Interruption

One of the biggest disappointments of late is realizing we won’t be moving out West, as was the goal set 12 years ago on our honeymoon. We’ve known (even if we’ve never said it out loud) for the last three years that it would not happen in 2012. If you ever visit our house, this goal will be obvious. Almost every room has a picture of mountains or alpine flowers or something painted by Georgia O’Keeffe or cowboys on the set of “Lonesome Dove.” We even have a sign that says “2012.”

We’ve suffered many financial setbacks, endured job loss, and now, we are slowly rebuilding. Things are getting better, but not good enough to walk away from a house underwater and scant savings. I want to live in the mountains, but not in a tent.

Let me make this clear. I will not let go of the goal. It will happen some day, some way. Right now my biggest goal is to find a happiness in each day right here in Detroit. Yes, Detroit.

Even before I found this site, I began playing a game with myself, one I invented during a particularly difficult time, when depression hovered like a dank mist around my shoulders. My challenge each day was to find one thing to appreciate, to make me smile and feel grateful.  Whether it was the perfect cup of coffee, a clean apartment, an achingly blue sky, a new shoot on a bedraggled house plant,  or a genuine smile from a stranger.

The game continues with today’s offering:

What makes me happy is listening to “Love Interruption” by Jack White, and anticipating the April 24 release of his first solo album.

I’ve followed this guy’s career for 12 years. Even when critics called him a passing fancy, a novelty act, I just knew he’d become a major player in the music industry. I have a little shelf in my office of White Stripes unauthorized band bios, Rolling Stone issues, concert ticket stubs, and one of their original band buttons I scored at a resale shop. You know, basic rabid fan stuff.

Although Jack lives in Nashville, his roots are here in Detroit. He is who he is today (I believe) because he was born of the Detroit ethos. The day I discovered The White Stripes was the day I rekindled my love for Detroit. I couldn’t get enough of their music, of the scene around town. I tried, somewhat successfully, to get to every live show. There was a time when I could go to see a local act at a dive bar and turn around to see Jack towering above the crowd, sucking on a cigarette, a beer in hand, intently focused on the stage, appearing oblivious to anything else. Just another guy in the audience. It felt like a special time. It feels gone now. But the music goes on.

So does Detroit, in his absence, as the scene changes, the focus redirects.  And so do I. There is much to dislike here in Detroit,  but I credit White, among others, for opening my eyes to what is here: the creative energy, the poetry amid ruin, the idea that here lies the raw material to shape into anything the artist can envision.

The White Stripes disbanded last year as anticlimatically as my husband and I realized that we wouldn’t be house hunting in Boulder this summer. The signs had been there all along.

Did you watch Jack’s performance on Saturday Night Live last weekend? I was blown away by the duet with Ruby Amanfu. Maybe you like his music; maybe you don’t.

Sometimes all it takes is the right chord, pitch, and lyrics to turn a dark day around.

Today, I am grateful for good music in all its forms and the power it holds.

 

 

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Writing on the wall

Somewhere in Detroit

I walk past this wall at least once a week.

Most of the time I don’t understand the spray-painted messages on the concrete barrier. Are they gang tags? Bored kids? Street philosophers spreading the good word?

Most of the time I don’t bother looking at anything in this neighborhood, as the decay and neglect depress me.

Most of the time I’m focused on reaching my car before I’m knifed for the two bucks I have in my wallet.

This day is different. I don’t know what made me look but I did. I looked and I saw this message. Clearly, it needs to be in my head.

Do not tell your story in anger.

 

 

 

Mind matters

My right leg is a mess. Shin scraped raw. Knee swollen purple and scabby.

My instinct is to hide the mess.  It’s what I do with all the messes in my life. Throw a cloth over it and call it good.  But we’re in the grip of a fierce Indian summer; there’s no hiding the legs in shorts and skirt weather. Uncharacteristically, I’ve been showing off my wounds.

I earned these abrasions on an amazing ride. Geographically, it was seven difficult miles. Metaphorically, it was a personal journey of a million light years.

