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.

A Word of Resolution for 2016

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them.

Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

 

January is tricky. I don’t know if this happens where you live, and I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest long enough to have scrubbed memories of common, dull Januarys elsewhere. But there is no darkness like that of a January morning. In fact, here at least, Sunrise simply defies the Solstice that is weeks old—rising later than ever, while Sunset tugs at the other end, stretching away from the day, striding farther across the Pacific Ocean. I notice the creeping length of the afternoons in increments: Last week at this time it was pitch black when I left class, now there is a faint glow of white across the Olympics. But the mornings. Oh. They grow heavier and darker.

 

I used to watch the calendar—where the timing of Sunrises and Sunsets are writ in tiny italics—for the day deep in January when the sunrise began to tick backwards. On that day my soul would inhale deeply and rise toward the light.

 

This year, though, I haven’t minded. I’m out early most mornings, grasping a chunk of fresh air and getting a few miles under my feet before I put my seat in a chair. Something about starting in the dark, in the privacy of absolute shadow, allows me to hold my inner stillness for a little while longer. Several miles later, as I close the distance between hill and home, it is light and I must reenter the world, share the sidewalk and the rain with other bodies, others’ thoughts.

 

It’s the first time I can recall ever embracing January (except, of course, in New Zealand, where January is a cathedral of light and July is an ache of chill and damp.)

 

Last January I joined the practice of naming a word to define the year to come. My word for 2015 was a sensation, a representation of feeling, a metaphysical concept wrapped up in a gorgeous set of syllables: charmolypi, loosely translated as joyful sorrow, a kind of letting go.

 

This year, however, I am going with something simpler. A verb. A drawing in, rather than a letting go.

 

 

Embrace. The solace of shadow, the singular sweetness of the dark season. No longer keeping my head down in January, simply waiting for the darkness to end.

 

Embrace. This season of madness. Book launch two weeks away, my every moment accounted for, writing guest blog posts, doing interviews, preparing for book talks, this busyness that borders on frantic as I reach out, connect, and try not to slip on the ice of my own expectations.

 

Embrace. The distant sparkle of creativity, the flashes in my periphery, reminding me that although I am here now and the open meadow of the blank page is a few days’ journey in the distance, I’m only just visiting and I’ll be back my story home, soon.

 

Embrace. That pain deep in my hip and groin grinding like a pepper mill. I’ve stopped running, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good. And as my hips shake loose and my back releases from the confines of a runner’s constricted muscles, I have access to yoga asanas I never thought possible. My body, embracing me in gratitude, my ego rebuilding. I walk 8 miles in my running shoes. I feel no pain.

 

Embrace. The softening of my shell in the warmth of others’ support. The love and encouragement that has come my way in the past year leaves me trembling. I shed a carapace of doubt and insecurity and learn to accept others’ generosity with grace and in wonder.

 

Embrace. The singularity of this time, as uncertain and strange, as full of bright lights and blue shadows as it is. For it will change, as all moments do, blurring into the next or bursting apart like a camera flash.

 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.~ T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”

 

 

 

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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A Word of Resolution for 2015

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

I admire the notion of wiping the slate clean for the year to come, particularly at a time when the cold, dark hours are just beginning their slow creep toward the light. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? Chances are, regardless of our resolve, we will wake on February 1 still in these same bodies in need of more exercise and less sugar; in these brains in need of more fresh thought and less group-think; in these hearts in need of more gratitude and less comparison.

 

I’m not immune to the My Year in Review tradition, but I find as I age that it’s less harrowing to keep rolling through the process of life, rather than marking an end to another year. I already have my birthday to thank for that time of mourning. Serendipitously, my birthday comes at the beginning of autumn, which is a far more natural time for me to renew and reflect, to make resolutions (intentions toward permanent change) or establish goals (markers toward a specific achievement).

