Reditus

It’s been a really long time since I talked about writing.

I started this blog years ago when I was determined to be a writer (re: do more than just fill notebooks at home, in private, with no one to read what was in them). I thought I’d write confidently and prolifically about the craft and business of writing, as I was growing and learning. But since then I have drifted far from that center to explore whatever was interesting to me. Turns out I didn’t want to be bound by one idea of what I should be sharing. Turns out I’m not so good at having a unified message.

I’m coming back to writing today because I’ve lately been thinking about how much it’s changed for me. Whatever fount of creativity I’ve been clinging to over the last few years has dried up and left in its place a well from which I must plumb. What at times was lustfully overflowing is timid now, underground, waiting to be coaxed to the surface. What may have been exuberant in its offering is now withdrawn. Everything in life is cyclical—even this. And I find myself in a new cycle of thinking more and creating less. Air-dried and thirsty in the desert. Remembering the feeling of being soaked.

Practical reasons, I can guess, for this new state. If I want to be analytical, I can say that much of my time not spent on my paid work is spent dealing with the current political situation and my newfound activism. A worthy reason, some would say. I also wrapped up final—final final—revisions on my second novel earlier this year—a novel over a decade in the making—so maybe my brain and my soul just need a damn minute. And because I make a living as a freelance writer and have to come up with words on demand for other people in other industries about which I usually know little but must learn a lot immediately, much of my energy reserves go toward those left-brain exercises…not to mention the near-constant search for new work and worry about not having enough. Worry is a creativity killer, I’ve found.

But every writer has these problems. None of mine are unique.

That is what we tell ourselves, too, to sound lofty. To show that we understand the tribe. “I get it,” we writers say to each other and close our eyes in sympathy. Notice my sudden use of the word “we” instead of just owning it. A layer removed. If I say “I,” I might cry.

I’m coming back to writing today to peer down the silent well. What’s down there? What have I been overlooking? What roots cling with naked tenacity to the stone sides? What thin layer of muck at the bottom hides an ecosystem of blind and primitive creatures feeding off soil and water? What hides in the cracks, unbidden? I don’t know yet. I can’t see. My eyes need time to adjust.

I’m coming back to writing because it used to be that it could help me process my emotions, learn about myself, learn about others. But I am weary of others, weary of myself. And my emotions are on lockdown until I jab their soft underbellies with a choir singing Om So Hum, and only then do they release themselves and course in rivulets down my cheeks.

My grandmother died. I want to write about her. I cannot find the words.

And so I cry.

And yet everything is bound up. I don’t know from one month to the next what will make itself known. Where are my old notebooks with my old stories and essays? Where are those old swords piercing the veins of truth? But when I read them, I don’t recognize the words anymore. Who was I back then? What did I dream about? Where did I go?

I’m coming back to writing. Because I have to.

I’m coming back because Richard Bach says in Illusions, “I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper.” There is something…something…that has not let me go yet. Has chained itself to my ankle. Has let me drag it down the street and into my apartment and on vacation and into work meetings and into lazy-Sunday breakfasts where I can continue to ignore it, and ignore it, and ignore it if I want to.

But if I say it here—I’m coming back to writing—maybe the chain will break. Not to release the craft. Not the business. Not the façade of enterprise and ambition.

The roots, God damn it.

Maybe I will see the roots, the primitive mud creatures, the pearl in the furthest crack.

There.

Luminescent with meaning, round like the earth, cradled in the universe. Here for me to pluck and bring into the light.

The Drive

How does he know that I will be careful with this? Because I might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anything.

******

Devin drives with the windows down and a heavy metal band shrieking on the stereo. I’m next to him, staring ahead at the two-lane road, wondering how I got here. This is how, I think: summer baseball, a warm evening, the last of the afternoon thunderheads moving away into the distance, and that seam of gold that appears in the sky after the storm. I was just sitting there on the bleachers, watching the game, when Devin approached and smiled, and his dimples smiled, too, and his eyes were shy.

“Want to go for a drive?”

I looked at him.

“I have to drop something off for my dad.”

I remembered the rumor—was it a rumor?—that his dad was sick with cancer. I didn’t remember how or where I heard it. All I knew was that Devin and his siblings lived with their mom in town, and his dad lived somewhere else.

I said, “OK.”

Simple as that, it seemed.

The other thing I’m thinking, there in his pickup, is that it should have been Mitch all those months ago when April and I sneaked out and crept the two blocks to Devin’s house because his mom worked at night. The four of us, Mitch and Devin and April and I, sat in Devin’s basement and played strip poker; nothing else to do, underage in the middle of the night. We were nervous, giggling, as we unhooked our bras under our shirts and pulled them free. Devin and Mitch stripped down to their underwear. That’s as far as any of us would take it.

But then we were making out with each other. April was across the room with Mitch, and I was under Devin on the couch. I knew Mitch was furious. I could feel it, feel his attention on me even as he fumbled around with my friend. Devin was quiet, deliberate, with the broad shoulders and dead weight of a man. We kissed for hours, and between the kissing and the weight of him on my body, I was breathless all night. The next day we pretended it never happened.

******

He drives us away from the game, out of town, past green corn fields and twisted trees and irrigation ditches, the smell of manure and rain-soaked alfalfa blowing by—away from civilization, perhaps miles and miles away, I consider, into the dark blue on the eastern horizon. A paper bag by his feet ripples in the wind from the open windows. I catch a glimpse of the edge of my face in the side-view mirror, my lips held tightly together.

We don’t talk on the drive, but he has a look of serenity on his face. He always looks serene.

He was serene that night, too, when he lowered himself onto me, pushed his tongue into my mouth. What am I doing here?, I’d kept asking myself. I had never been interested in Devin before. He was just a guy I knew. He had always been just a guy I knew, with a high-pitched giggle and ears that stuck out a bit. Mitch was the one. Mitch was the first boy to slip his hand into my jeans as I suffocated against him on a late night, who told me he was in love with me during hours-long phone conversations which tied up the line and pissed off our families. Mitch was a bragger and a fighter. He walked with a lope and a head bob, hands balled into fists, always on the lookout for a rumble. Mitch was also a game. I could roll around with him, his panting in my ear, my bra undone, and then get up and leave him and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. I could string him along and laugh about the other girls he tried to date and tell him ridiculous things like, “I know you better than you know yourself,” because it sounded sexy and enigmatic. And maybe it was to him. He always came back for more.

I wanted to be crushed into that couch by Devin, because I didn’t have to think about what he would say or do afterwards, and what I would say or do in return. I wanted a moment when I did not have to calculate. And I wanted Mitch to see me having that moment.

******

The road is almost dry and the air rushing through the windows whips my hair across my eyes.

Just then, the metal band achieves a moment of grace and a song comes on—a ballad—that rings out so powerful, so soaring with longing, that it fills my entire being and raises the hair on my arms. I look over at Devin. I want to tell him to pull over, to stop. I want to move toward him across the seat and take his face and kiss him. I want his tongue in my mouth, his hands on my body. I want to straddle him. I want him to grip my legs. I want him to do more to me than we did on the couch. I wonder if this is how love happens. I wonder if I am a brave person.

But I stay where I am and yank my hair to the side. I draw my knee up and hug it to me.

After awhile we turn into a dirt driveway, drive down it, and park in a cluttered yard next to a ramshackle house. Everything—the house, an assortment of sagging sheds—is a scratched kind of gray. The leaves on the trees are shriveled and the yard is full of weeds. A yellow dog of uncertain breed wags its tail when we get out of the pickup and follows us to a screen door. Inside, everything is dingy and the rooms are barely furnished. It smells like mold and old cooking. I follow Devin through the kitchen to a bedroom steeped in tea-colored light. I see skinny knees, an arm; someone is sitting on the edge of a bed holding a cigarette. I shrink into myself and don’t know where to look.

“This is Nina,” Devin says and the skinny, smoking person nods.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a sick parent, or divorced parents, to live in a sad little house all alone, to sit in a bedroom day in and day out with nothing but a cigarette for company. All of a sudden I am stunned, surprised that I am here: there is nothing I can offer.

Devin hands his dad the paper bag and they start a low, murmuring conversation; it feels too private for me to hear. I slip back through the kitchen to the living room and wait in the dimness, holding myself very still, feeling my heart beating. The dog peers at me through the screen door.

I think about Mitch. He drinks juice boxes like a child. The dark hair on his upper lip is rough. He is taller than me, and gangly, with bad posture. His hair is cut into a mullet. He loves motorcycles and dirt bikes and drag racing—things I don’t care about. He is handsome and yet squalid. He makes me squinch with embarrassment, makes me think “white trash.”

I think about the last time I was with him. He came over when my parents were out of town and we made out all night until the sun started coming up and I had to kick him out. I had to shove him toward the door. I had to cross my arms and plant my feet and make my voice angry and threatening so that he would leave. Elsewhere in the house my sister and brother slept. I was worried they would hear me, find out, tell on me. When he finally left, I locked the door behind him and watched out the window until he was gone. Then I went back to my room and lay on the bed and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t because I was so worked up, because Mitch was everything that I did not want, and I didn’t understand anything, why I did what I did with him.

******

After several minutes Devin comes and finds me and asks if I’m ready to go. I dart my eyes around, expecting more. I wonder what was in the paper bag—could’ve been medicine, food, anything. Money, I think with a slow prickle. Then I also think: maybe he didn’t want me to know.

But the fact that he asks me if I’m ready to go—the fact that he wants to know what I prefer, when we are here, in this broken-down place far outside of town, with a person he must care about who may or may not be dying, who may or may not have enough money or food or medicine at any given time, and he’s asking me what I want, as if I might want to stay, put my feet up, hang out for awhile—is something I don’t know what to do with and I am stunned all over again. If nothing else, he is polite, I tell myself. But that’s not right. It implies there is nothing else, and there is—it floods me—so much more.

“Sure,” I say as brightly as I can. I want him to know that I am fine, that this whole thing has been fine. That I have noticed nothing, judged nothing.

I walk with Devin outside to the pickup. The broad stretch of his shoulders is hunched now, his head down. I watch the way he has to leave his dad, and a strangled feeling rises in my throat. I don’t want to kiss him anymore. I want to hug him.

We pull out onto the two-lane road and head back to town.

Now is the time to bring up that night.

But still we pretend.

******

A week after the night at Devin’s house, I ran into Mitch, who told me that he’d been calling April a lot and that they might go on a date. April was my friend, but she was also my main competition, and for a quick moment I was fired up, my mind searching for a nasty thing to say to him. He beat me to it. “You’ve been replaced,” he said, but I just laughed. Temporary, I thought to myself. He’ll be back. I don’t want him back, but he’ll be back all the same.

He called me a few days later.

