You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Fast Times’ category.
Apologies for not being in touch for a while. I’ve been focusing on finishing a novel and dealing with a personal issue that’s taken up a lot of bandwidth. My novel, Sinai Moon (formerly The Bracelet), has changed significantly since its humble beginnings, and I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of the year. The book has made me laugh and helped me through some tough times, and I hope it will do the same for others.
Last time I wrote was just before my book tour through Scotland, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey in the spring of 2015. It was exhausting but awesome. Highlights include a lively interview with the BBC in Scotland and a live interview on Turkish TV with a presenter who didn’t really speak English (luckily he prepped me ahead of time on what the questions would be).
And a lavish event at the La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art & Spa (& Restaurant) in Bahrain. The venue is a massive restored 19th century mansion with atmospheric interiors and romantic courtyards with elegant art installations and a gargantuan fountain (perfect for discussing dangerous politics, as no one could overhear you above the roar).
I don’t think this picture conveys how truly massive that Fontaine is
A band of traditional Bahraini musicians set the mood during the event, and I gave a book talk and Palestine presentation to a large audience under the stars. (I was surprised how many people in the Gulf in general were surprised by what I had to say. The news just can’t show how beautiful it is or how bad things really are.) Afterwards I found the band having dinner in one of the courtyards, and we talked into the late hours.
In May of this year Ahmed and I did a 6000-mile road trip to the Grand Canyon, LA, Big Sur, the Bay Area, the Lost Coast, Oregon, Montana, and Yellowstone. Ahmed liked the Grand Canyon best, and I loved watching sea lions play in the mighty current of the Klamath River as it flowed into the Pacific Ocean (and catching up with old friends along the way).
Had to see Hollywood… even though you can’t really see it
McWay Falls in Big Sur
We’re back in Tulsa now, living a few steps from the Arkansas River. We love to walk along it and watch big sunsets over Turkey Mountain as geese and herons fly overhead. Ahmed is doing great with his web design business (referrals welcome!), and I’ve been doing Palestine-related freelance work and a book talk here and there (one is coming up at UMass Amherst). We still play lots of soccer and recently rescued / adopted a wild, sweet grey kitten named Mateo.
On the Palestine front, a teacher from a refugee camp in Bethlehem, Hanan Al Hroub, won the Global Teacher Prize and the million-dollar award that goes with it. She came from modest means, offers special care to children exposed to violence, focuses on providing a safe space of freedom and play in a difficult environment, and is a regular at conferences and teacher training seminars throughout the West Bank.
Remind you of anyone?
Yep — My friend Rania is still doing all that work and more in Tulkarem. She offers desperately-needed counseling for victims of trauma and abuse, activities for children in refugee camps, programs for the disabled (including at a special school for people living with Down syndrome), and training for other counselors and community leaders. The number of lives she touches is truly staggering and humbling.
And she’s still not getting paid a dime for it. We’ve both tried several times to find outside funding, but due to the urgency of Gazans under siege and Syrians fleeing war, aid funds are scarcer than ever, and the Palestinian Authority can barely cover teacher’s salaries and garbage disposal.
So, I’m still raising money each year to pay her a modest salary of $300 a month, which not only helps her family survive but also helps hundreds of vulnerable people in her community. You can view the fundraiser here, with rewards for various levels of contribution and pictures of her work and her beautiful kids:
Lusan and Karam continue to thrive. Both are at the tops of their classes, and they just get cuter, funnier, and smarter as they get older.
Gifts of $5 or $10 add up very quickly and are more appreciated than we can say. I sent $900 before the fundraiser started, so to support the family for another year, I’ll need to raise $4500.
If you’d rather send a check or use Paypal, let me know which reward(s) you would like and I’ll let you know the best way to pay. My Paypal email is email@example.com
I pay for all rewards as well as Western Union fees, so 100% of what you give goes to Rania for her work. The generosity of so many people is the only reason Rania has been able to get through some very tough years and become a pillar of her community in a place where Israeli authorities do everything they can to stifle Palestinian life. To me she is the definition of sumoud (steadfastness).
Thank you for anything you can chip in (if you can), and please stay in touch!
Love and light,
Something glinted in the corals. My head lifted to see if anyone might be searching for something. The others were kicking along placidly, their snorkels angled from their heads like tiny smokestacks. I took a breath and dove to get a closer look.
My eyes widened as it came more clearly into view. It was caught on a branch of pale yellow coral, its ends swaying faintly in the current. I looked left and right, almost guiltily, before gently lifting it and tucking it into my bikini top.
Back at the surface I held my breath waiting for one of the women to cry out at the realization of her loss. But even after everyone had climbed back onto the tour boat and plastic cups of rum punch were handed out, no one said anything. Finally I cleared my throat.
“Did one of you lose something while you were snorkeling?”
A dozen sunburned faces looked at me, then at each other, and shrugged. A middle-aged man in a Hunter S. Thompson sun hat eyed me shrewdly. “Why, what did you find?”
I hesitated, then shrugged. “I thought I saw something. I guess it was nothing.” The boat operator resumed his patter about Caribbean sea life, and the subject dropped.
A part of me was relieved. The weight of the well-made piece was thrilling against my skin. But I couldn’t just claim it without a good-faith search for the owner, and if she wasn’t on this boat she could be anywhere. Dozens of hotels spewed tourists into the coral gardens off the Turks and Caicos Islands every day.
In my hotel’s cheerful white lobby I asked the concierge, a dapper Cuban, if anyone had lost a piece of jewelry. “No, Señorita Lauren,” he replied, his inflection skating the line between formal and suave. I tried a few more hotels, but the only hit I got was for an engagement ring thrown into the surf after a man got so blind drunk, he accidentally proposed to a passing cocktail waitress instead of to his girlfriend.
Back in my room I wrapped the object in a blue bandana and stuffed it into a pair of socks in my suitcase. Grabbing an oversized towel, I headed for the powder-white sand a few steps from my door to enjoy what was left of my last evening in this fool’s paradise. It was June, the sultry beginning of hurricane season. A friend had mentioned the off-season deal, and I’d jumped on it like a lifeboat. A lifeboat I couldn’t afford, which in any case would take me straight back to the doomed ship in less than thirty-six hours.
I ordered two piña coladas from the shack bar and walked along the nearly-deserted beach until I found a nice spot and laid out my towel. Great bulbous updraft clouds turn muted shades of pink and lavender as I downed the tropical drinks. I ran a hand down my leg to the anklet I’d been wearing for years, woven from threads I’d bought from Bedouin girls in the colors of the Sinai: midnight blue like the sea, turquoise like the sandy-bottomed lagoons, white like the wavelets crashing against the reefs, and gold-brown like the desert mountains. A talisman of how beautiful life could be. It was ragged and faded now, which seemed appropriate. Conal had been with me on that trip, my best friend from my years of travel. He’d be in New York soon for a journalism conference, but I wasn’t sure I wanted him to see me like this.
I stood too quickly and stumbled a few steps before striding into the warm, inviting water. The sky languidly faded to starry cobalt as I swam past the gentle breakers and into the swells, bobbing with the rhythm of the sea. I looked through the greying clouds to see if I could spot any planets—a comforting ritual that was nearly impossible in New York City. Mars and Jupiter were high and bright. I smiled at a sudden memory of Celeste’s dad showing me Jupiter through his backyard telescope. The wonder of seeing it for the first time not as a featureless white dot but as an entire world with its own tiny pinprick moons. A moment of pure, simple joy and discovery. How long had it been since I’d had one of those?
As the waters darkened, I reluctantly swam back to shore.
In my room I unwrapped the find from the reef and took a closer look. The bracelet was delicately designed, its silvery metal twisted into entwining vines with a diamond set in the space between each twist. The stones refracted even the dull lights of the hotel room into glittering brilliance. I draped it over my wrist to see how it looked against my tanned skin, and the ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. The edge of my mouth lifted. Jewelry was something I generally considered an expensive hassle. But this was a work of art.
New York’s subways are a forlorn place, I thought as I rode the interminable A train from JFK to my cramped apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. It wasn’t just that they were such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metro of Moscow, the charming trams of Istanbul, or the clean, efficient lines of Paris. The people also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces.
I trudged up four flights of grimy stairs, jammed the key in the door, and walked past my roommate Sara, who was washing a mountain of dishes in the closet-like kitchen.
“Hey,” I said shortly, the vibe of New York already washing away the modicum of relaxation I’d felt hours earlier.
“Hey, habibti!” Sara beamed over her shoulder, using an Arabic endearment. Her parents were from Lebanon. “How was the trip?”
She scoffed gently. “I don’t know which beach you ended up on, but remind me not to go there. Hey, what’s that?” She pointed at my wrist.
I told her about the beach, the boat, and the bracelet. “I think the diamonds are real. It feels heavy, like a serious piece of jewelry. I spent the whole morning calling every hotel on Grace Bay trying to find the owner. I even went to the police. Nothing.”
“Huh,” she said. “I wonder who could have lost it.”
“I have this image in my head of an heiress on a yacht, her arms dripping with diamonds, a casual gesture flinging one of her baubles overboard unheeded.” I pantomimed a beach-bound Holly Golightly throwing her hands in the air theatrically, and Sara laughed.
“Well, my weekend wasn’t nearly as exciting. Work yesterday, solo Netflix and chill today. Anyway, go, unpack. Tomorrow you’ll wake up to a clean kitchen for once.”
“Thanks.” She was terrible about doing dishes, and I appreciated the effort. I didn’t really need to unpack, though. For a year I’d been living out of my suitcase as if I might be called to bigger and better things at any moment. In my small room with its ancient wood floors and Craigslist bed, desk, and office chair, I opened my laptop to see if any agents had gotten back to me (nope) and to scan the news in the Middle East (more of the same). My glance shifted to the room’s only decoration, a collection of quotations taped to the wall.
One read: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt.
“Easy for you to say,” I muttered. “You were president of the United States.”
My eyes moved to the bookshelf, where half a dozen copies of my first book, Balkan Bruise, were lined up on the bottom shelf. Not long ago it had been a point of intense pride. I’d scraped by for a few years after college with odd jobs and writing gigs—like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before me, I liked to think—following what I thought was my passion. When I sold the rights to Balkan Bruise for $40,000, it felt like a sign from the universe that I was on the right path. It was such a thrill to see it in a major bookstore for the first time lined up next to bestsellers and classics.
But sales never really took off, and soon the next season’s books rolled in, and that was that. I knew it could happen if you weren’t lucky enough to break out. It was, in fact, the normal life cycle of most books. But it was jarring to watch six years of life and work fade away like it had barely happened.
I shook it off and used the advance money to explore the Middle East for two years and pour every ounce of talent and heart I had into my second book, The Silver Olive Tree. I envisioned this more ambitious and elegant project catapulting me into middle age with a life of travel, royalties, and doing what I loved full-time.
My publisher returned it so fast I wasn’t even sure they read it. Citing the first book’s poor sales, they cut me loose. My agent, blessed with a smarmy bestseller soon to be made into a major motion picture starring Emma Stone, dumped me as well.
Somehow I convinced myself it was only a minor setback. I moved to New York to find a new agent and publisher, taking on yet more odd jobs and writing gigs in between going to conferences, workshops, and author events. A few leads had raised high hopes. More than one agent said my book was great but not right for them—the literary equivalent of ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ But after a solid year of rejection, my hopes were starting to fade.
