JoAnn Gometz

Writing | Editing | Content Strategy

Find Your Family

The sonar ping from my phone snapped my head away from my computer screen one evening last week. I glanced at the text alert and grinned.

The string of emojis translated to: "Phone handset. Phone handset. Transistor radio. Analog TV. Typewriter. Film projector. VHS tape. 35mm camera. Floppy disk. Clamp. Apple watch. Computer monitor. iPhone. iPhone. iPhone. iPhone."

Without hesitation, I texted back: "Rose. Dragon. Gorilla."

The response came a few days later: "Analog TV. Apple watch. and Pink bow. Bed. Dancing twins. Cool sunglasses smiley. Nerd glasses smiley?"

I waited 48 hours and replied: "Mermaid. Heart with a bow. Snowman. Donut. Waving hand. Cool sunglasses smiley."

This might all make more sense when you know that my correspondent was a 12-year-old girl whom I have know since she was born. I've known her dad since we were both about 13, and her mom since we were in our mid-20s. My young emoji pal was the first child born into our gang of friends and, until her brother came along a couple of years later, we joked that all of her friends were over five feet tall. 

Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my mini-pal and her family at their home in Seattle. It was the first time I'd had a long visit with them since our crew of pals began popping off in different directions four or five years ago. In addition to their cross-country move, two other families headed out to Portland. One of the men moved to Africa, where he married and welcomed a son. Another family moved closer to home, but far enough away that visits require a plan. One of the women just married recently and moved into the deep woods of New England with her husband. The few who stayed local have kids, and homes, and priorities that are (as they should be) vastly different from what they were back when my emoji-happy buddy was a baby. 

Still, from minute one, when I stepped out of the car in a hilltop neighborhood in the Emerald City, I was back with my people. The kids were excited to show off new skills and new favorite places. And new texting capabilities. Their dad was thrilled to show off his office building. And their mom and I ran away for a day to wander the markets and sample the local delicacies and catch up on the kinds of conversations that deeply trusted old friends have when they reconnect, no matter how long it's been.

Since then, now and again, a string of emojis periodically appears on my phone. Just one of my kid-friends, saying hi. And I'm more than happy to send a hi right back. 

I was reminded of that this weekend, when another of those grand friends was in town briefly with her husband and girls. Over diner breakfasts, we skipped all of the small talk and got straight to the things that mattered. The color of skis. The state of their front-yard luge run. Help needed. Happy developments. Plans and planes and news of mutual friends.

Still another friend from farther back, just weeks ago, called on all of us from elementary and high school (now twenty- to thirty-mumble years back) in the final hours of her mom's life. Despite being on opposite sides of a continent, communicating by group messages, the waves of love and support that flowed that night were palpable. If we'd been in the same place, there's no doubt we would all have dropped everything to make food, sit in waiting rooms, or fiercely defend the family's space and time to gather themselves.

I have a few local friends who are my go-tos, and who will remain pals even if I take off for parts unknown. And no matter where I go, my gang of friends goes with me in heart and spirit, even if it takes years to see one another in person.

So, as I look ahead this year, it's the people who fit like that who are the ones I want to find. Wherever I go, I'll be looking out for the people who feel like family from the start. They're the ones who make a place worth being while you're there. And they're the ones who have your back, no questions asked, no matter where you go, down the road.

Some Words on Love

We've hit the point in the winter when my full attention is split between the seemingly endless list of big things I need to accomplish on every front, immediately if not sooner, and the awareness that the current layer of ice is likely to hang around until April. We've also hit Valentine's Day, a holiday with which I have a highly adversarial relationship. 

So, in light of that, my Valentine's Day gift to you comes in the form of just a few great words on love ... from people other than me.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.”
― Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

"I met in the street a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat was threadbare—there were holes at his elbows; the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul." — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

"If I love you, I need not continually speak of my love—you will know without any words. On the other hand if I love you not, that also will you know—and you would not believe me, were I to tell you in a thousand words, that I loved you." ― Abdu'l-Bahá

“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that—warm things, kind things, sweet things—help and comfort and laughter ...” ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

“As you wish ...” ― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

A Word About 'Mentoring'

About 10 years ago, give or take a few, I got an email from the head honcho in my office, which was one of three across the country that made up an ambitious, culture-driven marketing company. Two of my colleagues received the same message.

We were all women. We were all managers of teams and or task sets. We were all invested in what we did. And we were all acknowledged as valuable contributors in one way or another. 

We all, also, had no idea why we were being summoned to the principal's ... erm, chief strategy officer's ... office. We were pretty sure that none of us had done anything to jeopardize the health and well-being of the business. And none of us could recall having irked the same person or group of people in recent days. (We all routinely irked someone, just not the same someone at the same time.)

Together, our crew of 30-something females jogged up the steps to the glass-walled office above the bullpen in our retrofitted factory office building. One slim, high-strung, tall and blond, in conservative, very fashionable business wear. One strong, dark-haired, in a trendy casual outfit that belied her art career. And me, calmer, shorter, wider, and (never the clothes horse) likely in jeans and a sweater, because that's what I almost always wore.

Our CSO met us at the door. Then in his early or mid-50s, he bore a striking resemblance to an outdoor catalog model. Whip-smart, generous, ethically tough (and ruggedly masculine, athletic, and well-dressed), he no longer inspired awe among the three of us. We'd all been there for close to or just more than five years. And while we didn't always agree with his decisions, we certainly respected them and granted him a degree of trust that he'd earned by sharing the reasons for those decisions ... even the ones with which we disagreed.

With varying levels of grace, we dropped into the armchairs and sofas in his office. I teased the boss about knowing how meetings with no topic on 15 minutes notice were rarely good. He grinned and got right to the point.

The leadership team guarded the company culture with a remarkable level of zeal. Once a year, the entire staff, in all three offices across the country, took an exhaustive survey that gauged satisfaction and areas for improvement. The whole staff saw the results and the comments, every time. Staff volunteers joined managers and executives on task forces mandated to improve troubling situations or to investigate options and ideas. 

In the most recent survey, there had been a couple of comments about the lack of female leadership or mentorship. When the executive team got together to discuss the results, they looked around the table and noted that there was only one woman among the four or five faces. (The chief financial officer, widely respected as a brilliant financial mind, compassionate and dedicated team leader, talented triathlete, and all-around good egg.)

We nodded. In a growing company spread across two nonconsecutive time zones, the executive team was admirably small, with widening, cross-office circles of senior vice presidents, vice presidents, directors/managers, and specialists ranging from senior levels of experience to fresh-from-college assistants. 

Our fearless leader dove into the issue at hand. "Well, the executive team was discussing ideas about how to improve that situation. The idea of creating women's groups in each office came up. There was some thought that it might give women the opportunity to get to know one another better, to talk through challenges, mentor one another, build a network ..."

We three women assiduously avoided one another's eyes as we listened to the idea and the rationale for it. The one man in the room began to develop a mirthful twinkle.

"I said I wanted to talk to you three before something like that rolled out. There are a few others being consulted in the other offices, too. So, what do you think?"

"Fuck that!" 

"Yep. What she said."

"No fucking way." 

We all remained totally relaxed in our seats, a leg tucked up in the chair here, arms folded there.

"And that's why I asked the three of you!"

All four of us roared with laughter, exchanging understanding glances around the room. 

After the first reactions burst forth, our conversation turned respectful while remaining candid. All three of us thanked the CSO for asking our opinions and explained that we didn't just answer for ourselves, but for the women reporting to us. We expressed our gratitude that the C-suite had taken seriously the concerns in the survey and recognized the need for some level of attention that they, nearly all men, might be ill-equipped to provide.

Then, we pointed down to the open office space below. Of the 35 to 40 people at our site, only somewhere between four and seven were men, including the one speaking to us, and that stasis had existed for years, even with staff turnover. Every senior-level manager and all but one manager at our level, in our office, was female. One of the other offices skewed more male across all levels; the other was more evenly weighted. But in our office, the last thing we needed were more women exerting their personal opinions about professional growth.

All three of us explained that we wanted to learn from the people who did what they were doing best, whether they were women, men, or salamanders.

What we didn't want to do was to make institutional the unique challenges that often arose in a female-dominated workplace: cattiness, insecurity, a double standard for mothers and childless women, and the sense that senior women or entrenched peers sometimes felt threatened by forthright and rising talent. In short, we wanted those senior to us to advocate for and encourage us the same way we all tried to advocate for and encourage the women and men reporting to us. If anything, we explained, we actually found the executive team, men though they were, more invested in the unique talents and success of people at our level.

