Tuesday, October 24, 2006

first impressions of Ashland

Movement: Women in long skirts, moving with their walk, as they push their strollers of their colorful kids, or leisurely enter shops at a whim. Hair moves, kids run on the street, the wind rustles through all the strategically planted trees lining the main street, alternating colors of course. Most people have somewhere to be, walking with a distinct destination in mind, but many are here to wander, to congregate on the streets talking with old and just-met friends or over a cup of tea at a sidewalk cafe.

Some, mostly dreadlocked teenagers, sit against the specialty shops and ask for spare change as the tourists walk by. Some play guitar or will tell you a joke for a dollar. They are friendly enough and will talk to you if you ask the right questions and most of them seem to be from somewhere in California. Within every few stores, there is a place to grab some food, but not necessarily “grab” implying fast and cheap, but food none-the- less. Tourists, and allegedly locals alike want to eat somewhere lovely before their show starts.

You don’t have to ask if someone is from around here though, you know by how everyone carries themselves or even by what they actually carry-- locals with their backpacked babies and their co-op recycled brown bags and their leashed dogs, looking straight ahead and those from other places with their shopping bags full of lovely Shakespeare souvenirs and related novelties, bottles of wine and theater tickets, looking all over at everything there is to see.

There are flags and coffee shops and bikes and strollers and curly haired kids and bright colors and bottled water and art galleries and photos of houses to buy taped to realtors’ windows and natural food and gift shops and trees and recycling cans and menu options like grilled tofu on nine-grain bread with organic hummus and parks and sidewalks and crosswalks and yoga centers and duck ponds and shiny red fire trucks. There is always a waiter or a hotel clerk rushing to work or one breaking for a cigarette and a few Hispanic men in line-cook wear can be found in the alleyway between Larks Café and the Ashland Florist, shooting the breeze.

Young people are everywhere, on bikes, on skateboards. Pedestrians cross the street where they choose and are often smiled at and waited for. A lot of cars, a lot of trees and a lot of candy-colored houses, lined with candy-colored flowers and sometimes porch chairs with books left in the sun on the cushions, leaves and weeds landscaping the yards and the occasional tire swing or tree house can be found on the blocks where people actually live. Books and newspapers are being read everywhere, on benches, in the grass, by the park, even sometimes right on the sidewalk.

Telephone poles stapled to death with flyers and advertisements, promoting upcoming concerts, natural living lectures, and mysteriously a lot of lost cats. Although it seems like many cats are missing, cats carouse on the streets night and day, ducking in and out of doorways and crouching beneath parked cars or swankily heading off to the activities of their choosing. It is somewhat of a mystery about all the cats, but perhaps they are the ones that know the most about what really happens in a town of students, elderlies, young families and those who pay to visit here.

picture my tree

I don’t take enough pictures. Everyday, I tell myself, take some pictures today, create some way to remember this wonder of a life, these moments that make me lose my breath because they are so beautiful. I have a tree that I love and everyday I would stand under it, as the magenta leaves rain down upon me, promising myself that I would take pictures of these leaves, this bliss that this tree gives me. And everyday, I was somehow surprised to see that my tree was still so full of color, that the wind hadn’t made the leaves leave yet. And I would promise myself that, yes, today, I will take a picture of this tree.

I wonder why I do the things that I do. I act like I know what I am doing, I act like I am in control, but in reality I haven’t a clue. Others seem to have it together and so I ask, “How do you do it?” But no one has any good answers either.

If every day of my life was worth a dollar, how would I spend it? And at the end of the day, after my money is long gone, would I want my dollar back?

I am a news junkie and as a result, death enters my mind often. Death is a part of life and we are all going to die one day, on some unforeseen day and at some unforeseen place. I, and any of us, could die today. And if that was to happen, would we be at peace with how we lived while we could?

We settle, every single one of us settles for not living the way we want, never fully letting go of the fears that stunt us into believing that we are not capable of what we once thought we were. Why do we do the things we do? Somewhere in the darkest place of our minds, our once-beloved dreams go to die. We always need dreams, for they get us out of bed and into the world, and as we grow and become more our true selves, new dreams take the place of the old and the old sometimes leave us like the leaves on the tree.

