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.

Getting Ready to Exist

The human heart is never still. There is a divine restlessness in each of us which creates a continual state of longing. You are never quite at one with yourself, and the self is never fixed. There are always new thoughts and experiences emerging in your life; some moments delight and surprise you, others bring you to shaky ground. John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections On Our Yearning to Belong

 

I am on the edge, the edge where this peninsula meets a strait, straight line to the ocean. The water a dull green expanse like worn seaglass, except where it crashes ashore in brown breakers laced with white foam. The skim milk sky has a faintest bruise of blue underneath its watery skin. It is a battered day, spent and cold, seasonless, reasonless. One more soaking bluster to add to the wettest few months in Washington state history.

IMG_1188

 

My car faces the strait, windshield blurred by the weeping sky. Rain pelts the back window like a child hurling handfuls of gravel. I have had enough. This rain. This cold. This stasis.

 

Yet my life been anything but static for weeks on end. I lament the daily rollercoaster of praise and criticism that accompanies the public release of a very private effort. Routines disrupted, privacy jilted, my winter retreat from social media thwarted by the need to be present, responsive, accessible. And then, you know. Feeling like an asshole for even hinting that a dream realized could be fraught with stressors I wasn’t prepared for. The emotional tangle of being on, accountable.

 

I am filled, made complete, when I give of myself.  Because I have been receiving so much input, with too little output, a certain disquiet, an uneasy longing, has taken hold. A hole has opened inside. It is an emptiness in search of belonging.

 

“I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.” – Fernando PessoaThe Book of Disquiet

 

I am not a joiner. Although I have causes vital to me, to which I donate time and resources, write letters to my elected officials, work to educate and inform my opinion, seek to acknowledge my own privilege and biases, mine is participation in solitude. Sure, I put in time during the growing and harvesting season at a community food bank garden, but even that is solitary: planting, weeding, watering, harvesting according to instructions left by the garden manager. The writing workshops I lead each week bring a certain calm joy that reminds me how much being a guide, a mentor, a teacher contributing to others’ creative process sustains my own.

 

But now, in this time of spotlight, what am I giving? How am I using my words, my voice, to create something beyond and greater than my own needs and ego?

 

Two weeks ago, the launch month of In Another Life culminated in an evening at a local bookstore, a celebration with my community. I took parts of the talk I normally give during author readings and tossed them together with a recounting of what led me to begin writing the novel in the first place: the miscarriage of a pregnancy in the final hours of my first writing conference in 2012:

 

‘This wasn’t the first loss, but I knew it would be the last. I was forty-three. After years of unexplained infertility, attempted adoptions, then the unexpected pregnancies, miscarriages, and surgeries, my body was battered and my soul couldn’t take any more. It was time to stop.

 

Those years of attempting to be a mother came to a definitive end at that writers’ conference. Yet something else sparked to life: a determination to find a way not only to cope with the despair, but to celebrate the life I did have, to create something beyond and greater than myself.

 

Two weeks after the conference, I typed the opening words to my first novel, the novel that became In Another Life. I didn’t set out to write about a woman recovering from grief, about the impermanence of death, the possibility of rebirth—of the body and the heart. In fact, I thought I had chosen the one story that would take me furthest from my own reality: a past-present adventure exploring a 13th century murder in southern France. Funny what the heart does when the head is distracted. It works to heal.”

 

These were the words I offered, to reveal how my personal grief ultimately led me on a very public journey.

 

Not long after this night, I received a message from someone who had been in attendance. She wrote, in part:

 

‘You did an incredible job tonight. You made standing in front of a full house and talking look easy. When I read the first pages of your book I feared you had experienced grief. The line “it had been so long since she had looked at her reflection in the mirror.” “It took someone else to make a decision about her life to propel Lia into finally making a few of her own.”  All feelings someone who has lived with grief would understand. I’m so so sorry for your losses. I think in your writing others will. . . encounter their own memories of grief & joys of finding love again. Your grief may turn into a gift you give your readers.’

 

The act of writing, which so often occurs in selfish solitude, is ultimately about finding a connection with readers. But most of us never really know what effect our words will have, if any; if the stories we tell resonate beyond a surface level that compels someone to keep turning pages. Just as I never expected that writing a romantic timeslip of a novel would bring me to my redemption, I never expected the finished story could speak to someone else’s mourning and healing process. With her words, this woman gave me a gift.

