Month: November 2013

A short poem can make your day more beautiful

The last phrases of this poem… wow. Seen on The Writer’s Almanac. (Note: I have not requested permission to reprint this. I am simply spreading poetry into the world. My hope is that it will be seen as a good thing. Linked source for good will.)

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

Having two homes

I grew up in Amish Country, Pennsylvania, where Amish buggies and red barns dot patchwork quilts of corn and soybean fields. People there say “Fry-dee” instead of Friday. They say “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.” They eat shoo-fly pie, and they go to church. There are probably twenty churches in my hometown of five thousand people. Country roads wind on forever right below where the sky touches the earth, cows moo into the open windows of cars at stop signs. People work hard for a living. They complain about the government. They watch Fox News, own their own homes and inside, they collect mismatched antique furniture. They plant their own gardens, rake their own leaves, and shovel their own snow.

Growing up there taught me things. Based on smell alone, I can detect the difference between cow, chicken, and pig manure – and I know which one smells the worst. I know how to shoot all different kinds of guns. I know the meaning of “wind chill factor” in the wintertime, and the weight of humidity during the summertime. I know that it’s important to rush home with freshly-grown corn on the cob, and throw it in a pot while it’s still warm from the sun.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for the past six years. It’s concrete, homeless people, and tech companies, artisan sushi made by chefs who operate out of trucks with fancy logos plastered on the side. Trucks that run on fuel from organic-vegetable-oil gas stations. People plant community gardens and grow agave in their front yards, and have never driven in snow. They read the New York Times and buy homes that cost seven figures. They buy matching antique furniture from shops that require a down payment for one piece. They protest the government. They have been to more than seven countries, they speak more than four languages, and they never go to church.

In San Francisco, I’ve learned that it’s hard to track the passage of time, especially years, when you don’t have seasons. I’ve learned that you can make a life for yourself in a strange city, even if you have no friends, connections, or money to start with. That I wish I had spent more time with my parents as a teenager, because I can’t do it now. That the world is changing, that engineering and especially web is king. That Mexican food can actually taste good. That Californians do not understand sarcasm, and that New Yorkers are incredibly brash. That a very expensive plane ticket is worth it to fly home in time to see your grandfather before he dies.

Most of all, I have learned that having to fly on a plane just to see your dying grandfather, whom you lived near all your life, is a very unsettling thing.

I have two homes now: a home where my soul sits and a home where my body sits. For reasons that are too intricate to explain, I will never be able to to move back to Pennsylvania, my soul’s home, again. Its richness will be a friend to me for the rest of my life, but it will never be reality again. This other place is my home, and it has changed me despite how I’ve resisted being changed.

For example, I don’t feel heartbroken when I see homeless people – instead, they make me angry and resentful that the city puts up with them. And I am surprised when people from my hometown confuse China with Japan, and when I have to describe the borders of countries in Southeast Asia. (Yes, China borders India, I think, indignant. How can you not know this? Don’t you have any Chinese or Indian friends in Amish Country, Pennsylvania?) I am surprised that Americans are so incredibly fat. I’ve become just a little bit more uppity about where I buy my coffee, and just a little bit less tolerant of grocery stores that don’t carry organic Indian spices.

In other words, I have become a little bit like some of the people whom I find incredibly annoying. I wouldn’t fit in if I moved back to my hometown, or even possibly to anywhere in Pennsylvania. I am different now.

It was inevitable. After six years, the “country” in me is finally shifting to the west. I refused to accept it for as long as I could. However, inside, I still see myself as the girl I was, the girl who was dubbed “The Brown-Haired Virgin” at my restaurant job in Lancaster, and the girl who drove out into the country on summer nights just to look at the stars and smell the air. Who worked two jobs in high school, three in college, and never asked anyone for money. Because in some ways, I haven’t changed – I still am that person. I still like to shoot guns and eat corn on the cob, and I still love the smell of a summer night. My heart is still there, and I don’t think it will ever budge. California has my body, but my heart is firmly rooted somewhere near an oak tree, on a small plot of land at the top of a hill, across the road from an Amish farm. In California, I found the greatest love I’ve ever known, great friends, and a stable job market. It makes sense to be here, and I may be here for a long time. It’s home now because it has to be. I have to make it so.

