Empire Mine State Park

There was an arson arrest made related to the fire that broke out near my house and my mother’s house. We live in the foothills of Northern California and fire is a very real danger here.

We are still watching the details of the fire, as it is still an active incident.  We are still prepared to evacuate.  With regard to the arsonist, I’m very sad that someone set fire to our neighborhood and Empire Mine State Park. I say this as I listen to more sirens drive by.

Empire Mine has been my morning walk and my happy place for the past three years. It is my community park.  It is my place of nature and peace. I have hiked every trail more than once. More than twice. More than ten times.

Empire Mine State Park is the place where I get my steps. It is the place where I listen to Mozart or Joni Mitchell or Eminem, depending on my mood. It is the place I take friends and family to show off the beauty of my neighborhood. I have met humans and dogs there. I have met squirrels and lizards and deer. I smile every time I pass by a fern or a wild flower or an interesting leaf.  I have watched trees grow there. I have marveled at the colors in the park.  Lately, I have loved the green and the yellow and the crimson.

I took my mom for the first time last week.  We walked from Penn Gate (an entrance mostly used by locals and horse riders) to the visitor’s center.  I gave her the three-penny tour and told her that I’d show her the rest of the park in the coming weeks.

Right now, I don’t know how much of the park is left.

There is a bridge in the park that my wife and I cross on a regular basis. I usually make her stop and kiss me when we cross the bridge.

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It smells like pine and dust and grease and something like linseed oil.  It smells a lot like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.  We cross it every time we walk through Empire Mine State Park. I’m not sure right now if it is still standing.

This year, in the spring, at the back of the park, my wife and I paused to watch bumble bees going wild amongst the sage. There were purple flowers for days and an incredible buzzing. It was so alive. Yesterday, as I walked through that part of the park, I caught a whiff of the sage drying in the autumn heat and I smiled for the changing of the seasons.

I still don’t know the extent of the damage but my heart breaks. My heart breaks about the fire and it breaks that someone could have been so careless or mentally ill or downtrodden or desperate to unleash such an expense on a community.

I don’t know enough of the details to be mad or vengeful or heated. I don’t know that any details will ever make me feel mad or vengeful or heated.

I feel sad. I feel really sad right now. And, based on the initial reports about damage, I’m probably going to feel sad for a really, really long time.

I have taken pictures almost every day for the last year. This is my park.  This is my heart.  This is my place.

Pictures:

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*If you feel inclined to do something, please donate to Yubanet.com, our local fire-safety website. ($2 is fine. $200 is nice too. Donate what you can. There is no auto-renew and no additional obligation.) Yubanet has kept so many people aware and safe in times of devastation. The site in run by an incredible person and is the go-to communication when it comes to fire danger: http://yubanet.com/subscriptions/

The Art Hotel

Sacramento has changed a lot in five years.  One of my favorite old art galleries is now a coworking space.  Some of the older buildings are either boarded up or in the process of being torn down.  There are new trendy cafes and restaurants.  Some of the restaurants have moved or have gone out of business.  There aren’t as many cats sitting on porches as there used to be.

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I stopped by an art installation today at the random suggestion of an old friend on Facebook.  Her post said, “Pictures don’t do the experience justice. Just go. Before 2/13 when it will all be torn down.”  The pictures didn’t do it justice.  But the location was on the way to The Crocker Art Museum which is where I was headed anyway.

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The installation is called The Art Hotel and it takes place inside an historic building known as The Marshall Hotel.  The Marshall Hotel has been a point of contention for Sacramento residents for years. It was known as a slum but for many Sacramento residents who suffered through the worst of the housing crisis, the Marshall Hotel was something of a beacon of hope and refuge.  It contained small, affordable, studio apartments and housed some of Sacramento’s long-time residents.  The residents of the building were evicted last year and the building is set for demolition later this month so it can be replaced by an upscale Hyatt Hotel adjacent to the new arena.

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Sacramento, like a lot of Northern California cities, is suffering from an identity crisis created by gentrification in the name of economic growth. It is sacrificing the cool for the trendy, the affordability for the temporary, the stable for the possibilities, the people for the corporations, and the art for the new.  I just hope it doesn’t lose all of what makes it awesome.  After visiting The Art Hotel, I still have hope for Sacramento and for what’s to come.

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The Art Hotel, located until February 13th at 7th Street between K and L in Sacramento is a temporary art installation and possibly one of the most important art pieces of our lifetime and particularly the most important art installation that has ever graced Sacramento’s stage.  (I’m not an art critic and this is merely conjecture.)  Sacramento needs The Art Hotel and all of Sacramento should wait as long as they have to in order to see it.

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What is taking place at The Art Hotel in Sacramento speaks volumes to an overall trend in economics in cities and communities all across America.  I came to the installation blindly.  I learned later that there had been a kickstarter campaign and a handful of art-loving donors who had helped to make the art happen.  From my outsider perspective, a group of artists converted what had once been the homes of many, many low-income people, into a statement about what happens when we evict the artists, the elderly, the down-trodden, the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled , the addicted, and the general diversity of a community in need.  Maybe the artists weren’t trying to be that involved in a message.  Maybe it’s just art for art’s sake.  Either way it’s really good.  Quite simply, it’s revolutionary.

