Life and Death

A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

Cutout Heart

Walking past a jewelry store a few days before Valentine's Day, I see a window display of cutout hearts dangling on silver ribbons.

 

I forget, until I remember.

 

Hearts cut out, dangling on ribbons of memory. I see tender threads of sorrow connecting us to our losses: loved ones passed on; friends who have passed us by; lovers whose touch has faded with time. My cutout hearts: our first child, due February 10; our second child, due February 14.

 

I forgive, until I rage.

 

This time of year usually finds me deep underground, out of the chatter, holding my grief silent and sacred. But this year—the year of charmolypi—I decide to hang on and hang out, to push through and pretend. I forget how raw I can become, as though my skin has been stripped away.

 

I am together, until I fall apart. 

 

What happens is coincidence. A curse of timing. Mercury in Retrograde. At my most vulnerable, I linger in a social media forum on the cusp of a weekend, like a child in the schoolyard at recess, watching as a group knits together, their backs to me, intent on their own games, speaking their secret language. The language of sisterhood. The language of motherhood. Languages I will never speak, countries I will never visit.

 

I am whole, until I break. 

 

All the rage. All the raw hurt. It pours out in little-girl loneliness. I lose my shit. I really do. For days, a ticker-tape parade of all my faults and shortcomings replays in digital neon shoutycaps:

JULIE, NO ONE WILL EVER PICK YOU FOR THEIR TEAM BECAUSE YOU ARE

withdrawnawkwardweirduglysillyclumsyboringnotasisternotamothernotoneofus

 

And then it stops. Not all at once. It takes some serious self-talk and soul-searching. The gushing fire hydrant of self-hate eventually diminishes to a lawn sprinkler, and then to the last trickle from a closed water spout. It takes keeping my eyes peeled for moments of grace.

 

I stand in shadow, until I turn my face to the sun.

 

Grace comes first from the inside. A recognition that all my rational energy is fighting the good fight—the one that keeps my head above water when it sees the tsunami wave of depression bearing down. It comes in the letting go of unfair expectations—of myself, of others.

 

Other moments of grace follow: an article, shared by Rene Denfeld—whose powerful writing and capacity for compassion serve as inspiration for the writer and woman I strive to be—and in the reading, I accept my grief for what it is—endless and all right (Getting Grief Right); an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert that makes me realize I must reclaim the shit I've lost and own it. Own that I hurt, that I overreact in moments of acute pain and loneliness, and forgive myself for not always getting the really awful stuff just right.

 

Emotional healing guru Iyanla Vazant says, “When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” In this case, I meet crazy in the middle of the road. I put my arms around her and say, "You are loved. You are worthy. Now, let's celebrate."

 

I walk, until I dance. 

 

A wee package arrives in the mail from someone who has never met me, but who offers up her faith in me, her heart, her home. In the grace of a sparkling just-spring day, I melt.

 

"I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." I pulled this from that lovely New York Times article to which I linked above. The thing is, I'm writing about my sorrows. I'm writing a whole huge novel about the sorrows. It's the toughest work I've ever done. My character, Holly, she isn't me. The story isn't autobiographical, although some of the places are places I've been, some of the experiences are ones I've had. But it's not so much that I'm writing about what I know; rather, I'm writing what I feel.

 

I write, until I heal. 

 

That girl on the playground feels a warm hand slip into hers, pulling her away from what she doesn't have, into the embrace of what she does: the love of wonderful boy. My Valentine.

 

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. ~ Isak Dinesen

 

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A Voice for the Stolen: Speaking Up For Nigeria

Reports surfaced early last week that hundreds of people, perhaps as many as 2000, were massacred by Boko Haram forces in northern Nigeria, near the Chadian border. Boko Haram, a militant, extremist Islamic separatist movement that is classified as a terrorist organization, is responsible for thousands of deaths since its emergence in 2009. In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, reportedly to make them wife-slaves; those girls remain unaccounted for and hundreds more women and children have been imprisoned and enslaved since.  

Recent reports out of northern Nigeria indicate Boko Haram is using kidnapped girls as suicide bombers.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because so few are talking about it.

 

Last week, I raged, I posted on Facebook, I tweeted, I trolled the internet for information. NPR, through the indomitable reporting of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as well as syndicated shows Here and Now and On the Media, has done an admirable job of keeping the Baga Massacre in the news; British media, including the BBC and print media The Guardian and The Independent, are producing the most audible, visible, and compelling reports and narratives. Yes, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign raised awareness during the initial days of the schoolgirl hostage crisis last year, but interest waned as time wore on and both captors and victims remained faceless, hopeless headlines. Headlines that grew smaller and have all but disappeared.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because little girls are being forced to blow themselves up.

