Plum Tree Ponderings

When I was younger I thought of gifts only as things that were exchanged on holidays and birthdays: toys, money, anything that could be bought or sold but that I received “for free.”

Now, when I think of gifts, what comes to mind are the less tangible things: time, thought, effort. The things that can’t be purchased in a store, or that can’t be quantified, or that people might not even know they’re giving to you. I have also come to think of gifts not as things that you receive on Christmas – or other times when people might expect to give and receive gifts – but as the things that arrive when you least expect it.

But I also believe there is truth in the common wisdom that you have to be open to receiving gifts; that you have to adopt a certain mindset that allows you to be receptive to, and aware of, the gifts you may be being given. This article in particular, I thought, summed up well my experience with gift-giving and gift-receiving:

No one ever taught me how to receive. Not a compliment; I am a master at countering any comment with insight about all my faults. Not a gift; I immediately feel the need to give something in return, preferably bigger. Not a kindness; I wave people away from helping me in a grocery line, no matter that I am dropping bread as I speak.

How could I have gone through so much life and have no experience with such a fundamental act as the ability to receive?

As I begin to examine this, I realize for me receiving involves vulnerability. When I give, I feel in charge. When I receive, I feel less.

Give feels like an action word; receive feels like something passive. Yet I can see how mistaken I am. Giving and receiving are yin and yang, the equivalent of the infinity symbol—looping back and forth, neither side larger than the other, both integral to the larger whole.

But I am becoming more open to receiving gifts: a few weeks ago I wrote about the gift of free lemons I found on the sidewalk, and just yesterday I experienced a similar moment on my walk around the neighborhood. I came across a plum tree that I only noticed because the over-ripen fruit that had fallen from its branches made splashes of bright reds and purples on the road. I looked up and saw, camouflaged in the tree’s purpley-red leaves, a few small, cherry-sized plum fruits that remained clinging to its branches. I reached up and picked two of the fruits and was shocked to discover their sweetness upon putting them in my mouth.

As I sucked the juices from the plum, rolling the pit around in my mouth once its flesh was gone, I noticed how I savored its flavor: first full and sweet as I bit into the skin, then a bit of sour as I reached a piece of its unripened flesh.

I noticed how my experience of eating this fruit – that I had received as an unexpected gift – was so different from how I might have eaten a plum that I purchased at the grocery store. Something about the way I had come across the plum – as a gift from nature, rather than a store-bought object – fundamentally changed how I interacted with it.

I think of a book I read recently (thanks, Dana, for the recommendation!) called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, its author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, discusses nature through the lens of both modern science and indigenous wisdom. When I get home from my encounter with the plum tree I go to my bookshelf and find the passages from her book that I’d highlighted:

Perhaps it was because I’d read this book that I had this momentary awareness of my relationship to the plum, and I’m grateful for it. And I think about how, if we truly receive and appreciate nature’s gifts, we also cultivate a relationship with nature that is inherent with respect, gratitude, and reciprocity – in essence, the one native people have always had. It’s the same notion that’s described in the blog article: when we receive a gift, we are allowing ourselves to partake in a cycle that relies on both giving and receiving, and that both parts of the process are made more full as a result.

Away From Me

I spent yesterday morning painting. I was trying to paint an image of where I wish I were – in the springtime-green mountains of Colorado – instead of here, inside, sweating, as smoke swirls around us.

I spent yesterday evening reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It has to be more than coincidence that sometimes I pick up a book and read a sentence that seems to have been written for me in that moment:

‘Have you ever made a scene,’ you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, ‘and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?’

My relationship to art – my need for art – serves a purpose something like that: getting me away from myself.

I’m constantly inundated by thoughts of my worth, my purpose, the impact of my actions, the importance (or lack thereof) of my work. When I’m immersed in art – whether it be experiencing art or creating it – I lose myself. I simultaneously think less of myself and feel more myself.

Art (and nature, of course) are places where I can just be. It doesn’t matter how I feel or how I look because I am nothing more than there in that moment. I become detached from myself in all the ways that are so often harmful.


This morning I finished my painting. I watched Ben Howard perform my favorite songs on YouTube. I read more of my book. I didn’t think once of myself.

Hang in There, Everyone

I’m using the boring post template I introduced back in November because I want to write more but my “well of ideas” is as dry as my skin right now (lol!). Being creative is hard when you’re someone who derives the majority of their inspiration from the outdoors. My mind – just like my body – feels stuck.

Date and Time: Wednesday, March 25, 2020. 8:37am.