Yeah, I’m still the same old me on the outside, prone to injury and scar-covered to prove it. But under those scabs are the seeds of enlightenment. Seeds so small you’d need a microscope. Nonetheless, they’re there.

This pain is the fruit of a standing date I have with a good friend. We meet on Tuesdays. We do something outside: walk, ride bikes, ice skate. Whatever. I suggested bike riding on this last Tuesday. She named a park — one I’d never visited before — and I agreed. Little did I know what sort of trails awaited at this park.

Within moments of entering the densely wooded single-track, I encountered sandy hills, hairpin turns, exposed tree roots, low-hanging branches, large rocks, wooden bridges spanning water and mud, and gravel, lots of gravel. The first five minutes nearly killed me. I was in the wrong gear and couldn’t gain enough speed to shift. Eventually I got off the bike and began pushing it. Then I stopped.

As I scanned the dense woods for a sign of my friend, I thought about my yard sale hybrid bike, which has never felt sturdy in the grip of my hands.  I thought about the bike shop guy (who calls me “ma’am”) telling me to keep this bike off trails with bumps and holes. I thought about how little I knew about real mountain biking and how the last time I really rode like this I was a child, testing my mettle at a customized bike lot in my Detroit neighborhood. I remember the humiliating trek home, dragging my little blue bike in three pieces after it broke apart going over a gnarled tree root. I remember the punishment that followed the discovery of the bike in ruins. My head buzzed like a jar of angry bees.

I was slipping into a hole of despair, one I’d been working on all my life, digging with a small spoon. I lost track of time and place. My friend, no doubt blissfully navigating the bends and twists far ahead, was out of sight.  It was just me, the woods, and my mind.

My fucking mind.

It’s killing me.

You can’t do this, said the mean girl in my head. You are a lazy, gutless poser. I felt tears building in the corners of each eye. I felt the smack of shame on each cheek.  The logical, bespectacled part of my brain piped in: Excuse me, but this is a one-way, narrow, seven-mile trail, it said. You’d best stop this nonsense and get moving.  Another part, probably the loving, grandmotherly part of my brain, nudged its way to the front:  Hey, hey! it shouted in a motivational way. Look around you, embrace this gift of a day, go find your friend, you have two legs that work and a healthy heart and lungs. So maybe you aren’t rippling with muscle tone.  So what? So what if you are behind? So what if those guys on their fancy bikes with their fancy gear sneered a little as they passed you on the trail? So what if your daddy hated you so much he gave you a junkyard bike? All of these things are excuses for quitting. You are not a quitter or have you forgotten?

Shameless whiner? Yes. Quitter? No. I clamped an open palm on the yapping mouths chattering in my head, jumped on the bike and tried to distance myself from his awful thing that had me in its grip. Something happened. I lost awareness of my feet, pedaling and pumping until my quads erupted in flames. But even that pain felt distant. I lost focus of my hands, which somehow steered the bike around hazards and shifted for the trail ahead. For a few beautiful minutes, I was a multi-colored spirit gliding through shapes, shadows and dimensions.

Then I crashed. Hard.  Both front and back reflectors snapped off my bike. My water bottle toppled into the underbrush. As I lay in the pebbled dirt, panting, feeling the sweat drip from under my helmet, I felt the abdominal contractions of a laugh. I lifted the bike, stood, inspected it for the expected (but nonexistent) damages, looked at my shredded leggings and at the dots of blood oozing from open skin. My eyes leaked. My nose ran. My body rippled with joyous laughter.

My friend found me. Are you OK? she asked. Never better, I said, alternately laughing and panting, swiping my runny nose on my sleeve as I gathered the scattered plastic and brushed bits of rock and dirt out of my open wounds.

My friend offered to trade bikes. Even in the swap she disappeared quickly on the trail as I wobbled around the curves. That’s when I missed a tree and ran into myself. Clarity flowed into that jar in my head, displacing the buzzing bees.

It’s not the bike. It’s not the trail. It’s not my shitty childhood.

It is me.