We also discussed the fact that we rarely noticed whether we had men or women on our teams, unless we were dealing with a client who disregarded the female team leads. We kidded our CSO about sitting at the table when we needed his backup. That's because, when we asked him to attend meetings with clients who responded better to men, he arrived smiling and suave. Then, he introduced us like rockstars and deflected every question posed to him to the team member best suited to answer it. It just so happened that every one of those team members were female.  

I don't agree with everything the man did. Nor everything the rest of that C-suite did. It would be nearly impossible for that to be the case! 

For me, personally, though, our CSO was quite possibly the first person in a leadership position who verbalized a challenge that I have always faced. In reviews from my peers, I sometimes ran across the word "condescending." I don't doubt for a minute that I may have, at times, sounded condescending (or even been condescending). More often than not, though, I was actively trying to avoid triggering that perception. 

That particular leader finally put together that his wife, an accomplished and respected university professor, also often faced the impression that she was "condescending." Having heard her speak, he'd realized that what he considered sounding "knowledgeable" and "authoritative" was what her reviewers (and mine) deemed "condescending." Therefore, while it was something to be aware of, there was only so much that I could or should change.  

By taking the opportunity to help me polish my rough edges and excel in the areas where I was naturally inclined, he helped me build a great deal of confidence and experience. His interest, guidance, and compassion have stuck with me.

I dislike the word "mentor," as a general rule, because it still implies an ongoing hierarchical relationship. I prefer "friend" or "colleague" or "compatriot." But whatever the name, the task is still the same. It's not just upon the student to learn, but upon the more advanced student to teach, and to open doors, and to support development.

I've tried to do that for the women and men who reported to me or with whom I interacted. Sometimes, I think I succeeded. A few years ago, a bright and very capable college intern was taking notes for me during a series of interviews with world-renowned scientists at a global corporation. I told her before we walked into the room that I wasn't introducing her as an intern, and that if she heard something that she thought needed more detail, she should ask a follow-up question. Months later, long after I'd forgotten the event, she gave me a note thanking me for making her feel like she was a real member of the team and belonged at her place at that table. 

With all of that history behind me, it's no wonder that a Facebook post this morning caught my attention. It announced a new initiative from Lean In called #MentorHer. It's a movement encouraging men to mentor and advocate for women in the same way they may mentor and advocate for other men.

It appears that an unanticipated, but predictable, ramification of the #MeToo efforts is that men in the workplace are avoiding one-on-one interaction with female colleagues and subordinates, out of fear that the situation will somehow be misconstrued. This does a great disservice to businesses as a whole and to women who may (as I did) rely upon their male colleagues to help them blaze their own trail.

Clearly, the answer isn't to shut women out of what's considered "normal" interaction. Instead, it's to become even more invested in the success of capable women in all fields. And, it's to change the idea of what "normal" is, so that it's no longer defined by gender, but by capacity, capability, and character. 

The Message Behind a Hard Roll

The man who stands outside my local gas station and convenience store is pretty unassuming. He wears what I think of as the day laborer's uniform. Scuffed old work boots. Baggy, faded blue jeans that have seen better days and cleaner circumstances. A grey sweatshirt with a hood pulled up around his face. A grey cargo parka that might once have been black, zipped up to mid-chest or so. And heavy, black, weather-resistant mittens on his hands.

Except, we don't have day laborers around here. There's no gang of working men hanging out in a local parking lot waiting for a construction crew or landscaper to stop by and pick up a couple of able bodies. Especially not in the snow, ice, and biting wind of a Northeast winter. 

What catches my attention about this man is that he's unflagging and unfailing in his manners and friendliness. He stands off to the side of the pavement, much closer to the garbage cans than the door. When you get out of your car, he nods, gives a small smile and says, "Good morning," or, "Good afternoon." Just being neighborly, it seems, like anyone around here would. 

If you've been friendly on the way in, then on the way out, he'll ask you if you have any change. "Do you have a dollar, miss? So I can buy a piece of pizza?" he might say. Or, "So I can buy something to eat?"

This man's eyes are tired. The kind of tired I've never felt. But if he's turned down, he still gives a gentle smile and says, "That's okay. Thank you. You have a good day!"

The fact is, the first time he asked me for a dollar, I was caught off guard. He's not in one of the usual panhandlers' haunts around town. And he doesn't have the practiced pathetic look of the group of people who work together to stake out the exits of the local grocery store parking lots. He's lucid, never chattering to himself and the air as some of the downtown homeless do.

Most people don't realize this about me, because I make snap decisions all the time. But when confronted by something unexpected, I react first and then, about a minute later, realize what someone actually meant, or that they were kidding, or that I could have done something different. It's a hazard, I think, of too much time on my own. It takes me a minute to register the dynamics of a situation. 

That's why, that first time, I didn't quite know what to do. I almost never carry cash unless I know I'll need it. I don't give money to panhandlers, ever. I'll buy or give someone what they need. But I won't hand off cash. So I said, "I'm so sorry," and, "I don't have anything," and away I went. Two minutes down the road, I realized I'd been holding my debit card in my hand. The card I'd just used to buy a sandwich for myself. 

This time, when I stopped off for a soda on my Saturday morning errand run, I returned this man's cheerful greeting on my way into the shop. And I was anticipating his tentative, "Miss ...?" on my way back to my car.

"Just let me toss these in here." My soda bottle and snack landed in the passenger's seat and I turned to step back up onto the curb.

"Do you have a dollar so I could get something to eat?" His eyes apologized, even as the words passed his few remaining teeth, sitting like tree stumps in his deep walnut face. His skin was unlined, but the salt-and-pepper scruff of hair under his hood told me he'd long since passed my age. 

"I don't. But I'll run in and get you something." I drew myself up straight and spoke happy, like I was running an errand for a friend. "What would you like to eat?"

He shuffled a step closer. His answer came quick. "Just a hard roll is okay. Thank you so much!"

For once, my brain was firing on all cylinders. The hard rolls from this local convenience chain are a staple of many a blue-collar lunch. They come already split and spread with butter or peanut butter. And I could immediately see three things they might have going for them. They're soft (so a man with few teeth could gum them). They're swathed in plastic wrap (so they could ride around in a pocket for a day or more). And they're cheap (so pride doesn't suffer too much when you ask for a hand).

I kept my gaze steady on his, my voice upbeat. "Are you sure? You wouldn't like a breakfast sandwich or something?"

"... I suppose that'd be alright ... a breakfast sandwich on a hard roll. Yes, please." 

Turning, I bounded back into the store. A minute later, I was in front of the cashier who'd just checked me out, plunking down the loot. One hard roll with butter. For later, I thought. One hot breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese on a hard roll. For now, warm and filling and soft enough for those teeth. And one bottle of water. Because that's an awful lot of bread to have without something to drink.

"All in a bag, please." I thought that might be helpful, if someone had to carry things for later. 

Back on the sidewalk, I handed the bag to the gentleman standing alongside the garbage cans. 

"There's a breakfast sandwich in there for now, and I got you a hard roll for later, And a bottle of water, too."

"Thank you so much ..." He took the bag and peered into it. "That looks good!"

"You're welcome! Enjoy it!" I was already headed toward my car as he gently put the bag down on top of a trash can. He was tugging off his mittens as I backed out of the parking space and gave him a cheery wave goodbye. He returned it, seeming almost surprised.

I don't tell the story because I want credit. A little food is the very least I can offer, now and again, when I pick up the clue phone that's constantly ringing. 

And I don't tell it because I want to point out the horrors of poverty. We all have eyes and we can all see people in need. We're also all aware that sometimes the "need" is a con. And more times, it's not. 

I tell it because that man standing on the curb with his polite manners and his gentle requests for just enough money to buy something to eat was one of the bright spots of my day. Because he had his wits about him. Because he was gracious. Because he had honor, even when he might have little else. 

How do I know that? If a man wanted a dollar to buy lottery tickets, alcohol, or cigarettes, he wouldn't answer so quickly when given the chance to have something to eat, as he'd asked. And he wouldn't ask for just a dollar.  

But a man with honor? He'd ask for a dollar, precisely. Because a buttered hard roll costs something like 99 cents.

Today, I Fell Down the Internet Rabbit Hole

An hour and a half ago, I sat down to write this week's blog. I had a vague idea for a topic, but then 90 minutes had passed and I'd learned fascinating things, none of which had to do with that subject at all. 

