Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, Vermont, China... Africa

I am really terrible at this. As a writer, I am a little embarrassed at just how terrible I am at this. And by this, I mean blogging, keeping a public journal, keeping up with it, posting things, connecting with readers. But I want to keep record of this journey, and there is a handful of you amazing friends and family in my life who read this keep asking me to post and so I am, I really am going to try to be better. I'm also pretty bad at taking pictures. I'm much better at writing a picture for you, so I'll do a bit of both and I hope give you a vision of all of this day to day on the other side of the world.

So here I am in Shanghai, China.

It's been nearly four weeks since I left New York in the clear cold winter and arrived here in China's foggy, smoggy cold winter. Where to begin? At first it all seemed so normal and familiar. I was staying in the home of some of my favorite people, Kate and Branch, of Italy fame, of traveling companion fame, of favorite friends fame, of luring me to SHANGHAI fame. And their home is in a complex in the suburbs of the city, near to the school, a place the caters to ex-pats of many backgrounds-- a health club, a grocery store-- and their home is such a HOME. Great artifacts and art from their life around the world, cozy couches and pillows and of course Kate and Branch themselves. So I began to settle in here in comfort and with such amazing support. And school has been the same. It's an extraordinary campus (I couldn't stop gaping at the person who WALKS AROUND AND KEEPS THE PHOTOCOPIERS STOCKED WITH PAPER--any of my BHSEC colleagues will understand my awe), with such welcoming colleagues. And the students. They're so amazingly polite. They greet me, thank me, do all of their assignments, really, all of them. The real difference though is that they are very averse to discussion. While I'm used to running a classroom that is grounded in talk, opinion, debate, seminar, I'm finding that almost impossible so it's certainly challenging my teaching muscles. While I love the literature and the chance to share it and explore it with them, I definitely miss the counseling role. I can feel that's where I'm meant to be. And that, I suppose, is part of what this was all about.

Two weeks ago I moved into my home for the next five or six-ish months, a sprawling 12th four apartment in the heart of the French concession, with balconies and picture windows and amazing views

(well, when you can see the views),

pumpkin colored walls, a killer fruit stand across the street, a wonderful roommate from Colorado, proximity to everything, to the winding streets that I get lost in, the metro to People's Square or to the Bund, delicious restaurants, yoga studios, dumpling stands... if you know me you know how I feel about things on wheels and so I am DEFINITELY traffic-shy, and spend a great deal of time trying not to get run over. But that is part of the navigation. 

This weekend I visited an antique market,

 a market that sold birds and fish and turtles, another of statues and stools and suitcases and busts...

two great restaurants, stayed up way too late at a tiny bar that spilled people into the streets and brunched with an old friend from Vermont (the world is amazingly small) and a new friend from California (who helped me find a gym. And one with a pool. And just across the street from my home). And you know what else I did? I accepted a job in Accra, Ghana. Yes I did. So just as I've begun this China adventure, I've set the next one on the horizon. But isn't that, too, what this was all about? At least I think it was... I'll save that, though, for a later post. Because for now, it's China. And I'm brimming with excitement about both. But. One thing at a time...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The fountain of youth

One of the things that brings people here to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, is the location along the Rio Grande-- the attraction of naturally occurring Hot Springs. I was excited about this, awesome, a hot tub in nature, but it wasn't the thing that brought me here. I had my first soak days after I arrived, and I have pretty much gone every other day since...

What is it about the hot springs? I'm not sure. They were considered sacred waters, some called them the fountain of youth, they have ultimate healing powers, they are spiritually calming, they reverse the aging process. Whatever it is, it is amazing. There are a number of spas and hotels to choose from, but I choose La Paloma.

They have private rooms with low lights, flute music, the sense of total rest and isolation. Yet once you've gone into your room you climb the wooden steps down into the actual river-- you are in a private pool, yet your feet rest on the natural rocks of the river bottom.

