Writing life

Wow, it’s been a while. Much has happened in my life since I returned from my last big trip to India (and Italy and London,) but most important news is that I’ve doubled down on writing. I’m working on a tv script, a short film script, and then maybe a book of essays (or a memoir… haven’t figured it out yet.) Ooh and I’m back to daily meditation and yoga, and even some regular exercise. Doctor says 150 minutes a week so I’m getting at it! (Ugh, grunt, woe is me and my flabby arms.)

I’m not sure why it took me this long to commit to this level of consistency all around. I’m not jinxing myself by saying it, I know that life comes in waves, but I am glad to be here, at this point in my life. I think taking a trip to see some of the worst poverty in the world (hello, India) combined with having a birthday just shy of 50 has made me realize there is nothing else I’d rather be doing than this. I realize how privileged that makes me, and I am grateful.

I can’t say ‘I love writing!’ because that would be a bold faced lie. What I can say is that I know it is the work I need to be doing, right now. Stories to be told, truths to be unearthed, imagination running wild. That part I love.

One part I don’t love is trying to ignore everything I read or have read about breaking into writing as a profession. For example:

You will never sell your first pilot (script, novel, essay.)

If you don’t do x, you won’t have y.

No one ever starts their script with z.

The television industry will tear you apart. You will not survive!

You see where I’m going. I was discussing this rhetoric recently with another writer. We concluded that it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and anyone who takes all of that to heart and leaves the craft wasn’t meant for it in the first place. It IS difficult to separate oneself from the work, but a necessary exercise to let go and move on.

So, the silence in this space is unintentional. It’s not personal. I love the blog format, especially when traveling. But right now, I am focusing on the hard work of getting shit done. On doing what’s important vs. doing what’s urgent. And on not giving up.

Ever.

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Friendship, blendship

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship

Perhaps its part of a midlife reflection but these last few months, my thoughts keep coming back to the topic of friendship.

During my trip to India, my BFF and I got on the phone and did a temperature check on our 30+ year friendship. We met back when we were 16, living in suburban New Hampshire, smoking cigarettes and being as punk as we could muster. On more than one occasion, she pulled me out of the depths of heartbreak and provided a judgement-free ear to listen and shoulder to cry on. During a senior year trip to Montreal, she saved us from a potentially hairy situation with the Mounties. When I moved 3,000 miles away, she wrote me funny, sappy cards for my birthday, and made time for me when I came back to visit. She was the best woman at my wedding. And still through the decades, I have moments when I doubt the strength and validity of our friendship. So what’s that all about?

Over time, we have all sorts of relationships and its inevitable that if you’re a seeker like me, you might occasionally reflect, compare or contrast. You may start to wonder – is it ok to have a consistent back and forth with one friend or family member, but with another, years can pass without speaking? Maybe. Is there enough give and take, sharing (aka being vulnerable) and listening (aka shutting up)? I don’t know. Is it ok to be the one primarily reaching out or asking to make plans? And if not, what can be done about it at this stage/age? I’ve had to be honest with myself about what kind of friend, wife, daughter, sister I’ve been in the past. It has been a bumpy evolution of stepping up, determining what I want from those around me, finding a willingness to ask, and then letting go. I might have another good 30-40 years here and I’ve been thinking about where I want to be spending my energy.

So, what’s a girl to do?

1. Find the why. I happen to enjoy my own company so I’d be perplexed if people were agreeing to spend time with me who didn’t feel the same. But people do! We feel guilty, or maybe we like the burden of having to tend to that one friend or family member (I mean, how many times can someone listen to ex-boyfriend or shitty work drama?) because we can pat ourselves on the back later for being a good person. Maybe we simply feel an obligation, especially when it comes to family. But trust, no one likes to be the center of a pity party. It does nothing to move the relationship forward, so if you’re guilty of doing this – or being on the receiving end – take a beat and reflect on your intention. Why continue? What are you getting out of it and giving into it?

2. Radical honesty. This is something my husband and I try to practice as often as is feasible, and something I’ve been acutely aware of most of my life as I have a poor filter between my brain and mouth. But my husband had a mini-panic attack when I said there was a kerfluffle between me and my bestie. “Do not rock the boat,” was basically his advice, because he loves me and her and us. I couldn’t just apologize for my poor behavior, though (I was passive aggressive in a text exchange,) and not address my fear about where our relationship stood. Our conversation was not fun or easy, but it was necessary to gather information and move forward.

