Things I Did Today

Ate a waffle with fresh maple syrup from the north shore, started The Human Stain, pruned the basil plant, called Cuisinart to ask for help using my food processor, fixed the food processor, made pesto, sent out five queries for my novel, heard back from one agent requesting the manuscript, praised the heavens!, sang “Sweet Georgia Brown” to the dog with lyrics applicable to her life (furry feet/oh so neat/sweeeeeeeeet poodle town), took a nap, started a new story, went to the dog park and wrestled a urine-soaked tennis ball from the poodle’s mouth, washed my hands, grilled pork chops & applesauce, watched a documentary called Happy, stood on the back deck for Family Hug Time, looked up at the clouds, felt very, very happy.

Elizabeth Strout is Love

I’ve tricked the awesome Paper Darts magazine into letting me guest blog for them now and then, and this week I have a piece up about why you are in love with Elizabeth Strout.

If you haven’t read any of her three magical novels, then you must first deliver a swift flick to the side of your head, and then rush out to your local bookstore and pick them up. Now!

North Shore Refreshed

I’m back from a week on the North Shore. No internet, no cell phone service, no air conditioning, and the only television channels were CNN and that one that plays The Big Bang Theory over and over.

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“But what,” one might ask anxiously, “do you do when you do find yourself experiencing a sudden and dizzying lack of internet and cell phone service and satisfactory sitcoms?”

WELL. In this particular situation, one spends a great deal of time reading thick novels and scratching blistered mosquito bites and drinking Finnigan’s and staring out at Lake Superior and pondering the incredibly nuanced and pocketed experience of being a Live Human. I just finished Lama Marut’s book A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life (yeah, yeah, one of those embarrassingly earnest titles that you cover with your hand when reading on public transport), and he says that one of the most important mind states to cultivate is gratitude. Super easy to do when you look out the window and see this:

Also Lama Marut says, since you’re already allowing some potentially miraculous positivity to enter your brain, why not also chew on the possibility that you yourself (the recipient of tons of awesome shit for which to be grateful) are the reincarnation of some super dedicated and flexible yogi from a thousand years ago, and THIS, right NOW, is your natural karmic reward for lifetimes of hard work.

It sounds absurd, like totally unlikely, but WTF is human life itself if not a giant, juicy miracle?

Anyway. These are the things I think of when I take a minute to chuck whatever anxieties I’ve managed to construct in my head and just take a look around me–at my sweet lovie who let me remove her stitches like a BOSS even though my only experience with surgery is readingCutting for Stone, at our sweet pup who ate half of the blinds in a blind panic when she spotted a bear (which turned out to be a golden retriever) through the window, and the thick and hearty Minnesota landscape that folded before us as we drove home, listening to Sarah Silverman’s surprisingly compassionate memoir on audiobook. Maybe we’re all yogis, laughing like crazy at Jew jokes.

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Lov(i)e

My lovie had hand surgery today, to remove some kind of cyst from her finger (maybe the technical name of this cyst started with an R? I was not paying enough attention when the surgeon explained it, because I was too busy noticing how shockingly young this surgeon was,  and tailspinning into a strange moment of is this what it’s like to be an adult? Now all the dentists and doctors and cops are all younger than I am?? Should I have become a dentist or doctor or cop??).

Anyway, she was very brave, and the whole procedure was very short, and all the doctors and nurses and anesthesiologists were nice, even if they were teenagers.

Lovie the Lionhearted

The best part about your partner being incapacitated for the day is that you get to order Chinese food and watch British movies and take a nap during the afternoon thunderstorm and wake up to discover that refilling her water glass is possibly the most important act that you have ever performed in your life, the easy movement of your arm so holy and perfect that you burst with gratitude for this cold water, this good sky full of clouds, this full cup, and before it spills you carefully tilt the pitcher back just so.

Maybe this? This is what it’s like to be an adult?

Silence

I am constantly humbled by the kickass spiritual community here in Minneapolis. Today I had the privilege of seeing Swami Veda Bharati lead a 40-minute guided meditation and deliver a brief lecture on the power of silence. Swami Veda is taking a 5-year vow of silence next March, the mere mention of which made us audience members fidget and cough and think mournfully of our dear cell phones, tucked snugly away in the backpacks at our feet.

Swami Veda said that the stillness, the silence that we find when we retreat within ourselves, is the language of God, and if we listen carefully and quietly, we can understand the conversations that happen between flowers and butterflies.

“I am not being a poet,” he said. “This is just the reality of it.”

Swami Veda: ain’t no poet

As a writer, I appreciated that comment. My brain’s primary function, its joie de vivre, is to absorb the ephemeral, nebulous nature of reality and smash it with the clunky mallet of language, concretize the crap out of it, so it becomes solid–something worthy of a sentence! Something that could be easily narrated by Morgan Freeman in a movie! So when I hear about butterflies and flowers and the language of God, I’m like–cool, it’s a metaphor, or a simile, or some other comforting figure of speech that I can wrap my head around.

But that’s not exactly right. When Buddhists say the mind is like the sky, pure and open, and thoughts are like the hazy clouds that sometimes get in the way–it’s not a simile. It’s the way things are. Our minds are made up of the same stuff as the rest of the world, so it’s not that our minds are like the sky; they are the sky. And it’s not like silence is like the language of God; it just is.

This is something I like to chew on when I’m sitting on my deck, looking up at the sky and wiggling my toes and wondering What the Freaking Heck it All Means. Letting go of language, and of the tendency to rely on figures of speech to illuminate universal truths–well, I’m never going to do it (I’m writing about this after all, aren’t I), but the idea of pure silence can bring little glimpses of comfort.

