Monday, March 22, 2021

The One Year Anniversary None of Us Wanted

Getting outdoors kept me sane
 It's been roughly one year since things began shutting down in the United States due to Covid. March 13th was the last day my son went to in person school, and he has yet to return, although he begins hybrid school at the beginning of April. I cancelled my family's trip to Hawaii which, had we followed through with, would have been cut short by several days as the islands started booting people out. Instead, I worked, and I tried to navigate ever changing information about the virus and how to prevent catching it and spreading it. My patients began cancelling, saying they wanted to minimize exposure to people. I wondered how long the world would be like this, how long we would remain isolated. That was one of the worst aspects, not knowing when it would end. It's the ending that makes it easier to endure unpleasant, painful things.

The apocalypse is pretty
I took up cross stitching to pass the time. I re-read my favorite series because it had been a while, and the books always bring me comfort (the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold). I watched the Marvel movies in chronological order. I watched the Star Wars movies in an alternate order, starting with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, then watching the prequels as if they were a flashback, then resuming them in order. Rogue One was somewhere in there, although I forget where. I tried watching Tiger King and couldn't get into it at all; everybody seemed so sad and desperate, and I couldn't get past their pain. I watched as police officers kneeled on George Floyd long enough to kill him, breaking my heart and the hearts of so many others. I watched people I had known all my life fall victim to conspiracy theories. I watched people shrug off Covid deaths because they happened (mostly) to older people and those with medical conditions making them more vulnerable. I watched as fires ate across the western U.S. and came as close as seven miles of my home, prompting me to pack bags with essentials just in case we had to leave. I watched in amazement as scientists worked tirelessly to come up with vaccines for Covid in record breaking time. I watched an election, and I watched people rage against the results, culminating in the embarrassing spectacle at the Capitol in early January.

At this point, I've received both of my vaccinations. Most of my immediate family has been vaccinated, as have many of my elderly patients. Businesses are starting to open up, although I remain somewhat leery about jumping in. I got to know my neighbors much, much better because there was nowhere to go for the longest time. We just sort of started getting together outdoors, keeping our distance, masking up. We shared food, tea, cleaning supplies. Our kids kept their distance outdoors and rode their bikes and scooters, drew with chalk, kicked balls. Getting to know them has been one of the bright spots in this pandemic, as has the new meditation practice I began in November.

Thank goodness for pets during lockdown
Things will never get back to pre-pandemic normal, but people will soon be able to gather again. Concerts and sporting events will return. Movie theaters will someday be packed with people for opening night of a new blockbuster movie. Airports will be busy, flights will be packed. Masks will eventually go away, although since I was not sick at all last year (for the first time in a long time), I probably will not give up mask wearing completely. I like not being sick. And as the Dread Pirate Roberts said, "It's just that masks are terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future."

What I'm looking forward to most is returning to the dojo to practice kendo with my friends, going to a concert, going to a basketball game or a football game, traveling on a plane with a nice alcoholic beverage as I begin my vacation, running a race with a bunch of other runners and people cheering us on. There is still no definite end to this ordeal, no specific date when we can declare victory, but there is the sense that it will end, which is a far better place to be than we were a year ago.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

February 2021 Reading Challenge

February is a short month, but I still managed to read a few books in honor of Black History Month. One of those books was as long as the month is short--A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. In it, President Obama details some of the time in his youth and leading up to his run for President, and he covers part of his presidency. It's a fascinating look into one of the most powerful positions in the world, and a fascinating look into the mind of one of the most brilliant people to hold the position. At times it can be tedious, and I think anyone interested in delving deeply into politics will enjoy every sentence, but on the whole it's a good read.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya is a memoir of a woman who fled Rwanda with her older sister when she was six years old. For the next six years they moved from one refugee camp to another, lived for a while with her sister's husband's family, until they finally found themselves in the U.S. with a foster family. This is beautifully written, and the prose is absolutely magical, and so it makes the horrific parts all that much worse. This one really stayed with me, and I continue to think about Clemantine often.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is a YA fantasy novel about ostracized young women who bleed gold, have superhuman strength and speed, and are trained to fight against Deathshrieks. This novel was just plain fun, and I can't wait for the second in the series.