3. Step up. I’ve taken some action lately – or more accurately, not taken any action – to set myself up for more successful relationships. After being brutally honest with a family member last month, I feel a weight has been lifted. I no longer feel the need to put energy into a relationship that isn’t rewarding. (I mean, unless I need a kidney or something and then I’ll be eating crow, as they say.) On the flip side, if I’m made aware that I haven’t been showing up and letting my loved ones know they are loved, I can decide to do more if it feels right. At the end of the day, most of us just want to be considered.

4. Know when to say no (more.) Despite our best intentions, through love and honesty and work, some relationships end. Lives split in different directions and we realize we cannot get our needs met. I had a girlfriend for many years whom I thought would be part of my life forever. We were as close as I thought we could be, and then one day in 2005, she wrote me a break-up letter. At the time, I was dumbfounded – I thought I’d been a good friend. It turns out though, that she wanted something more or different (but hadn’t let me know what, exactly, during the previous fifteen years,) so she dumped me. With love, of course. Now that I have perspective, I am grateful for the letter, that she had the courage to explain her actions – even if I was the source of her disappointment. It’s better than being ghosted.

I’m not a perfect person but I am a good person, capable of growth and change where desired. I am still learning how to be the best version of myself, and right now that means investigating my relationships – starting new ones, working on present ones, or ending those that aren’t serving me any longer.

To healthy relationships all around!

Sidenote: pity parties are, in fact, ok with me but only if I’m home alone, in my most comfy jammy bottoms, favorite tank top, massive soft wool cardigan, hours and hours of Lost and Alias episodes, and mini-peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. THAT is an acceptable pity party.

You feel me?

Before I get into my trip to Italy, I’ve had something else on my mind this past week, this trip, this lifetime.

Being understood.

I read a quote recently that “being loved is great, but being understood is profound.” I heard that and I thought YES! Of course we need love but we also need understanding and these don’t always (or often) go hand in hand. I want to be got. You feel me?

During this month away, I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt like someone just does not ‘get me.’ The language barrier, the cultural taboos, not to mention breaks in wifi or cell service. Travel can be rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings. Usually after a short round of charades or oversimplification of words, our needs can be met, but the feeling that goes along with not being understood leaves one feeling exposed.

Everyone has had these moments. You explain something to a friend or colleague and they look at you like… um, come again? Or a family member that knows you’re expressing something important and they are trying to get it but… no dice. As a writer, it can be crippling to know you’re leaving people confused by what you’re trying to convey. Part of the problem is that we are not taught to be good listeners. We are often crafting our response while the person speaking to us is mid-sentence. We don’t ask enough questions, to get clarity and even help move the conversation forward.

The other part of the problem, though, is that when we’re most in need of being understood, we are at our most vulnerable. And to feel heard, we can be emotional, over complicate, talk in a stream of consciousness, try to get everything out but end up missing the point.

This is where our actual, honest to goodness friends come in. You know the kind – compassionate but clear, loyal but won’t put up with any bullshit. People who will listen, truly listen to your process, and help you get clear on how you feel, what you mean to say. People who can say, “Listen, I love you but you are being a crazy person right now. Stop. Rewind. Start again.”

All of this is to say that while traveling can sometimes leave you raw, reconnecting with loved ones can heal you up. So thank you to the friends and family that have checked in on me during, or become part of, my journey.

And to clarify, in case sharing my experiences here have given anyone the wrong idea (like the anonymous commenter trying to invalidate my observations,) I did not hate India. I can be radically honest here and share my experiences but I can’t control how they are perceived. This was all true, for me. I’d be lying if I said the trip was easy, but I wasn’t looking for easy, I was looking for real. Beautiful, difficult, happy, terrified – it was all the things. As a friend of mine told me – Mother India will take you in, chew you up, and spit you out – hopefully with your soul a little bit cleaner. That’s all I could have asked for.

Truth.

So on to Rome, Modena, Florence… oh my! My sweet friend Jennifer met me in Rome where we had a much needed girls weekend. It felt like a real vacation for both of us. Then we came back to Modena (think chef Massimo Bottura and show Master of None fame,) where she and her man live. We took a quick day trip to Florence yesterday, and on Sunday I’ll head to London to visit my sweet niece and see three inspiring plays.

