Tangled

I knit, which means I spend a lot of quality time with yarn. A lot of yarns come in skeins, which are strands of yarn looped together in a loose coil. These large loops become easily tangled, so knitters often use a yarn winder, a device with a handle that you can crank and a cone in the middle for a strand of yarn, plus a yarn swift, an apparatus that holds the skein in a wide circle, to wind the skein into a compact ball. But if you have a yarn winder but no yarn swift, there are lots of opportunities for the yarn to become tangled as you attempt to wind it.

When a ball of yarn becomes tangled, it can be tempting to fight it. You may instinctively want to take the long strand of untangled yarn, the one part that looks “normal,” and pull on it. And at first that might work. But you will soon find that this strategy yields a tight knot at the center of the tangle that will not budge. Time to try a different solution.

Instead of pulling the tangle tighter, the opposite often proves more effective. It helps to loosen the knot, to pull back and relax the yarn instead of tugging on it. This letting go requires patience and attention, a willingness to explore what exists in your hands. You have to follow some paths that will get you nowhere. You may have to backtrack or even make things messier before they become neat. No matter how much you crave to make order from chaos, you sometimes have to dwell in the chaos for a while before order arrives.

The same often proves true in life.

A writing life

My junior year of high school featured a huge disruption that would change my life moving forward and inspire a habit that stays with me to the present.

In 1982, my mom, dad, sister and I traveled from Pullman, Washington, to London, England, where we lived for a year while my parents took a sabbatical from their jobs at Washington State University. The 4,695 miles might has well have been on another planet as far as communication with people in Pullman goes; we had no cell phones, no internet, no email. Long-distance phone calls cost a lot of money. As a 15-year-old, I had left my peer group of friends behind and making new friends in a foreign country can take time and patience, not something teenagers are known for.

So I wrote letters.

I wrote regularly to at least seven of my friends. I wrote to the boy I had been dating when I left home. I wrote to my grandmothers and my Aunt Mary. I wrote to my high school French teacher — in French!

I penned postcards from places we visited. I composed missives on aerogrammes made of lightweight blue paper designed for international post. Once, I found toilet paper — yes, I mean real, waxy paper from a public London toilet — and I look some sheets back to our flat and wrote a letter to my best friend Kathleen on them, just to express my horror that someone would expect a person to use that material on ones butt.

Of course, that was many years ago. Today, many people see letter writing as quaint and old fashioned. After all, we have the ability to immediately connect with people via text, email, social media and anytime calling! We can reach people pretty much at any time and any place that we so desire. Why would anybody ever bother writing a letter? Well, I would. Here are a few reasons I still love to write letters.

A letter has finite length. There’s only so much space on a page or in a card. In addition, you can’t hit the “back” key on a letter. If you write something on the page in ink, you must either cross it out, throw the entire document away or live with what you wrote. This means you have to be thoughtful about what you write. You have to decide what merits communicating. You have to edit yourself before you begin, to think about the most important things you want to say in advance of saying them.

Another aspect of these constraints: They force you to focus on the recipient. If I only have a little space, what do I wish to convey to the person? What might they be interested to know? What has happened since I last wrote or talked to her? What has been her most recent state of mind? When I sit down to write, thinking about these questions makes me feel connected to the person I’m writing to. I can visualize them, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, reading my letter days from now, possibly smiling at the same words that made me smile when I placed them on paper.

You hold letters and cards in your hand, the paper smooth or crinkly against your fingers. Letters can be written in cards with evocative photos or art work on the cover, or on different colors and types of stationary. You can send little trinkets, such as pressed flowers or herbs, in between pages. You can bundle letters together and save them to savor at another time. It’s a different experience from receiving a missive on your device, which quickly joins the thousands of other items in your phone or iPad.

I don’t write letters nearly as often as I did in London in 1982. But when I do, it still evokes the same satisfaction, happiness and connection that it did so long ago and reminds me that I will probably never dispense with the pleasure of writing letters.

Tending a Garden Through the Years

In my youth, I fantasized about living off the land, planting, growing and consuming all of my own vegetables. I knew almost nothing about gardening, and as I began to try this activity, I questioned whether my childish dream would ever happen.

