Poetry & Fiction

It’s Not about Being Good—It’s about Being Bold

“It’s time to be bold, stand up, and share your art OUT LOUD.”

Thus reads the event description for the open mic night I’m organizing this week. Out Loud (En Voz Alta) is an opportunity for artists, performers, and secret creatives to take risks and share their art—out loud.

Here’s the thing. If I’m going to tell anyone else to be bold, I’d better start with myself.

That’s why, today, I made my first Facebook Live post (below). That’s why I’m beginning to share my songs with a wider audience than the monkeys outside my house (they think I’m pretty alright). That’s why I’ll be performing first this Thursday night.

I hope to set a tone for the evening. And the tone goes something like this:

If you were waiting for someone to give you permission to fail, this is it.

If you were waiting for someone to tell you it’s okay to suck, this is it.

If you were waiting for someone to promise that they’ll cheer you on regardless, this is it.

This isn’t a talent show.

An open mic night is an opportunity to stand up and take a risk. To share your art, your voice, your heart out loud.

If you were waiting for someone to give you permission to screw up, to be terrible, to fail—that’s happening right now.

So please, take the risk. Be bold.

I’ll be there cheering you on.

And so, here I am. Trying to make a point by singing… I didn’t sing much the first twenty-plus years of my life, because someone once told me I couldn’t, or shouldn’t. What a loss! We all carry around these incredible instruments all the time, we might as well use them, enjoy them. Who cares if they’re harsh or ugly or off key?

Then, in April of this year, I started to write songs.

Are they good songs? That’s not really the point.

I’m not trying to be famous. I’m trying to do something true.

And if someone reads this or sees me sing/perform/publish and decides to take their own risk, then it will be doubly worth it.

It’s easy to share the things we believe we’re good at. Harder to share when others (or our own brains) have told us we’re utter failures.

But the world doesn’t need more people who hide. It needs more artists. It needs not fearlessness, but boldness. It needs more people who will stand up and say,

“This is me. I don’t care if you like it. I don’t care if my hands shake. I have a voice, so I am going to use it. Because I am human.”

That’s why I’m here—organizing open mic nights, sharing my music with the big, scary internet. Not because I’ve overcome those deeply rooted insecurities, but because I’ve decided that this is more important. I believe art is meant to be shared. I do not believe life is always a talent show.

And, finally, it’s not enough for me to be bold; I want you to be bold too.

We have these amazing instruments—our voices, our hands, our bodies—that can sing, speak, write, play, and dance. Shouldn’t we use them?

Photo Credit: Halley McClure

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Minibus Freedom: On Risk and Reward

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (well, kneel-up paddleboarding) in Smitswinkel Bay.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t…”
The sun beats down on my left arm, and the wind blows strong from the sea. I watch waves break and sparkle offshore as my minibus taxi races down the coastal road from Hout Bay to Cape Town.
The views are magnificent. Breathtaking. Spectacular.
Although, my fellow passengers seem desensitized to the sight, for which we pay 12 rand ($0.75) each.
South African music blasts from the speakers, a mix of African polyrhythmic beats, electronic pulse and gospel-like vocals. The driver skips tracks on the mix CD—yup, mix CD—as he holds a cell phone in the other hand, seemingly impervious to the perils of this endeavor.
These minibus taxis—cheaper and faster than a regular bus, and far cheaper than a cab—evoke a sense of freedom that their more staid (and safer) counterparts do not. Diverse rhythms, accents and languages swirling in my ear, unfettered ocean wind in my hair, shimmer of merciless heat in the air, my senses tingle, come alive to welcome the spectrum of experience on offer.
It is more than physical freedom, though that is part of it. (By now I know the fastest, car-less route to just about anywhere I want to go in Cape Town.) It is more than the speed and ease of movement, more than the volume of wind and music, and more than the independence of needing to rely on no one to go wherever I please.
No, if I am honest with myself—and you—there is another kind of freedom epitomized by these minibus journeys, which eclipses all the others.
It is the freedom of choosing my own risks.

