To the Lighthouse

Weeks of insomnia at the beginning of this year found me re-reading Virginia Woolf in the electric glow of an e-book, hands under the covers for warmth. Lily Briscoe painted and watched children play; Mrs. Ramsay loved and died; and, while time worked its way through an old house, I longed, too, for a radiant vision. In my notebook appeared the phrases: One mustn’t, and One wonders. Semi-colons swarmed like ants in every sentence I wrote.

Like Virginia Woolf, I make my way to the Lighthouse, but I go by foot or bicycle, my face turned not to the the rocky shore of the Hebrides, but to the sprawling space of Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop.  Housed in a Victorian mansion near the corner of Colfax and Race, this four-story warren of offices and classrooms is truly a beacon, a source of creative challenge and collegial connection.

Workshop classes are a cornerstone of teaching at the Lighthouse–your writing is critiqued by a group while you sit quietly, receiving feedback and possibly trying not to cry. In my first workshop, an essay I had worked on for months and revised at least ten times received a full round of honest feedback. My teacher, the talented writer John Cotter, asked the group: What happens in this essay? Is there a conflict? Do we have any idea of the setting?  The story I wrote didn’t answer any of these questions very well. My early bloom of overconfidence landed in a cold-water bath of humility. Refreshing, as my dad would say. Invigorating.

LH entry 1Last fall, I started making the short trek three days a week for a  “Getting it Done” pomodoro class in the Lighthouse attic. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and the moniker for a time management system originally developed on a tomato-shaped timer. Twenty-five-minute work segments alternate with short breaks and add up to four hours of productivity–it’s harder to distract oneself with nonsense in a room full of (seemingly) focused people. I committed to twelve hours per week of butt-in-chair writing time, and sure enough, things got done. At first, in the former ballroom turned writer’s aerie, I quailed with insecurity sharing space with “real” writers—cracker-jack memoirists, a superstar humor writer, and a sci-fi smarty-pants.

Just making my way to the the Lighthouse, teachers appeared out of nowhere. One October morning as I pedaled to pomodoro class, a woman stepped off the curb to cross Race Street. Pausing to let me pass, she tucked her hands into the pockets of her red jacket. My morning greeting received a smile and a warning: Watch out for those idiots today!  So much for taking myself too seriously. Refreshing!

On a recent morning, snow fell in huge flakes, quieting the city and sparkling my neighborhood as I made my way to the Lighthouse, walking in a car rut to keep snow from snow ghost Steamboattumbling into my boots. Two bundled men chatted as they shoveled their next-door walkways. One leaned his forearm on his shovel and looked up into the swirling white. What a beautiful snow! he said.

His neighbor responded, It sure is. But, Buddy, I’ve already shoveled this once today!  Soon, a figure in a hooded parka walked toward me, treading the same tire-compressed snow-path. As we approached each other, I saw his coffee skin and arrestingly beautiful brown-gold eyes.  Good morning! I said as I adjusted the weight of my back pack on my shoulders. He bent his elbow and pointed at me. For a moment, I thought I would be scolded. Instead, his face sparked into a snow-day grin as he announced: If we meet again like this, it’s Destiny!

Can’t argue with that, I replied. Count me in! He continued north, and I kept smiling as I trudged the final block to the Lighthouse. The parking lot was empty except for six smooth inches of snow on the ground. Only one set of foot prints led to the unlocked front door. I stepped into the tiled foyer, where a wooden balustrade wound its way up a green-carpeted staircase, and elaborate crown molding adorned the ceiling.  I shook blobs of snow off my jacket and stomped slush off of my boots. Then I headed up to the attic and got to work.

 

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”

M&M’s

Even when I’m not hungry, I walk my little girl body around the quiet house, sneaking candy. I grab the long handle of the fridge door and pull, pushing my feet hard onto the slippery tile floor. I yank until my fingertips hurt, until the magnetic strip creaks away from its mate and the door whooshes open. Disappointing containers of leftover cabbage and boiled potatoes are at my eye level, and above them sits a half empty jug of skim milk. But on my right, in the door shelf, gleams an open bag of M&M’s. Shapes I know to be letters adorn the outside of the black sack, while inside wait shiny blues and vivid greens and happy yellows. When I push my hand into the bag, the candies jangle like the notes of a song. I lift the bright circles up and push them into my mouth.