When leaves fall, is it death or is it freedom? And when dreams fall, same question. Does their departure finally set us free? The recycling of dreams somehow allows us to let go of what we once knew so completely as a part of who we were. With every new dream, every new day, we are given the opportunity to reinvent that person that we want so desperately to one day believe we have become.

But “one day” has come. We are not waiting anymore and in fact, never were. And then one day, the leaves of my tree were in the gutter on the street and the branches naked, with only a few fearful stragglers hanging on for dear life. And all this time, I wonder why my tree passed before me and I never took even one picture.

what I remember

No one wants anyone to leave them, but in reality, we will be left a thousand times in our lives by the ones that we love. However, we too are leaving as fast as we are being left. Life is an endless parade of hellos and goodbyes, of missing people and being missed, as we all find our own way.

We are never stuck on a path; there is always a way to get back to where we want to be. If you change your mind, change your direction. The heart always wins, anyway. The wallet wants you to believe that it should win, but in the end, what is money if you haven’t done what you love?

Life goes on day by day, with me remembering good times and laughter and connections. The stuff that I worried about in my journals over the years never really amounts to anything other than nervous scribbles, but when I look back, I am glad that only I can read those. The hard times seem to shrink when they are standing next to the incredible moments of faith, friendship and all the fun to be had.

In this jumbled year of bliss, panic and everything in between, I have learned a lot.
For starters, I have learned that it is easy to give advice and hard to follow it. I have learned that if I care, I will find the time and that making excuses only delays the process. That I am responsible for the way people treat me and if I don’t like something, I need to change it or at least change the way that I think about it. I have learned not to expect anything, but rather live every moment as true and as passionately as I can. Mistakes are just opportunities and that it takes too much energy to stay upset. I have learned that thinking too much gets you into trouble and that giving love helps you to get love back. That everything worthwhile is hard. Sometimes really hard. I have learned that we all need more sisters than we were biologically given and should adopt them whenever we can. And sometimes people need to get lost a few times before they can find their way back to where they want to be.

We go through our lives choosing and re-choosing our paths, the ways that will lead us to some destination that holds more promise than we can imagine. And that is all true and good, but Aerosmith has always known what we forget, and go ahead, sing with me, “Life's a journey, not a destination.”

you are what you read

My aunt always says that the books we love as children, are our windows into what we will become, meaning of course that somehow, you become what you read. Her theory worked on her kids, who are now grown and moved away, who have become what they always read about.
Danny loved Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel with a passion, and now he loves his construction job too. Mitch was obsessed with Ferdinand the Bull, about the peace-loving, non-bull-fighting bull who sat under the tree all day smelling flowers, and now that is pretty much the life that this cousin leads too, smelling flowers and delivering pizza. My cousin Johnny loved books on tape with all the different voices and all the action. He is now an aspiring actor and a director. And my cousin Kelly, well, Kelly loved Barbie Gets Dressed, and to this day, she is one hot fashionista and does makeup in downtown Chicago. And maybe my aunt is right, and we actually do become what we read. Or maybe, we are led to certain things because they are already an integral part of who we are supposed to become.

At my house growing up, we were read to all the time, and we each had our own library card and book club membership by the start of kindergarten. My mom would set up a little chair for herself and set up three even smaller stools for the three of us, all about a year apart in age, and we would listen for hours as she read all this poetry and all the books that we could find.

We all really liked the sad books for some reason, like The Velveteen Rabbit or the ones where the little kid has a goat or a baby cow or a wild puppy and the animal becomes too much to take care of and the animal is taken away to another farm. We would just cry and cry about the poor kids in the story. We would start off loving that little puppy or the little goat so much, laughing at the silly things that would happen, and then by the end, we would be so upset every time at what we just kept hoping wouldn’t happen but always did, and then beg her to read it to us again because we were just so happy at how sad we were, I guess. So happy that words could have that kind of power.

