The taking

It starts like the unraveling of a tattered sweater, one thread at a time. A little pull and some of the stitching comes undone. It’s so familiar and subtle you don’t even notice it, at first. Just a snag, you think. Not enough to affect the function of the sweater.

Eventually you become aware of a hole. You patch it. You do your best to sew together two separate pieces of cloth, even though the patterns don’t match up, and there’s a bulge where the materials overlap. You tell yourself, it’s fine. It’s still functional. No one will even notice. Until the sweater is a patchwork you no longer recognize.

When you look in the mirror, you don’t look at the sweater. It’s comfortable. You know by now that if you don’t look, you can’t see it. So you choose not to look. You let the unraveling continue to happen, string by string, section by section, until you’re standing cold and half-naked in tatters.

 *     *     *

When you’re a people pleaser, you do whatever’s necessary to meet another person’s expectations. You go along. You bend, and stretch, and give.

When you have a great capacity for compassion, you can clearly see another person’s pain and suffering and you want to stop it, heal it. You want to make it better for them.

When you’re taught from a young age to put others before yourself, you relent. You over-accommodate. You sacrifice yourself completely.

And if you’re not careful, others will take advantage of you. Some won’t even realize they’re doing it. Most won’t realize they’re doing it. But they’ll take and take and take. And before you know it, you’ll allow yourself to be crucified for someone else’s sins… or wants, or needs.

 *     *     *

In Buddhism, there are 5 precepts, guidelines for how to live ethically. The second one — the one right after abstaining from killing — is abstaining from taking that which is not freely given.

You’re used to men taking without asking. They take with their eyes. They take with their hands. They take with their thoughts and their words.

One of your earliest memories is of a boy in your preschool class lunging at you, pushing you over and pinning you down, trying to kiss you.

Maybe they’re taught from a young age that everything is for them, they just have to reach out and take it.

Maybe they’re taught to put themselves first, always. To bend for nobody. That bending is for the weak, long grasses, and women.

Maybe they’re taught by history that with enough force, you can get anything you want. You just have to take it.

And maybe you reinforce this belief by letting go and giving, giving, giving, until you’ve given it all away. Until there’s nothing left for them to take. Until there’s nothing left for you.

 *     *     *

The one for me, one for you approach is not selfish. It is equitable. It acknowledges and respects each person’s needs.

The one for you, ten for you, fifty for you… all for you approach is unhealthy. It’s unfair. It acknowledges and respects only one person’s wishes.

When you have boundaries, you put limits on the taking. They need to be stronger than a backstitch to stop the fraying.

They should be like a seawall, pushing against the intrusive tide, holding it in its place. A seawall says gently but firmly, no further, please. This belongs to me. 

Without this separation of sea and land, there would be no dry, safe place to nurture and sustain human life. There would be only a hostile and dominating ocean, like one of Jupiter’s distant, frozen moons.

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Satellite

The moon is full (well, 99.8%, according to the internet).

Last night it shined like a spotlight or the opening at the end of a long, dark tunnel. This morning it’s turned orange like the cartoon moon on my trick-or-treating bag from childhood. I can almost see the silhouette of a witch flying across it.

I think of what they say about hospitals scheduling extra staff for nights like this. I think of what they say about women’s bodies being attuned to it. Sailors being saved by it. All the love songs written about it. The tides’ constant, humble bowing to it. I think of its violent birth and its strong iron core and all the power we attribute to it.

And yet I wonder if the moon, the Earth’s child, simply exists as a mirror for the sun, to remind it of its own radiant light.

What fire can’t destroy

I have anxiety.

When I get overly stressed, it flares up, like a tree on fire in the middle of a dark forest. There are pops and cracks. Animals flee with the life-and-death urgency that an uncontained flame elicits. The air feeds it and then becomes tainted by it, thick and hard to breathe as the reach of its destruction expands.

I’ve tried containing it myself, hurling positive affirmations like buckets of water. I’ve tried ignoring it, pretending not to feel the heat. I’ve futilely tried to birthday-candle-blow it out with all my might, until I’m half-dead from exhaustion.

But see when you find yourself alone in the middle of the dark woods without a phone or a prayer, you become desperate. You’ll try anything. You yell and scream and cry for help. You know how foolish this is, but it doesn’t compare with how scared you are. Your intensity is nothing compared to the funeral pyre raging inside.

When it’s clear I can no longer handle it myself, I frantically warn those in its path. Sometimes they try to help. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they stare in contempt as if to say, “Don’t tell me. Call the fire department!” Sometimes they blame me for starting it. They yell, this house wasn’t on fire when I bought it! What’s wrong with this house?! And I faintly whisper against loud explosions, “It’s not the house…”

Fire allowed humans to cook their food, create tools, stay warm, and ultimately survive for at least the last 400,000 years. It gave us bonfires. It gave us sparklers and fireworks. It gave us wood-burning stoves. It gave us s’mores. It even gave us smoking.

But we only love it when we can control it.

There’s no guaranteed way to prevent fires altogether. That’s unrealistic — especially when you live in Northern California and conditions tend to be right. We don’t get enough rain. Everything is too dry. The sun is fierce, and it shines fiercely much of the year. People like to camp and hike in this beautiful part of the country I call home. And they also accidentally trigger catastrophic events.