As if life itself grabbed me by the collar and pushed me face-first toward a pool of still water, forcing me to look into the mirror of my truth, I choked on the clarity.  I carry a backpack stuffed with convenient  excuses for every obstacle. Every bike I ride has a flaw. Every trail is designed with failure in mind. Facing the mirror of truth, I instinctively look away. Instead, I search for the familiar, distorted sketches in my mind. The box is empty.

Enough.

What if I dropped the load? What if I let go of myself long enough to ride the current? What if every day could be as exhilarating as this one?

Since that ride, I attempted another trail with little success. My still-throbbing knee sent a message to my brain that said: Soon, but not today. This week, I bought a better bike.

My leg is healing. My head is somewhat clearer. What will the next ride deliver?

 

 

 

 

 

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Letting it go

image by bink_d via creative commons

Bikes have been on my mind all year. Riding. Shopping for a new model. Joining a biking club.

I let a casual acquaintance know and she said, coincidentally, that she was selling her bike.

We arrange a time and day for me to come to the Victorian-era duplex in Detroit where she shares space with a half-dozen folks. After a bit of small talk, she leads me out to a big wooden storage shed. She wrestles with the padlock, throws open the wooden doors, and stands there silently for an awkward amount of time. I stare at her as she stares inside at the array of rakes, brooms, and garden implements. She squints. She clicks her tongue a few times and continues to stare.

Then, as if waking from a trance, she shakes her head, sighs with a big huff,  and pushes closed the wooden doors.

“What’s going on?” I ask, because what just happened here?

“Well, I guess I don’t have a bike to sell you.”

She laughs, latches the lock with a snap, and turns toward the steps.

I follow. I wait. I don’t say anything.

It isn’t easy. God’s truth is I’m wondering why she isn’t getting mad, or firing off rhetorical questions about the missing (stolen?) bike, or looking for her housemates to ask them questions.

Instead, she pour us cups of ginger tea and leans against the Formica countertop, scanning the recipe books on a nearby shelf.

While I stew in silence she contemplates stew for dinner.

I know her well enough to know there really was a bike in there at one point; she isn’t messing with me. But what I didn’t know about her until now is how well she handles life’s sucker punches.

Although it hasn’t happened yet, I know as sure as the sun will set  in the west that I’ll go home and rant about this to my husband. For at least 10 minutes. I’ll vent and pitch a million unanswerable questions out of the ball park. Then I’ll remember (because it’s always just around a dark corner inside my head) the one that got away.

In 2001 my mountain bike was stolen from our garage in rather dramatic fashion. There was ruckus and a brief police chase. I was at work at the newspaper and heard it on the police scanner. My husband called excitedly to tell me about the drama in our neighborhood. He called back a few minutes later, his voice much quieter, to say it was my bike that starred in that show. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the loss of that bike. I’ve had inexpensive replacements, but they were never the same. One thing I know: I had no idea what I had until it was gone. You’d think international spies had kidnapped my precious firstborn. It’s embarrassing, really.

It’s taken me a decade (that’s a lot of obsessive thinking, folks) to recall the make and model of that stolen bike, for when it happened I went blank. I had a mental image of letters in a pattern but I could not put them together to form words at the police station.

During an Internet search for high-quality used bikes, I found a picture of that bike. The color, the logo, the lettering, all unlocked a dusty box of memories. It had been an indulgent Mother’s Day gift from my first husband after the birth of our daughter. It was an expensive Band-aid to a hemmoraghing marriage. I thought about all the places I rode that bike. How I rode it hard to work off stress and heartbreak.  How on that bike I dreamed of escape. That bike traveled with me away from that marriage, into single motherhood, and then into the garage from which it would disappear forever.

I wonder what I’m really holding onto in this unresolved anger over a hunk of metal and rubber? Is it the inability to replace what’s lost? Is it the shock of realizing how attached I am to material objects? Is it that I am unable to forgive?

I’m working on this one.

What keeps you stuck in a rut on the road to self-improvement?

 

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Awake

Random notes from California:

We slipped away in the death grip of pre-dawn, the 13-degree air biting our faces and seeping through our light clothing. I knew that by the time I reached my destination, these same clothes that did little to fend off the painful cold would become sweat-inducing extra layers.

