desires. And yet they are full of life, with their happy trotting babies and their show-off youngsters, their grumpy old men and their great wise women, relentless in their stewardship, keepers of tradition. They walk in packs along the side of the road, their soft, soulful eyes looking away in search of peace as voyeurs snap pictures. We wonder how they could ever be angry. We forget all the many reasons why.

Everywhere the smaller, near-invisible, less glamorous members of the bush go about their business unnoticed. Chameleons cling to tree branches. Turtles scuttle under foot. Birds flit, dive, twitter. Bull frogs sing their guttural vibrations at pond’s edge, calling for suitable mates. Snakes lie coiled in the shade. Termite mounds disguise entire ecosystems of plumbing and venting, workers and queen.

Even the plant life in Pilanesberg hums with purpose. Thorny trees make a sharp tangle for an unsuspecting traveler but are food for giraffes who can digest the thorns. A particular leaf oozes a white latex that causes violent illness in humans but helps rhinos with upset stomachs. Camphor grows in abundance to soothe rashes and bug bites. Mushroom fields provide fertile ground for tree roots. If you know where to look, you can navigate for days the friend-or-foe labyrinth of root and stem, branch and leaf covering the volcanic hills.


Janco was eight years old when he was playing in the cage, scratching near the edge of a patch of grass looking for a snake he wanted that had slid out of sight. He moved slowly and carefully as he had been taught. Nearby was the lioness, Asha, who had nosed through the wire of the fence to her two cubs who were mewling in plaintive voices. Several yards away Janco’s uncle rummaged through the feed bins while down the road his aunt cooked in the house. The day was warm but clouds were already showing on the horizon, which meant it would rain later, maybe around dusk.

He scratched once more at the grass, aware of Asha pausing, looking his way.

An ant scrambled over the top of his shoe and waved its body in the air, in search of food or a fight. He flicked it into the dirt, watched it skitter through the cage. Suddenly he was bored. There were hours left in the day.

He turned to head back to the house.

There was a quick electric parting in the air, the low whoosh of paws on sand and an unearthly growl riding above it. Then all went dark with the impact, a swift and decisive greeting of flesh and claw and bone.

Two months later, he woke up in the hospital to metal in his head and femur, and the pink ropes of scars across his torso and legs. But he was alive and would recover.

Not Asha. Her two cubs were back on the farm, now motherless.

As he healed, as he came back into his body from the dream of confusion and searing pain, everything changed. He had broken the cardinal rule and turned his back on a lion. But in so doing, he would embark on a love affair.


Outside, the rain against our thatched roof sounds like a train. Lightning flashes in the room which darkens again to the triangle of lamplight in the corner. Moths prickle in the mosquito net. The smell of soap from the shower mingles with the rain and wet earth and the smoke from the campfire still on our clothes.

Flash of lightning again, and there—a zebra, staring in, ears cocked. But no. It’s just the rain in insistent stripes down the sliding glass door and the deck chairs beyond and the electric fence.

I wonder what he’s doing now, Janco. Whether he’s with his colleagues, organizing their equipment, consulting maps, reading about a new species of bird. Eating in the dining room. Planning his day off. Sleeping in a narrow bed. Dreaming of the mundane.

I think about how he survived the lion attack when he was a boy, and his face when he spoke of it. How he had made it his mission to learn everything he could about lions and their world, to walk their paths, to study their rituals, to give them the space they required. I think about space, how we think it is ours for the taking.

He drives us out in the mornings and again in the afternoons, stopping the truck every ten yards, full of information and enthusiasm, pointing here, listening there. Soft-spoken, capable, young. Alive. As alive with aliveness as I’ve ever seen another human being. Crisscrossing this old volcano, we who paid money to come here will never, ever understand—not really—but are nevertheless moved to tears at the sight of a lone rhino down in the valley, an elephant trek, the oldest migration of animal to water happening right there in front of us while our hearts beat harder in recognition. We know with despair in our hearts that we have removed ourselves from this ancient dance, and oh how we long to be invited back in.


In the storm, rain coming in sideways, trucks follow each other with headlights on. The procession stops. Guides’ voices crackle to each other over their radios. Janco grabs something on the dashboard, makes sure the truck is in gear. We sit forward, eyes searching in the dark.


Janco says, “Be very quiet and still.”

We hold our breath, hovering.

He shines a point of red light out into the night. Through the rain, we see a beige shape coming closer. The shape is a lion, a male we are told. The lion makes his way, unhurried, between our truck and the one in front of us. Janco keeps the light trained on him. He tells us that the red light does not startle or stress lions, that it’s for everyone’s own good.

