JoAnn Gometz

Writing | Editing | Content Strategy

I Want to Stop There

At the end of this week, I will have been on the road for two months. I've reached a point where I routinely don't know what city I'm in, nor what day it is. Time zones are irrelevant (I've been an hour behind myself all day today). So, I'm giving a quick recap of the important stuff this week!

I've answered any number of questions:

  • "Do you really not have a home right now?" That's correct. I have an address, courtesy of wonderful friends, and my belongings are all in a storage unit, but I have no actual home.
  • "You're driving around the country alone?" Yep. When you're not attached to someone, that's pretty much the default setting for any length of drive, whether to the store or the opposite coast. Bonus points for the two or three very not-scared-of-anything men who have followed up with, "I don't think I could do that. I'd be too scared!" 
  • "What kind of book are you writing?" It's a true story about an Iranian man in his mid-80s, who is currently in prison, nine years into his sentence. He was arrested on false charges and tried without due process because he's a member of the Baha'i religion, which is a minority there. But throughout his life, he's been an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has constantly served those most in need, and I'm writing about that legacy. 
  • "How are you supporting yourself?" I'm a self-employed writer, editor, and content strategy consultant, mostly in business communications and marketing, and I'm working on existing contracts while I travel.
  • "Is your husband Persian?" (Specifically, I got this one several times at a conference for Persian emigrants since I clearly am not Persian, do not speak Persian, and was not with a Persian.) Nope. No husband or prospect thereof, Persian or otherwise, at least right now, as far as I know.
  • "What would you like on that?" Mayo, mustard, pickles, lettuce. Or in New Mexico: green chiles.

I've realized several things:

  • It takes nearly as long to plan or rejigger trip stops as it does to actually drive from place to place. I've explained to folks that this is both the best-planned and worst-planned trip of all time, and that my time is basically split between driving (50%) and a combination of planning, working, and chasing research contacts. The opportunity for sightseeing is very limited, so I've tried to make the most of the rolling views out the windows.
  • By my observation, the people who live in areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are not "victims" or "suffering" until you get to Missouri and points north and east. In New Mexico, the rest of Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kentucky, at least, they are "neighbors," "people," "citizens," "residents," and "folks." Using language that indicates an "us/them" dichotomy ("they" are "victims," "we" are "#blessed") makes it okay for separation to develop between groups. On a small scale, it's a representation of what's wrong with our worldview(s) on any number of issues right now.
  • The things folks put on their cars and trucks make no sense. Confederate flags in a non-ironic manner? It's been 170 years or so; we need to move on. Giant American flags on poles mounted into the trailer hitch? Unless you're leading an invisible cavalry charge up the freeway, just say no.
  • The best way to understand an area is to turn off the iTunes and turn on the radio. A country's worth of country stations and I am pretty solid on regional agriculture, income levels, local concerns, and musical tastes. I've also added a couple good ol' tunes to my playlist. And I'm completely hooked on "No Such Thing as a Broken Heart" (been hearing it nonstop for 60 days) and "Greatest Love Story" (which first entered my consciousness somewhere around Fresno on a sunny, 104-degree cruise down CA-99).
  • I am very comfortable where cowboy boots, jeans, and cowboy hats or ball caps are the uniform of the day. Pickup trucks are good. Corrals are good. Anything with hooves is good. Spanish is good. Sadly, we've mostly, though not entirely, priced the people who have such things out of the vicinity of oceans and beaches. 
  • Truckers are better drivers than most folks on the road, most places. Yes, I would be the little blue car who will pass the trucks on the uphill but fall in line on the downhill. Why? Because the uphill is just a matter of speed maintenance, so if I pass, I'll stay ahead. The downhill is a matter of gravity, and I have no desire to race. In the Siskiyous, through the Cascades, through the northern Rockies, over Snoqualmie, over Tehachapi, over the Sandias, truckers stay to the right on the uphill and rarely impede the flow of traffic, and engine brake on the downhill to maintain a controlled descent. Very pleasant, very safe, very easy. I-81 in the Appalachians? Not so much.

I've put a smattering of things on my "want to" list:

  • More time on the Oregon coast
  • More time in New Mexico
  • More time in northern Arizona
  • More time in North Dakota
  • Cesar Chavez National Monument
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Crater Lake National Park
  • Okay, so mostly, I wanted to pull off the road at places where I could go hiking and rambling around, but I didn't have time and it would have been unwise to do so alone.

In any case, I still have miles to go before I sleep. And I have to figure out where I live, before I sleep, too. 

Pueblo Means People

"Papá! Acá! Hi, caballo!" A grandmother riding the Albuquerque BioPark train with her daughter and four grandchildren tried to get the youngest boy's attention. About 4, he was sitting exactly as the bench seat indicated, facing the center of the train car. He couldn't see a thing over the opposite seat, since his little legs didn't reach the seat edge and his spiky-topped head didn't reach the top of the seat back. As a result, he had the sort of sourpuss expression that dared me to make him smile. And I did. I also played peekaboo with his baby sister for much of the 25-minute ride through the zoo and botanical garden, raising and lowering my polarized sunglasses as she waited intently for my eyes to reappear.

It was the Spanish that got my attention, though. I hadn't realized until that moment, when we came around a curve and found the horse corral ahead, that I had been unconsciously translating the hum and buzz around me for most of the day. I studied the language for 10 years, even minoring in it in college, but I never did immersion work, so the fact is, yo entiendo mucho más que yo hablo. I understand much more than I speak.

Spending the most important part of my childhood in rural communities in northern California and Nevada, I heard Spanish with a particular Mexican lilt on a daily basis. My classmates were first-generation Americans and migrant workers' kids. Not to mention the children of Paiute and Shoshone who had lived on the land since long before any Europeans knew the place existed.

Those voices were why I chose Spanish over French years later and a continent away. But when I learned the language, the only accents I heard were the Spanish of my East Coast teachers: Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban. Fast Spanish. Voices that fell harsh on my ears, like New York commuters over California surfers. 

The warm, drawn out drawl of the Spanish in New Mexico rolls along, just as smooth as the English in Texas. The English in New Mexico is deceiving, though. It's tight and precise, native in cadence, Texan in texture, Californian in tone, with a bit of Spanish thrown in for good measure.

Walking through the Albuquerque Museum and the nearby Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, I found out a little bit about why there's such openness and ease across the cultures in this city, despite its absurdly high crime rates. The Spanish began making incursions into the area in 1540, fully 80 years before the Mayflower landed in New England. They made contact with the residents of some 19 different lands within relatively close proximity, not all of whom shared a language or culture. After 140 years of Spanish influence and an accompanying deterioration in relations, the residents of those "pueblos" banded together and successfully pushed the Spanish out of the region. It took years for the Spanish to return, and when they did, they largely took a different approach to the native population, interacting with them more as respected adversaries and potential allies. When the Spanish eventually ceded the territory to Mexico and a new federalist government came to power in 1824, it gave native residents citizenship. However, when the United States took on the territory less than 25 years later, those rights were stripped.

I've never understood the urge to separate people from one another. I am, I know, more a child of the Far West than anywhere else. Days after my museum jaunt, I was deep in thought as I drove over the ridges and passes of the Sandia Mountains and on through the state's central desert and eastern grassland, I found myself resenting that I had to leave this arid, beautiful place in shades of tan, scented with desert sage.

My newly acquired thunderbird bracelet lay soft on my wrist. As I glanced down at it, I remembered the artist's expression as he described the symbolism, his open, joyful laugh as I revealed my current nomadic state, and the way he grew intent as he asked about the book I'm writing. I thought of the warmth of his handshake, the way he gazed far beyond the tourists as he thought, and the gesture he made as he processed the potential impact of telling a specific person's story. It's a motion every cowboy-and-Indian movie has tried to capture, but they've all gotten wrong. That forward flash of two fingers alongside the eye indicates an inner vision.

