How Else

But how else would we know we lived, they say.

How else.

If not for the tatters, the ruins, the dregs. The bones in the dust, the blown-out walls, the holes and craters and stricken rebar. The carrion for the vultures, the orange rivers, the three-eyed fish, the rivers no more.

How else would we know, they say, that we were strong and in charge of everything, counting dollars and shares, and before that, gold—going back to the beginning of commerce when getting more than was due was better than getting nothing at all. And all we did was make the transaction better, so much better, they say. And more efficient. And more profitable. Look what we took, developed, sold, got rid of. Look how we grow. Growth, they say. They use the word growth.

What they don’t say is, “Look at the bees.” Look at them there, on the dandelions, lit by a sunbeam, climbing and crawling and puttering and buzzing. “Puttering” is a word they don’t know and don’t use because it is not suitable for desks and deals and jets.

How else would we know, they say, that we could take over, take every drop, suck it dry, heave it out, roll it over, strip it bare with our pipes and drills, to make space for glass and steel and concrete and waste, for gilt-edged portraits and green golf courses and marble mansions to be envied.

How would we know we were alive and stronger and better than everyone else, better than everything else, better and stronger and more clever, if not for the grass under our feet—ours—and the sky overhead—ours—and the slurping oceans—ours—and the veins and seams of slick and heady power, liquid money, in the ground—ours. All of it ours, of course.  We are alive, they say—shrilly, desperately—when we can see what is ours.

The bees. Not ours, they shrug. Not important. Look at them, just buzzing away, fainter now. Perhaps there are fewer of them on the dandelions.

They continue to press. Trying to be logical now.

How would we know, they say…

But by now you know. You know how this works. You can speak for them. Native peoples—theirs. Culture—theirs. Land—theirs. Nature—theirs.

Natives, impassive. Culture, gutted. Land, looted. Nature, laughed at. That’s how it works.

And it’s also what scares them the most, deep down. People go on, unimpressed. Culture lives, even in the head. Land redraws itself like the river finding the canyon. Nature doesn’t need them.

And they find they aren’t actually stronger.

Their dollar signs are indifferent to them.

Their statues crumble like Ozymandias in the desert.

Their words are just words.

And the bees, placid yellow bodies against purple petals. The bees, they realize with a creeping despair, are the very center, the thing just beyond them (despite them, without them) signifying all that is real.

But—as they pout and slam their fists and sputter—but…how else would we know we lived unless everything else is dead?

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.

Gather Ye Roses

I don’t know who started it, who put the word out, how it spread.

One night there were ten. The next night, fifteen. It grew quickly from there. Twenty or thirty of them would gather in the commons area, and seconds before the start of the game, they’d file in. Black sweatshirts, black jackets, black jeans, black shoes. Black baseball caps if they had them. They sat together in the bleachers, spreading across the rows, like a swarm of something new and different on the roses.

When they came in, the hair stood up on our arms. We got that rollercoaster feeling in our stomachs. We were fidgety, our eyes on the crowd. Were they getting it? Were they feeling it, too? We wanted to sit next to them. We weren’t wearing black, but we wanted the proximity to its quiet roar. We encouraged them. Yes, do it again. Next week, and the week after. Keep doing it. The crowd sees. They’re all mesmerized, frozen.  Behold the thrill of solidarity, we thought. The fierce love. Only they—and by association we—are clever enough and brave enough to assemble and to love like this.

It happened all season. Maybe we won because of it. And then it just stopped, the way those things do. The initial high wears off. The original reason fades. The weather turns warmer. Any old reason.

I remember that feeling in the drum circle at college. The children of ancestors, there on our campus, beating the drum, calling out with voices as rich as the earth, and those of us who had joined them spontaneously moving in slow rhythm around them. Drawn in as if by a rushing tide. Wanting to touch them, to soak into our skin something of what they knew, to hear forever their sounds. People stopped to watch for awhile. Those in a hurry hurried less, eyes on us, wondering. Someone from the school paper snapped our picture. We were a part of it. The pictures would prove it forever, even after the rhythm of the moment seeped from our bones.