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I started my morning in the car driving down from the foothills listening to a report about the all-time high rates for renters in America and the lack of affordable housing both in cities and in rural areas across the United States.  I moved to midtown Sacramento in 2002 because it was affordable at the time.  I bought my first house in east Sacramento and lost it in the 2008 housing crisis.  I moved back to midtown after less than three years as a home-owner and back into affordable apartment living.  My last apartment in midtown was a studio for $700/month.  It was little but it was cute and I was happy living there.  The same place would now cost me $1,300/month, according to a recent Craig’s list ad.

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As we continue to let the divide between the rich and the poor deepen, we continue to allow the gap between the valuable and necessary widen.

The Art Hotel is temporary.  The art there has a time limit.  It exists in a building slated to be demolished and there is no chance of saving it. In a year the The Art Hotel will be forgotten and the space will be filled with cell-phone talking executives waiting to go to a sporting event. That’s a part of why The Art Hotel is so important. It speaks volumes to how we go forward with art.  It speaks volumes to how we treat our cities and how we develop our communities. There is no saving the art in The Art Hotel.  The people who lived there are already gone.  There is only going forward.

Hotels are valuable.  Art is necessary.

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Dance Magic Dance

A part of me died tonight.  It took me by surprise. I had no idea how much I loved David Bowie until tonight when I found him gone.

David Bowie was the first person who ever made me feel like I had an identifiable sexuality or a specific gender identity. I will never forget the first time I watched Labyrinth and I will never forget how it made me feel. In hindsight, this is odd, because I’m a queer woman and, as a pre-pubescent teen in 1986 watching Labyrinth, it was really confusing to watch Jareth, The Goblin King, and his codpiece, and to think thoughts about something that I was fully too young to understand.

In the next few hours and days, there will be several news outlets and magazines that eulogize David Bowie.  They will talk about his incredible vocal capability.  And they will be right.  They will talk about his trend-setting fashion.  And they will be right.  There might be a few publications that mention Ziggy Stardust and the incredible bravery and ultimately revolutionary persona that David Bowie offered in that moment.  And hopefully they will understand how unbelievable he was, and how far ahead of his time he was in that moment.  But probably not.  In all likelihood Ziggy Stardust will be mentioned as a song on an album and not as a movement.

David Bowie was so sexy in his own right and so far ahead of his time in gender fluidity that it’s hard to look back on his career and pinpoint the moment when he became a symbol rather than an icon.  His sincerity met the expanse of his career and his genuine approach to artistry was so authentic that few people noticed the movement.  David Bowie will likely be remembered as an incredible songwriter and a beautiful popstar.

David Bowie positioned himself with such integrity that his death snuck up on us and his legacy might go without notice in the mainstream.

For me, he was my first love.  He was my first real crush.  And, as I got older, and started to understand a little better, I came to understand that he was my first real hero.

For me, and for many people like me, David Bowie wasn’t simply an incredible singer and song-writer.  He was a revolutionary who took gender non-conformity to new levels when gender non-conformity didn’t yet have a term.  He shook the world with his alter-ego in a way that will never be taken back.  He lived his life so extraordinarily that when he died tonight he took two very real people with him.

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Good night David Bowie.  And sweet dreams Ziggy Stardust.

We will never forget you.  Either of you.  And the people who knew you will ever forget your music.

I will miss you forever.  And I will never forget your advice:

Dance magic dance.

 

Taking Stock of What Matters

We have a shed in our backyard.  Over the years I have tried really hard to downsize and get rid of the stuff that isn’t useful or helpful.  My partner and I have gotten rid of a lot of unnecessary clutter and we have downsized quite a bit.  My partner is far better at getting rid of things than I am.  I’m very sentimental.

I have boxes and boxes of pictures, letters, scrapbooks, and memorabilia.  My mother kept nearly every drawing I had ever made for her from the time that I could hold a crayon.  When she retired and moved, she dropped off all of her boxes at my house, as if I didn’t have boxes of my own.  Recently, I have tried to narrow down the boxes.

In early 2014, I went through every single box in the shed.  I organized the memorabilia. I put stuff in specific boxes.  I didn’t get rid of much. I have tried to make sense of the boxes.  I have a hard time throwing away anything sentimental. But I moved stuff and organized it.

Our shed is full of stuff. We have canning supplies and tools.  We have large dishes for family gatherings.  We have camping gear and seasonal items like space heaters and sleds for the winter and pool-noodles and house fans for the summer.  We have boxes of seasonal decorations. I like to decorate the house for the holidays.  It’s a lot of stuff.

On New Year’s Day of this year, I threw all of the holiday decorations back into boxes and threw the boxes into the shed.  Since then, I have had a post-it note on the fridge that reads, “Clean out shed!!!”  If I have needed anything from the shed in the past seven months, I have crawled over boxes and miscellany, moving things around and shuffling boxes to the back, only having consideration for things I needed at the time.  It has gotten worse and worse.