 

Because little girls are being forced.

 

Because little girls.

 

I believe that lifting up women and girls—ensuring access to education and health care, providing freedom from oppression, delaying the age of first childbirth, promoting engagement in their country's economic system—is the single most important way to end poverty, improve a country's economic and political stability, and yes, even combat religious extremism and terrorism. Ample evidence of this—across cultures, nations, ages—is borne out by statistical research, surveys, white papers, dissertations, and by those who work tirelessly in shelters, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, non-profits and NGOs around the world. We know what to do. Corruption, misogyny, greed, extremism, and lack of political and popular will stand in the way.

 

But now it not the time for my opinion. Now is not the time for me to tell you why stability in Nigeria is critical to American political and economic security. You can read about that for yourself. I posted a few links below that I hope you find useful.

 

I don't know what can be done to help those women and children in Nigeria; nothing can be done to bring back the lives of those slaughtered. But I do know that we can all contribute to projects which work for women's and girl's empowerment. I've included links to few of those below, too.

 

On a day when we honor one of the world's greatest human rights activists, can I ask that you read something about what's happening in Nigeria? Can I ask that you stand up for the right of women and girls to be free from violence, no matter where they live? It doesn't have to be Nigeria. It can be the women's shelter across town. You are needed.

 

Understanding the history of Boko Haram & Northern Nigeria

Northern Nigerian Conflict, James Verini, National Geographic, November 2013.

The Ongoing Horrors of Boko Haram with journalist Alexis Okeowo, On the Media NPR/WNYC, January

The Kidnapped and Enslaved

Missing Nigeria Schoolgirls: A Chronological Storyline NBC News

Baga Massacre

New Reports Show Unprecedented Horror in Nigeria's Baga Massacre, Lizabeth Paulat, Care2

Satellite Images Only Source Showing Extent of Baga Massacre, Victoria Richards, The Independent, January 15, 2015

Media Reaction to Baga

Is The World Ignoring Nigeria? Here and Now, Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, NPR/WBUR January 16, 2015

Why Journalists Don't Seem to Care About the Massacre in Nigeria Mark Hay, GOOD Magazine January 13, 2015

What the United States is Doing to Improve Security and Stability in Nigeria

U.S. Efforts to Assist the Nigerian in its Fight Against Boko Haram

What Can I Do?

Mercy Corps: Be The Change

Mercy Corps: Why Women Are Key to Building Resilience: Projects in Mali, Niger, Nigeria

Half the Sky Movement

There are dozens of organizations that support women's empowerment around the world. Here's a great list compiled by Half the Sky Movement: Organizations Devoted to Women's Empowerment Projects

Light through the clouds  © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Solstice Stillness

It's in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer 'How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?' Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

2014-12-12 15.41.54

 

But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, "I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and ... trying to change it." Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

Trying to Fly: Giving Up What Weighs Me Down

Pain woke me in the middle of the night. It flattened me to the mattress. I lay still, certain that if I moved, my head would not move with me. It would simply snap from my neck, a lead weight of agony too heavy for my body to support. I'm not given to migraines, but this headache, so intense the nausea began in my toes and roiled through my limbs, was something organic, alive, beyond the reach of medication or meditation. I barely slept, and at four a.m. I gave myself up to the inevitable.

   As soon as I opened the front door to unhitch a hanging plant whirling in the sudden wind, I knew. Overnight, the gray silk of Autumn had slipped in, running cool fingers through Summer's sun-bleached hair before gently pushing her away. Now Autumn sat heavy, pregnant with rain, aching to release the new season from her throbbing uterus. In her angst to be next, to be now, this Bitch of Barometric Pressure had a white-knuckle grip around my brain.

 

I knew from whence this pain emanated. A change of weather so fast, the shift of seasons so acute, my body clenched and strained. But as I moved gingerly, trying to avoid a further disturbance of my universe, I felt another weight bearing down, more insidious, but no less frantic. The pressure in my head was emblematic of the pressure in my soul, and as the season shifted, as a summer of dreams gave way to an autumn of industry, I knew the only way to relieve the burden was to make a decision.

 

I'm not a ditherer by nature. I tend to make decisions quickly and be done with them. That doesn't mean I won't carry my doubts around, worrying over them like a stray thread that won't break off, but in the moment I just do the thing and move on.

 

A few weeks before, an essay dropped into my life—from where, I no longer remember—and forced me to face a doubt I'd been ignoring, a dissonance I'd plugged my ears against, not wanting to admit that I'd made an error of judgment. Here it is: Are You Empowered By Being Here? Rather new age-y, but I'm a bit new age-y myself, all give things up to the universe and listen to the voice inside. You know that about me.