Cheeks bulging, I take another fistful, less careful to be quiet on this second foray into badness. My brain squeezes with fear. Can someone behind a closed door or down the long staircase hear the candy grinding between my teeth? I close the tall door of the fridge and step into the dining room, hiding in the folds of the curtain fabric. Shells of cold M&M’s break under my teeth and press sharp points onto my tongue. Soon, the colors melt into pure chocolate softness. As I chew, my empty hand un-clenches its sticky grip on itself. I stare at the colorful pattern of candy prints on my palm as my tongue absorbs the shock of sugar. A clock ticks. The back of my throat aches.

I step out of my hiding place and open the fridge again. My hand dives low for M&M’s, but the bag is almost empty.  I leave the last few candies as a suggestion that I didn’t eat so many, that maybe it wasn’t me. But the next morning, that bag is gone, never to appear in the fridge door again. A few days later, my mother snips open the corner of a new bag and puts it in the high cupboard, above the stove where she thinks I can’t climb. I learn to pull a heavy chair over and balance on the margins of the turquoise stove when the burners are cool. She moves the M&M bag again, but I find it, eventually, in her top dresser drawer, next to gauzy scarves and plastic orbs of L’eggs pantyhose. I plunder what she hides, my heart hammering in my chest.

I sneak. I risk for sweetness.

Before our parents go out to a party, after we’ve eaten the crusts of our chicken pot pies and drunk our glasses of milk, Mamma stands in her high heels and Mom and dad partycounts out M&M’s for me and my sister. We get fifteen each, in small metal cups meant to hold soft boiled eggs. I have polished Daddy’s black shoes until they shine. They sit on a section of newspaper by the kitchen door, waiting. Save your M&M’s, Mamma says, before our parents drive off into the evening. Make them last a long time!

Curled like commas, my sister and I face each other on Mamma and Daddy’s big bed, watching TV. We sort our candy into colors and compete over who can save hers longest. Negotiating a trade, we argue about the brown ones, so plentiful, and whether they taste as good as the rare green ones do. The night gets longer and later. I let the candies rest on my tongue, one at a time, until their hard cases melt away.

We have worked our way through Saturday night TV all the way to Perry Mason, whose serious face surprises me every time that he confronts a conniving murderer on the witness stand, thus freeing his unjustly accused client. Perry MasonAfter the local news, Rod Sterling’s voice describes the time I dread: The Twilight Zone. I am sleepy, but I won’t go into our room alone, so I put a pillow over my head and drift off. I don’t wake up when my father carries me to my bed.

Thirty years later–as a grown woman with children of my own– I visit my parents in Florida and quietly search my mother’s house for sugar. I plunder the M&M’s again, finding the magical black bag in the drawer of the sideboard in her dining room. I eat M&M’s until nausea and self-hatred volley a tennis ball in my adult body, back and forth, back and forth. All I can do is sit still long enough for self-hatred to win. Then I go back for more candy.

How Dare You?!

snail bag

Before I had the nerve to call myself a writer, I spent two years coloring big paper bags, hour after hour, bag after bag. These brightly festooned delivery bags belonged to Project Angel Heart, and were later filled with a week’s worth of lunches for folks living with life challenging illness. They served a different purpose for me–coloring those bags both highlighted and neutralized the repetitive self-accusation: “You’re not an artist! How dare you think you are!”  That self-hating voice—timeless, shrill, malignant—halted my creative self-expression for years. But as I colored, its harsh alarms about the self-indulgent absurdity of making art became more recognizable and less impactful day by day. “How dare you?!”  became a signal that I was onto something, an invitation to enjoy making things.