I feel it now, like a small earthquake in my gut, when I see protests, movements, crowds pressing forward, the impassioned faces of those who know something that I don’t. Yes, gather, do it again, I say inside my heart. I feel it when I see whirling dervishes. When the Man burns. When universal truth brings a hush to the room. When stories are recalled of the 1960s and all that was at stake. When there is an exchange of words between open minds. When reverence emanates from the click of polished boots at a diplomat’s funeral. When the wall fell. When the square erupted. When the park filled. When, despite everything, the women and men walked on. When the brave soul stood alone. When I turn off the television and go outside and look at the horizon. When all of this happens, whether someone is there to record it or not.

Small earthquakes, again and again, when people do what they can do, when they create in singular purpose, when that purpose doesn’t come from personal motivation, but in spite of it. When the thought floats in, light as a silk thread: “We made it all up.” Small earthquakes, because no one alive can take away the agency of another. No one alive can wrestle to the floor and snuff out the light. Or call the poet a criminal. Or shut down the inner mind. Or make one to follow when there is another path.

Distractions abound. Motivations shift. Reason eludes. Emotions roil. Games get played. Humanity is trapped, caught, faced with its own hypocrisy, with the fruits of its most fearful labor. Faced with repeating history. With giving the worst it has to offer. Shamed, stunned, angry, unable to understand its own compulsions. Time and again. Time and again.

And time and again, someone dons the black shirt and walks out the door and goes forward down the street, with love, to meet the others.

May we meet again in 2016…

An Abrupt Catapulting

When I published my first novel back in 2011, I had no idea what to expect. Would strangers actually buy my book? How much work would I need to do to market it? What would any of this amount to?

Here’s what I learned: when there’s a vacuum of expectation, the ego is more than happy to step in and fill it.

I’ll give you an example.

At the time my book was published, I worked for a big newswire company. And one of their enterprise-level service offerings (that’s a sticky mouthful of jargon) was to display—for a hefty price tag—an image of your product, your company logo, your coiffed C-level executive, whatever you wanted, on a four-story jumbotron in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square for literally millions of people to see. The end result: unbelievable publicity.

When some people at my company found out I had published a book, they offered this to me…for free. “Send us an image of the cover of your book and up it goes!”

I remember the words of one of my coworkers upon hearing the news: “You’re going to be famous!”  And with a tingle up my spine, I kinda, sorta believed him. I could see my company’s sales and marketing teams salivating over one of their own getting to be a guinea pig in the best kind of way, eventually becoming a case study, a success story they could hock, “an author who saw her sales triple overnight!”

In reality, there was a brief email exchange with a girl in New Jersey asking me for my .jpg, but it didn’t stop me from filling in all the fantastical details.

But wait, there’s more.

Also part of that enormous service offering was the ability to send out a press release about my newly published book to a media list of my own choosing. So, giddy with my impending transformation from unknown writer to bestselling author, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine in PR, thinking she could maybe give me the names of five or six people for a small fee. Instead, she unexpectedly and generously turned over her entire media list of publishing and entertainment reporters, editors, and publications to me—for no charge.

This wealth of free help, valued at thousands of dollars—way more than I could ever, as a single girl with an average-paying job, hope to afford—did something to me. These people were helping me and they didn’t have to. I was getting stuff handed to me when normally I’d be charged an arm and a leg. This had to mean something. It had to. This was certifiable success knocking at the door. The universe was conspiring with me. I was weepy with gratitude.

So I said yes, YES, to it all, and a few days later, there was my book…four stories tall in Times Square…with an accompanying press release whizzing over the wire to all relevant media points. I posted about it on my Facebook page. My publisher posted it on her Facebook page. My company gave me the thumbs up. Any minute now, fame and fortune! I waited by my phone. I waited by my email.

Except…there was nothing.

Silence.

Crickets.

Twenty-four hours later turned into two days, then a week, then two weeks, then three weeks.

And still nothing.

Not a single interview request from a reporter. Not a single inquiry from an editor. Not one mention from the millions of people out there whom I presumed had seen the cover of my book. Absolutely zero came out of that this-has-to-be-a-sign-from-the-universe event.

It was, as they say, an epic failure.

Especially for someone like me who had hoped to skip about a hundred steps and a few more years and hit the bulls-eye on my first try.

Without talking about it to anyone, I retreated into myself to sort out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert says so eloquently in her TED talk about failure, I got “lost in the hinterlands of my psyche.” And for a long time afterward I struggled to find my way out of it and back to my writing—this crazy, hare-brained, frustrating, humbling, soul-leveling thing I had embarked upon, told everyone I was doing, was arranging my life around, speaking openly about (which is always hard for me), and which, God help me, I so desperately wanted to make work.

To another of Liz’s points: like great success, great failure flings you far from your center and leaves you disoriented.

I’ve had to ask myself this question often since those days: do I love writing more than I love myself?

Many times the answer has been “I don’t know.” In fact, I would say most days it’s still “I don’t know.” And that’s because the sting of that failure lives on. The utter pompous naiveté with which I approached my novel being splashed across Times Square still lives alongside the excited little girl in me and the “what if?” hopefulness of my heart.

How do you tell that excited, hopeful little girl not to be hopeful or excited?

I’ve studied a lot of new age theories and esoteric wisdom and quantum physics and great googly-moogly. I’ve probably studied that stuff as much as I’ve spent hours writing. So I wanted to believe, with every Higgs boson particle giving material form to my cosmic self, that the gift of immeasurable publicity was a validating nod to my dreams and aspirations, and surely the very thing that was going to get me to the next level, whatever I conceived it to be.

So when it didn’t work, I took it to mean that I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Yeah, that’s a sad thud of a thought…

(Fast-forward through the Pit of Despair months).

Since then, I have a few more years under my belt. I’ve made it through a few more of those “hundred steps.” I’ve met some really significant people who made me look at my writing and my choices in a new way, and I’ve had a few small successes that mean more to me in their tiny, twinkling purity than that screaming, lit-up jumbotron ever could.

No matter what, a writer wants to be read. A writer wants an audience. We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t want others to read our work and appreciate it. An audience is our Higgs boson: it gives form to the deeply mysterious work of hauling a story out of the ether and onto the page. That’s why an audience—any audience—is all the more sweet because we know, deep down inside, that some of us will labor all our lives without ever getting one. And the vast majority of us sure as hell will never get Times Square. Not because it’s impossible. But because those of us who are truly serious about what we’re doing don’t get serious until our creations stand tall inside of us first, rather than outside of us.

I don’t envy the Times Square miracle for someone else because it may very well be a legitimate stop on his or her journey. In fact, I’d love it to be a stop on someone’s journey because it would give me renewed faith in astonishing occurrences.

It just wasn’t mine.

Mine was an abrupt catapulting into a hell of my own self-doubt.

Then a soft, kind, encouraging walk back to where I needed to be.

The way I see it, that failure may not have been a failure at all. A particle can be in two places at once. I just observed the silence after the hoopla and called it defeat. The other particle was alive and well the whole time, in another place, setting up the band and the confetti for the “You’ve Arrived” celebration. I don’t even need that celebration anymore. I’ll take peace in my heart and courage to go on any day.

Because the Times Square miracle pales in comparison to the miracle of simply getting up every morning and trying to do what you really want to do and trying to love it as hard as you can. If you don’t believe me, Liz has something to say about that, too—only she calls it magic.

It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed. – Ram Dass

Kismet

When they were younger—the age of loud bars and late nights and Sunday afternoon despair—they hardly had a chance to consider where their lives were going. The routines of childhood had given way, at some point after college, to the routines of adulthood, which is to say waking up at an earlier hour, thirty-minute lunches, bills due at certain times, the rare moment to run the vacuum cleaner or dust or clean out a closet. The routine sometimes included dates or romantic encounters, sometimes even a relationship. But those all fizzled eventually, leading to nothing except more Sunday afternoon despair, making them wonder: did I miss school the day they explained this?

