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

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. 


The finish line- just a start, really…

Thirteen point one. Got ‘er done, and in record time to boot. It wasn’t the first half-marathon I’ve run, nor God and all her saints willing, will it be the last. But it was the most meaningful. It was the first half completed in my fifth decade. It was my first half after a stream of injuries. It was my first half as I  let go simultaneously of some dreams and embraced new ones.

By the way, can we think of some other name for this distance? It’s not half of anything. It is a whole 69, 168 feet; 27, 667 steps; 21 kilometers. It is a months of training, two sets of earbuds, 507 songs on the iPod, two pairs of running shoes, 3 seasons, a month or two of Sunday mornings devoted to the dreaded “long” run. Which kept getting longer. There is a movement afoot – so to speak – to rename the half-marathon “21k” or Pikermi, which is the town halfway between Athens and Marathon. I kid you not. Team Pikermi.

I took chances and learned lessons as I trained. For reasons to do with timing, planned vacation, surgery, and unplanned injuries, I followed a very loose and likely very inefficient training plan. It looked something like this: Run. A few times a week. Longer on one day. I debated for months the usefulness of my gym membership. In August I let it go – the first time in over fifteen years I haven’t belonged to a gym. I decided that the mind-numbing stints on the elliptical and the miles on the treadmill would never properly condition my legs and feet for the road. I accepted that weight lifting was more about aesthetics and wasn’t the best way to achieve sustainable fitness  (and truth be told – I do a lot of heavy lifting a few days a week at my day job).   I had to commit to the harder work of  training out-of-doors in all sorts of weather, of finding ways to cross-train that didn’t involve equipment run on electricity, and of concentrating on yoga as a whole-body approach to building strength, stamina, and that all-important core.

I turned to my bike as cross-trainer #1 and landed hard on the pavement, derailing my training with ribs so sore that laughing made me cry.  I followed a night of dancing barefoot with a morning’s hard run and landed myself in a big black boot, on my way to a stress fracture of my left metatarsal.  I ran my last long run too close to race day and found myself back in that damnable boot only days before the marathon, pumping ibuprofen and denying away the pain.

But somehow the self-inflicted insults stitched themselves together into muscles and bones that knew what they wanted to do once my feet crossed the starting mat. They ran and ran, even when I thought I’d run out of gas. My one stop was a stretch and pee break at the 4 mile porta-John. After that, the pavement rolled out before me, sometimes agonizingly uphill, sometimes painfully down. Miles 5-9 felt steady and smooth and I was able to enjoy the beauty of Lake Washington and the Arboretum at autumn’s end. I lost my hat somewhere along mile 8, which wasn’t a problem until about mile 10, when the wind rushed off of I-5, my reserves were running low, and I felt a deep chill building in my extremities. But mile 12 gave an extra jolt of adrenalin and that gave me the needed heat.

I didn’t feel a great sense of accomplishment crossing that finish line. But neither did I feel wrecked or exhausted, just tired and happy. I had a sense of ease and energy, like I could do this again sometime soon. This past week of recovery week was harder emotionally – the post-event blues- than physically. I’ve walked long and hard, run short and tenderly, biked, and melted into some healing yoga. And I’m planning out the next race – perhaps Whidbey Island Marathon (half) in April, and a couple of local 10ks to keep me motivated through the winter. I’m investigating lessons with a swim coach to train again for a sprint triathlon.

And I’m already signed up for the Seattle Rock-n-Roll Marathon (half) in June.  It is this event I anticipate with particular excitement – my fingers are crossed that I will be joined by friends from near and far (I’d cross my toes, too, but I need them to train!). These friends are from my distant and recent past, some are new and some are those with whom I have corresponded for years but never actually met. Some of us will run the whole or half-marathon, some of us will walk, some will be cheering from the sidelines. If you are reading my blog post, I throw my arms wide and invite you to join us in June. If you are on Facebook, I’ll add you to our training and support group – just drop me a line.

And a few notes to self, on those lessons learned:

  • Miles 10-12 were rough. Means I need to do more long runs, earlier on.
  • BUT longest run no longer than 12. That last mile is sheer adrenaline. I risked it going for 14 in training.
  • Last long run 3 weeks out. No later.
  • I’m pokey. I’m not interested in speed for the sake thereof- too much pounding on my joints and bones. But I could make an effort to be a more efficient runner. This means heading to the track at Greenlake and running fartleks. It’s an excuse to buy a fancy new watch with supercool functions, right?
  • And bleachers. Need to run the damn bleachers.
  • My hips and psoas say “Thank you, Julie, for making an effort to stretch and strengthen us. Might we have some more, please?”  Ashtanga before breakfast. My new mantra.


