Full Circle

“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

1640_1028955160263_9598_nThis photo was taken in May 2002. My first trip to Ireland. Alone, I joined a small group of strangers to hike the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. On the flight home two weeks later, I turned my face toward the window and sobbed. I felt torn from a lover whom I was never meant to see again. Ireland had changed me. I had felt on the Beara a sense of peace and wholeness I had never experienced before.

 

I’ve returned to Ireland several times since then, each time to hike. My husband and I have traveled together, he under her spell as much as I. But that first time—and the Beara—remains a dream crystallized in photographs and memories.

 

A year ago January, I began thinking about my second novel, knowing only that it would be set in Ireland. Then I let go of wondering about the where and the why and concentrated on the who. As my characters began to take shape, I knew the threads connecting them to the setting would be found in a legend or a poem that expressed Ireland’s power over the imagination and the soul. When I discovered An Cailleach Bheara, the legend of the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland, I knew I would return to the Beara Peninsula, if not in reality, then in the pages of my story.

 

Researching the legend of the Hag of Beara led me the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, a native of West Cork who published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one. I wrote about her beautiful collection An Cailleach Bheara in this post: An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and her sunrise

 

The Beara Peninsula was once a site of the copper mining industry, before those reserves were exhausted in the late 19th century. The skeletons and scars of those mines are visible today. In my novel, I brought the possibility of copper mining back to modern Beara, a place in need of an economic lifeline after recession felled the Celtic Tiger in the late 2000s. And Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry answered me yet again, in her collection The Mining Road.

 

The wild, scabrous beauty of the Beara belies its fragility. In a cove, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a population of Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax chatters and clings, nesting in the shadow of industry and development. These birds, the Red-billed chough-a member of the crow family—became a sort of character in their own right and their plight, one of my novel’s central themes. The Crows of Beara was a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction and is now on submission, looking for its publishing home.

 

And I am packing for Ireland. The Beara Peninsula, specifically. In a month, I will be spending two weeks at the Anam Cara Retreat Center, one week in residency working on my own, one week in a workshop led by Leanne O’Sullivan: Lining Our Thoughts, A Poetry Writing Workshop. I’m terrified. I’ve never written a lick of poetry in my life. But I knew the minute I learned of this workshop—a chance search on the internet—I had to be there. The Universe is granting me the opportunity to come full circle. I’ll visit An Cailleach Bheara for the first time. I will thank Leanne O’Sullivan in person for the gift of her words. Perhaps find a few more of my own.

 

My heart is quite calm now. I am going back.

“The Beara Peninsula stretched away from the southwest coast of Ireland into the North Atlantic like the long foot of a lizard. At the tip of the foot was a gnarled knuckle of land: the Slieve Miskish mountains. The knuckle slid south to end in three claws—the westernmost tips of the country. Ballycaróg wasn’t at the very end of the earth—that distinction belonged to the edge of Dursey Island, ten miles south—but it was tucked into a cove that looked toward nothing but ocean, all the way to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.”

 

from The Crows of Beara, by Julie Christine Johnson

Every Picture Tells a Story

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7: 1966-1974

 

Do you remember that time, back in October, when I went to France? Yeah, I know. I’d kind of forgotten, myself. Life did a somersault, followed by a back-flip, and took off running the very day we returned. The magic of our journey went Poof! as we rushed to catch up to job changes, computer crashes, book deals . . .

 

I say I am a writer, yet there is another part of me that allows words to fall away, one that delights in shapes and textures, light and shadow. It holds hands with the writer, and together they process the world, funneling sensation into perspective. I’ve favored the writer, choosing words as my craft and it is that craft I study; pictures are more a means of play.

 

But there is also a safety for me in photography. It is my down time; to release the shutter is to release my mind. To write is to be vulnerable, to have an opinion, to expose an inner world, unprotected. Behind a camera, I am simply an eye, holding still for one heartbeat a certain cast of light, an angle of stone against sky, a ripple of water, the turn of a head.

 

I took hundreds of photographs and slowly, over these past months, I’ve culled and sorted, distilling less than a tenth of them into an album to share. I wanted, many months ago, to tell you how much this journey meant to me, how much a part of my soul France is, what amazing places we explored. How about I just show you, instead?

