On Giving Advice and Blue Velour

advice-2My five-year-old (almost 6!) has this little routine when she’s picking out her clothes.  First, she sorts through drawers and closets and pulls out the prettiest items she can find.  It doesn’t matter at all if these items go together as long as each one is flowery, pink, sparkly, ruffly, colorful, and/or fancy.  Some days (many days) when I haven’t put all the laundry away, she is left with one very beautiful (if uncoordinated) outfit.  On the other days, the ones in which there are choices to be made, she calls in backup.

“Mommy!”

When I arrive on the scene, she holds up two shirts and asks, “Which one do you think I should wear?”

I discreetly eye the pants that are going to go with them and try to pick the shirt that will clash the least.  “That one,” I point.

“I think I’d rather wear the other one,” she says, serenely doing the exact opposite of what I advised.

Every. Time.

Of all the many things humans ask for but don’t really want (patience, anyone?) advice tops the list.

I mean, we feel overwhelmed by life sometimes.  We face difficult choices or worse, we don’t see any choices at all.  We feel stuck.  We feel worried.  We feel afraid.  It’s reassuring at those times to know that we aren’t alone.  It feels wise to ask for good counsel in tough times.  It IS wise.  But can we be honest? Under all our worry/fear/uncertainty/confusion/paralysis there is almost always something we WANT to do.  Sometimes our indecision comes because we can’t quite lay our finger on it.  Sometimes it comes because we don’t want to admit, because we know it’s the wrong thing to want.  Sometimes it comes because we carry unnecessary guilt about what we want. Sometimes we just worry what others will think about what we want.  But under there somewhere, we already have a course in mind. And nine times out of ten, no matter what advice we may receive, we’re going to follow that course.

My daughter knows which shirt she wants to wear.  She just sometimes enjoys the added thrill of casting off her mother’s vision and being her own person.

So why do we ever bother giving advice to anyone? I’m not a huge fan of being ignored.  Are you?  What’s even the point of it all?  When my little girl asks me which shirt to wear, all I want to do is say, “Whichever.  Just do what you want. You will anyway.” But is that missing the point somehow?

This weekend, I finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. If you haven’t read it, it’s a compilation of a bunch of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns.  (You saw Wild?  You read it, maybe? Same woman.)  This isn’t a book review really, and my point isn’t to get into whether or not I agree with all of the advice in the book.  (For the record, I don’t. We have some world view differences. But I loved the book anyway. See below.)

I really enjoyed the book.  Her writing is lovely.  Her life is real.  She has a way of getting at the heart of what her readers are really asking.

Her column is wildly popular.  People write her for advice about all sorts of things.  Hundreds of them.  Writing to a total stranger.  What’s the deal with that?

Here’s the deal.  To almost every letter, Sugar responds by telling a story.  Usually, it’s a story about her own life.  Sometimes about someone she knows personally.  The stories aren’t always about times she was in the exact same situation (though she’s been through enough that they often are), but they are always about times she felt the same as the letter writer is feeling.  Any direct advice she gives springs out of these stories.

And there it is.  Not just the key to giving advice, but the reason why we bother giving advice at all.

Because advice isn’t about telling people what to do.  It’s about connecting with them.  It’s about them feeling less alone as they decide for themselves what to do.

It all comes back to stories.  People who will never listen to instructions will listen to your stories.  Not weird fables you made up for the purpose of instruction, but your stories.  I’ve mentioned this before with regards to my kids.  If you want people to listen, just tell them a story.

If you have no stories, just shut your mouth.  Until you’ve lived enough life to have stories, you’re better off being a supportive listener.  Cry with people.  Hug them.  Ask them questions.  But don’t presume to know. If you have no stories, you aren’t feeling what they feel.

If you do have stories, don’t keep them to yourself, no matter how small, no matter how awful.  Your story is exactly what the people around you need.  To feel connected. To feel understood.  To feel less alone.

The next time my daughter asks me to help with a wardrobe decision, I’m all ready for her.  It wont’ matter what the options are.  I actually love that she has her own sense of style and doesn’t worry a bit about the opinions of others. I love that beauty is paramount in her world.  So I have a story all picked out.