Miles high

All week we’d been graced with autumn days that felt like the sound of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G – a swirling uplift of leaves and breeze, a gentle descent of sunlight in the western sky, impassioned bursts of color from trees singing their last joyous harmonies before winter’s fugue silences their glory.

But the weekend’s forecast threatened the end of our sun-splashed reverie. The announcers on our local public radio station gleefully read the latest bulletins from the National Weather Service: winter storm watches for the mountain passes, high surf warnings for the ocean beaches. And for metropolitan Puget Sound? Rain. Pounding, driving, blowing, Pacific Northwest autumn rain. Rain that inspired the likes of Eddie Bauer and the founders of REI. Rain that makes Seattle the most book-reading city in the nation. Rain that creates a highly caffeinated yet oddly subdued collection of down-and fleece-sporting citizens.

I woke at 5:30 on Sunday morning and lay still in bed, listening. I could hear a few drips landing on the sodden plants beneath our bedroom window. But there was no steady patter of showers, no rush of wind gusts. The unexpected silence was such a relief. My planned training run was 10 miles and I dreaded having to slog through it as the rain soaked my shoes.

I rose for coffee and a pre-run yoga session. Shortly after 6:00, as I was grimacing through Crow, it hit. The glass front of the fireplace rattled, there was a howl from the living room window where I’d left it open just a sliver, and the building shuddered as a blast of wind careered in from the northwest.  Within moments the windows were streaked with thin streams.  “Well, kid,” I thought, “you signed up for the no-bullshit training plan. You ARE running a half-marathon at the end of November. Rain is your present, rain is your future.”

I stepped out the door shortly after 7, waterproof jacket zipped to my chin, long pants zipped tight at my ankles. And there was the moon, low on the horizon,  ripe and lush after waxing full during the night. The clouds rushed past carrying away the rain and the sky shimmered a silvery-blue. The wind blew deliriously, claiming its right to change the seasons on a whim.

And so I ran. I ran the steep climb from 65th to Phinney and descended cautiously on pavement slippery with Big Leaf maple and White birch leaves. I splashed through puddles that dotted the outer perimeter of Green Lake. I ran as the sun rose and the dog walkers emerged. I ran to the inner perimeter and dodged couples sipping lattes from travel mugs and moms trotting with strollers. I ran past the Aum Shinrikyo guy meditating in full lotus by the west end bathrooms, past the tai chi group practicing behind the viewing stands; I ran past the scullers and the geese paddling in their wake, past the turtles sunbathing on logs, past the Blue Herons posing in the shallows. I crammed my gloves and my earband into the pockets of my jacket and stripped to shirtsleeves, cursing my long pants as my body heat steamed through the layers.

About five miles on, it was as if someone had suddenly dimmed the lights from 75 watts to 40. The golden-green glow in the sky dulled to a lusterless gray as the clouds rolled in, heavy and low. And then the rain began. There was no warning interlude of slow drops. It simply spewed forth, pummeling straight into my face, sending my contact lens astray.

But I’d reached the crazy point. The point at which your body has settled in the groove, your endorphins are in command of the show, you are running because there is no other option, there is no other place you could be. As the paths emptied out, the walkers making a dash to the shelter of their cars and nearby cafes, the runners were left to splash through their circuit. You’d catch someone’s eye as you passed, realizing that shit-eating grin smeared across their rain-plastered face was a mirror image of your own. There might be a nod, a lift of a finger, as an acknowledgment of the camaraderie between maniacs. Or you might simply be witnessing someone lost in their own pace, surviving their pain and the elements by the grace of will and the perfect set of tunes on their iPod.

I feel like I’m one injury, one disaster away from not running. The chronic pull in my groin,  the sharp twang in my left metatarsal, the deep ache in my plantar fascia have sidelined me in recent years (recent months!); only this week have I stopped feeling a jolt in my ribs from September’s bike crash. So every run feels like a gift. I GET to do this. I get to run in weather than numbs my legs and leaves me shaking from a cocktail of adrenalin and exhaustion. I get to rise in the wee hours before dawn to do what I know will heal me –  yoga –  before I set out to do what shreds me apart.  I’ll never be fast, I’ll never be thin, I’ll never assume the finish line is mine. But no one else runs those miles for me. Those miles are mine.

This morning I set out under clear skies. By the time I finished, the clouds had gathered and the first drops were falling. Today I ran 12.  The half marathon is twenty eight days away.