 

Yet on January 1, 2015, I came upon this essay by Molly Fisk Pick a Word for the Year. Being a logophile, the idea of selecting a word to guide me through the year, instead of making a resolution, made me clap my hands in delight. Yes! This is a ritual I can embrace!

 

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This is my word. Isn’t it beautiful? Greek. It’s a whisper that tickles the ear, a cirrus cloud that skims across a blue sky: Sɑːr-moʊ-‘lɪ-pi.

 

From the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I found this description most meaningful: ‘Charmolypi evokes a metaphysical reflection, expressed through the language of the body’ (Dziennik Teatralny). Loosely translated, charmolypi means ‘joyful sorrow’.’

 

Charmolypi belongs to a tiny family of words I adore, including Hiraeth, Saudade, Sehnsucht and Natsukashii, that contains sentiments of bittersweet longing, a yin-yang of joy and sorrow. It is a feeling that comes only when we allow ourselves to feel deeply, profoundly, painfully, wholly. The yearning is not for a specific place, person, or thing—it is the unnameable ache when you hear a particular piece of music, when the light slants a certain way, when a scent or taste catches you unawares and sends you reeling back into memory.

 

What Charmolypi signifies to me, why I’ve chosen it as the word to guide me this year, is the acceptance of sorrow as it mingles with joy. I have come to accept the inevitability of depression and anxiety in my life and rather than fight against that tide, I am learning to swim with it, to recognize the beauty that comes with the still, dark moments. These are the time when I listen most deeply, not only to myself, but to the world around me; when I touch the most compassionate parts of my soul and emerge with a stronger, bigger heart.

 

In harmony with ‘the language of the body,’ Charmolypi is embracing this body as it ages, learning to treat its limitations with respect while still pushing it to greater heights. I’ve been craving the power and playfulness that seem to fall by the wayside as the years pass. I’ve kept up a yoga self-practice for years, but since returning to formal classes a few weeks ago, I am again witnessing the transformation of my body and mind. It is with Charmolypi that I turn away from training for a marathon, which is only a date on the calendar, a short-lived event, but represents the pounding stress of increased mileage and intensity that this body doesn’t need. Instead, I turn toward a practice that builds up what aging naturally whittles away: strength and flexibility and balance. I embrace the grace that comes with intention and breath.

 

Charmolypi is the bittersweet process of letting go. It is my determination not to expend emotional energy on those who cannot respond in kind; of finding that sometimes-wobbly balance between compassion and patience and the sweet relief of release; of accepting that forgiveness does not mean I need open the door to unhealthy people.

 

It is the understanding and acceptance that as I walk on the path to publication, my time and my words will not always belong to me, that as much as I am lifted up by the support of others, there is also a surrender. I am acutely aware of this now, in the thick of the editing process, when I see my vision, my story, reflected in others’ eyes. I prepare myself for the day when it is released and belongs to anyone who reads it. There is Charmolypi—joy mixed with regret mixed with hope mixed with resolve.

 

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language,’ T.S. Eliot reminds us. Which words await your voice in 2015?

Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow
Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow Copyright 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Fault Lines

Last week, a writer friend ‘fessed to our online group that this birthday, her 45th, had her feeling blue. She lamented landing smack in middle age in a culture that turns up its nose at gray hair, wrinkles, and sagging flesh. She felt old and unwanted, washed up.

 

Hey now. Hang on just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I’M turning 45 in less than a month. It hadn’t occurred to me to feel washed up and unwanted. I poised my fingers over the keyboard, ready to tap out a cheery response about how liberating the 40s are, how it’s up to us to reclaim our bodies and redefine what’s beautiful and sexy and blah blah blah. But I held off. She wasn’t in the mood for chipper. She needed a hug, some chocolate cake, a hot bath and a good cry. Forty-five is sort of the tipping point, isn’t it? Most of the big, fun, memorable stuff has happened. Your youth and beauty began to dim around the first season of Mad Men. Now the Big Slide begins. Forty-five is (at least) halfway to dead.