I leaned back and closed the laptop in frustration. It was a common New York story anyway, bordering on cliché. Sara wanted to be an actress. With her black ringlets, pale olive skin, and expressive blue eyes, it would be a waste if her face was never on a movie poster. But every time she got an audition, they’d tell her she didn’t look white enough to play a white girl and didn’t look Arab enough to play an Arab. For now she worked at a box office on Broadway.
My stomach rumbled. I was starving but not in the mood for beans and rice or an egg sandwich or any of the other cheap staples we lived on. Without thinking I mused out loud, “I wish we had a tiramisu in the fridge like the one I had at that little café in northwestern Italy. It was so humble, a mess of ingredients in a thick glass bowl. It looked terrible, actually. But then I bit into the first spoonful, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love.”
There was no response from the kitchen, but I heard the faucet turn off.
“The mascarpone was probably made in the hills behind the village. The waiter’s grandmother probably sifted the cocoa by hand.” I sighed deeply. “There’s just nothing like that around here.”
The sound of clinking glasses emanated from the kitchen. “How about a glass of Trader Joe’s finest instead?”
I set the laptop aside and picked myself up. “Sounds like a plan.” I was a few steps from the kitchen when I heard a gasp.
“You’re going to share, right?”
I looked in at her. “Share what?”
She raised an eyebrow. “The dessert in our fridge. The one you were just describing.”
“What?” I asked again, not sure what she was playing at.
She opened the refrigerator door wider. On the middle shelf sat an exact replica of the tiramisu I had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre, down to the heavy glass bowl.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. “Where did that come from?” I sputtered.
“You tell me,” she said and pulled the bowl out of the fridge. “Grab some spoons, this looks amazing!” I did as I was told, feeling like a computer that had divided by zero.
She took a bite directly from the bowl. “Oh my God.” Her eyes fluttered. “You were right. This may be the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. Seriously, where did you get it? And…” She narrowed her eyes. “Wait, when did you sneak it in here?”
“I didn’t. I had nothing to do with it.” I looked at her quizzically, wondering if she was punking me. Her look mirrored my own. I took an experimental bite and was immediately transported to the carefree time at the beginning of my travels when the world was so rich and open, with broad and welcoming horizons, and I could be anything I wanted, just like they told me in grade school.
Sara chuckled uneasily. “Well, I guess we have a tiramisu fairy godmother?”
“Or a generous neighbor.”
“Who broke into our house?”
“Maybe you forgot to lock the door. Or was it the super? Is he Italian? Is it your birthday or something?” I asked
“Not until December.”
“Weird…” We looked at it awkwardly for another few seconds. “I guess I’ll ask him about it next time I see him.”
“You do that. Meanwhile…” She scooped half of it onto a plate. “Wherever it came from, it’s amazing.” She kissed the air good-night and retired to her room.
I took the rest to my room and felt increasingly uneasy as I ate. It was truly perfect. And what an odd coincidence that it would show up on the same night I had that completely random thought. Drowsiness warred with confusion until I was too tired to keep trying to puzzle it out. I popped my earplugs in and fell asleep to the sound of my beating heart.
* * *
“Happy Birthday, Mom. Sorry I’m a little late…”
It was the next morning after a breakfast of three eggs on a bagel to make up for having dessert for dinner the night before. I didn’t plan on telling her about my flagrantly escapist trip to the islands. It was an open question how I’d pay off that credit card bill, and I didn’t need her to tell me how ridiculous it was.
“Don’t worry about it. I would have forgot it myself if Roxana hadn’t fixed me an apricot pie.”
Roxana never cooked, so it was quite a gesture. “How’d she do?”
Mom paused a moment too long. “Bless her heart…” she began. “It was really sweet.”
“Yeah, it’s the thought that counts.”
“No, I mean she put in four times as much sugar as she was supposed to.”
I laughed. “Well, it’s better than the time she overloaded the biscuits with baking soda.”
“Oh Lord, I almost forgot about that. I don’t think there’s anything sadder in the world than a whole pan of hot buttered biscuits in the trash.”
I sighed. I’d left Kansas with such big dreams. Right now, biscuits and apricot pie sounded better than anything I had going on.
“Anyway, what’s eating you? You sound kind of mopey.”
I raised an eyebrow at the phone. Mopey? You couldn’t say something dignified, like ‘depressed’ or ‘mired in existential despair’?
“I don’t know. I guess it’s been a year since I came to New York, and I’m not sure…”
“You don’t think you’ll ever sell that book?” She sounded like she’d been expecting it, which felt like a subtle knife in the ribs.
“I don’t know,” I said evenly. “I’m not sure what to do. Nothing seems to be working.”
“Well, that’s how it goes. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”
I slowly closed my eyes. Mom’s acting dreams had withered after she got pregnant at age nineteen—with me. I had killed her dreams and now mine were dying, too.
I opened my carved wooden jewelry box, a gift from a host family in Sarajevo that held a few nostalgic treasures: a dog tag given to me by a Russian soldier I had kissed on a train; an amulet of carved bone from a Buddhist monastery in Siberia; a seashell from a valley in the Sahara, evidence it had been under the sea millions of years ago; and now the bracelet. I pulled out the latest addition and tilted it back and forth to catch the light. I had always been careful with money, almost to a fault. Being frugal meant having the freedom to do what I wanted. Maybe maxing out my credit card was a subconscious attempt to force my hand—to give me that final push to find a steady paycheck and leave all this hope and uncertainty behind.
“Anyway, there’s a party tonight. Some ritzy college reunion thing. Maybe I’ll meet someone there who can help me find a real job.”
I could almost hear Mom brighten at the thought.
* * *
I let my hair dry in large curlers, put on a little black dress I’d bought at a thrift store when I was in college, brushed on eyeliner, and finished with lip gloss and turquoise drop earrings. The dress was a size too big, and its shade of black didn’t quite match the lightly scuffed ballet flats I borrowed from Sara. The bracelet was a bit much, but people would probably assume it was fake. I doubted I’d have a better excuse to wear it for a while.
The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. The doorman pointed me to a gilded elevator, which opened into a spacious apartment on the fourteenth floor with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige. Abstract wire sculptures adorned large niches in the walls.
Bracing myself, I walked toward a group of alums. They all had that polished New York look with three-figure haircuts and dry-clean-only clothes. As they chatted with aspartame smiles, brightly asking each other, “And what do you do?”, my mind drifted to another kind of gathering, a house party on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean where the guests couldn’t possibly care less about anyone’s status or job title.
“Lauren!” I heard from the direction of the elevator. I turned and saw Anna, my freshman year roommate, saunter into the room. Effervescent, blonde, and originally from Manhattan, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. Last I heard she was working seventy-hour weeks at a consulting firm. Whatever that was.
“Hi Anna,” I said, relieved to see a familiar face.
“How’s it going, world traveler?” she asked playfully.
My left eye twitched involuntarily. “Where’s the wine?”
She hesitated, then smiled knowingly. “I think people are heading in that direction.” We followed them to the dining room, where bottles of chardonnay were lined up like soldiers next to bottles of zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.
“Great,” I said, grabbing a bottle of zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of cabernet.”
Anna blinked, her expression wavering between confusion and concern. “That’s a cab, isn’t it?” I looked at the bottle I was holding. “Lucky you,” she said. “I wish they had a sauv blanc, but oh well.” She poured herself a cup of the chardonnay.
I was still peering at the bottle in my hand. “But… this was a zinfandel when I picked it up, wasn’t it? The bottles were all the same.”
Anna stared for a moment, then dropped her voice. “Honey, you seem tense. And I think you’ve lost weight. Are you OK?”
I sighed and gave her a run-down of what was going on in my life as I opened the lone bottle of cabernet and filled a clear plastic cup. Anna pursed her lips in a sympathetic frown, then perked up again. “Well, you can always write,” she said cheerfully. “As a hobby, I mean.”
I nodded at the sage advice, downed the wine quickly, and poured another cup, then another.
I wasn’t exactly sure how I ended up sitting on the floor next to my bed back in my apartment. A few hours, I realized with some alarm, were missing. That hadn’t happened since college. I stood up shakily, sat on the edge of the bed, and rested my forehead in my hand.
“God I wish I had a cup of coffee,” I muttered.
The scent of coffee filled the room and I slowly raised my eyes. A steaming mug was sitting on the desk next to my laptop. The mug was made of thick white ceramic, the kind found in diners. I hadn’t noticed it when I came in. Had Sara left it for me?
A wave of nausea rolled over me. I lunged for the wastebasket at the foot of the bed and heaved into it. The trash can had mesh sides, and my wine-stained offering began oozing out of it and onto the cracked hardwood floor.
Grimacing, I slurred, “Ugh, I wish I didn’t have to clean that tomorrow.”
The vomit vanished. I barely had time to register this before I hurled again. I wiped my mouth. “I wish that puke would go away, too.” It did, and I raised my eyebrows wanly. I’d never hallucinated while drinking. It was vaguely worrying, but I wasn’t in the right state of mind to worry very much.
Flopping onto the bed, I pulled off my clothes and lay my head on my cheap, squashed-flat pillow. “I wish it was thicker,” I murmured and felt it rise beneath my head like baking bread as I drifted off.
Thus begins an adventure that will take Lauren to Croatia, Switzerland, Beirut, and the Sinai, and [spoiler redacted] as she explores the mysterious object around her wrist and the mysterious forces that shape who we are.
Two more chapters are available to anyone who might like to read them. Just email me at pamolson at gmail dot com. Thoughts, questions, and feedback are always appreciated!
Here’s a synopsis in the style of mainstream literary fiction. Feedback on this is welcome as well.
Lauren Clay is a writer and world traveler who, after a decade of “following her dreams,” has reached the end of her spiritual and financial rope. She’s on the cusp of dropping it all and getting a “real job” when she finds a strange object that offers the terrifying gift of unconditional freedom.
In the weeks that follow she explores the meaning of success in Switzerland, romance in Beirut, and the heights of the human spirit in the Sinai. Just as life is starting to make sense, a series of small acts of carelessness snowball into dire consequences for herself, her family, and those she loves, threatening to undermine everything she’s learned about how to live well in a world full of uncertainty.
Packed with romance and adventure, humor and wisdom, Sinai Moon is at once a thrilling travelogue and a compelling work of literary fiction that explores the gulf between the way life is and the way we expect it to be.
Shortly before graduating from college, my dear friend Rania from Jayyous (who’s a major character in my book) married Sharif, a poor but kind man who lost his parents when he was young and never finished high school. He was incredibly supportive of Rania’s education, and they had a beautiful baby boy named Karam in 2007.
Two years later she was pregnant with a little girl, and Sharif secured a permit to work in Israel so he could finish building their house and support his growing family.
Then… disaster struck. Before her husband had a chance to use his permit, he was brutally arrested in the middle of the night by armed Israeli soldiers who beat him in front of his pregnant wife and child and put him behind bars for a year on bogus charges.
When her husband was finally released, he was a changed man, in bad health and bad spirits with no hope of ever getting a permit to work in Israel again. The only jobs he could get were tough physical labor that paid little (and prices is Palestine are inflated due to the occupation).
In 2010, Rania took the initiative and found meaningful work with the Syndicate of Psychological Social Workers, an organization that sponsors activities, classes, and counseling sessions to improve the psychological health of the community. It’s a desperately needed service in a town suffering so badly from the occupation (violence, vicious arrests, land expropriation and unemployment) and other stresses (the usual societal problems like spousal abuse and mental illness).
