Pulling the Trigger

It’s every single day now, isn’t it? Each morning brings reports of another powerful man falling from his high chair, a cringing apology-not apology “That’s not how I remembered it, but …” until I am worn out, we are, so very many of us, so very worn out.

 

How to make sense of the relief we feel that our stories are finally being heard and yet we are flooded with anxiety as the tidal wave of trauma washes over us, released by friends and strangers, the famous and the overlooked? #MeToo has given us the voices we have stifled, or simply forgotten how to use, or never knew we had. But the movement is also fraught with triggers as we remember all that we’ve been trained, or simply wish, to forget.

Stillness in solitude. November Dawn. Copyright Julie Christine 2017

 

Until it happens again.

 

A few Friday nights ago. Alone on the dance floor. Fully in my joy. Stone-cold sober (why do I need to mention that? As if it matters. As if I need to assure you I didn’t bring this on, but had I been drinking, I might have been responsible? This is what we do. Footnote lest we are blamed).

 

Unseen hands on my body. I am groped from behind. In the space of a moment, the time it took my brain to register what was happening outside of me and yet fully within my sacredness of my space, my skin, my flesh. I turn to see a stranger’s leering face and I watch as the heel of my hand smashes into his nose, feel the crunch of cartilage, the snap of bone . . . but of course, I don’t. My rage stays tucked away. I wrap my hands around his elbows and push him back, breaking the connection of his hands on my body. And in an instant there is another stranger, stepping in between, dancing me from the scene, putting his body between mine and that twisted leer. I can take care of myself, I think. But at that moment, I don’t want to. I’m so tired. Tired of paying for letting my guard down. This man says, “That was disgusting. I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”

 

I am told later that I should have hit the groper. This fills me with despair. Shame. Guilt. Bewilderment. I’m strong. In the moment, I wasn’t afraid. Disgusted. Repulsed. Ragey. Yes. But not afraid. Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I smash the grin off that mask?

 

The pieces come together when I discover this article, written in 2016.

Our Legal System Punishes Women For Their Neurological Responses To Assault

 

Women aren’t trained to resist their natural instinct to shut down when threatened — and they’re socialized to avoid threats passively rather than aggressively. “[Women] are taught how to politely resist someone making unwanted sexual advances without angering them,” says Hopper. “They learn how to say no without coming out and saying no.” Once that resistance is ignored, the amygdala’s response takes over, and it’s too late. They’re under attack and their brain, controlled by fear and running on instinct, leaves them at the mercy of the perpetrator. “And then they blame themselves for the assault,” says Hopper, “and other people blame them for not reacting more effectively. But would they blame a man who’s been sent to the front line with no combat training?”

And this is to say nothing of the fact that we shouldn’t be blaming victims at all, instead of the perpetrators of assault and abuse.

In the grand scheme of the daily degradation of women, being groped on a dance floor is hardly worth mentioning. This man was nothing. I’d never seen him before and he vanished into the thick of the crowd.

 

But it is the very quotidian nature of this imbecile’s behavior that wears me down. This shit just happens all the time. I can tick off my fingers other small things in recent weeks: the former boss who, in eavesdropping on a conversation between a colleague and me about the dress I was wearing to an event that night, exclaimed, “Why don’t you go NAKED?” The man who lives somewhere in my neighborhood turning his car around to follow me down the block, slowing, leaning out the window to gape at me. That would it occur to anyone to say or do these things boggles my mind. Men with wives and daughters. What is wrong with you? That’s the only thing that occurs to me to ask anymore.

 

Most of us aren’t celebrities violated or demeaned by men in powerful positions. We’re just your sisters, daughters, lovers, friends living with these small and large aggressions, trying to get through our days with grace and dignity. We’ll never make the headlines. Most of us will never speak out. We feel either paralyzed or just so fucking tired; reaction, response seems futile. Having to respond makes us that much more vulnerable. And when we tell our stories, we’re scolded for not having responded appropriately.

 

What is wrong with you?

 

Maybe you’re getting tired of hearing these stories, too. Or of telling them. Just know that for every story you do hear, there are dozens left untold. If you are triggered, step back and take care of yourself. Be gentle with your soul and know that any emotion you feel, any reaction from your heart, mind, body is a valid one. Here’s a good read to help you make sense of the complicated emotions: How to Cope If You’re Feeling Triggered by the #MeToo Movement

 

There is no dénouement here, no redemptive ending. This is a story followed by an ellipses, because most of us are just waiting for the next scene. When it happens again.

 

 

The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017

 

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.

 

But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.

 

A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.

 

Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.