It's an occupational and a personal hazard. I work, for the most part, in some level of isolation and rely on the nifty network of online stuff for my research in nearly every facet of my professional life. So my likelihood of finding interesting tidbits is rather high.

Then there's the fact that I'm naturally incredibly curious and something of a knowledge sponge. Anything related to people, in fact, catches my attention. So my likelihood of finding tidbits interesting is also rather high.

And I'm likely to remember whatever bits of info I find, which leads to my friends asking, "How do you know this stuff?" often and in exasperated tones.

When I'm actually researching something, this willingness to follow a stream of questions comes in quite handy. I learn the coolest things that way. However, when I have to-dos to be done, it's not exactly a great use of time.

So, let me take you along with me on today's journey, just for fun. 

As I sat down to write today's post, I happened to be listening to Joe Tohonnie Jr.'s Apache Blessing and Crown Dance Songs. Which made me wonder who Joe Tohonnie Jr. is, for one, and what a crown dance is, for two.

That led to me reading "An Audacious Dancer's Apache-Navajo Mashup--and the Outcry That Followed." Which led me back to wondering what a crown dance is and what exactly Mr. Tohonnie's dancers are doing. 

So I watched a Native Media Network clip of the group performing at the New Mexico State Fair. I found a couple of other clips that said they showed crown dances from other Apache tribes--but it was pretty clear within the first couple of seconds that they probably showed traditional ceremonies that are intended to be private, so I clicked off. (Respect. Even when you're not the one holding the camera.) But then I was still left with the question about crown dancers, who represent mountain spirits.

So I read up a bit on the Apache legends of the mountain spirits in articles like this one, and this one and several more that I can't find again right now. But that made me curious about the distinctions between the various Apache tribes and geographies.

So I started at Wikipedia and then looked up some of the tribal websites. Which is when I couldn't remember from which group Geronimo hailed. 

So I went and read this entry and a couple more about his history, and then turned up his New York Times obituary from 1909. Which made me think of a song that I love, "Geronimo's Cadillac."

So I chased down the picture that the song is based on, along with a very interesting article about the other photos of the day. And then I watched several live videos of Michael Martin Murphey singing "Geronimo's Cadillac," including this one where he explains how the song landed him on the FBI's watch list. Which then took me to this video of the song being performed with acclaimed Native American flutist Gareth Laffely. (Check this out--it's so cool!)

So, of course, I had to look up Gareth Laffely and check out some of his tunes. He is Mi'kmaq and Cree. Mi'kmaq geography and history is somewhat familiar. Cree is less so, but is also synonymous to me with the Northern Cree Singers.

So that reminded me how much I like the Northern Cree drum (in this case, the drum is the group of performers, not the instrument they play), and that led me to this video of them playing for the women's fancy dance at a pow-wow last year. 

And that made me miss summer and want a frybread taco. And realize that I have absolutely no idea what my actual blog topic was going to be today. 

You're welcome.

 

A Contrast of Continents

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." The words are needlepointed in cream thread, perfect lines on a strip of cadet blue burlap that's been tucked into my high school diploma folder for going on 24 years, pressed between a $2 bill and my valedictory address. 

My English teacher senior year had also been my English teacher in seventh grade. We were the first class she looped, and she told us all how special it was for her to have been with us the year we entered the building as well as the year we left it. She stitched a bookmark for each one of us (all 88 graduates, if I remember correctly). Each delicate gift bore a quote she'd selected just for that student. Mine was the excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail. 

I remember being profoundly touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift. Although many of the friends I've made as an adult might not realize it (I have a reputation for logic, rational thought, and a calming presence), I am prone to being swamped by emotions. That was certainly the case as my rather extraordinary high school class approached our graduation day. Seeing the quote my teacher chose for me brought on the tears. What an honor!

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I think back to that quote and the fabric tucked away along with mementos from long ago. This year was far cry from the celebrations of African American culture and history that I remember attending during my youth. None of my friends were up for a gospel duo's concert marking efforts toward race unity (and the venue was small enough that I didn't feel right taking up a seat all by myself). Besides that event, the likelihood for speeches and comments to turn political (or personal), overtly or covertly, put me off public events. There's simply nothing constructive in that, no matter what position a person has taken.

Meanwhile, and from many miles away, the nightly news devoted its current zip-point-two minutes of international coverage to rough footage of the protests in Iran. For a nation that prides itself on the important role of journalism, they pretty much lost the lead. The story with some meat to it wasn't really the protests. It was the concentrated, systematic efforts to keep information about the protests from reaching the wider world. Just like the goal is to keep information about what happens to the Baha'is from reaching the rest of the world.

And just like the goal is to keep attention away from the Baha'i man in Yemen who was sentenced to execution last week, following the same pattern the Iranian government (which backs the Houthi faction in Yemen) used against the Baha'is in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. After four years in prison, under torture and duress, this man is condemned to die for the "crime" of being a Baha'i.

People ask me all the time why being a Baha'i is treated like being a criminal in some other countries. As Americans, we'd sum it up as, "He says different prayers." And everybody would kind of nod their heads and say, "You do you, dude."

After all, the U.S. was founded in some part by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they chose. In reality, it was 95 percent founded by people seeking riches and fame. But the 5-percent story of various English Puritan groups looking for a place to worship without persecution makes for a much more noble national lineage. Note that it was about English Christians of one stripe attempting to escape the yoke of English Christians of another stripe. We won't even mention the third major group of English Christians whom no one wanted on the boats or at home (I wonder if Plymouth still has stealth Catholics among its historical interpreters ... that was one of the most interesting parts of my visit there as a kid). 

The reason "you do you" isn't the response in Iran, or in an Iran-backed Yemeni court, is one of theology. Baha'is interpret a particular statement of the Prophet Muhammad in a way that really challenges a theocratic clergy's understanding of itself. That statement is that Muhammad was "The Seal of the Prophets." Among many Muslims, including those in positions of power in Iran, that title is taken to mean that God would never send another Messenger. Baha'is, instead, believe that Muhammad was the last in a now-completed cycle of Prophets that began with Adam ... and that Baha'u'llah was the first in a new cycle of messengers who will bring about universal peace, justice and unity over the next few thousand years.

To an American, the concept might be uncomfortable. Mostly because it has anything to do with religion at all. As a nation, we're not comfortable with large-scale issues of spiritual importance and the joining together of people whose prayers were revealed in unfamiliar languages (funny how we sort of blithely overlook the fact that even Christ spoke Aramaic, not English, ). I wonder sometimes what would happen if we asked, "Well, what if ...?" more often.

Perhaps it's that very unfamiliarity and discomfort with all things that don't fit neatly within the package of "America" stories that are passed down from generation to generation in school history books, that causes the general public to stay quiet and not look for details about what's happening to people in our own country or overseas.

On behalf of that Baha'i sentenced to die in Yemen, the international human rights community is sounding alarm bells in the halls of the UN and in the capitols of nearly every nation. But I have yet to see the name or the smiling face of Hamed bin Haydara in the national news here, with the exception of a short article in the Washington Post. This is a land where shining a spotlight on injustice is supposed to be in our national DNA ... despite that national DNA also bearing the marks of the still-unrecognized genocide that decimated our Native cultures, the still-expurgated slavery that outlasted that of other "civilized nations," the insidious aftermath of the Civil War that funneled the sentiments surrounding slavery into our national institutions, and the persistent tendency toward hatred for whichever immigrant group came after our own.

We have trouble comprehending injustice when it's directed toward people in shades and clothes and shapes that don't look like what we see in the mirror. When we do comprehend it, we frequently have no idea what to do about it in any practical way because injustice is one of those big words that stand for big ideas. And that require actual thought and curiosity to understand.

Said Dr. King: “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact ... that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters...”

So maybe we start small. Maybe it starts with noticing the people we see around us (smiling, waving and talking to our neighbors who seem alone and perhaps with the weight of the world on their shoulders ... especially if they don't look or sound like us).

Then, perhaps, doing something small to help correct the problems we see (the former coworker who frequently brought breakfast sandwiches to the homeless man roughing it on the street across from our office).

Maybe getting a little more systematic about it (helping out at a local senior center, homeless shelter, or other organization and actually getting to know those being served).

Maybe looking around a little father afield.

Maybe raising our voices on someone's behalf (we have a representative democracy, after all ... those folks have phones in their offices).

Maybe telling someone's story to our friends (do you know what's happening in...?)

