Clearing the air

Los Angeles: the city of angels, a false idol, a circle of smog. Irvine: quintessential suburbia, the safest city in America. Laguna Beach: a beautifully Mediterranean yet tightly packed coastal community that was featured on reality TV in a past life.

These images don’t necessarily summon any kind of escape with a clarity-seeking intent. They are not exactly epitomes of quiet, monastic living, nor of the natural sorts of havens I tend to crave.

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And yet, while visiting both places this past week, I found the kind of headspace on which I’ve been scrambling to get a grip.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, the pockets of this area I chose to step into – Griffith Observatory, the Last Bookstore, my friends’ impossibly surfy apartment in Irvine – did hold the promise of stillness and creativity.

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For another, over the course of this year, I have been trying to believe that one can find space to breathe, to think, and to simply be just about anywhere. But it’s a hard thing to absorb at home, and especially at home in the city. Packed tight as it is, some of us tend to wiggle into roles that barely fit us, and then wonder why it is so hard to relax and be ourselves. No one ever told us that it was possible to seek out a different role without dropping everything and starting over. But truly, who can afford to drop everything in such a dramatic way?

There are certain parts of American culture that ring with the heaviness of mythology, and to me, this is one of them; that is, the idea that in order to become yourself, you must go west, or east, or elsewhere – get away from your past self, escape your old life.

There is some truth in this story. Experiencing other cultures, for example – even traveling to another, unexplored American region – adds such layers and depths to what we think we know. It does one more good than ill to have one’s frame of reference flipped. If I had enough money, I would fund a semester abroad for everyone I know.

But the need to be elsewhere, alone, to be free? The idea that we are all rugged individuals? That, I am increasingly convinced, is a myth, and an occasionally dangerous one.

That said, I am also more and more convinced that the reality is better than the myth.

By this, I mean that coming to learn the truth of oneself – who you are, who you were made to be – can happen at home, turning an environment of relative discomfort into something not unlike home.

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This is a hard lesson that I am still learning, and perhaps will never cease to learn. But there’s a richness there, and it eased this visit to a place I did once call home.

Orange County was a place where I had a challenging time finding peace. California, of all places, is supposed to be where you can try anything and be anyone. But inner pressures and hidden corridors within oneself – when they remain closed, sealed, and locked – make those possibilities seem impossibly distant. Even if they are actually within reach. Perhaps especially when they are within reach.

For example, I’ve known I was wired to be a writer for essentially my entire life. I’ve also known I’m interested in health, wellness, and food culture for quite awhile. There is no shortage of opportunity to pursue these on the West coast, but fear is an amazingly good roadblock.

One year later, not much has changed in Orange County, at least not visibly. And, granted, one week is not quite enough time to dig up anything meaningful.

But the main big change – that happened within, and it is a continuing process. The change was of my outlook, which is vastly different than before. This is partially because this visit was a break from my daily reality. Yet even in observing the uglier points of LA and OC – traffic, smog, homelessness, suburban sprawl, and corporate dominance – the beauty peeked through. It was not – is not – entirely lost.

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You open yourself up to it – to the beauty.

Back home in Virginia, nothing much is new: there are more holiday decorations sprinkled about, and it’s about 10 degrees colder, with a more intense wind chill. We are all a step closer to the unpromised maybes and hopes of a new year.

And what lingers within, in this moment, does not have to completely disappear, even as it fades. It is as true for a season of love and light as it is for an adventure away from home. There is the excitement of creating something new out of what once seemed drained and empty, per LA’s Grand Central Market.

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There is the emergence of the natural through the cracks in the pavement, as is happening slowly in Costa Mesa.

And there is the idea that, maybe, new life can exist where it was never thought possible. That maybe, by working within certain confines, you can come to find that there is more than one way to be your limitless self.

To me, that is the reality. I’ll take it over the myth any day.

Peace be with you

Peace be with you on a day when politics is the watchword. But even so, it is not necessarily a bad word. It’s on all of our minds; why is it on all of our minds? Perhaps because politics is about power. But more than that, and fortunately for us – and our well-being, and our sanity – it is about people.

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A wise woman recently reminded me how much a President of the United States cannot do. True: the people’s ability to elect a leader is important and revolutionary. Also true: an election in itself is no small thing to be dismissed. Truer still: the President does carry weight and possess power (that is, influence).

However, we live in a country that was founded upon certain principles, one being that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, no matter who holds it – people or President. Furthermore, we live in a time wherein a powerful work of art heralding this painstakingly constructed framework is popular and celebrated. (Yes, of course I mean Hamilton.) That is a reminder we are lucky to have.

