Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Human Soul on Fire

What's it like to think you're dying?
What's it like to radically change your life?

This is how my book opens. I've had a lot of people express interest in reading it, so I thought I'd offer a taste here, the first chapter of Arriving Again and Again (an odyssey of love, sex, spirit and travel).

The book is being circulated to agents and editors now. I can feel it's just a matter of time before it's birthed out into the world.

Chapter One:  The Trip of a Lifetime
“You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.”   - Walt Whitman

I awake to a charley horse in my thigh.
I’ve had a few charley horses in my life, the bizarre uncontrollable bulging of a muscle, especially when I was a teenaged synchronized swimmer spending dehydrating aerobic hours in the water, flexing and contracting my legs. Sometimes the cramp happened at home, sometimes in the pool. I’d be on my back, hands cupped and sculling hard, my leg straight up in “ballet leg” position, my toe pointed hard as a gymnast’s—and as though it had a mind of its own, my calf muscle would fist up, curling and turning tightly beneath my skin like a fetus beneath a belly. Sometimes it happened in the middle of the night, jolting me awake.
That’s what I think is happening this early morning, a charley horse. I am fifty years old.
My first thought is to jump up from bed. Yet suddenly I know that would be impossible. As I am pulled from sleep into waking, it dawns on me I am not experiencing your ordinary charley horse. Something is different. Significantly different. The muscle spasm grips not only my leg but, I soon realize, my whole body. Every muscle, every inch of skin—every internal organ, it seems—is seizing, transmuting from supple to solid. My toes cross. My fingers curl. An electrical force stampedes through me. A roaring—like the mysterious force of the world unleashed—fills my head. I try to yell out. An uncanny bellow not belonging to me emerges.
It’s as though I am simultaneously struck by lightning and run over by a truck.
Oh my god, I’m having a stroke or a seizure.
There is no way to cease this hurricane screaming through my body. This force will run its own course, and it’s going to take me with it, no matter what I do. I’m certain I’m dying.
A memory surfaces. The memory of a dream I’d been having moments ago, of Gabriele, my mentor, my friend, my other mother. She’s been dead for five months. Cancer carried her away. In the dream, she was aglow with health and light and love. Incredibly, right before I awakened into this bodily nightmare, just as I was poised on the pinpoint between life and death, she said to me:
The veil between the worlds is thinner than you think. When you really look, you can see the perfect beauty of it all. Moving from one state to the next is like lifting a gauze curtain. There’s no reason, ever, to be afraid of dying.
The dream felt so real—more like a visitation than a dream. Spoken to me just moments before from another realm, her words resonate through the rock of my body, despite the deafening roar that shrouds me.
I have been living my authentic life, says a voice. This voice is somehow simultaneously internal and external, somehow mine and not-mine. I’ve been saying yes to life. I have no regrets. We all must go sometime. It’s okay. Release to this experience. Release, release. No matter what, you are alright.
As though this mine/not mine voice waves a magic wand, fear melts away. I know I am on the brink of an adventure, the greatest adventure of all. It’s as though I am poised at the top of life’s rollercoaster, suspended between ascent and descent. That liminal space, that profound pause, that border that’s both here and there, that silence between breaths, between heartbeats. And I am buckled-in, safe.
Deliberately, purposefully, I let go of all resistance. I release to the plunge. I open my arms and my heart to the grand adventure, to the trip of a lifetime.
Here I go! It’s okay. It’s all okay.
And I disperse into nothingness.