 

The author, Jamie Khoo, posits that by determining where you stand on the following two points, "... you’ll know exactly whether you’re being empowered or dis-empowered where you are; and whether you should stay or leave."

Are you: Becoming More or Less of You

Do you: Realize Who Owns You

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I knew the answer to the essential question—Are You Empowered By Being Here?—was 'No.' I had allowed myself to diminish, I had allowed a situation to own my time, energy, space, and thoughts. After coming to such a tremendous epiphany in February while reading Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, I had placed myself in something that simply wasn't me. That contradicted everything that makes me function in peace and productivity. How embarrassing.

 

Yet, I had set aside my doubts and talked myself out of action, certain my anxiety was misplaced because I wanted so badly to believe I could make it work.

 

Until the morning I awoke wanting to sever my head from my body to end the vice-grip on my skull.

 

I went for a swim, easing into the tepid water, allowing it to take my weight. In the hour that I moved back and forth, crawling and stroking, I practiced my exit. I willed myself not to excuse or explain, as is my custom, but to release myself with grace. And then I returned home and did the thing that needed to be done.

 

As I sat trembling, waiting for the hammer of doom, I heard the sound of water rushing at my windows, smelled the petrichor as the earth broke its summer fever and sweated in relief. The first rain in weeks, the first downpour in months, the pregnant sky birthing the equinox.

 

The morning after I closed that door, the strangest little thing happened. A friend of a friend from another life contacted me and said, please come and let me teach you. I have seen what you can do and I want you to do more. Let me teach you.

 

 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” ― Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Walking the Black Dog

Since the news of Robin Williams's suicide broke, I've had some incredible, brave, and heartbreaking conversations with friends about the nature of depression and what would bring someone to the point of taking his own life.  

It's been disheartening to see accusations of "selfish" leveled against those who commit suicide, and frustrating to hear, "But why didn't he ask for help?" But ignorance is an opportunity to open dialogue and educate, and our collective mourning is a chance to lift the veil of shame that covers mental illness.

 

There is a perception that if you don't look or act as if your world is falling apart or if there is not some profound triggering event in your life, that you couldn't possibly be ill. I'm a confident, positive, strong person who has been brought to her knees by depression. It's not the blues, it's not a reaction to crisis, it's a cocktail of biology, chemistry, genetics, and personality that I have to work daily to keep in balance. I haven't asked for help when I most needed it, either. I can look at the woman who suffered so greatly and think, "Did she know she needed help?" I don't remember thinking much of anything but a suffocating hopelessness that I just wanted to stop. There surely was a point when a mental health professional could have helped me turn things around before I fell so far, but depression is insidious-- it creeps in and swallows you whole.

 

Asking for help assumes a level of energy and rational thinking, a sense that you would even know what help looks like or that you don't feel profound shame and guilt for your entire existence. Asking for help means you hope. When severe depression hits, there is no hope. There is only white noise and emotional exhaustion. No one chooses this.

 

I believe that even though I can't change my genetic makeup or my biology, I can alter my chemistry and improve my mental health through diet, exercise, writing, and meditation. I can change my responses, be on guard for my triggers, and prepare myself when I feel I'm starting to slip. I accept now that I will have to manage my depression and anxiety for as long as I live. I'm beginning to find the beauty in the scary times. As a writer, those ebbs become times of quiet gathering, a gentle harvest of words and feelings, a drawing down of reserves, and a turning inward to listen and be still.

 

I have no idea what my future holds and when or if I will tumble again into an abyss. None of us with mental illness do. But I do know that talking openly about mental illness is a powerful step toward managing the worst of its evils. Depression is not logical, it is not fashionable, it is not a choice. But it is not a curse, either. It is.

 

Let's just keep talking about it until we're no longer ashamed. Until we no longer condemn someone for reacting to something beyond his control.

 

I sit beside Robin Williams. I take his hand and I say, "I'm so heartbroken, not because you didn't ask for help, but because I understand why you couldn't."

 

Take a moment to view this video. I had a black dog, his name was depression

For those with depression, watch and take heart. For those puzzling over the whys and wherefores of depression, watch and understand.

Fault Lines

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Letting go is the hardest workout of all.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle--adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early '80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

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The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of WaterThe Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is so fitting that the original cover of this book, which you see depicted here, arrives from the library marred by a plain, gray wrapper around the offensive bit—you know, a woman's bare breast. It is metaphor come to life for Lidia Yuknavitch's searing memoir, The Chronology of Water: hide and deny what is most natural, until it becomes a thing of shame.

