Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I’d breathed all day. I’d arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

 

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web’s bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

 

Spider’s commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

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My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider’s web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

 

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I’ve turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I’ve had little desire to offer more beyond what’s already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I’ve filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

 

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider’s web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It’s what she does. Spin or die.

 

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

 

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I’ll always dance between the two, but I think I’m ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

 

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Taking on the Darkness

A bright spring morning. The boat haven is abuzz with industrial activity, the parking lot in front of the nearby diner, full. The scent of frying bacon follows me up the trail before dissolving into the stench of low tide rot.

 

When I first pass him—me walking at a fast clip, he sitting on a bench, head surrounded by a black hood—my internal radar begins pinging hard. The glance I take from my periphery reveals a face contorted in rage, his hands gripping the edge of the bench, a coiled thing. He is shouting, incoherent, words garbled, but enough of the syllables take shape to understand they are directed at me. I have no choice but to keep going. Coming toward me, about 300 yards up the path, are a cyclist and runner in tandem. I wait until they are close, then turn around.

 

As a runner in Seattle, my guard was always up. I ran in the early mornings, often in the dark, often around Green Lake, where there was safety in numbers—it’s one of Seattle’s outdoor fitness Meccas—but also trees and restrooms and secluded areas to be aware of. Two weeks before we left Seattle for the Olympic Peninsula, a man began attacking women in the early mornings at Green Lake, precisely on the trails I ran, at the times I was there. What a relief, then, to set myself loose on the trails in this idyll of beaches and mountains. My whistle and pepper spray remain in my pack for the occasional coyote or loose dog, or, most troublesome of all, the roving pairs of raccoons, who hiss and charge and move in slinking, snakelike speed if the mood strikes. IMG_0215

 

It happens so fast.

 

I feel as much as see him spring off the bench, words spilling out in growls, nasty and lewd. I don’t run, I don’t turn, I just keep moving until I feel him at my shoulder, smell him behind my back. And then there is shouting from different voices. The cyclist skidding to my side, the runner’s pounding steps. And the young man, retreating. He returns to the bench, face again behind the hood, rocking back and forth, already imprisoned by drugs, alcohol, his own demons.

 

The couple walk me to safety, and seeing that I have my phone in my hand, offer to stay as I call 911. I brush them off. “I’m fine,” I say. “He was high, it doesn’t matter.” I am ashamed. Ashamed that as a physically strong woman, I didn’t try to take him down. Ashamed that I’d been so afraid. Ashamed of my vulnerability. Ashamed, perhaps, of my own body, that someone would say the things he said to me, that I could attract such ugliness. Because I’d been walking, with no intention of heading into the woods, I had carried only my phone and my innocence.

 

And then I see two women, separated by a few dozen feet, making their way up the trail, in the direction of the man who had come after me. In the distance, I see he still sits, waiting. What am I thinking? Of course I will call. If not for myself, than for all the women behind me. I hold out one hand to stop the first woman, even as I dial 911 with the other.

 

The officer who responds to my 911 call sees me out walking two mornings later and stops to give me an update and a bit of the man’s story. The 28-year-old is well known to local police. He was arrested twice on this day—once for accosting me and then again a few hours later for unrelated charges. Drunk. High. Unhinged. I’m sure there is much more that I’ll never know. Frankly, I hardly care.

 

~

 

In nearly six years of blogging, I have never received a negative comment. WordPress does a great job of catching spam, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean a comment from a real person that is intended to wound and harm. But it happened recently, in response to my post Getting Ready To Exist. What this woman, who identified herself as a writer and mother, wrote does not bear repeating. But in a space in which I shared my grief at having literally lost my chances at motherhood through multiple miscarriages, someone thought to express their conviction that because of my obvious weaknesses, the flaws in my character, I couldn’t handle motherhood, anyway.