After I left my full-time job, my empty calendar was an intoxicant, and my future work life was a big question mark. Waiting for direction or inspiration, I would pull a blank bag out from under the couch, grab my container of rainbow sharpees with their alluring chemical scent, and shape a heart onto brown paper, then mark a swirl through it, coloring in the curved sections with alternating blues and greens. Stars, snowflakes and layered dot patterns emerged. I’d spend five minutes or several hours per bag, then stash them again under the couch.

Peace bag

Twice a month, I pulled out all the bags I’d colored and stack my favorites on top. Over time, circles became rounder and flowers lovelier as my hand became surer. Progress wasn’t measured by number of bags completed or by quality of design, but by something new—the inherent perfection in the colors themselves. I spent peaceful hours coloring while I waited for my high schooler to come home, or as I listened to the snores of my decrepit poodle. Letting things get done while holding still.

But putting color on those bags, over and over, day after day, also calmed my creativity demons. Angel Heart clients could assume that my scribbled over “mistake” was the work of a gifted three-year-old. There was no obvious practical value to the bags being decorated, none besides brightness and color themselves. Beauty for beauty’s sake.

After a year or two of coloring, I started wanting words. I had stopped writing almost completely for a decade, but gradually, infrequent bursts of words landed onto the pages of a dusty old notebook. More and more, I wanted to give voice to some of my mother’s stories and possibly rediscover my own. This creative urge, though, needed help facing up to the inner accusation that I was self-indulgent and arrogant to think of myself as a writer. How dare you?!

So I put my fright in my pocket and took it with me to a class at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a thriving community of “literary types” that is housed in a beautiful Victorian just off Colfax Avenue. The class was called “Gotta Start Somewhere.” I would not have registered for the class had the teacher’s name been anything but Joy. Joy has the empathetic heart of a poet who is also a therapist. For many months, she coached me as I cried over tangled paragraphs, and she gently alerted me when a piece of writing was glaringly self-enamored. There’s Joy my wonderful teacher, and there is also the energy of joy itself, the celebration inherent in creative expression. Writing is difficult, but these days I often look forward to it like the scent of the first spring daffodil.

Early on, after Joy read an exercise that I wrote for her about self-criticism, she told me:  Jenny-Lynn, this voice is not just self-criticism. It’s self-contempt. That self-contempt hasn’t gone away–my inner approval ratings often hover in the single digits. Yet here I sit with ten blog posts published and several imperfect essays out to magazine editors, all while calling myself a writer. I take classes, keep writing hours, and have inspiring, generous  writer friends. And those bags? I stopped coloring them six months ago. But I admire their bright cheer when I deliver meals. And I thank the angels every day that I get to make things, to form words on the page, to dare to create.

Bag on laptop
Notice the laptop underneath this one!

Reach Joy here: https://www.joyrouliersawyer.com/

And the Lighthouse here: https://www.lighthousewriters.org/

 

 

So Are the Days

It’s a cool spring morning, and I’m lying on a sunbathing chair in the back yard, being very still. What brought me here? Small, I live in the expanding whorl of new day into longer day; moving slowly into night, then–miraculously!–to day again. In this open yard, time holds without exhorting.

A robin lands on the metal swoop of chain link fence. The bird’s eye is hard and clear, circled by white feathers, and shining black at me. In its velvet vest, the robin hops down to the grass, watching me be as still as a statue of a little girl alone can be. We hold each other’s gaze, and I feel myself become a bird. This fellow being has come to show me what I am, to remind me that I can fly. The robin has a family, too, and I am part of it.

Inside, Mamma and I are alone together. I want to go to school like my sisters do, but I’m not big enough. I learn waiting. Mamma gets ready to shop, snugs her skirt over her hips, and carefully hides her slip above her hemline. She examines her face in the bathroom mirror and doesn’t like something. She squints, tweezes. She adds eyebrow pencil, mascara, and red-brown lipstick to her face, making her beauty more alert. She blots lipstick onto a white kleenex, then glides another round of color onto her mouth, pressing her lips to paper once more. The metal lipstick tube clicks closed. Haphazard tissue kisses rest in the trashcan day after day.

