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

Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love and Loss by Sean Hanish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean’s original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors’journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell’s poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief–the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but
we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread
for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin,
the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog’s death,
or gerbil’s. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: “I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them.” In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman’s What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body’s own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child’s body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I’ve always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn’t that strange and awful and wonderful? I can’t fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn’t know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn’t it? It’s probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple “I’m so sorry for your loss” and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

At last, the light and I are beginning to meet at the right time. From the sofa, I can see the first blue glow of dawn, then the rosy line of sunrise as it creeps up the Cascades and tips into Admiralty Bay. It arrives earlier each morning, so that soon my coffee will still be hot when I scuff my sockless feet into worn-out running shoes and shuffle down to the pier for morning yoga in the breeze and warm light.

It’s early enough in the year—we’re still trying to regain the missing light Daylight Savings borrowed a few weeks ago—that I’m ready by sunrise to move from morning peace to daytime activity. The light is sweet when it finally arrives, but I’ve got stuff to do.

Yesterday though, the light had its way. It stopped my 6:30 thoughts about laundry and grocery lists, wrapped its warm, golden fingers around my wrist and drew me, laughing, down the hill to the water.

I yearned to ring church bells and ship horns, to rouse everyone from bed and shout, “Look outside, look at the light!” But only the bakery truck driver and I were puffing white breaths in the pink-tinged air. Until I got to the water, where the scullers and sailors were bathed in the sun’s fleeting exuberance. I stretched and folded into my asanas as their vessels bounced over the cold March swells.

For writers of prose, reading poetry is like being drawn outside by the siren song of light. The brief world of a poem envelopes us in potent imagery, with words strung together in ways that break the rules binding us to plot and structure. We are enchanted by rhythm and evocative symbols and for the moments it lasts, the poem—like the dawn—sets us free.

I can share only a photo of yesterday’s light, untouched, unfiltered. Were I poet, perhaps I could do it some literary justice.

But when I fall in love with new-to-me poetry, as I did this week, with young Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan’s collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, I want to ring the church bells and sound the ship horns. Read This Read This Read This, the bells and horns would say. It’s like being inside a sunrise.

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perched on hill overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, in the wild, remote Beara Peninsula of West Cork, sits a humped, ragged block of stone. One edge resembles the profile of a woman, her furrowed brow arched over a proud nose, staring out to sea. She is An Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland. Her story is Ireland’s story, her survival the enduring drama of a tortured land of legendary beauty.

Into the stormy legends wends the sublime poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, like a cool silk ribbon whispering over fevered flesh. This slim volume of sensuous language takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag’s many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. Her images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures. We experience the Old Woman as a young girl, vulnerable, vital, yearning, but already wise and sad.

I did not want a glance or a sound,
only the sight of you
–the mouthing space
the absence of language;
only to watch you
turn through the shimmering coils of light,
the river siding around me,
describing to me
the dark that would be cast over the body,
violent, liquid, salt and calm —
the darkness that would be cast
between the moment when I could destroy
and the moment when I would devour

A Beara native, O’Sullivan’s blood brims with the brine of the North Atlantic and its feral winds howl in her mind. Her words pulse with the southwest’s moody weather that ripples from cruel and cold to docile in the time it takes to read one of her enchanting verses:

Morning, the touching of the moon
on the oval-line of light, the sun low,
its fire like liquid over the ocean
where the wading gulls hunt.
I toed the foam and smooth sand
as a rattle of salt
rushed against my skin, the pebbles,
the water’s joyful touchings.

Best read aloud, with a glass of Jameson 18-year-old close at hand. Or at sunrise, with a porpoise slipping in and out of the waves, inviting you to come in and play…

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March Sunrise, Port Townsend  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
March Sunrise, Port Townsend ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Stop. Look. Go.

