To the Moon and Timbuktu

To the Moon and Timbuktu

Nina Sovich shares the first chapter of her new book, To The Moon And Timbuktu, with Equals. 

The cab driver assures me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.

“It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”

He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.

© by Nina Sovich. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. All Rights Reserved. 

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Head Down, Blinders On

Although it doesn’t feel like it here in the Midwest, the calendar insists summer is winding down.  I am skeptical.  Each day my inbox is flooded with shopping offers and pictures of scarves and sweaters, as I stare at the thermostat and contemplate turning it down one more degree. Despite the humidity and soaring temperatures, I find myself taking a deep breath and settling in.  The summer for me has been a whirlwind full of longer than average work weeks dotted sporadically with weekend trips to see friends and soccer matches.  I remember a girl’s weekend in June, viewed through a telescope as if it were distantly in the past, perhaps a year ago instead of a mere two months.  My 30th birthday the same month seems a fuzzy memory, clouded through a haze of disproportionate time.  The July weekend spent in Chicago visiting friends and family and watching soccer stars while sipping overpriced beers is a little closer to the surface, but only sporadic moments of it. This summer for me was all about work.  Regular jobs, new freelance opportunities, and expanding projects crowded together to fill my waking moments.  I read a quote in a business magazine once about a start-up and the phrase they used to motivate and drill the importance of the task at hand: Head Down, Blinders On.  By May I knew I was in for longer hours, later nights, and consequently bigger paychecks.  I alerted my family that I would be doing little else. Side projects and hobbies fell to the wayside.  I stopped reading and writing, stopped watching television, stopped sewing.  Head Down, Blinders On.

That’s not my normal method.  I enjoy working from home for the diversity and casualness it allows my day, I can bounce from one thing to another, take a break from a project to sit outside with a notebook or rip out a crooked seam in a sewing project. Blinders are as foreign to me as Celsius temperatures and the British Pound.  I neither use nor understand how to use them.  But without planning or consciously trying, I found myself with near tunnel vision.  Another person might say they had bitten off more than they could chew, but for me, the full days, the near constant switching between three major projects, the Head Down-Blinders On mindset was invigorating.  A sign of success in my chosen path, I was being paid to do things that I was good at from whatever place I chose to be.  I was not tied to a cubicle or a business casual dress code.  I could do what I wanted, and this summer, what I wanted to do was work.

For months work was almost all I did.  Until August hit and I decided I’d had enough.  I released responsibilities I no longer cared to hold.  The fact that I made the choice, and it was followed through, was just as empowering as the extra paychecks I’d been receiving.  Just as I began to lift my head, and remove the blinders, as soon as I began to miss the evenings spent in bed with a book, or a Saturday with nothing to do, the pressure lifted and the work flow lightened. And I breathed deeply the end of the summer air.  I sat and did nothing. And soon I began to fall back into the loves I left behind in May, the click of keys as I typed, the sound of a record as I read, the simple joy of going to sleep at the same time as my husband.  I don’t believe absence makes the heart grow fonder, but returning to my favorite things has reminded me to be grateful of the many ways they nurture my soul.

Margery Kempe: Medieval Pilgrim, Autobiographer

historical woman

I read about Margery Kempe, in the aptly titled The Book of Margery Kempe, in my senior year of college, for a class on medieval history. My first impression was: “Man, b**** be trippin’.”

Actually, I shouldn't use that word. It was more like, “This woman is really, really annoying.”

Of course, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Margery accomplished a tad more. In her self-penned Book, for example, she recounts that time she took a pilgrimage all the way from Britain to the Holy Land by herself. That was no small feat, especially for a non-noblewoman. Even today, if you did that people would be all like, “You’re a woman and you’re going by yourself?”

Margery was born sometime in the late fourteenth century in Norfolk, England, the daughter of a wool merchant and sometime Member of Parliament. In today’s world, she would have maybe been a suburban yuppie. She married a dude named John, had a bunch of kids, and was all set to have a regular medieval suburban yuppie life with him.

But Margery found a higher calling. Literally. (Okay, not literally. I don’t think.) She began to have visions sometime around the birth of her first child. This prompted her to rearrange her priorities and attempt to live more purely. Eventually she gave herself completely to a religious life, even getting her husband to agree to maintain a celibate marriage with her, which sounds like a rough deal.

Her religious adventures included visiting the Holy Land, where she thoroughly irritated all of her fellow pilgrims with her crying spells and general carryings on (can you imagine how crazy you have to be to piss off a bunch of religious pilgrims with your religious fervor?), making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and possibly visiting fellow devotional woman and more highly regarded mystic Julian of Norwich. Margery’s husband was actually from Norwich, so they probably had a lot to talk about.

A story to illustrate Margery's, er, extreme personality: When she returned from her Holy Land visit---in which she was almost stranded in Rome because she gave all her money to the poor and her fellow pilgrims had just about had it up to here---she continued to make pilgrimages around Europe, though she was constrained by her lack of resources and her gender. She often wore all white and tended to weep uncontrollably out of devotion to Christ. Her behavior was so odd that many locals accused her of being a heretic, and at one point, she was nearly burned at the stake. However, church authorities intervened, and Margery's knowledge of the Bible and non-heretical views bore her out. She just had really, really crazy ways of putting them into practice.

What really cemented Margery’s fame, however, was the fact that she put all of these wacky life experiences into a book (albeit one that she dictated to a male writer, being likely illiterate herself). This was actually remarkable. Very few people of her status (middle-class-ish), much less women, had their thoughts and feelings recorded for posterity in this way. Through her, historians are today able to understand the religious lives of laypeople and non-nobles.

And I have to hand it to Margery. Sure, she might have been annoying, and overdramatic, and slightly hysterical at times, but she also was pretty damn courageous. It takes courage, undoubtedly, to strike out on one's own, follow one's passions, and not be trapped by what others might think. On a minimally related personal note, I am starting my PhD this week. Which sounds pretty serious. As sometimes happens, I’ve been racked with insecurity and uncertainty—am I good enough? Am I smart enough? When I raise my hand to speak, will something clever come out, or will it be super lame and everyone will point and laugh and be like “ohmygod you guys how did she get in.”

But who cares? Make a fool of yourself. Dance like no one’s watching. Fall down and have sparkly visions of Jesus and alienate everyone around you. As long as you’re doing what you love, what the heck does it matter? You might still end up with a book that’s remembered five hundred years later, or at least that gets you on the “History” shelf at Barnes & Noble next to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jared Diamond.

Margery gets it. She's there too.