It’s been a wonderful respite to see a dome of deep blue overhead instead of the endless gray blanket. It’s been refreshing to splash and wade in the Pacific Ocean surf at Santa Monica, to feel — feel! the sun on my skin. In the north, even if the sun is out and overhead, it has about all the warmth of a 25-watt lightbulb.

I have not coughed, hacked, blown my nose excessively or had to use any OTC products in order to breathe. Additionally I have not had to repeatedly slather Aquaphor on my hands, elbows and knees.

Is it possible to believe that the drivers here in Los Angeles and surroundings seem nicer than in Detroit? I’ve heard about the traffic out here, and it does appear to be clogged and grid-locked on the expressways. Yet, people here actually allow us to cross a street without threatening to plow us down. Red lights actually stop traffic. Is this an anomaly? Am I hallucinating?

All the walking, fresh air, sunshine, clear skies, greenery and life moving about freely is an awakening. Being a creature of the north who never, ever goes away in winter, I simply grow accustomed  to the hibernation state of the dark months. We stay indoors most of the time, acclimate to the gray dimness and seeping cold. We accept the near-depressed mental state.

For a few days I imagine a different life.

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The scarf

My car trunk is brimming with things I don’t need.

My baby is no longer a baby.

My house is cluttered.

My neck is bare on this blustery morning.

I’m on my way to purge the trappings of a babyhood gone by.

Along the way I meet a woman with a beautiful scarf.

It is so beautiful I stop to tell her how much I like it.

So she unwinds it from around her neck, unfurling its swirled colorfulness. It’s like a great butterfly flapping about  in this autumn landscape.

Keep it, she says.

Oh, no, I couldn’t, I reply.

You must have it, she insists, it complements your dress.

We dance this way a few times before I lift it from her open hands.

An unexpected outcome.

Awkwardly I cradle its cottony softness. I listen as this woman tells me the story of the scarf.

She created it and many others. She sells them.  She has so many scarves, giving one away is nothing.

What’s your craft, she asks, because these days it seems everyone has some special gift.

I’m not sure yet, I admit.

We part with a handshake and a promise that I will visit her store. As I walk to my car I slip the wings of turquoise, indigo and emerald  over my shoulders. The colors caress my neck and cheeks as the wind tugs the scarf’s fringed ends.

On the way to the community outreach center in a scrappy part of Detroit, I steal glances of it in the mirror while stopped at red lights.

As I heft the stroller, car seat, safety gates, and bags of odds and ends onto the curb, the wind slaps my hair and face. I pull the scarf tighter around my neck, up to my chin.

It’s not that I needed another scarf. I have a closet full, a veritable rainbow of neck coverings. But I don’t have a scarf like this one.

This is an extravagance. This is a serendipitous scarf.

I start thinking about giving spontaneously. It’s one thing to hand off used items to charity. It’s quite another to relinquish something new and hand-made. I consider the idea that I am free advertising for her work. I also acknowledge that I meet creators of  beautiful things all the time and I don’t walk away with freebies.

I think some more about how much easier it is to give than it is to receive. Or is it the other way around?

It’s hard to receive randomly, to quiet the barrage of inner questions that follow the gifting moment.

I wonder what of mine I will give to a stranger.

My trunk is empty.

My heart is warm.

My mind is racing.

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Me,myself and I

Helmets up the dork factor

A few weeks ago, I rode my bicycle 30 miles with 3,000 other people.

It’s an annual fund-raiser to support a Detroit neighborhood and to help establish more bike paths within the city. I’ve never done anything like it before and I’m proud that I only stopped once for a bathroom, water, granola bar break.

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. I have a long list of “things” I want to do. Most of them just sit passively on paper, trapped as hopes and wishes.

When I learned of the bike tour, I felt an energy building inside, the kind of thing that cannot be ignored. I considered: We didn’t really have the money to pay for the entrance fee. I didn’t have a bike helmet. My bike was in the basement, bolted onto a CycleOps. Since Girl from the East came into my life, I’ve only rode at the gym or in my basement. I longed for the wind in my hair and the open road.

