Posts Tagged ‘Musings


It’s raining metaphors

Umbrella by Art.Lebedev Studio.

My original intention for this post was to compare life to the unpredictable nature of weather.

Since Spring has arrived, the weather in Amsterdam has become much more fickle and I find I can no longer make a semi-accurate forecast by simply reading the sky when I wake up. This usually worked for me in the winter, but I have lately found myself fooled on too many occasions. Lesson: you can’t judge the day’s weather based on how the sky looks at 7 in the morning, just wear layers and shoes (as much as you may hate it) and keep your stupid plastic rain pants handy.

And there it was, finally some neat and tidy little metaphor I could use to write another long-overdue blog post and remind those who read it that I have not, in fact, lost all of my fingers in some horrible accident. As I face yet another major fork in the road of life and do little but worry about every potential decision I have to make, I can look up at the changing skies and remind myself that I can’t judge something by how it looks at first, that I just have to grab my umbrella and walk out the door. Eureka! Blog, here I come! Everybody can relax now, I finally thought of something moderately clever to bore you all with for a good 3 idle minutes of your workday.

So, thusly motivated, I sat down to write and promptly realized how tired and overused not only this metaphor is, but also the subject matter in general. It bored me too quickly to even get through the first paragraph, and I realized it’s because I was basically about to rewrite the same post I’ve already written 10 times in different ways–most of them at this time last year when I was right where I am now (minus 9 months in Europe). The formula is this: my life is about to change dramatically, I’m facing another bunch of big scary decisions, I might not choose the right ones, there’s no way to know if something will work out until after it’s too late, but I have been newly reminded by some aspect of daily life that it’s all OK, that we just have to push on and make the best decision we can at the time and hope for the best. Ta-da! Enlightening, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, these cute little metaphors leave me still facing the stormy future with no fewer worries, and no more answers. And they probably leave you rolling your eyes at your computer screen thinking “deal with it” or perhaps clicking back to YouTube or textsfromlastnight where the real action is. And no, I won’t be offended if you click that link and do not read the rest of this post. It’s an addictive site.

The point is, the weather metaphor is as exhausted as I feel with so many impending decisions looming on the  horizon yet again. But no one is going to give me the answers, or even a little sympathy, and it’s time to change my attitude, stop worrying and start doing. As my mom always says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” And while I think that’s bull shit, and that some weather just sucks, I admit that it’s time to hitch up my big girl panties and take the next step, whatever it turns out to be.

I just hope I wear the right jacket.


View from the Top

the view from our chalet

They say dreams are more vivid at high altitudes.

To me that sounds like a load of crap, but my subconscious confirmed it recently when I spent a week in the Swiss Alps. After seven months living in the center of a major European city and traveling once a month to other major European cities, I was looking forward to a week in the mountains away from concrete, traffic and metros, in a place where I could raise myself  above cluttered streets and a cluttered mind.

What I found there in those mountains – aside from the most grandiose landscape I’ve ever seen – was indeed a higher level of consciousness and a more extreme range of emotions than I’ve reached in a long time; and it left me tired, despondent and agitated. All week, instead of floating around in my usual and comfortable mass of vague ideas, questions and worries, I found myself either digging for any kind of thought at all in my hollow icy cave of a brain, or desperately trying to flee an avalanche of inexplicable anxieties.

To be clear, it was definitely a relaxing week with little cause for stress – which is perhaps why I was so unnerved by the snowball fight going on inside my head. I was in Verbier on a ski holiday with my adoptive family, and I passed the time playing in the snow, looking after the kids in our chalet, eating good food, sitting by the fire, and reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All in all, a very nice way to spend seven days.

Though, being a California girl who’s always followed heat like a house cat moving across the carpet with the afternoon sun, I did feel out of my element in the snow. I tried snowboarding a few times on the baby slopes, and the cold, harsh reminder that I am and will forever be a big sissy hit me as hard as my ass hit the piste. Somehow I thought I’d be able to do it, but I’m just too scared to relinquish any amount of control and really go for it. I finally gave up (hating myself all the more) when the unhygienic Swiss lift operator who didn’t speak English grabbed hold of me for the third or fourth time to offer a boost on the drag lift, and I lost my balance and control and the thing ripped that plastic flying saucer from my crotch yet again. I lay there as that infuriating Swiss mountain boy stood over me shaking his shaggy head with pity that humiliates you in the way that only pity from such a lowly creature can.