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Yesterday afternoon, a fire broke out in Nevada County about ten miles from our house in geodesic distance, or, “as the crow flies.”  We were about thirty minutes from home when we saw the smoke in the distance.  It was big.  I could tell it was bad and I could tell that it was close enough that we should worry, if not for ourselves, then for our friends.

The fire is being called the Lowell Fire and it is serious.  It’s in a canyon and it is hard to contain.  Fire lines are being held for the most part but some fire lines have been broken and firefighters have gotten hurt.  California is dry and there are winds preventing the fire from being contained.  It is serious.

Many of our friends have been evacuated and some are still on alert and ready to evacuate.  According to the CalFire website, the fire is only 5% contained.  We are not in the clear and things are very, very scary for a lot of people right now.

My friend Michelle had to evacuate with her husband and family and is staying with friends.  Her house is very much in harm’s way.  She posted, “Imagine that you have 2 hours to boil down 21 years. What do you value? High school yearbooks? Nope -well not mine, but certainly my kids kindergarten art and pictures pre-dating grey hair. But the lovely leather couch and the cherrywood table and all the other crap I collect did not mean a thing to me. I left it easily. I have what is important. My boys and my hairy annoying dogs!!”

Let me be clear:  I am not saying that losing a home isn’t devastating.  Losing a home and belongings to a fire is a million shades of devastating and something unimaginably horrific.  Many of the people in my community are facing tragedy right now.  It is undeniably scary.

So many people in our community are facing devastation and so many people in our community have stepped up.  There are evacuation efforts.  Local Veterinary Clinics have offered boarding. Local horse clubs and livestock owners have offered to haul and home goats, sheep, horses, and cows in order to get them to safety.  Many people have offered guest bedrooms.  Many local businesses have offered services.  We are all trying to do our part.

 

I cleaned out the shed today.  After worrying about friends and the Lowell Fire, we got more bad news.  Just after 11am today, a grass fire broke out three miles south of us.  Based on the wind direction, we were suddenly in the middle of two fires.  The fire south of us was extinguished and mopped up quickly but it put a lot of things in perspective.

For all the prepping and preparedness that I would like to think that I’m a part of, I wasn’t prepared for a real evacuation. Truthfully, no one is really prepared for an evacuation.

I spent most of my morning going through my shed and prioritizing boxes.

 

Today, my wife and I picked out the things from our house and shed that we would save if we had to save them.  Our list was fairly short. Our list was made in order of importance. I put it under a magnet on the fridge.

It read:

Pets, 3 cats (cat carriers, pack cat food, see about litter and boxes later.)

Important papers (IDs, passports, bank stuff, birth certificates etc.)

Family pictures (9 boxes labeled in the shed)

Computers (for pictures and writing)

Clothes (what we can carry)

Books (Signed copies and what we can’t replace)

Memorabilia (wedding and vintage)

Camping gear (just in case this might be long term)

 

That was it.  Nothing else.  Nothing else mattered.

And it has made me think a lot about my life.

I have taken stock.

Tidying up: Papers and Paperwork

Marie Kondo’s advice for getting rid of papers is to just throw them all away. I appreciated the drastic nature of this advice because it gave me permission to get rid of a lot of paperwork that I had been keeping unnecessarily for many years. I had kept boxes of paperwork and filing folders full of old bills. I had kept bank statements dating back more than a decade.

I started keeping paperwork when I was in college. At first, I had kept paperwork because it made me feel grown up. I had my own bills and I could put them into organized files. I did this for several months. Then I just kept filing things out of habit. Months turned into years.

My actual desk.

My actual desk.

I had to diverge a bit from Marie Kondo’s sound advice about getting rid of papers; I did not get rid of everything. I kept several pieces of paperwork that I know are important to keep.

As someone who has been through two divorces, a home foreclosure, and an incident with identity theft, I have been grateful over the years for my ample, though mostly unnecessary, record keeping. For example, a few years ago, I received a letter from a cable company instructing me to pay $178.00 for failing to return equipment from an account that had closed more than a year prior. I had kept the receipt from the equipment return and was able to forward it to the company who then rescinded the bill. Some pieces of paperwork are worth storing.

Most of them are not.

Until this afternoon, I had kept nearly every utility bill I have ever received in my entire adult life. I had stacks of PG&E bills more than an inch think. I had stacks of cable bills and phone bills about the same size. I had credit card statements from years ago, and from accounts that had been long closed. I had five filing folders and at least three overflowing boxes of papers.

Getting rid of papers has been my least favorite part of tidying so far. I spent six hours today going through and shredding a long history of unnecessary paperwork. When Marie Kondo says that her “basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away,” I think what she really means is that people should shred all documents with sensitive information and recycle all unwanted paper products. I shredded and recycled a lot today. And I decided carefully what was absolutely necessary to retain.

I kept all of my tax forms from each year of filing taxes. I kept my diplomas and educational transcripts. I kept one piece of proof of insurance from each company that I had ever had insurance through, writing on the form the dates that I had kept insurance through the company. I kept verification of each account that I had opened and/or closed. I kept the divorce paperwork from both of my divorces. I kept my immunization records from my childhood and from my most recent tetanus shot. I kept all personal credit reports, which I run every two years. I additionally kept any unique information or one-of-a-kind records, and I kept the warrantees and receipts from important or expensive purchases.

