October 29, 2019 § 5 Comments
July 25, 2016 § 7 Comments
Years ago, I wrote out a list of my strengths with the misguided notion that if I reviewed the list often enough, I could actually rewire my genetic tendency toward perpetual self-doubt.
One Saturday, a week after my fiftieth birthday, I’d felt imperfect as hell and pulled out the list. I’d had a hard week. Among other things, I’d forgotten my address while filling out an AARP form—it was as if touching the form itself, had flipped off my hippocampus and I was now forever chained to the sinking ship of memory loss.
I stared at my list of strengths and felt anxiety rather than comfort. The problem was not that I knew these words were actually reframed flaws—pigheadedness disguised as confidence, indecisiveness spun into flexibility. The problem was that most of my strengths required my mind, and I knew where that was headed.
Mid-way down the list I noticed the word compassionate. Aha! There we go! A trait that evolves from the heart—an organ I was still feeling pretty good about. Empowered, I strategically moved “compassionate” to the top of my list, and committed myself to deepening its development.
My shit shield now sturdy enough to re-enter the world, I headed out to the farmer’s market to feel the love. The sun beamed enthusiastically, so I cranked down the roof of my VW bug and cranked up Marley’s, Love Is My Religion.
I’d driven maybe a ½ mile down the road, when out of the slits in my car hood, a small rodent emerged. We made eye contact. He stood stock-still for only a second before leaping onto my side of the windshield. He stared straight at me. I could see the tiny pink suction cups between his sharp little nails and then—scritchscratchscritch, he began to climb up the windshield, his quivering nose in the air.
I knew what he wanted.
He wanted to bite me with his pointy little teeth, his secret rabies injectors. He didn’t seem the type who cared a bit if he caused an accident, maybe even a death. His predicament was making him irrational and I could see it on his face.
“Holy shit!” I yelled as he climbed higher and higher up the window. I couldn’t bring the car top up because I had to be stopped to do that, and I couldn’t stop because there was a ditch to my right and a line of cars behind me. And then, I had a brilliant idea—the windshield wipers! I flipped them on– but what does the little vermin do? He grabs on with one hand, ok claw, but god those claws look like the kind of tiny horror story fingers you’d see in a Stephen King movie.
So there he was flying back and forth, back and forth, across the windshield like a trapeze artist receiving a good day’s pay and fulfilling a life’s dream. I switched the wipers to hyper-fast mode. He accepted the challenge and grabbed on with both claws, his legs and tail flailing out behind him, and his face stretched out tight as a Kardashian’s.
“Alright you little Willard wannabe,” I shouted while trying to stay in my lane and wondering if this was how I was going to die—fighting off a mouse in my car. Time to get serious. I pressed the window washer button. Through a soapy blur I saw the flying fugitive release the wipers and land back on the windshield directly facing me, blinking the water out of his eyes in such a sorrowful way that I turned off the washer, wipers and Bob Marley. Clearly, love was not my religion.
I watched as the mouse, a glaring metaphor for my absolute lack of compassion, slipped backwards on his hairless tummy, his drenched body sliding down the hood, neck and arms stretched out wide as he tried to hang on—until finally, he disappeared over the edge.
I arrived at the market and sat in my car. Guilt and doubt taking their rightful places. What kind of monster had I become? I used to be the one in the room who would catch a wayward fly in a tupperware rather than smash it with a swatter, who would fling the winged creature out the window calling, “fly little fly, fly!”
Then, on the ground in front of me, I saw the mouse standing on his hind legs with his back toward me. He cocked his soggy head side to side and ran straight for the cheese booth.
That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t about me. It was about the mouse. He probably had persistence at the top of his list.
November 24, 2015 § 7 Comments
I’ve been a hot dog vendor, a shoe salesperson, a middle-school teacher, and a catholic school principal, but owning a bookstore has given me moments with the most eclectic tribe of humans of all.
There’s the crime scene cleaner who talked to me about the delicate line between detachment and sensitivity while I rang up her pile of fantasy books,
and the human statue who paints himself silver by day and writes poetry by night,
and the teen girl who builds wells in Uganda every summer and keeps a journal in her back pocket.
There’s the molecular gastronomist who began her career as an ice-cream tester (gah!),
the organic farmer who lives in a school bus and donates her harvest to a food kitchen,
the six-year old botany expert who arrives each month to buy the latest plant book,
and the bingo manager who fights for housing equality.
There’s the Iraq soldier without arms who still believes the world is ‘awesome’ and before he goes to college next year he wants to read one book every week,
and the father who resolved in 2015 to read to his children every night and hasn’t missed a night yet.
There’s the 14-year old playwright who had her script about a transgender teen accepted by a local theater,
and the grandfather who brings his six grandchildren into the bookstore each year and gives each one a book bag to fill with books of their choice,
and the locomotive engineer who doesn’t wear a watch.
There’s the eleven-year old who organized a youth empowerment book club,
the soil conservationist who fell in love with a snail farmer,
and a photographer who films sea creatures I’ve never heard of,
and the twenty-two year old man, who chose to communicate only through writing for 365 days and when we met, he was on day 224 and feeling like his entire mind and body had changed—in a sacred way.
There’s the child who sat by me for an entire hour and told me about the rare birds she’d seen in Puerto Rico and how someday she’ll be an ornithologist,
and the clown who struggled to be taken seriously,
and the firefighter who worked at ground-zero for three months and read Emily Dickinson every night she was there…
so many stories…
and I am beyond grateful for every single one of them, and each of you. Your words matter more than you know. Thank you from the depths of my heart for walking into our tiny bookstore and believing in books and making the world we work and play in a little less chaotic and a little more beautiful.
