AOC Challenge Week 2: Coffee and People Watching!

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I thought about while hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here. In a nutshell, the past year’s terrifying political climate has distanced me even more from my community, and I’m seeking 52 ways to reconnect with other humans and cultures. I hope it will be a helpful–albeit, wacky–guide for those feeling the same way now or in the future.

My weekly challenge hit an early-in-the-year snag because my “Camino knee” has started acting up again. Apparently whacking my leg against a kickboxing bag isn’t great for a messed-up knee joint. So alas, my plan to try Kundalini Yoga for this project must wait a few weeks.

And so, this suddenly left me without an Act of Conneciton for week two. Enter my favorite freelancing coffee shop–something I’ve very quickly learned to take for granted after only 4 months of freelancing. When I worked in an office–even though it was incredibly social and friendly–I found myself hitting a wall of loneliness by 11am. By nature, I need to move around, see the outdoors, and balance my alone time with seeing other human beings in order to stay sane.

Well, freelancing at home–as much as everyone drools over the potential of doing so–can be just as lonely. I find myself explaining my schedule to my cat, turning on podcasts to here another human beings’ voice, or hoping that the mailman will FINALLY wave back when he drops off our mail at 11. He’s got stuff to do, I get it. But I will befriend him if it’s the last thing I do.

Anyway, as I sit here in Montclair’s cozy, wood and burlap-filled coffee shop, desperately trying to find an activity to take the place of my yoga, I noticed something. It’s Thursday afternoon and this place is packed. In an office, I thought the world slowed to a halt during the week, that everyone else was wandering around with babies at this hour, that it would be quiet and tedious. And yet, as I sit here, I am watching a four-person knitting club, about 12 similar freelancers typing away like me, an arts society meeting (I eavesdrop), and the occasional adorable local toddler with her babysitter coming in for a cookie.

The man in the knitting group just finished the top of an ENTIRE sweater and put the darn thing on as he finished. That’s insane to me. I can’t finish half a scarf without it turning into an abstract dish rag. The arts society is a diverse group of feisty locals talking about benefitting a local nonprofit with their next event.  The pair sitting to the left of me has been talking about starting a fashion consulting business and the barista is talking about his trip to Spain. All of this buzz is topped off by lively Michael Jackson music.

If we’re really lucky, this adorable two-year-old comes in with her sitter, and let me tell you, she is the star of the neighborhood. Since they come in around the same time every day, she knows the baristas and half the usual writers sitting here sipping their third coffee. High-fiving a toddler wearing a unicorn hat is a welcomed break to editing marketing copy.

So why does this matter? And why would all these random people in one make-shift office mean so much to me? Because for at least five years, all I’ve dreamed of doing is joining their ranks. It never fails in helping me beat the midday blues. A packed Thursday morning coffee shop is a reminder that things are happening, even when I feel like the world has stopped within my own small bubble. People are meeting, creating things, starting new ideas. And I’m allowed to be among them. This energy is infectious. You don’t have to talk to your cat or feel like the world is disappearing when you sit among this energy.

But experiencing this simple phenomena has nothing to do with freelancing. The first time I ditched life for a coffee shop was during my semester abroad in London. I was incredibly overloaded, getting sick, and was simply burning out. So I took off on a Monday and wandered through the streets of London. I was a stranger, unseen, weaving around the bustling business folk. I had no plan, no destination, just the chance to blend and become invisible a crowd of Monday people.

I eventually ended up in a cafe with a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee, journaling about all the crap I needed to get out of my head. The weekday coffee shop saved me. And it has continued to save me.

So I will put this on my list: when feeling disconnected, pick a local, small-business coffee shop and come soak in the energy of the place in the middle of the week. If you can, take one day off, or just take a longer lunch.

It didn’t occur to me until recently that non-writers may not spend as much time soaking in this world as I do. People-watch, write and ramble in a journal, doodle, read a book. Just soak in the energy of a community. It’s an ambivert’s dream! You get the energy of being social without having to talk to anyone!

Until next week, thanks for reading, all.

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AOC Challenge Week 1: I Punched Some Things!