Not every piece of paper should be thrown away, especially in the context of the American justice system, and with regard to American insurance policies. If you are ever sued, have to divorce, or if you are ever robbed or have damage in your home that requires filing an insurance claim, you will want to have proof of purchases and accounts. Take care to keep track of these documents.

Marie Kondo is from Japan and is an amazing visionary when it comes to tidying but she may not entirely understand the American system of contracts and records. She, like many people who live outside the United States, may have few real examples about the incredible amount of paperwork that may be required from consumers in certain situations.

Get rid of your unnecessary paperwork. It’s okay. If you have checked your bank statements and your credit card statements to verify purchases, you don’t have to keep the statements. You don’t have to keep your utility bills. If you have already looked over a bill for accuracy and have paid the bill, it’s okay to recycle the papers. Keep only the most basic verifications and discard the rest. If, at the end, you still have three filing folders full of paperwork, I think that’s okay.

The Small Stuff

The Small Stuff

It is not just the small stuff; it is every single little tiny thing.

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I love the New Year. Even though it is just another day, the perception that it is a “new year” makes the event pregnant with possibility. Just because, in reality, we only went from a Wednesday to a Thursday doesn’t mean we can’t make assessments and set goals. I like reflection. If we need an excuse for it, fine.

For 2015, I have given myself one word. My word for the year is “verve”.

Having a New Year’s “word” is fairly new to me. Poet and author, Molly Fisk, turned me on to the idea. She is one of my very favorite people and definitely one of my favorite Facebook friends. At the end of the calendar year, she asks people what their word for the next year will be. When she asked in 2012, I set my word for 2013 as “friendship.”

It took me a long time to decide on my word for 2015 and I’m taking my word very seriously.

Verve: noun 1. enthusiasm or vigor, as in literary or artistic work; spirit. 2. vivaciousness; liveliness; animation. 3. talent

I think that I came to my word because, for the past several weeks, I have been doing something fun, artistic and new to me. I have been working with miniatures. Or, more specifically, I have been working with the most famous 1:6 scale doll in the world: Barbie. (It has honestly been for professional reasons, but I will get to that.)

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Even as a little girl, I never really liked Barbies. I certainly never expected to find myself playing with Barbies at the age of 34. I have always liked make-believe but I never really took myself for someone who would enjoy miniatures.

A couple months ago, in November of 2014 I was hired for a big job, a real job. I was hired as the Executive Director of Sierra Commons, a non-profit business education center and coworking facility in Nevada City. As a part of my new job, I started to amp up my involvement in the community. I started reading every word of every Chamber of Commerce newsletter. I faithfully checked all the community calendars. I researched every non-profit resource that I could find.

As a part of my efforts, I came across an announcement put out by our local library. The main branch of the library (called the Madelyn Helling Branch, after a wonderful local lady) was taking applications from local non-profits who wanted to utilize a display case for a month. I immediately put in an application and, on a whim, decided to list our “preferential month” as January. The library wrote back about a week later to say that we were accepted and that we could have January. January 2015.

At that time, January 2015 was about six weeks away. I was super excited. I thought that we would just place a poster and post some information and call it a day. No biggie.

Then the library sent me the list of rules and the dimensions for the display case. “Each case measures 46” wide, 52” high and is approximately 15” deep. Both have adjustable wooden shelves that are about 10” deep.”

WTF?

I blinked a few times and then reread the email. I was never very good at math but, by my calculations, our display case was about four feet wide, nearly five feet tall and more than a foot deep. That’s huge. Like trophy case huge.

I’m not entirely sure why my panic subsided into the not-so-logical conclusion that I would just make a diorama representing Sierra Commons. It probably had something to do with the recent family trip to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. I hadn’t made a diorama since my 3rd Grade book report on The Cat in The Hat. Still, it seemed like a logical conclusion. I would just make a diorama.

I learned at the museum that Walt Disney once said of his artistic specifications for Disneyland, “While some of the detail may go unnoticed, the lack of detail would have been apparent.”

I kept that in mind while I prepared to make a diorama, a diorama that was supposed to represent my friends, coworkers and our work space.

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I used Barbie and Ken dolls because they are the most easily accessible and readily available little humanish representations that I could find. I found my dolls at the local Cancer Aid Thrift Store. Some had pen on their faces which I removed with rubbing alcohol. Some of them badly needed their hair brushed. One Barbie has hair so frizzy that I separated it and turned it into dreadlocks and added beads. All of the dolls were naked.

I searched eBay for clothing and started to find “accessories.” The world of the 1:6 doll is vast. (It also has a interesting fetishist side, which surprised me. If you want a strange and weird experience, try googling “1:6 doll” in images. NSFW.) It is basically a rabbit hole. I narrowed my searches and started to find little potted plants and teeny tiny iPhones. I found itty bitty board games and notebooks and pencils. I found little laptop computers. I found tiny cups of coffee. I found to-scale bags of M&Ms. Everything that I could want to recreate our office was basically available.

