The Only Time We Have*

I’ve written a dozen blog posts in my mind since March. I’ve even started a few of them here, half-paragraphs, lists, an attempt to chronicle and catalogue this strange, and strangely beautiful, time.

Nothing stuck. I couldn’t hold onto a theme long enough to see it through before something else snapped my attention away. Fatigue, busyness, depression, procrastination, even just sitting in silence, letting the now wash over me in wonder and despair, have all occupied the spaces where words might have gone.

Suddenly, mid-June. Nearly three months ago Andrew and I moved into our home, the yard a patchwork of bedraggled weeds and barren sand, the side lot a bramble of blackberry and massive Doug fir stumps, left after a previous owner hacked down the regal beauties to sell for firewood.

A cool, wet, late spring = jungle greens, and so many flowers nigh on bursting open with color

We are nested in, now surrounded by lush greens and expanding bursts of color. Fiery orange nasturtium, indomitable yellow calendula, feverfew daisies, so white and small, petunia’s deep magentas and purples, the English garden romance of lavatera and penstemon pinks and burgundies — and these are just the early bloomers after a cool May and a soaking start to June. In a few week’s time, we will be tasked with a daily vegetable harvest. The field of vicious blackberry that covered our side lot has been plowed under, the stumps pushed to the side thanks to a one-day Bobcat rental. In their place are mounds of amended soil covered in 2-foot high clover and buckwheat to welcome back the bees and butterflies, a pile of biochar that smoldered for two weeks, and a pétanque court. Yes. We have our own pétanque court.

Inside we have feathered another sort of nest that is both full of light and cozy, with nooks to escape with a book, a guitar, a laptop, a yoga mat, a purring cat and a cup of tea. Speaking of cats, we added a third to our wee family: Agatha, lately of the streets of Cabo, Mexico. She made the trek north in a caravan with her rambunctious litter of six, just a week after hernia surgery. Her kittens have found other homes; we took Mama, who at 18 months is barely more than a kitten herself. She’s attached to me, and the affection goes a long way toward filling the hole that Camille’s death left two years ago.

Miss Agatha, at rest

Our move, the day before the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders went into effect late March, could not have come at a better moment. Andrew was able to pour all his anxiety and empty hours — after his March and April painting jobs cancelled — into creating our beautiful, and imminently sustaining, gardens; I have found solace and comfort in a sweet space full of love and joyful energy. Coming home is a becoming.

I hold these gifts in gratitude and reverence. This space that is nestled in green, looked over by the cedar and maple and Doug fir that tower just over the backyard fence, whispering their ancient magic. For there has also been so much anxiety and anger. Nights when I begin to weep as soon as I lay my head on a pillow. For no reason, other than for the whole world. For the fear, the masks, the violence, the knee-jerks and real jerks, the distancing, the confusion, all the voices silenced, whether for four hundred years or since yesterday; those who will never recover from the pandemic lockdown, and the generations of BIPOC men and women locked in systemic injustice.

A Room of Her Own: my writing studio, and lately, my office away from the office

I write in fits and starts. I taught a weekly writing workshop via ZOOM for five Thursdays in April, and was smart enough to include myself in the participant roster. We wrote 300-max-word stories each week. I submitted one of my stories for publication, another I am working into a larger narrative for submission to an anthology of women writing about climate change. The Deep Coil is still with me: I edit a few pages a week. I crave time away, just a week, to do the deep dive it needs, but that is at least two months off. It is not the time to take a vacation, even though I am desperate for a break. I am one of the fortunate who is still clocking in and I am in the thick of writing my first federal grant proposal. Until I hit “Submit” in mid-August, I am chained to 9-5, or whatever it is these days with the blurred boundaries of working from home, Zooming with colleagues, workingworkingworking, all of us, for fear that if we stop, we will lose everything.

I miss my friends. I miss my family, though half of us aren’t speaking anymore because right left, backwards sideways. I no longer really know why. I deactivated my Facebook account in fury over my community’s obsessive fears of tourists invading our sheltered space, bringing their disease with them, when it seemed that more important issues were at hand, i.e. one in four Washingtonians now going hungry, a man lynched, his murder finally coming to light. Hours after I resigned from Facebook in disgust, George Floyd became another Black man whose life was ended by law enforcement.