Six months earlier, my husband Dave is driving us from our seaside town of Santa Cruz, California up into the Sierra Nevada mountains for a few days of skiing. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—our blue Subaru—bumps along the freeway in her knobby snow tires. It’s one of those crystalline winter days. The East Bay’s emerald hills stand out like pop-up book mountains against an indigo sky.
My phone rings. It’s our property manager telling me that the Love Nest, our Santa Cruz townhouse that we’ve rented for almost two years, is going up for sale.
We moved to small town Santa Cruz from a sixth-floor apartment complex in downtown San Jose. That apartment was conveniently located across the street from the campus where I teach, and two miles from Dave’s job at a start-up. We liked the urban life, walking to restaurants, the grocery store, the yearly blues festival, and campus events.
Yet in addition to being light-filled, the apartment was bug-filled. One too many bouts with cockroaches and bedbugs had left us with painful welts on our bodies and psyches. This assault was a profound challenge to my belief that we create our own reality. I mean, really? Part of me wanted these damn bugs to keep invading? Part of me wanted to be jolted from sleep because minuscule vampires were sucking my blood? Part of me wanted to throw away our mattress and wash every piece of clothing and bedding while our home-sweet-home was injected with clouds of poison whose yellow residue had to be laboriously scraped from the inside of the windows?
For weeks I sat awake on the corner of our sectional couch, scratching the red ridges on my legs and belly where the bugs had a feast. During those long, sleepless nights I’d said in my head, over and over: Something good is going to come from this. Something good is going to come from this.
I wondered if Job endured God’s wrath with such a mantra.
I figured that whether or not I created my reality, I had a choice about how to respond to it. Why not focus on a favorable outcome?
Indeed, something good came from the pestilence: It launched us out of the city apartment and into the Love Nest, three blocks from the beach. I’ve never lived in such a cool pad. It was built from redwood in 1962, the year of my birth. Its centerpiece is a globular fireplace suspended from a beam on the high ceiling. A spiral staircase leads up to an office loft and a light-filled bedroom. Rumor has it that the six-unit complex—with its unique wavy roofline—appeared in Sunset magazine back in the day. From the deck we can see a sparkly creek lined by bird-filled trees and hear sea lions barking from the wharf. In nice weather, faraway screams drift through the windows when the Boardwalk rollercoaster drops from its heights.
Dave and I love the water. He’s been a scuba diver for many years. When I first saw him dive into a pool and swim with the ease of a dolphin, I fell in love with him all over again. In our California towns a hundred miles apart, we both grew up swimming all summer, boating, fishing, water-skiing, snorkeling. As a teenaged synchronized swimmer on a team called the Mermaids, I fashioned myself a half-sea, half-land creature. And now, after meeting and marrying mid-life, Dave is my merman. It must have been meant to be since his family crest features a mermaid.
Because the ocean is cold in Santa Cruz, we don’t do much swimming. But we love to walk or jog on the beach, our feet invigorated by icy surf. We ride our bikes on paths that hug the shore. Sometimes we do yoga on the sand. We wander out to watch the sunset, breathing in the salt air. We watch the pelicans and gulls, the otters and dolphins. Sometimes we are graced by a whale spout. Once we had a bonfire on the beach with friends. Like teenagers, we were busted by a ranger who made us dump out our wine and beer. We laughed about that for weeks. Every once in a while, I’d remember that an infestation of bedbugs led us here.
So when we get the call that the Love Nest is being put on the market, my heart knocks and my palms sweat. I feel myself gripping harder and harder. Oh no, our beautiful home.
We could try to buy the place. But we aren’t sure we want to be home owners, especially in beachside California, some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. We have enough in savings for a down payment. But our income situation isn’t conducive to a mortgage. Dave is no longer working for the start-up. And I have recently decided to take an early retirement, at age 50, from the university. After spending my whole life as either a teacher or a student, I have only a few months left in academia.
There are a few things in our favor. Both of us will continue to receive excellent medical coverage upon my retirement. And when I’m ready, I can make as much money as I want—teaching or doing other things—which won’t jeopardize my small pension. Dave has some stocks that have the potential to perform well, but that’s like playing the lottery. And he’s open to any other business opportunities that might pop up. In the meantime we’ve planned to rely on our savings and figure it out as we go along.
Upon retirement, I want to write, to read whatever I want, to travel in months other than summer, to broaden my notions of what life can be. Maybe at some point I’ll develop writing and personal-growth retreats. In Dave’s case, in addition to being the domestic god of the house, he’s been doing some part-time telecommuting work. He enjoys cooking and photography. We are flexible and free—or unstable and irresponsible, depending on your point-of-view. This mixed disposition—part responsible citizen, part bohemian—drew us to each other in the first place. As did the fact that we love to travel and have no kids.
Deciding to leave my secure employment is a risk. I am doing it completely on intuition. I have a feeling that by opening up the space and time, unforeseen possibilities will float our way. I want to see what will happen in the fertile void.