Determined to make this happen, I accepted the entrance fee as an early birthday present. I found a bike helmet on sale. I hauled my husband’s neglected bike into a local bike shop for a check-up. I teamed up with one of the moms at Girl from the East’s school and we made it happen. I practiced long rides for weeks.

On the day of the tour, as I pedaled along the city streets, through historic neighborhoods, past abandoned factories, high school football games in progress, and along the breezy shores of the Detroit River, I felt the stress evaporate from my heavily saturated psyche. With each turn of the wheel, I felt lighter, freer, like anything was possible on this brisk morning.

When the tour was over, I stood in a food line braced against gusts of frigid air, my leg muscles twitched and my hands turned a little blue (I was severely underdressed for the day). I vowed that I would do something for me, something challenging and fun at least once a month. I’m really bad about pampering myself. I’ve never:

* had a full-body massage (I had a foot and leg massage in Beijing in one of its famous massage houses.)

* had a manicure or pedicure (I’m a DIY girl, but maybe just once I could splurge and let someone do it for me.)

* purchased anything indulgent just for me, such as a bouquet of flowers or an expensive piece of jewelry

Here are some things I want to do (notice full body massage is not on the list):

* skydive on my 50th birthday

* go storm chasing in tornado alley

*visit Alaska

* really learn Mandarin (I started lessons, but let it drop due to the cost.)

* attend a writer’s workshop and learn how to write what’s really inside

* Spend a few days alone in a non-haunted cabin in the woods to do whatever the hell I like

If I live to be 90, I am more than halfway there now. If I don’t make it that far, my life is three-quarters over. I’m not trying to sound morbid, but the dark circles, fine lines, and other signs of aging made me realize if not now, when?

I’ve led a fairly predictable and safe life so far. So much of what I’ve wanted to do with my life I’ve put on hold.  If I keep putting myself at the back of the line, I’ll never get my turn. And that’s how I’ve felt for some time now, at the back of the line. The kids need shoes. The roof is leaking. The car tires are bald. Insurance rates went up. On and on it goes.  Time is running out.

Now, I’m vowing to take time, maybe just a day, maybe three or four if I can get away with it, to reclaim “me” time in my life.

In two weeks, I’m unplugging for at least five days and going on a silent retreat. I’m both excited and terrified to do this. It will be hard, but I know I’ll emerge stronger and better for having done it.

What’s on your list?

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Cleaning house

Photo by Kaiton via Creative Commons

Three simple suggestions:

Trust in yourself.

You have all the tools you need to handle everything life sends your way.

Clear away the clutter in your life.

Three suggestions offered gently and pragmatically by Geri Larkin, author and Zen Buddhist teacher.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing a talk by Larkin. She is the founder of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in the heart of Detroit. She also has written at least seven inspirational books. She is also indirectly responsible for guiding me away from becoming a raving lunatic or a raging alcoholic or both. She couldn’t take credit. She doesn’t even know. But it’s true.

Larkin left Detroit five years ago and now lives a quieter  life in Oregon. She returned in May to help Still Point celebrate its 10th anniversary.  In telling her story to those gathered, she pointed out that — surprise — nothing turned out as she had planned. Larkin once lived a life of privilege. She once was a highly successful, albeit stressed to the limit, mover and shaker in corporate America. She had it all. Or, did she? A search for stress relief led her to the path that ultimately changed her life.

Trust in yourself.

She told those of us gathered that one of her goals in Michigan was to build a beautiful retreat center. She envisioned something serene and inviting tucked away on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Despite numerous efforts to get her plan going, bureaucracy and karma got in the way. Instead, all her money spent, she found herself standing in front of a Victorian-era duplex in the inner city of Detroit. Hardly an enticing destination.

You have all the tools you need.

Turns out, the old building was not what she envisioned, but it was where she needed to do her work. During her tenure, Larkin and temple members transformed the building and grounds into a center of peace and learning. Today, the temple stands as a quiet refuge in a noisy, troubled city.