After days and days of rain, suddenly the sun. Little Kitty- we can’t seem to remember to call her Agatha – is clapping her paws at bees in the lavender, the others are sun-drunk on the back patio. It feels good to be here with you. How are you? Share your world with me. Let’s be fully present in this, The Only Time We Have.

*Inspiration from poet Samuel Green, whose collection The Grace of Necessity I reread during this time of shelter-at-home

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

Eighty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-seven words. A premise that came fully-formed during a walk through the forest on a late afternoon in May of 2018. It seemed so simple, that bright and shiny idea, just a filling in of details and I’d have it. Nearly eighteen months later, after those stolen pre-dawn moments and weekend afternoons in a café, the Julys and Augusts where I didn’t write at all, a new writer’s group that filled me with inspiration before it fizzled out from life’s demands, a five-day DIY writer’s retreat that likely saved this entire endeavor from the DELETE key, and at last, there is a first draft. 

I typed THE END late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling down behind the bony, stripped trees in our backyard, distant sounds of a football game in the living room breaking through when the classical music on the bedroom Bose paused for a breath. My goal had been to finish this draft by Christmas but as the words began to flow this autumn — I wrote nearly forty percent of the draft in the two months between late September and Sunday — I closed in on Thanksgiving as a target date. And here I am with .pdfs of Thanksgiving dinner recipes and 303 pages of THE DEEP COIL to send to the unsuspecting printer.

During the journey of this draft I spent a lot of time trying to escape from writing, until at last it became something I was able to emerge into. This was the second “from-scratch” novel I’d attempted since my marriage fell apart in the spring of 2016 when I was promoting the debut of IN ANOTHER LIFE, editing THE CROWS OF BEARA to prep for its fall 2017 publication, and revising UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. From November of 2017 to May of 2018 I worked half-heartedly on a YA fantasy novel inspired by the research on the Cathars I’d done for IAL (I love it, actually; just not the right work at the right time). I’d underestimated the time and space I needed to do all heavy lifting of my messy life – new jobs, new relationships, moving, grieving, celebrating, gathering all the pieces and reassembling them into something that resembled a fresh start. I was hard, so very hard, on myself youshouldbewritingyourenotawriterwhyarentyouwriting until I finally gave in and accepted that when it was time, when I at last felt safe,  I would write.

This draft is, well, it’s a Shitty First Draft, as first drafts tend to be. I got it in my head that because this is a genre novel — crime fiction — not to mention the start of a series, I ought to come up with a solid outline. That never happened- it’s not the writer I am. I write by feel. I write to find out where I’m going.

“Stories are agile things. So the containers they go in should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dreams of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don’t exactly know what road we will take: we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. … the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.”                                                                                                                                                             — Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Last spring I realized that this first draft would be my outline. So here it is, an 84,657 word outline. There’s a beginning, a couple of them, really. A bunch of words stuffed in the middle, and some possible endings. There are subplots and backstory, landscapes and dialogues. There are great characters whom I can’t wait for you to meet, shadows of beings who may stay or may go, others I’ve lost track of along the way. There are scenes that even now I know I need to write. I have a number of law enforcement officials to interview regarding who does what in a territory that covers two small cities, two large counties, and a vast national park in between. Several hikes to take, a shooting range to step into, and a gun expert friend to run key scenes by. 

Revision. Where all that gorgeous raw material is shaped into a story. 

But today I hold the story that will be in tender respect. The magical first draft, with all its promise and potential, is complete. 

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
― Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

No Longer Knocking from the Inside: A Writer on Retreat

September 2016. The last time I spent time alone, and away. My divorce would be final in a few weeks, I was starting a new job in early October, my first since becoming full-time writer three years earlier. I was moving forward, on my own, accepting that I could not sustain myself as a writer without the financial support of a steadfast and generous partner.

But first came a long-planned writer’s retreat in the south of France. I knew then how precious the opportunity was, how very long it would be until my situation — financial, emotional, logistical — could support another stretch of time to devote to my work.

