My word for the year, 2014

Chambers Bay

Welcome to January! I started this entry with some panic: I needed a Word For The Year. I’ve been using these lately, instead of New Year’s resolutions, as a rough compass for each year, for each place where I’m unsure. Should I do X or Y? I would feed the question to the Word of the Year Magic 8-ball, and see what emerges. Last year’s word was REACH.

Why the panic? I haven’t written a blog post since November of last year. “Don’t panic,” Josh advises in his FB chat to me. “You have to have a Day One [back to writing] that sucks. Make today Day One and get on with it.”


This year I am feeling the need for a different direction, away from achievement-focused pressure. My neurons are zinging too much on the pressure to achieve, to have a clean and uncluttered house, to make from-scratch nutritious meals and snacks for myself and my family. As if those two parts of homemaking were not enough work and commitment in and of themselves (if I’m not achieving in some public workplace, then I am going to out-Martha-Martha at home!), I am feeling the need to achieve more with my writing. And I think that need is actually hurting the writing itself.

Here, again, are the voices: the voices that berate me for going away from the book for so long. Some vaguely Catholic part of me still wants to confess to someone, ask to be forgiven. There’s the voice that suggests I go back to something with more tangible results, like baking or cooking. Seductive, those last two activities. There’s the voice that suggests I check my e-mail, Twitter feed, number of red dot responses on my Facebook account. There’s the fear and the self-flagellation: the I haven’t done anything yet,the self-accusations of laziness. Is that what I’m worried about the most? That someone will accuse me of being lazy? Sadly, the worst voices are all my own.

I have come to see that these voices are part of the process, coming to terms with the choice that I made—or rather that Josh and I made, together, for me to be home more and not to work outside it full-time, not to reenter the academy as an adjunct professor, not to work just for the income. I know. This is a luxury. But it’s also a balancing act.

Most perfectionists (also including me) grew up being praised for achievement and performance in our grades, manners and appearance. Somewhere along the way, we adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. A ticker tape began to stream through our heads: Please. Perform. Perfect. —Brené Brown

When I say I have had to detox from academic life, this is part of what I am talking about: a relentless pressure to achieve and perform for an audience. I am not saying that every academic feels this pressure. But it is certainly how I came to academic life, how I experienced academic life, and (in part) why I left it.


Here, then, the latest writing news. One of my blog posts (“How’s the writing going?”) was selected as a top pick for 2013 by the good folks at The Author Chronicles. I have just published a review of a book by Chang-Rae Lee, a writer I have long admired. I have just published an essay in Edible Seattle, a food magazine that appears on the newsstand at the grocery store. If you live in the Seattle area, please pick up a copy and support us. Turn to the back, just inside the cover page: that’s me.

Tempering the achievements is also rejection: a piece that I submitted to a contest was not accepted. I think it’s a good piece of writing, probably not the best fit for the contest or for performance. And it’s good to say that there is also waiting: a piece that I revised and submitted is going on 6 weeks. No word if it’s been received, but I can re-query after three more weeks.

Achievement, rejection, waiting: all parts of the writing life that I am starting to appreciate. In a follow-up interview to the famous Dear Sugar “Write like a Motherfucker” column, Cheryl Strayed added this, in the wake of phenomenal success:

My trajectory has not been failure, failure, failure, then success. The successes have been there all along, and all along, there’s also been a steady stream of rejections and disappointments. I imagine this will always be the case. It’s the writer’s life….Success in the arts can be measured only by your ability to say yes to this question: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”

Am I doing the work I need to do? Not consistently, and not constantly. But slowly, in fits and starts, ventolin inhaler uk yes–something like this post.


“What if the opposite of good is real?”—Claire Dederer, Poser

I enjoyed Claire Dederer’s yoga memoir, Poser, but was hit especially hard by this sentence. What if the opposite of good is not bad, or imperfect, but real?

In yoga, that’s helpful: it accepts all parts of your effort as part of the process. In the case of perfectionism, it’s especially helpful.  Play in yoga has been one of the best words for me. It means that you are experimenting without preconception of what you might achieve or not. It places you directly in that moment of testing and discovery. It is low-stakes, with people not worried about what you might do or not. Play is exploration.

A few weeks ago one of my yoga teachers asked us in class: “What do you need to let go?”  I need to let go of the voices, the awkwardly but permanently coupled voices of perfectionism and self-doubt. The high expectations, even the arrogant expectations for myself, that come with prestige (the enemy of passion). The taking myself way, way too seriously. I need to let go of the need for someone to respond (and quickly) to what I write. I need to let go of the need for praise, which is especially difficult for the overachiever.

