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Category — Taking on challenges

Sisterhood is powerful

Sisterhood is Powerful, the book, was the first comprehensive collection of writings from second-wave feminism. Cited by the New York Public Library as “one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century,” it was edited by Robin Morgan, one of the founders of what was then called the Women’s Liberation Movement. She continues to be an international voice for women’s empowerment, a forever kickass feminist, an in-it-for-the-long haul force of nature.

I’m referencing her today because of her recent long, impassioned, full-of-empowering facts blog about the mid-term election “Blue Wave” and how women surfed it.

For those of us who bit our nails to the quick last Tuesday night, hoping for a tidal wave that would submerge (okay, drown) those who currently have a stranglehold on our country, there were some disappointments. We wanted the Senate AND the House. We wanted Claire McCaskill. We wanted Heidi Heitkamp. Stacy Abrams. But we barely had time to consider what we had won before the hate-mongerer in the White House did his usual “no, look over here” trick of waylaying the media and our attention.

Robin’s blog reminds us to revel in the victories of the 2018 midterm, especially as they relate to women. (Here are other reports about this historic moment.)

Consider that 256 women were candidates for the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate in the general election—a record-breaking number–and as of Nov. 13, 114 were victorious. That includes the Arizona Senate race, in which U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema was declared the winner on Monday. The 116th Congress will see the largest class of female lawmakers ever. (And the number may grow as several House races have still not been called.)

And the women elected are a diverse group. There are two Muslim women, two native Americans, and two Latinas. In all, Robin reports that 42 women of color were elected, and “at least” three lesbians. There are new female members from the red states of Kansas, Iowa, Florida, Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma.

Wow. Just wow.

Also, Robin reminds us that a record number of women ran for state legislatures–3,388 —and according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more women will serve in state legislatures come January than at any point in American history.

Sisterhood is indeed powerful.


November 14, 2018   No Comments


It is one day, almost exactly 24 hours, before we leave for our “we’ve all come to look for America” “discovering the land between two coasts” “what’s up with this country anyway?” “deTocqueville meets William Least Heat Moon” cross-country trip. We’ll be car-camping across the northern heartland on the only non-freeway, old-style 2-lane road in the U.S. that runs from coast to coast.

No, not Route 66, the “Mother Road.” That ran only from Chicago to California and is now chopped up anyway. I’m talking about humble route 20, which starts in Newport, Oregon, traverses the vast, sparsely populated, deep Red width of Oregon, then meanders through the girth of Idaho, dips into Yellowstone, makes its way across the sandhills of Nebraska, into Iowa (Fort Dodge!), then a snippet of Illinois (beginning with the lovely town of Galena, birthplace of U.S. Grant). Then it’s northern Indiana and Ohio (can you say audiobook) before ambling through the New York Finger Lake region (and Seneca Falls, birthplace of the woman’s suffrage movement) and into the Berkshires of Massachusetts (yes, the Camp Tamarac of my youth). Route 20 ends, 3,365 miles later, in Boston.

Am I excited? Buoyed by anticipation? Hell ya.

In fact, research shows that this is the happiest I am going to feel about this adventure. A study by Netherlands social scientists (they interviewed more 1,500 people) found that vacationers were most happy before their trips. Planning, anticipation, thinking about all the fun and adventure—that’s the best. The trip itself? Who knows? Tedium, bad diner food, frigid mornings in the tent, domestic squabbles. Just sayin.

So right now, this moment, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this trip.

More to come.

August 29, 2018   7 Comments

Hiking the PCT

Approximately a zillion years ago, I wrote a book ON A TYPEWRITER. It was a brisk 20th century history of U.S. political dissidents and cultural outsiders, and the newspapers and magazines they started to promote their causes. Each of these groups was itself a subculture—abolitionists, utopianists, feminists, war resisters—but within the subculture, there were invariably splits, splinters and “purges.” I wrote about Marlenites and their little newspaper. The Marlenites consisted of a few members of the Marlen family. They were a splinter group of a splinter group of a splinter group of the American Communist Party.

Oddly, I was thinking about all this as I hiked a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) these past few days. We (son, daughter-in-law, son) had already played twenty questions, name that tune and Stinky Pinky, and there were many miles to go before we made camp. Trudging through scraggly pine forests (I am a Doug Fir girl) with a 28-pound pack on my back, what else was I to do other than contemplate dissident journalism?