I questioned this especially in the mid-1990s when I met Austin Springston, a retired farmer from Elkins, Arkansas, who lived next door to our house in the country. In his late 80s, Austin grew a most impressive backyard garden, sporting lettuce heads larger than basketballs, tomato trellises full of giant red fruit that seemed to touch the sky and enough zucchini to keep an entire high school football team fed for about a month.

A glance at his high-octane garden and back at my meager, hole-filled crops produced many sighs. I battled weeds, grass, bugs, fungi, varmints, too much rain, too little rain, too much water, not enough water. I planted my veggies in the wrong place at the wrong depth in the wrong soil at the wrong time. It was too hot or too cold, but never just right.

Austin and I often chatted over our shared fence, and he occasionally shared insight into his methods. He used a BB gun to shoot birds that landed in his garden, along with pint-sized steel traps to catch varmints who tried to raid it at night. He composted using horse manure from the local stable, which bred race horses, and I couldn’t help but wonder if his lettuce heads were chemically enhanced as a result. A visit to his garage revealed shelves of chemicals designed to kill every single thing in the yard except possibly the vegetables. No wonder my garden was a haven for all the neighborhood critters and weeds. I couldn’t bring myself to adopt these tactics — I preferred a more organic approach — so my garden was what it was.

Despite small yields, bug-ridden plants and failures, I kept planting a garden every year.

Over the course of several years, I began to learn a few things. Tomatoes don’t like nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees, and they won’t set fruit if the thermometer rises above 90 for a good portion of the day. They need to be pruned back and trained up to produce well. Cucumbers like space and should be planted in mounds. Lettuce does not like freezing temps but will bolt and excrete a milky, bitter substance when temperatures climb above 75.

My brain began to contain a mini almanac of information, and slowly, after several years of hit-and-miss, it appeared that I could grow vegetables.

What followed were a few years of happy growing. I grew lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. I grew jalapeños and we gave them away to friends and neighbors who liked spicy food. I grew strawberries and herbs — basil, rosemary and mint, oregano and thyme.

Then in Florida, my almanac seemed to disappear. During our 5 1/2 years there, I tried a few times to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, but the mercurial weather patterns got the best of me and the plants either gave a paltry harvest or withered away. I finally made the decision to stop trying and devoted my energy to other things.

But when we moved to California, our new house had a little raised bed on the side. It looked a lot like nothing. It sported some dry, tired, overgrown weeds that had withered away. But I saw its potential.

I ripped the weeds out. Brought in soil. Put up a small wooden trellis across the back and a small fence in the front so that our dark chocolate lab, Shadow, couldn’t use it as a resting place and wreck the tiny shoots.

Then I went to the farmer’s market and I bought a few plants: Two tomatoes, two peppers, two strawberries, basil and some cucumber seedlings. I put them in the ground, watered them and held my breath.

As the weeks have gone by, I’ve derived great joy from seeing the garden’s progress. I didn’t realize how much I had missed gardening until I began to do it again.

Every morning now, I devote some time to the garden. I check around the plants and under leaves and stems for flowers and fruits. I inspect the leaf tops for tiny holes made by bugs or discoloration from diseases. I stick my finger in the soil to see if the plants have enough water. I pinch off rogue shoots from the tomato plant so it will bear better fruit.

And my ministrations have paid off: The tomato plants have grown to five feet tall, still expanding towards the sky. The cucumber vines are heading up the trellis, creating a backdrop of green for the tiny space. Peppers, strawberries, basil — it’s all growing very well.

Now that I know I can successfully garden in California, my vision can grow along with my plants. I look forward to what happens next. And even if a particular plant doesn’t work, I can now see, looking back, that it was all those seasons of failure in the garden that have led to this current beautiful bounty.

The perils and perks of picking blackberries

Summertime in the Inland Empire means days so hot the moisture evaporates leaving behind oven-like breezes. Back in the 70s, it also meant my mom would load my sister and I up in the back of our ’66 Dodge Dart and point it into the countryside to look for blackberries.

Blackberry picking takes grit. The brambles scratch your arms and thorns prick your fingers as you grasp at the fruit. The sun beats down from on high, making every clothed inch of your body sweat and the parts that aren’t covered feel burnt in seconds. You must watch out for bees, which also love blackberries, for sometimes they alight on a ripe one and, heavy and drunk from its juice, have trouble flying away as your fingers descend. Birds may dive bomb from the bright blue cloudless sky as you plunder their favorite snack.