 

In thinking through how these two events have affected me, with their immediate and latent anger, hurt, and shame, I recognize the destructive power of the untold story. Sitting on shame and regret only allows those feelings to fester and infect perspective. Conversely, when we share our truths, reveal the things said and done that wound and harm, we open ourselves to empathy for others, we allow in healing. Our personal narratives become shared connections and conversations that hold value beyond our own lessons learned.

 

My safe places are no longer safe. Were they ever? Of course not. The trolls, whether they lurk on park benches shrouded in black hoodies or in the virtual world behind the anonymity of a computer screen, have always been there. But I haven’t stopped my early morning hikes or my blogging. I reclaim these spaces. I reclaim my voice.

 

 

“I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” Colum McCann, author and founder of Narrative 4, a non-profit that trains schools, students, community leaders in storytelling and storycraft as a way to foster empathy and build community.

Getting Ready to Exist

The human heart is never still. There is a divine restlessness in each of us which creates a continual state of longing. You are never quite at one with yourself, and the self is never fixed. There are always new thoughts and experiences emerging in your life; some moments delight and surprise you, others bring you to shaky ground. John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections On Our Yearning to Belong

 

I am on the edge, the edge where this peninsula meets a strait, straight line to the ocean. The water a dull green expanse like worn seaglass, except where it crashes ashore in brown breakers laced with white foam. The skim milk sky has a faintest bruise of blue underneath its watery skin. It is a battered day, spent and cold, seasonless, reasonless. One more soaking bluster to add to the wettest few months in Washington state history.

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My car faces the strait, windshield blurred by the weeping sky. Rain pelts the back window like a child hurling handfuls of gravel. I have had enough. This rain. This cold. This stasis.

 

Yet my life been anything but static for weeks on end. I lament the daily rollercoaster of praise and criticism that accompanies the public release of a very private effort. Routines disrupted, privacy jilted, my winter retreat from social media thwarted by the need to be present, responsive, accessible. And then, you know. Feeling like an asshole for even hinting that a dream realized could be fraught with stressors I wasn’t prepared for. The emotional tangle of being on, accountable.

 

I am filled, made complete, when I give of myself.  Because I have been receiving so much input, with too little output, a certain disquiet, an uneasy longing, has taken hold. A hole has opened inside. It is an emptiness in search of belonging.

 

“I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.” – Fernando PessoaThe Book of Disquiet

 

I am not a joiner. Although I have causes vital to me, to which I donate time and resources, write letters to my elected officials, work to educate and inform my opinion, seek to acknowledge my own privilege and biases, mine is participation in solitude. Sure, I put in time during the growing and harvesting season at a community food bank garden, but even that is solitary: planting, weeding, watering, harvesting according to instructions left by the garden manager. The writing workshops I lead each week bring a certain calm joy that reminds me how much being a guide, a mentor, a teacher contributing to others’ creative process sustains my own.

 

But now, in this time of spotlight, what am I giving? How am I using my words, my voice, to create something beyond and greater than my own needs and ego?

 

Two weeks ago, the launch month of In Another Life culminated in an evening at a local bookstore, a celebration with my community. I took parts of the talk I normally give during author readings and tossed them together with a recounting of what led me to begin writing the novel in the first place: the miscarriage of a pregnancy in the final hours of my first writing conference in 2012:

 

‘This wasn’t the first loss, but I knew it would be the last. I was forty-three. After years of unexplained infertility, attempted adoptions, then the unexpected pregnancies, miscarriages, and surgeries, my body was battered and my soul couldn’t take any more. It was time to stop.

 

Those years of attempting to be a mother came to a definitive end at that writers’ conference. Yet something else sparked to life: a determination to find a way not only to cope with the despair, but to celebrate the life I did have, to create something beyond and greater than myself.

 

Two weeks after the conference, I typed the opening words to my first novel, the novel that became In Another Life. I didn’t set out to write about a woman recovering from grief, about the impermanence of death, the possibility of rebirth—of the body and the heart. In fact, I thought I had chosen the one story that would take me furthest from my own reality: a past-present adventure exploring a 13th century murder in southern France. Funny what the heart does when the head is distracted. It works to heal.”