******

The setting sun is streaming over the road now, spreading a watercolor of orange and purple behind the mountains, and the air is so fresh and light that I want to hold my head out the window and close my eyes like a happy dog. But I’m anxious, too. I just want to get back, back to the baseball game, back to my friends, to the familiar corners of my world. Where parents don’t have cancer. Where the houses are neatly painted in reassuring colors and the grass is clipped and green. Where my throat is not tight with an intimacy I probably don’t deserve. Where Mitch stops calling and Devin is still just a guy I know and we don’t have this moment between us.

This is what will happen: Devin will leave me at the chain link fence by the field. He will drive home to his mom’s house and go inside and maybe eat a little dinner that she’s left out for him. He will play video games with his sisters and stay up late watching Letterman. He will sleep shirtless, one arm thrown over the edge of a rumpled bed. I will walk home to my house and yell “Mom?” when I go inside, and do the dishes because it’s my night, and I won’t be able to sleep at all because that’s when my mind wants to spin the most. Our individual lives will speed up and whir along their fast and separate tracks, unaware once again of the other.

But he doesn’t know that I will hold that drive to his dad’s close and guarded. He doesn’t know this because he just wanted a friend along, and somehow he understood that I was one, and that there would be no need for questions, no need for further comment. The glimmer of this knowledge will blink and go out, blink and go out for years to come, arriving like a torch in my hand I didn’t know I was holding when other friends are raw with need. And I realize that the game with Mitch doesn’t have anything on this experience with Devin, who I will still, from time to time, recall kissing and being crushed underneath on a couch in his basement, the memory of which will slowly fade into just something I did once, back when, before the drive.

******

Devin doesn’t say a word the whole way back. I rest my head against the seat, keep my face turned away from him. He drops me off at the field and I walk home. When I go inside my house, I don’t yell for my mom. Instead, I stand in the kitchen, my hands on the counter, looking into the back yard. I see green through the square glass.

The phone rings.

I let my hands drop.

Adventures in Activism

Day 1: Alice falls down the rabbit hole.

Day 2: Attend post-election protest. Become an activist.

Days 3-5: Take off for a weekend in Palm Springs with your boyfriend. Cry on the way to the airport. Let the trip become a respite from the shit storm. Relax pool-side. Play golf (or rather, ride in the golf cart while your boyfriend plays golf). Discover that the golf course serves the best Bloody Mary on the planet. Have a conversation with Sara, a Mexican server at the hotel, and learn that already her seven-year-old niece has been harassed at her elementary school. Discover that there is no respite from the shit storm.

Day 9: Hear about the Women’s March. Sign up.

Day 14: Have coffee with two old friends. Share jokes because everyone just needs to laugh and laugh and laugh right now.

Day 16: Thanksgiving. Avoid politics. Have stiff, polite conversations instead. Wonder if you can hold it together.

Day 31: Engage in a politically charged conversation at a nice restaurant in Vail with good friends from out of town. Realize over pasta and wine that these people you’ve always liked and gotten along with see the world in a completely different way. Marvel at how this happens. Be humbled by it. At the end of dinner, hug one of your friends and tell him, “You know I still love you, right?” Laugh and smile at each other, but then notice he doesn’t join everyone for drinks after dinner. Wonder, briefly, if you are the reason why.

Day 34: Write a letter to the White House about the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Day 36: Get a reply from the White House.

Days 37-51: Compile a reading list. Obsessively bookmark and share news articles. Obsessively watch Democracy Now and Link TV. Read The Best Democracy Money can Buy and lie awake in a panic for three nights. Wonder if everything is a lie and always has been. Remember to verify.

Days 52-55: Go to Florida with your boyfriend and his son to visit your boyfriend’s parents. Avoid politics. Take a zumba class with his mother. Play golf (for real, this time). Realize, hilariously, that this retirement community north of Orlando, the one you like to make fun of, is turning out to be another kind of respite. Be grateful for it. Go out to dinner at a French restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg with friends on New Year’s Eve. Feel normal again, if only for a night.

Day 56: Realize you’re not a victim. Realize that it’s up to you. Realize that you are realizing so many things lately, and that it’s only just begun.

Day 58: Reach out to a random, politically minded acquaintance you’ve met once before. Ask her if she wants to form an activist group. Write this to her:

I’m waking up to a new world in which the people I previously thought would have everything handled—you know, the ones who were actually called to politics and activism as their life’s purpose—would take care of us all and not let things get too bad. That was the problem in the first place. We were all complicit in some way, through willful ignorance and apathy and belief in saviors other than ourselves. If democracy is supposed to be about power to the people, we handed ours over blindly.

Day 60: Discover a local activist group you could join instead.

Day 62: Continue search for paid work. You are a freelance writer. You live an artist’s life. You must eat.

Day 63: Develop an unholy obsession with the actor Tom Hardy and his show Taboo. Realize that escapism is a necessary part of the process.

Day 72: Attend a talk by the legendary Julian Schnabel about the abstract expressionist Clyfford Still. Breathe. Because art is, after all, a long and sustained breath.

Day 73: Join local activist group. See there are already 800 members. Do not watch the inauguration. Have a phone conversation with your mother, after which she sends you a meme: “Change is slow.” Realize why this makes you so prickly. Because, you want to say to her, sometimes change is fast. The Berlin Wall toppled in a matter of hours, and with it an entire regime. One day you go to bed an ordinary citizen; the next day you wake up an activist. Yes, sometimes change happens fast…very fast indeed.