Cape Town has huge populations of great white sharks in its waters, but that doesn’t
stop dozens of surfers, paddleboarders and swimmers from getting out there every day.
I’m not talking about risk-seeking behavior here. Rather, I believe most of us take most of our risks unconsciously. We drive our cars, smoke our cigarettes, drink our six packs of beer, eat our pesticide-laden food—that is, dance with our proverbial devils—all the while pretending, or perhaps believing, that our existence is safe. Secure. Unthreatened.
I have written about this before, but maybe never so explicitly.
I believe it is because we tend to ignore risk (or rather, complacently engage in it) where it is an accepted norm, that consciously, actively choosing our risks can inspire such a deep sense of freedom.
People ask me, how can you hitchhike, take the minibus taxis, travel alone, go out alone, [fill-in-the-blank] as a woman, a foreigner, a young person, a small person? Aren’t you scared?
Aren’t you scared when you cross the street, go to the mall, eat your food, send your children anywhere alone, smoke your cigarette, drive your car? How can you be a human being in this world—frail, feeble, mortal, vulnerable—day after day after day?
That is, essentially, the question you are asking me.
Better the devil we know. Better the risk we acknowledge.
There is risk everywhere. We are never safe. We are weak, mortal, vulnerable to the vagaries of the world every day of our lives.
Yet, we cross the street. We live anyway.
I know the risks I take, and I choose them willingly, because the benefits (ah, the benefits, story for another time) far outweight them.
The other side of the street; the end of the dance; the other side of risk?
It’s worth it.
On one level, my choices bring me joy, full-bodied experience, and inspiration

But if you wanted to get philosophical about it, each time I choose my own risks, I also acknowledge and make peace with my own mortality—and that is a powerful freedom, indeed.

Smitswinkel Bay.


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Lamu, Kiwayu and the Danger of Playing it Safe