I thought back across my travels so far these last weeks. Two countries and some 23 states. Here and there, hints of the people who called this land home while my ancestors were still hoeing fields in Sweden, Ireland, Scotland and England. Across the Southwest and southern Plains, their footprints are hard to miss. For the most part, the boundaries are marked by small signs in transportation green or service brown. In some, the appearance of project houses gives away the game, while others could be any small town anywhere. In the space of about two days on a straight road, I drove through parts of the Navajo Nation, Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, and Arapaho, Kickapoo, Iowa, Sac and Fox, Pawnee, Muscogee/Creek, and Osage Nations. 

Spanish teachers always say that pueblo means town. And it's true. But the word comes from the Latin root that means people. A pueblo is a place where people are; in fact, it is the people. What would we do differently if we really understood that? It's right there if we have the courage, and take the time, to see.

Cowgirls Don't Cry

My Grandpa Mel was the most important person in the world. Maybe he didn't look like that to anyone but me. What he looked like to everyone else, most of the time, was a man of average height in his late 50s or early 60s, usually wearing brown snip-toe or pointed-toe cowboy boots, western-style polyester work pants, a light-colored striped cotton, western-yoked shirt with pearl buttons over a white t-shirt, sometimes with glasses but often not, with a light-colored straw cowboy hat, the brim perfectly curved. His skin was tanned a deep brown and his dark brown hair bordered on black with just a tint of gray at the temples.

Grandpa drove a red crew-cab pickup with a white stripe around it. The front seat was worse for wear, but I usually rode in one of the fold-down jump seats anyway. He'd always have to move the half-full pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco and the cassette or eight-track cases for Crystal Gayle or Waylon and Willie so he could fold the front seat forward a bit and let me clamber in. We'd ride to the feed store, or into the coffee shop where he was a regular at the counter, jawboning with the waitresses and buying me hot chocolate with whipped cream. Sometimes we'd go visit one of his local rancher friends about something having to do with horses. I might be in shorts and a tank-top, my Nike sneakers swinging. Or I might be in jeans and a t-shirt with my own straw cowboy hat tipped down just right.

"Her daddy gave her her first pony, then told her to ride ..." That's how the Brooks and Dunn song starts. Well, in my case, it was my Grandpa, and the pony's name was Little Bit. He was a surprise, purchased around the same time I fractured my elbow at the age of 4. He lived at Grandpa's house, which was a mobile home on a plot of land in Corning, California, right in the heart of Tehama County, where even today people have horses grazing alongside the massive orchards of olives, almonds and walnuts, and in open fields behind stands of date palms that seem out of place in the golden grassland. Little Bit joined Grandpa's two horses, Repeater Peter ("Pete") and Candy Cane ("Candy"), along with his Australian Shepherd, Chew-Chaw, and later, a pup named Shorty who was the result of inattention to Chew-Chaw and my family's dog, Bingo.

Visits to Grandpa's house were the highlight of my childhood. He'd sit down on the couch and I'd immediately leap onto his lap to mess up his hair and shirt. In his own quiet way, he'd let me know when he'd had enough. Grandpa was never very loud. About the most riled up I ever heard him get was when he was working under the mobile home and Bingo followed him in to see what was going on. Out from under the skirting came Grandpa's voice. "God-damned knothead!"

Grandpa was even quiet when Little Bit, who was an old and not always perfect pony, decided to throw me and head for the grain bin at a faster clip than we'd ever seen him take. I'd learned how to ride both the pony and the horses with saddle and bridle. With the horses, though, Grandpa still kept me on a lead rein. Most mornings during the couple of months Mom and I stayed with him while Dad started a new job, in fact, he'd saddle up Candy and let me ride down to catch the bus to the kindergarten, or he'd meet the bus with her or Little Bit ready to go when I got home. With Little Bit, he let me ride without the lead rein and he'd even started letting me ride bareback. I was so proud when he let me ride out alone along the empty road where my parents were clearing brush from the fenceline. That's when Little Bit spun a 180, neatly leaving me airborne and then flat on my back on the gravel shoulder, trying to catch my breath.

My parents came running, checking me to be sure I was okay. Grandpa checked on me first and then went after the pony. I was sitting in the front of my dad's pickup when Grandpa came back, leading a chastened Little Bit. Tying the reins to the fence, he strolled over to the truck and patiently but resolutely explained why I had to get right back on. So I'd know I could do it, and so the pony would know he couldn't get away with that kind of trick. I did. Under protest, but I did. And he walked us back to the barn on a lead rein.

It wasn't too long before age caught up with Little Bit and Grandpa had to call us at home, three hours away in Nevada, and tell us he was gone. I remember being concerned that he'd been alone, but Grandpa said the dogs had stayed out in the barn with him 'til the end. None of us suspected that it wouldn't be too long until we got the call that Grandpa had stopped off at his doctor's office, not feeling so well, been loaded into an ambulance the doctor called, and died before it ever got out of the parking lot. That was September 1983. He was a month shy of 63. I was two months shy of 7.

At his funeral, I remember feeling like everyone was so sad, I needed to be no trouble at all. I didn't really cry. But I missed my Grandpa madly. Things changed quickly. There were no more horses. All my tack was given away, too, to family and friends. The dogs were gone. And after a little time going through Grandpa's mobile home and taking care of his accounts, we had no more reason to drive from the desert over the mountains and down into the golden valley. Just a little more than two years later, my parents and I moved from the Far West to the Northeast, trading one whole life (my mom's background) for another (my dad's background).

We never went back.

It's only in the last 10 years or so that my parents have returned to the West once or twice a year to check on my grandmother as she climbed through her 90s. They got the chance to visit with family and friends. As for me, I flew in and out of San Francisco for client meetings a couple of times a few years ago, once even getting to route myself through Sacramento to see cousins for part of a day.  But this trip is the first time in more than 32 years that I've set foot in my childhood stomping grounds. When I knew I would be driving right down I-5 from Medford to Sacramento, I planned a night in Corning with the sole goal of visiting Grandpa's grave. To let him know, I think, in some cosmic, tangible way, that I didn't forget.

I've carried my Grandpa with me to schools, across oceans, into every corner of my life. For the most part, he's been with me in happy memories and times when I needed his quiet strength. As I drew closer to the cemetery, though, both in time and distance, three decades of tears overflowed over the course of two days. 

A couple of hours before sunset last Wednesday, I wound my way through the backroads and turned into the small cemetery gates next to the old-fashioned lettered sign. The temperature was near 100 as I parked in the shade of an evergreen windbreak and got out of the car, my current cowboy hat in my hand. I couldn't help thinking that Grandpa would have some comment about the overly curled brim. He never did like it when people beat up their hats, style or not. 

I walked up and down the rows of flat gravestones in section K, where Findagrave told me I should find him. And there, in the very last row I checked, halfway down, I found the stone. The standard-issue metal veterans plaque lists only his name, birth and death dates, and World War II service. Someone had left a fake pink flower in one of the empty flower holders in the stone, and for Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, he got a flag in the other holder, just like all the other veterans. The stones had been freshly edged, so I knelt in the short green grass and brushed the dirt off the stone. Most of the graves in the row bore fresh mementos and flowers; it's plain to see they still get visitors now and again. I don't know if anyone visits Grandpa's grave.

For a few minutes, under the hot sun slipping farther west, I sat there in the breeze and talked to my Grandpa. Even though I firmly believe he already knows everything I could have said, and that someday my soul will meet his again, I told him about my world. I told him how different things turned out from the way he probably expected them to, both for me and for the world he knew. As I talked, I realized that if he was still alive now, he'd be 96. I told him that if he'd lived longer, he probably would have been a dinosaur, and I didn't think he would have liked that much. I said a prayer. I told him that I loved him. 

And as my tears continued to fall, whether for him or for the loss of the girl I once was and the potential she had, I kept hearing that song's refrain spinning through the air, weaving together the past and the future.

"Cowgirls don't cry. Ride, baby, ride.... If you fall, get right back on. The good Lord calls everybody home. Cowgirl, don't cry." 