Earlier this year I could at last begin thinking about traveling again. I had built up so much vacation (two jobs removed from the one I began in October 2016) that I was in danger of losing the chunk I couldn’t rollover to the next year. I renewed my passport and determined I would be lacing up my hiking boots to tramp on foreign soil while my 50th birthday raced along above me, dissolving like a cirrus cloud high in a late summer sky.

But I just couldn’t seem to hit confirm on the reservations.

At first, the excuses were circumstantial. I perform myriad roles at my job, a non-profit with two and half employees: the thought of two or three weeks away was crushing. My partner and I are saving to buy a house: an extended overseas vacation felt indulgent and short-lived when we are planning a future. And we’d had that month apart last fall, which was so hard. Time apart is vital, and healthy, but weeks simply didn’t feel good to my heart.

 

Yet, I was craving a change of scene. Craving to go for days without talking to anyone more than shop clerk. And when I listened, deeply, to what I really wanted, it was simple: time alone to write.

I booked a week at an AirBnB not all that far as the crow flies from where I live, but a world apart. Immediately, my ambivalence about when and where and how to go disappeared. This. This was the thing.

On Father’s Day I shoved random clothes into a duffel bag, packed my laptop, iPod and a bag of coffee, filled the gas tank, and on a bright, warm Sunday after yoga, soon after his daughters arrived to fête his Hallmark holiday, I kissed my sweetheart farewell and set forth.

And I wrote. After months of dipping in and out of this story, feeling the frustration of moments stolen to devote to its unfolding, I had hours, days, to focus. After five days, I emerged with half again as many words as it had taken me thirteen months to write. I discovered new characters, wrote new opening, jotted down threads of ideas for the next installment, filled a crucial plot hole I’d been circling for months, and regained the momentum I’d given over to mourning the endings of an old life and falling in love with a new present.

Of course, in the weeks since my return, life has pressed in again, with its urgencies: weekends away, or filled with events, houseguests and family dramas, insomnia and fatigue. The new possibilities of my narrative threaten to overwhelm me, but I manage words here and there, a slow moving along.

My new passport is locked away, cover stiff and shiny, pages smooth and blank. It’s there and I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, I look ahead to September, to another week of writing on my own-not far, mind you-just far enough for the words to flow, unencumbered, in the blissful silence of away...

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”

― RUMI

And Still I Write*

In the early spring of 2013, my husband and I left our careers in Seattle to move to a remote peninsula in the northwest reaches of the state. It’s the place where we’d intended to retire someday, but we had another twenty years of work ahead of us. After crisscrossing the country and oceans to the east and west, we’d at last found jobs we felt we could live out our salaried lives growing into. We worked for the same company, one that seemed to espouse our personal and political ideals. We were earning a comfortable combined wage with excellent benefits.

 

And I was writing. By the winter of 2012, I had published several short stories and I was deep into the first draft of my first novel. I’d been admitted into an MFA program starting in the fall at a local university, and thanks to a flexible schedule, I knew I could make it all work.

 

It was a good life. We were happy.

 

There’s a story churning in my gut, a contemporary drama about a corporate culture that allowed a stream of employees to be bullied into impossible corners and intimidated into silence, a cautionary tale of a mentally unstable, power-sick company executive who targeted a worthy rising star, and bullied him with impunity. It’s a story with ripple effects both beautiful and grave, circumstances that opened doors and burned down buildings. In it, a couple refused to remain silent or back down; they worked in solidarity to shine light in the darkest of those tight, unforgiving corners.

 

Seattle is now a place where I once lived. All that happened is a memory in a shared life story.

 

 

That ending to our tidy lives, the cleaving of our employment, became the beginning of my full-time writing career. Leaving the city life for a village by the sea meant simplifying and we created a budget that allowed for one income. It also meant sacrifices and a resetting of expectations, but my husband declared his willingness to support us for as long as it took me to build a sustainable writing career. He became my sponsor, a gesture of grace and generosity.

 

I worked hard, writing hours a day, seven days a week, rarely a day off. I landed an agent and sold two novels and completed a third in the first two years as a fulltime writer. I published short stories and essays, my first poem. I began leading writing workshops and started a freelance editing business. I was awarded a writing residency in Ireland and saved up enough to send myself on a writing retreat in France. I was living a writer’s dream, at least one in its early stages. My income was modest: moderate advances and whatever I netted from teaching and editing gigs. Not enough to sustain myself, but enough to give me confidence that I was on the right track.

