Looking for true north…

“I’m always where I want to be, doing what I want to be doing.” How many of us can say that and actually be honest in doing so? Leo Babauta’s post on zenhabits today got me thinking of this.

I often fall into the trap of playing what Leo calls the “fool’s game” of wishing I was doing something different—or better or more exciting or traveling to more exotic places. And then I think of what I would be missing…and all that I have found myself grateful for in small moments of clarity and grace lately.

Moonlight glowing on my son’s healthy brown cheeks as I watched him sleep last night…cherry tomatoes picked from the garden exploding with juice in my mouth…the gentle Delta breeze keeping temperatures delightfully perfect this week…warm skin against mine throughout the night…the dog running along a dirt path with the pure abandon that only a dog must know…the sweet fragrance of alfalfa through the car’s open windows as we explore country close to home.

I’m limping along these days…literally with a broken foot. I have to slow down, no running for a bit. And figuratively…I was told I have until August 5th at this job and so I’ve been grappling with ‘where do I want to be, where do I go from here and how do I get there?’ I keep picking up the compass, looking for true north and the needle spins, unable to settle in place.

A few images from adventures close to home…

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A wee bit of frisson…

Something clicked today…a wee bit of frisson. Not the hair rising on the back of my neck kind, but the crackling of neurons making a brief spark of connection—the spark I’ve been missing lately. The click came while reading Leo Babauta’s blog, Zen Habits. He created a new word, Joyfear, to describe “a mixture of intense joy and intense fear into one ball of powerful emotions that both lift me up and make me see things clearly when I hadn’t before.”

He writes that every single defining moment of his life has been filled with Joyfear. And then, this is what really hit me in the gut…he writes: “Having only joy is great. Having only fear sucks. But having both … that’s life-defining.” Ok, I’m posting that one above my desk. Leo, you really need to make bumper stickers, frig magnets, the works with that line…I LOVE IT! He goes on to finish with this: “Do not shy away from Joyfear. Seek it out. Recognize it when you happen upon it. Joyfear will change your life, and you’ll never forget the moment you find it.”

The round-about way I found Leo’s post today (from chookooloonks) reminded me of the little circle of connection I found last year after reading a small article in the local paper that referred to Chris Guillebeau’s book, The Art of Nonconformity. I looked it up, found his blog and somehow from there found Karen Walrond’s chookooloonks blog (writer, photographer extraordinaire and the author of Beauty of Different.) Through her I found Susannah Conway’s site and blog. Susannah was participating in Reverb 10 and I checked that out. Reverb is an online project that provides prompts for writers—exactly the boost I needed. So I took the plunge to start a blog as a way to share my posts with other writers following Reverb 10. See what a little searching on the internet will get you?!

Starting this blog was a major moment of Joyfear…but it has been so rewarding. I may not have many readers yet, but I’ve made life-affirming connections with a small handful of people…the kind of connections that make me feel less alone when I am struggling to make sense of where I should be and what I should be doing in this world. I don’t know that Karen, Susannah, Leo or Chris will ever read this, but THANK YOU.

You’ve encouraged me to try new things, to examine my life with renewed vision and to share that journey with others. And maybe someone has stumbled across this post looking for direction, for that ah-hah moment of connection, for the courage to step beyond a comfort zone into a Joyfear moment.

Definitely felt a frisson while shooting in a storm at Mono Lake a few years back!

I first heard the word frisson at the Book Passage Travel Writer’s Conference in 2007 and it has stuck with me every since. From the Old French fricon: a brief moment of excitement; a shudder of emotion, thrill. When I’ve been at a loss for words before finding this one, I’ve simply expressed those moments as: “I feel so alive!” I can’t expect to feel this intensity all the time. (And yet I want to—the term adrenaline junkie comes to mind.) When was the last time you experienced Joyfear or frisson?

A dog’s life…and remembering

Saturday…up with the sun and on the road before 6. Coffee in hand made the night before, heading northeast to Table Mountain near Oroville, CA. The day spread as a fertile field before us, open to new sights, sounds and smells.