It’s not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy. David Steindl-Rast

The wheelbarrow dropped into a rut and I rammed it through the mud, cursing. My lower back would pay for that pig-headed push. While waiting for the next dump truck load of soil, I squatted in catcher’s pose and poked strawberry plant runners through a weed barrier cloth. I yanked weeds and tossed centipedes from kale. I ate a warm, homemade brownie with my gloves on, smearing my teeth with chocolate and dirt. My nose was running, my left sock had skidded down my Wellington boot to my heel, and I had to pee.

Two hours later, I folded my aching limbs into the front seat of the car, peeled off my work gloves, and proudly displayed for my husband the fiery red spots that pulsed on my fish-belly white palms—blisters in the making from shoveling dirt into that wheelbarrow and spreading it over sheets of cardboard as I helped prep a new bed in a food bank community garden. I was happy. Quietly, sweetly, content.

Where did that simple happiness come from? Giving a few hours to my community? Hanging out with a group of kind, funny, hardworking people? Being outside on a blustery, sharp spring day? The raw and clean exertion? Of course. Maybe. Probably not. These were all ancillary conditions to what was really going on. And what was really going on was me, existing one hundred percent in the moment.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to this podcast:  Simply Happy: TED Radio Hour, which synthesizes several TED talks on the concept of happiness. In one, psychologist and biomedical engineer Matt Killingsworth tells his audience the secret of happiness. It’s the real deal, folks—he did a slew of research, crunched a bunch of numbers, and it all comes down to this: we’re happiest when we live in the moment. When our minds don’t wander. When we lose ourselves in an activity, we find our bliss.

On the other side of the Matt Killingsworth hard data approach is the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, who also believes that happiness is found by living in the moment. But he takes the process a few steps beyond. He tells us to Stop. Look. Go. First, be in our moment, then recognize it as an opportunity, and finally, go forward with gratitude. Steindle-Rast does not offer false platitudes about gratefulness for the horrible things that happen in life, but he explains how people who suffer terrible loss can also be those who discover transcendent joy.

I’m lousy at this being in the moment business. My brain flies in seventy-five directions at once as I brood over my recent stumbles and fret about the hurdles yet to jump. But there are times, like the hours I pushed that wheelbarrow and shovel around the community garden, when I am nothing but a mass of breathing peace and awareness. Those hours were a gift and I felt the gratitude of the moment.

As I listened to this podcast, the bell of recognition chimed low and sonorous. I’m happiest when I write. Of course. Not grinning ear to ear, giddy, playful Happy, but present, focused, immersed in the moment Happy. Shoveling compost in the garden Happy. I’d go so far as to dispense with the notion of Happiness altogether and call it the even more desirable state of Fulfillment. And, I am grateful.

I agonize about the future, the certainty of failure, the choices that push their way to the surface—some weeds, others nourishment—yet, I need to remember that cultivating gratitude is priority number one. Not success or achievement, but the recognition of opportunity each moment brings.

Do I write because being published makes me happy? Certainly, it’s thrilling and validating. But does it make me happy? Hmm … no. The acceptance of a piece of work is fleeting pleasure. The happiness, the Matt Killingsworth-I’ve-got-the-data-to-prove-it Happiness, comes from the being present in the process. And from recognizing the joy the act of writing brings. In the end, that’s got to be enough.

Stop. Look. Go. Change your world one moment at a time by being grateful for the moment you are in.

Unloading Dirt, Quimper Grange Food Bank Garden ©Julie Christine Johnson
Unloading Dirt, Quimper Grange Food Bank Garden ©Julie Christine Johnson
Quimper Grange Community Food Bank Garden ©Emily Vagts
After the Dirt  ©Emily Vagts

The sky is low ~ the clouds are mean

When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about. ― Haruki Murakami

The week’s forecast promised nothing but grim. Day after day of rain. Heavy skies that reflect only muted grays and browns, the not-cold-not-warm-sensory-deprivation temperatures that dull the mind; outside smells of rotting wood and moldy cheese and inside your hands are always cold and you’re weary of the sound of voices–your own, the cat’s, the cashier at the grocery store asking how you prepare your leeks. In other words: Winter, Pacific Northwest-style. Just when my heart is beginning to ache for Spring. I braced myself.