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I thought about while hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here. In a nutshell, the past year’s terrifying political climate has distanced me even more from my community, and I’m seeking 52 ways to reconnect with other humans and cultures. I hope it will be a helpful–albeit, wacky–guide for those feeling the same way now or in the future.

Week One: CKO Kickboxing class in Lyndhurst, NJ

“So what happens if you can’t keep up and need a break?” I asked Ben, panicked, “do you just lie down on the ground?”

“Like in the fetal position?!” he asked.

“That’s what you do in yoga class!”

I wish this was me, I dig her tattoos. But alas, it is an awesome stock photo by Matheus Ferroro.

It feels odd starting this challenge with a kickboxing class. But connection comes from unexpected experiences, and I’m a little tired of the traditional advice for feeling less alienated in today’s society. So I figured, let’s start out with a bang. Or a punch. Oh boy.

My husband Ben has been kickboxing for years. Though I took one trial class with him years ago, I never got the courage to get myself back in there. These classes are no joke. They put my hiking strength to shame. But they also supply something I didn’t even know I needed until it was available to me–the opportunity to safely hit something with all my might.

It’s important to note that I am not a violent person. I carry fruit flies outside in cups (they only get a month to live!). I’m still thinking about a spider I killed because it came at me in the shower a month ago. And yet, an hour of slamming my body into a heavy bag of sand made me realize how much I’d been missing out on. If anything, it will keep me–and probably many others–from ever getting angry enough to be violent in the first place. It also, much to my surprise, became a plausible act of connection perfect for this project.

Expectations vs. Reality

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The 2018 Writing Project, Title TBD

1. The Inspiration

About two weeks into my hike across Spain this past summer, I posted this status on Facebook:

“Since I arrived, many people have asked why I decided to return to the Camino a second time. And honestly, I’ve found myself somewhat stuck on how to answer. All I know is that I needed to come back–but a less-than-clear answer has continued to bother me.

And then a few days ago, after running into quite an angry, confrontational, Trump-supporting pilgrim (an extreme rarity all around), I found myself asking why on earth he would choose such a pilgrimage–one that accepts all and celebrates every belief. I sat in a church, angry and crying, after he confronted me about my thoughts on protecting the environment. A difficult reality I had managed to avoid since leaving home came rushing back.

Since then, I’ve felt my guard up, worried I would see him again. But as I continued on today, and saw my line of fellow pilgrims friends ahead of me, I was reminded of something very important. Each day–on the Camino, other pilgrimages, and in everyday life–there are people all around the world seeking to grow and change in some way, to become more connected. The reason for seeking change is not important, what matters is that they know they can be better–more honest, more compassionate.

This is what I share with the pilgrim who confronted me. Why we came here does not matter–what matters is that we knew we needed to. And as angry as he made me feel, he is several kilometers behind me, with pilgrims surrounding him on all sides day after day. He is encircled by the fierce inclusivity of the Camino. We experience the same sunburn, the same blisters, we are taunted by the same relentlessly unchanging horizon of the endless Meseta–a sight that forces every pilgrim to reassess the contradictions of their character. In the end, there is no escaping the mind on this journey, and both he and I are no exception.

I will trust that the road, the welcoming eyes of the hospitalaros, and the unmatchable bond of a fellow pilgrim–no matter their beliefs or background–opens his mind to his angers and fears, no matter what his reasons for starting out on this bizarre journey. And I hope it does the same for me.

Whether I have future Caminos ahead of me or not, I do know I will continue to seek actions of connection, for it’s here that I am reminded of the genuine fierceness and determination of the human spirit to grow–even without goals, expectations, or a clear reason why.”

I never ran into this particular pilgrim again, at least not long enough to continue our discussion. What I did experience were countless moments of connection that bridged the spaces between age, country or belief. The Camino is an even playing field. You cannot “win” or “be better” at the hike than anyone else. Because of this, you are all the same, you guide and you bolster, you lovingly challenge while accepting your own mistakes. It is both a time to listen and a time to share your own story. Each human contributes to the spirit of the whole.