 

Be patient and without resentment and think that the least we can do is to make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come. – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

I am so ready for spring to come. My divine restlessness, which sets my soul afloat on this dull, churning sea, pushes me ever forward, seeking beauty, questioning my longings, testing the shaky ground on which I stand. “Be patient,” I tell myself. “But get ready to exist.”

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t planning to crack the cover of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. In fact, I actively resisted reading 2012’s sleeper hit. It has all the makings of something that would send me searching for that elusive “dislike” button. Social satire: Ugh. Chick lit affect (entirely and unfairly due to cover art): Ugh Ugh. Epistolary format with multiple points-of-view (tricksy, metafiction, “I’m a WRITAH” stuff): Ugh Ugh Ugh. Spoofy, anti-Seattle drivel penned by interloper from Southern California (haven’t you all done enough?): Ugh Ugh Ugh Ugh.

But there it was, on the $1 table at the library sale. What could I lose but a buck?

Okay, so… I totally loved this book. It’s magical. Maria Semple makes me laugh out-Parks-and-Recreation-loud (there’s my obligatory pop culture reference. Maria Semple is a celebrated Hollywood scriptwriter – yes, I know she didn’t write for P&R, but that’s the one comedy I know- we discovered P&R in Ireland last year and rented several DVDs during the dark hours of life last winter. I haven’t had TV since 1994. My television comedy literacy is stuck someplace between Wings and Murphy Brown. This book tickled the same funny bone as P&R. That’s why I bring it up).

The book’s magic is multi-fold. Satire often relies on caricature to reflect life’s absurdities, missing the irony that life is so freaking absurd all by itself, there’s no need for a novel to dump on its characters by making them freaks, as well. Semple gives us real people in real time, setting the horizon slightly a-tilt so your balance is off but you aren’t stumbling like a drunk. She blends the bizarre with moments of grace and clarity that reveal the depth of her characters and her themes. Humor works best when it pokes at our most vulnerable spots and shows us that everyone else has those spots, too.

The narrative is laid out in a series of e-mails, letters, articles, police reports, TED talk transcripts and department memos written by a cast of adult characters, but the primary point-of-view is delivered in traditional third-person. And this voice belongs to thirteen-year-old Bee, the tiny (congenital heart defect) daughter of Microsoft exec Elgin Branch and his wife, Bernadette. Bernadette, around whom this story foams and eddies, is a once-celebrated architect and a now-wiggy recluse. The contrast of correspondence and detached transcript versus a child’s perspective is a brilliant technique: the adults talk at one another, while the purest, most reliable character addresses the reader directly.

Semple’s spoofs are fun-house mirror reflections of layers of upper-middle class American society: oversharing to strangers via the save-face format of e-mail and social media (the exchanges between Bernadette and her $.75/hour personal assistant Manjula, who is based in India, are screamingly funny); the obsession with work and achievement (woe to Microsoft, whose culture is skewered and roasted like a vegan hotdog on a gas grill); dogmatic liberalism –Bee splutters her outrage towards her private school:

“Their class was studying China, and the debate was going to be pro and con Chinese occupation of Tibet. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Galer Street is so ridiculous that is goes beyond PC and turns back in on itself to the point where fourth graders are actually having to debate the advantages of China’s genocide of the Tibetan people, not the mention the equally devastating cultural genocide.

This is one bright kid and one whacked-out progressive school.

And then there is Seattle. I read an interview last year in which Maria Semple admitted this book was her rant on all that drove her batty about “this dreary upper-left corner of the Lower Forty-eight” shortly after she moved here; now that she’s been here awhile, she can’t imagine living anyplace else.

But there is no malice in her observations (okay, maybe just a wee bit toward Microsoft, but we all revile the place and anyway, it’s not in Seattle); instead, the author works her magic yet again, nailing dead on the bull’s eye all that makes Seattle maddening and lovely. Although the social strata she spoofs could exist anywhere in America’s wealthier reaches, the details she provides are so crazy-true I caught myself gasping with an insider’s recognition. Elgin’s “bike-riding, Subaru-driving, Keen-wearing alter ego…”? Umm… guilty. Molly Moon’s Salted Caramel ice cream? Jesus. I dream of the stuff. Cliff Mass Weather Blog? The house goes silent at 9 a.m. every Friday so I can listen to Cliff’ prognostications for the week ahead. I can hear his baritone in every syllable of Semple’s transcript.

