Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be

Participating, as opposed to standing around gawking, is valued here, so as I planned this trip I sought out a place where I could contribute to make the magic happen. It’s Monday morning. The dust is resting and the sky is blue here at Burning Man and I’m off for my first shift as an assistant stage manager for the Center Cafe.

I like the idea of this stage, where only original material is performed twenty-four hours a day. Years of writing self-published science fiction has left me with a huge soft spot for artists of all types who summon up their inner muse and then unveil those fragile creations in front of a potentially hostile world.

When I arrive, I find a universe that is gentler and more accepting than I hoped. Staff and performers hug, compliment and encourage. Some acts are polished and great fun to watch. Others are raw creations, not ready for prime time elsewhere. Yet, they are cheered on by this coffee-sipping audience that seems to understand the fragility of nascent artistry .

I receive quick and generous praise from everyone for being a warm, helpful and happy human. How odd. Is this worthy of praise?

Then it occurs to me. Back in the default world, I often work at being less helpful than I want to be. Less warm, less encouraging. I make an effort to smile less. I’ve had decades of signals from others that my natural behavior is at best odd and at worst downright annoying.

Here? I’m not doing that. And they seem to like it. A lot. Wow.

After four joy-filled hours of finding kind words for everyone that crosses my path, I’m high as a kite. I’m being myself and it is more fun than I’ve had in a long while.

Burning Man is considered by many who don’t know much about it to be a yearly drunken and drugged-out Bacchanalia involving sex, nudity and general bad behavior. Yes, I suppose there is some of that, though I’ve encountered little to none.  Camp mates tell me most of the hard partying I’ve heard of will happen late in week when non-participants pour in. The little that is happening now? You really have to go looking to find it.

Thanks to people I’m close to, I already know of other sides to this event. There is the self-reliance of erecting what is essentially a tent city for 80,000 in a place where the alkaline soil is so damaging that there is zero plant and animal life. That’s right: no cacti, no lichen, no ants, no scorpions, no bugs. Nothing lives here, except for a lone type of microbe in the soil. And 80,000 people for one week every year.

There is also a sense of community. We help each other; we give gifts of words, actions and things. As I leave the Center Cafe I wander around, stumbling on the sizable AA area set up to encourage burners who need to avoid altered states. I stop at the mobility camp, providing aid to burners likely to find life here even more challenging.

I can see the temple in the distance. Each year it is designed by a different artist. Over the course of the week it will be filled with notes and photos and memorabilia from those who have died this past year, along with musings and memories that are meaningful to this year’s participants. Sunday night, after the man has burned and the weekend crowds are gone, the temple will be set aflame. I’m already fascinated by this and I pause outside the tent of the temple guardians. Maybe one year that will be me ….

I climb a platform to look over this rapidly growing tent city. I found it a little presumptuous when I entered on Saturday and was given the traditional greeting for this event. Welcome home.

This isn’t my home, I thought then. But now, I can see how in some way it just might be.

Today’s rule of the road? It is a bad idea to pretend to be meaner or more miserable than you are, just to make meaner and more miserable people like you.

Today’s song? I had a few ideas for this one, but I finally settled on Jewel performing with a live orchestra. Give this video a few seconds, she does appear and I’ll think you enjoy what you see.

 

 

 

 

Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada

I have a six hour drive ahead of me today as I head west out of Moab on I70 to Ely Nevada. The first two hours are sheer joy. Red cliffs are all around, traffic moves well, and the morning is cool. I drive with the windows down, singing along with my music and wondering why I get to lead such a fun life.

Of course, this doesn’t last.

Everything changes shortly after I turn on to state highway 50. As I descend out of the mountains, the temperature rises 20 degrees and the scenery turns to endless scraggly sage. I enter one of the weirdest stretches of road I have ever traveled upon.

I grew up in Western Kansas and most people consider it pretty desolate there, but it is an overpopulated mass of humanity compared to this part of western Utah. For long stretches, I do not see another car or a building of any kind. I have no phone service. The sun blares down and I go to AC.

I pat my dashboard. Not a good place to breakdown, I whisper to my trusty FJ Cruiser. Fortunately, she understands and agrees.

Then I hit the road construction. Or rather, the road construction signs. They insist I slow down to 35 mph, so of course I do. I creep along looking for either people or machinery. Neither appears. The asphalt looks new, and some stretches are missing a center line, but that’s the only sign of roadwork. I let my speed creep back up. If going 35 mph feels slow on a normal highway, it feels like sitting still out here.