When I returned, my expected post-Camino crash kicked into action. The same thing happened after I returned in 2009. It’s a bit like working on a play and dealing with the indescribable loneliness in the few days after the production closes. Your temporary family parts ways, and though you promise to reunite as often as possible, you know deep down that it will never be the same. Life goes on, separately.

2. The Problem

I feel lucky to have seen this love, both in theatre and on the Camino, but the crash that comes from the return has opened my eyes to another problem: these opportunities of connection are often hard to find without encouragement. Even when Facebook helps us remain in touch with loved ones, we’re still looking through a glass screen in the solitude of wherever we are.

This past fall, Harvard Business Review did a study called Work and the Loneliness Epidemic. It states that over 40% of American adults report feeling lonely. It goes on to describe the psychological and therefore physical outcomes of stress and loneliness and how our social and professional structures do little to combat the growing space between communities.

As an actor and a writer, I’ve sat at many a reception desk for days at a time. As a temporary outsider, I often hear the otherwise-unspoken secrets of the office. I become the confessional booth for pent-up, disconnected corporate communities, unable to approach one another with their issues. In the heart of a human-packed city, people are bursting at the seams for true connection.

On the other side of the spectrum, I occasionally visit my hometown up in Sussex County, NJ, an area that has three main roads connecting it to the rest of the state. If these roads are snowed out, well, you just don’t go anywhere. When I visit my parents and run errands in town, I see the same looks of longing. I’ve gotten in long conversations with waiters, store clerks, old friends just about wanting to do something else, to feel more than their daily lives, to change.

This sense of disconnection, of not really belonging anywhere, bridges all demographics. Even if we’re surrounded by loving family, a passionate religious community or a job that hosts weekly coffee gatherings, this feeling of separateness can still ring true. If anything, it can be a bit worse because then it comes with the feeling “if I have all this, why do I feel alone?”

3. The Idea

I’ve decided that in 2018, I need a project, a tangible action. One that helps others based on feelings I deeply understand. 2017 was a challenging, relentless year. I feel taken apart, knocked down and a bit like there is no ground beneath my feet. This puts me in a perfect place to begin building again.

I would like to launch a year-long writing project that explores weekly “Actions of Human Connection.” I’m still working on this phrasing and would love ideas or feedback on the title.  Each week, I will write–narrative-style, since that seems to work for me–about one action someone can do to begin easing this feeling of separateness. It may be small, something possible to do on your own: go to a museum and experience a piece of history or work of art that lets you into the mind of someone from 100 years ago. Or it could be difficult, something that requires years of planning: how to walk a 500-mile pilgrimage, for example, or running a Tough Mudder. But mostly, it will be everything in between–practical actions that you can do to reconnect with a world that feels far away.

As someone who has battled with depression, sometimes all you’re capable of doing it laying and watching your computer screen. Well, perhaps there’s even a version of that for this project. I want it to be a guide for the days when you feel there is nothing to do, for times when you need something more, or that something is missing. Instead of saying “how can I improve my appearance, weight, health, etc.” this will be a guide to “How can I feel I am part of the narrative of human experience?”

With two days left in the year, I have quite a challenge ahead of me: try to begin planning 52 actions of connection, one for each week.

4. Where You Come In

For this, I would love your help. How do you reconnect with the world or with other communities when you feel separated? Do you have a religious or spiritual community? A running club? A knitting club? Or do you visit somewhere on your own–a particular park, a movie theatre, a library? Do you volunteer with an organization? Do you visit the zoo?? Do you see a play?

Anything. I want to hear them. And if you’re part of a community that I am not a part of, such as a religion, I would love to come with you to a service. I mean all religions. I’ve never felt it would be respectful for me to go alone, but if it would be appropriate for me to tag along as an open-minded guest, I am all for it. I want to see and tell the story of where we are connecting, where we’re succeeding in coming together.

As always, thanks for reading. This blog has often become my own lifeline, my own way of feeling heard and reconnected.

Sending all my love to you this New Year’s Eve.

