Sitting on the plane after landing. Unedited. A cut and paste note to myself.

It’s almost immediate. I’m on the plane to Ohio, and I’m reading Mary Oliver’s Felicity. I want to have all her words and let them spread over me. Or gulp them. Anything. I’m smiling at the poems. Clever, true, open. Unpretentious. Natural and wistful. Whimsical. Nostalgic. Yellow.

I can’t remember which teacher long ago said you always have to read a poem twice, that rule I say to my students as casually as, “the sink is over there.” The person viewing casually over my shoulder is probably wondering what’s taking so long to read a few lines.

I want to take three of her books and spread a blanket on the ground under our oak trees at home. I want to call Layla out to me so we can read poems together. She would love that. Why don’t we do that? Why let the baggage I’ve packed weigh down so heavily that we can’t travel anywhere? Time is running out; she won’t way to lay there with me for another 15 years, and by then she’ll have to schedule me in.

Samira, please remember to take an hour to do this. The house is a vacuum. This imagination is not. Do more of the latter than the former. Making a home is more about the mess, about the grass blades decorating kitchen floor when you come in, not the grass blades you have to wipe up later.

Samira, wake up. Be inside it more. Carve deeper; go past what needs doing and do what you actually want to feel.

I’m in your rip current, Mary. Can you tell?

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Breaking the dam

This post doesn’t capture all of my June, but it is the June in which we lost a really interesting human being. There is half of a warm summer that I’ve experienced with family and friends. I’ve been quiet online. My last Instagram post was mid may. My last post here was around the same time. Days have been full, and I’ve had lots to say involving other more positive inspirations, but writing it all down was only ever on the horizon, somehow out of reach in the 9 pm setting sun.  I had to break the dam with this post.

I wanted to title this post Anthony Bourdain.

On the day he died, I squinted up at my phone in the blazing heat and impulsively ordered three of his books. I knew I was overpaying for them since I was not alone in my impulse. Two of the books were already sold out and would take some time getting to me. I didn’t care. I’d never read his books anyway, so how could I complain about that.  Amidst sounds of kids splashing in the outdoor pool, I reacted to news of his suicide by buying his stories.

I google his name daily to see what else is out there. I know that sounds crazy.  If you haven’t  seen Anderson Cooper’s tribute to Bourdain, you should see it; it says what needs saying about Bourdain’s personality. One of my favorite parts is when Bourdain says rather simply that he won’t miss that magic that comes from eating a meal even though he knows he may be sick from what he’s eating. “What’s the worse that can happen? A course of antibiotics? What do you get in return? I think a lot.”

The thing is, I’m just one of many who thought him to be a gifted and fair storyteller. I’m not special in finding his voice or eyes or abandon or appreciation attractive. I hardly knew I liked him as much as I’ve considered lately. Like you, I thought of inviting him over to our home for dinner and how that would be. Until recently I really didn’t know anything of his past except for his allusions to it in a Part’s Unknown trip to Morocco, let’s say, or in some dusty closet when a celebrity’s name comes up. In fact, when some pedestrian culinary conversation would sprout, I’d add excitedly that I love his shows, or I love when he visited Iran, etc… I even spent some of a year saying, “Anthony took me to (insert country) last night” or “I went to (insert city) yesterday for free” after travel-lusting via Netflix each night.

And yet I have carried Kitchen Confidential in my bag every day since it came in the mail a week after his death. Like so many books I stroll with, I didn’t underline a single worthy sentence–not even ones that made me laugh out of context, not even the ones that instantly made me walk into a culture and a time about which I had no idea. The only evidence I have of my engagement is the curled up cover, random Safari pages of names he drops that I’ve googled, and the glance of the mechanic.

If I’ve learned anything from my recent reading, it’s that wrestling with the burden of telling your truth is heavy. Writers use figurative language and their sensibility to artfully present a truth, and the artful part can be a crafty achievement when you are protecting parts of the truth. In  Kitchen Confidential, he calls out names, restaurants, people, and details candidly. I don’t know if I could ever tell a story this way. His abandon is my opposite yet totally enthralling.

What is empowering, however, is the permission he grants himself in the later publication of the same title.  For example, Kitchen Confidential was published  in 2000. In the updated 2007 version, his first line in the Preface is, “Things are different now.” In the Afterword, the first line is, “Times have changed since much of the action described in this book took place.” He acknowledges changes without really apologizing for them. I think as humans we can all take a lesson in that: what people may say about us or how we may feel about people will likely change. To remain the same or to feel we’re at the apex of thought is already downhill.

Reading his work pulls my face to the real burden the introverted, principle-lined, talented, and often tortured human’s face (the very torture that perhaps makes them endearingly empathetic). Andrew Zimmerman, who is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, got me thinking in his recent interview after his friend’s death.

Teaching high school has meant the last few years has seen too many mental health issues, too many heartbreaking suicides. I think I bottled all that up until hearing about his, this man who never knew me. What I struggle with the most is feeling that if he got to the other end of the moment where he gave up, he would regret it. This man who said almost 18 years ago that the world of the kitchen made the most sense to him; being in the real world was the hardest. That type of desperation haunts me, looping in my mind. Maybe what pulls at my heart so much is that I know with certainty that nothing is more seductive than learning something new from someone in conversation. He brought that to us, and I’m moved by his talent and our loss.

Most of Kitchen Confidential shares his experience of how a successful kitchen should be run, but near the end of the book, he recounts an example that defies his earlier claims. He admits it. Clearly. That is the meat of what I love about that book: his words are human, and even in our very distant worlds, he offers truths that help the way I see.

This wasn’t meant to be an unnecessary book review. While I don’t write about current events, I guess this just made its way here. I didn’t feel I could write about a recent hike or about house epiphanies until this made its way out.  I’m equally perplexed by how much his story has been on my mind. In grad school, I wrote a 20-page paper once about an Egyptian author who committed suicide after writing his first novel. Maybe I grapple with what else these artists had to give or what they endured that made their stories distinctive. I suppose this post is my memory of how I’m thinking about this storyteller, and about how I was taken by surprise, not at my admiration of him or my interest in his works, but by my reaction to his story.

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If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.

 

On memories

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Julian Barnes writes a book with an alluring cover—gray backdrop, wooden table, and an egg sitting in the middle. This is the edition of the The Sense of an Ending that I was most attracted to. It took longer to wait for the book to arrive in the mail than to read it, still stretching it out as much as possible so I didn’t gobble it up in one bite. Nuances of life and how they’re planted into our mind from the author is my audible reading exhale. Outside of his elegant farming, Barnes’ story is life’s commentary with a clever delivery, reframing the way we look at our own life history. Like every great novel, it makes us think of how we make decisions. He exposes how we remember things, the associations that filter and create the images we use to validate or explain our present.

If I could paint an image of what memory feels like to me, it would be of a man walking upward as if climbing stairs, and underneath his feet there are blurry, colorful chunks eroding into a midnight backdrop. Friends and family harbor some of those chunks for you, but mostly we’re at the mercy of what we remember and what surfaces when we need it. Above all of that is the present us that reads the past us. Ten years ago, I asked my mother in law what she would have loved to do if it was possible for her, and she said she would have loved to sing. I asked her the same question a few weeks ago, and she said she would have loved to study the culinary arts. Maybe it was the mood surrounding the question at different times, maybe it was her life events that changed her dreamy answers. But what I know for sure is the power of a question and the gravity of our experiences that help create the answer.

I was the first of my friends to start a family. I don’t remember clear ways in which I expressed those first years of motherhood. I don’t think I would have even called it that then. When my friends called me or visited me, I was too young to know how I wanted to present myself as a mom. I hadn’t even put those words in my mind not to mention the next big question: what kind of mom do you want to be? Thinking of asking that question didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t on social media then, so there wasn’t this extra effort of “this is the kind of mother I’m being” to be showcased. I probably went through it like I do most of everything else: do my best for the responsibilities of the occasion and then wonder how I feel about all of it later. I look back at old photos and get a sense of the weight of the years as we figured out our life in a bad economy; I see a young woman who took care of her kids with whatever natural instinct she had. I guess I let the experiences guide the way.

My best friend is 35 and expecting her first baby. She has heard me talk about my life consistently since I can remember. This includes any unfiltered detail over the years about having kids and husband. No one else around me was pregnant or even trying to be, and so I must have enjoyed talking openly. In what feels like beautiful contrast, she is having a mindful pregnancy; she has reflected a lot about what kind of parent she wants to be. She’s had friends all around her who have strewn their stories over her like a night’s sky while she helped them connect the lines. She’s facing her new life with intention. I know life isn’t as easy as that, but I also love that she has this creative template as a foundation. Whereas I just wanted to manage it all and do whatever Layla needed in those early years, I feel she has this adult vantage point that has its own weight of gold.

In thinking of memories, though, I am so curious which of my own memories bust out as she vents to me in a few months. I imagine that all the beauty she sees may add filter to my own pictures; I imagine how her experiences will shape how I feel about the kind of mother I am when I see—beyond where she can see in her own life—what kind of mother she evolves into.  And I wonder how my answers to any of her questions will make me pause, think, and maybe even change based on the couch I’m sitting on, the mood I’m in.

My sister in law just had a baby. When they came to visit us, I saw the baby bottles. I saw her doing things I used to do and doing things I never did. I enjoyed watching her and remembering how the days of a 2-month old are in 2-hour rotations. I see that rinse and repeat as a blessing now. A new parent needs some predictability, and there you have it with feed, burp, cuddle, nap, and change.  Now, my circumstances are no longer there; it’s somewhere between soccer practice and making intentional nudges. But on this Mother’s Day, I want to reap this fruit: my experience is making me stronger. 

In I’ve Been Thinking, Maria Shriver says

“I’ve come to realize that we all mother in our own way, and I’ve come to trust myself in this job.”

Maybe that’s the best thing to frame my last 8 years and hopefully the next 8 or the next 80 to come.  If I gather the net of my experiences and the ways in which my kids have repurposed and reminagined my life, I can see that I’ve come to believe in myself as their mother. And when the time comes when play areas turn into middle school plays which turn into high school games and then into college graduations, maybe I’ll recall her lines here, too:

“I have faith. Faith in myself and in my kids. I know this new era of my life is going to be more unscripted and more wide open. That’s both scary and exhilarating. The days will no longer revolve around school schedules. The days will become mine to imagine, mine to create.”

That sentiment of a very different stage in life does two things to me:  it gives me immense gratitude that my children still make me paintings and want me near them all the time; that they are so not there yet. Also, though, it gives me perspective to see that motherhood has its stages. We have our growing pains as we take in their lives inside us and expand and “flow down in always widening rings of being” (Rumi).

I didn’t intend to end that thought with his words, but he said it best. And shouldn’t we always remember that we’re all in widening rings of being?

My kids just burst out of my bedroom for the countless time with loud grievances, one accusing the other and then overlapping in vehement self defense. I put my hands in the air and said, I know what needs to happen now. I smiled with my hands still up in the air. They paused and waited for me to get upset at the umpteenth interruption. Instead, I gave up and said, “Go outside and turn the sprinkler on and go run around. You don’t even have to change your clothes.” They looked at each other, started laughing, and ran together out of the front door.

Didn’t know those were going to be the words coming out of my mouth then either. But shouldn’t we be certain that we’re capable of more than we thought?

 

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Happy Mother’s Day to every human who has helped a child or a mother make memories that are worth remembering.

Unplanish

IMG_2067Thursday I came home from work thinking the night was going to look a certain way. I took off my work shoes that got gradually uncomfortable by the day’s end. I settled on a cotton camisole and ditched the work blouse. The weather was breezy and inspiring, reminding me of the quiet gardens I’d visited last week. I even started writing and continued to write while sitting on the bleachers at Layla’s soccer practice.  Even though I scrapped the writing without feeling much attachment, I was pleased with myself for making use of the time.

Productivity despite the angst of fat that elongates its side satisfies me. If I’m given a blank slate of time, I want to do most items on my list before I treat myself with 1/8 left on that slate. Maybe its because I suspect what I do in that time will sprinkle over the week and maybe make it smoother.  Pretty sure there is a tiny, overworked secretary in my head punch-typing and prioritizing a list of things. Time management is perplexing, isn’t it? Just the two words next to each other are funny. Managing your time indicates that you’re the boss. When the bird of this thought–“hey, you’re kind of the boss of this sometimes”–catches my eye, I feel a little free.

What I’m noticing though is that the larger your family, the more initiatives you have; the more I suspect my family needs, the more I want to push to make it happen. The more I set goals for my creative temperament, the more I have to push to make it happen. For example, that I didn’t say no to taking the kids roller skating on Saturday when I should have been working on writing the rest of the online course was totally in my control. That I write this now instead of resting in the bed and watching this guilty pleasure is a decision I’m making. Maybe its because satisfying an initiative, it is worth it to me.

Knowing that I’m the one making these choices puts me back in the boss’ seat.

My friend Katie recommended two movies lately. I watched them both in a cramped up week that should have been restful but had a different purpose.  One is about a couple traveling a continent on a renovated school bus. Their youth and simple plot line is worth the scenery and the acknowledgment that another way exists. In the spirit of self-knowledge, she also highly recommended  InnSaei: The Power of Intuition, and it quickly became a conversation piece among some friends.

Much of the argument–“of connecting within in today’s world of distraction and stress”–is like a warm mug of yoga, Mary Oliver, and this Ted Talk by Benjamin Grant about the brain effects of seeing Earth from space.

Our busy lives are making it harder to get out there and sharpen or revive whats inside. I feel we’re fighting for it back, but sometimes it seems we’re standing on thick ice as it cracks, severing us away from what it once was.

One speaker in the documentary says with confidence the following:

“The noise of the external world is muting the sound of the internal world.”

I think just as the noise of the external world messes with our intuition, the schedule that feeds the noise messes with something important that Alicia Keys summed up today in a post: “Destroy the idea that you have to be constantly working or grinding to be successful. Embrace the concept that rest, recovery, and reflection are essential parts of the progress towards a successful and ultimately happy life.”

Bless long summers for they should be mandatory for all, and I’m so thankful my profession respects this. My friend was just joking with me on Saturday. She said lovingly, “Try not to do too much shit today.” She challenged me to a weekend where the only plan is an unplan. Last year I blocked off Wednesday evenings just for family, and it was a successful step that evolved healthily. It’s now from a steady, equanimous place on the heels of a beautifully incongruent weekend of hot sun and cold rain where I’m intrigued by her challenge: I blocked out a weekend in May (okay, that wasn’t easy) to challenge myself to say absolutely no to the external and heck yes to the internal.

I’ll leave the parameters undefined and lazy– just as it should be.

Want to take an unplan challenge?

 

Sunshine Blogger

Sunshine Blogger Award

Last night I went to bed really excited that my friend Katie nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger recognition! I love reading her blog Mama the Reader, and I’m so appreciative of her kind words. According to super-inspirational Katie, who was the first person I knew who created and maintained a blog (now 8 years!), here are the rules:

“choose a fellow blogger who inspires positivity and creativity in the online community. Then send them some questions and be sure to answer the ones sent to you. It’s a fun way to honor a fellow writer and to introduce readers to new spaces.” 

Here were Katie’s questions to me. Answering these was wonderfully reflective.

  • Why did you start blogging?

I didn’t realize how badly I needed to write until I became a 30-year old juggler—not just the normal life stuff. I was juggling the weight of a rip current I needed to reach for with all the things preventing me from it.  I knew there were all these kernels just dropping into my life, and I felt this innate pull to make something out of them. Also, I was truly shocked at how fast I was forgetting what happened a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. My best friend does what she does best and made me feel I could actually do it. Also, I knew if there was this imagined audience who held me accountable, I wouldn’t make too many more excuses. I sat with my laptop on a round glass dining room table and typed until the words Memory Box Mom seemed close enough to what I wanted to do.

  •         Why do you keep doing it? Why you keep coming back to it with so many other social media forms?

One of the first things I wrote on the blog was a reference to my birth experience with Layla. I admitted I wrote my experience without any creative merits in mind. I just had to confess that just 9 months of being a mom shook my life up in all kinds of ways. My favorite admission on that post was when I wrote casually, “I’m starting to understand now.” Having a place where I can hold myself accountable to that very idea is precisely why I keep coming back here. Well, that and the truly kind friends and followers who take the time to say something nice about something I’ve written that they’ve liked (what better encouragement is out there?). I want to continue this idea of “starting to understand.” This space is a curled index finger bending like a drifting underwater creature making me stop and watch.  It makes me write notes in my phone. It makes me sit on the blue chair in my office and turn on my computer.

Facebook is around long enough now that my students feel like it’s an outdated source. They call it the social media for moms. My friends (Katie, you remember this, right?) created an account for me once maybe 10 years ago, and I closed it a few weeks later. So I’ve really never been on Facebook, which is still the king of social media despite it being middle aged. I come back to my blog because it’s oddly a private space. It yield just enough support to encourage me, and it yields just enough control to keep my hands near the heat.

  •         How has blogging changed for you since you began? Has your site somehow taken a different shape than you expected?

Getting this recognition made my reader stats jump for a minute. Always exciting! Every time that happens, I feel two-fold. I want to jump up, and then I want to sort of hide under the table. And usually after that happens, I poke my head up and visit my site and read it with someone else’s perspective. I try to be merciful on myself when I have to fix a grammatical error and republish, or when I desperately want to clarify something. In fact, this post didn’t go through well the first time, I’ve spent some time holding my breath and fixing it up.

These questions had me thinking. I went my “This Mom” description and changed it a little to be more truthful. The writing–along with the writer–has changed. Reflecting on point A helps me with point D. That’s how blogging has changed for me and how the site has taken a different shape: My experiences are changing, and so am I.  Sometimes I just want to change the name of the site to Woman in her 30s or something like that!

Blogging also makes me want to change the word blogging. I still have associations with blogging that are commercial. Here’s what cream I use; buy it. Here’s what I do for my kids that you should, too; buy it. I know something more than you do; read it. Writers want to be read. Essays are the perhaps the product we are offering, but these essays we share with the public are birthed with slow-grown wisdom and are presented with some fragility–like a two palms carrying a bird’s nest, and that makes it impossible to associate it with the other type of blogging. The theatre is the same, but the play is different.

  •         Do you envision a certain audience when you write?