For a brief moment, I feel the electric parting in the air as Janco did when he was eight. There is a steel frame around us; a rifle lies across the top of the dashboard within reach. Janco is a trained guide with countless hours of field time under his belt. He has spent nights alone in the bush. He has crept within feet of animals who could end him in one swift movement. He has survived such a movement, still intact. He is in charge of us, this twenty-three-year-old who understands more about the earth and its inhabitants and the stars than we ever will.

But we don’t need the gun or his protection. Fear is not present here. Instead, we watch, bracing against the seats. We have let this creature pass on, undeterred, ungrasped by our wanting, reaching selves. We have achieved something small and yet not insignificant. We have not turned our backs.

The lion disappears into the dark. Up and down the line of trucks, red lights switch off in a gesture of respect. The ceremony is over.


We lie on the bed holding hands, listening to the storm continue. Spent. Undone. Wordless.

We are here, in this place, regardless of name or rule or border, irrelevant to the monuments we have built to ourselves, the systems we blindly uphold, the violence we call just, the concerns we insist are real. We are here, somewhere between earth and sky, with animals who never needed us, and plants who offer without expectation, and storms that rage with cosmic abandon. And that is when we know.

We have come back. Back to the beginning.

Word Play

Warning: the following is about to get super nerdy.

A woman I used to know from childhood recently showed me up on a vocabulary quiz making its rounds on that time-wasting, insecurity-inducing, why-do-I-care-so-much super highway we refer to as social media.

When the quiz came to my attention, I quickly jumped aboard and finished it without too much sweat on my brow, I proudly noted—only to be taken down a few notches when my “grade” came back. Turns out I seem to have the same breadth and depth of vocabulary as a “30-year-old professional,” I believe is how they worded it. Considering the fact that I have a good ten years on any 30-year-old and have been making my living for some time now as a writer, I was—to say the least—not satisfied at all with this (highly scientific, I’m sure) assessment.

On the other hand, the woman who sent me the quiz—I’ll call her Wanda the Word Nerd—was labeled as a genius akin to Shakespeare. And while I don’t doubt her intelligence or her hefty vocabulary (although I have no way of knowing she didn’t just sit there with an open dictionary the whole time she was taking the quiz), I did suddenly doubt my intelligence and vocabulary.

I mean, it’s easy to forgive the meagerness of one’s own lexicon when comparing it to people like the late Christopher Hitchens or the current Rhoda Janzen or, well, any Vanity Fair contributor, whose scarily prodigious vocabularies are equal only to old-school comedian Dennis Miller’s wealth of obscure references. But because I don’t count myself in any of their companies, I didn’t—until recently—feel particularly lessened.

Wanda the Word Nerd is another story. She falls within a range we’d call socially normal (meaning she’s not a savant or anything) and has a job in software. Unless she’s got a secret late-night obsession with Webster I don’t know about, there’s no good reason I should fall short of her in the god-damn quiz!

Other than, I might just be lazy. And I’ve been out of school for awhile. Since no one is asking it of me, I’m not asking it of myself.

Which is why I thought: maybe it’s time to start asking.

So I started making a list.

Every time I encountered a word in a book or an article for which I had a hazy idea at best of its definition, could use it only uncertainly in a sentence, or flat-out didn’t know what the heck it meant, I wrote it down and looked it up later.

That’s how I came to have more than a passing acquaintance with salubrious and inchoate, among others. (I’ll prove it to you: My trip to Whole Foods today offered a salubrious journey into fresh fruits and vegetables, while leaving the ebook I’m supposed to be working on in an inchoate state.)

I know what you’re thinking: since most people in this country read somewhere between a fourth- and an eighth-grade level (don’t quote me on that; it’s the nearest I could get doing a cursory search), why bother with a bunch of multi-syllabic, utterly pretentious-sounding terms I’m unlikely to use in my paid writing anyway?

Sure, part of it’s my ego. But the other part is that enlarging my vocabulary is about crawling out of the slump. Which is to say that I, like a lot of people, end up using the same words over and over again. (Sidebar: my dad uses perspicacious an inordinate amount of times—I’m on to you, Dad—finding ways to slip it into regular ol’ emails and conversations just because I suspect he likes the sound of it). The words I use often also happen to be words I like the sound of…or words that convey the right meaning…or words that have that special sauce when special sauce is what I need. The problem is they end up forming an exclusive club of which few new (or lesser-known or slightly vintage or downright oddball) words are allowed entry, and therefore deteriorate into a puddle of stale, obvious, tweed-wearing, ascot-donning, cigar-smelling, leaves-a-grit-in-your-mouth, fuddy-duddy old mud I’ve grown tired of.