When I was 6, my favorite thing to wear was an old velour v-neck.  It was fuzzy and  royal blue.  It had a butterfly imprinted over my heart, and I was pretty sure it was velvet.  I wore it as often as I could.  I remember a day when my mom wanted to take my picture out by the rose bush in the back yard. It had just bloomed, and my beauty-loving mother saw a chance for a great photo.  I don’t know what she wanted me to wear, but it wasn’t the blue velour shirt.  I’m sure her choice was much prettier.  But I wanted to wear that shirt.  I just knew I would look exactly like a princess in my velvet garment surrounded by flowers.

I still have the picture of me at 6, a scrawny red-head in a blue velour v-neck sitting by a rose bush with a self-satisfied smirk.

It’s one of my favorites.

bluevelour

9 (Over and Over Again)

typewriter

They say there’s nothing new
The freshest thoughts just tweak the old
They say nine basic plots
Form every story that’s ever told

  1. Good Sam must face a beast
    That’s come to crush his farm and kin
    He somehow finds a way
    To overcome all odds and win
  2. Poor Sam has not a dime
    Until he finds a hidden chest
    The gold will make him rich
    To keep it, he must be his best
  3. To spare his dying town
    Sam has to travel far away
    To find the magic dust
    And bring it home to save the day
  4. Sam’s friend from out of town
    Will soon be dead without Sam’s aid
    Sam goes and helps his friend
    He comes home wiser, less afraid
  5. Sam is just a normal guy
    He meets a girl. They fall in love.
    Will his mother ruin it?
    No! All ends well. They rise above.
  6. Sam had a special gift
    He used it for his evil gain
    He ruled with iron fist
    ‘Til heroes rose and he was slain
  7. Sam’s life was hard and cruel
    He was the rudest man you’d find
    Until he met the girl
    Who helped him change and be more kind
  8. Sam is helpless to resist
    The evil power that rules o’er all
    He tries to break away
    But no one can, Sam’s left to fall
  9. Sam goes on holiday
    There’s a been a murder at the inn!
    He tries to solve the case
    Though it has zilch to do with him.

The same old stories flow
Through all the tales we tell these days
But still we feel the need
To find our own words, our own ways

For true art doesn’t lie
In the invention of the wheel
But in who’s allowed to steer
And how its turning makes you feel

The Power of a Story

220px-NotreDameDeParisThe famed cathedral of Notre Dame.  It’s construction was begun in 1160 and its final elements were completed in 1345.  It was worth 200 years of work, don’t you think?

Notre_Dame_de_Paris,_East_View_140207_1 Organ_of_Notre-Dame_de_ParisBut once upon a time, someone looked at this gorgeous intersection of art and science, this monument to beauty, this feat of engineering, and saw only that it didn’t fit in with their political ideals.  This was a church, after all, and not only was it associated with an oppressive religion that had been declared dead, it was huge and had gloomy gargoyles and was in the way of modern progress.  In 1793, the cathedral was given to the Cult of Reason.  Statues were beheaded.  The spire was torn down.  The vast space was no longer used for inspiration but as a warehouse to store food.  The beautiful stained glass windows were taken out and replaced with clear glass to let in more light.  Some talked of pulling the whole thing down to make room for new buildings.

Then in 1829, Victor Hugo began writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  His main goal in that enduring work of literature?  To convince his people of the value of Gothic art and architecture so that they would preserve the cathedral.  It worked.  The book was published in 1831.  It was hugely successful.  In 1845, the government began a restoration  project.  The spire was reconstructed.  The statues were repaired.  New stained glass windows were installed.

Today, Victor Hugo is credited with literally saving the cathedral of Notre Dame.

The power of a story.

Hugo went out of his way in the book to insert lengthy descriptions of the beauties of the cathedral and also of the travesty of the changes that had been made to it.  If you’ve read any of Hugo’s works, you know how long his rabbit trails can be.  Maybe this overt attempt to highlight the issue is what convinced people, but I don’t think so.

I think it was the image of a lonely and misunderstood man lurking among the bells in those towers.  I think it was the romance of a beautiful young woman, wrongfully condemned to death, seeking sanctuary within those walls.  I think it was the tragedy of that safe place being violated by those who cared nothing for the sanctity of the place and the heroine who could not be saved in the end, only mourned.

How could anyone who had ever themselves felt outcast or trampled upon despise the refuge of Quasimodo?  How could anyone tear down Esmeralda’s sanctuary without becoming another Frollo?