Once when picking blackberries in Arkansas, I returned home to find a platoon of chiggers had attacked my legs, leaving behind angry, itchy, red welts in perverse polka dots across my calves. I spent a week rubbing salve on my shins.

Blackberry picking also takes patience, something a youngster eager to taste the fruits of her labor sometimes lacks. You can’t judge the ripeness of a blackberry merely by its color, although if there is any red left at all it is not ripe. To find a truly ripe, melt-in-your-mouth blackberry, you must invite it to drop into your fingers with a gentle tug. If it does not willingly fall into your palm, it is not ripe, and you should move on.

At first I did not grasp this concept, and so I grasped the berries to eagerly. If I popped one of the unripe specimens into my mouth, I would get an unexpected crunch and a sour taste that let me know it wasn’t ready. I’d pucker my lips and move on.

But when I found the ripest, most luscious berry and bit into it, a sweet-tart taste like I had never experienced burst on my tongue. The smell of it, the feel of its warm softness in my mouth and the flavor combined to make the moment unforgettable. I wanted more.

I began to pick my target berries with more care, and to pull them more tentatively. Soon I also learned that the gentle grasp worked best with the ripe berries — if I grabbed with too much force, they would disintegrate between my fingers, leaving nothing behind but liquid and seeds.

As I continued to learn from bitter experience and loss, I began to develop a gathering rhythm. I could spot a dark orb beneath a leaf and guess its ripeness with one look, or pick out the ripe berry from a nest of dark ones. My fingers began to sense the right amount of pressure and pull. More and more, I heard the satisfying “plunk” of berries as they landed in my bucket.

Pretty soon, or perhaps a few hours later, we would return to the Dart, rubbing the sweat off our faces with purple-stained fingers and aching, scratched arms. I seem to recall that my sister and I would fall asleep on the way home, lulled by the car tires on the highway.

Although all these years later I still love blackberries and occasionally get them at the store, the experience leaves a lot to be desired. Blackberries taste best when eaten within a few hours of their plucking from the bush.

So I’m thrilled to live along a trail that has rows of blackberries. A few weeks ago, the bushes sported a white veil of flowers, and now light green globes sit in bunches atop the dark green leaves.

I can’t wait to get out there under the hot sun once more.

Tanzania then and now

Landing at the air strip at an airport near Arusha, Tanzania, I did not know what to expect on our 12-day photo safari. The itinerary outlined where my mother and I and our companions would go, with beautiful names laid out in flat black and white letters on a page: The African Tulip, Tarangire, Serengeti, Ndutu, Ngorongoro Crater. These word did not prepare me for the wonders of our journey.

I did not anticipate the heady smell of tropical flowers that greeted us when we opened the car doors at our hotel that first night, or the musicality of Swahili and the laughter of children playing in the neighborhood. The sounds of insects cut brightly through the night. The first morning, upon opening the window, birds calling in a foreign language greeted my ears, reminding me we were far from home.

Growing up in the western United States, I have visited some of the most pristine wilderness that America has to offer. I’ve hiked the mountains in eastern Oregon, the Northern Cascades and the Olympic Mountains. I’ve been to one of the places with the most wildlife left in the continental U.S., Yellowstone National Park, where I saw buffalo, elk, deer, moose, bear, snow geese, otter, beaver, eagles and more.

So when we arrived in Arusha and started on our trip, I expected that it might be similar to Yellowstone. We would see some animals, at a distance, if we were lucky. My hope was to see at least one lion, at a distance, if we were lucky.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see such an abundance of wildlife and wilderness.

After leaving Arusha and arriving in the national parks, most of the time when the vehicle stopped to look at animals, no human-made noise marred the landscape. The still air allowed us to hear the sounds of an elephant’s footfalls, the low purr of a lion, the fighting call of impala.

The animals we saw weren’t on display. They lived their lives before us while we watched from a distance. Herds of hippos sleeping in a pond. A group of male impala chasing each other to compete for mating rights. Wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, which means “endless plain.” Zebra barking dog-like warnings at one another. Bat-eared foxes stalking their prey.

