Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sycamore Canyon Camping/Whale Watching 2.17.12

Finally I got to do some camping here in SoCal. Before I came home for winter "break" (I feel awkward saying that, like I should have graduated from calling it "break" when I graduated from college), I bought some Groupon tickets for a whale watching cruise in Oxnard. Alfred and I decided to make a weekend of it and camp in Point Mugu State Park at the Sycamore Canyon Camp ground. It is a really lovely place, nestled right into the hills less than a mile away from the ocean. Once it was late enough at night and everyone quieted down you could hear the waves along the beach. It was a pretty normal state park camping with people just about twenty feet from us on both sides, but it was good to get out of the city, do a little hiking and know that I still know how to build a camp fire. 

We went on a 3 hour afternoon whale watching cruise on Saturday. I had figured the chances of seeing whales was actually pretty small and was prepared to just enjoy being out on the water and seeing the Channel Islands and some wild life. The grew whales have been migrating up and down the west coast from Alaska where they feed and live to Baja California where they breed and birth their calves. Once the calves are born, the mothers fatten them up to the point where they gain 100lbs a DAY for a few weeks until they go back north to Alaska. Instinct tells the calves to swim on the coastal side of the mother so that when they get north in the area of the Washington coast the baby will be protected from orca (killer) whales in that area. Right now is the season of movement for these whales, but since they are just migrating through the area they can be hard to spot. 

About a half hour out off the coast, we came across a pod of common dolphins near the surface. Once we approached them, the 100ish dolphins swam up to us, surfed in our wake and raced along with the boat for most of the trip. It was fantastic! Sea lions made appearances, pelicans were everywhere. It was decided that even if we never saw a whale, this would make the trip worth it. But we were lucky, and towards the end of the trip, we DID come across a huge, feeding finback whale, which is just smaller than a blue whale. Since it was feeding it stayed in the same area and resurfaced often. It never fully breached, but we were right behind it and right alongside it and got the idea it was just about as big as our boat. Seeing a whale is something I've always wanted to do and I feel so lucky to have been able to spot one. 

Sunday we hiked along the cliffs over the PCH and the ocean. From the site it was a very short hike up to the top of the hills where we could overlook... well, everything. 

Our slightly tipped over tent in the site. 

Sycamore Canyon campground from behind, on the way home from the hiking in the cliffs. 

On the whaling boat, heading towards the Channel Islands, where we saw the finback.

This is the only pictures I could manager of the dolphins, which is an awful representation of how many there actually were that day. But there's two, surfing in our wake.

 Channel Islands National Park.

 El Matador Beach, sunset.

 The cliffs we walked along. We didn't realize we were going there until we got up there. 

 The path we took along the cliffs edge.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mid-Winter Pick Me Up

It's good to be reminded and directed once in a while.

Lately at work I've been trying to fill time and figuring out what I should be doing, what good I'm really doing at all. After the holiday season we go into a quieter time at ECPAC, more of a routine that's not interrupted every other week by a big event or food drive. It's all become a routine, I know what to expect every week and have confidence in my ability to complete what I need to complete to keep my arm of the place running. I've even made some improvements and changed some things as I needed to. I've become bored even on the days when the pantry is opened. I have such an amazing and dedicated staff of volunteers, and I know the antics of clients and have possibly begun to "see it all" (that may be premature though...), that I often find myself blending into the background and only coming forward when a question is being asked or an issue is arising.

Today my boss and I had a meeting with three women from a local church who are interested in hosting a large-scale food drive and doing some big projects (like massive spring cleaning) for us within the next few months. Pat and I spent about a half hour relaying to them information about the different branches of the service wing of the council, how each came to be and how each affects the lives of those in Pasadena. I give this speech pretty often and usually people are impressed and complementary, but this was different. I can't say if they were more genuine in their gushing complements or if it was just a "click" in our personalities, but after they left I felt rejuvenated in a way I don't normally after these talks with possible volunteers and donors.

What I do does matter. It's OK that I come home exhausted. There's a lot to get done. I process a lot every day and it's OK if some days I can't take it all in with love and dignity. I look a lot of things straight in the eye and often have to say "No" to some very desperate people, usually just because I can only provide as many services as are needed and I know there are really not any other places they can go. I've been loosing patience more quickly lately, feeling more worn and grumpy at work. It was good to be uplifted by a group of well-meaning women. It was good to be reminded that all of this is important, even if at the end of the day its a lot of bandages on gaping wounds. If people we're not fed today, there would be no one to put into long-term housing or to take full-time jobs.

I worry about being self-serving. That I am giving my time to others and working in this industry only to make myself feel better. I worry that by feeling even a little prideful in the work I'm doing I'm not being fully honest to myself or fair to my clients. Am I stepping on their backs if I'm lifting myself up and making myself feel better because of their poverty? I'm not sure, but as for today - its OK to feel refreshed and rejuvenated by well-meaning women telling me what I do is awesome and important.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Choosing Writing

It has become clear to me within the last year that I had let go of a part of myself over the last few years, especially during college. I am no longer the little girl who used to draw pictures on construction paper for the stories she wrote, which she had her father write along the bottoms and margins of the paper. The preteen who filled up her study hall period with writing and not homework. Who used to run in the forest after school, day dreaming and talking with her characters, designing stories and weaving them together in a blanket of notebooks while she would sit up late at night, scribbling. The young woman who set her eyes on the arts high school in Minneapolis, found a way to get there and grew so much in the care of loving teachers and with a class of incredible young writers. Who stood up on stages, took a deep breath and read her words aloud with pride and lived in the rush of sharing her art. I was placing high in national contests. I was making (not much but some) money for my writing. There was a path before me.