The power of a story.

I first heard about Hugo’s intentional saving of the cathedral a few months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since then.  What do I love?  What destruction of beauty do I see in my world?  What is mine to preserve?  What is there of value for me to see restored?

The power of a story.

It’s there waiting for all of us, at the tips of our tongues and our fingers. We may not have the depth of power that Victor Hugo commanded.  We may not have the range of influence that his gifts gave him.  But we each have a small circle.  We have simple words.  We have the power to preserve what lies near us, to plant tiny seeds of nobility, to infuse insignificant things with beauty, to restore a love for what we treasure, and to keep that love alive for future generations.

The power of a story.

What will you do with that power?

What is your Notre Dame?

Don’t Think

My brain has been foggy lately.  Maybe it’s Spring Break at home with a houseful of children.  Maybe it’s the lingering effects of winter’s cold, which is only now letting go of us.  Maybe it’s all that Easter candy.

Let’s face it, it’s probably that last one.

In any case, it’s time to bypass the brain and pull stories from somewhere else.

(If I were a certain kind of person I’d say it was time to take them from the heart.  I am not that kind of person.)

Instead we’re going to take them from the nether.  We’re going to take whatever is buzzing around our atmosphere and cram it into words.  The best stories mostly come from nowhere anyway, right?  So.  We’re going to kickstart some new stories with a simple one-line prompt and just write without pausing to think even once.

Ready?  Set?

Go.

Once upon a time there was an unusual sea…

seaOnce upon a time there was an unusual sea.  It was made of peanut butter and jelly.  The fish that swam through the sea had to be very strong to make their way through the sticky mess, but since they had so much deliciousness to sustain them, they grew big and fat and had all the strength they could need.  The animals loved the sea.  They came from far and wide to lick at the salty wonderful peanut butter and slurp up the delicious sweet jelly.  All the creatures that lived by the sea were as happy as happy could be.  Then people discovered the sea.  They marveled at it.  How could such a thing exist?  Scientists came and studied the wonder.  Where was the peanut butter coming from?  Why was it grape jelly and not strawberry or orange marmalade?  How could fish breath with only peanut butter and jelly and no water to provide oxygen?  Studies were conducted.  Tests were run.  The results were inconclusive, so more studies and tests were planned.  Businessmen also arrived at the PBandJ sea.  They saw so much marketing potential.  They immediately began plans for a resort on the shores of the sea.  Children would love it.  Women could be convinced that bathing in peanut butter and jelly would do wonders for their skin.  Genius salesmen convinced the world that this sea was the only source of truly natural peanut butter.  They put it in jars and sold it all over the world.  It fetched very high prices.  In a matter of time, the sea was all but empty.  A few concerned activists came and began to rescue the giant fish.  They put them into the real, salt-water sea, but they did not thrive there.  The sea emptied and emptied until it was all gone.  Everyone blamed everyone else.  Many fingers were pointed.  In the end, everyone shrugged and went back to normal life.  No one ever figured out how the PBandJ sea had come to be.  It was just there.  And then it was gone.  The animals found somewhere else to eat and play.  They weren’t as happy as before, but they survived.  And one very big, very fat, and very strong fish swam in a tasteless ocean and plotted his revenge.