Day 74: Attend the Women’s March with friends. At the bus stop in the morning, witness an act of kindness as a stranger hands over her breakfast to two of your friends who haven’t eaten yet. When bus after bus drives by full of marchers, decide to drive instead. Offer a ride to an elderly woman. For the next few hours, witness more kindness, and unbridled enthusiasm, and even joy—and some of the funniest, cleverest, most boldly defiant signs you’ve ever seen. Go home. Put your feet up. Soak it all in. Realize how important it is to put yourself into the throng, to feel the tangible energy of human bodies pressing forward in spirited resolve, to witness the sheer numbers. Be amazed. Be humbled again.

Day 76: No, you were not paid by George Soros. Yes, this is a grassroots movement.

Day something-or-other: A moment of weariness. Break your own rule about getting dressed every morning, no matter what (since freelancers sometimes have an excuse not to). Instead, sit around in your pajamas all day, glued to your computer, and to the news, and to how things are happening exactly as predicted by historians, scholars, seasoned journalists. Sweat. Eat. Watch mid-day sink into afternoon, still in your pajamas. Look in the mirror at 3 p.m. and be stunned and slightly amused by your own capacity for grossness. Soothe yourself with the thought that Tom Hardy in 18th century England wouldn’t care.

Next day: Get dressed, put on make-up, put on shoes. Leave the condo. Re-enter the world. Notice heart palpitations. Wonder if you are developing an anxiety disorder.

Day 79: Sign petitions. Wonder if your info is going into a database to eventually be used against you. Develop feelings of paranoia and more heart palpitations.

Day 80-82: Host Florida friends in Vail. Spend Saturday and Sunday entirely alone while they ski. Feel deep sadness encroaching. Depression. Feel fear that the world is ending and nothing will ever be the same or even good again. Want desperately just to be with your boyfriend, who is a known island of comfort and security in an uncertain, unknowable sea. Cry and wander around, lonely and distraught, distraught and lonely. Try to pull yourself together when you join up with the group later. Try to explain yourself when you’re alone with your boyfriend. Try, but fail.

Day 83: Walk around the park with your New Age friend. Restore some of your faith in humanity. Bask in the glow of a highly energized human being who is blessed with some kind of second sight into what is real and possible.

Day 84: Indulge your fanciful interest in astrology and research the Cardinal Crisis we’re in. Gain perspective. Appreciate it.

Day 88: Form an impromptu rapid response team with an old work colleague who has also joined the local activist group. Contact your senior prom date who is now a reporter for a local news station. Connect him to a constituent your colleague found who agrees to be interviewed on camera. Get the story on the news that afternoon. Be amazed at what you just did. Realize this is a need in the group that has to be filled.

Day 92: Attend a rally outside a senator’s office.

Day 95: Have coffee with your old work colleague. Appoint yourselves the co-leads of the newly created media team for the activist group. Wonder if you will have the time. Wonder if you know what the hell you’re doing. Wonder if you will fail not only the group but yourself. Shrug your shoulders and do it anyway. Wear your Mother of Dragons t-shirt because it makes you feel like a bad-ass.

Day 96: Vow to aid and abet journalism. Vow to prop up the Fourth Estate. Vow to help them do their jobs. Feel fierce mother-bear protectiveness for the perilous road ahead. Laugh in the face of absurdity. Embrace your true Sagittarian nature: a torch-bearer of Truth and Justice.

Day 98: See that the activist group is now over 3,000 members.

Day 100: Meet a friend for coffee as you do every Wednesday morning. Remind yourselves about self-care. Remind yourselves about the need to bring love and positive energy into activism. Remind yourselves that it is not always about shouting and anger and intensity. And remember also that activism makes it sound like we are separate, standing over there with all the answers. Except that we’re not separate, and we don’t have all the answers. If only everyone understood we love our country, too, and we’re trying as hard as they are to figure it all out. We’re just doing our jobs—finally. We’re just being humans, a demos, practicing our divine right as citizens to wake up, to claim our power, to demand that someone listen, to demand a better world.

Day 200, 230, who knows anymore: Still volunteer for the activist group; still watch the news (sometimes); mostly keep your attention trained on long-form sources of knowledge and information: podcasts, magazine articles, books upon books upon books. Feel fewer heart palpitations. Wonder if this is a sign of the normalization everyone warned us about. Notice the group is over 4,000 now. Think: it’s summer…I just want to chill. Feel guilty about chilling because the fight for healthcare is on. Remember that healthcare matters not just to the populace at large, but to members of your own family. Try to stay focused. Let your mind wander to voter suppression and the environment and free speech, where your true concerns lie. Still look for paid work. Still struggle to stay afloat. Remember that your personal struggle is a microcosm. Watch a video about how to connect with those who think differently. Be humbled (again) by the complexity of human communication and the power of tribalism. Re-dedicate yourself to the cause. Know it will look and sound different tomorrow, and again next week, and again next year. Vow to keep showing up. Vow to bring more love and understanding into it. But also vow to be watchful, wise, and unshakeable. Vow that on your death bed (when you’re at least 94), you can say with assurance, “I did everything I could.”

Twinkling My Roar

I’ve been threatening for awhile to pierce my nose. I realize that sounds as if I’ve been standing in my condo with wild eyes and spittle on my chin, brandishing a safety pin, yelling, “Stand back! I’m gonna do it!”