When I couldn’t read yet and in fact when I could, I loved Amelia Bedelia, Madeline, Miss Rumphius, Curious George, The Jolly Postman. And I thought it couldn’t get any better than that until I had a teacher who looked like Snow White and she let us lay on big pillows while she read to us from Charlotte’s Web and Ramona the Pest, two of my all-time favorite love affairs. I fell head over heels, with not only my lovely teacher, but with the magic that those words held for me. It was all downhill from there, the passion had been ignited and there was no turning back.

I couldn’t get enough of the books I loved: Number the Stars, Matilda, my fifth grade bible, Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giver, Cricket in Times Square, Pippi Longstocking. Each one was better than the last.

These books set me free and even just the thought of them today makes me remember who I was and who I became through what those pages held. Later I found my freedom in the characters of Atticus Finch, and Jay Gatsby and Holden Caufield and in other books like Blue Like Jazz, First Comes Love, The Hours, and Life of Pi. These books were all there for me like the greatest friend I could think of, and perhaps really just served as mirrors, reminding me of who I forgot that I was underneath it all.

When I read, I want to find my freedom looming in between the pages. I want to agonize and celebrate and be moved to a new life, a new reality. I want to fall in love over and over again, and hiding behind some bookshelf of memories and magical words, I want to find that piece of myself that I didn’t know was missing.

the mermaid in me

Here she is, this gorgeous fury of passion, spoken-word artist Mayda del Valle, pouring her heart out to her small audience, as if we have all been acquainted long ago. Her poetry is moving in a way that a windstorm is moving. You have no choice except to be where you are, take it all in, and let yourself be filled with the possibility of a passionate intervention of your soul. Her life, her work, who she is and where she comes from, her wounds, where she has been and where she is going—all this is what she brings to the table to lay it out like an anthology of passion, to wonder about, to mourn, to celebrate.

I loved watching her perform; she made me feel free and alive. This friend of mine made a list of the top one hundred things that make her come alive. She looks at this list often, maybe because it reminds her of who she is. With so much happening all the time, with so many experiences and memories and perspectives, we know who we want to be, we just forget sometimes, and a list is a good way to remember what fills us. Last summer my friends and I ran across the Golden Gate Bridge and the wind up there is crazy and I felt just the same, inspired to be more. I just wanted to run against the wind for the rest of my life because I was just so alive.

Swimming is like this too. Now, I am not even a very good swimmer, but the water is like freedom. I feel like I can breathe underwater and it is only after I take the plunge, that I know that I am truly present. In the deepest part of my heart, I am pained to know that I am not a fish or better yet, a mermaid, graceful and beautiful, free, free, free. I have never been able to not smile under all that blue and all that cool, it is just too much bliss to contain, too much of myself, too much freedom to not laugh and shriek underwater at my incredible good fortune.

I need to write a letter to the person I was, because I need to stay in contact with all the Marys that make up my story. So much has happened and the time has been punctuated by moments of bliss, lessons learned and a consuming era of passion. But I think all the time, who was that girl that seemed so brave, or so in love, or so alone? I am amazed that I am that same girl that I have always been, just trying to make sense of it all and make sense of what I know to be true.

A wise man that I know was saying that to truly grow, our skin has to stretch, because it is not big enough anymore to hold all the things inside of us. The only way for it all to fit again is to be stretched from the inside out, to make room for the new stuff that is changing our world. Growing up and growing better hurts because it hurts to stretch the skin we’re in. Growing a wider heart to love more authentically, or bigger eyes to see more clearly, or steadier feet to follow along that path more effortlessly—none of this comes without some stretching. We have to remember, we all are stretched from what we were.

In my letter, I would tell myself to be brave and do the things that really scare me. To throw my heart out there, and dive in headfirst, because in matters of the heart, big love is what I want. I would tell myself to listen more to that voice inside me and hear the answers that are already there. Feel everything—every emotion, every moment, how all that water feels on your skin, and that wind feels in your face. How it feels to share in someone’s vulnerability and experience. Don’t let yourself settle for less—settle for more. And never forget what makes you come alive, because, after all, to find yourself again, that is where you have to go.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The reality is...