We did spend one of the mornings at the village’s indoor swimming pool instead of the baby slopes, and I was able to enjoy water in the state of matter in which I feel much more comfortable, much more natural, much more – if you will – fluid. I closed my eyes, submerged myself, and there, swimming in that dingy community lap pool far past its prime, with the mountains gazing down on me like wise elders, my mind reached a quiet equilibrium. I let my body sail effortlessly through the water as my thoughts balanced calmly between the two opposing forces of all or nothing that challenged me the whole week.

That night I had a dream that looked and felt more real than the conscious world had seemed all week. I was flying. I steadily propelled myself forward using the same strength and ease with which I swim. I’d never been so convinced of coasting naturally through the clouds. When I woke up I thought how odd it is – how poetic – that somehow being higher in the physical, geographical sense means we are lifted up and pushed not only toward the sky, but toward our own elevated subconscious – that misty, clouded place that is always so far out of reach.

I appreciate the mountains for all their inspiring grandeur and humbling might, and bow to their power of challenging me physically, mentally and emotionally while on what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday; but ultimately, I think I’m better off down here, at sea level, where I can swim happily in the steady ebb and flow of my mind.


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: The Whole World and Your Life

it tolls for thee.

I’ve been exceptionally homesick these last few days. Perhaps it’s just another familiar wave of culture shock that pushes you inexplicably down, perhaps it’s hormones, or perhaps the cold weather is already getting to me. The cause could be anything; what I’m trying my best to ignore is the possibility that the homesickness is caused by something real, something in me that truly believes I was happier in California and should not have given that up.

But I did, and I’m here, que sera, sera, and I’m sure soon I’ll be experiencing another blissful moment – the kind of distinct happiness you can only get when you’re far away from what you know, and you’re proud for knowing you’ve begun to fit in.

Though, regardless of whether I’m floating in elation or sinking in loneliness, what I have to do is be present. Wherever I am, that is where I should be. Not back in my freshman year of college, sitting on the cafeteria patio with french fries on plastic trays, new friends at my side, and the warm Orange County evening settling over me. Not in the backyard of my childhood home, swinging on the hammock with a fudgesicle dripping down my tie-dyed cotton dress, and a sleepy plane lulling overhead in the California summer sky.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s masterpiece about 4 long days in the Spanish Civil War and my most recent selection from the Boekenmarkt in the Spui, delivered to me a sharp reminder of this. I was going to say that of course Robert Jordan had greater reason to live in the moment than I do, as his life was in constant danger as a guerilla bridge-blower behind fascist lines, but I won’t say that. If we all waited until our survival was in obvious danger to really pay attention, then we’d miss a hell of a lot.

“And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it. Now, ahora, maintenant, heute [and, might I add, the Dutch nu]. Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.”

A whole world and your life. It does sound funny, but of course that is what it is. Every minute of our lives – every memory and every single forgotten moment – fits together like a puzzle, a painting, a great galaxy. They are now a whole. And that whole exists in its only possible form, with each successive moment adding one piece, one brush stroke, one star. They are fixed. Permanent. And the only thing to do is to fully absorb each new thing that comes along, because only what happens now, and now, and now can change the way the whole turns out. And that, of course, is what matters. Living in the nu.


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Flat Worms

I made it a goal this year abroad to read as many classics or important books as I can. Majoring in English, I somehow still did not manage to get them all done in 4 years – a fact that actually surprises a lot of people. No, I have many, many more to go; the hard part is deciding where to start.

Luckily, it turns out that Amsterdam will decide for me. There is some sort of tax on books here from what I’ve heard, so the merchandise in the many English book stores is a bit out of my price range for regular purchases. They’re great stores, particularly the American Book Center, so I have to be careful not to get carried away and spend an entire week’s pay in one visit – maybe I’ll just treat myself on special occasions.

Fortunately, one Friday afternoon last month after spending a couple of wistful hours in the ABC, I stumbled upon the outdoor Boekenmarkt in the Spui, a weekly used and antique book market in one of the city’s squares that apparently only plays hooky during gale-force winds. It isn’t a huge market, but being full of books I could spend hours there even if I went every week – and most of the books aren’t even in English. There is one booth, to my delight, with a small but sufficient assortment of books that I can both read and afford to buy often.

The selection of classics is limited, which is perfect because it greatly reduces the decision-making process. It’s just an added bonus that most of them are cool old editions under 5 euros, and I get to spend the afternoon surrounded by books and people who love them.