And now, as though the universe is answering my call to change, in the vein of be careful what you ask for, our house is being ripped out from under us. Sitting in the car with Dave driving, my mind goes on overdrive. A mass of mixed feelings sweeps through me. I feel dizzy. A little sad. A tinge scared. I forget for a moment the Bed Bug Rule: that every single time something “bad” happened in my life, it has led to something good—some new growth, some unforeseen adventure. Something I couldn’t have imagined before. Some huge expansion of what life can be.
When I hang up the phone, I turn to face Dave. He sits calmly, hands on the wheel. Although he’s heard everything, I reiterate the details. Green hill after green hill rolls past. When I finish the run-down, we sit quietly for a moment. 
Then I say, or he says—one of us says: “So, what do you want to do?”
I feel a surge of excitement, a flutter of apprehension. We are on the precipice, the top of the roller coaster, the pause between ascent and descent. Something good is going to come from this.
As we cross the Martinez Bridge and speed toward the Sacramento Valley, we begin to talk. And talk. And talk. We play with possible scenarios, from making an offer on the Love Nest, to moving in with a friend who’s starting a communal living situation, to moving down elsewhere, to traveling. As we explore the options, I pay close attention to my feelings. It has taken me years to realize that my feelings are my guide. If something feels good, my intuitive needle is pointing true north. When I follow my excitement, I’m being true to myself. If I feel anxious or sad or angry, it’s time to ease up and not force myself to make a move. As we talk, when an idea delights me I linger, folding and unfolding the notion like an elaborate origami.
As much as clinging to the Love Nest is my initial inclination, when we float the idea of becoming homeowners, it feels a little like someone’s hands are clutching my throat. But that’s the responsible thing to do! says a voice like my father’s. Home owning is the American Dream! says a voice like a public service announcer’s. But who cares if it’s the American Dream if it’s not my dream? says my inner compass.
What about renting another place in Santa Cruz? No. Replacing the unique and beautiful Love Nest is impossible. And to try feels like moving backward rather than forward.
Soon it becomes clear that when we talk about doing something completely different, something new, I’m excited. When we talk about what we love—not what we feel we “should” do—my heart sings.
We love to travel. We love to spend extended time in places, experiencing various versions of life. We love to dive deeply into time with friends. We love to meet new people. We love nature and wild animal encounters. We love dancing to live music and hiking and yoga and skiing, feeling our bodies move in the world. We love trying new things. One of Dave’s favorite saying is: “And now for something completely different.”
We enjoy taking advantage of my summer and winter breaks, as well as our frequent flier miles and Dave’s propensity for finding good deals and creating itineraries. In just three years together, we’ve traveled a lot. We’ve been on an Alaska cruise, followed by a Western-states car trip including several weeks in Paradise Valley, Montana at the place of a friend. We saw bison, bears, elk, moose, and deer in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Park. At dawn, we floated down the Snake River and experienced the iconic sunrise painted by Ansel Adams. We spent several weeks in Mexico City with our friends Paul and Cathy. With two other couples, we took a rowdy music cruise in the Caribbean. Afterward we drove from Ft. Lauderdale to New Orleans. We road-tripped down to Southern California to visit groups of friends and my sister and her family. More recently, we got married in Hawaii. We swam with dolphins, snorkeled with turtles, and flew on a zip-line across a canopy of trees.
For my 50th birthday the previous November, Dave took me to Yosemite National Park for a night in the magnificent Ahwahnee Hotel. The desk clerk upgraded us to the Library Suite, complete with massive fireplace, four-poster bed, and a view of Yosemite falls splashing down thousands of feet of granite. I felt my parents’ presence. They met in Yosemite in 1956. Now, more than fifty-five years later, they were both gone. Dave knew being in Yosemite would be meaningful to me as I stepped into midlife.
Each journey takes us to a deeper level. Each trip extends our sense of what it means to move through, and be in, the world. Travel has become something more than a hobby. Travel, for us, isn’t separate from real life. We take literally the notion that life is a journey. Each trip, each adventure, is life.