Some observations this past week:

  1. Food. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about food in Italy? Nothing. Just come here and eat your heart out.
  2. In Rome, we walked up the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica – 551 steps up. And it occurred to me that places like these are not accessible to everyone. I don’t mean the privilege of having the financial means to travel. Even if they got here, many people could not ascend the steps (or cobblestone roads of these ancient towns.) Inside the basilica, there is an elevator that gets you about halfway up but the other 200+ stairs are through narrow walkways. When I say narrow, I mean from the width of my shoulders with maybe an inch or two on each side to spare, with the dome wall curving inward. So, even if you are able bodied, if you are the size of an average American, you couldn’t do it. Maybe sideways. If you’re blind, someone could walk with you. If you’re not able to walk, you could hire people to carry you on their back. But what if you’re a larger human being? Then I thought, are we going to take all of these historical and architectural masterpieces, along with the towns they are in, and change their integrity and accuracy to accommodate absolutely everyone (#inclusivity)? I can’t help but think, though, that there are reasons we keep historical artifacts (and plain old facts) the way they were. That was my inner conflict for the week, when I wasn’t preoccupied thinking about how to change the completely insane shooting epidemic in my own country.
  3. Nobody wears helmets here either! Ok, on motorcycles, yes, but bicycles no. And while it may be a cultural thing and I’m the odd one out here to think people need them, I will never be cycling around without one. Jackson, his Dad, my husband and I have all had bike accidents and wearing helmets did us a world of good. I get it, the culture is different so car drivers don’t have mad road rage for cyclists like many parts of the U.S. But still, why take the chance with your one and only melon? It is very cute, though, to see old ladies and old men peddling around, especially when they throw their grandkids on the back.
  4. Winter comes to Modena, hardcore. It’s currently 35 degrees and snowing as of this moment! Yesterday in Florence it was 40 with whipping wind, but this has actually been good because every tourist attraction was a breeze to visit.
  5. Italy really does have super stylish people everywhere, young and old. Either very sleek wearing black head to toe or completely over the top with shiny sparkly silver or gold shoes and brocades and fur and bright red lipstick. Love.

Photos!

When navigating to find our restaurant one night, we literally walked into the Colosseum. Very cool during the day, yes, but beautiful and eerie even at night.

I found my people…

Typical Roman apartment balcony. Just sweetness and greenery.

Funny story about this photo below at Trevi Fountain. Back when I moved to NYC, a woman I’d briefly known 10 years earlier in SF sent me a Facebook message, asking if I wanted to be connected to her attractive, available brother. I said yes, of course, but the first photo I ever saw of my now-husband was him in front of Trevi Fountain from a recent trip. I remember thinking, damn, she was right, so handsome. Did I mention he’s half Italian? Here I am expressing that I won the jackpot.

Here is the view of Rome from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Insanely high, yes!

Probably a familiar painting, right? Touching the hand of god and all but you know what? It’s small. And it is one of dozens of other equally impressive ceiling paintings. Technically you’re not allowed to take photos but once I saw a group of Japanese tourists breaking the rule, I didn’t stop myself. Maybe they don’t want people to know how tiny his ‘charm’ is.

This, on the other hand, it huge. It feels even bigger than its 17 feet. It is awe some, beautiful, breathtaking even.

In a cafe in Modena, they have famous people and quotes on the wall, including the inspiration for the name of this blog… “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Cute girls freezing their tails off in Florence!

A view of Florence from the Uffizi Gallery. Bellissimo!

Recovering in Rishikesh

Hari Om!

I arrived in Rishikesh Monday afternoon and promptly took a five hour nap. This jet lag has been worse than usual. I’m both tired and excited so pushing myself to stay awake and then crashing, hard. I got my first full night’s sleep in a week and then like clockwork, woke up with a cold. I figure there are worse places to heal than along the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, am I right?

So, this place. #hereareallthewhiteladies, mostly 20 years younger and with friends. There is a yoga studio or ashram or hotel on every corner. I admit that I imagined it differently – less populated, more pristine maybe. But that is not the reality, not so far anyway. Don’t misunderstand… seeing the sun rise over the mountain ridge and the gentle movement of the cloudy green river is truly stunning. However, it is juxtaposed with the trash lined banks, throngs of people, and loud animals and vehicles.

India, to be sure.

Tuesday morning, I went for a walk toward the Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge. On my way, I overheard a woman asking a man where to find a particular ashram. He said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Baba is going to do a puja at 10am!” So I stopped and said, “Can I come with?” They smiled, we made introductions (I’d made a goal to introduce myself to 1-2 new people every day. So far, so good!) and I walked toward the Sachcha Ashram. There was a young man scrubbing the steps of the meditation hall and I asked if I could help. It felt good to do some manual labor. Seth is about 23 and from Orange County, where my boy’s Dad’s family is from, so we connected quickly. Turns out the guru of this ashram is only in town for the next few weeks and doesn’t usually do a fire puja at the river, so it was very fortunate for me. The ritual was beautiful – chanting mantras, tossing marigold caps into the river, and sprinkling us attendees with Ganga water.