Dr. King said: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But ... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 

Every great army moves forward on the individual steps of each of its soldiers. And when we're moving shoulder to shoulder for love and for good, we move the world. It doesn't matter whether the injustice we see is here or there. None is more or less unjust than the other. Each of us needs to find our place alongside our brothers and sisters and move things forward.

"We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother." Those are perhaps my favorites of all the words Dr. King said. Now, I just need to live up to them. We all need to live up to them. 

Green Smoothies Haven't Killed Me Yet

If you'd told me two weeks ago that I'd be voluntarily blending up spinach and some variety of fruits (including bananas) and liquids each day, the look on my face would have said, "You're nuts." But it's becoming my new normal. And it's not nearly as disgusting as expected.

Why, of all the things, am I writing about spinach smoothies this week? Well, because life is busy, the weather's been very cold, and small successes are worth celebrating. 

Early January, I rapidly try to process all of my remaining tax tasks from the last year, while scheduling new projects to start about mid-month. Cabin fever sets in hard and I pine for opportunities to get outdoors without chancing frostbite or a tumbling skid down the uncleared sidewalks. 

So, in an effort to avoid going entirely stir-crazy, I'm concentrating on creating small habits that I can build on later. The smoothies are part of that. Trying something new, figuring out which flavors and textures I like, and doing a great job of getting nearly the daily recommended servings of fruits and veggies. 

The bonus is that I can sip my breakfast in front of my computer while I crush through the early January financial exercises. Yesterday, for example, I successfully unsubscribed from several services I don't need (both professional and personal), completed my business and personal budget guidelines for the year, and exchanged a bunch of emails about upcoming projects. All before noon.

Still haven't mastered the ability to launch myself out of the cozy covers early enough to get a workout in before my smoothie. But I'm working on it. And that won't kill me either.

'Little by Little, Day by Day'

Kam kam, ruz bih ruz. The words, in my mother's handwriting on a hot pink index card, stood out from the surrounding phone numbers, notes, and directions. The small slip was one of many tacked to our kitchen bulletin board, within arm's length of the phone attached to the wall. I saw it daily from the age of 9 or 10 until the board and its contents were downsized and eventually entirely removed from the family environs, along with the corded wall phone they accompanied.

I don't know where, exactly, Mom had come across the phrase, or when. But I do know that she was quite taken with it, because it was apparently something Abdu'l-Baha often used as a guide for how to go about completing a Herculean task. It's akin to the familiar business advice that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

That's where I see myself at the beginning of 2018. As much as I would like to be raring to go and full of excited energy, as I have been at the turn of recent years ... I'm just not. In fact, I'm battling the periodic depression that runs through half of my family. Don't be alarmed: It's not the critical, existential crisis type of mental illness that requires professional intervention. This just makes each day both too long and too short, amplifies each emotional trigger, and makes me feel as though I'm slogging through never-ending mud. I've been through it before and I'm sure I'll face it again. At least this time, I know what it is and I can fight against the urge to let it drag me down (onto the couch, with pints of Ben and Jerry's and all the sappy movies ever made).

If you're a long-term reader of the blog, then you know I don't make "resolutions" for the new year. But I do set a few goals around which I can focus my energy. Unlike the last couple of years, when I've attached hard numbers to these efforts, I'm concentrating on progress this year. After all, I need to push myself, but I also need to cut myself some slack. Little by little, day by day. 

So, here's the list I've tacked to the kitchen wall:

1. Develop and stick to a healthy routine. I'd like to say that my lack of an existing routine is due to finishing grad school earlier this year, spending three months working at an incredible pace, spending four more months on the road, and then moving into a four-walled backup plan. But the fact is, when you live by yourself for a really long time, it's easy to lose track of "good" routines because there are no external influences on your habits. Approaching each day in a measured and predictable fashion, though, redirects my focus to simple steps that show real rewards. Not only does a healthy routine keep the depression issues somewhat controlled, but it mitigates the desire to become a hermit by preventing the inevitable self-castigation and withdrawn socialization that follow more indulgent living. That's why I'll be doing my best to stick to predictable sleep, nutrition, and exercise schedules this year.

2. Find a place to call home. As much as I am happy to have a place to live right now, it's not home. My landing here serves some essential purposes, but it's a one-year, temporary solution (given the heating system and the rare cold streak this winter, that's now evident). I'd also be lying if I said I didn't fear getting stuck here; a year is a longish time and circumstances can change quickly. That possibility is really doing a number on me, right now. So to keep that feeling from winning, I'm tentatively making plans to be back out in Albuquerque this spring to investigate an actual move in detail ... complete with LLC information, real estate chats, pipe band introductions, and a round of visits to the local Baha'i communities. At the same time, though, I'll be seeking out free or low-cost events with my friends right here, because if I don't make that effort, I can go weeks without speaking to anyone except the checkers at the grocery store. And, in an effort to stay sane, I'll start planning and packing for a November move in August. If all goes well, I'll head west; and if not, I'll at least find someplace that feels a little more "me."

3. Build the business with long-term contracts. I like having a mix of projects in the hopper at any given time (I'm line-editing a book this month, among other things!). I'm also a fan of predictable cash flow. So this year, I'll be taking the practical step of making sure my moderate ongoing costs are covered every month by ongoing engagements with a few different clients. I'm nearly there already, between firming up plans with a few existing folks and reaching out to new prospects, especially during the next couple of months. To make it all work, I'll be experimenting a bit to see what sustainable schedule will let me produce the highest quality work most efficiently ... while giving me the freedom to go outside, even when my planner seems full. That should allow for plenty of less predictable work endeavors, too, built on a stable base. I'll leave the elimination of net 30 terms for another post! 

4. Prepare the book for print as best as possible. There are an awful lot of people looking out for this book and I feel very much behind. I've decided to force myself through an exercise that may seem crazy, but should get things moving. This week, I'll rework the structure (again), with the summer's trip to guide me. Through the rest of this month, I'll transcribe my interviews, thereby overcoming the inertia that set in because I'm not a very fast typist and I don't like my own voice. There's no option but to do it myself, though, because I can't use a transcription service due to sensitivities around information and sources, as well as the English spoken with a heavy Persian accent (go figure). Then, starting in February, I'll be writing five pages per day, no more, no less, until the middle of April. It can be absolutely horrible, and that's fine. I have to get the manuscript through what amounts to a security review to ensure it won't put people in Iran in danger before I can start seriously querying agents and publishers, and I can continue editing and refining during those months. So the goal is to get a rough draft into review this spring, while I turn my attention to chasing down possible agents and refining the proposal.

5. Stabilize finances and planning. Everybody has self-soothing techniques when they are sad or stressed. I, for example, try to organize every aspect of my world to perfection. That's very time-consuming. So I'm going to square away the area I revisit most. To make it work, I'll be doing my best to stick to a modest budget that allows for purchasing needs but makes me identify and delay the purchase of most wants. Sounds like fun, right? Well, fun takes different forms. In this case, I'll have a much better view of what a normal year looks like (less the fun, chaos and expense of the last two). It should let me max out my contribution to my solo health savings account in the first half of the year and fund my next move in the fall. Anything else I save can go toward filling my emergency savings and paying off a chunk of my graduate loans. All of which increases my ability to start looking forward again. 

All of this sounds very ambitious, I know. But if this year is going to be good for anything, perhaps it's advancing where I am in each of these areas. I've already got my eyes fixed on a check-in for myself at Naw-Ruz, New Year in the Baha'i calendar, which falls at the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and involves a lot more sunlight and the promise of temperatures above freezing. 

Kam kam, ruz bih ruz. Little by little, day by day.

The Quiet Week

This morning, I had every intention of rolling out of bed bright and early to get a head start on the day. Instead, when the sweet sounds of "High and Low" rolled into the room, I poked my nose and eyes out from under three layers of quilt and blankets, confirmed that my room was definitely cool, if not cold, and that the quality of light through the blinds promised frigid sunshine rather than another morning snow. Then, with apologies to Joshua Radin, I tapped stop on my phone, flipped the covers back over my head and granted myself 45 extra minutes of sleep. 

It's rare that I do that on a weekday. Even though I work for myself (and by myself), I aim to be at my desk and functional no later than 9 a.m., so that at least part of my workday is in sync with my clients. Around lunchtime or after, I often change things up. I'll run errands when shops and offices are empty and then come back to the screen in the mid-afternoon or evening for a while. That lets me roll with clients in different time zones or who are on rush schedules that require turnaround after they leave their desks for the day. Or, I might eat lunch at the computer but finish up the day in the mid- to late afternoon and turn my attention to housework, some unpaid pursuit, or in the summer, a little outdoor adventure. 