I hope that readers feel like we’re sitting on a soft couch drinking Persian tea in a mug with some quote like “trust thyself” or with some tribal Anthropologie swirl. Maybe when we walked into the cozy room with a tall willowy window, we took our boots off and we’ve revealed that our socks are mismatched. Maybe you’ve got a bare foot propped up under you, and we’re talking about your marriage. Either way, we’re reaching for the sugar cubes and laughing at ourselves with love in our hearts. This image of camaraderie is what precedes any other space for me.

  •         Do you have a favorite post of yours?

Gosh, this is hard. I asked for help on this one (thanks again, Andrea). I started this blog in March 2014, so Memory Lane is close to my heart.  I got some thicker skin and remember it was important to me to be as real as I could in the stressful making-life-work-moment with family photos. Last year’s Unrounded thoughts on the way things line up is moving closer to this woman in her 30s sweater I’ve grown into. The magic of an impractical adventure will always be up there in Chile I and Chile II. And I guess that brings me back to my current headspace. I also love anything to do with my cousin Parissa.

  •         What’s your best writing advice?

I have a beautiful wedding video that I cringe to watch sometimes. I see my 23-year old self posing for the video in some shots. I see myself knowing that the camera is on me, and I’m giving it what it wants. As cliché as this may sound since the word journey is used all the time, but the journey that writing has taken me on is the process: to reflect on when I was posing and to emerge first with the truth as much as I can. Writing preserves. Your fiction and non-fiction all carry your DNA and your observations. The way the light reflects in your living room and the way the stranger crunches on peanuts are equal sources of inspiration.

Write those observations down. When you’ve noticed something you know is something (the kernel?) but don’t know what yet, just write it down. It doesn’t have to be on an expensive leather journal. It can be something you buy from the check-out line at Tj Maxx. It’s that for me sometimes, but it’s mostly on the notepad on my phone.  Joan Didion writes her late husband told her “the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write.”

A former student asked me recently about writing. She was interested in “how cathartic it must be to write.” My response was surprisingly pessimistic. I remember fantasizing about writing and thinking about how it feels. I told her, though, that the product of writing is usually worth the strain. Finding the time to write and fending off what Pastiloff calls your “inner asshole” are challenging. Blog writing (really, any writing) helps with those two things. The factors that prevented me from starting one earlier—what about privacy? who is even going to read it? there are so many other bloggers already; and how can I keep up with one in this busy life?—became the very reasons to start blogging. I began blogging so I wouldn’t forget memories I find significant. My purpose is somewhat the same now, but what blogging has done for me is that it’s allowed me to see how much I’ve changed. That’s not an easy process.

My best writing advice is to be okay with change. Find your solace with your own little audience. You’ll find your message while eking out the words, and that’s—for me, anyway—the cathartic part. Don’t not write.

  •         Describe your ideal day? Is writing part of the equation?

Thinking about this question had me going up and down for things that usually make me feel productive and peaceful in a day. I can’t say my ideal day is my most exciting day. If I piecemeal versions of a long summer day and a Sunday together, this is my ideal day:

It’s warm outside, and I’ve done something outside for my body because of it. The beds are made and the house is clean. The 7:30 pm amber light is coming through. I’m looking at the artwork the kids made after we bought supplies together to mark their vision. I look outside and see a small mess from where they made something out of mud and where I didn’t say no but said yes instead. I have quiet space to think about something, and then I write down this line that I’ve read that doesn’t really have to do with anything, but I know it’s going to apply somewhere. Allende says “Curry was invented in India, not Norway. It was in pursuit of spices that pirates, adventurers, traders, and conquistadors traveled to the East…” The mystery and effects of spices, their “secret properties” are similar to…. I trail off. I’m okay with that for now. An hour later, the kids are in bed and Kal is reading fiction (okay, this is getting fantasy now) in an actual book with paper. My friend calls and says, I’m picking you up in five minutes. I don’t ask where or how. I pull my hair back and slide on flip flops. I return home with an invigorated heart, and I love things a little deeper. I call Andrea and tell her all about it. She tells me to write it down, and I do. No one asks for a single thing more than my presence.

So my ideal day has clean floors, productivity, gratified children, some writing thoughts, a little spontaneity, then a little solitude.

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I nominate Azita Houshiar because she is an accessible, humble, and influential media presence who shifts minds gently using food as unifying ingredient. Also, I nominate Danielle because she’s a young and interesting person who is recently finding her blog voice. She brought sunshine into my world through her leap of faith in herself recently, and I think these questions can help her as she figures out her blogging world.

If you’re interested, ladies, here are some questions for you:

  1. Why did you start blogging?
  2. What inspires you to come back to the screen?
  3. How has your writing changed you?
  4. How do you think it affects other people?
  5. What advice would you give to yourself?
  6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a writing project or blog?
  7. Do you envision a certain audience when you write?
  8. Do you have a favorite post of yours?
  9. Describe your ideal day.
  10. What parts of your life or your interests do you hope you may explore through writing one day?

What if parenting had more to do with our own joy?

Yesterday, I was in the kitchen making soup for my mother in law who is in town. Age seems to have hit her hard these days, and she has a lot of ailments coming at her weakened body. Layla saw me using the hand blender and wanted to get on a stool and blend, too. Such started our moment in the kitchen, our hands hovering above a steamy pot. 

We’d just gotten back from soccer games in the healing Saturday sun, so our energy was invigorated. While in the kitchen, I decided additionally to make mulukhia stew, a traditional middle eastern dish that looks like a one-pot wonder but somehow–in the way of Persian or Arabic cooking– takes a silly-long time to make. While I fried pita chips, Layla wanted to bake pita triangles in the oven with a recipe she got from her class. The kitchen island exploded with olive oil, seasoning, bowls, aluminum foil, cutting boards, and measuring spoons.

As usual in the kitchen, I had some music playing. Humming  “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music to the kids is nothing new to them. I’ve dropped in these staple American nodes of my upbringing over the years. My friends joke that I haven’t seen any Star Wars anything, but I know a good bit of our 90s MTV allusions.  The kids always like when I get to the part “when the dog bites, when the bees sting…” I decided to play the soundtrack while we busied ourselves in the kitchen.