Unfortunately, it’s not a paid position. The Syndicate has been trying to get funding for years, and Salam Fayyad visited more than once and personally promised funding. But for various reasons — such as Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax funds to try to prevent the formation of a Palestinian unity government — it has never materialized. Their office doesn’t even have working phones. We have tried many times to find outside funding, but most covers only projects and materials, not salaries. And due to exigencies in Gaza, Syria, and elsewhere, aid funds are scarcer than ever.
So, for the past several years, I’ve been raising funds to send Rania $300 per month as a nominal salary so that she can continue the work and keep raising her beautiful kids, Karam and Lusan.
When I visited Palestine in 2011, Rania invited me to see the work she does on a daily basis. It was a whirlwind tour. First we went to the Syndicate office and talked with other volunteers. One was taking a group of women through lessons that would count toward their university training in counseling. One of the male volunteers was a music teacher. Another was a policeman, most of whose family is in Israeli prison. One of his sons was unable to finish high school because the Israelis took him when he was 16.
They all had the disarming, earnest friendliness I’m used to in Palestine, the same direct and matter-of-fact way of talking about their hardships, the same undying hope that telling their story just one more time will somehow make a difference. And they all spoke of Rania as if she’s indispensable.
Next we visited a home for the mentally disabled. Most of the patients had Down syndrome. Many of them recognized Rania, and their faces lit up when they saw her. A teacher showed us the different classrooms, from the one was for people who could barely function at all, who basically just played or danced all day, to the most advanced, where students could learn to read and write and perform other basic skills.
Finally we went to a UN school for refugee children, where Rania and several other women organized an after school program for girls through the local YMCA. About a hundred high-spirited first-graders showed up, all of them girls, and we set up games of tug-of-war, sack races, hop-scotch, hula hoops, and best of all, the game where everyone grabs the edge of a parachute cloth and jumbles it around with balls on top so that the balls jump around. Everyone was laughing the whole time we did it.
Rania whispered to me, “When the girls are doing this, they forget all their stress!”
Afterwards we handed out juice boxes and cakes and did face-painting and drawing on a giant piece of butcher paper. The girls were engaged the whole time, their eyes shining, supporting each other through every challenge. Without these women, and the smattering of funding from the YMCA for the supplies, these girls would simply be trudging home to crowded cinderblock alleys and small rooms that may or may not have electricity.
It was incredibly humbling to see so many volunteers, who had difficult and busy lives of their own, spending their time helping others instead of throwing up their hands or ignoring their even-less-fortunate neighbors.
Since then Rania has continued and intensified her social work in Tulkarem. A recent project involved organizing a summer camp for children, especially kids from refugee camps. Activities included counseling, art, drama, playing, swimming, and education about human rights and international law.
One ten-year-old boy came up to her after a workshop on human rights and said angrily, “You give us exercises and let us play, and you say nice words about international law, but we still don’t have human rights. You should be honest about this.”
Kids aren’t stupid. They know what they see.
She was taken aback, but she said, “I understand, I feel with your anger. God willing, one day we will have human rights.”
It’s a terrible thing to have to say to a ten-year-old. But it’s good to give them forums in which they can learn what they’re missing and vent about their pent-up feelings, so that hopefully one day they will be more effective in the struggle to implement their rights.
The summer activities also had a twist: The mothers of the children were invited to some of the activities, including picnics and a day in an amusement park. Rania said they were amazed, because it was the first time they had been included in something like that. They were also given free counseling sessions, and many said it was the first time anyone had allowed them to express their feelings and cry.
Mothers in Palestine have to keep the family together more than anyone. The society would quickly collapse without their strength. But there’s little space for them to break down or show emotion. Day to day they feel they have to remain composed, even when their heart is breaking.
Rania said she would do what she could to continue providing these services to the people who need them. And I’m glad to do what I can as well.
I already sent the family $900 out of my own savings this year, so to break even and cover her salary for another year, I’ll need to raise $4,500.
100% of the money you give goes to Rania. I pay for all rewards offered during fundraisers and all Western Union fees. So what you give is what she gets, and she in turn gives to the hundreds of people she helps with her work. It’s an investment guaranteed to grow many times over. You can’t say that about many investments these days.
1. Here’s the link to the Generosity fundraiser (powered by IndieGogo), which offers great rewards for your generosity! (If you sign in via Facebook, it’s very simple, and they don’t do anything annoying like post without your permission.)
2. My Paypal email is firstname.lastname@example.org
3. I can send you an invoice via Paypal, which you can pay with any major credit card. Just email the amount you wish to give to pamolson at gmail)
4. Or email me for details about how to send a check
5. If you’d prefer to send money directly to her via Western Union, I can send instructions on how to do it — it’s very easy
(You’ll still get the Generosity rewards even if you don’t give through the Generosity page.)
Fundraising and donating aren’t nearly as hard as raising amazing children while trying to be a rock for a society under brutal, strangling occupation. But the one makes the other possible, and it’s an honor to be a small part of it.
Even $5 or $10 makes a huge difference, believe me.
Happy Eid and happy autumn!
Love and light,
Here’s the schedule for my upcoming travels. If you’ll be in the area, I’d be glad to see you there!
March 28: Serenity Café, Edinburgh, 7pm
March 29: Book signing at Calton Books, Glasgow, 2pm
Yes Bar, Glasgow, 7pm
March 30: Talk to Social Studies students at Stowe College, Glasgow
The Annex Healthy Living Center, Glasgow, 7pm
April 1: Café Café, Irvine, 7pm
April 4-6, visiting friends
April 9: La Fontaine Centre, 7pm
April 10: Words Bookstore Café, 11am
April 12: National Library of Kuwait, 6:30
April 15: Lecture at Weill Cornell Medical College
April 15-19, visiting friends
April 20 until the end of June with my husband 🙂
Not a travel destination, but a novel I’m working on. The first six chapters are finished, and I’ve sent them to several people for feedback. You are welcome to them as well — feedback is always appreciated but never required.
If you’d like to check them out, send me an email at pamolson at gmail. You can read Chapter One here.
Note: You can read Chapters 1 and 2 here if you haven’t yet.
. . .“Not the worst job in the world.” Conal’s fine light brown hair looked particularly windblown under a cloudless Dalmatian sky.
Lauren raised her glass of prosek, the sweet local wine, in agreement. They were on the island of Hvar, its main settlement a steep crescent-shaped city of white stone buildings with red-tile roofs hugging a sapphire bay, all overlooked by rugged pine tree hills and an imposing Spanish fortress. No motorized vehicles were allowed in the historic center, leaving its stone-paved plazas ethereally peaceful. Scents of lavender and rosemary, two local crops, drifted on the breeze. Conal had chosen an outdoor café on a marble terrace whose view took in the picturesque town, the hills, and boats bobbing on the calm waters.
“So, Ms. Lauren. Any new thoughts?”
“I was thinking it might be easier to start with what I can do for other people, and go from there.”
“Like sending aid to places that need it. Money or food. Just as an example.”
Conal looked down with a small sigh. “I was in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya a few years back. I saw a lot of good intentions corrupted and a lot of dangerous unintended consequences. How much experience do you have?”
“None. I could spend time studying that.”
“Sure. But plenty of people with PhDs and years of field experience have done more harm than good. Not to mention, people will wonder how you’re creating food or paying for massive aid. What will you tell them?”
Lauren threw her hands up. “I don’t know. I still haven’t even worked out what to tell my mom. She thinks I’m here on a freelance gig.”
“I don’t have to tell you, you’ve got to keep this to yourself. Otherwise someone will kill you for that thing.”
“I know.” She sighed. “So where does that leave me?”
“It seems to leave you as one person with a lot of freedom.”
* * *
After a leisurely swim the next morning in the clear waters of the harbor, Lauren found the marble terrace café again, ordered a bijela kava (‘white coffee,’ Croatia’s version of a latte), and conjured up books by her favorite authors: Henry David Thoreau, Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Jung, Khalil Gibran, Hermann Hesse, Lao Tzu, Walt Whitman.
Some time later a stray sunbeam fell across her eyes at a steep angle, and she realized with a start how many hours must have passed. She shoved the books into her bag and dashed toward the vegetarian restaurant she had chosen for dinner with Conal. The city was labyrinthine, with carved stone steps leading up and down narrow alleys accented with bursts of bougainvillea, bright white or luscious fuschia. By the time she found Conal at the restaurant, she was twenty minutes late. He was sitting at a table on the veranda munching on bread and olive oil.
“So sorry,” she said, out of breath. “I was trying to call on the wisdom of the ages.” She opened her bag to show him the books’ spines.
“Any luck?” he asked mildly.
“It’s a comfort, actually. It’s hard to imagine a world where these men never put pen to paper.” The terrace was made of the usual white stone, worn smooth with age. They were further into the city but also higher up so that they still had a stunning view of a cotton candy sunset over the water. Ceramic vases with wildflowers and sprigs of lavender at each table perfumed the space. “I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer. To have a chance to try to pay it forward, even if only a little.”
“That’s a nice way to put it.”
She shook her head. “I really wanted to be like these guys.” She waved toward the bag of books. “Like Thoreau. He went to Harvard and thought it was bullshit, so he taught school for a while, hung out with philosophers, joined his dad’s pencil making business. A friend told him to get serious about his writing, and he went to the woods for a while, then he ran into a tax collector and refused to pay because of slavery and the Mexican War. He went to jail and ended up writing a piece about it that inspired Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy. Now they study him at Harvard.
“And Thomas Paine, he was a failed corset-maker. Roald Dahl and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry were pilots in World War II. But it’s not like I can join the air force or try my hand at corset-making or refuse to pay taxes and get where they got. I have to find my own version of life. And I had this faith, this illusion maybe, that if I followed the impulses that felt most genuine to me, somehow things would work out. It was like running off a cliff and believing the universe would catch me. And it did for a while, and then… I know this probably sounds ridiculous, but when things went so wrong with my second book, I felt betrayed by the universe. Like I trusted it, I held up my end of the deal, and it kicked me to the curb.” She rested her head in her hand, idly picking a lavender blossom out of the centerpiece, crushing it, and inhaling the scent. “People trusted me with their stories. I hoped if I could write a good enough book, I could help change things. Now it feels like it was all just a waste of time. I could have been a brain surgeon by now, you know?”
“You could have been a lot of things,” he agreed. “But I don’t think you want to be a brain surgeon. Would you want your brain surgeon to be someone who didn’t want to be a brain surgeon?”
She smiled and threw the crushed remnants of the lavender blossom at him, and he ducked. “I could have worked on cold fusion or something,” she said.
“You told me you hated working in physics labs.”
She rolled her eyes, conceding the point. “But doesn’t it seem sad that I have nothing to show for my young, promising years? My mom thought I was nuts to do what I did, and it seems now like she was right.”
Conal found a lavender blossom on the table and flicked it off. “Look, I know it’s hard to see it right now, but maybe nothing has gone wrong. Maybe this is just part of the life of a writer. But I have to say, something is going on with you. You’re a shadow of the person I knew in Palestine. Before you make any major life decisions, you need to deal with that first.”
“How?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. But if you had learned the lessons you needed to learn by now, this wouldn’t be so hard for you. You wouldn’t have lost faith so easily.”
“Easily?” She looked at him sharply, then sighed. “I know. My life is fine. I’m young, I’m healthy, I have citizenship in a powerful country. And now this.” She jiggled the bracelet. “I should think of it as a gift, right? Not a burden.”
“Sounds like a good place to start.” The wind caught his hair, and she watched it flop over and back again.
She smirked. “Sounds pretty obvious. Why is our culture so full of truisms nobody actually lives by?”
