Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Week in Todos Santos

Todos Santos is a Pueblo Magico, one of 83 small towns that the Mexican government has designated as magical--somehow very special and deserving of attention (and tourist dollars).
Magical Todos
Even though the address of our casita is Todos Santos, we're about 10 miles south on Cerritos Beach. A few times a month, we drive down our bumpy dirt road and head over to Todos. When a friend asked us if we could housesit for him a week, we thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know Todos Santos better. And what a week it's been.

Lazy dog days
The palapa-roofed house is a stunner on a beautiful piece of property in el otro lado. Literally "the other side," that's what people call this area of town. Every morning we wake up to zillions of doves cooing. And some nights we can hear the waves crashing. It seems like there's always a breeze here. I was actually a little cold sometimes and had to put on a sweater. Mexico's climate has made me a wimp.

We enjoyed walking around the area. One day we hiked to La Poza, the closest beach. Not swimmable, but stunning.

La Poza
We hiked down the beach and then over to these rocks, climbing up and around to head back.

This water flows out of the huerta and sometimes connects with the ocean.

 On our walks, we saw all kinds of creatures.

Anyone know what it is?


pájaro amarillo y negro
Another day we walked into town on this road to do errands, including going to the optometrist to pick up my glasses.

I like the optometrist. He has a brilliant smile and knows very little English, so interacting with him challenges me to work on my Spanish. At his office that day, we also ended up talking with a Canadian who now lives here and teaches in the local school; he used to teach on a reservation in Canada. When Dave mentioned I'm a writer he said, "Do you ever help people edit their books?"

Universe, you crack me up!

Why yes, I said, I'm a writing coach--and he launched excitedly into a description of the Young Adult novel he's writing. The protagonist is an indigenous girl in Canada who becomes a political activist. I told him it sounded right up my alley.

Speaking of political activism, we saw this protest on the road...locals protesting this.

A lot of gringos have been drawn to Todos Santos. One morning when Dave and I were out for breakfast, a big guy and a big St. Bernard sauntered through the door. Kevin, who lives half the year in Montana and half here, said he came to that restaurant for desayuno every morning. Sure enough, he hadn't ordered but the waitress brought him his usual, which he shared with Romeo. One-year-old Romeo is a sweetheart and a galumph; he reveled in our hugs and slobbered all over us.

"Are you going to share that bacon?"
Rob, another American guy we met, told us he's ten months into a year-long around-the-world trip with his wife and two daughters. We'd been planning to come back to our casita to water our yard, so we invited them to our little resort's pool. His daughters (12 and 15) years old were so fun to hang out with. They are citizens of the world, having lived in Jordan and several other countries before spending this year on the road.

Rob talked about having an adventurous mindset, one free of conventional limitations.* He and his wife Nadia want to live now. They don't buy a lot of consumer goods--they don't even own a car--and aren't afraid of spending their savings to travel. For many years, they have lived and worked all over the world, so this year of traveling with their daughters is a natural extension of their lifestyle.

And as it turns out, Rob just got offered a job in Myanmar, a place we'd been hoping to go when we're in China. They will be moving there this summer. I have a feeling we will see them again.

You know you're in Mexico when...
In addition to meeting some great people, we've enjoyed stumbling across cool things happening in town. One night we heard music and followed our ears. We ended up at an open-air restaurant dancing to a really fun Mexican band playing a cool fusion of rock, funk, and reggae.

One Saturday morning we also heard some live music and discovered the main street was blocked off. The band played on a makeshift stage, and people milled about, waiting for bicyclists whose race began in La Paz and would be ending in Todos. Soon, the cyclists appeared in their colorful outfits, marked Costa Rica, Guatemala, and various other Latin American nations.
Fun scene.
Another thing that makes Todos Santos magical is its artsy vibe. Lots of musicians, writers, and artists live here--and the streets are lined with galleries. Many of the galleries double as art studios, so you can watch the artists work.

Our casita walls have been bare for two years, and we had a feeling that a week in Todos Santos would cure that. And sure enough, when we walked into a gallery and saw this piece by a La Paz artist, we knew it was the one.

