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

Trying to Fly: Giving Up What Weighs Me Down

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Are you: Becoming More or Less of You

Do you: Realize Who Owns You

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Northwest Autumn © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

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

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 mid-September. 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 final busloads of tourists amble down the ochre blocks of our Victorian seaport to the terminus of the piers; 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. I join them in gazing into the bays and the vistas 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 as sailboats and cargo ships slip past and into the cottony nothingness. I imagine this fog cutting us off from the world, marooning us in Summerland forever.

 

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 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 as I let go of the stillness of warm forests, 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 Wednesday 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 sunrises, goldenrod days, and crisp nights. But it’s coming, that endless mutation 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. 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 it fades 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

 

**A version of this post first appeared in this blog on September 14, 2013. A day exactly like today.

The Music of Silence

“Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.” ~ Marcel Marceau

I struggle with silence. I write in the pre-dawn hours to classical music, during the day to one of a few dozen playlists. I run to NPR when I need to keep a steady, easy pace, switching over to up-tempo music when the legs are ready to work. I walk to podcasts. I read to music, or worse, to the news. It is so quiet here at night, I can’t sleep without a white noise machine.

But I’m discovering the music of silence.

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Autumn brings me to the forest. In the late afternoon, when my eyes have swelled and my brain has shrunk from hours in front of the computer, I take long rambles through the woods. I force myself to go it alone. To listen. It’s scary for me to set out without music or podcast, for it means I have only my thoughts to keep me company.
But there is music in the silence.

The salal and salmonberry rustle as creatures take umbrage at my intrusion. My knees click in complaint, for they’ve already suffered a morning run. My breath puffs and my heartbeat thrums as I plod up a steep slope. The susurration of the tide on the shore far below, the bellow of a foghorn, the whine of a plane propeller, the pneumatic holler of geese and the uneven call and response of my worries and hopes create a symphony of sound.

The quieter I become, the louder the world seems. I have silenced social media, finding the crowded, noisiest rooms are the loneliest. Writing is lonely enough. And filling it with others’ noise means I’m not present on my own page.

Welcoming stillness may just give me a chance to hear the most important thing. And what could that be? Shhh…

Listen… 

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.

IMG_1106
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

Wild is the music of the autumnal wind

Wild is the music of the autumnal wind

Wild is the music of the autumnal wind
Among the faded woods.
William Wordsworth “Book VI The Churchyard among the Mountains”, The Excursion 1814

 

Two days ago I was driving up Florentia, on the north side of Queen Anne, when I entered a tunnel of scarlet and gold. The maples danced like Moulin Rouge chorus girls. They were perfectly aligned on either side of the road, flashing their brilliant leaves like petticoats a-whirl, their delicate limbs swaying in the wind. It was a gift that lasted but a few heartbeats, until the clouds shifted and the leaves ceased pulsing.

 

This autumn has offered many moments of heart-bursting beauty. Such an autumn as I have never experienced in the Northwest, certainly not in this city that is often shrouded by endless varieties of greens and grays. A warm, dry September and the gradual cooling of October and November set us up perfectly for this year’s bounty of vibrant color.

 

The process itself is poetry: chemical pigments—carotenoids, anthocyanin, tannins—develop as chlorophyll production slows in the cooler weather. They mix and mingle, producing tones of bronze and gold, pumpkin orange, maroon and Burgundy red, and scarlets so deep they are almost purple. The leaves are incandescent, as if lit from inside. Their copper hues blaze on hillsides and urban avenues, they shimmer in the early morning light and radiate in the glow of sunset.

 

The riotous palette lasts until shortly after the first frost, which occurred yesterday. The drift of leaves towards earth is accelerating. On my run this morning it was clear and cold. Showers of crimson and golden foliage fell onto grass rimed in white. Soon we will be the Emerald City again, our firs and hemlocks, pines and madrone providing shelter, texture and tones of green to the soft grays and browns of winter.

 

The season has been a gift. It has given me yet another reason to be grateful for the grace this city has brought in the four years we have lived here.