I’m just about back up to 65 mph when I see another sign. This one wants me to go 45. Okay, I play along. Again, no workers, no machinery, no other cars going my direction and only a rare one going the other way. I feel silly driving 45. After a while, I creep back up again.

This goes on four or five more times, with each lowered speed limit slightly different, and never a sign saying it is okay to resume normal speed. It has ceased to be amusing when I begin to round the crest of a small hill and notice the top of a vehicle off the right. Surely not, I think. But just in case, I slow down to 40 mph.

Yup. It’s a big ol’ sheriff’s truck, setting smack dab in the absolute middle of nowhere hidden by the only hill for miles. As I go by, he steps out of the vehicle and points something at me, a speed detection device I assume. By then I’m doing 34 mph and giving him the finger in my head.

Doesn’t this man have anything better to do?

No, he doesn’t. Before long I notice him at a distance in my rear view mirror. I slow down. He slows down. I speed up. He speeds up. I’m contemplating all sorts of crazy reactions when Rule 11 solidifies in my mind.

Avoid unnecessary trouble. Just avoid it.

Is trouble ever necessary? Yes, I tell myself. There are fights that need to be fought, causes that should be championed. But … doing something stupid because of one lone sheriff determined to collect a fine is not a cause worth messing up a perfectly fine day for.

It’s about twenty miles to the Nevada border. I can do this. I slow down to 40 mph and creep along. A mile from the border, he pulls a u-turn and heads back into Utah to find someone else to pick on.

Just inside Nevada there is this wonderful little establishment surrounded by miles of nothing, selling gas and a offering a dim room full of singing, blinking slot machines. I use the restroom and consider playing a machine as a thank you for the facilities, then opt for treating myself to a ginger ale instead.

“Have a nice day,” the young man chirps.

“I will. I’m so glad to have made it to Nevada.”

He nods like he understands and I think maybe he does. It could be the sort of thing he hears from half a dozen or so people every day ….

My travels end well with a nice meal in Ely at a place called Cell Block Steakhouse. Each table is it’s own little jail cell. Cute, huh? Maybe not so much so after the day I had. Yet, it could have ended far worse.

Seeking a song for the day, my mind went straight to this, my favorite song ever  about a man trying to avoid trouble. It makes me laugh every time I hear it, and I especially like this recent live version.

 

 

 

The Number One Reason I Write Books

I write books. Why?

It is a reasonable question. I recently started participating in writer’s groups again and much about them has got me thinking.  A women well into her second novel told me of an acquaintance who has made it to the New York Times Best Seller list. Wow. Something to be in awe of, of course. My critique group-mate is also in awe of the woman’s process. To paraphrase, she read the top ten fiction books at the time, analyzed what they had in common, and wrote the perfect hybrid book, designed to succeed. And it did.

All I could think was “what a miserable way to write a book.” That brought me round to the essential question of this post. If I’m not writing to make a best seller list, what am I doing? I tried to be brutally, unflatteringly honest and I came up with seven reasons I choose to spend most of my free time on my laptop creating books. Some of them are pretty stupid.

This post is about the first answer that popped into my mind. It may not be my biggest reason, but it may be the one that keeps me writing novel after novel.

I have fun doing it. In fact, I have more fun making up a story than I have doing anything else. Yes, even that (although it is close.)

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t particularly enjoy rewriting, or proofreading, or formatting or all the other chores that take 80% of my writing time. I do enjoy research, but not that much. I hate marketing. I don’t do much outlining. But I love, absolutely love, making up stories and putting them down on paper.

I’ve told myself tales in my head for as long as I can remember, but committing the story to typed words moves it from an ephemeral daydream to a real thing. It can become more complex, be improved, and be reread and enjoyed. Seeing the words in front of me makes it better, and allows me to tell far longer tales.

The best part of it? It is finding out what happens. I always have an ending in mind, but I never know how my characters are going to get there, and they continually surprise me. They morph into better or worse or more complex people than I intended, they develop points of view I never considered, and they come up with ingenious solutions I swear I would never think of. (Or is that impossible?)

For me, that first draft is like watching a movie or reading a book except it is in a setting I picked, filled with characters I resonate with, and about things I like. Once I’ve got a story going, I can’t wait to get back to writing to figure out what will happen. Other forms of entertainment seem boring by comparison. I like my own stories better.

There you have it. Goofy but real. I write for my own entertainment.