I need to let go of the fear of being vulnerable. “Opening your heart” is something you hear a lot in yoga classes, especially with backbends, and shoulder openers—all those poses which (according to my yoga teacher) release fear. In yoga class a few months ago we were on our stomachs, one arm outstretched parallel to the floor and the other arm rising, striving towards perpendicular using the floor as leverage. Shoulders pushed back, releasing the tension from writing and being at the computer. And I thought, “Right. I literally have to open my heart to write this book.”

And then it hit me: the opposite of perfectionism and self-doubt is play.


In choosing “play,” I am haunted by my own words, quoted back to me by a dear writer friend. She turned some of my words into a poem and gave them back to me in a beautiful 40th birthday card for my next writing project. (More on the birthday cards later.)

Ros-Collard card small

On the back of this lovely card-sculpture, here’s how she did it:

it took my
willingness to be
vulnerable, to hover on
the willingness to speak
what I don’t
say often
truths are so
close to my
That’s where I need
to be
in order to write
the book.

I take the words as an honor (my prose is something like a poem), and as a gentle but firm and loving admonishment (get back to work, woman!). But I also take the poem as an example, as a command to take my own writing and play. If I approach my writing as play, I am freer to make mistakes, freer to fail, free to cross words out before I can take them back, freer and more open to the process.

For example: I have organized the book one way: does it serve the story better if I organize it differently? I have a few sections to write still. Can I approach those as play? Although approaching early drafts as “shitty first drafts” has been helpful in the past, I wonder if I should let go of the self-defeating part of that term. Can I approach those as exploration? What will open up as a result?

I’m going back to the book. I’ve been thinking about it, and writing a few notes, but I have not sat down to work on it in a sustained way for half a year. (I originally wrote a year, then went back to my book journal and realized that it’s been half a year. It’s just felt like a year.) I have two big sections to write, and then it’s time to take a step back again and see what happens. And one of my dearest friends bought me a writing workshop as a 40th birthday present. My sister helped us redecorate our house, and we’re getting to know it again through new spaces and happier vistas. Surely those are other places to find out more, and play.

What if, instead of sitting down at my computer or my notebook to work, I sat down at my computer to play? For the overachiever, it’s something near-radical. I just turned forty. Play is actually why I created this blog in the first place.So I’m going to give it a shot. Day One, complete. Word for the year: PLAY.

Next entries: my birthday project, Project House Redecoration, learning to play with text and image through learning the photo essay.

One more breath

Just to be clear, because I don’t want to scare anyone, everyone’s fine here.

I’m not talking about one last breath; I’m talking about one more breath. If you practice yoga, you know what I’m talking about. I’ll come back to this in a minute. While you wait, you can take a look at the picture I took, over left there. It’s a tree that I pass every day when I drive back from my yoga studio.

So: I’ve been looking for a job.

I’m not going to write too much about the career change here, for a number of reasons. Maybe I’ll write more later. But I can say that the job search hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had a job or some version of a job since I started college. Nevertheless, I’ve been lucky in so many ways.

I have the very best of partners, the one who surprises me with a copy of this book by one of my favorite authors, the one who nudges me to go for a run when I’ve got anxiety to burn, whose belief in me is bedrock to my days. I have two adorable daughters who constantly make me laugh and teach me to discover the world anew. I have the very best family who has taught me about resilience through the courage of their examples. I have the very best friends both “on” and “offline,” who bring me presents like this book and send me messages and hugs and go out for coffee, where we analyze and then take over the world. I have roots in my community, and friendly faces at my grocery store and the playground at C’s elementary school, and my yoga classes. I’ve got a house that I love in a neighborhood I love. And during my unemployment I’ve been able to do a lot of writing, for causes and people that I support. If it takes a village to raise a child, I can tell you that it’s taken my village to support me during this time, and I’m so grateful for you all.

One of the most difficult (and in some ways, interesting) parts of the job search has been thinking myself out of one career and into another one yet to be determined. I spent almost 12 years thinking myself into that last professional identity; that career seemed to carry so much certainty and forward movement. I loved parts of that job, and I will miss them dearly. But as things stand now, I will probably be leaving that career behind. I’m glad that I get to keep so many of the relationships that I developed in that time.

I’ve been applying for jobs for about four months now, and I think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited about the possibilities. In a job market like this one, I’m extremely grateful that I even have possibilities. But right now, I need to wait, for at least a few more weeks.

Last week, the waiting room space was just about to drive me a little insane. The suspense, the tension, the lack of resolution. I wanted to scream, or go for a run, or tear up a hotel ventolin inhaler no prescription room, or preferably all three. “Why does it take so long?” my 3-year old likes to ask. “Because you’re not being patient,” I like to answer sometimes. And last week I realized I’m not being patient. (Great: just like my 3-year old.)