"What Are You Writing, Alexis M. Smith?"

what are you writing alexis

Sometimes, on the rarest of rare occasions, a story just happens to you. You don’t expect it; you assume it will contain words similar to stories past. And then it shocks you, but a pleasant jolt akin to a dear, long lost friend tapping you on the shoulder. This is the only way to describe Alexis M. Smith’s delicate tale, Glaciers. I read it in one day, which was a struggle because I wanted it to last longer, but I intend to peruse my own copy from here on out. Ms. Smith is currently working on another book, and she lives in Portland, Oregon with her son.-Samantha Bohnert

It is strange to be a writer in the summertime. I don’t know if this is true for other writers (I have anecdotal evidence that I’m not alone), but I struggle to engage with my writing in the summer months. I might as well be trying to ice skate as I write a novel from June to September. I was born in the Pacific Northwest, so I assume that the heat is what’s doing me in, but it could just as easily be the world outside—berries to pick, mountains to hike, rivers to swim—calling me out of my head, making writing laborious.

Faced with a page of words I can’t seem to make sense of, all I really want to do is go to the beach. Sitting on the sand and listening to the waves should be a good way to reflect on the work at hand, to let my mind comb through snags in the story. But I usually find myself overwhelmed with my own smallness, my own inability to express anything that might come close to the world I envision. What I usually do, after vain attempts at conscious, constructive thought, is hunt for agates. I have the eye, it turns out. I see agates when others don’t, when others have walked right past them, scanning the ground, turning over larger rocks. I find them when others proclaim that there are none to be found, that they just don’t exist like they used to, since they built the jetty over there, or since this or that beach became popular with tourists.

I found a blue agate half the size of my palm one day in Oceanside, Oregon, while rock hounds all around me found nothing, poking their walking sticks glumly at the pebbles. I didn’t hold it up to the light for everyone to see. I didn’t want to feel their envy. I didn’t want to feel like the lucky one. I dropped it into my pocket so that I could examine it alone, later. I wanted to look at it carefully, to appraise its weight and colors, the way it filtered the late-day light. I wanted to see it fully before I shared it with anyone. What if it was not precious at all? Or what if it was the most beautiful specimen I’d ever find? What if it was both at the same time? The novel I’m writing has been in my head for almost five years now. It came to me in a dream, soon after my son was born, when the hormones were still strong and my dreams were wild and intricate and bright. I woke up and asked my son’s dad to take him for a while so I could go into another room and write it all down. I knew it was a book. I knew that I would write it. And I knew that it would be important to me, writing this book. But I had another novel to finish in the mean time, and a newborn, and a day job.

Years passed; my son grew; my first novel was greeted with (miraculous!) acclaim and goodwill. And all the while, in a pocket of my mind, this other book grew and grew. I scribbled notes and sources and inspiration in a notebook. Scenes came to me suddenly when I was doing the dishes or folding laundry. Character sketches fleshed out, the plot took on dimension, and symbolism crept in. I felt a charge of energy whenever I talked about it with friends, whenever I thought of what it could be.

Agates form in volcanic rock, where voids in the rock leave room for silica-rich water to seep. Over time, under great heat and pressure, the silica and other minerals crystalize in the spaces. Here in Oregon, we find the remnants of these agates on our beaches, where the Pacific washes them from our basalt coastal cliffs, breaking them apart, scouring them over other rocks with each wave and each tide, polishing them.

Agate hunting was a family past time; I learned young not to ignore what was underfoot at the beach. Over long hours of contemplating the waterline as a child, I developed a fanciful sense that each agate found me as much as I found it. We were destined to meet, there on that shore, at that ebb-tide, as if only I could appreciate the expanse of time it had taken this small wonder to find the light. No matter how many agates I find, that moment of discovery always takes my breath away.

Similarly, when I get the idea for a story, there’s also the uncanny feeling that I have nothing to do with its genesis. The story comes from somewhere outside me, and I am only the space in which it will expand, take on density and weight, color and luminosity; that it was meant for me, and me for it, at the bidding of something greater than both of us. Some days, this comes as a relief: I can give up my self-doubt to a higher power. Other days, the responsibility seems overwhelming: how will I ever be equal to this task?

A few days ago, summer on its last, burnished legs, I got in the car and headed out of town on a whim. I couldn’t face the computer all day in the city heat, construction hammering across the street from my apartment. I sat on the beach, thinking of the story that had been crystalizing in my mind, hoping the ocean would scour away whatever stood between me and the glorious, layered, dynamic thing I wanted it to be. The water retreated and I waited to see what would be there, on the pebbly stretch of beach. With the sun at that low angle, the small, wet gems gleam more like jellyfish than rock, but I didn’t catch the telltale glint. Finally, when I was ready to give up, I saw one. No one around, I plucked it from the sand and held it up to the light, admiring the glow.

This is the thing I come back to now: the luck of it all. Here I am, sun-drunk, on a deadline, with pages and pages ahead of me, wondering, What if it’s the most beautiful story I’ll ever write? What if, after all this fretting, it’s not precious at all? And what if I’m lucky either way?

The Youest You

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm pretty good at a number of things, but I don't have a special skill, talent, or hobby that I can really call my own. When it comes to my education and career path, I've managed to achieve many of the traditional markers of success. However, I'm fairly confident that's because I've chosen to stick within the boundaries of what comes easily to me, essentially avoiding failure by not challenging myself. It's also possible I'm adept at pretending that I'm better than I really am or know more than I really do.

Maybe I'm truly lazy and don't work hard enough to consider myself accomplished or skilled. Maybe I'm particularly attuned to the fact that there will always be people better than me. Maybe I'm just not cut out to excel at anything.

I'm not even sure why it matters to me. I don't want to walk around with a medal or read about myself in the paper. Am I so insecure that I'm seeking outside validation to make me feel good about myself —like my inner ten year old who wants to get picked first for the team at recess? I think having some sort of special talent would feel like a worry stone I could keep in my pocket and touch when I needed a little pick me up. Maybe what I really need is a worry stone.

Sincerely,

Just ok

 

Dear Just Ok,

It sounds like what you are searching for is greater meaning in your life—some kind of driving narrative about what you are meant to be doing and how you should shape your life.

Some call that a calling.

Recently, I read a book to my daughter (every day, several times a day, for two weeks) called Ella Takes The Stage.  Are you familiar with it?  In this children's story, Ella the Elegant Elephant is asked to participate in her school talent show.  She gets really nervous when she looks up "talent" in the dictionary, and it says, "a special natural ability."

