Monday, August 31, 2009

Five Observations

I have been missing something in my life.
The sound of fingers hitting key. The excitement to share something: a story, a vignette, a metaphor, an idea. The daily ritual of writing it all down. When I lived in Spain, I got into the habit of writing five observations a day. In college, I kept a narcissistic livejournal that I updated obsessively. It didn't matter what I wrote. What mattered was that it was always a part of my day, and a part of my day that I enjoyed.

That said, here are my five observations from today, August 31, 2009:

1. It's okay to slow down every now and then. Last week I panicked when I realized that, for the first time in three years, when I woke up in the morning, I didn't have an immediate task. That is to say, my only responsibilities were to eat, get dressed, go to school, and generally just let things happen.

Let things happen
. That could be the best possible parable for writing a good story, and yet for me it is the most difficult. How does one just stand aside and let an experience develop? It's hard not to meddle, not to email out cover letter after cover letter, insisting that yes, I'm a terrific barista, or a fantastic afternoon tutor, or goshdarnit, I do love answering phones. I find it takes an entirely different kind of courage to just wait. To accept help when it is offered. To understand that it is absolutely legal to study something simply because you can, and because you think it is important.

Here are the things I am letting happen:
my first semester of graduate school
the search for a new housemate
internships and job opportunities
direction, in general

2. Two things that help me relax:

and Zoe Keating's One Cello x 16 album.

Walking around Lake Merced listening to her amazing looped cello is perhaps the most relaxing exercise I've had since returning from my trip.

3. Mitchell's Ice Cream is the best use of well-earned calories in San Francisco.

4. Example of a writing prompt I can get behind: the Six Word Memoir, a project of SMITH Magazine. I discovered this while proctoring level tests back at Kaplan, and was amazed at the community of writers it has created. The stories are economic, artfully depicted and really fun to write. Try it out!

5. The California State University system has had to increase fees 32% this semester. Many of our classes have been cut. There are 24 furlough days on campus this year, which means that on these weekdays, the entire school is closed. No class, no student services, no work hours. A disheartening introduction to the world of graduate school. One lecturer said it best: "If you want to know the way I really feel about this, and what is actually going on, I'll happily send you some information. But in the meantime, we're here now, so let's accomplish something!"

Damn straight. I'm going to accomplish something by letting things happen, and watching my fingers as they hit keys.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Jump. Is how I feel right now.

There's a story about the desert that people should know. I'd never quite felt that absolute stillness before. I love the way heat settles--it's as if air itself were a dog twirling in tight circles before sitting down for a nap. I admired how tenacious the heat was, and how little it discriminated between person and plant.

Laurel, Oscar and I hiked the Pukara de Quitor, Incan ruins that lead up the hillside and into the sky. We wandered up the hillside to a large monument in the shape of a cross, which read: "Dios Mio, Dios Mio, por que me has abandonado?" (My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?) We were surrounded by a half-circle of face sculptures, and a plaque commemorating the indigenous people who were beheaded there. It was a bright, clear, eerie place with a 360 panorama of salt flats, jagged valleys and neighboring mountains. The sky was impeccably clear, and the sun happily fierce. The three of us were bound there, up above all the rocks, above our bicycles in the sand, above the bullshit of cell phones and health insurance and purposeful enterprise. Serenity itself made its home here, in the desert.

This was the Valle de la Luna. This was our Great Wall of Chile. We biked through the sand and climbed uphill just before the sun began its descent. The air was finally cool, quiet, and the stars were blossoming like late night flowers, bright and powerful. The air is so potent when you stop and realize it's there. We followed a narrow path along the hill's spine, practically running to keep up with the darkening sky. The sides of the valley shivered with excitement, with a shudder of orange, yellow and blue. What a privilege it was to be there, witnessing. How many other ways can we witness the world in a new way?

Fast forward to my last night in Chile. Laurel and I were staying in a tiny cabin in Cajon del Maipo, a village near the Andes about an hour outside of Santiago. Her friend Marcelo had driven us up the night before to stay in the little place he himself had helped build. The house was small and compact, with two little bedrooms and a snug living room. It relied mainly on a few battery-operated bulbs and a wide main window -- otherwise, no electricity. Marcelo dropped us off, leaving us with an expanse of countryside and a pack of friendly outdoor dogs. We were so unbelievably removed, I felt my body and mind completely used, stretched out, drawn to their limits. And yet it was a wonderful feeling, a sensation of having really lived to see something, and done it completely.

