Every Picture Tells a Story

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7: 1966-1974

 

Do you remember that time, back in October, when I went to France? Yeah, I know. I’d kind of forgotten, myself. Life did a somersault, followed by a back-flip, and took off running the very day we returned. The magic of our journey went Poof! as we rushed to catch up to job changes, computer crashes, book deals . . .

 

I say I am a writer, yet there is another part of me that allows words to fall away, one that delights in shapes and textures, light and shadow. It holds hands with the writer, and together they process the world, funneling sensation into perspective. I’ve favored the writer, choosing words as my craft and it is that craft I study; pictures are more a means of play.

 

But there is also a safety for me in photography. It is my down time; to release the shutter is to release my mind. To write is to be vulnerable, to have an opinion, to expose an inner world, unprotected. Behind a camera, I am simply an eye, holding still for one heartbeat a certain cast of light, an angle of stone against sky, a ripple of water, the turn of a head.

 

I took hundreds of photographs and slowly, over these past months, I’ve culled and sorted, distilling less than a tenth of them into an album to share. I wanted, many months ago, to tell you how much this journey meant to me, how much a part of my soul France is, what amazing places we explored. How about I just show you, instead?

 

Follow this link to an album: Dordogne, Lot, Loire: October 2014

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From Château de Commarque; Château de Laussel in distance. Dordogne, October 2014 ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

A Word of Resolution for 2015

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

I admire the notion of wiping the slate clean for the year to come, particularly at a time when the cold, dark hours are just beginning their slow creep toward the light. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? Chances are, regardless of our resolve, we will wake on February 1 still in these same bodies in need of more exercise and less sugar; in these brains in need of more fresh thought and less group-think; in these hearts in need of more gratitude and less comparison.

 

I’m not immune to the My Year in Review tradition, but I find as I age that it’s less harrowing to keep rolling through the process of life, rather than marking an end to another year. I already have my birthday to thank for that time of mourning. Serendipitously, my birthday comes at the beginning of autumn, which is a far more natural time for me to renew and reflect, to make resolutions (intentions toward permanent change) or establish goals (markers toward a specific achievement).

 

Yet on January 1, 2015, I came upon this essay by Molly Fisk Pick a Word for the Year. Being a logophile, the idea of selecting a word to guide me through the year, instead of making a resolution, made me clap my hands in delight. Yes! This is a ritual I can embrace!

 

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This is my word. Isn’t it beautiful? Greek. It’s a whisper that tickles the ear, a cirrus cloud that skims across a blue sky: Sɑːr-moʊ-‘lɪ-pi.

 

From the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I found this description most meaningful: ‘Charmolypi evokes a metaphysical reflection, expressed through the language of the body’ (Dziennik Teatralny). Loosely translated, charmolypi means ‘joyful sorrow’.’

 

Charmolypi belongs to a tiny family of words I adore, including Hiraeth, Saudade, Sehnsucht and Natsukashii, that contains sentiments of bittersweet longing, a yin-yang of joy and sorrow. It is a feeling that comes only when we allow ourselves to feel deeply, profoundly, painfully, wholly. The yearning is not for a specific place, person, or thing—it is the unnameable ache when you hear a particular piece of music, when the light slants a certain way, when a scent or taste catches you unawares and sends you reeling back into memory.

 

What Charmolypi signifies to me, why I’ve chosen it as the word to guide me this year, is the acceptance of sorrow as it mingles with joy. I have come to accept the inevitability of depression and anxiety in my life and rather than fight against that tide, I am learning to swim with it, to recognize the beauty that comes with the still, dark moments. These are the time when I listen most deeply, not only to myself, but to the world around me; when I touch the most compassionate parts of my soul and emerge with a stronger, bigger heart.

 

In harmony with ‘the language of the body,’ Charmolypi is embracing this body as it ages, learning to treat its limitations with respect while still pushing it to greater heights. I’ve been craving the power and playfulness that seem to fall by the wayside as the years pass. I’ve kept up a yoga self-practice for years, but since returning to formal classes a few weeks ago, I am again witnessing the transformation of my body and mind. It is with Charmolypi that I turn away from training for a marathon, which is only a date on the calendar, a short-lived event, but represents the pounding stress of increased mileage and intensity that this body doesn’t need. Instead, I turn toward a practice that builds up what aging naturally whittles away: strength and flexibility and balance. I embrace the grace that comes with intention and breath.

 

Charmolypi is the bittersweet process of letting go. It is my determination not to expend emotional energy on those who cannot respond in kind; of finding that sometimes-wobbly balance between compassion and patience and the sweet relief of release; of accepting that forgiveness does not mean I need open the door to unhealthy people.