 

I dunno. I might have to get all chipper on your ass with a WOO HOO! I’m 45 and fabulous! Not that this decade started out bright and shiny. In the months leading up to my 40th birthday, it seemed my body was staging a coup against me. Surgery for a softball-sized tumor on an ovary (benign, TG), followed weeks later by my first pregnancy, followed months later by our first child loss. Additional surgeries in subsequent years, anemia, another pregnancy, another loss, depression, anxiety, and the most vexing to my vanity—the dual indignities of gray hair and acne—along with the most troubling to my heart—the pooch of a belly that has held children my arms never will.

 

But I kept my head down and kept going. Kept running up hills and folding into Downward Dog. I ate kale, I wore sunscreen. I’m cresting the hill and seeing 50 on the horizon. And I feel fine. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have paid me to run half a mile. This morning, nine easy. Yes, okay, the right knee got a little gimpy on the downhills, not sure what’s up with that, but I felt joy. Pure, ageless, joy. It occurred to me as I read my friend’s words that I must have landed, at some point in these past five years—after a lifetime rueing my lumpy features and freckles, wishing I could find some way to part with my mother’s wide hips and her broad backside and add the height denied me by the family gene pool—on the make peace side of the physical me.

 

I live in the county with the state’s oldest median population and our city average is even older: approaching 60. I swim at the YMCA a couple of times a week and my lap lane partners smoke me. Men and women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, eating my lunch with their smooth strokes. The women’s aging bodies, on full display in the locker room with all their lumps and stretched out tattoos, their surgical scars, their scalps showing pink through their cotton-white hair, fill me with awe. They are so beautiful. They are so alive. They giggle and sing, they talk about their house renovations, grandkids, and trips to Vienna. When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

 

There’s a hollow place in me where all the terror of getting old and dying goes. The fear that cancer-m.s.-alzheimer’s-stroke-insert-irrational-health-scare-here lurks just a step into my future, or that I will end up homeless and alone, or that existentially, my life has little value—those Wide Awake at 3 a.m. Worries—(although, since I started ingesting a teaspoon of hops/valerian tincture before bed, my peri-menopausal night sweats are gone and I sleep soundly most nights, insomnia is rare. Seriously, women, this stuff is amazing) plague me.

 

But in the bright light of day, I feel beautiful and strong. Perversely, there’s a bit of pushback from the sisterhood—a sense that it’s one thing for a middle-aged woman to make peace with her flaws, but another entirely for her to be proud of her skin and the flesh underneath, or that somehow it’s an easier road for some (a woman informed me last year that my shape came from the fact I hadn’t given birth). It’s a reminder that this nebulous “society” we vitiate for not accepting us the way we are is, in fact, the very us we see in the mirror. 2014-07-31 12.14.38

 

Another friend celebrated a birthday this week, too—she’s just north of 50—and she articulated more of what’s in my heart as I approach this half-life age: a melancholy, not about a changing, aging body, but about those missed or messed up opportunities, the might-have-beens, the what-ifs, the if-onlys.

 

It is the making peace with the regrets that, along with eliminating processed foods, eschewing sugar, and pounding out the trail runs, I am counting on to ease me into the next half of this life with grace and dignity. It’s a daily struggle.

 

Letting go is the hardest workout of all.

 

 

 

 

“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present…gratefully.” -Maya Angelou

 

“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” William Saroyan

 

 

 

 

 

An Enchanted Life

An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person. ~ H.L. Mencken

 

Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Fucking Personal Growth Opportunity. ~ Unknown

 

About a mile into a run last week, I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn’t. There are times when my body needs a break from running and I try to listen. I try not to judge. I walked home with tightness in my chest and heaviness in my limbs. I thought, “I’ll just swim laps at nine.” Nine came and I lowered myself into a hot bath. That was the water I needed, water like the warmth of the womb. I needed to be comforted, not challenged. I needed to soak, before I sank. I was utterly overwhelmed.