Oceany and expressive.
One of the best parts of this housesit was taking care of Bonito and Negra, two of the sweetest watchdogs. You wouldn't know it are by looking at them (or hearing them bark and protect the yard), but they are love bugs.

Bonito likes to recline while eating.
When our friend asked us to housesit, we didn't hesitate. I like saying yes. Yes opens gates to lands you didn't even know existed.

The gate into the housesit property.

* PS: Speaking of traveling and living with a freed-up mindset, check out this piece I wrote about a young woman who is bicycling around the world.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Baja Magic

It's sweet to be back to where the desert meets the sea.

View from Baja Zen's yoga studio, just down the road.
We took four days to drive from San Diego to our casita at Cerritos Beach. Day One we stopped in Rosarito Beach to visit our friend Tony, who happened to be hanging out to surf.
The roads were in much better shape than the last time we drove south in 2014, just a few months after Hurricane Odile. The improved roads and our familiarity with the drive made it fun and relaxing.

First Baja mission, Loreto.
Every day in the car we practiced our Mandarin by CD. Yes, Mandarin, not Spanish. We know enough Spanish to get us around Mexico for the four months we'll be here (and it improves each day). But Mandarin is a totally different animal. We are committed to learning key phrases before we go to China in the fall.
Making tortillas.
After almost a year away, we arrived at our casita March 1. That night as we climbed into bed, lulled by crickets and waves,  it was quite a contrast to our first arrival here when we had to sleep in a barren house on a leaky air mattress. Our place was set up just as we'd left it, except the garden had grown.

Immediately we were swept up into a world of awesomeness, including babysitting our neighbor's dog (who is so cute it almost hurts to look at him)...
...doing tai chi and yoga, walking with my sister (who lives here year round) and her dogs on this beach...
Playa San Pedrito
 ...eating the fantastic food available here...
Chicken mole: Dave's happy place.
Best fresas ever.

Amazing (and cheap) oranges and ruby grapefruits abound.
...and going to hear David Raitt (Bonnie Raitt's brother) play great bluesy rock at the Hacienda... dance our patooties off.
Boogying with our friend and yoga teacher, Paul.
Before we knew the date we were returning to Mexico, we'd rented out our place for three days in March. We didn't want to cancel on the couple--so after being here a week, we took off for La Paz, an hour drive east. We stayed in a B&B near downtown, whose best feature was this garden...

...where every morning we ate breakfast and watched the birds before heading to the beach.

The first day at Playa Balandra, we happened to run into people we knew--two awesome Canadian couples we'd met a few days before in our resort's Jacuzzi! They were vacationing in the casita just across from ours.
I mean, really? They are staying next door for a week
and happen to be at the same beach as us
an hour away at the same moment? What are the chances?
You know how sometimes you feel a connection to people you barely know? That's how I felt about them, so it was a blast to rendezvous unexpectedly.
At Balandra, we found a small reef near the famous "Mushroom Rock," where we snorkeled and viewed colorful creatures. The next day we enjoyed Playa Tecolote, the beach where a year ago Dave took the picture that graces the cover of my memoir.
Tecolote 2016.
Last year, most of the beach restaurants were closed due to hurricane damage. What a difference a year makes.
Playa Pichilingus
Last time we spent just a day in La Paz. This time, we enjoyed the malecón at sunset: families strolling, kids playing, and vendors selling everything from food to balloons as people rolled by on skates and bikes.

Malecón means a walkway by a lake or ocean.
 We wandered around the streets and into markets.

Of course there was eating involved....
Claro Fish Jr., our fav.
Back at home, a note was waiting for me from the woman who'd rented our place. She found my memoir on the bookshelf and wrote, "By the 10th page, I know I was meant to find it. It feels like the book I've been searching for my whole adult life." She went on to say that she feels connected to me, even though we've never met, and that she is now inspired to do what she's always dreamed of doing: write.

She took a copy of the book (I had two on the shelf) and left money to pay for it, saying she'd mail it back to me if that wasn't okay. I was flooded with gratitude and goosebumps. Maybe this is too grandiose, but it made me feel like I'm fulfilling my life's purpose.