 

It is the understanding and acceptance that as I walk on the path to publication, my time and my words will not always belong to me, that as much as I am lifted up by the support of others, there is also a surrender. I am acutely aware of this now, in the thick of the editing process, when I see my vision, my story, reflected in others’ eyes. I prepare myself for the day when it is released and belongs to anyone who reads it. There is Charmolypi—joy mixed with regret mixed with hope mixed with resolve.

 

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language,’ T.S. Eliot reminds us. Which words await your voice in 2015?

Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow
Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow Copyright 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche . . . White Night—French for sleeplessness. It sounds almost celestial, doesn’t it? A vast, shining stretch of emptiness, a field of untouched snow, a freshly laundered sheet floating over a soft, welcoming bed.

 

Mais non. A nuit blanche is a very dark, lonely sort of hell. But it is inevitable, this desperate return jet-lag, the body crying for food, coffee, bright lights, a farmers’ market, a castle reach at the most inconvenient times.

 

Wide awake at one a.m. the day after our arrival, with just a handful of restless hours of sleep in reserve and still trembling from the stress of twenty-four hours of travel (white-knuckle driving in Paris morning rush hour traffic; white-knuckle queuing in a snaking line of hundreds for a flight leaving in two hours; white-knuckle bouncing along jet streams in a hot, cramped metal tub; white-knuckle winding through dark forests to return at last to our windswept island), I crept downstairs to the moonless dark of the living room—littered by luggage and still chilled from our absence—to wait out the nuit blanche with a movie and hot, buttered toast.

 

The afterglow of our journey lit my way and warmed my skin, freckled and peachy from days of hiking in the Dordogne. The region, resplendent in its sultry, tempestuous arrière-saison, had graced these fortunate travelers with October sunshine and a few welcome splashes of cleansing rain. I powered up the slide show function on my Nikon and took another journey, this time with knuckles unclenched.

 

I had fretted and fretted about this trip, shredding myself with worries about money, my flight claustrophobia, our sick cat, the resurgence of an Icelandic volcano, pilot strikes in France, not writing, oh, the list of the legitimate and the bizarre goes on and on.

 

The unfolding of my heart and mind, the releasing of the tension that had built since we hit ‘Confirm Purchase’ on those airline tickets back in April, began the moment we landed and continued as we explored anew, physically and intellectually, this place that means so much to us, to our individual and joined pasts, to our future.

 

But it was the present that captivated me, for I finally allowed myself to revel in it. My senses were gleefully pummeled by the taste of duck confît, the sight of pre-historical troglodytic dwellings beneath medieval castles, the wine-drenched scent of a village draining its fermentation tanks, the touch of acorns raining on my head from a sudden breeze, and the sound of French syllables swirling from all the mouths around us, including our own. I was grateful for the vulnerability and challenge of adapting to the whims and whiles of the different, eager as a hidden language revealed itself and poured out in a tumble, and delighted when a shopkeeper exclaimed, “Oh, I thought you were French!” As a traveller, I am renewed, replete with wonder and prismatic joy, able to see past the smallness of my worries as I open my heart to the newly possible.

 

There is linear time, real time, the actual days and weeks spent away. But then there’s travel time—the sense that you’ve been gone for ages, because of all that you experience during your sojourn. A traveller never returns home unchanged and that time travel is the distance between who you were when you left and who you are upon your return.

 

Yet, this time away returned me to someone I’d lost sight of during these past two years of change. To keep hold of her and not lose her againthat journey now awaits.

 

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

 

 

Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux, October © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Trying to Fly: Giving Up What Weighs Me Down

Pain woke me in the middle of the night. It flattened me to the mattress. I lay still, certain that if I moved, my head would not move with me. It would simply snap from my neck, a lead weight of agony too heavy for my body to support. I’m not given to migraines, but this headache, so intense the nausea began in my toes and roiled through my limbs, was something organic, alive, beyond the reach of medication or meditation. I barely slept, and at four a.m. I gave myself up to the inevitable.

As soon as I opened the front door to unhitch a hanging plant whirling in the sudden wind, I knew. Overnight, the gray silk of Autumn had slipped in, running cool fingers through Summer’s sun-bleached hair before gently pushing her away. Now Autumn sat heavy, pregnant with rain, aching to release the new season from her throbbing uterus. In her angst to be next, to be now, this Bitch of Barometric Pressure had a white-knuckle grip around my brain.

I knew from whence this pain emanated. A change of weather so fast, the shift of seasons so acute, my body clenched and strained. But as I moved gingerly, trying to avoid a further disturbance of my universe, I felt another weight bearing down, more insidious, but no less frantic. The pressure in my head was emblematic of the pressure in my soul, and as the season shifted, as a summer of dreams gave way to an autumn of industry, I knew the only way to relieve the burden was to make a decision.

