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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Day 130: Where Men Can Be Men, or, Everyone’s a Winner at Trivia

TODAY’S STATS:

# of literary mags submitted to: 2

# of agents queried: 1

writing progress made: We’ll see… but I wrote this blog post, didn’t I?

Every Wednesday at 6:30 pm I walk into Tommy Doyle’s, a seedy pub in downtown Hyannis. The gray-bearded man who calls himself George Bush is already seated at the bar with a beer, and the man who I call Baby Keanu (because he looks like a chubby version of the actor) is usually eating some sort of appetizer and typing on his lap top with greasy fingers. I set up my speakers in the usual corner while the strong-jawed Irish bartender with a Celtic cross hanging between her breasts calls me hon and asks me how my week’s been.

At 6:59 on the nose, every week, Uncle Sam, the autistic man who wears a red and white striped Cat in the Hat hat bustles in and orders a tonic water. He comes over to me, tapping at his watch. “I know,” I tell him. “I’m going to get started soon.”

“Uncle Sam, team of one,” he always announces. I hand him his pad of paper and a golf pencil. He plays every week, and he always loses.

Then I go over to George Bush and give him his pad of paper and pencil. He plays every week, too, also as a team of one. He always wins.

Every week I try to scrounge up some more teams for trivia from the meager assortment of barflies and crazies. Every week I make the same jokes into the microphone. Every week Uncle Sam stands at my trivia table for the entire game, and in between questions he tells me about the week’s news items. It’s all starting to feel a little too routine, and, like with every job I’ve ever had, I can feel myself starting to get bored.

“Eva, have you heard of the fiscal cliff?” Uncle Sam asks me this Wednesday evening as I look through my list of songs, trying to pick out some new ones to play. Every week I start with a Beck song – I thought it could be my “thing,” – but I don’t think anyone notices.

“Sure,” I say, half ignoring him.

“I mean, I’m not happy that President Obama won, but I’m not going to be a sorehead about it,” he says. “I know you’re happy. But, you need to know that we only have thirty-three days until the fiscal cliff. That’s what Fox News says.”

“Hmm.” I nod.

The bar manager comes over to put a garland around the fake Christmas tree stationed behind me. Tommy Doyle’s goes all out with holiday decorations. “Not many people here for trivia,” he says. “Did you facebook about it?”

“No, I forgot. I’ll do it next time.”

This is the same conversation we have every week. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t really know anyone here on the Cape. Me announcing about trivia on my facebook page is not going to bring in any customers.

“Shit.” The bar manager drops his garland on the sticky floor and bends over to pick it up. “This stuff is a pain in my ass.” Everything is always a pain in his ass. No wonder I never see him sit down. He hurries away to tend to an electric Menorah.

As soon as he is gone, Uncle Sam struts back over. Whenever he isn’t talking to me, he takes lumbering laps around a bar table near the Big Buck arcade game. Generally he does this with his head nodding off to one side and his tongue lolling out of his mouth. It’s creepy, but I’ve gotten used to it, and so has everyone else.

“Now, Eva, did you hear about this week’s deaths?” Uncle Sam asks, patting at his large, round belly. It looks as hard as a drum, and he often likes to treat it like it is one. “Larry Hagman, star of the hit TV show Dallas, died of cancer on Friday. Did you ever watch the show, Dallas?”

“No, I never did.” I begin to wonder how much longer I can keep doing this trivia thing. It’s always the same these days. Same people. Same conversations. Everybody being weird in the same predictable ways.

Take Uncle Sam. He’s pretty good at trivia. He knows a lot about politics and history and music from the 70’s and 80’s. He often stands a decent chance at winning except that he always botches the final question. For the final question you can wager anywhere from zero to fifteen points, but if you get the question wrong, your wager is subtracted from your score. Every single time, Uncle Sam wagers all fifteen points, gets the question wrong, and loses.

“I hope I win tonight,” he says, barring his teeth in a smile that looks like someone had to teach him how to do it.

“Well, be careful with your wager,” I tell him. “Don’t wager too much on the final question.” This is what I tell him every time, but he never listens.

Red and blue flashing lights streak past on Main Street, and suddenly everyone is rushing over to the window to see what’s going on. That’s how bored everyone is. A cop car going by, probably to pull over someone who ran a red light, is enough to get even the drunkest drunkard out of his seat. But there must have been nothing to see. After a brief moment they all settle back down into their beers.