I rounded out the month with The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin. Holy wow, can that woman write. I found the novel a little dense at first, but once I got the hang of the world and the religion, I tore through the story. This one had been sitting in my TBR pile for a while, in part because I wasn't sure I was in the mood to read something about sleep and dreaming. But oh, this is so much more than that. Jemisin never pulls any punches in her stories, which is what makes me read them with one hand over my eyes, peeking through my fingers, hoping against hope that her poor characters will make it through unscathed. Reader, they never do.

Monday, February 1, 2021

January 2021 Reading Challenge

I'm not one for making New Year's Resolutions. But around the new year, I often think about things I might want to improve, or bad habits to get rid of or, better yet, good habits to form. This year I wanted to read more, so I joined a reading challenge meant to inspire readers to "read around the world."

January is all about truth bombs, or nonfiction. I read The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan. This book focused on Oak Ridge, Tennessee during WWI, a city built from scratch to help create the atomic bomb. I've learned plenty about Los Alamos and its role in making the bomb, having lived in New Mexico for years, but knew next to nothing about Oak Ridge. I was amazed at how quickly the city and factories were put together, and the toll taken on the people living and working there was heartbreaking. People suffered from depression from keeping secrets, from being far from family in some cases, and from the stress of never knowing exactly what they were doing or contributing to. The book didn't focus as much on individual women as I had hoped, and seemed to touch only shallowly on their lives, and so I found it somewhat disappointing.

I listened to We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper. The author attended Harvard herself, and after hearing a somewhat urban legend-ish story about the murder of Jane Britton which occurred in the late 1960s, became obsessed with the unsolved crime. The novel provides an in-depth look into the history of Harvard, its anthropology department, Jane's life, feminism, the challenges women face in academia, and how we study and interpret history. It's an extremely well researched story, and by the end you find out who murdered Jane, so don't worry that you'll be left wondering.

I also listened to The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper. Dr. Harper is an emergency room physician who grew up in an abusive family. In talking about her childhood and her experiences as an ER doctor, she shows how people break in so many ways, and how people put themselves back together, over and over again. As I listened to her memoir, I kept thinking of kintsugi, or the Japanese tradition of fixing broken pottery with gold or silver. The result is a unique piece with a beauty all its own. I feel like Dr. Harper has done this with her life, and in doing so has provided an example for all of us.

Next up in February, I'll be reading novels by contemporary Black authors. I have a mixture of fiction and non-fiction lined up, and I'm looking forward to all of them!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

This year has been a hard year, for all of us, and for varying reasons. One of my escapes is reading. This year I ended up rereading a favorite series of mine at the beginning of the pandemic, and I picked up some new books after I went through my reread. So, for those of you looking for recommendations, here are the books I enjoyed the most this year.

My favorite bookstore
Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall - This is the latest book from the barefoot running guy. In this one, he writes about a donkey he rescued from a bad situation and rehabilitated through love, care, attention, and running. Did you know there are races where people run with their donkeys? You don't need to be a runner to enjoy this book. It's heart warming and will bring a smile to your face.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss - This is the first in a series about the monstrous daughters of mad scientists coming together to form a club and solve mysteries with their friends, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The books are witty and thought provoking, and it's so lovely to see a story about women coming together in friendship. This series was a delightful escape from the pandemic.

Devolution by Max Brooks - I listened to this one on audio. Quite a few wonderful actors lend their voices to the narration, including Nathan Fillion. This one ended up being a little too close to the pandemic for comfort, but the main character's complete and utter transformation had me riveted, as did the growing sense of horror.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow - I listened to this one as well, and right around the time of the election. It was a fitting book for early November in that it dealt with the suffragist movement in addition to magic and witchcraft, friendship and love, and family. I found this book to be so powerful, so tender, and so well written that I despaired of ever writing anything as wonderful.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett - A patient recommended this book to me, and I picked it up the next time I went to the bookstore. It follows African-American twins growing up in 1950's Louisiana. One girl chooses to pass as white, marries a white man, and disappears from her family's life while the other marries a black man and lives in the same small town where she grew up. The book explores race, identity, family, and racial injustice, and although it's set in the 1950's through the 1990's, it is one hundred percent relevant to today's world.