Roxy was running so fast, this is the best I could do getting a shot of her moving! We adopted her a little over a month ago–a three year old lab/pointer mix. So many smells to sniff, puddles to splash through and hills to bound over–she was in what must have been dog heaven. Pure joy to watch her. To live in the moment, running for joy, no tumbling thoughts crowding my mind, jostling for space…that’s what I wish to learn from her.

Wolf spider in his burrow.


J can make even road-side sandwiches look straight out of Bon Appetite! And they taste just as good too!

Chef and photographer extraordinaire…

Along a county road, we stopped to photograph wildflowers. I looked up to see five yellow ribbons around five oak trees at the start of a driveway…may they come home safely.

We often stop and visit in old pioneer cemeteries we come across in our travels. Even a soldier from so long ago was remembered this day.

Catching a sunset near the river on the way home.

Don’t make me stop this car…

I’m not sure how I got to the side of the freeway, pacing the gravel shoulder, hands clenched in fists and enough tension in my jaws to crack a tooth. I mean I know I hit the brakes hard, pulled over and slammed my door. But how did I get to this place of such anger and anxiety with my seven year old when only two hours before we were baking chocolate chip cookies together in the kitchen?

He wore the cute handmade cowboy apron I bought for him at farmer’s market when it still reached below his knees. He was exuberant about adding the flour mixture to the butter and sugar in the electric mixer and I patiently explained why we should do that more slowly—so we didn’t have white powder covering everything on the counter.

I was trying to get cookies made to take them into the city with us to my older daughter’s fashion show that evening. I’d already taken B to the grocery store, dog park and car wash, scrubbed the bathrooms and done two loads of laundry. There are never enough hours in the weekend to get everything done and we’d be gone until 10 tonight and tomorrow was the start of another work/school week. But once the cookies were in the oven and I frantically cleaned the kitchen, then tried to do something with my hair, B was ensconced with a tub of Legos, building something new and quite content to stay put for awhile. He didn’t want to put shoes on or head to the car for a one and a half hour drive.

My body was telling me the same, but I was too busy pushing the override buttons to listen. Until it was too late. And I found myself standing on the freeway shoulder ready to do anything to make him stop screaming. I’d let my anxiety build and feed into his until there we were—him inside the car, banging against the window and trying to kick the door down, me pacing the gravel, resisting the urge to run into traffic or pull him out of the car and spank the shit out of him or just walk away until the cops found me or…or…the negative thoughts and emotions swirled in my head until I was dizzy.

My partner got out of the passenger’s side of the car. “What can I do?” I just shook my head and kept pacing. “Talk to me—I don’t know what to do here.”

“I don’t know what you can do,” I finally looked at him. “Just give me a couple minutes here. I’m trying not to kill him.”

An overstatement, yes. But the truth is when that white-hot anger boils over into my brain, it short-circuits all connection to rational thought. I hate to admit it, but I get it, I understand what those parents who go over the edge might experience. I know what standing on that precipice feels like.

I placed the car keys into his outstretched hand and we continued our journey. Some whining still emanated from the back seat, but the knife edge was gone. I stewed in self-recriminating tears for the next 20 miles until a chirpy voice called from behind me, “Let’s play eye-spy!”

Mother’s Day funk

I’ve been in a funk since Mother’s Day. Can’t say I’m fond of most holidays printed on a calendar unless they come with an extra weekend day to take a camping trip but don’t involve a guilt trip, unrealistic expectations or conflicting emotions. Those Hallmark holidays are usually a set-up for disappointment and frustration and this past Sunday was no different.

I’ve been a mother for more than half my life now and it remains the most challenging identity—far beyond that of being a daughter, wife, sister, or aunt. I became a mom at 19, two weeks shy of my 20th birthday. Six months after B’s birth, I went back to school and combined the roles of college student and single parent for the next seven years through undergraduate and graduate school. Those years are somewhat of a blur and must be why my body now demands at least eight hours of sleep a night because I certainly didn’t get those hours back then. Always a mid-term to study for, a paper to write in the hours after play, dinner, story and bedtime.

