Talking to strangers…

Do you do it?

When?

To ask for directions? To order at a restaurant? To the grocery store clerk? To buy or sell something?

image of author taken by stranger at brew fest
A lovely stranger took this picture.

I admit, I don’t usually strike up conversations with strangers, I’m still a little shy about it and… yeah scared. The times I have spontaneously erupted in conversation with a stranger has had surprising results.

Sometimes we are thinking the same thing about a certain situation happening around us, like waiting in line at a brew fest. Sometimes we are both feeling the same thing, like nervous about the turbulence during a plane ride (ever wonder why people erupt into conversation as an airplane descends, after being silent for the entire flight?). I have had 5 hour conversations with strangers, learning that we both work in the same industry or have something interesting to discuss (I once convinced a person from a right leaning state that the worry about climate change is the rate of change – that some species – perhaps most – will not be able to adapt to this change fast enough to survive. It was great to see this person have an “aha” moment.)

These conversations are like one night stands – never to talk with the person again, despite exchanging business cards or email addresses. But what is left could be a lesson, a feeling of interconnectedness with a greater thing called humanity, or it could be a reminder that there are many people out there that are afraid of interacting with other humans.

st_helens_castle_lake
Mt. St. Helens with Castle Lake, a lake created by the landslide post eruption.

My most recent encounter was yesterday as I was visiting Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument. I was reading about those that survived and those that did not survive the eruption. Fifty-seven people lost their lives that day, at least that is the known number. As I finished reading one placard, about a family who was camping about 13 miles from the volcano and escaped harm because their campsite was behind a hill (they still had to hike out, through hot ash and over fallen trees) and was moving to the next, I caught the gaze of a gentleman who was behind me and gave him a simple smile, acknowledging the emotion that we were sharing. He said to me that the family I just read about survived because the campsite they originally wanted to go to was already taken. “Oh really?” I replied,

“Do you know the family?” I asked.

“No” he said. “My daughter was one of the campers in the other campsite and she did not survive.”

“Wow.” I said. Not knowing how best to respond, my heart sinking at thinking about the tragedy the day the volcano erupted 32 years ago.

He continued to share that she was camping with 6 other people, two died, two were severely injured and two walked out. She died when a tree fell on the tent she and her boyfriend were in, she was only 21 years old.

imagining the destruction
A simple visualization of how much of the mountain was blown off the day Mt. St. Helen erupted.

His story accentuated the feelings of awe and wonder I was already dealing with. I told him thank you for sharing his story, placing my hand on his shoulder, a gesture of love and acknowledgment of our shared humanity. I asked him what her name was “Karen Varner.” he replied. “There is a memorial for all that were killed, on the other side of the hill.” he said, pointing in the opposite direction I was headed.

I didn’t make it to the memorial, but the entire area is a memorial to the amazing forces the Earth has within her and to the humanity that loves her, fears her and idolizes her.

Talking to strangers can be a transformative experience, a scary journey, with unknown treasures at the end.

Overwhelmed…

What happens to you when you get overwhelmed?

Do you shut people out? Do you procrastinate? Do you get angry for no reason? Do you want to run away?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

My mental outlook on life has been derailed momentarily. Yes momentarily, because when we get overwhelmed it is only temporary. We have the power to push ourselves back on track, but I am struggling at the moment.

For weeks (perhaps months) I have been trying to get prepared for the PNWA writers conference where I would have the opportunity to pitch my book idea to literary agents and editors. I put my half baked book aside and started preparing my pitch. A 60 second, make or break opportunity, to sell my book idea. No pressure, no problem. After all I watched a webinar by Janna Cawrse Esarey and I felt prepared. All I needed to do is to describe my genre, my title, the book’s setup, the conflict and the resolution in 3-4 sentences that equal 60 seconds or less of time.  I was positively giddy with excitement. No problem, I thought to myself.

Then I started to write it, then I read it aloud to my cats, they sneered, I rewrote it, they still sneered, I rewrote it again, they walked away. What was I going to do? My cats weren’t even interested in my pitch, so why would an agent or editor. I wrote and rewrote, I wrote in third person, in first person (see my blog post), I had a version with some dialogue in it and then I went back to third person. I left it alone for a week, along with all of my other writing. My book was floundering. I was so overwhelmed by figuring out my pitch that I couldn’t write.