There’s no forecast for the soul, no way to predict when heavy clouds will sit on your heart and steal your breath. Each morning, you wake and listen to weather building in your mind. Usually, there is a providence of ferry horns and train whistles to signal the arrival of ideas, an urgency of sirens because you can’t wait to pick up where you left off the day before, a racket of errands and chores you must shuffle so your words get the full attention of your brain-heart-hand connection.

But sometimes there comes a spell when you hear nothing. When you think you ain’t got nothing. No more words or no more will to drag them from the foggy corners. The brume descends and all color, taste, music vanish. Your runs are slogs, your swims are trials by sludge, your yogic breathing stutters, because even breathing is Just. So. Hard.

Yet, if you listen a little more carefully, you can catch the signs the other forecasters miss. The slightest slings and the most harmless arrows begin to land and wound. Your confidence becomes dissonance and your inner harmony is bested by the demons of dissension.

You know what’s coming. You don’t know how long it will last, so you batten down the hatches, hunker in your little lifeboat, tuck your head in your sou’wester. Chatter becomes cacophony, so you turn off social media to silence the din of voices, listening for the clarion bell that signals an All-Clear.

You are beginning to accept there is release in disquietude, that depression is not to be feared, but to be used because it brings a certain stillness. The tiny moments of grace shimmer in sharp relief against the tarnished patina of sadness.

And you keep writing. You let habit be the anchor. You start each day in doubt and bewilderment and through sheer force of will (or is it desperation?) you end the day with a sense of the fullness of life. Your life.

If you keep writing, the storms will roll through and scour out the mud and detritus and leave you clean and shining. You will land safely, bumping onto shore with a wobble and scrape.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate most about living on a peninsula that looks like the tailfin of a whale is how quickly weather blows through. As it did this week. Storm front after storm front smashed across the peninsula at night. The wind and rain woke me in the wee hours, our upstairs corner flat shook; I imagined the neighbors’ trees crashing through the glass walls and roof of our sunroom. I groaned at 4 a.m. as I planned out my morning run, knowing the rain and wind would slow my forward momentum and chill me to the bone.

But the days were exuberant with sun. I drove with the sunroof open; I wrote in the sunroom for the first time since Autumn–the temperature approaching 70° even though it was shy of 50° outside. I hiked in shorts.

This Sunday evening, the lights flicker. The house shakes. The wind is so ferocious and the rain so pummeling, I laugh in wonder. The storm signals change, motion, rage and release. It pulsates with furious joy of being alive. I’m not too far behind.

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I live on the tip of a small peninsula (Quimper) that’s on the tip of a large peninsula (Olympic) that reaches for another country (Canada) across a narrow body of water (Salish Sea). To get here from the Big Smoke (Seattle), take a ferry (Bainbridge or Kingston), cross a peninsula (Kitsap), a long bridge (Hood Canal) and drive a winding country highway (104) lined with evergreens (Douglas fir, Sitka spruce). As the crow flies, it’s about fifty miles from Seattle. As humans travel, it’s about 2 1/2 hours by car + boat. © 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

Emily Dickinson
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Rainboots on a sunny day © 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

My Annual Jane: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We have neither of us anything to tell; you because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”  Marianne Dashwood to her sister, Elinor.

And thus is Marianne’s yang to Elinor’s yin. Two halves of a whole, two women bound in love and in blood, as different and dependent as the sun and moon. Passion and logic. Emotion and propriety. ESFP and INTJ.

Jane Austen first crafted this story as an epistolary novel and titled it “Elinor and Marianne.” Although the structure would change as she revised the novel over fifteen years until it was published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between these two young women remained its core.

But this novel isn’t about a conflict between sisters with opposing characters, one directed by Sense, the other driven by Sensibility. It’s about recognizing the sense and sensibility we each possess and how to release one and harness the other when love beckons and threatens in equal measure. It is about a quest for harmony and the embrace of one’s true self, about the ability to admit fallibility while still seeking personal growth. Sense and Sensibility is the Tao of Austen.