The water is usually around 108 degrees and for half an hour I float in the pool and literally can feel my body unwinding, loosening, relaxing... and the miraculous thing is that my mind does the same.

I am a morning writer. But I like to soak in the hot springs in the evening, walking back through the wide streets at dusk. The stars are blinking alive, people have strung christmas lights along their low fences (everyone has low fences-- with vicious dogs behind them), and the night is quiet. It's cold too, once the sun has set, but my body is still radiating heat from the hot springs as I walk. And the thing is, even though I'm a morning writer, once I've soaked in the fountain of youth, I'm writing at night. Something I'm grateful for as I have just under a week left in this writer's camp. Some days it's the canyons, some days the hot springs, some days it's the cowboy on a bicycle or the artist in town who paints only ducks and horses, but each day something else is climbing into the stories I'm telling.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The middle of nowhere

So this is what it was like… once upon a time that I never really lived.

The internet doesn’t really work at night and so I’m here, in this tiny studio, a big star littered sky outside and near, no really absolute silence, all around me. I woke up early this morning. I ran on this desert road that I can run a little longer on each day. I came back here and made coffee and breakfast and I wrote for a while, the door open because then the sun pours in

And something sort of extraordinary happened. I started crying. Not sobbing, not in a dramatic way, but that tingling in my nose and then the tears that welled up and fell, and I felt so relieved, because I’d been feeling this distance from my story, this separation from my characters, as if they weren’t real or true and suddenly what was happening in their lives felt so true. And it’s freaking SAD and scary and I felt that completely while I was writing and I felt so relieved.

I drove out to Hillsboro and Kingston today, walked through a beautiful old cemetery 

and climbed the ruins of a jail 

and a courthouse 

and toured a straw bale guest house in the middle of nowhere and rode in and out of gorgeous purple and brown canyons… 

and then came back and wrote some more, made dinner… but the thing is, there are so many hours in the day. And at the end of that day, when it’s dark and silent and you’re living alone in a tiny studio and you don’t have t.v. or email, the world is huge and cavernous and empty.

One of the things I wanted to do this year was to do better at being alone. I think we are all too dependent on things-- the company of strangers, the hum of the television, the infinite possibility of the internet... This is, without a doubt, testing that plan, this is one long silent dark night after another. I’m reading Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Poor amazing Tess, Tess who is not a product of her time at all but a woman who feels very real, no matter what the decade. Even Tess can’t fill all these nights. She makes me sad and I know there is no happy ending. “Tess had never in her recent life been so happy as she was now, possibly never would be again.” So much stands there, we know that Tess’s anticipation and possibility is only that and that even her certain beauty and the suggestion in this second life she’s been offered, these too will end in disappointment. I’m wrapped up in this story but even in this, I put the book down and the only sound, truly the ONLY sound is coyotes in the mountains behind me and it’s early, just about 10 p.m. and I don’t have any more writing left in me…

At a time, we knew how to be with ourselves, to be in the moment and the place where we are. That’s just what I’m trying to do now and it’s painfully hard. 

Friday, November 16, 2012


Yesterday I spent the day with... with the mother of a very old friend, a woman who is living here in Truth or Consequences, who I've known for so much of my life, but haven't seen in close to two decades, a woman who moved here after her children had grown and began to paint and made the southwest her home. It was a really extraordinary day, not in the least because I love the way our relationships with people change as we grow, I love that I am not a child anymore, or a teenager and yet that I have that memory as a foundation for who I am. It was an extraordinary day because we drove into the canyon towns of Monticello, which look like nowhere I've ever been in the world. The landscape changes with each passing minute, where the shadows fall on the dust, how deep you drive into the canyon, and then the irrigation systems suddenly give way to farmland, its off season now but the crops and feels spread along the valley floor and the trees, with massive spread arms and bright yellow leaves... we visited a friend who has one of the most beautiful homes I've ever seen, old adobe, wood stoves, high beamed ceilings and an orchard of peach and pear and apricot trees... beyond this there are some abandoned homes, rusted cars, and then a small village of cowboys and hippies in these old farming adobe homes... the facade of the schools is still there, just a facade, crumbling, three walls and no roof, cattle peek their heads around its steps. I tried to imagine going to school there...