 

For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.

 

I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”

 

And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.

 

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

 

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

Past Becomes Present: A Story Finds its Home

Those cooking magazines stacked on a shelf. I hold on to so little from my past that is tangible, but these long, glossy journals contain dreams and memories about which I cannot speak. I never look through them, and yet I take comfort in the pretty swirl of logo on their spines. They tell of a land where I once made Spicy Pumpkin, Peanut and Spring Onion Fritters, Harissa Lamb Mince, Black Cherry Cake with Ricotta Cream, savored wines from Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago, and pressed flat the corners of color-drenched articles about Waiheke Island, Hawke’s Bay, Akaroa, planning future explorations of our new home: New Zealand.

~

A photograph of three men on a bridge in southwest Ireland. Their waterproof jackets in primary red, blue, and green are playful beacons in a drizzle that softens the air so the photograph looks brushed with mist, like the picture of a dream. One of those men is gone, now.

~

A disaster I watched unfold from thousands of miles away. A city crumbling, streets liquefying, familiar buildings collapsing on themselves, as if dealt a sucker punch to their architectural sternum. The café where I had served slow-braised lamb shanks and poured glasses of pinot noir now in ruins, streets I had walked and biked to yoga, the library, the tea shop, the bookstore turned into canyons filled with rubble. But I no longer belonged to that place. There was nothing I could do but mourn.

~

“We write to exert power over something we can never control,” says Nellie Hermann, creative director of the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. “The past.”

~

The stories that live inside me are threads of evidence. Evidence of my past, real and imagined, remembered and wished for. Many of those threads dangle, barely visible unless the light shifts or the breeze picks them up. But sometimes a thread catches on a thought, and then another, until they weave themselves into a pattern, and that pattern becomes a narrative of character and place, of movement and change.

~

A stack of cooking magazines that hold regrets and broken dreams. A photograph of a moment that holds memories of a man who walked by my side on a green peninsula, where together we built a bistro in the misty air. An earthquake that shattered a place I’d called home. These threads found each other last summer, twirling into a rope I held as I wrote.

~

It is an honor when someone selects your story to share with the world. It is a thrill to press a beautiful volume of prose and poetry and art against your heart and know your words beat within its pages.

~

Mud Season Review, the literary journal of the Burlington Writers Workshop, selected my short story Prix Fixe for its first annual print issue. I am so pleased.

Peter, Randy and Brendan, Dingle Peninsula, June 2006
Peter, Randy and Brendan, Dingle Peninsula, June 2006

Mud Season Review Print Issue

Mud Season Review  Volume 1 May 2015
Mud Season Review Volume 1 May 2015

The Ray Rice Effect

I’d planned to tell you about the writerly “Eureka” moments I’ve experienced these past two weeks as I work through the professional edits of Refuge of Doves. But I can’t. Not this week. This week, I’ve had different sorts of moments. If I don’t speak out, I will begin to question my value as a writer, as much as my experiences have caused me to doubt my value as a woman.

 

Unless you live outside the United States or under a news-free rock, you are aware of the public firestorm caused by the NFL’s recent two-game suspension and fine of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating his fiancée, now wife, unconscious in February. Her name is Janay Palmer.

 

My knee-jerk reaction to this travesty was to bemoan the violent nature of football, and the gladiator-worship that has far more to do with money and celebrity than a celebration of athleticism. I’ll own that I despise professional football. But my view of football isn’t the issue here. In fact, during the river of adoration that gushed through Washington state in the run-up to the Seahawks’ Superbowl win this year, I set out to recalibrate my prejudice against the sport by learning what football can be. I acknowledge that the sport can be played with dignity, that strategy can trump brute force, and that professional athletics can be used as a force of positive cultural change. I hold out hope that these become the norms, instead of the exceptions.

 

Ray Rice’s behavior should be an opportunity for the NFL to send an unequivocal message to fans that abuse is alwaysalwaysalways wrong, that consequences matter, and the victim should never, ever be blamed or held accountable.

 

I’m not an activist writer. I shy away from confrontation. I will be the loser of any face-to-face debate because I suck at verbal articulation. I don’t think fast. I speak softly. I get easily overwhelmed by emotion and I have a very thin skin. I feel deeply, passionately, recklessly, and possess solid convictions, but I do most of my speechifying to my husband, with whom I am of a mind in all matters moral and political. Our discussions are really harmonious duets. After the Newtown massacre in December 2012, I vowed to cease posting anything political to my Facebook page, because the personal cost of responding to anti-gun control advocates was too high.