Somewhere between the foil and the oil, I looked up and laughed to myself. Here was I, this Persian-American (or is it American-Persian?) cooking her Palestinian mother-in-law’s recipe in my Georgian kitchen with my Arabic-Persian-American daughter who just asked for a set of Baby-Sitters Club books, singing along to an iconic American classic soundtrack from a time when my mom sprinkled a little bit of pop culture on me. So we set up our own new stew.

While the sun was up, I loved this idea. Despite all the multculturalisms and the swirl of how life works in my head, the sun set and the yellow of the day turned its trade. I started thinking about what’s been on my mind the last few months: do we want to give our kids a formulaic upbringing?

On some level, maybe the best outcome could be from the ones who can give kids a traditional, safe upbringing nestled in the suburbs with school events on the calendar that we all attend; little birthday parties and seasonal celebrations; high school sporting events and bigger houses. On another level, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this from a teacher’s stance and have almost been a part of this current, too. We moved up in homes and went to good high schools and carved out the most meaning of what we had. I suppose its from the vantage point of having lived some of this that makes me want to give the kids even more of some of that American life that wasn’t on the menu for me–more freedom, more school events, more sports, more options. But most importantly, something about this pattern feels, well, like a pattern. In the life so many of my peers are living now, it feels the options we earnestly give our children and the careers we try to build simultaneously make life a little harder than I thought it would.

Last year taught me to cancel more and keep more time. I’ve recognized that planning too much even for myself only creates anxiety; it only creates the feeling that there is no more time. I can’t throw away the calendar, but I can fill it up less. This year feels like it’s asking for more of that, too. I had a conversation with friends where I admitted to wondering what a year “off” felt like. One year with nothing but time, options for more spontaneity before time runs out and the kids’ lives get faster than ours. A year of “no extra” unless spontaneous. 

If I’m truly honest, I think I’m feeling this way more for myself as a parent. I wonder when people take their kids out of school for a year if this is less for the children and more for the parents. An opportunity to live differently and change up the formula.

When I sat atop two beautiful lagoons in Chile, I met a family from Scotland. The family of four was driving through South America. The mom and I talked, and she said she was home schooling the kids this year. As her girls circled around her leg, I found out that her kids were about the same age as my own. She told me that her youngest’s birthday was the following week. “Wow, what a cool way to spend your birthday!” I exclaimed. The mom, almost in a whisper, said that her girl is actually really upset about it. She wants to be at home with her friends and have a party with cupcakes. Despite the mountains in the background, all the little girl wanted was that bite of traditional; what the mom wanted for her and even for herself was something new. And perhaps behind all of this was a set of parents who just wanted to feel what life would be like if it was different for a little while, parents who maybe wanted to enjoy parenthood with their kids instead of finding time for parenthood in the midst of so much life minutia. But, alas, there is no right way, is there?

I don’t know of anyone in my life now who isn’t just doing his or her best to make real sense and meaning. In fact, we were discussing the kids yesterday because of some new challenges, and I brought up that tangential story about the family in Chile. When I was done, Kal said, “So do you want to pack up and do something like that?” I kind of looked away and told him the story is less about doing that and more about this realization that at this stage in the kids’ lives, we as parents have this power to do something different (just knowing we have it makes me wonder what we’ll do with it). In a few years, it won’t be as simple. And Inshallah a few years after that, it won’t be an option because their lives will be more theirs than it is ours. It’s a moment of recognition that my kids’ life is also an experience for us as parents now.

I can’t say I want to slow it all down.  Everything has its own time. I can say that I want to feel it differently. I want to look back and know that I felt, recognized, reflected, and changed parenthood for them and with them. I’m opening up this idea that there are only so many years where parents can have equal parts joy and equal parts effort.  Maybe, just maybe, part of the formula is weighing our own joy in parenting and our life experience just as much as we weigh what brings our kids joy in their life experience. Wouldn’t it be something to elevate–this idea that being a parent is just as relevant if not more than being a child. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they both weighed and counted the same. And wouldn’t it be even that much more interesting if they both eclipse.

summer, where are you?

IMG_0466Maybe it was while I waited for the urgent care doctor who would tell me I have the highly contagious, infamous flu, or maybe it was between feverish blurs underneath three blankets in bed when I scrolled through my Instagram on Wednesday and liked these lines of writing advice by author Janet Fitch: “If somebody’s afraid of spiders, you put them in a room full of spiders.” I’ve been scared of this season’s crazy flu for my kids, and I’ve been scared of missing any of the tight work deadlines set for last week and the next few, and then–figuratively–I brought home the spiders; the enemy crawled into my house, and all I could do was abandon dates and time.

Fitch’s advice is to remind us that writers create beloved characters and then have to do awful things to them in order to see what they’re made of, to thicken the plot, to produce indirect characterization, and so on. In Allende’s In The Midst of Winter, one character who dedicates his life to avoiding anxiety is in a few chapters later forced to help dispose of a stranger’s dead body. The way the flu has been knocking people off their feet, hospitalizing them, and even killing them this year, makes me feel(fear) like having kids diagnosed with the flu is like signing their death warrant. And our story has been the same for months; my kids can’t catch a break this winter. They are constantly sick, each cough in bed sounding like the creaking floors in the hallway, each sneeze causing whiplash reactions, each stomach ache interrogated, and we are so weary.

So, if I’m this exasperated character in this story, I admit I handled the spiders in the most predictable way:  I’ve walked around the house wearing a surgical mask. Quarantined myself to the bedroom, putting an invisible fortified line from this threshold to the rest of the house. I’ve wiped and sprayed everything a million times. Sprayed Lysol everywhere. Used Hibiclens to wash my hands. Washed all towels. Cancelled all plans (well, I couldn’t even move until Friday). When the kids were away at school, its own cesspool, I opened the doors to the cold wind and tried to air out the house.  I begged the sunlight to kill the germs. I’ve abstained from hugging and most of my mommy comforts.  As a result, I’ve let them get drunk on TV.

Yesterday was the first day I felt more like myself, so what do I do? Wash all flu-ish things, pick up the house before getting too winded, get everyone drinking elderberry syrup, order the kids new pajamas online, throw away toothbrushes, and buy On Guard and other DoTerra oils. I got Kal to get some homeopathic fortification including turnips (a Persian remedy favorite). My kids have had so many colds and setbacks this winter, I just couldn’t stomach the idea of even one more sickness. Somehow, I feel if I have enough might, I can keep my flu away from the kids.