 

Follow this link to an album: Dordogne, Lot, Loire: October 2014

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From Château de Commarque; Château de Laussel in distance. Dordogne, October 2014 ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It’s a story I’ve carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner’s Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region’s history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.

 

But I’m wasn’t looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It’s all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn’t need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn’t disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I’ve read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr’s novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan’s won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Autumn light shines on a new story. © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I’d been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I’d opened a yawning chasm of “Now what do I do?” My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I’ve learned anything along this writer’s journey, it’s to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn’t new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I’d let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche . . . White Night—French for sleeplessness. It sounds almost celestial, doesn’t it? A vast, shining stretch of emptiness, a field of untouched snow, a freshly laundered sheet floating over a soft, welcoming bed.

 

Mais non. A nuit blanche is a very dark, lonely sort of hell. But it is inevitable, this desperate return jet-lag, the body crying for food, coffee, bright lights, a farmers’ market, a castle reach at the most inconvenient times.

 

Wide awake at one a.m. the day after our arrival, with just a handful of restless hours of sleep in reserve and still trembling from the stress of twenty-four hours of travel (white-knuckle driving in Paris morning rush hour traffic; white-knuckle queuing in a snaking line of hundreds for a flight leaving in two hours; white-knuckle bouncing along jet streams in a hot, cramped metal tub; white-knuckle winding through dark forests to return at last to our windswept island), I crept downstairs to the moonless dark of the living room—littered by luggage and still chilled from our absence—to wait out the nuit blanche with a movie and hot, buttered toast.

 

The afterglow of our journey lit my way and warmed my skin, freckled and peachy from days of hiking in the Dordogne. The region, resplendent in its sultry, tempestuous arrière-saison, had graced these fortunate travelers with October sunshine and a few welcome splashes of cleansing rain. I powered up the slide show function on my Nikon and took another journey, this time with knuckles unclenched.

 

I had fretted and fretted about this trip, shredding myself with worries about money, my flight claustrophobia, our sick cat, the resurgence of an Icelandic volcano, pilot strikes in France, not writing, oh, the list of the legitimate and the bizarre goes on and on.

 

The unfolding of my heart and mind, the releasing of the tension that had built since we hit ‘Confirm Purchase’ on those airline tickets back in April, began the moment we landed and continued as we explored anew, physically and intellectually, this place that means so much to us, to our individual and joined pasts, to our future.

 

But it was the present that captivated me, for I finally allowed myself to revel in it. My senses were gleefully pummeled by the taste of duck confît, the sight of pre-historical troglodytic dwellings beneath medieval castles, the wine-drenched scent of a village draining its fermentation tanks, the touch of acorns raining on my head from a sudden breeze, and the sound of French syllables swirling from all the mouths around us, including our own. I was grateful for the vulnerability and challenge of adapting to the whims and whiles of the different, eager as a hidden language revealed itself and poured out in a tumble, and delighted when a shopkeeper exclaimed, “Oh, I thought you were French!” As a traveller, I am renewed, replete with wonder and prismatic joy, able to see past the smallness of my worries as I open my heart to the newly possible.

 

There is linear time, real time, the actual days and weeks spent away. But then there’s travel time—the sense that you’ve been gone for ages, because of all that you experience during your sojourn. A traveller never returns home unchanged and that time travel is the distance between who you were when you left and who you are upon your return.

 

Yet, this time away returned me to someone I’d lost sight of during these past two years of change. To keep hold of her and not lose her againthat journey now awaits.

 

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

 

 

Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux, October © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The Journey of 1000 Lists: A Writer Travels

The lists that precede a journey. They begin in broad strokes, months in advance: where we will go, how we will get there, where we will stay, those travel Epiphanies that occur as we drain a bottle of wine or ramble along a forest trail. One year, while mapping out cycling routes in Burgundy, we realized we were meant to hike the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland. This year, while choosing a town in Burgundy to base ourselves, we decided it was time to visit Dordogne. Someday, we’ll actually make it to Burgundy.

 

A plan thus put into motion, the lists multiply, separate, fan out: packing lists; project lists; things to buy in preparation; things to do before we leave; an itinerary; do we want to end our trip in Paris, or visit someplace new? Which cat sitter did we feel most comfortable with?

 

Once scattered on the desk, pinned by magnets to the refrigerator, tucked into a book, the lists merge as the date of departure draws nigh. The big decisions are made. The small ones become a running stream of consciousness: which books to take (no e-readers here, thank you); which shoes—the shoes are everything, aren’t they? What happened to the spare phone charger cords? Will Lola spend three weeks under the bed, or will this new cat sitter coax her out and love her a little? I probably won’t get around to dusting the furniture before we go . . . Oh God, the milk . . . don’t forget to dump the milk.

 

No matter how far in advance I plan—and I’m a planner, bless my heart—these final days are filled with last-minute urgencies and “did you?” and “don’t forget!” and “what about?” Timing the loads of laundry, the paying of bills, the meals; must leave the laundry basket empty, the refrigerator hollow and shining.

 

Of all the things on my pre-departure lists—now list, singular, on the kitchen counter, beside the spare house keys for the cat sitter—I haven’t planned for writing. Not sure how I feel about that. This isn’t an intentional holiday from writing, though I haven’t left the page for more than three consecutive days in over two years. Maybe I should.

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I will return in late October and head straight to a writer’s conference. The query letter for my first novel is poised to begin its long journey through agent in-boxes. These past two weeks, since learning about a thematic competition for a novel that dovetails perfectly with the theme of my second novel, I have been frantically revising and editing, trying to get it into some sort of shape for a Gonzo submission by the September 30 deadline. Short stories written over the summer still need to find homes. I have work behind and ahead of me. I’m burned out.

 

Yet, this stopping business doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it will, when I’m pulled out of this element and routine and settle into another. Days of hiking and castle-hopping in the Dordogne, nights of cooking simple meals in our gîte, drinking supple Cahors and sipping creamy-spicy Armagnac—that should be enough to pull me out of the exigencies of word counts and submission tallies. A break from social media will slow the mind-chatter that insists I should be out there, engaging, commenting, posting, liking.

 

It is time to lift my head and look around, to pull out of the world of my imagination and let another world suffuse my senses. It is time to use a different language, quite literally, so that I may free my intellect from thinking in one so familiar.

 

I’ve packed one blank book (though that’s a bit of a cheat; I have a thing for papeteries and no doubt I’ll stock up on Rhodia or Clairefontaine or Calepino). Perhaps I will begin journaling again. Perhaps I will write, simply for writing’s sake. Perhaps those pages will remain blank, the Moleskine left forgotten at the bottom of my bag.

 

There’s a story idea I’ve carried around for years. For the first time, I travel to a specific place with the intention of absorbing its details—the contours of land, the quality of light, the aromas of villages and fields, the accents and colors of people—so that I may recall them in the months to come as I sketch out the idea I intend to sculpt into a novel.

 

There. See? I do have a plan, after all. It’s just not on my list.

 

Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. – Ibn Battuta

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.
The great affair is to move.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

We like lists because we don’t want to die. – Umberto Eco

Not All Who Wander Are Lost*

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

There was never a question that the celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary would involve passports. It was just a matter of where. I recall having plans to celebrate our 15th in Greece, but we found ourselves living in New Zealand that year, so we traded in visions of the cobalt Mediterranean for the reality of the cerulean Pacific. Not a bad deal. Greece is back on the table for our 25th. Italy sat at the tippy-top of the list for a long while. I’ve travelled it knee to toe; Brendan and I have been to the Veneto and Trentino together. But there is so much we want to do in Italy, we couldn’t decide where to start. Italy got reshuffled back into the deck.

Southeast Asia was mentioned. Enchanted by Cambodia and Vietnam during his stay in 2005 as a Fulbright Teacher-Scholar, Brendan can’t wait to return with me and I can’t wait to go. But it requires more preparation and planning than we have energy for right now. Then there’s that walking and whisky tour of Scotland we’ve mapped out, with a long weekend in Iceland on the way over. Maritime Canada. Mongolia. I’ve been after South Africa for some time now and I’ve just about got Brendan convinced, but not in time for this year.