I was supposed to get my nose pierced a couple of months ago (don’t worry: by a pro). But then in a serenely level-headed moment, I went to a hobby store instead and found glue-on face jewels for $6. I figured it was easier than committing to a hole in my face. I glued one on, took a picture, and sent it to my boyfriend, whose immediate response was: “Cool!” Better than “Hmm,” so that was encouraging.

I’ve already done my due diligence. I read some blogs by people who’d pierced their noses and then felt moved to warn others about all the things they didn’t expect, like how it hurts a lot…and keeping it clean until it heals feels like a full-time job, or torture (which is kind of the same thing)…and, disturbingly, how snot builds up if you get the L-shaped post. I didn’t think nose-piercing was any more traumatizing or maintenance-intensive than ear-piercing, but apparently I was wrong.

Still, I have a pretty high pain threshold. And keeping it clean isn’t so bad when you know there’s a good reason for doing it. Once the wound heals, you can taper off the frequency of the cleaning anyway. And while I admit the snot build-up sounds gross, it seems like I could go with a straight post shaped more like an earring, which would hopefully mitigate that problem.

I have real people in my life who’ve done it. My friend Andrea, for example, who pierced her nose twenty years ago; she eventually replaced the stud with a hoop she got in Turkey, which sounds like the kind of Bohemian Bad-Ass story I want to tell: “Oh, this little thing? I got it in a souk in Morocco when I was doing a camel trek through the Sahara.” My friend Rachael pierced her nose after college. And my sister pierced hers in college before anyone else was doing it.

In fact, the preferred body decoration back then was either a tattoo or a navel piercing. I decided against a tattoo when a girl in one of my classes walked in one day and proudly showed everyone the tiger tattooed across her stomach, and all I could think about was how that tiger would st-r-e-e-e-e-t-ch if she ever got pregnant, after which it would deflate into some kind of unidentifiable Rorschach blot, and was that the look she was going for in her moment of (possibly drunk) abandon. I was further validated in not getting a tattoo when a girl I later worked with spent lots of money trying to remove a tiger the length of her calf (tigers must have been the decoration du jour for drunken abandon in the late ’90s), after which her lasered skin would ooze for hours through her business-casual slacks. I guess the permanence—or near-permanence—of tattoos never appealed to me.

My college boyfriend and I thought it would be a good idea to get our belly buttons pierced as a kind of look-at-us-aren’t-we-so-cool bonding experience, but when it came down to it and the guy at the shop showed us the needle he used for such occasions, we hightailed it out of there—without shame, I might add. Some things you just don’t feel bad about not having the guts to do.

But lately I’ve been feeling my guts. I’ve been feeling there is still much to be experienced. I’ve also been thinking that with the world the way it is and the current of dystopian emotional sludge we can all feel and the pressing urge to make it all better while wondering if it will ever really be better again, I understand the singular, sweet relief that self-inflicted pain can bring.

What it comes down to is that I do want the hole in my face. Or, rather, what I want is the temporary pain that comes with a temporary decoration that temporarily alters my appearance in a way that makes me feel like I have free agency again. Free agency to rise up, collect myself, and find the seed of “good” in the world, to find my rightful place, my sphere of influence, to discover my contribution.

The same free agency I feel when I wear my Mother of Dragons t-shirt.

Because while I may be a woman-hear-me-roar on the inside (most of the time, not counting the days when I have no idea what the hell I’m doing), my fear is that I’ve reached a point where that roaring woman is no longer obvious on the outside, at least to the average person I may encounter. I spend 80% of my time wearing workout clothes and no make-up and giving myself errands to run so I can have an excuse to leave my home—which is also my workplace. I drive a Volvo and put stevia in my coffee. I go to bed at 9 pm, for Christ’s sake. There’s no roaring going on here.

I’m also unlikely to expose my inner true colors until we’ve had that rare, Avatar-esque, “I see you” interaction—which only seems to happen in the deep playa at Burning Man or at indie coffee shops with exceptionally chatty watercolor painters wandering by. So if you don’t happen to unearth my roar through layers of rock and fossil on the unending archaeological dig that is “getting to know me,” then it comes down to this: I need to show it. Make it obvious. Make it twinkle, gosh darn it.

While a nose piercing is nothing original at this point, it’s something I know I could do—stone-cold sober, at that. I could try it out. I could let my eyes water for fifteen minutes and get the token bottle of saline solution and listen to the keeping-it-clean spiel. I could even deal with the snot build-up (I think).

I could feel that twinge of nerve endings when I touch the stud. See the flash of crystal in my line of vision. I’d recall it as the time when I sought pain, on purpose, to remind myself of my own enduring alive-ness, and as the time when my inner guts needed to manifest outwardly. Maybe I’d say, “That was the time when, shortly after, I really did go on a camel trek through the Sahara, and then helped build a water-collection device in Peru, and then saved some oil-soaked wildlife, and then became an independent journalist for awhile and produced a documentary with Sebastian Junger. It was the time when I shook hands across the aisle and our protests made a difference and people started listening to each other and a vision began to be shared. Oh, and it was the time when I finally got my second novel published, and stopped wondering about being a freelance writer and whether or not I was living a pipe dream, and for once I found my contribution to the world and just settled into it and smiled.”

“It was the time,” I would say, “when things got better.”

And then I’d bump my nose in the middle of the night and wake up with a screech and remember I needed to buy more saline solution.

I don’t know. Some roar like that.

Stand

For in this land, a man must stand upright, if he would live. – Clyfford Still

Who is Clyfford Still?