Once upon a time there was an unusual sea.  Everyone who swam in it dreamed dreams of special magnificence.  One minute you were swimming along and the next you imagined yourself as a princess or an astronaut or a super hero or a horse.  You were convinced that what you saw was real, and as long as you stayed in the water, everything turned out exactly as you hoped.  The dreams were lovely.  You never wanted your swim to end.  Naturally people came from far and wide to swim in it.  They stayed in the water until their fingers and toes were all pruned up and their mothers forced them to come out and eat something or sleep for just a few hours.  Cassie came to the sea of dreams for the first time when she was ten.  She dreamed the most wonderful dream in which she found a secret garden full of fairies.  They welcomed her and showed her the magic nectar that could turn her into a fairy.  She played with them and learned their dances and helped to save them from an evil cat named Gruel.  They made her their fairy queen.  Then her mother came and dragged her out of the waves and they all went home.  Not long after, the family moved far away, and Cassie was never able to visit the sea of dreams again.  But she couldn’t stop thinking about the secret garden and her fairy friends.  No matter who she met or what she did, she always felt that her fairy friends were more real than anyone else around her.  Everywhere she went, she searched for the secret garden.  She knew it couldn’t be real, but she couldn’t get rid of the feeling that she just hadn’t looked in the right place yet.  Cassie grew up, and the dream grew with her.  At eighteen it felt even more real than it had at ten.  At twenty-five, she had finally saved up enough money to visit the sea of dreams again.  This time when she went into the sea, she looked around carefully as she went into the garden.  She took note of where it was and what the door looked like.  The dream was wonderful, even better that she remembered.  The fairies recognized their queen and threw a huge party for her return.  A visiting fairy prince asked her to marry him.  She said yes.  Then a lifeguard, seeing that she had no mother to make her go home at night, came and pulled her out of the sea.  People could drown if they stayed in their dreams too long.  Cassie went home determined to come back and swim the next morning.  She knew the dream would be waiting for her.  But she couldn’t sleep.  She tossed and turned and though how she wished the dream was real and not just in her head.  She thought about the way that door looked and suddenly she thought she knew just where it was.  Cassie got up and packed her bags and bought a plane ticket with the last of her money.  She flew to a special place she knew of, right on the edge of an old forest.  She walked the trails for hours, searching for the door she knew couldn’t really be there.  Then she saw it.  It was the door from the dream.  There could be no doubt.  Cassie went over, sure the door would be locked.  The handle turned.  She went inside.

Time’s up.  Two stories.  Not terribly original, but I’m pretty sure my kids will get a kick out of them.

What did you come up with?  What kind of unusual sea popped into your head?

Want a few more prompts for this week?  I’ll list a couple below.

Remember, the rules are simple.  Don’t think.  Just start talking (or writing).  Once you’ve started down a path, make the best of it.  Let your kids toss in some ideas if you get stuck.  (They are especially good at endings. Kids know what they want to happen.)

Once upon a time, a man lived in a tall, tall tree…

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom where no one could speak…

Once upon a time, a cowboy came upon a sheep with its wool tangled up in some bushes…

Once upon a time, a squirrel was crowned king of the forest…

Ready? Set?

Go.

Superhero

Are you guys watching The Flash?

You should be.  It’s our family show these days, as in schedule a time, everyone on the couch, riveted for 50 minutes.  Finally a show all five of us can get into at the same time.  It’s 100% satisfying every week.

The Flash has been one of my favorite superheros for a long time.  He has the perfect combination of naive idealism with serious kick-butt abilities.  He can run across water.  He can stop a tornado by running circles in the opposite direction.  He can turn back time and save all the universes.  You have to take this guy seriously.  But he never does.  (Take himself seriously, that is.) That’s the best thing about him.

Okay, enough fangirl.

Let’s talk superpowers.  When my kids were little, I used to say that if I could only have one super power, I would want it to be the power to instantly make anyone sleep by just touching them.  Yes, I was sleep-deprived.  But think about it. Someone is attacking you, and all you have to do is just reach out and touch them and they instantly fall asleep.  You tie them up and haul them off to jail.  No need for killing.  Plus, bonus, you can make small children sleep.  Parents would pay a fortune for this. You would be so rich. This is a very useful power.

Less of my life revolves around getting people to sleep now, so I’ve started to think maybe I could branch out a little.  These days Flash’s super speed is looking pretty awesome.  Think of how much I could get done!

My kids don’t agree, though.  The house is full of them, eight kids ages 2-11. (WEEK 2 of SPRING BREAK!)  Here are the results of my informal survey:

WHICH IS BETTER, THE POWER TO TURN INVISIBLE OR SUPER SPEED?

Invisible: 5

Super speed: 1

WHICH IS BETTER, TO BE SUPER STRONG OR TO HEAL YOURSELF?

Super strong: 0

Heal yourself: 6

WHICH IS BETTER, TO CONTROL ANIMALS OR TO CONTROL PLANTS?

Animals: 6

Plants: 0

IF YOU COULD HAVE ANY SUPER POWER IMAGINABLE, WHAT POWER WOULD YOU WANT (AND WHY)?

5yo: For every animal in the world to like me. So if you were in trouble you could be like, “Hey, animals! Come help me!” And they would. Like how Toby [our beagle] is so good at balancing. So if I was falling off a cliff, I could be like, “Help, Toby!” and he would save me from falling.

