Ghosts That We Knew

The Universe gently letting me know it is still watching, listening, remembering…

 

A group of eight women discovering each other over salmon and fruit salad. Strangers becoming fast friends as women do – sharing intimacies of childbirth and marriage, our deepest fears and silliest thoughts – and then having to ask your first name again, because you look just like the woman who used to teach Hot Yoga at the rec center.

 

Some of us are mothers; some of us are not. Some are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure?

 

Some drive up in Mercedes; others have no idea when the oil was last changed in the rusting Toyota pickup.

 

We come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we need an excuse to escape a too-familiar routine. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child’s favorite meal last week.

 

We discuss the book: a rare meeting of minds as eight women revile the month’s read in equal measure. We marvel at our host’s mad chef skills as she cracks open the baked thick crust of salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender: Pesce alla Sale à la Olympic Peninsula. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink ginger beer without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it’s an excuse for another bacon-jalapeño scone. We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats we milk on our farm.

 

Which leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. As discussions about ruminants do. Who is, who wishes they weren’t, who misses it. Pockets of the table fall into silence as those who are secretly glad their breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children and those who simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old try to find something to do with their thoughts.

 

A side conversation begins. Did you start Terry Tempest Williams’s When We Were Birds?

 

It’s waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish tonight’s book first. I can’t wait.

 

Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. “Ooh, Terry Tempest Williams, I love her! What’s this one about? What’s it called?

 

“When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It’s a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You’d love it. It’s amazing.”

 

One of us curls up inside. One of us remembers a summer’s night a year ago, a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother’s death, were empty.

 

One of us remembers that it was a year ago tonight her womb emptied.

 

One of us marvels at the way the Universe wraps seductively around chance and feigns to be Fate.

 

One of us mourns. Mourns that she had forgotten until this night what this night is.

 

One of us sees the beauty in spending this evening in the company of women who don’t know her sorrow, not yet. But if we did, she knows we would care. We sweet mothers soothe her with our stories, we childless ones smile and allow the others to reminisce, commiserate, to delight in the bounty of their creation.

 

A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts us from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son.

 

One of us reads aloud the opening page to When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice.

 

One of us returns home to reread the words she wrote a year ago. These words, here: The Scariest Thing

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand
Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

So lead me back
Turn south from that place
And close my eyes to my recent disgrace
Cause you know my call
And we’ll share my all
And our children come, they will hear me roar
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me that we’ll be alright

Ghosts That We Knew ~ Mumford and Sons

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.

IMG_1132

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.

The Sea, The Sea*

My dad likes to tell the story of how he saved our childhood. As he neared the end of his last quarter at Oregon State University, his job search took him to Chicago. A successful interview set our family of six, which included three boys under the age of twelve and a toddler girl, on the track of a comfortable life in the flat suburbs that stretched west and north of that mighty stone and steel city.

He had all but signed the contract, when he agreed to one last interview at a remote marine sciences laboratory on the Olympic Peninsula. He drove the long miles from our home in Corvallis to a bend of a road that overlooks a bay that feeds into a sea, which kisses Canada before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

I was twenty-three before I visited Chicago for the first time.

An Olympic Peninsula beach

I have a pair of olfactory memories that frame my childhood. First is scent of rain. Rain on pavement, rain on soil, rain on roof tar softened by summer warmth, rain on freshly-mown grass, rain on the fur of the neighbor’s black Lab, rain on pages of library books, releasing musty secrets, rain, rain, rain that sluices off the Siuslaw Hills into the Willamette Valley and puddles in sweet, earnest Corvallis.

The Salish Sea, Olympic Peninsula

 

The second is the sharp, sweaty odor of the beaches of Dungeness Bay, which are strewn with ankle-twisting stones, rotting kelp and pock-marked driftwood.

And from the coast rise other memories that I inhale when the wind is right. There is the stone-fruit headiness that bursts forth when a carpet of coastal sand verbena is crushed under the toe of a blue salt-water sandal. The flirty, green spritzes of common vetch as its ropy stems and delicate purple flowers dry in meadows succumbing to an August sun. The forests of Douglas fir, which pitch out wafts of medicinal, masculine resin, beckoning you into their cool shadows.


Although I grew up on the anvil-shaped Olympic Peninsula, under a mountain rainshadow that allows tourist brochures to claim it as the driest Pacific coast community north of Los Angeles, I don’t do sea things. I fight a bilious belly if the thirty-minute ferry ride from Edmonds to Kingston rolls a little too much in the winter swells. I’ve been sailing…twice? I love to swim, but I prefer the tidy confines of the lanes at my local aquatic center to the slimy, cold depths of local bays. My idea of a vacation in hell is a cruise, trapped on a floating city of carbohydrate-laden breakfast buffets and spray-tanned bachelorettes.

But I am as spiritually attached to the open water as I am to writing, to running, to cooking — activities I can exist without doing or being a part of, but if I am kept from any for too long, my soul begins to shrivel. Living by a bay, a sound, a sea, an ocean is as much an action as it is a state of being. It gives me a sense of forward motion and the perspective of possibility.

How fortunate I am to have lived in Colorado’s Western Slope, where in winter the Rocky Mountains unleash oceans of snow by night and the Grand Mesa kicks up the waves of sun by day. And in Appalachian woodlands lush with humidity that rises from the storied waters of the Ohio River. Or in central Illinois, where once a sea of tall grass prairie reached to the horizon; it now pulses green with waves of cornstalks and rows of soybean. And in the arid valleys of central Washington state, whose sub-Alpine hillsides taught me how to hike, whose friendly country towns sheltered me through a bitter adolescence to my soaring university years and ushered me into marriage. These unique and precious regions bade welcome and I called them home for many years. But they are, each is, miles, hours, days from open water. And being close to water — water that shifts with tides, that is briny with salt and gastropods — is now a non-negotiable for me.

Oregon’s rain seeped into my skin as my first memories formed. Rain is as soothing to me as Big Bird’s simple joy and Mister Roger’s sky-blue cardigans. But the sea sinewed my heart and nourished my imagination with minerals and bacteria and protein.

Gore Bay, Canterbury Coast, New Zealand

I am working now on a series of connected stories that I hope to mold into something greater, someday, when the stories are ready to be pulled into one. The sea is becoming a character in her own right. My challenge is to turn my back on this character and write her as much a villain as a beloved. Although the sea represents endless possibility, her unforgiving, unfathomable depths make her the epitome of impossible.

*The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. One of my favorite descriptions of the sea is the book’s opening paragraph:

“The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold.”