Killing Time in the Tsunami Zone

"They tell you not to wait for the siren because it's not gonna go off. The guy with that job is gonna be gettin' outta Dodge with everybody else." So said my tablemates when the subject of tsunamis came up. Over the hum of a couple guys singing Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel," we'd been discussing the local kiteboarding scene and the inaudibility of the warning siren (tested monthly) from the beach. 

For the last week, give or take a day, I've been hanging out on Oregon's "Sunset Coast," which occupies the state's southwest edge. It's an interesting area, a lot like the northern California of my childhood, complete with post-recession economic malaise and a persistent population of artists, ranchers, and generally stubborn pioneer stock who give the place a character all its own. I'm still trying to figure out exactly why these little seaside towns aren't packed at this point in the high season. After all, the whole strip is wildfire-smoke-free and about 35 degrees cooler than any of the cities along I-5, which are only an hour's drive away on the other side of the coastal mountains. Most of the hotels still have space and their rates make their eastern counterparts look greedy.

So, could it be that the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) is responsible for the low tourist turnout and high availability of coastal properties? After all, the potential for a major Northwest earthquake has gotten some press in recent years. It's not as though geologists haven't known about this Vancouver-to-Mendocino fault line for some time, though. It's just been quite a bit more chill than its southern cousin, the San Andreas, which is scheduled to lop off Los Angeles and turn Oakland into oceanfront property when its own "big one" hits. 

The CSZ last ruptured in 1700, according to oral history and proven by scientific investigation. It's overdue for another massive earthquake and the history-making tsunami that will follow. Geologists estimate there's a 90 percent chance of the CSZ letting loose within the next 40 years. Around here, folks don't say "if" there's an earthquake. They say "when."

It's times like this that make me compare the East and West Coasts. Eastern natural disasters are generally limited to things for which there is a warning period. "Blizzards" that are forecasted days in advance and just the sweetest little things by Plains, Rockies, and Sierras/Cascades standards, for example. Or hurricanes that may result in property damage but don't have to lead to the loss of life as long as people heed the preceding days of evacuation recommendations and orders. On the West Coast, in contrast, there are blizzards of eat-your-neighbor fame, warning-free, Pompeii-like volcanoes, and sneak-attack earthquakes like those on the CSZ.

The mentality of people who occupy this space seems to be focused on getting busy living. With several days or weeks of provisions laid away, the know-how and tools to fend for oneself, and the knowledge that the closer you are to the ocean, the more likely you are to be on the wrong side of a broken road, even if you do hear the tsunami warning. 

My dinner pals described the situation, as we sat at a picnic table in the backyard of the local greasy spoon, protected from the overcast skies by a simple tent canopy. The pictures they painted seemed somehow at odds with the full flavor of grass-fed burgers and farm-fresh veggies. 

The earthquake will come first. If it's not a huge amount of rumbling, it might be in Alaska, and that means only the real coastal area will get the tsunami. But it also means folks might not have any warning that it's coming. If the CSZ goes, it's anticipated to register over 9.0 on the Richter scale. People here don't seem to say much about that, but the fact is, most of the buildings for miles inland may well be heavily damaged, if not flattened. Fires and floods are likely. Roads will be broken and impassible. All infrastructure, from water to electricity to phone lines to fuel, is likely to be completely cut off. Buildings on the bluffs above the Pacific, along with the bluffs themselves, may simply cease to exist.

That's all before the tsunami hits. From the moment the ground stops shaking, the locals all know, they have no more than 10 minutes to get free of the inundation zone. For a major rupture of the CSZ, that's about 2.5 miles from the beach, or farther in flat spots. Now think about everything that's happened during the earthquake. A car may be useless. So, dig out from whatever you're trapped in or under, hope you're not injured, and run two-and-a-half miles overland, through sand, sloughs, rivers, forests, blackberry brambles and scrub roses, up and down hills ... in 10 minutes.

The sobering fact is, most people in the inundation zone won't get out. For those that survive the earthquake and tsunami, local emergency management guidelines recommend being prepared for at least two weeks entirely cut off from the outside world. On the best of days, these coastal towns are dependent on US-101 (the Oregon Coast Highway, part of the famed Pacific Coast Highway) for road transportation. The closest routes inland begin 15 or 45 miles north, or 45 miles south, on state highways that cross ravines and creeks on old bridges, tunnel through mountains, and eventually reach relative civilization along I-5 somewhere between Roseburg and Ashland. This is the place where helicopters and small planes will be critical for restocking food and providing access to medical care.

Until the ground starts shaking, though, the kiteboarding's great, the hiking and cycling are right out the door, and the views are spectacular. I say take your chances.

Feeling the Western Hospitality

That’s not gonna be pretty. The thought ran through my head as soon as I heard the tell-tale thunk of a semi-sizable rock smacking into my windshield. I was nearing the end of Day 2 of my transcontinental drive, just entering Indiana. I thought I was far enough behind the red pickup to be free of the rock zone, but I misjudged by about four inches.

The nickel-sized starburst in the lower corner of the passenger side window was a concern, but there was nothing I could do about it at 7 p.m. in Elkhart. By the following morning, however, my starburst had developed an 8-inch crack straight through it, one end of which proceeded to creep further along as I made my way to Minneapolis—again, a place I reached late enough that there wasn’t much to be done upon arrival.

Before leaving the city, I phoned a variety of repair shops, stopped in at one, and called no joy. My attention turned to the other end of the day, and I chased down a number for windshield repair in Bismarck. That’s when my luck began to change.

A lovely man named Dirk not only picked up the phone, but informed me that he couldn’t make the repair due to it being illegal to fix anything over six inches. Instead, he suggested I call the local Glass Doctor franchise—which I’d already tried, but whose phone seemed out of order. From my sweltering car in a Minnesota parking lot, I explained this to Dirk and asked if he might have the local number. He cheerfully pulled out his phone book and chased down the number for me. I called, but there was no message box, and I gave up.

My next call was to my insurance agent, who made sad noises and provided the number for the third-party glass claims processing company. After navigating through a bewildering series of options, I explained the whole situation, including my series of “passing through, not staying” cities. The representative's flat affect throughout the call was not reassuring. She connected me with another shop in Bismarck, but apparently didn't pass on any of the details, since the gentleman I spoke with told me that they’d be happy to replace the windshield—six days hence. This not being an option, he helpfully suggested that I call shops a few days ahead on my path and schedule something, since the glass would have to be shipped in. I hung up, wiped away the sweat pouring from my forehead, and decided to deal with everything at the end of the day’s drive.

So I was surprised, as I cruised I-94 about 15 minutes later, when a Bismarck number popped up on my phone. I fumbled to connect the speaker cord while watching traffic whip around me.

"Hi! This is Ben, at Glass Doctor in Bismarck. I'm sorry I didn't get to the phone when you called a while ago. What can I do for you?"

I explained that I didn't imagine he could do much of anything, as I would need a full windshield replacement and I was less than six hours away.

"I'm just placing my glass order now. It usually comes in around 10, so if you were here tomorrow morning, we'd have you on the road by 11. Where are you headed?"

"That might work. I'm headed for Bozeman tomorrow, so it's a bit of hike, but 11's not too late to get started ..."

Well. It seems that Ben in Bismarck was great friends with Austin at the Bozeman franchise, and had some fair amount of knowledge about how things worked at that shop. He immediately went into "fix it" mode, his voice animated and brain firing away. I was still driving along and had limited ability to take down a number or chase down the solution.

"If you don't mind, I'll just message him with the details and what's going on, and give him your number. He can get everything squared away out there and just call you back."

Ben was rapidly becoming my hero in shining windshield replacement. (I would later learn from a quick Google search that he was, in fact, the owner of the Glass Doctor in Bismarck, which explained the super-quick, solution-focused plan of attack.)

We hung up, with me offering profuse amounts of gratitude. About an hour later, a Bozeman number appeared on the screen.