I meander over to George Bush to chat. He’s a sweetheart of an old man, and yeah, he does try to coerce a hug out of me every week, but he’s mostly harmless. He’s wearing a Santa hat and tells me that he wears it every year. “From the day after Thanksgiving until New Years,” he says. At least he doesn’t ask me to sit on his lap.

Baby Keanu sits next to him.  “What’s your name again, hon?” he asks.  He is several years younger than me and really does not need to be calling me hon.  I tell him my name is Eva.

“Beva?” he asks.

“No, Eva.”

“Beva?  With a B?”

“No.  Eva, with an E.”

A few more round of this and he finally gets it right.  He tells me he wants to play trivia and his team name is going to be Isle of Man.

“What’s that from?” I ask. “Did you make it up, or is it from something?”

He tells me it’s from a Cormac McCarthy short story called “Children of Man.” “It’s about an island, you know,” he says, “where men can be men.”

I don’t think that’s even remotely right, but he acts very sure of it. As usual, Baby Keanu is being weird and confident.

Suddenly two middle-aged women walk into the bar. They give George Bush a hug, and I ask if they want to play trivia.

“We do,” they say. “We’re on his team.” They point to George Bush, and he grins widely. So, George Bush has some teammates. This is new.

For some reason it seems appropriate to put a picture of Wortzel, the British scarecrow, here.

I get started with trivia. As usual, we have a depressingly low turn-out. Besides Uncle Sam, George Bush, and Baby Keanu, we have one other team – Jessica and Cammie, two cute girls in teetering heels who leave after halftime to hang out with some sketchy guys in the back.

So it’s just me and the regulars.

“Which country occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain?” I ask, halfway into the game. I play Franz Ferdinand as a hint, but no one ever gets my hints.

Baby Keanu ambles up to me. His downy cheeks are flushed, and he seems to have put on an extra layer of blubber for the winter. His clothes are tight. “How specific do you want me to be?” he asks.

“Just write down the name of the country,” I say.

“Yeah, but…” He laughs as if I’m the crazy one here. “How specific of an answer are you looking for?”

“Well… I need the name of the country. You know, a country. That’s all.”

As usual, Baby Keanu makes no sense. He stumbles back to his bar seat to ponder his answer.

As we go into the final round, the scores are as follows:  Uncle Sam: 31, Isle of Man: 35, George Bush: 63. Of course, Uncle Sam will wager all of his points, bringing his score down every lower, but at least this week he’ll get a prize. I give away gift certificates for first, second, and third place, so tonight everyone’s is a winner.

I announce the scores and read the final question. It’s super hard, and no one gets it right. George Bush’s team smartly wagers zero and stays at 63 points. Isle of Man stupidly wagers 6 and drops down to 29 points. Uncle Sam, as always, waits until the very last second to turn in his answer. I’ve already got his total written down – after losing 15 points he’ll have a total of 16 – but as he stuffs the little sheet of paper into my hand, my eyes widen. For his wager he’s written a big, fat, zero. He wagered zero!

I didn’t think it was possible. It’s a small thing, sure, but in another sense, it’s huge.

I announce the winners into the microphone then go around to congratulate my crazy, little teams.

“Well, I won first place last time,” I overhear Baby Keanu telling the bartender.

“Oh, did you?” I can’t help saying. He has never won first place – I guarantee.

“Or maybe it was second. First or second,” he says, shrugging modestly. It’s possible that he truly believes this.

George Bush sidles over and sneak-attacks me with a sideways hug.

“Congratulations,” I say, handing him his thirty dollar gift certificate. “You’re getting quite a collection of these.”

I walk over to Uncle Sam to give him his gift certificate. “You won! Congratulations.”

“Second place,” he says. “But it’s not bad. I went to the men’s restroom, and after I did my business, I called my sister and told her I won second place at trivia. She was proud.”

“Well, yeah.” I smile. “You should be proud. You did a great job.”

“Well, Eva, see you next week.” Uncle Sam pulls his felt hat down over his ears and lumbers off towards the door.

Sure, maybe it’s become routine, but there will always be surprises in store for me at Tommy Doyle’s trivia night.  Let yourself be amazed by little miracles.

ASSIGNMENT:

What’s one thing that made today different than yesterday?

Which country occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain?  (Be specific.)

