My Character (‘s) Flaw

Several days ago we stood on a beach, looking out across the Salish Sea, our shoulders hunched against the briny wind. Brendan turned to me and said, “Our lives are changing.”

Freighter on the Salish Sea

Not so many years ago, this sentence would have been “We are changing our lives.” Hard-wired for motion, we grew restless every two or three years. We switched jobs, home loans, states, cities, countries with ease – not seeking anything better, not out of dissatisfaction for where we were or what we had – but out of a spirited curiosity, a determination to embrace adventure. And like magic, the opportunities appeared. A better-paying job offer materialized after I submitted a letter of resignation to my current employer; buyers snapped up our house before it went the market; Permanent Residency was granted when we’d hoped only for six-month work permits. It seemed that each time we decided to leap without a net, the Universe said “Go on! I got this.”

But then we landed here, in this green and gray city of whey-faced, over-caffeinated hipsters and North Face puffy-coated soccer moms and we fell in love. We fell in love with the city’s sparkling waters and downy peaks, its bookstores and beer, its endearing neighborhoods of Arts and Crafts bungalows and small-batch gourmet cupcake joints. We found fulfilling work, a cheap rental in a great neighborhood, created a community of friends and thought, “Right. We’re home, let’s set down stakes and dig in.” And dig in we did. Five years in one city is a record for our nearly-21 year union. And it felt right. Mostly. Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

Here’s my Solstice blog post. I’m all “It’s been a pretty rough year, but now the light is shining again” Zen-like reflective, thinking the year had closed and I could move on, right? I can’t reread it. I’m afraid I might cry and not get through the rest of what I want to write tonight. The thing is, in the final hours of the year that was, our settled little life shattered.

I am easily disappointed by people. Classic introvert that I am, it’s a major character flaw. But I don’t want to be that person, so I work to pull my heart out, open it and offer up bits to strangers and loved ones alike. Then something happens and all my demons snigger and shout “See? See! Just like we’ve said all along. People Suck!”

Maybe that’s why I read fiction. Make-believe characters are far more satisfying than the real things. And if they aren’t, I can toss the book aside and move on to the next. Or, if I make my way to the end, I can pound out a review, holding the author entirely responsible for the flaws in his characters.

And it’s very likely why I write fiction. But this isn’t to suggest that the fiction writer is a puppeteer stringing her characters along. When you are fully engaged in your story, writing from a place of authenticity, your characters lead you. I’ve spent six months getting to know my protagonist and just this morning did she finally tell me what she wanted. I’ve asked her since day one, knowing as any good student of writing does that all characters want something and it’s the writer’s job to put obstacles in the way of those desires – that’s what makes a plot. But there sat my protagonist with a phone cradled to her ear, listening to a friend sharing news that will allow her to make choices, and changes, to her life, to live where and  – after a fashion –  how she wants. Suddenly she’s faced with deciding what that really is. And telling me, the writer, in the process. I just had to have the patience to let her tell her story and to remain silent so I wouldn’t muck it up.

Last Saturday I participated in an extraordinary workshop, “Salon at SAM”, co-sponsored by the Seattle Art Museum and Hedgebrook, a retreat for writers on Whidbey Island. We selected a work of art from the SAM exhibit Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, created a character based on that work and wrote a monologue in his or her voice.

I selected a short, continuously looped black and white film. The artist filmed herself on a beach, rotating a hula hoop around her hips. You couldn’t see her head, only her naked, beautiful body. And the hula hoop wasn’t what you tossed around your waist in the 4th grade. This hula hoop was made of barbed wire. It punctured and bruised the artist’s skin. The film was horrifying and brutal – a political protest that touched me in a very personal way. And it gave me a story.

We shared the experience of writing from a work of art with the large group. Then we returned in small groups to the art we’d chosen and read our monologues aloud. I wrote the dance with a hula hoop made of barbed wire as a dream my character was having, a dream that made her realize she was in a situation she wanted out of, but wasn’t able to admit the truth. In my story, my character was speaking to her husband. As my small group discussed my monologue, one woman turned to me and said “I don’t think your character is talking to her husband. I think she is talking to another woman.” I felt a rush of relief  and gratitude when I heard this. “I knew it,” I replied. “Thank you. I knew the husband part was wrong.” I hadn’t been able to think of the “what next” until my fellow writer made me realize I was directing my character, instead of allowing her to move me.

And isn’t that just what happens in life? We get so wrapped up – so busy and noisy – pushing our lives the way we think they should be going, because it’s the logical thing, it’s the expected thing, it’s what we think others will value, that we blow right past the simple truths, the clear path of “what next.”