 

The slow creep of mud that finally reached my mental shoes, stopping me in my tracks—this weird blend of acedia and agitation—wasn’t a surprise; I’d felt it coming. It started, perhaps, a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the midst of a tremendous online chorus of writers, some of whom are my literary heroes. I was amazed and delighted to have been included in their ranks. Their voices swelled and rose in a mighty roar of energy and affirmation that took my breath away. I found my way through the crowd to quieter corners and rooms down the hall, making personal connections with a few voices that reached me with calm clarity, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow I didn’t belong there, that these writers, these thousands, were accomplished and ambitious in ways that are completely foreign to me, perched as I am on this almost-island, in my quiet sunroom, spinning my modest tales that no one would mistake for great literature or groundbreaking creative non-fiction.

 

Time to retreat. I stopped reading the bios that made me feel so woefully inadequate, I withdrew from conversations that sped past faster than I could read or type, reminding myself that time spent wishing I was more, did more, risked more, reaped more, was time spent not doing the one thing that mattered most: writing.

 

I returned to my keyboard and to my mind, wrote a flash fiction piece, finished the first draft of short story, and began researching literary journals to submit each. I did yoga on the beach, I hiked, I walked. I read a volume of beautiful poetry. I filled two boxes for Goodwill, because when I get like this, I want to lighten all my burdens, I want to clean out, get rid of, eliminate, discard, set myself free.

 

But still the disquiet remained. A torpor dulled my sense of possibility and joy, sitting heavy in my core, while anxiety beat a woodpecker’s refrain against my heart. I knew I hadn’t gone far enough in seeking the peace that would guide me to back into the light.

 

When the interwebs cease to be a source of information, of playfulness, of social release and friendship, I know that something is happening inside of me that bears watching. I know it’s time to be careful, that the world is about to swallow me with noise. When I agitate instead of participate, it’s time to shut it all down and walk away.

 

When I begin to despair that my writing doesn’t stack up and that my future will never brush the dizzying heights of those in my online communities, it’s time to recommit myself to the page.

 

Echoing a remark a writer friend made here recently, it’s possible to read too much about and into the writing and publishing process. It’s possible to fill your mind with so much advice on craft, so many dos and dont’s of seeking publication, that you get mired down and find yourself unable to move forward.

 

It’s possible to let the world get too loud.

 

I shared a draft of my query letter on a limited-public board last week, seeking critiques from fellow writers. One commented that my query was too perfect, too textbook. I’d felt the same, so the comment didn’t sting, it confirmed. It came as a relief. I was right. In trying so hard to adhere to all the pro tips, I’d lost my voice. I rewrote it (again. again. again.) and I feel there’s more of me in there, but it’s not yet where it needs to be.

 

Until I can find my stride and run again, I’m deleting those writers’ tips blog posts that get routed to my inbox. Until I feel safe in myself again, I’m staying away from the social media where I feel vulnerable.

 

I want to be overwhelmed with beauty. I want to be electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within. These happen only in two places for me: outside and on the page. That’s where you’ll find me, in case you’re wondering where I’ve gone off to …

 

7/5/14

ETA: A couple of wonderful articles have made their way into my life in the week since I first published this post. Just had to share:

The Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasan, for The Atlantic

Why Every Story You Write is a Guaranteed Failure by K.M. Weiland, on her eponymous blog

 

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After the storm ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden

 

I’m wrestling with a decision. What’s happened is a good thing. It’s an opportunity. I’m not kvetching. I’m kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn’t know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn’t feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what’s Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I’ve been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I’d be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, “Never again.” I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that’s what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren’t in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I’d race anyway. I’d have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I’d start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn’t seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I’ve amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there’s a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I’ve put my body through. Why don’t I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it’s what I do.