My first choice was Cannery Row, a Steinbeck favorite that I’ve had on my list for some time. It’s a short, easy read and the setting and characters are instantly appealing. I’d suggest that anyone who struggled with The Grapes of Wrath at the age of 16 give this one a try. It draws you in immediately and won’t disappoint.

It’s one of those books that I knew I would enjoy with the first sentence: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Such a random assortment of things that it somehow makes clear and perfect sense. Especially as the book goes on.

What I really love and feel can be applied to life and literature in many ways is what he offers at the end of his short opening:

“How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

To see the capturing of flat worms, a small and obscure project to say the least, as this great metaphor for the way stories are told and lives are lived – this is why we should read his books. And why I’m glad the Boekenmarkt placed this one front of me.

The flat worms remind me somewhat of my time in Amsterdam thus far. It’s certainly different than my last experience abroad – a shorter length of time in which I had a built-in social network of students and I did nothing but sight-see and travel and learn about the culture the entire time. Here I am mostly alone aside from the family and scattered random social engagements, I work 35 hours a week, and I have less money to spend on travel. I struggle with the fact that I am living here, that I can’t be doing and seeing and going to museums every second because I have some serious assimilating to do.

It’s like the window in the corner of my bedroom that leaks when it rains. I can’t hear any drips, but when I wake up in the morning or come upstairs at the end of the day – having battled the rain outside or listened to it falling on the rooftop as I fell asleep – there is always a little puddle there.

I don’t realize how much I’m doing or learning or adjusting to here until I step back and really look at it. Without noticing I’ve situated myself over the last 2 months into this city and into a new life abroad. I showed up on September 5, and since then the experiences and transformations just started to ooze, crawl and leak into my life on their own.


Coming Full Circle… and then going

It’s unnatural to leave a circle, to disrupt the seamless connection of meeting ends, to break away in a crooked line shooting off in another direction. If this were natural, our most fundamentally important geometric shape would resemble something like a sun drawn by a 5-year-old in a rendering of a landscape: a squashed oval with jagged rays protruding in every which way. But a circle is a circle is a circle – perfect, whole, complete. Like the moon, our eyes, a wheel, a crown, wedding rings, even the click wheel on an iPod, or perhaps an orange. So many vital, core things in the human world are circular (or spherical, if we want to get technical), and they remain that way because it makes the most sense.

I believe this is the reason that many people struggle with the traffic circle in the quaint downtown where I attended college. Visitors navigating the roundabout for the first time often become confused and frustrated when trying to figure out how, when and where to turn off (though there are only four options). Once you push your car into the oncoming traffic swinging around the loop and speed up to join the rushing, honking drivers, all while watching for pedestrians, it’s difficult to take a sharp right and break from it. The momentum continues pushing you around and around until you lose vision of your turn-off, your destination.

I realized this is also the way I went through my time spent in college and Southern California. I got in and started cruising the loop at top speed, ignoring the reality that college is, in fact, a terminal arrangement until they were forcing the diploma into my tightly closed fist. I wanted to scream at them to keep it, that I was staying, that nobody could make me do the things I’m destined to do, to branch out in life and use all the things I learned to enrich my existence and even the world around me. No! The child in me wanted to hang around drawing jagged yellow suns in coloring books and pretend there was nothing else in life worth doing.

But I accepted the diploma, spent a couple extra months in town trying to say some goodbyes, and I left. I left the home I made for myself and all the people I have come to love. On the evening of my first day of college, I grabbed a person I had just met and we walked down the street to sit on the benches in the middle of this traffic circle (ironically called Plaza Square). We watched the colorful fountain and learned about each other. I have since spent many hours in that circle – with that same person, with others, and often alone – observing the quiet rushing movements of life around me and listening to the changes occurring within myself. It became a sort of nucleus for my time spent there, and it was the last place I sat (with the same person who I brought there the first time) in the town that was my home of the last four years. Then I got in my car and found my turn-off.

It’s difficult to remember when rushing through a circle that you can leave it just as easily as you entered it. Turning off is no more complicated or difficult than turning in, it just involves changing your speed in different ways. I drove away from my college life just as plainly as I drove up to it, with a bunch of crap piled in my trunk and a very familiar fear of the unknown weighing on my shoulders. Though the circle may look unchanged and the circumstances seem similar, I can be confident knowing that I took what I needed as I sped through that rotation, and because of that the next circle I come to will be even easier to enter.


