Flow

Flow

It’s 4:45, right in the middle of an awkwardly-shaped space between dropoffs and pickups. The weather is unseasonably warm, if San Francisco can be said to have seasons at all. I’m walking, alone, towards the sandy bluffs above Fort Funston Beach and away from at least fifteen healthy-looking singles frolicking with happy, glossy-coated dogs. If I had a slow-motion camera, I could get enough footage for a sitcom break’s worth of organic dog food commercials.

I’m looking for flow. I now have a word for it. I thought it was “a meditative state”, but I’ve just learned it’s simply that feeling humans get when they’re immersed in an engaging, productive task. Flow
, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, may be the key to human happiness. Maybe I don’t have to meditate anymore. I just have to get more flow.

When I’m engaged in the various fussywork tasks that a raging craft addiction mandates, like this one,

Flow-2

I often forget what I’m doing completely. (I cut and positioned paper hexagons for almost three hours.) I had the same feeling when teaching myself to play the piano as a teenager, playing Solfeggietto for two hours a night; running from breakers to Bay when I was training for a half marathon; writing romances with a sleeping newborn lying warm on my lap. I’m pretty sure that’s flow.

I’m taking pictures of the abandoned fort, of the sun filtering through cypress, when I see the highest point, a mountain of sand and ice plant pointing west. I start walking towards it. When the sand gets too deep I take off my suede flats and walk, barefoot, feeling the stored warmth of the sun between my toes. My camera bag squeaks. I pass a raven. I don’t ask it for wishes, but I consider the idea.

The sounds of millennials playing dog frisbee fade, and all there is is crashing surf on all sides.

Flow-3

From my vantage point, on this unreasonably clear afternoon, I see straight down to the beach and out across the Pacific. I know this is what I was looking for. I capture it all with my camera, or think I do—the setting sun glinting on the waves, the ice plant rolling right to the edge of the cliff, the lonely raven behind me, pecking at the sand. The act of turning experience into images is sublime.

This is it. This is flow, and, in the writing, I get to find it again.

I Heart Pictures

I Heart Pictures

I am falling in love with photography. I have been falling, slowly, over a period of nearly seven years. I began to fall, thanks, in great part, to Ravelry.

I opened my Ravelry account just as the language of the Internet was shifting—hard—from words and hyperlinks to image-based communication. The idea that I should include a photo on my project and stash pages seemed novel. After all, I didn’t even have a camera phone back then; if I had, it certainly wouldn’t have been able to navigate the site.

I liked to scrapbook, but I liked playing with paper and tape more than I liked taking pictures. I’d often get the urge to scrapbook, start a layout, and then realize I didn’t have a photo to put on it. It had never before occurred to me to photograph my knitting; the digital photos I remembered to take documented vacations and graduations.

Photographing my knitting was a revelation. It felt like scrapbooking, but more personal. I scrapbooked about my kids; Ravelry was about my creative life. I took a photo whether or not I liked the end result, helping me to see the beauty in my knitting. I accepted failure as part of the process. I looked back over my knitting, and found new inspiration to keep going. The pictures told the story of a new crafter, acquiring skills project-by-project.

Then, I started working full-time. I rarely knit, and I took sporadic photos.

My commute down and up the 280 was unpleasant, but not because it was ugly. It was the beauty that bothered me.

Photography-2

During my hour or more down, I drove through breathtaking vistas. The early morning mist rolled northeast over the Santa Cruz Mountains, the statue of Junipero Serra pointed tantalizingly west towards the coast, and my car sped south at 80 miles an hour. Time and again, I had the impulse to jump out at the various vista points, just to see what loomed just a mile or two to the east or west. I never did.

One morning, packing up my laptop and ergonomic mouse, I paused before my (largely-unused) Nikon D3100. At first, I ignored my instinct; as it was, I brought a bag of knitting to work every day…then left it, untouched, in the trunk. Despite my better judgment, I grabbed the camera.

On Great Highway, around 7 in the morning—without really thinking about it—I got out, snapped a few photos, got back in the car, and drove to work.

Every morning, I stopped a little further south, until I made it to Crystal Springs Reservoir, just off the 280. This is what was on the other side of the freeway.

Photography-3

The same impulse that had lead me to photograph 80 finished pieces of knitting lead me to document my commute. Instead of posting to Ravelry, I was posting to Instagram. One day, I thought I should start a new scarf. Just so I’d have something new to photograph, of course.

Photography-4

(I posted it on Ravelry and Instagram.)

I’m just getting started; though the camera is beginning to comfortable in my hand, it’s still not so comfortable as a pair of size 6 Knit Picks circular needles. I try to post even when the photo isn’t my favorite, so I can see what makes it that way. Most are beautiful, in their own way. Each one displays a tiny bit more skill. Each documents the journey of a woman falling, slowly, in love with photography.

