Sunday, October 27, 2013

California Fall

Dave and Craig
While Dave and I played Frisbee yesterday with our friend Craig and his son Dylan, I was struck by the fact that three months ago I was days away from surgery for a brain tumor.

During that time and after the surgery, Dave and I had visualized me as healthy, doing things I love--yoga, swimming, dancing, writing. We meditated on the fact that the body is a healing machine. Whenever worry crept in, I'd focus on these things.

And a couple of short months later, there I was on a sun-splashed field tossing a Frisbee. I had written for hours that morning. And that afternoon we were headed to the second day of a three-day music festival.

Festival ready!

This has been the hallmark of the last few months: continued healing in the loving company of family and friends throughout California. It's such a pleasure and a privilege to be part of people's lives in this way.

We spent a month in Southern California, and it began to feel like home. Before we left, we went to Tony and Shannon's house for a birthday celebration. We were lucky to be able to meet the newest member of the clan, three-week-old Jordan.

Jordan with happy new parents Chris and Robin.
Two days before our departure, our friends up the street celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving. What a beautiful sight, a dinner table for twelve, candle-lit, out in the lavender field.

Everyone brought something delicious. Talk about giving thanks.

We were able to catch a last sunset over the ocean.

On our drive north, we stopped in Newbury Park for a weekend of family fun with Paul and Christi and their three boys. A highlight was a night around the fire pit, playing and singing.

Dad on the mandolin and Frankie on the recorder.
When we landed back in San Jose to spend a few days with our pal Mark, he surprised us: He'd installed a hot tub in his newly tricked-out backyard! It was a special treat after I completed my head-in-a-cage-body-injected-with-dye MRI at Stanford.

Tah dah!
A couple of days later, we drove further north, stopping in Elk Grove to visit my cousins John and Carolyn, and my aunt Ruby. Twice a week, John and Carolyn watch their granddaughter Madison. Ruby, who is 90, has never taken a music lesson in her life, but she can coax the honky tonk out of the piano like you wouldn't believe. It was the sweetest thing to watch Madison boogie to her great-grandmother's music.

90, 50 and 1.
We have about a week and a half left in California to take care of some medical things and travel prep details. Then on November 5, we fly to Hong Kong, then India, then Sri Lanka.

Because we haven't been to these places before, I was about to say it'll be a new adventure. But with my new lease on life, I feel like each and every day is a new adventure.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

How to Fall in Love With Life

Did we earn this?
"I've earned this drink."
"I've earned this vacation."
"I've earned some down time."

Do fun and relaxation and joy have to be earned? Is life like a bank where you make forcing-myself-to-do-what-I-hate deposits in order to withdraw a-little-bit-of-fun interest?

I knew a woman who despised her job. That was pretty much all she talked about--how one day she couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. She had calculated the years, months, days and hours until she could retire.

She was obsessed with how screwed-up her job was and how much better other people had it. She was filled with a feeling of dread that she allayed with lots of food and booze. The job owned her even when she was at home.

Finally, well into her sixties, she reached that coveted retirement date. Literally days later, she was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the first years of her "earned downtime" undergoing medical treatments. Fortunately she had good insurance, and fortunately she's still alive.

When I hear anyone say, "I've earned a break," I often think of her. It was like she was swirling about in a hurricane of her own making. She had to grip tightly so as to not get blown away by her own winds.

And when she thought she'd done enough to earn calm seas, life had something else in store.

Like many people, I've been well-schooled in the notion that my personal value is derived through hard work and sacrifice. Anything that sniffs of fun or chillin' out is suspect. Sometimes I catch myself justifying my life, even to myself.

And now that I'm not living a traditional life of a "regular" job, a "regular" mortgage, and a "regular" schedule, a lot of people see me as lucky. They think I'm happy because life has treated me so well.

My little mind gremlin scurries in and says, I need to explain how I've made sacrifices to live the way I do. I need to explain that we're taking risks, that I don't have it all figured out--in other words, that life isn't easy, it's hard.

But at some fundamental level I know we are all worthy of ease. Of joy. Of love. Of living by the guidance of our internal light, no justifications necessary. We don't have to earn it. It's our birthright. It's our natural state.

And how we claim this birthright, I believe, is through gratitude. Through being right here, right now, touched with amazement that we are alive, at this moment.

I used to be like the I-hate-my-job woman. I was always imagining a better time around the corner. I bemoaned my maltreatment and could spin myself into a horrible funk about how everything was wrong. And I earned every beer I drank, damnit!

Over time I learned how to soften my attitude toward life. I got into the habit of appreciating what I liked rather than pushing against what I didn't. Sometimes it was the smallest thing: I like that I get free Post-its. I like the trees outside my office.

Sometimes I still fantasized about leaving the job. I caught myself and said, "Okay, quit. Or quit complaining."

It's not about quitting your job but quitting your resistance.

Eventually I began to enjoy my job more and more. It was amazing: There was so much more to appreciate than I'd imagined! And by the time I retired this year, I was saying not saying "good riddance" but "goodbye and thank you." Time to move on to the next thing.

It wasn't that everything was going my way and then I became happy.

First I fell in love with life. Then it got really good.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Do You Believe in Magic?

"Love One Another."

You know you've met a special person when you see a plaque with these words hanging over the doorway of their home.

The plaque belongs to Ryan Goldsmith, our Leucadia neighbor. He told me it was signed by his relatives and placed over his baby crib.

Whoa. Is this proof that magic comes from magic, or what? Anyone starting life that way is bound to be an amazing soul. Indeed, Ryan is one of those people it just feels good to be around. Clearly, I'm not the only one who feels this way. People flock to Ryan like monarch butterflies to eucalyptus.

Ryan--also known as Farmer Leo--runs and lives on a small urban farm. He converted less than an acre of land at the end of the block into an organic paradise chockful of veggies, flowers, honeybees and chickens.

busy bees

What used to be an unused dirt lot is now a community gathering spot. People come day and night to get their hands in the soil, to water seedlings, to buy the weekly assorted veggie box, and to just hang out in the aura that is Farmer Leo's. And every few weeks, he teams up with local chefs to provide a farm-to-table dinner.

When I talked to Ryan yesterday, he made some intriguing points about food. He said those of us in industrialized nations are unusual because--unlike 99% of the world--we don't know where our food comes from. It's produced far away and shipped to stores. But someone somewhere, planted, watered, picked, fed, slaughtered and packaged our food.

Like his hero Martin Luther King Jr., Ryan has a dream: That one day people will look back and be puzzled by the time when food production depended on fossil fuels and chemicals. He believes anyone can do what he's doing. He believes every community could have a garden every four or five blocks. He believes that change is afoot, and he's living in the heart of that change.

For Ryan, food is more than food. It's a vital part of community. It's about being empowered. It's about being connected to the planet and to each other.

It's as though farming and celebration of community are one in the same in Ryan's world. I was lucky enough to be part of a beautiful manifestation of this notion when Dave and I attended Farmer Leo's Harvest Festival. People flocked from all over to enjoy food, live music, face painting and pumpkin decorating. (The festival also served as a fund raiser for  WWOOF-USA [Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms], which Ryan founded.)

Holding Ava's braids at the Harvest Festival.

When I asked Ryan if he's happy, he said calmly and unequivocally "yes." When I asked why, he said with a smile, "What's the alternative?"

He added that, like everyone, he's endured difficult times. In his early twenties he experienced a horrific car accident. And later, his father had a debilitating stroke. But Ryan focused on how these difficulties led to something good. After the accident, he realized how tenuous life is, which helped him focus on his purpose. And his father's health challenges have brought father and son closer.

"Things flow in a positive way unless I put roadblocks up," he said. That's definitely the vibe I feel around Ryan--that he believes in, and cultivates, goodness.

When Dave and I drive away from Leucadia tomorrow, we will take with us the magic of Farmer Leo's. And bigger hearts for having met Ryan.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Heart of Home

Kit and cop
The other morning, I awoke to the hissing sound of compression brakes. I thought, What's a semi doing on this tiny street? The private street, which provides access to five small houses, is a tight squeeze. I imagined a stuck semi, unable to back out.

Peeking out the window my stomach jumped: A fire engine and a cop car. Paramedics were headed to Kit and Mark's house.

Dave and I threw on our clothes, anxiously imagining all kinds of possible scenarios. Immediately we saw Kit, who filled us in.

Kit had discovered a disheveled woman in her guest house. The woman had matted hair and dirty clothes. The room reeked of alcohol and urine. Most alarmingly, her face looked like it had been beaten.

Kit asked the woman her name. Irene. Then she asked what had happened to her. Irene wasn't very coherent but Kit discerned that she lives in her car. Kit knew that Irene wasn't in any shape to continue on this way. So she called the paramedics.

What's most fascinating to me about this story is this: Irene must have known, at some level, that it was time for her to get help. She couldn't take her car anymore and sought out a bed. And the bed was in the home of Kit, a psychiatric nurse. Who better to know the best next step?

Before the paramedics wheeled her away, Irene bemoaned the fact that she had to leave the guest house. "What's a house," she said, "if not to live in?"


That struck a chord with me. We gave up our house in Santa Cruz more than four months ago to travel. Then came the left-turn we hadn't expected, my seizure and brain surgery. Percolating in my mind and heart is this very question: What is home?

I've come more deeply to understand how home is oneself. It's one's body--this amazing spacesuit--in which our essence dwells.

Yet I've also come to see how home is a soulful creation of people and experience. Home is where, in coming together, we love and feel loved.

So, paradoxically, home is both an intensely private place and a communal one.

In the past few weeks, we've experienced so much community: from spontaneous and planned parties, to neighborly chats on the beach and in each other's yards.

When we were in front of the house the morning the paramedics came, several other neighbors appeared to make sure everything was okay. Just their presence said a lot. Perhaps that's what home is: presence. Being present for each other. Being present for the self.

That night, Kit, Doreen, Dave and I shared a meal. Kit held up her glass: "To Irene."

We all pictured Irene healthy. Healed. Home.

Home is the heart.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fear and the Flapper

I'm not even afraid of this weird ape creature!

I have to have my head encased in a cage and my body shoved into a dark tube. In other words, a brain MRI.

I want to be one of those people who can associate such a scenario with a relaxing spa treatment as opposed to, say, Silence of the Lambs.

I've had some claustrophobia, off and on, over the years. It has waxed and waned. I've read about and tried various techniques to allay it, and they've definitely provided relief. Even some things I used to loathe (because of that cooped-up feeling) I now enjoy, such as flying.

Enter claustrophobia smack-down: the brain MRI. I've undergone several MRIs over the year, sans cage, made possible by heaps of Valium or Atavan. But even those drugs don't work with the head-in-cage-body-in-tube scenario.

I realized the other day that the worst part is not the panic but the shame. I feel ashamed that I can't do something others do effortlessly. My mom, in her mid-70s, underwent a 3-hour MRI as a participant in Alzheimer's research. Three hours! I saw her relax into the tube and fall asleep, without any pharmaceutical assistance. Her head wasn't in a cage, but somehow I don't think even that would have mattered to her.

I mean, for god's sake, I've been fearless in so many ways! I've snorkeled in deep waters, zip-lined through treetops, hiked across a volcano, traveled alone internationally, flew down a double-diamond ski run, danced on tabletops, been jammed into huge crowds in New Orleans and Tokyo, taught high school (!), underwent brain surgery, and--like most people--suffered and recovered from great personal loss.

So, what's the big deal about allowing my head to be sheathed in a cage and my body to be pushed into a dark tube for half an hour, the roaring rat-a-tat-tat of the machine muffled by headphones? If I've endured the deaths of my parents, and my skull being drilled open, why can't I suck it up for a thirty minute MRI?

I watch my shame, a black cloud darkening the vast skies of my mind. I know this is an ego thing. I have an idea of who I am, and the MRI challenges that. This is why I'm coming out. Shame doesn't like a spotlight.

In the meantime, I'm seeing a hypnotherapist. After one session, I'm already noticing how focusing on loving my body--and truly inhabiting it--softens the trapped sensation. Awareness and acceptance of my body from the inside-out are clearly an important part of my evolution. I've explored this issue a lot during my surgery and recovery.

Yesterday at a costume party--where I dressed as a flapper--I met a happy-go-lucky guy. Oozing charm, he was dressed as Captain Stubing from The Love Boat. When I told him he spelled the captain's name wrong (two b's instead of one on his name tag), he laughed and rattled off a few stories and jokes. Somehow, in his charismatic chatter, he happened to mention he's afraid of heights. He said it in such an off-hand way, as though he thoroughly accepted this part of himself. He didn't seem to judge it. He didn't justify what could be perceived as a weakness. He just shrugged and flipped some burgers on the BBQ as he moved onto the next topic.

We all have tender spots. I'm working on giving myself a break. So what if I have to be anesthetized to undergo this procedure? I'd rather not have more drugs pumped into me. I'd rather not inconvenience Dave and me with the extra steps involved. I'd rather not have a fear I have to face.

But I do. Big whoop. Fear and shame only increase when you pretend they aren't there, or when you lash out against them.

Some things are just there. They're there. No need to push them away. They'll only get stronger by pushing back. I can let them float there. Be easy about them. Maybe chat them up a bit.  Maybe ask them why they're hanging around. Maybe ask them what they have to teach me.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Embrace Your Space

Our 'hood for a month.

It's the life of a traveling duo. Yesterday we packed up again. But this move didn't involve a plane, a boat, or even a car. We just schlepped our suitcases next door.

For two weeks we stayed in Doreen's adorable house. My sister's next-door-neighbor, Doreen, graciously allowed us to hang out in her pad while she traveled to Australia. She returns today and we hope we did her house justice: filling it with fun energy, cleaning every corner, and leaving her a couple of household gifts.

Thank you, Doreen.

And now the tables have turned. We are living in my sister's house and will be Doreen's neighbors for two weeks. My sister and her husband took off early yesterday morning to the tip of Baja. Their truck was packed to the brim with an ATV, surfboards, their dog, supplies for several weeks, and gifts for amigos (clothes and candy and Coors).

We don't stay with my sister when we visit because their house is small. It sits in what is fondly known as the "surf slum" of Leucadia. It's just a couple of blocks from the beach amidst other small houses.

There are no towering apartment buildings shadowing the sunny yards. You can regularly hear inklings of neighbors' conversations and music.

Fortunately, I like their musical choices. We were serenaded by the Grateful Dead yesterday at dusk! And I find the distant chatting comforting. Everyone here knows each other. It's like, as a kid, hearing your parents talking downstairs when you're snuggled in bed.

Last night as I sat in my sister's living room listening to "Sugaree" drift in through the window, I thought about how by most American standards, this house is tiny. But it has everything you need: furniture to relax and read on, a kitchen table to eat and play Rummikube on, a bed to rejuvenate in, a stove and fridge to feed everyone, a computer desk to email on, a backyard to BBQ with neighbors, and a vegetable garden to nourish family and friends.

For eating and game-playing.

The more I focused on the bounty of this house, the bigger it appeared. It literally seemed to grow before my eyes. I felt like Alice or Gulliver. The rich patterns in the rug emerged. The little statues and masks on the wall became animated. The painting of an American Indian in a canoe at sunset vibrated. Thick with impasto, this painting used to hang on the wall of the house where my sister and I grew up. As I stared, it vibrated with history.

Who needs drugs to see a new reality? Reality is, as they say, what we make it.

There's one "reality" that claims success = big. Big house. Lots of stuff. Multiple cars. It claims that progress is moving into an even bigger house, perhaps with more property around you. Or having multiple houses filled with even more things. It claims that we all should strive for such progress.

While that may bring joy to some people, many unthinkingly buy into this "reality." And the next thing they know, they feel buried.

I once heard this: We shouldn't have more stuff than we can comfortably manage.

Of course, how much we can manage widely varies from person to person. Some people like to live out of a backpack, while others can comfortably manage a whole staff who manages all their stuff.

(Sometimes I find it a challenge to manage the stuff in the one suitcase I'm living out of! But that's usually during a resistant moment, when I can't easily find something. When I take a breath, that item magically appears at my fingertips.)

At age 19, I lived in one of my favorite spaces ever. It was a basic bedroom in a tract house shared with other college students. I loved being in that room, its white walls adorned with posters of my favorite bands, its bookshelves filled with stories of lives I intimately experienced. In that space, I felt a rich sense of being on my own, of inhabiting a private, un-interruptable world.

Another favorite was my apartment in Yokohama, Japan. A studio with a futon mattress on the floor. I loved it even though my knees hit the wall when I sat on the toilet.

I grew up in a big house. Split level, five bedrooms, redwood decks, swimming pool and jacuzzi. Mostly, I loved that too.

Dave and I may decide at some point we'd like a large house to be our reality. Or maybe we'll want something small like this, near friendly neighbors. Or medium-sized, on a remote piece of land away from civilization.

Whatever we decide upon, it won't be a choice on auto-pilot, unthinkingly buying into whatever reality is out there. We will consciously make our own reality. Small-scale is a perspective. As is vastness.

For now we get the privilege of trying on different lives as we inhabit various worlds. And now I know this: I can truly experience the uniqueness of wherever we are--the bounty of it--if I open my eyes and embrace the space.

Written in this tiny, vast living room.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Time is an Illusion." - Einstein

My sister Ann, with Sigmund and Scarlet.

It’s fun living next door to my sister, reminiscent of when we shared a bedroom as kids.

Back then ours was a kingdom of stuffed animals and Barbies. We read Nancy Drew and the Happy Hollisters into the night, cool summer air drifting in through the screens. We listened to Dr. Demento on flat speakers placed under our pillows. We wrote stories about girls solving mysteries and traveling the world. We captured polliwogs and watched them sprout legs in jars on our windowsill.

Now we are sharing her neighborhood of friends, dogs, and beaches. Being in Leucadia means living an indoor/outdoor life. People leave their doors and windows open. They gather at dusk for wine in each other's backyards. Last night, Dave made chicken and ribs. Kit and Mark walked over bearing salad. Ann and Bruce came over with pie and wine. 

Such gatherings are an integral part of life here. Almost thirty years ago, Ann moved to Southern California. The rest of our family stayed in Nor Cal. I'm realizing that her daily life has been richly filled with a family of her own making, these wonderful neighbors.

When Dave and I are in the house, I like hearing my sister's laugh through the window, or my brother-in-law calling the dog. Sometimes I see my nephew walking up the hill, surfboard under his arm.

With Tony and Shannon, on our way to 1968.

It just so happens Dave's longtime friends--Tony and Shannon--live just a few miles away. I think about myself, say, seven years ago, visiting my sister. It's likely the Dave I'd yet to meet was hanging out just down the road. 

I like thinking about that: Dave and me in the past, living our separate lives, destined to meet. It makes time feel parallel or overlapping, rather than linear. (I once wrote a poem about this notion.)

As Einstein famously said, "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."

Sometimes the fabric of time seems to wrinkle, past and future overlapping like a bunched-up sheet. Being with family can intensify that. In my 53-year-old sister, sometimes I simultaneously see her at age 12 or 32.

I also felt like a time traveler when we went with Tony and Shannon to see Wild Child. This Doors tribute group is so spot-on, you feel like you're in 1968 but for the iPhones lighting up the dance floor.

That was my first live music event since my surgery. It felt amazing to dance! I've also been enjoying drinking (a little) wine, taking long beach walks, and socializing a lot.

After all this activity, why am I surprised when suddenly I'm tired and have to nap? Or when I need a down day. I can hear part of me saying, "What's wrong with me?" And another part saying, "Give yourself a break! You had brain surgery not even two months ago."

I felt bad yesterday when I pooped out, leaving Dave to do all the preparing for our dinner with friends. But he didn't complain, just dove right in and did a beautiful job. Dinner was great. Hours of conversation over wine, the windows and doors open to the cool sea night.

Then this morning my body said, "You need a whole day off today. No wine, no chatting, not too much movement. Just nestle in, lovingly." I remind myself that listening to my body is a good thing.


And here's where I once again count my blessings. I have the freedom to do just that, reading and napping and sipping mint tea. I have a loving, generous man in my life--who knows how to cook! The house is filled with the savory scent of his chicken soup. This elixir is meant to comfort and cure.

Dave is using onion, leeks, and chard that came from Ryan's huge organic garden. Ryan is another facet of this rich neighborhood tightly linked to my sister. What a privilege to share her world, if for just a few weeks.

Chef and healer