If my brainy friend Micha were reading this, he would run all of my written pieces through some kind of big-data-driven, only-the-government-has-access word-parser and find out which words I use time and again (and send them to me in an easily readable chart for quick and shame-filled reference). He could probably even tell me how many times I string together a host of words with hyphens to create a kind of bumbling, stumbling, Frankenstein of an adjective when I can’t think of a more appropriate one-word adjective to use…you know, on account of my lagging vocabulary…and my apparent unwillingness to sift through a thesaurus.

So I figured learning (or re-learning) all the words on my list can only help me, since I’m pretty sure that one day I actually will need to call upon a larger phraseology, like when the late Christopher Hitchens visits me in a dream and asks me—me!—to write his memoir.

Which is why I’m brushing up on nadir (don’t want to reach that point again after another vocabulary quiz) because I wouldn’t want to seem jejune or anything. Can’t have a recalcitrant attitude when it comes to my own work, now, can I? Can’t be querulous or doggerel. That’ll just seal my bathos (not to be confused with the pathos you might be feeling right about now to the tune of Concerto for Sad and Pathetic Violins No. 1).

And just you wait, random clients for which I write: I might throw in a sneaky specious to jazz up that fourth-grade-sounding paragraph about politics…and you might actually like it—and, perhaps, be inspired to start your own list.

A Girl, a Boy, and a Boat Revisited

As I was leafing through the August 2016 issue of Travel & Leisure, I noticed an article on the Croatian island of Hvar (page 92). The picture brought back a host of memories, not the least of which inspired my blog post about a boat trip my boyfriend and I took during our vacation on Hvar, six years ago this month. I decided to re-post (slightly edited from the original in order to clarify some things) in honor of that outstanding vacation and, in particular, our boating…shall we say…adventure.

On an island called Hvar off the coast of Croatia, at the dock of a fancy hotel run by a company renting boats to tourists, after a sixty-second tutorial about the motor and anchor, a young Croatian man hands over a small speedboat to two Americans who have no idea what they’re doing.

My boyfriend and I speed off, heading for the Pakleni island chain just offshore and the nude beaches we’ve heard about and the gently lapping Adriatic sea.  My boyfriend shouts to me, grinning, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done!” I’m at the front of the boat in my bathing suit, wind glamorously blowing my hair, feeling like I’m going to burst into a Titanic moment.  We take pictures of each other.  He steers with one hand, drinks a beer with the other.  The sun is shining and glinting off the blue, blue sea.

Our first stop is heaven.  We drop anchor, swim to shore, and sunbathe sans swim suits on a flat white rock, not minding the yacht going by with the gawking old man.  We have our special rubber shoes for the pebbly beaches and spiny sea urchins that cling to the rocks.  Everything is perfect.   We swim back and eat sandwiches with salami, tomato, and cheese.  We are brilliant, we think.

Our next stop is at the far tip of the Pakleni chain, near an open channel where yachts and other speedboats sail fast en route to other places.  The water is a little rougher here with all the boats kicking up waves.  It’s not my choice for anchoring. My boyfriend is having fun diving off the boat into the water with his snorkel, but after a few minutes of sloshing and churning, I convince him to go, that we need to find a better spot.

Slight problem: the anchor is stuck.  He starts up the motor and twists the boat this way and that to pull it free.  I don’t like this.  I have visions of the anchor so stuck that our boat tips over.  But mercifully the twisting works, the anchor is freed, and we are off.  Small crisis averted.

We round the corner and come up the north side of the island chain.  The water is even rougher here (in reality it probably isn’t, because in comparison to any other body of water on the planet, the Adriatic is like glass, but I have a tendency to descend into doubt immediately after averting small crises).  There are vaguely ominous “no anchor” signs on this side of the islands, but we consult the map and find a place to stop for awhile.  We drop anchor.  We eat more sandwiches.  We swim to shore.  As we scramble up onto the rocks, my boyfriend looks out and says, “Hmm.  Does it look like the boat is drifting to you?”