Sometimes you have to be vulnerable and ask to be included. We are often stuck in our own head, that may be our nature. It takes a lot to say “Hey, would you like to join us?” or “Can I come with you?” Even here, in this place of spirituality and openness. I have heard quite a few times this trip that I am ‘brave’ – for coming here and traveling alone for so long. I don’t think that I’m brave. I think we are conditioned to fear the worst in people. Yes, there are those that in their desperation make terrible decisions. For the most part, though, people are the same everywhere, with the same needs and wants for ourselves, our friends and family. I remind myself of this when I feel my anxiety creep in.

Yesterday, I met a lovely Bengali woman in one of my yoga classes and we hung out the rest of the day. She is from Canada, traveling with her Mom to spread the ashes of her Dad in the river. We talked of how many people come here to find something, to escape something, to ascend to something… and all the while, their reality is still at home, waiting for them to return. My daily routine includes a solid 15 minutes of wondering why I’m here. Why now, why India, what am I looking for? The only thing I know for sure is that it felt like the right time, the right place, and I believe all will be revealed. Or not.

A few more highlights:

  1. Every morning at 4am, I am awoken by the sound of clomping donkeys going to work. They are brought down to the river where they have their sacks filled with sand and rocks, and then brought back up the hill to their respective villages.
  2. Last night’s super blue blood moon. Because the hazy clouds rolled in later, it was like we were looking through gauze but still magical…
  3. The weather here has been clear, between 45-70 degrees F, and no mosquitos. Yes, its cold and windy in the morning, but I’m enjoying this while I can seeing as how the following month of my trip will be all about Deet and A/C and pollution mask-wearing.
  4. The manager of the cafe across the street – every morning, he comes up from his sleeping space, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in prayer position and bows twice to the sun rising behind the mountain. A simple ritual of gratitude.

More photos!

There are loads of statues and shrines here, like this massive one of Shiva.

My first view of the Ganges…

This was during the fire/puja I was lucky enough to stumble onto with followers of Sri Prem Baba.

A little alley art/advertising.

There are cows everywhere (and dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys – see the roof?) They don’t care about things like cars and mopeds and pedestrians. And wow, can they moo loudly.

King monkey. We almost got attacked yesterday by a mama monkey because her teeny tiny babies were too cute to go unnoticed and as soon as we got closer, she howled. This guy is just chillin.

Peace.

Reflections of the sky…

Villagers on their way home at dusk…

Sunset on the Ganga…

Delhi days

I arrived in Delhi late Thursday night and after grabbing some water, cash and a SIM card, went to get a taxi. Outside the airport, there were 100 men for every woman. And the women weren’t alone. This whole ‘there are lots of single women traveling alone in India’ thing I read about must be relative, but we’ll get back to that.

I paid for a state sponsored taxi and when I told the driver where I was going – a haveli in Old Delhi – he had to confer with three other drivers who became animated and agitated. When he finally agreed, he told me the area I was going to wasn’t safe because it was full of Muslims. Racism is alive and well in India, folks!

This is no exaggeration: the taxi ride to the hotel was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was foggy and smoggy and dark to start, and the driver kept saying how dangerous it was for him to be driving at all. The highways were full of speeding cars, rickshaws, tut tuts, bicycles, and pedestrians all coming within a centimeter of killing each other, three to four vehicles across a two lane road, incessantly honking like a flock of geese. After a harrowing 45 minutes, he pulled over by a dark alley and told me to get out. He pointed to a sign with the hotel’s name on it and an arrow leading away from the road. I asked how far the walk was and pointed out the groups of young men on the corner. He gave me an ‘I told you so’ look but said he would take my number and call to see if I arrived ok. I pointed out that since I’d just arrived, my SIM card wasn’t activated yet so I had no service. He reluctantly agreed to walk me to the hotel.

A narrow walkway, a stranger and a foreigner struggling with a too-big suitcase, passing by a mangy stray dog sitting vigil in a doorway with a dozen candles burning and an old man frying up chaat in a tiny alcove. When we arrived at my hotel, I felt like we had really accomplished something. I turned to look at him and he held his arms open a bit, shrugged his shoulder and gave a bob of his head to one side. To me, this was an indication that he wanted a hug so I went in. He backed away quickly and said, “No! No no. More rupees, more tip.”