She tries out several (singing, juggling, etc.) but eventually she just ends up supporting everyone else—mending a ripped pair of tights on a dancer, baking cupcakes for all the performers, saving the day by getting the monkey to jump into her hat for the grand finale.  Everyone claps for Ella, who does not win any medals but is appreciated as being the "wind beneath the wings" of all the people who did acts.

The message is: maybe you don't have special talent, or it could be that your special talent is supporting those who are actually talented!  To which I was like, "Oh great, teach my daughter to be a shadow artist who caretakes those with 'real talent'.  Awesome."  Don't get me wrong.  I want to champion all kinds of expression, even those who are more "behind the scenes."  But a total support person is not a fulfilling or sustainable role. So, don't buy into any of that "maybe you're just a worker bee” bullshit.

Here's how I would have ended Ella the Elegant Elephant.  Ella loves to sing, but is shamed out of it by people who think she's not good enough.  In my version, Ella would find a song she feels highlights her unique voice, even though it may sound really odd, maybe writing it herself to make sure it works.  Then she'd perform it at the Talent Show, and some people would get it, and some would cover their ears.  Ella wouldn't win the top medal in the show, but she would start down a path as an experimental musician that was highly fulfilling even as she enjoyed supporting her fellow artists by baking cupcakes and painting posters.

Shit, now I want a cupcake.  Anyway, enough elephants, more you.  It is excellent that you are thinking about this—don't shame yourself out of it.  It means that you are taking yourself, and your life, seriously.  You are craving meaning and purpose, not just empty praise.  You want to find something you're incredibly good at, not necessarily to be successful, but because it feels amazing to excel at something.

It sounds like you have gone down the "usual" pathways for finding that special something you are wonderful at doing, and have come up empty.  So here's where we flip it on its head: perhaps you're not going to find that thing in education/work right now.  Also, your idea of talent needs a re-vamp.  Maybe what you are amazing at is being you.  You need to find the medium to express your "you-ness", and follow that, even if you are not perfect/successful/praised at it.  I promise you, this will scratch the itch that you have to be "great".  You will get so much out of the process that your whole goal of life will shift.

The inimitable Martha Graham once said, “There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”  So, I'm going to ask you, Just Ok, to go off the beaten path if you have to, to find that way to express your uniqueness.  Don't let it be lost in the effort to obtain society's hallmarks of success (degrees you spend a lifetime paying for, houses that depreciate in value, climbing a job ladder you realize you want to jump off).  That stuff doesn't last, and you're right, it's not worth caring about.  But finding out what you are truly passionate about, and what you can do well and feel good doing, is worth pretty much all of your effort.

So here’s what I want you to do.  Make a stream-of-consciousness list of things you’d like to try, even if it turns out you’re not the pillar of perfection at them.  Then choose one to do this week.  Laugh at how terrible you are at first, but see if you get the hang of it.  What did you love to do as a child, before the idea of “success” entered your consciousness?  Were you shamed out of it and into a smaller support role, like Ella the EE, or have you just never thought about what the adult equivalent of being a master at Light Bright is (I think it’s coding, or furniture design)?

The roof is about to be blown off of this “just okay” life you’ve built for yourself.  It is going to be surprising and strange, and you may never gain the kind of external achievement that our culture so cherishes.  But you will know where your strength lies, and that is something that no one can take away from you, and which you’ll need for the inevitable ups and downs of life.

It’s time for you to be your own worry stone.

Love,

Sibyl

P.S. I don't want to influence you too much on this search, but might I point out that your quandary letter was exceptionally well-written?  From one writer to another... whatever you do next, you should write about it.

Kösem Sultan: Ruler of the Ottoman Empire

historical woman

(Note: Be careful when you Google her name. Nothing bad, but there is a Kosen Sultan who appears to hold the Guinness record for being the world’s tallest man, so not to be confused.)

So the “harem” is one of my favorite not-favorite Orientalist tropes. (“Favorite not-favorite” is one of my favorite phrases.) It’s also a very misunderstood concept, heavily romanticized in Western art and literature and imagined as a sexually debauched space where scantily clad women lounge on divans smoking hookah and pleasuring, well, pretty much any dude who walks in the door. You can see why it’s been popular.

In reality, the harem was an enclosed space for the women of the royal household, etymologically derived from the Arabic haram—forbidden—which allowed elite women to live in seclusion and yet still have access to and even exert control over the seat of power. In the Ottoman Empire, the women of the harem could be very influential, even enjoying a period in the 16th and 17th centuries known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, through regencies and political strategizing, they were practically in charge. It’s worth noting that this partly coincided with the height of the Empire’s power.

Kösem Sultan is one of the most extraordinary of these women. Born on a small Greek island around 1585, she eventually made her way to Constantinople at age fifteen, sold into the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, where she became a favorite of his and then became one of his wives.

Ahmed died in 1617, and in 1623 Kösem’s son Murad IV became Sultan and Kösem became Valide Sultan, or Mother of the Sultan. Because Murad was a minor, Kösem was his official regent—the first woman to ever rule the Ottoman Empire and one of only two who ever would. She was regent for nine years.

Now, as I hinted at earlier, the Ottoman Empire in this period was nothing to sneeze at. Its subjects numbered around thirty million, and its reach extended across North Africa, Eastern Europe, and most of what we now know as the Middle East. Like many empires, it could have probably quit while it was ahead circa 1550, but continued to expand and was mostly still doing A-OK until 1683, when the Ottomans whiffed at the disastrous siege of Vienna, undertaken by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

So Murad finally came of age, did alright, then died eight years later. Kösem’s other son, Ibrahim I, took the throne, but dude was kind of a mess (random headaches, bouts of physical weakness, mental instability) and Kösem was basically the power behind the throne. Then Ibrahim was deposed and Kösem craftily presented her seven-year-old grandson, Mehmed IV, as the new sultan, and thus became regent for Time No. 2.

This second bout of imperial power was only to last three years, however, before she was challenged by her daughter-in-law Turhan Hatice, mother of Mehmed and another major harem imperial power player. Turhan heard rumors that Kösem was plotting to remove Mehmed from the throne and replace him with another grandson—not one of Turhan’s—and it’s likely that it was Turhan who ordered Kösem’s assassination. Legend has it she was murdered by a eunuch, who strangled her with her own hair. Yikes.

Thus ended the tumultuous, Showtime miniseries-style life of Kösem Sultan. I would actually endorse the making of such a miniseries if I didn’t feel like it would be an Orientalist mess waiting to happen.

