Between Ease & Effort

A few months back I started taking yoga classes to get some sort of activity in my life that is not dog-walking. The other day, one of the instructors was talking about the space between ease and effort: how every pose should be a balance between those two. We should be pushing ourselves to be better (the effort), while also finding the comfort and joy in each move (the ease).

On our recent road trip though Montana, my brain mulled over this concept. We were on a long straight highway, clear as the eye can see. Looking at the world stretch out before us. A valley between sharp hills, west of the Rockies, with conifers clustered in gullies. Early morning sun making long shadows across tall grass, the occasional hawk poised overhead. A sky so big and blue it hurts the eyes.

The more I see of it, the more in love I am with the world. Why would anyone think there is anything better than right here, right now, this beautiful perfect earth that we have?

I get the feeling of seeing it all for the first time, the first time, as if no other eyes have devoured this landscape. Greedy. It fills you with such joy and such loneliness. It is good to look at rocks and realize how young, how small you are to this place. I could drink in all the world and never get enough.

2016 has been a big one for me in terms of trying new things, putting myself out there. Hedgebrook, going on my first-ever backpacking trip, making the decision to take the leap and leave my job… I couldn’t have foreseen how this year has gone. And I’m glad for that. I always want to see like this: filled with wonder at what the earth created.

This is how I want to live my life: full of adventure and a just a tad bit of uncomfortableness. Between ease and effort. It’s the balance between those two where you really shine.

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What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

Hedgebrook_Cabin

An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)

Summer, Summer, Glorious Summer

High hot days and cool windy nights. Twilights that never end. Bats zig-zagging in the dusk, feasting on flying termites. Blueberries. Huckleberries. Blackberries, still warm from the sun. One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me. Fingers stained a permanent purple.

Sticking your head into a dinner-plate-sized rose and breathing in the pear scent. Crunching toes in dry grass. Listening to the bumblebees lumber from salvia, hyssop, lavender, collecting bright yellow pollen on fat black legs.

Sitting on the edge of a mountain-fed river, strong and tired and hungry from swimming. Hot rocks warming wet swimsuit, the sun dry on your back. Listening to nothing but the water catch and fall on rock. Remembering this warm summer moment for the winter ahead, storing it as an insect for the dark months to come.

Mint picked and pressed into lemonade. Five o’clock and the smell of charcoal filling a neighborhood. No reason, no reason at all to go inside and go to bed. There is no work, there is no tomorrow. There is only summer.

Walk, Read, Write

The way I see it, if I can manage to do these 3 things every day, I’m doing alright:

  1. Walk
  2. Read
  3. Write
The first one clears my head. The second two feed me.

I’m not adding any time limits or stipulations. One thing I figured out from 2015 was to be a little kinder to myself. If I just get in a 10-minute walk, a bus ride of reading, a page of prose…that is so much better than nothing.

Full disclosure: I did not finish the second draft of my book by the end of year, like I had planned. And while I’m a bit disappointed (and mostly like OMG WANT TO FINISH THIS STUPID THING), I’m not beating myself up about it. The ending of the book is…rougher than I had remembered. A lot had to be totally scrapped, a lot written anew. The main point is I’ve been working on it, almost every day.

Austin Kleon has a blog post about how we spend our days. Ultimately, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. It may seem small, but focusing on just three things every day adds up.

Last week I was tired. Eyeball-ache tired. I hadn’t slept well, had a 9am meeting I was stressed out about, slept on my neck funny. I farted away my morning writing time on the internet and really didn’t want to walk the dog. But I pulled on my super-stylish safety vest and headed out.

A small sliver of crescent moon hung above the neighbor’s house. Towards the end of the walk, I noticed that the horizon was turning the most vibrant shade of cerulean blue. Only a week ago, it was still pitch black at that time. The days are slowly creeping longer, and I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d stayed inside.

Walk. Read. Write.