We dive back into the water, panic rising.  I am a terrible swimmer, more of a frantic dog-paddler, with my snorkel mask up around my forehead and my heart beating so hard I cannot pay attention to what I’m doing and breathe at the same time.  He pulls ahead of me, but the boat is a long way off.  The more we swim, the further it seems to have drifted.  I am dying in the water.  After what feels like hours I see him reach the boat, get in, and start pulling up the anchor.  I try to calm down, to swim better, but my arms and legs are lead.

I decide to press the point.  “Can you pick me up?” I call out weakly.  “I’m dying out here.”

By the time he can get the anchor stowed away and the motor turned on and the boat turned around, I will be there.  He knows this, I know this.  When I finally get to the boat he hauls me in.  I’m wheezing.  “We’re not doing that again,” I say.  “I almost died out there.”

“You didn’t almost die,” he says.  But if we weren’t trying to be brave, we’d be hugging each other on the floor of the boat.

My boyfriend finds a deep inlet on the map that looks calm, and we pull in.  It’s lovely.  There are a few other boats who had the same idea, and we make ourselves right at home, right next to a rowboat packed with sunbathing French people.  Slim tanned boys and slim tanned girls, flirting and fawning with each other, soaking up the sun.  They do not appreciate our company.

We drop anchor, but something is wrong again, and we drift close to the rocks near the shore.  Then we drift close to the French people.  We spend the next thirty minutes uncovering the mysteries of the obstinate anchor.  Or rather, my boyfriend dives in to see what’s wrong, pulls and prods, surfaces, and tells me to pull the anchor rope this way and that while he dives down again.  The anchor catches and then doesn’t catch.  We do this over and over, a million times, while the French people look on with disdain. Stupid Americans. No one else is dealing with their anchors.  They are not even thinking about their anchors.  They are thinking about the lovely slim tanned person next to them.

I say, “This isn’t fun.”

At the same time he says, “This is so fun!”  He likes to solve problems.  I like to sunbathe on a boat with a working anchor.

Finally I say, “Leave it alone and we’ll just drift.  If we drift too close to the rocks, we’ll just start up the motor and take off.”

He agrees.  We drift.  Eventually we take off.

We decide we should dock somewhere, and I—as the first mate to my admiral boyfriend—have an important job to perform because I get to be the Rope Girl. We find another inlet with a lot of yachts and other speedboats docked, and a restaurant up on a  hill where we could have a drink.  There doesn’t appear to be anywhere for us to squeeze in, until we notice a stretch of wooden dock with another small boat tied to it and decide to dock there.  My boyfriend pulls up alongside and I hop out with the rope. Immediately we are told by a small shirtless man in broken English that we can’t dock, that another boat is coming.  We look over our shoulders.  A giant yacht looms, waiting.  Damn.  But it seems like there’s just enough space near the very end.  My boyfriend backs the boat up and pulls forward again.  I’m still standing on the dock, waiting to tie the rope, when he suddenly rams the side of the boat into the dock.

What the fuck are you doing?”

The little bobbly things you’re supposed to toss over the side to prevent boat damage when docking have somehow flipped themselves back into the boat.  Useless.

In a low voice, my boyfriend growls, “Get in the boat.  Get in the boat now.”

I hop in and we speed off, leaving the small shirtless man staring after us, and the yacht captain shaking his head, and everyone else who just witnessed this event wondering who the young Croatian was who handed over the speedboat to the Americans who have no idea what they’re doing.

When we’re safely out of the inlet and in the open sea again, I find out what happened.

“I accidentally hit accelerate instead of reverse,” he explains. “I hit the dock so hard it flipped up the bobbly things.”

I feel like a jerk.  The Rope Girl just has to deal with the rope; the admiral has to do all the navigating.  We inspect the boat. It has a strip of rubber running along the side and in one place the rubber is torn away.  The young Croatian man didn’t ask for a damage deposit, but in no way do we feel we can turn it in  like this.

My boyfriend is steely-jawed and determined to dock somewhere.  He is a problem-solver, and docking successfully is a problem he wants to solve. At the next inlet, we see another restaurant with boats and yachts docked, but fewer, and there seems to be enough space for us.  I jump onto shore with the rope and try to catch the boat so that it doesn’t hit the concrete edge, while my boyfriend tries to do the right combination of forward and reverse without hitting the boats around us.  A man onshore senses disaster.  He runs down and helps me grab the boat and hold it away from the  dock’s edge, tells my boyfriend to lift up the motor since it’s scraping along the rocks, helps me tie the ropes, and all the while says in a soothing voice, “It’s OK, it’s OK.  You’re OK.”