The next day, Sally--one of the Canadian women we'd serendipitously run into--came to talk to me about writing and life. She believes we were meant to cross paths. I feel the same. When they left later that morning, I was a little sad. The nomadic life involves a lot of hellos and goodbyes. (Thank goodness for being able to stay connected through Facebook.)

As though the universe was conspiring cheer me on, later that day I found out that Call It Wonder was named one of three finalists in the Bisexual Book Awards.

All of this has happened in just two weeks. I'm going to chalk it up to Baja magic.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"I navigated my own path in life."

An American woman who spent time in Afghanistan and other warn-torn regions? Who loved both men and women? Who sought a spiritual path? I knew I had to read her book, My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker, for my Books That Inspire series.  Currently available for pre-order, it’s coming out March 1. I was able to get my hands on an advanced copy and had a lot of questions for Melissa.
Melissa in Afghanistan, 1982
You've had a pretty amazing life. You spent time as a photojournalist in war-torn Afghanistan and the then-U.S.S.R. You were involved in love relationships with an Afghani fighter and, later, a woman artist-activist. Action was a kind of drug that medicated your anxiety. You also talk about using food for a similar reason. How do you deal with anxiety these days?

Now I don’t have anywhere near the level of anxiety I had in my twenties. Maybe I was at a 10-plus then. Now it comes and goes around 1 or 2. So I notice it, sense it, sometimes give a mantra like “Blessings on all beings” then let it go.
Why do you think you have less anxiety now than you did in your twenties? What would you say to your younger self?
Lots of emotional and spiritual work. And doing what feels right. Joseph Campbell said "follow your bliss." I did this, even when it didn't feel blissful after I chose it! I navigated my own path in life, didn't follow anybody else's idea of what success is. I would tell all 20-year-olds to do what feels right—and teach them how to pay attention to their senses in their bodies so that they can start having a trustworthy feedback loop for life.
In the book, you write about affairs you had while you were engaged to George. You've now been married to him for 25 years. Did you worry about revealing those things to him and/or anyone else? What does George think of your book?
He knew from the beginning. We’ve always had a very transparent relationship. He’s been a big fan and supporter since the beginning when it was at the shitty first draft stage. He read all the drafts except the final final version! He says he loves it.
Melissa and George in Tinos, Greece, where they now live.
When you were in Pakistan in your twenties, you had an ecstatic awakening, a kind of a merging with (or sudden awareness) of the Divine. Why do you think that happened at that time?

I think being out of normal routine, adrenaline, and I think I had a born leaning (in homeopathy it would be called susceptibility) to mystical experiences.

Do you still get "shot with a blissfulness" at surprising times?

Yes, now there is more knowing of the experience then the dramatic first time.

I was especially struck by the scene in Afghanistan where instead of being afraid of death in one dangerous situation, you felt peacefully accepting of it. Why do you think that happened?

I think part of it is adrenaline, the other is there is often a pause, a peacefulness others have shared in near death experiences. My theory is that the right brain kicks in. Maybe it’s a form of survival, or maybe again my susceptibility.

Interesting you’d say this because that calmness came over me—after the initial terror—when I was having a seizure caused by a brain tumor in my right hemisphere. So, do you still have that type of relationship with mortality?

Even more so. I took 5-MeO-DMT for my 50th birthday. As described in this article about the shaman I worked with, it’s a “spiritual medicine from the Amazon, used shamanically by indigenous peoples there to contact the spirit world.” I never really did drugs—once pot at a party in high school and hashish on the border of Afghanistan, and didn’t feel anything both times. But with 5-MeO-DMT I experienced an intense going into a tunnel of light and merging with an intense energy source beyond anything I could imagine or had experienced before. I was that drop in the ocean of energy, and there was me like a garment I could put on, comforting and familiar. This gives me a deep insight into what death could be.

Now that you had such an experience, does it make you want to do the drug again?

No, it was really a one-time thing, truly intense and lesson learned!

What do you wish Americans knew about Afghanistan today?

We are causing extreme suffering over there. The invasion, bombings, drones, torture are hurting people.