 

These were the words I offered, to reveal how my personal grief ultimately led me on a very public journey.

 

Not long after this night, I received a message from someone who had been in attendance. She wrote, in part:

 

‘You did an incredible job tonight. You made standing in front of a full house and talking look easy. When I read the first pages of your book I feared you had experienced grief. The line “it had been so long since she had looked at her reflection in the mirror.” “It took someone else to make a decision about her life to propel Lia into finally making a few of her own.”  All feelings someone who has lived with grief would understand. I’m so so sorry for your losses. I think in your writing others will. . . encounter their own memories of grief & joys of finding love again. Your grief may turn into a gift you give your readers.’

 

The act of writing, which so often occurs in selfish solitude, is ultimately about finding a connection with readers. But most of us never really know what effect our words will have, if any; if the stories we tell resonate beyond a surface level that compels someone to keep turning pages. Just as I never expected that writing a romantic timeslip of a novel would bring me to my redemption, I never expected the finished story could speak to someone else’s mourning and healing process. With her words, this woman gave me a gift.

 

Be patient and without resentment and think that the least we can do is to make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come. – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

I am so ready for spring to come. My divine restlessness, which sets my soul afloat on this dull, churning sea, pushes me ever forward, seeking beauty, questioning my longings, testing the shaky ground on which I stand. “Be patient,” I tell myself. “But get ready to exist.”

A Book is Born!

Friday afternoon: Exhaustion has turned my limbs to chilled butter. Tears press against the back of my eyes, my nose stings with heightened emotion. Nothing is wrong; everything is right. I am just so very tired and this week, the week I saw my novel launch into the world, is nearly at an end. Half an hour on this ship, another hour on the road, and I will be home. Silence. Bath. Cat. The last season of Mad Men on Netflix. Wine.

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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

How to put into words what this week has meant, all that has happened; the outpouring of love and support from people I’ve never met in the flesh; others whom I have not seen in nearly thirty years, taking a seat before the podium where I stand, poised to talk about my novel; the flooding of photographs on my Facebook feed by friends who have found my book on shelves in Hawai’i and Florida, Boston and Houston; others holding up my book in Ireland and Scotland while their friends and family chime in to say, ‘What’s this? You know the author?’—all who have embraced me with such unqualified belief, joy . . . the words don’t come. Only the warm flush of gratitude, the spark of amazement.

 

While I’ve been in Seattle, reading, meeting, signing, celebrating, In Another Life has had at least as full and busy a virtual launch week as its author has had in real life.

 

Here are a few highlights:

 

Trade Reviews

  • A gorgeous review by Nicole Evelina from the Historical Novel Society‘s print publication: Historical Novels Review (Feb 1, 2016)
  • And another that left me wanting to throw a ticker-tape parade, from the Washington Independent Review of Books (Feb 5, 2016). Ann McClellan brought out the novel’s themes with such clarity and grace.
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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

On the Virtual Road

The Blog Tour for In Another Life kicked off a few days before launch and it’s been a whirlwind of interviews, guest posts, and reviews. Here are my stops so far. Warm hugs to these bloggers, who do what they do out of sheer love for reading and the satisfaction of supporting authors and bringing books to their readers:

 

Virtual Launch Party!

Tuesday, February 9, beginning 11:30 EST, I’ll be part of a party of 13 authors whose novels launch between January and March, 2016. Join us for an incredible opportunity to chat with these amazing writers about their beautiful books. And me! Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association Online Book Launch Party

 

Current Giveaways

  • Goodreads Giveaway (3 copies) happening now through February 14.
  • Teddy Rose is hosting a giveaway of In Another Life: 10 days left to enter!
  • And, I’m giving away a gift bag of love, plus a signed copy of In Another Life, now through February 13. Subscribers to my newsletter are automatically entered into the random drawing. Giftbag Giveaway

 

As I wait for the boat to bring me from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, a tweet arrives that pulls the exhaustion from my limbs and delivers tears and laughter. Three days after publication, In Another Life returns to press for a second printing.  My gratitude knows no bounds.

