Gratitude

I’m in Alaska at my writing residency. It’s lovely here, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to be here. My tourist day in town — the day before I came up to the residency itself — was studded with random moments when I’d be walking around and suddenly “Thank you,” would just bubble out of me. Out loud. Literally just saying it aloud as I walked on the beach, as I stood in the museum, as I sipped mead, as I stared up at the mountains. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve never had gratitude burst out of me before. It’s a curious feeling. I’d like to experience it some more!

I’m here to write. I’m here, most specifically, to work on “Fat Talk” essays. I am determined to shape that series into a collection. And, while I haven’t been away from the project for long, I kind of have, too. I did some writing in November, but never cleaned it up and posted it. I’ve been thinking about the project, but haven’t gotten any words on paper.

So these two weeks are time to pull this project back to the front of my brain and see what’s what.

And that’s hard and stressful because a lot of what I want to write about it hard and stressful. Having to put into words the ways in which I have been mistreated is hard. Having to put into words the ways in which I have mistreated myself is harder. It’s good to be here to do this. To have time and silence to push through the rough pieces. To have a group of writers to sit with at dinner and feel embraced and heard. This. THis is why “thank you” just kept bubbling out of me on Saturday. The understanding and anticipation of the gift of this

I came up a day early so that I could recover from a 20-hour travel day and play tourist in Homer for a minute. I wish I could have come up a full week early. I enjoyed my day of wandering in the cold and rain, however. I was exhausted — arrived at 7:30 in the morning but couldn’t check into the hotel until 5, so I had to stay awake and do something all day. And I did. Walked on the beach, stared at the mountains, had a really good omelet, went to the very excellent and inspiring Pratt Museum — if you’re going to be in Homer, for-sure visit the Pratt. It’s small and lovely. After the museum, I walked over to the Sweetgale Meadworks to try mead for the first time. I sampled all the meads ( 😉 ) and even got pics of a visiting moose before it was time to head to the hotel. On the drive to the hotel, we passed a coffee klatch of bald eagles — six of them just hanging out on the beach. And then I discovered that I’m not too early for late daylight! I thought I’d miss the whole midnight sun extravaganza … and I will, but the sun sets after 10pm right now, so daylight just goes on and on. It’s magical.

Here are some pics from the last few days:

My first good look at Kachemak Bay, taken from the back deck of the hotel where I stayed the first night.
The flights of meads I sampled. The flight on the left had my favorites: Sweetgale, Nagoonberry, and Wildflower.
One of the two moose who came by the meadery as I was sipping mead.
The view from my hotel room … at about 9pm. Crazypants that it was still this bright out!
Hanging out at the Salty Dawg Saloon before heading out to the residency. (That Stella Cidre was good stuff!)
A piece of the view from my cabin window here at the residency. That’s Cook Inlet.
Running away to write. 10/10 highly recommend
A mated pair of Sandhill Cranes who were hanging around outside the main house when I walked up for breakfast yesterday.

And now it’s time to get back to work! ❤


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Better than a message from our sponsors …

My city has been producing an evolving series of PSAs starring the Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. And now, the Deputy Commissioner as well. They’re all about Covid and how to protect and care for ourselves and others, how to take on this fight together as one big family in this city.

When I first started seeing the PSAs a couple of months ago (interrupting my very important binge-watching on ParamountPlus), I thought they were silly. Did I really need messages from the amiable and nerdy, soft-spoken Dr. Chokshi? Turns out, yes. Yes, I did. Not because I was learning new information but because Chokshi and now his Deputy Commissioner, Dr. Morse, are so grounding and reassuring. There is something gentle and confident and comforting about both of them.

And, too, I did learn something from Dr. Dave (he calls himself this, I’m not being overly casual). In one of his newer PSAs, he reviews the three kinds of masks recommended to keep us Omicron-safe … which is how I learned (FINALLY!) the name of the mask I’ve been wanting to try: the Kf94. I’ve been seeing people wearing these masks (they’re quite common), but every time I ask someone what it’s called, they’ve told me it’s a KN95 … which is a totally different mask.

So, I’ve just ordered a batch of these “fish mouth” masks (does anyone really call them that?!), and I’m hopeful that they’ll work better for me than the N95s and KN95s I’ve struggled with.

I will now acknowledge that I love these tiny PSAs, these quick hits of health info. Love them. Dr. Dave and Dr. Michelle are pleasing the mess out of me. I would love to know whose idea these spots were. Who looked at Dr. Chokshi and said: yes, this guy is exactly who the city needs to hear from during commercial breaks. I’d like to shake that person’s hand and commend their cleverness. Dr. Chokshi is a hit, and now so is Dr. Morse. They’re a one-two punch of public health help.

*

And yes, there’s more to the fabulousness of these PSAs than the Covid messages that are being given. Both the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner are BIPOC. Both appear on camera in lab coats with their names embroidered over the breast pocket. And I can’t help but think about the power of that image, the power of seeing this brown man and Black woman standing and delivering, representing the formal administration of health and safety for this city full of brown and Black people.

There’s always someone who questions how much representation matters, who questions whether it matters at all. I’m not here to argue nonsensical questions. It matters. Full stop. These PSAs are plentiful, and they’re quick, tossed into the sea of ads that fill in the spaces between segments of our chosen programming. Seeing Doctors Chokshi and Morse over and over in their quiet minute-long spots is sending an even quieter message, one that I am definitely here for.

*

I am making myself laugh, seeing how into these PSAs I am … and now I’m even more into them because I’ve just seen a new one that features the First Deputy Commissioner and Chief Equity Officer at DOHMH, Dr. Torian Easterling. Dr. Easterling is a big, Black man with a resonant, calmingly authoritative voice. He’s also someone I met back when I worked in the Mayor’s Office and whom I’ve liked and admired for years.

These PSAs are exactly what I needed right now. I wish I could also believe they will be the magic bullet that will help turn the tide here, bump up our vax percentage and get the unmasked to straighten up and fly right. I don’t see that happening as a result of gentle PSAs, but a girl can dream.

In the meantime, I’m just enjoying seeing “the city’s doctor” encourage sanity and compassion. Thanks, Dr. Dave!


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Making a Run for It

I am a great fan of stories in which a woman decides to run away from her life. Think Shirley Valentine. It’s one of the first versions of this genre that I recognized as a Runaway Lady movie. My all time favorite, however, is an Italian movie called Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips). In the case of this film’s heroine, she doesn’t make the decision to run away from her life until her life walks away from her, but she embraces the change in circumstances in the most beautiful and pleasing way.

So yes, it was a while before I recognized the pattern of my fascination with these stories, how drawn to them I was. I don’t have a life that is even a little bit like the lives of the women in those stories. I’m not married, have no children, don’t feel trapped and invisible in my world. And yet …

I said Pane e Tulipani was my all-time favorite of this genre. And that’s true … or, it has been true for years. Last year, in my Covid-inspired just-watch-every-streaming-thing life, I found a new movie to add to the list, and it quietly slipped right into the number one slot.

The movies that fill this category for me all have one clear thing in common: the star player is a white woman. Always and always, the sad, lonely, beleaguered, undervalued, tired, frustrated woman who chooses to walk away from her world is white. She goes somewhere, often someplace “exotic” and finds new happiness. I’m not casting aspersions on my much-loved plot line. I’m just saying that these particular plot details stand out in their sameness and in how much they aren’t like me.

Yes, there is gorgeous Angela Bassett as Stella getting back her groove, but Stella didn’t run away from her life. She went on vacation, that’s not the same at all. No.

Pane e Tulipani is still bathed in golden light and still holds a warm place in my heart, but the movie that smiled and laughed its way to the top of my list is Juanita, starring the incomparable Alfre Woodard. Juanita has so much going on, quietly and charmingly, and juggles all of its pieces skillfully and beautifully.

For me, the chance to watch this completely regular woman – not someone who can afford to buy an Italian villa (Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) – decide to just pack her bag and go is an invitation to breathe deeply, to settle in and enjoy. And yes, the fact that Juanita is a regular Black woman makes all the difference. She’s no Stella with a high-powered job as a lawyer and a big, gorgeous home. She’s a caregiver, working in a skilled nursing facility. I can look at Juanita and see myself, which I could never do with Bassett’s Stella or Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love, one movie in this genre that I really, truly don’t care for).

*

I am not dreaming of running away from my life. Not in any significant way, at least. I would happily run away from the mountain of fertility treatment debt I continue to pay off, but I rather like my life otherwise.

So, not running away, but definitely wanting more opportunities to get out of Dodge, to escape, even briefly, from the miles-long lists in my bullet journal and actually sit still and quiet and have time to breathe, to think, to write.

A few weeks ago I gave myself such a getaway. A friend and I decided to make a DIY writing retreat. We went to the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania and were surrounded by woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, and goldfinches, surrounded by trees and trees and trees … and with nothing to do by get the worlds out of our heads and onto the page.