6yo: Web-slinging, because it’s fun, but it would scare me to go really high heights.

8yo: To bring back the dead. Fully alive. So I could see great-grandpa and other people.

9yo: Mind control because I could make people do what I wanted them to do

10yo: Mind control [This came with an eye roll because I was taking her away from more important things.]

11yo: Time travel because it’s awesome [I suspect this had something to do with the Dr. Who that was being watched minutes before.]

What do we learn from this scientific research?

1. Kids don’t have any idea how awesome plant control could be. (But they would find out when their silly wolves and tigers were all tied up with vines.)

2. Kids do not have enough to do, as they still think being sneaky is more useful than being fast.  This makes me want to give them more chores while they are still visible and too slow to get away.

3. I need to make sure 5-year-old Lucy gets a chance to see Toby scrambling at the edge of my bed unable to jump up.  She seems to have an inflated idea of his skill level and usefulness.

4.  Don’t ask preteen girls any more questions than you absolutely have to.  It’s just a more harmonious way to live.

What do you think? What power would you choose?  Are there any totally new ideas out there?

I feel some superhero stories coming on.  I’m thinking these would be perfect to make up along with kids.  Grown ups supply the problems, kids supply the superpower fueled solutions.  I’m going to try it out today.  Who’s in?

The Transport Room

I’m not much of a scrapbooker.  I’m not much of a souvenir buyer.  I take really awful photos.

I’ve traveled around South America, climbed volcanoes, touched down on Pacific islands, taken a swim in the South China sea.  You want to know what I have to show for it?  A handful of refrigerator magnets and a box with a collection of relatively worthless foreign currency.

There are several reasons for this, of course, but the biggest one is this:  I don’t really want to spend time thinking back fondly on old adventures.  I don’t want to sit and remember the places I’ve been.

I want to go there again.

If I really loved a place, loved an experience, loved the people I met, I want to revisit it.  I want to be a regular.

It hit me yesterday as the kids and I were sorting and reorganizing.  This is it.

Here you go, my real, true scrapbook:

IMG_0623Eleven-year-old me would have exploded to know she would live here one day.

All of my favorite places are here.  Here because I can glance over at them and remember, of course, but it’s way, way better than that.

This is more than a scrapbook.  It’s better than an airport.  It’s the transporter room of the frickin’ Starship Enterprise in here.  Walk to the spot, select the volume, open the cover, BOOM, you’re in another world.  Instant teleportation.

All of my favorite places are here.  Prince Edward Island.  Middle Earth.  Edwardian England.  District 12. Hogwarts. Arrakis. A little house in some big woods.

And believe me, I am a regular visitor.

It started when I was a kid.  I stopped by Avonlea for a quick visit, then ended up spending hours with its people.  When it was time to go, I wasn’t ready.  My feet walked around the real world of Portland, Oregon but my head was on a little island by a different sea.  So I went back.  Over and over again.

I would tear myself free from one world only to get sucked into another.  I spent a few weeks in Walnut Grove.  I liked how I felt there, braver and tougher and more honest.  I passed a summer in Camelot, where the world was noble and also dangerous, and I had to learn to live with heartbreak.

Then I found that I missed my old haunts, so I made a trip back through.  Everything was just as I remembered it.

IMG_0620My original portals to Avonlea and Walnut Grove.

I remembered my dad taking me to Middle Earth when I was younger, so I decided to go back on my own.  Nothing makes you feel like you can be better, do more, like a journey by Frodo’s side.  I probably made that trek once a year from 12 to 20.

IMG_0621Visits to Middle Earth took a toll on us all.

IMG_0622Fresh portals were needed for a new generation. 

Of course, I keep visiting new places.  Some are fun adventures I can recommend to others but feel no need to relive.  Some were a waste of time.  And little by little, new favorites have been uncovered.  Places of beauty that held me captive.  Places that blew my mind and demanded more time to process.  Places where I was so happy, I didn’t want to leave.   Those places all sit, lined up now, waiting for me to come to back.

As the list grows longer, the gap between visits lengthens.  I hadn’t been to Middle Earth for several years when I took my kids back this time.

It is strange and wonderful and a little wrenching to introduce them to the places that rooted themselves so deeply in my heart.  They have enjoyed passing through, but I can tell the place doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it means to me.  That’s okay.  They have their own places.  Hogwarts and Camp Halfblood and the town of Everafters.  This transport room holds their places, too.

