Monday, May 28, 2018

On the Pleasures of Wandering

A few years ago, my family spent Christmas in Rome. We were there for about a week, without too many detailed plans, so one Sunday afternoon, they all said, “We’re going to go see ‘The Hobbit’!” And I said, “I’m going to go see Rome.”

I grabbed my passport and wallet, a copy of the key to our small apartment, and started walking, with no planned destination or activity in mind. I headed west because the streets looked interesting in that direction. They opened up onto a park, where a dozen barbecues were taking place around a community soccer game. The men on the team were middle-aged, with a few thirty-somethings here and there. Fathers who had been kicking soccer balls in public parks since they were kids themselves. I walked around ancient columns, now crumbling in the grass, and sat on a patch of grass and watched the game, cheering and booing in passionate English, to match the passionate Italian around me. At a nearby table, laden with food, a radio played pop music while people chatted.

I wandered down towards the Colosseum, taking side streets and eavesdropping on fellow tourists. I stopped to listen to a woman sing while accompanying herself on a guitar, before being verbally accosted by an older man who told me I was “very attractive” and told me that I should sleep with him “on the last night of the year for many presents!” I declined.

I made my way past the Spanish steps, past gelato shops and designer clothing stores. As night fell, music drifted out from the doors of the churches I past. I found myself in a large courtyard and turned to discover that I’d stumbled upon the Pantheon. I stepped inside and craned my neck, looking up and up and up at the concrete dome, at the oculus at its center that would flood the cavernous room with light during the day. A group of people were singing hymns, standing in a small cluster, and I stood and listened to their voices echo off the old church walls.

It never occurred to me to worry about how I was going to get home. My internal compass is pretty reliable, and our apartment was near the Colosseum, which I figured would be pretty easy to find. I actually don’t really remember how I got home that night—I must have just walked in the direction I figured I needed to and eventually found my way back.

I am now a fierce advocate of wandering. It’s how I discovered the Pantheon. Years ago, it’s how I discovered “magical Egin” while on the back of a Kymco People 150. Through wandering, I’ve stumbled upon art installations, hidden parks, and historical sites. And sometimes I don’t stumble onto anything at all, but end up just wandering. It’s a reward in itself.

Here’s the counterintuitive thing, though. If you’re traveling to a new place, you have to actually schedule time in for wandering, or it won’t happen. You have to consciously set aside a block of time and guard it ferociously. The entire point of wandering is not to plan the time, but I highly recommend planning the time in which to not plan the time.

In order to have an enjoyable wander, I also recommend not bringing very much. No maps, no notebooks, no umbrella in case of inclement weather. Just the absolute minimum of what you need to be safe.

Wandering can be done in a car, or by foot. When traveling to a new place, I’m a huge fan of the walking wander. But I’ve also had many a lovely exploratory drive, alone or with company. That’s another thing about wandering—it can be done alone, or with others.

During that same trip to Italy, there was a day I scheduled to go explore Florence. I had a few places on my list to see—the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Galleria dell’Accademia. But I didn’t really make plans beyond that. I told family that they were welcome to join me, although I warned them that I didn’t have much of an itinerary. In the end, a few of us ended up taking the train from Rome to Florence, and spending the day wandering the city, looking at art, walking cobblestoned streets.

I know not everyone enjoys wandering as much as I do. I’m usually a planner in most aspects of my life. But there’s something sort of magical about just…moving forward. Not having a clear destination in mind. Not worrying about whether you’re doing something right or wrong. Not trying to meet anyone’s expectations or to get the right picture or the check the right thing off the list. Just walking. Just driving. Just stumbling. You might find a gem. But if you don’t, it’s usually all right. Just exploring is its own reward.

photo via

Monday, May 14, 2018

An Ode to Survival Mode and the Self-Induced Metaphorical Coma

In times of deep grief, of trauma, of upheaval, there seems to be a period of time when people go into “survival mode.” In survival mode, there’s no thought of “the future.” No long-term goals. Very little beyond the day-to-day. You divide your day into hours. “Today I will go to work. Then I’ll do homework. Then I’ll watch this TV show. Then I’ll eat dinner. Then I’ll go to rehearsal. Then I’ll go to bed.”

And you’ve made it through another day. One more down.

Someone may ask you, “How was your day?” And you won’t be able to answer. There isn’t room in survival mode for measuring days that way. You got through the day. Good days or bad days are sort of beyond that baseline of just…getting through days.

I don’t know that you can choose survival mode. I think that just sort of happens when you’re in chaotic circumstances, or when everything’s been turned upside down. (Motherhood actually comes to mind as a time of survival mode. There seems to be this period of time when children are young, when women are just “in the trenches” of motherhood. You’re just trying to make it from breakfast to naptime to dinner to bedtime.)

It’s not a comfortable place to be, in survival mode. But it’s the psyche’s way to protect itself, I think. A sort of gift.

I read once that when burn victims are going through the initial stages of healing, doctors will sometimes induce a coma to allow them to “sleep” through the worst of the pain. It’s medically convenient—a patient in a coma won’t thrash around in their bed, causing further injury and delaying healing. But there’s mercy in it, too. It’s a gift.