Mona the cat
Uninterested cat pose.

My final pitch was going to be bullet points. This is my story, I should know what it is about without memorizing a well scripted pitch. Day one of the conference and I was still adamant about only doing talking points. Then I attended the agent’s panel and the editor’s panel, where they said “Practice, practice, practice.,” your pitch. Basically saying don’t waste our time, but really saying we want to help you if we can.  While I attended a seminar by Janna, that was just like the webinar, I began working on yet another version of my pitch. Version quadrillion, no really. My friend, Alex, said “You nailed it” as we carpooled home that evening.

At home I shut the door to my office and rewrote and recited my pitch until I had a version that made my hairs tingle, my skin sing with joy, I got it, I finally got it. I had been hoping for a pitch that made me emotional, because I knew if I was emotional, then anyone who heard it would be emotional. I memorized it. I don’t remember the last time I had to memorize something… I was so excited. I found my cats and I looked them in the eyes as I recited my pitch and I had them mesmerized, they were so taken by my act, that they just sat there, speechless, then one of them yawned. “Bed time mom.”

pitch session
Waiting in line to pitch.

My nerves were a wreck the next morning. Thunder and lightening and pouring rain, it never does this in Seattle, seemed to heighten my nervousness as I drove back to the conference for another day of seminars and today the Power Pitch Block. For 90 minutes, beginning at 2pm that day, I would have the opportunity to pitch my story to as many agents and editors as I could, for 3 minutes each. Trouble is there were about a hundred other people there, wanting to do the same thing. I was amazed by the civility of the event. No pushing or shoving, no hair pulling, no screaming. We all sat in line and awaited our turn. When the bell rang, like when a horse race begins, you sat in front of your agent or editor of choice and you began your pitch. Intimidating? Only the first one.

After the 90 minutes was over, I had pitched to 3 agents and 2 editors and they were all interested in my story. YIKES, I thought to myself as I left. I have to go home and finish my book. It had to wait until after the conference, because there was one more full day of conference seminars that I wanted to attend.

It is day two post conference and I am writing in my blog… mainly to get this experience out of my head and to hopefully get less whelmed. At least I’m writing right? I looked at my chapters today and said, “you suck” to them, I looked in the mirror and told myself “you suck” as if I am not a good writer. Then I went to my FB page and said, “you’re hot” as I looked at my new head shots that I envision on my books back cover. I am reminded that to achieve my dream, it will take hard work, I will have peaks and I will have valleys. I will be overwhelmed and underwhelmed – can someone tell me what a whelm is please – but in the end I have to remember the goal. It is the goal that will pull me out of my funk. Phew!

A bed of roses…

Death.

No matter how hard we try, we just can’t get away from it. Nope, sorry, you too will die, your spirit will leave your physical body and go…  wherever spirits go when we die. So why do you ignore it? You know… Death?  When someone you know or love is consciously dying because they are terminally ill or they are on life support after a tragic accident – why are you afraid? Why don’t you know how to act? to feel? What to say?

uncle danny 1987
Uncle Danny with cousin Nick, 1987, photo taken by author.

When my uncle Danny was consciously dying, having been diagnosed with AIDS a year or two earlier, I visited him for 3 weeks during the summer of 1987 in San Francisco. I was 16 and in denial, how could he be dying? He was full of life, was an amazing chef, funny, caring (he had started school to become a nurse when he was diagnosed), handsome and most of all I loved him more than any other person in my life. He was my father figure, since my relationship with my biological father was not so great. He was the person who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted to study in College, how I was feeling, he was actively engaged in my life. So how could he die when I was beginning to go through a period in my life when I needed him most?