It’s the perfect storm: In a few months, at the end of May, neither one of us will be locked into a job. And if we don’t replace the Love Nest with another house—if we aren’t paying rent or a mortgage—we’ll have more money to finance traveling. We can go places we’ve dreamed about. We can spend time with friends all over the world who’ve invited us to visit.
Suddenly it’s clear. I pull a notepad and pen from my purse. A spark has lit the fire within. Like two beings connected at the brain and heart, we create this list of things we’d like to do as a home-free couple.
We’ve barely reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains when we’ve charted out a year plan. We’ll talk to the landlord to see if we can stay two more months. Then I’ll be done with the semester, and we’ll be divested of our stuff: we’ll sell it, give it away, or put it in storage. The first of June, I’ll be officially retired, and we’ll be off.
In less than an hour, we’ve transitioned from home-dwelling creatures to nomadic ones. We’ve created the plan of our dreams. I know there are lots of details to square away, but we’ll take care of them as they come. No need to worry about tackling them now.
Perhaps the decision to hop on the open road is impulsive, but it makes sense.
 “You know what?” says Dave. His reflection wavers in the windshield. “We’ve been training for this our whole lives.”
I tuck the piece of paper into my purse. I feel a little dizzy. Unanchored. It’s time to sit back and watch the road unfold. I sense inside of me a kind of openness that simultaneously feels like flying and freefall.
I reach over to the dashboard, push a button to turn on a CD. The song “Something New” by Hot Buttered Rum fills the car:

We could fall away from here
But I have faith that the footholds will appear…
There’s not a force in this world, any place any time,
Like the human soul on fire.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Resist or Embrace

My dad always said, "The only constant is change." Being nomads shoves that reality in our faces a lot.

Yesterday we left our two-month house sit, saying goodbye to Max and Levi, the golden retrievers we cared for, and fell in love with. We also loved the house and the area.

Still, it was great to see Charlie and Jessica. They were thrilled the house was clean, the garden was thriving, and the dogs were happy.

Dave said he felt like our time there was a form of service. I hadn't quite thought about it that way, but I can see how it's true. We supported the home life of people who went to do good work in India. We did it for free--well, in exchange for a wonderful experience. It's all connected.

And now I feel like we have two new friends, people we met through Trusted Housesitters. When they came home, we had dinner waiting. We ate and talked--and did the same the next morning over breakfast. Then it was time to leave. They and the dogs walked us out to our car. I had tears in my eyes as we drove away, thinking about how I wouldn't be on the beach with those two sweet boys that day, and how I might never again hug their sturdy bodies.

There are four things I do that help me when I'm feeling sad:

1. I think about how sweet it is that I feel this way. That means capable of deep feeling, of loving and connecting.

2. I appreciate the hell out of the whole experience (the dogs, the Pacific Northwest, our journey as nomads who get to live so many different lives).

3. I turn my attention what's here (a drive through majestic pines)...

4. ...and what's coming up (Oregon coast! California redwoods! Music and friends in L.A.! Mexico!).

And so, five hours after leaving Port Townsend, Dave and I arrived in Cannon Beach, at the beach house of a friend. A friend so generous he let us use the house even though he's not here.

This morning we took a long bike ride on the beach. The beach is wide and long with packed sand that made for a spectacular ride. It was strange not having Max and Levi at our sides. But it was okay. The next thing comes no matter what. And we have a choice: resist or embrace.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What I Did when Someone Called Me a F***ing B****

Yesterday I took the dogs to the beach. What a gorgeous day. Everything glimmered.

Max came bounding toward me from the water and dropped a stick at my feet. When I bent down to throw it, Levi galloped down the beach. I wasn’t concerned; he always comes back.

I smiled when I saw from afar that he had approached two people with a dog, knowing how much he enjoys greeting other dogs. But as I got closer I could hear the women yelling. They were pulling on their dog’s leash to try to keep him away from Levi.