Clear away the clutter in your life.

Larkin suggested that we just might be happier with less rather than more. She challenged us to clean house, literally and spiritually. She asked us to be less attached to our “stuff” and more generous with the world.

After reading about Still Point, her students, and the many visitors to the temple, I had to see for myself if the in-the-flesh Larkin would radiate as much energy  and wisdom as her prose does on the page. Oh, yes she does. Larkin has an energy about her, an optimism tempered with realism, that makes you believe anything is possible. She’s all at once funny, witty, self-deprecating and tough as nails. She doesn’t even want you to take her word for it. She offers suggestions but asks that you see for yourself. If it doesn’t work, find something else that does.

Although she swears she gets crabby like the rest of us, has her bad hair days, I see a woman who strives to live each moment as if it  were a slice of the sweetest, richest piece of chocolate cake ever baked.

She likes her chocolate.

Check out The Chocolate Cake Sutra: Ingredients for a Sweet Life or many of Larkin's other books on Amazon.com.

Speaking of cleaning and simplifying, Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller is on my must-read list for the summer. I have yet to get my hands on a copy, although I've read excerpts online.

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Gran Torino, belatedly

Gran Torino opens inside a shadowy church. It’s the kind of place inspired by the soaring gothic cathedrals of Europe. It has vaulted ceilings, niches, an endless symmetry of archways, and stained glass windows depicting scenes of sainthood and martyrdom. Inside, every tentative footstep or stray whisper bounces off the high ceilings and amplifies to a thunder-clap of Catholic guilt.

Well, that’s how it was for me anyhow. I know that church. The one in which Clint Eastwood’s character stands next to his wife’s casket as he scowls at his family.

Photo via Movie-locations.com

Fifteen years ago I was the one sitting on those punishing wooden pews, alongside my family, facing my father’s casket.

I haven’t been back to the church of my baptism, of my youth, of my own departure from my family’s faith since that sweltering August morning in 1995. So it came as a shock to rent this movie, which I knew was made in Detroit, and to see this opening scene, which brought forth a strong physical memory of that day.

This movie robbed me of a good night’s sleep. I didn’t even think I’d like it.

“Mom, did you see ‘Gran Torino’ when it came out?” I blurt over the phone the next day.

“Oh, it was violent.”

Yeah. Do you remember the funeral scene? At your church? Wasn’t that weird?”

I don’t know about weird,” she says.

Well, you know, dad’s funeral. It was eerie to see it replayed in a movie.”

“It wasn’t his funeral.”

“I know, but still …”

“Oh,” she says, her voice trailing off. Conversation over.

Am I just morbid? How could she NOT make the connection?

I felt bad then, digging up a long-buried memory. She goes there every Sunday. A decade and a half of memories have wiped away that morning awash in the blues, purples and reds of  filtered sunlight and propelled by thunderous organ hymns. That morning is the only recent memory I have of the place.

This movie stirred a long-buried pot of memories.

Walt Kowalski reminds me of my grandparents, who often spewed bigoted slurs and who were pulled kicking and screaming from their spotless Detroit homes long after the neighborhood deteriorated.

Kowalski’s disconnect from his children and their offspring also sounded familiar notes in my extended family.

There is a divide between the orderly grid of the old city center, the reach-across-the-driveway-to-knock-on-your -neighbor’s-window closeness, and the labyrinthine subdivisions of suburban McMansions. It goes beyond economics. I understand those neighborhoods. I cannot fathom the sterility of some suburbs.

As the mother of an Asian daughter, it pained me to see such hateful racism in this movie, although I’ve been watching the black/white one play out all my life. I’d almost forgotten the horror of what happened to  Vincent Chin. It saddened me at the time but not in the way it would today. I look into almond-shaped eyes and see family.

As a Detroiter who has dreamed of leaving this Rustbelt Utopia for years, Gran Torino made me realize that no matter where I bury new roots, I’ll have the grit of Detroit in my soul. No matter how free thinking I think I am, how open-minded, how much of a tabula rasa I think I can create for myself, after 45 years, some things are engrained.

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