salish sea

My Character ('s) Flaw

Several days ago we stood on a beach, looking out across the Salish Sea, our shoulders hunched against the briny wind. Brendan turned to me and said, "Our lives are changing." Freighter on the Salish Sea

Not so many years ago, this sentence would have been "We are changing our lives." Hard-wired for motion, we grew restless every two or three years. We switched jobs, home loans, states, cities, countries with ease - not seeking anything better, not out of dissatisfaction for where we were or what we had - but out of a spirited curiosity, a determination to embrace adventure. And like magic, the opportunities appeared. A better-paying job offer materialized after I submitted a letter of resignation to my current employer; buyers snapped up our house before it went the market; Permanent Residency was granted when we'd hoped only for six-month work permits. It seemed that each time we decided to leap without a net, the Universe said "Go on! I got this."

But then we landed here, in this green and gray city of whey-faced, over-caffeinated hipsters and North Face puffy-coated soccer moms and we fell in love. We fell in love with the city's sparkling waters and downy peaks, its bookstores and beer, its endearing neighborhoods of Arts and Crafts bungalows and small-batch gourmet cupcake joints. We found fulfilling work, a cheap rental in a great neighborhood, created a community of friends and thought, "Right. We're home, let's set down stakes and dig in." And dig in we did. Five years in one city is a record for our nearly-21 year union. And it felt right. Mostly. Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

Here's my Solstice blog post. I'm all "It's been a pretty rough year, but now the light is shining again" Zen-like reflective, thinking the year had closed and I could move on, right? I can't reread it. I'm afraid I might cry and not get through the rest of what I want to write tonight. The thing is, in the final hours of the year that was, our settled little life shattered.

I am easily disappointed by people. Classic introvert that I am, it's a major character flaw. But I don't want to be that person, so I work to pull my heart out, open it and offer up bits to strangers and loved ones alike. Then something happens and all my demons snigger and shout "See? See! Just like we've said all along. People Suck!"

Maybe that's why I read fiction. Make-believe characters are far more satisfying than the real things. And if they aren't, I can toss the book aside and move on to the next. Or, if I make my way to the end, I can pound out a review, holding the author entirely responsible for the flaws in his characters.

And it's very likely why I write fiction. But this isn't to suggest that the fiction writer is a puppeteer stringing her characters along. When you are fully engaged in your story, writing from a place of authenticity, your characters lead you. I've spent six months getting to know my protagonist and just this morning did she finally tell me what she wanted. I've asked her since day one, knowing as any good student of writing does that all characters want something and it's the writer's job to put obstacles in the way of those desires - that's what makes a plot. But there sat my protagonist with a phone cradled to her ear, listening to a friend sharing news that will allow her to make choices, and changes, to her life, to live where and  - after a fashion -  how she wants. Suddenly she's faced with deciding what that really is. And telling me, the writer, in the process. I just had to have the patience to let her tell her story and to remain silent so I wouldn't muck it up.

Last Saturday I participated in an extraordinary workshop, "Salon at SAM", co-sponsored by the Seattle Art Museum and Hedgebrook, a retreat for writers on Whidbey Island. We selected a work of art from the SAM exhibit Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, created a character based on that work and wrote a monologue in his or her voice.

I selected a short, continuously looped black and white film. The artist filmed herself on a beach, rotating a hula hoop around her hips. You couldn't see her head, only her naked, beautiful body. And the hula hoop wasn't what you tossed around your waist in the 4th grade. This hula hoop was made of barbed wire. It punctured and bruised the artist's skin. The film was horrifying and brutal - a political protest that touched me in a very personal way. And it gave me a story.

We shared the experience of writing from a work of art with the large group. Then we returned in small groups to the art we'd chosen and read our monologues aloud. I wrote the dance with a hula hoop made of barbed wire as a dream my character was having, a dream that made her realize she was in a situation she wanted out of, but wasn't able to admit the truth. In my story, my character was speaking to her husband. As my small group discussed my monologue, one woman turned to me and said "I don't think your character is talking to her husband. I think she is talking to another woman." I felt a rush of relief  and gratitude when I heard this. "I knew it," I replied. "Thank you. I knew the husband part was wrong." I hadn't been able to think of the "what next" until my fellow writer made me realize I was directing my character, instead of allowing her to move me.

And isn't that just what happens in life? We get so wrapped up - so busy and noisy - pushing our lives the way we think they should be going, because it's the logical thing, it's the expected thing, it's what we think others will value, that we blow right past the simple truths, the clear path of "what next."