“That’s a good question. Worth exploring.”
The food was long gone and they were starting to get drunk on the wine. “Shall we?” Conal asked. They walked back to the hotel his publisher had sprung for. There were two queen beds in the room, and they each chose one and passed out. Lauren had a thought in the back of her mind: Wouldn’t it be nice if—
But the thought was chopped off, half finished, by the curtain of sleep.
* * *
When Lauren awoke, Conal was working intensely on his laptop, so she slipped out to visit the hotel sauna. For lunch they ambled back to their favorite café and ordered double espressos and omelettes with spicy pork sausage and sheep’s milk cheese.
“So you want to change the world and be a famous writer,” Conal said without much preamble, “and you’re upset because you haven’t done it. I get that. If I wasn’t an award-winning journalist by now, I’d feel like something was wrong, too.”
She glared at him, but he could see the suppressed smile.
“So I did some research on the topic this morning, and I found some quotes that might interest you. First, Leo Tolstoy: ‘If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.’”
She looked up and away. “I think I see where this is going.”
“And here’s one by Ramana Maharshi: ‘Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.’”
Lauren laughed. “OK, fine, I get it. If I want to change the world, I should probably start with the hot mess you see before you.”
“At least for a few months,” he said with relief. “Honestly, what sense does it make to try to change something as massive and complicated as the world when you don’t even understand yourself?” There was a sudden tinge of sadness in his voice. “You can go anywhere in the world, do anything you want to do.”
She sighed. “I don’t know. How long am I supposed to just mess around?”
He shook his head. “That’s the kind of limited thinking I’m talking about. You’re not the same person you were before, and even then you weren’t the type to ‘just mess around.’ I wouldn’t have made it through my summer in Palestine if not for you, and no one even paid you for that. Now you have a chance to travel in a different way, in a different state of mind, for a completely different reason.”
She scoffed, mostly at herself, thinking about how frantically she had been chasing stupid jobs in New York just to try to gain some footing. It meant that whatever she had learned in the past ten years, she had not managed to find any real, strong, solid footing. She had been cut off from the old feeling of flow for so long she could barely remember what it felt like. Here was a rare chance to correct that.
She shrank from the thought; if it had been terrifying and daunting before, when she was just out of college and it was cute to be an aimless backpacker, it was even more humiliating and humbling now. The stakes felt higher and failure more shameful—especially when she basically had a superpower to help her. She breathed for a while, feeling her resistance to the notion, the voices in her head saying she wasn’t remotely worthy, and surely there were more important things to focus on. She had heard the same voices ten years earlier. Conal waited.
Finally the idea sank all the way to a level of herself that Lauren hadn’t accessed in a long time. It spread there like a pool of cool water with an ancient freshness that quietly beckoned her. She closed her eyes tighter as the last of the resistance tried to tear her away. But the battle was lost. The path ahead wasn’t easy, but it felt right.
She opened her eyes and looked at Conal. “Where should I go?”
He leaned back and shrugged, trying not to look too satisfied. “Where do you want to go?” The waiter delivered their vodka-pineapple cocktails, and she absently wiped at the perspiration on her glass. “Don’t judge,” Conal said. “Just the first thing that comes to mind.”
“What comes to mind right now is Switzerland, to be honest.”
“I was there once for a few days. It was gorgeous but so expensive. I’ve always wanted to go back and head up into the mountains and hike around for a week or two. That sounds so nice right now.”
“Great. Here’s another question: What’s something you’ll regret never doing if you don’t do it while you’re young and single?”
Lauren glanced up thoughtfully, and a look of chagrin crossed her face.
“What was that thought?”
A crazy, inchoate plan was forming in her mind, and it was so unlike her, she feared trying to explain it to Conal before she’d thought it over herself might kill the idea in its infancy. “I want to go to Beirut,” was all she said, her eyes alive with excitement.
He narrowed his eyes but didn’t press. “Great choice. Amazing city.”
“And some of the most beautiful people on the planet.”
Conal smiled a bit sadly. Lauren wondered if he had history with a Lebanese girl. When Lauren met him, she was dating a Palestinian who lived forty miles and seven checkpoints away, while Conal had a girlfriend back home in London. They spent hours talking about politics and their love lives over endless bottles of red wine from the Cremisan monastery near Bethlehem and beer from a Palestinian Christian village called Taybeh. She told him an embarrassing number of stories about her disastrous love life. Come to think of it, Conal hadn’t been nearly as forthcoming.
“Moving on, question three,” he said quickly. “Where have you spent time that you felt something special, or peaceful, or where you really felt at home?”
“That’s easy,” she said, brandishing her anklet. She didn’t have to say more. They both had a reverential love for the Sinai, a remote triangle of mountainous desert wedged between Asia and Africa and surrounded by coral reefs. It had the feel of its own little world, a Lotus Land of friendliness, charm, and otherworldly beauty.
“So that’s a start. Switzerland, then Beirut, then Egypt. Sounds amazing, actually.”
She couldn’t help but agree.
I recently read a brilliant book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I recommend it wholeheartedly as one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s about Resistance, that part of human nature that tries with everything in its power to hold us back from our enormous potential (and which many artists or would-be artists are intimately familiar with).
One chapter particularly impressed me, and it concerned fundamentalism. It struck me as an incredibly brave, heartfelt, and intelligent explanation for this hydra that pops up with many faces all over the world, almost always with similar basic nasty fascistic underpinnings. In light of the hysteria on both sides of the recent crime in Paris (that is, the Al Qaeda-style Islamists and the frothing Islamophobes who blame Islam itself — and by extension hundreds of millions of innocent people — for the disgusting actions of a few), I thought I’d share it here.
Resistance and Fundamentalism
The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals. Each asks the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life?
At more primitive stages of evolution, humanity didn’t have to deal with such questions. In the states of savagery, of barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments of the community. It was only with the advent of modernity (starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore.
These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.
The artist and the fundamentalist arise from societies at differing stages of development. The artist is the advanced model. His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination. The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is lucky. He was born in the right place. He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and evolution. His faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world.
The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. In his view, humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.
Fundamentalism is the philosphy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride. Islamic fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair and possesses the same tremendous and potent appeal.
What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of Freedom. The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.
It is the state of modern life.
The fundamentalist (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to the basics. To fundamentals.
Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organizations, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.
But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death. Is it coincidence that the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish them in the fleshpots of heaven? The fundamentalist hates and fears women because he sees them as vessels of Satan, temptresses like Delilah who seduced Samson from his power.
To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, the fundamentalist plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He loses himself in these, much as the artist does the process of creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.
The humanist believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God. This is why he values human life so highly. In his view, things do progress, life does evolve; each individual has value, at least potentially, in advancing this cause. The fundamentalist cannot conceive of this. In his society, dissent is not just crime but apostasy; it is heresy, transgression against God Himself.
When fundamentalism wins, the world enters a dark age. Yet still I can’t condemn one who is drawn to this philosophy. I consider my own inner journey, the advantages I’ve had of education, affluence, family support, health, and the blind good luck to be born American, and still I have learned to exist as an autonomous individual, if indeed I have, only by a whisker, and at a cost I would hate to have to reckon up.
It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe. Certainly I wouldn’t be writing this book, on the subject, if living with freedom were easy. The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
Thanks to the following lovely people, I’ll have what I need to edit and design my upcoming novel, The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom. All of these backers will receive an electronic copy of the book as soon as it’s ready, and the other rewards will be coming along either in the coming week or as soon as they are available.
So, heartfelt thanks to:
Liz Aab, Fida Samhouri, Robbie Roy, Linus Hart, Catharine Abbott, Hani Shaabi, Stefanie Zigby, Truddi Greene, Bruce, Yeou-Shiuh Hsu, Omar Mesarwi, Judy Warner, Charlton Price, Garth Bishop, Holly & Daniel, Les Vaughn, Shawn D Langrick, Bruce K. Anderson, Nik in Maine, Amin, Pam Carter, Jess McNally, Will Ramadan & Kristalle Herda, Tura Campanella Cook, Tom Barham, Raquel, Jennifer Calvert, Meredith, Carmel Mawle, Imad Hanna, Andy Perdue, annie robbins, Pat Brown, Dora-Maria, Alice Bach, Patricia Madson, marianne dhillon, Carmel Arikat, pat hewett, Guy Benintendi, Saundra Hoover, maura donahue, Noor Elashi and Larry Scott, Nora Jacquez, Polly Johnson, Ellie Macklin, D Krulick, Marty Scantlen, Kevin Henry, Gail Miller, Helene Theros, Katie Clark-Alsadder, Donde Anderson, Eric Sarriot, Karen E. Robinson, Ken Burres, mark bosold, akmesarwi, Karen Platt, Peter Lake, Anne de Jong, Reba, Teddeaux Lamoureux III, Diana, Jeanne B., Colleen, Peter Nielsen, AWS, Gloria Olivier, Hitri Shf, Charlton Price, YC, Kerry Fina, Diana Syam, Megan Farr, Katie H, California Bill, Amanda Kuhn, Kara Jenkinson, Lyla Rayyan, Pamela Shier, Robin Thompson, Corinna, Betsy Talbot, Veronica Gilley, EY, Kristine Knutter, Sonja, and Tam
I’ll be thinking of all of you as I finish the book, and I truly appreciate the faith and support that helps sustain me as I do. You all are the best, and I hope you’ll find the book a worthy investment.
Lots of love and warm wishes for 2015.
Note: You can read Chapter One here if you haven’t yet.
Lauren’s body felt hollow after Sara left, the way it feels after a long cry. She absently wished the food away and sat with her hands braced against her knees like a person recovering from a panic attack. For a long time she just breathed, her mind a jar of mud that needed time to settle. She cursed the fact that her door had no lock. Then she laughed, a short, strangled sound. “I wish the door had a lock,” she said, and it did. That was better.
She looked around the room, replaying the bizarre events of the past few days in her mind. It had started when she got back from the Caribbean, and the only thing she brought back from there was…
Her eyes came to rest on her wrist, and she furrowed her brow. It was an absurd theory, but there was an easy way to test it. She took the bracelet off, set it on the desk, and said, “I wish for, I don’t know, a button.” Nothing happened. “On the desk,” she specified. Still nothing. “I wish for a barstool on the rug,” she tried. The rug remained empty. She slipped the bracelet on again. “OK, I wish for a bunch of grapes.” A glistening green bunch appeared where the French toast had been a few moments earlier.
She jumped. Jesus Christ. Shakily taking the bracelet off again, she held it up and studied it. It sparkled impassively. Her image of an heiress casually losing jewelry would have to be replaced by something even more unbelievable — or more sinister. A tingle of foreboding crept up her spine. Maybe there had been a struggle. Maybe worse. Or maybe someone wanted to get rid of it.
She shook her head, and another mystery occurred to her. She was pretty sure she hadn’t been wearing the bracelet that morning when she wished for eggs Benedict, but she was definitely wearing it when she wished Sara would go away. “It must not work on people,” she reasoned with equal parts disappointment and relief. That kind of power would be too creepily God-like, too easy to abuse.
Her eyes closed wearily. It was late and her mind was a wreck; it couldn’t handle one more crazy thought, theory, or question. Maybe things would be clearer in the morning somehow. She placed the bracelet in her jewelry box and drifted into uneasy sleep.
She awoke on a hard, small bed in a dark, bare room. There were bars on the window. She heard a deafening clang behind her. Looking back, she saw a figure retreating from a wall of bars. She was in prison. Why? She looked at her wrist, ready to wish the bars away. The bracelet was gone. She sat up abruptly, panic permeating every pore. They’ve taken it. But who were they? What were they going to do with it? What were they going to do with her?