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

I was selfish, “Uncle Danny, can you move back to Chicago?” I asked one morning during that 3 week visit, I  wanted him to be closer to me. “Honey” he said. “I am going to die here.” Despite my shock at his answer, I appreciated his bluntness, I respected that he was a man who didn’t mince his words, he told it like it was.  During those three weeks I was with him, the last time I would be with him on this earth, I tried with all my might to squeeze everything I could out of every day. I was  hyper-conscious of his impending death, I tried hard to cherish every moment with him, thinking this could be the last time. Despite being a warrior against death, I still had a weird hole inside of me, one that somehow couldn’t be filled with the fresh squeezed orange juice he gave me every morning. Nor with saying “I love you Uncle Danny” every night before going to sleep. I was scared that when he wasn’t around, who would care about me like he did? Who would listen to me?

The day I had to get on a plane back to Chicago, I knew it would be the last time I would see him. I tried pushing that feeling aside as I gave him that last hug before walking down the jet-way. That walk down the jet-way was the longest walk of my life, I was all too conscious of what was happening, my heart breaking with every step I made towards that plane. The worst was I couldn’t just break down and cry, I was in public for crying out loud. I had to keep it together, if not for me, for my uncle, whose eyes I did catch when I did one of those “last looks” the kind that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt – the kind that tore an even greater hole in my heart as I saw tears welling up in my uncle’s eyes.

Journaling saved my life. My uncle recommended I start journaling after a phone conversation soon after I returned to Chicago. He also suggested I look into applying to a university I had never heard of before, called University of Chicago (my future alma mater). A few months later during a cold Chicago winter morning, I awoke abruptly, got dressed and went for a cold walk along the shore of Lake Michigan before anyone was awake. I took a long walk, eventually ending up at a local catholic church, St. Joseph’s. I was not raised religious, but I felt a need to light a candle for my uncle and say a prayer. After an hour or two I finally went back home. As soon as I walked in the door, I heard my mother on the phone, confirming what I already knew, he had passed away.

My grandmother was with him that morning, and later that year, I would share my story with her and she would confirm that at the moment he took his last breath, was the same time as when I woke up.

Author and grandmother 1971
One of the first images of the author and her grandmother, 1971.

My grandmother, Elivira Rosa Silva was born 95 years ago in Preston Cuba, where my great-grandfather worked in the sugar cane fields of an American company. She died 5 years ago, just shy of her 90th birthday in San Francisco, CA. Although she was old she had been full life: a former beauty queen, she cared about her looks to the very end, she loved eating well and sneaking a cigarette every now and again. She gave up her independence, reluctantly, about a year before her death.

On Valentine’s day 2007, I tried calling her at the nursing home. When the nurse said she wasn’t available, I called my mother to see if she had spoken with her. “No” she said. I called again the next day and still no luck, so I called the receptionist. After trying to locate her, the receptionist came back to the phone and said, “Your grandmother is not here.” I responded, “Is she in the hospital?” “Yes.” she replied, not able to give me anymore information than that. I called all of the hospitals near Alameda, CA and finally found my grandmother in the CCU of a hospital in Oakland CA. After talking with her nurse, I was able to talk with her doctor. “You are the first family member I have had a chance to speak with” the doctor said. He went on to explain to me that she had several infections in her body, her kidneys were not in good shape and her heart was bad. I asked what her prognosis was and he said 50/50. I hung up the phone and made a reservation for early the next morning to fly down to Oakland.

2005 author with grandmother
Last image of the author together with her grandmother, 2005.

I had to convince my mother that “this was it” that if she didn’t get her butt on the next airplane to San Francisco that she would regret not being there during her mother’s last days on this planet. My mother was letting her anger at her mother get the best of her. Thankfully she did get on an airplane.

I have consciously danced with death on a bed of roses, smelled her heavenly scent and felt her prickly thorns in my heart. Death opened my heart to experience life, raw, naked, intensely. So why would I want to fear this part of my natural life history as a human? Why would I want to miss out on witnessing the amazing transition from our current dimension to another?

I will be there with you as you die. I am not afraid. I consciously walk towards death every day and I have never felt so alive.

Til Death…

Death.

What it means to each of us is very personal, but transcendent as well, meaning it is a part of our being human. What is your relationship with death? Is it filled with fear? Peace? or Indifference (which may lead back to fear)?

The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.
The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.

It was June 12, 2012, a month ago, when I went to an old friend’s funeral. Khal’s passing reminded me about my relationship with life and with death and how we who are left on this physical plane to deal with loss. Although Khal’s physical body left this planet way too soon and it filled me with sadness, I knew his spirit lives on in the people whom he influenced with his love and his stalwart personality. I am at peace with death.

What I am not in peace with is how some of us will meet our death. Through stupid accidents, preventable or treatable diseases, through another’s incompetence or malicious intent.  Khal’s death was due to preventable and treatable diseases, that many of us have, it’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it’s called pride, it’s called emotional abuse as a child, it’s called being overwhelmed with life. I saw so much of my own struggles when I last talked to him, we had just reconnected via Facebook in 2010 and were planning a small high school reunion. During this time I remember sharing with him my concern over his weight and health (he was an athlete in high school and a U.S. Marine), he shared that it was because he had a hard time making time for himself.  I suggested he think of his future, his kids, that he needed to find time for himself, for them and he promised me that he would start going to the gym. I said I would keep tabs on him, that I wanted to hear how he lost weight when I saw him at the reunion. I did keep tabs on him, once or twice and he had started going to the gym. I was even keeping tabs on him in my dream state: “Khal, I had a dream that you were smoking in your garage.” I messaged him one morning. He was dumbfounded, he said that no one, not even his wife, knew that he smoked. I asked him why he did that, and he responded “Stress.”

I lost contact with Khal soon after the reunion. He had reconnected with other friends and I had hoped through that he would find some reprieve from his stress and quench his need to talk to someone about it. I was also going through my own dark period (end of relationship, dealing with demons from my past, etc.) and had begun shutting people out of my life. During this time I even deleted my FB page, losing contact with many people I thought were superfluous in my life. I was performing my own type of death ritual. I needed to do that to reconnect with my true self and needed time and space to find me.

Me and tio
The author, with Uncle Danny, circa early 1971.

This wasn’t the first time I had done my own death ritual. Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Transitioning from marriage to divorce. Death to me is a transition. I came to terms with death, both physical and psychological, when I was a junior in high school. It was during this time that I learned my uncle had AIDS (a preventable and now treatable disease). It was the mid-1980s, when the big AIDS scare began and all those awareness campaigns started. Uncle Danny wasn’t just any uncle, I had three others, he was my kindred spirit. He died during my senior year, an already difficult transition period (college looming, boyfriend being a butt head). Thanks to his suggestion, the summer before his death, I had begun writing in a journal. These journals, were pivotal in helping with transition; they provided me with a venue to vent my anger, talk about my sadness and eventually see that in death we do not part with those whom we have that special connection. My uncle was there with me then and is now and I’m still writing in a journal.

I am at peace with death. I am at peace with transitions. Trust me, it doesn’t make it any easier when a relationship ends or when someone you love dies. It doesn’t mean that I look forward for the next transition to happen. No, because I am still only human and I have these things called emotions to deal with, to work through, to come to terms with. But I am wiser. After each transition I learn something new about my self, about what it truly means to be human and what this life is all about. My spirituality grows with each transition. It is as if being at your most vulnerable, your most human, opens a window to see beyond this physical plane of being. To gain sight to see that my energy mingles with all the energies of the universe, that I am a part of something greater, that we are a part of something greater.

I am at peace with death and with life. Today I realized it has been a month since my friend was buried, and in recalling my relationship with death I realize that it has been 24 years since my uncle died. I am vulnerable, I am feeling emotional, but I am also feeling the love that connected us during their time on this planet and I can continue feeling it to this day and possibly forever.

And there’s the pitch…

Version 3

Author and her mother in Cuba
If I get this book idea published, this is what I want as the book cover…

Guantanamera, a travel memoir, describes a trip with my mother to her birthplace, Guantanamo, Cuba. Upon arrival the romantic vision of Cuba I had since childhood, quickly melted away as I found myself in a military state.

“Why did I decide to take this trip?” I thought to myself as I walked past soldiers wearing surgical masks and carrying semi-automatic weapons.

“Guilt!” I realized.

She had pleaded with me. “Ay Rebecca, I want to show you where I was born before I die.”

She probably assumed I would never go by myself or that this would be another opportunity for a magical mother/daughter bonding experience.

By day two, a walk through downtown Santiago has my mother thinking she is on a death march, while I’m happily exploring the disintegrating colonial architecture. When I decline taking a taxi with her the half-mile back to the hotel, she erupts, thinking I just told her that I don’t love her.

Throughout the trip I find myself playing travel guide or camp counselor, when all I want to do is just experience Cuba. By the end of the trip and multiple “adventures” I realize how my mother’s history has influenced who she is and how it has affected our relationship.

Let me know what you think… I have to pitch this next week! Stay tuned to find out if I hit a line drive out of the ball field!

Just trippin’

Descending into Yakima Valley, Mt. Adam to the left and Mt. Rainier to the right.
Descending into Yakima Valley, Mt. Adam to the left and Mt. Rainier to the right.

When you live in Seattle WA, you have to be creative. A week ago my partner and I did just that when figuring out how to find summer. While the rest of you were sweltering in 100+ degree weather, the Pacific NW was cool and rainy. Sure that sounds good if you are sweating buckets and going for that 10th glass of lemonade, but when you live in it, it can get old.  Thanks to the Cascade range of mountains, the coolness from the Pacific, that carries the water rich air tends to stay on the West side giving Seattle its year round temperate climate. Ok, you get the picture…  Early Saturday morning we packed the car, destination Yakima WA. A quick 2.5 hour drive and we were in summer. Road Trip!

I wanted to call this blog post “Yakitty Yak” as in that old song where it then says “don’t come back.” For some people that is how they view Yakima, but not me. I say go back as often as possible and I’ll share with you why. For one, they really get a summer out there, their geology and climate is “one eighty” that of Seattle. The high desert with sage brush hills formed when a large ice age lake’s ice dam broke and sent billions of gallons of water to scour the lava rock, to create rolling hills and amazing gorges cut into the earth. Without the Ocean tempering the weather, they get harsh winters and hot summers, so any creative Seattlite will head to the “east side of the mountains” to find weather opposite of Seattle.

Rainier cherries
Rainier cherries

My first trip to Yakima was about 15 years ago, when I first moved to WA state. I heard that it was the “wine country” of WA, I was thrilled since one of my favorite places in the world is Napa valley in CA. But that first trip found amazing wines, but no lush bed and breakfasts, yummy cafes or gourmet markets to buy things for a picnic. Nope this was ag land – a place where it was all work and not so much play. On this trip, our first stop was to pick cherries. The Yakima valley is one of the most fertile valleys in the U.S., as is most of Eastern WA. It is the top producer of cherries, apples and hops in the U.S. So if you are eating cherry pie or drinking a beer, you are probably consuming a bit of Yakima.

Did I mention wine? During that first visit to Yakima, I wasn’t impressed by the scenery, but I was impressed by the wines. Back then there were a fraction of the number of wineries there are today, some were bad but some were really  good. I remembered a winery where I fell in love with their Merlot, and that was before I knew that same Merlot was being served as the house wine at the restaurant Merlot in NYC. I had thought this winery was gone because it wasn’t on any of the wine country maps I had picked up in the past, but this year, we stumbled across it, thanks to those road signs that tell you when a winery is coming up.

Yakima River Winery
Yakima River Winery in Prosser, WA.

Since I last tasted their wines, Yakima River Winery, with their award winning wines went through some tough times. Their east coast distributor died during the 9/11/01 attacks, then the movie Sideways came out with it’s anti-Merlot message (it is still a good movie) and then July of 2012 WA liquor was privatized. From this, they don’t sell their wines on the East coast anymore, the demand for Merlot dropped and now you can’t find their wines in Western WA Safeway, QFC or Fred Meyer stores because those stores dumped a lot of their wine selection to make room for cheap booze. Yikes! What stories we heard as we tasted their out of this world wines. I walked out of their with 2 cases of wine, a $100 case of their 2008 Merlot (thanks to the overstock) and several bottles of their Malbec (watch out Argentina, Yakima valley Malbec is out of this world!) and a couple of bottles of their Cab Sauv. I love this place, it is not pretentious, there is no view, the tasting room looks more like a nice garage, and there is a moose head trophy on the wall, plus a few other taxidermied animals. This is a place that is focused on making great complex wines, not kowtow to the simple palates of the common winery tourist.

Mount Rainier at Chinook Pass
Mt. Rainier at Chinook Pass – July 7, 2012.

Alas, we had to do more than drink wine. We went to the Sunday Farmer’s market, to oogle and purchase produce at prices much lower than the farmer’s markets in Seattle. We had the best tacos adobados I have ever eaten, for breakfast, washed down with a glass of strawberry horchata (rice milk). We had found heaven in Yakima!

It was time to head West and we decided to go through Mt. Rainier National Park. This state is full of wonder and it is so excruciatingly beautiful when the sun shines! It was a quick road trip but it was a great escape from the daily grind in Seattle. Did I mention that there is finally good coffee in Yakima? Go to Northtown Coffeehouse, they brew stumptown coffee and it is good!

I’ll leave you with a few images from our drive through Mt. Rainier. It was a lovely day and the beauty breathtaking!

Narada Falls
Lots of ice cold water falling at Narada Falls.
Author in front of a 1000 year old cedar.
Author in front of a 1000 year old cedar.
Knotty, knarly wood
Knotty, knarly wood.

Fork you…

Sign to various locations
Sometimes the roads in life are in a different language.

When there is a fork in the road take it. Just do something for crying out loud. Don’t just stand there scratching your head wondering which is the “best” road. For some it will be the road less traveled, unpaved, muddy, with huge pot holes or ruts. For others it will be immaculately paved, well trodden, a road others have obviously taken, cookbook, zero or little uncertainty. And then there are those “middle of the road” folks, who like paved roads but are willing to deal with a little gravel now and again. But as we all know there are no road maps for life on this lovely planet Earth, don’t let Rand McNally fool you into thinking there is. So my advice to you is to have fun, be adventurous and face your fears. If you don’t like the road you chose, then tomorrow choose a different one.

Secretly, I have been searching for that well paved road all my life. You know the one with all those well lit signs, telling me where to go and when to turn left or right, to get to my destination. Every turn I’ve made in my life has left me on a road I didn’t know existed the day before. The road to my marriage, the road to my divorce, the road to my academic degrees or my career. I had no guides, written or otherwise, yet I never made a wrong turn. Because regardless of what people may say, we choose our journey, we choose our lessons and we choose to learn from them or not.

The author taking an opportunistic swim in a pool above the Rio Toa.

Traveling is a great way to determine what type of person you are. Are you an adventurous muddy road sort of person? Or do you like to do the tourist thing and have someone else guide your vacation? Me, I’m that person who reads guidebooks before a trip and then tosses them aside when I arrive to my destination. Or at least I strive to be that fearless soul. Rather I am in the middle somewhere, sometimes safe, and sometimes daring. It just depends where I go and with whom I am with. Oh yeah, when you travel, just remember who you have chosen to travel with. That person may or may not walk along the same road as you. Remember, traveling is a microcosm of life, your experiences will be colored by whom you are with and who you choose to hang around. I once heard the great travel writer, Paul Theroux speak in Washington D.C., and he shared that early in his career he traveled with his wife, but he quickly realized that his experiences were being influenced by his concern about her welfare and he felt he wasn’t having authentic travel experiences. “Brilliant!” I thought.

My mother hiking to Rio Toa.
My mother not in her element. But she got an “A” for effort!

With all of this wisdom you would think I would make all of the right decisions on how to travel and with whom to travel with. Wrong! There is this thing called guilt that has forced me, gun to my back, to take a couple of trips with my mother. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother, but she and I travel on very different roads. Knowledge of this was thrown to the wind when she asked me to go to Cuba with her. That trip had adventures that should be in a book and if the planets align, perhaps it will be.

Lesson: Even though you may consciously choose a road that will be bumpy and uncomfortable, you may learn things about yourself that are worthy for a book.

May the fork be with you!