At some point in early spring we realized we were over-thinking the whole program. If you know us, you know we’d pick up sticks tomorrow and move (back) to France. France forms the foundation of our dreams. It is where we both entered adulthood, Brendan working at a family-run vineyard and Cognac distillery the year after he graduated the University of Oregon, I studying at the University of Savoie. It is the reason we met, a shared struggle over Proust in Advanced French Literature. Brendan was completing his teaching certificate at the same university where I was finishing a double major after a year studying in Chambèry and a summer teaching in Japan. We’ve returned to France several times over the years, mostly together, on occasion alone.

When we moved to Seattle from New Zealand, we did not resume our former careers as a high school teacher (Brendan) and study abroad program manager (me). This meant no more summers off for Brendan and the drying up of my frequent flyer mileage account. We determined that for the next few years, given the demands of our jobs that zap time and energy for complicated journeys, we’d limit our travel to the one place we know we love, where every visit solidifies our desire to make a life there, someday: France. It is travel with a strategy. We keep up our language skills and culture specific know-how while scoping out long-term possibilities (I’m talking retirement here, people, nothing like a little 20 year vision). We visit a new region each time, staying in one place to really learn it, then end the trip with a couple of days in Paris. We even have “our” hotel in Paris. It is never work to plan, but it’s an adventure from start to finish.

This year, for our 20th, Burgundy called. We decided to base ourselves in Beaune and bike the countryside, rent a car for a long weekend hop over the German border to visit friends in Freiburg, take a few day trips by train south to Macon and Beaujolais; we’d drink and eat and bike our way through one of the most beautiful regions of France we’ve never seen. Done deal.

So, we’re headed to Ireland. Come Wednesday, our anniversary, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots and setting stride along the Kerry Way.

It’s been a year of tremendous change and turmoil. Events exhilarating and exhausting have left us with such a need for peace, reflection and a complete unplug from our current of thoughts. One afternoon as we mulled over where to pick up the rental car, which weekend to dash to Germany, if we should bypass Paris to spend a weekend in Champagne, Brendan turned to me and said, “Let’s go to Ireland.” In that instant, I knew. I felt immediate peace.

By just speaking the word “Ireland” aloud, I feel my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax, my jaw loosen. I envision those long, quiet hours on a trail, surrounded by every shade of green, blue, gray and gold the fields, sea and sky can offer, the clouds overhead as creamy white as the sheep that watch us as we tramp through their paddock.

This will be our fourth trip to Ireland in ten years. We do the same thing, in a different area, each time. And that thing is The Walk. We surrender all planning to the darling, generous, efficient, tremendous team at Southwest Walks Ireland. We simply arrive when and where we are told. We rest and rise the next morning to begin days and days of walking. There is a map, we have our packs, we hike hill and dale, stopping to marvel, rest, eat, talk when and where we will, trusting we will find our way each day to that night’s lodging. In the evenings there is a snug B&B, a warm pub, a steaming bowl of stew, a Paddy’s over ice or a pint of Guinness with a head taller than my hand is wide. There is music, there is silence. And always, every day, there is the long, long walk. 

In the early days we stick together, chatting, bubbling over all the things we haven’t had time to share in the rush of days and weeks when we hardly see one another. But soon we fall silent. Words are no longer necessary when your hearts are in perfect synchronicity.

Warm beaches on remote islands or ocean liners on the high seas don’t interest us. We both rest best when we are in motion – it is a mélange of play and exercise that allows us to let go of the pressures and expectations of our everyday lives and brings us back to the sweet and simple people we are at heart. Walking our way through a holiday adds a significant dose of zen – there is nothing more meditative than the motion of one foot in front of the other for hours on end. And nothing more delightful knowing you do not walk alone.

This is a bittersweet journey. We embarked on our last visit, in 2006, just a month before we moved to New Zealand. An enormous adventure blossomed before us, dreams on the cusp of being realized. Thinking of all that has happened in the intervening six years just rocks me. Starting over more times than we’d bargained for. Saying goodbye far too often – to loved ones, to babies, to dreams. It is staggering.

We shared that last hike in Ireland with two of our dearest friends, two men as in love and committed as Brendan and I could ever hope to be, who had been together at least as long as the anniversary we celebrate now. We made plans during that hike that they would join us in New Zealand when their retirements were finalized; we’d open a café, have a small farm… One of those men is gone now, taken by cancer. Even after two years, my life will never be as bright without Peter in it.