We saw hyenas, jackals, lions, leopards, cheetahs, hartebeest, gazelles, eland, crocodiles, Cape buffalo, black rhinos, mongoose, chameleons, lizards, monitor lizards, giraffes, baboons, vervet monkeys, dik diks, hyrax, leopard turtles and warthogs.

At night, from our perch in a Land Rover, we saw a bush baby, a genet, a spring hare, porcupine and a pride of 16 lions that included four cubs.

And the birds! My god, the birds. There were big, brassy birds such as ostrich and marabou storks, secretary birds, African crowned cranes and Kory bustards. There were birds of prey like the tawny eagle, the African fish eagle and water birds like the Nile geese. There were small jewels like the hornbill, the oxpeckers, the lilac-breasted roller. There were birds with interesting names, like the red and yellow barbet.

Our first taste of the adventure that awaited us came when we arrived at Tarangire National Park and drove through the gates. I scanned the savannah, looking for wildlife. Finally, someone spotted an elephant off in the distance, walking through the golden grass. Seeing this animal moving freely in the wilderness brought tears to my eyes. I remember thinking that if I saw no other animals the whole trip, that that one glimpse of an elephant was enough to justify the days-long journey to get there.

Not long after that, we saw another elephant a little closer. Then another one even closer. Finally, we saw one this close:

I held my breath as I gazed at this beautiful creature. I could feel my heart pulsing. I could hear the elephant’s steps and breath and the flapping ears. In the meantime, the elephant proceeded about his business as if we didn’t exist.

This encounter preceded almost two weeks of nonstop wonder. I will share what I can with you here, and I will try to do justice to the awe-inspiring sense of this place.

Finding the words, finding my voice

I posted a piece a few weeks ago, a letter to my 25-year-old self. I got some very positive feedback from people. The only person I didn’t receive positive feedback from was me.

It took me several weeks before I could bring myself to hit the “post” button.

“Who cares about your 25-year-old self?” A voice said.

“No one will be interested,” another voice said.

“There are so many more important things going on in the world right now,” chimed in a third voice.

All of these voices live in my head, of course.

I thought about posting the piece several times, but I didn’t. Then I thought about posting it but not sharing it on social media; that way no one would see it, and therefore wouldn’t notice that it sucked.

But then I heard a story on NPR about a poet. He read his poem out loud, a deceptively simple poem, and then told the interviewer that the poem reflected his thought process and explained it with simplicity. I was enchanted and inspired.

“That’s just what I’m trying to do with my writing,” I thought.

So I decided to go ahead and post the blog. The Voices of Doubt tried to chime in, but I silenced them.

“Who are you!?” I shouted at them, “And why do you think my work is not worthy of sharing?”

The voices skittered away into the shadows. I pulled up my story, read through it, made a few edits and posted it. Soon after, I gathered up courage and posted it on my Facebook page.

The Voices of Doubt crept back into my brain.

“You could have talked more about this and it would have been a better piece,” one whispered.

“Why did you mention that particular event and not another one? This is crap,” another asked.

“It could have been so much better,” the third voice admonished.

I’m working hard not to listen to them.

I don’t know how these voices became lodged in my psyche. I have no recollection of welcoming them in, or of a particular time or incident where someone said any of these things to me. Although at times in my life I have felt silenced, and my nightmares often revolve around having no voice, the origins of these feelings remain obscure. I’m working on fighting them, but they remain strong.

Frankly, the voices doubt that you will ever read this, which speaks to the vulnerability I feel every time I put myself out there. But. I will not cave in to their demands. They will not silence me.

Which is exactly why I will brush the Voices of Doubt from my hair and post this: My words, my voice.

One thousand and one unrelated facts

My dad knew a lot of random facts. And he would bring up these facts at random moments. He could also quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail at will. Now, sometimes, those facts spring forth from me.

For instance, at a recent work meeting, we were discussing nibbling amoebae, as one does when one works at a top 10 public research university. And we began to discuss the plural of the word amoeba and its pronunciation, because we weren’t quite sure how to say it out loud, although we knew how to spell it.

I chimed in with, “well at least we know how to spell the plural form. Most people don’t know the plural form of ‘ octopus.'” Which prompted people to chime in with “octopi.”