 

I broke that vow this week, when I posted Keith Olbermann’s impassioned televised op-ed regarding the Ray Rice controversy. I picked up the video via a Facebook friend and shared it on my page. The segment includes devastating footage of Ray Rice pulling Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an elevator.

 

I don’t have television and I don’t watch the news online. I wouldn’t have been able to pick Keith Olbermann out of a lineup. I don’t care what his politics are, which network signs his paycheck, or if he eats his vegetables. He did what the NFL did not do. He spoke up for women. He spoke out against sexism, misogyny, and the most horrible manifestation of a male-dominated society: violence against women.

 

It took all my courage to share Olbermann’s video on my feed, because of the deafening silence that I knew would follow. Because professional sports and celebrity are such sacred cows in our culture, and violence against women is still acceptable behavior. Because interest in Ray Rice and Janay Palmer is prurient and short-lived. Because of the roll-of-eyes attitude of those who see this as a “whatever” matter between a man and the woman who defended him after he beat her senseless.

 

My writing is infused with my experiences, observations, beliefs, passions, fears, and questions; what my characters experience and how they react come from all the tiny threads that, woven together, form this writer. But I’m a storyteller. I surround myself with the imaginary and never write with the intention of using my fiction as a political platform.

 

I wrestle with how raw I will allow myself to become and how opening up on the page will affect my ability to tell a story. I’ve realized in recent months, after reading the beautiful and brave prose of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, how much I hold back for fear of being judged. I have certainly bled on the page writing stories about women who’ve experienced miscarriage, and publishing an essay about my experiences with child loss–an essay I’ve read aloud to rooms of strangers. It doesn’t get much rawer than describing what it’s like to eliminate your baby’s fetus into a toilet.

 

I shared, and will continue to share, those experiences because I believe in shattering the silence and shame of infertility and miscarriage. I will continue to write through frame of these experiences because I believe my words can speak for those who cannot, for those who are desperate for the embrace of someone who says, I understand. It’s not your fault. We write and we read for many reasons, not the least of which is the catharsis of shared human experience.

 

The Ray Rice/NFL debacle this week filled me with shame and fear. Fear that if I speak my heart, my truth, I will pay the price. No one has ever punched me or dragged me from an elevator. I have never been hurt by a boyfriend. I am married to a man of tremendous integrity and compassion. I am smart. I am strong, physically and emotionally. I am privileged to have been born white, in an established democracy, to a family that valued education. Yet, I am ashamed of my own vulnerability. I am ashamed that fear has prevented me from speaking up and fighting back. I am ashamed of the times I was not strong enough to protect myself.

 

Has a man ever used his superior professional position or greater physical strength to intimidate or manipulate me? Yes. 

Have I refrained from reporting abuse because I feared the consequences for me would be worse? Yes. 

Has a man ever made me fear for my physical safety? Yes. 

 

I am not a victim. I am a woman. I am a voice. And I haven’t finished speaking. In fact, I’ve hardly begun.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

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.

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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?

Wherein I rail against cheap wine and contemplate unemployment.

For many years, the résumé folder on my hard drive remained unopened. A small lifetime of sorts passed by, rendering those dozens of NAFSA: Association of International Educator conference presentations meaningless and nullifying my skills in various software programs (PeopleSoft? Access database? Anyone? Bueller?). I let the bones of my career as a study abroad program administrator calcify. Once I turned my back on the Ivory Tower for the green shores of Aotearoa, I never looked back on that decade-plus of world travel and helicopter parents (would I have turned to salt had I tossed one last glance over my shoulder?).

Then it was off to the world of wine, first in vineyards, then in store aisles and finally in a cramped office in Seattle’s University District, sipping and spitting dozens of samples a week. A terrific gig, really – leading people to phenomenal wine is awesomesauce.

Inserting impassioned parenthetical:

Working in vineyards in foreign lands sounds very glamorous, but the months spent pruning and training vines wrecked my hands and wrists: for several months I couldn’t hold a coffee cup, I had to sleep on my back because of the pain, my liver suffered from the massive doses of NSAIDs. It was bliss. Best job I ever cried in pain over.

So when I see people who would bite off their right pinky toe before tossing Kraft Cheese Singles on their grilled sammie throw good money after cheap wine, it breaks my heart.