I allowed this part of me to slip to the wayside out of necessity. Part of letting this part of myself go was a matter of growing up and exploring new parts of myself and the world. It was clear that studying creative writing or English in college was not going to fulfill me and I have no regrets about my college experience in global studies and social justice. If anything, it has made me more well-rounded as a person, and therefore a better, more well-rounded writer. Plus it opened up actual career possibilities for me (sorry English majors), and brought me to the place I am today.

More than anything, that novel (I've been playing with the working title Dear Bird), for which I received enough money in an national competition to go to Northern Ireland and do research in 2009, has fallen by the wayside. While taking 15 to 18 credits a semester, I worked at least 20 hours a week, sometimes up to 50 or 55 when I was a truly crazy person. Between coming home late and just wanting ice cream, a glass of wine and to curl up into bed but looking down at a bed covered in notebooks again, homework this time, I have to admit that there was not humanly possible way I was going to keep working on that book. I wasn't going to be reading about the IRA, the history of Irish politics or writing in my character's voices to get to know them better.

I try to say all of this without shame. I was once told (albeit I was told this by an unhappy man who was about to break my heart) that "you can't call yourself a writer if you don't write." I have always looked at myself as a writer, as an artist. I have always seen myself as a collector of stories, my own and others', and I get to know people and the world around me through stories. I know that I can call myself a writer during times in my life when I'm not staying up late to finish writing the newest chapter of my book. I have plenty of writing friends who need to write daily for sanity. I have other friends who, like me, need the breaks from the notebook to feel sanity.

Right now I'm working on reweaving that discipline I had when I was a little girl into my life. Now that I have more time on my hands than during undergrad, I don't have mounds on homework to do after work and I only work about 40 hours a week, I could actually write. I could re-read that shelf full of books about the IRA. I could stay up late working and working, flickering the light on and off because each time I put my head down the next few sentences emerge and I know I will not remember them unless I catch them at the moment. I have lost some of the steam that 14 year old had. Maybe it's the lapse of time between then and now. I have to chip away at the grimy walls of this habit. I wonder if I was more attached to that first novel, Catching Dragonflies, than this one. It was more fun to write. This book has more intricacy and character development. It's more about the characters than the plot.

I have spent time talking to some of my old writing professors over the last few months and I realized sometime this summer that the time in my life to choose writing has come. Talking to dear William Reichard of HECUA about his residencies and grants throughout the year, I realized that there are ways for me to make space for writing in my life. I have to choose to do it once again. I have made some friends who are professionally writers here in California. They have given me pushes and reminders of what I want. It's all about finding a balance between my art and the other things I want to do with my life - which are many. Good news is I can meld them.

The long and the short of it is that I've been spending the last few weeks applying for grants for money to go back to Northern Ireland, residencies to get the work for the book done and generally scheming to make my way to Europe again next spring (2013) in order to do the research necessary for the novel, then to set aside the time needed to do the writing. This project is still percolating, which feels a little like an excuse, but its simmering and will turn into something beautiful if I put the work in. First step is getting some funding, which means grants, applications, grants and more grants.

My friend Deb and I in Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2007, just after we graduated from Perpich Center for Arts Education in the literary arts class. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Newton Canyon and Falls, 2.11.12 and the secrets to happiness

Once again, the weather of Southern California has just been incredibly beautiful and I got out with friends once again to hike through this beautiful spring time air. We were in a similar part of the Santa Monica Mountains, in Malibu again, as Sandstone Peak ( but at a lower elevation and closer to the ocean. This meant instead of shrubbery we were hiking through a canyon full of woody thickets and larger trees, which turned into low, prickly shrubs as we slowly ascended the far side of the canyon to the place along a windy dirt mountain road where we ate lunch. On the way back, we found the unmarked side trail I had read about that would lead us through these scratchy bushes, along the river and over boulders to the foot of the upper falls. The "waterfall" was hardly flowing at this point in this very dry year, but we made a camp on the rocks at the foot of the falls, where we chatted. Slowly we quieted, moved to the sunlight and lay down on the rocks to appreciate the silence. 

I've found myself happier than I can remember in a long time these past few months. Flourishing is the word I've been using, actually. This doesn't mean there isn't challenge in my life, that I'm getting enough sleep, reading or writing as much as I would like. This doesn't mean I feel as connected to many people I want to like me more, this doesn't mean I know what I'll be doing come August. This does mean I feel like healing of what I went through last year has come full circle and I've become stronger for it. I also think getting out of the city from time to time, exercising and being quiet in an actually quiet place has something to do with this.

At the top of the upper falls. As I said, there was not much of a flow of water.