For the first time in my life, I understood the idea behind Waiting for Godot, if not Waiting for Guffman. I wanted to write a play called The Waiting Room. You know: the set would be furnished with bad landscape art, and old issues of Good Housekeeping, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” played on Muzak panflute. The main character would be waiting, unable to leave the room until someone else unlocked the door for her. People would come to slide unexpected presents under the door, and talk to her through the windows, but she couldn’t leave until it was time.

But of course, I didn’t know how the play would end. I suspect that I’ll just have to write it and find out.


And here’s where I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of “one more breath.”

Yoga teachers often say this phrase to you when you are holding a pose—let’s say, downward-facing dog, or Warrior 2—and they want you to stay in the pose for just a little bit longer. They usually say this to you when you’ve been in a pose for a while, or for a little longer than you’d like. In those poses your legs might be screaming like 1960s Beatles fans, your arms might be stretched out taut as John and George’s guitar strings, and the rest of your muscles might be protesting like Beatles fans stranded outside without tickets.

In that kind of tension, “one more breath” can feel like a very, very long time.

If the pose is especially challenging, “one more breath” is the very last thing you want to hear. Some days you’re kinda pissed, actually, that you have to stay there a bit longer. (Not at your teacher. Don’t get pissed at your yoga teacher. They can make you hold poses even longer. If you’re my yoga teacher and you’re reading this, I don’t mean you.) But I’ve decided—and this must be yoga rewiring my brain, I can think of no other way to describe it—that “one more breath” is one of the very best things that yoga can give you.

See, in yoga the breath becomes a way to measure time. The space of “one more breath” is where you’re challenged, you’re waiting, and (somehow) you’re calm. In those few seconds you hold the pose. Sometimes, it’s true, you fall out before it’s time to move to the next pose. But more often than not, you stay in the pose, and you keep breathing. Your mind and your body say together, “It’s okay. You can do this. Just a little bit longer.” You learn to inhale slowly, in, and exhale even more slowly, ouuuuut.

There, you realize it: one more breath is really just fresh life, waiting to rush in.

Where I’ve been

A can of vintage MSG. No, this is not where I have been. Though that would explain a lot.

Where have I been?

Well, I’ve been thinking about you. You’ve been on my list, believe me.  I imagine you peeking through the velvet curtains, clicking the website address in vain. Anybody home? Not recently. Ah, well. I’ll try again. And I’m grateful you did.

I’ve been writing, so don’t worry too much about that. You can find my latest food writing here about chocolate and butchers and teriyaki history on Seattlest, and about yoga and running here for my yoga studio. I’m also excited for my upcoming first freelance assignment with the International Examiner, a Seattle Asian American community newspaper. And there’s some other writing I’ve been doing that I can’t quite post here just yet. But I’ve been writing hard. Just not here. Sorry.

I’ve been reading, too. I bought a few new books for the first time in ages—my own copy of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, plus Colum McCann’s novel Let The Great World Spin, on the recommendation of a couple of friends. I’m excited to begin Monique Truong’s latest novel Bitter In the Mouth.  I’m also two-thirds of the way through Daphne Kalotay’s novel about ballet and jewelry and Stalinist oppression, Russian Winter. And I don’t want to return my library copy (though I will!) of the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, collected and called As Always, Julia. Their affection and wit and friendship made me fall in love with the two of them, and made want to write more letters again.

And I’ve been following the discussion on the movie and book The Help. In case you haven’t ventolin inhaler for sale seen this response yet, by Ohio State University professor Rebecca Wanzo, I highly recommend it. It’s pretty evenhanded and thorough, acknowledging the book’s emotional power while sustaining a more detailed critique.

I’ve been out and about a lot more—even a lovely date night here!–which is mostly good for me, not so great for the household sleep schedules, and thus not so good for downtime and writing time here.

I’ve been making jam, stocking the jam closet space downstairs. There’s a wonderful line from my goddess of domesticity, Pat in one of L.M. Montgomery’s novels: “While I move and live and have my being I’ll want a jam closet.” A jam closet! I might have scoffed a few years ago. Ah, but now. Now I understand.

And if you read the last few paragraphs of this haunting essay by Alexander Chee, you’ll get some of the feeling of where I’ve been. “What can you trust of what you can’t see?” his yoga teacher asks at the end. Like the yoga students in that essay, I’ve been moving thoughtfully through uncertainty, and trying not to fall.  It is terrifying and it is heady. Because of that combination, I’m sure it will eventually be good for me.