There are SO MANY worlds. I wake up each day worrying I'm not writing enough, worrying I'm not writing the right things, worrying period... I'm so caught up in writing about what I see, in just being in this strange little town, that my novel seems to be sagging, that other stories are taking shape and fighting for time, that I keep thinking what if I leave here and I don't finish anything?

What if I don't? I think I'll still be okay.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day and a piece of a story

I haven't felt farther from the place I call home in a long time. New York is as much home for me as anywhere else and though I made the decision to leave it, maybe just for a moment or maybe more permanently, it is hard to be away from it now and not to be able to help. It's an amazing thing to see the way people come together in support, in kindness, in ways we lose sight of in our everyday life. I'm proud to call New York a home... but I'm geographically, culturally, emotionally a million miles away in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

I've spent the last three elections in New York, at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village, at an upstate basement bar, and at the Bell House in Brooklyn and then the streets between St. Mark's and Park Place on Classon Avenue late at night in 2008... before that the canyon facing streets of West Hollywood and before that, well, before that I didn't vote yet and I was a teenager and I admit, in my head maybe the world revolved around my small world, before that I didn't know what was happening. at least not on the grand scope, the scope where I felt impact. Now here I am in New Mexico, not a television in sight; Obama/Biden sides spiking the dusty trailer yards and Hot Springs parking lots give me hope, though.

I've been here just a few days, settling in to what my friend Erin likes to call "Writer's Camp", a tiny retreat, three studios facing a courtyard,

complete with fire pit and herb garden

 and laid open beneath the wide sky. I've written 9,000 words, collected mesquite from the desert to smoke ribs, driven around new mexico's biggest lake,

run a dusty road along the Rio Grande, and wandered ghost town streets.

That's just the beginning, but this story is taking shape. Taking on a life of it's own. Here's a piece of it.


I could tell you, and I guess I will and I am going to tell you, that there was nothing about him, at least at the very first, that matched or came close to anything I had expected. And there never is. I have read enough and watched enough and maybe even, at least now, lived enough, to know that nothing is ever what you expect it to be and most of the time it may even be close to the opposite. But I was still, no, I am still shocked. And feel mostly blurry and underwater and, like they always say, that I am watching someone else’s life unravel on-screen.

He was barefoot when he came to the door. Which is not strange at all, not strange even a little bit, but there was something so human and simple about it. Something about it that made me feel terrible in the beginning, that he had no idea what was coming and there was no reason to think about putting shoes on or anything at all, it was just a Sunday afternoon and someone had come to the door of his house, which probably happened all the time, and of course it would be someone he knew, stopping by for a beer or asking for the skill saw he had borrowed or wanting to drop off mail that had been delivered by accident. There was something so innocent about the barefoot-ness. Somehow he had no defenses to say anything like “But I don’t have a sister. I don’t even have any shoes on.”

He was middle-aged. I guess. I mean, he was the age that most people’s parents seem to be-- the parents of most people my age.  He opened the door and stood there, uncertain maybe, but smiling, noticing that I was too old to be selling girl scout cookies and probably that a Jehovah’s witness would not be wearing a tank-top and cut-off shorts but at least there was nothing particularly threatening about me. He filled the frame of the door. He was tall and broad but I could see behind him the corner of a couch—shades of green, the edge of a coffee table piled high with magazines, a tricycle on its side. His hair was brownish probably but mostly gone, short and spotty as if he’d shaved it and decided to try letting it grow again. His right arm, the arm that held the door open, was painted thick with tattoos. I saw blue fish scales and flames of some kind and dark lines like wrought iron gates. His left arm, descending from the sleeve of a black-faded-grey t-shirt, was pale and white and un-painted.