I bought all of it. (Well not all of it. I bought almost anything under $10. I stopped at the $300 little Persian rugs and the $600 tiny Tiffany lamps.)

I started to think about the floor and the walls and the windows and the desks. I started to visualize an entire floor plan. I ordered window frames and baseboards from a dollhouse maker in Michigan. I printed up pictures of the Sierra Commons campus to paste on the inside of the windows so that it would look like looking out the window from our actual office.

I started to think about the small stuff. I started to notice the small stuff. I started to take the small stuff seriously.

I worked through December and into the holidays on my diorama. I started to think about the new year. I started to see things differently. I started to reflect.

As I paid attention to every minute detail of my diorama, I started to pay attention to the smaller things in my life. I started to think about the whole as the sum of its parts. I started to think about my life as the sum of my years and my days and my moments.

Late in the evening on December 31st, 2014, the word “verve” popped into my. It came out of no where and I had to pick up my iPad and research the meaning because I wasn’t sure what it meant. I thought that it was something artistic but I wasn’t sure. When I read the definition, I liked the word right away. I especially liked the idea of animation. I like the idea of animation because it has movement but also because animation is just a series of single pictures that create the illusion of liveliness and movement.

Life is an animation. It has verve. Sometimes we may not notice it or feel it but that’s exactly what it is. It’s the small stuff. The wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary small stuff.

I Built a Patio

Sometimes you have to celebrate an achievement, not because it is perfect, but because it is yours.

I built a stone patio in my backyard, almost entirely by myself.

My orange cat, Lucky, was pretty helpful most of the time.

My orange cat, Lucky, was pretty helpful most of the time.

About six months ago my father brought me some stone pavers that he had left over from his own patio-project in his backyard. He loaded about 50 of them into the bed of his big Dodge truck and hauled them from the Bay Area, where he lives, to the Sierra Foothills, where I live.

We used it as an excuse to get together for dinner. It was good to see him and my step-mom. We ate at New Moon Cafe in Nevada City and had a wonderful evening of food and family.

Before his arrival, I had spent several months pulling weeds and trying to flatten the ground where the pavers would go. When we moved in, our backyard was a jungle of Blackberry and Creeping Charlie. The previous tenants had built a fence around the yard hoping that their dog could run free. But the dog was a jumper and couldn’t be left alone in the yard. It looked like they had tried to start a garden but then ultimately left the yard to its own devices. When we moved in, it was a mess.

After months of pulling weeds and moving dirt, I was finally ready for a patio. I was so excited for the paving stones. I couldn’t wait to lay them down. I thought that a 5 foot by 10 foot patio would be a perfect and quaint size, just the right thing for a couple of chairs and several summer nights of reading.

I put the stones down and looked at my creation. I was sadly underwhelmed.

Just the beginning.

Just the beginning.

Over the next six months we started buying paving stones little by little, whatever we could afford with each paycheck. The patio grew. So did my plans for dimensions. I kept a tally on a pad of paper posted to the fridge. I would write down that we only needed “34 more stones.” Then I would install those 34 stones and expand the project. “Only 16 more stones!” “Only 39 more stones!” This went on and on.

The yard already had a rock retaining wall and a couple of large cherry trees. Eventually, those two landmarks became the perimeters for my patio. I decided to go big and extend the patio the length of the retaining wall and meet the first cherry tree across the yard. Those were my final dimensions.

Last week, I wrote on the notepad on the fridge “Only 24 more stones to go!!” And I meant it.

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Yesterday I went to my local hardware store and drove right into the yard. The guys recognized my car, knew what I wanted, and immediately started to grab the pavers.

They asked, “How many this time? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?”

“Twenty-four,” I replied. “Just twenty-four. This is the last load.” They looked at each other and tried not to shrug with doubt.

For the past six months I have laid the stones one by one. We bought each stone when we could afford them. Sometimes ten, sometimes more.

I started laying the stones by lining them up against a couple of two-by-four scraps propped up on their sides. When I ran out of the stones that my father had brought me, I bought other stones. They were a slightly different dimension than my first set and I had to eyeball for accuracy and a sense of parallel lines. Basically, I had to fudge it.

I started digging up some of the stones I had already laid. I tried to make everything even. I had to move dirt from one side of the yard to the other. Eventually, I got the stones placed.

I got the last stone in place this afternoon. The local Hit Radio station was playing “Eye of the Tiger.” (Seriously!)  It felt really great.

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There are a few stones that are a little too close to each other. There are a couple stones that are a little wonky. Not all the lines across the patio are perfectly parallel. It’s not perfect. But it’s mine.

Contemplating Suicide

I have kept a diary since the sixth grade. I now have many diaries, documenting most of my life, stored away in boxes in my shed. According to my well-kept records, the first time that I contemplated suicide was about twenty years ago, when I was 14-years-old. I have contemplated suicide many times since. I don’t ever talk about it because it makes people uncomfortable and, to most people, it is generally a pathetic and selfish thought pattern. But, since the great and powerful genie, and the kind and brilliant comedian, Robin Williams, has made suicide the topic du jour, I thought that I would share a few things about my experience with depression and suicide.

