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

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE’s Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We’re a race of elsewhere people. That’s what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world’s worst bankers. …It’s in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won’t want to return.

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An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delightful By Contrast*

Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it. ~ Henry David Thoreau
So much for taking advantage of a few hours’ comp time. I managed to leave the office at noon as planned, but then I made the unfortunate decision to check work e-mail as my lentil soup warmed on the stove.

It’s now after 4:00 and my iPhone sits on the counter beside me. I‘m waiting for responses to several e-mails and phone calls, hoping to douse Friday afternoon embers before they spark into weekend fires. IT malfunctions prevent me from accessing the database I need to fix problems flinging themselves at my inbox. The frustration winds into knots that cramp my shoulders and throb in the base of my neck. The tension headache pulses just behind my eyes. This was to be my time to write, to reconnect with my manuscript. Instead I’ll pound some random thoughts into submission and force them to coalesce into a blog post.

I’ve been thinking about the fine line between routine and rut. I’ve been thinking about it a great deal since returning from Ireland. Because I seemed to have escaped the latter, yet I now struggle to regain the former.

I’m pretty taken with my routines. I guard them jealously. These are the small bits of my day I can control while the rest of life swirls heedlessly around me. The precious hours between 4 and 7 a.m. when I write, run, contort my limbs into camels and plows; that hour before bedtime when I settle in with the book of the moment; the Saturdays when miles of pavement pour forth in front of me and I race to the finish, knowing a quiet day of writing is the only other item on my to-do list.

I started my manuscript in early July and quickly settled into a productive pattern: writing every morning before and most evenings after work, all day Saturday after my long run, a few hours on Sunday in between errands and cooking. I planned my writing around Brendan’s interminable work days, making the most of the little time we have together.

The beauty of a long holiday is the chance to step out of the well-trodden path that threatens to harden into a rut. Yet, one of the things I love most about travelling is the creation of a little world that only you and your travel companion inhabit – a world of private rituals and routines that shape your adventure and later, your memories.

Simplicity defined our Kerry Way routine. And in this simplicity we found our bliss. I would rise while the B&B was yet asleep and make a cup of dreadful coffee from the Nescafe instant packets tucked into the tea service tray in our room, then creep barefoot to the guest parlour to write. To write until I could smell bacon frying, to write until I could hear the dog barking, to write until footfalls overhead told me other guests were waking. Brendan would collect me and we padded with feet still sore from the previous day’s miles to the dining room, our stomachs whimpering with hunger, forced to wait until the civilized hour of 8:30 to be fed.

After a breakfast of – wait for it – muesli with whole milk, soda bread slathered with butter and orange marmalade, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast (for her); scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage with toast (for him); a full pot of coffee, black, our work began. And what a job it was: to hike 12-20 miles along the Kerry Way to the next bed and breakfast, to a hot shower, a dinner of fish and chips or lamb stew and pints of Guinness and Bulmers, to reruns of American shows we’ve never seen, to that day’s Irish Times and one or two pages of our vacation reads, and at last, to our pillows where hours of fresh air and hard walking led to instant, sweet, deep sleep. Rinse. Repeat. 180 miles. Eleven days on the trail, five more mucking about Co. Galway.

I showed up at the page every morning. Routine maintained. But the thoughts I thought I would have during those long hours on the trail  – of my  characters, their plot still in a tangle – I had not. I thought, in fact, of little else but my next footfall, for deep bogs, rocky climbs, meadows strewn with gorse marked our way. I thought of the hot shower and cool pint that awaited a few hours and many miles away.

In other words, I broke out of my rut of living days, months, years into the future, and explored the precious path of Being in the Moment. I let go. It almost hurts to look back at the photos Brendan and I took of each other along the way, for the peace and happiness we found is writ large in our eyes and limbs. There was nothing more on our minds at those moments than the quiet joy of being where we were, doing what we loved most, with the only other person we could imagine sharing the moment.