He was an artist. More specifically, he was an Abstract Expressionist, one of the early founders of the movement which began in the 1950s and was noted for the use of abstract forms to render the human condition. Unless you’re an art historian or an artist yourself, chances are good you’ve never heard of Clyfford Still, but it’s possible you’ve heard of his contemporaries, guys like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack.

Here’s what Pollack said about Still: “[He] makes the rest of us look academic.”

Still was an artist whom other artists revered. Whatever fame or notoriety (or the lack thereof) he would acquire in both the art community and the public at large was secondary. He was the embodiment of art for the sake of art—a staunchly lonely, some would say, but immensely free way to live in the world. He allowed himself a full expression and an unfettered evolution. He did not care what others thought, at least when it came to his art. He simply stood up, on his feet and on his ladders, and painted whatever came out of him. And his paintings themselves not only stand on their own…they soar.

(By the way, if you ever find yourself in Denver, go visit the Clyfford Still Museum, which exhibits and houses the archives of his entire life’s work. You will not be disappointed.)

But this post is not about Clyfford Still, the man, the artist.

This post is about the opening quote up there. Go back and read it again.

Substitute “human” for “man,” if you like. (Inclusiveness of the whole of humanity is a given here, not a whim). Whatever you do or don’t substitute, the message remains the same. And who better than an artist—someone living quite close to the divine—to deliver the message.

To deliver it to you, that is.

Because this post is also about you.

And in the spirit of Clyfford Still’s words, I ask:

If you are to live, how will you stand upright?

Will you get up from your couch today and look out the window? Will you notice the winter trees and the chirping birds? If you live in a city, will you hear the helicopters and witness the masses? Will you wonder at the magnitude of nature in all its forms and beauty and turmoil?

And if you wonder, where will you seek your answers? Will any be found within?

Will you get up from your couch today and turn off the television? Will you ease your mind away from the noise and find a corner of silence? Or will you pace or cheer, cry or rejoice, vibrate with imminent change?

Will you get up from your desk or counter and decide the work you do is a means to an end or an end itself? Will you know that the hours you spend in your weeks and your months will be spent in an effort of love, despite hardship or conflict or despair? Will you decide that you cannot know this for sure, and what you suspect instead is that the tossing river inside you carries only weariness and anger?

Will you get up from your place of prayer, your book of philosophy, having offered your most humble self? Will you discover that you and your god are in harmonious collusion, or suffering a whirling discord? Will you be able to recognize harmony or discord at all? Or will you decide that before you can recognize anything, you must first re-acquaint yourself with your own beating heart?

Will you get up and walk down the street? Will you let your legs carry you to a destination unknown, or to a familiar glow of warmth and safety?

And if you walk through the warm, safe door, will you stay? Will you find it is all you need? Or will you seek the far-off ship and its cold, dark passage to worlds unexplored, to ideas long buried?

Will you get up and embrace the person next to you? Will you turn away in fear? Will you plant your feet and ball your fists and hope that the strength of your stance will hide the terrible smallness you feel inside?

And if you are small, will you soften your stance, hold out your hand, and ask to be touched? Will you receive the touch into every cell?

Will you get up and paint the contents of your soul? Will you sing them or write them down? Will you do it for you, or will you do it for them? Will you peer upon the deepest parts of yourself in all their maniacal sounds and colors? Or will you keep them well-hidden, silent, starved of the light of day? Will the light of day sprout them anyway like insistent roots? Will you watch yourself open and let them bloom free?

Will you stand up today and take a deep breath? Will the first filling of your lungs be a ragged burst? Will your breath be caught, constricted, unable? Or will your breath bring the air you’ve needed…the air you’ve needed for a very long time now?

Will you stand up on your own two feet? Will you climb your ladder? Will you reach the heights needed to look upon the full extent of your unstoppable life force?

And if you do, will you ask what you can do with it, and who you are because of it, and how you will let it flow free?

I ask you:

Will you stand up at all?

Will you stand up at all?

Will you decide to live?

Will you soar?

In a Quiet Moment

I used to think of myself as someone who had mastered the art of navigating change.
I acquired this view after going through what I like to term a “spiritual transformation” a decade ago.

Hold your eye rolls. I’ll explain:

It started the day before Christmas Eve, when I had been clinging for too long to the bottom rung of a ladder leading downward into a personal hell after a particularly shattering break-up. My parents, looking for something to do that evening, suggested we go see The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. Two-thirds of the way through the movie, I found myself sobbing unabashedly in the dark theater, flayed open by the realization that if Will Smith’s character could surmount the insurmountable, could still wake up every day and look for the good in the world and in himself, so could I.

It was the first of many realizations tipped off by a flurry of coincidences and synchronicities and messages, all the many breadcrumbs dropped by a universe I had been unable to see before, that would lead me to a new Self over the next six months and continue to foment during the next few years.

Hence, change.

We’re talking change at the neural pathway level radiating out to new ideas and new awarenesses, new expressions, a new language, new ways of embracing others and myself. But also change in a larger esoteric sense. A change in the subatomic space I occupied in whatever Plan was unfolding.

And so I got comfortable with this idea: that changing oneself as a human being was possible and also necessary; so comfortable with the idea, in fact, that my ego took it on as part of my new self image and grew some flouncy, flower-filled pride around it. Positioned within this impressive botanic garden of my own making, I figured eventually everyone else would want to change, too.

It was just a matter of coming across the right teacher, the right book. A matter of learning how to meditate. A matter of vision boards and gratitude exercises. A matter of being able to see how nearly everything we come to know and believe in our lifetimes can be discarded in order to expose our real selves underneath, shiny and waiting to come forth into the light.

As a human you’re always looking for absolutes. You’re always looking for the end of truth. This is it; this is all I need to know. I can stop looking now…and so can everyone else. After remarkable stretches of profound change, we arrive at a new place of understanding about ourselves and the world and assume that’s all there is. We can rest easy, uncork the wine, put up our feet, enjoy the view.

But it doesn’t work that way. Despite our self-congratulations, change is a constant, right?

To illustrate: recently I’ve had a changing viewpoint about change, you could say.

Some change I love. When spring turns into summer. The end of a project and the anticipation of what’s next. The shifting positions of the planets and what it means for my horoscope. The genius who created a way to fast-forward through commercials. Whistleblowers.

But some change I’m less willing to navigate. I’m conflicted about it. Some change I downright loathe. Like most hand-held technology. The unwitting surrender of our civil right to privacy. The idea, practice, and growth of partisan journalism in its shrillest, ugliest, most manipulative form. Automation. Big data instead of human contradiction. Artificial intelligence. Dating via an app. The willingness to disrupt whatever exists so thoroughly and thoughtlessly, like a gleeful child knocking over a tower of blocks, that the scattered blocks are never retrieved…the resulting wounds never healed.

In other words, the kind of change that happens as a reaction to personal impotence, as a reaction to the desire to control something, knowing that in the end we control very little.

And yet my changing viewpoint is not just a summary of change gone wrong since that will always be debatable, nor is it a doomsday call. The sentimental part of me which wants to reflect softly over the past year isn’t willing to throw generous cuts of Armageddon into everyone else’s End of Days soup and sprinkle it with cynicism.

Because I don’t actually believe in an End of Days scenario. At one time I would have. But then Will Smith and The Pursuit of Happyness came along and stared me in the face.

My changing viewpoint is this:

The artifacts of societies and cultures will continue to evolve. The way we exist in the world will change even faster for younger generations than it already has for us, and there will always be people who are left behind, who lament the good days gone by, and I will probably be one of them, surrounded as I am by my teachers and books and exercises and pride. I don’t know where any of this change is actually headed, what it will look like, how we will wear it, eat it, earn from it, live in it, or love in it.

What I do know is that I am no longer a master at navigating it. I never was. I just needed, all those years ago, to attempt it in the first place and see where it led.

So if the tenacity of the human species coupled with the capacity for any one person on this earth to change themselves in truly miraculous ways, freed of the shackles of habit and entrenched responses to life—if any of this is a signpost pointing toward another, brighter possibility for all of us, then we must believe in our ability to attain it.

How we get there, the transformation required to start that journey and reach a new perspective, is an individual feat. Transformation may or may not happen to you (although beware: Will Smith has another movie out this holiday season). But it could happen to your best friend or your mother or your car mechanic. After that, everyone else is fair game. The ripple effects of change, the waves of new truth, eventually arrive on new shores.

In a time of change, in a season of reflection, in a quiet moment, be good to yourself and others. Be open. Be thoughtful.

Look around. Look for the good.

I’ll see you next year…

This is What It Looks Like

I saw an article a couple of days ago about the post-election aftermath in which it mentioned a guy who was participating in a protest in New York City. His sign read (something to the effect of): “I’m not usually a sign guy, but WTF.”

My sentiments exactly.

When my boyfriend called me on the early evening of Thursday, Nov. 10—two days after the carnival sideshow that was the campaign season this year came to its culmination, after which a large percentage of us slid into a new reality and I spent those forty-eight hours unable to stop crying—and he told me he’d seen on the news that a protest was gathering in downtown Denver, I hung up, ran to my car, and went.

It had been many years since I’d taken part in any organized group display of opinion. There was the time I’d spontaneously joined the Native American drum circle in college with half of my sociology class. I think I also signed various petitions on various issues back then with furious aplomb. But as life carried me forward and my priorities changed, I didn’t think I had it in me anymore. There was my career to worry about, my rent to pay, my vacations to plan.

And yet, apparently I did very much have it in me.

Fifteen minutes after getting the call, I parked my car across from the Justice Center and started walking. I was by myself, carrying only my car keys, my phone, and my driver’s license, lest some proverbial shit go down and I, or my body, needed to be identified. (My boyfriend: “Be safe. Don’t get arrested.”) I walked past homeless people sleeping in corners. I walked past security guards going home for the night. I would never have walked alone on dark city streets before, but somehow in that moment I wasn’t afraid.

I made it to the City & County Building, then across Civic Center Park to the State Capitol, where all was quiet and mostly deserted. For a moment I had a sinking feeling that the news had been wrong, that my boyfriend had misunderstood, that if there was a protest happening at all, it was maybe five or ten people wandering about without aim. The deep cynicism that most of the time lies dormant in me reared up.

And then, crossing 15th Street toward the 16th Street Mall—a long, open-air stretch of tourist shops, bars, and restaurants that runs through the middle of downtown Denver—I spotted a few people carrying signs. They seemed to be heading somewhere with urgency. I ran up to them, fell into step, and asked, “Are you part of the protest?” They said yes and they were trying to find it. We headed to the mall together: a youngish guy and a girl, a woman in business casual looking like she’d just left the office, a middle-aged couple holding hands, and me. After walking several blocks, we saw another group coming toward us from the opposite direction, also carrying signs, all of us wondering where to go. A homeless man on the corner kindly pointed and said: “That way.” We turned the corner and that’s when we saw them, a wave of people about to step out onto Speer Boulevard.

There was, indeed, a protest underway. And it was big.

As we joined in and made our collective way down Speer en route to the State Capitol, I saw in the crowd women and men. I saw black people, brown people, white people, young people, old people. I saw parents with young children and babies. I saw LGBT people wearing rainbows. I saw people walking with their bikes and skateboards. I heard people banging on drums. The majority carried signs. Some had megaphones engaging us in constant chants:

Not my president*

Show us what democracy looks like
This is what democracy looks like

Latinos: Si se puerde
Everyone else: Yes we can

Women: My body my choice
Men: Her body her choice

F**k white supremacy

And many, many other chants, including “The Apprentice sucked.” Present in any serious situation, a breath of humor. We laughed. It might have helped that there was a good amount of pot being smoked, this being Colorado and all.

We walked past medians in the middle of the street where people had also gathered, clapping and cheering us on while journalists snapped pictures. We walked past a group of Muslim women in head scarves who waved and cheered. Several people in the crowd walked over to them and shook their hands as the crowd passed by.

We were lucky to have a balmy night. Winter hadn’t yet arrived in Colorado, as it hadn’t for much of the nation. Temperatures had stubbornly stayed well above average for weeks. Walking kept us even warmer, along with the energy and camaraderie in the crowd.

I kept waiting to see opposing protest from the other side. It’s very possible there was some, though I never witnessed any firsthand. Most everyone we passed let us go without incident or showed their support in some way. When I was initially with the small group walking on the mall trying to find the protest, eight to ten squad cars sped past us, lights blaring, along with a truck filled with police in camouflage riot gear holding rifles. Having seen this type of militarized police presence only on TV when other protests throughout the country had been covered, it was sobering to see it with my own eyes just a few feet from me. But as far as I could tell, the police never made their presence felt during the actual protest, beyond directing foot and vehicle traffic so that we could make our way down the main city thoroughfares, and making a loose perimeter around the government buildings for security, I assumed. I read later that some of the police showed their support by shaking hands with the protesters.

When we got to Civic Center Park, the protest took on even more meaning. We trudged over the grass and through muddy ruts in darkness to get to the capitol building. People stumbled. There were concrete steps and sidewalks we couldn’t see. An elderly woman nearly took a nose dive when she missed a curb, but two people grabbed her and kept her upright, helping her on her way.

As we poured across Lincoln Street, the State Capitol loomed large. Behind us stretched the expanse of the park with the equally imposing City & County building at the other end. In this space, flanked by symbols of a government we’ve come to love and hate, revere and distrust with equal measure, the energy rose even higher.

A black mother with her two sons—if I had to guess, ten and thirteen years old—marched directly in front of me. The kids were brave, chins lifted, the mother holding their hands as the three of them chanted together. I began to cry. I put my hand on her back.

Gathered in front of the capitol building, the crowd stopped as more and more people made their way across the street and spread out across the front lawn and steps. The Denver Post estimated thousands of people showed up that night, with the main protest going on for about two hours and a smaller group continuing on into the night. We stood and chanted and looked around us, at everyone who had chosen to do the same thing that night, those who had to get up early and go to work the next day, those who were tired and possibly hungry, those with small children who wanted to show them what all of this was about, those who had dealt with enough strife already for any one lifetime to handle, and those who simply wanted to be there in support of everyone else because it seemed like the right thing to do.

After awhile I walked back to my car several blocks away and went home. My brother and my sister also knew where I’d been, and when they asked me how it was, the only thing I could think to say, after two days of shock and grief, was: “It was medicine.”

Our country wasn’t founded as a democracy. Not really. Those in charge didn’t want mob rule. They didn’t want the average citizen to have a voice or a vote. Those who didn’t own property couldn’t vote; neither could women; to say nothing of the slaves and native peoples whose rights, lands, and basic humanity weren’t recognized—all of which was accepted and condoned at the time.

Democracy here sprang up separately, as its own movement, as a natural progression of the multitudes thrown together and realizing they deserved more.

To think that at one point in history my voice and vote wouldn’t have counted for anything—both as a woman and as a person without property—is unconscionable. It’s even more unconscionable that some people would have it that way again.

I have no illusions about this country. Not anymore. I can’t un-know what I now know.

What I do have are two feet. And a voice. And a fire within that somehow still lives on, through all the distractions of youth, all my petty worries and concerns, all the years of indifference when, from where I stood, things hadn’t seemed so bad.

And when combined, these simple things—my feet, my voice, and my fire—means I also have power.

Democracy, always an experiment, forever faced with destruction, forever challenged by fear and angst and spiraling economic realities, forever mocked by those who deliberately aim to keep populations ignorant and confused for their own gain, is—at the end of the day—not something conferred upon us by lofty people in bits and pieces as their whims decree.

Democracy is something we give to ourselves, as our duty to each other.

And this, at least on that night, is what it looks like.

To all of you out there who believe in the experiment, keep believing. And if you can, go out there and show it.

*Depending on whichever you find more legitimate—the electoral vote or the popular vote—“not my president” conjures up different feelings and ideas. But all who chant it know exactly why they, as individuals, are chanting it. And as we know, free speech will always make someone uncomfortable.