So I admit to having deflated expectations when the only contact I received from my first-born on Mother’s Day was a text message and a promise to call after work, (which she didn’t.) I know, I know, she’s 20, busy living her own life in the city. But what about all the years that I struggled to stay in school and raise her too? The nights of mopping her feverish forehead when I had a final to study for the following day, carrying her in a backpack to lectures because I couldn’t afford enough hours of childcare, taking out additional student loans (that I am still repaying) because quality preschool was twice the cost of our rent?

I don’t want to whine and wallow, but a little recognition, some acknowledgement would sure be nice. Yes, my feelings are hurt. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but these feelings linger and I’m tired of pushing them aside.

I am so grateful for two healthy children, for being able to spend time with my own mother on Mother’s Day. But even when I try so hard to focus on these blessings in my life, I am derailed by negative emotions. Why? Is it that I try in vain to bury them so deep that others can’t see them? So others can’t judge me?

Running at night

Running…to the place where streetlights give way to night sky, dark bowl with milky clouds, lights of a nearby city glowing orange on the horizon, Orion’s belt twinkling like a smile. Shadowed furrows of a field on my left waiting for crops, for spring’s warmth. Outstretched arms of dark walnut trees to my right, a mile row of them, magpies and crows settled into the upper reaches, squirrels nestled down in warm hollows.

I see them in the morning along this path, darting from tree to tree, the occasional squirrel not vigilant or fast enough to elude the tires of a speeding bicycle. But for now, only this, the dirt rows, skeleton limbs, night air fresh from the day’s rain and a sailor’s sky above, guiding me through the dark.

Sometimes a run is just a run and sometimes it is salvation. When do you most enjoy running (or walking) and where?

Valentine’s Day 1997

We held the viewing on Valentine’s Day, a cold and rainy night. **People came dressed for dinner, a night out, champagne and chocolate. Some filed through quietly, paid their respects to my parents and slipped out the door with their umbrellas. And then in the middle of the background easy-listening Christian hymn music, a cry would go up from the front of the room, a sob that couldn’t be held back.

My brother in the casket, waxy, pale despite the make-up, his short Marine buzz cut spiky with gel. I ran my fingers over it, the black stitches holding his scalp together blending into his hair. You could see where the coroner had used the saw to remove part of the skull, to see what damage his brain had sustained. The coroner’s report read “massive head trauma.” I was surprised he looked this good.

I was angry with the people in their fine clothes, the anticipation of a romantic evening after this duty. Numb and tired from crying, from helping my mother choose a casket. Angry with the funeral home director for trying to sell her a casket she couldn’t afford. The fabric was nicer, made of steel, blah, blah, blah. And I looked at him and asked, what’s the point; it’s getting buried six feet under. You pay more money for a casket that will keep the body from decaying for a longer period of time? And you make more money as a result. That’s disgusting.

My mother pleaded with me to be nice. No, I have no more nice left in me. Bury me in the dirt and let the critters of the earth do their job on me or burn me to ashes and scatter me to the wind; don’t waste your money on this artificial finery. I just wanted to sink into sleep, a long, long nap and when I woke from this dream I could go on with my life as it was before. Not this constant, nagging ache, this realization every morning before I could even open my eyes that something was desperately wrong and out of sync, what was it? Oh yes, now I remember. I don’t want to remember, I want to go back to sleep. But that awareness pulled me into the days and weeks ahead. And still, it remains.

** Editor’s note: My mom finally read this and told me it wasn’t raining that night. The whole week from the accident to burial was beautiful, clear and crisp. I remember the clear weather on Feb. 15 at the gravesite, but for some strange reason, I remembered it as raining the night of the 14th. So, a good reminder in memoir work…sometimes it may be wise to check with others who shared an experience. They have different memories of the emotions, events, whatever, but these little details aren’t subjective. Mom says I need to send stuff to her for fact checking now!