 

My first novel launched in February 2016, an event concurrent to the collapse of my marriage. That spring, as I publicly celebrated the most fulfilling, rewarding thing that could happen to a writer, a twenty-five year marriage was very privately coming to an end. How a couple slides from unity to dissolution is a tapestry of mistakes and sadness I will be unraveling for years. But the ending became delayed by something that still shames me to admit: I knew if my husband and I separated, my life as a fulltime writer would end. My security would vanish. I would be forced to return to a day job, giving up my dream almost as soon as it began. Yet to continue in a marriage that was less than either of us deserved would be to continue in a lie.

 

Ten months to the day after my first novel released, I punched a time card. I was fortunate to have found a job in the wine industry, a world I’d left three and half years before. I worked first for a resort, where the hours were long, the nights were late, the work physically demanding, commuting white-knuckled on dark roads all through the fall and winter. The summer I spent at a winery close to home with better pay, but no benefits and an uncertain future.  Then a few weeks ago, a phone call from a new, local, non-profit arts school asking if I would join their staff. A return to my long-ago, rewarding career in education administration, creating systems and processes to advance a mission I could wrap my head and heart around.

 

And still, when people ask what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Somehow, in the midst of life’s chaos, the grief of a marriage ending, the bewilderment of another broken relationship blundered into from fear of loneliness and excitement of freedom, I scribble away still, determined to hold on to that which defines me: my words.

 

My second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA (Ashland Creek Press) released in September. I had neither the time nor the funds to mount an in-person book tour. I released myself from the expectation of a sprint after launch and the novel is serenely flying alone. I settle into my new job, reclaim my routines, and set my sights on making bookstore rounds in the spring, knowing now from experience that promotion is a marathon, a slow and steady race without a finish line. A third novel is recently on submission. I have made tentative steps into a fourth project, having promised my agent I would have a draft of something solid by summer. Late summer.

 

I know of few writers who write fulltime, sustaining themselves on advances and royalties. Most of us, even those with bestseller in their bios, teach and freelance to supplement an uncertain and meager income, or we work full or part-time at jobs unrelated to our writing, jobs that provide health insurance, that pay the mortgage, the college tuition, the credit card debt, the medical bills. Those who have partners able to provide financial stability are the fortunate ones, as I was once. And fortunate I am still, for I have found stability on my own, with a vocation that sustains me financially and intellectually. My avocation, that as a writer, sustains my soul.

Julie Christine Johnson’s short stories and essays have appeared in journals including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; and River Poets Journal. Her work has also appeared in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and psychology and a master’s in international affairs.

Named a “standout debut” by Library Journal, “very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review, and “delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life (Sourcebooks) went into a second printing three days after its February 2016 release. A hiker, yogi, and swimmer, Julie makes her home in northwest Washington state.

Visit www.juliechristinejohnson.com for more information on Julie’s writing.

Follow her on Twitter @JulieChristineJ

 

 

*This essay originally appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books, November 8, 2017.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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A Word of Resolution for 2017

ra·di·ate verb ˈrādēˌāt/
  1. emit (energy, especially light or heat) in the form of rays or waves. To shine brightly.
  2. diverge or spread from or as if from a central point.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in lieu of making resolutions to ring in the New Year, I’ve selected a word to center myself for the months to come. Here’s a look back at 2015 and 2016. I haven’t mustered the courage to reread these posts, but I’m not certain it matters. The intention is the journey, no? Looking back to see if you’ve made it to the point, the self, the outcome you’d imagined just seems an exercise in disappointment and regret.

 

But I do see that I chose “embrace” to define 2016. Had I known what the Universe had in store for the year, I may well have chosen “reject”, instead.

 

This year. This achingly difficult, beautiful, complicated, change-ridden year.  A year when life turned itself inside-out. When the world stopped making sense for so many on a bewildering November night. Yet, as much as I welcome an end to 2016, I know that it defines much of what is to come.