No, it simply meant that more was on its way, more they couldn’t see.

For example, it meant climbing Kilimanjaro.  “Are we almost there?” “I don’t know!” And then they were there, the altitude pounding in their heads.

It meant diving into the Mariana Trench. “What’s that?” “I don’t know!” As the giant milky creature with blind eyes swam by.

Not to mention the hot air balloon rides over the Australian outback, and snowshoeing in the Arctic Circle, and floating on a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean under a slow sun on top of warm water, with the Maldives—not yet sunk—in comforting view.

And then there was holding the orphans and saving the dolphins and watching endangered birds and talking to the elderly to find out what they knew.

A certain amount of danger—the pipelines!—and the tongue-in-cheek signs, the front lines of the protests, gas in their eyes, near misses and almost-arrests, the books and pamphlets and the dire talks in a circle wondering how the human race got to where it did and what else could be done.

This, they were never going to learn in school either, whether they missed the day or not.

And when their lives approached the last quarter of a continuum of years that had peeled back like an onion skin, they finally sat down one day—without an immediate destination, without a pressing cause—and said, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” was the solemn answer.

Because what was there to think?

“I remember when I was living in London and you were roughing it in the desert in Chile,” She said to Her, as they sat looking over the orchard.

“The desert is a hard place to live.”

“And I kept going to this one rug store every day to look at rugs I didn’t want to buy, and couldn’t afford anyway.”

“A rug in the desert is a useful thing,” mused Her.

“And I couldn’t figure it out: why this place? I have other things I could be doing. I could volunteer somewhere, I could go to work and earn a living, I could look for a cheaper apartment, I could do any number of more useful, responsible things. But this rug shop just kept calling my name, and every day I’d go in and stand on a rug and look over all the mountains of rugs.”

“I never had a rug in the desert, of course.”

“And it bothered me. The colors—they were so loud, so hard to distinguish one from the other. All those variations of red and blue and green and orange. Rose. Mint. Sky blue. Apricot. Millions! They swirled together in front of my eyes, and I’d get so irritated. I wanted to yell: ‘Why the hell did you use all of these colors and patterns?! Why couldn’t you just pick one damn color and go with that?! Who needs this?'”

“An odd thing to be irritated about.”

“It is, isn’t it? But I was irritated. And the rug store owner came up to me one day and asked me if I was ever going to buy a rug, or if I was just going to stand there, on top of his merchandise, with a furious look on my face.”

“But not an odd thing for him to be irritated about.”

“And I ‘fessed up and explained my dilemma about the colors.”

“What did he say?”

“Well, he said this to me. He said that the rug is not meant to be looked at from the perspective of the individual colors, but that the rug is meant to be looked at as a whole. That all the colors in the pattern are meant to convey a bigger picture, so that when you look at the rug from a distance, it feels like a world, an entire universe encapsulated in the skillful rendering of woven thread.”

“Very sensible.”

“And you know what else he said? He said that I could buy one at half price since I was his most faithful customer who had never bought anything.”

“And did you?”

“I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for one. I needed a cheaper apartment and a job first, remember?”

The sun was setting over the orchard and the last sounds of the birds at dusk echoed in the valley.

Her turned to She, put a hand on her arm. “You still have time to buy that rug.”

But they both knew it wasn’t about time. Not really, anyway. Because yet another thing they’d missed in school was how to recognize a path, and then actually take it.

Then She said, turning to Her, “What was going on in Chile back then?”

“Nothing. You were missing whole worlds in the rug store, and I was missing them in the sky above the salt flats.”

The sun had fallen, and the orchard was lavender-colored.

“So what do we do now?”

“I don’t know.”

Next week they were supposed to go on a ship that would deliver them to an island chain populated with reptiles and animals no one had seen except in a zoo, where the air smelled like the underside of a patch of grass, and the waves crashed against volcanic rocks, and they would don hiking shoes and scuba masks on alternate days, and explore every inch of this place the Earth had coughed up in a fit of expressive desire.

