A Note on Belonging

I had a pretty difficult time returning from both of my Caminos. The noise of American televisions, the lack of connection with people in your neighborhood as you walk down the street, the speed of everyday life. The biggest shock driving home from the airport was the rigid geometry of the streets in our suburban town. Everything was a square: the yards, the houses, the intersections.

My left brain, which found some sweet rest while hiking across Spain, grumbled out of hibernation as I tried to adapt back to a regular, monotonous town and schedule. The sound of English was jarring–I missed being forced to find the overlaps in our shared languages to interact.

On the other hand, the Camino opened a social doorway for me. On at least five or six occasions, I’ve had the chance to sit down with other Camino pilgrims and long-distance hikers right after they’ve returned from their own trips. No matter what we talk about, I always ask them the same question: how have you been adjusting to coming home?

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A Book Without a Story

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I’ve found that writing a book about an incredibly long hike often mirrors the metaphors of hiking the darn thing itself. Look back too often at where you came from, and you get wrapped up in premature editing. But an occasional healthy glance at where you started reminds you of your progress.

Last fall, I trudged through 85 pages of what essentially became free writing. It’s not all unusable but I did find that I ended up with a whole lot of boring writing that didn’t come from an honest place. Now, with new structure, I’m trying to hike my way through the pages themselves—starting with St. Jean Pied du Port and straight on to Santiago. I’m not allowing myself to veer off to discuss childhood memories or side stories no matter how tempting it may be. I will write what happened, as much as I can remember, and that will be that. Then, after reaching the end, I’ll weave in the stories that make the book about me, about why I went. That should work, right?

So far, not so much. I’m on page 14 of single-spaced writing and I’m only about 2 hours into my first day of hiking. Unlike a day at the office or even a day on vacation, time slows to a snail’s pace when hiking. So much happens over a period of 24 hours. And without a clear story of WHY I’m writing about all this yet, how do I know what to include and what to skip over? 14 pages on one day is too much to do to a reader. Continue reading

Learning to Write Again

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon painting two old adirondack chairs that we found on a curb in Cape May while on vacation. Frustrated with my writing, I hauled my grouchy self to Home Depot with a hoard of feisty gardeners and purchased outdoor furniture paint, some gorilla glue, and a whole bunch of sandpaper. For someone who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, the chairs don’t look half bad. I’m writing from one right now, rickety, gorilla-glued armrest and all.

My paid writing life seems to alternate between weeks packed with work and those with ample time to work on my non-paid, personal writing. I am currently having a slow week–hence the chair painting. I also made a cake and some really fancy-pants iced tea. Have I written anything I’m proud of this week? Negative. But look at that Santiago cake!

The one productive action I made toward my writing this week was to pick up one of Natalie Goldberg’s books I have yet to read, Thunder and Lightning. She begins the instructional collection with a harsh warning and a bit of regret. Her most well-known book, Writing Down the Bones, was one of her earlier publications, and now she wonders if she naively damaged those that she encouraged toward a writer’s lonely life. With the start of this book, she cautions her reader. “Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind, the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back. But I have made the journey and I have made it back–over and over again, I will act as your guide.”

Though her earliest book continues to provide guideposts for my writing, I can’t blame her for my questionable life choice. I’ve had a nagging narrative playing in my head since I was a kid. I even remember–during a particularly tense ride home in my parent’s car–planning to open my future book by describing the lightning storm that grew in the distance above the soccer field across the street from our house. If only I knew how to write anything past that.

It wasn’t until my first hike on the Camino did my writer’s voice have enough time and space to speak up and be heard. I’d hoped this second Camino–the one I completed last summer–would spark something new in me. Instead, as I whined to my husband last night, I’m left with a jumble of thoughts, piled in the middle of a room like a haystack, and I have no idea how to sort through it. Perhaps the older you get, the more discipline one needs to figure out what the hell you really want to say.

Anyway, I’m writing this post about not knowing how to write–one of many on this blog–to simply break my writing dry spell. When I was a kid, theatre was my true love. It was communal, celebratory, full of parties and rituals. Now, I am the only director, cast, and stage manager of anything I want to create–a true blessing and a curse. I no longer have to wait to be cast in something. It is my responsibility to put down the paintbrush, ignore the cake recipe, and simply write–even if it’s garbage.

But at least I picked up a helpful book today. And at least I received confirmation from a wise teacher about the ache that plagues each writer. “Now that you have been warned, let me also say this: if you want to know what you’re made of, if you want to stand on death’s dark face and leave behind the weary yellow coat of yourself, then just now–I hear it–the heavy modern doors of the cloister of no return are cracking open. Please enter.”

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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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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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Aaaaand We’re Back

Man.  Well that was something.