July 21, 2015 § 22 Comments
When I first laid bare my personal writing in workshops, I puked before and after each meeting. I’m not talking about exposing my nature poems or opinions on the current state of education—I’m talking about writing with a truth stake driven through its heart.
I puked before the meeting, because I had no idea how the other writers would respond, no idea if they’d appreciate, reject, ridicule or judge. I puked afterward, (even if the critique was good, maybe even more so) because in some weird way, I felt I’d betrayed self, stopped protecting self—I’d allowed the dangerous, naive part of me to dance naked in the streets, arms open, face lit with desire and possibility—I’d unlocked the door of the safe house, knowing she’d run out, knowing she’d get hurt.
And when I signed with an agent to sell my novel?—the story of disrupted identity and power imbalances that might cause people to speculate about who the main character really was, I puked for three days straight.
My therapist told me puking was to be expected. Apparently, I was tearing apart some pretty hard-ass wiring. Apparently, it wasn’t the dangerous, naive part of me dancing naked, it was inner warrior woman, and like pupae ripping from industrial strength thread and bursting through membrane, discomfort was inescapable.
“You’re creating a new person,” he’d say. “You’re acting as if you are worthy. That’s no small thing.” He’d pass me Kleenex, shake his head and say things like, “The dangerous part of you isn’t naked woman or warrior woman. The dangerous part of you is underground veiled woman.”
He encouraged me to continue putting my voice out there—to say what I felt like saying, in the way I felt like saying it. To consider vulnerability as strength. To trust more. To say “fuck it” to anyone who thrived on tearing down, rather than firing up. To tell myself, “Your voice is beautiful.”
And so. With each new page of writing I exposed for review in groups, with each essay and social media post I didn’t delete, each time I said, “Fuck it,” and “Your voice is beautiful,” I felt less susceptible to harm. I began to taste, feel and smell the intoxication of a sturdier more resilient infrastructure. And as corny as it sounds, I felt different, in a sacred kind of way.
There are still plenty of days I worry about what people think, and my sentences crumple to dust and blow away before I can grab them and hide them under the bed. And there are nights I fail to believe I’m more than a story, rating or ‘like’, and lay awake in a hot sweat, cheeks wet with doubt and shame.
I will never again underestimate the power of saying fuck it and your words are beautiful—because it feels like something wrong is slowly being righted.
October 16, 2014 § 22 Comments
I want to write about the visceral dissonance my head and gut absorb each day as I scroll through images on social media—the pumpkin martini recipes and beheadings in Iran and cute cat videos and acid thrown in children’s faces and new iPhones and thousands of faceless bodies—women and children and men blown to bits, continents away. I want to write about the strange juxtaposition of these things and try to make meaning of it.
But what I really want to write about is that recent video floating around facebook—maybe you’ve seen it—the one where women are in a department store, and one by one they look into a mirror, and the mirror begins to talk to them and the mirror asks each woman how they feel about themselves and the women don’t feel so great—one turns her head away, another feels like a dog, another shrugs. Then, the mirror gives the women personalized examples from their friends and families, of how they are an inspiration to others, how they are so beautiful on the inside and outside. The mirror says things like, You’re beautiful! You’re enough! And when the mirror says this—You’re beautiful! You’re enough! the women’s eyes well up and a couple of them cry. I watch the way the eyes and mouths and bodies of these women soften and release, and I cry too, because of what it means to be human.
But what I really want to write about is how, in my messy conflicted mind, when I place myself in front of the talking mirror, the mirror shouts, “There’s no fucking way you’re enough!” and I know the mirror doesn’t say this because I’m ugly or worthless or broken. I know the mirror says this because it knows I can’t possibly be enough when fucking courageous as hell journalists are getting their heads chopped off while I fall asleep in a queen-sized bed with Garnett Hill flannel sheets, and one in four children are on food stamps while I’m at Trader Joe’s questioning whether or not the spinach is really organic, the salmon really wild, when mothers and fathers with babies wrapped tight to their chests fight to cross murderous borders, fight to find Safety, while I fight to lose that last ten pounds.
But what I really want to write about is how, when I get like this, some of my friends say things like; for god’s sake, Anna, settle the fuck down. You’re so intense. What’s with all the guilt? Stop apologizing for stuff. You are right where you need to be. Focus on all those positive vibrations! Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. We’re just a speck in the universe!
And, what I really want to write about is how, of course, I know, at some level, they are right. That at some level, all of it matters and that I know there are tricks to life—like, one trick is to remember empathy and simplicity and compassion are Revolutionary and another trick is that one by one we can make a difference and we have to do more than talk about it and still another trick is that you have to practice holding both— the good and the bad at the same time—I know, I know, I know all these tricks.
But what I really want to write about is the shivering under my skin that whispers of rhetoric and complacency and privilege.
And what I really want to write about is the old woman who came into the bookstore today, and asked if I could recommend a book that would help her feel less lonely. She said she’s always felt lonely, even though someone told her decades ago that her loneliness was only temporary. “But,” she said, eyes watering, “it wasn’t temporary,” and when I asked her to close her wet hollow eyes and turn around three times and walk forward and reach her arm out and pull a book from the shelves and then open her eyes and how slowly she did all that, how slowly she closed her eyes, a faint child smile on her face, how slowly she turned around three times, believing in the magic of it, how slowly she walked forward and pulled a book from the shelves and opened her eyes and looked at the cover and how she said the title aloud, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and how she began to weep then, and talk about her son, Matthew, and how he lost his legs in Iran and killed himself in her basement because he felt useless and how she didn’t get there in time.
What I really want to write about is how she looked at me and said, “Thank you, honey,” and how she held my eyes in hers and said, “In the end, we only have each other, honey. We only have each other.”