Hi, he said. Finally. After seconds or minutes. After I’d hade time to notice how paper thin his jeans were and how his broad chest looked exactly like my dad’s—not fat but not exactly muscle bound either, and that he had eyes that were at once grey and green. Like mine. Because I think we always look at the eyes for resemblance first.
Hi, I said.
He raised his eyebrows in anticipation, not unkind, but maybe impatient. 
Can I help you?
Well, I said. Because obviously that was a loaded question. But he had no way of knowing this. And I had rehearsed a million speeches but who can remember those speeches and anyway, they were all inside, sitting down, over coffee, or sometimes a beer, and I realized suddenly that I had never imagined how I would get into the house.
I’m not sure where to start, I said. His eyes pinched together, curiosity maybe. And this is going to sound crazy, I went on. I’m sorry to just show up like this. On a Sunday. When you and your family are probably barbecuing or something and—I stopped suddenly, realizing I had forgotten something very important.
Are you Casper Garrity? I asked.
He nodded very slowly.
So, I said. I’m your sister. My name is Hattie. Garrity. And then I held out my hand.

As I did this, the painted arm that had been holding on to his front door dropped to his side, but neither hand rose to meet mine. He was still looking at me, his eyes still slightly pinched, his face in the same half smile, encouraging and uncertain. And after a moment he brought his hands together and rubbed them back and forth and breathed in and then out very slowly.

Hattie. Garrity.
Now I just nodded.
And then he smiled and almost chuckled a little bit. He looked over my shoulder. 
It’s just you Hattie? he asked, looking towards my car. 
I nodded again. 
I would have guessed she’d name her daughter Hattie. 
And then we stood there. I didn’t think then, but I thought it later that night, how strange it was that he’d say something like that, that he’d have some knowledge of my mom and things like what she’d name her daughter. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The hurricane spread south of us here in central Vermont and I'm relieved to hear about the safety of things and people in NYC... now knee-deep in clean-up from my own brand of natural disaster here on the eve of another departure.

Part of adventuring of course means you uproot your roots and give up your home and-- have no place to put your stuff. So save a suitcase and odds and ends, I locked up the rest of my belongings in a storage space in July and ran off to the next thing. Yesterday my brother and I headed over to said space to put away some things and pull out my winter clothes and favorite boots...

You can imagine where this is going. Without delving in to the gory details, suffice to say that we found lots of water, mold, a dead mouse, most of my furniture destroyed by mold and water, many of my winter cloths and two favorite pairs of boots ruined... the good news is the books are safe. Photos, dishes, even the bed frame weathered the proverbial (or actual) storm. But here I am with many hundreds (thousands? I can't handle it) of dollars of destroyed furniture and clothes, mountains of laundry and dry-cleaning, lost items of nostalgia, and a totally new sense of vulnerability.

The vulnerability, honestly, is the hardest part in all of this. I love, I really absolutely love, that I am packing a suitcase and a backpack and heading to the New Mexico dessert in two days. I've never been there, I have a whole month to explore, and then on to the next months to explore. I love not knowing what comes next and waking up to a brand new city and the possibility in each change. But I also do love my cowboy boots and my antique dining room table and my books upon books upon books. I love my stuff and I want to know it's safe and to be able to unpack it one day when I settle in to the next place I call home. But who knows. Nothing is really safe from the elements and, in truth, you can't have it all. When you make the decision to move and then move and move again, stuff gets lost and broken and... moldy. Does the gypsy in me mean I need to give up the nesting instinct? Does the sense of adventure mean I have to let go of the sense of home? Or re-define it?

There are the details-- getting reimbursed, fighting with the storage space, finding a new place to put my stuff, doing all of this laundry, getting rid of what is ruined, all of this before climbing aboard yet another plane in 36 hours. I am beyond lucky to have my family here to help with this, but I'm not sure they can help me let go, find a way to get angry, negotiate, mourn the losses and move on-- that's all up to me.