Thinking about these splinter groups, these sub-cultures of sub-cultures, my thoughts turned to the PCT subculture. For those who’ve never been on the trail—it stretches 2,650 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian borders (and no, Cheryl Strayed did not hike its entirety)—let me give you a snapshot: PCTers are overwhelmingly white, educated, moneyed, late 20s to mid-30s, and, not surprisingly, leaner and healthier than almost everyone else in America. Of course, there are exceptions. Me, for example. (Just the age thing. Oh, and the lean thing.)

As I learned the lore of the trail from Zane and Liza who had started at the Mexican border back in late April, I began to understand PCTers as less homogeneous than I originally thought. Yes, they were mostly white, educated, moneyed, lean and thirty, but there were thru-hikers and section-hikers and day-hikers. There were SOBOS (southbound) and NOBOS (northbound). There were slack packers (someone else transported their packs for them). There were ultralight folks (base weight of pack 10 pounds or less). There were yellow blazers (they cheat by hitchhiking), blue blazers (they take short-cuts) and pink blazers (they’re on the prowl for, um, tent-mates).

And it seemed that people within each group had strong opinions about people in the other groups. Thru-hikers were the real deal. They considered section-hikers inferior beings. Repeat thru-hikers were really the real deal. They considered everyone else inferior beings. SOBOS ranked higher on the PCT-o-meter than NOBOS. Ultralighters were admired by others, but not as much as they admired themselves. And so it went. A tiny subculture (a few thousand hikers, maybe 700-800 who attempt thru-hiking ) splintering into sub-group after sub-group.

If you don’t see the connection between PCT culture and dissident journalists, you would about 17 miles down a hot trail with a (did I mention?) 28-pound pack on your back.

(photo: Camp feet with Jelly Bellies. All hail Darn Tough socks)

August 22, 2018   No Comments

Thank you, Emma

Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). If you read about her, the first thing you’ll read is that she was 67 at the time, and then, because she’s a woman, you will read about how many children and grandchildren she had.

But here’s the most startling thing about Emma Gatewood’s 1955 trek: She wore Converse sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. That’s how she hiked. Damn.

At this very moment, a year from now, I will be hiking the Oregon section of the PCT, all 460 miles of it, from the Siskiyou Summit north across the crest of the Cascades to the Columbia River. I hesitated with the verb tense in the previous sentence. I will be. I considered writing “I might be” or “I hope to be” or some other waffle-ly statement. But I want to declare this intention without wiggle room.

I made the declaration to myself yesterday as I trudged up our access road for my first practice hike, a five-miler over to and up Spencer Butte with a lightly loaded pack. I’ve hiked a lot, including some tough backcountry day hikes in the Kootenays of British Columbia and the red rock country of southern Utah. The operative word there is day hikes.

I have only once in my life hiked, camped and then hiked some more, and that was back before the invention of moveable type. On my various day hikes since that time, I’ve never carried more than one of those little Camelback hydration packs. Yesterday I hoisted on, cinched in, buckled up, etc. a serious through-hike backpack, one of several pieces of gram-shaving high-tech equipment I’ve been acquiring.

I plan to hike only the Oregon section – a third of Emma’s mileage – and I plan to outfit myself with ultra-light gear that will not include shower curtains.

Why the Oregon section? It’s my homage to the state I fell in love with at first sight, the state that’s been my home for pretty much all of my adult life, the state that continues to leave me breathless with its beauty (and generally the politics ain’t bad either). Also, hiking the entire PCT takes more than 5 months. The Oregon section… maybe 5 weeks. Note that one of my reasons is NOT “I couldn’t possibly hike the entire PCT.” Maybe I could. Maybe I couldn’t. After I complete the Oregon section, I’ll know better.

Why do this at all?

To see if I can.

Because of Emma Gatewood.

And because, as Gandhi famously said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” And I want to see the end of ageism.

July 11, 2018   No Comments

Up, Up and Away

Airborne. 34,824 feet above the earth, following the Columbia east, then across Montana on a diagonal, nosing north to Regina on a path to the far reaches of Manitoba, cutting an arc across Great Hudson’s Bay, nipping the tip of southern tip of Greenland, then undercutting Iceland, before traversing a swatch of the North Atlantic. Boom. Europe in nine hours.

It is still all a miracle to me: How I can get to Amsterdam faster than I can drive to San Francisco. How this enormous machine with more than 300 people aboard can defy gravity. How I can sit here gazing out the window, taking cloud pics, writing, drinking Perrier with lime, when for so very many years I told myself I could not get on an airplane. I would not fly. I could not fly. I was a person who did not fly. That was my identity. That was the looped tape inside my head.