There are a bunch we haven’t visited yet.  As we sorted through, ditching the places that weren’t worth a second glance and the adventures that fell flat before they began, we lined up the new ones we haven’t tried out yet.   Places yet to be tried.  People yet to be met.  What will we find there?  Who will we be there?

It’s when I realize I have a whole lifetime to find out that I feel as happy as I can feel.

 

 

 

It’s On

feetonthegroundWinter is over.  The time for sitting and contemplating (brooding?) has passed.

It’s Spring.  Bringing with it (slightly) elevated temperatures and little bits of green poking through the ground and the sound of birds singing and SPRING BREAK.

That’s right, my kids are home from school for two weeks, and it just took me ten minutes to convince my 5-year-old to leave the room so I could type those three sentences.

That’s okay.  We’re ready for action around here.  We’re ready to tackle our spring cleaning and head outside to the park and then build up a fire at night to toast ourselves because in spite of what our winter-shocked brains tell us, 45 degrees is really not that warm.

We’re ready to do our story-telling on the fly.  To reminisce about the good old days as we clean out the library and maybe finally say good–bye to the tattered old copy of Hippos Go Berserk (or maybe not).  To walk through the woods and invent fairy stories as we go.  To break in the fire pit and have our first ghost story marathon of the year.

I am ready.  I am ready to strap my shoes on and clear the cobwebs out of my head as well as my house.

I’m shooting to keep the posts short during this break, but to write one every day.  I’m keeping my eyes open for the stories we find as we go, and then I’ll pass them on here.  Old photos.  New birds’ nests. Toys stacked up in the Goodwill bags and that dogwood tree making a valiant effort to thrive in a capricious world.

Meet you back here tomorrow.  Let’s see what stories we find before then.

P.S. Need a Spring Break book to read?  I haven’t finished it yet, but the biggest impediment to my getting things done this week is my desire to never put down this one:

13thtale     It’s a story about stories!  And it’s really wonderful in an old-fashioned, modern Gothic sort of way.  Want to read it with me?  We can compare notes at the end.  I’m reserving final judgement until I see how the story turns out.

Monday Morning Treasure, the Real People Edition

Helen,JerryDale,GailandDuaneonhorsearound1950

The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.
-Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

The stories being lived out all around me, the stories lived out in days long gone, they matter.  My life isn’t lived in a vacuum. On the contrary, every cell in my body is recycled matter.

I’m taking some time this week to feel my insignificance, my teeny tiny thread in the giant tapestry that is all of us and all of history.

With that in mind, here are some real people who are doing real things.  Their stories put little tendrils into my brain in the last couple of weeks, and I’m wondering if they’ll do the same for you.

  • Someone whose world view is divergent from my own, but whose mother heart is feeling its way through the darkness in the same way as mine.
  • Lola Akinmade Akerstrom: Her whole story is fascinating, but I can’t stop thinking about her words on adapting the pursuit of your dreams once you have a family. So balanced and wise.
  • Not everything you do has to change the world.  Sometimes a little chalk can be enough.
  • Over the Rhine never ceases to inspire me, and Linford’s take on the continuity of our stories is stunningly beautiful.
  • Most wonderful of all, our stories are still in progress, and every day is a chance to make our life a really good tale.
  • A Meditation on Pain.  This story haunts me.
  • And before you get too depressed, read this.  You’ll be thinking about your own beauty for the rest of the day. (Seriously. Just read it.  You’ll see what I mean.)

Okay, enough internet.  I’m off to to get all my work done so I can start reading Look Homeward, Angel again because Thomas Wolfe’s lush, gorgeous language is all stuck in my head now.  The man was a depressing lunatic, but he could do things with words that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  And yes, that’s a recommendation.

P.S. That photo up there is my grandmother, on a horse with three children, because WHY NOT.  Remind me to tell you bits of her story sometime.  In my heart, that woman belongs on this list. (Which is a high honor, but only click that link if you’re feeling brave and don’t mind a whole lot of foul language with your hilarious feminist sarcasm.)