The moments of self-actualization are many and profound. Elinor’s is the least notable because she enters and remains the most centered and stable person; Colonel Brandon’s came many years before the novel takes place—we learn of it as he relates the sorrowful story of his lost love and the child he takes on as a ward; but John Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood—each has a period of reckoning that challenges the weakest aspects of their characters and each arrives at a resolution.

Elinor may well be my favorite of Austen’s women (I hedge, because as soon as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I’ll claim it to be Lizzy). She is certainly the most dignified and humane. She is also the most relatable. Her compassion is justified and deeply-felt, which makes her uncharitable thoughts all the more delicious. In this comedy of manners, Elinor is above reproach, but beneath her unflappable surface is a wry sense of humor, prone to irony and exasperation.

Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage.

And although Edward Ferrars does not make my heart thump in the slightest, not compared to the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the dashing Mr. Knightley, or the heroic Christopher Brandon, I have the most tender of spots reserved for the most hopeless of introverts:

“My judgment,” he returned, “is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister’s. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!”

Sense and Sensibility has Austen’s most rousing cast of secondary characters, with the wicked witch Mrs. John Dashwood (portrayed with perfect insufferableness by Harriet Walter in the 1995 film adaptation. The one I must watch at least once a year), effusive, lovable busybody Mrs. Jennings, sly and silly Lucy Steele, and the preposterously mis-matched Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. But it is Elinor for whom I turn each page, in admiration and tenderness. It is Elinor who I most aspire to be, to create, who I wish I could have known, who I mourn because she is the closest connection to the author herself. Elinor had the Happily Ever After that Jane was denied.

“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”

The Tao of Elinor. The Tao of Jane Austen.

And now. I’m done parsing. For that is Sense. I read Jane Austen to indulge my Sensibility. I sink into her novels and want them never to end. I cherish her language, I adore her characters, I marvel at the simplicity and perfection of her plots, I cry because love triumphs in the end. There is just no making Sense of why I adore Jane Austen. There is only Sensibility: Capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. (Oxford English Dictionary; 18th and early 19th c. Usage); the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity (Modern Usage).

Until next time, Jane.

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Blowing through the jasmine…

I walk down the hill to the town plaza, thinking the Thursday evening concert on the dock will be the ideal coda to yet another blissful summer day. Yesterday’s breathless 84°—the warmest day of the year—segued into today’s carefree, breezy 76°.

The Plaza is empty. I check my watch. The concert should be well underway. Then it hits me. It’s September 12th. September. Public school has been in session for several days, the detritus of the Wooden Boat Festival had been hosed away on Monday. Summer—regardless of the sun’s tango with the magnetic Poles—is officially over. There hasn’t been a concert on the dock for two weeks.

I wander through the marina, coming to rest against the warm bronze flanks of a sea otter. The hard consonants of places where dark bread and sausage are eaten at breakfast mingle with rounded drawls dripping with humidity and tangled in mangroves: the final busloads of tourists amble down the ochre blocks of our Victorian seaport to the terminus of the piers, gazing as I do into the bays and the vista beyond.

To the east, the Cascades etch jagged lines into a cerulean horizon, bookended by Mount Baker to the north, Mount Rainier to the south. To the west, the Olympics are confections of cobalt, softly rounded in the late afternoon light and stripped of snow.

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Port Townsend, September. Click for bigger view.

Wrapping the peninsula like a velvet ribbon is a bank of fog that stretches from the Salish Sea through Admiralty Bay to the Port Townsend Bay, where it curls around Marrowstone Island. Fog horns blow—a winter sound incongruous with the sparkling diamonds of sun bouncing off waves and a sky radiating heat like warm denim. The Coupeville ferry emerges from the white ridge, blaring a warning siren in its wake as sailboats and cargo ships slip into the cottony nothingness. I imagine this fog cutting us off from the world, and we become forever marooned in Summerland.