"Hi, this is Brad from Glass Doctor of Bozeman! I understand you're headed our way and need a windshield replaced?"

He had all the details, all the information, and total clarity about my travel schedule. We chatted for a minute, filled in a couple of details about the specific car make and model.

"I can definitely have the glass in tomorrow, and I know you're not getting in until the end of the day. We're not usually open Saturdays, but I've already talked to the guys and they're all-in to get you fixed up if you can meet them here at 8 on Saturday morning. Shouldn't take more than an hour or so."

My verbal river of gratitude overflowed once again. We talked insurance and I made sure I knew what code they would need to process the work. He offered directions to the shop from the freeway, so I'd know which of Bozeman's three exits to take and how simple it would be to find the shop. When we clicked off the call, I felt totally at ease that the situation was under control and I need not concern myself with anything other than showing up at the right place at the right time, about 42 hours in the future.

Still, I was surprised. Under a bright blue sky, I gazed out over the open road and the golden North Dakota prairies and wondered: Who does that, anymore?

The next morning, somewhere between Bismarck and Billings, the answer struck me. I was back in the West. People here still look out for one another, in some cases simply as a matter of course. I could picture my dad in Nevada making a quick check of an installation or my grandpa in California jiggering with a neighbor's fencing. The news reports all day were about wildfires gobbling up acres of drought-parched land throughout Montana, and about the way residents throughout the state and from neighboring areas jumped to assist at an astonishing rate of speed and with overwhelming generosity. 

A cracked windshield generates nothing near a wildfire-level of concern. But boy, does it feel good when someone just says, "Hey! We got this."

Ode to an Empty House

“I am not moving again unless I have an incredible job opportunity or there is a guy involved … or I find out this place has an insurmountable rodent issue.” That was the promise I made myself eight years ago, sitting on the top step of the stairs that overlooked my newly inhabited, cathedral-ceilinged living room, which was at that precise moment stacked high with boxes and furniture. A small path gave me access to the kitchen.

I'd rented the small duplex in a quiet subdivision after giving life in the downtown core of a nearby city a try for almost two years. Before that, I'd spent my entire life in small towns and stable exurbs, so the city apartment had been an experiment—an effort to venture outside my comfort zone in some small way. A few months earlier, an evening drive had led a friend and I past a cityscape of lights that triggered a description of his many-times-larger hometown. He absorbed city energy like battery power, thriving on the people and the pace. And, despite leaving the area, he'd become the voice in my head that urged me toward new experiences and broad horizons.  

So for two years, I called a second-floor flat in Little Italy home. I could peer out on the local coffee shop and buildings that made it halfway to gentrification before the owners’ funds ran dry. Out one side of the building was the Catholic Youth Center's paved basketball court and, further down the block, a convenience store that doubled as a drive-through for the local drug trade. Out the other side was a half-block-long apartment building inhabited by various portions of one family, in the shade of the looming grey stone Catholic church, where I parked my car on street-cleaning days, or when one more slow spin past the convenience store would have served as an invitation.

As my lease there drew to a close, I accepted two things. First, I was in the wrong city for me, assuming there was a right city for me. And second, fanciful thinking wasn't getting me too far in a practical sense, although it inspired courage and daring. The voice in my head had grown fainter, but I still heard it when it mattered. 

I looked to move closer to work, where I might pay a bit more in rent but would cut down on commuting time and gas money. I wanted a garage, so I could avoid unearthing my car from feet of compacted snow several times each winter. I wanted a yard with some grass and space to hang out. So I took the very adult step of having a realtor—a former coworker—help me find a suitable rental in my price range. It still held the original 1970s kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures and fittings, but it was freshly painted, with new carpeting and a recent appliance upgrade. And the landlord seemed pleasant enough.

For the first time, I took a week off work and paid movers—which was an excellent decision—and proceeded to move in. It was about Day 2 when I made my stairway promise to myself, in a calm and measured moment taken to prevent a complete melt-down at the thought of trying to unpack and arrange everything while taking unnecessary conference calls from the job from which I was supposed to be off. 

Over the last eight years, the house did exactly what it was supposed to do. My lovely wee place saw me through paying my way entirely out of debt—and back into it with graduate loans. It nursed me through one serious surgery and a few hardcore sunburns. It was a cozy home base through a change in jobs, a shift to self-employment, all of graduate school, two years of pipe band competitions and four years back on the instructor side of music. It was a cave to crawl into while I made new friends, parted ways with a few old ones, planned new adventures, considered the voice in my head and the value of fanciful thinking, and contemplated how far courage can take me.

Last week, rooms slowly but surely returned to their plain white walls and tan carpets—clean, blank canvases for a new resident. I packed more than I should have, lacking time to properly sort through and donate all of the things I’ve carted from place to place through the years. I enjoyed my final few nightly visits with the bunny wabbits who make a summertime salad of the weedy lawn. My running away was rapid, at the end. Less a measured and calm move and more a fleeing from the scene, on to the next adventures with time a constant threat. 

I had, after all, kept my promise for all that time and broken it right at the end. There's no amazing job awaiting me, just an evolution of the career path I've chosen and a chance to get some substantial research done. There is no particular guy inspiring a move, at least as far as I know. And the rodents all stayed outside for the duration. 

So leaving felt a little like walking away from an old friend who’s cheered me on. Whispering, through every small scuff on the walls, through the gaps in paint where a contractor freshened up around the furniture, through the creak of the subfloor in the upstairs bathroom.

I took a minute in the car, sitting in the driveway, to say thank you. I found the last track from an old children's album, a sweet prayer preceded by the familiar voice of William Sears reminding me that, "If there were no goodbyes, there could be no hellos." And with that, I backed out of the driveway and drove down the street in the summer sun.

Voyage of the Empire Service

“Is this the train to New York?” The voice behind me on the escalator was tentative, although we were already on our way down to the platform in Albany. My colleague responded faster than I could. “I sure hope so!”

Chuckles met in the open air. Why one of the northernmost Amtrak stations—the eighth-busiest in the country, the expert barista who always seems to be working at the coffee shop will tell you proudly, his sweet smile shining from his chocolate eyes—has open-air platforms reminiscent of carports remains beyond me. 

Dragging her rolling bag behind her, wearing stretchy pants and a commemorative cycling t-shirt in vibrant pink, it was clear the quiet woman wasn’t among the blasé business travelers that make up most of the southbound traffic on this line at any given time on a weekday morning. 

She piped up again. “I’ve been told the right side is the best place to sit?” It was clear she wasn’t quite sure what reaction to expect from my colleague and I, who very clearly were among the blasé business crowd. Our laptop bags and large cardboard-sleeved espresso beverages gave us away—or perhaps our modestly heeled footwear, carefully selected jeans and slacks, and neatly layered tops and jackets—one dark and semi-edgy, the other predictably office-like.

“Well, you can see the water.” My colleague was friendly, but she rarely looks up on this train ride, after years of riding into The City at all hours of day and night. 

“It is. … Is this your first time?” I took a closer look at this woman, older than I, the sort of slight person who always appears uncertain. Her expression said she didn’t want to miss out on the sights. A small nod in reply. 

We boarded, cattle into the chute, funneling in response to the conductor’s bellow. “New York Penn! All the way forward!”

I kept an eye on the woman in pink. Saw her settle a few rows behind my own window seat and re-acquire her traveling companion, another woman in the official dress of the leisure traveler. 

As the flow of bodies ceased, I wandered back, squatted down in the aisle next to her, and offered a bit of advice. “The reason they told you to sit on this side is because you’ll be right on the river, yes. But in about an hour and a half, you’ll have a wonderful view of West Point.” Her eyes widened and her friend leaned in. “You’ll be looking across the river at it. It’s grey stone and looks like a prison or a fortress on the hill, sticking out in to the water. That’s the landmark people seem to really love.”

“Oh, thank you!” Both of them beamed. Thirty seconds out of my day, the same travel tip coworkers shared with me many years ago. The same landmark I’ve watched for on every trip since. 