Ever ask yourself how a labor-intensive, high-overhead agricultural product made from raw ingredients subject to the vagaries of weather and disease can be produced so cheaply? Because the “winery” used crap juice. Best case scenario the juice was rejected by producers who don’t want their names associated with poor quality, so they bulk it off. Worst case, your $5 steal was produced not by people, but by machines, factory-style. It’s made from fruit laden with herbicides and pesticides grown on a massive farm with little regard to land stewardship, and the wine was manipulated to taste exactly the same every time, vintage in-vintage out (if it even boasts a vintage). You paid for a bottle or a box, a cutesy label, overhead, maybe even an ad campaign. You did not pay for wine anyone gave a shit about, except to rip an easy buck from your wallet.

You can do better. You should do better. You don’t have to spend a lot for quality vino. Ask me for a $10-12 wine recommendation. I’m thrilled to oblige. Because I love wine. I love the process. I love the people who grow the fruit and craft the wine with passion and integrity. Because I will never forget the shooting pain in my hands as they closed around a pair of pruning shears or wrapped a cane around a wire. Those tortured hands were producing something of beauty.

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Alas, a manifesto for another time.

I find myself opening that résumé folder not once this spring, but twice. I may be in for a record number of W-2s to track down next year. So far, the count is three (Wait, you say, I missed one! Yeah, well, you blinked). Pretty sure I’m guaranteed a fourth.

Unless.

Here’s where I admit I am strangely relieved that the non-profit for which I have been Business Manager since April is about to go belly up. The Board of Directors recently passed a unanimous vote to close it down over the summer (ahem, not my doing, folks – this is a disaster eight years in the making. I’ve just been paying the bills for six weeks. In theory. Well, not the bills – there are plenty of those. How to pay them, and myself, is another matter entirely).

How can I be relieved the spectre of unemployment and over-paying for inadequate private health insurance is now a real-life ogre? Because it has forced me face what I’ve been pushing off for yet another “Someday.” It’s giving me an out.

I’ve known since those anxiety attacks of mid-April, which I wrote about here, that my head was trying desperately to tell me something. The message finally found a way through my heart, with those terrifying moments of choking panic (which have ceased, tap wood). And this is, in part, what I believe the message to be:

…  … …

This is the hard part. The part where I stare out the window for long moments, check my iPhone for possible life-changing Facebook updates, rearrange the coffee shop punch cards in my wallet. Because it’s so difficult to come out and just say it. Here’s a practice run:

I think I should let this job run its course, not look for another one for (an undecided period of time) and write. Finish my novel? Maybe. At least get it to the point where it’s ready to be turned loose on beta readers, which means a couple more rewrites. Pour out some of those short stories clamoring for attention. Pull together a book proposal – a several-week endeavor. Submit said book proposal to those agents and publishing companies I have yet to research. Attend at least one week of the Centrum Writers’ Conference in July (located conveniently one mile from my house).

And heal. Heal after a year of loss and anger. Run and bike, walk on the beach, cook healthful meals, open my home to friends, read Thomas Hardy, find a park bench overlooking the bay and sit. Sit still. Work on being present, not six months or six years or twenty-six years in the past or similar time spans in the future. Be amazed to have a partner who needs no explanation, who asks “What are you waiting for?” Have faith that even without my income and with the added burden of said stupid health insurance policy, we’ll make it.

Step off the ride, leave the carnival. Do Not Pass Go and definitely do not collect $200.00.

There. I’ve gone and said it. I might just do this thing. This “What do you do, Julie?” “Who, me? Like, what do I do for work? I’m a writer.”

Right. Well. I just submitted a résumé to an art gallery in town, in response to a Help Wanted in the weekly paper. My résumé’s pretty cool, actually. I mean, how many people do you know who have a Masters degree in International Affairs and can boast a stint at a slaughterhouse in New Zealand? What’s that? You say you want to see this résumé? What, you hiring?

Then again, I promised my husband if I ever sell this book, I’d buy him a vineyard in the south of France. Because next to growing stories, growing grapes is the best job there is.

Emptying Tomorrow

What’s said in the marriage, stays in the marriage. Mostly because age is kind and I can’t remember the petty comments we’ve flung at each other over 21 years. The loving comments are said often enough they are ingrained in my heart.

But there is something Brendan said to me long ago which I will share with you: “Julie, you’re not happy unless you have something to worry about.” This resonates still because, well, it’s mostly true. I would cut the word “happy” –  worrying doesn’t make me happy. It makes me.

Let’s rewrite that sentence: “Julie, you’re not, unless you have something to worry about.” Anxiety is my fuel.

This terrific blog post about anxiety and the creative process flowed into my Twitter feed last week: Let’s Talk About Anxiety and the Creative Process. It got me to thinking about the nest of anxieties I create and where it fits into my writing life. Author Dan Blank reminds us we all bear the burden of uncertainty and our fears are relative – no more, no less than the guy in the coffee shop we are eavesdropping on. But in this up-by-the-bootstraps, My-Facebook-Life-Is-Perfect society, we are loath to name our anxieties lest they reveal the gross flaws in our character.