It feels selfish and foolish to write or think about anything other than the coronavirus. It’s impossible not to feel helpless and confused and scared about the thousands of people suffering and in need of help. But it also feels necessary to read, write, and think about things other than the virus to maintain some semblance of psychological health. I’m lucky enough to have a job, a home, a wonderful partner, and my health. I know how lucky I am. I’m trying to help others in whatever ways I can. It’s a tired saying, but it’s true that you can only help others if you help yourself first.

I joked on Twitter the other day about how prepared I felt for the way this crisis would affect my mental health:

(#FollowMeOnTwitter)

On a more serious note: the coping strategies I’ve been practicing for years to deal with my anxiety and depression are now at the forefront of articles and media about how to stay mentally healthy during this crisis. Meditation, journaling, therapy, etc. are being recommended more than ever, to the point where I wonder if anyone’s actually doing these things or everyone’s just posting and tweeting about them????? (Also, if I see one more home workout video, I might lose it!!!!!!!)

The difficult thing about these practices is that they – whoa! – take practice. The only reason I’m able to take deep breaths and reframe my thoughts (#CBT) in this time of crisis is because I’ve practiced them over and over when I’ve been in…not a crisis. It was when things felt more manageable that I was able to gradually, successfully alter my trains of thought and transition from unhelpful behaviors to helpful ones. Then, when I did enter a time of crisis – a serious bout of depression, my injury, this pandemic – I had enough practice to have made these exercises a habit.

All of that’s to say: it’s OK if you don’t have things under control right now. I’m 99.99% sure no one does. So give yourself a break.

Location: At home (duh). I started sketching but then I realized I had a 9am meeting so here’s my half-finished sketch (was just getting to the reflections in the water…):

Guess what’s been on my mind….?!?!?!

I figured drawing mountains would be one way of feeling closer to them in this time. Thomas, however, was relieved when Yosemite announced its park closure because he’d spent the previous weeks afraid that he’d wake up one morning and I’d have packed up and gone to shelter-in-place in Yosemite. (I can’t pretend it wasn’t something I seriously considered.)

It’s also crazy how much I’m coming back to thoughts and sentiments I expressed over a year ago when I first started posting on this blog. For example: my first post in which, in the last paragraph, I talk about sharing more writing and art despite the fear of being “bad” at it. I hope others are encouraged to create more in this time just for the heck of it.

Weather: It’s been rainy and grey outside the past few days. For those of us who rely on sunshine and fresh air to stay sane, this weather (combined with the shelter-in-place, obviously) is a double whammy. The house in which Thomas and I live doesn’t receive much natural light; I ordered a “White Light Therapy” lamp online last week in the hopes that it makes it easier for me to stay inside. Thomas, meanwhile, seems to have no issue with staying inside all day, which is confusing to me but good for him.

Listening to: Lots and lots and lottttsssss of music (sorry, I still can’t get into audiobooks or podcasts). Ideally I would use this time to discover new music – or at the very least catch up on what everyone else has been listening to for the past few months (finally learned what the “Renegade” dance is last night, #let’sgo) – but I’m still listening to the same ol’ tunes.

Made this evergreen meme a few months back.

Music recommendations are very welcome at this time. And TV show recommendations, too. I started rewatching New Girl last night. Season 1, Episode 1, baby. Spoiler alert: it’s still fucking hysterical.

Hang in there, everyone. Much love.

Lists & Small Joys

I sat on my couch last Sunday night and – as I do every Sunday night – stared at the week I’d anally planned ahead in my notebook, down to each 20 minute interval of time. If there’s one thing that assuages my anxiety (temporarily, at least) it’s writing lists and schedules. Something about seeing everything I have to do written out – instead of floating about, untamed, in my brain – makes it seem more manageable. The simple act of putting each item down on paper transforms my thought process from “OMGIhaveamillionthingstodonextweekit’sgoingtobesooverwhelminghowamIgoingtogetitalldone” to “Ok, I have lots to do, but I can tackle everything day by day, hour by hour, line by line, and it will get done.”

(That’s that only advice I’ve got, folks: a list on a piece of paper. That’s my best trick; my “life hack”; the sagacious culmination of 27 years of life experience.)

The most interesting thing to note about this list, however, is that most of the time I never reference it the following week! Just the knowledge that it’s there, sitting in my notebook in case of emergency – in case I need to consult my “master plan” – is all I need to remind myself, “Hey! You can do it! One line at a time!”