Kösem Sultan’s story is entertaining, and her bids for power are impressive, but not so great is the implication that women basically had two options in the Ottoman Empire: to be invisible, or to be a conniving power-hungry b-word. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s how historical women tend to be remembered. She may very well have been these things, but let’s take into account the falsehoods of historical memory and the persistence of exaggerated feminine tropes, not to mention the potential Orientalization of otherwise straightforward political history (a eunuch? strangled with her own hair? it's almost too perfect), and instead celebrate(?) the awesome ambition of Kösem, the sultan-iest of Ottoman royal women.

Embracing Revision

If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, you might want to stop reading this post right now and bury yourself in the book instead. It’s a book I’ve been avoiding for a while, having heard so many good things about it. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is my all-time favorite book about writing, and it’s held my loyalty somehow. I didn’t want any other book to take its place. Fortunately, Bird by Bird is not better, just different, and wonderful too. The book is filled with anecdotes and proverbs I’d love to scrawl on the wall above my desk. Here’s one that took me by surprise. Lamott quotes E. L. Doctorow, who says that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It’s a wise instruction not only for writing but for life, just as the subtitle of the book promises. But for me, it was a hard pill to swallow. First of all, I hate driving at night for exactly that reason. I am forever worrying about what’s just beyond the headlights. I am satisfied with nothing less than a full panoramic view of the horizon.

And when I read a book, it takes all of my willpower not to peek at the last pages. If an important character is going to die or a plot twist lurks toward the end, I would very much like to know about it up front. You know, before I get all involved and everything.

It is the same with the story of my own life. If only I could see the whole arc of the narrative, I could prepare myself in advance for comedy and tragedy, heartbreak and delight, and all (my subconscious believes) would be well.

In fact, being the curious (i.e. nosy) person I am, I would also like to know what’s going to happen next in everyone else’s life (and I bet you would too). It’s why we refresh our social media feeds countless times a day. It’s why we ask newlyweds, “When are going to have kids?” and first-time parents, “When are you going to have another?” and college freshmen, “What are you going to do with that degree?”

I think this speaks to our collective anxiety about doing things “right” and in the proper order. It’s as though we believe that life unfolds along a balance beam, laid out for us in a clean, straight line. Best to train our eyes on a clear destination; one misstep could be disastrous. But, of course, our lives are not so linear and predictable. And thank goodness for that.

Erin Loechner wrote recently about life (and art) as a cyclical, rather than linear process. She put it this way: “we’re continually refining and transforming and backsliding, hoping that we’ll end up a little closer to B than A. But oh, there are times when we’d rather be A. Where we aim to experience rebirth, rather than death—a starting point instead of a finish line. And I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about life—it’s a series of circles, not lines, isn’t it? A continuous spiral, cycling around and around until we reach a new point of view, a new dot to spiral from.”

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

What Are You Writing?

what are you writing jenny hollowell?

In my last column, interlaced throughout was a yearning for second chances. For Jenny Hollowell, her focus lies on a second book, a project that hearkens back to the arduous task of completing her first novel Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. All of the same fears, insecurities, and thoughts of isolation when writing come back with a fury, but Ms. Hollowell has taken this second leap, and fights right back. She currently resides in Los Angeles with husband, and two daughters. A more extensive write-up on her can be found here.

- Samantha Bohnert 

I am working on my second book. I’m two years into the process and suspect I have about two more years to go. The first book took about four years too. I’ve had some well-intentioned friends express surprise that a second novel could take as long as the first. They’ve said to me, “But you know what you’re doing now.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since writing that first book, I possess exactly one new piece of relevant information: I’ve done this once before. But it isn’t easier. I am finding that my experience only makes me more aware of when a sentence isn’t working, or when a character feels thinly drawn, or when I’m settling for good enough instead of truly good. It is still a daily battle to dig deep, to be clear, and to grapple with meaning in a way that feels true and worth telling.

One of the many destructive trains of thought a writer can follow is that every other writer knows what they’re doing, and that you are alone in feeling lost, incapable some days of rendering even a simple sentence with clarity. This is the myth that too many of us believe: that to "normal" or "real" writers, writing comes easily. That it’s never a slog for them, that they never feel hopeless or come up empty.

Writing is isolating enough without feeding the illusion that we’re also alone in that sense of lostness. I suspect that writers at any stage of their writing lives—whether we have two years under our belts, or ten years, or thirty—are mostly doing the same thing. We’re sitting at our desks feeling not quite up to the task. But if we wait for the moment we feel truly ready for it, well, we would never write a word.

This is where belief comes in. Finding the faith, however irrational, that this will all amount to something in the end. The good sentences will add up, and the bad ones will get discarded, and eventually you will have written something great. Yes. This. Will. Happen.

Sometimes that belief originates from a person in a writing group, or a teacher, an agent, a friend. Maybe they read a few pages and see the promise. They write, “Keep going!” in the corner of the top page, and that’s reason enough to do as they say, to keep going and see where the going takes you.

Sometimes that belief comes from someplace more unexpected. From a painting, a dream, a stranger. While writing my first book I had a chance encounter with a swami in Los Angeles. He stopped me on a sidewalk in Los Feliz and told me he had just seen a vision of my future. This was outside of Skylight Books, and I had just been wandering the aisles, flipping through novels and daydreaming. His sudden appearance—in flowing orange robes, by my parking meter—felt magical, like turning a page and meeting a new character.

He wrote my initials down on a piece of paper to show that he could “see things about me.” Then he wrote my husband’s. “Was I right?” he asked. I nodded, rooted to the ground. Then he said what he wanted to tell me. That he could see that I was having difficulty with a very big project, but that the situation would improve and the project would be completed the following year. Then he gave me a talisman, a small wax seal, to carry for luck.

As he walked away, I remember experiencing two thoughts at the exact same time. That was insane. And oh, thank God! His prediction was mystical, irrational, and exactly what I needed. I needed to encounter the radical belief that I would finish my novel. I needed someone to say that it could be done and that it would be done, that it was a foreseen conclusion.

Now, as I work on this second book, I try to hold on to that sense of belief as the sentences pile up slowly and as my page count ebbs and flows. I’ve kept the talisman that the swami gave me. Sometimes I go entire months without thinking of it, and then suddenly I will. I will remember it because it has been a dry day, or a dry week, or I’ve battled with a difficult scene, or I’ve cut pages that weren’t working, pages that used to feel just fine. I’ll remember it because I need it.

