Practice radical receptivity

 Kanazawa, 2014
Kanazawa, 2014


I am walking along a curving path next to my sister Erika, silent with expectation. We are in Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s “great gardens.” It is morning and the park is quiet, hushed by a blanket of fog. We have traveled to Japan to spend two weeks in this strange country, and here we are now, visiting this garden in Kanazawa for my sister the horticulturalist. I am content to follow her to Japanese parks and gardens. Their order soothes me.

“Ohhhh, wow,” she breathes from just behind me. I turn around to see her gazing at a towering, fat, ancient pine tree. She is already besotted. 

The tree is mesmerizing, its trunk a rich, woodsy red and its roots braided and rising up from the moss. So many others around us are also looking up into the tree’s height,  snapping photos, smiling in the foreground. Why aren’t they approaching it? I wonder. I look over at Erika and she points to a wooden fence encircling the tree. Oh. It’s protected from us. What a radical concept.

– – –

This wasn’t the first time we had seen trees tended to as though they’re royalty. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Back in Tokyo earlier in the week, we stood in a park framed by skyscrapers, staring in wonder at a 300-year-old pine tree that was propped up carefully, its long branches supported with bamboo splints and stakes. The tinny voice speaking through our tour headphones told us that the tree is pruned—by hand—twice a year. This process takes about three weeks. Erika confessed she was “obsessed with” the tree. So are the Japanese, and my only response is reverent silence.

– – –

After I returned home, friends would ask, “Why Japan? What was so interesting about it?”

I would attempt to wrap some words around our experiences, to explain the dichotomy of tradition and innovation that we encountered over and over. I can’t explain the multitudes that Japan contains, but I do know that beyond the cartoon mascots and bullet trains, this country taught me a lesson, clear and simple: the wisdom of nature is not to be ignored. 

There is a holiness in the way the Japanese tend to their natural surroundings with such respect, such deference. They tie ropes from the crown of a tree to its lower branches so the snow will slide to the ground and not break the limbs. These rope cones, these wooden splints say: the planet does not belong to us. We belong to it. It is our mother and our sister and it gives us things we cannot replenish. 

Perhaps this is why we’re fenced out. Why the Japanese lay hands on trees instead of slashing them with chainsaws and snipping them with pruning shears. Why one afternoon in a Tokyo city park, I found my sister standing next to a pine tree, her hand flat on its bark. Listening. Learning. While I had been busy framing a street musician just so in a video clip to post online.

I can be proud and arrogant. I want to shape my experiences for myself and others, not let them shape me. But I was reminded so often in the silent places of a crowded country that trees have wisdom. When I consider this, and other unusual ideas, I learn to listen. When my eyes are open and clear, I can become receptive to the curiosity of children, the love of animals, the beauty of uncertainty.






definition: using or involving the use of a minimum of words :  concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious

example: Uncle Bill was a man who listened when others were speaking and when they weren’t. When he added to the conversation, his laconic remarks communicated his point, but it was understood that no further questions were to be asked. Sometimes, a sigh would stand in for even those few words.


Read more books

I don’t know how I first learned to read. My parents won’t take credit. My kindergarten teacher can’t claim she helped, because I was reading before I ever walked through the classroom door. I have no memory of how it started, so I hardly have the right to an opinion, but it’s a story I know well.

Sitting in the backseat at age two, I looked out the window at a sign and said, “Car!” My mom laughed, thinking I was mimicking her. “Wash!” I said. She stopped laughing.

When we stopped at a red light, she looked back at me. “Brittany, what does that sign say?” she asked, pointing. “Sale,” I said. 

She took me to her parents’ house that evening. “Mom, I think Brittany can read,” she said. My grandma took out a small chalkboard and wrote simple words. I read what she wrote: BOY. CAT. DOG. MOM. No one could understand it, but there I was, a reader.

– – –

Often during the holidays, my family sits down to watch a favorite video on VHS of me reading to my sister Erika. On film, I am four years old and she’s two. We’re wearing matching nightgowns and sitting by each other on the couch, although she keeps twisting around to ham it up for the camera. The Christmas tree twinkles behind us. 

My lispy voice squeaks as I read a Little Critter book, my delivery like a freight train. Nothing can stop me, not even Erika’s protests: “I wanna sing Jinga Bells!”

“‘Twas da night befoah Chwistmus and allll fwoo da house,” I lilt, charmed by the story. I am a reading machine.

My mom tells me how I used to plow though books sitting in the exam room at the pediatrician’s office. I’d happily oblige her, reading a Berenstain Bears book aloud, but once Dr. M walked in the door, I clammed up. “Brittany, please read a page for Dr. M,” my mom would ask, but I would stay silent, acting like I wasn’t in the room. I read for the books, not for other people.