I had had one of those flying experiences early in my college years that makes you promise eternal devotion to God, vow to be good forever and swear to never ever be airborne again if only the plane you are on will land safely and you will not die. The plane landed safely. I did not die. God did not become a fixture in my life. I was not good forever. But I did keep one promise: I did not get on another plane for 25 years.

I didn’t stop traveling. I took trains back and forth across the U.S., a happy passenger exploring just about every Amtrak route in America. I had adventures. I wrote magazine stories about trains. I told myself that I was just a train person. Maybe so. But I was also a person afraid to fly.

And then, three things happened. (#1) I was riding along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Willamette River bike path on a particularly beautiful fall day, and I thought, all of a sudden: what if I just took off the (metaphorical) backpack weighing me down, the one with the old tapes about what I could and couldn’t do, what I convinced myself I was afraid of. What if I stopped my bike, shook off the damned backpack and just left it by the side of the road. Metaphorically, not litter-ly. So I did.

Then (#2) I met, through a friend, a lovely woman named Rosemarie who practiced something called “creative visualization, which I assumed was New Age bullshit. But it wasn’t. And she gracefully guided me through peaceful, empowering scenarios that allowed me to create new tapes inside my head.

And then (#3) I got a surprise invitation to be a guest on the David Letterman show for one of my books. (The short notice would make a train impossible). For some reason, I thought this would make my career, It didn’t. But it did get me on a plane. (I have a Xanax-dimmed memory of my husband dragging me down the jetway. It was an ordeal, #1 and #2 and psychopharmaceutial enhancements notwithstanding.) But I did it.

Since then, going on 20 years ago, I have boarded scores of planes in scores of airports to scores of destinations. That’s what I’m doing right now. I am on a big bird flying across a continent and an ocean and a chunk of another continent.

I write this not to boast about my travels but to tell anyone out there—and you know who you are—that you CAN replace that no-I-can’t/ no-I-never-will tape inside your head, you can write a new narrative, you can do what you have so long been afraid to do. You can take to the skies.

May 2, 2018   1 Comment

I know why the caged bird sings

You know how sometimes you work really hard, I mean really hard, and you have the best of intentions, and you’re surrounded by people who are also working hard—and nothing happens?

This is not one of those times.

This is one of those times that commitment and passion and focus and hard work lead to something wonderful.

This is one of those times that good things happen to people for whom good things need to happen. One of those times that people who have been labeled as losers, who have been treated as losers, get to be winners. Because they worked for it. Because they deserve it.

And so I announce, with enormous pride, that two Oregon State Penitentiary men have won awards in the prestigious, national Pen America Prison Writing Contest: James Anderson placed first in the memoir category. Sterling Cunio placed second in the essay category.

To put this in perspective, Pen received more than 5,000 entries from prison writers all across the country.

To put this in perspective, neither James nor Sterling finished high school before they went to prison. James was 17, Sterling, 16 when they committed their crimes. To put this in perspective, Sterling turned 41 the day before he received the letter announcing the award.

Both these men, along with (give or take) 8 others, are part of a writers’ group I started for Lifers at OSP almost 3 years ago. Six men in the group began working on the Pen submissions more than a half a year before the due date.

I have never worked with writers hungrier for feedback, more eager to be edited, to revise and re-imagine, to work through multiple drafts without losing focus or energy. I have never worked with writers who had more important stories to tell.

Learning to tell your own story is powerful stuff. Particularly, especially, spectacularly for those whose only freedom is expression.

Pen will be publishing the winners at its site.

If you’d like to congratulate these winners, leave a comment and I will take it with me into the prison.

April 25, 2018   10 Comments

What if I regret leaving the comfort zone?

Here is an interview I just did with B3 magazine. The magazine is sponsoring a book giveaway right now. Visit the site!

One of our favorite things about ringing in the New Year is that it’s an annual reminder to shake things up in a big way. But as refreshing as grand-scale changes can be, they can also feel paralyzingly daunting—and that makes for prime negative-self-talk territory (Who am I to think I can do this? What if I fail? What if I regret leaving my safety zone?).

If you can already hear the doubts creeping into your New Year’s goals, stop what you’re doing and read our interview with Lauren Kessler, author of Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker. When Kessler decided in mid-life to pursue her dream of dancing in the famous ballet, she could have found a million reasons to talk herself out of it. Read on to find out how she dealt with the negative self-talk, why it’s important to embrace change no matter what your age, and how making one big leap led to another even bigger one. (Kessler’s story is so powerful that Sadie gave a copy to each B3 studio owner when it first came out!)

B3 MAGAZINE: What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing course a little later in life?

