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

Book Review: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog: A NovelStarted Early, Took My Dog: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kate Atkinson does this thing that I love, it’s a thing director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants” “Sideways” “About Schmidt”) and my favorite girl, Jane Austen, do that I just eat up. These artists excel at creating anti-heroes, be it Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, Payne’s Miles (though lion’s share of credit should go to writer Rex Pickett for Sideways), or Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy, who aren’t afraid to mock their own bad luck and bad moods. There is always a steady stream of wit and irony coursing through the narrative that keeps grim circumstance from becoming maudlin.

Of course, a deeply-flawed protagonist in crime fiction – whether she be a private dick or he a DI – is par for the course. What makes Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series so compelling is the author’s brilliant prose. She takes the rote scenario – a tossed-about, lonely, erudite investigator solving mysteries more through happenstantial coincidence than skill – and injects it with unexpected but delicious detail in syntax that delights. It’s like being told grilled cheese is for lunch and being presented with just-melted burrata, fresh tomato and basil on grilled pagnotta. Comfort food with panache.

Started Early, Took My Dog – Atkinson’s fourth featuring former solider and policeman Jackson Brodie – offers far more in the satisfying character department than handsome, lovelorn, brooding Brodie. I will fully own my sucker’s heart for The Ambassador, Jackson’s foil who doesn’t object to being trundled about in a large sack. Senile actresses, slimeball cops, meth-ed out prozzies are vivid and compelling fodder. We are introduced to mall security guard Tracy Waterhouse, she of size extra-large slacks and size extra-large heart. I hope like hell we see more of brave and hilarious Tracy. She is more than Jackson’s match in ironical survival. And her small but fierce appendage will break your heart a hundred times over:

“Courtney, on the other hand, had made more of an effort, dressing herself from a selection of yesterday’s new clothes. Some of them were on backwards but she had got the general idea right. Tracy’s efforts at hairdressing the previous evening weren’t entirely successful. In the cruel light of day the kid looked handmade. She had finished her cereal and was staring, Oliver Twist-like, at the empty bowl.”

I did feel a twinge of annoyance at the messy nature of Jackson’s personal relationships; he is too easily cowed by the women he has loved and with whom there is a history of mutual neglect. Jackson has a hard time moving on, but Atkinson uses these relationships as a plot device to give her characters context and to ground them in the present.

As important of features as wit and irony play in Atkinson’s narrative, they do not overshadow the intelligence and humanity that run deeply through her stories. Perhaps more than the three novels that preceded it, Started Early… challenges the moral centers of its characters and readers. They and we are compelled to question the rights of parents vs. the welfare of children, the nature of identity and family, and the true victims of drug dependency and prostitution.

The crimes and misdemeanors at the heart of Started Early… stand alone for those uninitiated to Ms. Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie oeuvre. But do yourself a favor, partake of the whole rich banquet.

And how could I not love this story, when its title was inspired by Emily. Dickinson, that is:

I started Early – Took my Dog – (656)

BY EMILY DICKINSON
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

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