I’m going back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving to see my parents, and it’s made me think about the idea of home. What does it mean, really? Does it mean the place where you live, or the place where your heart whispers when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular? I have an answer.

But that answer might be changing – it might have to.

Rediscovering something you love

When I was fourteen and in ninth grade, I wrote a love story about a girl in love with a boy named Connor. In high school, Connor got cancer. The love story continued after his diagnosis, but Connor didn’t make it. He died at the end, and the main character went on with life, forever changed. She named one of her kids after him.

I barely remember writing the story, but I remember reading it years later and being surprised that I had written it because it was actually not stupid. It was not a story of a fourteen-year-old girl pining for a perfect boyfriend. It was about friendship, loyalty, and moving on. Sitting among my old journals and scrapbooks of cuttings from old magazines, I read it with no memory of writing it. When I read the part about Connor dying, tears welled up in my eyes. I cried at the end of my own story that I had written when I was fourteen years old.

I do remember one thing that happened after I wrote that story: a specific ninth-grade English class with Mrs. Reinfried. She was an older woman with short, curly hair and black-rimmed glasses. Your archetypal English teacher in high school. I waited until class was over and walked up to her desk. We didn’t really have a close relationship, but she always said I was one of the best kids in the class. I figured she’d be honest with me about my story.

“Could you read a story that I wrote?” I asked her, handing over the stapled pages.

“You wrote a story?” she said, a little surprised. I had done my homework and sometimes raised my hand in class, but that was about it.

“Yeah. Can you just read it and tell me if you like it?”

“Sure,” she said. “Thank you for asking me.”

The next day during class, Mrs. Reinfried kept looking over at me, and it seemed to me at the time, a little oddly. After class, she approached me and handed back my stapled pages. “Did you really write this?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, confused. Why would I tell her I had written it if I didn’t? It wasn’t for an assignment. I had nothing to prove.

“This is very, very good,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Jena, it’s very good. I have a hard time believing that you wrote this.”

I looked at her. “I wrote it. Last week.”

She stood there for a moment, looking at me, her eyebrows furrowed. She seemed confused, and I didn’t understand why. I wrote a story and asked my English teacher to read it. Big deal.

Looking back, I wish she had told me to submit that story. But we lived in a small town, smaller than a town where people submit stories or get published. We lived in a farm town, where kids go to 4-H after school and enter their sheep into contests. Not their stories.

I’m approaching thirty now, and I’m remembering all of the times that I was told that I was a good writer. I’m a passable cook, an okay friend, and a work-in-progress romantic partner. I’m a sometimes-good Samaritan and a loving, if sometimes politically incorrect dog owner.

But I’m realizing that I’ve always been a writer, and I forgot somewhere along the way. It’s something that I’ve loved since I could read – I wrote 5 chapters of a novel in third grade, about a girl who ran away to Rochester, New York. When I was 22, I wrote another 5 chapters of a novel about a girl in love with an enigma of an Indian boy. Now, I’m coming back to it all and remembering how much I loved it. This vortex of a blog that nobody reads is a blessing in that I can write mostly without editing. There are other avenues opening up slowly, though, and I’m glad.  

I’m remembering that I’m falling back in love with the first love I ever had – this practice, which I find to be almost as sacred as meditation. So when I go back to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, I’m going to dig up the story I wrote when I was fourteen, about another girl’s first love, and re-read it.

9 unexpected sights you’ll see on a trip to San Francisco: Part 2

After Alcatraz with the kids, you’ll need a breather. Chill out with this fun list of sights in San Francisco that aren’t on Tripadvisor – and that every SF trip must include. If you don’t see at least one of these, you should ask Priceline for a refund on your hotel stay.

Poodles in strollers. These are not injured, visually impaired, or agoraphobic poodles. They are poodles with bows in their hair and sometimes wearing lace dresses, sitting erect and silent in baby strollers, being pushed down city streets. So far, it’s always an older Chinese lady doing the pushing. I have yet to get a photo of this myself, but this is what it typically looks like.  I have yet to stop one of these ladies and ask exactly why their dog requires a driver.

Two or three dudes talking about their latest startup. “The codeframe and DTRV are all done, and we’ve got VC backing from John Doerr,” one will say. “Oh? What’s your startup’s name?” The other will ask. Invariably, the answer will be a two-syllable non-word that says absolutely nothing about their product or what the company actually does. The name will have very few vowels, or it will have misplaced ones: blinkr, wynd, or bundit are all great startup names. (Protip: These are still available. That’s your free business advice for the day.)