Good luck to Swami Veda during his five quiet years. Because of him, I had Simon and Garfunkel in my head the entire bike ride home.

Monkey Mind

Just finished Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety (and no, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve had it on pre-order for two months and then frantically read the entire thing in a day), and three things came to mind:

  1. It’s not easy to write well about anxiety (see any online mental-health message-board for an illustration of this point) because one of the key characteristics of chronic nervousness is that it messes with your focus, ability to concentrate, finish a thought, complete an anecdote, etc. But Smith is nothing if not a lifelong anxiety connoisseur, and he’s proven with this memoir that there exists within us another self (outside the freaked out, bumbling, cuticle-gnawing self) that is capable of rising out of the gristle and articulating the humor and grace and even elegance in the messy knot we call human life. So: Human > Anxiety. It’s a nice equation that this book proves.
  2.  It blows my mind that the world isn’t 100% Buddhist, because when it comes down to it, there is not a single human being who doesn’t understand that the concept of mindfulness is the central ingredient to understanding (and thus coming to terms with) human suffering. In the book, Smith calls his mindfulness practice and thought watching “cognitive behavioral therapy” because that’s what his therapist called it. I’d probably call it meditation, minus the cushion and the intimidating posture.
  3. Buy this book, in case I haven’t been clear. Extra bonus points if you buy it from an independent bookstore near you. (Karma points = +500)

Two things

1. I fell down the stairs, which is the most embarrassing thing you can do in front of your dog, because it forces you both to suddenly face an uncomfortable reversal of roles: you writhing and moaning on the floor, her dialing 911 and calmly telling you to quiet down and keep breathing.

2. The kind editors at one of Minneapolis’ most awesome magazines, Paper Darts, let me rant on their blog a bit about buying new books. You can read it here, and when you’re done, mosey on over to their store and buy John Jodzio’s book, Get In If You Want to Live. Fred Armisen says you should, and he’s pretty much the coolest.

Instagrammed Rainbows

I was on a walk with the poodle this evening when I happened to look up and see the most fantastic and vivid rainbow arching gracefully above our neighborhood. I’m talking Roy G. Biv, full spectrum, 275 ppi resolution. Angels playing trumpets, all that.

It’s been raining like crazy in Minnesota and flooding so hard that seals are washing up in the streets (you think I’m kidding but I’m not), so a handsome rainbow shining from the heavens isn’t such a rare sight, but the clarity of this one took my breath away.

What also took my breath away was the fact that the second my eyes moved up and took in the rainbow, before my brain had even had a chance to say, ‘Wow, what a freaking awesome sight,’ my hand was already in the pocket of my hoodie, rooting around for my iPhone, so I could snap a picture of the rainbow and upload it to Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest so that people I know could like/share/follow/tag the rainbow and comment things like, ‘Wow, what a freaking awesome sight that is’ or ‘Holy cow, is that a freaking awesome sight or what.’

But you know what–I left my iPhone in the apartment somehow, in my rush to get the poodle out and around the neighborhood while the rain was holding off. Yeah, I was super disappointed. But I took my hand out of my pocket and tried to remember what my yoga teacher had said just an hour earlier while I was huffing and puffing indelicately through a deep Warrior pose. Something about seeing the moment you want to escape the pose, and then just staying there, with the ache of it.

So I decided to just accept the rainbow as a rainbow and give up all desire to immortalize the moment. I stood on the sidewalk, feet pressed on the cement, the world holding my body up, and looked at the sky. I stayed with the rainbow, and I stayed, for just a fleeting moment, with the disappointment and the sadness that blossoms from the realization of how impermanent everything is.

It was a freaking awesome and beautiful moment.

The poodle gazed up with me, a robin’s egg casually wedged in her cheek, her heart full of hope that I would not see it so she could carry it all the way home and place it under our pillows for safekeeping. I did see it, I took it from her mouth, and then we walked home together.

Anyway, it didn’t matter–I got home, logged into Facebook, there, in all its pixelated glory, was the rainbow, forever memorialized in my newsfeed by no less than eight different friend(ster)s.

McSweeney’s

Check out a short piece I wrote for McSweeney’s, (not-so-subtly inspired by three years of teaching undergraduate creative writing).

Summatime

Welcome to summer, you say? Welcome to June, more specifically, and it’s currently 78 degrees outside, which is still not an agreeable temperature for the sensitive cauliflower plant, who has been hunched over on the porch like an old lady with an afghan wrapped around her shoulders, begging us to please bring her inside where she can rest on a proper feather mattress, like the poodle does all day long?

Why, thank you for having me. Here is my advice for the day: quit your job (you never liked the commute anyway, or Paula in Accounting, who clicks her teeth together all day), stretch out on the couch with Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me, and read while you eat Pringles chips in that very efficient way where you pull a stack of seven out and then slide them off one by one on your tongue like communion hosts. And then seven more, seven more, etc., until the book is finished, and you can’t decide whether the rolling nausea you feel in your gut is due to the envy you have of Strout’s magical ability to slide between narrative points of view so effortlessly, or from the 78 chips you just ate (not counting the jagged crumbs at the bottom of the tube, which you poured into your mouth with no shame whatsoever).

Also on your to-do list for the week: read Rachel Dratch’s new memoir (even better if you buy the audiobook, so you can hear her read it herself. There are a few jokes that are way funnier when they’re hollered).