Every time I click on MSN gossip I get a sickly feeling in my stomach. I say to myself, don’t do it Mary, don’t click on another stupid story. And then I am double-clicking, quietly looking over my shoulder, secretly hoping that no one around me will see what is about to pop up on my screen. Whether I am appalled or thrilled, I somehow care about the different things that happen to the people that are oddly somehow in the background of my life.

I have dreams all the time about Amazing Race, about the crazy things that happen on that show. It was all downhill for me after that first Survivor and ever since then I watch makeovers, I watch competitions, I watch people living together, I watch weddings and first dates, autopsies and surgeries. I even watch people doing nothing. Top Chef. Miami Ink. Project Runway. The Bachelor. Even America’s Next Top Model. If there is a VH1 reality marathon, I will watch until I have seen every episode. Rooting for the winners and the losers, laughing and crying right along with these people I don’t even know.

I am left wondering how I would handle situations like the ones in front of me. Would I be as brave, as strong-willed, as fierce, as loving? Would I be as stupid, as ridiculous, as jealous?
Maybe it is actually kind of like a sport of sorts. I have my teams, and I have my loyalties and I am always just really rooting that lots of good things will happen and that everyone will just have a fair game and shake hands at the end.

And I ask myself all the time: Why do I care so much about these people, these stories that I am of no way a part of? Why am I so affected by all this? I can watch and read and reevaluate what I already know to be true about myself and the people in my life. I like to see what these people decide to do and how they decide to behave when faced with all kinds of options, like the choice of handling defeat with grace or throwing an absolute fit.

Because real life is like that too. Just a bunch of choices of how to handle ourselves. We are all just trying to figure out what to do, and how to play the game on our own terms. We are all just people, or as my mom says, we are all naked underneath our clothes. We all care about the same kinds of things when it comes down to it. As crazy as it sounds, the world of celeb-reality has taught me a lot about life. Mostly though, I am reminded that no matter what, none of us are ever really alone because after all, there are a lot of people out there who care about what happens next.

The constant gardener

Veronica A. Shoffstall says to “Plant your own garden and decorate your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.” And she is right-- We know better than anyone what it is that we need to feel better, to feel more comfortable in our own skin. Regardless of everything, no other person can fulfill us like we can fulfill ourselves.

My sister and I have adopted that concept as our motto for this year.

I have decided that my own little garden has to be full of all the things that I need to take care of myself, because that’s what gardens are for after all, for nourishment and beauty, inspiration and peace. But how can I create a garden that will be these things for me?

I think we all have little houses inside of our hearts, and we fill it with all our favorite things that make us feel wonderful and inspired, things that remind us of who we are. Our houses make us happy and show us how good things can be. My little house in my heart has a lot of good books in it and some beautiful paints and Joni Mitchell and some really good friends and so many colors and quotes and pictures and artifacts, proving to me that the loves that I know do truly exist. My little house inside of myself has to contain all the things that I have ever loved.

But my garden, my garden has to contain all the things that I will someday ever love and all the things that I am not yet, but one day wish to become. The roots have to be deep and strong, and it has to be able to support me well into my future. I have to fill my garden with beautiful images of who it is that I have decided that I want to be and what my life will be filled with. I have to create an image of that person that I know is there somewhere, and I have to plant that image all over the place in that garden, so that I can see her bloom everywhere.
And when the seasons get rough and I am not sure if all my new plants can hang on in the wind, I will get through the winters because I will pick some blossoms and stock myself up with images of what is to come.
Whereas my house will keep me comfortable and content with where I have been, my garden will push me forward to a new life. Whereas my house will remind me of who I am, my garden will remind me of who I want to be.

My garden will tell me that I want to be a person whose silver lining isn’t ever that far away and whose luck is always just about to pick up. It will tell me that I want to be someone whose circumstances could always be worse and who isn’t afraid of what she is capable of. Someone who isn’t afraid to open her heart and just pin it there forever on her sleeve for all the world to see. My garden will remind me that I want to be someone who always knows that she has nothing to lose when it comes to loving people more fully, and someone who isn’t afraid of the waters that she wants to just dive right into. Someone who is brave. And most of all, I want to be someone who isn’t counting on anyone else’s definition of security, but who trusts that she is taking care of herself in a beautiful way, in a way that no one else can. Someone who has a whole garden of flowers that can be picked as gifts to herself whenever she needs a reminder of where she is headed.