The man reminds my boyfriend to drop the anchor to help keep the boat in place.  My boyfriend does, and we’re finally able to leave it.  We walk up the restaurant steps as people avert their gazes and smother their snickers.  We sit down at the furthest table under an umbrella.

We start laughing.  We laugh so hard we’re  doubled over.  It is the laugh of primal panic, utter embarrassment, and pure relief all in one.  Yes, it’s OK, it’s OK.  We are OK.  But we can’t stop laughing.  We grab each other, put our heads down on the table in surrender.  I am in love with my boyfriend all over again, and with the boat, and with the helpful man, and with this bar. We laugh until we are weak.

When my boyfriend feels brave again, he goes down to our docked boat and with a rock hammers in the rubber strip that came loose.  He works on it for a long time.  No matter that we don’t owe a damage deposit; this is all about pride now.

We down a couple of strong pina coladas before heading out, marveling how the pina coladas in Croatia are almost better than the pina coladas in the Caribbean.  Go figure.

As we leave, we come up with a plan this time.  I will get on the boat and quickly pull up the anchor, careful to hold it away from the side of the boat, and to fold in the flaps and properly secure them.  My boyfriend will wait until the anchor is up before untying the ropes.  He will gently shove us out before hopping on board.  He will start up the motor, throw it in reverse, and get us out of there.  We perform the plan beautifully.  The people onshore no longer have to avert their gazes; we know what we’re doing.

We head out to open sea, back to the dock at the hotel on Hvar, back to the young Croatian man.  My hair is blowing glamorously again.  My boyfriend is steering with one hand, his face calm.  The sun is still glinting off the blue, blue sea.  Life is beautiful.

Small Talk

I don’t like small talk and never learned the art of it.

I felt better about this when I heard that a relative of my mom’s doesn’t like small talk either, but he’s also a nurse who proudly says he works just enough shifts to subsist and used to live on a sort of commune in Oregon with his ex-girlfriend and her mother (maybe he still does…maybe I’ve got the details wrong). In other words, he’s an eccentric. A marvelous eccentric, perhaps, but still an eccentric who can’t be bothered with commenting on the weather or answering breezy questions of the “So what’s new with you?” variety, and therefore gets a hall pass. But it does make me wonder if I’m an eccentric, too, and if I’ve been one all along.

Or I could just have the labels wrong. I’ve described myself as an angry child, but maybe I was just terribly saddened and confused by most human behavior. I called myself a granola in high school (my journalism teacher said, “You’re not a granola,” and she went to college in Boulder, so she would know), but maybe I just had an acute case of senioritis, and not bothering with my hair, clothes, or make-up for a year was my last defiant act. I’ve also been a feminist (of the newly-crowned-in-college variety), a pessimist (now reformed—can’t you tell?), and more recently a Luddite. I know for certain I’m an introvert, but I’m not at all certain that being a former pessimistic feminist/current Luddite introvert/possible marvelous eccentric is the sum total of who I am.

Being an introvert, however, does explain my lack of interest in small talk, the trouble of which is that the things I want to know about can’t usually be gleaned from a surface-level conversation. They are things usually considered too forward or inquisitive to ask unless you know the person well (and it takes awhile for introverts to get to know anyone well), but they are the only things, in my mind, that matter. Not to mention that small talk for an introvert sends our circuits into overdrive. An introvert knows there is no easy answer, nor is there just one answer, nor can the answer be contained to itself without all the history involved, and as we ponder what we’ve been asked while trying to hide the pondering from our interrogator and appear reasonably normal and prepare to give the right kind of offhanded reply, they stand there puzzling over why we can’t just say what we had for lunch yesterday.

In my experience, small talk is the territory of the pathologically chatty, who have probably never listened in their lives. It’s the swampy territory of the sales pitch, where something of mine (my money, my soul) is sought in exchange for polite interest or over-dramatic concern. And the inane territory of, God help us, networking events where “And what do you do?” is asked without irony by grown adults in business casual wearing name tags.

I’m being harsh, though. I suppose there are some merits to talking about the weather and asking what’s new in that it eventually opens the door through which a genuinely interested person can be invited. Like my boyfriend, who learned to talk to absolutely everyone when he was a bartender in London, and is truly interested…in everyone. And my dad, who learned the gift of gab from his parents and peers in a bygone era when such talents were revered.