 

I ran into a friend in a pub the other night. A new friend, a writer, whom I met at a joyous occasion a few weeks ago, something I’ll tell you more about in a moment. He complimented me on my author website and mentioned reading the page where I cross-post this blog. He expressed admiration for how I lay it all out here, how vulnerable and real I allow myself to be. How ironic, given that I’ve kept so much on the down low these past months, hinting at but never revealing the divergent path I’ve been stumbling down, seeking, but never quite finding secure footing. As a writer. As a woman.

 

My first novel launched on February 2. A novel about grief, rebirth, reincarnation and the muddled line between history and the past, debuting on the day we shrink from shadows, and from a mindless repetition of the mundane. An extraordinary day for me, to be sure. And as the weeks and months unfolded in a celebration of this joyous accomplishment, behind the scenes a twenty-five year marriage was coming to an end. Quietly. With great sadness and bewilderment. More than half my life, defined by partnership with another. And suddenly that which I took for granted, a word, wife, was no longer mine.

 

But other words remained. Woman. Writer.

Local Authors' Night, The Writers' Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.
Local Author’s Night, The Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.

Yet, it often felt as though I’d lost sight of even those. The fundamentals of who I am, my place in the world. But looking back on these months, I realize I have never lived more fully as a woman, as a writer, than I have in 2016.

 

Betwixt and between the mind-blowing joy of launching a novel into the world was the agony of divorce. The stress of being a very public “author” vs. the solace and creative growth of being a writer; the delight in sharing my book with readers coming up against the inability to step away to nurture my muse; the heart-quickening embrace of new love meeting the reality of stepping into a traditional “day” job to support myself, thereby letting go of precious writing time… it’s all been so much. So glorious. So painful.

 

In early December, my LBS (aka Local BookStore, you know, those beloved indies that have survived and thrived by connecting dedicated readers with beautiful works of art, one book at a time), hosted a Local Author’s Night. For the first time in months, I was surrounded by readers and authors alike, friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, others I had never met, such as the new friend I mentioned above, who lives across the street, as it so happens. It was a celebration, a coming together of a beloved community, a return to my heart and intellect, a precious reminder of who I am and what I am meant to do.

 

It was also a reminder in this time of political turmoil—as many of us mourn what has been lost and fear what is to come—what role artists play in lifting up, exposing, bringing together, voicing, and providing moments of escape, connection, entertainment, joy, and compassion to our communities. How very important it is to engage and contribute, to be present, not only in one’s own life, but in the world.

 

And so I choose for 2017 the word Radiate. For I am determined that in this new year, which will see the release of my second novel, The Crows of Beara, my work, my words will emit light and energy, will spread from a central point—my soul—to serve a greater purpose.

 

New Year’s Eve day I came across these lines by one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin. Here’s an excerpt:

 

“… so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible.”

From ‘To the New Year’

 

Isn’t that extraordinary?

 

Love and hope to everyone for a blessed 2017. Let’s please just do this, all of it, better.

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

Taking on the Darkness

A bright spring morning. The boat haven is abuzz with industrial activity, the parking lot in front of the nearby diner, full. The scent of frying bacon follows me up the trail before dissolving into the stench of low tide rot.

 

When I first pass him—me walking at a fast clip, he sitting on a bench, head surrounded by a black hood—my internal radar begins pinging hard. The glance I take from my periphery reveals a face contorted in rage, his hands gripping the edge of the bench, a coiled thing. He is shouting, incoherent, words garbled, but enough of the syllables take shape to understand they are directed at me. I have no choice but to keep going. Coming toward me, about 300 yards up the path, are a cyclist and runner in tandem. I wait until they are close, then turn around.

 

As a runner in Seattle, my guard was always up. I ran in the early mornings, often in the dark, often around Green Lake, where there was safety in numbers—it’s one of Seattle’s outdoor fitness Meccas—but also trees and restrooms and secluded areas to be aware of. Two weeks before we left Seattle for the Olympic Peninsula, a man began attacking women in the early mornings at Green Lake, precisely on the trails I ran, at the times I was there. What a relief, then, to set myself loose on the trails in this idyll of beaches and mountains. My whistle and pepper spray remain in my pack for the occasional coyote or loose dog, or, most troublesome of all, the roving pairs of raccoons, who hiss and charge and move in slinking, snakelike speed if the mood strikes. IMG_0215

 

It happens so fast.