This was my fourth DIY retreat, the third that I’ve done with friends. I had let myself forget how important this kind of time is to me. After all, I’ve been sitting alone in my apartment for 18 months, shouldn’t I have been able to use some of that time as a mandatory retreat or some such? But, of course, no. That’s not the same as taking myself away for dedicated writing time. Sitting in my home means being surrounded not by chatty birds but by all my undone chores. They mock my attempts to stay focused, reminding me of everything I have to do around the house.

I do write at home. Of course I do, right? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much to show for myself, since I spend the bulk of my time in my day-to-day life and not on vacation.

Still, respites are gold and so very necessary. They give me a kind of reset with my writing, and I need that whenever I can get it. A chance to recommit, to remember my writer self.

*

This most recent getaway was the first time I’d drawn even the faintest line of connection between my retreats and my obsession with runaway-middle-aged-lady stories. It’s not the location that’s inspiring me. If I were to flee my life, it wouldn’t very likely be an escape to the Pennsylvania woods.

My guess is that, rather than a “running away from,” what’s connecting for me is the “running toward” that is at the heart of each of these stories, that’s at the heart of my insistence on turning every vacation into a writing retreat. The women in those stories need to turn away from something in order to get closer to themselves, to their most authentic selves. I don’t need to turn away from my life, but I do need to remember to always move in the direction of my writing, always make and find space to do what I do when I go on retreat: sit still and quite. Breathe. Think. Write.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

24 Hours: Do I Dare?

What is it with me and challenges? I can’t resist them. Cannot. I never used to think of myself as a competitive person, but I so am. And that’s part of the driver behind my saying yes to challenges. I’m competing: against the ridiculousness of the challenge, against myself.

I think it throws me back to taking a dare as a kid. Someone would thrown down some petty or foolish gauntlet, and I would immediately feel the pull to dive in and prove … who knows what, but prove it all the same. Clearly, I’ve never outgrown the inability to resist that pull.

All this to say I can’t resist. Generally speaking, the challenges I take on are fairly mild. They come in the form of, say, doing NaNoWriMo. Or the 30/30 poetry month challenge … and sweetening the pot by choosing a poetry form and writing that form all month long. Not easy for me, but pretty harmless.

The 24 Hour Project is one of the challenges that keeps captivating me year after year. It tests me on different levels:

  1. Can I stay awake and mostly functional for 24 hours?
  2. Can I find something or someone to photograph every hour of the day?
  3. Will I be able to imagine a story to write for each photo I post each hour (this is the “sweetener” I’ve added to the basic rules of the 24HrPrj)?
  4. Will I be able to get all the photos of people that I want without being spotted (I fail this every year, always get busted at least once)?
  5. Will I venture into neighborhoods I haven’t visited on previous 24HrPrj days?
  6. Will I post all my “leftovers” after the day — all the pics that didn’t go up on the challenge day but which I still want to make stories for (I haven’t succeeded with this one this year … yet)?
  7. If I’m going out alone, will I settle into the fun of the challenge and not let the worry and discomfort of being alone on the street in the middle of the night sour my good mood and make it hard for me to take pictures (this one is really a crap shoot and has as much to do with me as it does with who else is out on the street in the middle of the night)?

Is it any wonder that I love this challenge when it has so many challenges baked in?

I had a lot of fun this year … after I managed to succeed at Number 7, calming down about being by myself. Both of the friends who’ve gone out with me in the past weren’t able to do the Project this year. I did wind up running into my friend S, the person who introduced me to the challenge. I spotted him in Times Square around 4 am and hung out with him and a few other 24 Hour Photogs for a couple of hours then met up with him for another couple of hours in the evening.

I was rusty with the story-making. Not only was the Project Covid-canceled last year, being in quarantine for the last forever has meant not being out and about that much, not taking pictures, not having the catalysts/inspiration to make up stories.

So yes, quite rusty. But after a couple of hours it began to feel easier. There’s a picture from the two o’clock hour that was the turning point. I had found an all-night diner (key establishments for making it through the Project, to be sure) and took a picture of a police officer who was having dinner and a very involved conversation with his partner. In the picture, he is studying the menu. The combination of his serious face and the fact that he reminded me of a friend’s son and echoed her older brother who had been a police officer all clicked for me and the story just fell into my head. From that point forward, the stories came more quickly and smoothly.