I’m not a ditherer by nature. I tend to make decisions quickly and be done with them. That doesn’t mean I won’t carry my doubts around, worrying over them like a stray thread that won’t break off, but in the moment I just do the thing and move on.

A few weeks before, an essay dropped into my life—from where, I no longer remember—and forced me to face a doubt I’d been ignoring, a dissonance I’d plugged my ears against, not wanting to admit that I’d made an error of judgment. Here it is: Are You Empowered By Being Here? Rather new age-y, but I’m a bit new age-y myself, all give things up to the universe and listen to the voice inside. You know that about me.

The author, Jamie Khoo, posits that by determining where you stand on the following two points, “… you’ll know exactly whether you’re being empowered or dis-empowered where you are; and whether you should stay or leave.”

Are you: Becoming More or Less of You

Do you: Realize Who Owns You

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Northwest Autumn © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

I knew the answer to the essential question—Are You Empowered By Being Here?—was ‘No.’ I had allowed myself to diminish, I had allowed a situation to own my time, energy, space, and thoughts. After coming to such a tremendous epiphany in February while reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I had placed myself in something that simply wasn’t me. That contradicted everything that makes me function in peace and productivity. How embarrassing.

Yet, I had set aside my doubts and talked myself out of action, certain my anxiety was misplaced because I wanted so badly to believe I could make it work.

Until the morning I awoke wanting to sever my head from my body to end the vice-grip on my skull.

I went for a swim, easing into the tepid water, allowing it to take my weight. In the hour that I moved back and forth, crawling and stroking, I practiced my exit. I willed myself not to excuse or explain, as is my custom, but to release myself with grace. And then I returned home and did the thing that needed to be done.

As I sat trembling, waiting for the hammer of doom, I heard the sound of water rushing at my windows, smelled the petrichor as the earth broke its summer fever and sweated in relief. The first rain in weeks, the first downpour in months, the pregnant sky birthing the equinox.

The morning after I closed that door, the strangest little thing happened. A friend of a friend from another life contacted me and said, please come and let me teach you. I have seen what you can do and I want you to do more. Let me teach you.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
― Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

An Enchanted Life

An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person. ~ H.L. Mencken

 

Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Fucking Personal Growth Opportunity. ~ Unknown

 

About a mile into a run last week, I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn’t. There are times when my body needs a break from running and I try to listen. I try not to judge. I walked home with tightness in my chest and heaviness in my limbs. I thought, “I’ll just swim laps at nine.” Nine came and I lowered myself into a hot bath. That was the water I needed, water like the warmth of the womb. I needed to be comforted, not challenged. I needed to soak, before I sank. I was utterly overwhelmed.

 

The slow creep of mud that finally reached my mental shoes, stopping me in my tracks—this weird blend of acedia and agitation—wasn’t a surprise; I’d felt it coming. It started, perhaps, a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the midst of a tremendous online chorus of writers, some of whom are my literary heroes. I was amazed and delighted to have been included in their ranks. Their voices swelled and rose in a mighty roar of energy and affirmation that took my breath away. I found my way through the crowd to quieter corners and rooms down the hall, making personal connections with a few voices that reached me with calm clarity, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow I didn’t belong there, that these writers, these thousands, were accomplished and ambitious in ways that are completely foreign to me, perched as I am on this almost-island, in my quiet sunroom, spinning my modest tales that no one would mistake for great literature or groundbreaking creative non-fiction.

 

Time to retreat. I stopped reading the bios that made me feel so woefully inadequate, I withdrew from conversations that sped past faster than I could read or type, reminding myself that time spent wishing I was more, did more, risked more, reaped more, was time spent not doing the one thing that mattered most: writing.

 

I returned to my keyboard and to my mind, wrote a flash fiction piece, finished the first draft of short story, and began researching literary journals to submit each. I did yoga on the beach, I hiked, I walked. I read a volume of beautiful poetry. I filled two boxes for Goodwill, because when I get like this, I want to lighten all my burdens, I want to clean out, get rid of, eliminate, discard, set myself free.

 

But still the disquiet remained. A torpor dulled my sense of possibility and joy, sitting heavy in my core, while anxiety beat a woodpecker’s refrain against my heart. I knew I hadn’t gone far enough in seeking the peace that would guide me to back into the light.

 

When the interwebs cease to be a source of information, of playfulness, of social release and friendship, I know that something is happening inside of me that bears watching. I know it’s time to be careful, that the world is about to swallow me with noise. When I agitate instead of participate, it’s time to shut it all down and walk away.