The book also deals with your time after Afghanistan. I enjoyed reading about your creative life in New York, where you and a group of women decided to work together to make art and independent films with complete freedom of expression—beholden to no gatekeepers. Can you say more about where you stand with this notion today?

I think writing has a similar freedom. It’s low cost and a way to get out ideas quickly and with depth. I’m also interested in the collective process. I lived in community most of my adult life. I’m interested in both the challenges and benefits of working together and how to make that work better, with more diversity and authentically.

What advice would you give to people who want to write a memoir?

I think journal writing is the best place to begin and then see where that leads. Write everything, all the memories. For my second memoir I was more organized. I typed and wrote on index cards every memory/story and then saw what themes appeared and how it all connects.

Melissa Burch is an author, filmmaker, producer and former war journalist for the BBC and CBS. She is also a spiritual practitioner. For more information and a special gift visit

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Two Missing Breasts...and She's Never Loved Her Body More.

When I saw Darryle Pollack's Ted Talk about what she learned from life as a result of having cancer and a double mastectomy, I knew I had to talk to her for my "Books That Inspire" series. 
The title of her talk and book--I Never Signed Up for This: Finding Power in Life's Broken Pieces--reflect her belief that that we can learn a lot from life's unexpected struggles.
Darryle, you say, "Chasing perfection is a prison. It's a mindset that narrows your vision and takes away your freedom to be the artist of your own life." How did you come to learn this? How can people break out of that prison?
I came to learn this lesson from having cancer, which forced me to see the futility of trying to have perfection in any area of life. Not that I’m recommending cancer as a teaching tool.
Experience is a tough teacher, sometimes the only teacher that gets through to us. I sure wish I had figured out an easier way to learn and break out of the prison of perfection. I think a better way to break out of this mindset is switching over from seeking perfection to seeking perspective. One suggestion for how to start is simply to have gratitude.
The title of your book is I Never Signed Up for the This. Why did you choose this title?
This was also the title for my blog, which I started in 2008. I often say I chose the title because of all the times in my life I’ve said those words. I wasn’t entirely joking, and I also felt most people would relate to what I meant--that life turns out to be nothing like we imagine.
The subtitle is "Finding Power in Life's Broken Pieces." This metaphor comes from your art work. Can you explain the connection?
I was never artistic.  I had no talent or interest in art most of my life. That turned out to be another lesson from cancer. 
I couldn’t find anything to help me cope with all the stress and fear. One day, I happened to take my son to paint a plate at one of those little do-it-yourself pottery studios, and I painted with him. It was amazing for me. This activity I’d stumbled into was the first thing I'd done that actually allowed me to forget about cancer for any amount of time. I wasn’t good at it, trust me.  But focusing on the art and the colors, and just being there helped me relax.  So I started going there. Constantly.
Painting on ceramics, inevitably I broke something. I used the broken pieces of tile to make a design around a mirror, and pretty soon I had a new addiction. Mosaics.
I became completely obsessed with making mosaics, and one day I finally figured out why mosaics had such a special connection for me. I was picking up broken pieces and putting them together to make something beautiful, different from what I started with. That was the exact same thing I was doing with my life. 

When I found out I had a brain tumor, I realized I can't heal what I don't love--and that I'd spent way too much time berating my body. I had taken it for granted, and suddenly I was flooded with appreciation for it. You went through something similar. Can you talk a little about your journey with your body? 
Like so many women, I struggled over my weight, and I never felt thin enough. Even when I was thin, I felt fat. When I looked in the mirror, I never saw what was really there—a pretty great body.
And then I got cancer. During chemotherapy, I had no appetite and couldn’t make myself eat.  Every day I got on the scale and the number kept going down. Pretty Ironic. This was what I had wanted all my life. To be too thin. Now even I could see it. Only now I realized, this wasn’t what I wanted. It was scary.
One day I looked in the mirror at that skinny body and I promised myself if I survived, I would never complain again about being too fat and I would love my body no matter what.
All these years later, I have two missing breasts and I’m nowhere near thin and I’ve kept that promise. I’ve never loved or appreciated my body more than I do now. Yet another lesson from cancer. 
What would you tell your younger self?
Be kinder.  Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t make decisions based on what other people say or think. Trust yourself and your instincts. To discover and become your authentic self, no one knows what you need or who you are better than you.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to write a memoir?
Do it.  I’m a big believer in the value of our stories.