Sleeping in throws off the rest of the day, so I avoid it except on weekends. And this week. This is the quiet week. Some of my clients are closed between Christmas and New Year's Day. For others, I'm covering for people who are away. And, in general, anything that hasn't started yet isn't starting right now. 

So I cut myself a break. Unless I'm on a firm deadline, a little more sleep is okay. I try to line up everything that comes next, but I don't necessarily start it. This year, I'm slowly tackling the transcription of this summer's interviews so I can get back to writing my book over the course of the spring, with fingers crossed that Mr. Khanjani will be released in the meantime. I'm also puttering away at office organization and decorating, now that everything's unpacked. And, as has become my habit, I'll spend New Year's Day figuring out what gets my attention in 2018 and straightening up all my finances and taxes for the coming year. 

This week is not one of my favorites each year. As much as the professional value is incalculable, it's too quiet on the personal side. I am usually entirely alone. My parents were here for a few days, leaving on Christmas Eve to beat the snow, since this isn't really a holiday we celebrate amongst ourselves, anyway. And for the rest of the week, it's too easy to find myself thinking of long-ago holidays with my grandparents, all four of whom are now gone. Or of laughter and parties with now-distant or departed friends. It's too easy to see ahead of me about two months of icy cold, wind, snow, and holidays that I last anticipated when I had them off from school or received punched-out Valentines from classmates. Now, I know I'll spend these months with my head down, plowing forward toward the relief of Ayyam-i-Ha, the 19-Day Fast, and springtime. 

So this week, I'll take things a little easy. I'm savoring leftover pilaf, enchiladas and chili. Watching the yellow wax windows of my tiny sandcast casa glow each time I light the wick. Continuing to spend my evenings watching NCIS from the very beginning, despite having seen it almost completely from the very beginning when the episodes aired. Reading The Little Book of Lykke, just received today thanks to a fortuitous pre-order. And reminding myself how lucky I am to have a quiet week to set me up for a productive, calm, and creative year.

Clutter Is My Kryptonite

In week two, I learned about the cats. I am so allergic to felines that my allergist told me I "shouldn't have friends who have cats." It's no slight to the character of cat owners, but I am so sensitive to the little critters' dander that I react to the amount folks typically pick up on their clothes. For the most part, visiting the homes of cat people is right out. Five minutes in and my sinuses are simultaneously stuffed up and dripping, my eyes are so itchy they're tearing up and making it hard to see, I'm sneezing, and I'm starting to develop tiny hives on any exposed skin.

As you can imagine, then, learning that the former occupant of my new apartment had cats (yes, plural) went a long way toward explaining why I've been in a constant state of allergic unpleasantness since I moved in. Also, he's a guy and lived alone. So it's not like fastidious cleaning was at the top of his hobby list.

Don't get me wrong: My landlords are the kindest and most well-meaning people I can imagine. It just never occurred to them that evidence of Cat-Man and his Feline Followers couldn't be eradicated with a good scrub-down and a steam-clean of the carpets. And, due to the lack of attention to detail shown by the realtor in listing the rental, I was under the impression that the no-pets clause in the lease meant that the prior tenant also had no pets. So I didn't ask about prior furry residents. Whoops.

The Great Kitty Kachoo is just one of the things keeping me off kilter right now. People talk about creative types and how they thrive on chaos and disorder. Art allows them to create order from the chaos. They love the stimulation that comes from being surrounded by color and shapes and such.

What. Ever.

I'm certainly no minimalist, but I am a big fan of curated displays. From order and organization, I can absorb the information I need to inspire and inform creative efforts. (I'm also wildly allergic to dust and dust mites, second only to cats, so I really appreciate order, organization, and displays that are neatly housed behind glass or doors, or in drawers or boxes.) 

The bane of my existence is open shelving. And in this lovely little place I now call my own, open shelving is everywhere. Despite having lovely blue and green Ball jars to corral small items in Pinterest-worthy fashion, and despite all of my small kitchen appliances being fashionable stainless steel or empire red, the open shelving drives me bananas. And that's the part of the apartment that's organized, not still filled with opened storage tubs or stacked with things to donate or sell.

So what does this all mean? Well, on the surface, it means I haven't been able to relax since I moved in, because there's stuff everywhere. In the next two days, I'll be revisiting the Salvation Army store to drop off more things that I don't need, but might make someone else very happy (matching set of of Coke fountain glasses, I'm looking at you). And I'll be swinging by the local animal shelter with an armload of fleece blankets. And I'll be making a special delivery of cardboard to the local transfer station, because winter has fallen from the sky and I refuse to make the garbage collectors heave stacks of frozen, wet boxes into the trucks when I can just as well heave dry, unwieldy boxes into my car and from thence into a giant dumpster. 

At a deeper level, it means that I am forced to confront the concepts of need and want in a very physical way. As a Baha'i, I pay what is called "the right of God." This isn't the same as the tithes paid in some other religions, and it's not the same as a voluntary contribution to keep a building open or the lights on. In fact, it's more like a spiritual tax that's used at the discretion of the Universal House of Justice (the elected, global Baha'i leadership council) to pay for things that improve the well-being of communities around the world and that protect and provide care for those in need of assistance.

Adult Baha'is periodically tally up everything we own (cash, investments, property, real goods, etc.). We subtract the value of necessities, such as household furnishings, and we subtract a sort of "standard deduction" (there's a tax term for you). Then, we pay about 20 percent of whatever remains into this pool of funds. The next time we go through the exercise, we only calculate the 20 percent based on new wealth that we've gained since the last time we did the math, so we don't pay twice for the same vinyl record collection (hipsters) or kayak (me).

Like many Baha'i laws, much of the execution is left up to the individual. How often we pay is up to us. Some people do this daily, others every pay day, and still others only every few years. What counts as a "necessity" is open to interpretation, too. It's perfectly fine for Baha'is to acquire wealth; but a wealthy Baha'i is held to the same standard as a poor Baha'i when it comes to calculating the right of God. So both may say, "I need my car." But one may own a brand new sports car and the other a used pickup truck, and that's fine ... a third person may decide their car is a want because they live in a city where they could take public transportation everywhere they go. Ultimately, the "standard deduction" is the same for everyone, though, so the wealthy person will pay 20 percent of their significant wealth, while the poor person will pay 20 percent of very little wealth (or may not have to pay anything at all).

As I said, it's a spiritual tax. So a person has followed the law if they have made the calculation, even if they find they don't need to pay anything. Of course, if a person does possess enough wealth that payment is due, then that person has to hold himself or herself accountable for paying. There's no Baha'iRS (see what I did there?) chasing anyone down. The reason it's the "right of God" is because we see that money as never belonging to us to start with, so by giving it up to be used for the good of others, we "purify" what remains.  

What does this have to do with clutter? For me, clutter makes it very hard to calculate this number. I've moved so many times, and am so sentimental about the things that I've picked up along the way, that I have a ton of stuff. Much of it lacks any financial value at all. Case in point: Much adored, totally threadbare and squished Teddy who inhabits an interior corner of my hand-me-down cedar chest. Household furnishings comprise another chunk. Having grown up in a house with plenty of love and fantastic experiences, but without lots of conveniences that my peers took for granted (ahem, waffle maker), I wrestle with what counts as a household furnishing and what is really just a want in sheep's clothing.

The more stuff there is to sort through, the harder it is to figure out what's needed or wanted, or why it's there at all. And, the more likely it is that I will start comparing my own abundance (ahem, waffle maker) to the situation of people who are without a home or food. On one hand, that's a good awareness to find. On the other hand, our realities are different, and I have earned the funds to pay for some conveniences and luxuries, so there should be no guilt associated with owning them ... although perhaps I should be cautious about how many more things I acquire. There are many ways to share the wealth, instead, whether modest or extreme. It's a fine balance.

As a writer, my issues with clutter and the valuation of needs and wants are showing up in my current stymied state, too. The madcap research adventure of the last two years has left me with stacks of information to be organized, sifted, augmented, and molded into the story I'm trying to tell. Some of that is info is needed and some is just extraneous detail. The writing isn't the hard part (legions of writers just flung projectiles at me, I'm sure). Processing the research is the bigger challenge for me. Right now, the information wants and needs require some un-jumbling.