***

It’s strange, the contemplation of leaving. This is very likely the last trip I’ll take to New York City on the Empire Service, which rolls across from the Niagara border crossing and hooks a hard right at Albany to follow the Hudson down to Manhattan, or the Ethan Allen that moves down from Vermont, or the Adirondack that ferries people south from Montreal once a day.

I’m sure to be in The City again plenty of times—a place a friend referred to, fairly accurately, as my “least favorite place on earth” in a text last night. But I’m more likely to be coming in on a different line, or by air. 

And I’ll be in Albany and Saratoga every now and again. By car or by plane, in all likelihood. 

But the reality of my upcoming adventure is settling in. 

I’ll miss the excited tourists with wide eyes, taking in the history that permeates this part of the world—a history that every child in the U.S. learns from their earliest school days. My work trip today involves a portion of the Smithsonian Institution—a name I learned in reading my grandparents’ books and spouted off on sight when I spied it in my second-grade reading text in a classroom in western Nevada. West Point is where chains across the river stopped traffic during the Revolution—and where I went to football games and lawn concerts when I was in college, thanks to a dear friend’s military passes. 

It’s funny, though. Home? Everywhere I’ve been feels like part of the definition. Saratoga. Ticonderoga. Fairfield. Halifax. Sacramento. Houston. And, as always, “If you follow the old Kit Carson Trail / ’til the desert meets the hills / oh you certainly will agree with me / it’s the place of a thousand thrills ..."

Do You Know Mr. Khanjani?

The time has come! I'm now scheduling interviews across the U.S. and Canada for late July through late September with people who knew Jamaloddin Khanjani. If that describes you, and you're willing to talk with me, please watch the video below and contact me.

If I can't meet you in person during my summer road trip, we can chat by Skype or Facetime. Please also share this post with your friends and family members who may have known Mr. Khanjani, and who are now living in countries where they are able to speak freely.

Curious about how I started writing about this particular man at this particular time? Watch Why Tell This Story? at the bottom of the book description.

(And if you don't know Mr. Khanjani personally and you don't speak Persian, you can still be involved! Watch How to Help for details.)

Hitting the Highway With #ProjectRoadWork

Over the last month, whenever I've told anyone what I'm planning, I've expected to hear, "Have you lost your mind?" So far, though, every single person has either responded with excitement and delight, or asked me if I'm excited. The answer to that is, "Yes, sort of. And also terrified."

That's because I'm veering off the traditional, pseudo-settled, and adult path. In fact, I'm hurtling off the merry-go-round in a way I couldn't have begun to imagine even a year ago, let alone two or three. 

You see, good stories, like lives well lived, demand some risk.

From the moment I decided to write Mr. Khanjani's story, I've begun to grow accustomed to throwing everything into the air and trusting that it will come down where it should. (If you now have the old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," running through your head, I'm right there with you.) 

So far, that approach has worked out just fine. Masters degree: done. Gainfully employ oneself: done. Pursue health: working on it. All of these things have required forethought and flexibility, of course. But in general, each one has set up the next, and a certain amount of trust, prayer, and gut instinct has led me in what seems to be the right direction. Robert Frost would be proud. 

Now it's time to push the envelope. In order to finish the first full draft of the book and start pitching agents before the end of this year, audacity is required. So, in just a few weeks, I'll be embarking on a two- or three-month road trip around the U.S. and southern Canada to interview people who knew Mr. Khanjani, beyond the individuals with whom I've already spoken. While I may still have to make a few targeted trips after that, or conduct a few interviews over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, this will put me in a very good place to round out the story.

That might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, until you realize that I'm doing it without a net. I'm putting all of my worldly goods into storage and even selling or giving away a few things. After eight years in one place, I'm letting my lease expire. And I'll be working from the road with a few select clients. Thank goodness for Airbnb, Hotel Tonight, Priceline, and friends with couches.

What happens next? Well, I'm hoping that somewhere along this transcontinental jaunt, I'll find someplace I might like to live or someone who inspires me to stick around for a while. This is lifetime move number 21 for me, if I counted correctly, and I'd like to make sure there's a point to it. So as I'm writing, working, and exploring the continent, I'll be trying to keep my eyes and heart open (a challenge!), while also investigating fallback locations near oceans. 

At the moment, my soundtrack is Lauren Alaina's "Road Less Traveled." For an introvert with a shy streak and only half a plan, it's a good anthem.

Now, for the hashtag. At the prompting of my classmate and pal Karalee, who ran away from home and embarked on "Project Friend" a couple of years ago, this combined research trip and quest now has a name. "Project Interviewing People With Accents" is way too long, so #ProjectRoadWork it is. Yes, I'm working from the road. More importantly, I'm accepting that both book and life are under construction this summer.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

9 Notes From a New MFA

During my latest 14-hour drive home from Halifax, and the last drive of its kind for some time to come, I got to thinking about what I've learned over the last two years. I think I was lucky, in that I approached the process of getting my MFA as something of a lark and a means to an end, so I didn't have any particular preconceived notions or expectations about the experience. I was free to ride the tide and see what happened along the way. Here is some of the flotsam and jetsam I picked up, both in the classroom and out, from my mentors and instructors, my classmates, and myself.

1. Murder Your Darlings. Every writer has heard this at some point in time. It's easy to fall in love with a specific turn of phrase, even when it just doesn't work for some reason. So it has to get the red line of death in the editing process. After a couple decades writing for hire, I rarely have darlings on the page and tend to be very open to suggested edits. So in my case, this takes a different meaning, which is: Understand when to let go of your grand plans, whether for research, structure, or purpose, and just let the current take you along to wherever you should be.

2. Find Your People. The idea of a writing community is a critical one. Most research and writing is done in a fairly solitary state out of necessity. But the improvement of the words on the page depends on exposure, inspiration, and conversation. Having a writing group nearby is a great idea; not always possible, but advantageous. And when it's difficult in person, it's certainly an option remotely, as my classmates and I have learned over the last two years. Whether we've cheered each other's successes, celebrated personal events, or commiserated in writerly angst, we've all had one another's backs and will, no doubt, continue to do so in the years to come.

3. Money Opens Doors. Let's be honest: An MFA is really expensive, and if someone thinks it's a one-way ticket to fame, they're delusional. That said, the degree serves three purposes, as I see it. First, it's terminal, so it indicates a level of accomplishment that can serve as the foundation to teach at the university level; a useful option for someone cobbling together income streams. Second, it can offer the nudge an agent or editor needs to take a look at your work; the expectation is that you have spend time and money improving your craft and may generate a higher-quality product. And third, for those of us who already write professionally in one capacity or another, the MFA provides validation of the practical skills we've developed; it's an acknowledgement of the value and quality we provide on a daily basis.

4. Start a Project. Just start. A book's structure may be reworked endlessly, or the voice shifted midstream. The research may be a beast (mine is) or the apparent path to completion may hit a snag. But the first step is to grab a hunk of clay and start working it. Even if your project is only tangentially related to your goal, it still counts. For example, while working toward her MFA and writing her book, one classmate moved to a new city and set herself the goal of stalking (erm, that's making) friends. Fodder for the book? Yes. Ultimately a much larger framework for living? You betcha. In my case, my new endeavor is #ProjectRoadWork ... details on that soon! 

5. Remember to Laugh. If there is one thing that characterized my MFA experience, it was laughter. It's very easy to take oneself and one's efforts way too seriously. High art. Serious literature. Profound issues of humanity. They're all parts of the conversation. However, the minute you buy into the hype is the minute you become insufferable to yourself and others. Laugh. At the difficulties of research. At the absurdities of academia. Even, as a cathedral full of people did last week, at the questionable Latin of a graduation ceremony. Laugh with joy at the company of compatriots. Laugh with pleasure at the sound of locals and come from aways alike singing sea shanties at a post-graduation kitchen party. Just laugh.