Projects:
Mustard Scarf by Jane Richmond in Freia Ombré Worsted (Vertigo)

Sabbath Shawl from The Prayer Shawl Companion in madelinetosh tosh merino DK (Glazed Pecan)

I Just Meditated So Hard

I Just Meditated So Hard

I’m trying to look into the stillness. I see…a still pond. That’s what stillness looks like, right? Truth: I see the back of my eyelids. Maybe that’s progress. Is thinking “Maybe that’s progress” stillness? Probably not? Yay! The timer!

Meditation has always been one of those things I always thought I ought to want to do but managed to mostly avoid. (That list is long. Pilates is near the top.) When I’m on my game, I’m an on-the-go kind of person; I like to do lots of things, read lots of books, craft all the crafts. Meditation is the opposite of on-the-go, and, thus, my all-or-nothing thinking goes, the very opposite of me.

Despite having undermined my meditation practice before it began, I kept trying to stick with it; studies have shown that meditation has a direct and quantifiable effect on blood pressure reduction, to say nothing of depression. I shoved the practice of stillness into my life, attacking my carefully stacked pile of recurring thoughts and bad habits with a beautifully-crafted Crowbar of Enlightenment.

I’m going to meditate so hard today. High Blood Pressure, consider yourself disrupted.

I couldn’t bring myself to actually carve out 10 minutes a day for a regular practice, so I meditated with an app for 10 minutes here and there—parked in Hayes Valley waiting for carpool time, lying on the bed between piles of dirty laundry, and once, just once, sitting on a comfortable couch in a clean and empty house. Meditation felt like dropping everythingso I could do nothing. To feel good about that, I had to finish everything first; somewhere between polishing the underside of the dining room table and organizing my craft glues in alphabetical order I’d run out of day.

Then, one particularly harassed afternoon, carrying things to and from kids’ rooms so I could earn the time to meditate, I found myself staring down at a Dover coloring book of Mexican Folk Art I had purchased for some work-related reason lost to time.

On impulse, I grabbed a set of colorful pens I’d never really used.

I opened the coloring book and started to color a sugar skull drawing with fine-point pen. The pattern was intricate, so I couldn’t really think about anything else. I colored the flower eyes, the upside-down heart nose, the papel picado background. Everything was very quiet and still, except the tiny sound of marker against paper and the occasional train.

Coloring

“I’m meditating,” I said, to no one in particular. “I am meditating so hard right now.

How to Meditate: A Tutorial

1. Find a coloring page
2. Find something to color with
3. Color
4. Stop when you want to

Baker Street Blues

Baker Street Blues

Q: Why the new blog name? Why Baker Street Blues?

A: I grew up in several homes. There was our working-people housing in Diamond Heights, near the chicken drummettes of Hong Sing and the Tuesday-and-Thursday-only Hom Gok at the Chinese takeout place under Yet Wah Restaurant. There was Home, my grandparents’ house (my mother called it Home, too), nestled between Stanyan and Grattan streets, a victory flag my grandfather had planted thirty-five years before.

For a time, there was also a home in Albany, CA, literally straddling the border between Alameda and Solano counties. It was married student housing for U.C. Berkeley, somewhere between low-income-housing and dormitories. The shabby, two-story buildings had been military barracks, more or less like the Double Rock housing my grandparents fled in 1956 to plant their flag in Cole Valley. It straddled Cordonices Creek; in fact, you could look down on the creek from the living room window.

It was a safe place, a self-contained community just off San Pablo. It was a free zone, where we kids did things we knew we were not supposed to do in the City, like walk over to the snack bar alone and buy a pizza bagel to share…or walk over to the Oakland Tribune newspaper machine in front of Church’s Chicken and buy a Sunday paper for a certain graduate student in rhetoric, inhaling smoggy San Pablo Avenue air, perfumed with the heavenly scent of mass-fried chicken thighs.

We’d play with an ever-changing roster of neighborhood kids on the soggy lawns, under big leafless trees. One of them gave me a book: A Seed Is A Promise. We were all the children of dirt-poor graduate students; no doubt, all of us went on to get graduate degrees of our own.

It couldn’t possibly last. So it didn’t.

Sometime in my early teens, I discovered another home, just as idyllic: 221B Baker Street. I lived there, too, I promise you. I could still draw you a map. The VR pockmarks on the wall, the correspondence affixed to the mantlepiece with a penknife, the deal-topped table, the photograph of The Woman. Each landmark was a fixed place in my mind, furnishing my apartment with The Detective. Most had real-world analogues.

There were seventeen steps at my other Home, too, but, unlike Mrs. Hudson, my grandmother found them harder and harder to climb.