She gasped and turned over, and she was back in her little room in Washington Heights with its new blue rug, a thin sheen of clammy sweat covering her body. Early light filtered through her window as she grabbed the bracelet, got dressed, and fled without knowing where she was going.
Instinctively she headed toward the George Washington Bridge. It was 7am, long before she would normally get up, and she appreciated the relative freshness in the air. She passed a young man with stringy black hair sitting against a wall and staring at the sidewalk. A dirty backpack and dejected-looking dog rested beside him. I wish I had a hundred dollar bill in my pocket, she thought. She pulled out a crisply-folded bill and handed it to the young man.
“Thanks,” he mumbled as he crumpled it into his backpack without looking.
“You’re welcome,” she said, feeling a bit deflated.
She wished for another twenty dollars and bought a chai latte along the way, leaving the rest as a tip.
There was a particular spot where she loved to sit and think, where she could see trees, water, the sky, and soaring civil architecture. A hard-to-find, narrow pedestrian underpass smelling of stale urine opened onto an unmarked path that led through a broken chain-link fence to a small bluff under the bridge overlooking the Hudson Parkway. The green New Jersey bluffs rose on the other side of the Hudson and there was a lovely view up the river. Cars whirred by above and below on perpendicular paths, like a frenetic white noise machine.
As she wrapped her arms around her knees and took a sip of the warming tea, a memory bubbled up of being eight years old, when her mom was still struggling after the divorce and she was made fun of at school for things about her parents she didn’t understand. She remembered desperately wanting magical powers, praying for them every night for years, wishing for them on every birthday cake. She reasoned with God that it would be an efficient arrangement; she could solve her own problems and wouldn’t have to bother Him about them anymore. In all the books she read, if the protagonist wanted something badly enough, he or she could usually find a way to get it, against all odds. If she petitioned God and birthday candles long enough, she hoped it would work out for her as well. The childish delusion lasted until her early teens, when she started wishing about boys instead.
But now, decades later, her ridiculous prayer had somehow been answered. As a kid she would have known just what to do with it. Her desires were simple, her view of life narrow. Now? She felt utterly lost, without any hint of a roadmap, unable to catch her breath.
Even a few years ago she had felt more certain about the world and her place in it. Her first dream as a kid, tucked in a corner of the Wichita Public Library, had been to join the great men of history (they were almost always men): explorers, scientists, philosophers. Inspired by National Geographic, she was also interested in the environment, which led to politics. As she dug into that dismal subject, she realized books would only take her so far; she needed to see the world with her own eyes. She studied abroad in Russia, where she met politicians, professors, musicians, and ordinary people with completely different life experiences, and soldiers and refugees fresh from the carnage in Chechnya. After that it was excruciating to go back to college and try to pay attention in class. She’d had a taste of the real action, and she wanted more.
For three years she scraped by with odd jobs and writing gigs across Europe and Russia, sometimes waiting tables, washing dishes, or sweeping floors — like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before her, she liked to think — always on the cusp of hitting zero and having to limp back home. Selling the first book had been a godsend and validation, until it became a humiliating disappointment and a stone around her neck. Maybe it was time to face the fact that she’d had it wrong from the beginning, and it was time to change direction entirely.
At least, for as long as this strange miracle lasted, she didn’t have to worry about money. She wondered if the wishes might run out at some point, or if there was a set number of molecules she could manipulate. She decided to proceed with a bit more caution. No sense squandering near-omnipotence on rugs and chai lattes.
More than anything she needed to talk to someone. Sara was lovely but inclined to melodrama, and she couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, and if a secret like this got out, it was only a matter of time before someone robbed or killed her for it. It was terrifying to think of the damage a ruthless person could do with it, the blood that could be shed as people fought over it. She had seen people killed for far less.
It was a stroke of luck that Conal would be visiting New York soon for a conference on narrative journalism. He had turned down a prestigious job with Britain’s top news source to work for a second-tier paper so he could write what he considered true instead of what his bosses considered expedient. He’d won several awards for investigative pieces, but he remained humble and hardworking. They had met when they lived in the same apartment building in Palestine for a summer. He was the most levelheaded person she knew and the only one she could trust with a secret like this.
Feeling slightly clearer about things, Lauren walked back to her apartment and conjured up a lightly beat-up rolling suitcase containing one million dollars in small bills. She spread the bills evenly and wished for a padded false bottom to cover them. Then she stuffed the suitcase with jeans, sweaters, and her winter coat and hid it well in the back of her closet. Just in case.
* * *
The next few days were surreal. She stopped looking for jobs. She stopped answering emails and reading the news. Until Conal came, she pretended to be a traveler in New York, seeing it with new eyes, with the carefree attitude of exploration and enjoyment she used to have in exotic foreign cities. She relaxed into the comforting sense of time being a friend rather than an enemy; of the sunset being a highlight of the day instead of a dim event outside a window shut tight against intrusions; of sitting in cafés reading novels without a hint of shame. She took the Subway to neighborhoods she had never seen before and walked around, smiling and greeting people like the most soft-headed tourist imaginable.
She wondered: Was happiness really only the province of travelers and people with trust funds or magic bracelets?
* * *
Conal blinked a few times. His eyes, the luminous color of green sea glass, narrowed as if searching for the angle. Lauren knew the look; it was the same one she had given Sara when she insisted a hand-crafted Italian tiramisu was sitting in their refrigerator.
They were seated across from each other in a high-backed booth in a trendy sushi place north of Little Italy. The dark-paneled walls muted the conversations around them to a low buzz, and a white tea candle in a clear hurricane glass glowed steadily between them.
She sighed. “Name an object. A small object that I can hold in my hand.”
“A lemon,” he said in his Irish-flavored British accent, playing along. He’d grown up in southern Ireland, studied at Oxford, and spent his professional life based in London.
She brought her hand out from under the table. It contained a lemon.
He looked impressed. “OK. That’s a nice trick.”
“It’s not a trick. Name another object.”
“A tiny bust of Vladimir Lenin.”
She smiled. “Good one.” Then she set one on the table.
His expression wavered. He looked under the table at Lauren’s hands, which she flipped over so he could see they were empty. “Interesting. OK, er… a cup of Earl Grey Tea. In a golden wine glass.”
“Damn,” she muttered and he smirked, seeming relieved the odd joke was over. “No, I can do it,” she said, lifting a gilded goblet onto the table and setting it down quickly. It sloshed a bit, spilling a few drops on the table. The smell of bergamot was unmistakable. “It’s just really hot.”
All trace of amusement vanished from his face. He looked at her, looked under the table again, turned pale. “What the…? How did you…? How in the hell did you do that?”
“Keep your voice down. Look, I know it sounds crazy. It is crazy.”
“But what…? What…? How?”
“I don’t know. I just know it has something to do with this bracelet.”
He looked at it with dazed eyes. “Good God.” She let him sit with his thoughts for a while. Finally he looked at her. “But what does it mean?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did it come with instructions or anything?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“And what if someone tries to take it from you?” He looked around briefly and dropped his voice to its lowest register. “There are people who will kill for that if they figure out what you have.”
Her hand instinctively covered the bracelet. “Are you considering it?”
He rolled his eyes. But there was a glitch in his countenance, as if he hadn’t really considered it until just that moment. Lauren drew back slightly. Conal sighed. “Look, I appreciate that you trusted me enough to tell me about this. But whatever it is, it’s your deal, OK? You found it, your deal. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I’m kind of glad as hell it isn’t me. Where did you get that thing anyway?”
* * *
The next day Lauren found a specialty jewelry shop and asked the owner if he could reinforce the bracelet by attaching it to a steel loop and covering it with braided leather. The sad-eyed jeweler with Einstein hair accepted without comment her story that the bracelet had sentimental value, and she wanted to wear it without having to worry about theft. She was sure that in New York, he had heard far stranger requests.
When he finished the modifications and clamped it on her wrist, it looked tasteful but valueless, and he assured her it would be impossible to remove without heavy wire cutters.
Walking home she was thinking about the warm turquoise water and the strange glint in the coral below. Part of her wished she had shrugged and moved on with the others. Part of her wanted to chuck the bracelet into the East River and get on with the demoralizing job search. But she had investigated. It was who she was. And now she had to face the consequences. Whatever that meant.
Panting from the five-story climb, she unlocked the heavy apartment door, trying her best to muffle the loud locking mechanism. Lauren had managed to sidestep Sara’s questions so far by claiming an uncle had sold his land in Texas and was sending gifts to his family with the proceeds. But Sara wasn’t stupid. She noticed Lauren had stopped looking for work and was acting strange in general.
“Hi there.” Sara emerged from the kitchen, and Lauren jumped.
“What happened to your bracelet?”
Lauren sighed. “I don’t want it to get stolen, so I had it wrapped in leather.”
Sara nodded dubiously. “Where’d you get it anyway?”
“I told you.”
“Right. You found it at the bottom of the ocean.”
Lauren winced. That story had actually been true. “Look, Sara. I love you. I appreciate you looking out for me. But I can’t deal with any more questions right now.” It was precisely the wrong thing to say. Sara’s eyes glinted with the excitement of kindled curiosity, and Lauren suddenly reached her limit. She slowly closed her eyes. “All right, fine.” She had lied to enough border guards, she ought to be able to come up with a plausible enough story to get Sara off her back. “Here’s the truth. My uncle didn’t sell his land in Texas. He actually died.”
Sara’s face froze. “Oh,” she said quietly. “Sorry.”
“Thanks. I didn’t know him well, but he made a lot of money in oil in the eighties, and since he never had children, he left the money to his nieces and nephews. So,” she shrugged apologetically, “I guess I don’t need to worry about getting a job for a while.”
“Wow.” Sara slowly spun the mystic topaz ring on her right hand. “Well… condolences and congratulations both, I guess.” Her apparent jealousy meant she probably bought it.
Lauren relaxed a bit. “But listen, it’s something I don’t deserve. It just fell into my lap. So I’d like to spread the wealth a little. Is it OK if I pay your rent for the rest of the year?”
Sara froze again. “Oh my God. Are you serious?”
“Are you sure you’re serious? I mean, it’s a lot—”
“It’s fine. Really.”
Lauren was starting to feel awkward when Sara suddenly squealed and danced around. “Free rent! It’s a real estate miracle! It’s the New York dream!” She grabbed Lauren’s hands, and Lauren joined her and laughed. It was a relief to be on good terms again, and at least she knew part of the truth — that Lauren suddenly had access to a lot of resources she hadn’t earned. As long as Lauren was paying Sara’s rent, she suspected she wouldn’t complain.
“So what are you going to do?” Sara asked breathlessly.
“I don’t know. I’m still in shock, to be honest.”
“No wonder you’ve been acting so weird. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was just something I needed to process. I haven’t told anyone except Conal.”
“The hot journalist?”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “You know he’s like a brother to me.”
“Whatever. So what do you think you’re going to do?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to be a writer. And I didn’t succeed, I mean not in making a living at it.”
“Well, now you don’t have to worry about making a living at it.” She sighed. “God, you’re so lucky.”
“Yeah,” Lauren said weakly. It was the dream. Not to have to worry. To be able to do exactly what she wanted. How could she explain how empty she felt — how scared? And how did she dare feel that way when she had what everyone wanted, or thought they wanted?
* * *
“All right, Conal, you’ve had some time to digest this. I need some advice. I need some clarity. I feel so lost.”