We Jump

But I still ultimately disagree with the concept of saving people from themselves. Individuals have the right to pursue dangerous activities, as long as those activities don’t affect the lives of people who do not wish to be involved — and that extends into the realm of activities for which the downside cannot be predicted.
-Chuck Klosterman (in The Hazards of Other Planets)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the Mars One colony.  And yes, I know the whole thing is super iffy and there is reason to believe it will never actually happen, but the idea of colonists on another planet, not in the pages of a book but in the real world, captures my imagination, and I have the luxury these days of spending time with things that capture my imagination.

The thing I love about Mars One is the daring of the whole thing. Daring to say that such an incredible thing could happen and daring the world to laugh at it. I don’t even care if money is the sole motivator. It’s a gutsy move. And all those people applying to be colonists. Knowing full well that they’d be heading out on an expedition they’d never come back from.  Knowing full well they could die in some horrible fashion or (worse?) live a long time locked up with a bunch of crazy people.  Knowing full well that they could be mocked mercilessly if the whole thing turns out to be a ridiculous hoax.  I don’t care if they’re nutballs. It’s a gutsy move.

More people should be this gutsy.

superstars

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
-Helen Keller

I still remember the first real risk I took.

I was 22. Sitting in a black Ford Taurus, next to one of my best friends in the world, late at night. It was Halloween.  Deep breath. Pounding heart. Unable to bear the idea of just swallowing everything I felt and going home to bed, safe and miserable. So I said it. I hedged a little. I worded it cautiously. But I said it. I suggested that maybe, just possibly, it was time to be more than just friends.

Sixteen years later that risk is still paying off so big it’s hard not to be reckless every minute.

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We are the curators of our own lives. Curators make choices. Like when I was 21, 22 years old, I was selling vacuum cleaners, and probably making $125 to $150 a week. But when an opportunity came along to act in a play in Hollywood making $50 a week, I took it readily. That’s a curator’s choice. I felt my selling vacuum cleaners wouldn’t do anything for me as an artist.
-Leonard Nimoy (from an interview with Esquire in 2013)

All art is inherently risky. I’m taking this part of myself and throwing it out there into the world where anything can happen to it.  It can be criticized. It can be mocked. Or (worst of all) it can be ignored.

Not can be. Will be.

We’re too old to go into this with illusions about that.

But I’m in a rare position in history and geography.  I’m here in a place where I am free to create. I’m educated enough to create.  I’m safe and well-fed and warm enough to create. I have all the tools I need to create. I have no excuses.

I will lay it out. I will tell stories that only a few will hear. (Not no one. Just not enough. Never enough for my fragile ego.) And I will remind myself why I do it.

I do it because I can.

I do it because I’m alive and because I want to keep being alive.

mountain“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It gets harder to take risks as you get older.  Life has rubbed off your boundless enthusiasm and confident optimism.  Consequences are real to you because you have seen them and felt them.  More is at stake.  Those consequences won’t just be your own. Small lives depend on you.

But to stop risking is to stagnate, to cease forward motion and begin to circle. Any scientist can tell you that orbits are dangerous. A little bit of drag and your orbit decays, your crash is inevitable.  (Or what’s the better option really? Endless circling?)  Those consequences won’t just be your own. Small lives depend on you.

Not risking is not an option. Now we learn to risk differently. To choose our risks with open eyes, counting the cost. To commit ourselves to old-fashioned hard work, to following through, forcing the ephemeral into reality with the bleary-eyed doggedness of 5 am.

We dedicate ourselves to sacrifice our own needs to achieve our dreams and to never demanding that others sacrifice theirs. We take a deep breath and we accept the probability of failure. We stare it down and we plan more carefully than we ever have in our lives for how to survive it.

We hold our responsibility and our daring in constant tension and we hold on to each other to keep it from pulling us apart.

We choose our mountain and we climb it day after day. Hand in hand we approach each new chasm and, not daring to blink, we jump.

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
― George Bernard Shaw

My Story, Their Story

It started with an innocent comment about the difference in our ages. 28 years. And yes, my daughter is 10, so there goes all the mystery about my age.

Somehow that led to the question why. Why 28? Why was that the age I finally decided to have a child? And how long had I been married? And how old was I when I got married? And speaking of getting married, what was that like anyway?

Questions like that don’t have a succinct answers. Questions like that have stories.