In the days before a functional Amazon.com, I scoured used bookstores, reading each and every book spine, searching for every pastiche, every scholarly work featuring Sherlock Holmes. I read each week’s TV Guide so I could program our VCR to tape every Granada Series episode, every random Sherlock Holmes Movie Of The Week at 2 AM on a Tuesday. I populated my personal 221B, tome by tome, video by video, when my peers deserted me and the heart of my real Home sickened and died. It was a safe space, as so many imaginary spaces are. Like my Albany house, it was always the same. I could always go back.

The one constant, I find, is that Things Change and you cannot go back.

Craving Home, I went back to Albany in June of 2011. I drove across the Bay Bridge alone, hoping, I think, for some kind of Instagram moment, a snapshot of rickety buildings with a backdrop of creek water. (Hefe filter, definitely.) I could condense that longing into one square image and return to the place my children called Home, refreshed.

This is what I saw:

2011-06-03 10.46.28

It was an overgrown field. The buildings, long unsafe on the banks of a creek, lead paint and all, had been demolished. Made gone. All that was left was the space where my Home once had been.

It made me think of abandoned playgrounds. This was our playground. This was our home. How could it not be here? How could it be just as ephemeral as I had found 221B to be?

I guess I thought I’d climb the rickety stairs and peer in the windows past cheap bamboo blinds? At myself, comfortably asleep on a mattress on the floor, neatly twisted hair protected by a scarf, jelly bracelets up one arm? The air would smell like bacon grease and coffee beans and fried chicken and my father’s Canoe. I would hear West End Blues on repeat.

The best blues is a longing for something that can’t be had. There’s a sweetness in wanting. I want to go back home. I can’t go back home. The creek sounds the same, but the home is gone. It occupied that space. It’s a space I used to live in, a space in which I was safe.

The quiet summer creek sounds like the moment before the blues is sung.

The Rewrite

The Rewrite

High blood pressure is running rampant through the Black community. It is called “the silent killer” because that is a terrifying name that is supposed to scare you out of the drive-thru lane. (Also because there are often no symptoms except high blood pressure numbers until it’s too late and, I guess, you die silently?) It’s something I always associated with getting older and gaining weight, with my grandmother’s health problems. In a curious way, I associated it with getting cancer, with dying, with being a hero.

I remember, so clearly, my grandmother coming home from one of her endless stream of doctor’s appointments—her systolic blood pressure had been something astronomical like 220. I don’t know whether she had been coming home from having been hospitalized; no one ever really let us know why she was in the hospital or for what, so it seemed normal to us kids. We were never scared when she was in the hospital. Doctors were helping her. What was there to be afraid of?

I wanted to be a doctor, too, back then, so my grandmother enlisted me to take her blood pressure every day and write down the results in one of my old cahiers. The numbers, I now realize, were terrible. Every day. Back then, I cheerfully pumped air into the electronic cuff and wrote down neat little numbers without making any connection whatsoever between those high numbers and stroke. I think I even made little charts. It seemed fun to me.

My grandmother and I have much in common. She was a stay-at-home mom, so I thought a lot about the comparison back when I was, too. She was a singer. My grandmother was quick to remember, slow to forgive. She struggled with depression and anxiety; she coped with food. She loved to research and read. She cooked. She married early.

I always preened when people compared me to her. Maybe the present tense is more honest; I currently preen when compared to her. She was an incredible person. She was an amazing, selfless caregiver. She did not take good enough care of herself, and she suffered. My family has lionized her suffering, made it as much a redemptive part of her story as any saint’s torment.

That narrative of suffering is the underbelly of being compared to her. I don’t get to be compared to her if I don’t suffer. Going running when I get home at 6:30 PM instead of cooking or helping with homework does not get me the “you’re just like her” fond headshake from family. Taking my blood pressure, every day, twice a day, and getting the same terrible numbers does.

It feels so inevitable. I’ll struggle with the blood pressure for a while, then start taking medication, and having high blood pressure will just start being part of my identity. Then I’ll start feeling lethargic: cancer. Then the sad, rapid decline, surrounded by friends and family.

Before you yell at me, I’ve been there, or at least stood next to ground zero; cancer is nightmares walking. It’s just so hard to change the narrative.

It should be easy for me. I’m a writer; I know how easily a story can be changed. Yet, I’m a writer, and I know how hard it is to change a story. You’ll edit and edit, and then read through years later and the ghosts of other decisions, other characters, other names, are right there behind new words.

Changing this story is going to be harder than anything I’ve ever done. The hardest things I’ve done up to this point—marriage, childrearing—all fit this beautiful narrative, the one about the mother who loved too much and died too soon. The hard things I’m currently doing—commuting, working while parenting, trying to not, like, have a stroke—do not.

This is the rewrite, guys. Stay tuned.