The five-way intersections? Oh. I know EXACTLY where the author (and Bernadette) lost her mind on Queen Anne (though no one calls it Queen Anne Hill, just so’s you know). Yes, they lurk everywhere throughout our fair city. The Microsoft Connecter? I know it waited every morning on 45th in Wallingford for the express purpose of pulling out in front of me as I raced to beat the next light. Daniel’s Broiler on Lake Union? I always wondered who ate there. If anyone I know has, they aren’t admitting it. Blackberry bushes, the Westin, rain? Check check check. Bernadatte rants to a former colleague:

“What you’ve heard about the rain: it’s all true. So you’d think it would become part of the fabric, especially among the lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here’s what they’ll say” “Can you believe the weather?” And you want to say “Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can’t believe is that I’m actually having a conversation about the weather.”

The city, and Bernadette’s reactions to it, are part of the web that bears the weight of Semple’s heavier themes: a lost sense of self, depression, isolation and anxiety. That she can hold it all together with such a deft hand at slapstick comedy without being cruel is yet another form of magic.

The plot twists are genius. For Bernadette is not lost just in a metaphorical sense. Semple takes us on a cruise to Antarctica and the book’s title becomes a call that echoes in the blue glaciers of this frozen continent. Hang on – you might get a little seasick as you try to keep up, but it’s so worth the ride.

Maria Semple has written a crazy-good, original, hilarious, sweet and tender novel about a woman falling apart. I think I saw that woman sitting in the window of Starbucks on the corner of Queen Anne Avenue and Boston last winter, laughing to herself. It was raining pretty hard, so I can’t be certain it was she. Maybe it was just my reflection.

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Leaving Pieces Behind

“She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went. It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said.” ~Brian Andreas

What I have here are two tickets to see the Seattle Symphony performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” conducted by maestro Ludovic Morlot. Next weekend. Stellar seats – Orchestra Center row H, seats 7, 8. These are our seats, you see. This is the last concert of our season package.

We could go. It’s a Sunday matinée; we could make the peaceful hour drive to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, leave the car and walk on for a relaxing 35 minute crossing of the Puget Sound to Seattle’s waterfront. There could be a picnic lunch of fixings from Pike Place – a salmon sandwich on rosemary bread from Three Girls Bakery, a bag of Bing cherries and tender-sweet apricots from Corner Produce, truffles from The Chocolate Market. Then a stroll down to Benaroya Hall for two hours of aural heaven. We’d be home by dinnertime.

But this is the second time we’ve planned a return trip to Seattle since our move, only to look at each other at nearly the last minute and ask: “I don’t wanna go back, do you?” And for the second time the answer is: “Trade here for there, even for an afternoon? That’s a negative, Sailor.”

Each place has its time. Imagine if those freeway signs informing you of commute times could flash your residential expiration date: <<Julie: Please Prepare To Leave In 5 months, 4 days, 3 hours>>. It would be so nice to know when you should start collecting boxes from your neighborhood grocery store.

Some places I left before my time had reached its true end: Chad. New Zealand. Others I never thought I’d stay as long as I did: Ohio. Destinations unplanned and all the sweeter for the interludes: Colorado. Japan. Illinois. Places I’ve lived, but never tire of returning to again and again: France. And those where I am completely at home even though I’ve never claimed a fixed abode: Ireland. Sonoma County.

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Sunrise, Admiralty Bay. June 2013

I made this move with trepidation, even though it was the place we had long ago determined would be the place, the last place we would call home. I feared the regret of leaving a place I loved before its time. I feared the longing for the hard-fought familiar, the comfort of routine, of feeling I was where I belonged.

But what I feared most was the silence. When we last moved to another idyll of mountains and sea, with nights so quiet you could hear the stars falling, the silence fell over me like a thick wool blanket. It smothered all rational thought until I could hear only the sound of my muffled cries as I tried to claw my way back. That took such a very long time.

We left that island for a blue and green city of glittering high rises and snow-capped peaks, farmers markets, cafés, concerts, and freeways frozen like airport parking lots, wailing sirens and booming jets. The bustle and chaos – the presence of millions of others and their dogs and Subarus – was a balm to my raw and lost self. It gave me a renewed sense of life and possibility.