6. Place Does Matter. On one hand, this applies to my place as a writer and my place geographically. I promised myself when I started my MFA that I would not move until I finished it, so that I could control my living expenses. On the other hand, this also applies to the location of my MFA program. I don't know if all low-residency students have the benefit of such a warm cocoon when they are in session. For me, Halifax has become as much my place as anywhere else I've been. In fact, I trooped my parents up to Nova Scotia so they, too, could get a feel for this port city at the edge of Atlantic Canada. My educational experience is inextricably tied to my experiences at Canada's oldest chartered university and in the city it calls home. I am very proud to say I took my MFA at the University of King's College and Dalhousie University ... in the summers, while consuming copious amounts of seafood and Propeller ginger beer. 

7. Always Keep Learning. It's easy to convince ourselves that we know all we need to know at a certain point. Taking my MFA after establishing myself in my career was a wonderful reminder that learning keeps us sharp and bright and ever so much more interesting, both in our own minds and to others we may meet. It was a grand opportunity to spend time with people who shared a thirst for knowledge. At the moment, one of my classmates is serving with a nongovernmental organization in Myanmar. Another is recovering from heart surgery. One just got engaged. Others are plodding through information dug up from Afghanistan and Japan. And those are just the ones who didn't make it to graduation.

8. Believe In Yourself. One of the questions we answered (repeatedly) over the last two years was, "Why are you the person who should write this book?" We each needed to be able to explain exactly what made our take on our subject unique. As a side effect, we all gained clarity about why we'd chosen our topics, how we were approaching them, and why our voices were important. This whole writing process is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I'd venture to say that if you truly can't come up with a reason why you're the right person to write your book, you're probably the wrong person for that book. Once you answer the question, though, don't look back. You know what you can do; move on to believing what you will do.

9. Adventure Begets Adventure. Perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that earning the parchment is not the end of anything, but the beginning. In fact, the process of taking the MFA has the potential to open your mind to any number of things, from professional pathways and specializations to personal opportunities and relationships. The trick for me, now, is to keep surfing from adventure to adventure as long as the inspiration holds!

What Makes You Think?

The last week has been a serious test of mettle, mind, and my composure. It's also been a wonderful reminder of things that matter and several that make me think.

The things that mattered included the simple joy of taking in great art with good company, the infectious optimism of seeing two souls and two families come together in a perfectly personalized wedding, and the assurance and calm of doing something confidently and well.

The things that made me think? Well, they're a little more diverse. And presented here with links for exploring:

  • Indian Tacos. I spent the defining portion of my childhood out west, where my classmates were as likely to be Mexican-American, Mexican, or Paiute, as they were to be of European extraction. And Indian Tacos were fair food, somewhere outside one of the barns, with multiple vendors razzing each other over the crowd in a battle for customers. Health food, they are not. But they made me think about the exposure to various cultures that's been a constant in my life, and what a rare view that's provided. And, in fact, that I need to seek out more of that diversity in the coming months and years.
  • Come From Away. This is the noun used in Atlantic Canada to describe a person who is not native to the region (or the specific city or town). It's also this year's surprise Broadway success, with seven Tony nominations including Best Musical. The story of the "plane people" who descended on Gander, Newfoundland, on 9/11 and the pure response of the locals is full of heart, overflowing with Canadian humor of the Red Green variety, and set to music that can't help but get feet tapping. It got me thinking about the small acts of service that add up to huge changes. Something else I need to seek out.
  • Robots. What, me, thinking techy? Actually, yes, this is one of those fields that I find super interesting when it's paired with potential impact on the world. So, when I boarded the train on Monday evening, I kicked back to watch the sunlight dancing on the Hudson and listen to an hour (Episode 1) of a new tech podcast. I can follow big thoughts pretty well, but I don't naturally dream up the what-ifs that are inventors' and philosophers' stock in trade. A friend of mine was the podcast's inaugural guest, and his brain does work that way, which is equal parts inspiring, mind-blowing, and challenging (not difficult, but rather, bucking the status quo). So not only did I get to think about the current state and potential of artificial intelligence, but about the vast potentialities that are latent all around us until someone's mind starts clicking away.
  • The Last Kingdom. This British drama traces the (real-life) formation of England through the experiences of a (fictionalized) Saxon-born, Danish-raised warrior. Its second season recently arrived on NetFlix and I have now seen it all. I like historical "stuff." I find this period in British history super intriguing (300 years after the reign of the historical King Arthur). And I'm a sucker for a really good love story. Enter the sub-plot between Erik, the ostensibly bloodthirsty Viking kidnapper with a soft side, and Aethelflaed, the strong princess of Wessex kidnapee fleeing domestic violence. Okay, so perhaps I've been using this more for not thinking. Still, if you can stand constant swordfights, close-quarters bloodshed, and treachery, the characters are sufficiently complex to keep the storylines moving along. And that's fairly rare these days.

What's gotten you thinking lately?

9 Years Behind Bars

Over this coming weekend, Mr. Khanjani will mark the ninth anniversary of his arrest, along with his colleagues. This week, I ask you to do something for them, so that maybe the atoms that surround us all will carry echoes of you into the halls of Rajai Shahr and Evin and, perhaps, they'll know they are not forgotten. 

Here are some ideas:

  • If you're a U.S. citizen, take five minutes this Friday, May 12 to call your Representative and your Senators in their Washington, D.C., offices. Ask them to support Iran’s Bahá’ís by cosponsoring House Resolution 274 or Senate Resolution 139 if they haven't already done so (or thank them, if they have). To learn about the resolutions and how to reach your elected officials, visit the Office of Public Affairs website for the Bahá’ís of the United States. Share with your friends and hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you're a writer, write a blog post about the important things that you've done in the last nine years and what you would have missed if you'd been put in prison for believing whatever you believe. Explain why you're posting it now. Hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you're a musician, spend five minutes listening to "Forgotten" by Grant Hinden Miller and let it inspire you to write or compose or perform your own message of encouragement. Share it around and tell people why you're doing it. Hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you pray to a higher power or meditate in a more humanist approach, add Iran’s Bahá’ís to your prayers or your heart's intentions. Light a candle. Write a prayer request.
  • If you have two minutes free in your day, wherever you are, step out into the open air, feel the sun and breeze against your skin, turn toward Iran, and speak their names with love and hope: Mahvash. Fariba. Vahid. Afif. Saeid. Behrouz. Jamal.

You may not think they can hear you. That behind prison walls, they'll never know your heart is beating in time with theirs. But they will. It's amazing how far a little bit of love can reach.

Mr. Khanjani (Jamal) taught me that a long time ago. And he doesn't even know it. 

How Escapism Fuels Creativity

I thought about titling this, "Teen Vampires Are My Spirit Animal," but that seemed a little too much, even for me. In recent weeks, though, my entertainment viewing has almost exclusively comprised all eight seasons of The Vampire Diaries ... and I'm now well into the second season of The Originals. Bear with me. I swear there's a point to this.

After I sent in my last MFA assignment a month ago, I took a very short, but deep breath. Then I started making lists. What comes next professionally. Geographically. Physically. Spiritually. In research. In writing. What I have. What I want. Who I hope to find. What adventures I seek. 

Of course, in no time, the immediate priority bubbled up, and it was good, solid work. So the lists sat. I made a little progress on one thing or another, but without passion or direction. Part of that was just the inevitable easing of focus at the end of a two-year endeavor. And part of it was that I didn't let myself truly relax, knowing that I have a brief vacation coming up soon enough.

My brain seemed hyper-aware and never off. In an effort to slow the roll, while tackling administrative tasks or in spare moments at the end of the night, I turned to NetFlix and the allure of supernatural dramas with no redeeming social value. As in, most of the plot lines feature a few deadly sins and several that may not be deadly, but sure ain't good. Plus skewed loyalty, odd interpretations of love, and seriously maladjusted family dynamics. Also romance, chivalry, and somewhat cracked fairy tales.