As Sabrina Ward Harrison says, we must create what it is that we most wish to find, and I want to find that garden, next to that little house in my heart.

collecting of stuff

Through the years, I have collected boxes of stuff because I am a collector of the past and an anticipator of what is to come. Endless scraps of paper are everywhere- phone numbers never dialed, addresses never mailed to, clippings of things I once cared about, all with the idea attached to them of what could be.

The never-ending sea of ticket stubs fall out of every hiding place. The concerts upon concerts attended with my family, with my friends, with someone I didn’t know yet but who came anyway. Stubs from spur-of -the-moment movie choices, festivals, exhibits, museums, football bleacher seats, conferences, Ferris wheel rides and ice-skating excursions, flights for vacations, for weddings, for funerals.

My toppling-over stacks of letters, from loved ones lost and found are still with me. Well-loved love letters, folded and refolded, so that they have started to tear, letters that I carried with me throughout certain times in my life, reminding me of where I thought I was headed. I have saved other letters too, including those that I never wanted or needed to read again because I wish I wouldn’t have read them in the first place and the notes on floral paper from my grandmothers, telling me to make sure that I don’t work too hard. The cards from people I love and people that I like I have saved because of what they have taught me about love and about myself-that love isn’t selfish, but people can be.

I saved some of those notes that were invisibly passed during English class, hinting at my previous obsessions and all the boys that have come and gone and the tales of the few that stuck around a bit longer. I saved the writings from my best friends, some gone now too. It is all with me-the dances, the dates, and the anxiety over whether he knew how much I cared for him and the reality of whether it mattered anyway.

Journals upon journals, purchased way before I had anything to write, full of panic and hope and color and dreams. All the magazine clippings, drawings and fortunes from eaten cookies at cheap dinners and the photos of me and those I love, are glued into my journals, the chaotic chronology of my life.

These artifacts are not thought about often and stay in the reference section of my closet, but somehow these things tell the story of my life, and where I have been, my passions, my woe, and my bliss. We never think that we will forget the moments that once shaped us, but we do. This has somehow been my desperate attempt to make sense of it all. And I save this stuff because it makes sense to have it, to look back at who I once was. Although the past is behind us for a reason, I save this stuff because this way, the past is there when I need it.

Of Paris and penguins

Navigation is not my strong point. I am not sure why I have such a block when it comes to finding my way, but I always end up in places that I wasn’t planning on. I am just starting to not get lost in my own town and I have been here for awhile. Regardless of the situation, regardless of my age, I still feel a knot in my stomach when I don’t know where to go.

I think about a time when I was alone in Paris last year, as the others were headed in a separate direction. I needed to get to the other side of the city to say goodbye to a new friend. Knowing that I get lost, my friends prepped me on how I was going to do this. It was a rough time in my life, and Paris was spent in my own space, thinking my own thoughts. I was confused and reflective and not in the clearest of mindsets. I set off though, not speaking or reading much French at all, and after a bit I got even more confused and got on a series of trains heading in the wrong directions, coming to new stops that I didn’t know. After some time of this, I became overwhelmed on one of those trains and I just sat there and wept a bit, thinking that I would never find my way back to where I wanted to be. As I watched all these beautiful little towns pass in the window, I could see my reflection in the window too. And that made me cry even more because I could see just that this wasn’t about being lost on the train as much as it seemed. My reflection showed me that this was about being lost in myself. Somewhere along the way, my own north star had become cloudy and I couldn’t see my way.

This nice man had noticed my tears and although he didn’t speak my language and I didn’t speak his, he tried to help me figure out where to go from this small map that I had found on the ground. I knew where I wanted to be, but had no idea of how to get there. He somehow knew this and kindly stayed to make sure that I got on the right train the next time around and that I wouldn’t be lost anymore. After that, a piece of me really wasn’t so lost after all.