“I feel so bad for you.”
She backhanded him lightly on the shoulder. “Shut up.” They were sitting in a noisy tea house near Columbus Circle after his conference duties were over. “I feel like there’s something I should do, but I have no idea what. Should I go to a monastery or an ashram and wait for a sign? Should I travel again, follow my nose like I used to, find more adventures, make more friends, write more books? Should I hang out here and try new things? Dancing, martial arts, violin, all the things I didn’t try as a kid? Immerse myself in a foreign language?”
“Can the bracelet help with things like learning languages?” he asked.
“Naw. I tried wishing I spoke Chinese. Apparently my powers don’t extend to manipulating the human mind.”
“Thank God. I’m not sure I could be your friend if they did.”
“But you see my problem?”
“For God’s sake, Lauren, the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want.”
“All right, put yourself in my position. If you had this power, what would you do?”
“I would… Hmm…”
“Not so easy when it’s you, is it?”
“I mean, I’d pay off my mum’s house. I’d help a friend in Kosovo start a business. I’d—”
“Of course I’ll do that kind of thing. But that’s for other people. What would you do?”
He looked at her and narrowed his eyes. “I guess I’d need to think about it.”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
“All right, all right, I get it. Most people spend their lives just doing what comes next, whatever they think they have to do. They never have the luxury of an infinite crossroads. I guess evolution didn’t really prepare us for this.”
“No wonder so many movie stars become Scientologists,” she muttered.
“Nothing. Look, I thought I knew who I was. I thought I knew what I wanted to do. But now, to be honest, I don’t even know if I want to write anymore.”
“That’d be too bad,” he said. “You’re an amazing writer.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter much. And it’s getting too painful to put everything I have into something and hope to make a difference, and have it rejected over and over.”
“Hmm,” he said sympathetically.
“Look, I know I can’t really call this a problem, compared to real problems,” she said, blushing slightly. “But thought I’d found a calling — a way to contribute to the world that was uniquely mine. Either I was right about that and I blew it, or I was wrong and I have to start over and find a new calling, or I just have to resign myself to a callingless life. And I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know where to start. It’s like I’m on an infinite featureless plain, and there’s no sign pointing in any direction. I’ve been here before, and I made my choices, and it didn’t work out. So how do I know it’ll work out any better if I try again?”
Conal met her anxious eyes. His transparent irises did something funny to her stomach, but it was lost in her agitation. “I understand why you feel this way,” he said in a placating voice that indicated he knew she was being somewhat ridiculous, and he knew she knew it as well. Lauren smiled in spite of herself. “And I don’t think I can talk you out of it right now. But I think a change of scene might do you good. I’m heading to Croatia next week to write about the beaches on a couple of Adriatic islands. You have infinite resources. Want to come?”
She raised an eyebrow, trying to regain her composure. “A puff piece? That’s rare for you.”
“Everyone needs a vacation now and then. What do you say?”
She relaxed her tense frame and sighed. “That sounds nice. But you never answered the question: What would you do if the bracelet were yours?”
He slowly blew air through his lips. “After several months mucking about in Southeast Asia, I suppose I’d think about starting my own newspaper. But I don’t know much about running a paper — ads and publicity and all that. I could hire some good people. But is another paper what the world really needs?” He took a sip of ginger tea. “It’s easy to keep on with my job because I like the people I work with, the pay is enough, the work is really interesting, and it’s all I’m really good at. I don’t even know what I’d do if I got fired, much less if my choices were infinite.” He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
“So you see where I’m at.”
Conal’s eyes smiled. “Come with me to Croatia. We can both think about this some more.”
# # #
To read Chapter Three, click here.
I didn’t know what to expect. I did two meditation retreats before — one in Bethlehem and one in New York — and they were very different from each other. The one in Palestine focused on the teachings of Gurdjieff (including the dance-like movements and a number of guided meditations) while in upstate New York I did hour-long sitting meditations and working meditations in a Buddhist monastery with a bunch of uptight Manhattan yuppies (several of whom left after the first day).
What would a meditation retreat be like in Oklahoma — especially one that mandated silence among the participants except during two daily meetings?
We all gathered for the first meeting in a large conference room that had been decorated with scarves and an altar-like table with candles for ambience. I could see there were about 25 participants, mostly women, ranging in age from twenty to seventy. We sat in a large circle of chairs or meditation cushions, our choice. Most of us looked like typical Okies (in loungewear). We did not introduce ourselves — getting to know each other in the usual icebreaker / small-talk way was not on the agenda. We were all just humans here for a human experience. (Later I would learn they included housewives, widows, students, professors, social workers, retirees, businessmen, and more.)
The organizers, a husband and wife team named Rick and Mary NurrieStearns, gave us the schedule. It was fairly structured with two yoga sessions, three meditation sessions, two group meetings, and a couple hours after lunch for hiking or reflection each day. The hiking was really nice — the soft fall colors were gorgeous, the sky clear blue with interesting clouds, and two lakes with good trails were just outside the door. No cell phones, books, movies, or computers were allowed, so there was no way to escape. For those four days, you were stuck with yourself and these people. But it was surprisingly un-scary. We were all there with the same mindset of openness and nonjudgment (several of them had been to earlier retreats), and it felt very relaxing.
It was admittedly strange at first to spend so many hours with people and not know their names or exhange anything other than silent smiles. But in the meetings we were encouraged to go deep, and people talked about searing tragedies, frustrations, hopes, and fears. All were quietly accepted as human experiences. We simply sat with the fact that being human is often very difficult and confusing, and we’re all doing more or less our best, even if we screw up more than we would like and don’t always handle things as calmly as we should. Acknowledging it without trying to placate it or bat it away or deny it opened a feeling of spaciousness. Yes, this life is difficult. It’s also exquisite and very lovable, with many avenues and endless chances for joy, growth, and transcendence.
The fact that we didn’t know each other’s names, home towns, professions, affiliations, or income level (we were all wearing sweatpants) ironically made us feel closer to each other. We took in each other’s raw, honest words without the usual filters or categories, which brought our basic humanity to the forefront. It was impossible not to like every person there, no matter who they were or what they had done. They were human, just like me.
Each meeting had a theme, one of those Big Questions we tell ourselves we answered satisfactorily enough when we were teenagers or just kinda forgot about in the sturm und drang of daily life. In one session we talked about habit energies, and how when we’re not fully conscious, we seek the same old energy pathways. We talked about some of those habits and how they have diminished our lives. We also shared recurrent thoughts that caused us problems. It was hard to hide anything from yourself in that searing space of honesty, and it got pretty intense at times.
There were no easy answers, no pert affirmations. Just people wrestling in the daylight in a safe and open space. We explored the questions through stories, artwork, music, poems, and sharing with each other. The sharing — making it personal and immediate — was always the highlight, tempered by the wisdom and beauty of the ages.
For me this was valuable, illuminating, and precious. How rare it is for adults to pull out these big meaty slabs, these black holes of un-knowing, into the open, together, and sit before them gamely and humbly, sharing stories and insights without trying to subdue or banish them. The questions will certainly still be there after we disband. But we sit with them now with a little more comfort, familiarity, and awareness. And a little less loneliness. You could see people visibly relax and soften as the days went on.
I’ve been dancing around the main theme of the retreat — meditation — because it’s so difficult to put into words. In the past few years I’ve found myself feeling alienated from the universe for no good reason. I grew some kind of oily reality-repellent skin and found myself focusing endlessly on results, not on any given present moment. I knew it wasn’t good, and still I was trapped in it. Whenever I tried to meditate, it was like a bad drug reaction, a horrible metaphysical itch. I avoided the cushion as if it had bedbugs.
During this retreat, there was no escape. No computer to hack around on, no small-talk to make me feel self-conscious or important (two words that have little to do with reality when applied to a person), and no way to avoid the cushion without facing the reality of being a complete jerk idiotically wasting her time and money.
Nine times I sat on the cushion in a room full of people who were so silent it put the fidgety New Yorkers to shame. I had nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. It was easy to feel compassion for everyone else, and I knew I was nothing special — really no different — so I tried to feel compassion for myself, too. I tried to settle into myself without fear or judgment. I tried to focus on my breath and on the simple stunning fact that I am alive. I tried not to run away from the present moment, not to focus on memories, projections, or daydreams. I tried to focus on the experience — the feeling — of being.
With all the space and compassion opened up by the people and the setting, it wasn’t as excruciating as usual. It made sense. There truly was no five-alarm fire. It really was OK to just be for a few minutes.
And the results were literally life-changing. When I was fully present, insights and realizations had a space in which to bubble up. For one thing, I realized how much pointless anxiety I had been carrying around lately. Like all humans, of course, I have things to be anxious about. Things I’ve lost. Things I fear losing. Things I fear I may never have. Health issues, money issues, wondering occasionally if I’m wasting my life or on the wrong path.
But being anxious all the time doesn’t help anything. There are times and places to take your fears and channel them into useful actions. Other than those times, fear is worse than useless. It makes all these disasters and potential disasters worse, not better. It cheats you of a lot of the “pretty much OK” or “really good” times in between disasters for no reason. For example, lying in bed at night, no matter what your life is otherwise like, should be at least one peaceful, stress-free time in your day. But for so many people it’s a head spin-out that ramps up all the stress even more and makes the next day even more difficult.
I knew that very well before I went on this retreat. But it took that time of humbly, calmly looking inward to feel it as true rather than just know it as true, and to be able to get a better handle on it.
So I decided to have a long and respectful talk with my fear. I named him Fred and pictured him as a lonely guy in a huge fire station randomly pulling at bells and alarms because no one had trained him properly and he didn’t know what else to do. I explained to him that I needed him alert and watchful, not making meaningless noises all the time. I told him he was valuable, and he would be even more valuable (and have a better life, too) if he stayed rested up in case there was a real emergency. After quite a bit of back-and-forth, he seemed to believe that made sense.
Now when I feel anxiety gnawing away at me, I try to remember to say, “Fred? Is there a problem?” Usually he says, “Uh, no, sorry. Old habits,” and he shrugs apologetically and I smile, and I feel much better. It’s just Fred knocking around. There’s really nothing wrong at this particular moment.
Another time when I was trying to quiet my mind, my ego rebelled and said, “Who the hell are you to tell me to be quiet? Why should I listen to you?” I sat with that question a while. It was a valid one. Who the hell was I? Why should I be in charge?
After a while I had to truthfully admit: I don’t have a right to bully or control you. You are a part of the cosmos, too. We should be partners, not enemies.
But… Ego, my friend, you have some serious boundary issues that we need to talk about. I don’t get to control you, but you also don’t get to talk over me all the time. Sometimes you have to give me the microphone for a while and not whinge and wheedle and sabotage the whole time. Don’t worry — when I’m in charge for a little while, it doesn’t mean you’re dead or dying. You’re just quiet; a little time for rest and rejuvenation. And trust me when I say that whatever you want to accomplish, you’ll be more likely to do so if we’re partners instead of antagonists. Deal?
My ego is many things, but it’s not a complete idiot. When you talk to it respectfully, it can occasionally make reasonable decisions. And in this case it was hard for it to refuse without being exposed as a mean, self-destructive moron. (Egos hate that. They prefer to be self-destructive morons without being exposed.) So it shook my hand and promised to try.
Now when I meditate, and the monkey mind starts flapping around, I can give it a little smile as if to say, “Hey, remember our deal…?” And sometimes — not always but sometimes — it smiles too, sighs, and sits still for a while. The inmates no longer (completely) run the asylum. They’ve learned a little more respect for their mother, and they fear and resent her less. Neither of us will kill or abandon the other and both of us know we are, at heart, doing our best.