But I think I’m through with racing. I can’t seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I’m staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher’s shirt to prove I’m an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say “Yes.” But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt–even with a generous scholarship–that two years’ tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I’ve written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I–like thousands of runners across the country–dedicated my day’s run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I’d used that morning to keep running was the same I’ve called upon to achieve my greatest dream–seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I’ve managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let’s see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I’ve got two behind me, I feel I’m just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  … Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

Mind the Gap

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. ~Hilary Mantel

 

True Confession: I’m a tad obsessive when it comes to my running mileage. If I set out to run seven miles, by God, I’m going to run seven. If the Maritime Center—my ending point—is fast approaching and my Garmin reads 6.43 miles, I’ll take a left at Taylor and track and up and down each block until I close in on the magic number. Do I run past my mileage goal? Heh Heh Heh.

 

And so it is with my daily word count. Each writer defines their own good “butt in chair” day; I find a word count goal keeps me focused and motivated.

 

When I embarked upon the Novel #2 journey two weeks ago, I established the weekly goal of 10,000 words. Factor in a day for editing and research, another to work on other writing projects, and (here come my mad math skillz, look out!) that’s 2000 words each day I work on the Novel. I try to crank out 3k on Sundays—the start of my writing week—to build in wiggle room for the unexpected during the week, such as last week’s weird 24-hour flu bug. So far, I’m holding steady.

 

Sunday. Today. The start of my work week. I’d left myself notes for a new scene, had already visualized the setting, the conversation, the emotions. I planned a 3000 word day—easy-peasy. I couldn’t wait to get started.

 

Then, I couldn’t get started.

 

Five hours in and only a thousand words, some of those written last week and left hanging in an earlier scene. My brain, mushy after two poor nights’ sleep and still throwing off that flu bug, just couldn’t muster the words.

 

If I feel the stall during a run, I force myself to keep on. Ignoring exhaustion, soreness, boredom, I focus on the next half mile and get through it. Endorphins take over and finish the job for me.

 

But every so often, I’ll get a couple of miles in and know today is not my day. I might take a walk break and resume the run, but if the mojo truly is gone, I reset the Garmin and find a shortcut home. As a morning runner, I can always salvage the day with an afternoon hike.

 

If my writing focus fades, I keep the fingers on the keyboard, give myself permission to write crap and keep moving. The story takes over, suddenly it’s hours later and I’m telling myself, “You must stop at 4:00. You promised to go for walk/make soup/see a movie. Good job, Little Buddy!”

 

Today I couldn’t pull it together.

 

Stop. Reset the Garmin. Find a shortcut home.

 

Word Count be damned. Open the gap. Create the space.

 

Today, I stopped scowling at the problem. I bundled up and headed out, Bach in my ears and trail shoes on my feet. I breathed.

 

Saturday, I set out to run 8 miles. I went to 9 because it all felt so good.

 

If you’d told me two weeks ago, when I typed “Chapter One,” that I’d be 21,337 words into a new novel in fourteen days, well. Dude.

 

Find the Gap.

Getting some perspective. Admiralty Bay, Port Townsend 2/02/14 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Getting some perspective. Admiralty Bay, Port Townsend 2/02/14 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Between Truth and a Human Being

Fog. Days and nights of fog so thick I wonder if the artist Christo has wrapped the peninsula in cotton batting and left us to suffocate. I drive grandma speed, hunched over the steering wheel, on the lookout for deer casing neighborhood gardens during their pre-dawn perambulations. They like to appear suddenly in your headlights with that deer-in-the-headlights look.

It’s a hill repeat day. That’s runner-speak for “run up and down hills a bunch of times like a natural-born fool.” I have a few favorite hills in and around the state park north of town. Four hundred and thirty-five acres of forest, meadow and a restored 19th century military fort built on and below high bluffs overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, bordered by two miles of seashore–it’s a runner’s dream.

It’s just past 7 a.m. Usually there are other humans about, walking dogs or clutching travel mugs of coffee, heading for a bench on the bluff to greet the sun as it crests the Cascade Mountains. But on this morning, there is no dawn. There is only fog. The air is blue-black, thick, wet, cold. I am alone. I complete my warm-up mile around the former military parade ground and head down to the beach for my first set of repeats.