Day 129: Burly Sea Captains and the Ladies’ Library of Brewster

Day 129:  Burly Sea Captains and the Ladies’ Library of Brewster

TODAY’S STATS:

# of literary mags submitted to: 1

# of agents queried: 3

 

Remember way back in the summer when I was having trouble writing at home because it was so hot and stuffy that I would fall asleep in a sweaty pile of mush in front of my computer?

Well, now the problem has reversed. I sit at my desk wearing my winter coat, sipping from a cup of tea and shivering. I turn up the heat, but it doesn’t help much. The cold creeps in through the cracks of the house; my fingers and toes turn to ice.
This is what I have been dreading ever since I moved to Cape Cod.

Whenever I told people that I was nervous about the winter, they’d say, “Aye, lassie. It’s a damp cold that gets inter ye bones and makes ye weep.” They didn’t actually say it like a burly Irish sea captain, but it sounds better that way.

For the past two days, a steady cold rain has been falling from pale, heavy clouds, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to warm up. It’s hard to type when your fingers are numb. It’s hard to write when your brain feels frozen. This sort of dreary cold tends to make me feel lumpish and uninspired.

Yesterday I left the house in search of some place warm to do my writing. I knew I couldn’t go to a coffee shop – I am very easily distracted and have trouble writing when there is talking or any sort of remotely interesting activity going on nearby.

So I headed for a place both quiet and boring: Snow Library. Unfortunately, sitting upstairs was just about as noisy and bustling as a Monday morning Starbucks. Turns out there are a lot of old people around here who want to argue about their library fines. And the librarians are a surprisingly loud and feisty bunch.

So I packed up my computer and went down to the library basement where they keep the large-print mystery books. It was quiet down there at least. But it was also horrible. On the floor was a thin, industrial carpet the color of a puked up hairball, and the walls were painted-over cinder blocks. No windows. A moldy odor. An old lady in a walker hacking up her own hairballs every few minutes.
I wrote a paragraph or two and then headed home, dejected.

This morning when I woke up to the cold rain, I started to feel depressed. The air in the house was wet and cold. I didn’t feel like writing anything. I felt like snuggling back in bed and reading the rest of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (which, by the way, is amazing so far. I started it yesterday evening and am already on page 113).

But I decided to try a different library. I drove fifteen minutes to the Brewster Ladies’ Library. The library was founded by a group of women in 1853 in the home of a prominent sea captain, and then later, in 1868, the library building was built on Main Street in Brewster. I parked in the back and walked into the old building, past the circulation desk and the shelves of nonfiction. I walked towards the front of the house, looking for a quiet place to set up shop. There was loud construction going on upstairs, and I didn’t have high hopes for the afternoon.

But then I came to the front parlor: a beautiful old room with high ceilings and a large fireplace with garlands draped across its mantle. A Christmas tree stood in front of the window, and there were cabinets lining the walls, filled with crumbling old books. Everything was clean and bright and cheerful. I sat down in a wooden chair and opened my lap top on the table, gazing at the gold framed portraits hung on either side of the fireplace.

The room was warm and cozy and quaint. I took off my gloves. My fingers felt nimble – ready to fly across the keys. I smiled. It’s amazing what a little warmth will do. It’s amazing how a beautiful room can lift your spirits and breathe a bit of life into your brain. This room was exactly what I needed.

The East Parlor of the Brewster Ladies Library

I do realize that I am a super big wuss. If conditions aren’t just right – too hot, too cold, too noisy, too depressing – I have trouble writing. I’m constantly admonishing myself for this fault and thinking that if I were a “real” writer I would be able to write anywhere at any time.

I think about cocky old Hemingway who would write while his belly grumbled because he’d gambled away his grocery money. (I also have trouble writing when I’m hungry, or when I’m worried about money.) I think about silly old Charles Dickens who probably shivered right down to his bones in dreary London while still churning out hundreds upon hundreds of run-on sentences. If they can do it, why can’t I?

Does it matter?

Instead of worrying about why I have trouble writing in loud, uncomfortable places, I just need to be aware of my wussiness and try to search out better circumstances for my wimpy self as quickly and effectively as possible. Who cares if it means I’m not a “real” writer? All I know is that tomorrow I’m going to eat a hearty lunch, dress warmly, and head to the east parlor of the Brewster Ladies Library to do my fake writing by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree.