 

A sense of place—a connection to my environment—is vital to me. It is perhaps why travel has long been at the core of my soul. The places I discover, try on, taste, listen to, interact in and dream of reflect what is most precious to me. Every village, town, state, and country in which I’ve lived and many in which I’ve travelled have left impressions that follow me around like a gaggle of shadow friends. Some—New Zealand, Ireland, the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, the deep hollows of Appalachian Ohio—have moved me, shifted my soul, altered the course of my life. It is these places I explore the most as I write, giving shape to characters and events through the lens of setting. I write of seashore and mountainside, of broken-down hamlet and hidden paradise, of antique markets and manicured gardens.

Other places—I think of France and of my backyard, Seattle—are too much a part of my present and immediate future to appear in my fictive scribbles. Though I do have plans for France: there is a story that’s been burning inside me for a couple of years, but it’s set in the past. My shadows will get walk-on parts, at best.

 

The November I returned to the Northwest, to call Seattle home for the first time, played itself out far differently than the colorful, sun-filled season now ending. That November was muted, sombre and wet. I arrived from late spring in New Zealand, where there is little pollution to block UV rays and the light is dazzling no matter the season, to the soft watercolors of the Northwest in late fall. My new-old surroundings cloaked me. I too was muted and sombre, a shadow of the vibrant soul I had been before being felled by deep, malignant depression. Re-entering this country in the season of darkness and chill gave me a chance to heal and rebuild in a cocoon of a cozy apartment, the bustling joy of holiday cheer, bursting coffee shops, and peaceful bookstores. As the city blew off the sodden leaves coating its lawns, as the light from the east broke into our bedroom earlier each day, as the season of renewal approached, I felt green shoots of hope and health bursting in my heart, even as the roots that connected me to this place grew deeper and held me fast, at long last.

 

And here again, as autumn drifts to winter, as day seeps toward the longest night, I am in my season of content and I am home. I am grateful for the beauty of this incomparable autumn, but I look forward to the rich darkness of winter that promises peace.

You Say Goodbye And I Say . . .

September. It is the month of beginnings, of fresh starts, of renewal and reconnection. I took my first breath on an early September day at 3:36 a.m. at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Pasco, WA. Twenty-three years and two days later I started a new life with Brendan, a few minutes after 5 p.m. at Mt. Pisgah Presbyterian in Roslyn, WA. I fell in love in September, landing in Paris on the morning of September 10, 1990 and stumbling wearily from a jetway into a country that would hold me in its spell to this very day. A thirteen year career in higher education, running parallel to Brendan’s as a high school teacher, meant that our lives ran according to a September-August calendar; Labor Day marked the end of one year and the head-long rush into the next. Even in New Zealand September marked the turn of new page: the first of the month was the official, meteorological start to spring.

I breathe easier when the calendar flips from torpid August to bustling September. The light loses its glare, deepening to a soothing blue that tempers still-warm afternoons. The sun glows lower on the horizon, beaming harvest gold before sinking behind the Olympic Mountains earlier each evening. For a few glorious weeks the earth balances on the cusp of ripe and decay and the air pulses with deep, ancient smells. Early morning fog brings aromas of a cooling ocean to my doorstep, late afternoon sunshine warms the sugars in the apples and plums that fall and burst open on my neighbors’ lawns.

This year an estival twist has challenged my internal calendar. After bemoaning a spring that never was, we have been graced with cloudless skies and temperatures that have held steady in the 70s and 80s since late July. September has brought our warmest days; the skies glow Tuscan red and orange at daybreak and sunset as fires burn deep in the Olympic Mountains. We’ve toasted our weekend dinners of grilled salmon or simple salads on the patio with chilled rosé, even as I dog-ear recipes for hearty soups in the autumn issues of cooking magazines. The bedroom fan, silent for most of the summer, finally got a good dusting off a few weeks ago and oscillates through the night.

I’ve been grateful for this extension of summer, content to remain in my warm weather uniform of Tevas, tank top and running skort, eating finally-ripe tomatoes and lush peaches, knowing these hedonistic pleasures are fleeting in this land of perpetual dripping green.

But this morning I caught a glimpse of the week’s forecast as I flipped through the Sunday paper. Clouds and cooler temperatures will be ours by week’s end. I cannot wait.

Brendan just interrupted me, insisting I go outside to look at the moon. The moon that will wax full in few hours. The Harvest Moon. And on the other side of that moon is Autumn. The season to start anew.