LAUREN KESSLER: Simple advice: DO IT. Challenging yourself, making changes, leaving your comfort zone, raising the bar on your own life is exhilarating. Yes, also undeniably scary—but it presents an extraordinary opportunity for growth. Creating and embracing meaningful change “a little later in life” keeps you vibrant and vital, curious and interesting, humble and in learning mode—in other words, youthful. It’s not that you shouldn’t think hard about making real changes, but you can think yourself out of it. You do not have to be convinced that you can be successful, only convinced that you can bring energy, passion, and commitment to the endeavor.

B3 MAGAZINE: A lot of women reach a point in their lives when they want to take a leap, but sometimes they don’t know exactly what that leap is. Can you talk about how you landed on dancing in the Nutcracker as your big leap?

LK: Dancing in The Nutcracker was a big leap, not THE big leap. My reasons for choosing this challenge were complicated. I had loved ballet as a child and been told I had “the wrong body” at age 12. That statement by my (very famous) ballet teacher has resonated in my life for four decades. I wanted to revisit that, silence that negative self-talk so deeply embedded. I also wanted to confront and test the cliché “you’re never too old to___________.” Could I, in fact, get my mid-life body into shape to dance on stage with a professional company—or are there some things it really is “too late” to do? (Enter barre3, by the way. That’s how I did it.) As a writer, I embed myself in worlds I know little about and try to learn from that experience (and reveal it to readers). So another reason I chose The Nutcracker is that I was fascinated by not so much the world of ballet but the world of artists who give up so much for their art. The dancers I trained with, danced with, and befriended had very little other life than dance. I wanted to explore that level of passion and commitment.

B3 MAGAZINE: Negative self-talk is masterful at keeping us from trying new things. Can you talk about the negative self-talk you experienced, and how you quelled it?

LK: Aside from the “you have the wrong body” self-talk, there was also “you are too old,” “you will embarrass yourself,” “who do you think you are?” and “stick with what you know” self-talk. In fact, the self-talk was deafening. It was, at times, louder in my head than thinking. So…what did I do?

Instead of telling myself it was stupid and self-defeating to talk to myself this way (translation: I was stupid to think this way = just another form of negative self-talk), I carefully listened to each statement, pretending a close friend said these things about herself. How would I respond? My response to my “friend” who tells herself she has the wrong body? What a second, you have a strong, healthy body. It has seen you through 100-mile bike rides, killer mountain hikes, and three pregnancies. Wrong body? Ha! And so forth.

I am not sure it is possible to erase negative self-talk. For me, what works is creating positive (actually far more realistic) self-talk that speaks louder.

B3 MAGAZINE: Do you have any advice for people who want to make a change but are experiencing pushback from their loved ones?

LK: This is a very hard question, mostly because I cannot imagine someone who truly loves you standing in the way of life-enriching change. Or rather, the only way I understand this is to think this person is scared, too. You are scared to make the leap. The loved one(s) are scared this change will be threatening to the existing relationship. Talking through what you want to do and why you want to do it, what it means to your own growth, how this may enhance and deepen the relationship because it deepens you—this might help quell these fears and transform the pushback to loving support.

B3 MAGAZINE: Did taking this big leap give you the confidence to do other things you wouldn’t have considered before?

LK: Oh my, yes. I closed the door on a job that had become a black hole in my life (as in all the energy I put in got swallowed up). I had inhabited this job for a very very long time and had convinced myself it was central to my self-worth (and net worth). It wasn’t! I cannot fully express what a great decision leaving was. And how scared I was to make it. I am more creative, more focused on what matters, happier with myself and my work than I have ever been. I have learned to lean into the “yes.”

December 21, 2017   No Comments

Let The Nutcracker season begin!

The Troyanoff Ballet Academy is a single-studio dance school, a storefront wedged between a dry cleaner and a pizza joint in a Long Island strip mall. My mother drives me there, twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday after school to take classes with Professor Troyanoff and his seriously arthritic wife, Madame Troyanoff.   They were Russian dancers of little renown who left the Motherland between the two world wars. My mother calls them “white Russians” to distinguish them from the Reds, this being the Cold War.

The distinction is lost on me. The inelegance of the Academy is lost on me. I am six, seven, eight, nine, and what matters is pulling on pale pink tights and a black three-quarter-sleeve leotard in the tiny dressing room no bigger than a closet, sitting on the bench on the side of the studio and carefully slipping my feet into soft leather slippers. What matters to me is standing at the barre: first position, demi-plié, plié, relevé, second position, third, fourth, fifth; tendus, battements, rond de jambs, arabesques; and later, in the center of the room, glissades, the thrill of the grand jété. What matters is dancing.

