Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Work Ahead

My last night in Seattle, after a large nap-inducing dinner, I sat in my living room with two of my musician friends and listened to them compose songs in honor of Brussels and Titanic for my pleasure. They were the best final hours you could ever have in a departing city. And then I was gone.

Now, 48 hours later, I’ve seen the better part of the rest of my family (on both sides), including uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces, step-siblings, and the family cats who have grown very fat with their winter weight.  I stayed up late last night re-packing my bags for this weekend’s New York City Year-of-the-Shanda festivities and fell asleep to the comforting sounds of Patrick Stewart’s voice.

It is strange holding pattern to be between homes. Very familiar, but still the ground is shifting underneath your feet.

Tonight, I shared a Greek pizza with my Aunt (the one always characterized by my father as “eccentric”). While we sat in the nearly-empty Corsican restaurant she blinked at my vague descriptions of the projects I want to work on in Belgium and said “so what are you most afraid of during this adventure? What are you most excited for?”

Way to skip the chit-chat on the best places to buy chocolate and musings on your old Belgium crushes, my dear aunt! Why don’t we just get straight to the heart of the matter? This doesn’t surprise me coming from a woman who has sought out shamans and flown to Belize for drum circles and a few months ago shaved off all of her hair in solidarity with a friend of hers who’s undergoing chemo. Let’s just skip the casual banter and get right to the vulnerable underbelly. What am I afraid of? What can’t I wait for?

The fact is – I guess they amount to the same thing. The writing.

You’ll have to bear with me – I’ve been watching too much Star Trek as I fall asleep these nights, but there was a quote from a recent episode that seemed to tie a bow around this fear-excitement dynamic nicely. In an episode called “Evolution,” a wizened and brilliant researcher reflects on the path that led him to this career-capping moment and turns to a promising, young Ensign Crusher and imparts this nugget: “you will never come up against a greater adversary than your own potential, my young friend.”

It’s been awhile since I’ve had such a vast buffet of possibilities for my writing life. Maybe I’ll find this wellspring of inspiration and sit at my corner writing desk for 16 hours a day. Maybe I’ll only be able to stab out tiny poetry prompts. Maybe I’ll bring it back to you and you’ll all say “what were you even trying to do?” Maybe I’ll just say “screw it all” and write my teen movie.

But the fact is that that level of possibility and the option for greatness is a little daunting.

So maybe I’ll just go on this chocolate tour of Brussels that my friend sent me.

In any case, this evening, after everyone else went to bed, I sketched out some more of the novel outline while a fat kitty tried to sleep on my laptop. And now, a few hours later, I am reminded that it’s a truly satisfying feeling: lying under a pile of blankets having just used my computer for its intended purpose again.

I’ve got a lot of work to do.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

No Need for Envy

One of my favorite people has impending nuptials this weekend. It’s going to be a pretty big do, perhaps even more anticipated than the Cullen-Swan union this past fall and certainly more well-attended (if you don’t count the theater audiences). I was honored that I was asked to serve as a bridesmaid in what has been audaciously referred to as her “VIP Entourage” and so this past weekend we caffeinated and headed out to her trial hair appointment, putting her hairdresser through her paces on Saturday morning.

Hair Jennifer and Justin
And in the well-heated, luxurious VAIN salon, we covered many topics: the current SNL cast (with Kristen Wiig as a highlight), the dynamics of the day of the wedding, and my impending trip.

“You’re going to live in Europe for five months?” the stylist asked through a gust of hairspray, “I need to hear more about this. How is that even possible?”

“Well, through a glorious series of fortunate events,” I say. I talk about living in a basement apartment while I socked money away, reaching out to my network to find a place to retreat to, I tell her about the long-time family friends who suddenly emerged from my mother’s email list to offer me their home in Brussels and the friends on Facebook or elsewhere that have helped to facilitate travel decisions, among many other strokes of luck.

“I’m so jealous,” the hairdresser says with a taut smile. I know that smile. I’ve seen that smile before, I’ve put on that smile before: leg, by painfully envious leg. It says “I hate you for having something I want,” which is meant to be flattering, but is really only evidence that snakes are more responsible with their venom. Oh, you got that scholarship, did you? So glad to hear that your application for residency was accepted! Wow, that’s two grants in one year… 

I kid. I think most envy really is an important emotion that should be taken as flattery by the enviable and as an indication of what our goals are by we, envious. It is a reminder to keep trying for something that I do still want. It’s encouragement in as much as it’s a kick in the pants.

Which makes me think, for my trip at least, I’ve been thinking about things wrong. This isn’t something that I got because I was more fortunate or lucky or even (sadly) more talented than anyone or because I had more connections than your average Joe. This little writer’s retreat blossomed because I was tired of rejected grant applications and writing in the few gaps of time on my weekends and tired of waiting for more time to emerge. So about a year after graduate school, I resolved that I would find my six months of peace on my own. I would create it myself and I set up a direct deposit for my savings account right then and there.

Then I waded through the marketing slush for four years

Climbing Towards Watership Down
And when the glorious day came to quit, I researched, reached out, and used all of the social networking tools available to me to find what I needed to get away and spend more time with the words that have been my family since I first plowed through Watership Down.