Robin Williams’ death was a tragedy for his family, for his friends and for the millions of fans who admired his work. In that order. I grieve for him under the latter rubric, which is to say, I grieve for his art. Like many people who have been speculating about his life and situation, I never met him. But like so many others, I loved what I knew.

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There has already been so much ink spilled about Robin Williams’ tragic death and I hate the piggy-backing that has subsequently followed. I write this, not because it is timely and might get my blog more hits, but because the subject hits close to home and I feel compelled to share this.

As with any event where a media blitz follows, a lot of misinformation gets spread and a lot of ill-informed opinions are solidified. I have seen a lot of commentary about suicide and depression. While much of it is well-intended, there is so much circulating currently that is neither helpful nor productive. I once heard someone say that telling a depressed person to “cheer up” or “reach out” is like giving someone an aspirin for a brain tumor. I feel like that is pretty accurate.

As a caveat, I’m fine today. That is to say, I’m fine for now. I’ve been fine for at least a year. I have been eating really well and exercising. I stay away from situations that could put my mental health at risk. I stay away from people who exacerbate my occasional severe depression. When I can, I go out into the sun a lot. I take vitamins. I allow myself to find joy where ever I can. I sometimes even recite positive affirmations while looking in the mirror.

I’m not medicated for my depression. I have been fortunate enough in my life that a comprehensive, holistic approach has always provided me with the tools to overcome my depression. Early on, my parents took me to see a therapist. They divorced when I was young and I think my therapy sessions were more for their peace of mind than my own, but I equally think the sessions probably set a good foundation for what has become a battle with depression in my adult life. So far so good.

But I know that there is always the possibility that the depression will come back. And that it could come back worse than before. It occasionally rears its ugly head when I’m having a particularly bad day or bad week. My depression isn’t as severe as some other people’s. My depression is cyclical and occasional, sometimes lasting a few detrimental days and sometimes for a few devastating months. I know that I am much more fortunate than a lot of people who deal with depression. But, like most people who deal with depression, I also know that I am always at risk.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Robin Williams chose to act in several movies dealing with the subjects of suicide, displacement, and mental illness. Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, Jumanji, August Rush and What Dreams May Come are among my favorites. I also don’t think that it is a coincidence that he won an Oscar for his role in a film where seizing the day triumphs in the face of death and life’s obstacles: Good Will Hunting.

Depression is not equivalent to having a bad day. It is not a sadness. It is like the scene in What Dreams May Come where Annie Collins-Nielsen, played by actress Annabella Sciorra, can’t get up and can’t even cry. It’s like the scene in Jumanji when Alan Parrish, played by Williams, comes back to his home town after years of isolation to find that no one remembers him or is willing to acknowledge his existence. Depression is a desolation so deep and so clear. It is a submersion. There is no reasoning or arguing. It is an all-encompassing monster, reaching its tendrils into every part of a person’s life.

I have seen a lot of messages about suicide prevention and about “reaching out” in the past few days. I appreciate the effort. I really do. I can sympathize with those who have lost loved ones to depression and who hope to prevent suicide in the future. I have seen the messages of hope. I think that my friend, Zack Hamra, offered one of the best messages of hope I have read.

He said, “Please be kinder to yourself than you think you should be. This world is one crazy place if you let yourself get all caught up in it. Slow down. You might actually be right where you need to be. Our mental health is serious stuff, and it saddens me, that in school, we’re not provided with the tools to figure out on a daily basis what this stuff called happiness is really made of. RIP Robin Williams. The whole world loved you.”

The whole world loved you. It rings in my ears like a gong.

The whole world loved you.

Isn’t that an incredible thing? The whole world loved you.

For most of us, we don’t hear these messages on any regular basis. We don’t hear messages of love enough. Whether we are dealing with depression or not. There are many who cater to the love outside, but there are few who are willing to love the people in front of them. People are complicated. There are people in the world who never hear kind words from anyone.

I am saddened beyond grief that a man who brought so much joy to the world has now become the poster-child for suicide prevention. But, as someone who has lived silently as someone actively struggling for suicide prevention, I can tell you that we, as a people, just don’t love each other enough for the world to hold all of us.

I mean this in the kindest way possible, even though it’s shitty: There are those of us in the world who won’t survive this time and place because it is too much to get through. I am heart-broken, like so many, about Robin Williams’ suicide. But unlike many, I completely understand it. I get it. I respect it. And I can’t blame him. I can’t even say that I’m surprised about the circumstances surrounding his death. He goes, like so many before him, carrying the art he could no longer burden, to his grave. May his sweet, sweet soul now rest in peace.

And for the rest of us?

A good friend of mine, who has suffered from severe depression for many years, explained her outward dismay by saying, “They keep saying that ‘it gets better…’” She trailed off with a pregnant pause. The truth is that, for many of us, it will never get better. It just gets different. And all we can hope for is that we lived the best we could. I think of Sean Maguire, Robin Williams’ role in Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams’ death may very well be the culmination and apex of his entire life’s work. When I heard that his cause of death was suicide by asphyxia, my initial thought was not that he had hung himself, but that he had attached a pipe to the exhaust of his car, the way that Willy Loman attempted suicide in Death of a Salesman. But Robin Williams wasn’t making an attempt. He was saying goodbye.