I won’t go into what happened. Not here. Not now. It’s a story of such insanity that it would take more than a blog post to sort through. And besides, it’s far too rich for nonfiction. I’m collecting the details even as I live through the nightmare, because someday this is going to make a fucking great read. But know that our health is fine, we are loved, we have each other and for the most part, our senses of humor remain intact. With all of this, we can get through anything.

But our lives are changing. And since the Universe is watching and listening, I just want to add: We are changing our lives.

The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

IMG_1102
Storm clouds over Elliott Bay, Seattle

You wouldn’t know looking around our small apartment that Christmas is but a few sleeps away. We’ve forgone our annual wet and windy visit to the Boy Scout Troop 100 Christmas Tree lot at St. Alphonsus Church across the street from Ballard Market. Although the stack of holiday greetings grows daily, the cards and letters remain unopened, as do the boxes of cards I bought for our own missives. I won’t be watering poinsettias well into March because neither red nor white bloom graces our table. I can hardly be bothered to light even a candle.

We’ve decided to keep our heads down and plow through the rest of this year without celebration. Maybe we fear attracting any more attention from higher powers that seemed to hold the screw to us during 2012. Maybe we’re just weary. Maybe celebration right now feels wrong.

But I can’t stop myself from yearning for light, from reaching for the promise of renewal that the Solstice offers. It is not Christmas that holds my wonder and feeds my anticipation. I absolved December 25th of unreasonable expectations and spiritual significance some years ago. I just like the lights on the tree.

It is this ancient tradition of honoring evergreens and the burning of bright light in the darkest days that allows me to find solace in the Solstice. I think upon this day as the year’s end, the time to pause and reflect as the seasons shift and the earth stutters, then marches resolutely toward Spring.

This was a year when light and dark were in constant flow, when the weight of deepest sorrow was counter-balanced by the relief of joy. Yet I come to the Solstice feeling smaller somehow, a bit shrunken and defeated by the 365 days that have passed since the night last receded, then grew full again. I watched as a loved one received the death sentence of a terrible, prolonged disease. A few weeks later life inside me stilled once again, even as I imagined names and hair color, tiny hands to hold and a little voice calling after me. I’ve had to stand idly to one side, fists clenched, heart pounding in rage, as the person I adore and respect most in the world agonizes over present and future and what little control he has over each seemingly stolen away. I’ve looked in the mirror at a body that seems hell-bent on thwarting every good thing I try to do for it, forcing me twice under a surgeon’s knife and taking away in recent weeks the one thing that brought me endorphin-surging physical release. I’ve had to accept that many of those who’ve known me the longest are the least interested in discovering who I have become. And then, in the last days of this year, my voice joined the chorus of rage and grief as a stunned nation absorbed, helplessly, the news of the slaughter in Newtown.

And yet.

And yet there is light. There is laughter. There is deep happiness and certain peace. There is the celebration of twenty years of marriage – defying odds set against two very young people who knew one other five months before vowing to spend a lifetime together, listening to their hearts instead of their heads. I’d do it all again. One hundred times again. It takes my breath away to think how easily we could have slipped past each other during that busy, distracted spring of 1992, never to know what soul mate meant.

There were winter days in medieval ruelles of Paris and late summer afternoons in Irish meadows. Hundreds of miles of Seattle pavement under my running shoes (and there will be hundreds more, believe me: Body and I are working out the terms). Sunsets over Shilshole Bay. The sweet joy of new friendships blooming. The unexpected embrace of a colleague who says, “Things are better with you here.” Laughter, dancing, beer and music in a beautiful community that is home, with spirited and loving people who are my family.

And there are my words, my sentences, paragraphs, pages. The slowly but steadily growing word count on a manuscript which has become my anchor, my refuge, my way – thank you, Richard Hugo – of saying the world and I have a chance. Perhaps Hugo meant that by the act of creating art, the world and I have chance together. And that perhaps I can, I should, I must, use my words to pursue what I believe is right and try to create good out of so much sadness.

Brendan and I went for a long walk late in the afternoon of this, the shortest day. I’m not one for portents, but I’ll share this photo I captured of a Bald eagle against the cerulean sky and diamond-bright moon. I’ll take the raptor’s presence as the last blessing of this long season of darkness and be grateful for a moment of grace, no matter what the next seasons may bring.

Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice
Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice

I am ready to meet this longest night and then watch as, minute by minute, it shrinks into the New Year and succumbs to the light of Spring.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. No matter who said it, I like it.