 

ASSIGNMENT:

Pick one of your flaws or quirks.  Instead of thinking about how to get rid of it (you know you probably can’t), think about how you can work with it.

or

Talk like a burly Irish sea captain for a day and see how people respond.

Day 127: Eva The Christmas Elf, or, A Writer ’til I Die

Day 127:  Eva The Christmas Elf, or, A Writer ’til I Die

TODAY’S STATS:

# of literary mags submitted to: 3

# of agents queried: 2

writing progress made: finished a story, but it’s very, very bad

The other day I taught Sergey, my Ukrainian tutee, the word “accomplish.” Today, when I reviewed the word with him, I said, “tell me some things that you have accomplished in your life.”

“I do not think I have any.”

“You don’t have any accomplishments?” I asked, surprised.  He’s the CEO of a successful international company. Maybe he was unsure what the word meant.

“I think,” he said, “I will not accomplish anything until I die.”

“Oh my,” I said.

“In my mind, accomplish means you have finished something – correct?”

“Yes, but–”

“So, in my mind, I will not finish anything until I die. Everything I do, I can always do more, do better.”

*   *   *

Today I went to get my hair cut at classy Pro Cuts where a haircut is only $13.99. Almost immediately I was taken into the back by an awkward-looking girl with short, dark curls and a round face.

She sat me down, and I told her I just wanted a trim – an inch off the bottom.

“That doesn’t sound too hard,” she mumbled, fumbling with the plastic hair clips on the counter. She sprayed my hair with water then juggled her comb in one hand and her scissors in the other. She started cutting with her shoulders hunched and her eyes squinting behind her thick glasses. She seemed extremely uncomfortable, and I wondered for a moment if this was the first time she’d ever cut someone’s hair.  Despite the name, it doesn’t seem like Pro Cuts is a place where one needs a lot of experience to get hired.

All around us, the other hairdressers snipped and chatted easily with their customers. My girl glanced around nervously and then said softly, “So, uh, are you done with your Christmas shopping?”

“Oh gosh no,” I said. “I just started. I don’t like to rush it.”

“Yeah,” she said. She went on cutting. I was relieved. I didn’t really want to make small talk anyway.

“Do you have children to buy for?” she asked after a long moment.

“Nope, no children,” I said.

More silence.

I started to feel sorry for the girl. All day she has to try to make small talk with people while cutting their hair: two tasks that did not seem to come easily for her. I wondered if there was a list of conversation questions in the back room to help out socially-awkward hairdressers. Maybe it changed on a routine basis. Maybe today the list was:

Are you done with your Christmas shopping?
How was your Thanksgiving?
Do you have children to buy for?
Are you going anywhere for the holidays?

She had already used up two of her questions and failed to engage me in a conversation. I felt like maybe I should help her out, so I babbled a bit about Christmas shopping until she was done, which, to be honest, took less than ten minutes. It was the quickest haircut I’ve ever received.

What I babbled to her about was this: I like Christmas shopping because it puts me in the holiday spirit and makes me feel like a magical elf spreading Christmas cheer to my friends and family. But other people treat it like a burden, and they act so relieved when they’ve finished it.  I like to go to stores and window shop, just to see if anything jumps out at me as the perfect gift for someone. I try not to get stressed out about it – it’s supposed to be fun.

Ahh! Christmas!

I’m always thinking that when I publish a novel I will feel relieved. I will finally have an accomplishment that will “prove” that I am a “real” writer. I will be able to relax and stop worrying so much about what I’m doing with my life and what other people think about what I’m doing with my life.

But then I think about what Sergey said. When I get a novel published, I will still have more to do. I will want to write another book – a better one. And after that, an even better one. Getting a novel published won’t be the end of the journey; it will just another step in my life.

I can’t start treating writing like a burden that I just want to be done with.  I need to remember to enjoy the magic of it instead of rushing through it like an awkward ten minute haircut.

There’s no need to get stressed out, you know. I’m going to be a writer ’til I die.

Day 125: Things That Go Bump in the Night

Day 125:  Things That Go Bump in the Night

TODAY’S STATS:

# of literary mags submitted to: 2

# of agents queried: 0

writing progress made: wrote 8 pages of a story 

 

Last night I was home alone. I made myself a cocktail, turned up my music, and spread out a huge arts and crafts project on the dining room table. It was great.