*

I miss my city. Eighteen months in my room is a long time to be separated from people watching, grabbing a coffee at a favorite café, chatting with store employees, having random and excellent encounters with strangers.

That last one is one of the things that struck me hardest during the 24 Hour Project. I miss talking to strangers, something I’ve always done quite a lot of … but not since Covid came to town. Around 7:30 Saturday morning, having seen my way through the long midnight-to-dawn of the challenge, I was headed home to charge my devices and recharge myself. I stopped in my grocery story because I still needed a photo for the hour. I saw an elderly woman I wanted to take a picture of. I did take a picture, but she surprised me by starting to talk to me.

Not only did she talk to me, but she was funny and sweet. At two moments in our conversation, she reached over and put her hand on my arm. You know, the way you reach for a friend’s arm when you’re talking and you want to emphasize your shared feeling at that instant. And she did it twice.

I am a toucher. I like affectionate physical contact. Not with everyone, of course, but yes, I like it. Having this woman touch me in this conversationally intimate way — after a forever of almost no physical contact, when we were strangers, when she was a tiny elderly white woman and I a big, Black woman — it was absolutely beautiful. It made my heart smile.

I have missed this type of sweetness my city has always given me. Yes, the city has given me some ugly moments, too, for sure. But I get much more of the random kindness and connection of that exchange in the chips and cookies aisle.

* * *

(My 24-Hour experience this year was a warm welcome back to my city. But what a difference a couple of weeks can make. I was out taking my pictures on July 24th … and now, Delta is threatening new lockdowns. I’m glad we got the Project in before the tide started to turn, and I really hope we can stay on the safer side of this variant wave.)

Do I dare? Well, I certainly always do when it comes to the 24 Hour Project. It’s such a great idea and a fun event, and I love following people from around the world, getting to see a day in their cities. This year I followed two Italians, a Pole, two Mexicans, one Turk, a couple of Australians, and a handful of people around this country. In a sense, I guess it’s a virtual way to have a random conversation with a stranger.

I need to get back to posting my leftovers … and some of the shots I’ve captured since the event. I’m already looking forward to next year!


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And the List Goes on: The Brighter Side of Quarantine

I was amused by last night’s post, by my list of the ways you can tell how the pandemic is going in my house. That post inspired a handful of emails and a couple of texts, however, folks checking to make sure I’m okay.

Let me be very, very clear: I am okay.

Really. Yes, there are things that suck, Yes, there are ways I’m not exactly living my best life. In addition to all of that, however, I am also okay. And here’s a list to illustrate that:

  • I have put so many miles on my super-cheap stationary bike that I’ve ridden it into the ground and have just had to buy a new one.
  • I’ve started knitting gifts for myself and others.
  • I get up every morning.
  • I finally started cooking for myself after living on fruit and snacks for months.
    • I had a piece published that’s all about the magical recipe that got me to start cooking again.
  • I’ve been in a handful of excellent readings on zoom, including a bookend event for the Brooklyn Book Festival.
  • I have more than a dozen new and excellent fountain pens, including six of my favorite vintage pocket pens by Pilot, Platinum, and Sailor.
  • I have four pretty, blue, manual typewriters!
  • Covid pushed me to pull out my sewing machine for the first time since moving to this apartment, sort through my fabric stash and make myself some masks … and then to make masks for some of my neighbors, for a really nice Lyft driver and his family, and for some strangers I chatted up online.
  • I’ve organized the pieces of a book project I’ve been teasing myself about and discovered that I have much more written than I’d realized and there might actually be a book in there when I’m done.
  • I’ve discovered a surprise interest in blacksmithing — maybe not such a surprise, really, given my discovery of my natural welding talent a few years ago. What is blacksmithing if not playing with fire and metal? Same “craft” family as welding, though will many added skills to learn!

(Unsurprisingly, some items from yesterday’s list appear here, too. Blessings and curses are often comingled for me. I’ve learned to just go with it.)

There’s plenty more. These are ones that fit neatly into a brief-ish sentence. Maybe I’ll write about the others during the Slice of Life Challenge next month. The point is, I am fine. For all the ways the pandemic has been awful, I’ve been very lucky. I get to work at home, and I have always been really good at spending time alone in my house. I’ve hit more than a few walls these last couple of months, and that’s been hard. I’m managing, though. Regular contact with family and friends, deep wells of binge-worthy nonsense online, and knitting. It adds up to sanity while staying safe.

I hope you’re finding sanity and safety, too. ❤