Author, artist, and activist Darryle Pollack is a twenty-year survivor of stage III breast cancer who uses her experience to inform and inspire others. Darryle's writing has appeared in the Huffington Post. A former TV newscaster and journalist, Darryle is the co-founder of WHOA Network, an online platform for women over fifty.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Something She Feared Became Home

I sat in Suzanne Roberts' Tahoe home reading her memoir, her sweet dog Ely at my feet. Dave and I were housesitting, while she and her husband vacationed in Thailand. While there, she sat on the beach and read my memoir.

Suzanne and Ely in Nevada's Black Rock Desert
We didn't know each other well; we'd set up the housesit gig through a mutual friend. But there we were, simultaneously learning about each others' lives through our books. Both writers, teachers, and lovers of nature and travel, it seems our connection was meant to be.

Suzanne's memoir, Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, chronicles the book title's adventure. She was only in her twenties when she decided to hop on the trail with two friends. In our discussion--part of my Books That Inspire series--she talks about how that decision changed her life.

Why did you title your book Almost Somewhere?

Living in the moment has always been a constant struggle for me, and one of the ways I am most able to be present is in the natural world. The book is about a 28-day hike, and really, when you’re backpacking, you have no choice but to live in the moment, to realize that the going and getting there isn’t the point, that the almost somewhere is a place, too, and really, the most important place of all because that is where you are and that’s all you really have.

When you took off on the John Muir Trail, you had read Muir and thought a lot about his portrayals of nature. In what ways do his visions of the natural world resonate with you? And in what ways is your vision different?

Muir celebrates the natural world, and that resonated with me, then and now. A difference, though, is that Muir doesn’t write about fear very often, at least not his own. Though I am more comfortable now in the natural world than I was in my twenties, there is still that fear—not of nature itself or animals, but of strange men in the wilderness. That’s a fear that most men don’t often think about but is very real for many women.

Regarding fear, you write about how women are taught to hate and fear the outdoors. Can you say more about this? Why do you think this is so—and what can be done about it?

I have thought about this a lot. I wrote a dissertation about how when women try to experience the pastoral landscapes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it often becomes scary, turns gothic. In early works of literature, it’s clear that “twilight is not good for maidens.” And it is always in the out-of-doors, where bad things happen to the maiden—she is kidnapped or raped or bitten by the vampire. These cultural constructs have entered our consciousness. Things are changing, certainly, but we are still living in the shadow of this long history, where women were taught that the outdoors was no place for a lady.

The best thing we can do, as women, is to go out and explore the wilderness and write our own stories about it. I am much more comfortable in the wilderness [than when I was younger]. I have lived in the Sierra for the past 16 years, so the mountains are now home for me, and home is not scary.;jsessionid=D7B563DB5658EBCD751438190325CB94.prodny_store02-atgap09?ean=9780803240124
You write that on the hike "you began to learn that I could not have guessed at the ways in which our tomorrows would take care of themselves." Is this a disposition that has stayed with you?

It’s something I strive for, but I still worry. The true work is always a process, right?

How did your experience on the trail affect the trajectory of the years that followed it?

It changed everything. I moved to Colorado and then Lake Tahoe. I knew that in order to be happy, I would need to spend as much time as possible outside in the natural world.

What advice would you give to people who want to hike John Muir or another long trail?

Choose your hiking companions carefully. Make sure your shoes fit correctly. Don’t bring “just-in-case” items—pack light. Bring lemon drops (my favorite trail treat). Pack out your toilet paper.

What advice do you give to people who want to write memoir?

Read as many books as you can. And read like a writer, trying to figure out what is working and why. Take a class. Join a writing group. Go to readings and conferences and meet other writers. But mostly, stop talking about it and thinking about it, and do it. Thinking about writing a book and writing a book have very little in common.

What would you tell your younger self?

Stop worrying so much—there is no boogieman in the forest; the friends who matter will always love you; the plane will not crash; you won’t even remember his name. If someone you love is in the hospital, get on the next plane. And, you have no idea how beautiful your skin is. Appreciate it—literally and figuratively.

Suzanne Roberts, who is currently working on another memoir, is also the author of four collections of poetry. She holds a doctorate in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada-Reno, and currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham. For more information, please visit her website at 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Facing down the mountain in the New Year

Chicago, one of our housesitting gigs.

2015. In my personal sphere and on the planet, it's been a year of darkness and light.  It's been a year of writing and travel, growth and exploration. And of letting go, again and again.

Pema Chodron has been my greatest guide, Byron Katie a close second. They remind me to soften, to keep my sense of humor, to love (accept) what is.

All my precarious emotions? They are projections; they are bad weather in a vast, unchanging sky. And the feelings that come from my gut? They are my guide.

This year has been a bunch of puzzle pieces fitting together. We spent the first few months at our little house in Mexico. One of our biggest adventures was taking four days to drive up Baja. After that--except for New Orleans in spring Chicago in summer--we spent the rest of the time buzzing all over California.

When you add up all of our housesitting gigs this year (Chicago, Rancho Palos Verdes, San Francisco, Berkeley, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Tahoe)--that's six months of free rent!

Sure, we take care of cats and dogs; sometimes that feels like work, but for the most part it's fun. Even the dog who bit my finger, and the dog who barked in the middle of the night--I got over it, and so did they.

Traveling around California, it seemed we spent more time with family and friends than we did when we lived here. We were privileged to attend my niece's 8th grade graduation and Dave's nephew's wedding. Another highlight was time with my 92-year-old piano playing aunt. And, just the other day, skiing with my sister and her kids.

In June, my memoir (my fifth book) came out, followed by a flurry of book parties, readings, workshops, and generally awesome mayhem. Friends, family, former students and colleagues cheered me on, and strangers became intimates.

Some of the material in the book is so potentially embarrassing that I jokingly tell people to pretend it's fiction. But as Joe Loya once said, we must be willing to be embarrassed to write a memoir. And of course it's all the juicy bits that people love--not just for the sake of titillation, but because they can exhale and say, "Ah, yes, we're all very human, aren't we?"

Also on the writing front, Elephant Journal took me on as a regular contributor. The scope is mind-boggling; thousands of people are reading and sharing my pieces. People email me about how my writing is affecting their lives. Others have invited me to be guests on their blog-casts and telesummits. Holy internet!

My piece "How to Have a Crush on Your Husband" went viral. I was a puddle on the floor when I saw how many used their comments to express their love for their spouses.

Maybe that's my calling: spreading love with my words like some doped-up hippie child strewing flowers. (Although I'm doing it without being doped up, for the most part, since I rarely drink booze anymore, and I quit coffee.)

Boo and Coco, the beasts at our San Francisco housesit.
On my blog, I started a series I call "Books That Inspire." It's a blast interviewing authors whose work makes a difference in the world.

This was a year of music and adventure: JazzFest in New Orleans, American Music Festival in Santa Cruz, High Sierra Music festival in Northern California, and a sprinkling of other live shows. We went river rafting, beachside bike riding, Yosemite hiking, snow skiing, and swimming with whale sharks.

I continue to be grateful for my health after brain surgery two years ago--and yet now there's this whole "going through menopause" thing. It's not for wimps.

Here in Tahoe, Dave's been battling a rough flu (as I did earlier in the year). And several friends are battling grave illnesses. I am reminded the body is both fragile and resilient.

While Dave was sick, I took the leap and skied by myself. People chatted with me on the lift and invited me to ski with them.

The perimenopausal skier in action.

And then, when I accidentally found myself facing a gnarly, ungroomed, moguly, super-steep run (not my forte!)--ahem, two different times--angels came to me. Once a woman and once a man, each who guided me down. Thankfully, I was able to face down the mountain, turn and traverse.

As this year closes, it's becoming clear there are a lot of uncertainties ahead for these nomads. We aren't sure what shape our work and living situation are going to take.

But guess what? We know how to turn. We know how to face down the mountain. Let us remember that in 2016.