 

I feel as much as see him spring off the bench, words spilling out in growls, nasty and lewd. I don’t run, I don’t turn, I just keep moving until I feel him at my shoulder, smell him behind my back. And then there is shouting from different voices. The cyclist skidding to my side, the runner’s pounding steps. And the young man, retreating. He returns to the bench, face again behind the hood, rocking back and forth, already imprisoned by drugs, alcohol, his own demons.

 

The couple walk me to safety, and seeing that I have my phone in my hand, offer to stay as I call 911. I brush them off. “I’m fine,” I say. “He was high, it doesn’t matter.” I am ashamed. Ashamed that as a physically strong woman, I didn’t try to take him down. Ashamed that I’d been so afraid. Ashamed of my vulnerability. Ashamed, perhaps, of my own body, that someone would say the things he said to me, that I could attract such ugliness. Because I’d been walking, with no intention of heading into the woods, I had carried only my phone and my innocence.

 

And then I see two women, separated by a few dozen feet, making their way up the trail, in the direction of the man who had come after me. In the distance, I see he still sits, waiting. What am I thinking? Of course I will call. If not for myself, than for all the women behind me. I hold out one hand to stop the first woman, even as I dial 911 with the other.

 

The officer who responds to my 911 call sees me out walking two mornings later and stops to give me an update and a bit of the man’s story. The 28-year-old is well known to local police. He was arrested twice on this day—once for accosting me and then again a few hours later for unrelated charges. Drunk. High. Unhinged. I’m sure there is much more that I’ll never know. Frankly, I hardly care.

 

~

 

In nearly six years of blogging, I have never received a negative comment. WordPress does a great job of catching spam, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean a comment from a real person that is intended to wound and harm. But it happened recently, in response to my post Getting Ready To Exist. What this woman, who identified herself as a writer and mother, wrote does not bear repeating. But in a space in which I shared my grief at having literally lost my chances at motherhood through multiple miscarriages, someone thought to express their conviction that because of my obvious weaknesses, the flaws in my character, I couldn’t handle motherhood, anyway.

 

In thinking through how these two events have affected me, with their immediate and latent anger, hurt, and shame, I recognize the destructive power of the untold story. Sitting on shame and regret only allows those feelings to fester and infect perspective. Conversely, when we share our truths, reveal the things said and done that wound and harm, we open ourselves to empathy for others, we allow in healing. Our personal narratives become shared connections and conversations that hold value beyond our own lessons learned.

 

My safe places are no longer safe. Were they ever? Of course not. The trolls, whether they lurk on park benches shrouded in black hoodies or in the virtual world behind the anonymity of a computer screen, have always been there. But I haven’t stopped my early morning hikes or my blogging. I reclaim these spaces. I reclaim my voice.

 

 

“I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” Colum McCann, author and founder of Narrative 4, a non-profit that trains schools, students, community leaders in storytelling and storycraft as a way to foster empathy and build community.

Clean Slate

Surrounded now by water, I’ve learned to watch the beach for clues of the shifting seasons. Winter throws flotsam from the sea like a child tossing toys from her playpen—careless, in joyful fury. In spring, the sand is riffled by winds shooting over the eastern and western mountains ranges. My peninsula stands sentry between the minor dueling gods of cold and warmth. Apollo rises earlier and stronger each day, calming the skirmish with his spreading heat.

 

A few weeks ago I brought my yoga mat to this beach to unfurl my limbs as the sun rose over the Cascade Mountains. I’d been here the afternoon before and the beach was its usual disheveled Spring self. But on this morning, velvety Summer appeared. 2015-05-02 07.25.36

Clean. Slate.

 

For those who have been around this blog for a while, you know we washed ashore here two years ago. The circumstances that set us adrift from Seattle I’ve only hinted at, in part because I needed to sift through my bewilderment and rage in a private space, in part because I know someday I will release that bewilderment and rage in a story.

 

We’ve had few reasons to return to Seattle, dipping in and out as quickly as possible when obligations beckon. But a few weeks ago a workshop returned me to my old neighborhood for the first time since we left.