Yet it would seem that Lidia Yuknavitch hides nothing. The Chronology of Water is ripe with shock-jock language and imagery. It is angry and lurid and reeks of booze and sex and blood. It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. The day I finished the book, I went and bought a copy of my own--no wrapper around the front cover, just a woman's beautiful body disappearing in a shimmer of torso, cut in half by the air above and the water below.

Water is the thematic structure around which this narrative is built—fluid from the body that spills in birth, in sex, in menstruation, in vomit and bile; water that offers healing and and generates power as a strong body sluices waves to win swim meets or meets an object of one's desire in a hotel swimming pool; water that can take life in a vulnerable moment as one's father collapses in the ocean.

But it's her body that Yuknavitch offers up for examination: a body that in the opening chapter is ruptured by birth. That experience is bookended by years of incest on one side and self-flagellation on the other, until the author meets herself full circle as a wife, a mother, a writer, a woman.

She conceals much in her narrative of abuse, but we are allowed a glimpse behind the wrapper of her shame and sorrow and witness a woman's soul torn in two by violence and fear.

In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.

I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.

Her father physically and sexually abused Yuknavitch and her sister; their alcoholic mother existed in a fog of denial. Yuknavitch became a woman full of rage. She turned on herself, turned against her body, which had been made beautiful and powerful by water. She squandered a college swimming scholarship through drugs, alcohol, and sex with anything that moved. She punished herself over and over, for years, trying to root out the evil that abuse had buried in her.

Writing became her salvation. Time and again, as she lurches from mistake to affair, from addiction and obsession, it is writing that buoys her above the waves of her own destructive seas.

Caution must be taken not to romanticize Yuknavitch's scary history. The author as addict, the notion that one must suffer to create great art, is a cliché that works because it is true time and again. But separate yourself from the literal and sink into the sheer beauty of her language, the way she wraps her arms around you and won't let you go, you will be rewarded with tears and laughter, with frustration and rage. You will feel. And isn't that why we read? To feel, deeply, achingly, painfully, blissfully.

The nature of memoir, as distinct from autobiography, is like looking down at your body in a pool of water: shapes are distorted, disjointed, appearing larger or smaller or not at all. Memoir is not a chronological connection of facts. Memoir is a work of prose, an interpretation of one's life just as a painting is an interpretation of a scene or a theme. Whether or not every event described by Yuknavitch, or any other memoirist, really happened is not the point of memoir; the point is to offer the reader a powerful piece of writing with experiences that elevate the personal to the universal. Yuknavitch says it best:

All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory...there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It's as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly, messy, and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. That's pretty much me, really. But something about this story--the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality--gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.

It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.

In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”

N.B. Lidia is a Northwest writer, one of our regional treasures. I had never read her writing until this memoir and I fell hard, fast. And was gutted to learn I had missed her 2-day writing workshop here, in my little village, by two weeks. Alas, she's hosting a repeat in October. When I shall be out of the country. Le sigh. Come back, Lidia. Come back when I am here. I'm ready for a swimming lesson.

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Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love and Loss by Sean Hanish My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean's original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors'journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell's poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief--the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin, the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog's death, or gerbil's. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: "I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them." In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman's What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body's own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child's body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I've always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn't that strange and awful and wonderful? I can't fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn't know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn't it? It's probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

At last, the light and I are beginning to meet at the right time. From the sofa, I can see the first blue glow of dawn, then the rosy line of sunrise as it creeps up the Cascades and tips into Admiralty Bay. It arrives earlier each morning, so that soon my coffee will still be hot when I scuff my sockless feet into worn-out running shoes and shuffle down to the pier for morning yoga in the breeze and warm light. It's early enough in the year—we're still trying to regain the missing light Daylight Savings borrowed a few weeks ago—that I'm ready by sunrise to move from morning peace to daytime activity. The light is sweet when it finally arrives, but I've got stuff to do.

Yesterday though, the light had its way. It stopped my 6:30 thoughts about laundry and grocery lists, wrapped its warm, golden fingers around my wrist and drew me, laughing, down the hill to the water.

I yearned to ring church bells and ship horns, to rouse everyone from bed and shout, "Look outside, look at the light!" But only the bakery truck driver and I were puffing white breaths in the pink-tinged air. Until I got to the water, where the scullers and sailors were bathed in the sun's fleeting exuberance. I stretched and folded into my asanas as their vessels bounced over the cold March swells.

For writers of prose, reading poetry is like being drawn outside by the siren song of light. The brief world of a poem envelopes us in potent imagery, with words strung together in ways that break the rules binding us to plot and structure. We are enchanted by rhythm and evocative symbols and for the moments it lasts, the poem—like the dawn—sets us free.

I can share only a photo of yesterday's light, untouched, unfiltered. Were I poet, perhaps I could do it some literary justice.