A gray ghost glides down the bluff and steps onto the road in front of me. His eyes flash gold and red, catching the pulses from my lighted wrist band. I halt in mid-stride, but my momentum nearly carries me head-over-heels downhill as my knees Jello out. I back up. Coyote watches me for a few heartbeats, then trots up the way he came. Me? I turn and run.

Back at the car, behind the safety of the open door, I search in the fog for Coyote. He stands on the edge of the bluff peering down at me, so close I could toss a pine cone and hit his brown-gray flank. I’m in awe, jolted and not a little pissed.

There goes my run. Coyote 1, Julie O.

But we’re both adaptable creatures. I head back into town and run the Washington and Monroe St. hills. Ever on the lookout for the damn raccoon that snarled at me last week.

It’s a jungle out there.

A few days after Coyote, I’m in a local bar with some women friends–a monthly get-together. We drink a couple of pints, talk local elections and books.

As we settle up our tabs and sort out jackets and purses, one of the women turns to me and says, “Julie, you are in such great shape. But of course, you’ve never had kids.”

Coyote stops in mid-stride and fixes his red-gold glare on me.

God DAMN it.

There goes my run. Coyote 2; Julie 0.

You’d think at some point shit like that would stop hurting. But it doesn’t.

The thing is, that statement had with no more malice than Coyote had for me, floating out of the fog and crossing my path. Said in ignorance? No, this woman knows my past, knows my pain. Said without thinking? Clearly, for there are so very many things wrong with correlating someone’s physical conditioning to their experiences with childbirth. And it’s one of those things you just.don’t.say. to someone who has suffered infertility and miscarriage.

Yet, here I am, making excuses for thoughtless people. What am I going to do–throw pinecones at Coyote and hope he’ll turn tail so I can continue down that hill without looking over my shoulder? As if.

Me? I’m the deer in the headlights. I turn and run. Straight into my own words.

A few days after the Coyote and The Bar, this e-mail landed:

Dear Julie,

We are thrilled to announce that your submission has been accepted into Three Minus One. Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution. Sean and I welcome you! 

We also ask that you spread the word widely about Three Minus One. It is a labor of love for all involved! Please feel free to share on social media any and all developments regarding the book, and create links to your own websites to presell the book once it becomes available. We will do our best to keep you all in the loop as developments happen.

Here is a link so you can share your acceptance with your friends:  Three Minus One Congratulations to Contributors 

There are approximately 75 contributors.

Again, congratulations. There were over 600 submissions and it was tough competition, so this is a huge accomplishment and we are celebrating with you!

Very best,

Brooke and Sean

Three Minus One is a book project tied to the soon-to-be-released film Return To Zeroabout a couple whose child dies in the womb just weeks before his due date. Brooke is Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press. Sean is Sean Hanish, the film’s writer and director. He’s also the father of that little boy. Three Minus One, to be published by She Writes Press in May 2014, will contain the essays, poems and visual art of women and men who have lost children through miscarriage or stillbirth. I am honored to be a part of this project and amazed that my voice will be among those speaking for all who cannot.

I must learn to live with Coyote, to know when it is time to raise my hands and shout to frighten him away or when I should back off and find someplace else to run. I can’t fight every battle, but I can add my words to the peace treaty.

“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”
― Anthony de Mello

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Autumn Fog, Quimper Peninsula

Just A Homework Assignment

I’m currently enrolled in an essay writing course taught by writer and journalist Amy Paturel. Our first assignment was to craft a profile of ourself as a writer. How’s that for a stretch of the imagination?

Profile of a Writer-in-Progress

I ran my tenth half-marathon three weeks ago.  I completed my first long-distance race in November 2003 and I have run at least one half-marathon every year since.

So yes, I run. But I stumble when calling myself a runner. Runners are sleek, long-legged creatures who speak of fartleks, negative splits, performance shoes, PR’s. Runners are “A” personality types who train to qualify for Boston, layout their gear the night before, and eat meals calibrated to maximize protein and carbohydrate loads.