But my mom, my sister, and my brother are more like me. Small talk makes us itch and look for the nearest exit. Yet if trapped, we don’t run for the hills as looking for the nearest exit would suggest. Instead, something weird happens. We put on armor. You can see it in action. Our eyes change, our gaze penetrates, our mouths twist, we size people up. We prepare to parlay with sly comments and careful banter. We know in fifteen seconds if we have the patience for the next five minutes or the next five hours, or if we’ll cut it off immediately. And the only way we know is if something is revealed by the other person—often subtle and non-verbal—showing he or she is not interested in wading through the bullshit, either, and is, in fact, a worthy opponent.

And it’s not that I have anything against human communication. To the contrary. It’s that I hate superficiality. Which is why social media is so distasteful to me. The quip, the witticism, the airy aside…the “everything is always awesome in my world” post (juxtaposed, oddly, with the doom, gloom, and constant outrage over things of which almost no one has any real or adequate knowledge or experience).

No matter how you slice it, humans aren’t communicating anymore (which would involve some kind of actual exchange in which one person says something, and another person listens, and then that person says something back showing that they actually listened). Instead, humans are declaring with the full force of our enlarged egos. We are enamored with our declarations and our many, many opinions. We are obsessed with our followers and admirers. Mesmerized by the near-immediate responses we get, the attention and “support” from friends we don’t even know. Energized when we can call someone out—publicly—with whom we disagree. And besotted by a living logbook of our optimally posed selfies. Social media is, by design, not for those who want to listen and learn. “Join the conversation” doesn’t mean what you think it does. It should be restated: “Don’t hold back! The world is waiting for your crappy, misinformed, fluffy, puffy, putrid prattle! Do it now before someone else gets the jump on you!” Meanwhile, no one reads books anymore. No one reads anything longer than 140 characters. And no one is able to dive any deeper than fashion, pop culture, celebrity couples, professional sports, and political theatre without soon resorting to sucker-punching, name-calling, and a whole lot of hurt feelings a la fifth grade in Mrs. Hall’s class. (I promise you I’m actually an optimist these days).

Social media is simply small talk for the twenty-first century…and it’s utterly exhausting.

(My internal voice will wake me up tonight: “Retract! Retract! Nothing is all good or all bad!” I’m saying it to you now, so that I don’t have to wake up tonight and rush to the computer: good can come from bad, bad can come from good, yes, even in social media).

But wait a minute, wait a minute…I mentioned it back there, several paragraphs ago. The only things, in my mind, that matter. I know you didn’t ask (because you’re possibly an introvert, too?), but maybe you’d still like to know.

Preferably over coffee or a glass of wine at a nice shady table, during an extended dinner, a trans-Atlantic flight, a relaxing ride on the porch swing, a snowy evening indoors, or when the chips are down and you have some time to contemplate your next move, here are those things:

Have you ever experienced serendipity?

Who do you think you were in a past life? And what from that life did you carry with you today?

Why does [fill in the tragedy or perceived struggle] have to be your path? What if your path is something different?

Why did you make the choices you did?

How have you changed or grown, and how have you stayed the same?

Who or what surprised the heck out of you?

On your death bed, what will you be glad you did, said, believed? What will you know for certain didn’t matter at all?

You can try stopping a stranger on the street and asking them. If they don’t give you a dirty look and hurry away, you may get some interesting answers. Or you can ask the people who are in your inner circle. However, to get to those people, to form an inner circle, I concede that you may have to first converse about the weather or what’s new or—criminy—what you ate for lunch yesterday.

Happy small (and large) talking.

The Elevator

The man put his hands around her head and kissed her.

As the elevator dropped, a silvery rush came up from her high heels, up the backs of her legs, swirling upward through her uterus, stomach, solar plexus, where it joined the rush in her heart, and rose up to her cheeks—pink, to her eyes—heavy, and where it went after that didn’t matter.

Outside the day was dark, the skyline blazing in square fractals, a warm breeze slipping through trees.

The man dropped his hands and their mouths broke. He put one finger against her hip and stared at her right shoulder. He said something. The elevator stopped with a gentle bounce and the doors opened. He went out, white shirt, black pants, no sound.

She stood, not moving.

“What did he say?”

“He said…” She could feel the wine bitter on her tongue and torching the back of her throat. He had said, This is upside down.

Yogic Anxieties

A few years ago, my friend and I went down to Santa Fe for the weekend. My friend is a yoga enthusiast and I am a secretly reluctant participator, so while we were there, she found a yoga class for us which I (secretly reluctantly) agreed to. The studio was impressive, airy, bright, very Santa-Fe-like, with its own café and store selling yoga gear and made-to-order smoothies. The people working the counter seemed only marginally above me on the crunchy scale. I felt encouraged.