But when I fall in love with new-to-me poetry, as I did this week, with young Irish poet Leanne O'Sullivan's collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, I want to ring the church bells and sound the ship horns. Read This Read This Read This, the bells and horns would say. It's like being inside a sunrise.

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perched on hill overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, in the wild, remote Beara Peninsula of West Cork, sits a humped, ragged block of stone. One edge resembles the profile of a woman, her furrowed brow arched over a proud nose, staring out to sea. She is An Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland. Her story is Ireland's story, her survival the enduring drama of a tortured land of legendary beauty.

Into the stormy legends wends the sublime poetry of Leanne O'Sullivan, like a cool silk ribbon whispering over fevered flesh. This slim volume of sensuous language takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. Her images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures. We experience the Old Woman as a young girl, vulnerable, vital, yearning, but already wise and sad.

I did not want a glance or a sound, only the sight of you --the mouthing space the absence of language; only to watch you turn through the shimmering coils of light, the river siding around me, describing to me the dark that would be cast over the body, violent, liquid, salt and calm -- the darkness that would be cast between the moment when I could destroy and the moment when I would devour

A Beara native, O'Sullivan's blood brims with the brine of the North Atlantic and its feral winds howl in her mind. Her words pulse with the southwest's moody weather that ripples from cruel and cold to docile in the time it takes to read one of her enchanting verses:

Morning, the touching of the moon on the oval-line of light, the sun low, its fire like liquid over the ocean where the wading gulls hunt. I toed the foam and smooth sand as a rattle of salt rushed against my skin, the pebbles, the water's joyful touchings.

Best read aloud, with a glass of Jameson 18-year-old close at hand. Or at sunrise, with a porpoise slipping in and out of the waves, inviting you to come in and play...

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March Sunrise, Port Townsend  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Stop. Look. Go.

It's not happiness that makes us grateful. It's gratefulness that makes us happy. David Steindl-Rast The wheelbarrow dropped into a rut and I rammed it through the mud, cursing. My lower back would pay for that pig-headed push. While waiting for the next dump truck load of soil, I squatted in catcher's pose and poked strawberry plant runners through a weed barrier cloth. I yanked weeds and tossed centipedes from kale. I ate a warm, homemade brownie with my gloves on, smearing my teeth with chocolate and dirt. My nose was running, my left sock had skidded down my Wellington boot to my heel, and I had to pee.

Two hours later, I folded my aching limbs into the front seat of the car, peeled off my work gloves, and proudly displayed for my husband the fiery red spots that pulsed on my fish-belly white palms—blisters in the making from shoveling dirt into that wheelbarrow and spreading it over sheets of cardboard as I helped prep a new bed in a food bank community garden. I was happy. Quietly, sweetly, content.

Where did that simple happiness come from? Giving a few hours to my community? Hanging out with a group of kind, funny, hardworking people? Being outside on a blustery, sharp spring day? The raw and clean exertion? Of course. Maybe. Probably not. These were all ancillary conditions to what was really going on. And what was really going on was me, existing one hundred percent in the moment.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to this podcast:  Simply Happy: TED Radio Hour, which synthesizes several TED talks on the concept of happiness. In one, psychologist and biomedical engineer Matt Killingsworth tells his audience the secret of happiness. It's the real deal, folks—he did a slew of research, crunched a bunch of numbers, and it all comes down to this: we're happiest when we live in the moment. When our minds don't wander. When we lose ourselves in an activity, we find our bliss.

On the other side of the Matt Killingsworth hard data approach is the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, who also believes that happiness is found by living in the moment. But he takes the process a few steps beyond. He tells us to Stop. Look. Go. First, be in our moment, then recognize it as an opportunity, and finally, go forward with gratitude. Steindle-Rast does not offer false platitudes about gratefulness for the horrible things that happen in life, but he explains how people who suffer terrible loss can also be those who discover transcendent joy.

I'm lousy at this being in the moment business. My brain flies in seventy-five directions at once as I brood over my recent stumbles and fret about the hurdles yet to jump. But there are times, like the hours I pushed that wheelbarrow and shovel around the community garden, when I am nothing but a mass of breathing peace and awareness. Those hours were a gift and I felt the gratitude of the moment.

As I listened to this podcast, the bell of recognition chimed low and sonorous. I'm happiest when I write. Of course. Not grinning ear to ear, giddy, playful Happy, but present, focused, immersed in the moment Happy. Shoveling compost in the garden Happy. I'd go so far as to dispense with the notion of Happiness altogether and call it the even more desirable state of Fulfillment. And, I am grateful.

I agonize about the future, the certainty of failure, the choices that push their way to the surface—some weeds, others nourishment—yet, I need to remember that cultivating gratitude is priority number one. Not success or achievement, but the recognition of opportunity each moment brings.

Do I write because being published makes me happy? Certainly, it's thrilling and validating. But does it make me happy? Hmm ... no. The acceptance of a piece of work is fleeting pleasure. The happiness, the Matt Killingsworth-I've-got-the-data-to-prove-it Happiness, comes from the being present in the process. And from recognizing the joy the act of writing brings. In the end, that's got to be enough.

Stop. Look. Go. Change your world one moment at a time by being grateful for the moment you are in.

Unloading Dirt, Quimper Grange Food Bank Garden ©Julie Christine Johnson

Quimper Grange Community Food Bank Garden ©Emily Vagts

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II): On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV): I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V): I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I'm ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he'd learned more about me from reading my review than he'd ever known. But isn't that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

BirdsongBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone should have warned me. Someone should have known I am acutely claustrophobic and that opening the door to this book would be inviting in the specter of a panic attack. Picture me curled on the sofa or huddled beneath the covers, my breath shallow, my heart racing, my throat closing as soldiers worm their way through tunnels beneath the trenches. Feel the numbing of my extremities, the draining of blood from my face, the hot rush of acid in my belly, the rise of bile in my throat as those tunnel walls begin to cave and threaten to trap those young men in a tomb made of French dirt. Even now my hands shake with the memory of some of this novel's most horrific scenes. For I couldn't stop reading, I couldn't look away, even through my tears and hyperventilation, I read on.

So, consider yourself warned. This book contains the stuff of nightmares. And it's not just the dreadful tunnels, it is the unrelenting, unfathomable misery of the World War I battlefields. What is it about this war? All war is hideous, but there is something about this war-the number of casualties, the waves and waves of young men released onto the battlefields as cannon fodder, the squalor of the trenches, the chemicals-it was a war that obliterated a generation. Many of those who survived became empty shells, having left their hope and their souls and in some cases, their minds, to the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres.

Birdsong owns the war, it lives and breathes in those trenches. Your skin will crawl with lice, you will feel the slip and muck of blood and brains underneath your boots; hell, you'll feel your toes crumbling with trenchfoot inside your rotting boots. You will cry out in horror as a soldier whose name you've just learned, whose two or three paragraphs will have you aching for his girl and his parents back in Surrey, dissolves in a cloud of flesh and bone beside you. Yes, you have been warned. This is not an easy read.

But Birdsong is more than a black, white, red reel of warfare. It begins as a love story between an odd and doomed French woman, Isabelle Azaire and a very young and impassioned Englishman, Stephen Wraysford. Their adulterous affair in Isabelle's home in Amiens six years before the war opens Birdsong. Part One, the first one hundred-odd pages-is an unsettling combination of tedium and floridity as Stephen and Isabelle tear off their clothes and Edwardian sensibilities under the noses of Isabelle's husband and two stepchildren. The affair ends but their story carries on, surfacing many years later as the war tears into homes, flesh and families. It is Stephen whom we follow throughout the story, he who carries us onto the battlefield, into the trenches and down those dreadful tunnels.

Halfway through the story we jump to 1978, where Elizabeth Benson has taken a sudden interest in her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford and the fate of the men who died in or limped home from the trenches of World War I. Here the narrative stumbles a bit. Elizabeth, now in her late 30s, seems entirely unaware of the horrors of The Great War. This rang utterly false. "No one told me," she says upon seeing the battlefields and monuments of the Somme. I think a British citizen of her generation would have been well aware of the magnitude of that war. But Faulks gives Elizabeth a strong voice and her own personal dilemmas that bring the existential quest for meaning and truth full circle. We don't stay in late 70s London for long, but we dip in and out until the novel's end as Elizabeth's story becomes woven into her grandfather's.

Sebastian Faulk's writing is sumptuous and pitch perfect, capturing the essence of each era he writes: the tumescent melodrama that unfolds in Amiens in 1910, the desperation, emptiness and incongruous vividness of the war years, and the practical, surging energy and wealth of late 70s London. This is a great novel, an engrossing but devastating read. Just look up every so often and take deep, slow breaths. You'll need them.

NPR aired the following segment on 1/23/14 about digitized British World War I diaries. http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/20...

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Between Truth and a Human Being

Fog. Days and nights of fog so thick I wonder if the artist Christo has wrapped the peninsula in cotton batting and left us to suffocate. I drive grandma speed, hunched over the steering wheel, on the lookout for deer casing neighborhood gardens during their pre-dawn perambulations. They like to appear suddenly in your headlights with that deer-in-the-headlights look. It's a hill repeat day. That's runner-speak for "run up and down hills a bunch of times like a natural-born fool." I have a few favorite hills in and around the state park north of town. Four hundred and thirty-five acres of forest, meadow and a restored 19th century military fort built on and below high bluffs overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, bordered by two miles of seashore--it's a runner's dream.

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

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

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

There goes my run. Coyote 1, Julie O.

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

It's a jungle out there.

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

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

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

God DAMN it.

There goes my run. Coyote 2; Julie 0.

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Julie,

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

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

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

There are approximately 75 contributors.

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

Very best,

Brooke and Sean

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

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

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

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Pitchin' and Moanin'

A Seattle suburb. A high-rise hotel. Each with as much character as a styrofoam cup. 2:16 a.m. I am wake. I don't know why. Then, Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep. Beep.

You've got to be kidding me.

"Hello, this is Emily at the front desk. How may I help you, Ms. Johnson?"

Fifteen minutes later, Dave sets up a ladder underneath the smoke alarm. I'm curled in a fetal position on the king bed, wrapped in thick cotton robe. The alarm emits several prolonged shrieks in protest before Dave wrangles it into submission and changes its worn battery. I wait for my neighbors to bang on the walls.

At last, I lock the door behind Dave and his ladder. I cue Bach on my iPad and turn off the light.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

You've got to be kidding me.

Parked on an overhang a few feet from my window is a giant exhaust unit. Every two minutes it clicks on, sounding like a Boeing Dreamliner making an emergency landing on my balcony.

3:16 a.m.  I am imprisoned in Egyptian cotton and chrome Purgatory, held hostage by insomnia.

In four hours and forty-four minutes I meet with an editor to pitch my manuscript. First editor. First time out. First pitch.

Four hours of sleep.

First pot of coffee: 4:30 a.m.

One of my writer's goals this year was to pitch. No pressure, no expectations, just give it a go. On the advice of a fellow Northwest writer, I signed up for a writers' conference she assured me was low-key, warm and welcoming, where there would be agents and editors and an opportunity to deliver a standard five-minute pitch.

The agents and editors at this conference represent writers and books in a genre I don't write, though a few have broad portfolios. I felt I had little to lose. But I wanted to be prepared and professional. I researched how to pitch, spent several weeks honing a few paragraphs, tried out my pitch on two writer buddies, revised and rehearsed it again and again. I came to the conference with my manuscript distilled to one hundred eighty words that I could deliver in one minute, thirty-six seconds. Yes, I had my pitch memorized. No, I did not recite it from memory. It's okay to bring notes.

I was assigned an editor of an independent press. Not just an editor. The publisher's founder and CEO. She was my first pitch. My second, an hour later, the founder and CEO of a New York literary agency. I expected to be nervous, keyed up, a little hysterical from too much coffee, too little sleep and no breakfast. I expected to have fun, to receive feedback, to walk away with another learning experience in my writer's kit, my skin a little thicker for the "Thanks, but that's not what we're looking for."

I didn't expect to walk away with two requests for my manuscript.

Rumor has it only ten percent of writers send in a manuscript after a successful pitch. And yet, writers are admonished, "Don't be in a hurry to publish. Don't submit too soon. Revise, polish, revise and polish again."

I'm not rushing to hit "Send" with attachments. I know my manuscript isn't ready. But after two days of excellent workshops on craft and a renewed sense of inspiration and ambition, I emerge from this conference with a solid rewrite and revision plan. And determination to be in that ten percent by the end of the year.

You can do anything, as long as there is coffee. Even if Dave changes your smoke alarm battery at 2:30 a.m. And a Boeing 787 lands on your balcony at 3:00. Sleep when you're dead.

English: Artist impression of Boeing 787-9 Dre...

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’ ‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Ghosts That We Knew

The Universe gently letting me know it is still watching, listening, remembering...  

A group of eight women discovering each other over salmon and fruit salad. Strangers becoming fast friends as women do - sharing intimacies of childbirth and marriage, our deepest fears and silliest thoughts - and then having to ask your first name again, because you look just like the woman who used to teach Hot Yoga at the rec center.

 

Some of us are mothers; some of us are not. Some are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure?

 

Some drive up in Mercedes; others have no idea when the oil was last changed in the rusting Toyota pickup.

 

We come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we need an excuse to escape a too-familiar routine. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child's favorite meal last week.

 

We discuss the book: a rare meeting of minds as eight women revile the month's read in equal measure. We marvel at our host's mad chef skills as she cracks open the baked thick crust of salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender: Pesce alla Sale à la Olympic Peninsula. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink ginger beer without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it's an excuse for another bacon-jalapeño scone. We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats we milk on our farm.