Are there other reasons? There must be. I keep doing the other 80 per cent of the process over and over as well, no matter how much drudgery it is. Why? Perhaps the reason lies in the other six reasons that occurred to me. Those will be the subject of another post.

(Read more about why I write at My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing , I write because it’s cheaper than therapy, Nothing cool about modest ambitions, I love to be loved and Remember My Name.)

A better word than joy?

I knew from the beginning that my second novel would be centered around the theme of joy. My first novel was all about our connection to others; I wanted this one to celebrate the authenticity of being oneself.

Because I’m the kind of person who gets carried away with an idea, I decided to center the action around the place on the globe that was exactly opposite of Nigeria, where my my first novel took place. Turns out that location is just south of the equator, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This fact might have discouraged someone else, I but I was determined to introduce this symbolism of opposites into my already half-developed plot. So I delved deeper and discovered the island nation of Kiribati, and began to write a novel that encompassed a swath of the sea.

Just as “peace” seemed an inadequate word to describe x0, “joy” barely touched the surface of my overarching theme for y1. What I wanted was a word that meant

the sheer exhilaration that can only be found when a person is true to who they are.

We do need a word for that.

The book was orange in my head. Orange for sunsets over the Pacific and orange for crazy-strong exuberance and for all that glows. This had to be a book about the fire within.

I already knew that later in the series I would write a book that was blue, and it would be about the virtues that tug us in the other direction. I’m still struggling to find a single word that encapsulates the theme of my blue book, but I know that it is about something important, too.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?,  A better word than hope? and A better word than courage?)

Why would anyone call a collection of books 46. Ascending?

I spent most of my free time over the past six years writing a collection of six novels. I’d never written a book before and, now that I’m finishing the last one, I’m starting to puzzle through what possessed me to do such a thing.

It seemed like fun? I’d always wanted to write fiction? Why the hell not?

Part of the answer lies in something I wrote today to put at the end of the sixth book to explain to any curious reader who had stuck with me exactly why I called this collection of books 46. Ascending.

Here is how I explained it.

  1. It is an I Ching hexagram.
  2. It is what I came up with when I decided that my six proposed books could be made into an I Ching hexagram. Those with a female protagonist would have two lines and those with a male protagonist a single line and book one would be at the bottom and book six at the top because I was pretty sure that was how you were supposed to do it. I thought it was a cool idea.
  3. The lines make Sheng, the I Ching hexagram number 46, as I discovered when I looked up the above cool idea.
  4. Sheng answered the question that bothered me most. The question was not “will my books make money?” or “will I sell a lot of books?” It wasn’t even “will these be good books?” or “will I enjoy writing them?” Those would all have been fine questions. But, this I Ching hexagram answered my question “should I do this or not?”
  5. Researching Sheng, I read that “it is a time of development and progress, the direction is correct” and “hexagram 46 shows a time where a steady progression will occur where the predicted outcome is positive  and “keep working on your plans and maintain confidence in their success.” Those all sure sounded good to me.
  6. My research on 46 Ascending also put this quote in front of me. It is always better to fail in doing something than to excel in doing nothing. – Chinese Proverb . It is undoubtedly a good quote for anyone contemplating anything.
  7. I learned that Sheng was also referred to as the Symbol of Rising and Advancing, Ascending, Ascension, Rising, Promotion, Advancement, Sprouting from the Earth, and Organic Growth. Who can argue with all that?
  8. Sheng’s details included “The emphasis is on upward motion, from obscurity to influence, with growth that is supported by adaptability and an absence of obstacles.” and “Make a sincere effort to apply resolute effort against the forces of inertia, bending around obstacles that arise, and good fortune will follow.
  9. In other words, everything I read about the I Ching hexagram told me loud and clear “write the damn books.” So I did.
  10. Was the universe talking to me? Was I talking to myself? Am I lucky I didn’t put the lines in the reverse order? Those are all great questions. But the one I started to consider was how well did the hexagram fit in with the books themselves.
  11. If you asked me what this collection of books was about, from the beginning I would have told you it was about how all humans have so much more potential than they realize. We can improve, we can rise, we can ascend. Climb the mountain. Move towards the light to the south. You know. Grow.
  12. So this collection of books is named after an I Ching hexagram that not only got me off my butt and writing, but just happened to perfectly describe what it was I was trying to say. Go figure. At the least, it seemed reasonable to name the collection of books after it.