I sit on her bed as she pulls up the long zipper of her high heeled boots. She turns in front of the full-length mirror and pulls her shoulders back, then smiles at me in her reflection. You look so pretty, I say. At the grocery store, she is deep in thought, turned toward cans of green vegetables and hunks of beef tongue. We walk past piles of potatoes and packages of chicken gizzards to the fish counter. Looking at a flounder, stranded on its icy bed, its lopsided eyes cloudy and vague, she says, That doesn’t look very fresh, does it?

Home again, I see the “I’m not here” look on my mother’s face as I watch her watch TV. I practice being quiet so I won’t have to go to my own room and nap. Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives, the man says, at 2 pm on channel 7. We have hurried home from the grocery store to watch. Mamma is smoking, breathing in, breathing out.

Now she has left the room, disappeared to laundry or tidying or a telephone respite with a friend. The click of the linen closet door, then the crispness of her voice lilting into the kitchen phone threaten to float me to sleep, but I fight to stay above the surface. Her forgotten cigarette sends a line of smoke up through the white lampshade to the ceiling. The still room is bisected by a horizontal cloud, and I lie underneath it. I reach over and push the butt into the ashtray, saving it from falling onto the table. With my movement, whorls of grey mix with clear air above my head.

When I am finally big enough for school, I will jump out of bed and stand in front of my closet, stifling a yawn. I will wear a green skirt to kindergarten, my hair combed back and tied with a ribbon. I will stare in amazement as a classmate cries, missing his mommy. When I am nineteen, and half a continent away from my mother, I will harness all of my depressed will and apply to the local university. After classes, I will change into fancy clothes, adjust my slip, and hostess at an elegant restaurant. Twenty years later, at 39, I will earn my second master’s degree and become a therapist at the same university’s counseling center. I will wear patterned skirts and stylish heels. I will mascara my eyes and tint my lips before I go to see clients. Listening, waiting, I will sit with them in that open space, as the mystery of time re-weaves all our lives.

 

back yard chair

Blind Spots

When she was a lanky teen, miles taller than I was, my sister Kristin once let our mother pluck her eyebrows. Her blond head on Mamma’s lap, face contorted into a grimace, she allowed our mother to tweeze the rectangles above her eyes into surprised arches. Then Kristin stood in front of the hall mirror, fuming, as tiny red welts appeared where errant hairs had been removed. In the weeks that followed, brown spikes grew back into their natural place above Kristin’s eyes. They were not plucked again.

My mind’s eye sees clear memories like this one only after a year of struggling to write anything worth keeping about Kristin. I stopped every single time I re-read this odd statement of mine: “Over the years, Kristin and I had managed a polite but respectful distance from one another.” It didn’t strike me as a lie so much as just a weak sentence. But those easy words lifted me into a comforting cloud of dishonesty, far away from what I really felt about my adored and feared big sister.

The truth about my relationship with Kristin–and about her life–is complicated and painful. She was adopted by my father and his first wife, making Mamma her third mother. She had unpredictable bursts of violence when I was little, leaving me watchful and wary. And when Kristin died unexpectedly, six years ago, she was only fifty-four. Honest and graceful words elude me. Kristin was a nurse and a daughter, a sister and a rebel. What I called “polite but respectful distance” in our relationship was simple fear. I was slow to open my heart to Kristin, almost to the end.

A few weeks ago, I received a personal and encouraging rejection email from a journal editor who asked for a revision of an essay I had submitted, an essay about my mother and her Icelandic homeland. The rejection note included the words “very well-written” and “interested and invested in this essay”. I was—and am—thrilled. The editor suggested that I expand and clarify the relationship dynamics between me, Kristin, and my mother. I had included Kristin in my story, but only as a ghost, not as the girl who had hit, or the high school graduate who had left for Iceland, then come back, before leaving again, for nursing school in Chicago. In that essay about my mother, I had blindly left Kristin’s story out.