And it is moments like that, when you are a little lost--in life, in love, in Paris-- that you are just broken down enough to remember not to be arrogant, and not to be too hard on yourself either. It is humbling to know that we don’t have all the answers, but other people usually have some of the ones we need.

A film like March of the Penguins makes me happy because all the penguins always know where to go. I wish this for myself really. They walk all over Antarctica with a mission-they know exactly where they want to end up to lay their eggs. There is no wandering, no aimless marching, but it is all for a purpose that they never lose sight of. They know what they want and there is no time to waste with what they don’t. The most beautiful thing about it though is that they all do this together—they take turns following and they take turns leading and they trust the one in front of them to get them to where they need to be, and they trust their own instincts about which direction to head. And eventually after a long time, they get to the place they have been dreaming about.

And I guess that that is the point of it all. We may not know where we are going, or in my case how to get there, but somehow without even knowing it, we will look down and realize that despite it all, we have found our way.

rainy day bliss

Everyday I open my curtains to see if it is raining. And if it is, I know that today will be a great day. Perhaps the rain reminds me of the absolute perfect bliss, the kind that is at the deepest part of all of our souls, the kind that has carried us since we were kids. Don’t you remember going crazy in the rain, running out there in your swim suit and your little umbrella, spinning and laughing and splashing, and just feeling like you could explode because you were so happy, you were so full, you were so in love with the rain? It is such a wild experience, so sensual and so perfect. And even now, when it rains, all I really want to do is run around like crazy in it and just eat the rain really.

Sometimes, there is no reasonable way to possibly articulate what you are going to do with that perfect moment that is staring you in the face. It is impossible to think that you will take those perfect moments calmly as they come. But then again, I do not know much about taking things calmly, as I have never been able to do this. When that bliss finds me, I want to run in circles or roll around on the ground or smash all the plates in my house or rip paper up into teeny bits of confetti—anything to get what I am feeling to be justified by what I am expressing.

I love art history because I get to understand the stories behind the passion, the stories of how people got from here to there, how they have come to express all that is exploding inside of them everyday, making them come alive. Art is about falling in love over and over again, with life, with passion, with the thoughts and emotions that are too big to dissect. I love that people like Kandinsky and Gauguin and Picasso and some classmates of mine fall in love every time they see the perfection of something so extraordinarily ordinary as fantastic colors spilling out of their paint tubes. I love that so many artists understand how to fall in love with the world on a daily basis.

Life is crazy and upsetting and hard, but everyday we are given at least a thousand glimpses of perfection. And we get to decide what we do with these glimpses. Bliss is all around us, we just have to look up from where we are running to and we might see that perfect tree, the perfect cinematic moment, or the perfect way that the lighting highlights that perfect person that you love so imperfectly. Or maybe, you will see that perfect smile that found its way to you from across the room or that perfect bit of inspiration, or that perfectly-prepared and gorgeous omelet. Whatever makes us happy.

Poet Mary Oliver understands that life is meant to take our breath away. And like she once said,
"When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement…
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."

My kind of town

Every summer my California-loving family goes back to where we are all came from and head for the Midwest. Chicago. Although we still play Ferris Bueller for a few days and hit the sights downtown, we go there to be with our huge, loud crowd of relatives. Almost everyone I am related to lives in Chicago.

We house-hop while we are there, jumping around between a few houses. Last year, I shared a room with my baby cousin. Every night I would tiptoe into the room and try to be quiet for her and in the mornings, she would stand in her crib and try to be quiet for me too and eventually I would wake up to her just staring at me, as if I maybe didn’t really exist or something and then she would just laugh and laugh when I sat up, with my hair chaotically doing its own thing. It was always early, 6 or 7 in the morning, but worth it in every sense. It is good for the soul to wake up next to a laughing baby. It really starts the day off right. And in a sea of a thousand relatives, it was my littlest one that reminded me of this.