Random protests. In New York, people love bagels. In San Francisco, we love protests. We protest everything here – the mayor’s decision and indecision, the lack of health care for our pets, capitalism of any kind, and bad Yelp reviews. If you’ve come here to protest something, in a matter of days you’ll find your niche folks chanting slogans and marching down sidewalks in coordinated T-shirts. Make sure to protest during commuter rush hour so your visibility will be highest, and block as many intersections as possible to get sympathy for your cause. Can’t think of anything to protest? Just protest somebody else’s protest.

Lots and lots of Mac computers. SF people are on their Mac computers in the park, in restaurants, and quite possibly on the freeway. This is because anything worth using, reading, or seeing is created on a Mac, the most elegantly designed piece of art in the universe. Like this blog post, which is such an elegant piece of art because it was created on the most magical unicorn of technology of all time, the MacBook Air. If you don’t have a Mac, you can still fit in by name-dropping Apple in a cooler coffee shop like Blue Bottle or Ritual Roasters. Nobody will look up, but your street cred account will be full and you can move on to Coit Tower. (Protip: Make sure you know where these coffee shops are before you visit the city. Asking anyone will make you look like a tourist. If you forgot to plan ahead, just walk in any direction until you see a lot of white, very clean 30-somethings standing around an unmarked awning looking smug. You can tell the coffee shop is legit and cool if they hand-stamp their logo onto their cups.)

If you liked this list, let me know and I’ll continue it. There are plenty more things you’ll see on your trip – and some things you definitely will not.

9 unexpected sights you’ll see on a trip to San Francisco: Part 1

When you come to San Francisco, the locals know you’re a tourist because you call it “San Fran.” We point you toward Ghirardelli Square and tell you how great the chowder is on Pier 39, and how the seals came back to hang out at the pier this year so there probably won’t be an earthquake anytime soon. We don’t tell you about the other sights you’ll surely see when you’re here.

But today, I am going to. These are local treats that you can almost surely expect to witness on a trip to our fine city by the bay. Don’t miss a single one if you want to go back to Michigan, New Jersey, or Kansas a changed person, and truly “Leave your heart in San Francisco.”

Here are the first 5.

Other tourists in “I Heart San Francisco” sweatshirts. People think California means Los Angeles. When they get here, the fog sinks into their Hawaiian shirts and they are glad they followed our recommendation for that chowder on Pier 39. The next step is buying an XXL San Francisco sweatshirt. You know, to be stylish.

Real zombies. People say zombies are things of fiction until they come to SF. You smell them before you see them – groaning, stumbling, dried-up beings with tattered clothing and curled-up fingers. They stand on street corners and ask you for money, ride in the front seats of bus routes and pee on the seats, and rant and rave at invisible ghouls on street corners. The city calls them “homeless,” but don’t be fooled. They’re the undead, and they’re bussed in from smarter cities who know that SF will take care of just about any kind of being.

Entire buses of people staring down at their laps and poking at the black-screen squares in their hands. In SF, everyone works at either Apple, Google, or Facebook. We are future-bound innovators, so we’ve done away with silly things like paper, speech, and awareness of what’s going around us. The best way you can connect with us is by using your iPhone while crossing the street and ordering coffee, just like we do. If you really want to blend in with the locals, take the 1 California bus home from the Financial District around 5:05 p.m. on a weekday. It will be a packed bus, but don’t worry about noise or jostling. It will be like starring in a silent movie as the only breathing actor. The other passengers will be mannequin-bots who move their hands in predictable motions, back and forth across black screens that blink and scroll constantly. That’s how we play it in SF.

Tents and tarps next to piles of trash. These are zombie dwellings.

A $300,000 car. Everyone in SF has tons of money, since we all work at Apple, Google, or Facebook, and all of our startup companies have recently gone IPO. So we kick around a few hundred G’s to get nice wheels. So as a tourist, after stopping at Applebee’s to grab lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf, you will likely look over and see a Ferrari, a Tesla, or a Lamborghini, stretched out in a parking spot like a cat sunning itself.  Don’t stare too much unless you’re wearing your “I Heart San Francisco” sweatshirt, and then you’ll get a free pass.

The rest of this list soon to come.