Hanging With My Clan

“You need a guy who gets the musical side of you.” My writing classmate lobbed the comment into conversation over fish tacos in a suburban Halifax bistro two summers ago. It smacked the table like a cod hitting the deck.

I have no recollection of the topic at hand, except that it was totally unrelated. Most of my memory of that meal centers on the third member of our party incrementally ramping up her level of Francophone-and-restaurant-professional indignation at our server’s glacial pace, and all three of us repeatedly checking our watches, lest we miss our residency’s keynote address by one of Canada’s most respected nonfiction writers.

My friend absorbed my stare of abject confusion and my awkward chuckle. I will never know exactly why that thought popped into her head (or out of it) at that particular time. There’s a chance it had to do with a boisterous singalong at the pub sometime during that residency, but I can’t be certain. Still, it’s come back to me on a couple of occasions since then.

One was when I found myself chatting with a stranger on a train outside New York City. I’m usually a pleasantries-and-silence sort of seatmate, but if someone wants to chat, I’m up for passing the time. In this case, an older woman had sat down next to me. She was headed to see her family. I was meeting my cousin to catch a matinee of Come From Away on Broadway. Questions about the show turned into rambling chatter about music. As I described my young “drum dudes,” as I called my elementary and middle-school Scottish drumming students, she pointed out how clear it was that I truly enjoyed working with them, and how refreshing that was to see. I supposed, at the time, that was true. I did genuinely enjoy watching the kids learn new skills … both as musicians and as part of a corps, as teammates, as people who could respect one another’s contributions and personalities, different though they were.

The most recent reminder descended this weekend. After several months of flat-out, all-consuming, all-colliding work, I’m starting to emerge from my cocoon. So, when I found that two of my former pipe majors and a former bandmate would be playing a Celtic traditional music concert at one of my usual haunts on Saturday night, I decided to head down and hang out with the crew. Another former bandmate and his family, along with the family of one of my former co-instructors also arrived, and we all got to have a good catch-up.

I was reminded that I’ve been lucky enough, through the years, to play in pipe bands with a host of extraordinarily talented musicians. Bagpipes and drums attract their fair share of rogues and rakes and unsavory individuals. They also attract an unusually high number of prodigies, honors students, sensitive souls, brilliant brains, and upstanding characters. The competitive side of the genre doesn’t always bring out the best of the participants (myself, for example). But the broader playground is full of good music, good people and good fun.

After seeing my friends put on their usual stunning performance (and wishing the audience was both more ample and more animated), I put myself in the car and took myself up the road toward home. I realized that I was smiling at nothing as I cruised along through the fall darkness, just enjoying the residual warmth of the greetings, the hugs and the grins.

And I realized that for those who know me as the serious, calm and measured problem-solver, it might be a bit hard to picture me clapping loudly to reels, swaying and stomping along to jigs, or belting the chorus to a favorite song. While, on the flip side, the people who know me as a musician have seen me grinning and winking, hooting and hollering in beer tents and kitchens … and they’ve seen me being focused and serious on the music and the logistics, too.

Which means, in fact, that my friend in Atlantic Canada may have made a valuable observation, as odd in timing as it was. After all, if only the music and arts people get to see me as a whole person, then maybe I should be spending more time with music and arts people.

Remembering an Old Friend

I strolled back to the couch after dinner tonight, intent on my scoopful of racial justice ice cream. If Ben & Jerry's thinks that One Sweet World, a caramel-coffee base with ribbons of salted caramel and marshmallow, and a hefty mix of chocolate chunks, somehow improves race relations, I will happily do my part for the cause. (Yes, that's said very spoon-in-cheek. While I celebrate the effort at raising awareness, race unity requires more friendships and, possibly, fewer slogans.)

As I was saying ... I'd just gotten dessert and was making my way back to the living room. I had in mind the idea of downloading Duolingo so that I can, in my spare time, try to reclaim at least part of the vocabulary I gained from studying Spanish for eight or 10 years straight. Now, some 20 years or so after I last sat in a classroom, I've realized that I can only speak in the present and, when the grammar gods are friendly, past tenses. This is a problem when I'm rather focused on the future. It seems that a refresher is in order. Claro que sí. 

In any case, that's what I thought I would be doing. Instead, the last segment of the evening news caught my ear. There was Dolly Parton, at the Library of Congress, reading her Coat of Many Colors, book number 100 million contributed to that institution. And singing her song that preceded the book by many, many years.

Which, of course, immediately had tears welling up in my eyes, as it always does. Because, you see, the year my parents and I ate squirrel, and quail, and venison, and blackberries picked alongside the road, and the basics that food stamps provided ... that year, my mom made my doll clothes and some of my clothes, too.

The best thing she made that year, though, was my very first backpack, for my very first day of kindergarten. And I think of it every time I hear this song. It has an artful seam down the middle of it. Exactly the same seam that ran down the outside of my Grandpa Mel's olive green polyester/denim work pants. And on the flap, with its super-strong snap that is still hard for me to close, my initials are spelled out in scraps of fabric, decoratively whip-stitched around the edges in bright thread. 

On my first day of school, and for a couple of years after that, my backpack was the prettiest one in the room. No matter what anyone else was carrying.

I knew we didn't have money at the time. But I never thought we were poor. And for that, I thank my parents ... and my pants-leg backpack that served me so well. 