Little by little, I'm making my way through the physical clutter of this new place, so that I can wade through the information clutter that stands between me and a story that needs (finally) to see the light of day. And somewhere in all of that, I'll find a way to de-catify things, too.

'We Do Business for Profit'

The issue of business ethics has come up in my conversations quite a lot recently. It being the end of the year, I've been finishing projects for some clients and scoping upcoming work for others. Because of the role I fill for most of them, that means doing a little consulting about organizational change and corporate goals alongside the projects of the day.

In the course of these chats, I often hearken back to lessons from a former employer. One of the most meaningful was summed up eloquently in the beginning of the company's mission statement:

"We do business for profit. First yours. Then ours. ..."

That's not altruistic. It's simply factual. We did, indeed, do business for profit. We weren't working for free or from the goodness of our hearts. However, we also understood a deceptively simple concept, which was that guiding and advising our clients to make decisions that were good for the health of their businesses earned trust. That, in turn, drove the health of our own business.

What did it look like in a practical sense? We told clients if we thought a decision wouldn't generate a positive return on their investment. We looked at how best to help clients achieve their goals while saving money. We looked for efficiencies in our own processes and helped clients rework theirs to find even more efficiencies. We made things right if we goofed up. And we involved our clients in our charitable efforts.

Let me be clear: It was not utopia. The difficult aspects were similar to those in any business. But the transparency in running the company (in nearly every situation) created an entire staff of people who understood more than a little about corporate finance and held a high ethical standard for the treatment of coworkers, collaborators, and clients. Perhaps that's why so many have gone on to successful solo careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and leadership in a wide variety of organizations ... and why so many of us jump at the chance to work together even now.

The first time I was introduced to the mission statement, I so appreciated the way it put priorities in the order that felt right to me. Even now, this is the way I work. I prefer to be straightforward with a client and recommend a less-expensive, more effective approach, even though it means I might receive modest payment for the job. Why? Because it's just the right thing to do.

Whether I build a longstanding relationship with the client or simply earn a reputation as someone who works ethically, as long as I put my clients' interests (or, in the case of agencies, their clients' interests) first, I go to sleep at night feeling just fine about my efforts.

That's a lesson I think we can all take to the bank.

The Responsible One

"Oh, she's the one who never ran away." I was standing in a hospital waiting room last winter when a childhood pal I hadn't seen in years walked in, surprised to see me. The mutual friend with her offered the brief explanation.

In a way, it's true. And in another, it's not.

Unlike nearly everyone I know (notable exceptions excluded), I've moved about 22 times in my life, both nearby and cross-country, starting when I was just a little kid. And, although my family stayed in one place while I was in high school, I did run away the very first chance I got. With my choice of universities ready to invite me in, I only bothered applying to four. I was waitlisted at my first choice, received an insufficient financial offer from my second, and ruled out the fourth.

That left me with my third choice. The University of Houston was recruiting hard in academics in the early and mid-'90s, in part because several years of NCAA sanctions had done a number on its sports programs. That was after the days when UH's "cougar keepers" prowled the football sidelines with a live mountain lion on a chain, so the chance of mauling wasn't even available to liven up the weekly trouncing at the hands of Texas A&M (with their barking German Shepherd), University of Texas (with their rumored-to-be-drugged-up steer) and a host of other high-performing teams throughout the region. 

As a 17-year-old West Coast/desert transplant in the comparatively sedate Northeast, I was clamoring for a way out of the bubble as high school ended. I was susceptible to the UH admissions office spiel, lunch with the dean of the honors college, visits with the marching band and percussion directors, and general amusement of the big Gulf Coast oil city. The zoo! The giant Boot Barn! Papacito's! That festival we drove through on Montrose! 

However, in all of the warm, sunny, humid, shiny (also sparkly, painted, leathered, and feathered, at least on Montrose) whiz-bangs that weekend, what I disregarded was one very direct comment. I was meeting with one of the journalism professors, a man whom I expected to be my advisor when I eventually enrolled. He had seen my transcripts and knew the region from which I was visiting.  And he asked, "Why the hell would you come here?"

Clearly, my mother and I thought, he must be having a bad day. Or he was one of the many who saw that I was first in my class, planned to study journalism, and lived three hours outside New York City ... so immediately assumed that I would apply to and attend Columbia. (One of the guidance counselors at my high school made that assumption. I told him I was considering truck driving school. Not sure he ever knew whether I was kidding or not.)

So, in late August, my father drove me and a carload of stuff down through the Appalachians and the flatlands of Arkansas and Louisiana and East Texas. I lasted from mid-August to just after Christmas break.

By mid-January, I and all of my gear had returned to the Northeast. The spring semester saw me keeping up on courses at the local community college and the next three years found me finishing my bachelor's degree at Fairfield University on the southwestern coast of Connecticut. A responsible choice. A fine Jesuit institution of higher education with stone and brick buildings, tasteful amounts of ivy, and a close proximity to many wealthy families in need of babysitters. I walked one of my charges and his family's black Lab right past Martha Stewart's house on our afternoon constitutionals.

Since then, with very few exceptions (one or two each in the career, financial, and relationship fields, in fact), I've stuck to the responsible path. For the most part, that's meant working. To pay off that education. To eradicate credit card debt from keeping up with older friends and a decade of pipe band travel. To gain skills for later. To earn recognition for what I was already doing. To give myself opportunities to travel. To buy my freedom from the white collar grind.

When I started my MFA and began working for myself a little over two years ago, I kept up that streak. I didn't do either until I'd gotten completely out of debt and put a few months of living expenses aside. And although I wanted to find a new place to live, with hopes of reinvention, I promised myself I'd stay put, where I knew my expenses and local resources well, until I finished my degree. 

This summer, when I packed up my gear and stowed it away, I envisioned finding a whole new place to unpack it. In fact, by a complete travel fluke, I wound up somewhere worth exploring. Threading the needle between the expense of the southern California coast and the temporary insanity of eclipse-generated inflation, avoiding the dizzying High Sierra passes of my childhood, I chose Tehachapi and desert driving to bring me back toward the east. On the way, I spent a week in the aptly named Land of Enchantment. 

Over the last couple of months, since I returned to the Northeast, I've changed tracks so many times I've gotten dizzy. Ultimately, though, the options narrow in two directions. Bearing southwest appeals most, with the four reasonable seasons, substantially lower cost of living, friendly faces, and new experiences. The giant hurdle of cost getting there, with 41 years of collected "stuff" and the crime rate requiring careful neighborhood vetting make the move itself more challenging. Bearing due east flips the challenges. The cost of getting over to the charming coast isn't so much, even with all the stuff, and the crime rate is negligible. But once there, the cost of living is high, the population more segmented, the experiences and companions harder to find, and the seasons divided into cold and the remainder of the year. 

Neither path is without major potholes at this very moment. So I find myself, once again, making the responsible choice. Surrounded by boxes and materials, with work projects lining up for the next few weeks, I sit in a small duplex less than five miles from my last abode. My task over the next year or so, in addition to all of the work- and book-associated projects, is to purge the things I don't really need in order to get to those that I can justify for a long-distance move. 

Sometimes, as I learned long ago, the value isn't in the running away. It's in taking the steps that make it possible to run toward something, unencumbered and able to seize the new day.   

PS: I'm totally using both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and The Little Book of Hygge to make this whole purging thing work without hitting austerity and misery. Despite the KonMari Method sounding like a bunch of hooey, objectively, it makes a ton of sense for someone like me, who is holding onto things that reflect past emotions rather than current practicalities, and without regard for the positive or negative tenor of those emotions.

My 2017 Thankfuls

The scents of bittersweet chocolate, pumpkin and spices, and bursting blueberries are all mixed up in the kitchen this morning. It's the day before Thanksgiving, which means I'm in full pie-baking mode. This is the joy of the road-tripping family member: To bake, to drive, to share, to return to a clean kitchen without the prospect of days of turkey-based meals!

As you know if you've been with me for a while, this is also the day dear friends of mine opened their home for a longstanding Veggie Thanksgiving celebration. Last year was the first without that warm and wacky gathering. And this year is the first without one-half of its hosting team. My treasured friend John Rafalak, the husband and father of more treasured friends, passed beyond this mortal plain back in February.