Lesson learned.

The next day I did a tour of Old Delhi (photos below,) and yesterday moved over to New Delhi. Tomorrow I take my first train ride, to Rishikesh for the week.

Today I’m grateful to be able bodied. Despite jet leg, I’m still able to climb the five flights of stairs in the old Haveli on Chandni Chowk to see the rooftops, to see the rose petals drying in the sun, the open courtyard where prayers are being held with mosque attendees. I am able. And I’m grateful.

Below is the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, which can hold 25,000 people. It was the ‘final architectural triumph’ of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (commissioned the Taj Mahal) and finished in 1658. We arrived shortly before prayers so couldn’t stay long but it was a serene place amidst the chaos of Old Delhi. Side note: in the mosque, three different young men asked for their picture to be taken with me. Ego aside, apparently its cool to make up stories about knowing foreigners, especially single white ladies.

This was another calm oasis, a small dead end alley off Chandni Chowk. The story is that all of the apartments on this street are owned by the same family and have been passed down generation to generation. There are two brothers right now, living side by side, who never speak to each other because they have competing food stands. Also, they cannot make modern renovations to the outside of the buildings unless they are historically accurate and no one can afford that luxury.

This is along Chandni Chowk, which was miraculously ’empty’ according to my guide, because of the Republic Day holiday. Empty to him just meant that you weren’t shoulder to shoulder with someone. There were plenty of people, bicycles and tuk tuks! The area is a spice market and these flowers are being sold by the kilo.

Ever wonder where those dried rose petals come from in your potpourri? Here. Drying on a roof in Delhi.

Next we went to this beautiful Sikh temple, although they don’t call it a temple, its a Gurudwara. In this case, Sisganj. The story is harrowing. It’s the martyrdom site of the 9th Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal Emperor (who sounds like kind of an asshole. He was not in line for the throne but believed himself to be a better leader, so when his Dad gave the older son the crown, Aurangzeb came back from battle and had his brother trampled by elephants, then dragged his body down the street to show the public he wasn’t messing around,) for refusing to convert to Islam. Inside here, you can see a shrine of sorts – its for a book! They don’t pray to a person or a god, they pray to the book. And there are people there, 24/7, providing music and prayer (except when the book ‘sleeps’ because hello, #tired.)

They also provide meals everyday to about 20,000 people. Everyone is a volunteer, and their religion is heavily based on selfless service to others and equality of all human beings.

This is the view from my hotel, a haveli, where they have classical dance performance on weekends.

And finally, a glimpse of my tuk tuk ride to the metro station yesterday.

Forgive yourself

When I began learning meditation, about 20+ years ago, the school of thought was that you could force your brain to be silent – that is how enlightenment would come. Stare at the flame of a candle, think blank thoughts… when I hear this now, it seems preposterous. Through decades of research, we have a better understanding of the human brain. Learning to achieve a cessation of mind chatter, a silencing, is like training a puppy. Which, anyone who has had a puppy knows, can be frustrating, annoying, and requires patience and consistency. And now that mediation, yoga, mindfulness, and any activity that is supposed to bring about a greater sense of self is all the rage in the Western world, the pressure to do so – especially here in our United States of Competition, is great and inevitably linked to failure. In that mindset, if you’re unable to achieve a pretzel body and a quiet mind, its more likely you’ll give up and go eat a bagel. At least, that’s what I do. Along with some general beating up on one’s self. ‘It’s not for me, I’m not good enough, I can’t do it,’ yada yada. What we don’t learn, what we can’t learn until someone has brought us up this way or taught us, is that it’s alright to forgive yourself. It’s imperative, actually.

I read an article recently about the founder of Spanx. When she was growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask what she had done to fail that week. He’d high-five her if she had a failure to share, defining failure as ‘not trying’ instead of ‘not succeeding’. We can’t grow or learn without struggle, and failures. And so, I forgive myself – for not meditating the last couple of days, for not making a blog entry yesterday, for overreacting to something my stepdaughter said last week, for not communicating to my man about my needs, for making a social faux pas with a friend. I used to hang on to all of these failures. Each and every one, and they would pile up and I’d feel that I couldn’t possibly achieve anything – good relationships, self-care, progress in my writing, or ever truly realizing what good I am to the world. It is a work in progress to let these things go, to realize I was lazy – which is a quality I abhor in others – and that everything is still going to be all right. But I’m trying.