But one cannot spend the rest of one’s life on holiday. Unless one is Sir Richard Branson.

So, it’s back to the grind. Or not.

I wish I could have picked up where I left off, stepped right back into that productive pattern, that familiar routine. But life has gone a bit pear-shaped since our return. Our work schedules have yet to right themselves. Frustration distracts me. The diminishing light and cooling temperatures mean no more late afternoon writing sessions on the patio, my back warmed by the summer sun. I still have so many hand-written pages to transcribe into Scrivener that I’m producing little new material. I feel scattered and disconnected, as if an essential part of myself is missing. Left in the west of Ireland, on the side of a hill made of granite and covered in gorse.

Just yesterday, three weeks after our return, I felt a spark. I gave my brain free rein as I transferred early morning scribbles from September 16 into my computer manuscript. I stopped playing secretary to my notebook and returned to being a writer.

Which was my plan for this afternoon. Until I looked at that cursed e-mail inbox.

While I wait for my phone to ring, I may as well peruse our vacation photos. To see what peace looks like. Join me, won’t you?

The Kerry Way Slide Show

*All of us, from time to time, need a plunge into freedom and novelty, after which routine and discipline will seem delightful by contrast. ~ Andre Maurois

The Story Takes Flight

 

I clicked on “Compile” and Scrivener, the writing project management program I’m using to write my novel (italicized because I feel so goofy saying it, the cliché that I am as I tap away on my laptop in this Seattle coffee shop, with my travel mug at hand. At least it’s not raining and I am drinking decaf) pulled together a multitude of scenes, a handful of chapters and the lump of Part One into a WORD document, formatted, paginated, appearing to be something so much more than it is.

And now it sits beside me, 159 pages in dreadful Times New Roman font, the 31,900 words I have written since July 7. I just had to see what all those words looked like on 8.5 x 11.

If I flip through the pages and don’t read the actual sentences, it looks like a real manuscript. Paragraphs are indented, quote marks indicate dialogue, there are even chapter headings. Scrivener helpfully (hopefully?) created a title page for me, though I do believe I changed the “A” in my title to “The”. Hmm. Scrivener. Must fix that. One simple word shifts the meaning and tone of the story.

If I read the pages more carefully, I see scenes that end in mid-paragraph, ellipses where I left a sentence dangling. I see “NAME”, which stands in for a character (as in, “NAME crouched next to de Castelnau’s supine form”) who is a John Doe until I decide what he should be called. I see tenses that shift mid-page, I see notes to myself typed in a scene instead of into Scrivener’s handy sidebar. I see what Anne Lamott assures writers they will create in a project’s early days. I see a shitty first draft. The first third of a shitty first draft. There is far more excrement to be written before I even attempt revision.

But I see some wonderful things, too: tension and surprise, attraction and intrigue. I see darlings I’m certain I’ll have to murder in future drafts – those bits and pieces a writer thinks are the best things they’ve written, those clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions that really only get in the way of the story. But they are fun to look at. I’ll save the assassinations for later.

I compiled and printed this happy mess out of curiosity, but also out of anxiety. I am stepping out of rhythm with the tango my story and I practice every day. It’s holiday time. In a short while (I’ve since left the coffee shop and type at you now in the dark of my living room, the wee light of dawn still hours away), I will heft a bag full of hiking gear into the trunk of a car and Brendan and I will make our way to the airport, through security, and onto the train that will whisk us to the North Satellite and our flight to Dublin.

I fear I will lose my characters along the way, that the momentum which has carried me these past two months will stall somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and slip beneath its cold, grey waters. So, in addition to my writing practice notebook – a brand new Moleskine with pages so white and fresh my hand trembles in anticipation – I am packing these 159 pages (double-faced, not to worry – tucked into a manila enveloped and slipped in the outside pocket of my carry-on, you’d hardly feel the weight). Just in case.

I may never once open the envelope in the sixteen days we are away. In fact, I probably shouldn’t. We take vacations to escape from our current life, perhaps to rest the body or challenge it in new ways, but certainly always to rest and reinvigorate the mind. Getting some distance from my story’s cast and setting, from the sticky plot points I haven’t determined how to resolve, may be the best way to ensure I’ll see this thing through to the end of its beginning. Because that’s all it is. A beginning. My obligatory shitty first draft.

So I bid you farewell. It’s 3:30 a.m., finally time for more coffee – the full throttle stuff this time. I’ve got my morning writing to get done, in my brand new Moleskine. Then I’ve got a flight to catch.

 

Not All Who Wander Are Lost*

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

There was never a question that the celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary would involve passports. It was just a matter of where. I recall having plans to celebrate our 15th in Greece, but we found ourselves living in New Zealand that year, so we traded in visions of the cobalt Mediterranean for the reality of the cerulean Pacific. Not a bad deal. Greece is back on the table for our 25th. Italy sat at the tippy-top of the list for a long while. I’ve travelled it knee to toe; Brendan and I have been to the Veneto and Trentino together. But there is so much we want to do in Italy, we couldn’t decide where to start. Italy got reshuffled back into the deck.

Southeast Asia was mentioned. Enchanted by Cambodia and Vietnam during his stay in 2005 as a Fulbright Teacher-Scholar, Brendan can’t wait to return with me and I can’t wait to go. But it requires more preparation and planning than we have energy for right now. Then there’s that walking and whisky tour of Scotland we’ve mapped out, with a long weekend in Iceland on the way over. Maritime Canada. Mongolia. I’ve been after South Africa for some time now and I’ve just about got Brendan convinced, but not in time for this year.

At some point in early spring we realized we were over-thinking the whole program. If you know us, you know we’d pick up sticks tomorrow and move (back) to France. France forms the foundation of our dreams. It is where we both entered adulthood, Brendan working at a family-run vineyard and Cognac distillery the year after he graduated the University of Oregon, I studying at the University of Savoie. It is the reason we met, a shared struggle over Proust in Advanced French Literature. Brendan was completing his teaching certificate at the same university where I was finishing a double major after a year studying in Chambèry and a summer teaching in Japan. We’ve returned to France several times over the years, mostly together, on occasion alone.

When we moved to Seattle from New Zealand, we did not resume our former careers as a high school teacher (Brendan) and study abroad program manager (me). This meant no more summers off for Brendan and the drying up of my frequent flyer mileage account. We determined that for the next few years, given the demands of our jobs that zap time and energy for complicated journeys, we’d limit our travel to the one place we know we love, where every visit solidifies our desire to make a life there, someday: France. It is travel with a strategy. We keep up our language skills and culture specific know-how while scoping out long-term possibilities (I’m talking retirement here, people, nothing like a little 20 year vision). We visit a new region each time, staying in one place to really learn it, then end the trip with a couple of days in Paris. We even have “our” hotel in Paris. It is never work to plan, but it’s an adventure from start to finish.

This year, for our 20th, Burgundy called. We decided to base ourselves in Beaune and bike the countryside, rent a car for a long weekend hop over the German border to visit friends in Freiburg, take a few day trips by train south to Macon and Beaujolais; we’d drink and eat and bike our way through one of the most beautiful regions of France we’ve never seen. Done deal.

So, we’re headed to Ireland. Come Wednesday, our anniversary, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots and setting stride along the Kerry Way.

It’s been a year of tremendous change and turmoil. Events exhilarating and exhausting have left us with such a need for peace, reflection and a complete unplug from our current of thoughts. One afternoon as we mulled over where to pick up the rental car, which weekend to dash to Germany, if we should bypass Paris to spend a weekend in Champagne, Brendan turned to me and said, “Let’s go to Ireland.” In that instant, I knew. I felt immediate peace.