And, did I mention the laundry...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The invisible second novel

I know I'm not supposed to say this out loud, but sometimes I wonder if publishing a book actually made it harder for me to be a writer. Because this starting over from the digging of the garden phase, and yet, with the second book, the second season, in a way it's harder and sadder than as if it were the first book-- the disappointment more potent. You don't have the sexy allure of a debut novelist. And yet you don't have the crushing success of a debut novel. The true thing is, having a book out there in the world does not make it any easier, necessarily. It sometimes makes it impossible.

So, before I sold my first novel in 2008 I didn't think about where a story would end up after I wrote it. I just wrote it because I had a story to tell. And that happens, of course, that is in me and its why I write. But I'm also caught up in the cloud and chaos and competition and chaos that is the publishing industry. And it's a lot like high school. The mean part of high school.

If you want to make your living as a writer, which is something I've never managed, and I'm not sure I ever will, you need to be ready to sell yourself, to be out there and pushy and then... patient. You need to share your ideas and meet people and charm people then you need to wait. And wait and wait and wait. To see if someone likes your ideas or your voice. And then even if they do, well then is your project a fit, is the time right for it... will you get invited to the party on Saturday night? Do they have time for you? I published a novel once, another lifetime ago for all intents and purposes, but that doesn't mean I'm not starting over with each new story I write.

As a writer, you can't let all of this get to you. You have to remember the story you want to tell. And if agents don't like your work and if editors don't get back to you and literary journals reject you and if reviewers don't review you... that's not why you're writing. You're writing because you're filled with a story and maybe that story, once it is told, will mean something to someone.

You can't think of it as one bad date after another. You can't take it personally when your stories, stories you've bled over, sit languishing and gathering proverbial dust in the interiors of your computer. You have to remember how much you loved writing stories before one of the stories caught on, before you got a tiny glimpse of what it felt like to have your work recognized, because that can disappear just as fast. As writers we need to build the thickest of skins, we need to know that most of the time it might hurt to hear the truth, or to not hear anything at all, but to find a way somehow, in all of it, to keep writing.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Even when it rains...

Today it is raining for the first time since I've been in Vermont... and even this cold downpour seems comforting from the table where I write. I've settled in enough to feel like I've been here for weeks, it feels natural and like home, though on certain corners or at certain store fronts or with the scent of certain coffee, I'm immediately transported to some moment of teenager-hood, twenty-something-hood... This city is filled with nostalgia and history, some that I'd rather forget and some that offer me comfort. But the best part of this month has been imagining myself here now, as a person who has lived a hundred places (or so), has run from the familiar at every chance I get, only to be tempted by that very  same familiar. I get to have my mom over on a tuesday afternoon and cook lunch for her...

I get to wake up and write for two hours

and then walk just outside the door and be at the waterfront, to run along Lake Champlain on a cool afternoon

to be at my brother's on a Wednesday morning and hike in to the Long Trail,

be with my family,

to write some more and then browse squash at the Farmer's market on the way home

Making and sticking to a schedule has been the hardest part. It is a different kind of work I'm doing. Writing is a solitary, self-directed, internal, reflective, physically draining, yet of course infinitely fulfilling kind of work, but it is so different from most of my days for the past many years, immersed in the energy and chaos and constant fast-forward pace of a high school. I actually honestly do love both worlds, but this has been a tough one to settle into, though once I do, and I am lost in the writing, its an amazing thing. I've been hit with inspiration on a new project, unfolding my current project, and trying not to think about how limited this time is. But limited or not, it's mine. I'm working on a story I hope to post a piece of in the next few days. This rainy afternoon is perfect for it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Back where it all began... June to September

As I settle in to October and reach toward the bigger (and sometimes undefined) plans ahead, I find I want to stop and recall where all of this adventure began, with leaving my home in South Park Slope and my work in Long Island City in June... I had lived in my studio for just over two years and it was good to me and lots of guests and love. A place to host ladies brunches...

And nap times after brunches...

