Pause, Regroup, Go

The pause happened before my 45th birthday last year.

Field trip to Bandelier National Monument.
Field trip to Bandelier National Monument when I was only 43.

Thoughts started badgering me:

What am I doing with my life?

Is this where I want to be?

What have I accomplished?

Is this all there is for me?

I’m almost dead!

My older friends laughed  and called me “youngster” and “silly.”

But I know this restlessness.

I get restless when I need change – not want – but need. For me change is not only an opportunity for growth, it is growth.

The first time I felt this need I was about 12 or 13. I had fallen in love with San Francisco while visiting relatives. Chicago wasn’t my #1 city anymore. I was in love with the Mediterranean climate, the friendly people and the food. Unfortunately, due to my age and other factors, the move wouldn’t happen until I was 21.

City by the Bay

After a few months working at a biotech company, I applied and got accepted to graduate school in the Monterey Bay area just south of SF. I was following my dream of becoming a marine biologist – inspired by Jacques Cousteau.

California was wonderful, I didn’t want to move, but as my graduate career was ending, jobs were hard to find and the techies from Silicon Valley were beginning to make the Monterey Bay area too expensive to live. Through some connections I learned there may be jobs in Seattle – so, at age 25, I moved out of necessity – which is a different kind of need than restlessness.

City by the Sound.

I rolled into Seattle on July 1st, 1996 (yes 20 years ago today!). Life would be good for awhile – but restlessness found me 6 years later, when I was 31. It was a moment in my life where I felt everything stagnated: bought first home, married first guy and got my first permanent job, by age 30.

I lived in the suburbs of Seattle. It felt sterile, isolated, and unfriendly. The marriage began to remind me of my parents marriage.  In short no bueno. I knew there was more to life than what I had and I got out.

While the marriage was ending, I moved from the suburbs of Seattle into the city. A place where I could walk to cafes, to grocery stores and to a beautiful urban park with a lake, trees, and an occasional bald eagle. I felt more comfortable in the city – it reminded me of my city-kid roots.

When I feel restless my first reaction is to runaway and this one was no different.

I wanted to give up:

Everything I was doing

Everything I had accomplished

I wanted to:

Move

Getaway

Leave without a trace…

But that wouldn’t be responsible, it would be a short-lived happiness followed by extreme anxiety.

Third birthday of author...
Third birthday of author…

I needed to regroup, reevaluate, and reassess, my restlessness. I needed to ground my thoughts, take several deep breathes because I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t let down my younger self, and give up on her dreams and aspirations. But what had I not accomplished?

I achieved my goal of moving to Cali and becoming a marine biologist. I spent time at sea studying fishes in Alaska. I now have a great job, I own a house in the city and I have a terrific fiancé.

So what am I to blame this bout of restlessness on?

I look to astrology for answers (cuz sometimes it helps.).  I am a Sagittarrian and Sagittarians are described as travelers, philosophers, and adaptable. In short, I needed a change of scenery, more education and transition my avocation to a vocation.

For education I decided to GO back to school in a discipline complimentary to science, art. My medium is writing and on many levels I have always known I was a writer and have written in some capacity since I was a teenager. For the last 4+ years it has been my avocation. I have taken several writing classes, but they left me wanting more. Finally, I applied to a Masters of Fine Arts program – got in – and hope to graduate with an MFA in creative writing (focus on nonfiction) in 2018.

I’m working on a change of scenery – to a place my younger self wanted to live thanks to a TV show with a hot guy driving a red Ferrari – so I’ll write about it if it happens.

I embraced my feeling of restlessness. I worked to fully understand where they were coming from and I am making changes.  Life feels more fulfilling and I feel less old.

Sleepwalking to the Gym

The gym I go to is only four blocks away from my home.

https://tinayap.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/exercising-cartoon.jpg

 

Those four blocks can be an obstacle to overcome on some mornings, on others, like today, they help me wake up.

It is dark at 6:00 a.m. The robins are singing, the crescent moon glows through wisps of clouds, the sweet smell of blooming plum trees in the air. The darkness plays tricks on my mind, is this a dream? I’m I really still asleep in my bed at home?

Every step I take, down stairs, around corners, across streets, my caffeine-free state slowly comes to terms that we are getting closer to the gym. The glow of the fluorescent sign is coming clearer. Closer yet, the gym is the only storefront glowing on the entire block, in the entire neighborhood, a beckon for those of us who need a bit of exercise to start the day.

I decide it is a treadmill morning and not an elliptical morning. My workout decisions are usually made on the fly. Supposedly, I’m listening to my body, but sometimes my mind tells me I’m weaker than I really am. Will I do weights or just some stretches? I’m too late for the morning circuit training class. The one I wish I could wake up for, but it is just early enough…

Today, my mind tells me to do a run, walk, hill climb for 15 minutes. I’m coming off a week long cold, so I don’t want to “over do it.” Sometimes short workouts feel as good as a long workout. Lately, I have been lovely a 30-45 minute workout – or shall I say visit to the gym. Sometimes the time goes by quickly and others go by slowly.

Walking back home, I see the crows flying in from their overnight stay at their rookery, for another day of searching for food. The rising sun reflects a pinkish-orange glow on low lying clouds. Joining the robins are chickadees, gold finch, juncos and pine siskens. As I near my house I can here the sweet jingling of my cat’s bell, welcoming me back home and asking for breakfast.

I am finally awake, as I sit on my porch, cooling off from my workout and taking the first sip of coffee.

The author and her grandmother 1998

What era are you in?

Have you ever thought about what era your life is in or was in?

I was asked to consider this in a memoir writing class I am taking this quarter. The instructor promised this would lead us to a story or two even…  There was one caveat, the era had to be linked with an obsession.

View from Dolores park, a half mile from my grandmother’s house.

Beginning when I was about 13 years old, I was obsessed with moving to California from my hometown of Chicago. I wanted to go to high school there, I wanted to go to college then graduate school there, I wanted to live there more than anywhere else in the world. Why?

Was it the salty ocean air while walking along Ocean beach? The fog rolling over Twin Peaks bringing cool ocean air inland, on a hot summer afternoon? Was it the sour dough bread? Or was it the cable cars? The natural and man-made beauty that makes San Francisco so special makes everyone fall in love with her, but there was more.

I was attached to my grandmother. She moved to San Francisco, from Chicago, when I was 8 or 9. She was the woman I aspired to be. Beautiful, confident, fiercely independent and unassumingly intelligent.

The author and her grandmother 1998
My grandmother and me outside of her apartment in 1998.

She was also an amazing cook. On one visit, she taught me how to shop for ingredients at different stores in her neighborhood of the Mission district. We would walk to the produce market on the corner of Mission and 24th, selecting not too soft avocados and fresh green cilantro for her famous guacamole. We would stop at the butcher that was within a mall off of Mission between 21st and 22nd, to buy a quartered chicken for her famous arroz con pollo. And on special occasions she would buy freshly made ravioli from the Italian market, on 22nd and Valencia, only a block from her apartment, and cook them up with a sauce she would make from scratch with fresh Roma tomatoes, oregano, rosemary and other fresh herbs.  I had never experienced a culinary world like that in Chicago. Shopping was at a grocery store and dinner was made from ingredients that were from a can or a box.

Life in San Francisco was a rainbow of colors and smells that I had not found in Chicago. My entire being glowed when I was in San Francisco, only to fizzle when I went back to Chicago.

The era of obsessing over moving to California lasted almost 10 years. To an adult 10 years may not sound like a long time. So let me put it into the perspective of a teenager.

It was FOREVER!

I graduated from elementary school, high school and college before I finally moved to San Francisco.

Pause.

And this is where my instructors directions became unclear. I didn’t know what to do with the eras within this larger era or my obsessions within the bigger obsession. Obsessions don’t happen consecutively in my life.

There was the era of obsessing over the older brother of one of my classmates. For two years I suffered with a major infatuation for a tall, olive skinned, guy with black curly hair and eyes that were blue like the Caribbean sea. By the time he noticed me, I was on to my next obsession. I was obsessed with bicycle riding along lake Michigan from the north side of the city, where I lived, south 12 miles to Soldier’s Field or north 6 miles to Baha’i temple in the northern suburb of Wilmette.  I was obsessed with the 1985 Bears! “Da Bears!” I was obsessed with becoming a Marine Biologist, and so on, and so on…

My instructor had us think of a scene at the beginning, middle and end of the era. She said, that is the backbone of a story.

A story?! Easier said than done!

I must have a gazillion stories I can tell. But that is a good thing. And I hope you can find them in yours too.

Keep on sifting!

For now, I have some work to do… I need to sift through all of those obsessions, within those eras, or those eras within those obsessions and tease out focused stories.

This is not going to be a piece of cake.

But it will be fun!

Author and her uncle

Finding Voice

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

My path to becoming a writer began on a mild Chicago winter day in January 1988. But I didn’t know it. It was the day my uncle Danny died of AIDS related pneumonia.  He was one of those rare authentic adults who was filled with the joy of living. I loved, admired and adored him.

His death inspired my journal writing –  he suggested it a few months prior to his death and his death inspired the content. The sorrow in my soul broke open my heart and inspired me to write without thinking about what was written.

A few months later, my AP English teacher said I had a “gift.” He said my writing sounded like I was speaking. He said there are people who spend their lives trying to do that.

I now know he meant to say my writing had voice, which is something to practice. Instead, I took his observation, his compliment of my creative talent as an accomplishment I didn’t need to strive towards anymore.

I thought, if I had achieved something that others spent their lives trying to achieve, then why go any further? Why pursue this thing that came effortlessly?

Instead, I exercised my analytic mind, I became a scientist.

I went to college, then grad school and studied things that didn’t come easy to me. But they were things associated with another love, the ocean. I longed to play with fish all day. I dreamed of a life swimming around in their watery environment, studying their behaviors, their life history, and their diversity. I didn’t have a job in mind, I just followed my love.

I knew I loved fish, I loved tropical waters and I loved the TV show Magnum P.I. that was filmed in Hawaii.

This girl from Chicago, dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, marrying Tom Selleck and living happily ever after studying Hawaiian fish. But it was hard trying to achieve this dream.  Despite all of this love, I was only a C+/B- student at the illustrious University of Chicago, the school I ended up at because I didn’t apply to the “right” university in San Diego, where I really wanted to go. UofC is a school so anti-social, so anti-anything I had experienced in my previous life as an inner-city kid going to public schools, that my only goal was to graduate so I could continue pursuing my dream of becoming a Marine Biologist some place closer to Hawaii, like California.

For four years, I ignored the better grades I received in those classes that required creative writing and kept working hard at those classes involving solving formulas and equations. I ignored my talent.

My love for the environment and for writing merged on Earth Day 1990. I wrote a comment to a letter someone wrote the editor of the Maroon, the UofC newspaper.  I wrote something about think global and act local, but what I remember most vividly is the feeling I felt when people recognized that I was the one who wrote the comment. I remember where I was – paying for books at the local Cooperative book store and the cashier, another student, recognized my name. The feeling that my words meant something to someone else was powerful. I took it as symbolic of what my future as an influential scientist would be like.  I didn’t think it was something I could have pursued at that moment, change my degree and become a writer.

I wish I kept a copy.

Society didn’t show me a writer role model. No one told me about the importance of sharing one’s writing. My role model was Jacques Cousteau. His colorful, fish filled documentaries I watched on Channel 11, the PBS station in Chicago, were my inspiration. I wanted to do what Jacques did. Although, on some level, I did know that the elusive “Robin” in the Magnum P.I. series, the owner of the luxurious estate Magnum lived on, belonged to a novelist, but I associated that with the romance novels my mother read. Blech! I couldn’t do that, I thought to myself, I’m too smart.

If only I knew.

Note: This musing was written as part of a class on writing memoir – the assignment, called thematic stepping stones, was to look at things in my life that are in conflict and write about it. I chose “creative vs analytic self” and wrote for twenty minutes about the moments in my life this conflict arose. It was an assignment written by Theo Pauline Nester.

bus stopped by roadway stand.

Lost in Analogy…

bus stopped by roadway stand.
Cuban “Dirty Dog.”

Sitting on the bus in my decaffeinated and hungry state – bleary eyed, a mild headache, and a low grumble in my stomach – I tried to absorb the scenery. We rolled through a rural landscape of fields of grass bordered with wooden fencing and second growth forest, a jumble of tropical plants in slightly different shades of green, palms, vines and a coniferous tree or two. There were no directional signs for miles and no street signs at intersections. The Cuban government did provide motivational signs in the form of large billboards with pro-revolution slogans painted with vibrant colors. The road was boring and the only thing keeping me conscious on this tourist class, Greyhound bus look-alike, was the smell of old, dried up urine from the latrine at the back of the bus, a Cuban Dirty Dog.

Did you get the analogy?

In a writing workshop, located in Seattle WA, my classmates didn’t get it. They thought there was an actual dog on the bus, or that the smell reminded the narrator of an experience with a Cuban dog. Lost in analogy was the slang term for Greyhound buses used in my hometown of Chicago IL.

With analogy being so important to storytelling, to bring the reader closer to the story, what happens if the analogy isn’t universal?

It is like being told a joke and needing it explained to you. The joke is lost, poof – lost in translation.

What is a writer to do?

My goal as a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction is to share my story. My words will reflect my experiences, my slang, bits of my personality, but what if you the reader doesn’t get my drift and get’s lost? My goal of sharing my story is lost, as the reader is adrift in an ocean of confusion. Wondering, huh?! I don’t get it…

I don’t have the answer, for now I dropped the analogy to the Cuban dirty dog. In a different paragraph I call it a porta-potty on wheels (changed from my original Honey Bucket on wheels – the name of our local portable toilet provider in Seattle) so that more people in the U.S. would understand the reference.  Or should I call it a porta-John or porta-WC…  Ugh!

Writing Science… progress report

Field trip to Bandelier National Monument.
Field trip to Bandelier National Monument outside of Santa Fe.

My last post was written in Santa Fe on the eve of attending the Santa Fe Science Writer’s workshop. I shared “I have a great passion to help people not only understand but to be a part of the scientific process, to share in the discovery of new places or celebrate the innovative spirit of scientists trying to understand the world we live in.”

My brain is fatigued and I have typer’s cramp. A week of the workshop attending lectures at 6500 ft above sea level, dealing with dry sinuses and constant dry throat, revising a story about four times, when I thought it was”done” before I went to Santa Fe, left me questioning my life’s passion.  Moving paragraphs around or deleting one or two sentences that just didn’t fit, felt like I was juggling elephants with one arm…  Why is it so hard to mold a piece of writing into something – tangible, understandable, logical and interesting?

I persevered. Writing is hard. If it wasn’t then everyone would be doing it. So forward I went. With each rewrite the story sounded better and better.

Today – the story is finally posted on the website of my employer. I have a second story in the hopper that I hope will be posted by next week.

The more I write, the less intimidating the process, the more fun it is to see the results. Revisions are becoming my friends. Now when I begin a piece I yearn for the moment I get to revise it because I know it will always be better than the first draft.

 

Writing on the Santa Fe trail

Writing is hard.

Map of Santa Fe trail. Credit: wikipedia

Riding a horse on a dusty trail for hundreds of miles, in oven hot temperatures, with dust devils threatening you, as they did on the Santa Fe trail almost two hundred years ago, is hard too.

Writing story, whether it be about fictitious werewolves on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State or translating cool scientific research projects or findings, has to be made interesting.

How one does that is through learning the craft of writing. Few people are born with the gift of excellent writing skills. For most of us, we take our basic writing skills (learned in high school or college) and build upon them through attending workshops, seminars, classes or retreats. Some of us are hobbyists who have project ideas in mind – such as a book or magazine article – but have little time to work on them, then there are others who want to learn as much as possible about the different writing genres (e.g., young adult, mystery, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, etc.) where schooling never ends and then there are those of us who want to write as a career.

There is a glamor associated to being a writer. One envisions journalists covering stories in exotic places, of lone writers sitting at their desk in front of a colossal window looking upon an inspiring landscape outside their oceanfront villa or NYC apartment, both composing the next Pulitzer Prize winning article or National Book Award.

Far from this vision is the reality of hands cramping, brain fatigue, constructive critique, and editing, like toothpicks under fingernails, leading to the neural cell crushing rewrite. We only see the sigh of relief, of being set free from the prison of the writing process, when the project has become the final product.

Today I set sail on an adventure to learn how best to translate science for the everyday reader. This is for my “real job” as well as for my “hobby.” I have a great passion to help people not only understand but to be a part of the scientific process, to share in the discovery of new places or celebrate the innovative spirit of scientists trying to understand the world we live in.

I look forward to the lessons I will learn. I am open to receive the wisdom of the science journalists from the NY times, WA post, Nat Geo, who will be our instructors. I am ready for the hard work.

This blogpost from one of  the instructors, Joel Achenbach, sums it up best. He ends his post with these words of wisdom: “A writer is just someone who writes. You don’t need a credential or a fancy resume. You don’t need a lot of special training. You don’t need connections. Just put your hands on the keyboard and start typing. And don’t stop.”

When my head is about to burst while I translate knowledge into story, and when my fingers cramp on the keyboard, I will remember those lonesome riders traversing the Santa Fe trail from Missouri to Nuevo Mexico and remember… there is payoff at the end.