By just speaking the word “Ireland” aloud, I feel my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax, my jaw loosen. I envision those long, quiet hours on a trail, surrounded by every shade of green, blue, gray and gold the fields, sea and sky can offer, the clouds overhead as creamy white as the sheep that watch us as we tramp through their paddock.

This will be our fourth trip to Ireland in ten years. We do the same thing, in a different area, each time. And that thing is The Walk. We surrender all planning to the darling, generous, efficient, tremendous team at Southwest Walks Ireland. We simply arrive when and where we are told. We rest and rise the next morning to begin days and days of walking. There is a map, we have our packs, we hike hill and dale, stopping to marvel, rest, eat, talk when and where we will, trusting we will find our way each day to that night’s lodging. In the evenings there is a snug B&B, a warm pub, a steaming bowl of stew, a Paddy’s over ice or a pint of Guinness with a head taller than my hand is wide. There is music, there is silence. And always, every day, there is the long, long walk. 

In the early days we stick together, chatting, bubbling over all the things we haven’t had time to share in the rush of days and weeks when we hardly see one another. But soon we fall silent. Words are no longer necessary when your hearts are in perfect synchronicity.

Warm beaches on remote islands or ocean liners on the high seas don’t interest us. We both rest best when we are in motion – it is a mélange of play and exercise that allows us to let go of the pressures and expectations of our everyday lives and brings us back to the sweet and simple people we are at heart. Walking our way through a holiday adds a significant dose of zen – there is nothing more meditative than the motion of one foot in front of the other for hours on end. And nothing more delightful knowing you do not walk alone.

This is a bittersweet journey. We embarked on our last visit, in 2006, just a month before we moved to New Zealand. An enormous adventure blossomed before us, dreams on the cusp of being realized. Thinking of all that has happened in the intervening six years just rocks me. Starting over more times than we’d bargained for. Saying goodbye far too often – to loved ones, to babies, to dreams. It is staggering.

We shared that last hike in Ireland with two of our dearest friends, two men as in love and committed as Brendan and I could ever hope to be, who had been together at least as long as the anniversary we celebrate now. We made plans during that hike that they would join us in New Zealand when their retirements were finalized; we’d open a café, have a small farm… One of those men is gone now, taken by cancer. Even after two years, my life will never be as bright without Peter in it.

Peter, Randy and Brendan                                            Dingle Peninsula           June 2006

Ireland is in celebration our lives together, this amazing adventure that we’ve lived in the 20 years, 5 months and ten days that have passed since our first date. It is to recapture peace that we have lost in a tumultuous year. And it’s to touch that fragile, tender part of the soul that needs looking after, before you set it free to dream again.

 “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

*All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. – Gandalf, “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book Review: Wild Decembers, Edna O’Brien

Wild DecembersWild Decembers by Edna O’Brien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edna O’Brien’s prose reads like poetry. She conjures images from the mists of Irish mountains and the thick skin of peat bogs, her characters appearing wraith-like in a land of ancient legends and living superstitions. Her style lends a sense of timelessness to her stories and their settings and characters. With a few tweaks of detail, Wild Decembers could be set in late 19th century or pre-World War II Ireland as easily as the end of the 20th century.

O’Brien’s affinity for lyricism can distance the reader from the flesh and blood reality of her plot, but her skill with dialogue and the gut-wrenching dilemmas into which she plunges her characters ensure that the reader’s heart will be caught firmly in her drama.

Wild Decembers is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: star-crossed lovers separated by an ancient land dispute. At the heart of the conflict are two men who could be as close as brothers, yet who cling stubbornly to blurred maps and barbed wire, destroying with madness and violence all that they most love. O’Brien shows the lunacy of lust and the dark tunnels of depression with spare and sharp detail- there are disturbing scenes that will be long to leave my mind, all the more devastating because of their subtlety.

I deeply admire O’Brien’s use of language and her skill at stripping prose to its most primitive, most powerful effect.

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