– – –

In grade school, I had moved on from Bookmobile to school library, gladly devouring random selections from the shelves. I scared myself reading Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians in seventh grade and relished it from cover to cover. Later that year, I joined my friend Justine’s family for a road trip to Boise, where I learned to ski, but what I remember just as vividly is when we finally arrived at her brother’s house and I refused to socialize or go to sleep until I had finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

I’ve rarely let my social life keep me from reading, for better or worse. I was the girl on the hallway couch in high school who was reading during a free period. Maybe early on it was mostly the latest offering from Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel, but even the glittering, impossibly perfect lives in those novels taught me to think about what I truly want in life. Later, it was Literature, and I would have been happy to tell you why that was important if you asked. I thought I was a charming little scholar.

– – –

Books are a delicious escape from the world and a new horizon unfolding. They bring comfort and reality. They nurture and challenge. Even now, when I tell myself I’d rather be watching the latest episode of SNL or lying on the couch as I binge on an entire season of Orange Is The New Black, when I choose a book instead, I never regret it. Books help me understand other people and myself. They let me feel things. They help me seize possibility and growth.

Whether it’s a used paperback or a brand-new first edition, something I’m reading for the third time, or a book on the Kindle, I’m with Borges, who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

– – –

A sampling of favorite books, in rough chronological order

1 Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss 

2 Corduroy by Don Freeman

3 Richard Scarry’s To Market, To Market 

4 Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

5 Snuggle Piggy and the Magic Blanket by Michelle Stepto

6 Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder

7 Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

8 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

9 The Giver by Lois Lowry

10 The BFG by Roald Dahl

11 The Saddle Club (series) by Bonnie Bryant

12 Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples 

13 The Babysitters Club (series) by Ann M. Martin

14 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

15 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

16 Joyride by Gretchen Olson

17 The Gift by Danielle Steel

18 Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

19 The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

20 East of Eden by John Steinbeck

21 Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

22 Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

23 All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

24 Spartina by John Casey

25 Mink River by Brian Doyle

26 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

27 The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

28 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

29 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

30 Light Years by James Salter

31 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

32 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

33 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

34 Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

35 Yes Please by Amy Poehler

36 The Dream of A Common Language by Adrienne Rich

37 Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

38 An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

39 Lit by Mary Karr

40 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


Go to bed on time

subtitle: A Primer on Sleep

SUBJECT: Self, age 28. Dear girlfriends from college are welcome on occasion. Younger sisters are begrudgingly accepted. All others by invitation only.

WHAT: Sleep.

Note: This may not come immediately. On some nights, sleep is postponed indeterminately due to late weeknight concerts or successful dates. On less desired occasions, sleep may be worsened, lessened, or found altogether impossible for extended periods due to episodes of anxiety, including unnecessary concern for one’s cardiac health or repeat compulsive urges to use the restroom.

WHEN: Around 10:00 p.m. on weeknights, maybe 11:00 or so on weekends, depending upon activity. Screens off at 9:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, with iPhone to charge in the kitchen and laptop stored in any location that is not the bedroom. Lights out by 10:30, strictly by 11:00.

WHERE: A small bedroom with periwinkle walls and a paper lantern covering a bare bulb in the ceiling. The bedroom’s inhabitant had intentions to replace the lantern, but she has lived in the bedroom for 15 months now and change is unlikely at this point. A queen-sized bed with creaky box springs and firm but slightly bowing mattress, particularly on the right side where said inhabitant sleeps. One set of white sheets has a blue ink stain from a pen used for journaling. Small tear in floral duvet cover toward lower end. Blackout shades over windows. Tower fan standing across the room for overly warm nights. Teetering stack of books and reading material on and near nightstand including various issues of The Sun magazine, Tin House, Poets and Writers, and The Atlantic Monthly, the ultimate of which room’s inhabitant will likely never read, but receives because she exchanged unused and expiring Hawaiian Airlines miles for a subscription. 

Books include Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Sinners Welcome, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, Rookie Yearbook One, My Struggle (Volume Two) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

Wear lightweight and loose pajamas, Rick Steves travel eye mask, hair in “pineapple” shape (essentially a ponytail loosely gathered atop one’s head) to maintain optimum curl pattern overnight. Ear plugs are optional and almost guaranteed to fall out during sleep, but can help muffle television sounds or conversation. Fitbit can be worn within wristband on non-dominant arm to track sleep length and quality.

HOW: Begin by following preparatory steps above, as well as removing contact lenses, brushing and flossing teeth, and washing face. Once in bed, it is acceptable to spend 30-60 minutes writing in journal or logbook and reading from any matter of sources. It might be found enjoyable and calming to read a few poems aloud.