What has happened to me? My autumn anticipation—visions of soup and flannel, leaves and wood smoke, pencil shavings and pumpkin—used to begin its eager percolation in early August. Even in Seattle—where I learned to love summer after years spent in searing central Washington and the sticky Midwest—I’d had enough by Labor Day. The city grows dull with dust, its gardens and trees limp, its citizens twitchy with a saturation of Vitamin D; it just feels wrong in that place of espresso and indie bookstores to go so long without the soporific cleanse of cascading rain.

But here.  I am not ready. I haven’t worn long pants in months and my legs are tan for the first time since 1988. My arms are a frenzy of freckles, my hair lightened to a coppery gold. More than the physical changes, something has clicked inside. I crave sunlight and heat for the first time in my life (right, so heat is relative. Stop at 75°, please—anything more is just showing off). It’s emotional, this connection to the blue and the gold of summer. I tremble to let go of the stillness of warm forests and busyness of the waterfront, to the coming and going of strangers along shaded sidewalks, to the weekly beer dates in the beachfront courtyard of our favorite pub—where pet goats and games of pétanque are minor distractions to the lazy drift of beautiful vessels just beyond.

It’s often foggy here on summer mornings, typical for a maritime climate. This is good for writing productivity. But by late morning I can no longer type away in the sunroom. The rays eat away at the fog, blue overtakes white, the computer screen fades in the outrageous bright, and I become drowsy with the heat. I slather on the sunscreen and cart the laptop to the waterfront, to write to the sound of shrieking gulls and the slap of waves. I could do this every day, 365. I fear I have lost have my Northwest duck feathers that hardly notice a rain shower.

It’s coming. Today and tomorrow a cheerful sun beams from the weather app on my iPhone. By Sunday it’s yanked away, replaced with a faucet drip of rain or a smudge of overcast. Yes, we will have Indian summer—late September through mid-October will bring those glorious sunrise, goldenrod days and crisp nights. But it’s coming. The endless mutations of gray, green, and brown. The steady tick of rain dripping from evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves. Days when the high temperature is the same as the low.

I console myself with the knowledge that I now live in a place described as having a Mediterranean climate, with half the rainfall of Seattle (only twice that of Phoenix, hey!). But in the absence of olive trees and cicadas, Roman ruins, and terraced vineyards, I’m not fooled. I will mourn the brown lines of my sandal tan as they fade from the tops of my feet, the shriveling of blackberries I grab by the handful as I bike along the Larry Scott trail. I will mourn my shadow when it no longer falls onto the sand before me. I’m with Henry James on this one.

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ― Henry James

 “Summer, after all, is a time when wonderful things can happen to quiet people. for those few months, you’re not required to be who everyone thinks you are, and that cut-grass smell in the air and the chance to dive into the deep end of a pool give you a courage you don’t have the rest of the year. you can be grateful and easy, with no eyes on you, and no past. summer just opens the door and lets you out.”
― Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart

Slip Sliding Away

I locked the door behind me and slipped into the cool morning, my final e-mails sent, my final bank statements reconciled. I slipped the key into the mail slot next to the front door and just like that – no fanfare, no trembling of the earth –  I became unemployed a full-time writer.

I think I’ve done what I could to set this up so I can look in the mirror every morning and assure myself it’s going to be all right. Private health insurance for me, new and improved life insurance for the hubs, enough set aside for a disaster. I have a sense of direction and a few self-imposed deadlines. I rearranged my office, ordered a stand-up desk for my laptop, made out a writing to-do list and sallied forth.

The Gremlin of Self-Defeat perches on one shoulder. Picture him nearly tumbling off, he is cackling so hard. The Faerie of Belief (who looks amazingly like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) twirls her sparkly wand and makes all sorts of soothing noises, but thus far hasn’t been particularly helpful. Like, not giving me the right words so I don’t have to sweat them out on my own.

Still, I had a lovely transition to the writing life last week, attending the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. The Conference offered the inspiration I needed to believe I had to give this a try. That even failure would be better than a lifetime of woulda-shoulda-coulda. It’s been only a week, so I’m a little wobbly with what I’m supposed to be doing, besides writing. Which I was doing before unemployment  I decided to try writing full-time, of course. But now I have so many more hours to fill. And finding they aren’t enough for all I want to do.