What I don’t address at the end of my novel is the question “did writing the books make me happy?” It’s an important question, but it’s important to me, and not really to my readers. That makes it a more appropriate topic for my blog.

Well …

I can tell you that I wrote these books filled with a sense of energy and purpose unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Many days, writing wasn’t just what I wanted to do, it was all I wanted to do. It was an addiction, an obsession, and a nepenthe against all the world’s ills. I let it consume me, and I enjoyed the ride.

I emerge at the other end, tireder, older, fifteen pounds heavier and with six years of my life mysteriously gone. But, I was lucky enough to have five people in this world who loved me throughout this process and I was lucky enough to have a way to make a living while I wrote that kept serious worries away. Neither is to be taken lightly and for both I count my blessings.

Everybody always tells you to pursue your passion in life. I don’t think that “everybody” has much of an idea of all that really entails. It changes you in ways you do and don’t like. It’s not always fun. It doesn’t always turn out well, certainly not in the Hollywood kind of way.

But once you’ve done it, you can’t imagine not having done it, if that makes any sense. Like not doing it wasn’t even an option, or at least it shouldn’t have been.

Is that happiness? I’m not sure, but I think it might be something even better.

 

Smiling my way across Kenya

I have the opposite of a resting bitch face. My default expression, through no effort of my own, is a smile. When stressed, I often smile more without knowing it. There are plenty of times this is a problem, like every incident of corporate layoffs in which I was ever involved. Trust me, there is no role during such an event in which a smile is appropriate.
It has been an advantage at times, though, yielding me more tips as a waitress, better treatment at airline counters, and dozens of compliments on my good attitude even when my attitude sucked. But no where does this quirk affect me more than when I travel. The further from home I go, the more I smile. Sometimes the expression is genuine, because I love being on the road. Sometimes, I don’t even know I am doing it.
I’ve just returned from one of my furthest journeys ever, a trip to Kenya which got me thinking. What do people do here in the US when you smile at them?
1. They smile back
2. They say hi and maybe try to talk to you.
3. They try to sell you some thing or some idea. Depending on circumstances, that might include the idea of hooking up with them.
4. They take it as an invitation to do harm, attempting to scam or rob you.
I think we can all agree that the first is rather nice. The Kenyans smile back, too, and I carried home the images of hundreds of their smiles. It seemed to me that (with some exceptions) their culture encourages smiling, and it was a delight to have women and men, young and old exchange this simple greeting with me.
I’m less comfortable with having strangers talk to me, but luckily one of my travel companions was not. We made a great team. I did the smiling and then she engaged in the ensuing conversions, much to her own delight.
Sales is another matter. My travel group preferred to buy our trinkets in little shops with established prices. I’ve never understood the charm of haggling, and I respond poorly to pushy sales techniques. I found myself forcing a determined pucker when our van slowed to a stop in traffic and the inevitable crowd selling bracelets and fruit approached us.
Then I thought about similar places in the US. Selling anything to stopped cars is illegal back home, but instead we find beggars with signs detailing their woes and girls’ softball teams asking for donations to attend tournaments. Wasn’t this enterprising foot-based sales force far more admirable? I think so.
In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single beggar in all of Kenya. Or a single homeless person. Granted, there were huge swaths of Nairobi which I never entered, but in a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 40%, the major highways are lined with people trying to make a living, not folks asking for a handout. It seems to me that the people of Kenya embody the virtue of self-sufficiency to an admirable extent. You would think that the American Tea Party would love this place, and ought to be praising the people of Kenya as an example to lazy Americans. Why do I get the distinct feeling that few of them have ever traveled this far, or would be impressed if they did?
For all that hundreds of people tried to sell me things, not one tried to sell me their ideas. The Kenyans I met were proud of their indirect association with Barack Obama, but otherwise left their politics and mine out of the conversation, along with religion and philosophy. There was a feeling of acceptance, of you’re-entitled-to-be-you and I’m-entitled-to-be-me that also reminded me of what Americans aspire to, and often fall short of these days.
The most unfortunate result of a resting smile face is that one can inadvertently invite scams and thieves. It was worth noting that in spite of all the warnings I received before I left, I and my party encountered no theft, no unwanted attention, and no attempt to cheat us. While I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen here, a combination of caution and planning seemed sufficient to avoid problems under normal circumstances and most of the Kenyans with whom I interacted made me feel as safe or safer than I feel at home.
This is not to say that poverty is not obvious, even from the road. The average monthly wage in Kenya is under a hundred US dollars, and even though the cost of living is much lower, this little bit doesn’t go far enough. I’m sure there was hunger and disease, hidden from my view.
What was in my view, however, was people who had very little but were not, in general, miserable. There is a difference between poverty and misery, and that is something I think we tend to forget in the US.
What did I see in Kenya? I saw smiles and I saw hard work and I saw people willing to help each other and even a stranger. I saw curiosity and I saw tolerance and I saw people who appeared to be enjoying their lives.
When I arrived in Nairobi, after 36 hours of travel, my face was in its resting smile mode, with me exhausted and grumpy inside. When I left eight days later, the grin on my face was genuine, warmed by the charm of so many people who had smiled back at me.