Somehow these trips have come to define me; no matter how long I have been gone from there it is like I never left. I keep learning about love from these perfectly full and wild visits and my family teaches me about who I am and what I am made of. Chicago is a city filled with people who have taught me what I am capable of. And they make sure that I never forget that although my heart may be left in San Francisco, Chicago is still my kind of town.

Moving on

There was a time in my life when I only had two CDs—The Garden State soundtrack and a CD of “moving on” songs that my sister made for me, and it was a hard time for me, but those two CDs, constantly playing, made me feel less lonely, more loved and more okay with just trying to get through it all just one song at a time. Riding trains with my little Discman, ( no IPOD yet), and I felt that although I couldn’t move too much right away, I was just getting ready to move on and move forward. And as Tom Petty would remind me as I listened, “It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going, what lies ahead I have no way of knowing.” Moving on is good, I know that. But, how, I always wonder, do I start to move on from something that I have loved so deeply?

The thought of all of New Orleans underwater is still almost too much to handle. The city that my loved ones have considered home for a hundred years, with all that soul and sound and passion and life, washed away, just like that. What gets me is all those houses and attics of photographs, holding the proof of who everyone was, and all those artifacts that had over the years accumulated to tell a story. My mother goes back and forth to New Orleans, with her sisters, still sorting through the last of the mud-caked relics of their childhood, trying to connect all the washed away pieces of what for so long, they knew as their truth, their identity, their family. It is a long, slow process of getting everyone back on their feet after a force like that comes and knocks you down. A legacy is lost. And in the end, we can be grateful that it is just stuff.

But it takes a lot more than a hurricane to crush a spirit, and in this situation, there is really no choice but to move on and New Orleans is doing just that. So they salvaged what they could, cleaned up the rest and started all over again. And isn’t that all we can be expected to do anyway? Just picking up the pieces and starting over? Moving on is the essence of what makes a life a story at all, because it is admitting to ourselves that there is something better out there waiting for us to claim it. We move on when we are scared, when we have learned our lessons, when we need a new place to fall in love with. We move on from the places we don’t quite fit in anymore. We move on when nothing is going right and when everything is. We move on when we need new people to inspire us, or when we grew all we could with the ones we stayed with for so long. We move on, painfully, dragging our feet the whole way, resisting every ounce of change and surrender that is being forced upon us. We move on gladly, thrilled to get out of where we are, with the opportunity to renew our lives.

Only hindsight is crystal clear, and with everything from the loss of a city and all it contains, to falling hard heart-first, to packing up your life and leaving it all behind, it is only when we are through it all that we can truly see what we would have done differently, done better. And in the meantime, we have to move forward, from the places we love, the people we love and that freedom we love, moving on to someplace that we know we might someday come to love just as much.

Jimi and perfect blue buildings

This 13-year old friend of mine, who is cool beyond her years, asked me awhile ago if I had ever heard of the band Greenday. She is totally into them right now and listens to them all the time. Although Greenday has been around longer than she has, they are new to her. I understand how she must feel because when I was 12, I ‘discovered’ Jimi Hendrix and felt like I was literally the first person on the planet to ever meet him. This irritated my sister who was much sooner up on music history than me. You are not the first person to like Jimi Hendrix, she would say, but I would always kind of act like I was. I talked about him as if I were his personal promoter.

I had this one friend back then that would entertain my Jimi discovery because I entertained her Doors discovery and we became groupies for every middle school rock band we could find, with our parents driving us to shows. Then on Friday nights she would come along with my family to watch these coffee-house musicians and we would drink mochas because we thought we were cool, and we would sit outside in the metal chairs and listen for hours to U2 and Van Morrison, and Oasis sometimes if we were lucky, and anything else that the older high school boys wanted to play. After shows, we would lay on the floor at one of our houses and contemplate the music that we believed could read our minds, that was saying just what we needed to hear about ourselves. Music seemed to give us answers. We were starting to figure out who we wanted to be and how music could help us get there.

But once we got to where we were going, we went separate ways, with her getting more into pop music and moving to LA and although I don’t see her anymore, I love that we found those new worlds together. Sometimes we run into each other and the only thing we have in common anymore is the way that that music once made us feel.