2015 Favorites

It’s not weird to me that 2015 is almost over — what’s weird is that 2016 is next. How is it that we’re suddenly in the future, where self-driving cars and computer watches and hover boards are all actual things that exist? And yet here at home, the height of normality reigns. I sit here in my sweatpants, drinking coffee out of my writer’s mug, while a cat purrs from the desk and a dog stares at me from the floor. These are all good things.

I’m excited for 2016. 2015 was a rough year in some ways, but it was also kind of magical. Restorative. There was a lot of travel, a lot of reading. I curled up into a cocoon and took care of me. And now I’m ready to bust out and say OH HAI to 2016.

But before we move on — a look back, as I do every year. My favorites from the past year — I’ll be eager to hear yours.

Movies

I did NOT want to go see this movie. I typically don’t like full-on action flicks, and one that was basically one long extended car chase…nooooo thank you. But I was cajoled… and five minutes into the movie, I was sitting there with my mouth open.

The visuals, the feminist plot, the crazy pounding music…I was hooked. I’d never seen any of the Mad Max movies before (and still haven’t seen the prior ones), so don’t know how Mad Max: Fury Road compares. But WHOA was it a kick to the nerves.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum: Inside Out. Thank you, Pixar, for creating yet ANOTHER movie that makes everyone in the theater cry.

Books

I just did my 2015 book re-cap, and I suppose all of those could be counted as “best of’s” for the year. But if I had to narrow it down… I’d go with The Sixth ExtinctionCreativity, Inc. and Half of a Yellow Sun. The first two because they kept me thinking long after I’d finished the books. And the last because — while it’s suuuuper depressing — it’s hauntingly beautiful and showed me a story I hadn’t encountered before.

Oh, and one more… I didn’t include this on my re-cap list, because it seemed like a bit of a cheat. But this year I re-read Watership Down, one of my all-time favorites. I read it on my trip to Greece (more on that later, I promise) — and I don’t know if it was the setting, or because it had been so long since I last read it, but I fell head-over-heels-in-love with this book all over again. Sitting overlooking a caldera, reading about the rabbits’ search for a new home, looking out to the endless sea and comparing this to the tale of Odysseus…that’s a memory that’ll stick.

Music

One band dominated the year for me. In April, we flew down to San Francisco to see them play because they didn’t have any upcoming concerts in the Seattle area. And when they DID come to Seattle in August… yup, we went to that show, too.

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And if I’d had the opportunity to see Alabama Shakes a third time this year? You’d better believe I’d be RIGHT THERE. The bands two albums are good — but if you can, go see them live. Brittany Howard is a powerhouse. Watching her play and sing, I got the distinct impression that I was watching someone very, very special…like, one day I’d be looking back and saying, “Yes, you young whipper-snapper, I saw Brittany in her early days. Go ahead, be jealous.”

If I had to pick one favorite song…I can’t. So here’s two.

 

Moments

Man. I hadn’t fully realized until I did that #2015bestnine thing, but 2015 was an epic year.

best9

Walking along the Cliffs of Moher. Discovering a sunken tree-fern forest at Blarney Castle.

Floating on Lake Washington with my bestie. Sitting at a picnic table at Crystal Mountain in the later summer sun, reading a a book next to my mom. Fly fishing and actually catching fish.

Swimming and snorkeling in the Aegean. Taking shots of raki with a Cretan restaurant owner. Basking in the sunset at the Acropolis.

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Attending the Hedgebrook writing workshop with my friend Val.

Driving through central Oregon with no AC, sinking into the heat like a lizard, reveling in the beauty that is Painted Hills.

I did SO MUCH this year — yet it still felt balanced. I need to strive for that in 2016 as well.

Food

You guys, do you know about taramosalata? It is SO AMAZING and SO NOT AVAILABLE in this country. I ate it every chance I got in Greece and now need to find the ingredients to make it at home. Byron will totally hate its fishy taste…but that just means more for me.