“No, no,” said I, “because the root word is Greek not Latin, so the plural of octopus is octopodes.”

Everyone stopped and looked at me as if I had three heads, or eight limbs. So I did something my father was never able to do: I Googled it.

And there they were, the facts in black and white, except that octopodes is used so infrequently that octopuses has become the acceptable plural.

The group looked at me funny, as if to say, “how do you know that?” So I felt compelled to explain.

“It’s genetic,” I informed them. “It comes from my dad. He always threatened to write a book called ‘1,001 unrelated facts.”

Comprehension and amusement dawned on their faces.

I know for a fact that fact came straight from my dad. He took Latin and Greek in high school.

Another random fact from dad’s archive in the 1970s: The longest word in the dictionary, at the time, was “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

I passed this fact along to my son, Emile, while he was in grade school in the early 2000s. The next day he came home from school and proudly informed me that antidisestablishmentarianism was NOT the longest word in the dictionary any more.

“Oh? What is it?” I inquired, intrigued.

“It’s pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniconiosis,” he replied. What does that mean? You ask. It’s a black lung disease.

His grandpa would have been so proud.

We practiced that word until we could say it quite rapidly, and pulled it out for friends and family to see on special occasions.

The next random fact is all mine. One day, during a quiet, meditative moment in a yoga class, the word for elephant popped into my head. In Russian.

The word is “slon.”

Now, I took Russian in college. When that word popped into my head, it was from a class I had taken more than 20 years ago.

And why “elephant?” How useful is that word, plucked from the archives of my overflowing cerebral library?

There are so many other, useful facts that I could pull together at any given time. The location of my next meeting, what I need from the grocery store, the name of my co-worker’s cat.

But instead, I have octopodes, pneumonoultrasilicovolcanoconiosis and “slon.”

I will just have to be resolved to the fact that I will always be asking myself, and others, the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. And wishing I could remember the name of a person I met yesterday.

Just don’t ask me if it’s an African or European swallow.

You are welcome.

A moving experience – dismantling a life

August, 2018: Earlier this year, I helped my mother and stepfather move from a house they had lived in for 20 years into a retirement community. I flew from Florida to Seattle and spent five days taping together cardboard boxes, filling them with possessions, marking them with sharpies and stickers so the movers would know which rooms to put things in, stacking the boxes in garages and spare bedrooms, and making trips to Goodwill. I was a packing machine. Together with my mother’s organization skills and the help of my friend Jennifer and son Emile, we packed up their house in a matter of a couple of days. I took pride in my mad packing skills.

Now it is our turn, as my husband Curt and I are moving across the country, from Gainesville, Florida, to West Sacramento, California. There’s the furniture, the car, the truck, the boat, a cat, a dog and two humans that need to be exported from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, a journey of about 3,000 miles, no matter how you slice it.

I packed my first box, and as I finished it, I could feel a whine rising in my throat.

“This is SO much harder than packing my mom’s entire house!” I groused to my spouse. I knew it was ridiculous. I also knew it was true.

When I told my mother about that moment a few days later, she said: “Well, you are dismantling your life.”

Aha!

We are applying what I call the “California Standard” to our move. It’s very simple: Is the item important enough to one of us to haul all the way across the country in a plane, truck or automobile? If the answer is no, it goes.

The dismantling sometimes produces unexpected feelings. We decided to sell our formal living room furniture. It came to us used from Curt’s parents and has been well-used by two generations of people and pets. It has served its purpose, and it was ready for a new home.

I was completely on board with this, and when a woman came to buy our dresser and said she wanted the sofa, love seat and ottoman, we gamely helped her load it, giant pillows and all, into her truck and trailer.

As we moved the love seat, I spotted a black and white blur, and realized with a sinking feeling that our cat Tidbit had been in her favorite hiding place. She looked dazed and confused and headed for the back of the house. I suddenly remembered how much she liked the ottoman, perching on it like a proud lion, waiting to greet me when I came home from walking or yoga or dance.

When it was gone, I felt a little bereft.

I know there will be many more such moments during this journey. Moving can be bittersweet. Saying goodbye to furniture is nothing compared to saying goodbye to the wonderful people we have come to know here in Gainesville. But it is important to acknowledge the endings so you can fully enjoy the beginnings.