Me? I’ve got ten pounds I can’t seem to outrun, no matter how fast I sprint on interval days. I’ve followed several Runner’s World training programs, but in all these years I’ve never broken out of the Intermediate Category. My running togs are crammed into a dresser drawer; early mornings find me cursing quietly as I sort out black shorts from dark blue shirts. I finally sprang for a fancy Garmin GPS sports watch a few months ago. Now I have an accurate-to-the-footfall accounting of how slow I am. Yes, I run. But I feel ridiculous saying “I am a runner.”

I was in my early thirties when I first felt compelled to cross a finish line. Yet,the desire to write has been in me since I could tie a pair of tennies on my own. I have wanted to write since 1975, when I read Louise M. Fitzhugh’s classic “Harriet the Spy,” at the age of six. But the intent faded over the years to a “Wouldn’t that be lovely?’ dream as I pursued graduate work and created a career developing study abroad programs. I traveled, I schmoozed in various ivory towers, I had articles published in Transitions Abroad, a chapter in a textbook, and I contributed to our department newsletters.

But that was work; it didn’t make me a writer. Writers attend Tuesday evening writer groups; they have bulletin boards covered in Post-Its that detail characters and plot threads; they have MFA’s, manuscripts, agents, and a folder full of rejection letters that prove the prodigiousness of their efforts.

Two years ago I stopped keeping a journal, a practice I had started in 1975, inspired by Harriet and her notebooks. After a year’s hiatus, I was aching to write. I wanted to be free from recording the minutiae of my day, yet be accountable to an audience. So last summer, I began this blog. I construct essays and book reviews and my reward is a writer’s rush such as I never experienced scribbling in my journal. It’s like a runner’s high. Even when it hurts, and I suck, and I’m injured, and it rains, and I’m just not in the mood, running feels ridiculously good. Similarly, once the page begins to fill with words, the literary endorphins flow.

I am a self-taught writer; my classroom is the endless library of fiction and non-fiction that I live to read. I can conjugate the past conditional of irregular ˆre verbs in French, but I can’t keep straight when, in English, to use a semi-colon or when a simple comma will do. I absorb the advice of the accomplished: Stephen King makes me think twice before employing an adverb; Natalie Goldberg fills me with guilt for not writing enough; William Faulkner compels me to murder my darlings; William Zinsser just scares the crap out of me.

Returning to the page in this blog has given me the courage to find my voice and to pursue fiction writing. I enrolled in a two-year, non-residency fiction writing program late last autumn. My writer-mentor critiques my assignments. I bask in or shrink with her feedback. I rewrite and carry on. I attend the occasional workshop at The Richard Hugo House, a writing center in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I soak in the amazing writer juju and soothe my sense of inadequacy when we read our efforts aloud with the knowledge that I am taking essential risks. By risking, I will learn.

I find myself using the essay to mine my memory for inspiration. I search for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and to look for the smallest details that will spark my imagination and ignite a new story. Based on the work I have submitted as part of my writing program, I am now working on a series of short stories inspired by my experiences living in Appalachia, the Rockies, central Africa, France, Japan, and New Zealand. And I dream of a stone cottage in the Languedoc where I would write to the sound of goat bells in the garrigue.

My first short story – and I mean first, as in written and submitted – was published last month.Thirty-six years after a precocious eleven year-old from Manhattan’s Upper East Side – sporting black-rimmed spectacles, with a penchant for tomato sandwiches, and mentored by a Dostoevsky-quoting nanny – entered my life and inspired me to write, I have published my first story. Just don’t ask me to call myself a writer.

N.B. I am now four weeks into Amy’s essay writing course and preparing a couple of non-fiction pieces to submit to magazines in the coming months. The class been hugely beneficial – I highly recommend it – Amy is an amazing writer and teacher. And I’m keeping a journal again.