Speaking of fishy taste — Irish smoked salmon. I don’t know why, but it’s different than other smoked salmon. It’s smooth and silky and subtly sweet. It’s like biting into a piece of the ocean. I ate my weight in it and would happily eat it every day if I could.

Other than that…this was admittedly a weird food year for me. I started seeing a naturopath, did some allergy testing, and as a result cut out dairy, eggs and a whole lot of other crap for most of the year. I’m starting to eat them a bit now…but for a lot of the year, I was basically eating vegan.

So when I ate cheese? I REALLY relished it. You guys, cheese is AMAZING. If you can, eat it for every meal, every day.

I also developed a deep appreciation for hot toddies in Ireland that continued through the year. Hot toddies cure what ails you. Hot toddies are a dollop of sunshine on a cold, damp day. Which is a LOT of days in the Pacific Northwest, which means they’re basically the perfect Northwest drink.

What are your favorites from 2015

Blog Hiatus

I mean, the title kind of says it all, right? But I’ll spell it out a bit more: I’ve decided to take a hiatus from this blog. Starting now. For an undetermined amount of time.

It’s been mulling around my head for a while, this idea of taking a break, but I’ve been loathe to do it because… well, I like writing this blog. I like having a space to air my nerdy writer ways, my book habits, my little adventures. I like talking with fellow writers and readers and adventurers. Thanks to the encouragement of my best friend, I started Buffalo Writes two years ago and haven’t regretted a minute of it.

The fact is I have too much on my plate right now, between work and editing my book and beginning a new writing project. (OH YES, a new project. Because I’m apparently a masochist. But it involves a 98-year-old, and that’s not the kind of thing you press pause on.)

At first I thought, “Well, I’ll just update the blog less frequently.” Which worked for a while. But still the thoughts lurk in the back of my brain… what’s your next post going to be? When is it going to be? Should you give an update on writing? On what you’ve been reading? What have you been looking at lately? Even with less frequent postings, the blog still takes up brain space. And that’s what I need to free up.

This is not the end. It’s just a breath.

One Thing at a Time

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a coworker at a party. About work, because I dunno, that’s the kind of small talk coworkers engage in. As it was the start of the New Year, we talked about goals, resolutions. He asked if I had any. I said,

“I really want to try and focus on one thing at a time. Just one — not switching back and forth between tasks.”

And saying it out loud, I knew it was true — this was an important thing to keep myself from feeling depleted by the end of each work day. So I made the resolution to focus on only one thing at a time — to finish one task before moving on to the next. Which sounds simple, but in the modern-day work environment, when your whole job revolves around a computer, and that computer is assaulting you with ten things at once — just finishing one task can suddenly require the most Herculean effort you’ve ever put forth.

And then, as fate or luck or whatever would have it, I was went this article:

Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion …. we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. — “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain

And this:

Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. — “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain

If you have five minutes, go read the article. It highlights so many issues — but sadly, not many solutions. And after reading it, I WANTED solutions. I am so very aware that I engage in most of these behaviors — keeping Communicator open so people can reach me, reading emails the second they arrive in my inbox, propping my phone up on my desk so I can respond to a text the second it appears — and I can feel the toll it takes on my brain. I feel the mounting anxiety at not being able to get any actual work done. I feel the exhaustion that comes at the end of the day. I feel the hamster in my brain spinning and spinning but not actual going anywhere.

So I’m doing what I can. I’ve turned off the notifications on email. I’m predetermining a set amount of time to focus on certain tasks. I’m setting my Communicator status to “Do Not Disturb”. I am purposely reducing the distractions that come flying at my brain.

I’m trying to do the same at home, too. Set aside 30 minutes — 30 specific minutes — for writing. Read that book instead of fart around on the internet. Purposely decide that I’m going to watch TV for 60 minutes. (Because sometimes that’s what your brain needs after a long day.) Oh, and I’m trying to leave my cell phone in the living room when I go to bed. Checking Facebook right before sleep can NOT be good for cognitive function.

One thing at a time. How did such a simple idea become so complex?