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Divine Sparks

“Certain bodies… become luminous when heated. Their luminosity disappears after some time, but the capacity of becoming luminous afresh through heat is restored to them by the action of a spark, and also by the action of radium.” ~ Marie Curie

 

I’d been warned by authors who’ve launched many a book before me that the muse would flee in the weeks and months leading up to and following the release of In Another Life; all my energy would be taken up by the demands of supporting my book virtually and in person. It would need to be nudged along, out of the nest, set free to soar on its own, but I’d need to remain close by, watching, guiding, occasionally letting the book draft behind my lead.

 

And to be sure, these past weeks have been filled with a busyness bordering on frantic. There’s a sense that no matter what I do, it, it isn’t enough. And then there is a novel I’m on deadline to revise. So I carefully apportion my time and energy, reminding myself to focus, to breathe, not to skip yoga or a hike or making dinner or folding the laundry—the meditative, restorative, ya-ya releasing activities that take me out of mental chaos into the sweet comfort of routine.

 

Much of my time has been spent writing guest blog posts and responding to interview questions as part of an extensive blog tour to promote the novel (fifty blog spots and counting!). It’s extraordinary to be so warmly welcomed by these hosts, whose blogs exist simply, wonderfully, to celebrate books and those who write and read them.

 

One of the unintended consequences of writing/talking about my book’s subject matter, its themes, the research, characters, setting and inspiration, is to be enthralled again by the Cathars, Languedoc, the tangle of history and geography, the wonder of an afterlife that weaves reincarnation with redemption with angels with good and evil and all the layers in-between.

 

And somewhere in those layers, my imagination, my writer’s soul, continues to work, digging in, excavating, uncovering ideas and holding them in her hand, like tiny embers just waiting for the breath of words to burst into the flame of a story.

 

In this time, when my attention and energy is as far from the blank page as it’s been since I committed to a writer’s life, a torrent of sparks has burst into the air.  A character has risen—a bit wobbly and unformed, a slip of clay that needs other elements to take solid form—but she is there, complex, a little feverish with her own possibility.

 

And then came a scribble on scrap paper, an opening line of humor for my upcoming author readings. I pulled my pen away and laughed for a different reason. I’d just released an idea that I may love. A story idea crazywonderfulsparklethisisnutsbutiloveityesyesyes 

 

The Cathars regarded stars as divine sparks—angels if you will—created by one fallen angel from the crown of another who had dominion over the waters of the earth. From half the crown, the Fallen Angel made the light of the moon and from the other half he created starlight.

 

Somehow, that starlight-moonlight illuminated the parts of me gone dark in this rushed and anxious and excited time. Though I can’t pull away just yet to follow the tendrils of light, I no longer fear the luminosity will fade. I hold the divine spark in my hands.

 

A Goodreads Giveaway for In Another Life. Click to Enter!

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Chartres, France © 2016 Julie Christine Johnson

A Word of Resolution for 2016

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them.

Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

 

January is tricky. I don’t know if this happens where you live, and I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest long enough to have scrubbed memories of common, dull Januarys elsewhere. But there is no darkness like that of a January morning. In fact, here at least, Sunrise simply defies the Solstice that is weeks old—rising later than ever, while Sunset tugs at the other end, stretching away from the day, striding farther across the Pacific Ocean. I notice the creeping length of the afternoons in increments: Last week at this time it was pitch black when I left class, now there is a faint glow of white across the Olympics. But the mornings. Oh. They grow heavier and darker.

 

I used to watch the calendar—where the timing of Sunrises and Sunsets are writ in tiny italics—for the day deep in January when the sunrise began to tick backwards. On that day my soul would inhale deeply and rise toward the light.

 

This year, though, I haven’t minded. I’m out early most mornings, grasping a chunk of fresh air and getting a few miles under my feet before I put my seat in a chair. Something about starting in the dark, in the privacy of absolute shadow, allows me to hold my inner stillness for a little while longer. Several miles later, as I close the distance between hill and home, it is light and I must reenter the world, share the sidewalk and the rain with other bodies, others’ thoughts.