 


 

But what about the hours during those busy days, when I’m rushing from meeting to meeting and trying to send emails and dial in to calls on both ways of my commute, and all I can think to myself is, “I’m stressed” or “This stinks” or “I could really use a nap” or “I wish I were [insert something I enjoy here].”

It’s during those times, when I wish so badly I were doing something else – napping, riding my bike, playing squash, hanging out with friends, reading, hiking, eating at my favorite pizza place – that I try harder to find small moments of joy. Just because I don’t have time for “big” sources of joy (a hike, a meal with friends) doesn’t mean I can’t experience any! There are so many small joys to be noticed, I just have to look for them a little harder…

 


 

Because I’m starting to sound preachy – trust me, I am not anywhere close to having anything about life figured out – I want instead to share some of my “small joys” from the past week. All of these pictures were taken at times during which I was otherwise stressed or preoccupied (commutes, running errands, etc.) but in which I was able to find joy…

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This sign outside of a store in the Mission which validated my preferred M.O. (turns out I’ve been an advocate for sustainability my whole life!)

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These trees, whose wonderful scent hit me as soon as I turned the corner onto this block, against the unusual clouds

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This little piece of art that reminded me there’s good in the world

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These men who looked so peaceful and wise as they enjoyed morning coffee and donuts in Chinatown

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The contrast between these deep pink flowers and the blue sky

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This man painting on Valencia St. as I walked home from BART

Here’s to hoping this next week brings you many small joys, and the perceptiveness to find them.

Yosemite

Here is a visual representation of my last weekend to weekday transition:

   

Some things to note:

  • I am drinking hot coffee in the first picture, an anomaly in my “iced-or-bust” lifestyle
  • Starbucks is at it already with their holiday-themed cups
  • In a world full of surprises, I make sure to control the one thing I can: having a morning coffee

The only way to improve upon my daily ritual that is drinking a morning coffee is to drink said morning coffee in Yosemite Valley with the scent of ponderosa pines and lupine in the background. The smell of the Valley when you first step outside your tent in the morning might just be the greatest scent of all time. I wish I could bottle it up and bring it home (which is why I’ve purchased almost every pine tree-scented candle I’ve ever come across in a futile attempt to recreate the smell in my house).

Yosemite. Ugh. I wondered if it seemed grander and more magnificent than usual after my injury but when I think about how I’ve felt every time I’ve gone… it’s always that grand. And magical. And soul-filling.

If I were a half-decent writer (or even one who spent some time thinking about what she wanted to express, rather than just ranting on her computer after drinking too much coffee), here is where I’d write something poetic and half-deserving of Yosemite’s beauty. And – if I were writing in my paper notebook – here’s where there would be a few watermarks left by the inevitable tears shed when I dream about it.

I think a lot about what makes my life worth living; the moments of stillness in which I think, “This, right here, is why I’m alive.” Of course I derive so much meaning from smaller, less distinct, more intangible things: my relationships, love, nature, and music in all its various forms. But as someone who often finds themself asking “what’s the point?” it’s an incredible feeling when the answer comes with such force and clarity. Like, “Thank God I’m alive otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to experience this moment. All the pain of life is worth it to feel its complete opposite.”

How can I carry this feeling with me each day? When things are difficult and life feels more full of suffering than beauty? Often it’s enough to know that Yosemite is there, in all its majesty, changing with the seasons but its scent familiar each time I return.

P.S. Everyone go donate to the Yosemite Conservancy.

A Sky, Conflicted

Date & Time:
Thursday, November 6, 8:18am. It feels more like 5am. My mind is cloudy and coffee isn’t helping clear the fog.

Location:
The local Starbucks. I came here earlier this morning to get some work done and was surprised to find, upon entering the store, that Starbucks’ “Christmas-mode” was in full force. I double-checked the date on my phone to confirm that it was, in fact, November 6, and then tried to reconcile this with the sound of “O Holy Night” playing on the speakers and red coffee cups everywhere.

I always forget how this Starbucks comes alive just after 8am; packed with commuters in a rush to catch the bus and chatty groups of women who appear – noisily and all dressed in the same jeans-and-booties combo – from offices nearby. I’ve usually left – fully-caffeinated and with multiple emails sent – by this time, but today I experience the overwhelming, frantic energy radiating from this crowd of coffee-craving customers.

I can’t get any work done because I’m nosy and curious and instead of focusing on the document on my computer screen I’m trying to listen in on my neighbors’ conversations. There is an inverse relationship between my productivity and the level of good people-watching in any space. I often want to tweet something #overheard but then I remind myself to consider respecting people’s privacy.

Weather:
Foggy. Foggier than yesterday; the kind of fog that renders the entirety of the Salesforce Tower invisible. Good thing I’m outfitted appropriately: in a full-on groutfit, grey sweatpants and a grey jacket, with a dress in my backpack for when I get to the office. Sweatpants make bus commutes more comfortable, that’s just a fact. I don’t make the rules.

Listening to:
Nothing. Well- Starbucks’ Christmas playlist, I guess. Earlier this morning I spent (way too much) time lying in bed listening to various renditions of “Amazing Grace” because I was sad and felt the need to amplify my already-emotional state with an incredibly beautiful song. I probably could have used something a little more enthusiastic and pump-up-y, but I’m not always my own best friend.

Later this evening:
I walked the few blocks home from the bus stop as the sun was setting. I stopped for a long while outside my door to stare up at the sky. Everything felt hazy and weird: my brain, the sky. Like neither of them could make up their minds: am I colorful or tired? Half the sky was shrouded in fog and the rest brilliant puffs of pink.

I watched traffic pass on the freeway to my right and noticed how telephone wires framed the still-translucent moon. At the bottom of my street bike commuters in hats and gloves dodged UPS trucks making their way in and out of the warehouse garage. I love cities during rush hour; the purposeful energy of the throngs of people walking and biking and standing on buses; everyone looking like they have somewhere to be, someone to go home to. When I’m feeling sad or hopeless I’m reassured by the sight of these commuters, like their purpose gives me purpose. In those moments I like to believe – wish, even – that everyone is just a few blocks away from a safe home and a warm meal and hugs from family.

Poems from Zion

Thomas and I squeezed in a quick lil trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon over Labor Day weekend. We flew in and out of Las Vegas and managed to check just one under-40-pound suitcase for the trip (#SpiritAirlines) in which we brought some hiking clothes, a tent, and our sleeping pads, in the hopes the weather would be warm enough for us to substitute a bedsheet for our heavy and too-puffy-to-fit-in-a-suitcase sleeping bags. We spent the nights camping (fo’ free!) on the side of the road just outside the park boundary — which apparently is entirely legal in Utah (I’m so used to “no camping” California) — and the days driving and hiking and eating baguettes and chugging water because it was a zillion degrees outside and we were living in a state of perpetual sweat. Both places were prettttyyyy magical, but based on what I knew about the parks and myself going into the trip, I expected to feel that way.

Highlights from the trip included:

  • Buying a bunch of bananas at the supermarket upon arrival that we hoped would last us the next few days, only to find that after a few hours in a hot car they’d all turned black and melted in the backseat
  • Substituting river swims for showers
  • Gaming the Zion National Park shuttle bus system by jogging two miles to the third stop on the Canyon route, thus avoiding a three hour wait in the line from the Visitor’s Center to get to the start of the popular hiking trails
  • Eating multiple baguettes accompanied by avocados, peanut butter, canned tuna, and nutella, because baguettes are objectively the best camping and hiking food and can be a vessel for almost anything
  • Ice cream, which is a highlight of life in general but also does taste better when you’re living in a sauna
  • Sunrises and sunsets — again, highlights of life in general, but arguably more impressive when they’re lightning up a canyon

I brought a notebook and jotted down some poems that you can read below, after which you can decide which is worse: my prose or my poetry.

 

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River

Heat, sweat, dirt, mouth dry as the desert we drove through —
and then the foreign feel of cold,
hair heavy on my shoulders,
the evening sun painting orange ripples on the water
and the sky glowing softly, a humble mother.

The days are long, a golden road fading into the horizon,
and the water smooths the rocks underneath my feet, slowly, slowly,
covering them like a blanket as the bedside candle burns.

I am dirt and skin and soul together,
here below the sky and the stars starting to show their bright faces,
all of us, together, sheltered in the growing darkness.

 

Rocks

Red rocks pressed up against the blue sky
Imperfect in their crooked edges but unafraid to be noticed.
Why can’t I make such a statement

Even in the dark I feel them
Standing there in the quiet but ever-present as my shadow on a summer noon.
Does anyone even know I’m here?

I don’t want to scream but I want you to listen
and know I am important and have something to say,
so that you pay attention even after the sun sets and the stars take over

I’m either noise and shame
Or quiet and heartbroken
I don’t want to live in extremes, like the red rocks pressed up against the blue sky.