So, day after day, I re-write, giving Kristin real space on the page. I try and I try not to lie. I describe her awkward place in the middle of our big family, where she stormed in justifiable outrage. I see her body, recovered from anorexia and from alcoholism, but never fully healthy. I write about Kristin’s decision not to see any of us for a long time, and about the grace in her decision to come back to us while our parents were still alive. As I write, the tears flow and the words float like icebergs freed from a glacier shelf. I sit at my keyboard, tapping with one hand and wiping tears with the other.

The more I write, it seems, the more I get to trust the process, including my blind spots. And today I am so happy to see the Kristin who looks out of this photo, holding and shielding me. I have missed you, big sister.

kristin & me (2)

Rule Number One

Great heaps of snow press into the mountainside, and ski tracks thread down a high chute like parallel scratches of a needle. Torreys Peak pulls blue sky earthward with sharp granite hooks. I sit on a sun warmed lift chair at Arapahoe Basin, my ski pants pressing human form into the plastic cushion.

Rule Number One: Don’t take spontaneous detours onto black diamonds.

Getting off the Pallavacini lift, I take a right, then a hard left onto a trail named East Woods, entering the new Beavers terrain. I hug my skis into the side of the slope, expecting a short traverse that will connect me to the blue-diamond Davis trail. Instead, I glide my way straight into Face Shot Gully, then Thick and Thin, which is much more thick than thin. I traverse until I get stuck. Then I have to find a way down.

Rule Number One: Never ski trees alone.

The slope is dense with evergreen and filled with fresh powder. I’ve checked my speed by turning into the slope, and now I am looking at the rock face, my back open to the steep drop behind me. My ski tips are wedged against a tree trunk. The backs of my skis hover over a powder well that I can’t risk stepping into. And my right ski has been stopped by a sapling that rises only a couple of feet above the snow. Its sharp needles reach into the cold air like the beaks of a hundred tiny birds. As I shift my weight, my skis strip off a ribbon of its tender bark.

There is only one navigable track in sight, and I am perpendicular to it, back to the hill, skis pinned. I could only be in a worse position to get out of here if I were upside down.

Rule Number One:  Don’t panic

I catch my breath and regret the impulsiveness that got me here—enthusiasm over-riding logic, again. A thin membrane of sweat forms under my jacket. I have to find a way to shift right and keep traversing until I get to Davis.

There’s not another soul in sight or within shouting distance. How long would it take ski patrol to find me if I hurt myself? How would they even know I was here?

I pray by thanking the trees all around me for their strength. I ask the fairies to keep me safe. I say, please. I tell the sapling, as my skis gash it once more, I am so sorry.

I look up at the blue sky and pull mountain air into my lungs. I have never been in a more beautiful glade. The hill falls steeply into pristine forest. Patches of light break through the shadows and land on snow like freshly cut jewels.

I put both hands under my right knee and lift it over the mortally wounded sapling. As I push over it, the supple tree bends between my legs then snaps up again behind me. I am back on the barely-there track.

I traverse again, looking for an opening, for any line to follow. Tree after tree, thicker and thicker. Traverse, traverse, TURN!

But my legs won’t do it. My torso won’t shift to face downhill. Instructions to my body have been over-ridden by the muscle of fear. So be it. I sit down on a stamp of snow and flip my skis over my head, then stand again. This fake turn buys me a few more feet of descent. I skootch sideways, sidling down a steep spot. A rock etches a deep groove into the base of my skis as I grind over it, and a tuft of virgin powder is revealed to be a small log. As I scuttle down the hill, I say to my scared mind, It’s all right, just get down bit by bit. Take your time.

Finally, an open slope appears, and I can see the cables of the ski lift not far off.  I make slow, messy turns to the bottom, then load my shaky legs onto the Beavers chair lift. As I ascend, I see how badly I misjudged the distance between Pali and Davis. From here, the notch I came down looks impenetrable.

A half hour after breaking all the rules at once, I stop for tea at Black Mountain Lodge. I set my jacket and helmet down on the bench beside me. When I pick them up to go, a small shower of pine needles floats down, fragrant pixie sticks I sweep into my pocket for safekeeping.

east wall