Everything in a fire’s path can be ignited and eventually devoured by it. It leaves a blackness around it, and the scars remain long after it’s been reduced to soot. It takes a long time for flora to grow back. But given enough time, it will. Nature has a way of regulating.

I do not wish to eradicate fire. A world without it would be a far more dire place: eyes with no spark, ideas without creativity, apathy in place of passion.

Like the firefighters who train for the moment that alarm bell sounds and dauntlessly attack it every day of dry season, I wish only to understand fire and to more expertly contain it.

If you’ve never been a firefighter, you’ll never know all the work, and strength, and courage fighting a fire requires. The sheer stamina.

If you’ve never had a house fire, you can’t truly know the unique devastation of losing your home, your dearest possessions — a loved one — all in one shot.

But as a human being, you’v experienced fear. You have the capacity to feel compassion. You may not know exactly how fire works, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It doesn’t make it not exist.

Fire is not an element. It’s an event. It’s part of a series of chemical reactions, the tangible side effect of matter changing state. It will continue to burn as long as there’s fuel and oxygen around it.

Fire can be extremely destructive, yes. But, it always produces water and warmth. It always produces light.

The gift of strife

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the elements of classic literature. It’s not because I’ve finally undertaken The Illiad or spent the last few weekends binge-watching period pieces.

I’ve been reflecting, as one does when another year approaches, about where I am in my life, and how far I’ve come to get here. As I step off what feels like a precipice, hold my breath, and hope there’s water below, I’m reminded of how all great journeys start.

Quick refresher (because you know you Cliff Notes-ed your way through Mr. Hopkins’ freshman year English class). The monomyth (or “hero’s journey”) is the classic story structure you see in everything from Shakespeare to Star Wars, in which the main character goes on an adventure, rife with challenges along the way which they ultimately overcome, and subsequently return home, transformed.

There are three acts, each with several stages within them. I’m not going to go through all 12 stages. But I’ve highlighted my favorites (and I think the most important) in each act.

I. Departure

  • The call to adventure (so it begins)
  • Belly of the whale (death of known world/self to necessitate a rebirth)

II. Initiation

  • The road of trials (struggles; must undergo to begin the transformation)
  • Apotheosis (climax; a new consciousness is achieved)

III. Return

  • Master of two worlds (transcendence; successfully balancing the inner and outer worlds)
  • Freedom to live (presently; without fear of future or regret of past)

Conflict is a literary device used to drive the story forward. It’s the challenge the main character faces and needs to overcome in order to achieve their goals. There are two categories of conflict: internal and external. And there are three main sources of conflict within those categories:

  • man vs. man (external)
  • man vs. environment (external)
  • man vs. self (internal)

You could argue for man vs. machine and man vs. society, but in my mind those still fall under man vs. environment (because machines are within the “made” environment) and man vs. man (because society is people). I’m not going to fight you on this… though if I did, that would definitely fall under man vs. man (*Ahem* or human vs. human).

We have all completed some part of this arc. Some of us are stuck in the rising action and awaiting what’s to come; some are still battling themselves or out slaying dragons; some are trying to figure out how to retain the wisdom gained on the quest and integrate it into their everyday life.

I’m not sure where I am currently, but I have a sinking suspicion that you don’t get just one. Life is a continuous hero’s journey. You will continue to be challenged, and undoubtedly you will fail some of the tests. What you encounter along the way will delight you, and it will cause you great pain and make you afraid. It will force you to stretch and grow in new and uncomfortable ways.

Birth is never an easy process.

Be brave. Have the courage to persist. And I promise that slowly, heroically, you will understand more fully how to live. It is written.

Last thoughts on 34

In a few weeks I turn another year older. Some people celebrate the passing of time with fireworks — going out in a boozy blaze that makes you wish the next day that you were never born.

Some choose to go inward and reflect on the year passed.

Some say fuck it and play hooky with their bestie, reveling in the rebellion (and good food and nice wine and whatever beautiful place you decide to explore).

Some say fuck it and go about their day like any other.

I’ve celebrated in all these ways over the years, except for the last approach. It has always saddened me when people don’t do something special with their day. But now that I’m approaching 35, I get it.

This year, I’ve received several rounds of early birthday gifts from people who won’t see me on my birthday (mom, dad, boyfriend, aunts). I’m not complaining. Any day you get to open an unexpected present is a good day. But it does de-emphasize the main event to a nonevent.

I think I’ve finally reached that age when you start trying to forget how old you’re turning. Going out of your way to celebrate it only drives the stake in a bit farther.

Another thing that changes as you get older: Everything becomes way more deliberate. You start “gifting” yourself practical things like freezing your eggs or designating more funds to your retirement plan.

And you hold off on things like those expensive noise-canceling headphones that seem too indulgent for an everyday purchase, so you wait for a special occasion so as not to ignite a flair of Catholic guilt for buying something you need — God forbid — when you need it.

My Dad literally buys himself stuff that he needs or wants and gives it to us to give to him for his birthday, Christmas, or Father’s Day. I still don’t know if that’s just an overly practical German thing, or if it’s because he’s past the age where being a bit frivolous is acceptable and not considered selfish.