In the past week, I revised an already-published short story and sent it off for consideration for a new anthology. I’m revising/polishing two other published short stories for a couple of contests and two unpublished shorts and a flash fiction piece to send out to journals. I started a new short story. I’m thinking I’ll take a day or two each week to work on these – a little cross-training for the main event.

I landed on 128,000 words a couple of weeks ago – roughly a 340 page novel. I’m so close to the end, but struggling to write the final scenes and bring all the pieces together in a tidy but satisfying dénouement. I decided it was time to print out the whole crazy mess and start a re-read and a revision from page one, trusting I’d find resolution of the end along the way.

Ah, Jeez. What year is this? How does 2015 sound for a goal end date? Crikey. This is going to take some time. I park at the beach and read aloud to myself in the front seat of the car, red pen in hand. I spent Sunday afternoon filling pages with plot notes that I had to sort through and transcribe. Two mornings spent rearranging scenes. Literally laying them out on the floor and rearranging them, storyboard-style.

But more on the process of revision later. I had a couple of a-ha moments last week, thanks to some super-amazing lectures and workshops which I’ll share in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, here I am, with Gremlin and Faerie on my shoulders, doing their thing. I had some very dark moments during the week, rereading and falling into my own plot holes. I thought, “Julie, this is shite. Really, sweetheart. It’s crap.” But then I’d read a passage or part of a scene and I’d feel it, I’d feel the story. I’d lose myself and forget to look for junky little filler words or moments of telling instead of showing or a better verb.

I tell myself I have to see this through, I have to take it as far as I can. There will always be jobs – I’m through with careers, but I can always find another job. I won’t always have this time, this summer, maybe I won’t even have this hope. But I have it now. And I want to use it, before it slips, slides away.

Whoah God only knows, God makes his plan 
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man 
We’re workin’ our jobs, collect our pay 
Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip sliding away 

~Paul Simon

 

Ghosts That We Knew

The Universe gently letting me know it is still watching, listening, remembering…

 

A group of eight women discovering each other over salmon and fruit salad. Strangers becoming fast friends as women do – sharing intimacies of childbirth and marriage, our deepest fears and silliest thoughts – and then having to ask your first name again, because you look just like the woman who used to teach Hot Yoga at the rec center.

 

Some of us are mothers; some of us are not. Some are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure?

 

Some drive up in Mercedes; others have no idea when the oil was last changed in the rusting Toyota pickup.

 

We come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we need an excuse to escape a too-familiar routine. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child’s favorite meal last week.

 

We discuss the book: a rare meeting of minds as eight women revile the month’s read in equal measure. We marvel at our host’s mad chef skills as she cracks open the baked thick crust of salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender: Pesce alla Sale à la Olympic Peninsula. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink ginger beer without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it’s an excuse for another bacon-jalapeño scone. We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats we milk on our farm.

 

Which leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. As discussions about ruminants do. Who is, who wishes they weren’t, who misses it. Pockets of the table fall into silence as those who are secretly glad their breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children and those who simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old try to find something to do with their thoughts.

 

A side conversation begins. Did you start Terry Tempest Williams’s When We Were Birds?

 

It’s waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish tonight’s book first. I can’t wait.

 

Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. “Ooh, Terry Tempest Williams, I love her! What’s this one about? What’s it called?

 

“When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It’s a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You’d love it. It’s amazing.”

 

One of us curls up inside. One of us remembers a summer’s night a year ago, a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother’s death, were empty.

 

One of us remembers that it was a year ago tonight her womb emptied.

 

One of us marvels at the way the Universe wraps seductively around chance and feigns to be Fate.

 

One of us mourns. Mourns that she had forgotten until this night what this night is.

 

One of us sees the beauty in spending this evening in the company of women who don’t know her sorrow, not yet. But if we did, she knows we would care. We sweet mothers soothe her with our stories, we childless ones smile and allow the others to reminisce, commiserate, to delight in the bounty of their creation.