But this is all exhausting.

And probably futile.

And probably not enough to thwart fate or little Billy’s innocent cough at school that could get them sick anyway. Last week, Layla’s class only had 8 students left in it. 

It’s been pouring rain all morning here, that type where if you run to your car without an umbrella, your shirt will be stuck to you. I want rain to do what it does in books–ceremoniously commiserate with the day, nestle us in for reflection, wash away the sins, offer a rebirth–all of it. I’m thinking today is the day I can inch back to normal. Step out from under the fear and just say I’ll handle whatever comes. If they get sick (again), they get sick. We’ll deal. Just let it go. Man, do I want to be that person. 

I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll be rubbing feet with essential oils and stuffing mouths with Sambucus gummies as this winter season is fraying my ends, steering this girl to some hippie roots. For now, while immune systems are weak and winter is still here, this working mom would really, truly prefer the less cool lens: to write the spiders and not live them. I’d really like to focus more on that. 

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I guess a lot of people in 2014 typed in the question, “What should I write about?” in their internet browser. Why do I know this? Because when I opened up this blank space and could not gather mental notes in any real way for this post today, I decided to just type that question to the internet so it could help me out. After all, my mom told her friend after Layla was born that our generation asks the Internet questions first that her generation asked their mothers’ first. A few authors I’ve followed say that they never start writing on the computer because there are too many distractions. I can see their point.

I want to be here with you, so in the light of the morning, here we go:

I was circuit training at the gym yesterday and it was on the rower–not kidding–that I had this significant shift in thinking. Maybe the fatigue helped me see clearly. Contrary to what I share here in this public space, which was a difficult decision when I started because I’m a pretty private person, I tend not to let personal goals out beyond a select few because I feel it punctures the goal and lets the steam out of it. I shared that I’m working on an online course for students, and now the project is just hanging there with it’s door half open.

I think privacy is enough for my capricorn determination to handle resolves without an audience. However, there is more to this silence than that. I’m from a culture that is once removed from this idea of “the evil eye.” For most purposes, that’s the eye that carries a nasty wish from someone who is jealous of you. The idea is, for example, that you can be gifted with a lot of desirable things or qualities, and then someone else has the power to break it down with the eye of an ill wish or a jealous eye. Personally, I have a huge problem with how our culture can use the word jealousy. More often than not, I hear people call other people jealous when they themselves are arrogant, unwilling to see beyond themselves or reconcile their feelings, or have this nasty quality in themselves. But this underlying fear of sharing something good to a big degree is similar to what I’ve alluded on this site in my own way–this idea that when you’re in something good you may fear that the other shoe will drop. And sometimes that weird pattern happens when you do something great and share the joy, and then you run over a nail and have to change your tire, or you lose 5 lbs and then you get a cold that keeps you away from the gym for two weeks.

Additionally, it wasn’t really until I married that I realized people protect their compliments with the word “Masha’Allah” (God has willed) to both profess their good intention and be deferential.  For example, I will tell my friend that her daughter’s eyes are beautiful, Masha’Allah. Additionally, the culture uses, depends on, and sometimes misuses the word “Inshallah”(God willing) to recognize that the outcome is out of our mortal hands and, sometimes, to stay in a space of respectful indecision. I could say with all truth, “I am dying to go back to Chile, Inshallah.” And I can also respond to someone’s request to hang out by saying “Inshallah” whether I truly want to or not. A long time ago, my friend and I combined our middle eastern, American, and Southern backgrounds by coining this phrase for Inshallah to “Inshallah-God-Willing-the-Creek-Don’t-Rise.” We shorten this via text as IGWTCDR when we’re really excited about something happening.

So, I confess that its from this underbelly of ingrained worry and having a beautiful mom who is always worried, that comes a lot of things, one of them including not sharing short-term ideas as much. I often share reflections here, and I’ve even shared resolutions (last year I actually met all of mine!), but I think I’m going to share some short term stuff here and then follow up with you guys. It’s not about accountability–trust me, I have apps and trackers and my own nature checking in. It’s kind of about wanting to fear less and to push myself to be okay with anything hard that comes along with it. It’s me saying that I believe people are mostly good, that life is meaningful in any way we learn from living it, and that I don’t want fear to mess it up. I’m so sick of that underbelly; I really am.

In another angle, I think Jen Pastiloff is truly affecting some aspects of what I share. I recently let Layla’s friend’s mom into the guest room with the gigantic never-ending pile of laundry covering the bed and scattered on the floor and maybe even in corresponding baskets.  She asked me to see a piece I’d been referring to in a conversation, and I would normally tell this newcomer to my house that the room is a mess and I’d show her later, but then I thought of Jen and said, let me take the nobullshitmotherhood approach. Here is the room, and here is the mess we all make so we can all wear clean clothes. I hate folding laundry.  It never ends. Done.

So here it is. Like half of the U.S., no surprise, I’m trying to stay fit and get back to a 2006 weight (any early 2000s will do!). It could work; it could fail. I work out usually and try to eat well usually, but I just got sick of “trying.” I joined Orange Theory in November. I’m on the Weight Watchers app (which is awesome, but saying that still makes me feel like a 35-year old mom–oh wait, I actually am that). I’m parceling out my points effectively.  I’m learning more about food and about decision making, which is a surprising and unintended result.

So here what I’d like to continue next week: I will not go over my allotted points. I’ll continue going to the gym 3 days a week at Orange Theory, which I freaking love. I will continue reading The Year of Magical Thinking despite the weird dreams I’m having all week (possibly related to reading about pain and death). And I’m throwing in another while-rowing idea: I will not spend ANY money from this last paycheck that is not ABSOLUTELY necessary. If it’s not related to getting fruit, to getting gas, or to a kid necessity, I’m not buying it. I’m sick of feeling like money slips through my fingers.

And one more? I submitted a story to a literary magazine yesterday. I don’t usually share that I do that here, but now I am.  I had submitted the same story to another literary magazine who has a gigantic turnaround time and hasn’t gotten back to me. I hadn’t heard back from them, so I sharpened up the work and sent it to another literary magazine last night. If it’s a good match for them, great. If not, I know I sent it. That seems to me about 80% of the gratification. I’ll submit another one to a place I’m looking at with a January 31st deadline.