For those of you who have been following recent events in Garissa, Kenya, and who were aware of the proximity of Lamu and Kiwayu Island (my location this past week) to the Somali border, you will be happy to know that I am back safe in Kilifi, several hundred kilometers away.
As events progressed and the news of Al Shabab’s brutal attack on Garissa University broke, sitting on a bus for eight hours while following updates on Twitter, stopping at multiple police checkpoints and traveling with a police escort could have been a nerve-wracking experience, but with the company of my three travel mates and the shaky consolation that lightening rarely strikes twice, we managed to comfortably ride out the journey.
I don’t want to write about Garissa today, though. (I’ve done that already here.) I want to share a little about the gorgeous regions in the north of Kenya devastated not just by attacks, but also by foreign travel advisories. 
At 7:30am on Friday, March 27th, three friends and I boarded a bus bound for Lamu, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the north coast of Kenya accessible only by boat.
Well, to be exact, we waited at the bus stop for three hours first, bags baking in the sun, and then boarded…
Day 1: Friday
At 3:00pm, we pull off the road and wait a couple hours more for an armed convoy to escort us and the other buses of the afternoon through the more forested area north of Garsen. The roads become increasingly rough as the buses continually race past one another for no apparent reason.
We arrive at Mokoi Port around 7:30pm and crowd into an already packed ferry. The stars grin overhead as we move towards Lamu Island, and I trail my fingers in the dark water.
After a quick meal of the best nyama choma (grilled kebabs) I have yet tasted in Kenya, I sleep heavily.
Day 2: Saturday
I rise at dawn in order to wander the alleys of Lamu before the town and the sun are fully awake. 
Winding stone pathways tinted with just the slightest bit of tension (or perhaps desperation would be more precise) speak eloquently of Lamu’s prosperous past as a key Swahili port. The sunlight glows on the waterfront, casting in shadow the men who accumulate around boats and food stalls, hoping for better business. 
We are the only tourists in sight so far. Gorgeous old houses filled with guest rooms stand empty.
At 6pm, we learn that the dhow (boat) that should have carried us on to Kiwayu Island (originally at noon, then at 7pm) will not leave until the next day. We make a split-second decision to take a speed boat instead, and are spirited away in the night to an even more remote location. We hurriedly load water, produce and other supplies for 5 days and head out into open water.
The stars are bright bright and curved around the sky like a snow globe.
Around 9pm, we arrive at Champali (a luxury camp made available to us four grateful travelers through family connections). My room is quintessential island paradise in one room-sized package: big bed, balcony overlooking the ocean, woven mats and open windows on all sides.
Day 3: Sunday
I wake again at dawn in a pool of light, the soft sounds of birds and water lapping at the shore welcoming me into the day. I move slowly, from morning yoga to a brief walk away from the camp, to cooking breakfast.
We play cards and lounge for a while, then make the fifteen-minute “trek” to the other side of the island and eight kilometers of wild, empty beach. Strewn with seaweed, backed by sand dunes and with an unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean, this beach is the definition of remote. My definition, anyways. You would never guess, to stand there, that several hundred people inhabit the island, residing largely in two villages.
The cicadas in the trees here are terrifyingly loud at times, their buzzing so pervasive it seems to be coming from inside my own head. A noise like that could drive you crazy if you were stuck in a tree with it for long enough.
Day 4: Monday
This time we bring boogey boards to the other beach, and for the first time I really understand why people find this activity fun. The waves are just big enough to carry me all the way to shore when I catch them right. I stand up dripping seaweed and sand, and feel decidedly like a six-year-old mermaid version of myself.
A walk into the village later in the afternoon reveals the hub of human activity that the exterior of the island obscures. The women are beautiful, dressed in a style that looks almost Indian to me, and the children are utterly enthralled by our appearance, trailing behind our small group as we wander a web of thatch-roofed homes and dirt paths speckled with shells—remnants of an aquatic time long past.
As the sun begins to set we start for Champali, stopping at a beach along the way to watch the color show.
Day 5: Tuesday
We all wake up before dawn to race to the top of “Conical Hill,” the tallest point on the island, in time for sunrise.
Afterwards, we visit Mike and his camp a long walk further down the beach. He, like Kenya’s tourist economy, is struggling. Since two English tourists were kidnapped in 2011, Kiwayu has hardly been a popular destination. All of Lamu region, really, has suffered.
Gorgeous island getaways stare out at a magnificent ocean view, empty and waiting to be filled again.
That afternoon, I return to the village and a local woman covers my left arm—from fingers to shoulder—with bold henna designs.
Day 6: Wednesday
I wake up slowly, recovering from the long day on Tuesday, luxuriating in the comfort of my big bed. We savor our last hours on Kiwayu, knowing that we will leave at 4am the next day.
We sit on my balcony to watch one more sunset, the day fading from yellow to orange to dark.
Day 7: Thursday
Our boat is late bringing us back to Lamu. We leave at 5:30 instead of 4:30. When we sit down at La Banda, a reasonably priced restaurant overlooking the water, for breakfast, the first news on the Garissa attacks plays on a television at the back of the room.
The bus ride back to Kilifi is as long and dusty as the first. I feel refreshed and content, though—despite the danger, despite the unrest, I feel secure…


I describe my trip in such detail not to brag, but rather to make a point.

I almost didn’t go.
When Earl backed out days before our planned departure, I considered doing the same and making the trip another time. Finally though, despite increased travel advisories, Kiwayu’s proximity to Somalia, and the general tone of fear set by foreign governments, international media and even some locals, I decided to go.
I do not believe I put myself in any serious danger, but I certainly did not “play it safe” according to the conventional wisdom of travel. As more and more tourists opt to visit Tanzania rather than Kenya (playing it safe), unemployment rates here continue to rise (48% for Kenyan youth). These are not conditions for recovery, stability or growth. There is a serious danger there.
The region of Kenya I just returned from is among the most beautiful areas I have ever visited… the whole coast of Kenya is, in fact. Following yesterday’s events, this hardly seems the moment to encourage anyone to visit, and yet, I want to remind you that there is more here than what you see on the news. That is true everywhere—everything is more than what you hear secondhand.

Everything you see is certainly true, but it is only one piece of a 1,000-piece puzzle.


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Poetry & Fiction

Where Do You Go When Nowhere Is Safe?