And that series I read at the beginning of the pandemic? Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, beginning with Shards of Honor. I love the larger-than-life characters, the way Bujold has given them all such realistic quirks and flaws and yet made them so lovable, the vast scope and history to this world. I've read the first few books quite a few times, and the newer ones less often. It's been about twenty years since I first read the series (as it existed back then), so I've had ample opportunity to read them time and again. They're my comfort, my security blanket, my happy place.

I would love to hear about the books that helped you get through this year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Story Behind the Story

 It's been a while since I had a story come out. I spent much of the past year working on a novel, and before that I spent a couple of years finishing my doctorate. There simply wasn't much time or mental energy to produce new words of short fiction. But I have a new story out in Issue 7 of DreamForge Magazine, which has produced some lovely work.

"The Limits of the Human Heart" is an ode to several matters close to my own heart. First, it's about running. I have been running for about seven years now, and I have countless 5Ks, 10Ks, and a couple of half marathons behind me. Running has helped my health, both physically and mentally. When I have a good run, it's just a good feeling. And even when I have a bad run, after it's over, I'm always glad to have done it. I've never run an ultramarathon, like my character, but I love that there are people out there pushing the limits of the human body. For a couple of great documentaries on running very long distances, try the one on the Barkley Marathon on Netflix, or Breaking2 on Disney Plus. The Barkley Marathon is just pure fun to learn about because the organizer is so quirky and brings his personality to it. Breaking2 is about the attempt to break the two hour barrier for running a marathon, and part of it was filmed right here in Beaverton, OR. You don't need to be a runner to appreciate either one.

The story is also about dying. I was there for both of my parents' deaths, and I have a lot of thoughts on death and dying, and how it's handled, how it's faced. There's really something to be said for preparing for death ahead of time. Make the decisions when you're healthy and able so that your loved ones don't have to make them for you. We can all choose a good death, and that starts with living a good life today, right now. This week I've come across a quote from Seneca several times, and since it's apt for this story, I'll share it. "Let us prepare our minds as if we'd come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time."

My story might seem like a real downer, on the surface at least. But what it's really about is the ability to forge on in the face of death, which we all do every day. It's about making moments count. It's about finding joy and peace wherever it might be, even at the very end, and about how good it can feel to let it all go. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Serenity Now!

 This year has been a big challenge for everybody. Like a lot of other people, I found myself dealing with some huge stressors. I've had to deal with the pandemic, with the election, with the death of George Floyd and all that it exposed, with fires, with worrying about jobs and child care and schooling. At one point, my skin was itching and patching over, and I felt like I was going to literally turn into a fire breathing dragon. While I love dragons, the process of turning into one is not so great. The last time my skin reacted like this was when my mother died, so yes, there's been a LOT of stress this year.

Not how it should feel
Without having kendo to turn to in order to help mitigate my stress, I have relied on running, and I recently tried one other activity that I've tried in the past and miserably failed at--meditation.

I had a lot of preconceived ideas about meditation going in. It should make me feel calm and peaceful, and I shouldn't have any thoughts at all. My mind should be a tranquil blank. Right? Riiiiight. In the past--and a few weeks ago when I picked it up again--every time I have started meditating, I have become a huge ball of rage, and it scared me. Where was the peace and calm? Why was I turning into the biggest jerk ever? What was wrong with me???

Reader, nothing was wrong with me. Apparently, when you start examining your emotions instead of walling them off, you find... some interesting things.

So, this time around I picked up a book called Meditation Now by Elizabeth Reninger. I've only made it through the first part of the book, but it's a pretty good, low-key introduction to meditation. There's no pressure to do it "right," just to get started, at least in the initial part of the book. I also recently listened to the audio book Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty. It was a pretty good listen, and it helped me think about, well, thinking, in a different way. What really stood out to me was the difference he showed between what he called the "monk mind" and the "monkey mind." Your monk mind is your friend. Your monkey mind is about as useful at keeping you out of trouble as an actual monkey.