 

When I begin to despair that my writing doesn’t stack up and that my future will never brush the dizzying heights of those in my online communities, it’s time to recommit myself to the page.

 

Echoing a remark a writer friend made here recently, it’s possible to read too much about and into the writing and publishing process. It’s possible to fill your mind with so much advice on craft, so many dos and dont’s of seeking publication, that you get mired down and find yourself unable to move forward.

 

It’s possible to let the world get too loud.

 

I shared a draft of my query letter on a limited-public board last week, seeking critiques from fellow writers. One commented that my query was too perfect, too textbook. I’d felt the same, so the comment didn’t sting, it confirmed. It came as a relief. I was right. In trying so hard to adhere to all the pro tips, I’d lost my voice. I rewrote it (again. again. again.) and I feel there’s more of me in there, but it’s not yet where it needs to be.

 

Until I can find my stride and run again, I’m deleting those writers’ tips blog posts that get routed to my inbox. Until I feel safe in myself again, I’m staying away from the social media where I feel vulnerable.

 

I want to be overwhelmed with beauty. I want to be electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within. These happen only in two places for me: outside and on the page. That’s where you’ll find me, in case you’re wondering where I’ve gone off to …

 

7/5/14

ETA: A couple of wonderful articles have made their way into my life in the week since I first published this post. Just had to share:

The Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasan, for The Atlantic

Why Every Story You Write is a Guaranteed Failure by K.M. Weiland, on her eponymous blog

 

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After the storm ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shake out silver changes

The writer’s life is not punctuated by the natural markers of the seasons. September is as January is as June. But this writer spent too many years moving to the groove of an academic calendar, from pre-school through Masters degree to university administrator: September will forever mean the sharp tang of new pencils, the stiff rasp of new clothes, the gurgle of dread and excitement as the first day of the new school year approaches; June will always be release, sandal tan stripes on my feet, a deserted office on Friday, the bittersweet linger of dreams on a golden sunshine, fresh-cut grass afternoon. Summer seems like the time, whether time’s abundance is real or perceived, to catch up on all those plans shunted during cooler months for more pressing concerns.

So, it was with great relief, giddiness (and dread, yes, dread) that I hit Send on my manuscript last night, shooting it to the Inbox of my editor. I’ve graduated to the next level of my writing journey and, for a few weeks, I am free.

My summer plans have been in the works since I plugged yesterday’s deadline into my calendar. I couldn’t wait to stretch, yawn, and sink into the time when my hands would be empty and my mind, weary of two novels’ worth of Cathars and copper mines, of the southwest of France and the southwest of Ireland, would be open to new places, new ideas, new words. The layer of marine fog will keep me at my desk in the mornings, but the bright afternoons will find me pedaling into the forest or tramping along a sea bluff. Have Notebook, Will Travel. No clicking at keys in the comfort of a café, but never leaving the house without a Moleskine, a Pilot Fine Point, sunscreen, and water.

I can finally give more than a cursory glance at the short story ideas accumulating on those Moleskine pages. Shorts mean I can bury my feet in the toasty sand and write 1000 words of flash fiction, or do a series of timed writing prompts to get the new material juices flowing, or sort through ideas in long hand, see where my brain takes me as that mind-body connection works its magic in a way that a keyboard never will. Shorts mean I don’t need to reengineer a scene on page 33 to fix a plot hole found on page 123. They require little research, which means no info dumps or teasing out backstory.

It will also be the summer of getting down to business with the dreaded author platform, crafting the myriad of pieces that go into my mmm….mmm…media kit. There, I said it.

It will be the summer of Dickens and Homer, as my 5th Annual Monster Classic Read gets underway.

Come to think of it, my ambitions are greater than the day is long, even in the Pacific Northwest where the summer light lingers well after I’ve gone to bed. I have a feeling that soon after Independence Day, an email will appear, my heart will leap into my throat, and I will spend the denim-blue days of July combing the red that bleeds through the black and white of my novel.

So I’m keeping this short. I have stories to write.

Back Yard/ ©Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.

 

Summer Office ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Summer Office ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I’m saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it’s been with me since childhood.

Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I’ll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I’d packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don’t do elevators. I don’t book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I’m serious. I don’t do elevators.

~

Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI’ve worked through this shaky period and I’m making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind’s evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.

~

We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn’t get on the plane. I hadn’t flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn’t get my finger to click “Confirm Purchase” on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.

 

icanticanticanticant

~

A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I’m out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I’ve written is set in a place where I’ve travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can’t cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I’ve coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???

~

A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I’d downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I’m still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I’m assuming I make it to my destination.

~

People. We’re headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.

 

icanicanicanican

Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011
Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011