Naturally, after our disappointment at the Moroccan embassy and finally, finally finding a place we could both visit without visas (Kenya), new obstacles have arisen. Al Shabab has been targeting non-Muslim Kenyans in the North, Mombassa and Nairobi in retaliation for Kenya’s recent military action in Somalia. Is nowhere safe? I find myself wondering.
To turn on the news of late is to open the floodgates to a barrage of ill-tidings. Terrorist attacks, Ebola, protests, and political turmoil. That is not to write off the gravity of these situations, for they are undeniably serious. But still, I can’t help wondering where is left to visit. Where do you go when nowhere is safe?
My musings inspired the creation of this folk tale:
Once upon a time, there was a girl. She loved to explore and go on adventures. The spray of light on the horizon played a lilting melody on the back of her eyelids.
One day, the girl announced that she wished to go into the woods at the edge of town.
“Don’t go into the woods!” Cried the townspeople. “Don’t go; don’t go,” they pleaded. “The woods are not safe,” they admonished. “There are wolves and witches and monsters and men. Nowhere is safe. Nowhere is safe,” they said.
And so she stayed, safe in the town, and gazed at the woods, imagination aglow. “Oh how I wish to go into the woods,” thought the girl. “Oh how I wish to go!”
Months passed, and the girl’s gaze shifted. “I will go to sea,” she announced one day, “to see what lies beyond it.” The townspeople shuddered and shivered and quivered with fear:
“Don’t go out to sea,” they cried. “Don’t go; don’t go! The sea is not safe,” they admonished. “There are sharks and storms and sirens and surges. Nowhere is safe, my girl. Nowhere is safe; stay here,” they said.
So the girl sighed and laid aside her plans, and she did not go. But she sat upon the shore and watched the waves, and her thoughts crashed against her skull in time: “Oh how I wish to go out to sea. Oh, how I wish to go!”
In only a few weeks, she had yet another design: “Surely the mountains are safe enough… that is where I will go,” said the girl, jaw set.
“Oh!” Cried the townspeople. “Don’t go to the mountains!” They pleaded with her. “Don’t go; don’t go! The mountains are not safe,” they admonished. “There are winds and ghosts and bandits and banshees. Nowhere is safe, you see. Nowhere is safe; stay here,” they said.
The girl craned her neck to look up at the rocky crags that broke up the sunsets and cast long evening shadows across the town. And she did not go. She sat and she glowered  and her mind raced on. “Oh how I wish to go to the mountains,” thought she. “Oh how I wish to go!”
Again and again she presented new ideas, and again and again the townspeople shuddered and shivered and shook their fingers sternly:
“Nowhere is safe, my girl. Nowhere is safe,” they said. “Don’t go there; no you mustn’t go there. There is war and sickness and there are demons and dragons; you see, the world is not safe, my girl. Best to stay here—oh yes, best to stay here,” they repeated. “Don’t go! Don’t go!”
Months passed in this way, or perhaps they were years, and the girl began to sit longer, to stare farther, to think deeper. Finally, this is what she thought: “If the woods and the sea and the mountains are not safe, then surely neither is this town,” she said to herself. “And indeed if nowhere is safe, then it is “nowhere” where I must go!”
And with that, she packed her bag with books and bread and blankets and bottles and she set out along the road. The townspeople, when they caught sight of the girl, ran after her, calling frantically, “Where are you going? Where are you going?”
“Nowhere!” The girl shouted over her shoulder. “I am going nowhere. You needn’t worry—it is safe there!” And she laughed and walked on.
And she crossed the woods and the sea and the mountains, “nowhere” always just ahead. She encountered dragons and dangers, monsters and men, but fairies and angels and vagabonds, too, and these last guided her way.
“Nowhere is safe. Nowhere is safe. Oh how I wish to go,” her thoughts chanted through her head in time with her feet, and never did they tire. On the girl walked. Up and out and onward she looked.
“Go,” whispered the sun. “Go! Go!”
Much to my regret, we don’t live in the world of fairy tales and fables. The troubles reported nightly are very real—though occasionally exaggerated by those on the outside. We can’t totally ignore them like the girl in my story. And so, though we still plan to fly to Kenya next week, we will do so cautiously, avoiding population centers like Nairobi and Mombassa and staying in the Lake Victoria region, which appears to remain out of danger.
Where do you go when nowhere is safe? That is the question facing the 21stcentury nomad, isn’t it.