I have kept a diary since the sixth grade. I now have many diaries, documenting most of my life, stored away in boxes in my shed. According to my well-kept records, the first time that I contemplated suicide was about twenty years ago, when I was 14-years-old. I have contemplated suicide many times since.

Most people who read a blog are looking for simple answers: A fifteen minute pineapple-upsidedown-cake. A quick-fix diet. A simple way to get rid of aphids on roses. A catch-all solution to acne. This blog will not, and can not, offer a quick fix to suicide. The truth is that there is no quick fix. This world is broken and, for a lot of us, it is broken beyond repair.

Here is what you can do for now: Call the friend that needs it most. Make contact. Write a letter. Be nice. Be cordial. Be present. Use your turn signals. Make friends. Help a stranger. Put up with the hard stuff. Deal with the worst of people. Smile. Hug. Love.

And understand, when it isn’t enough, it’s not your fault. Some people just aren’t meant for this world.

I had the incredible fortune to see Maya Angelou speak in 2002. One thing that she said has always stuck with me: “If you think that you are alone, listen to music and read poetry and know that you are not alone. You have never been alone.”

I give you Wordsworth:

 

The World Is Too Much With Us

 

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

 

And I leave you with a medley of some of the best lines from some of the movies that Robin Williams participated in. I won’t specify. Let’s just celebrate his genius. Together, his words build a brilliant and perfect representation of a troubled man who gave the world so much. Hopefully we can be better for them.

“Hunger for hope may be worse than hunger for food.” “Even when you’re squeaky clean, you can still fall in the mud.” “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” “A whole human life is just a heartbeat here in Heaven. Then we’ll all be together forever.” “Thank you for believing.”

Rest in peace Robin Williams. And for all who are struggling with depression, you are not alone.

Mariana

My 11-year-old niece, Mariana, looked at me today while we were on a hike, “Plantain is the one you can chew up and put on a splinter to draw it out, right?” She was standing over plantain and bent down to break a leaf. I was elated.

plantain

Mariana has spent time with us in the foothills but she lives in Silicon Valley. She lives in an apartment and there just isn’t much vegetation between the walls and the streets and the sidewalk. I was surprised that she remembered our lesson from last summer. I was thrilled that she could still identify the plant.

Our family and friends always leave their kids with us. It is the most gracious of compliments. I know that my partner and I are tender, patient people and that we can be trusted to take the utmost consideration when caring for children. It helps that we are good cooks. I wonder, however, if our treasured responsibility has something to do with our terrain.

Living in one of the most lush and lovely places in the world has its advantages. We are blessed with wild vegetation that is both purposeful and beautiful. We are able to grow wonderful vegetables and produce. We are able to pass the knowledge about plants and their bounty onto our loved ones and our community.

mariana

Both my partner and I grew up in cities and many of our family members still live in urban sprawl. When their kids visit, not only do they get fresh food, but they get real dirt and real air with it.

I have always wondered if our city kids have gone home to their televisions and iPods and have forgotten everything about our foothills.

I was thankful to learn today that our lessons stick.

Sierra Commons: Uncommon Work Space

I’m coworking. I love my co-workers. I love “going into the office.” I love what I do. It’s a strange thing for me because I don’t have a “real job.” I got laid off from my “real job” two years ago. And, like many people, I haven’t been able to find a “real job” since. So, like many people, I have carved out my own niche and have taken the jobs that I could get. I’ve joined a coworking community called Sierra Commons. And, much to my own surprise, I have found work that I love. It is work that matters. It is work that pays well. And it is work that brings me joy.

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Coworking is an incredible model. It allows people who need an office to have one without any start up cost. Samantha Hinrichs, who grew up in rural Nevada County, on the outskirts called “the ridge” recently started her own business. She runs the nationally renowned “Mud and Pearls”, an organization that teaches skills, traditionally held by men, to women. She has offered classes on blacksmithing, chainsaws and has an incredible upcoming opportunity for cob-building. http://www.mudandpearls.com/ She notes, “Working in a co-working space hones my skills, sharpens my wit and allows me to bounce ideas off my co-workers; it makes my business lean, sharp and focused. It would be much messier [without Sierra Commons.]” Since becoming a member, her business has taken off.

 

Shortly after I got laid off, my partner and I moved to be closer to her work. She works in a rural county in the foothills of California. When we had first moved, we landed on a farm and lived in a 200 square-foot apartment in a garage on that farm. We did work-trade for our lodging. Though I was an avid gardener, I knew little about farming and got by through a lot of reading, a lot of studying and a lot of hope.

 

As someone with professional experience in case management for low-income families, and a Bachelors Degree in American Literature, the business of farming was very foreign to me. It was physical labor in the hot sun and freezing cold. It was 12-hour days that began with feeding chickens at dawn and ended with fixing pipes in the dark. It was the tediousness of picking peas, one by one, and planting seeds, inch by inch. It was the miracle and tragedy of life every single day. The fruit would ripen. A chicken would die. The bees would pollinate. A crop would be tilled in. It was an incredible experience, and I would do it over again, but when we moved off the farm a year later, I was still unemployed, by the standard definition, and still struggling.