 

Which leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. As discussions about ruminants do. Who is, who wishes they weren't, who misses it. Pockets of the table fall into silence as those who are secretly glad their breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children and those who simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old try to find something to do with their thoughts.

 

A side conversation begins. Did you start Terry Tempest Williams's When We Were Birds?

 

It's waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish tonight's book first. I can't wait.

 

Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. "Ooh, Terry Tempest Williams, I love her! What's this one about? What's it called?

 

"When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It's a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You'd love it. It's amazing."

 

One of us curls up inside. One of us remembers a summer's night a year ago, a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother's death, were empty.

 

One of us remembers that it was a year ago tonight her womb emptied.

 

One of us marvels at the way the Universe wraps seductively around chance and feigns to be Fate.

 

One of us mourns. Mourns that she had forgotten until this night what this night is.

 

One of us sees the beauty in spending this evening in the company of women who don't know her sorrow, not yet. But if we did, she knows we would care. We sweet mothers soothe her with our stories, we childless ones smile and allow the others to reminisce, commiserate, to delight in the bounty of their creation.

 

A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts us from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son.

 

One of us reads aloud the opening page to When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice.

 

One of us returns home to reread the words she wrote a year ago. These words, here: The Scariest Thing

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

So lead me back Turn south from that place And close my eyes to my recent disgrace Cause you know my call And we'll share my all And our children come, they will hear me roar So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light Cause oh they gave me such a fright But I will hold as long as you like Just promise me that we'll be alright

Ghosts That We Knew ~ Mumford and Sons

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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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: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus EatersThe Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The perfect title. As readers, we give it little thought. By the time we see a book in its finished state, it’s a done deal. We consider its cover, the heft in our hands as we ponder the accolades on the back jacket or peruse the synopsis on the inside flap (I don’t know what e-reading sorts do – don’t you miss the feel of a book, the whisper and scent of paper and ink? Sigh.). At any rate, the right title is perhaps the most critical and taken-for-granted aspect of a book.

But the perfect title will be more than a quote or an image from the book it fronts. It will carry a theme or act as a metaphor to summarize in a handful of words the book’s core. Such titles seem as if the book was written around them.

And so it is with The Lotus Eaters. As depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters were inhabitants of an island deep in the southern Mediterranean who ate from a native lotus, becoming indolent and apathetic - drugged by the flower’s narcotic. Odysseus’s sailors

“…went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."

Odyssey IX

It is an image used time and again by novelists, from James Joyce to Edith Wharton, and serves as the ideal metaphor for Tatjana Soli's debut novel The Lotus Eaters.

In Soli’s gorgeous, fluid and haunting novel, the seductive narcotic is war. When war mixes with ambition, desire and an exotic locale, it becomes an elixir custom-made to slake the thirst for adventure.

This novel expresses more clearly than any I can think of the allure of the war experience and the shame and confusion that accompanies the attraction. The story opens in April, 1975 as Saigon is overrun by the North Vietnamese Army, signaling the end of the war in Vietnam. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, is torn between getting herself and her lover onto a chopper and out of the madness and her desire to capture this story of her lifetime.

Helen makes her decision and through that decision the reader is taken back ten years, to the start of Helen’s personal and professional journey through Vietnam. The Lotus Eaters is told principally from the perspective of Helen, but we also read through the voices of Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist, and Sam Darrow, a celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Both men become Helen's mentors and the focus of her passions.

Helen’s ambition to excel as a female photojournalist pushes her past the machismo of her fellow journalists, the barriers erected by the military against allowing women near the front, the horror of witnessing death and mutilation, the impossible fight against nature in the tropics and mountains of Southeast Asia, and her loneliness and fear, until all of these become the very source of her ambivalent addiction to recording the war in Vietnam. Vietnam becomes home. She learns its language, the rhythms of its seasons; its very scents and shadows become ingrained in her spirit.

The Lotus Eaters shows us the upside-down world of the wartime experience and how living on the edge heightens each emotion. Passion, anger, fear, joy intensify until they overshadow memories of “normal.” Helen even tries to return home, spending several weeks in the healing beauty of the California coast, but the pull of the Lotus is too strong. She returns to Vietnam, to assume her place at the front lines of the war.

Tatjana Soli’s writing is as lush and vivid as her setting. She can be heavy-handed with the metaphors, as if she’s trying too hard to bring you into this overgrown, overripe world, but this is easily forgiven. Her characters are complete, the story is compelling and the writer’s voice is strong and unique. The novel itself became a Lotus that I reluctantly set aside each day and was bereft when it came to an end.

Rarely do we see war’s front lines through the eyes of a woman; rarer still is ambivalence so richly presented without judgment or conclusion. An outstanding read.

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