Soon I could hear they were swearing, yelling at me. Come and get your f***ing dog! What the f*** are you thinking you f***ing bitch?

Now I could see that Levi’s tail was wagging, and that he was nose-to-nose with their dog, a boxer mix, who was rearing back on his tight leash.

“Come! Levi, come!” I had to call a few times before he came to me. I put on his leash. I didn’t have one for Max because when I’m holding his stick, he won’t leave my side.

As I got closer, the women continued to berate me, calling me a f***ing bitch and an idiot.  Screaming at me to get both dogs on leash. My heart raced. My stomach tightened. I just wanted to get around them, like I would a raging fire.

Their words felt like physical blows. The urge to defend myself welled up. You’re the crazy bitches! The urge to justify: This is an off-leash area! There are dogs all over the place!

Noticing my mind’s machinations calmed me a bit. Was I going to get hooked? Was I going to add fuel to the fire?

As I skirted them—their dog lunging—one of the women screamed: “Get your dogs under control! Just because your dogs are nice doesn’t mean others are!"

To me, this place was a playground for dogs where they congregate and bound around together. I was tempted to say that, but I knew she wouldn’t hear me.

“Get your fucking act together!” she screamed.

I gave into the urge to say something, to lash back: “No wonder your dog isn’t nice,” I said. “You sure aren’t.”

“You’re giving me shit? Are you?” The woman not holding the dog moved toward me, chest out, fists clenched.

I didn’t respond, just passed by. I threw Max’s stick so he’d go running into the water, and picked my pace up to a jog so Levi would be redirected.

I felt bruised. Angry. Victimized. Those feelings moved through my body, like waves.

I thought about not taking it personally.

I felt hate welling up. I hated them. I hated the way they treated me.

I wanted to feel better. I knew that was up to me.

I took a few deep breaths. Watched clouds drift in the sky. I soothed myself: Good job, Kate. You didn’t freak out. You didn’t meet their aggressive energy. You calmly roped in the dogs and walked by, circumnavigating the conflagration.

Another woman with two off-leash dogs approached. My first thought was, Oh good, let them see I’m not the only one with off-leash dogs.

My second thought was, No, revenge might feel good, but it feels better to help someone out.

As our dogs sniffed each other, I warned her that around the bend were two women who were angry about off-leash dogs because theirs was aggressive.

“Why don’t they walk their dog somewhere else?” she said, pulling two leashes out of her pocket. “Well, thanks for the warning.” That felt good because my ego kept saying, I’m right, they’re wrong, I’m right they’re wrong.

Next I saw another woman gathering sea glass. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a light blue piece I’d picked up earlier. I said to her, “Would you like this one?” She looked at me like I was handing over a precious gem.

“Really?” she said.

“Sure,” I said, smiling, reveling in the good feeling of giving something away. My ego said, I’m a nice person. I'm a good person.

As I continued to walk, I thought about the times I’ve gone off on people: road rage, screaming during an argument, temper tantrums. I thought about times I've been blinded by anger.

Years ago I asked my therapist, “If I’m not supposed to repress my feelings or act out impulsively, what am I supposed to do with them?”

“Just watch them like bad weather,” she said. “They will pass.”

Pema Chodron says the root cause of aggression, conflict, cruelty is “getting hooked” by something someone else says or does. It’s a charged and sticky feeling. “And it comes along with a very seductive urge to do something. Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself.”

I recalled a dog I had years ago who was snippy with other dogs and, once, bit one of my friends. I loved that dog, but it was nerve-wracking taking her anywhere. I didn’t know how to handle her.

I know what it’s like to be scared, to be angry, to attack, to feel out of control, to call people names. I know what it’s like to lash out, to get hooked. 

Violence can beget violence or it can beget self-awareness. Empathy. Tenderness. It starts right here, with me.

The sky and the sea melted together at the horizon. Max came back to me and dropped his stick at my feet. I wished relief for the two women, for their dog, for me. I wished us ease. Joy. Peace.