Then I pull the seal from its hiding place and hold it in the palm of my hand. I make myself remember. It’s not finished yet, but it will be.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

The Chickens Wake At Five

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, The chickens wake at five.

I swing open the creaky door of their coop and they dart out into the yard. They high-step through the garden, bobbing through basil, pecking at tomato plants. Sometimes they scratch up a cloud of dust then sink their bellies into the dirt.

The chickens are named Himalaya and Buddha. They are both thick and strong, but Buddha is a little smaller and more docile than Himalaya. Their glossy feathers are red and black and they shine like oil slicks in the sunlight.

I don’t know much about chickens. I assumed the eggs would come in the morning. But when I open the lid to the hay filled box where they sleep, all I find are two chicken shaped indentations. It’s not until late afternoon that they appear, those two pastel ovals in the yellow straw.

I collect the two eggs in the afternoon. Each egg is smooth, warm, and oblong. Holding them in my palm I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity. Like the symbol, the eggs are matched halves---shells containing, curves repeating.

I blame Alice Walker for thinking like this about chickens, for trying to see the universe in a bird, for trying to see poetry in poultry. Around this time last year I was reading Walker's  “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” I found myself enchanted with Walker’s meditative and philosophical writing, and entertained that her observations where drawn from contemplating the behavior and being of her flock of chickens.

I should probably explain how I came to have chickens in the first place. I’m housesitting in Brooklyn in exchange for chicken keeping, dehumidifier emptying, and acting as liaison to a visiting French family who will be staying in the upstairs portion of the house.

The place is stunning. A classic Brooklyn brownstone on a quiet tree lined block. I’m here with my dog and my computer and not much else. We’ve retreated here so I’ll have time and mental space to complete my documentary project and to apply to grants. At home my attention dissolved into chores, work, television, more chores, more television. Here I get up early for the chickens and the dog, work on editing and writing and transcribing, walk to get a coffee, loll in the park.

This is not my real life, I remind myself.

This is a single six-week escape. It’s a special time for working and writing.

It's time I’ve come to understand I need in order to actually make progress on creative projects. I hardly leave the apartment. I walk the same loop to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the apartment. Oddly enough, if I were to trace my daily walking routines on a map they would take the shape of an ellipse. An oblong, egg-like trajectory. Contained, repeating.

Waiting

diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to https://www.facebook.com/ThePritchettFamilyAdopts) or share their adoption website (www.thepritchettfamily.com) with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

What Are You Writing, Lisa Rubenson?

what are you writing lisa

Fitzgerald is remembered for his blockbuster-worthy works and the words within them, and while many are currently caught up in quoting (and misquoting) The Great Gatsby, one quote used among rhetoricians across this great nation is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” However you choose to interpret this, and there are many ways in which to do so, I believe at its most basic the quote implies that there are no second chances. Fortunately for the optimists of the world, this is not necessarily true. In Lisa Rubenson’s case, believing in second chances was the first step in good fortune, and good writing. Rubenson was recently the recipient of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest award, where her theme focused on second chances, a theme that also seems to be a part of her own life. When she is not being called “Julie” accidentally at her favorite coffee shop in Charlotte, NC, she spends time with her husband and two daughters, all the while writing with intention. I invite you to read her words on chance and how it changed not only her, but also how it can change all of us. I believe in second chances, and third and fourth and eleventh—whatever it takes to get it right. “Do overs” make things like hope, redemption, and games of mini-golf possible. Why else would we have put erasers on the end of pencils and invented that whole “command Z” business? The thought that we might be able to undo at least some of our mistakes helps us get up in the morning. Otherwise, and I’m speaking for myself here, I would’ve given up after wearing a “Dynasty”-inspired jumpsuit to prom.

When I heard that the author Mona Simpson would be judging round 10 of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest, and that the prompt was to tell a story in the form of a voicemail, I decided to submit something. I’m famous for leaving “rambly” voicemails, and I liked the idea of playing with the form. Voicemails, and that grace-filled asterisk on the lower left of our phone keypads, are all about second chances. You can record, re-record, and then record again whatever you want to say. It’s not unlike the writing process, with its many drafts and the never-ending cut-and-paste dance.

For the contest, I wanted to create a story that told itself by accident, wherein the main character struggles—like many of us—with what needs saying and what doesn’t. I also wanted readers/listeners to know more than the intended recipient of the voicemail could know. When the main character attempts to call her old boyfriend and simply say, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother,” she unravels the thread of their whole history together.

I had never submitted anything to the 3MF contest before, so I was very surprised to win. The chance to talk to Mona Simpson and NPR’s Guy Raz about writing, then receiving Simpson’s novels and being published in The Paris Review, were exciting outcomes of the win. An actress heard the story and felt a connection with the main character, so we’re developing a screenplay for a short film. I love the idea that my little story can live on and be interpreted through the eyes and experiences of others. Talk about second chances. It was also nice to hear from so many people I did and didn’t know who could relate to the story. Apparently, there are a lot of other prolific voicemail leaver-deleters out there.

I’m entering the world of fiction writing late in the game, which is another reason why the idea of second chances appeals to me. I’ve spent my whole career writing for other people, channeling their voices and helping them shape messages. Although copywriting is a kind of storytelling, the distance between the writer and the material is too far. I want to write my own stories, and bring to life the characters that have been hanging around in my head for way too long with nothing to do.

The writers that inspire me the most are the ones that march me up to the edge of the figurative cliff and either force me to look down or show me how to live in the tension of standing there with the wind in my face. They can be hard living, whisky swillers (Hemingway and Raymond Carver are favorites), or highbrow British ladies—Virginia Woolf and those Brontës could sucker-punch you with their characters’ desires. I like to be terrified by the beauty of an image and made dizzy by the genius of a writer’s prose, which is why I spend time reading Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Karen Russell. Next up for me is a trip to the Tin House summer writer’s workshop, where I’ll soak up some “writerly” wisdom from the great Benjamin Percy. I’m also working on my first collection of stories, which will include flash and longer pieces that share a common theme.

My favorite part about writing fiction, and also about re-inventing myself as a fiction writer, is not knowing where I’ll end up. It’s like getting on a train in a familiar place, falling asleep, and waking up in a foreign country. I start off thinking I know who my characters are, what they will do and say, and then they haul off and take me somewhere else—a place I was either afraid to go or never knew existed.