[Oh yeah… I also pictured my ego as the young Bart Simpson just before Lisa was born, marching around the house banging on a pot and chanting loudly, “I am so great! I am so great! Everybody loves me, I am so great!” When his pregnant, exhausted mother begs, “Honey, can you please be quiet?” He yells, “Quiet! Buy it! Diet! High it! Vie it…!” (You can watch the very short video here.) Yeah. My poor ego thinks it needs to make so much noise just to be acknowledged and feel a tiny bit of security in a universe that’s frankly not all that secure for human egos. I think a little love helped.]
These are only steps on the road to deeper meditation — a meditation of truly timeless silence and calmness, of ineffable connection far beyond joy. (I have experienced that, but only on accident.) But they feel like necessary steps in the right direction.
I’ve read plenty of wise words about focusing on the present moment and letting go of fixations over many years. But this weekend wasn’t about words. It was about practice.
Having a bunch of frozen fruit sitting in the freezer for weeks is not the same as actually drinking a fruit smoothie. Watching soccer games on TV is not the same as practicing or playing soccer. And thinking or reading about the benefits of mindfulness is not the same as meditating.
Rubber finally hit some road this weekend, and thank God for that. My life has been much lighter and freer since. I hope with regular practice, the feeling can continue.
Funny story: After a meditation went particularly well, I had a cheerful thought: “That went well, so I can probably skip the next one.”
Then I laughed. That silly, crafty ego.
The novel I’m writing, The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom, deals with some of the themes of this post in a page-turning, adventurous kinda way.
# # #
As you know, I’ve been working on a novel called The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom for the past several months. It’s drafted now, and I just need to polish it up, hire an editor, design the cover and interior, and hopefully it’ll be good to go by spring.
And the good news is: You can pre-order the ebook now for only $5! Doing so will be a huge help and show of faith as I finish up my first foray into fiction.
If you’re not sure what it’s about, here’s the synopsis:What do you do when you follow your heart and your life falls apart, just like everyone warned you it would?
After ten years of traveling, writing, and following her dreams, Lauren Clay crashes against the shoals of reality when her latest book doesn’t sell and she finds herself broke, out of inspiration, alone, and adrift in New York City. But then she comes into possession of a mysterious object, and strange things start happening that allow her to forget about ‘making a living’ and consider only what it means to build a meaningful life.
Prompted by her best friend and quasi-love interest, an Irish-British journalist named Conal, she sets off on a quest to Switzerland, Lebanon, and Egypt to explore different aspects of her identity — as a creative soul, a sexual being, and an ineffable consciousness embedded in a world of many sorrows but even more marvels. Until the dark forces of human nature threaten to undermine every thread of hope she’s painstakingly built.
Funny, sexy, surprising, and thoughtful, The Bracelet is a gripping (and occasionally romantic) adventure and a meditation on what it means to be free in the modern world.
The book has benefited enormously from early feedback, and it’s shaping up in a really nice way. It touches on so many themes I’m passionate about: the publishing world, travel, foreign cultures, government surveillance, the meaning of life, the Sinai… You know me, I wouldn’t write a book without a dash of politics and some fun in the Middle East. The politics is fairly tangential until the end, when Lauren comes up against an enemy very close to home indeed.
Thanks so much!!
I’m pleased to announce that I’m now offering editing services, and the fee is only $20 an hour until I get my feet under me as a freelancer. I’m an experienced editor, former journalist, author of an award-winning memoir, and primary editor of The General’s Son by Miko Peled.
I offer developmental editing, substantive editing, copyediting, proofreading, and ghostwriting for fiction, nonfiction, business and scientific writing, as well as eBook formatting and advice about publishing and self-publishing.
Write to me at pamolson @ gmail if you’d like to discuss your needs and goals and see if my services might be a good fit for you. I’m happy to answer any and all questions and look forward to hearing from you!
- Author of the award-winning memoir Fast Times in Palestine
- Primary editor of The General’s Son by Miko Peled
- Journalist based in the Middle East, 2004-2005
- Prolific blogger and contributor to Mondoweiss
- Check out the Fast Times in Palestine home page to see blurbs, reviews, and excerpts from my first book and several of my interviews and presentations
- My Author Bio has more info about me
- Currently working on a novel
- Developmental editing, substantive editing, copyediting, proofreading, and ghostwriting for fiction, nonfiction, business and scientific writing
- I’ve formatted eight eBooks for worldwide publication, and I can format and upload yours as well
- My method of eBook formatting allows stylistic personalization, unlimited images, and internal and external links (including a clickable Table of Contents). I can also design a simple but beautiful cover. Other than the two Fast Times covers, I designed all the covers on this page.
- I self-published a successful book and also published through a traditional publisher, and I’m happy to offer consulting advice about both paths
- Stanford University President’s Scholar, class of 2002. BS in Physics,
Minor in Political Science. GRE 1600/1600
- Oklahoma School of Science and Math, 4.0 GPA
- $20 per hour
- Compared to standard editing rates, this is an excellent deal; I’m offering it for now because I’m just getting started as a freelancer and because I live in Oklahoma, where the cost of living is fairly low
- And that’s a “generous hour” — I can be a bit compulsive when I edit, and if I go over by 15 minutes to get something perfect, I won’t charge for it
- You can limit me to a maximum number of hours, after making it clear what the main objective is; there’s a good chance I’ll spend a bit more time than the maximum, but you won’t be charged extra if so
- Fee will likely increase some time in 2015 as I gain more clients, testimonials, etc.
- Write to me at pamolson @ gmail if you’d like to discuss your needs and goals and see if my services might be a good fit for you. I’m happy to answer any and all questions and look forward to hearing from you!
Please note: This is an old, out-of-date draft. To read the updated draft of this chapter, visit this link.
Lauren lifted her head to see if anyone else might be searching for something. The others were paddling along placidly, their snorkels angled from their heads like tiny smokestacks. She pushed her dark hair out of her face and dove to get a closer look.
Her eyes widened when she saw what it was. Even under ten feet of turquoise water, it caught so much filtered sunlight it almost seemed to glow from within. She looked left and right, almost guiltily, before gently lifting it free from the protrusion of coral that had caught it. Tucking it into her bikini at the left hip, she kicked to the surface and waited for one of the other women to exclaim at her loss.
But even after everyone had climbed back aboard the tour boat, no one mentioned losing anything. Finally Lauren cleared her throat.
“Did one of you drop something while you were snorkeling?”
The others looked at Lauren, then at each other, and shrugged.
“Why, what did you find?” The boat operator was squinting at her from under a Hunter S. Thompson sun hat.
Lauren opened her mouth to tell the truth, then caught herself. She imagined he’d promise to take it to a lost and found. Likely as not he’d sell it the next day.
“I thought I saw something,” she said. “But I guess I was wrong.”
“Hmm.” He resumed his bored patter about Caribbean sea life, and Lauren exhaled. It should be taken to a lost and found, of course, but which one? There were dozens of hotels along this beachfront spewing thousands of tourists into the coral gardens off the Turks and Caicos Islands every day.
When Lauren reached her hotel lobby she asked the concierge, a dapper Cuban, if anyone had lost a piece of jewelry.
She tried several nearby hotels, but the only hit she got was for an engagement ring thrown into the surf after a man became so blind drunk, he accidentally proposed to a passing cocktail waitress instead of to his girlfriend.
Back in her room she pulled the object out of her still-damp suit, rolled it up, wrapped a blue bandana around it, and stuffed it into a pair of folded socks in her suitcase, tired of babysitting someone else’s lost property. It was the last day of her ill-considered four-day escape, and she wanted to make the most of it. She grabbed a towel and headed for the powder-white sand steps from her door.
It was June, the sultry beginning of hurricane season, long after the last Spring Breakers had left. A friend had mentioned a dirt-cheap off-season deal, and she jumped on it like a lifeboat. One she couldn’t afford. That would take her right back to the doomed ship in less than thirty-six hours. She flagged down a passing attendant, ordered two piña coladas, and watched great bulbous updraft clouds turn pink and lavender as she sucked down the tropical drinks too fast.
The beach, like the hotel, was almost empty. Despite the sticky heat, it felt luxurious to recline in one of many free beach chairs and feel like she had the ocean to herself. Her legs were nicely tanned, a gift from her half-Cherokee father. She squinted at them through rum-blurred eyes and reached down and ran a finger along the anklet she’d been wearing for years, woven from threads she’d bought from Bedouin girls in the colors of the Sinai: sapphire blue for the mile-deep Gulf of Aqaba, aquamarine for the sandy-bottomed lagoons, white for the wavelets crashing against the reefs, and gold for the desert mountains. Conal was with her on that trip, her best friend from her years of travel. She’d made it as a talisman of how beautiful life could be. It was ragged and faded now, which seemed appropriate.
She stood too quickly and staggered a few steps before regaining her footing and walking into the ocean. The sky languidly faded to moonless starry cobalt as she leisurely swam past the gentle breakers and into the swells, where she bobbed with the rhythm of the sea.
She looked through the clouds to see if she could spot any planets — a comforting ritual that was nearly impossible in New York City. Mars and Jupiter were high and bright, and she smiled at the sudden memory of Celeste’s dad showing her the tiny pinprick moons of the giant red planet through his backyard telescope.
As the waters darkened, she reluctantly swam back to shore.
In her room she opened her suitcase, unwrapped the strange find from the reef, and studied it closely for the first time. The bracelet was delicately designed, its silvery metal twisted into entwining vines with a diamond set in the space between each twist. The stones refracted even the dull lights of the hotel room into glittering brilliance. She draped it over her wrist to see how it looked against her skin, and the ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. The edge of her mouth lifted. Fine jewelry was the kind of thing she considered an expensive hassle, but this was a work of art.
She still had more due diligence ahead of her. In the morning, her last on the islands, she’d have to call several more hotels to see if anyone had reported it missing. But if not, she figured it was back to the old playground rules: finders keepers.
New York’s Subways are a forlorn place, Lauren thought as she rode the interminable A train from JFK to her tiny apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. It wasn’t just that they were such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metro of Moscow, the charming trams of Istanbul, or the clean, efficient lines of Paris. The people also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces. Lauren scowled at the profiles of men in suits more expensive than the neighborhoods they were rumbling toward.
Fakers, she thought darkly.
She trudged up four flights of creaky stairs, jammed the key in the door, and walked past her roommate Sara, who was washing dishes in their tiny kitchen. The place was a disaster area. It was clearly the first time she’d put sponge to dish since Lauren had left.
“Hey,” Lauren said shortly, the vibe of New York already washing away the modicum of relaxation she’d felt hours earlier.
“Hey!” Sara beamed over her shoulder. “How was the trip?”
Lauren grunted and continued on. Sara knew her well enough to let her decompress for a while before trying to cheer her up.
In the cocoon of her tiny room, Lauren pulled the bracelet out of her backpack. For the hundredth time she wondered who could have lost it. An image of an heiress on a yacht came to mind, her arms dripping with diamonds, a casual gesture flinging one of her baubles overboard unheeded. Lauren put the bracelet on and admired it, hoping it wasn’t destined for a pawn shop in the near future. Her bed, desk, and office chair were Craigslist finds, and she was still living out of two suitcases, as if she might be called to bigger and better things at any moment.
She opened her laptop to see if any agents had gotten back to her (nope) and to scan the news on Israel/Palestine (more of the same). Then she glanced at the room’s only decoration, a collection of inspirational quotes taped on the wall. One read:
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt.