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Three, Two, One, BUNGEE

(Sorry, Mom—I know I promised I wouldn’t, but I really think you should be proud of me.)
“Do one thing a day that scares you.”  The words run repeatedly along the length of my teal blue yoga strap, which, wrapped around my yoga mat, has accompanied me throughout my journey.  Each morning when I unroll my mat they greet me boldly, all capitals—a challenge, maybe.  But usually I smile and take them as an affirmation because, well, I’m trying my best.
I try, but it’s not always easy.  I hate talking on the phone, but it doesn’t scare me.  I dislike ants and spiders, but we’ve come to an understanding and coexist quite peacefully; they don’t scare me either.  As I travel I seek out situations that challenge me—accepting an invitation to a dinner party in Biella, Italy full of Italian speakers I had never met, for example—to test my mutability, adaptability and flexibility.  I repeatedly throw myself at the universe and marvel at the endless variety of ways in which she catches me.  I am rarely scared.
On Sunday, July 7, the straps of my safety harness wrapped around my billowing teal pants (Toby Pants, of course) as I stood at the center of the Colossus bridge, 152 meters above the ground at Veglio, Northern Italy.  A spectacular scenery of forested green mountains surrounded the small group of spectators.  The three o’clock sun heated my shoulders.  I watched as one after another the people ahead of me jumped, arms out “like Superman.”  When my turn came and I climbed the metal steps to the edge of the bridge, nothing but an elastic cord attached to a carabiner at my ankles, I was scared.
“Sei pronta?” Gianluca asked me, grinning casually after ten years of facilitating this bizarre and exhilarating activity.  “Si,” I responded, though I was hardly convinced.  I had closed my eyes and imagined leaping out into the air at least twenty times since calling the bungee center several days prior, but I was nonetheless terrified—terrified of jumping, and even more terrified of not jumping.
“Alza le braccia.”  I lifted my arms.  “THREE,”  I think my heart stopped beating.  “TWO,” I bent my knees. If I don’t go now, I never will– the thought jumped spontaneously into my consciousness and before I could think further I leapt on “ONE.” At “BUNGEE,” where one usually jumps, I was already in free-fall, accelerating towards a speed of 28 meters per second.
The scream that wrenched from my throat could probably be described as blood-curdling; it was certainly as close to primordial as I have ever come.  I had thought jumping would be the scariest part.  Wrong.  The first two seconds of my fall, as I felt the uninhibited force of gravity act on my body, I think adrenaline blocked all other brain functions.  Then, the following few seconds, I managed to process the sight of treetops rushing toward me at blinding speed, the sound of air whooshing past my ears, the pressure of wind against my cheeks.  My scream morphed into a whoop of elation.  Next, as I reached the full length of the cord, the elastic caught me, pulled me to a stop, and flung me upwards.  Twice I rebounded high, my body hung suspended for a moment in mid-air, my heart in my mouth, and I flew…
I pulled myself upright, a feat which proved more physically challenging than jumping, and the woman at the landing platform pulled me back to solid ground.  As I walked (and skipped) along the trail back to the road I felt exhilarated, jubilant, and, especially, satisfied.  Satisfied because I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than jumping of a 150 meter bridge, and I had done it.  I had taken a fear and alchemized it into a thrilling experience.  I had physically embodied my policy of leaping at the universe.  The elastic cord, like optimism and openness, had turned a free-fall into flight.
To clarify: bungee jumping is not scary because it is dangerous.  In over 60 thousand jumps and 20 years of experience, the Bungee Center at Veglio has never had an accident.  As extreme sports go, bungee jumping is extremely safe.  Our instincts are not so rational, however, and to voluntarily jump one must override a very basic fear and instinctual reluctance.  I am not really a thrill seeker—I don’t like cliff jumping, skiing on ice, driving fast, or otherwise putting my body in danger.  This probably won’t become a regular activity for me; however, I might choose to repeat the experience, or something similar, just to remind myself that I can.  Because even after the fact I can barely believe that I really jumped.  I had trouble falling asleep that night as the memory of treetops speeding towards me replayed in my mind.  I no longer felt scared though- only elated.  I had done something that truly scared me, and it rocked.
If you want to see it, the lovely people at Veglio were kind enough to film my jump for me, and it’s posted here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10200301434598511.
Do one thing a day that scares you- try it! 🙂
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