 

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On The Other Side of Oral Surgery

Pain meds + iced cream + ice sculptures

Last night, I broke down crying over a slice of bread because it had seeds in it. Man, was I excited to try that bread, it was supposed to be a victory lap after three-and-a-half days of very successful healing. But I’m not supposed to eat seeds yet, and this bread turned out, had seeds. And that was the end of me. I fell into a pit of self-despair as I poured myself another damn bowl of soup.

Obviously, the break in my emotional dam was not really about seeds. This has not been a good few months. When I got back from the Camino in August, I developed a white spot on one of my gums next to a crowned tooth. As someone with unexplainable dental issues since childhood (one of those issues being a debilitating fear of dentists), this spot sent me into a panic and a slump. As a child, I ate the same amount of sugary junk any other 90s child seemed to eat, and yet my friends came out with clean bills of health from the dentist, and I did not. I didn’t get it. I brushed, I flossed, I used that mouthwash where you squeeze the bottle and it fills up the cup on the top. As an adult, I’m borderline obsessive about my teeth. I was excited to work from home so I could brush my teeth more. I’ve nearly completely cut out sugar and I’ve looked into acid reflux. And so I linked my oral health to humiliation and the inability to do something right. It must not be enough, I must be doing something wrong. No one else talks about tooth issues, so it must just be me, right?

Back to August:

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A Story About a Bee and a Hug

On the second-to-last day of our hike to Santiago, Christina and I weren’t exactly on the top of our game. While Christina’s physical health was wavering, my mental stability and patience with the trip fell more and more each minute. I was growing weary of the whole ordeal, which is not where you want to be at the end of a spiritual pilgrimage.

After failing to find a bed in the cozy private hostel nearby, we ran across the speedy highway to a small “village,” made up of one bar, the public hostel, and a gazebo with a Jesus-looking man selling books (if the historically inaccurate white Jesus from your American Catholic School textbook aged a few years and sold books on the side of a dirt road).

He waved with kind eyes and his yellow lab came out to greet us. This made me laugh a bit, as I had been making a “joke” in my head for about a week of wanting to find Jesus. Not in the sense that many Christians mean–though I deeply respect their beliefs, I do not share them. Instead, this Buddhist on a Catholic pilgrimage was slowly turning into a grouchy insomniac with a bruised bone on the top of her foot that just wanted to go home. And so, I had spent the past week desperately longing to rediscover the human connection millions had found in these little Camino villages, churches, and roads, but had somehow eluded me the closer we got to our destination.

We waved back and walked down the road to a bench outside the albergue (Camino word for hostel), as it did not open until 1. It was noon. As Christina tried to prop herself up and sleep a bit, her obvious fever growing, giant Mack trucks flew by us approximately every 10 seconds. Hoards of happy, energized pilgrims that had only just started their walk a week prior, bounced on to the next city, waving as they passed and looking with an air of “You alright?” each time.

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5 Elements of the Camino Our Country Could Really Use Right Now

On many hiking days, hiding in the safety of the Camino de Santiago often offset the incessant pain of walking 15-18 miles a day, though it was hard not to feel guilty about turning a blind eye to the news back home. With spotty wifi connections and a goal to, you know, focus on the spiritual pilgrimage, we usually allowed ourselves the privilege to only check in about the news with family, opposed to falling down the Facebook rabbit hole every afternoon. Having family members as a filter was a gift, but there is only so long one can run to the mountains and ignore what’s going on.

Adjusting back to real life has been odd, to say the least, as it was after my first Camino in 2009. Not only does your body go into walking-withdrawal, but the mental transformation of a 500-mile hike comes in strange and often-confusing waves of mood swings and the urge to hide under the covers and never come out.

The biggest shock, however, is the urge to try and spread what you see and experience when a group of strangers embarks on an ancient pilgrimage together. It is the “great adventure” we dream of as kids, the outlet for that nervous energy you feeling sitting at a desk as an adult. There are few words for it. What happens between a group with the same common goal–a goal to understand themselves better through a ridiculous physical feat–is a part of human nature we’ve suppressed. But the world needs the lessons of the Camino right now. So, I will do my best.