Dear Younger Me

Dear Younger Me,

I am standing outside the apartment building in Washington, D.C., where you lived 27 years ago. You had just turned 25, and you were young and married and looking for your first job. You had been working in D.C. for about nine months, in internship positions. You had two cats in the small, two-bedroom apartment on the right-hand side of the second-floor walk-up in this unassuming white building just off of Dupont Circle.

You were unsure about a lot of things.

What will my job be like? Where will we live? When should we have children? And the ever-present: What if I’m no good at my job, at my relationships, at life? Everything felt so up in the air, so uncertain. You felt scared and exhilarated at the same time. The possibilities seemed endless, including the possibilities of failure.

I’m standing here, 27 years later, thinking about what I would tell you if I could meet you today.

Would I tell you that everything has worked out, that you are happily married with a grown son, engaging in a satisfying career that has taken you to places you could never have imagined all those years ago? That you have lived in Arkansas and Florida and California and forged unforgettable friendships in all three places?

Would I tell you that many things will be a lot harder than you could ever have known as you gazed from that second-story window? Would I tell you that, three years from now, you will lose your father when he drops dead of a cardiac arrhythmia? That a few years after that you will struggle with your health and spend time bedridden and in a wheelchair? That eventually you will divorce the father of your child, the man you lived with in that second-story apartment? Would I tell you that sometimes work won’t work out?

Would I tell you that even with all of this, your life will be richer than you ever could have imagined?

Would I tell you that your struggles will make you a stronger woman, that every single tear you shed will add up to the person you are today?

Would I tell you that you will learn to ride the rhythms of uncertainty with grace? That one day you will recognize that you only ask the question “What if I’m no good?” When you are about to stretch and grow and learn?

Would I tell you that sometimes your seeming failures create a stairway to success?

Would I tell you all of these things?

Or perhaps, instead, I would put my arms around you and simply let you experience the marvelous, mysterious uncertainty of your future.

False eyelashes and failure

I do a few things pretty well. I’m a good baker. I’m a good dancer. Occasionally I can turn a good phrase. I crack witty puns — okay, some people might disagree with the with the witty puns. But my point is that I’m skilled in certain areas due to many years of practice.

But lately, as my dancing skills have improved, I’ve been able to perform on stage with dance troupes. And that has required learning a new skill — putting on stage makeup.

In general, I wear very little makeup. In fact, I would prefer to go makeup-free at all times. My face has rarely seen foundation, and I have yet to find a lipstick I really like. Learning to use stage makeup now is made more complicated by the fact that I am a Woman of a Certain Age, which, translated, means that I can’t read any makeup labels without the assistance of a magnifying glass to accompany my reading glasses. Plus, when I take my glasses off to apply eye makeup, I can’t tell if I’m drawing in a smoky eye or a clown face. It might have been easier if I had started experimenting with makeup when I was a teenager, but that ship sailed more than 30 years ago.

However, when I dance, I want to represent the troupe well when we’re on stage. And on stage, if you are not wearing lots of makeup, your face becomes invisible. So when the opportunity to take a workshop arose, I seized the day in an attempt to learn a little more about how to put on stage makeup.

We were told to bring our makeup kits, a hand-held mirror, a note pad and a pen to the workshop. I found the note pad and pen easily enough. I had a small thing of eye shadow of indeterminate age, an eye pencil, mascara, an eyelash curler and a lipstick I tried once for a previous performance. I bought the hand-held mirror at CVS on my way to the workshop.

The workshop leader, a skilled performer and make-up artist, introduced herself and then said, “first take out your primer.”

Primer? I looked around blankly. A few veteran dancers pulled out a tube of the liquid in question. The workshop leader saw me and a few others gazing at her with wide eyes and explained that using primer on your face allows the foundation to go on smoothly and holds the makeup on your face, even when you sweat. Foundation? She smiled, made the rounds and gave those of us who had no primer a small daub on the backs of our hands. We smoothed it on our faces.

We continued layering with foundation, concealer, contour, translucent powder — none of which I owned. I watched the workshop leader as she expertly donned each layer, and then she or another makeup maven would share with those of us who were lacking the right items. After a few layers, I looked in the mirror at my own work and sighed. Too little of this and too much of that.