But I am not the same person who was once blindsided by peace and quiet. This silence is not that silence. And the sense of possibility and renewed joy for life are not fed by brewpubs or bookstores, by traffic or meetings. They come from within.

Story setting came up during a recent meeting of a virtual writers’ group I connect with on Sunday afternoons. We were discussing what informs our work. While characters and their stories sustain me, the spark is most often initiated by places where I’ve lived or traveled: a writer’s cottage in a Bavarian garden; a tiny hotel room in Tokyo; a slaughterhouse in rural New Zealand; a castle ruin in the Pyrénées. My writing has a vivid sense of setting because place has so often defined my soul.

And now, on the tip of a peninsula forming the break between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound, in a small town of rainshadows and storytellers, of porpoises and poets, of farmers and boat builders, I am embracing my redefinition.

I don’t know if this seaport of part-time work and full-time dreams will appear in my writing. Perhaps it’s just meant to be the place where I write.

In the meantime… Saint-Saëns anyone?

Book Review: We Live In Water: Stories by Jess Walter

We Live in Water: StoriesWe Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The thing about failure is that it’s never really over. Even after shuffling off this mortal coil, your failures reverberate like ripples in a pond, carry into lives left behind. Jess Walter, in his exquisite collection We Live In Water presents twelve men, Disciples of Failure, whose stories we read after they have made the worst choices, their lives already in a state of deliquescence.

Walter takes the snapshots we make every day in our mind’s eye and crafts the stories behind the moment. The men sitting with cardboard signs at freeway on-ramps: Anything Helps; the convicts picking up trash on the side of the highway: The Wolf and the Wild; the young people harassing you for a moment to talk about Greenpeace or Save the Children on your way into the grocery store: Helpless Little Things; the women behind those stripper cards handed out in seedy Las Vegas: The New Frontier. We wonder “Who are these people? How did they fall so low?” What we turn away from, what we are afraid to imagine, Walter follows through, coloring in the space of our imagination.

Children, young boys – are often the focus of Walter’s many touches of grace. These boys represent the potential of goodness, perhaps what these men were like before the world ground their faces in a mud puddle or before greed, anger or addiction became their motivating forces. In The Wolf and the Wild a little boy aches to curl in the lap of a convict, to read the same picture book over and over. There is no point in taking a chance on something new – the familiar is the best comfort a lost little boy can hope for. The son in Anything Helps rejects his father’s gift, but with such compassion you know you are seeing the act of a youth who is becoming a man before his time. In the collection’s title story, a single moment – the blue glow of an aquarium – releases a man’s childhood memory of his father’s disappearance.

Walter also takes us where no man has gone before: the future. In one of the most imaginative stories, Don’t Eat Cat, set in Seattle’s Fremont district just a few years hence, an epidemic of zombies is taking over the city. But within the futuristic oddity runs a current of reality. These zombies have a disease, a horrific effect of the addiction to an anti-depressant. Owen, who loses his cool in a Starbucks after a zombie messes up his order, points out “But is this the Apocalypse? Fuck you. It’s always the Apocalypse. The world hasn’t gone to shit. The world is shit. All I’d asked was that is be better managed.” Yep. Get that.

Walter wields a deft hand with black comedy. Virgo is devious, written in first-person by a stalker who plots revenge on his ex-girlfriend by sabotaging her daily horoscope. The New Frontier, has the making of a bromance buddy caper: two guys travel to Las Vegas to save the sister of one her life as a hooker in Las Vegas. The brother is a goob. His buddy, who recounts their mission, is, well…

Jess Walter closes with a thirteenth piece. Less a story than an ode, an explanation, a litany, Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington is a bullet-point list of the failures of a tired-but-trying city and the reasons why Walter chooses to remain.

I don’t mean to make the short stories seem like complete downers. There are no happy endings here; in many cases there are no endings – these are moments, suspended in the time it takes to read the few pages you get. But Walter has this way of imbuing his stories with a gentle caress of humanity and not a little humor that saves his characters’ voices from becoming maudlin. At the same time, we are spared the soft focus of sentimentality because the edges are raw with grief or pointed with violence. I applaud him for giving the Pacific Northwest a dimension of character that overrides the clichéd image of rugged landscapes and frontier spirits.

After reading this collection, it’s a done deal: in my book, Jess Walter is one of the greatest of contemporary American fiction writers.

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