I had been with my job since 2008, where days began and ended in the dark in East Elmhurst and hours on the 7 train, and way too much time spent here

but it was an extraordinary adventure with some of the most extraordinary colleagues I will probably ever work with, so much brilliance in one place, and I can't believe how much love I have for the students who founded this school, who taught me so many amazing lessons and I take their strength still...

I celebrated the beginning of summer in Vermont, with a pretty big majority of my favorite human beings

And I still had time in Park Slope, on porches and beaches and sidewalk tables to say a slow (and maybe temporary) goodbye to Brooklyn, even if I was hauling butt uptown to work at Columbia every night. And I followed this work across the country to Berkeley, a place I'd always dreamed about spending time... and it was beautiful, a room and an office facing the Berkeley hills and a lot of long days and nights (and amazing laughs) working but morning hot yoga and class planning at this perfect cafe

I got to adventure with new and old friends at Pacific coast Farmer's Markets, outdoor story hour, late night cocktails, Mission district dinners, Dolores Park movies

It was hard to leave California, I felt, as I often do, at home in the foggy mornings and cool sunny afternoons and perfect pace of it all... but I came back and dove into another teaching gig, where I at least got in a gorgeous hike in the Berkshires and some time teaching and reading in a little house with a dear colleague... I left Great Barrington and actually drove a car home to Vermont to meet my brand new and perfect niece who was named after this perfect song

and then a few more Brooklyn days, because I can't stay away, before heading in to Pennsylvania... It was a close to perfect summer, if a little nostalgic and transient, because I got the best of city and country, east and west, family and more family.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

From mountain to city to lake (Champlain)

I have gone from Pennsylvania's low mountains to Manhattan's chaos to Brooklyn's comfort to Vermont's nostalgia since I wrote last. My last week in Pennsylvania was at once uneventful and exactly what I hoped. I took a walk at sunrise on my final morning and the path around the pond had suddenly become fall.

Thanks in part to an amazing faculty member, I was able to remember why I'd gone there, and acknowledge that what I gathered and what I learned had little to nothing to do with what I intended. I continue reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and even David Frawley's Yoga & Ayurveda which is a great simple introduction to the study of Ayurveda. I continue deepening my own asana practice and exploring further training programs but I do all of this in the interest, not of my personal, creative, spiritual development, but actually in service to my work as a counselor. That is where I think deepening my practice and training can really have a lot of meaning... more on this later, much more I imagine. But here are the things I took away from a month at an ashram.

A juice cleanse, true and solitary juice cleanse, is an amazing, strengthening, odd, important experience that I hope I'll do at least once a year because it makes my body and mind feel hollowed out and rejuvenated and strong, if a little weak and flaky in the middle, but three days is certainly enough

I DO feel better when I don't drink coffee or wine, when my food is fresh and unprocessed, when I don't eat meat or sugar, my skin looks better too-- I'm not ready to give any of these beautiful things up but I will remember this and work on moderation.

When I am in a place where I can hike or walk every single morning, I feel simply and exceptionally happy

Eating meals alone is not scary. In fact, it's pretty wonderful

Meditation is harder than almost anything I've ever done. And I like my brand of yoga with a lot of flow and a little bit of sweat, but Hatha yoga strengthens my breath and my center in a way I never expected

Yoga does not stand alone as a physical practice and I would rather not listen to Lady Gaga or even Portisehead while I am in practice. I would rather connect to the philosophical teachings and the motions and sounds of my breath because this makes me physically stronger

I am really bad at taking self portraits

"The path of yoga, as always, stresses direct experience over other forms of knowledge."
The Yoga Sutras

I still have no idea what I'm doing, this year or beyond, and I have not achieved total peace with this, but I have come through the first phase of my "sabbatical" year and it was an experience that moved me and challenged me in the best ways-- the ways, of course, I did not expect. Last night I roasted acorn squash and stuffed it with apples and walnuts and nutmeg so I am in Vermont and its Autumn and I'm trying to settle in to that for now.

So here is a final sunset on my Pennsylvania adventure. Can you see the deer in the field? They just stared at me.