What is interesting about Americans, then, is our proclivity for choice. Yet, interestingly enough, this seems to be on the backburner in this present climate. Nevertheless, in spite of environmental influences, in spite of the people around us, and in spite of whatever toxicity breeds on the Internet, we do have in our possession the ability to choose.

And in spite of what many would say, believe, or do, that ability does not end after a so-called historic election.

What if every election is historic? What then? Then, the effects would only be meaningful to the extent that we allowed.

By this, I mean a few things. First: none of us has to play the victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all see negative patterns, and we predict their sore outcomes. But the pattern I see is that, when we predict these outcomes, they are shudderingly likely to occur.

Second: the opposite is true as well. If there is an ill that is eating at you, and that should be remedied – if the reality of hateful words and energy bothers you – if you are unhappy with, perhaps, certain systems –

– well. You are not alone. I’m there with you. I feel angry, anxious, entirely powerless.

But we are not alone. And in that unity, that powerlessness, bit by bit, will start to dissipate.

I say this in defiance of our concocted ideas about what power is or looks like. There is a different kind. It is a power that does not come from force, or volume, or occupying a seat in the tallest tower (literally or metaphorically). It does not come from having the time or energy to post grievances on Facebook.

No: the most effectual power comes from discernment, and wisdom. This power comes from giving up your ego in favor of your fellow man. We’ve seen it in the actions of those who change the way we think, see one other, and act. We know there is a different kind of influence; we’ve seen it exude from people – Mother Teresa; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nelson Mandela – who have chosen to see and stand for the good within each of us.

Power, in short, comes from that which conquers fear: love.

None of us knows exactly what the future holds. But it is better that way. There is so much beyond each of our individual control, but those circumstances should have no bearing on whether we choose to act – whether we choose to change ourselves, in big movements and small words – to bring people to peace and to better the world around us.

I have no illusions that utopia is near. Nor do I have illusions that it would even look the same for everyone. Indeed: I hope it would not, as balance is beautiful.

But what I also hope for is a trend towards trying to understand each person who walks beside us in our lives, no matter who he voted for, no matter where she was born. We really do have the choice to listen and love. When we believe we don’t, that’s when fear comes out to play.

But when we know deep down how thoroughly we do, there is a flicker of light in the soul, an electric recognition of ourselves in others’ eyes, a hope that positive change is possible.

I have hope. I have hope that it can begin as soon as today.

Post edited slightly on November 18, 2016.

A sense of place

We moved a few weeks ago. Moving, to me, is exciting – in spite of the obvious stress I let it breed. Moving, to me, is yet another chance to start over. Even moving a half-mile offered this feeling of newness, this electric sense of change. Even if, as they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

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Walking through my new neighborhood lately has left me with a new perspective on this. What I mean is: there has been a constant thread in my life of wanting to be somewhere other than I am. I’ve dreamt of it, been thrilled to anticipate it. You could call it wanderlust, or a rabid desire to reclaim a wasted youth, or anything else that is probably is.

Problem is, occasionally this has even happened while living somewhere gorgeous, unreal, and enviable. Even there, somehow I allow the sense of new, of now, of appreciation to slip away.

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To an extent, this is simply the way of familiarity. The Pinterest-led desire to find the next shiny new spot, and the Instagram-soaked sense of wanderlust, are deceptive. It is easy to want to see an entire city or town through the eyes a single snapshot tends to lend. But as you know, if you’ve even once been a tourist or encountered one, snapshots are only windows – mere second-long slices of yearlong realities.

But there’s a way of looking at an old city with new eyes. Richmond, with its old age and new, youthful pulse, has its own personality, but is also a kindred spirit to many other blossoming places in this country. (Both Portlands, for sure.) The houses hearken to another time, I think as I walk down Ellwood Avenue, but there is activity that brings us all to this time, and there is promise, and potential.img_0710

There is an open vegetable garden nearby. It’s part of a local community gardening initiative, and people – neighbors, really – maintain its plots year-round. It reminds me that beauty can be found in what is so usual if one only chooses to look.

Richmond is, maybe, teaching me to see all things as they are, and to see the city in its many different colors, in both its beauty and ugliness and history and present and what’s-next. Maybe it is similar to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, and Louisville, Kentucky, and so on.

But maybe it is also uniquely itself, and I can appreciate and bask in that for now.

All this is to say – thanks for being you, Richmond.

Moments

Sunlight, summer mornings, sunsets. Some things have to be savored.

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A bluebird flies low across the street, so bold. Someone at the coffee shop shoulders the heft of a crate before the boy working there drops it. The sun rises over the sea and you drift through the quiet, deep in a happy cocktail of serenity and awe.