Today, I can't help but think of his towering frame stooping into a series of hugs, his favorite form of greeting, as the door opened time after time. I can hear his delighted chuckle ringing out at the presence of so many bright and witty friends. He'd be kicked back in his faded blue recliner with the worn arms, fiddling with an iPad on which he'd loaded the latest music-creation app. He'd play a few bars of one thing or another, insist that the other musicians in the room give it a try, then turn the camera on the guests sprawled on couches and the floor, chattering away. He'd make sure to get at least one panorama shot, doing his best to capture each face in the crowd. When it came time for the sharing of "thankfuls," he'd pull up FaceTime or Skype and connect friends spending the holidays far away (or simply stuck at work), placing them in the circle as surely as if they were in the room.  

There are so many ways we can keep with us those who've gone ahead. For John, it seems that one of the most fitting personal tributes is to keep on with this tradition he enjoyed so much. So here goes.

I'm thankful for travelsIt's been a crazy year, with a week in New York City in January, work trips back to the city and to DC in the spring, a week in Halifax in May, three months truly on the road (whether the interstate system or the backroads), and six weeks or so back and forth between New Hampshire and New York. Every mile of the way, I've had the opportunity to see new places, visit people I love, meet a wide variety of people with shining eyes, remind myself what a bubble we find ourselves in when we're in one place for too long (especially, I think, in the Northeast), and consider where I'd like to go again.

I'm thankful for friendsIn such a wonderfully disjointed year, my friends have been the source of joy, humor, and support. I am not one to ask for help often (even when it's necessary). But whether through encouraging Facebook posts, eager catch-ups over dinner, 20-years-overdue giggle fits, the lending of spare rooms, the loading of furniture, or strings of texted emojis (from a kid I've known since she was born), the sense of community and affection is strong.  

I'm thankful for healthThe year started on an up note thanks to a fantastic trainer and the success of building strength and endurance. Although my nutrition and exercise regimen has suffered severely during the latter half of the year's travels, I'm looking forward to getting back to it. My eyes are fixed on things I want to do, and those things aren't necessarily easy! Why do I want to do them? Just to prove I can

I'm thankful for familyFor the first time in years, my Southeastern aunt will be joining the Northeastern Thanksgiving celebrations. Of course, one of my Northeastern cousins will be in Canada, celebrating what our northern neighbors call "Thursday." My parents were kind enough to give me a place to land for a few weeks while I determined what to do next. It's just something we do in our family, but it's still very welcome. And then, of course, there is my spirit family, as I've come to think of both my dear friends (one of whom totally forced me to buy a flying cow in Seattle) and of the wonderful hearts who have been helping me learn about Mr. Khanjani. From his former cellmates and friends, to students he helped, to his daughter and brother, every one of them has been eager to help me understand this gentle, fierce prisoner. 

I'm thankful for freedomMy own, of course, in that not everywhere in the world would it be safe, or even possible, for a woman to undertake the things I have in the last couple of years. And living where I live means that I can write freely about a topic that, in the land where events are taking place, is considered something of a taboo. More than that, though, I'm thankful for the recent release of Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, two of the seven former Baha'i leaders in Iran (including Mr. Khanjani) who are completing their tenth year of incarceration. Freedom sometimes means hope

I'm thankful for stabilityAs much as I had grand plans to pull all my worldly goods from storage, load the kayak atop the car, and resettle wherever I pleased at the end of this year's trip, I am grateful for the option to make more thorough preparations. The fact is, running hell-bent for leather toward someplace new and different is a hard urge to resist. But holding still, getting organized, and then perhaps approaching that run with a certain amount of clearheadedness is responsible. Thanks to my clients, friends, and family, I can choose stability for the moment, knowing there's excitement ahead.

I'm thankful for luminarias and green chilesYep, you read that right. Luminarias are the celebratory brown-paper-bag lanterns weighted with sand and flickering with candlelight that adorn paths, porches, and rooflines in New Mexico during the Christmas season and sometimes for other festivities. And green chiles (Hatch, please) are a food group all of their very own. Both of them inhabit a place I'm very happy to have found this year. Just knowing they're out there makes me smile. 

'Did You Ever Fear for Your Safety?'

Earlier this week, I found myself back in my old stomping grounds, reluctantly figuring out how to split the difference between what I want to do and what is the responsible thing to do. Among my visits with sympathetic pals and jonesing-for-the-holidays clients, I took an hour to quiz my accountant about how exactly to categorize this year's proceedings. 

I am someone who never thought to have an accountant ... not just a tax preparer, mind you, but someone whom I will happily pay to allow me to fire questions at him. Questions like, "I'm pretty sure this refund doesn't count as income. Right?" And, "So, if I was in NYC for a week, do I claim meal expenses? ... What if I was driving through the northern half of the country?"

We've also established that we know people and places in common, so the business chatter was interrupted by discussions of medical issues, memorable folks, and events that have transpired since our last chat. Given that my Irish-American, round-cheeked, and grey-haired accountant is likely closer to my father's age than my own, I wasn't surprised when he burst out with the question I've heard so often recently. 

"Did you ever fear for your safety?" He looked across the table at me, curiosity blazing. I felt as though I should invent a near-miss with a bear.

The less-than-exciting answer is: No. 

Oh, I did sometimes think to myself, "Well, self, this wasn't the brightest choice." But those amounted to a handful:

  • On a whim, taking a hard right out of Vancouver's Stanley Park and finding myself driving off a cliff onto the Lions Gate Bridge, on which I was very certain I was going to pass out and send myself and several other drivers plummeting to our deaths. 
  • Pulling off the highway in Tehachapi, California, to fill up the tank and hydrate, only to find a very sketchy gas station and convenience store, where a couple of unkempt gentlemen squatted in the shade outside the door, between me and my car. Nothing to do but wave and smile!
  • Walking through the north end of Old Town Albuquerque in the late afternoon, when a muscle car pulled up and discharged a woman who went barreling into the shop on the corner while her two male companions leaned on the hood and stared at me as I walked past. I waved, smiled big, said hi, got a sneer and nod in return, and kept walking.
  • Sitting on the couch of the Airbnb I rented in Nashville on my first night in the city, watching TV, I heard what sounded like gunshots, close enough that I considered hitting the floor and belly crawling away from the windows. Until a telltale hiss identified the neighbors' fireworks.
  • Following the advice of my trusty Google Maps companion, I played mountain goat up the very steep and sheer side of a holler outside Hazard, Kentucky, chased by three locals with a total disregard for the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit and the cliff eating away at the white line.

Other than those few moments, easily diffused by a certain amount of deep breathing, friendliness, bravado, situational awareness, and humming "Dueling Banjos," I relied on the exact same common sense that told me I should hire an accountant when my finances started getting complicated. 

What does that mean?

Well, I filled my gas tank whenever it showed it was half-empty, so I could fly right past the "Next Services 125 Miles" signs. I checked and rechecked routes ahead of time for obstacles and conveniences. I only stopped at large, clean, chain truck stops. And I scheduled my days to be sure I'd be locked in my hotel room, eating dinner, before full dark, which only failed twice on the whole trip, both times when I changed routes midway through the day. But neither the St. Louis suburbs nor Staunton, Virginia, were too worrisome. 

My Airbnb bookings involved Google Street View, crime maps, former guest reviews, Superhost preference, non-primary residence preference (except Nashville), and a specific set of amenities.

Hotels? The criteria was pretty simple. National chains only. Interior hallways and a 24-hour desk (hard to find in parts of the country where exterior walkways and exterior doors to the room are common). And, because I was looking for good deals, 2.5 to 4 stars, with guest reviews averaging 8 or higher  ... with free parking, free breakfast (almost always), and free WiFi (most often).

Of course, there were some regional awareness issues, too.

  • Where is that wildfire going to be when I get to it?
  • Am I in a tsunami evacuation zone?
  • What are the prominent gang colors in Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield ... and what am I wearing?
  • What if there's an earthquake?
  • Is anything at all visible in my car?
  • Is my car locked ... really .... really?
  • What if there's a tornado?
  • How much glaring is just what these people look like and how much is directed at my New York license plates?
  • How many folks here actually have Confederate flags on their vehicles?
  • Where's that hurricane going? 
  • Is that black ice?

And there were plenty of places I'd love to have gone, but I didn't. Some based on time, but most based on awareness that I was alone, not properly geared up for various excursions, and female. Female who doesn't have much of a damsel-in-distress gene, but still, female. Not the best time to go wandering off into Yellowstone or exploring Crater Lake.

But the fact is, driving around the country is basically just a series of Sunday outings these days. Unless I'd been looking for trouble, I wasn't likely to find any.