But then, in the middle of the night, I was jolted awake by a banging sound coming from outside. I lay paralyzed in my bed, my eyes wide and my ears alert. The noise came again. It sounded like someone was outside the kitchen door.

At that moment, I realized that I’d forgotten to lock the doors before I went to bed. And Zeus wasn’t here to protect me. My heart began to beat heavily.

Maybe it was nothing, I thought. Maybe the noise was coming from a neighbor’s house. But there it was again, and it was definitely coming from very close by. Maybe Nate was home early, even though the likelihood of him arriving home at 4:30 in the morning was slim.

I didn’t know what to do. Should I call 9-1-1? Should I just ignore it? Should I arm myself with something weapon-like? I found it hard to believe that there was a thief or murderer outside the house, but I felt like I needed to prepare myself for that possibility. Finally, I decided (mostly because my body was paralyzed with fear anyway) to just lie perfectly still and silent, and hope that whoever or whatever it was wouldn’t come inside my room.

I lay like that for a while, my eyes open and my breathing shallow. My body was tense and listening hard. The sound had stopped, but I was still alert. There could be an intruder creeping around the house right now, I told myself. I had to be ready to act.
But then, at some point, my eyes must have closed. At some point my breathing deepened. At some point I fell asleep.

*   *   *

This morning when I woke up everything was fine. I had not been robbed or murdered. I noted this thankfully then went out into the living room for my daily ten minutes of meditation.

Here is what I’ve been trying to do while meditating:
1.  sit up straight (without putting too much effort into it)
2.  breathe normally and focus on my breath (although I’m not exactly sure what this means)
3.  when I’m having stray thoughts, notice them, then clear them out of my mind (I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do with them)
4.  smile

The smiling part is something that comes from Eat, Pray, Love, and I thought it sounded like a good idea. There have been scientific studies that show smiling can actually make you feel happier. However much that may or may not be true, it seems like a good idea to smile for ten minutes, first thing in the morning.

So this morning I sat down with my legs crossed, smiled, and started noticing my breathing. I should write about the strange noise in my blog, I thought. Oops! Stray thought! I pushed it away and continued smiling and breathing. Isn’t it weird how you can never remember the moment you fall asleep? Oops! I imagined a Zamboni making its way across my mind, clearing away my thoughts and leaving nothing but smooth, white blankness behind. Oh yeah, maybe I can go ice skating sometime…

Suddenly, a few minutes had gone by and I was thinking about all sorts of things. Ice skating had led to Christmas had led to people I needed to add to my Christmas card list. And, I’d stopped smiling. When had I stopped smiling?

I started over. Smiling. Breathing. Noticing.

But soon it happened again. Somehow, I’d gotten away from the breathing again, and my lips had fallen out of the smile.  When had it happened?  Why couldn’t I remember the exact moment when my thoughts had drifted away and my smile had faded?

I guess it’s the same reason we can never remember the exactly when we fall asleep. We can’t remember when we slip from one state of consciousness to another. There is a line that divides these two states, but the line is impossible to see — we’re never aware of crossing it.

I went for a walk in a graveyard yesterday. Check out the cool skull on this headstone.

Recently I was talking to Paul about the creative process. I said that sometimes I write a straight-forward story, and afterward I look back and see that it has themes and deeper meanings that I didn’t even mean to be there. It’s pretty amazing and mysterious.

Sometimes I think about the line between the conscious and unconscious mind. How close can my conscious mind get to that divide? I will never be able to consciously reach it, but what happens as I get infinitely close?

Maybe, as I write, a part of me is crossing the line, slipping into that deeper place, without the rest of me noticing — or remembering. Our minds are terribly complex.

After breakfast I opened the kitchen door to put my apple core in the compost bucket. But the bucket lid had been pried open, the bucket knocked over, and the contents spilled all over the porch. Raccoons!  Of course. That was what I had heard last night. I’m glad I didn’t call 9-1-1.

 

ASSIGNMENT:
Smile for ten minutes, even if you’re not particularly happy. Notice how you feel after and report back to me.

graveyard in Wellfleet

 

Day 123: Searching for Turkeys, or, I Couldn’t Ask for a Better Nikki

Day 123:  Searching for Turkeys, or, I Couldn’t Ask for a Better Nikki

Of course there’s the usual: friends, family, health, the lack of traumatic events in my life, goat cheese. I’m thankful for Massachusetts Health Care (I’m telling you guys – it’s amazing!) I’m thankful that I live in a time and place where I can make a lot of my own decisions and take a shower every day – i.e. not the middle ages.