I spent the months after Jacob and I separated in a kind of self-induced coma. I think I sensed that there was only so much I could do to heal, and that some of the hurt just needed time. I needed to find some way to numb myself while my psyche worked through what it had to work through.

I remember intentionally distracting myself, during those first spring months. I felt like I was facing and sorting through all of the issues that I could, and what remained was just plain hurt. Hurt that was just going to be there until enough time passed to heal it. So did whatever I could to metaphorically induce that coma. I filled the time with Black-ish, The Handmaid’s Tale, Madmen, The Wire, Dear White People, Atlanta, Broad City, High Maintenance. With podcasts and art journaling. With memorizing and rehearsing and performing and designing whatever I could find. Sometimes something would come along that was a blessed time-filler. A visit from a friend or family member. A trip out of town. Some project around the house.

There are obvious downsides to this. I did a lot of sitting during my survival mode coma, and subsequently got pretty unhealthy. All of my long-term goals were put on hold. I wasn’t really able to reach out to other people in kindness very often or very well—I was too busy trying to keep my sh*t together to help anyone else carry theirs.

But here’s the thing. It kind of worked. My self-induced coma really did keep me from causing further injury to myself or delaying healing. It helped me survive the time that had to pass in order to heal the hurts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I still do it—the self-induced coma thing. Out of habit. I do it even though I don’t have the same need for healing nowadays. Granted, I do still have hurts to work through, some small and some not-so-small, but none are big enough to warrant a self-induced metaphorical coma.

And it’s strange. It’s strange to not need the coma anymore. I’ve spent the last year trying so desperately to fill my days that an afternoon of free time initially gives me a vague sense of panic. I have to remind myself that it’s okay. There isn’t some monster of un-process-able hurt I have to guard myself against anymore.

I think the self-induced metaphorical coma can be easily abused. It can be used to avoid things that actually need to be worked through. But it’s like…it’s like you’re on this boat in the middle of the ocean, and there’s a huge storm. You’ve got to take in the sails and batten down the hatches and secure all the valuables while the hurricane rages. But after you’ve done that, you’ve just kind of got to get through it. You should tune in to the storm now and then to make sure everything’s basically safe, but otherwise, best just pass the time with stories or songs or whatever. Spending all of your time staring into the hurricane won’t actually do anything to the hurricane, and it won’t actually help you. After the storm is passed, then you can try to sail your boat again.

It’s not a perfect metaphor. But whatever. I was on a stormy sea for a while, and I got used to distracting myself from the rage and bluster outside. So sometimes I still cling to the stories and songs that filled my time. But now, spring is slipping towards the warmth of summer, and the skies are calm, and hands are reaching for mine and I’m stepping into the sunshine.

And if the storms rage again, I’ll know what to do.

painting: Snow Storm by Joseph Turner

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Parks, Reviewed

(Summer is basically here and all I want to do is be outside, so I think this will be a recurring feature/series.)

Faultline Park
1100 East, 400 South in Salt Lake City

A small and charming park near the University of Utah. Features steep grassy hills that look dangerously good for rolling down, but which you probably shouldn't roll down, because there's a road/parking lot at the bottom of the biggest hill. Stunning views of the Salt Lake Valley, and a swing set that's perfectly aligned to watch the sunset, if you can claim the swings from couples who have the same idea you did. Playground has the kind of soft rubber that feels exactly how you imagined walking on the moon would feel when you were a kid. Confusing, yet charming playground equipment. Terrible place to be if there is an earthquake, since the Wasatch Fault Line runs right through it. 4/5 stars.

Liberty Park
700 East, 1300 S in Salt Lake City

Huge and rambling and satisfyingly full of trees. Every Sunday, this park is transformed into Woodstock. People are unapologetically themselves and you can get a contact high just walking through the crowd. A romantic gazebo overlooks a pond if you have someone you'd like to kiss and need a good atmosphere. Hella geese and ducks, which eat bread that people feed them even though BREAD IS REALLY BAD FOR DUCKS AND GEESE AND IT MESSES UP THE ECOSYSTEM AND YOU SHOULDN'T DO IT. Additional features include various playgrounds, a splash pad, multiple fountains, an aviary, and a place to drop off your recycling if, like me, you don't have curbside recycling so you put it all in your car until you can drop it off the next time you're near Liberty Park. 5/5 stars. 

Fitts Park
500 East, 3050 South in Salt Lake City

A charming little river runs through this park, filled with ducks and geese (which will still eat the bread that people shouldn't feed them). Pleasant walking paths. Your 3-year-old nephew will call this the "fall-down park" after seeing a child his own age fall from the top of a play structure, but he will be comforted from this trauma by throwing rocks into the water. 3/5 stars.

Reservoir Park
1300 East, South Temple in Salt Lake City

A small park that's conveniently located for parents of small children who live in/near the Avenues. There is a huge hill that actually IS good for rolling down, and there are almost always dogs playing happily. You will always forget that this park exists, and what it's called. And apparently so will everyone else because there will be like, no distinguishing photographs of it online. 2/5 stars.