I won't go into what happened. Not here. Not now. It's a story of such insanity that it would take more than a blog post to sort through. And besides, it's far too rich for nonfiction. I'm collecting the details even as I live through the nightmare, because someday this is going to make a fucking great read. But know that our health is fine, we are loved, we have each other and for the most part, our senses of humor remain intact. With all of this, we can get through anything.

But our lives are changing. And since the Universe is watching and listening, I just want to add: We are changing our lives.

The Sea, The Sea*

My dad likes to tell the story of how he saved our childhood. As he neared the end of his last quarter at Oregon State University, his job search took him to Chicago. A successful interview set our family of six, which included three boys under the age of twelve and a toddler girl, on the track of a comfortable life in the flat suburbs that stretched west and north of that mighty stone and steel city. He had all but signed the contract, when he agreed to one last interview at a remote marine sciences laboratory on the Olympic Peninsula. He drove the long miles from our home in Corvallis to a bend of a road that overlooks a bay that feeds into a sea, which kisses Canada before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

I was twenty-three before I visited Chicago for the first time.

I have a pair of olfactory memories that frame my childhood. First is scent of rain. Rain on pavement, rain on soil, rain on roof tar softened by summer warmth, rain on freshly-mown grass, rain on the fur of the neighbor's black Lab, rain on pages of library books, releasing musty secrets, rain, rain, rain that sluices off the Siuslaw Hills into the Willamette Valley and puddles in sweet, earnest Corvallis.


The second is the sharp, sweaty odor of the beaches of Dungeness Bay, which are strewn with ankle-twisting stones, rotting kelp and pock-marked driftwood.

And from the coast rise other memories that I inhale when the wind is right. There is the stone-fruit headiness that bursts forth when a carpet of coastal sand verbena is crushed under the toe of a blue salt-water sandal. The flirty, green spritzes of common vetch as its ropy stems and delicate purple flowers dry in meadows succumbing to an August sun. The forests of Douglas fir, which pitch out wafts of medicinal, masculine resin, beckoning you into their cool shadows.

-- Although I grew up on the anvil-shaped Olympic Peninsula, under a mountain rainshadow that allows tourist brochures to claim it as the driest Pacific coast community north of Los Angeles, I don't do sea things. I fight a bilious belly if the thirty-minute ferry ride from Edmonds to Kingston rolls a little too much in the winter swells. I've been sailing...twice? I love to swim, but I prefer the tidy confines of the lanes at my local aquatic center to the slimy, cold depths of local bays. My idea of a vacation in hell is a cruise, trapped on a floating city of carbohydrate-laden breakfast buffets and spray-tanned bachelorettes.

But I am as spiritually attached to the open water as I am to writing, to running, to cooking -- activities I can exist without doing or being a part of, but if I am kept from any for too long, my soul begins to shrivel. Living by a bay, a sound, a sea, an ocean is as much an action as it is a state of being. It gives me a sense of forward motion and the perspective of possibility.

How fortunate I am to have lived in Colorado's Western Slope, where in winter the Rocky Mountains unleash oceans of snow by night and the Grand Mesa kicks up the waves of sun by day. And in Appalachian woodlands lush with humidity that rises from the storied waters of the Ohio River. Or in central Illinois, where once a sea of tall grass prairie reached to the horizon; it now pulses green with waves of cornstalks and rows of soybean. And in the arid valleys of central Washington state, whose sub-Alpine hillsides taught me how to hike, whose friendly country towns sheltered me through a bitter adolescence to my soaring university years and ushered me into marriage. These unique and precious regions bade welcome and I called them home for many years. But they are, each is, miles, hours, days from open water. And being close to water -- water that shifts with tides, that is briny with salt and gastropods -- is now a non-negotiable for me.

Oregon's rain seeped into my skin as my first memories formed. Rain is as soothing to me as Big Bird's simple joy and Mister Roger's sky-blue cardigans. But the sea sinewed my heart and nourished my imagination with minerals and bacteria and protein.

I am working now on a series of connected stories that I hope to mold into something greater, someday, when the stories are ready to be pulled into one. The sea is becoming a character in her own right. My challenge is to turn my back on this character and write her as much a villain as a beloved. Although the sea represents endless possibility, her unforgiving, unfathomable depths make her the epitome of impossible.

*The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. One of my favorite descriptions of the sea is the book's opening paragraph:

"The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold."