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The Ray Rice Effect

I'd planned to tell you about the writerly "Eureka" moments I've experienced these past two weeks as I work through the professional edits of Refuge of Doves. But I can't. Not this week. This week, I've had different sorts of moments. If I don't speak out, I will begin to question my value as a writer, as much as my experiences have caused me to doubt my value as a woman.  

Unless you live outside the United States or under a news-free rock, you are aware of the public firestorm caused by the NFL's recent two-game suspension and fine of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating his fiancée, now wife, unconscious in February. Her name is Janay Palmer.

 

My knee-jerk reaction to this travesty was to bemoan the violent nature of football, and the gladiator-worship that has far more to do with money and celebrity than a celebration of athleticism. I'll own that I despise professional football. But my view of football isn't the issue here. In fact, during the river of adoration that gushed through Washington state in the run-up to the Seahawks' Superbowl win this year, I set out to recalibrate my prejudice against the sport by learning what football can be. I acknowledge that the sport can be played with dignity, that strategy can trump brute force, and that professional athletics can be used as a force of positive cultural change. I hold out hope that these become the norms, instead of the exceptions.

 

Ray Rice's behavior should be an opportunity for the NFL to send an unequivocal message to fans that abuse is alwaysalwaysalways wrong, that consequences matter, and the victim should never, ever be blamed or held accountable.

 

I'm not an activist writer. I shy away from confrontation. I will be the loser of any face-to-face debate because I suck at verbal articulation. I don't think fast. I speak softly. I get easily overwhelmed by emotion and I have a very thin skin. I feel deeply, passionately, recklessly, and possess solid convictions, but I do most of my speechifying to my husband, with whom I am of a mind in all matters moral and political. Our discussions are really harmonious duets. After the Newtown massacre in December 2012, I vowed to cease posting anything political to my Facebook page, because the personal cost of responding to anti-gun control advocates was too high.

 

I broke that vow this week, when I posted Keith Olbermann's impassioned televised op-ed regarding the Ray Rice controversy. I picked up the video via a Facebook friend and shared it on my page. The segment includes devastating footage of Ray Rice pulling Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an elevator.

 

I don't have television and I don't watch the news online. I wouldn't have been able to pick Keith Olbermann out of a lineup. I don't care what his politics are, which network signs his paycheck, or if he eats his vegetables. He did what the NFL did not do. He spoke up for women. He spoke out against sexism, misogyny, and the most horrible manifestation of a male-dominated society: violence against women.

 

It took all my courage to share Olbermann's video on my feed, because of the deafening silence that I knew would follow. Because professional sports and celebrity are such sacred cows in our culture, and violence against women is still acceptable behavior. Because interest in Ray Rice and Janay Palmer is prurient and short-lived. Because of the roll-of-eyes attitude of those who see this as a "whatever" matter between a man and the woman who defended him after he beat her senseless.

 

My writing is infused with my experiences, observations, beliefs, passions, fears, and questions; what my characters experience and how they react come from all the tiny threads that, woven together, form this writer. But I'm a storyteller. I surround myself with the imaginary and never write with the intention of using my fiction as a political platform.

 

I wrestle with how raw I will allow myself to become and how opening up on the page will affect my ability to tell a story. I've realized in recent months, after reading the beautiful and brave prose of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, how much I hold back for fear of being judged. I have certainly bled on the page writing stories about women who've experienced miscarriage, and publishing an essay about my experiences with child loss--an essay I've read aloud to rooms of strangers. It doesn't get much rawer than describing what it's like to eliminate your baby's fetus into a toilet.

 

I shared, and will continue to share, those experiences because I believe in shattering the silence and shame of infertility and miscarriage. I will continue to write through frame of these experiences because I believe my words can speak for those who cannot, for those who are desperate for the embrace of someone who says, I understand. It's not your fault. We write and we read for many reasons, not the least of which is the catharsis of shared human experience.

 

The Ray Rice/NFL debacle this week filled me with shame and fear. Fear that if I speak my heart, my truth, I will pay the price. No one has ever punched me or dragged me from an elevator. I have never been hurt by a boyfriend. I am married to a man of tremendous integrity and compassion. I am smart. I am strong, physically and emotionally. I am privileged to have been born white, in an established democracy, to a family that valued education. Yet, I am ashamed of my own vulnerability. I am ashamed that fear has prevented me from speaking up and fighting back. I am ashamed of the times I was not strong enough to protect myself.

 

Has a man ever used his superior professional position or greater physical strength to intimidate or manipulate me? Yes. 

Have I refrained from reporting abuse because I feared the consequences for me would be worse? Yes. 

Has a man ever made me fear for my physical safety? Yes. 

 

I am not a victim. I am a woman. I am a voice. And I haven't finished speaking. In fact, I've hardly begun.

 

 

An Enchanted Life

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

7/5/14

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

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

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

 

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Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I'm saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it's been with me since childhood. Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I'll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I'd packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don't do elevators. I don't book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I'm serious. I don't do elevators.

~

Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI've worked through this shaky period and I'm making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind's evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.

~

We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn't get on the plane. I hadn't flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn't get my finger to click "Confirm Purchase" on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.

 

icanticanticanticant

~

A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I'm out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I've written is set in a place where I've travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can't cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I've coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???

~

A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I'd downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I'm still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I'm assuming I make it to my destination.

~

People. We're headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.

 

icanicanicanican

Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011

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?

Wherein I rail against cheap wine and contemplate unemployment.

For many years, the résumé folder on my hard drive remained unopened. A small lifetime of sorts passed by, rendering those dozens of NAFSA: Association of International Educator conference presentations meaningless and nullifying my skills in various software programs (PeopleSoft? Access database? Anyone? Bueller?). I let the bones of my career as a study abroad program administrator calcify. Once I turned my back on the Ivory Tower for the green shores of Aotearoa, I never looked back on that decade-plus of world travel and helicopter parents (would I have turned to salt had I tossed one last glance over my shoulder?). Then it was off to the world of wine, first in vineyards, then in store aisles and finally in a cramped office in Seattle’s University District, sipping and spitting dozens of samples a week. A terrific gig, really - leading people to phenomenal wine is awesomesauce.

Inserting impassioned parenthetical:

Working in vineyards in foreign lands sounds very glamorous, but the months spent pruning and training vines wrecked my hands and wrists: for several months I couldn’t hold a coffee cup, I had to sleep on my back because of the pain, my liver suffered from the massive doses of NSAIDs. It was bliss. Best job I ever cried in pain over.

So when I see people who would bite off their right pinky toe before tossing Kraft Cheese Singles on their grilled sammie throw good money after cheap wine, it breaks my heart.

Ever ask yourself how a labor-intensive, high-overhead agricultural product made from raw ingredients subject to the vagaries of weather and disease can be produced so cheaply? Because the "winery" used crap juice. Best case scenario the juice was rejected by producers who don't want their names associated with poor quality, so they bulk it off. Worst case, your $5 steal was produced not by people, but by machines, factory-style. It’s made from fruit laden with herbicides and pesticides grown on a massive farm with little regard to land stewardship, and the wine was manipulated to taste exactly the same every time, vintage in-vintage out (if it even boasts a vintage). You paid for a bottle or a box, a cutesy label, overhead, maybe even an ad campaign. You did not pay for wine anyone gave a shit about, except to rip an easy buck from your wallet.

You can do better. You should do better. You don't have to spend a lot for quality vino. Ask me for a $10-12 wine recommendation. I'm thrilled to oblige. Because I love wine. I love the process. I love the people who grow the fruit and craft the wine with passion and integrity. Because I will never forget the shooting pain in my hands as they closed around a pair of pruning shears or wrapped a cane around a wire. Those tortured hands were producing something of beauty.

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Alas, a manifesto for another time.

I find myself opening that résumé folder not once this spring, but twice. I may be in for a record number of W-2s to track down next year. So far, the count is three (Wait, you say, I missed one! Yeah, well, you blinked). Pretty sure I’m guaranteed a fourth.

Unless.

Here’s where I admit I am strangely relieved that the non-profit for which I have been Business Manager since April is about to go belly up. The Board of Directors recently passed a unanimous vote to close it down over the summer (ahem, not my doing, folks – this is a disaster eight years in the making. I’ve just been paying the bills for six weeks. In theory. Well, not the bills - there are plenty of those. How to pay them, and myself, is another matter entirely).

How can I be relieved the spectre of unemployment and over-paying for inadequate private health insurance is now a real-life ogre? Because it has forced me face what I’ve been pushing off for yet another “Someday.” It’s giving me an out.

I’ve known since those anxiety attacks of mid-April, which I wrote about here, that my head was trying desperately to tell me something. The message finally found a way through my heart, with those terrifying moments of choking panic (which have ceased, tap wood). And this is, in part, what I believe the message to be:

...  ... ...

This is the hard part. The part where I stare out the window for long moments, check my iPhone for possible life-changing Facebook updates, rearrange the coffee shop punch cards in my wallet. Because it’s so difficult to come out and just say it. Here's a practice run:

I think I should let this job run its course, not look for another one for (an undecided period of time) and write. Finish my novel? Maybe. At least get it to the point where it's ready to be turned loose on beta readers, which means a couple more rewrites. Pour out some of those short stories clamoring for attention. Pull together a book proposal - a several-week endeavor. Submit said book proposal to those agents and publishing companies I have yet to research. Attend at least one week of the Centrum Writers' Conference in July (located conveniently one mile from my house).

And heal. Heal after a year of loss and anger. Run and bike, walk on the beach, cook healthful meals, open my home to friends, read Thomas Hardy, find a park bench overlooking the bay and sit. Sit still. Work on being present, not six months or six years or twenty-six years in the past or similar time spans in the future. Be amazed to have a partner who needs no explanation, who asks “What are you waiting for?” Have faith that even without my income and with the added burden of said stupid health insurance policy, we’ll make it.

Step off the ride, leave the carnival. Do Not Pass Go and definitely do not collect $200.00.

There. I’ve gone and said it. I might just do this thing. This “What do you do, Julie?” “Who, me? Like, what do I do for work? I’m a writer.”

Right. Well. I just submitted a résumé to an art gallery in town, in response to a Help Wanted in the weekly paper. My résumé’s pretty cool, actually. I mean, how many people do you know who have a Masters degree in International Affairs and can boast a stint at a slaughterhouse in New Zealand? What’s that? You say you want to see this résumé? What, you hiring?

Then again, I promised my husband if I ever sell this book, I’d buy him a vineyard in the south of France. Because next to growing stories, growing grapes is the best job there is.

Emptying Tomorrow

What's said in the marriage, stays in the marriage. Mostly because age is kind and I can't remember the petty comments we've flung at each other over 21 years. The loving comments are said often enough they are ingrained in my heart. But there is something Brendan said to me long ago which I will share with you: "Julie, you're not happy unless you have something to worry about." This resonates still because, well, it's mostly true. I would cut the word "happy" -  worrying doesn't make me happy. It makes me.

Let's rewrite that sentence: "Julie, you're not, unless you have something to worry about." Anxiety is my fuel.

This terrific blog post about anxiety and the creative process flowed into my Twitter feed last week: Let's Talk About Anxiety and the Creative Process. It got me to thinking about the nest of anxieties I create and where it fits into my writing life. Author Dan Blank reminds us we all bear the burden of uncertainty and our fears are relative - no more, no less than the guy in the coffee shop we are eavesdropping on. But in this up-by-the-bootstraps, My-Facebook-Life-Is-Perfect society, we are loath to name our anxieties lest they reveal the gross flaws in our character.

On the heels of Dan Blank's blog post was an interview with comedian Marc Maron on WHYY's Fresh Air. Maron is hilarious guy, clever and endearing. And a chronic fretter (Fretterer? Fretishist? Chronically fraught?). When asked by host Terri Gross if he related to the idea of suffering as inspiration for his creativity, Maron replied "...I have found that ... I experience a tremendous amount of dread and fear and panic. I think that misery for people that incredibly anxious or frightened is something consistent. I think obsession sometimes works as almost a spirituality. You know, you have a routine that your brain kind of loops around that you call home, but that's usually in defense of some other part of you that's unruly. And for me, I think it's anxiety and panic and worry and dread." So what you're saying, Mr. Maron, is that you are not, unless you have something to worry about. You bow at the altar of Dread. Hey, we're a religion!

A couple of weeks ago I went out for a trail run. On uphill stretch I realized my heart was trying to leap from my throat. I stopped but could not catch my breath. This scared the shit out of me and made my heart race even faster, which made me panic more, which... A man passed me and we waved at one another. I thought it would be bad form to collapse in front of a stranger. Finally my heart slowed and my lungs opened. I hobbled back to the car, chilled and cowed by my body's betrayal of my mind. I'd been on that same stretch only days before and bounded up the same path. I chalked it up to running on an empty stomach and tried to push away darker fears.

Early the next morning while sitting on the sofa, writing and drinking my morning joe, my heart zoomed. I could have been sitting in a cramped airplane seat in the middle of a 10-hour flight, the way the panic attack came on. Now I was scared. I know, I know, I should have called my doctor (new in town, I didn't yet have a GP and I was one week away from a new health insurance plan taking effect. God Bless America, Land of It's Cheaper to Die Than Visit the ER). The next day I sliced my coffee intake in half (a fun few days of withdrawal drudgery ensued) and all but eliminated alcohol. I wondered, at nearly 44, was this the start of hormone-induced perimenopause? I eat clean, I run, swim, bike, yoga - I'm fit as a fiddle. A little creaky and soft in many spots, but sheesh...

Although I couldn't completely rule out a physical cause for my racing heart (and I do have a doctor's appointment scheduled. In June.), I'm pretty attuned to my emotional heart. I knew all those tiny eggs in the nest of anxieties I've been incubating over the past several months were hatching in the warmth of spring. And some of them are full-grown birds of prey, coming home to roost. Here are my chicks and hawks, complete with ID bands so even if I set them free, we'll keep track of each other:

Things I Worry About Constantly

  • something will happen to Brendan and I will be alone
  • I will contract a terminal illness (Cold comfort that I already have a terminal illness. It's known as being born)
  • I will fall victim again to depression and an Amber alert will have to be issued for my soul
  • I will have another running injury and be denied the addictive substance I crave: endorphins
  • I am irrelevant. This is wrapped up in the heartbreak of infertility, miscarriage and the failed attempts to adopt. I have a surplus of love that feels like it's draining into a black hole of regret and sorrow
  • Money. This is back again, after taking a few years' hiatus. We've given up a lot to follow our hearts' calling and the compromise, at least in the near future, is financial security
  • I'm missing fundamental truth of my life, something that's right in front of me. And I'm not getting any younger.

Not on this list:

  • Writing

I search for it. I listen for the scratching the door. But I feel no anxiety about my writing. This is not a matter of self-confidence - I have no illusions about my skills and talents. It's simply the one open space in my life not crowded by my fears. Perhaps more importantly, I don't feel anxious when I write. The world slips away and I don't feel much of anything - not my belly, my bladder, my stiff neck or aching shoulders. I feel the story.

Nor do I entertain illusions about publication, as least not through the traditional channels. I've released myself from that pressure and those expectations. When I finish this monster and return to writing short stories before tackling the next long-form project, I'll hope for the same publishing success as my recent short story endeavors. I'll do all I can to bring my novel to the shelf, but I remind myself daily that the writing process is what brings me peace and fulfillment, not the reward of extrinsic acknowledgment.

Perhaps this is the fundamental truth about my life over which I seem to lose so much sleep. And I'm not getting any younger.

But I did run that damn hill again.

bending not breaking  admiralty inlet may 2013

Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths. Charles Spurgeon

Entering the Wilderness

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.” ― Alan Alda This year - no longer new and fragile, but not yet settled in its skin - has been defined by intuition. I've held my intuition at arm's length, examined it from all sides and shoved it back in the drawer. Only to take it out, shake it out, and embrace it at last.

Intuition is what you turn to when you have exhausted the alternatives. It's the last entry name on your dance card, the partner ready with a firm hand and a sure foot to waltz you into the new day.

We knew, way back that dreadful New Year's Eve day, that moving on was the only option worthy of our consideration. But we argued against it, fearing the unknown; fearful of losing the comfort and security which appeared like magic in our bank account every two weeks; of losing our identities, our community, our friends.

But we knew. I knew the moment I heard Brendan's shaking voice on the telephone telling me he was coming home. He must have known several minutes before, standing up from his chair and standing up for his dignity. We would have to go.

And we did. We moved on, in our own time. In our own way. Ten weeks later - our decisions made, papers signed, notices given, bags packed, boxes filled - we turned faces westward, toward the water, toward the mountains. Toward home.

I gave in to intuition again last week, knowing that no matter how much you hope something will be the right thing, it can often be the wrong time. Or you're not the right person. So I rinsed off my gumboots and set them on the back patio. Yesterday morning, I walked down the hill to a new job, one my gut tells me is the better choice.

Without tapping into intuition, creative writing is about as inspired as a grocery store list. It's what compels a writer return to the page day after day. By releasing our creative unconscious, by listening deeply to our instincts, we connect with our characters and through them, our true stories are revealed.

I had a word count goal in mind for this first draft - something in the 110-115,000 range. A complete novel. Not a long one, but something of substance. Not that word count much matters in the dung heap of first drafts, but it gave me an end point from which I could see across a chasm of edits to less crappy drafts. I also allowed for Plan B - the Intuition Plan - that gave me an out if I felt Draft 1 was ready to be pillaged and plundered by my red pen in search of treasure worth salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the Intuition Plan was put into effect 'round about the time I unpacked the last box, set my office to rights, and this long winter of our discontent came to a close. I had a beginning, a bunch of middles, and an end. I had started to write circles around myself, falling into plot holes and bringing the earth down around me in my attempt to clamber out. It was time to bring scenes together, to strategize and lay out, in systematic fashion, the story's arc. And to shake out the bogeys. IMG_0183

April 1, (no foolin'!), 90,000 words of Draft 1 became (magically!) Draft 2. While I was upending all other constants in my life, why not toss my writing routine into the mix?

Early morning sessions with my blue Pilot and Moleskine, scribbling to fill blank pages with scenes and silliness became, after a few awkward attempts, early morning sessions with my red Pilot and 8.5 x 11 Helvetica-filled Hammermill.

And hours - at all hours - of retyping and tweaking, shuffling pages and shaking my head.

I worried that editing would mean an end to creating. Yet, despite the taking away that is inherent to the revision process, Draft 2 finds itself 5,000 new words the richer. And I'm still in the early scenes. I'm have a sense of what Draft 3 will entail (You didn't think this would be over any time soon did you? Honey, we're just getting started): the fleshing out and enriching of detail, the gathering of historical minutiae, most of which will be discarded in...Draft 4? I jest. Or not.

But Draft 1 - there it is, on the table, in black and white. Now being sliced and diced into something resembling a story by my fine point red pen.

I'm still a bit wobbly - one month into this new life - my emotions giddy but uncertain, like a colt taking his first steps. The world around me is so fresh, brimming with the vibrant colors of new growth, the richness of blossoms and sea air, the madness of wind and the changing tides. I feel that delicious disconnect of being far away on holiday, in a place that is so beautiful you feel simultaneously calmed and energized. But I'm not on holiday. I'm in the wilderness of my intuition. And I think I'll stay here awhile.

I guess my feet know where they want me to go

Spring entered as she should: with hair tangled and knotted, streaming in the wind. She shivered as the sea air pierced the holes in her ratty sweater, but her bare toes burrowed in the sand, the only surface which absorbed the sun's fragile warmth. Tossed between two seasons, one wan and weary of red fingers and runny noses, the other brazen and heady with the scent of lilacs and sweat, Spring arrived to claim her equinox.

 

And so have I arrived on the other side of winter. It began in a stew of anger and bewilderment, passed into determination and defiance, ending at last in hope.

 

Had you told me at Winter's Solstice that the turning of the seasons would find us not just in a new home several zip codes distant, starting new jobs—hell, completely new lives—I would not have thought it impossible, but not likely. Had you told me what we would have gone through to get here, I would have slammed the door in your face. Absent a door, I probably would have asked you to get me silly drunk.  

But we did what we seem to do best: we took the pieces that remained and we rebuilt. I hope we did it with dignity. I hope what we left will make it easier for someone else to stand up and say "No." Or whatever form of "You will not fuck with me" one is comfortable with issuing (see above comment about dignity). I hope the truth we shared will be set free.

 

But that is in the past. It belongs to Winter. This moment, in its blossoming present, belongs to Spring.

 

I find myself in this town which seems to capture all the precious places that have shaped my character and spoken to my heart. It is the pastoral peace of my childhood, in the gentle climes of Oregon's Willamette Valley and the mountain-to-coast splendor of the Olympic Peninsula, (where I am once again, a short drive from the home of my formative years). It is the feisty mix of town and gown of central Washington, where hyper-educated ivory tower types knock elbows at the bar with old timers who have more sense than money. It is the casual warmth of New Zealand, the muddy cheerfulness of Ireland, the pride and passion for place and history of France. It is a place of such profound beauty that my heart skips with joy each time I wander out the door.

 

I cannot make sense of what happened this Winter. I can neither believe the cliché "It was meant to be,” nor in a cosmic manipulation of circumstances that made this end - this beginning - inevitable. I do believe that we took back control of our lives, at least as much as the universe allowed. Without knowing the outcome, we set out the intention to move forward with hearts open to possibilities.

 

And now I have what I have so long wished for: a room of my own and a part-time job that will allow me the hours and energy to write, in a community steeped in creativity. Water and forest surround this peninsula in the rainshadow of the Olympics. It reaches for Canada while turning its pert backside to the Big Smoke smothered by rain.

 

And I’m terrified. Terrified by paychecks gone “Poof!” in the breeze, terrified by the budget that marches in columns more red than black. Terrified by the cursor that blinks black on a white, white, empty, empty screen. If we’re talking clichés, how about “Be careful what you wish for”?

 

But I can’t squelch the hope and joy which blooms inside, anymore than I can halt Spring. And who would ever wish to?

 

My writing routine has been torn asunder by the move, the transition, the emotional strain of our bittersweet farewell to Seattle, the risk we took by not leaving quietly, the physical wrenching of two people in their mid-40's tackling the same moves they made with disquieting regularity in their mid-20's.

 

The routines are the first thing to go in a move. The challenge is to embrace the new while clinging to those most dear. I have more time to write but a more wily work schedule; I must be ready to crack my knuckles and call upon my muses at odd hours and in unlikely places. But my morning pages are immutable: the last routine to go in the final throes of moving, the first to return.

 

The story hasn't stalled completely; I have worked on scenes here and there these past weeks (those morning sessions). I am so close to the end of this first draft that I am tempted to begin a rewrite to fill in the missing parts and call it Draft 2. But I've latched onto a magical final word count for Draft 1 and for the moment, until I get back into the groove, I work toward that end before I allowing myself to edit. But I have written the ending. Now I write just below that ending, trusting I will know when it is time to stop. And to begin, again.

Path

Wherever I lay my hat...

I have a scrapbook of images that falls somewhere between idea and dream. It is a collection of home interiors and exteriors carefully snipped from the pages of a few favorite shelter magazines.  As you rifle through the glossy pages, themes become apparent: light, comfort, wood, glass, stone, minimal furnishings, natural colors, bare floors, living spaces that radiate from an open kitchen- all oriented toward the out-of-doors, where sandstone and gravel paths wind among raised bed and butterfly gardens. Brendan and I haunt our favorite neighborhoods on long walks, passing lovely homes for sale. We try them on in our mind's eye, sizing up a west-facing backyard that would be perfect for a garden, a garage that could hold Brendan's growing collection of beer-and wine-making apparatus, a fenced yard for the dogs we long to bring home, and the small room at the front of the house that would make a perfect writing space for me. We adore the closely knit community of Phinney-Greenwood, the old world elegance of Queen Anne, the hipster-chic of Wallingford. We envision ourselves walking to favorite coffee shops, to pubs for Friday night IPAs, running on the paths that surround Green Lake or overlook the Olympics, and making the easy bike commute to our workplaces.

But we never take those next steps: the visit our credit union to talk about financing, the call to a real estate agent, not even the Sunday open house to see what $357,000 buys these days (current median home price in our Ballard neighborhood). Experience curbs our enthusiasm; a desire for freedom supersedes our most fervent nesting instincts.

Because we have been there. Four mortgages. First in Illinois, then twice in Washington state, most recently on New Zealand's South Island. We've been renting since we returned stateside at the end of 2007. And we have no plans for anything grander in the near future.

We field the question "Do you think you'll ever settle down and buy a house?" often enough that we've canned our reply. We give each other that look- a half-smile and a chuckle that's supposed to convey irony. One of us summarizes nearly twenty years of marriage with a gently exhaled  "Weeelll...." and it's usually Brendan who says "We've been homeowners. Four times over. Next house we buy will be the last one. And it will have a vineyard, so..." And he trails off. The questioner might think he's kidding. I know he's not, though we haven't quite worked out the details of the vineyard plan, which now include asking Greek's prime minister George Papandreou to allow the European debt deal to proceed so our 401(k)s stop hemorrhaging.

Our previous homes were each modest affairs that needed varying degrees of TLC. We replaced flooring, carpeting, furnaces, plumbing, doors; we sanded, stripped, painted, rototilled, hammered; jacked up one house to repair a foundation, installed a central heating system in another. We landscaped, planted gardens and trees, laid down walkways, and built fences. Our work paid off: homes #1 and #3 each sold within days of entering the market. Home #2 never even had a For Sale sign posted- it was in and out before the ink was dry on the estate agent contract. But we escaped by the skin of our teeth with house #4: Our sweet little bungalow in Cheviot, New Zealand entered the market in mid-2007 as housing bubbles worldwide began to pop and vanish, releasing dreams and life savings into the ether.

Since the housing boom went bust, this nation has had its first real conversations questioning the value the American dream, the one that culminates in home ownership. We're considering that it may not be the best investment in our futures, relative to our incomes and goals. And one cannot escape the central irony of the economic downturn living in Seattle: now that home prices are nearing the reasonable, descending from the stratospheric stupidity of the mid-2000s, credit is tight, incomes are falling, and consumer confidence is low.

After so many years of owning, after the thousands of dollars and buckets of sweat equity poured into restoring and renovating, I no longer equate stability and security with owning a home. If anything, I feel a greater sense of security because we are free from the commitment of a mortgage and the obligation of upkeep. The ability to make a change at nearly a moment's notice is both liberating and reassuring. I feel a greater connection to my career, chosen and pursued for the love of it, not the money. And I feel less afraid to take chances and pursue other goals because our only obligation is a rent check.

But that doesn't mean we don't dream. On the contrary- we have so many! I have a scrapbook full of them as my shelter vision slowly takes shape. But I'm willing to lay a different sort of foundation, to savor the freedom we have now and take time to build our future. Somehow, life at 42 feels far less urgent than it did at 32.

And from our little apartment, we walk to our favorite coffee shops, to the pub for Friday night IPAs, run on the paths that surround Green Lake or overlook the Olympics, and make the easy bike commute to our workplaces. Somebody else mows the lawn.

I could live here...Or here.  Definitely here.

This, however, would make me commit hara-kiri

Just A Homework Assignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chancing upon Serenity

I  created a new running route last week, heading north and west through Phinney and Greenwood. It was then that I chanced upon the Sakya Monastery, on the corner of 1st and 83rd. It rises like warm sunshine in a tranquil, leafy neighborhood. I returned this morning to take a few photos of this Buddhist monastery, for it made me consider my themes of Safety and Security and their sisters, Serenity and Peace. I am feeling frustrated as I desire time to write and reflect, but must now dash off to work.  But I will return to share how I was introduced to the works Vietnamese Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh.