 

I was struggling financially and I was struggling with my professional identity. I needed something that I could identify with. I wanted people I could relate to. I liked working in an office. I love meaningful work.

 

Growing up, I believed that I would finish high school, go to college and get a job in a cubicle somewhere. Truthfully, I barely finished high school. (In spite of my love for physical fitness, especially running and dance, I almost failed PE.) I got through college, but only after many set backs, a lot of financial hardship and several years in community college. I eventually got a job but I had to do a lot of work I hated through temp agencies before that happened.

 

I didn’t love my job but I was bummed when I lost it. Our agency lost funding and had to lay-off over half the work force. I was completely disheartened trying to find work. I was in a difficult situation. There was nothing out there that I wanted to do. But, also, I was hopeful. I am hopeful.

 

I am seeing a world that is changing. I am witnessing a way of working and a career path that is more suited to my values, more suited to the values of my generation.

 

In his book, Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein notes, “In the past we always had a choice of what to do with gains in efficiency: work less or consume more. Compelled by a growth-dependent money system, we consistently chose the latter. Instead of working less hard to meet existing needs more easily, we have constantly created new needs to meet or, more often, transferred needs from the gift into the money realm or sought to fulfill infinite needs with finite things. Such has driven our ascent, the development of our gifts of hand and mind. Though the cost to nature, culture, spirit, and humanity has been high, this development is not without its rightful purpose. Today, as the natural and cultural commonwealth is exhausted, the context of our choice — work less or consume more — is changing. The age of ascent is winding to a close, and we seek to apply the gifts we have developed toward their true purpose in a new relationship to Earth.” I am seeing Eisenstein’s vision emerge. So many of us have worked for too long, not having a purpose. Or, more precisely, we have worked with a purpose, without having a place.

 

Today, when I work, I work for something, not at something.

 

When the non-profit that I volunteer with needed help administering a grant to promote the use of food stamps at our farmer’s markets, I jumped at the chance to help.

 

For the first few months of my new “job”, I’d sit in my living room with my unruly cats, trying to organize a binder full of paperwork. I would haul it to coffee shops and try to find space to fire up my tiny notebook computer and get on the internet to fulfill my obligations to my new “job”. I would do this day after day, latte after latte. I started to hate the smell of coffee.

 

And, truthfully, I was really lonely. I missed having coworkers. I missed having a work-space. I missed taking walks with people and eating lunch with people. I figured that, because I was in a job doing my own thing, I was on my own. I learned recently that nothing could be further from the truth.

 

I found Sierra Commons two months ago.

 

Sierra Commons is a coworking facility in the historic gold rush town of Nevada City. We are a rural county. Nevada City, population 3,250, is the seat of that rural county. By some accounts, Sierra Commons is the only rural coworking facility in the United States. (I have no evidence to refute this. Though, I would love to hear about other efforts, if there are some.) Coworking allows those with a non-traditional job to have access to a traditional working facility. Ilana DeBare of the San Francisco Cronical characterized coworking in a 2007 article as a “social gathering of a group of people who are still working independently, but who share values.” For Sierra Commons in Nevada City, the description is wholly accurate.

 

At Sierra Commons, we share a fax machine, a copier and an address. But we share so much more than that.

 

Max Norton, the president of the board of Sierra Commons, which operates as a non-profit entity, shares this: “Coworking offers an opportunity for people from all walks of life to try entrepreneurship, and the evidence shows it increases their chances of success. If we care about making our economic recovery long-lasting and sustainable, then we need to do all we can to boost the chances of entrepreneurs—including and maybe especially those whose businesses contribute to resource sustainability.” Norton makes it clear that the coworking model offers the future now.

 

When I found Sierra Commons, I was over-joyed. Being a rural member of our society, I didn’t have regular access to high-speed internet and had spotty cell phone reception at best. (my friends would visit and ask for my wi-fi password. Uncomfortable laughter would follow.) Former executive director of Sierra Commons, Robert Trent, notes, “Most people would agree that a fast internet connection, telephone, and something to write with are all vital for conducting business. To me, coworking is another fundamental component of my consulting career.” Trent has since moved on as the director of a major economic development organization in our community.

 

For me, coworking has been the answer to a very real problem. I needed a place to do my work. (If you have cats at home, you know what I mean.) I needed a facility that could offer me the traditional amenities of an office. I needed a desk, a fax machine and high-speed internet. But more than that, more than any of that, I needed a community.

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Coworking has provided that community. It has provided me with so many opportunities. There is something to be said for working amongst others. In the past two months of working at Sierra Commons, I have gotten more work done than I had gotten done in the half-year prior. My ideas have blossomed and my hiccups are now no more than a virtual blip on my working career. Today, when I hit a wall, I have people to bounce ideas off of. I no longer have to be alone.

 

I am a part of a tribe. I am supported. I have help. I am a coworker.

http://sierracommons.org/