On the heels of Dan Blank’s blog post was an interview with comedian Marc Maron on WHYY’s Fresh Air. Maron is hilarious guy, clever and endearing. And a chronic fretter (Fretterer? Fretishist? Chronically fraught?). When asked by host Terri Gross if he related to the idea of suffering as inspiration for his creativity, Maron replied “…I have found that … I experience a tremendous amount of dread and fear and panic. I think that misery for people that incredibly anxious or frightened is something consistent. I think obsession sometimes works as almost a spirituality. You know, you have a routine that your brain kind of loops around that you call home, but that’s usually in defense of some other part of you that’s unruly. And for me, I think it’s anxiety and panic and worry and dread.” So what you’re saying, Mr. Maron, is that you are not, unless you have something to worry about. You bow at the altar of Dread. Hey, we’re a religion!

A couple of weeks ago I went out for a trail run. On uphill stretch I realized my heart was trying to leap from my throat. I stopped but could not catch my breath. This scared the shit out of me and made my heart race even faster, which made me panic more, which… A man passed me and we waved at one another. I thought it would be bad form to collapse in front of a stranger. Finally my heart slowed and my lungs opened. I hobbled back to the car, chilled and cowed by my body’s betrayal of my mind. I’d been on that same stretch only days before and bounded up the same path. I chalked it up to running on an empty stomach and tried to push away darker fears.

Early the next morning while sitting on the sofa, writing and drinking my morning joe, my heart zoomed. I could have been sitting in a cramped airplane seat in the middle of a 10-hour flight, the way the panic attack came on. Now I was scared. I know, I know, I should have called my doctor (new in town, I didn’t yet have a GP and I was one week away from a new health insurance plan taking effect. God Bless America, Land of It’s Cheaper to Die Than Visit the ER). The next day I sliced my coffee intake in half (a fun few days of withdrawal drudgery ensued) and all but eliminated alcohol. I wondered, at nearly 44, was this the start of hormone-induced perimenopause? I eat clean, I run, swim, bike, yoga – I’m fit as a fiddle. A little creaky and soft in many spots, but sheesh…

Although I couldn’t completely rule out a physical cause for my racing heart (and I do have a doctor’s appointment scheduled. In June.), I’m pretty attuned to my emotional heart. I knew all those tiny eggs in the nest of anxieties I’ve been incubating over the past several months were hatching in the warmth of spring. And some of them are full-grown birds of prey, coming home to roost. Here are my chicks and hawks, complete with ID bands so even if I set them free, we’ll keep track of each other:

Things I Worry About Constantly

  • something will happen to Brendan and I will be alone
  • I will contract a terminal illness (Cold comfort that I already have a terminal illness. It’s known as being born)
  • I will fall victim again to depression and an Amber alert will have to be issued for my soul
  • I will have another running injury and be denied the addictive substance I crave: endorphins
  • I am irrelevant. This is wrapped up in the heartbreak of infertility, miscarriage and the failed attempts to adopt. I have a surplus of love that feels like it’s draining into a black hole of regret and sorrow
  • Money. This is back again, after taking a few years’ hiatus. We’ve given up a lot to follow our hearts’ calling and the compromise, at least in the near future, is financial security
  • I’m missing fundamental truth of my life, something that’s right in front of me. And I’m not getting any younger.

Not on this list:

  • Writing

I search for it. I listen for the scratching the door. But I feel no anxiety about my writing. This is not a matter of self-confidence – I have no illusions about my skills and talents. It’s simply the one open space in my life not crowded by my fears. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t feel anxious when I write. The world slips away and I don’t feel much of anything – not my belly, my bladder, my stiff neck or aching shoulders. I feel the story.

Nor do I entertain illusions about publication, as least not through the traditional channels. I’ve released myself from that pressure and those expectations. When I finish this monster and return to writing short stories before tackling the next long-form project, I’ll hope for the same publishing success as my recent short story endeavors. I’ll do all I can to bring my novel to the shelf, but I remind myself daily that the writing process is what brings me peace and fulfillment, not the reward of extrinsic acknowledgment.

Perhaps this is the fundamental truth about my life over which I seem to lose so much sleep. And I’m not getting any younger.

But I did run that damn hill again.

bending not breaking  admiralty inlet may 2013
bending not breaking
admiralty inlet may 2013

Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths. Charles Spurgeon