Both of these books were helpful for getting me past the initial ragey, stabby feeling that meditation had always brought on. Right at the best possible moment, a friend recommended an app called "Waking Up" by Sam Harris. I've tried a meditation app before ("Headspace," which has many positive reviews, but also made me feel... yep, you guessed it, raaaaaage). At this point, I'm nearly done with the introductory lessons, and I've meditated every day for a little over a month. I'm happy to say, meditation no longer leaves me feeling like Godzilla on steroids. Maybe it's because there's not as much focus on what I think--or rather, thought--meditation should be, and more on just letting go of my preconceived ideas and trusting in the learning process. That's something I learned in kendo--what I'm doing might not make sense, but it will. Eventually. Trust the process.

How it should feel
So I'm finally starting to get past those preconceived notions of what I should feel like when meditating. I've begun learning about paying attention to the right things, to getting out of my head, to labeling my emotions and my emotional state, and I've been learning humility. None of these things are what I thought meditation should be like, but they have all brought me a sense of acceptance and calm. I feel like I'm just starting to grasp the things I should be getting out of the practice, and it will take a lifetime to figure out anything, but so far, I've had far fewer knee jerk reactions to what's going on in my life, and I dwell far less on the negative. It's... rather amazing, actually.

I'm not sure what took me so long to get to even this point, where I feel like I've taken the first step on a journey walking to the moon. Regardless, I'm here, and I'm happy to be here, and happy to be learning something new. I hope sharing my experience and these resources help somebody.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Accidental Martial Artist

A few years ago I had this idea for a novel with a main character who is a former swordswoman. When I started planning the novel I imagined it would have a couple of fight scenes. Problem was, I had never done anything more than swing a light saber around a few times with friends. So I thought, "Hey, here's a chance to learn how to sword fight and call it research!" I considered different styles; the European broadsword wasn't the right feel, not for a swordswoman who was part of a cadre of other swordswomen. Then I considered fencing, but again, the European style didn't have the right feel for what I wanted, although fencing was closer. And then I remembered kendo, which was something I'd first heard of about years earlier.

I had just moved to the Portland, OR area. I searched for kendo in Portland and found a club. They offered a beginner's class three times a year, and a new class would be starting soon. So I signed up, thinking I could take the beginner's class and have enough experience to convincingly write a couple of fight scenes. I had no desire at the time to go any further because I never thought of myself as someone who would enjoy martial arts, and I assumed that all I needed to understand were some basic mechanics and sensations so I could describe the fights realistically. Little did I know...

I was pretty content with my life when I started kendo, but I soon realized that it filled something that I didn't even realize had been missing. It was more than just sword fighting, or a sport, or exercise. It was a way of thinking, of analyzing myself and the world around me, of challenging myself, of coping with anxiety. I started reading books on martial arts and articles on kendo and watching videos of shiai, or matches. What I thought would be a temporary activity became something that boosted my confidence and changed my way of thinking. And that, in turn, changed how I thought of my main character, a lot. I realized I had her, well, not all wrong, but incomplete. Shallow. There were many more depths to her than I had realized. So I scrubbed what little I'd written and went back to the drawing board. And I continued in kendo.

My involvement in kendo ended up helping me create a detailed backstory for my main character, which led to a lot I could draw upon in the present while writing from her point of view. I picked up quite a few books on martial arts to learn more about kendo, and they gave me more insight into my main character as well. Some of the most helpful ones include The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Soho, translated by William Scott Wilson; The Zen Way to the Martial Arts by Taisen Deshimaru; and Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams. The Unfettered Mind, in particular, has a lot of wisdom tucked into a small volume. And perhaps you can see that there's a pattern to these books, namely, that they all have to do with the mind, and not with raw strength or fighting skill. That was the first lesson I had to learn, and I have to keep learning it over and over. My original fight scenes? Gone. But what I have now? It's much better, in my humble opinion.