 

 

Marriage Rules for Little Girls

peanut m&ms

By EBK Riley The other night, as my daughter Delia rearranged the peas and chicken on her dinner plate to make it appear that she was actually eating, she announced that she "wanted to marry a rich husband." Swallowing my chicken and the jolt of fear that arose because she is already contemplating marriage at six, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. She was very matter of fact, noting that if she married someone rich, she could have a big house, go on vacations, and get lots of clothes and her own car and anything else she might need. This is the first year she has seemed concerned about our family's comparative lack of stuff, and apparently it is shaping her ideas about a lot of things. Because she has visited the houses of school friends, she is less satisfied with our apartment, and as every girl who has had to share a room with her sister is bound to do, she is lobbying for her own room. "We could all have our own rooms if we had a house," she says, though she graciously allows, "you and Daddy could still share, if you wanted to..." We do. Thanks. But before we could turn the discussion away from lifetime commitments to talk about how having a lot of stuff isn't always so important, Fiona chimed in, "M used to have a lot of money, but he doesn't anymore and I love him anyway."

Fiona is in an imaginary committed relationship with a three foot tall plastic display version of a yellow peanut M&M. He was gifted to her before we left Boston by my CVS manager, who not only wanted to get it off his sales floor, but who was also touched by the true love of a girl and her candy pal. She can call him just "M" as a nickname, because he's her boyfriend. All of her dolls and stuffed animals are their children and she tells us often what he thinks about situations that arise with 'their kids' at school and about stuff happening on television. M has a lot of strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of them, but at least I know he's from a good home and he doesn't have a motorcycle that I have to worry about Fiona riding on the back of. We hope they're very happy together until she's about thirty, which is the age my husband Mike has decided the girls will be allowed to date.

The discussion of marriage continued when I asked Delia, "Don't you think love is more important than money when you decide who to marry?" Mike was also interested in the answer to that one. Again, she was matter of fact, "Well, if he was rich, he could buy me lots of presents and then I would love him." She paused for a minute, pretending to chew some peas, and possibly because she realized that this might be kind of shallow, she added, "I'm sure I could find someone who is nice and rich, and I would love him because he was nice, and he would still be rich. Then I would have the best of both." There it was, the admonishment of parents through the centuries: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

We were at the table for a while, because Delia never did really did make any progress on her dinner, so we discussed the possibility of her becoming rich herself. She had taken this for granted, assuming she would have a career (as a rock star or an astronaut or a professor) and her own money, but she was clear that her future partner should have his own too, because then they would not have to worry about money for sure. "And I might want to take time off to stay home with babies, or he might, so we both need to have money."

It all seems so simple when a six year old explains it to you.

Still, as we finally cleared the plates, after Mike and Fiona had gone in to muck out the girls' room in preparation for bedtime, I told Delia that even though it does really kinda suck to be poor, the real trick to marriage is finding the person you want to be with, no matter what else happens. "Yeah," she said, "like they say on a wedding, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, and then they both say I do and they kiss."

"Yeah, just like that," I said. And she giggled, because she's six.

Above and Beyond

Sometime before I was born, my mother sold shoes in a department store. And so, as we’d hit up the back-to-school sales every August, she would begin her refrain. “No one knows how to sell shoes these days!”

Up and down the aisles, in and out of stores, she repeated her mantra as my sister and I trailed behind her. Each of us was hard to fit—my sister a 5W, myself a 6N—and she was unrelenting. A power-shopper if there ever was one, she zigzagged us back and forth across town until we finally collapsed in the back seat long after sunset.

The sellers committed various transgressions, most of which involved trying to fit the foot to the shoe, rather than the shoe to the foot. They offered all manner of padding and inserts in their attempts to transform ill-fitting glass slippers into gloves. My mother never fell for any of it.

I can hear her now: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, for God’s sake, DON’T wear it.” (Helpful advice for any number of situations, in addition to shoes.)

Even worse than the inserts, however, was the seller who offered nothing. After carefully examining every shoe in the store, making our selections, and requesting our sizes, we would wait on the bench in hopeful anticipation. Eventually, the harried salesperson would emerge from the back room, offering only a shrug and, “Sorry, we don’t have it in your size.”

On the way out, my mother would give us a lesson not only in selling shoes but in choosing to go above and beyond for your fellow human being. First of all, she said, you must never return from the back room empty-handed or even with a single pair of shoes. Instead, whether the customer’s requested shoe is in stock or not, you should return with multiple suggestions to match her size, her style, and her life. The first shoe rarely fits, so you’ll want to place some options immediately at her disposal. Give her a sense of abundance, but not overwhelm. Pay attention to what she really wants, not just what she says she wants. And if, after all, nothing fits, blame the shoes, never the foot.

Finally, if you already know from the start that you’ve got nothing that will properly suit her needs, don’t waste her time. Give her the name of a store where she can find it, and offer her directions for getting there too.

Although I’ve never sold shoes, I’ve often thought of this advice as a roadmap for working and living and interacting with others. It’s not about working extra long hours or trying to take on more than is humanly possible. It’s about seeking small, everyday opportunities to delight, surprise, and genuinely help the strangers and intimates we encounter.

Trust No One

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Okay, you asked for it . . . This question doesn’t appear to be about relationships, but then again, maybe it is!

Yesterday, one of my best friends was doing an energy healing when with no warning whatsoever, he started speaking (something he doesn’t normally do during a healing!) an unintelligible language and making a lot of weird clicking sounds. It was later revealed that he was bringing in Sirian and Pleiadean energy to prepare him for his next level of consciousness. As if this isn’t mind-blowing enough, my friend was told that he is an ET ‘in disguise’, that he’s only pretending to be human, and that he will reveal himself within the next couple of years. As you can imagine, my friend was a little shaken by this experience.

So here’s our question: Assuming that we are living in multiple dimensions simultaneously (see Brian Greene’s Cosmos series on PBS) or at the very least have lived many lives in many galaxies throughout the multiverse, aren’t we all ETs? Is it just a matter of semantics?

Thanks,

Cosmic C

 

Dear CC,

You have a pretty exciting social life.  Seriously, the best I can do these days when I get together with friends is try not to insult each other's politics by serving only sustainable agriculture.  I am obviously hanging out with the wrong crowd - no one reveals their true identity as an alien, no matter how many glitchy hip hop beats we listen to.

So, you are clearly doing something right, at least on the level of some cosmic shit happening on any old Tuesday.

Now, to your question.  I absolutely cannot claim to be an expert in human-Extra Terrestrial relations, as my experience with communicating with beings outside this earth is confined to whistling the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then feeling a little creepy thinking about who might be listening.