In a nutshell, we did indeed walk from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostella.  After a pesky foot injury, I came very, very close to skipping a stage by bus, but somehow it just never happened.  I’m not sure I’m proud of ignoring my body’s message, but my foot does seem to be healing, so there’s that.  It took 34 days, spanned 799 kilometers, and required one roll of kinesthetic tape, several boxes of bandaids, one container of compede, almost a full container of an ancient salve for pilgrim joints and skin problems, an unknown number of bottles of wine and plates of patatas bravas, several midday beers, approximately four emotional meltdowns, and a lot of pep talks.  Compared to my last Camino?  The word that keeps coming to mind is: harder.  My body, mind, and life is significantly different.  Processing all the moments of beauty and all the days of endless difficulties is something I am only, slowing beginning to tackle.  And writing it down feels a bit farther away. I can say for certain that the miraculous world of the Camino still provides all the love, protection, and support that anyone needs to get through the mountains of self-doubt and endlessly developing blisters the morning hours bring.  But more on that later. For now, my emotional brain needs a snooze.

After many years of waiting, obsessive planning, and borderline-neurotic budgeting, I am finally a freelancer.  On my first morning over here, I am currently one- for-one with showering, eating a proper breakfast, and putting on real-people clothing.  Ben bought me a sweet little bird statue and I have decided that he is my freelancing mascot.  I have yet to name him/her.  Perhaps Carmella II–after my Camino walking stick that I had to leave behind in Santiago. She will be missed.  Anyway, though I’m handling my panic quite well, this is all a bit terrifying–this whole “getting what you want and hoping it works out” thing. Three nights ago, I landed at JFK, bleary-eyed, confused, and crotchety after a full 24 hours of travel to get from a hotel room in Santiago de Compostella to the apartment I have dreamed of laying my eyes on for the past six weeks.

At the moment, I still feel odd even adjusting my eyes to the look of a computer screen. My brain has not required this type of focus since late June, and I’m shocked at how strange it feels to stare at one white square while trying to type this out.

So instead of totally freaking out at the freelancing task ahead of me, I’m starting with small, controllable steps.  And when I reach the day (hopefully very soon) when I can genuinely begin to piece together the stories from my second Camino, this will be its immediate home.

Until then, this is where I’m at logistically:

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Do Not Let Me Entertain You

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This is in response to today’s Daily Post, entitled “Invitation.”

If you go to the theatre, turn on a movie, stand in front of a work of art, switch on the radio–do not let me entertain you.  If you do, you are being tricked, you are missing the point, you are closing off a part of you due to fear, misunderstanding, the anxiety of truly looking at yourself.  Each piece of art–from the loud, frivolous musical to the subtle, abstract painting–evokes something in you that wasn’t there before, it creates.  It creates joy, nostalgia, anger, confusion, wonder, and perhaps even inspiration to change.  And whether the art pleases or angers you, it makes no difference.  What matters is that you went from feeling nothing–from moving along in a neutral day, from following the rhythm of the world, to distracting yourself by your own inner world—to stopping, to looking at the mirror that art provides for one moment, and challenging yourself to listen, to look.

With all the confusing anger around Meryl Streep’s speech and Hamilton providing a “safe space” and other misrepresentations of my field, I see the opportunity not to quiet these incorrect views of art, but to challenge them.  If these people, the ones who believe that art and artists are literally only meant to delight them, to make them feel more comfortable in their already comfortable states, well then I say, great!  I dare to you come to something truly challenging and try to leave simply, “entertained.”  I dare you to listen to an artist’s “unwelcome” opinion and walk around with it for one day before responding.

I keep reading,  “We go to see theatre for an escape, do your job.” But I ask you, if you only see art as an escape, what are you escaping?  Even asking yourself that question means that art has proved your thesis as incorrect.

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Tell Your Story. I Will Listen.

I started writing publicly about seven years ago.  And occasionally, there are dry spells that keep me from blogging.  I’m too busy, too distracted, or sometimes simply uninspired.  I whine and procrastinate, and come back to blogging eventually, toting apologies and resolutions.  However, this hiatus, the dry spell that was sparked by the election, has been more painful than anything I’ve experienced so far.  It wasn’t my determination or creativity that was questioned, but rather, my purpose–this blog’s purpose.

Up until yesterday afternoon, I honestly felt that creating anything new or trying to reach out to an audience was pointless.  I began this blog discussing how to stay creatively healthy in a field that often offers little to no financial stability.  It has evolved into a place to discuss Buddhism, personal stories, and even my experience with health problems.  And yet on the morning of November 9th, all I could think was, “Who cares?”  Why focus on building ourselves as empathetic, motivated beings, when the country is filled with such anger and chosen ignorance?

And then my house almost blew up…

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