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It’s Time To Clear Off the Tables

Photo via Unsplash

Last night I had a dream about climbing a snow-covered hill on the Camino.  I could see a group ahead of me, Christina and some other familiar faces among them, all cresting the hill and out of sight.  It wasn’t snowing, but there were at least six inches of thick wet slush on the trail, weighing down each step. Suddenly, a strong wind lifted me off my feet and carried me, not unlike a bird caught in a crosswind, off the trail and into an adjoining field.  I saw my fellow pilgrims getting further and further away, continuing on as I stood far from the path.  Just up the hill from my landing place, was the extension of a long, endless cafe.  The building began at the crest of the mountain, back on the Camino itself, but stretched out all the way to my part of the field, like a long one-floor corridor with old dusty windows and wood-framed doors.

When I walked up to see inside, rows and rows of unused, antique cafe chairs and tables lined the corridor, clearly untouched for years.  It had a spooky, forgotten quality, and I worried in the dream that I might see something unexpected in the shadows of the dream cafe.  But suddenly, in the distance back by the trail, I saw the cafe’s lights begin to flicker on, showing signs of life for the first time in what was clearly a long time.

As quickly as the first gust came along, another gust of wind lifted me back to the Camino and I enthusiastically began to climb to the snowy hill to catch up with my fellow pilgrims.  The incline became so steep that I began digging my hands into the snow, pulling myself up the hill.  But I wasn’t angry or afraid at this point, just fighting through the all-too-familiar exhaustion faced at the end of each Camino day.

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An Afternoon of (Almost) Writing, or How to Make Pumpkin Chili

At the start of this post, I have one completed article, three new article pitches, and a slow cooker full of pumpkin chili.  What I do not have, my dear friends, is a single additional word of either my book outline or actual book that I set the past four hours aside to work on.  Nope.  Not a word. Instead, my big day of writing went like this:

It’s 11am, and I finish and submit my article to an editor–this my paid “day job” writing.  This particular article addresses meditating during your workday.

Since I now feel like a hypocrite–sitting in pajamas while doing work, NOT having meditated–I sit on down and meditate for about 15 minutes, all the while thinking about how to keep my cat from scratching up the decorative baskets I keep next to my meditation area.

11:30: I clean up all the scraps from the ripped-up baskets, realize the rest of the room is covered in a mountain of fuzz, and continue to clean.  Cleaning is important!

It is now noon.  I should sit and finish my book outline.

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How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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The Permission to Scream

Last night, I had a dream about screaming at the top of my lungs.  In a normal situation, this would have been a nightmare. But since I am only two weeks out from Camino #2, nothing is quite normal.  My knees don’t really straighten yet, my calluses are still hideous, and more importantly, I’m having dream flashbacks to conversations from four weeks ago:

After a rather scary, 90-degree hike into Los Arcos, on what I remember to be the 4th or 5th day of hiking, Christina and I sat down to dinner with two of our favorite early Camino family members–Patrick and Steve.  Patrick–a feisty Irish guy in his 60s–was on his second Camino…that month.  He had gotten to the end of the trip a week or so prior, only to come back to the start and begin again.  His reasoning for this is currently lost in my cloud of fuzzy memories, but it doesn’t really matter for the sake of the story–and people make wilder decisions in the world of the Camino anyway.  People at home think 500 miles is insane, but in that world, we’d all made that decision, and people had come much farther. No one questions it though; no one asks “Why the hell are we all just walking in that direction?” or even, “Why don’t we stop putting our bodies through this pain?”  No one asks because the why either doesn’t matter or doesn’t change the fact that we’re there either way, trusting that we aren’t supposed to have an answer.

Anyway, dinner with Steve and Patrick.  We named Steve the patron saint of afternoon drinks. Though he was nearly a generation above us, Steve beat us by hours each day, even in the heat of that infuriating, direct-sun trudge through the open dessert before Los Arcos.  I had reached a point of heat so extreme that my sweat was colder than my skin–a creepy sensation that makes you feel like you’re sweating ice water.  Probably not ideal.  By the time we reached the town, I was ready for any structure that provided shade or produced water.  And yet without fail, Steve was already on the patio of the albergue, sipping a cold glass of white wine as we dragged ourselves in, red and panting from the heat.

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