However, I suppose we are all E.T.s, to someone.  In many ways, we are all aliens to one another, our own little universe in our experience.  Sometimes communicating even with the members of my own family feels as complicated as mastering an intergalactic language.

And if it turns out that life does exist on other planets, it will be important to remember that to them, we are the aliens.  I suppose it is all a matter of perspective, and I commend you for widening yours.

I don't think I'd take that friend of yours to Las Vegas, though.  What if all the lights and sounds communicated something to him, and he turned into a creature from a Ridley Scott movie?  Then you'd really have a quandary on your hands.

With Roswellian love,

Sibyl

Dream vs. Reality

Dream vs Reality

By Erin R. Van Genderen I turned twenty-three in June, and in no such way did I ever imagine my life to have turned out the way it has.

When I was younger, I pictured my adult life as a whirlwind of jet-setting, cosmopolitan adventures. I would graduate from college at the top of my class and move somewhere new to work a prestigious job or get a doctorate and teach upper-lever literature theory. I would be professional, impressive, independent, a bombshell. I would make my own life for myself and escape the stigma of my small-town upbringing. Eventually, I’d find someone and settle down, but only after I accomplished everything I wanted to do and worked the wandering out of my bones. I would probably be Thirty.

Move into reality, where I’m newly married to a military man and the name of our game is impermanence. In our current assignment, I’m a stay-at-home wife with a few little jobs on the side, looking forward to a more permanent station where I can pursue a couple of Master’s degrees I have my eye on. As external self-worth goes, I have very little---there is no boss to praise me, no co-workers to compete with, no promotions or raises for which to struggle---and so I’ve learn to give my own self a pat on the back when I get all of the laundry finished or meet a deadline.

And although the first scenario certainly sounds glittering, I’m happier than I could have ever dreamed with the second.

Chalk it up to the honeymoon phase if you will, but I like to think that the life I live now is so much richer because it’s taking me in directions I could have never traveled by my own volition. As a planner and perfectionist, I’m constantly stretched by the nature of my husband’s job. We don’t know where we could be going next---overseas? D.C.?---but I have to be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. We uproot and move on every few years, leaving behind little homes and orphaned potted plants, but the excitement of a new place is always just ahead.

It is hard. Sometimes it is sad. But this lifestyle is already exhilarating.

And that’s a lot of what marriage is, I’m finding---many of those everyday details transform into something thrilling, and many of the fluttery moments become the mundane. It is an adaptive state, never one of stasis, just as we are adaptive creatures.

The realities we dream up for ourselves are a little bit short of what we should really be expecting. But what a pleasant surprise it is when, if we are adaptive, we have the forethought to reach out and grab the good things flying by and hold on tight, leading us on to a brighter adventure than the one we had stashed away for the future.

What Are You Writing?

what are you writing

My name is Samantha Marie Bohnert. I enjoy the snow, words, adventures, writing letters and finding something new to dream of daily. I have been a writer since I could put pen (or pencil) to paper, and I am inspired by many things, from the way the light hits my toes in the morning to the sounds of my surroundings. I live in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; a city that has kept my heart safe and follows me wherever I go. My love for coveting what is beautiful—and sharing that beauty with those around me—brings me happiness, always. Well, I’m a writer. To put it more honestly, I am a person who derives joy from words, organizing them in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and comprehensible. If I have had any kind of self-proclaimed identity, and not one that others have given me (“bubbly,” “irreverent,” one who speaks with a certain “frequency”), it would be that I am a writer, through and through. Teachers of my past, whose goal was to inculcate me as something significant: instructor, artist, or even a poet, were some of my biggest supporters. My mother told me that my second grade teacher said I wrote at a level well beyond my years, and I can still remember the look on my 6th grade teacher’s face when I handed him a 72-page story, to which he quite bluntly informed me that while impressed, he wouldn’t have time to read completely. And at this point I should specify that I am speaking about writing of the creative persuasion. I would write short stories, the beginnings of a novel, stream of consciousness, but rarely poetry; poetry was something I admired from afar, like acting, or singing that sounds good outside of a shower. I wrote as much as I read, so my youth was cloaked in verbiage and a world’s supply of notebook paper.

But alas, there came a time when I plateaued. The last time I can remember writing with fervor was around 12 years old. Writing succumbed to a similar fate as my love of reading (to prevent regurgitation, please refer to a recent WAYR post). Looking back on it, I think I just ran out of material. A hopeless romantic since kindergarten, my stories were where lovers went to die, à la Romeo and Juliet, but incredibly juvenile. I wasn’t experiencing much and I was trapped in a romantic prison of my own making. It was probably best that I stopped writing, because I was missing it. I was missing that very thing that writers have. This is not to suggest that I knew what that thing was, because I haven’t figured it out yet, but I knew I was missing it. I also knew I needed a break to live some sort of life outside of books and other writers’ made-up stories. It was a long break, potentially never ending.

But one day, just a few short months ago, I started to feel like a girl of 12 again, with a 28-year-old girl’s experiences. Every breath, every excruciating moment, and all of the uncontrollable peals of laughter have brought me full circle, and with a fresh perspective. All I want to do is write, and while it’s a terrifying thing to wonder whether or not I’m good at this, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care. I care about saying something, moving mountains, causing a stir, and being honest. I care about showing that I see the world as extraordinary, and also showing others that simple things are worthy of note. Even the tiniest, seemly insignificant and overlooked event has a story.

Example: for the past few months I have walked by the same concierge on my way to work. And though our exchange has only ever been a nod from him and a cordial “hi” under my breath, I’ve realized that his existence is something to be celebrated. His kindness, his sincerity, and the fact that he seems to unapologetically love his job, is fascinating to me. I could immortalize his blip of space in my life, because he epitomizes what I want to do as writer. I want to say thank you to everything for just being, and for allowing me to take all of it and spin it however I choose. Perhaps in my story of him he’d have an accent, or maybe he would carry on weekly conversations with me, or maybe I’d write him exactly as he is. The world is mine to mold, all the while keeping in mind that there is a fine line between writing in a way that shows that I can see the world as it actually is, and what it could be. Writing is a process, and there is a comfort in knowing that none of it will be perfect. Passion never is. It is a chore, it takes work, and it’s a fight, but a good fight that shows it’s worth something. I’m a writer, and I have no idea what I am doing. And maybe knowing that is the infamous it.

Luckily, there are many, many talented women who will hopefully 1) tell me what they do to be successful writers; 2) share their experiences with me concerning the toils and troubles they face from holding steadfast to the “writer” persona like I do; and 3) tell me what they believe it to be. I look forward to using this space as a place to meet “ladies of letters,” a moniker I’d like to patent once I figure out how one does that. I’d also like to take this opportunity to revel in the talent of other writers who like to talk about writing. Ideally, I’ll learn a little something. Realistically…well that is to be determined.