I first fell in love when I was 17 with this boy who is still one of my best friends. The two years we were together were Counting Crows years for me, and because we were together all the time, they were Counting Crows years for him too. Everything of this relationship can come back to this band in one way or another, for they were always in the background. My relationship was punctuated by concepts of perfect blue buildings and recovering satellites and these long Decembers and secrets of someone else’s life, and the assumptions and the mystery of certain people that I will never know, like Mr. Jones, Mrs. Potter, Amy, Anna and of course Maria, lovely, broken-hearted Maria.

Somehow these people and places that are sung about have come to be the songs of my life too, and like that early love for my Jimi, I have made them my own. I have had my own long Decembers and long Januarys too and perfect blue buildings turned out to be conversations cast in perfect blue TV light. Maria is about loss to me now and about the end of loving someone in the way that I once did. Now, I have my own mysteries and my own broken hearts. And I have recovered my own satellites, those things that somehow seemed too far away to ever come back to me again.

I love the advice in Almost Famous about being lonely and going to the record store and visiting your friends. How true that is, for music is something that is there for us even when others aren’t. Music is about where we are and where we have been. And in love, life and music, there are certain friends that always remind us of where we are going and how we are going to get there.

Those stars and then some

Last summer I drove through Iowa, and I was taken by the beauty of all those golden corn fields, and that bluest of skies, overwhelmed with those thunderous, heavy rolling clouds, ready to drench the land that has grown so much. Just all that open space, all that the world has to offer. All to be found in the middle of nowhere.

I love love love the book Life of Pi. For a time in my life, thinking about this book became a sort of hobby because I did it so often. An incredible story of love and beauty and finding yourself, but what captures me is the thought of that gigantic, overwhelming ocean and the exhilarating idea of being totally alone out there with all those stars, so many that you could just cry because they are so beautiful and so rarely displayed the way they should be. I love thinking about what it would be like out on the ocean in pitch darkness, the “great unknown” surrounding me, splashing my toes with the uncertainty of it all. The stars would have to provide me with all the light I would need.

I remember when I first saw the stars, I mean, really saw them. I was at a lake in another middle of nowhere and as dusk turned to night, I couldn’t believe that there were so many that I had never seen before. As a suburban kid, I had thought, for my whole life that maybe there were thousands of stars, but that night at the lake, it became clear to me, that there were actually billions, and just because I couldn’t usually see them from where I was, it didn’t mean that they weren’t there all along. I didn’t know what to think--I was speechless, which, to be honest, doesn’t happen very often, but I literally just laid there in the dirt because it all just seemed too good to be true. And I just cried because it was all just so incredible, almost too much goodness to know existed. After the discovery of the stars, my life has never been the same.

Life is like this, just a giant bowl of stars that right when you are exposed to one more than you knew about, your life is changed forever. Once you have seen them, you can never forget that those stars exist. Just that possibility of a world greater than you could have imagined changes everything.

Ashland, Oregon is like my bowl of stars. Sometimes you find places that complete you and other times, they find you. Bellingham, Washington is a place that I found, a place that felt like home at a time when I needed more than I could give myself. And it was like home in so many ways, because there were pieces of myself that I had to collect up there and somehow I knew that. Ashland, however, is a place that found me. Throughout these past four years, I have lost myself and found myself over and over again and this town has been the witness to it all. I have picked up pieces that I could never have thought I would and carried them. With so much to learn, I have fallen in love, in every sense of the word, with and in this place. My heart grew too big while I was there, and I will leave some of it behind, so I can come back and find myself when I don’t know where I have gone.

If I can leave you with anything, it would be this: Trust yourself because you are capable of more than you realize-- more life, more passion, more love. May your wishes be the least of what you get and may you all remember to look at those stars and count them like blessings, because life is short and sweet. It’s a big world out there-- full of dark nights, and a whole ocean of unknowns, but rest assured that the heart is always waiting to lead you back to those starry skies, helping you collect the pieces of yourself that can be picked up along the way.