The Professor is a kindly middle-aged man with a handsome fleshy face and a luxuriant head of silver hair who wears snug t-shirts, billowing trousers and black leather ballet slippers. While he instructs, his accent so thick one or another of us has to ask him to repeat, again and again, his wife, stern and crabby, stalks the studio leaning on a cane. When one of us gets sloppy, when our grand pliés are not grand enough or our turn-outs are not turned out enough, she raps the back of our legs with the cane. It doesn’t hurt as much as the idea of it hurts. I learn much later that her ballet career in the old country crippled her before she turned forty.

The Professor loves to choreograph. He puts together bits and pieces of what my mother tells me are the classics, each little dance ending in dramatic grand tableaux with all sixteen or eighteen or twenty of us young dancers striking and holding poses. The Academy presents two parent-pleasing recitals a year held in whatever elementary school the Professor manages to persuade to host us. I love the music. I love learning the steps. I love the costumes, the lavender tutu edged in silver with matching silver-sprayed ballet slippers…

from the introduction to my book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Mid-Life Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, to mark the publication of the PAPERBACK edition and the start of yet another Nutcracker season.

November 15, 2017   No Comments

Living with disasters, Iceland style

On the narrow, two-lane “highway” that skirts the southern coast of Iceland there are big, illuminated signs that track and report wind velocity. As Jón Ágúst, a quintessentially unflappable native Icelander explains, when the wind blows at a certain speed (the measurement is in meters per second so I’m not even going to bother to give you the stats), it is difficult to keep a car on the road.

When the wind is somewhat stronger, it is “not advisable,” he says, to be on the road. Even stronger wind can whip up gravel, pebbles, even rocks from the surrounding lava fields, creating a geological hailstorm that dents the bodies and breaks the windshields of cars whose owners chose to ignore the illuminated signs (or were Americans who could not do the meters to miles/ seconds to hour conversions). Jón Ágúst points out a new patch of asphalt on the road. It is, he says, a repair job after an “especially strong wind” sent chunks of asphalt flying, ripping up an entire section of the road.

Now the highway is paralleling a bridge, a very long bridge. “That’s the longest bridge in Iceland,” Jón Ágúst says. The bridge is not in use nor, as far as I can tell, does it bridge anything. “There used to a river there,” he explains. The river was formed during one of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs. Then, during another of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs, the river changed course. “But who knows,” says Jón Ágúst. He offers a hint of a smile. “We might need that bridge again some day.”

Why do I recount this for you? Because it speaks to the Icelandic attitude toward the vicissitudes of life—and boy do these people have vicissitudes—which stands in direct opposition to our Disaster! Catastrophe! Crisis! mentality. These people experience volcanic eruptions, lava flows, glacier runs, geological hailstorms, raging rivers, killer winds, deep freezes, financial exigencies, the fall of their government—which occurred with barely a ripple when I was there—and they make it through. They take care of business. Which is to say they don’t panic. They don’t cry “disaster.” They batten down the hatches; they look after their neighbors; they watch for sneaker waves; they stay off the road. They respect the volatility of their environment. They know how to survive. They know how to care for those who don’t.

October 4, 2017   1 Comment

Ignite. Or be gone.

At Burning Man, I was a virgin, as first-timers are called. Two weeks later, at the 19th gathering of the shamans in Iceland, I was the only uninitiated. And so, for close to a month, in two places on earth that could not be more geologically different, and at two gatherings that could not be more culturally and energetically dissimilar, I have been mulling the meaning of being the outsider and the insider, of the value of both, and of the surprisingly porous membrane between the two.

I began as an outsider to both experiences, I was an empty vessel, a sponge. Everything was new, mysterious, confusing – and that was both exciting and uncomfortable. It was like walking into an ongoing, animated conversation you very much wanted to understand and be part of but couldn’t. I asked the questions– to others, to myself – that a child asks: What is that? What are you doing? What does that mean?

Curiosity is a wondrous thing, and being an outsider is an stimulating place to be. But it is also a lonely place. An outsider is, alas, outside, outside the circle of friendship, the heat of the fire. An outsider is outside collective history, outside collective memory.

And then, a few days in, things begin to change. The experience of yesterday becomes a memory, the memory a story, the story shared. The days together accumulate, the stories accumulate. And one day you wake up and you realize there is a place for you, a place that is held being for you, and you slowly inhabit it. The circle expands to let you in.

Knowing that you can travel afar/
But that everywhere is home.

September 27, 2017   3 Comments