Safety in Political Expression

This week several Puget Sound residents became victims of gun violence. Two young men shot each other down in a state park in front of families enjoying a Saturday picnic on the shores of Lake Sammamish. Saturday night, an intruder murdered a young mother and one of her children; another child remains in critical condition at Harborview. And last night, a woman who went out into her street to determine the source of a domestic dispute was shot. Accidentally? Does it matter? She is dead, at the hands of a person with a gun. I have rarely felt secure expressing my outrage, or even simply my opinion, in matters where politics are deeply entrenched. I do not think quickly on my feet. I am intuitive, not argumentative; I cannot retain an encyclopedic set of facts and figures in my head to add objective weight to my subjective assertions. I value discussion, but I abhor combative confrontation.

My political and social beliefs are a reflection of my values, what I regard as moral and ethical. I regard others' stances as reflecting the same about them. Entering into a confrontational debate with someone who I consider a friend or a loved one nearly always results in deep disappointment and hurt. I see in them a set of values that I do not understand and it makes me question the foundation of our relationship.

I have spent some time reading the opinions of a Facebook friend via his posts on a political blog. He writes with vitriol, contempt, and scorn, spewing forth opinions as acidic as the bile that must churn in his gut. It has made me so sad to witness his anger. And it has turned me away from posting links to op-eds or articles of a political nature to my own Facebook profile. I don't want to be a part of that same pool of people who are driven by headlines. It doesn't mean that I pay any less attention or that my opinions are any less firm; it means that I need to find a balance between the safety of remaining silent and the rightness of speaking my mind.

Last night, I read a line in David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a line written by an author my age, spoken by a Dutch physician living in Japan in the early 19th century: " ...So  little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove..."

The first sentence I find terribly sad, the second I take to heart. I do find so much worthy of belief, of holding to the light, of fighting for. But I believe little is gained in argument. Debate, yes, but in this era of screaming heads posing as journalists, vapid tweets and hyper-polarized political parties, Debate has been trampled on and left for dead by its mightier but less worthy opponent, Argument.

Writing allows me to take a step back, to take the time I need to formulate coherent thought, to research beliefs so that they can take the shape of well-reasoned opinion.

But in this instance I let intuition take over, I let the certainty of my heart speak, I let what I know to be moral ring through.

Access to and possession of guns, in the name of a distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment, has made this country far less safe and secure. Recent Supreme Court rulings represent an erosion of effective gun laws and set this nation on a frightening path of increased violence.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is at work in every state to enact and retain sensible gun laws.  I have to believe that we are better as a nation, united, than the angry voices of those who believe their personal rights- rights defined by lobbyists, not the Constitution- are more valuable than the lives of their fellow citizens.

Beginnings

Main Entry: 1safe·ty
Pronunciation: \ˈsāf-tē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural safeties
Etymology: Middle English saufte, from Anglo-French salveté, saufté, from salf safe
Date: 14th century

1 : the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss

Main Entry: se·cu·ri·ty
Pronunciation: \si-ˈkyu̇r-ə-tē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural se·cu·ri·ties
Date: 15th century

1 : the quality or state of being secure: as a : freedom from danger : safety b : freedom from fear or anxiety

I have thought a lot about safety and security this week, as I commit to writing. I consider what brings me here, to transform thought into concrete phrase, in a potentially public, but currently  controlled environment. I think of the rewards and complications of revealing private thoughts in a public forum.

I think, too, of what will be lost by playing it safe, by withholding that which I would choose to share because I fear criticism (my own being the most harsh), being misunderstood, judged or perhaps worst of all, disregarded.

I  set myself the task of identifying those environments where I feel safe and secure as a writer and those where I feel less safe from hurt, less free from fear and anxiety. Those writing environments represent my life.