Like I told my best friend last night, we sit there and talk about wishes we had when we look back at our past. Saying I’m thankful for my life now and all its challenges is an understatement, but I have a whole host of “I wish” sentences: I wish I was a better student in high school and pushed myself harder. Why didn’t I just take more AP classes so I wouldn’t be so bored?  I wish I took more interest in my long-term me. I wish I started a writing club or took up art classes and didn’t always doubt myself when I was younger. Why wasn’t I in more plays? I wish I defied culture and parents and relationships by dating more. Seriously, what is the worst that could have happened?  I wish I went the creative writing path instead of the literary studies path in college. I loved literary studies and how it skilled my brain, but I wish I’d allowed myself the creative writing joy which felt frivolous at the time. And I can look back and say more “I wish” sentences.

A friend told me once a couple years ago that there is an element of regret in some stories I tell. Yep, that’s definitely true. It’s been true, and I’d like to stop that because I don’t want want that same shade on my 30s. I’m newly 35, and Inshallah-God-Willing-the-Creek-Don’t-Rise, I’m going with less “I wish” sentences and more “I did” sentences. So here we go. I’ll keep you posted.

December Changes

I spent a few weeks of December frozen in an image of laser focus on grading and on work. With abandon to the stress,  I unravelled good habits and amped up coffee again along with anything else that would get me through to winter break. In the heart of work dramatics, I was laying in a tussled Saturday morning bed with kids strewn across. I was mentally slotting the day when I got shocking news that drew a line between the days before it.  My best friend’s dad, a family friend of over 20 years who we affectionally called Mr. T in short, had passed away. I sat straight up in bed, the jolt of a different day in front of me, and ran to the guest room to call her.

As soon as I graded the last final exam less than a week later, my own father picked me up straight from my school and drove me to the airport to be with Andrea and her family.  I appreciated that he was with me as I grieved for her loss; neither my dad nor I said anything about the obvious juxtaposition, but it whispered over the entire drive.

Andrea is the first of our friends as adults to lose a parent, and I was so shaken by her news, not only for the man who has lived in my memories of our childhood—of drives from the airport when I’d visit from Chicago, of the way his voice said my name, of the shrimp curry lunches he’d prepare for us, of the mischievous jokes he’d make, of the over 40-year old stories he’d tell us regarding his wife, and of the overarching way he loved my best friend—but also of the way I searched every groove of emotion to imagine how Andrea must be feeling. I searched her mind and grieved for each new moment she experienced after texting us with these concrete words: “My dad died.”

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Everything happened so fast that I wrote sympathy cards propped up on my leg at the gate in Atlanta.  I imagined us putting our familiar arms around each other and sobbing right there on the grounds of the Ohio airport.  I imagined how my friend would be changed over time. I needed so desperately to be there for her, and I envisioned my presence beginning in a certain way. Instead, with the perfect twist of comic relief that life throws in when least expected, I walked off the short airplane ride and  fumbled into an unfamiliar rental car. I hugged Andrea awkwardly from the back seat, and within minutes, we landed at the local Red Lobster at the mall, a favorite of her dad’s and grandma’s, and the place the family would gather that night. I hadn’t been at this chain for decades. I wore her husband, Jarrod’s, coat because I hadn’t had a chance to get one warm enough. Everything was so swiftly unexpected yet familiar.

Later, we walked into her new home. She’d inherited this house from her late grandmother recently, and when we sat together in her living room—a mixture of Andrea’s authentic style, incongruous photo walls and stunning travel tokens, and her grandmother’s life, family portraits with dried flowers and her daughters’ original mid-century beds— I told Andrea I felt like I was on Mars. I bounced from one reality to another, one in which we’d be preparing for a funeral the next day. We sat in this home that raised both Andrea’s mom and aunt, and there was an underlying comfort through it all.

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For the two days I was there, after a heart-wrenching but also beautiful funeral where I saw Andrea at her most raw and most heightened adult self, I still felt like I was on another planet. I sat in the backseat when we drove to the cemetery with glorious, mature, bare trees near a university library. I watched Andrea’s mom as she said in soft surprise, “I walked by this cemetery so many times when I was a student here.” When she was a student in the 70s, how could she know that one day she’d bury the husband she’d meet there on that campus and that one day they would both be buried together here? And yet there was that symmetrical life truth as plain and beautiful as an open road, clear only because of the next 50 years of her life that she’d spent living up to this moment.

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After a long and emotional day, we found ourselves inside a protective snow globe, another levity God blessed us with after such a day.  Snow fell outside and the Christmas tree lit the living room. Andrea found tapes her mom had made over 40 years ago while in courtship with Mr. T. In a house whose walls heard the story of three generations, we gathered around a dusty boombox. We heard the beginning of their romance. We heard Mr. T’s young voice, with an accent aspiring to all the things he’d become later in life. In those personal exchanges in a life that wasn’t mine, I heard an echo of something familiar, maybe faith in my own life and how it can one day round out to something. An understanding of what is truly extracted from a long life with someone, a sentiment about celebrating life and what got us to where we are. In those tapes were the underbelly of life’s hardships all boiled down to an innocent exchange, a ghoncheh—a bloom—of what would be the most important intersection of her life and then consequently of Andrea’s life. There, the parents I’d known all these years became cooler than us, younger than us. Their details hadn’t bloomed yet, but we sat there with all the associations of their life reeled out before us, and it became a story.

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I’m writing this now in a carriage house at a beach we used to come to when the kids were toddlers. I’m in a small den upstairs with an overflowing suitcase opened next to me and the constant sounds of kids bickering all over. I’ve imagined finally writing at the cozy bookstore I love here. Each morning I walked on the beach at sunrise and thought in metaphors, but I could never make real writing happen. Never a perfect moment I could anticipate. This trip is proof of that. This vacation felt like a mistake most moments. The kids no longer like the idea of a cold beach; they don’t buy into sweaters on the beach and bundled up scenic walks. We spent most of the trip exasperated trying to consolidate whims and moods with our whims and moods. Learning about the four of us under a different roof was unsettling. We spent most nights in bed by 8:30 pm weathered by parenting. At some point, I sat outside on a cold bench and wrote in my journal, “I surrender.” Surrendering took two days. The third day was better. Yesterday was the best. We actually had a family moment where we laughed until we cried. We rode bikes and took pictures at a candy store. We even ate dinner at a restaurant and made it through dessert without compensating for each other. But it was a hard won day.