I decided to make 2016 the best year of my life. So, was it?

A year ago today (Dec. 31 2015) I came up with an odd plan. I read the quote The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood* and I decided to challenge myself to make 2016 the best year of my life. It’s been a year now. How did it work?

Well, implementation was challenging. A few days into 2016 I realized that I had already forgotten my plan, which wasn’t exactly an encouraging start. So I considered how most mornings I write down anything I have to do that day, often adding things I’d like to get to, errands I’ll run if I have time, that kind of thing. This daily note to myself works to ground me, it keeps me from worrying that I’ll forget something important, and it often sets my mood for the day.

Aha. Mood for the day. Well, it looked like I could just make my little lists the key. Soon, instead of merely putting a date at the top, I was writing out things like January 16 2016, the best January 16th of my life. It was a little goofy (and cumbersome) but it got me in the right frame of mind. Why shouldn’t this be the greatest January 16th I’ve ever had? I mean, I don’t remember the others.

The good news was that after a few weeks of this I didn’t have to write out the whole thing. I got the point where I could merely write down February 2, 2016 and the voice in my head would oblige by chirping out the rest. The best February 2 of my life. And instead of yelling at the little voice to shut up, I’d go out the door and try to make it so.

blessed weird 3Some days, I forgot my mission by the time I got to my car, as a minor irritation like forgetting my coffee or finding my gas tank low took over and I never recovered. Other days I kept at it for a while, or for all of the day, and occasionally I got a second wind. When any of these happened I actively looked for evidence that this March 10th was special. It won’t surprise anyone that when I did look for evidence of how fine the day was, I found it.

Glitches occurred on days that had strong past memories. Take March 17. It’s going to be hard to ever top the year I was in Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, so I had to aim for my second best March 17 ever. Or take March 28, the day my dad died two decades ago. I tried to have a less painful day than usual, one with a bit of unexpected comfort. Yes, I found it, too.

As spring turned into summer I realized that I was helped by the fact that some things about this year really were particularly good for me. I’ve recently moved to a part of the country I like much better, and I’ve been able to go from working full time to part time and to put my extra free time into taking better care of myself and doing more things I enjoy. That’s got to be good, right?

My husband likes to point out how we seldom notice what doesn’t happen and he’s right. Late summer and early autumn brought more time than usual with those I am close to, and my new focus forced me to notice how those I love have remained healthy and safe this year, and even in many cases found more happiness of their own. Wow. A good year for them is a better year for me. Chalk up more evidence on the “best year ever” side.

But not everything in 2016 could be classed as “best ever.” There were challenges I did not anticipate on December 31, 2015. I believe strongly in tolerance and in the important of treating each other with compassion and consideration. As the presidential race came into the home stretch, and concluded with the worst of all possible outcomes in my opinion, I was horrified that so many of my fellow humans placed such little importance on these traits. I’m still trying to get my arms around that, and around my own fears for the future based on the outcome of the election.

raising ecstacy 1So, was 2016 the best year of my life? Probably not, though it offered me a lot for which to be thankful.

Was it a better year than it would have been without this goofy challenge to myself? Absolutely.

Is 2017 going to be the best year of my life? Maybe. Probably not, but I hope it will be. Am I going to try to make it so? You bet I am.

Tomorrow’s little list will say “January 1, 2017, the best January 1 of my life.”  I’ll take it from there.

(Visit “My Best New Year’s Resolution Yet” to read my Dec. 31, 2015 promise to myself to make 2016 my best year ever.)

*The quote is from François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), more commonly known as Voltaire, a French Enlightenment writer famous for his wit and his advocacy of freedom of expression. He also said Common sense is not so common and Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. He was man at least 300 years ahead of his time.