Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden  

I'm wrestling with a decision. What's happened is a good thing. It's an opportunity. I'm not kvetching. I'm kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn't know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn't feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what's Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I've been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I'd be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, "Never again." I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that's what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren't in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I'd race anyway. I'd have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I'd start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn't seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I've amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there's a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I've put my body through. Why don't I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it's what I do.

But I think I'm through with racing. I can't seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I'm staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don't need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher's shirt to prove I'm an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014


There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say "Yes." But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt--even with a generous scholarship--that two years' tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I've written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I--like thousands of runners across the country--dedicated my day's run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I'd used that morning to keep running was the same I've called upon to achieve my greatest dream--seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I've managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let's see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I've got two behind me, I feel I'm just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  ... Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

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

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving Pieces Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime… Saint-Saëns anyone?

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

We Live in Water: StoriesWe Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These Are The Days

The first warm days of May set me thinking about the promise of summer. The season gets shorter as I age and each year my sense of urgency grows. I plan small adventures, vowing that this summer will be unforgettable, this summer I will feel like a child again. I look for quiet magic:  Shakespeare in the park, concerts at the zoo, swims in the lake, picnics at Shilshole. Once the gloom of June has passed, Seattle sparkles blue and green, wrapping an easy warmth around long, bright days. From the summer's true arrival in the Pacific Northwest in early July well into golden October, there are few lovelier places.  I never live up to my own expectations of summer. What becomes of those simple hopes, those picnics, concerts, Sundays at the market? What exactly did I do with my weeks that I have so few of them left and only a fog of memory behind me?

This year summer had an agenda that diverged so far from mine, we may as well have been in different hemispheres. I wake in mid-season, wishing I could press rewind on the remote control - not wanting to replay the weeks I'd lost, but to erase them and begin again, to insert a new story into the machine.

For seven weeks I've bled. From miscarriage to surgery to the first menstrual cycle since April, I live with a daily reminder of my helplessness over my body. A small fortune spent in the feminine hygiene aisle. A flood of hormones that sets my edge on edge, never certain what might set off the tears or the rage.

But now I emerge from the haze of heartbreak into the blue summer that is as soft as a worn pair of Levis. I tally the hurts, but also the triumphs. Days after my loss, I turned my heart to the page, filling the hollow space with words and finding joy in the act of creating characters and watching as their lives unfold on the page or screen before me. I may not have had the emotional energy to prepare those picnics or plan for those concerts, but I've made certain that every day I turn my face to the sun and move my limbs in the breeze. My running has never been stronger, my freestyle stroke never more fierce. Yes, I've retreated - it's my nature to pull away when I most need the comfort of others - but with a few deep breaths I'm able to reach out until it no longer feels like a chore.

And now it is August. The days of waking in the wee hours to the first dove-gray light of dawn have ended. I rise to the blue-black that will darken my early mornings until April. The afternoons are hot, but the brilliance has dimmed - our small section of Earth is tired from weeks without rain. The trees billow, but their bright leaves have faded to sun-baked green mottled with brown.

My favorite season is before me: Autumn, a time of renewal, when my energy rebounds in the cooling air. But the sky won't deepen to Grecian blue or glow with a Tuscan aura for a few weeks, yet. The evenings aren't ready to yield their velvety warmth to the freshness that heralds the season's change. Summer is resting, languid. The ice cubes in her sun tea have melted, the lemon wedge is limp, but she still tastes sweet. Let her stay, linger, for a while. I'm not quite finished - there is a little girl who wants to come outside to play.

These Are The Days ~ Van Morrison

These are the days of the endless summer These are the days, the time is now There is no past, there’s only future There’s only here, there’s only now
These are days of the endless dancing and the Long walks on the summer night These are the days of the true romancing When I’m holding you oh, so tight
These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart.
These Are The Days lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Ten thousand words swarm around my head; Ten million more in books written beneath my bed*

Yesterday I penned  typed the final words of the final project of the writing program in which I've been engaged since late autumn 2010. From her studio in Salem, OR my writing mentor has assigned a dozen projects designed to build writing chops in someone who wrote her last piece of fiction when she was twelve. In eighteen months I have written, edited and revised thousands of words. A few thousand of those became six short stories, three of which I have submitted for publication. Two were published and one was short-listed for a national literary award. I need - must - do the slog work of getting the others off my hard drive and into an editor's in-box. Many editors' in-boxes. Rejection is an execrable and universal certainty of writing for publication. The form rejection letter is why God made the shredder. But soon, after I receive feedback from this latest attempt, I will be on my own. No deadline, no direction, no word limit, no encouragement, no criticism. If I felt writing to be a solitary pursuit before, well, welcome to hanging in the wind.

I move forward with the unshakeable feeling that the small successes I've achieved thus far are cosmically laughable, that at some point my writing will gather dust and lurk in the corner next to my abandoned acoustic guitar. My stories will suffer from skills as short as my stubby fingers; like my "C" chord, they will almost - but not quite - make it.

What will keep me writing are the moments when I lose myself in the page, when the story takes over, when the characters wrench the outline from my hands, tear it into shreds and run off in their own direction and I can scarcely type fast enough to keep up. I write for the calm which comes over me, when I have no desire to eat, drink or move for an entire afternoon, yet when I finally rise from the chair to stretch, I am replete and relaxed. I write for the one true sentence (merci, E.H.) that may appear among hundreds of attempts, the sentence for which I can't quite believe I was responsible when I read it later. I write because I have a loving partner who responds to my comments said in jest or dream about wanting to write full-time by catching my hand, looking me in the eye and saying, "I think you should, Julie." I write because I'm afraid of what will become of me if I stop.

I know that really, I'm not alone. In the brief time I have explored my voice as a writer, I have discovered the heart of Seattle's writing community: Richard Hugo House. The handful of Hugo workshops in which I've participated have inspired and terrified me. I have walked away from each with ideas, resources and a sense that I'm not entirely insane. Now that I am free from the obligations and pressures of my writing program, I can't wait to enroll in a long-term Hugo House course. Twitter, of all places, is a community of infinite possibilities. I encounter writers every day and take part in weekly discussion groups with writers of all experience levels. This blog - these pages of rambling, navel-gazing drivel and book reviews - have brought kindred souls into my writing life. My writer's to-do list includes next weekend's Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, exploring the online courses offered by the Gotham Writers' Workshop and the real-time workshops at Port Townsend's The Writers' Workshoppe.

I will regard this ending as a beginning. Whatever I write from this point forward I write for me, on the steam of my imagination and commitment to practice.The blank pages loom large. The feeling is delicious and disturbing.

*title credit to the brilliant songwriters and musicians The Avett Brothers and their song "Ten Thousand Words." I end my post with additional, painfully fitting, lyrics from this song:

"Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different We love to talk on things we don’t know about"

Wild is the music of the autumnal wind

Seattle, Lake Union & the Aurora Bridge from Burke-Gilman Trail, Fremont

Wild is the music of the autumnal windAmong the faded woods. William Wordsworth "Book VI The Churchyard among the Mountains", The Excursion 1814

Two days ago I was driving up Florentia, on the north side of Queen Anne, when I entered a tunnel of scarlet and gold. The maples danced like Moulin Rouge chorus girls. They were perfectly aligned on either side of the road, flashing their brilliant leaves like petticoats a-whirl, their delicate limbs swaying in the wind. It was a gift that lasted but a few heartbeats, until the clouds shifted and the leaves ceased pulsing.

This autumn has offered many moments of heart-bursting beauty. Such an autumn as I have never experienced in the Northwest, certainly not in this city that is often shrouded by endless varieties of greens and grays. A warm, dry September and the gradual cooling of October and November set us up perfectly for this year's bounty of vibrant color.

The process itself is poetry: chemical pigments - carotenoids, anthocyanin, tannins - develop as chlorophyll production slows in the cooler weather. They mix and mingle, producing tones of bronze and gold, pumpkin orange, maroon and Burgundy red, and scarlets so deep they are almost purple. The leaves are incandescent, as if lit from inside. Their copper hues blaze on hillsides and urban avenues, they shimmer in the early morning light and radiate in the glow of sunset.

The riotous palette lasts until shortly after the first frost, which occurred yesterday. The drift of leaves towards earth is accelerating. On my run this morning it was clear and cold. Showers of crimson and golden foliage fell onto grass rimed in white. Soon we will be the Emerald City again, our firs and hemlocks, pines and madrone providing shelter, texture and tones of green to the soft grays and browns of winter.

The season has been a gift. It has given me yet another reason to be grateful for the grace this city has brought in the four years we have lived here.

A sense of place -  a connection to my environment - is vital to me. It is perhaps why travel has long been at the core of my soul. The places I discover, try on, taste, listen to, interact in and dream of reflect what is most precious to me. Every village, town, state, and country in which I've lived and many in which I've travelled have left impressions that follow me around like a gaggle of shadows. Some -  New Zealand, Ireland, the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, the deep hollows of Appalachian Ohio - have moved me, shifted my soul, altered the course of my life. It is these places I explore the most as I write, giving shape to characters and events through the lens of setting. I write of seashore and mountainside, of broken-down hamlet and hidden paradise, of antique markets and manicured gardens.

Other places - I think of France and of my backyard, Seattle - are too much a part of my present and immediate future to appear in my fictive scribbles. Though I do have plans for France: there is a story that's been burning inside me for a couple of years, but it's set in the past. My shadows will get walk-on parts, at best.

The November I returned to the Northwest, to call Seattle home for the first time, played itself out far differently than the colorful, sun-filled season now ending. That November was muted, sombre and wet. I arrived from late spring in New Zealand - where there is little pollution to block UV rays and the light is dazzling no matter the season - to the soft watercolors of the Northwest in late fall. My new-old surroundings cloaked me. I too was muted and sombre, a shadow of the vibrant soul I had been before being felled by deep, malignant depression. Re-entering this country in the season of darkness and chill gave me a chance to heal and rebuild in a cocoon of a cozy apartment, the bustling joy of holiday cheer, bursting coffee shops, and peaceful bookstores. As the city blew off the sodden leaves coating its lawns, as the light from the east broke into our bedroom earlier each day, as the season of renewal approached, I felt green shoots of hope and health bursting in my heart, even as the roots that connected me to this place grew deeper and held me fast, at long last.

And here again, as autumn drifts to winter, as day seeps toward the longest night, I am in my season of content and I am home. I am grateful for the beauty of this incomparable autumn, but I look forward to the rich darkness of winter that promises peace.

Poetry in motion

Once upon a few lifetimes ago, we owned many, many books. Our library spilled from bookshelves to boxes, nightstands to nooks. Then we moved one too many times, finally traveling across a vast ocean, and we let go of our library. We gave away, donated or sold thousands of words, images, tales and dreams. The millions of commas, periods, exclamation points and the letter "e" that used to belong to us now live in other libraries and other homes, hopefully opening windows on the same worlds of wonder as they did for us. But of course, we never really owned any of these words that were spun together to create stories, poems, and plays. We just rented their ink and paper.

I've lost that lust for owning bound pages. I have a fear of collecting more than I have space for and clutter makes me shudder. I'm also insufferably picky about what I spend my time reading; so many of the books I pick up from the library's "Holds" shelf I snap shut after the first twenty pages and return them to fill some other reader's queue.

So, I rarely buy a new book unless it's a favorite author or a classic I know I will reread (Jane and I have a once-yearly date: "Emma" is on tap for 2011) or it's on the bargain table for $6.99. Every so often we cull our bookshelves and take a stack to Ophelia's in Fremont or Third Place Books in Ravenna, trade them in for store credit and replenish with used books from the stacks or bargains on display.  But mostly I just wait for the hot titles to filter their way down from the library wait list.

But bookstores, God help me,  I love them. I'm blessed to live in a city that still celebrates and supports independent bookstores, so I never need set foot in big box chain store to find exactly what I didn't know I was looking for.  And what could be more soulless than browsing the mind-numbing pages of I need to hold a book in my hands, caress its cover, feel its weight and the cut of its pages, inhale its ink, view the swirl of its font, read the author's bio and skim the first chapters to know if it's worth my time and maybe, just maybe my cash.

I have explored the wonders in Queen Anne Bookstore; Elliott Bay Book Company; World Wide Books and Maps; Secret Garden Bookshop; Fremont Place Books Ravenna Third Place; Edmonds Bookshop; Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island; University Bookstore; Santoro's on Greenwood; Pegasus in West Seattle; Ophelia's...and I have left them all with a piece of my heart and, often, pieces from my wallet.

But mostly I just snoop. I linger in the cookbooks section, flipping through Nigella, Jamie, Marcella, Alice, Claudia, Thomas, Rick, dreaming of the time and money to cook my way through the recipes of the River Café and The French Laundry,  of exploring culinary Provence, Mexico, and Italy from tip to toe. I pore over the "Staff Picks" cards, trying not to make gagging sounds at rapturous praise for The Lacuna or Room. I squeeze past the ubiquitous "The Girl Who Pays for the Lease on Our Building" display; I too think Lisbeth Sanders kicks some brutal ass but I wouldn't pay for the pleasure.  I check to see if there is a travel guide to the Languedoc we don't yet own. I look through the fiction stacks, overwhelmed by all that I have not read, knowing the forty-five or so years left to me on this planet aren't enough to get through them.  I console myself with the knowledge that most wouldn't be worth my while. But there could be that hidden gem, that Shadow of the Wind, that Unbearable Lightness of BeingCrossing to Safety, The Suitable Boy, The Catcher in the Rye, The Secret Garden or Persuasion that turns my world around, that enchants me with the beauty of its language and images, that makes me crave to live inside its words.  So I peruse, I jot down titles, I leave clutching the store's newsletter to update my library request list.

A couple of rainy Saturdays ago I stopped in at the Elliott Bay Book Company -  perhaps the Queen of Seattle's indie bookstore empire - and enjoyed a bowl of Pumpkin Soup in the café. Belly full, I wandered onto the sales floor. I scanned the fiction aisles, but I was uninspired and bored by the titles therein. Nothing spoke to me.  It seemed I'd either read the novels I espied or had no interest in what waited beyond the front cover.

Heading for the door, I knocked against one of the low stacks containing poetry. I was surrounded suddenly by the ghosts and glimmers of Neruda, Rumi, Codrescu, Ryokan and Rilke; of Nietzsche, Frost, Dickinson, Sappho, Eliot, Plath, and Poe; of Ginsberg, Goethe, Whitman, Harrison, Milosz, and Millay. I could go no farther. I pulled out volume after volume, scanned their stanzas, whispered their meters, stumbled into enjambments, crashed into caesuras. I felt like a tourist wandering through a souk in Marrakech; my senses were overwhelmed by colors and visions, and by voices calling to me in a Babel of languages I did not understand.

Then images began to take shape as I let go of the literal, of paragraph, of theme, and of conclusion.  Words coalesced into shapes of beauty, sorrow, anger, sensual passion, of longing, of Ireland, Argentina, Montana, of Death, of war, of every emotion and physical sensation felt by man and some that defy conventional expression.

The velvet cadence of a Shakespeare sonnet, the whimsy of e.e. cummings, the beloved clarity of Frost, the baroque melancholy of Apollinaire, the elation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning- I was intoxicated by so many words strung together in astonishing and devastating ways.

I didn't know where to start or where to stop. I walked to the counter with loaded arms, my face flushed and heart pounding. I felt as if I had discovered a new world and was bursting with my secret- undecided whether to share my news or to keep the treasure to myself.

As my purchases were being rung up, another bookseller looked through my selections. He paused at The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin and patted the volume lovingly. "Ah, the bible." He sighed. "I read a poem every morning; I've memorized seventy-five of her poems so far."  Hard to think of a more beautiful and fulfilling way to begin one's day. Maybe there's an Emily podcast I can listen to while I run...

And my bookcase is full to bursting again.

Back in the saddle again.

I am typing with my left arm braced against my side, holding an ice pack to my ribs. It's ten days since The Tumble, the afternoon when my flesh met pavement. I think I may have won the battle, with Red Bike by my side, but I am now a vigilant warrior, guarded against the mean streets of Seattle that threaten to smack me down again. The scabs from road burn are closing over with tender new skin; the bruises have run the color palette from angry red to moody blue to outrageous Chartreuse. They are fading now to a soft sea green. I was able to shuffle-run a couple of times this week and yesterday, finally, I was able to do a full Upward Dog and a Side Plank during yoga practice without collapsing on the mat.

The ice bag I now clench is soothing what remains of the pain. I still can't sleep on my left side. Sneezes- oh the horror- come out as strangled yelps of pain. But this morning I was aching to run. Not to shuffle, but to break out and pound. So I did. And I'm paying for it. But Sweet Jesus in the Garden, it hurt so good. I intended to go an easy, steady 5 miles, just to break in the legs, but found I couldn't stop despite the brittle pain that radiated from my left ribcage.  I finished my circuit and kept going, dashing past still-sleeping Ballard bungalows, running without destination or intention just for the sheer joy of movement. Endorphins are magical, wondrous things. As are the three Ibuprofen now working their way into my pain.

I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with biking (I hesitate to write "cycling" because that seems very serious and laden with gear and intention that casual riders such as I do not possess).  For all the years I lived in small towns with unlimited country roads, I barely ventured out. Two words: loose dogs. As much as I adore canines of all persuasions, I simply cannot abide being chased. Brendan, a true cyclist, has enough experience and power to out-race those chomping, foaming jaws. I seem to think that I can reason with or at least out-bark a frenzied dog, so invariably I come to a halt and start shouting "No! Bad Dog!" As if. My bike became a means to get to and fro in the safety of my little towns.

Ironically, it took a move to our first city to embolden me to bike regularly.  I marveled at the bike lanes that criss-cross elegant, Victorian Christchurch and determined that learning to ride on the other side of the road would be an adventure I couldn't pass up. I found a Specialized European-style Cruiser that I named Poppins, because I feel very Mary Poppinish sitting on its high, feminine frame. It's the bike that now takes me to and from work.

Then we moved to the Back of Beyond and I had to have a country bike to tackle the winding roads that lead from the hamlet of Cheviot, past sheep paddocks and eucalypt groves, to the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean which opens at Gore Bay. So we found me a racy red KHS mountain bike. New Zealanders have the good sense to keep their animals properly enclosed and not once in all my meanderings on those Canterbury roads did I encounter a cantankerous mutt. Once, a llama took off after me. But there was a fence, so the only danger was from a well-aimed llama loogie. Fortunately, I could bike faster than it could spit.

We shipped our Kiwi bikes back to Seattle and I pretty much fell off the saddle. It was too great a hassle to schlep the bike up from our apartment's basement. Besides which, we lived atop Queen Anne and the return from anyplace other than a relatively level 2-block radius was a dispiriting exercise.

Even after we moved to Ballard, I let my two-wheeled companions deflate in our storage unit, breaking Red Bike out on a rare day when Brendan could convince me to wheel to Shilshole Bay. I nearly gave away Poppins but after she sat on the back patio for three weeks, gathering rust from the rain, I knew I couldn't let her go. Back into storage she went.

Then came this summer. Brendan's promotion meant a complete change in schedule, taking him from a late afternoon to 2 a.m. shift to an early morning to mid afternoon schedule. Our routine of me walking to work and Brendan leaving me the car to drive home was over. My ride was gone.

So, on July 9- the first day of Brendan's new job- I began commuting by bike. We fixed up Poppins with a rack and a pannier and flashing lights that now come in handy as I trudge up 8th Street in the dusk of early autumn. Each morning the cyclopaths speed by, decked out in aerodynamic helmets, reflective Lycra tights and clipped-in shoes.  I am content in my geeky glory that includes a fisherman's-yellow rain jacket two sizes too large, reflective bands that velcro around the hems of my Levis, and my scuffed-up Brooks trainers.

I have to laugh at my own folly. It takes me as much time commute by bike as it did to drive. Those first minutes when I leave the store and I'm pedaling on the Burke-Gilman as it follows the Ship Canal - breathing in the still air, watching the sunset glinting off the rippling water - are some of the most peaceful and restorative of my day. Of course, the slog up noisy 8th Street is still ahead of me, but each week it gets a tiny bit easier. The dark nights of autumn and the wet chill of winter are still to come. I hope that a habit has formed. I'm determined to see this through.

But it's the biking I now do beyond the easy commute to and from work that has been transformative. Brendan has taken me out every weekend since early summer, showing me routes he's created from Ballard through Magnolia, around Greenwood, beyond Sunset Hill, to downtown via Interbay and Myrtle Edwards Park, around Lake Union and of course, the wonderful Burke-Gilman trail that extends miles and miles north. We live in the perfect biking community - hills abound, streets are wide, bike lanes a-plenty and Seattle dog owners are so well-trained- fenced yards, leashes and poop bags are de rigueur.

I venture out on my own a few times a week, using my rides as a cross-training workout to give my run-weary joints a rest. I am utterly enamored with my rides, novice though I am. I have a favorite route that takes me to Shilshole Bay and up the hill past Golden Gardens Park. From there I can weave in and around Crown Point neighborhoods, taking as long or as short a route home as my energy and the fading light allow. When I first began biking this route, I would stop halfway up the Golden Gardens hill to catch my breath and slurp some water. Now I don't even stand up from my seat to power my way to the top.

I was on a workout ride through Greenwood, crossing a busy street off 45th where it separates Phinney from Fremont, when I crashed. I glanced over my left shoulder to check for traffic before sliding into a left turn when my tire hit a split in the pavement. My bike shot to the right and I went down, my right leg tangled up in my bike, my left side slamming into the pavement. I bounced.  I recall saying something accurate but ultimately unhelpful, like "I'm going down", to no one in particular.

I had one coherent thought and that was to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. I scrambled up and dragged my bike out of the road. A passing cyclist saw what happened and rushed over to see if I was all right. Doing my best Monty Python Black Knight impression ("It's just a flesh wound!") I assured her I was okay. It wasn't until she biked away that the sunlight suddenly narrowed to a thin white tunnel, then faded to fuzzy gray. I slumped to the sidewalk, contemplating the lunch that was suddenly pushing against the back of my throat. The indignity of vomiting next to a Metro bus stop brought the world back into focus again, as did the jarring pain in my left arm and ribs.

I walked Red Bike about twenty yards, to a quiet side street, then realized I was in trouble. My legs were trembling, my vision was narrowing again, and I began to hyperventilate. I sat on the edge of a traffic circle with my head between my legs and considered my options. Crying seemed like the best one at the moment, but even that took more energy than I had. I watched a spider push through some bark dust, a cat came to sit beside me, and the sun draped like a warm blanket across my back.

After a while I thought I could get home on my own steam and I did. Red Bike clanked and wobbled a bit, or maybe that was me. Brendan was home and made all the right worried noises over my scraped skin and bruised shin. He said "Isn't it a great thing that you are in such good shape you could walk away from a crash!" God bless that man. I was working on the theory that ample padding on my hip had broken the worst of the fall. I like his version. I'll keep it handy.

Yesterday was my first serious ride since The Tumble. We rode from Ballard, walked across the Locks, climbed through a few hills in Magnolia, stopped to admire the views of Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle. I'm wary of uneven pavement, my guts clench at steep descents and I worry about how I will manage when the rain sets in and wet streets raise the hazard level to the nth degree. But for the moment I'm back in the saddle again.