 

This neighborhood perches high, holding its skirts above the glittering urbanity at its feet. There is water on all sides, like moats surrounding a castle. It is an unattainable dream of Victorian mansions and Arts and Crafts bungalows rubbing elbows with Architectural Digest aeries of glass and steel. The handful of business streets interrupt the residential idyll with a chock-a-block of cafés and famous-chef restaurants, galleries, a bookstore, yoga studios, dentists. We lived in an apartment we couldn’t afford in a renovated Art Deco walk-up. I wrote in my favorite cafés and in the rays of sun streaming through tall windows at the Carnegie library. I swam at the neighborhood YMCA and ran the long flights of stairs leading to the city below.

 

I arrived in my old neighborhood, cautious, anticipating pain. I belonged here, once; this had been my home, my neighborhood, my haunts, my gardens and dream homes and breathtaking views.

 

Yet, such changes. Where once had sat a sweet, locally owned market there is now a monstrosity of towering condos, anchored by a bank on one side and a chain grocery store on the other. I went inside this store, looking for something cold to drink. Aisles of prepackaged food. No connection to the neighborhood. The forced folksiness, false nutrition, self-satisfied trendiness made my skin crawl. I left, throat parched.

 

Outside, car after car inched along the main street, as though in the parking lot of a suburban mall. Everyone there, but no one here.

 

I escaped down a side street, entering the cool green residential rows. It was as I remembered. Rarified. Serene.

 

A woman half a block up stood beside a rock wall, tucked into the shelter of a drooping willow tree, perhaps admiring the clematis or camellias. As I neared, she pulled a wine bottle from a Walgreen’s shopping bag. I heard the snick of a screw-cap releasing. She lifted the bottle to her mouth and tilted it up. Her throat worked, up and down. She took no notice of me.

 

A few blocks later, we passed each other. She smiled and offered me a cheery hello, swinging the plastic Walgreen’s bag with its secret inside. I returned her greeting. And realized I couldn’t wait to go. Home.

 

Clean. Slate.

 

 

 

 

The Language of Loss

I have but few words for you today. I’m tired.

 

Someone I love lost someone she loves a few days ago in a terrible tragedy. The kind your brain comprehends as your eyes read the words, but your heart pushes away and says, “No. Not this. No.”

 

I’m so sorry, I say. What can I do for you?

 

At my annual physical the doctor asks me, Do you feel safe? She means at home. Yes, of course. I am safe, I say. But inside, I cry. We are, none of us, safe. There, but for grace, we fall.

  ~

 

Sundays are my long run days. I amble out, go easy, go long, eventually reaching the beach and several trailheads that take me through fields and forest before dropping me onto another beach, where again I climb the trails and roads toward home.

 

But this morning, I think better of it. I wake with a sore throat, a stuffed nose, an aching head. If I’m coming down with something, shouldn’t I stay in, rest, read the good book I started the night before? Shouldn’t I be writing?

 

I (almost) never get sick, so when I do, it feels like a failure of character, rather than of body. Maybe I am a little under the weather. But really, I think I’m heartsick.

 

The sunrise calls my bluff. Calls me out with the promise of peace. Renewal. The forest offers refuge where I can let tears fall. For my friend and the sadness and pain of her lost love. For our vulnerability.

 

If you are feeling vulnerable, I write for you. I know the pain is unbearable; it is too much for one person alone. You do not have to bear it alone. You are loved. You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change. When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) The National Suicide Prevention Hotline; if you are not in the United States, this website can help you locate a crisis hotline: International Association for Suicide Prevention I know you do not want to die, you just can’t see any way out. You just want some peace. I promise you, peace awaits you, here, now, and there are so many people available to help you reach it. Hang on. Call.

 

If you have lost a loved one, you are not alone. You are not to blame. Your dear friend, family member, partner did not want to hurt you. They were in deep, deep pain from an illness that was beyond your reach. Their death is not your shame. You are not responsible. You are loved. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) The National Suicide Prevention Hotline. It is there for you, too.

 

I’m at the end of my words now. Today I give my mind permission to rest.  I captured these moments of beauty and renewal on my run this morning. This place of peace. This place of safety.

 

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