Cliches exist for better or for worse, but let it not be said they have no raison d’être. In my case, during these dog days I have been inhaling-exhaling the truth that God is in the details.

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Every day has its trajectory. But the moments built into each one sprout up both gently and starkly: those are the studded light on the surface. Within the blur, the edges on leaves and the dappled sunlight and the gleam on the water’s edge seem sharper, or brighter, or more beautiful; everything slows down and comes into focus.

IMG_20160724_134623409What does it mean, though, to say that God is in the details?

To me, it is to believe in the power of His still small voice.

We look for signs – for loud sirens to draw us to the “right” place, or to some magic rock of stability. At least, this is my tendency. I see fog settling over the morning and wonder if it’s an omen, a warning to seek shelter from a something wicked that just may come. But in reality, it’s as simple as this: I am seeking a reason to worry or to be afraid. Maybe that is our human tendency: hard-wired to seek protection at any cost.

Today, while casually flipping through the lower-numbered radio stations, I landed on a short treatise – probably a PSA – on turning to Jesus during tough times.

“In the world we will have trouble. But He has overcome the world. Seeking the Lord makes those hardships – and there will be hardships – just a little easier to bear.”

A comfort? Of course not. My poor sweet monkey-mind immediately screeched out, “Oh, come on! So what’s going to happen to me now?” Me me me me me. It was all about me and my secure future. Where is my secure future? What ill shall befall us now?

But then my heart remembered: there are troubles in this world every day. Of course. They are there in ways big and small. What matters is whether or not the still small voice of truth, love, and a sound mind are acknowledged, or ignored.

Historically, I am not great at this acknowledgement. Historically, what charges me towards action is the emotional – the theatrical – the gigantic and bombastic. Historically, this seems to be a very normal human thing. Hamilton isn’t smashing all sorts of records and barriers for nothing, right? Didn’t reality singing shows take over America one fateful day in 2002?

Here’s the thing, though: the oak grows from a small acorn. These big, enormous triumphs all started as a small seed of hope.

(Where’s a good Totoro gif when you need one?)

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Summer is ending, but let us hold it in open hands as a series of quiet moments. This is so different from clinging to that sweeping, crashing wave of emotion from school-free days past. Those are gone from my life, but then again they still breathe into it sometimes, with the cool sigh of an evening breeze, with the electric pulse of an outdoor concert, with time spent drifting down the river or settling into a shared laugh.

Moments: as they are savored, they somehow grow bigger and riper with meaning. And maybe that’s the detail to remember.

The creative spirit

Or: write on, Psalmists.

About a month ago, I went to see The 1975 play in Charlottesville. They, while not of the mainstream-radio set Stateside (yet…), have cultivated an impressively dedicated following. I can’t help but think that it’s not only because of their copious output and obvious talent/hard work combo, but also because of their utter sincerity. In their performance, and in their lyrics, it’s impossible to ignore. To me that is something beautiful – something to be proud of.

Sincerity. Complete emotional honesty. It’s what so many of us seem to be craving lately.

It’s why I love The 1975 unabashedly, even as a not-teenager (though I’m sure at 17 I would have been hyper-obsessed). It’s also one of the many reasons why Julien Baker and her echoic power have drawn me in. The poet with a guitar that rings out like a harp, her simultaneous rejoice and complain – her sincere, raw music are a gift to this world.

Music. Stories. Sincerity. Crying out to God in verse, reaching out to others in melodies, letting one’s spirit be free as it reveals itself between the notes of a song or the lines of a page. These are spiritual acts.

But of course it is, you think. You might think, for example, of the Psalms, of the Song of Solomon – then of Paradise Lost – or of Emily Dickinson’s plaintive queries to the Almighty. My mind goes to a gorgeous book of poetry called Bucolics a friend gave to me: pastoral verses that invoke the relief of nature, that send the writer’s wonderings to the God he calls Boss. Serious, curious, sweet. It’s refreshing.

I think this idea was re-awoken in me, though, by a sermon I heard on generosity. (Not the kind you’re thinking of, probably. Bear with me here~)

What I mean is: generosity is a spiritual act, too. To give what you’ve been given back to others, or to the one who gave it, is to share the light that is love. It is a way of making the impossible suddenly so possible. Of course it’s true in a financial context, but it’s also true relationally, and definitely artistically.

Isn’t this one of the reasons why we create in the first place? Are not our painted, composed, concocted works offerings in themselves?

I am trying to tease out what this looks like in my own life. But I wonder what it could look like in yours. I wonder what it would be like to have more and more people turn to this form of offering and of connection.