We made a small dinner of avocado and cheese sandwiches and grilled them over the stove, finding our way around the cabin in candlelight. The sun sank earlier here, where winter was slowly maturing. We could hear the dogs outside in the cold.

Later that evening, around three am, the most wonderful thing happened. It began to snow.

"Nieve! Nieve! Mira, chicas!" Marcelo and his friend Cesar ran into our room, hair dripping wet. Laurel and I threw on our coats and boots and ran outside, where the snow fell in thick chunks, like ripe fruit. It was all the endings of all the movies I've ever seen all thrown into one tight little ball: mountains, snow, best friends, remembered twilights, long bus rides to faraway destinations. And the occasional curveball, thrown in for good measure.

It made me want to jump.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


One week ago I was in the San Pedro de Atacama desert in northern Chile with the one and only Laurel Brittan. Two extraordinary things to know: San Pedro de Atacama, and Laurel Brittan. At its very essence, my trip to Chile was an exciting, bilingual exile from the world of programmed daily ritual; a reminder that there is so much more to see when you are not seated behind a desk. To distill everything we did and everywhere we went into one simple summary is about as easy as sifting through two thousand photos for the best thirty.

In fourteen days, we went from the city of Santiago (engaging, active, albeit polluted) to the port town of Valparaiso (stunningly colorful series of hills by the beach) to the jaw-droppingly desolate Atacama desert, and finally to the Cajon del Maipo, where we stayed in an electricity-less cabin about a dozen yards from the Andes mountains.

I learned a few Chilenismos. Vacan = cool. Hueyon / hueyona = dude. Palta = avocado. Pololo / polola = boyfriend/girlfriend. Cachai? = Got it?

We met artists. Single dads. Fellow travelers. Friends of friends who introduced us to their friends. And Oscar Montecino, the rare traveling Chileno who we met in the desert and instantly became the glue that held us together. The three of us rented bicycles and hiked Incan ruins. We watched the sunset over the Valle de la Luna and the sunrise over the Geyser del Tatio. Things happen when you meet gentle strangers in beautiful places. Meaning comes from surprising sources. Best friends develop when sharing close quarters.

The desert inspires. I feel stories growing up my spine, not quite ready yet, but hopefully soon. Now that I'm back home, where we have easy access to hot water, where the beds are warm and clean, reality awaits. School. Insurance. Work. Growing up.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

On Maturity

Transitions. I forgot about those.

It is official now. I quit my job. I'm going to visit my best friend in Chile in about four days. I will be starting a graduate program in creative writing a week after I get back. There are moments when this feels like the best decision in the world, and moments when it feels like I just shed about ten years of maturity, lost and unsure of myself.

Last night, while at a dinner party in my parents' neighborhood, I met a young man who is doing an MFA at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, perhaps the most prestigious graduate program for writers in the country. I asked him what his experience has been like, and he asked me what my goals were. I sputtered like an old gas pipe and started to repeat the feeble little mantras that have been rolling around in my brain for the last three years.

"I want to write," I said first. "I mean, I want to be better. I want to know what I'm doing, and know what to do next. I want to know how to submit work properly. I like teaching. I could teach. I want to learn about publishing and editing. Journalism's cool too."

He looked at me blankly. I cringed. It sounded like I was reading the back of an educational leaflet and highlighting all the words in bold. That's kind of what this application experience has been like. But I've got to start somewhere, right? The reason I quit my job was the same reason I am going back to school: somehow I've learned how to do whatever work I am assigned, but I never manage to get around to what I feel is important. This sudden invitation to write what I want, and to work creatively, is so open that I find myself missing the confines of a 9-5 job.

And then I blinked, and he pushed a glass of red wine across the table to me, and I remembered where I was, and how these are the internal ramblings of a truly lucky person. It was just past midnight, and we were sitting at a long table in my neighbor Lizzy's dining room. Lizzy had just prepared a gourmet organic meal for twenty people. Almost all of the guests were kids I had grown up with, a band of tall, loud and happy siblings who have since scattered across the globe and come back. I watched them all in the dimmed white lights, many of them bearded, nearly all of them over six feet, all of them grinning. All of them, from my high-school-science-teacher brother to the Lizzy, the event-planner-turned-chef, had made their careers piece by piece. There's no one way to be. I knew that, and I know that, but sometimes it's easier to allow others the freedom you can't (or won't) allow yourself.

Freedom, eh? I guess freedom starts with a ticket to Santiago, Chile...