Peter, Randy and Brendan                                            Dingle Peninsula           June 2006

Ireland is in celebration our lives together, this amazing adventure that we’ve lived in the 20 years, 5 months and ten days that have passed since our first date. It is to recapture peace that we have lost in a tumultuous year. And it’s to touch that fragile, tender part of the soul that needs looking after, before you set it free to dream again.

 “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

*All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. – Gandalf, “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Me and Mon Ombre

It’s been a while since I’ve travelled alone. In another lifetime, domestic and international travel was integral to my job. It was a groove of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, car rental upgrades; a suitcase that was always half-packed with the essentials, just waiting for the next journey. Being home was the exception, the interlude between dashes to the airport.

I’ve never regretted giving up the hassles of travel, particularly the post-9/11 frantic harassment of airport security and the dismal state of airline service. Happily my travels these days are mostly for holiday, on flights bound for Europe, hand-in-hand with the only person I can suffer to see me through turbulence and jet lag. Brendan and I are viaggiatori simpatici. We dream of the same destinations, push ahead with equal energy levels, become tired and hungry in tandem and bicker over maps and directions without really caring who’s right. We always find our way.

But I cannot deny the certain bliss of traveling alone. Undertaking a solo journey abroad is like dumping 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on dining room table. It begins as a mission of intoxicating near-impossibility, but as you organize patterns and fit those first pieces together, you covet your independence and encircle your puzzle with protective arms, not wanting anyone to interfere with your reverie.

Red bicycle. Place des Vosges, Paris

For a reverie it is. Traveling alone means slipping into a dream state, where anything is possible. With each encounter, snafu and discovery, the surroundings reflect you in a mirror that only you can see. This solitary state makes you vulnerable to the world and somehow floating above it. At any given moment, no one really knows where you are, what you are doing, tasting, hearing, seeing. The delightful and the disconcerting occur. During the private journey you rejoice and suffer alone.

Being a solo traveler is sitting in silence at a café on the Île Saint-Louis, sipping a chocolat chaud and watching the sun set Notre Dame aglow.

It is falling to my knees in the crypt of the Shoah Memorial before the tomb of the unknown Jewish martyr and crying alone in that vast, dark space.

It’s being asked for directions to the Censier-Daubenton métro stop by a panicked looking Parisian elementary school teacher who has a gaggle of five-year-olds attached to him by a long strap; then being stopped a few minutes later on Rue Mouffetard by a grandmother, looking for the church where a funeral is about to begin.

It’s lugging my suitcase up six flights of a stairs that curl like the inside of a sea snail shell, because I can’t fathom squeezing myself into the tiny lift.

It’s ordering a second glass of Minervois at a restaurant deep in the Marais, wondering if I’ll remember the route back to the hotel in the dark.

It’s running at dawn on the beach at Cannes with no one to keep watch over my shoes and socks while I wade in the Mediterranean.

It’s meeting a vignernon and thinking how my husband would love this kind, gentle man who makes the most wonderful Armagnac I’ve ever tasted. And thinking, we’ll meet again, and Brendan will be with me…

I fell into a deep sleep on the high-speed train carrying me from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Cannes on the Côte d’Azur. There was one change of trains, long into the journey. I awoke with a jolt when my iPod slipped from my lap and fell to the floor, jerking away the earpiece. I caught the tail end of the conductor’s announcement of our arrival. In my jet lagged haze, I grabbed my bag and stumbled down the steps of my two-tiered car, knowing I had but a few minutes to make my connection. I climbed a set of stairs and crossed to the main terminal, looking for the departure quay. Then it dawned on me. This compact, bright, calm hall was not the hurly-burly Saint-Charles station in Marseilles. I had disembarked in the idyll of Aix-en-Provence. And my train – the one on which I should have remained – had just left the station.

Likely this wouldn’t have happened had I not been alone. Then again, I wouldn’t have the memory of those moments with the stationmaster, chatting about hunting wild boar in the vineyards of the Rhône, before being deposited on the next TGV that whisked me away to Cannes.