Nevertheless, I’m here too. I made you chocolate cookies. They’re still warm. Or you can spoon up some homemade peach jam over vanilla gelato, to hold onto summer as I have for the last two nights.

In other writing news, my creative nonfiction essay, “How It Feels To Inherit Camp,” is being republished and anthologized. It appeared in Kartika Review this year. I’m thrilled. And I’ll keep you posted.

An unexpected stretch

“How does it feel to be writing your own MFA?” my newly-refound childhood friend asked me, while we were chatting on Facebook this week. A concert pianist, and thus an artist herself, she wondered if I faced issues with writer’s block, or struggled with a blank page, or a blank screen. “Sometimes the longest trip is between me and the piano,” she wrote.

“Well, I’ve been away from writing for a while—for now, I still hunger to write,” I replied. “And I know that an artist’s life is not a linear one.” (“Amen, sister!” she wrote back.) “But right now, I think it’s more fulfilling.”

And it’s true, so far. While writing my dissertation had its own rewards, a life lived in bookstore cafes and libraries, this version of my writing life is, well, fun. And it’s a foreign work ethic for me, when my work ethic is usually much more Puritan.

These days I just don’t want writing to be work that I hate. I don’t mind it being hard. I don’t mind working hard. But I don’t want to hate it. I don’t want to write out of guilt for having not written. I don’t want to write in order to please a hostile or cynical audience. I want writing to always have some element of pleasure as the goal. (I’m telling you, Stephen King’s On Writing has some great stuff in it.)

So when I write these days, I am seeking pleasure. Every time I decide to write creatively, it is a gift that I am giving myself.

You might hear the faintest hint of yoga-speak creeping into that last sentence, and I don’t blame you if you are skeptical. Too granola, too Berkeley, too earth-mothery, too woo-woo. I know, I know, I know. Surprising that despite growing up in California, despite going to UC Berkeley, I didn’t take up yoga until I moved to Washington. Like many people, maybe even some of you reading right now, I rolled my eyes at yoga. But really, now that I think about it, the idea of writing as a gift to myself must have something to do with my yoga practice.

A few years ago my sister convinced me to try yoga. For a little while, I took yoga classes at the recreational sports center here. And when the karate students were thumping upstairs over our overheated yoga room, I couldn’t see any “horizon” past my Warrior II fingertips, pointing at the heap of dirty blue gymnastics mats. And then I bought some DVD’s like the ones here. And it was fine, but not great, much less life-changing.

But then I started taking classes, and found a studio that I love, about a mile from my house. The teachers often incorporate meditation techniques. (Some of my favorite techniques: focus on an image, a word, a quotation, and use these as themes for the hour and a half. It’s actually quite literary.) The teachers gently correct postures. And the studio itself tries to create community within its community, from the self-introductions at the beginning of classes to the sponsorship of farmers markets to the weekend retreats, events and workshops.

And for someone like me, who lives so deeply in the mind, yoga has been a priceless gift, because it emphasizes the mind-body connection. Academics live at computers, at desks, at tables; it can be physically and mentally damaging if there are no times to take a break. It’s absorbing, and rewarding, but it can take its toll.

While academia often involves judgment, yoga doesn’t judge me. I rarely look around to see what other students are doing, and I don’t feel the need to compete with them. (“Ooh! She’s holding her ‘tree pose’ longer than I did!”) I’m never sorry that I went to yoga, and that’s an entirely new approach to work, and even exercise, for me. Even after several years, I feel like I’m still pretty new, but I’ve gone to a few advanced yoga classes. There I’m nowhere near as flexible or practiced as other students, but it’s actually fun to shrug my shoulders (mindfully) and just give the pose a try. Or rest.

There was a series of poses that used to be very difficult for me; I had to start out in the easiest, most modified version. Then I had to modify a little less, but for months my arms would shake when I’d lower myself to the ground. But one day I realized that I could do these poses without any modification or protest, mental or physical. And I wasn’t doing it to please my teacher, or to get a good grade, or to receive validation from anyone but myself. For an academic overachiever like me, it’s a revolutionary approach to learning.

Yoga taught me that holding up your own weight can sometimes be the hardest thing to do, but holding up your own weight can also be exactly what makes you strongest.

So now, six years after I started yoga, I can list almost identical reasons for my yoga practice and my writing: I go because there I can practice, and screw up, and fall; because there I can rearrange my mental furniture, or even redecorate my mental living room. And because there I am constantly surprised that I can discover new ways to be happy.

(And yes, now the title of this post comes into play. Sorry for the pun. But honestly, I didn’t expect to end up writing about yoga. I was going to write more about the latest developments with the book. Next time, for sure.)