Our class was held in a room the size of a high school gymnasium, cavernous, tall ceilings, as wide as it was long, which was different than the squat, steamy, an-inch-from-your-neighbor classes I was used to. Everyone set up their mats in rows facing each other. After getting over that oddness, I was further encouraged to see that there was a nice mix of men and women, all seemingly peaceful and quiet, no loud talkers, just there to start their Saturdays off right. Then the teacher walked in.  She was tall, svelte, dressed in shades of gray, with triumphant tufts of hair sprouting from her armpits and pale skin that had never seen the sun and a turban on her head. I was accustomed to athletic, outdoorsy types in sports bras and Lycra pants and ponytails, but OK—to each their own.

We began the class seated and the teacher instructed us to blow air out of first one and then the other nostril, with the aid of thumb and forefinger. Thirty snot-nosed people dutifully began to make rude noises for at least five minutes. I couldn’t look at my friend; I was biting my lip so hard I was about to draw blood and filled with the anxiety that nervous laughter would simply burst out of me. After the nose-blowing agony, the class proceeded in a familiar way—at least I recognized most of the poses. But at one point the teacher called out serenely that if any woman in the class was menstruating, it was best not to do a particular move. I, in fact, was menstruating, and—slightly panicked about whether or not to heed her advice and what it would do to me if I didn’t—refrained from doing the pose. I was the only one. It felt like middle school again. Sixty minutes later when my patience had reached its limit and I no longer cared that there was a nice mix of peaceful men and women starting their Saturdays off right, we lay down in final savasana—ahh, the best part—while the instructor then began to bang on a giant gong at one end of the room. The ultimate pose of relaxation destroyed by my laughter barely contained for the second time in an hour and a dull ringing in my ears.

Bless the turbaned one, the gong, the clearing of the noses—but my God. I realized again that day, for the millionth time, that I am not a yogi.

I try. I like the yoga sculpt classes at our local yoga franchise which consist of poses, aerobics, and strength training in a heated room with hand weights and dance music pumping. Six-pound weights feel like 50. Sweat pours out of my body and mingles with the sweat from everyone else until there is a river on the floor. Afterwards I feel boiled, woozy, spent. I never actually feel better on the day I take yoga sculpt, probably because I’ve lost all my electrolytes, but at least I burned several hundred calories, I tell myself. And yet even yoga sculpt has its hidden pitfalls. During the last sculpt class we took, my boyfriend somehow got fluid in his inner ear and spent the rest of the weekend with horrible vertigo and nausea. My self-satisfaction at getting through such a difficult workout pales when my love is suffering. Is this yoga? Is this the suffering Buddha talked about?

Living in Denver, the epicenter of health and exercise, there is a yoga studio on every block. I see stay-at-home moms going in and out in the middle of the day, lots of young beautiful single people on the weekends eying each other in the mirror, and even a few old codgers who got hip to exercise later in life and became devoted practitioners—wrinkles, creaky joints, and all. People bike down the streets with their yoga mats on their backs. My mat is rolled up in the trunk of my car for that sudden I-need-to-take-a-yoga-class attack that I never seem to have. At any given moment, in any neighborhood in the city, at least half the people are wearing workout clothes, whether they’re on the way to the gym or not. I include myself in this. I don’t care how much the television makeover experts rant and condemn, there is a reason why we’re all wearing yoga pants and it has nothing to do with trying to look cute (although many of us do accidentally look cute in them). People I know went through a yoga teacher training at one point or another, and even if they’re not actively teaching yoga, they could be. They could have a sudden I-need-to-teach-a-yoga-class attack. Friends take up to seven classes a week—that’s once per day, or doubling up sometimes—and tell me they wouldn’t know how to get through life without it.

But I don’t get it. So all right, it’s a trend. It falls in line with the new push for mindfulness in this hyperstressed, obsessed-with-devices, close-to-dystopian society of ours. It’s meant to be both relaxing and invigorating at the same time, which delights us in its contradiction. It’s meditation lite, complete with inspiring thoughts and sincere connection. Aside from those who have actually studied it, we know almost zilch about what yoga really is (as in its origins and principles), but that’s OK because to most of us it’s just a term for a popular form of exercise that makes us all feel better about ourselves.