However, what water there was made it very green and kept the rock wall flourishing. 

Newton Canyon looking south east from the Upper Falls. 

Alfred and I climbing on the rocks alongside the water. Yes, that's me higher up than him. As usual (as my mother would tell you in a worried and annoyed voice), I'm on the edge of things.

After hiking, Alfred and I changed and went to downtown LA where we joined in "World Happy Day", where all around the world (600ish theaters, 7 continents) the "Happy" movie was showing. ( Since we were in LA, we were lucky enough to have the director at our theater and a Q&A was held afterwards. The movie started with psychologists who described their journeys  to the study of "happiness" rather than depression. In the '80's when one of these men started his undergrad and said he wanted to study why humans feel happy he was told he was crazy, but now its very popular. The documentary makers interviewed people all across the world and came to some conclusions:

1) We need to be a part of a community of close friends or family to feel happy.
2) We need to feel a part of something larger than ourselves (church, spirituality, volunteerism) to feel happy. People who participate in compassion work and meditation will fire up the happy-parts of their brains on cue.
3) Being happy isn't about never feeling pain. It's about dealing with pain in a better way and moving through adversary faster than you might otherwise.
4) It is possible to loose dopamine receptors over time and if we don't include new, different and trilling activities into our lives (even taking a different route on a daily jog) we will actually loose the ability to be as happy (ie receive as much dopamine) as we used to.
5) One of the best ways to keep these receptors opened is to make sure we participate in activities in our lives that help us to reach a state of "flow". Flow is what happens when we are doing something that we love doing - could be doing creative activity, exercising, doing really good at work - and we actually loose track of time and everything begins to come forth organically. Our mind is literally flowing through movements. When I get into this state I feel more like my body is a vessel for something bigger moving through me, my writing is coming from somewhere else, something bigger. By engaging with this space, we are working with our brain to keep it active and light up those happiness receptors.

There was a lot more and I really can't do justice to any of this, much less the idea of flow. I also think everyone should watch this movie because it's just lovely and full of incredible stories. It just came out on DVD and there's a lot of promoting left to do, but here's my pitch for the film. See it if you can! Cultivate newness and happiness in your life! Get out of the city whenever possible! If you live outside of the city, get back into the city when you can from time to time!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Can't complain about the weather

The weather here has just been astounding. I still think about the cycles and patterns of the seasons, but I can live with this for a year or two, no question. 

This last weekend, it was 75 degrees and sunny both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday afternoon my friend Rachael and I rode our bikes up and down the coast, from Playa Del Ray to Redondo Beach and back. All in all it was about 20 miles. We got some frozen yogurt, watched the sun set and had cocktails at the far end of the ride. There were a lot of people out swimming and enjoying the beach, but the bike trail was relatively empty until we hit the Redondo Beach area, and we coasted along at a good clip the whole way, enjoying the fresh smell of the ocean, the sun not burning our pale Minnesotan skin and the exercise. 

It took us a while to figure out exactly how we were supposed to hook our bikes up to the remaining spots on this bike rack. It was a cute idea, but not too useful, Huntington Beach.

Right after the sun had set, as the moon rose in the east over LA.

My roommate Hannah and I both grew up riding horses. Her, across the moors of England, I through the forest behind my parent's house. She also has much more experience training horses in Michigan after she moved there. At any rate, we've been talking wistfully together about how badly we want to go riding, and making out other roommate Christina shutter at the idea of farm animals. We've come across a stable in Burbank that does rides for ONLY $20 for an hour of riding. They also let you run if you want, which is huge for someone like Hannah or I who wants to do more that ride an old horse that follows the trail its been following its whole life.

So Sunday, I sunscreened up again and with a few of the other interns, we went down the stables. It was another warm beautiful day, and though I've been to Griffith Park a few times, it was great to get out and see more since it's huge. Also, of course to be around horses and canter around a little bit. Always makes me feel good and alive. Afterwards, we went to a cowboy bar in Burbank (I have been to Burbank about 3 times since I've moved here and each time I end up at a strange, thematic restaurant somehow) where we had some beers and tacos and watched what we could see of the Superbowl over everyone else's shoulders. It was another fantastic day in sunny California.

Me, Hannah (not my roommate, another one), Masha, Gerard, Hannah 
(my roommate) and Sally before the ride.

Heading out.

Crossing the Los Angeles River, which is a huge dissapoitment after living so near the 
Mississippi for three years.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

January blossoms in Los Angeles

In the courtyard of St Mark's Glendale, the Episcopal church that hosts us interns, there is a magnolia tree. I have been told that normally these trees don't bloom in January, but this year it has been blooming in the nearly stagnant 70 degree weather and sunny days we've been getting all month long. This is the court yard of our church, last weekend after the service. Sometimes I wonder if I'm missing out on some important personal changes that the seasons put my body through - hibernation in the cold, transition and letting go in the fall, rejuvenation in the summer and the amazing feeling of your skin and soul waking up in the spring. But I'm letting go of it for at least a year and basking in being able to ride my bike every day and enjoying the blooming flowers and trees in January. No complaining from this girl, that's for sure.