 

A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts us from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son.

 

One of us reads aloud the opening page to When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice.

 

One of us returns home to reread the words she wrote a year ago. These words, here: The Scariest Thing

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand
Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

So lead me back
Turn south from that place
And close my eyes to my recent disgrace
Cause you know my call
And we’ll share my all
And our children come, they will hear me roar
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me that we’ll be alright

Ghosts That We Knew ~ Mumford and Sons

Leaving Pieces Behind

“She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went. It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said.” ~Brian Andreas

What I have here are two tickets to see the Seattle Symphony performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” conducted by maestro Ludovic Morlot. Next weekend. Stellar seats – Orchestra Center row H, seats 7, 8. These are our seats, you see. This is the last concert of our season package.

We could go. It’s a Sunday matinée; we could make the peaceful hour drive to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, leave the car and walk on for a relaxing 35 minute crossing of the Puget Sound to Seattle’s waterfront. There could be a picnic lunch of fixings from Pike Place – a salmon sandwich on rosemary bread from Three Girls Bakery, a bag of Bing cherries and tender-sweet apricots from Corner Produce, truffles from The Chocolate Market. Then a stroll down to Benaroya Hall for two hours of aural heaven. We’d be home by dinnertime.

But this is the second time we’ve planned a return trip to Seattle since our move, only to look at each other at nearly the last minute and ask: “I don’t wanna go back, do you?” And for the second time the answer is: “Trade here for there, even for an afternoon? That’s a negative, Sailor.”

Each place has its time. Imagine if those freeway signs informing you of commute times could flash your residential expiration date: <<Julie: Please Prepare To Leave In 5 months, 4 days, 3 hours>>. It would be so nice to know when you should start collecting boxes from your neighborhood grocery store.

Some places I left before my time had reached its true end: Chad. New Zealand. Others I never thought I’d stay as long as I did: Ohio. Destinations unplanned and all the sweeter for the interludes: Colorado. Japan. Illinois. Places I’ve lived, but never tire of returning to again and again: France. And those where I am completely at home even though I’ve never claimed a fixed abode: Ireland. Sonoma County.

IMG_0593
Sunrise, Admiralty Bay. June 2013

I made this move with trepidation, even though it was the place we had long ago determined would be the place, the last place we would call home. I feared the regret of leaving a place I loved before its time. I feared the longing for the hard-fought familiar, the comfort of routine, of feeling I was where I belonged.

But what I feared most was the silence. When we last moved to another idyll of mountains and sea, with nights so quiet you could hear the stars falling, the silence fell over me like a thick wool blanket. It smothered all rational thought until I could hear only the sound of my muffled cries as I tried to claw my way back. That took such a very long time.

We left that island for a blue and green city of glittering high rises and snow-capped peaks, farmers markets, cafés, concerts, and freeways frozen like airport parking lots, wailing sirens and booming jets. The bustle and chaos – the presence of millions of others and their dogs and Subarus – was a balm to my raw and lost self. It gave me a renewed sense of life and possibility.

But I am not the same person who was once blindsided by peace and quiet. This silence is not that silence. And the sense of possibility and renewed joy for life are not fed by brewpubs or bookstores, by traffic or meetings. They come from within.

Story setting came up during a recent meeting of a virtual writers’ group I connect with on Sunday afternoons. We were discussing what informs our work. While characters and their stories sustain me, the spark is most often initiated by places where I’ve lived or traveled: a writer’s cottage in a Bavarian garden; a tiny hotel room in Tokyo; a slaughterhouse in rural New Zealand; a castle ruin in the Pyrénées. My writing has a vivid sense of setting because place has so often defined my soul.

And now, on the tip of a peninsula forming the break between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound, in a small town of rainshadows and storytellers, of porpoises and poets, of farmers and boat builders, I am embracing my redefinition.

I don’t know if this seaport of part-time work and full-time dreams will appear in my writing. Perhaps it’s just meant to be the place where I write.

In the meantime… Saint-Saëns anyone?