Adverbs are Ridiculously Overused

The Vons grocery chain and I have something in common, I’ve observed. A generous professor recently used some of his summer hours to review the senior thesis paper I wrote to help me improve it for graduate school applications. He suggested some restructuring and pointed out that I use too many adverbs, throwing any credibility or authority I might have had right out the window. I’ll admit I often turn to them as an easy way to emphasize a thought, but I try to be creative about it and I wasn’t aware it was such a problem.

Shortly after he alerted me to this – suggesting I comb through the paper and simply pluck each adverb out – I was driving to LA and noticed a couple new Vons billboards for their current ad campaign. The first is a close-up of some nice red cherries, next to a picture of cheesecake with cherry topping. It looks delicious and all that, but it’s hardly noticeable behind the giant and absurd description the Vons marketers placed over it: BRAZENLY SCRUMPTIOUS.

I scoffed, rolled my eyes, wondered who comes up with this stuff…then I realized with terror that my paper is like one enormous Vons ad! I could have written that line! Because I had to turn to marketing slogans because I never got into a literature program at a graduate school because my writing sample was littered with adverbs! I’ve been pulled from a horrible downward spiral from which I might never have escaped on my own.

Having made this brutal realization, I calmed myself knowing that it’s not too late to change my ways. On my way home from LA I saw another billboard: slices of watermelon that are LUDICROUSLY REFRESHING. Ludicrously? Are they kidding? I vowed once and for all to rush home and revise my paper immediately. I would go shopping down every line for all the adverbs, tossing the rotten “immensely’s” and “enormously’s” out, and keeping only the ripe stand-alone adjectives and verbs in my cart.

While cherries and watermelons might be must-have summer favorites, somebody should tell Vons that ridiculous adverbs are not ingredients for life, and certainly don’t make fruit sound any more appealing.


Small Fish in a Big Pond

I find that the beach is a good place to go when in need of what we like to call a reality check. I usually go for the obvious reasons, and leave with some fresh life reminders to go with my fresh sunburns. The beach is one of the few places that still clings to the simplicity, purity and romance that many recreational activities have lost in today’s over-stimulated and highly charged culture of technological entertainment. We take it for granted because it’s always been there, but it really is a wonder that people of all walks of life will gather in one place just because it’s where water meets sand. They all just go, lay around on their towels, and play.

Most of these people do this without much clothing on, and this is where some of my reminders come from. Some people remind me that I am actually in much better shape than I give myself credit for. Others, especially here in Orange County, remind me that just because it’s summer that doesn’t mean it’s OK to overindulge on frozen treats and forget I ever learned how to use a rowing machine.

Though I do enjoy studying the fascinating showcase of the human body to be found on a summer day in Newport, I like to think I spend more time pondering the meaning of life than the meaning of stretch marks and undersized swimsuits. It’s easy to do a lot of profound life-thinking, because another thing the beach reminds me is that silence is golden. Or perhaps a nice shade of sand. I remember that it’s OK – no, vital – to just be sometimes, with our without a friend, a book, an iPod.

So, while I’m at the beach just being, I can’t help but think about that giant thing called the ocean. I am drawn to it, in part, because it reminds me of how small I am, how insignificant. And I know it’s a tired metaphor, but it’s refreshingly humbling to compare oneself to a grain of sand. If this is accurate, it means that our overwhelming fears, anxieties and seemingly unsolvable or unending problems are actually nothing. Dust, specs, molecules, atoms. Minnows swimming around meaninglessly in the stormy, surging world we live in, leaving nothing but a few unlasting bubbles in our wake. This is a comforting thought.

Unfortunately, it also means that our accomplishments, loves, hopes and dreams are nothing. Minnows and tiny bubbles. I love to think that my problems are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, but I don’t so much enjoy diminishing everything that I live for to the relative importance of small fish.

Is it possible to have both? To maintain a healthy perspective on our problems while still seeing our proudest moments and greatest achievements as things that truly matter, that give meaning and beauty to the world? Isn’t it cheating to see the bad stuff as unimportant and the good stuff as momentous and great? Is it better to see everything we do and think and have and lose as trite and insignificant, or to see it all as seriously consequential? Which state of mind can better keep us going every day?

Here is when I leave the beach. I remind myself that while just being is an important thing to do from time to time, sometimes it’s better to get myself to the gym and spend time thinking about nothing but my score on the erg – however big or small the number is.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
January 2019
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