    One Worthwhile Moment

    It's no secret that the last couple of months have been more of a struggle than I anticipated (or desired) in any number of ways. In this world of war and pestilence, as my parents used to say, I know my troubles are trivial. But still ... the latter half of this adventure has not looked the way I thought it would.

    So it was that, last week, while I was shuffling my search for temporary accommodations, and the need to eliminate possessions before seeking permanent accommodations, and work with my clients, and inquiries from potential new clients, and ideas for research and writing on the book, and the timing of pitching agents, and the time it takes for a required review to be completed, and the Thanksgiving pie baking and travel plan, and ... what was I saying? Right. So amidst all that, I learned that Mr. Khanjani's brother would be nearby for a few days.

    It's funny how, in the midst of all the craziness, such fortuitous timing brought distinct clarity. That issue of proximity to important characters and resources is, after all, one of only two-point-five reasons why I am sticking around the increasingly dark and cold northeastern U.S. for the next little while, despite my desire to flee. (The other reasons are the need to divest "stuff" and the location of the parental folk.)

    And so, days later, I found myself sitting down for dinner in a warm kitchen, at a broad and worn farmhouse table. Beside me sat a woman from the U.K. Across from me sat a man and woman from Iran. And at the end of the table sat my dear little sister from China, who had greeted me at the door with a gleeful grin and brushes of her small hand against mine, her strong voice announcing, "Aunty JoAnn," on repeat, to her mother and the assembled guests.

    Together, we served ourselves tender baked chicken and veggies, lemon-dressed greens, and heaps of fragrant Persian rice with crunchy potato tahdig. Berry-infused water added festive color to our glasses.  

    Through a mixture of questions and translation gaffs, colliding accents and amused grins, Mr. Khanjani's brother told us about the man he remembers as his eldest sibling, surrogate father, business partner, and beloved friend. 

    "He is brave. He is wise. He is kind. So kind." His voice softened by age and affliction, his English gently accented, he offered one of the evening's stories.

    "I was in the car with him once in Isfahan. There was a man on the corner who was very poor. He had a length of that thin Turkish toweling that he was ripping into smaller squares and selling for maybe two or three pennies each. But as he did it, he was dancing and laughing." He gestured, twirling an imaginary cloth around him, a bit like a lasso.

    "My brother pulled over and bought a few squares. I asked him why. After all, he didn't need them. He said to me, 'I like him! He is happy! So I'll buy a few pieces of cloth because he makes me happy.'"

    It struck me, that image of Mr. Khanjani, whom I now know to be a wealthy man given to flawless tailoring and immaculate suits, stopping at the curb to buy rags from a man who made him smile. And I smiled, too. 

    Uff Da and Up Helly Aa

    Every now and again, folks ask me why I write more about life experiences, book writing, and my experience as an author newb, and less about the things I do that actually make money. After all, content marketing, sponsored content work, writing, editing, and communications strategy consulting is kind of my jam. Shouldn't I be spouting all of that wisdom?

    The answer is a little more complicated than a straight-up yes or no.

    First, I get paid for that wisdom because I'm a fixer. In fact, that's a big reason why I went freelance a couple of years ago. A fixer is the person in a particular role (and often not the role that's supposed to be responsible), who gets called when one or more of their collaborators are flat-out stumped. He or she can cut through the hemming and hawing, set a path, define a strategy, ask new questions, or Google it (fer pete's sake) to help clear a roadblock. 

    A fixer often can't turn off what others might assume is "playing devil's advocate" or "always having to be right." So, as a staff member, she or he may annoy the bejeepers out of colleagues, throw off the curve for hourly estimating ("I'm done already. What's next?"), and become someone everyone respects but no one likes. As a freelancer, a fixer is often very well-liked and a welcome addition to temporary teams. After all, she or he will swoop in, help make things better, and leave. Confident, happy, reassuring, efficient!

    Since I hung out my own shingle, I've been very fortunate to receive plenty of calls and emails from former coworkers who went on to other endeavors. They reach out to me, specifically, when they reach the stumped point. "Our advancement office needs ..." "I don't know what I'm dealing with yet, but we're gonna need you ..." "So we got this RFP and I don't know how to ..."  

    That means I tailor the wisdom to my clients' specific needs. I don't believe in one-size-fits-all writing, editing, or strategy ... which is typically what winds up in blog posts. Instead, I believe in discussing business goals, challenges, resources, preparation ... all of the pieces of the puzzle. In initial meetings with clients, before they ever pay a cent or even have a contract in place, I try to provide some value that can help them as soon as they walk out the door or hang up the phone.

    Second, marketing is manipulation. Folks don't like to hear it, but it's true. Marketing is the art of manipulating people to do what you want them to do, while making them think it was their idea. It can wear a white hat or a black hat. I've worn both.

    I prefer the white one. That's another reason I chose to go freelance. Slowly but surely, I'm gaining more control over the projects I take on and the tenor of the relationships I form with clients. I'm also starting to dabble in the shift back to the storytelling, journalistic writing I originally loved. The kind that's less about manipulation and more about elucidation. 

    As a result, I have a pigheaded resistance to marketing-as-usual. I work in communications. I specialize in making complicated things easy for people to understand. 

    You want the big secret of marketing? It doesn't matter what you say. It matters what you do.

    Run your organization responsibly, provide a valuable product or service, and treat both your customers and employees like they matter. That's. It. I can help you talk about that once you're doing it. What I can't do is wave a shiny wand and make everything okay if you're not on the up-and-up.

    Finally, I prefer to work with people who know me. That doesn't mean I don't want to meet new people! But it does mean that I am a whole person, and so are each of my clients and each of my collaborators. If someone gets sick, takes a vacation, needs to make a soccer game, or whatever, it's not a crisis. It's life. We can handle it.

    That's why I write about other things in my world. Where I am, what I'm observing, stuff I'm learning, how I'm feeling, things I'm writing, what I'm celebrating. I expect to learn the same about my clients. It helps me know how to plan ahead and how to interact with different people.

    So, what's up with the post title? I just happened to be feeling a little Viking-y today.

    Uff da is a Scandinavian-American expression picked up from Norwegian immigrants. It's used exactly as it sounds ... kind of like an oy vey for the Norsk, Dansk, and Svensk set.

    Up Helly Aa is a festival in the village of Lerwick, in Shetland, which involves much merrymaking and the burning of a life size, floating Viking galley. It takes place at the end of January. (Along with the Chincoteague Pony Swim in July, it's one of the events I would most like to attend, but that's not the point.) This year, it's the time by which I hope to have a number of administrative, work, book, and life ducks in a row. Which I will likely celebrate by setting something more modest aflame, possibly while wearing a Viking helmet.  

    Stuck in the Middle With Me

    It's been a month and a week since I last wrote a blog post. I would like credit for the several times I've sat down, opened the laptop, logged in, and drummed my fingers on the keyboard, however.

    What have I done in the meantime? Altered my path two-plus times to avoid bobbing and weaving hurricanes. Spent most of a week working on deadlines in a hotel room in the Blue Ridge (which the window indicated were lovely). Wandered battlefields in Virginia with one of my closest pals. Spent most of another week working and exuding vast quantities of viral fluids in a hotel room just beyond the Beltway. Blew my nose for several more days at a friend's home outside Philadelphia. Visited my old haunts to catch up with clients, friends, and medical folks. And now I'm in the blazing leafy beauty of coastal New England, working some more and visiting with family. 

    Of course, most of my time in the latter half of the trip has been devoted to debating what comes next. Everything I own, with the exception of what I've carried in my car these last few months, remains in storage. I remain entirely in limbo. And my two most desirable locations are the middle of New Mexico and the seacoast of New Hampshire/Maine.

    Considerations include client diversity, cash flow, cost of living (and availability of rentals to the self-employed), tax ramifications, ease of travel, book contacts for research and acquisition, outdoor fun availability ... and, let's be honest, the desire to keep exploring. Welcome to the place where freelance life and writing life collide!

    At the moment, I'm seriously considering finding furnished lodgings back in my old neighborhood for the winter. My responsible streak is showing, I know. That plan would allow me to avoid a temporary change in business arrangements and buy me a little time to offload more furnishings, identify a place to live, make moving plans, approach more diversified clients, and move the book forward significantly.

    For the long-term, though, returning to my long-time neighborhood is not on the table. I've done my best these last years to shake off the predictability and general malaise; I certainly don't want to wrap them around me again like a heavy sleeping bag.

    So, what's next? To quote Winnie the Pooh: "Think, think, think."

    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."