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Activist, Civil Rights Pioneer

historical woman

Everyone knows that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and move to the back, and with this refusal became a major figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Well, everyone should know that anyway.) But Parks was not the first to engage in an act of public transit civil disobedience—nor, I’m sure, will she be the last. For starters, in 1884, Ida B. Wells similarly refused to get up and move to a different train car when ordered to do so by a train conductor on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad. She was by force removed from the train by three men who, I think, really needed to stop and evaluate what they were doing with their lives.

Wells didn’t stop with train sit-ins, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, who was Ida B. Wells? Not to be confused with muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell (roughly contemporaneous), Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, tireless campaigner for African-American and women’s rights, anti-lynching activist, and influential public persona. She was born in 1862 in Mississippi to slave parents, emancipated three years later with Abe Lincoln’s Proclamation. She was educated first at Shaw U., then at Fisk University, both Southern black colleges. When she lost her parents, she took on a job as a teacher in order to support her siblings.

Sometime during her young life, Wells got into politics—not surprising considering the tumultuous, nasty times she grew up in. The War was over and slavery was done, but America’s attempts at Reconstructing™ and creating a just post-war, post-slavery society were, let’s face it, occasionally pathetic. The government, fearful of completely alienating the South, made too many concessions and took just as many steps backward as forward.

One of the most hideous evils to become common in this period, and for a bunch of otherwise perfectly nice people to get complacent and blind eye-y about (see also: segregation, imperialism, most wars) was lynching, specifically, the lynching of black men in the South. In 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched by a mob in Memphis. So she turned to investigative journalism as a means for change.

Wells begin to study similar murders across the South, and then published her findings in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All its Phases.” She concludes that the “reasons” for lynching black men usually fell along the lines of: they failed to adequately accept their alleged inferiority as raced human beings. This could involve competing economically with white men, being disrespectful to white men, and so much as looking at a white woman. (Wells also found that most sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual, despite popular myth to the contrary.)

Wells traveled and worked with famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, doing speaking tours of Europe and getting a bunch of British people on her side. But she continued to face an uphill battle at home, where the New York Times called her a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress.” Oh, the liberal media!

In short, Ida Wells was no shrinking flower. She was one of the earliest women to not change her last name when she married. She wasn’t shy about getting into it with people she disagreed with, including white temperance activist Frances Willard and famed black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois (she said he excluded her from the list of NAACP founders). She fought for what she believed in and wasn’t afraid to face, head-on, one of the ugliest legacies of American slavery. Amidst headlines about affirmative action, George Zimmerman, and (yes) Paula Deen, it’s hard not to hope for similar take-no-s*** voices in our own time.

Dream Job

Growing up, I imagined many dream jobs. Astronaut, architect, interior designer, novelist, journalist, professor, magazine editor, ballerina. I directed sustained and passionate efforts toward a few of these trajectories; others were brief but memorable blips on the dream job radar. In college, publishing caught my attention, and I began to distinguish between the various logos on the spines of my used paperbacks. One fall, I made a starry-eyed pilgrimage across campus with droves of other English majors to a Random House info session. I clutched my brochure and free pen with equal parts hope and anxiety. I remember every word.

After about two hundred runs through the brochure and a chat with a career counselor, I decided to let go of that trajectory too. From what I could tell, it seemed the only path toward making books went like this: move to New York, clamor for unpaid internship, starve. I decided I couldn’t afford the risk and let it go.

But a winding and unexpected journey took me through grad school, finding love, moving to Atlanta, creating my own hodgepodge internship of sorts, almost starving (how many different ways can you cook rice and beans, people? seriously.), and finally picking up that thread again, of helping to make books and sending them into the world. I couldn’t have planned it that way, and if I had, it would have seemed like a weird and crazy plan.

Of course, dreaming of a job is entirely different from actually doing it. A recent post by Lisa Congdon helps explain some of the unexpected challenges of making your dream job your real job, and I’ve been wondering lately about the whole concept of dream jobs in general.

Sometimes it seems as if the internet is full of people with dream jobs, people on their way to dream jobs, and people giving advice about how to get/find/create your dream job. Is anybody else overwhelmed by this? I am a little overwhelmed. Here’s why.

The most obvious path toward landing or creating a specific dream job is to work very hard over a long period of time acquiring a particular combination of skills, experience, education, and expertise. But here’s the catch: along the way, you will be changed by your experiences, and that dream job will be changing too.

Since I attended that fateful info session around 2007, publishing has undergone (and is still undergoing) massive changes. And the day-to-day work in any of my childhood dream jobs must be very different now from what it was when I first imagined it. (For one thing, everyone is on Twitter, including astronauts and ballerinas.) There are also plenty of brand new dream jobs to wish for: Content Strategist, Full-time Blogger, Etsy shop artist/entrepreneur, Social Media Maven, Ninja (this is a thing, I guess?).

A dream job, it seems, is a moving target. At any given moment, you, your dream job, and your perception of your dream job are changing. The idea of a dream job can offer inspiration to work hard and to meet goals, but, held too tightly, it can also be a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment.

How about you? Are you doing your dream job, or working towards one? Is the idea of a dream job inspiring you, or just getting in your way?

xxxxi. provence

postcards from france

My family takes a bus from Aix to Cassis, a small beach town not far from Aix. While my parents wander the streets and visit shops, my sister and I lay out our towels on the pebbly beach and soak in the Mediterranean sun with all the other bronzed bathers. I sit up, my arms wrapped around my knees, and stare out over the sea, imagining the Greeks who originally colonized this place looking at the same view thousands of years ago. It probably hasn’t changed very much since then.

Even though it’s June, the water is still freezing but I decide to go in anyway. I let the waves lap up to my waist, the goose flesh spreading over my skin, and then wade back out. I just wanted to touch the sea. I come back to Cassis almost three years later with my language partner from ACCP, a shy boy named Luc, whose English is nowhere near as good as my French. It is night and we are going to have dinner along the small marina and practice speaking to each other.

I still feel that same urge to touch the ancient Mediterranean water, to feel its history on my skin. And here I’ve come, just now, with ships and crew, I silently recite as I walk down to the shore to skim my palm over the lapping tide. I am Athena, Book One, lines 211 through 212, sailing the wine-dark sea to foreign ports of call.