I was sixteen, far from home, super excited about a summer of working hard with other teenagers, super nervous to be sitting in the big group of them, super self-conscious and wondering what they all thought of me. Was my hair too frizzy? Did I look calm enough? Why didn’t I wear the other jean shorts? When they asked people to talk about themselves, I started planning. Be genuine. Tell the truth. Sound confident. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t act like you aren’t trying to say anything stupid. Some guy in the row behind me stood up for his turn. The minute he started talking, my eyes got big. He was earnest. He was impassioned. He used big words and made no effort to sound cool. He talked about why he was there and how much he wanted to serve people. And I sat in my chair and thought, “What is with this dude? There is no way this guy is for real. No one actually talks like that.” And I looked around the room. And I wondered which of the people I saw were going to be my closest friends.

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The five-year-old completely lit up. She is the princess of stories anyway, but these stories were real. These stories were true. These stories were about her favorite people in the whole world.

These stories were also pieces of fantasy. These stories were about people who don’t exist anymore. These stories were about people she could only imagine.

It was my sophomore year of college and I had a job off-campus waiting tables. It was hard to squeeze in the hours between classes and rehearsals and homework, but college wasn’t going to pay for itself. On my way home from one long shift, still smelling like pizza and the bleachy spray I had used to clean up the salad bar, the back tire of my little car blew out, leaving me stranded in the rain. Making a phone call meant walking to the nearest gas station and popping quarters in a pay phone.  I considered calling my brother, but I couldn’t risk wasting my quarter if he was too busy, so instead I called the one person that I knew would come no matter what else he was doing. I called my friend Nate. He came. He changed my tire in the middle of a mud puddle. He followed me home. And then he brought me the patched up tire the next day and spent an hour showing me how to change a tire by myself.

Even the ten-year-old couldn’t roll her eyes too much. I refrained from lecturing. I refrained from offering dating advice or mentioning the best age to get married. (I’m not sure that I have any. I’m not sure that there is one.)

She’s heard a few of these stories before, but somehow they just don’t get old. Not when it’s your parents. Not when it’s the story of how you came to be.

That summer was the hardest one I had ever spent. The next year would be my last year of college and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when it was over. I was living with my parents, but they had moved to a new town in a new state, and I didn’t know anyone there but them. I waited tables every hour I could get, and I hiked the mountains alone on all my days off.  My mom asked me to go with her to a funeral. A lovely family in their church had lost a baby. Stillborn. I didn’t know them. I went anyway. It was as heart-wrenching as you could imagine, but the love the little family felt for each other was palpable. I sat there and thought that if I ever had to face such an incredibly horrible moment, I would want Nate to be with me. I mean, I would want my husband, whoever he was, to be there, too, of course, but I would hope that m friend Nate would come and visit me. I thought that seeing him at a time like that would make something so painful a little more easy to bear.

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The conversation came to a natural end. We dropped the oldest off at a birthday party. Back in the car a few minutes later, my little girl asked for more stories. “What else would you like me to tell you about?”

“Maybe you could just give more details,” she said.

We didn’t stop talking all the way home.

It was the best and the most exhausting summer of my life. Study abroad. Two months in Argentina, speaking nothing but Spanish, wandering the streets of one of the greatest cities in the world with one of my best friends in the world. Really good bread and really horrible sinus infections. Adventures and misunderstandings and a World Cup win against England. Plus a few visits with our really good friend Nate who was living as an intern on the other side of the city. Those visits were really something. Eating churros with chocolate and watching this person I’d known so long completely light up from the inside out. The work he was doing. The people who were teaching him. The new ideas. We talked for hours. It was thrilling in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. Until three months later. Back at home. A cold and rainy night when the blankness of my future rose up and threatened to swallow me whole. A long conversation sitting in his car. The mere suggestion that we could…maybe…in some possible reality…be more than friends. “I’m going back to Argentina,” he said. “I know,” I said. And everything in my world fit together.

How do we talk to our kids about love? How do we talk them about growing up? How do we talk to them about dating? About marriage? About sex? How do we talk to them about becoming a parent?

There are no right words. There is no list of rules that ensure they’ll walk the right path. There is no adequate way to explain the complexity of life.

But there is our life. Our triumphs and our mistakes. The things that fill us with pride and the things we bitterly regret. Those things are real and they are alive.

And here’s the real kicker about our stories:  unlike our lectures, our kids actually want to hear them.

What on earth are we waiting for?