But I’m not going to bore you guys with a list of things I’m thankful for.

Instead I’m just going to expound on one: Nikki.

me and Nikki in my old New Orleans apartment

On one of my first days of high school, a girl bounded up to me outside of Penn Hall. Her hair was in pigtails and a manic smile over-took her face. “Hi! I’m Nikki!” she yelled. I had no idea why she had come to talk to me, but her smile and her energy was infectious.

We exchanged phone numbers, and that night we talked on the phone for hours. We’ve been friends ever since. In high school, we balanced each other. I gave Nikki a place to sleep and doses of practicality. She gave me her spirit and her unconditional love. Hanging out with Nikki was never boring – we could entertain each other for hours.

We had a falling out around the age of nineteen and didn’t speak for a few years. But when we started talking again, we realized how strong our bond still was. I went to visit her in Vermont, and then on the Cape. She came to visit me twice in New Orleans.

Nikki has made it possible for me to take this year off, and for that I will always, always be grateful. I thought this year was going to be about writing – and it has been. But it’s also been about self-reflection, and for that I have to thank Nikki. Without her prompting me with deep questions, without our discussions and the books we’ve read together, I don’t think I would be exploring as much as I have.

This morning Nikki and I went for a walk to see if we could find the turkeys that sometimes hang out near the bike trail. We didn’t see them – they must have gone into hiding. But we did see a heron, a cardinal, a woodpecker, and a bunch of surly crows (my favorite!) Most importantly, we had a good talk. Nikki and I can talk to each other about most anything, it seems. She is always trying to stay open-minded and open with her thoughts and feelings. She is someone who encourages me with my writing just as much as she encourages me to explore myself.

I really couldn’t ask for a better friend. I couldn’t ask for a better situation right now for writing and exploring my life. I really couldn’t ask for a better life.

Thank you to everyone and everything involved.

Family photo from Thanksgiving last year (grandpa, brother, me, mom). I’m sad I’m not hanging out with my awesome family this year, but I’ll see you all at Christmas!

ASSIGNMENT:

I think you guys already know what the assignment is for today.  Duh.

Day 122: GASP! Meds, Meditation, and How to Breathe

Day 122:  GASP!  Meds, Meditation, and How to Breathe

TODAY’S STATS:

# of literary mags submitted to: 2

# of agents queried: 0

writing progress made: wrote 7 pages of a new story

Apparently I breathe weirdly in my sleep. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this, but it was first pointed out to me last year by my mother. She says that I seem to be holding my breath, or maybe letting out my breath for too long, making a strange humming noise.  Then, suddenly, I’ll take a deep and jolting breath. Nikki says that sometimes she can hear me through the walls, gasping for air in my sleep. And lately I’ve noticed myself doing it. I’ll jolt awake, sucking in a huge breath and noticing that my chest feels tight.

It happened just this morning. GASP! And I was awake. I went out to the living room to meditate with Nikki. This is only day number two of my meditation practice, and I’m starting off easy – ten minutes a day. I know I could do longer, but I figure starting off small will help me stick with it. Right now I’m just establishing the routine. After a little while, I’ll increase to fifteen minutes, then to twenty.

This morning I was having trouble with my breathing. The whole thing about meditation is that you’re supposed to “focus on the breath.” But when I start noticing my breath, my breathing gets really weird and laborious. I feel like I’m working to push the air in and out of my lungs.

“Just breath normally, Eva,” I tried to tell myself, but suddenly breathing seemed really complicated. I found myself holding my breath. Then I let it out and and out and out for way too long until my belly was concave. I didn’t want to have to breathe in and start the process all over again.  I ended up practically panting for air.

*  *  *

Breathing is kind of a big deal for me. I mean, I know it’s a big deal for everyone, but I’m the one around here who’s had two major lung surgeries.

When I was twenty-five and my lung collapsed for the second time, I had a surgery in which the doctors “stapled” closed a large hole in my lung. In order to get the lung to re-inflate, I had a tube the size of a garden hose inserted between my ribs to suck air out of my chest cavity. The negative pressure was supposed to cause my lung to re-inflate.