They had never married or had children or spent more than six months in any one place. They had looked all their lives. They had trekked in one way or another forever, which made all the stops along the way seem like deep breaths. They had remained friends, sometimes only in theory, sometimes in present, perfect communion. But they had never paused to consider the paths in seriousness, to remember those old Sunday afternoons, to ponder their choices. Because what was there to ponder?

“I think I’ll go back to London soon,” She said.

“I could use a rug in Chile, you know.”

An Ode to Roots in a Clay Pipe

The wide world of your dreams. The strange things
that happen in your sleep.
The way your heart beats and heat throbs where it shouldn’t
in daylight.
And the cry: what does it all mean?

In some ways, I remember him like yesterday.
In other ways, I cannot conjure
his face, his smile, mouth, lips, hands, walk…
all the best parts of him.

I think it’s because I sent him away.

It’s nature’s cruel trick—making you forget—as punishment
for the breaking of a heart.
But sometimes I think
it’s my heart that was broken.
It must be, for the procession of dreams that come
when I am most at peace,
and then the days of wondering, the moments
lost in memory afterward.

He is gone. Married, children…all the usual things.
And I have been gone even longer, looking
away
walking
away
going after “mine,” whatever “mine” was. Now,
when I scramble for just the right words,
I think it’s because they are stuck, lodged
like roots in a clay pipe,
too entwined from the years
to be pulled from their safe
dark
damp
splendor.
Life flows by and around, but they are there
all the same.

Many days I have been happy. Many days of contentment
and even bliss.
Many loves have passed leaving their marks, or
stayed as it has now, overflowing.
But none has been
so insistent, so sure
so gone as mine for him.

When he said, “I have always been
in love with you,” the universe righted
itself, a puzzle piece
slid into place
and shook the foundations of all time.

I don’t know what happened when I left
him, bereft.
I wasn’t listening.
I didn’t feel.
If foundations shook, I skipped over the ripples.
I don’t know what happened, but
something did. And so I cry, years later,
after days of wondering and memory:

What does it all mean?

Class Trip

We are stargazers.

At night on the mountainside, the trees are black ghosts and pine needles crunch like shards of glass. The air is moist, cold, scented of the naked earth. Above us the stars are scattered crystals in lavender dust we can sift through our fingers.

Three of us sit on the edge of an old mine shaft with our legs dangling over nothing. Far away we can hear the noises of our friends around the fire. We can’t see the orange glow or smell the smoke, and they can’t see us. We have disappeared.

We kick our legs over the chasm and then lie back on the damp ground. All of the universe is up there. How could we have ever thought our small circles and cruel jokes and tired crosses were the center of it. We can’t bear what we now know. Someone starts talking; someone else chimes in. Our conversation turns infinite and wise; words pour out of us that we don’t understand, and we laugh and laugh and laugh. We know it’ll fade tomorrow when the beer wears off and life becomes urgent again. Our ideas tonight are as fleeting as the minutes, as driving as a comet’s tail, and we don’t yet have a way to contain them. So we sit up and brush the needles from our hair.

We feel the cold now and wipe our eyes.

The night creatures have stayed away in their holes and their lairs, their breathing still. And we make our way safely through the trees.

Back at our tent, we climb into sleeping bags and hold onto each for warmth. We are giggling and bleary-eyed at this unknown hour deep in the night or early in the morning, depending which way you face. Everyone is drunk on something; some of us, simply freedom. One by one our friends drift off to their tents or pass out by the fire or climb into the cars parked along the forest road, curling up on a backseat under a coat, forgetting the thrill of the exodus and the rocks and the ruts and the rules.

In our tent the cold slowly seeps toward warmth. Outside twigs snap and the fire pops.  The night creatures still stay away. No one is sleeping and everyone is quiet.

As we brush the lavender dust from our skin.

For Mary, who is up there somewhere…