But perhaps the best gift I’ve thought of giving myself this year is to abstain from Instagram.

I was a late adapter of Facebook, and it didn’t take me long to close my account for good, just a year or two in. I was constantly flooded with images and opinions that either made me feel “behind” (hubby, house, kids — and in that order) or completely disconnected from the people I thought I knew.

I didn’t like it, but like crap TV, it sucked me in and I’d find myself scrolling with a zombie gaze anytime I had a spare moment.

Instagram was my social platform of choice because it seemed to evoke more artfulness and less of the “look at me!” mundanity. But I’ve found myself posting less and less lately, and I recently realized I no longer enjoy it. I still love taking photos, but somehow the whole sharing/liking/following thing really taints it.

It’s become exhausting.

So during the days preceding a fresh start in the form of a birth-aversary, I am meditating on the (always) wise words my beloved Bob Dylan once wrote to commemorate his dying idol, Woody Guthrie.

I printed this in my high school year book, and I still turn to it during times of self-doubt or disillusionment with the world, or any time I need a reminder to come back to what’s important.

I’ll be signing off for at least the month of October. I hope to do more writing and less scrolling, so check back here every now and then. And I hope to connect with you outside of the pocket-sized TV that we have all become conditioned to perform within.

Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin’ up
If the wine don’t come to the top of yer cup
If the wind’s got you sideways with with one hand holdin’ on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood’s easy findin’ but yer lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin’ and the street gets too long
And you start walkin’ backwards though you know its wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow’s mornin’ seems so far away
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’
And yer rope is a-slidin’ ’cause yer hands are a-drippin’
And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe’s a-pourin’
And the lightnin’s a-flashing and the thunder’s a-crashin’
And the windows are rattlin’ and breakin’ and the roof tops a-shakin’
And yer whole world’s a-slammin’ and bangin’
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
“I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn’t they tell me the day I was born”
And you start gettin’ chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you’re lookin’ for somethin’ you ain’t quite found yet
And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
And the whole world’s a-watchin’ with a window peek stare
And yer good gal leaves and she’s long gone a-flying
And yer heart feels sick like fish when they’re fryin’
And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet
And you need it badly but it lays on the street
And yer bell’s bangin’ loudly but you can’t hear its beat
And you think yer ears might a been hurt
Or yer eyes’ve turned filthy from the sight-blindin’ dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush
When you were faked out an’ fooled white facing a four flush
And all the time you were holdin’ three queens
And it’s makin you mad, it’s makin’ you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin’ around a pinball machine
And there’s something on yer mind you wanna be saying
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin’
But it’s trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
And it bothers you badly when your layin’ in bed
And no matter how you try you just can’t say it
And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
And his jaws start closin with you underneath
And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
And you wish you’d never taken that last detour sign
And you say to yourself just what am I doin’
On this road I’m walkin’, on this trail I’m turnin’
On this curve I’m hanging
On this pathway I’m strolling, in the space I’m taking
In this air I’m inhaling
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
In the tune I’m hummin’, in the words I’m writin’
In the words that I’m thinkin’
In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make yer heart pound
But then again you know why they’re around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
“Cause sometimes you hear ’em when the night times comes creeping
And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping
And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin’
And you can’t remember for the best of yer thinking
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that it’s something special you’re needin’
And you know that there’s no drug that’ll do for the healin’
And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding
And you need something special
Yeah, you need something special all right
You need a fast flyin’ train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That’s been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows yer troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don’t bar no race
That won’t laugh at yer looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rollin’ long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it’s you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting
That the world ain’t got you beat
That it ain’t got you licked
It can’t get you crazy no matter how many
Times you might get kicked
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope’s just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner ’round a wide-angled curve

But that’s what you need man, and you need it bad
And yer trouble is you know it too good
‘Cause you look an’ you start getting the chills

‘Cause you can’t find it on a dollar bill
And it ain’t on Macy’s window sill
And it ain’t on no rich kid’s road map
And it ain’t in no fat kid’s fraternity house
And it ain’t made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain’t on that dimlit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Ranting and raving and taking yer money
And you thinks it’s funny
No you can’t find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain’t in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you’re bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain’t a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
No, and it ain’t in the rumors people’re tellin’ you
And it ain’t in the pimple-lotion people are sellin’ you
And it ain’t in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star’s blouse
And you can’t find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can’t tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain’t in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain’t in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain’t in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’
Sayin’ ain’t I pretty and ain’t I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can’t even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No you’ll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache
And inside it the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain’t in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who’d turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind yer back
My friend
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can’t find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain’t in the ones that ain’t got any talent but think they do
And think they’re foolin’ you
The ones who jump on the wagon
Just for a while ’cause they know it’s in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of money and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin’, “Christ do I gotta be like that
Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at
Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty
THAT STUFF AIN’T REAL

No but that ain’t yer game, it ain’t even yer race
You can’t hear yer name, you can’t see yer face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’
Where do you look for this lamp that’s a-burnin’
Where do you look for this oil well gushin’
Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown