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.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

"You're not crazy. You can survive this, whatever 'this' is."

Joelle in South Africa

So many threads woven through Joelle Renstrom's book (Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature) mirrored much of my life and writing:
* caregiving for her ill father and grieving after he dies
* seeking new aspects of herself in travel
* trying to teach meaningfully
* turning to literature as a guiding force
* developing a spiritual vision.

Her writing is gorgeous; her fine sentences elevate even the darkest subject matter.

One big difference between us is that she's a science fiction aficionado. I wanted to know about that, and other things, in our conversation:
I see your book as a coming-of-age at one of the most profound levels: coming to terms with mortality due to the loss of your dad. Is this how you would describe it? What else would you want readers to know about your book?

I shy away from describing it that way. For me, the book is really about making a choice. The choice is about what we do when our lives blow up. The first step is realizing that one has the power to make a choice in the first place. That took me a long time. It seemed that the world had spun out of control and I was powerless to affect anything. While I couldn’t cure my dad’s cancer, I could control my worldview. I could—and did, for a while—embrace a tragic view of the world and of life. But ultimately, who wants that?
My book is about ways we can reconcile control and lack of control, since life is a dance between these two positions, and how we can regain agency when it comes to making sense the world and our place in it.
Toward the beginning of the book you say, "I'm a great appreciator of terrible beauty, but I can get stuck and wallow in the terrible part for a while before I remember to open my eyes." By the end of the book, you seem to be less of a wallower and more of a wonderer. To what do you attribute this shift?
My answer to the previous question gets at this shift, I think, which was about realizing that I don’t have to participate passively in life. There will always be death and sadness—I can always consider myself a victim if I choose to. But I don’t have to position myself as the unwitting recipient of what other people or the universe offers. I don’t need to fix the world or the way things work, which is good, because I can’t. What I can change is my relationship to the world and the levels on which I can understand how I function within it.
The most concrete example I have of this shift comes by way of travel. After my dad’s death, I went on a pilgrimage to Scandinavia, my fatherland. I’ve learned that a relatively easy way to change my relationship to the world is to change geographically my location within it, which then catalyzes other, often unpredictable shifts.
When traveling, there are things one can’t control, such as whether a bus is late or whether it gets someplace safely, but in order to enjoy travel, one has to let that go and focus on what one can control—where am I going on my walk this afternoon? Will I talk to this person sitting on my right? Will I sit here a moment and think about my dad, even though it means I’ll start crying in a crowded place? Even though they might seem small, making those decisions was a huge step in renegotiating my relationship to the world and to myself.
I like how you describe your teaching experiences, how you help students to dig into books. What do you like best about teaching, and what do you find most challenging?
I used to work in an office—a few of them, actually—doing a variety of different jobs (a paralegal, a marketing editor, a researcher). But I didn’t like any of them. At the end of the day, I’d ask myself, what good did I do today? And the answer was always none (aside from making it possible to pay my rent). With teaching, I don’t ever have to ask myself that question.
The hardest part is when students struggle—academically, emotionally, socially, whatever—and all I can do is to ask whether there’s anything I can do. I can listen if a student needs to talk or help a student who has questions, but other than that, there’s not much I can. Sometimes I want to take students by the shoulders, shake them, and tell them how it is, set them straight. But it wouldn’t work. People have to find their own way, and for teenagers, this can be particularly painful. The hardest part is accepting that I can’t live their lives (or write their papers) for them.
Your book made me want to read Arthur Clarke, and I now have Childhood's End on my Kindle. I've read Ray Bradbury, whom you also write about, but not much more one could categorize as science fiction (unless you count Cloud Atlas, which I loved--not the movie but the book). Why do you like (and teach) science fiction, and what books and authors would you recommend?
Science fiction blows the doors off the confines of reality. I love literary fiction, but sometimes I get tired of reading realistic accounts of relationships, jobs, and well, reality. There’s really only so many ways to describe the situations we all know so well. Sci-fi offers alternatives to that while at the same time avoiding frivolousness. We get social commentary from sci-fi, we get thought experiments. Even works about robots and aliens are, at their heart, about what it means to be human. I’d rather explore that question from more interesting and unexpected parameters (or no parameters at all).
As for recommendations, I’m more about soft sci-fi (sci-fi that focuses on people, rather than on technical specifics) like Bradbury and Clarke. That said, I’m a sucker for Asimov, whose prescient robot works predicted current and future trends in the field. Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut (which is and isn’t sci-fi, depending on who you ask), Dune by Frank Herbert, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, Glasshouse by Charles Stross, Frankenstein (the father of them all), anything by Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler…I could go on and on.
What surprised (and captivated) me the most was where the book led by the end, to what I would call a growing spiritual awareness. Is that how you would define it? What led to this shift, and why does it matter to you?
I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “spiritual awareness” to describe what happens in the end of the book, though that’s certainly an accurate description. “Spiritual” is a buzzword that people generally take to mean something specific, and probably not how I would define spirituality for myself. And while spirituality and religion are in my mind quite distinct, part of the reason I tend to avoid that word is because the two are so often associated. But anything that involves something significant that happens to us on the inside could be called spiritual. A feeling of awe, or peace, or whatever—all of that is spiritual. And by the end of the book, I was able to cultivate those feelings again, which is how I knew I’d be okay.
For me, the biggest piece of this transformation was realizing that thinking about something isn’t the only way to interact with or understand it. I’ve always been an analytical person. When confronted with something difficult, whether it’s a problem at work or a conflict with someone else or even death, I tend to lodge that problem in my brain and turn it over and over in an attempt to work it out. But sometimes, that’s not possible. Sometimes, it’s even detrimental.
That’s one thing I love about travel—you can’t just sit and think. You have to move. For me, spirituality comes from a shift away from thinking and analyzing and a movement toward simply feeling and being. My brain puts me at the center of the world, which often inhibits my understanding of things on a bigger scale.
Joelle in the Azores
What would you tell your younger self?

Dear self,

You think you have a plan. You think you know what you want from life—you even think you know how to get it. But listen, and don’t take offense at this: you can’t possibly know those things. And honestly, you don’t want to know. What fun would that be?
Life will not go according to plan, but ultimately, that’s the best possible outcome. If it went according to plan, you wouldn’t learn much about yourself and the world. If it went according to plan, your seven-year-old worldview and goals would dominate your life, and that’s not really what you want (trust me on this one).
Planning doesn’t determine who you are—it’s how you react to all the things you didn’t plan that shapes you. And you’re way, way better at dealing with the unexpected than you think. You’ll see.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Death and coping/recovering from the death of a loved one is an intensely personal experience. In a lot of ways, it’s also a selfish one. I don’t—and can’t—write about how my mom, brother, or sister processed my dad’s death. That’s not to say their experiences don’t matter, just that they’re not mine to tell. I don’t want to project my journey onto anyone else or to suggest that what helped me is anyone else’s Rosetta Stone.
That said, such narratives do offer invaluable comfort. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking kept me sane—if Didion feels like I do, I thought, then I’m not crazy. If Didion can survive this, then survival is possible. Ultimately, that’s what I hope to offer readers. You’re not crazy. You can survive this, whatever “this” is.

Joelle Renstrom is a freelance writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen?, about the relationship between science and science fiction and her work has appeared in Slate, Full Grown People, Guernica, The Toast, and others. She teaches writing and research with a focus on science fiction, space, and artificial intelligence at Boston University.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Something good is going to come from this."

Continuing our nomadic ways, we are housesitting in South Lake Tahoe. This wonderful house overlooks the lake. Out the front door are acres of trails, where we enjoy walking with the lovable, furry Ely.

In January, we are moving to a condo, also in South Lake, a house-swap for the whole month.

We've been planning this time in Tahoe for a while. So imagine our surprise when we went to Heavenly Valley Ski Resort to buy season passes--and were told we were three days too late. They'd stopped selling season passes. We were stunned. For the amount we wanted to ski, daily passes would cost an arm and a leg.

We asked to see a supervisor, pleading our case that we'd been visiting Heavenly's website for months and had seen no notification. He said sorry, there was nothing he could do, but he gave me the number of his higher-up.

On our way to the car, I said, "Dave, something good is going to come from this."

That's my mantra when things don't go as planned. I used it when our rental house went on the market. I've used it when we are stuck in traffic. I used it when I found out I had a brain tumor.

It's a reminder that whatever is happening isn't the end of the story.

I wasn't sure I believed it in this case, though. Heavenly is owned by Vail Corporation. I don't care what anyone says but corporations are not people.

As soon as we walked out, I left a message on the higher-up's voice mail: I'm a writer. I'll be writing about our time in Tahoe. Friends of ours are coming to visit who'll be buying day passes. It will be good for business. There was no warning about the deadline. Please have some compassion for our situation. Yadda, yadda.

I texted Suzanne, the woman we are housesitting for who's a big skier. She texted me back, "Well, maybe you could get passes at Sierra-at-Tahoe. It's not as close, but I love skiing there."

Sierra-at-Tahoe? Why was that familiar? Oh yes, we'd never skied there but we'd seen our favorite band play there a couple of years ago. The place was charming. I'd love the feel of it. It was small, tucked away, more of a local's resort. We'd been so Heavenly-focused (for the ease of location), we hadn't thought about that. Yet would it be a pain to drive 30 minutes to ski?

We walked around town and popped into the Visitor's Center to browse. I mentioned to the young woman behind the counter that we couldn't get Heavenly passes.

"You should go to Sierra-at-Tahoe!" she enthused, adding that she worked there for eight years and loves it. She whipped out a map of the resort, excitedly talking about her favorite runs.

Seemed like a thumb's up from the universe to me.

I had such a good feeling about Sierra-at-Tahoe that by the time the higher-up called me back, I almost hoped he'd say no.

And sure enough, he checked with his higher-ups, and there was a consensus: They didn't want our business or our money.

Dave went onto the Sierra-at-Tahoe website. Their passes were half the cost of Heavenly's!

And get this: We have good friends who will be skiing at Squaw in January. We were hoping to join them, all the while knowing we'd probably be paying a lot to do so. But our Sierra-at-Tahoe passes include two free days at Squaw!

The drive to Sierra-at Tahoe was easy. We immediately loved skiing there. There's a low-key vibe. And the runs are really, really long. Like over a mile. So fun.

It's funny. With big things--like my brain tumor and losing our house--I really did believe that something good was going to happen. That the journey would be expansive. But with something small, like this ski pass thing, I wasn't so sure. But that what a mantra's for: to interrupt a habitual pattern of thinking that doesn't serve you.

It serves me to believe that life is an adventure. That what's around the corner isn't determined by what's right in front of me. That whatever I face, something good can come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Healing Yourself 

In my continuing  series, Books That Inspire, I spoke with Amy Scher, whose new book How To Heal Yourself When No One Else Can is coming out January 8.

What inspired you to write this book?
After healing myself from various physical and emotional challenges, I connected with so many wonderful people who were asking exactly how I did it. While I have a full-time private practice where I help clients one-on-one with this process, I just can’t reach everyone who needs this type of support. Most people understand that healing is possible, even when it doesn’t seem that way; but how to do it can be very overwhelming. I wrote this book so readers could see how I did it, and how they could apply that to their own lives.

"When life kicks your ass, kick back" is your mantra. Why is this idea important to you?
It’s funny because this started off as meaning “kicking back” as in kicking life’s ass right back when it gets tough. But over time, I interpret it more as kick-back as in “relax.” I’ve learned there is a certain balance between forging ahead with conviction to overcome something and letting go so it can unfold. They are both essential to overcoming any obstacle.

You are an energy therapist. What is "energy therapy"?
Energy therapy is a way to access the body’s energy system and its imbalances. Imbalances happen in our energy field long before they turn physical. By going back and working with the body’s subtle energies and correcting any imbalances, we can affect change in the physical and emotional body.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Trust. Let go. Trying to control everything controls you right into being a totally freaked out, unhappy human.

What advice would you give to people about living the life you really want to live?
You have to be who-you-really-are. So many of us fear judgment and upsetting others that we live our lives according to who we think we should be. I have a great quote in my book by life coach Jordan Bach that I think speaks perfectly to this point: “Being yourself is hard. Living with the regret of having lived your life according to other people’s expectations is hard. Pick your hard.”

Do you find writing easy or hard? What words of wisdom can you offer to people who want to write a book?
It totally depends on the day. Ha. Sometimes, I sit down and it flows out of me and I can’t stop it. Other times, I find every other thing to do but write. The best wisdom I can offer to others is to write, write, write. Don’t filter or edit as you write. Just write whatever is inside of you. I’d never want anyone to read my first or second drafts because it’s all just brain spew. It takes awhile for some things to look like real "real writing." But it has to start somewhere.

In your book, you say instead of getting judgmental about our healing process, it's helpful to trust in the unfolding, to know that what is happening is "necessary for your path." Can you say more about that?
[Thinking this way] can really help us in all aspects of life. We add so much extra craziness to our craziness. If we can just experience what’s happening and not add our own “stuff” to it, we can then just move through it. It’s the judging and analyzing and beating ourselves up that makes mountains out of molehills.

Amy B. Scher, based in L.A., is a leading voice in the field of mind-body healing. She believes that our ultimate wellbeing is born not from self-help, but self-love. She was named one of Advocate's "40 Under 40" for 2013. Visit her website here.