“Easy for you to say,” she muttered. “You were president of the United States.”
Her eyes shifted to her bookshelf, which held half a dozen copies of her first book, Balkan Bruise, about her travels in Eastern Europe. She had first left the US she studied abroad in Russia, where she met politicians, professors, musicians, and soldiers and refugees fresh from the carnage in Chechnya. After that it was excruciating to go back to college and try to pay attention in class.
For three years after graduation she scraped by with odd jobs and writing gigs across Europe and Russia — like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before her, she liked to think — always on the cusp of hitting zero and having to limp back home. Selling her first book to a publisher for $40,000 had felt like a Godsend, validation that she was on the right path. She used the money to explore the Middle East for two years and then hole up at a writer’s colony in Mexico and pour every ounce of talent and heart she had into her second book, The Silver Olive Tree. She felt on the cusp of a life of travel, royalties, and doing what she loved full-time. The first book hadn’t sold well, but she had visions of the more ambitious and elegant second book catapulting her into middle age with a dream career.
Her publisher never read the second book. Citing the first book’s poor sales, they cut her loose. Her agent, who’d been blessed with a duo of bestsellers that required as much attention as newborn twins, dumped her as well. Feeling shaken, but confident it was only a minor setback, Lauren scraped together the last of her savings and moved to New York City to search for another agent or publisher or any connections that could help her find them. A chain of temporary jobs — tutor for Upper West Siders, waitress at a Nolita sushi joint, fill-in for receptionists on maternity leave — had been bearable because they were a means to an end.
But the day she’d bought the ticket to the Caribbean was May 17, the one-year anniversary of her move to New York. There had been a few hopeful leads since she’d arrived, some false starts. But all of it had come to nothing.
She leaned back and closed her laptop in frustration. Sara heard the slam from the kitchen and laughed. “Maybe you should think about a job in anger management?”
Sara was an aspiring actress, a Lebanese-American with black ringlets, pale olive skin, and enormous blue eyes. Lauren thought it would be a waste if her face was never on a movie poster. For now she worked at a box office on Broadway, inches from her dream.
Lauren was starving but not in the mood for beans and rice or an egg sandwich or any of the other cheap staples they lived on. She said out loud, without thinking, “I wish we had a tiramisu in the fridge like the one I had at that little café in northwestern Italy. It was so humble, a mess of ingredients in a thick glass bowl. It looked terrible, actually. But then I bit into the first spoonful, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love.”
There was no response from the kitchen, but she heard the faucet turn off.
Lauren went on, “The mascarpone was probably made in the hills behind the village. I’m sure the waiter’s grandmother sifted the cocoa by hand.” She sighed deeply. “There’s just nothing like that around here.”
The sound of clinking glasses emanated from the kitchen. “How about a glass of five-dollar white wine to take the edge off?”
Lauren heaved herself up. “That’s a great idea.”
She was a few steps from the kitchen when she heard a gasp.
“Lauren! Where did you get this?”
“You’re going to share, right?”
Lauren appeared in the entrance to the kitchen. “Share what?”
Sara rolled her eyes. “The dessert in our fridge. The one you were just describing.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t like Sara to play weird tricks. But she looked utterly sincere. She must be a better actress than I thought.
Sara opened the refrigerator door wider, and Lauren gamely looked in. On the middle shelf sat an exact replica of the tiramisu Lauren had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre, down to the heavy glass bowl.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She looked at Sara, her mouth agape.
“Come on, give it up,” Sara said, pulling it out of the fridge. “Grab some spoons, I’m starving!”
Lauren numbly did as she was told.
“Seriously, where did this come from?”
Before Lauren could answer, Sara took a bite directly from the bowl. “Oh my God!” Her eyes fluttered in rapture. “This is, like, the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”
Lauren dipped her spoon into the cool, creamy layers. It tasted exactly as she remembered. For a moment she was transported back to the carefree time at the beginning of her travels when her only concerns were new friends, good food, beautiful views, and finding an internet café to write about it all. She’d felt so natural and easy, like she was right where she was supposed to be. La vita was indeed bella.
By the time Lauren’s mind returned to the gloomy kitchen, Sara had poured herself a glass of wine, scooped out half the tiramisu, and quietly departed. Lauren took the rest to her room. After she finished the dessert and was scraping up the last of the espresso-soaked artisanal ladyfinger crumbs, its existence still made no sense to her. Even if Sara had suddenly become a deeply talented and committed actress, and a truly outstanding pastry chef, had she also become a psychic?
Exhaustion eventually overcame curiosity. She removed the bracelet, stashed it in the carved wooden jewelry box on her desk, and dreamed of crazy, creamy puzzles with no sane solutions.
* * *
Lauren walked into the kitchen the next morning, made instant apple cinnamon oatmeal and Earl Grey tea, and shuffled back to her room. When she finished the meager breakfast, she picked up her cell phone to call her mom in Wichita.
“Happy Birthday, Mom. Sorry I’m a little late…” She hadn’t told her mom about the trip to the islands. She knew it had been irresponsible and ridiculous. She didn’t need to hear it from anyone else.
“Don’t worry about it. I hardly would have noticed it if Roxana hadn’t fixed me an apricot pie.”
Roxana never cooked, so it was quite a gesture. “How’d she do?”
Lauren’s mom paused just a moment too long. “Bless her heart…” she began, and Lauren smirked. Nothing good ever came after those three words. “It was really sweet.”
“Yeah, it was nice of her to try.”
“I mean she put in four times as much sugar as she was supposed to.”
Lauren laughed. “Well, at least it’s better than the time she overloaded the biscuits with baking soda.”
“Oh Lord, I’d almost forgot about that. I don’t think there’s anything sadder in the world than a pan of hot buttered biscuits in the trash.”
Lauren sighed. She’d left Kansas with such big dreams. But right now biscuits and apricot pie sounded better than anything she had going on.
“Anyway, what’s eating you? You sound kind of mopey.”
Lauren raised her eyebrows at the phone. Mopey? You couldn’t say something dignified, like ‘depressed’ or ‘in existential despair’? Her mom had a way of making her feel fourteen years old again.
“I don’t know. I guess it’s been a year since I came to New York, and I’m not sure…”
“You don’t think you’ll ever get that book published?” She sounded like she’d been expecting it, which felt like a subtle knife in the ribs.
Lauren’s jaw clenched. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I’m not sure what to do. Nothing seems to be working.”
“Well, that’s how it goes. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”
Lauren slowly closed her eyes. Her mom’s acting dreams had withered when she got pregnant at age nineteen — with Lauren. She’d killed her mother’s dreams and now hers were dying, too.
She idly opened her jewelry box, a gift from a host family in Sarajevo that contained a few nostalgic treasures: a dog tag given to her by a Russian soldier she had kissed on a train; an amulet of carved bone from a Buddhist monastery in Siberia; a seashell from a valley in the Sahara, evidence it had been under the sea millions of years ago; and now the bracelet. She pulled out the latest addition and tilted it back and forth to catch the light.
“Anyway, I’ve got to go,” she said. “There’s a party tonight, some ritzy college reunion thing. Maybe I’ll meet someone there who can help me get a real job.”
Lauren could almost hear her mother brighten at the thought.
* * *
She let her hair dry in large curlers, which made her slightly wavy hair more orderly than usual, put on a little black dress she’d bought at a thrift store for ten dollars when she was in college, dabbed her face with powder, brushed on eyeliner, and finished with lip gloss. The dress’s shade of black almost matched the lightly scuffed sandals she borrowed from Sara, but her turquoise drop earrings weren’t nearly fancy enough to pair with the diamond bracelet. They would have to do.
The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. The doorman pointed her to a gilded elevator, which carried her up fourteen floors and opened into a spacious apartment with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige. Abstract wire sculptures adorned large niches in the walls. Bracing herself, she walked toward a group of alums and tried to join the conversation. Most of them had that polished New York look, with three-figure haircuts and dry-clean-only clothes.
As the others chatted with aspartame smiles, her mind drifted to another kind of gathering, a house party on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean where the guests couldn’t possibly care less about anyone’s status or job title.
“Lauren!” she heard from the direction of the elevator. She turned and saw Anna, her freshman year roommate, saunter into the room. Effervescent and blonde, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. At the moment she was working seventy-hour weeks at a consulting firm. Whatever that was.
“Hi Anna,” Lauren said, relieved to see a familiar face.
“How’s it going, world traveler?” she asked playfully.
Lauren’s eye twitched involuntarily. “Where’s the wine?”
Anna hesitated, then smiled. “Good question.” They walked to the dining room, where bottles of Chardonnay were lined up next to bottles of Zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.
“Great,” Lauren said, grabbing a bottle of Zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of Cabernet.”
Anna looked alarmed, and Lauren realized she was brandishing the bottle in a vaguely threatening way.
“That’s a Cab, isn’t it?” Anna asked hesitantly.
Lauren looked at the bottle she was holding. It was a Cabernet. Her eyes narrowed.
“Lucky you,” Anna said. “I wish they had a Riesling, but oh well.” She poured herself a glass of the Chardonnay.
Lauren was still looking at the bottle in her hand. “I swear this was a Zinfandel when I picked it up. The bottles were all the same.” She looked at Anna for confirmation.
Anna looked at her for a moment, then dropped her voice. “What is going on with you? You seem really tense. I think you’ve lost weight, too. Are you OK?”
Lauren sighed and gave her a run-down of what was going on in her life as she opened the wine and filled a clear plastic cup.
Anna pursed her lips in a sympathetic frown, then perked up again. “Well, you can always write,” she said cheerfully. “As a hobby, I mean.”
Lauren nodded at the helpful advice, downed her wine quickly, and poured another cup, then another.
She wasn’t sure exactly how she ended up back in her own apartment sitting on the floor next to her bed. A few hours, she realized with some alarm, were blurred out from her memory. That hadn’t happened since college.
She stood up shakily, sat on the edge of the bed, and rested her forehead in her hand.
“God I wish I had a cup of coffee,” she muttered.
A steaming mug appeared on her desk next to her laptop. Lauren raised her eyes and stared at it dully. The mug was the kind found in diners, made of thick white ceramic.
Jesus, how much did I have to drink? Shakily she reached toward the mug and touched it, then jerked her hand back and sucked on her finger. It was hot.
A wave of nausea rolled over her, and she lunged for the wastebasket and heaved into it. The trash can had mesh sides, and the liquid part of her wine-stained offering began oozing onto the cracked hardwood floor.
Grimacing, she slurred, “Urgh, I wish I didn’t have to clean that up tomorrow.”
The vomit vanished. She barely had time to register this before she hurled again. She wiped her mouth.
“I wish that pile of puke would go away, too.” It did, and she raised her eyebrows wanly. She’d never hallucinated while drinking. It was vaguely worrying, but she wasn’t in the right state of mind to worry very much.
Flopping onto the bed, she pulled off her clothes and lay her head on her cheap, squashed-flat pillow.
“I wish my pillow was thicker,” she said and felt it rise under her head like bread in an oven. She buried her face in it and smiled as she finally passed out.
# # #
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. The Bracelet is a lightly paranormal adventure, and it will soon take Lauren all over the world — to Croatia, Switzerland, Lebanon, the Sinai and, eventually, federal prison.
The book is, at heart, a meditation on the freedom we have as humans and the boxes we tend to put around ourselves to keep us from realizing that freedom. It’s a spirited journey, and I look forward to sharing it.