I reminded myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day — and that my made-up face would not be either. I continued gamely on.

We learned how to fill in our eyebrows to create a certain shape and line our lips to do the same. We layered on eyeliner and different shades of eyeshadow to create a smoky eye. We blended the foundation and concealer into our faces and layered on the blush. Other women at the workshop used their various brushes to paint on the differently colored layers. I used a q-tip and my fingers. Where would one even get so many brushes? Many of these women had a dozen makeup brushes. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with one.

At the end of the workshop, we had a photo shoot. My artistry was not up to DaVinci standards — it was more like paint-by-numbers. But the makeup looked good from a distance and I was pleased with the results, it being the first time. I thanked the workshop instructor, left the class, and set about moving from Florida to California.

Fast forward about four months. I’m dancing with a new troupe in California, and we are performing at a fundraiser. Our choreographer and leader suggests a cherry smoky eye and contour makeup. Come to the venue ready with your makeup on, she says.

Time to deploy what I have learned.

I go to Target and an employee, a young woman with green hair and fabulous stage-ready makeup, helps me find the things I need. Blush, brushes, contour, concealer, an eyeshadow palette all find their way into my house. I have four makeup brushes now! I’m still not sure what all of them are for.

I practice a few days before the big event. I open the eyeshadow palette and discover, to my dismay, that the colors have descriptive adjectives instead of names. Do I want to wear “chatty” or “cozy?” “Flirty” or “amorous?” Whatever happened to amber, teal, cherry and brown? I sigh and get on with practice. Each time I get a little better. Except for the dark lipstick, which is an unmitigated disaster. I go to wipe it off of my lips, and instantly the whole area around my mouth becomes dark red. I look like a terrifying clown. The makeup remover wipes bleed dark red as I swipe them over my lips again and again. Good thing it’s practice! Note to self — dark red lip color, not good.

Days later, it’s finally time to dance, and I must put the stage makeup on for our performance. I place all my new tools on the counter before me and take a deep breath. I prime. I brush, I blend. I contour. I blend some more. I create a smoky eye. I look at myself in the mirror. It’s all looking really good. I feel a rush of pride.

Now it’s time to put on the false eyelashes.

Hmmm. I haven’t done that in a while.

I squeeze a tiny bit of glue onto the lower rim of the false lashes. A bit of glue leaks on to the lashes, and I try to flick it off, but instead it smears into the lashes. Maybe it will be all right, I think, and I close my eye, trying to apply the lashes just over the lash line.

I squint with my open eye to see what I am doing. I line it up and press down…and miss. I try again and miss, again.

Five seconds later, my eye makeup smeared, the false eyelashes still in my fingers, I realize that I have glued my left eyelid to itself.

Unfortunate words spew from my mouth as I try to flick the glue-laden lashes from my fingers so I can liberate my eyelid from itself. I gape briefly at the mirror and see that I’m less Glamour Barbie and more a cast member in Monsters, Inc. Not exactly the look I’m going for.

I sigh.

A few gallons of water and makeup remover later, I have freed my eyelid, but my eyes look like something you might see on Halloween, or in your nightmares. So I start over, bring it back to something close to a smoky eye — a misty eye, perhaps.

I forgo the false eyelashes. I succumb to the failure. Those are a lesson for another time.

I have to remind myself that this is only the second or third time I’ve ever used stage makeup. So eyelid-gluing aside, I’m probably not doing so bad.

In fact, if I keep at it for another 30 years, I might become an expert. And hopefully, sometime during those three decades, I might learn how to keep the glue off my eyelids and on the eyelashes. One thing is certain: I will never become good at stage makeup — or anything else — if I don’t try. You have to start somewhere, and that means lots of tries and fails. Practice may not make perfect, but one day I hope to create a passable smoky eye along with beautiful lashes.

My epic, eyelid-gluing moment reminded me that the only people who never fail are those who don’t try anything. So the next time I have the opportunity to put on stage makeup, or write an essay, or try something new, I’ll do my best not to let the fear of failure get in the way.

Here’s a successful moment with the false eyelashes. There’s no photographic evidence from the failures.