I did this without having anything special to recommend me. Which means, that no one has to be jealous of me. I haven’t earned it, in fact. You can do it, too.

Which, so far, is the best byproduct of my decision to do this. Even if I don’t write a word or learn a thing about myself, I like that there are at least a few people who have said to themselves, “well, why not me?” Why not, indeed.

Someone who I’ve long-admired and have inelegantly tried to court as a friend for a few years had dinner with me the other day. As ever she was coifed and hilarious and quoting both TV shows and Jane Eyre within the same space of dialogue, but she also paused over her overpriced and very posh Seattle BBQ when the talk turned to my departure and she said “you’ve actually really inspired me. I really think I’m going to make this happen for myself.”

At which point I felt as though I had already succeeded in living abroad and creating a great work of art, since clearly I had fooled this super-hip, awesome lady into thinking that I was someone to be emulated.

Anyways, it made me think that I should jot down a few of the highlights that I’ve learned so far about planning or imagining such an adventure. This is for those other dreamers among you who are toying with the idea.
The Atomium in Brussels
  • Direct Deposit. This is the easiest (and most practical) part. Direct deposit part of your check into your savings and pretend that money doesn’t exist. I’d suggest no less than $100. Also, pretend like you don’t get a tax return and just make all of that money disappear directly into your savings as well. Like it never happened and it’s not there. Even if your boyfriend faces some traumatic medical emergency that you have to bail him out of – that’s not money that you have… That’s not true, bail out your boyfriend. You’ll still be glad you saved the money.
  •  Be in touch with what you want. This is not something that I did very well and I wish that I had prepared myself for it more gracefully. I didn’t even know that expatriation was part of the plan until somebody suggested it and suddenly I wouldn’t relinquish the idea though I hadn’t planned for it at all. Basically for four years I had this vague notion that I wouldn’t always be taking notes in conference rooms, but I didn’t really know what the rest of the writing life looked like. I suggest dreaming more lucidly than I did: imagining what environment would be good for you to create in, researching places that might suit those goals (keeping in mind that many of your ideas might be compromised or should remain flexible), sketching outlines or character studies for your project. I think reminding yourself why you’re doing this throughout your waiting period will not only keep you sane, but will also make you more prepared when it comes time to actually plan your escape.
  • is a great resource. If you’re looking to live abroad, but you want to be able to sustain yourself on a reasonable budget, I would suggest It is a monthly online publication that you pay a yearly subscription fee to. They post want ads for free living situations for people all over the world: from Bel-Air to the wilds of Costa Rica, for a few weeks or for years. It also has listings for every state in the U.S. if you want to keep it domestic. And hey, if you want to borrow my login for the rest of the year, message me. J
  • Don’t hate on the social networking. Look, I agree with a lot of the criticisms about what social networking might do to our relationships and personal interactions, but I have to say that it has bailed me out numerous times. In fact, thanks to Facebook, I’ll be visiting a friend in Gibraltar and another one in Italy during my time away. I’ve gotten back in touch with some truly lovely and important people who are making this trip possible and it’s all been through Facebook, email, and good ol’ word of mouth (thanks for asking your Welsh cousins if I could stay with them). Most people won’t be able to offer you more than good luck and advice, but you need that, too – so put yourself out there as much as possible through as many networks as possible and new opportunities are sure to turn up. This isn’t a secret plan after all. Go ahead and share.
  • Understand your visa issues. Okay, I have to admit that I cried over this one. Of all the logistics that are difficult to manage, this is one of the most maddening. I can only speak to what things are like for travel to Europe, but I’m sure this is information that you’ll need for other destinations, as well. It’s all basically one Europe now (referred to as the Schengen region) and your time in any European country counts towards your time in all European countries. You cannot travel in Europe for more than 90 days in a six month period (although it doesn’t need to be consecutively). The consequences are variable and are basically determined by who’s letting you through the border. I am dealing with this problem by visiting the U.K. for about a month and therefore not counting towards those 90 days.
  • Read things that inspire you. Especially if you’re going to be alone a lot (and I think that you should be), you should read often. These guys will be both your mentors and friends while you’re on your own out there. I also like reading things from or about the region. Also, if you want a good practical guide to wandering the planet, I suggest Vagabonding. Also, you’re a writer, so you like reading anyways. Indulge yourself.
  • Patience. I hated waiting. I’m still terrible about it. I hope I wasn’t grouchy for all four years (and apologies if I was), but let me remind you now that one of the things that makes this is easier is that there are a lot of other things that you can do while you’re waiting for quitting day to arrive. I traveled to Haiti, wrote lots of poems and short stories, and founded an arts non-profit with my friends. These things make the time pass more quickly and will, I’d wager, give you other things to write about.

This is not to discount, of course, the enormous amount of good fortune and help I've received from the people around me and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say as the trip unfolds, but until then, this is just a reminder that you don’t have to be jealous (if you are). You’re probably smarter and better off than I was. You probably already have a savings account that you can start from and better first starts in your writing drawer. Also, this very practical five-year plan isn’t the only path, either. Some people read The Secret and suddenly achieve their dreams. In any case, “Get thee to thine writer’s retreat!”