Except that it didn’t.

Every day I would get my morning chest x-ray, and every day the doctors would be frustrated that my lung wasn’t yet fully inflated.
Then a nurse would come in with a plastic cup of little blue Percaset pills.

“No thanks,” I always said. The Percasets made me feel strange and nauseated.

“Aren’t you in pain?” the nurses asked.

Well, yeah. I was in so much pain it hurt to move. I tried to lay absolutely still in my bed, holding my breath, or taking short, shallow breaths. I held my bladder for as long as possible because getting up to use the potty chair actually made me cry.

I’m not sure why I wouldn’t take the meds. Maybe because I thought it made sense that I was in pain. If there was a gaping hole in my side and I felt fine, wouldn’t that be creepy and unnatural?

One day the pulmonologist came to talk to me. “The nurses say you’re not taking your meds.”

“I don’t really like them,” I explained.

“You have to take them to help your muscles relax” he said. “When you’re in pain, your body is tense, and you don’t take deep breaths.”

“Oh.”

“You need to take those deep breaths,” he said. “That’s what’s going to re-inflate your lung.”

So I started taking the little blue pills.

Today I talked to Nikki about my trouble breathing during meditation. “I think that when I’m sitting up straight, I’m tightening my ab muscles, and it’s making it harder for me to breathe.”

I told her about some of the different breathing methods I’d tried. Things I’d learned at an ashram in Virginia or at various yoga studios in DC.

Nikki said not to worry about any breathing techniques. Just try to breathe normally, she said, and if your breathing is weird, notice that.

When I woke up this morning with a gasp of air, there was a word at the top of my brain. It was spirit. Spirit comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means breath. In many cultures breathe is entwined with the idea of a soul, a spark, a human spirit.

And here I am breathing out, out, out, and then gasping desperately for air. Why am I holding my breath?  Why am I letting it out for too long?  Am I too tight and tense to breathe naturally?

I don’t know.

I will try my best, I suppose, to relax and let the the breath flow through me easily, in and out, in and out. I know it’s easier said than done, though. Until I get the hang of it, I will notice my weird breath and my great gasps at spirit, and I will wait for the day when I am fully inflated.

 

ASSIGNMENT:

Sit somewhere quiet for 10 minutes, with your eyes open or closed, and just notice your breathing.  Try to breathe normally!

Day 120: Big Questions at Breakfast, or, Universe: Spill Your Guts!

Day 120:  Big Questions at Breakfast, or, Universe:  Spill Your Guts!

 

TODAY’S STATS:

# of agents queried: 2

writing progress made: finished writing a short story I started a long time ago

My job tutoring Ukrainians is interesting to say the least. I literally get paid to have conversations. I ask my tutees about anything and everything, just to keep them talking. I ask about their families, what they ate for breakfast, their fears, their dreams, what they were like as teenagers, their favorite restaurants. It’s good practice for them to answer these questions, and it’s good practice for me to ask them.

When I was younger, I thought the best way to fill a silence in a conversation was to tell a story. A story about myself, usually. I expected that other people would reciprocate by telling me stories about themselves, and that’s how we would get to know each other. But not everyone is a storyteller. I found that I was talking about myself all the time and learning little about other people. I began to worry – was I not curious about other people? What a horribly vain thing to be!

But I did want to know about other people. I had been expecting them to offer up information unprompted. And so as I got older, I learned to ask more questions. People aren’t  just going to spill their guts to me for no reason.

I have to work for it.

*   *   *

“Eva, what role does spirituality play in your life? Do you feel like you’re on a spiritual search?” Nikki asked me this morning as I was eating breakfast. She really likes to start the mornings off right.

I pondered the answer to this question while I ate my yogurt. This was Nikki, mind you, who wakes up at five-thirty every morning to meditate for an hour or so. This is Nikki, who reads Buddhist texts and goes to meditation retreats and talks on the phone with her Shambhala instructor. I felt lame and lazy in comparison. If Nikki is on a grand search for spirituality, I’m probably asleep in bed, dreaming about goats, expecting spirituality to come wake me up and make me French toast.

What I finally told her was that I definitely think about spiritual questions – why are we here, how should I live my life, is there a purpose, what should my purpose be. I think about these questions from time to time when I’m taking a quiet walk, or when I’m reading a book about philosophy. And sometimes I feel a general, overall sense of wonder or mystery about the world and my connection to it.