"...  one is only poor,
Only if they choose to be.
Now I know we had no money,
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me ..."

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.

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.

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. 

Ode to an Empty House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voyage of the Empire Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

But the reality of my upcoming adventure is settling in. 

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

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

9 Notes From a New MFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes You Think?

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

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

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

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

What's gotten you thinking lately?

'With Fire We Test the Gold'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joy of Opposable Thumbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Your Friends Have Weird Names'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Season of Restraint

The shaker bottle of berry-scented green sludge next to my desk just caught a flash of sunlight. That's one sight I won't see for the next 19 days. The light on food, I mean. The green sludge will still be around.

At sunset tonight, the nineteenth and last month of the Bahá’í year begins. This is when we fast from sunrise to sunset each day, abstaining from both food and drink. Instead, we turn our attention to prayer, meditation, and the love of God. Then, at the end of the Fast, we celebrate the coming of the new year, which corresponds to the beginning of spring.

Fasting isn't always easy. And there are plenty of exemptions for people who should not fast for one reason or another, ranging from travel, age, and manual labor, to illness and pregnancy, among others. The point of the Fast isn't to punish yourself or make yourself sick. It's about reflecting a spiritual reality in the physical world.

There's something really beautiful about waking up in the half-light before sunrise to fix and eat breakfast and drink plenty of water. In my neighborhood, that means being up and moving around 5:30 a.m. for the first half of the Fast, and then around 6:30 a.m. for the second half, after daylight savings time starts. I tend to eat breakfast while leaning against the kitchen counter, so it may not be the most relaxing morning routine, but it's still thoughtful and dreamy.

Sunsets are more beautiful, too. Some days, that's because hunger has taken hold with a vengeance. Most days, though, it's because I have a greater awareness of the quality of the light and the gentle slide into darkness than I do at any other time of the year. It's pretty common for me to reach sunset and be past the point of hunger, so I don't care if I eat right way. 

For a long time, this has been one of my favorite times of the year. It started because it's incredibly clear that I'm a Bahá’í during the Fast, since I have to plan around social conventions in a way I don't, normally. Lunch meetings? Not so much. Early dinner with friends? Nope. Chat over coffee? No thanks. Then it was because I had a gang of friends nearby who were all fasting and would arrange to meet up and break the fast together with potluck dinners and prayers on Fridays or Saturdays.

Ten years ago, I spent the Fast overflowing with fragile, happy anticipation, dazzled and surprised. The events of that Fast, and that spring, set off a chain of events that continues today, from apartment and travel experiments to career opportunities and financial choices. 

Five years ago, as part of that chain, I spent the last half of the Fast on pilgrimage to the Bahá’í shrines in northern Israel. Pilgrims don't fast, which felt very odd. Instead, I spent a lot of time praying and wandering around the gardens. I let my mind and heart wander, considered who else had walked the same paths, and came back lighter and more focused. Within weeks of my return to the U.S., I was flying back and forth to San Francisco every few months for work and catching up with friends and family out west. After a little more than a year, I changed jobs and opened more doors for myself. A little more than two years after that, I went freelance, started my MFA, and started researching and writing the book. 

Which brings me to now. I'm thinking ahead again. Maybe "feeling" ahead is a better expression. It's time for focus. And prayer. And intuition. And action. 

Smile for the Living

It's snowing, so it must be Tuesday. That's the pattern this winter. But this isn't a week that needs flakes or overcast skies or raindrops. It would be so much better with sunshine.

There's beauty in this, though, the same way there is beauty in all parts of life. I've been occupied recently with completing tasks on lists, trying to focus on what's happening right now while daydreaming what happens next, wondering about my abilities and opportunities given my insignificance in the vastness of the universe. And sorting through the emotions stirred up by my latest writing projects.

Yesterday, though, I realized that I've now felt the tiny, warm hand of a friend wrapping around my fingers on his first day in this world ... and I've wrapped my own hand around the large, dry fingers of a friend on his last day. That stopped me in my tracks. With no answers, just a realization of continuity and the fleeting quality of time.

Not much later, little bubbles popped up on my screen. One more distant addition to the prayers and the memories. A simple question. How are you? I could bring the voice up in my head, hear the combination of sincerity and reflex courtesy in the words. More than that, I heard the parallel in Persian, a smooth, automatic slide of a question after a greeting; a translation I'd once had to request. Chetori? 

My answer was true, but safe. Bobbing on the surface. In the background, the real answer was coming through the speakers, reflecting thoughts and emotions on which I keep a tight rein in the interest of self-preservation. Passenger's entire Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea album and a few tracks from All the Little Lights have been on repeat for days.

I love the poetry and relatability, hope and sadness, cheer and bitterness of the lyrics. Although I could quote them all and they'd all be relevant, these verses capture yesterday's swift moment of realization and whirling reactions:   

"... well i’m sick of this town, this blind man’s forage
they take your dreams down and stick them in storage
you can have them back son when you’ve paid off your mortgage and loans
oh hell with this place, i’ll go it my own way
i’ll stick out my thumb and i trudge down the highway
someday someone must be going my way home

till then i’ll make my bed from a disused car
with a mattress of leaves and a blanket of stars
and i’ll stitch the words into my heart with a needle and thread
don’t you cry for the lost
smile for the living
get what you need and give what you’re given
you know life’s for the living so live it ..."