So until these questions are answered, I’ll probably just have Julien Baker on repeat. She just casts that kind of spell.

Tapas for beginners

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When you can’t go to Barcelona for Father’s Day, this is the next best thing.

Inspired by a visit to a brand-new Mexican place in Charlottesville, The Bebedero, and especially the meandering, flamenco-style guitar music playing there, we wanted the meal for last week’s holiday to be a gift that honored everything good about relaxation. Something that hearkened to a culture known for siesta and abstract architecture and amor.

(Bear with me: I realize that Mexican and Spanish cultures are totally unique from one another, but the music led from point A to point B. And you can’t really argue with music.)

Vibe solidly in mind, some online research led me to the refreshing and beautiful blog Salt and Wind. If you want to armchair travel through gorgeous pictures of food, recipes inspired by stories, and globally-minded articles, my goodness but this is the place to go.

Using a recipe of theirs, as well as a few from ever-faithful Saveur, this first venture into tapas was an enthusiastically received success. Which may or may not have been due to the whole adult-children-serving-and-honoring-their-parents thing, but even if it was, just couple that with some really savory wine sauce and crispy prosciutto and you’ll understand. Results may vary, but should equal something close to a moment’s happiness.

The recipes were as follows:

Gazpacho andaluz

Albóndigas en salsa

Crispy black lentils with asparagus, Jamon Serrano, and crème fraiche mustard sauce (not the sexiest name, but make it, and I promise the sauce will change your tune)

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Morals to this story:

Take simple ingredients and put love into their preparation.

Share your creativity: that’s a real gift.

And never say no to juicy, home-grown tomatoes when you find them. Otherwise you will be missing out on a very fine sandwich. And that is just a crime.

(At least, that’s what my father would say.)

Zen in the city

It’s been awhile, but not without good reason. I.e., sometimes – most times – you’ve got to do your growing away from the world of Interweb. Over the past few months, I’ve started full-time work, began exploring the potential for a(/another) new career path, gone to a concert, planned a vacation, and tried, countless times, to sleep in this noisy humidity. Did I mention ruing the day I left California?

Richmond’s not bad. I’m being unfair/mostly kidding. But my favorite places tend to be the quieter ones. The North Shore of O’ahu, for the most out-there example: I absolutely adore the country towns there. Not everything about them, but the beating heart of the entire area. It is a small, but sufficient haven; a home that is quiet, but calming.

Richmond, as I said, is not bad, and it’s not the Big City, but it is also not the country, and by no means is it quiet (she wrote, waiting for the next siren to whistle by).

There’s a beauty to this cacophony, of course. Music pouring from car windows and balconies; dogs barking; the racetrack abuzz – it’s a bizarre symphony of sorts, but it is uniquely ours. And it’s exciting that there is so much possibility living here.

But then there are moments when the noise mellows out, and if one pays attention, there are pockets of serenity to be found. And this individual revels in such spaces.

(That, or one could live with jaw clenched ad infinitum. It’s up to the individual, I suppose.)

I’m spoiled to have to take just a few steps to get to this first destination: the VMFA Sculpture Garden.

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Whoever designed this area deserves a hug. It remains gentle and traps no chatter even when people are about, not unlike a park or bigger green space. That joyful echo of laughter and footsteps… swoon.

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I am writing, in fact, from this very location, cool blissful breeze rustling the grasses, leaves, flowers, edges of water. With the art just in sight, it’s soothing. Wouldn’t miss it.

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You can’t talk about peaceful places without mentioning the trails at Dogwood Dell and the Pumphouse ParkSomehow I always end up drawn back here, to the grassy expanse by the amphitheater and the short yet winding trails. You could lose hours wandering here.

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ah.. cliched, but truly a sight for sore eyes

Then, on a more spiritual level, there’s Richmond Hill: a longtime spiritual haven and monastic spot for those committed to praying over the city.

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I can think of no better place than this. High in Church Hill, its sweeping views of the streets, buildings, and river below keep it utterly engaged with Richmond’s heart. And its garden (notice a trend, eh?) is a relaxing place to sit, read, or pray.

Rest is important. Real rest is hard to find space for. There are so many demands on our time, energy, headspace. And that’s part of why environment matters: it’s an all-natural way of compartmentalizing between busyness and rest. There’s a reason we have happy hour and pau hana; there’s a reason we have a day of rest between workweeks. Because sometimes, just one step is all it takes to move you from stress-laden to chill.

I personally tend to have a hard time taking that first step. But these places are such an encouragement. How about you – where can you find such encouragement in the space around you?