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In the morning light now, I’m on a crumpled bed with damp towels drying in front of me, a rummaged, overflowing suitcase next to me, and two siblings who love quietly and bicker loudly. I’m writing this now because it’s the eve of the new year. Nothing about this setting is inspiring, but I’ve surrendered. It’s the only way I can save my might for other lessons to learn.

When we were outside last night by the restaurant, I felt like I might have a chill, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually cold or if I was feeling what the kids may not have been articulating. Sometimes, this is the hardest and most beautiful thing about being a parent: you’re feeling you while you’re feeling them. The empathy is an exhausting miracle. My kids are changing; our dynamic with them in a lot of ways has to change, too, and with that comes a natural sadness. But that maternal simultaneous feeling I have with them is something that will always be with me in its weight and in its beauty. When I talked to Andrea’s mom after I heard the news, she cried that she has to be strong for Andrea; she doesn’t know how she can do it for herself, but she has to be strong for Andrea. In her mind, her daughter’s pain was even harder to bear than the quiet house she’d return to after she’s back home.IMG_4894

I have to remember the warm faith of that night after Andrea’s dad’s funeral. In his eulogy and in the words of his family members, I understood firmly that most everything worth anything is usually not like how you’d pictured it. His dreams for his life broke many times before he could pull himself back into them, and he insisted on bringing his loved ones with him as he burrowed into newer dreams. But it seems like if you do your life well enough and have some good fortune and investment in good people, that some beautiful poetry of your life can be recited and rounded out and delivered through the mouths of those who have witnessed your most raw and surrendering moments. That these markers of your world will be the echo you need to move on to the next note and the next note, through the changing sounds and the drops you can’t expect, through the small symbolic changes to the big stuff—these are stuff of this life, I see. And this is a life to which I surrender palms up, sometimes feeling at the particles like surprising shell fractures through the strain, sometimes straining to gather the prose through it, and always thinking with it and what it’s snowing down.

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Snow, Ghormeh Sabzi, and Creativity

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Much of the Georgia around me was swept unexpectedly under what felt like a foot of snow this weekend. In the past, warnings of ice and snow would come in scary tones on the news. This time, though, it felt different; even the weathermen were caught off guard. Later over the weekend when we got power back, I think I heard one of them apologizing on the news. Predicting weather was always somewhat of an oxymoron, so no apologies necessary.

Released early from school on Friday, we all found ourselves back at the house. The neighbors who were making snow men across the street came over. Kids played in the icy play dough with the awkward joy of a southern kid whose mom just quickly stacked them up in some clothes as his limbs jazzed around. Snow melted inside my house all day. We put towels everywhere and put the coat hanger by the crackling fireplace.

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By 7 am Saturday morning, I saw what I always hear under my ears on snow days; I marveled at the “north wind’s masonry” and felt I was part of the “privacy of storm.” The snowman became a relic on the shelf of yesterday’s adventure. I felt good that the kids got to see the type of snow they see in the movies, but I was surprised to reflect that my favorite part of the storm was when I was the only one awake, and I walked outside the front door to take these pictures. I wore Kal’s shoes and made deep imprints in the fresh snow. Tree branches were fatigued and said a crooked hello; the sky and the ground were unanimous.

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By the next day, things were cautiously bubbling outside again–cars picking up some speed and mail getting delivered. I got out of pajamas and got fancy for a Persian lunch with new friends from Oregon. I was in a soltani mood and feeling extra chatty after our 2-day winter shut down. One of our guests ordered ghormeh sabzi, essentially the Iranian national dish. She asked Kal if he likes this iconic dish since like her husband, he’s not Persian either. He confessed it’s the only dish he doesn’t like. We talked about how its the kind of dish whose hard-won scent is so distinct that it will dominate, permeating house and body. She said when she lived in Iran, she never wanted to eat it because of its common and nagging aroma, but now she always orders it whenever she can because she can’t cook it at home, and mainly, she wants to carry the smell with her to her house and to her body. It’s her way of reconnecting.

It’s life–the way we change our minds about something because our circumstances change. The courage we have to say it’s okay to carry something new you’ve discovered about yourself even if its as simple as eating the thing you never loved and relishing in the symbol. I was reading a collection of poems my cousin Shadi bought me called Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle. Each poem best carries the weight of its creation when its read by itself. Micro prose can feel like water color when sped through, but I had the time beneath the snow to just read through the little poems anyway.

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What I liked most about the text is her introduction.

She says that when “healing happened, the fire that was burning within me simmered down…It’s like my senses decided to power off because the darkest parts of me had been healed by the vibrant hues of electrifying truth…Perhaps they figured I didn’t need my vibrancy anymore because, well, I had found it.” She says honestly that she doesn’t want pain and trauma to be her “resting place” anymore despite the art it created; instead, she will focus on “growth and resilience.”

While Elle has her own distinct story, I found a common place here in the words I think all new artists should read: “I feared that my contentment wasn’t what people wanted to read about. In my mind, I assumed more eyes would be looking for the pain to relate to. Who wants to read about happiness when they are still in the thick of aching and turmoil? Nevertheless, I hope whoever is reading this wants a different view and perspective…preparing for joy is just as important as healing from hurt.”

I value this admission. Some of us who seek art to fill our bellies with whatever it so desperately craves fear that the best work is created in the midst of the ache-current. It’s like the escalating, chaotic blooming sound Claire hears when she is about to go through the stones and through another time in Outlander. But that can’t be the homeroom every time you want to make art, at least for me anyway; to rely on that would be more like seeking the pattern of an addict. I’m learning this myself as I’m in the changing room with my own process. I’m realizing that to rely on what used to work is immature. To rely on the ache of expressing something forgone isn’t enough and can produce work that is meaningful, but not in the way I may be seeking in the long run. Like the famous resilient Persian dish, the markers that used to launch the creative process can just flavor on their own while I sit at the same desk but write into something else from another place, in another time, with another way.

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