The technique did its job. Even through such a busy time (which is nowhere near its end), I've been able to snag glimmers of inspiration. Solutions to writing challenges in the book have come to mind here and there. Thoughts about how I'd like to tailor my professional life. Ideas for how to make my next brief step into the nomadic life. By letting at least part of my brain flit off into the stories on screen, I freed up a little bit of creative battery power.

It was only after I met up with two of my high school friends (one of them actually goes all the way back to fifth grade) for dinner last weekend that I realized why the televised undead, specifically, seemed to generate that response. Between the chicken flautas and the hysterical laughter over a nesting duck, it occurred to me that my friends and I had much more in common with our younger selves for those few hours than we did with our everyday lives. There was something freeing about that, as much as there was in the perpetual youth of the vampire crew.

I read so often about people taking long breaks to reset their minds and refocus their creative energy. I absolutely agree that's valuable and ideal. I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at the opportunity to relocate to beachfront property with no responsibilities for an extended stay. But for me, and for most people, that's not exactly a practical or realistic option at any given time. We find ways to mimic the effects of a physical escape by taking a mental one and reaping the rewards. And when prayer or meditation is already in one's bag of tricks, one's mental escape may involve weeks of TV vampires. It's all good.

When It Rains, It Pours

I should have remembered. Over the last month or so, I've thought of that phrase numerous times and pictured myself thumping my head against my desk. The subject of my should-have? That the second quarter of the calendar year is bananas for freelancers of all sorts.

This is something I realized last year. Just as my spring MFA term wound down, assignments and requests flooded my inbox. April, May, and most of June remain a blur of projects and activity. At the time, I couldn't put my finger on why that was so. Now, I can.

I work at the intersection of two types of work. One involves articles and interviews that go on year 'round, but have a special sort of uptick in the last half, or last quarter, of clients' fiscal years as they are trying to justify the next year's budget requests. The other includes large-scale content strategy and development projects that typically get started, after some form of RFP or bidding cycle, in clients' second fiscal quarter, before their budgets are depleted.

Most of the first type of clients don't work on a calendar fiscal year. And most of the second type do. Making April through June and, to a slightly lesser extent, July through September, prime time for the self-employed and strategi-creatively minded.

From the freelance perspective, that translates to a state of being that can best be described as "make hay while the sun shines." In other words, work can become nearly all-consuming while it's abundant and available, because there is no guarantee that the phenomenon will reoccur. It's a very good challenge for me to have, since it means I can plan to take research trips that feed the book at other times of the year, under far less stress. 

This year, though, I'm also doing my best to keep a healthy focus on the rest of life even during this busy time. Some things do matter much more than work. After all, without a healthy body, an enriched spirit, and a little bit of emotional magic, what are we working for? 

'With Fire We Test the Gold'

Fire has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because my neighbors have been burning leaves and I've been wondering when an errant spark will bring down the entire pine-encrusted neighborhood. That idea never occurred. No, I've been thinking about fire in a figurative sense. 

That is, fire as a metaphor. Over the last couple of years, as I started taking bigger and bigger risks, I realized that I've come to relish the times when I might get burned. They're not always pleasant. In fact, they can be scary and make me question what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, who it's serving, and whether I've gotten myself in over my head. 

They're a lot like the sessions when my trainer bumps up the intensity of my workouts. I suddenly find myself doing shoulder presses with a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand and struggling to push through 10 reps on the fifth circuit. Or I'm holding a low plank position and shaking like mad by the time 40 seconds has passed. In those moments, the signs of weakness show me that I'm building strength.

It's the same way with spiritual, emotional, educational, professional, financial, or other types of tests. Sometimes, I've found, it's actually best to light a fire and just see how I handle it.  

The title of this post comes from a Baha'i quote: "With fire We test the gold, and with gold We test our servants." It's a metaphor for the relationship between spiritual and material realities. In a physical sense, fire is used to test and refine the purity of gold as a precious metal. In a spiritual sense, this material life is used to test and purify the character of a human soul. In both senses, as I understand it, the goal is to emerge from the test stronger.

That perspective gives the process of facing challenges such purpose that I find it hard to get bogged down by difficult things. Acknowledging they're difficult is fine. But staying stuck in that place holds no allure. Everywhere I look, it seems I'm finding confirmation that it's time to press onward, whether in this fire analogy, in the metaphor of a gardener pruning plants to improve their growth and future yield, or in real world acceptances, rejections, and communications.

Standing in the fire is a very good place to be.

PS: Funny coincidence, but if you're looking for an actual fire-related thing this week, bookmark Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir, launching this fall. The author, Aaron Williams, has a direct, wry voice that is sure to make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. No tangents of unnecessary literary decoration. Just straight-up, solid writing about real people doing real things in the real world. Aaron's been my classmate in the University of King's College MFA program these last two years, so I'm super excited to see this hit the shelves!

The Joy of Opposable Thumbs

Technology  and I are usually fairly good friends. After all, I am kind to my electronics. You never know when they might stage a revolt and take over the world, though. In my case, that revolt is currently in progress. 

It all started last Monday, when I was working away on the last set of revisions on the last chunk of material I needed to turn in for my Master of Fine Arts, so that next month, some lovely folks from Dalhousie and the University of King's College can hand me a pretty parchment. At the same time, I was doing some initial planning for what promises to be a busy few months of freelancing. 

All of of a sudden, my faithful and long-lasting computer ground to a halt. And I mean, full stop, not playing, restart me or bid adieu to anything getting done.

Only it wouldn't restart. Two days of severely hampered workarounds and frustrating visits to electronics and hardware stores later, I had a snazzy new computer on order. You can't buy a snazzy computer at the local Apple Store anymore, I learned. You have to order anything above the basic option online. That part was easy. I wandered off to borrow a friend's spare laptop for the week or two until my new space gray beauty arrived. 

My cheerful acceptance was ruined when my credit card company declined the charge for the computer. Sent me a text message asking if I meant to spend such an obscene chunk of money. YES, I chose from the menu. They sent me an email asking the same thing. YES, I chose from the menu. Still, the charge wasn't accepted ... and my card was restricted.

Saturday, a phone call theoretically should have led to an accepted charge. But it didn't. Yesterday morning, a phone call had the same result. Still, the charge was rejected again in the afternoon. I called again. The card company called Apple. No one knows why the charge wasn't going through. Long story short, Apple had to cancel the order and create a new one. My fingers are crossed that it actually arrives.

In the meantime, I'm using a borrowed computer for work things and my phone for quick email checks and typing this blog post. 

The whole thing has been a good reminder that the more our world relies upon technology, the more vulnerable we are to the complete disintegration of industries when that technology fails. Not just the computer that spit the bit, but the financial and commerce systems that can't communicate with one another. Certainly a big thing to ponder, especially for someone who has a foot in both worlds. 

That's why, today, in the midst of workarounds, I'm giving thanks for opposable thumbs, wall calendars, planners, and patience. 

I Have No Haft-Sin

No, the correct response to that title is not gesundheit. Bear with me and I'll explain. Sunset on Sunday evening marked the end of the 19-day fast and the coming of Naw-Ruz. In Persian, that means "new day," but it's actually the start of a new year. Lots of Baha'is and friends from around my area, just like our counterparts all over the world, got together to celebrate, break the fast together, and enjoy good company.

I'm always a little amused by Naw-Ruz. The celebration dates back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Over a couple thousand years, in Iran, it's become largely a secular, cultural event. Then, a little shy of two centuries ago, Baha'u'llah reinvested the holiday with spiritual significance. In fact, the Baha'i calendar used worldwide marks the new year according to the spring equinox in Tehran. (This makes perfect sense to those of us in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, it means that the new year starts at the beginning of fall.)

It's no wonder that folks get discombobulated. I've been especially aware of that this year. Given the social climate in the United States, many people are showing a renewed interest in learning about different countries and cultures, with Iran at or near the top of the list. For the last week or two, my social feeds have been inundated with articles and videos describing the Persian cultural holiday and its Zoroastrian roots, from the fire-jumping a few days in advance to cleanse away the old year, to the traditional herb-laden foods, to the visiting of relatives and friends.