 

It’s the first time I can recall ever embracing January (except, of course, in New Zealand, where January is a cathedral of light and July is an ache of chill and damp.)

 

Last January I joined the practice of naming a word to define the year to come. My word for 2015 was a sensation, a representation of feeling, a metaphysical concept wrapped up in a gorgeous set of syllables: charmolypi, loosely translated as joyful sorrow, a kind of letting go.

 

This year, however, I am going with something simpler. A verb. A drawing in, rather than a letting go.

 

 

Embrace. The solace of shadow, the singular sweetness of the dark season. No longer keeping my head down in January, simply waiting for the darkness to end.

 

Embrace. This season of madness. Book launch two weeks away, my every moment accounted for, writing guest blog posts, doing interviews, preparing for book talks, this busyness that borders on frantic as I reach out, connect, and try not to slip on the ice of my own expectations.

 

Embrace. The distant sparkle of creativity, the flashes in my periphery, reminding me that although I am here now and the open meadow of the blank page is a few days’ journey in the distance, I’m only just visiting and I’ll be back my story home, soon.

 

Embrace. That pain deep in my hip and groin grinding like a pepper mill. I’ve stopped running, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good. And as my hips shake loose and my back releases from the confines of a runner’s constricted muscles, I have access to yoga asanas I never thought possible. My body, embracing me in gratitude, my ego rebuilding. I walk 8 miles in my running shoes. I feel no pain.

 

Embrace. The softening of my shell in the warmth of others’ support. The love and encouragement that has come my way in the past year leaves me trembling. I shed a carapace of doubt and insecurity and learn to accept others’ generosity with grace and in wonder.

 

Embrace. The singularity of this time, as uncertain and strange, as full of bright lights and blue shadows as it is. For it will change, as all moments do, blurring into the next or bursting apart like a camera flash.

 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.~ T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”

 

 

 

Letting Go

I’m about to hand off a manuscript to my agent—my novel Tui, set in New Zealand. It took me a long time to get to this story, as I sorted through and made some sort of peace—a poignant truce—with my time in Aotearoa. And yet the more I wrote, the more any of the “I” that may have been present in the story dissolved and became something utterly distinct from me and my experiences. That’s the magic of writing for me. That I, as the storyteller, really have no idea where a narrative road will lead, no matter my intended destination at the beginning.

 

A sense of melancholy accompanies the completion of a novel, that point when it’s time to set your story free from the shelter of your imagination and open it to the eyes and feedback of others. You’ll never again encounter these characters with the same sense of wonder and discovery. But this time, the wistfulness is paired with disquietude. When I press send and release these few hundred pages into the ether, I will be without a new novel to work on.

 

Oh, the ideas are there; the stories stand half-slumped against the wall, whistling softly, waiting for me to crook my finger and call them forth. But now is not the time.

 

The preliminary planning and first draft work are, for me, an all-encompassing commitment of energy and emotion. When I begin, it’s like being inside an empty dance studio: there’s some structure—four walls, a ceiling—but the room is vast-white-bright, filled with the natural light of possibility, creativity, echoing with the happy shouts of ideas. I can whirl and leap on the pages for hours a day, weeks or months on end as the work expands and grows, breath filling my lungs, blood filling my heart. It demands everything and I acquiesce with joy.

Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson
Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But for the immediate future, that dance studio has become a recital hall, crowded with chairs, noisy with clinking glasses, tapping feet, voices rising and falling; a cacophonous celebration of the performance I’m preparing for: the launch of In Another Life. And in the quiet moments, my editor and I will put our heads together over revisions of The Crows of Beara. 

 

Three novels in three years. It’s time to channel all my energy into sending one off into the world and reshaping another, while letting the third go, for now. It’s time to sit with my disquietude and wistfulness, as the well I have emptied these past three years refills, until the moment comes when I can dance again in that great, empty, silent room.

 

There is writing when you are intending to, and this other, less frequent, sometimes more beautiful writing that just comes. ~ James Salter