Once light has been turned out and sleep mask secured, the most comfortable position is lying on stomach with one knee bent out at an angle and arms circling head underneath pillow. Other positions may be more conducive to preventing fine lines and blemishes, but this position is decidedly most comfortable.

WHY: Sleep is a necessary and renewing activity for brain and body. By sleeping six to eight hours per night, one may maintain healthy weight, lower overall stress, have higher focus and energy levels, and not view every other human on the earth as an asshole.



word of the week: inimitable



definition: impossible to copy or imitate, not capable of being imitated

example: Sitting on stage, dressed in black from shirt to socks and wearing a pair of silver Birkenstocks, the inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin spoke carefully to her rapt literary audience. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my Macbook, but I keep it in service of an ancient craft: storytelling.”


Experience the joy of letting others help you

  Madrid, 2008
Madrid, 2008

It is a cool night and you are standing in something that might be called a line outside the can and bottle return station at your local Fred Meyer, picking up your feet and realizing they’re sticking to the pavement with its dried film of beer scum and soda residue. You’re beginning to wonder if it was a smart idea to spend your Saturday night doing this, or if you’re even going to be able to return your three and a quarter bags of seltzer cans tonight. 

You often have impulsive ideas but sometimes they are too impulsive and you have to follow through anyway so you don’t feel like a fool but would anyone really notice if you just put the bags back into your trunk and went grocery shopping and then home instead? The only other people feeding cans into the machines are the people who are always here feeding cans into the machines, men who probably don’t have a home to go to, men who are pushing shopping carts filled not just with cans and bottles but with everything they own, men wearing their only clothes.

It is okay for you to be here, you tell yourself, wishing you weren’t, wishing you had the courage to maybe just give away your bagged cans and bottles. Two men approach the shelter and one of them tosses something into the trash and then hands the nearest, most obviously homeless man a $10 or $20 bill and says, hey man, I told myself I was going to be nice tonight, take care. The man takes the bill, but seems unable to know what to do next, looking at the bill and then at the man and then at the return machine. He growls something unintelligible and then returns to his task.

You feel a little nervous, not sure if you’re safe but also aware that you’re not that generous, either, and you know deep down that we are all connected but sometimes it’s easier to click “Donate” on a website than it is to hand a paper bill to another human and you know all of the questions when it comes to reducing homelessness and poverty but you haven’t taken the time to think about the answers. 

It’s your turn at the machine now, the kind where you have to feed each can or bottle individually, and the machine only wants to accept every fifth or sixth can, but someone approaches you, saying, let me help, you have to wipe the bar code sometimes. 

You’re not sure if you ought to let him help you but he has kind eyes and you’re really committed now and can feel frustration mounting and so you smile helplessly and he pulls a paper towel out of his back pocket, shows you how to clean the can, runs his finger around the inside of your plastic water bottles to remove the dents, points to the camera inside the machine and explains how it’s best if you put cans in tab first. He knows the system, he tells you, he knows that certain bottles were produced in California and so can only be returned in California but if you tell an employee, they’ll write you a slip for reimbursement.

He asks you to watch his bike and bag of cans while he runs in to the customer service counter to ask an employee to fix the machine’s printer, or if you’d rather he can watch your bags while you go inside. You let him go in while you send protective thoughts out over his belongings, reflecting in wonder at the quiet connection you’re making under the cloudy night sky.

He comes back and not long after, an employee named Cookie comes out to shake the bins of crushed cans, reset the printer, count bottles for another customer. Your friend puts your can into the repaired machine and it’s accepted, and at the same time he offers you the other machine that works now, the one that will eat up cans by the armful, and so you take the second one, and he begins to use the machine next to you. He offers you a nickel for the can that he tested, but you smile and brush it off. 

You’re accumulating a small collection of unaccepted bottles and cans in the bottom of your cart and you’re wondering how to give them to your new friend, if you should give him your slips or cash instead of pocketing it, but there has to be a right way to do this and you just don’t know what it is. You’ve returned all you can now, so you ask your friend if he’d like the extras, but he just smiles, not meeting your eyes, and shows you where to put the glass bottles that can’t be recycled for a deposit. He gently gathers your damaged cans and plastic bags into the trash and then stands with you for a few moments longer, only occasionally making eye contact, telling you how he came to be here, about his past as a contractor and the times he helped family members move to the Northwest.

You ask for his name, and he says, it’s a Spanish name, Arturo, but I’m also called Arthur. Good night, Arturo, you say, thanks for your help. It was really nice to meet you.  



word of the week: beaucoup



definition: [slang] great in quantity or amount : many, much

example: James looked up from counting his tips as Alex rounded the corner to clock out. James gave Alex a friendly punch on the shoulder, grinning. “We made beaucoup bucks tonight, dude! Let’s go to Shorty’s! Drinks on me!”