And then there is the haft-sin, a charming, but ultra-specific, cultural tradition. If you speak Persian, then it all makes sense: a tabletop display of seven items, all beginning with the Persian letter sin, that represent characteristics and wishes associated with the new year. Sprouts growing in a dish for rebirth. Wheat germ pudding for fertility. Dried olives for love or coins for wealth. Garlic for health. Apple for beauty. Sumac for sunrise or hyacinth for spring. Vinegar for patience. Thank you, Wikipedia and NPR.

But that's not all. Oh no. Depending on your preferences, you might add to the display. A holy book of your choice. A book of Persian poetry. Goldfish (for life; just keep swimming). A mirror (for creation). Fire or a lamp. Candles or photos of loved ones or ancestors to remember. Cypress or pine. Painted eggs. Pomegranate. Wheat (in or out of bread). Water (possibly housing the goldfish). Sweets (could be nuts, could be candy, could be double-chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles ... I'm just saying ...).

Martha Stewart and her ilk have nothing on Persians constructing a haft-sin. Multi-level. Rustic. Refined. Colorful. Muted. Minimalist. Extravagant. These are annual works of art, days or weeks in the planning.

As far as the Baha'i celebration of Naw-Ruz goes, the spiritual one that we all celebrate, all over the world? None of the above applies. By design, the Baha'i Faith is free of rituals and ingrained traditions. The closest things we have to "rituals," in my opinion, are a marriage vow, a prayer for the dead, postures associated with daily obligatory prayers, and two attitudes of respect at the shrines in the Holy Land. All of those can easily be practiced, regardless of culture. I can hear you now: Really? Yes, really. But my Persian friends who are Baha'is... Did you hear what you just said?

Of course Baha'is who are Persian often bring their cultural traditions to Naw-Ruz celebrations. I eagerly waited for a dear friend to post photos of her haft-sin this year, since she always designs something inventive, beautiful, and multidimensional. Like most of my friends who create their own displays, there is often a twist that reflects her Baha'i identity as much as her Persian roots. The seven central items are the same. But the holy book might be the Kitab-i-Aqdas or the Hidden Words, or a simple prayer book. The book of poetry is as likely to be by Tahirih, or by Mahvash Sabet, as it is by Hafez. The photos might be of Abdu'l-Baha or Mirza Mihdi. 

Baha'is who are not Persian? Not so much with the Naw-Ruz revels. Instead, other cultural traditions turn up at different times of the year. Making and frosting cookies or gingerbread structures at Ayyam-i-Ha. Or, as my mother does, leaving up white twinkly lights to enjoy during the early mornings of the Fast. People celebrate in ways that are true both to their faith and their culture or personal preferences.

So. I have no haft-sin. But I do wish you and yours a very happy Naw-Ruz! May all good things come your way in the new year!

'Your Friends Have Weird Names'

Over pad thai and sushi one night last week, I caught up with a couple of friends for the first time in ages. As we do, we swapped stories about work, and house renovations, and whatever else was new. If we told our stories well enough, we could get the most elegant of the crew to snort with laughter. Everyone has to have a goal.

In any case, while my friends devoured a salmon, cream cheese, and scallion roll, I filled them in on an event I attended recently. Between fits of giggles and demands to see video evidence, one of them blurted, "Your friends have weird names," and then proceeded to list two or three I'd just mentioned. She wasn't being at all judgmental, just expressing her honest perspective: my friends' names are ones that don't categorize neatly for her. 

It's not the first time a friend with a common European name has said exactly that. But it always reminds me of two things. First, as a Baha'i, I've always been surrounded by people from many different backgrounds. And second, even within my own overlapping circles, people can go years without ever meeting someone whose culture is distinct from their own. 

I think, depending on a person's experiences, it's easy to think of names following certain protocols. That's even more true in languages where traditional names take masculine and feminine forms. Trying to apply the standards of one culture to the names in another culture is where the "weirdness" comes into play. It's something that worries me a bit about the book. Will people be able to get past the unfamiliar names? Or will they be too intimidated to see the fullness of the story?

Let's have some fun with this. When I hear Reza or Nima, I expect to meet men, but Taeko and Chiho? I expect to see women. Sanam is one of my favorite feisty little girls, but in a subtle twist, my friend Saman is a guy. Most of my friends named Leila pronounce it Laila, but one friend's daughter, Laila, sounds like Lila, and another friend's daughter, Lila, sounds like Leela. My cousin Alia sounds like Aleea, but my friend Aliea sounds like Ali-a. A friend's dog, Ruairidh, sounds like my cousin Rory. My friend Jiaer, a girl, sounds like a jar, the same way a friend's son, Cash, sounds like ... cash. My cousin Nathanael sounds like Nathaniel, but an acquaintance named Israel is Is-rye-el. These days, James could be a man or a woman, and Ashley shifted from a male name to a female one years ago.

Most of the men named John that I know say, "it's a family name," but at some point in time, the first John in their family was probably named after either John the Baptist or the apostle John, who is presumed to have written the gospel bearing the same name. In a similar way, every Tahirih I know can trace her name back to the mid-19th century Persian feminist and poet who was executed for following The Bab. And every woman named Lua I know is in some way named after the early American Baha'i, Lua Getsinger, an intrepid heroine whose nickname was a shortening of Louise Aurora. My friend Eric might think his name is normal, but at some point, a Viking had to explain his name to a Scot. I'll skip the phonetic spellings except to say that no one named Shyanne would have that name if the Cheyenne hadn't made their home on the Plains.

To me, a name is the same as a face. Each one is unique (even if a name is shared, it's still unique when attached to a person). Weird? Only if you think you're normal.

When Is Dinner in Australia?

"I'm fine most of the time during the Fast. I just can't do very creative things." A numbers-oriented professor friend lobbed this into the conversation over a potluck serving table a couple weeks ago. The chatter had turned to the ways various Bahá'ís dealt with the upcoming 19 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset. As his hand reached for the serving spoon to move a crunchy piece of tahdig from platter to plate, he looked up and met my glare ... I mean stare. "Oh. That's probably everything you do ..."

Perhaps it's not everything I do. But with the exception of some strategy work and a bit of editing, most of what I do falls into the creative side of things. While I, too, am usually fine during the Fast, the timing does present some interesting challenges to my usual routine.

My biggest hurdle isn't food. I'm a very light breakfast eater anyway, so it's hard for me to get up super early and inhale a feast before sunrise. Instead, I choose a specific morning menu of small amounts of protein-rich foods and plenty of water, and I stick to the same meal for the duration. Do I get hungry? A little. But no more than if I'd skipped lunch at one of my old office jobs.

No, my challenge is sleep. And this is where the creative issue comes into play. I normally head for bed between 11 and midnight, and get up between 7 and 8 a.m. During the Fast, I rarely get to sleep much earlier, but my alarm goes off between 5 and 5:30 a.m. I can try to stay awake and pound through all of my work early in the morning, but then my energy is used up by afternoon, when I still need it. I can eat quickly and try to catch another hour or two of sleep before really getting up for the day, but that pushes my day later. Or I can split my day into a morning shift and an evening shift, cutting short my night's sleep and trying to catch a nap in the afternoon if my schedule allows.

Throwing a wrench into things is the fact that I'm in the last month of my MFA studies, which means I would have been writing at night and in between professional assignments anyway.

All of this leads me to days like today. It's been dark and pouring rain since before sunrise. I'm up to my eyeballs in my book's sample chapters. Some portion of my core is staging a mutiny after yesterday's workout. I'm operating on too little sleep. And my uncertain schedule as a freelancer remains a constant.

This is definitely when I think to myself: terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And I think I'll move to Australia.

But then I wonder what time sunset is there and start dreaming of cheeseburgers with guacamole, and decide perhaps I do have enough creative gumption to just get on with things. Which I'll be doing right now.