But what do I feel? If I’m being dead honest: boredom. Yoga classes with no music make me want to run out of the room screaming. Yoga classes with that gentle New Age stuff are only slightly less irritating (and I like New Age stuff). Yoga classes with 9,000 chaturanga push-ups make me mad. Breathing in and breathing out does not center me; it makes me hyperventilate. My body is accustomed to everything in a turned-out position (thanks to half a lifetime of ballet) and doesn’t want to be parallel and rages against parallel and starts a throbbing in my lower back that doesn’t let up when I have to do something in parallel. My upper body gets a decent workout (from all those damn push-ups), but my lower body takes a nap. I spend the whole class wondering when it will be over. And I’m pretty sure that defeats the point. Yoga sculpt aside (in which I feel like I’m truly getting a workout), I just can’t do it. I need to move. I need a rhythm. I need to dance, people. And if I’m going to meditate, I’m going to do it at home, on my couch.

These are my anxieties.

Which really cover up an underlying layer of anxieties that have to do with this:

“Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from their world, from their work, from themselves. They have been adopting new religions, joining self-help groups of all kinds. It is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination.” – Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States

And there you have it.

So yoga isn’t my thing. But it doesn’t matter because I know why I’m searching. I see the elephant.

And so, maybe, do you.

Books that Changed Everything

My friend who works for a library recently posted this question on social media: What was the book that changed your life? She included a link to an article with writers giving their answers and I skimmed through it, not recognizing most of the titles. But it got me thinking.

I’ve been reading since, well, the day I could read, and really even before that if you count all the hours I spent on the living room couch as a child with a picture book on my lap, making up the story because I couldn’t understand the actual words yet. So I’ve been ingesting information and fantasy and debate and romance and mystery and history and humor and dialogue for nearly all my life…and that’s a really tall order to sift through all those years and chapters and sentences and come up with an answer to this now seemingly trite question.

But as I said, it got me thinking.

Two answers came to mind immediately:

First, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a beautiful, poignant memoir I could say a lot about, but really because it introduced me to Dave Eggers, a man who would become one of my all-time favorite authors. If you’ve seen my Favorites page, I mention You Shall Know Our Velocity, but everything I’ve read by Dave has pricked my soul on some level. Why? Because he writes in this spare, crystalline way that I aspire to, for one. But for two, he writes the truth. Whether it’s the inane conversation between two friends trying to plan a trip, or the innermost thoughts of a young woman unable to think for herself, or a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro by an under-prepared man, he writes the truth. When someone is able to tap into what is true—even if you’ve never experienced for yourself the exact thing being written about—you know it without knowing how you know it. And whenever that happens, it’s like a seam opens up in the fabric of your life and you see into the secret place wherein all the world’s wisdom lies.

My second answer is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I have a story about this. A few years ago I was at a wedding with my boyfriend. We were going through a tumultuous time, lots of ups and downs and breakthroughs in our relationship, lots of vulnerabilities and hurts and doubts, and the bottom line was that I did not want to be at that wedding. I barely knew the couple getting married, I was deeply tired on an emotional level, and that night I was so on edge I could barely speak because I was afraid we’d get into an argument as we’d been doing a lot of back then. As we were making our way around the buffet table, my boyfriend got caught in a conversation with a woman holding a baby. A man, who turned out to be the woman’s husband, turned to me to introduce himself and made a few other polite inquiries by way of small talk. I must have told him I was a writer, because he told me he was a musician. And then he asked me if I’d read The War of Art. I said no, I’d never heard of it.

And you know when you have one of those moments where everything in the room just stops…the background noise disappears…everyone else fades into a blur…and the only thing you’re conscious of is your heart beating and the face of the person in front of you who’s about to change everything? This man whose name I don’t remember, who was a struggling musician as much as I was a struggling writer, who had met me as a stranger and would forget me as a stranger but somehow understood that the vocation I had embarked upon—much like his—was fraught with self-doubt and fear, told me he’d found enlightenment in this book and I believed him. I bought the book the next day and devoured it in one sitting. As with all my favorite books, I’ve read it several more times, and every time I am slapped upside the head and humbled and vow to recommit myself to my work. It’s a book that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It holds you accountable, in your life and your art. It asks how willing you are. It has nothing to do with bestseller lists or profit margins or six-figure deals, all the things we humans deem important.

(Note to readers: whenever you have one of those moments, pay attention. And for heaven’s sake, if it involves a book you need to read, go out and read it. Books are messages; the writing comes not from the author, but from the divine. Steven Pressfield will tell you all about it).

Many other books have left permanent impressions on me. I could try to talk about them all, but such self-indulgence might become a bore to you (and to me). So I’ll just leave you with these. And the original question. And your thoughts.