But I don’t think about these things every day, and I don’t have any sort of spiritual routine the way that Nikki does. I’m interested in these questions, but I’m not overly bothered that I don’t know the answers.

And then my old fear came back. Am I not curious enough? Don’t I want to understand the world and my place in it? Yes, yes, I do! But I don’t act like it. I go around telling my own stories without really trying to get to know the universe around me.

It’s not like the universe is going to spill its guts to me unprompted.  Maybe I need to start asking more questions.

This is what happens when I try to do yoga in the living room.

The other night I was on the phone with Paul, telling him about my Ukrainian tutee, Sergey. “His life is so different from mine,” I said, “that sometimes I don’t know what to ask him about.”

For example, I told Paul, the other day Sergey told me that he left something at work, so he sent his driver back to get it. I was surprised – I hadn’t realized that he had a driver. Then again, never having had one myself, or known anyone who’s had one, I never thought to ask Sergey about his help.

Sometimes I try to ask him about his work – he’s the CEO of a large Russian beverage company – but I often end up feeling silly. I know so little about business. I’m very curious about what he does and where he is in the process of introducing his brand of vodka to the U.S. market, but I haven’t been able to figure out much about it because I don’t know the right questions to ask.

Sergey makes me work for information.

*   *   *

As I was scraping the last of my yogurt out of the bowl at breakfast, I thought that maybe the trouble is that I find the world so mysterious that I don’t know the right questions to ask.

“I don’t know, Nikki,” I said. “I think that a serious and structured spiritual search often has an impetus, and maybe that’s why I haven’t yet felt the need to start a spiritual routine.” At this point, I told her, I’ve been content with my random musings and the occasional brush with the mysteries of the universe. I haven’t had a life-changing experience that smacks me in the face with with my own mortality and leaves a sting that can’t be ignored.

Nikki nodded. She didn’t become serious about meditating until she became a hospice nurse. “It wasn’t like I could ponder the meaning of life and then go back to my normal routine anymore,” she said. “Death was my normal routine. I see it every day. And it’s so mysterious and huge, and it’s going to happen to all of us. And I was like, whoa. I need to figure out what I think about all this.”

I’ve tried to get into the habit of meditating on several occasions. One was after reading Eat, Pray, Love. Another was after being given a satchel of sacred ash from India by this old woman at an ashram.  She told me to meditate with a bit of it on my forehead for an hour every day and “amazing things” would happen.  So I tried. I really did. But what always happens is that I meditate for a few days in a row, and then I think, why am I doing this? What’s the point?  And I stop. I’ve never had a good impetus that makes me want to stick with the routine.

But when Nikki brought up the spiritual search today, I thought, why haven’t I tried harder to have a spiritual side to my life?

“Maybe I will try meditation again,” I told her, moving on to my spoonful of nut butter, which has become a staple part of my breakfast. “Maybe I’ll come meditate with you in the mornings, if you don’t mind.”

Nikki said she wouldn’t mind at all. She would love it.

“I bet it’d be a good thing for me to do,” I said.

“Why do you think that?”

“I figure it’s probably a good thing to notice what’s going on in my mind and body. Maybe I’ll become aware of something I don’t usually notice. Besides, I’m interested in meditation. You do it all the time, and you seem to like it. I just want to see what happens.”

“I think curiosity is the best way to approach it,” Nikki said.

My chest flooded with relief. I am curious after all.

*   *   *

Later, as I began to write this, I had a realization.  Meditation is Nikki’s way of searching.  But writing is mine.  I said I don’t have a spiritual routine, but I do.  Every day (well, now every other day) I’m sitting down and writing about my life and pondering things I haven’t always had the time to think about.

I’m still going to try meditation, because I am curious about it.  But it’s nice to know that I had a spiritual side all along.

Today, when I was tutoring Sergey, I was about to go into my usual barrage of questions when he said, “I want to tell you about something that happened to me yesterday.”

“Oh, yes, please do!” I said. I was beside myself with joy. This was the first time Sergey was offering up information about himself without me having to ask him anything first.

Maybe asking questions is like chipping away at a wall. At first nothing happens, and all you get are little chinks and pieces of rubble. But finally, when you’ve asked enough, the wall comes crumbling down, and you can finally see what’s on the other side.

Zeus does downward-facing dog.