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

Coffee with Mamma

Every time I make coffee on a cold afternoon, my mother stands next to me. We watch the first splash of boiling water dampen the paper cone and soften the grains of coffee. Our shared breath breathes in the winter aroma. We wait patiently to pour more water, tempering our eagerness.

And I see my mother, gone so long now, standing in my childhood’s turquoise kitchen. She is letting me “help” serve dessert at a dinner party. In the middle of the kitchen table, a round platter holds a ginger brown cake that has been dusted with a flurry of soft, white sugar. Mamma heats the silver coffee pot with scalding water then empties it again. Soon, the surge of hot coffee fills the gleaming container like the will to life. In the dining room, she pours its black heat into delicate cups, and tiny wisps of vapor rise over the winter tablecloth. Candle wax has overflowed into puddles on the fabric. I want to dip my fingers into its warmth and feel the wax form stiffly to my fingertips. But I don’t. Being Mamma’s helper means being allowed to watch her—close enough to touch her, but not moving at all.

A kettle sings fresh steam into our kitchens. The skin of my face tingles with my mother’s tension about how to make everything, always, just right.

And I miss her. The sadness drips, drips, drips.  But I’m with her all the time. Every time I smell coffee, every time I doubt myself, and every time I cook a meal. I miss her food–fish cooked into so many different forms and flavors that it expands its skins, dives past its limits. I crave the long, white scar on her left elbow, marking where she fell onto an Icelandic country road from the over-sized frame of her brother’s bicycle. I seek out her mingled scents of cigarette smoke and Chanel perfume. I perceive in myself her outward gaze and her habitual remove.

I want her back, but she’s right here.

I see her everywhere when I go to Europe, in the dignified elegance of the dark-haired women who withstand the unflinching north wind, who wear wide silk scarves and line their lips in red. I see her small feet in every shoe store, and I watch her firmly set mouth as she considers something, then decides. I see my mother in the shape of every island. All fishing villages are hers. All forbidden romances are hers, and every mental illness.

A year ago, on the tram sliding into Edinburgh, my mind buzzed with excitement about a new city, about solitude, about seeing my son.  And it washed over me like warm light, a zephyr, how much my mother loved me! I saw her sparkle of joy every time I showed up at her house with or without my little boys. I saw how happy it made her to see me and how far she came to be with me. I sat on that train and remembered the long dazzling years of her health and sobriety. I gave thanks for the hours of travel I’d taken on to savor a seafood extravaganza for my middle boy’s 24th birthday, just to have time together. And the tram floats along the track. Soon, Mom gets on and sits down next to me. She takes my hand and presses it to her heart. We sit quietly as roads and fields turn to old stone walls and a castle comes into view on the hillside.

edinburgh coffee

Night Heron

                       Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                 tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

         to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.

--Jake Adam York, from “Letter Already Broadcast into Space”

 

The more I write, the more I wish Jake York were still here. Jake died six years ago this December, felled by a stroke during a holiday party. He was 40, a phenomenal teacher, and a gifted poet.

About a decade before he died, the husband and I sat with Jake in our back yard as late summer dusk fell around our shoulders. While we talked about Jake’s new apartment and his fall classes, a large bird flew overhead. Its white wings darkened to gray at their tips, and its head and beak were inked in black.  What kind of bird is that? Jake asked.

It’s a night heron, I answered. They nest in City Park, just a few blocks away. Night herons are larger and more serious looking than seagulls, and, to my eye, they have some of the ferocity of a bald eagle. But their flight is unique–stillness in motion, a seamless defiance of night herongravity. Determined.

Jake loved jazz, and he loved barbecue. Once, after a brief conversation about music, he stopped by our house with a compact disc of “A Love Supreme,” along with a carefully typed document entitled “How to Listen to John Coltrane”.  Jake savored every meal we shared with him and was horrified by the husband’s rushed gustatory habits. He once offered an admonishment in his baritone drawl, almost preacher-like:  Brad, I do believe you don’t know how to pleasure yourself with food. In this week of feasting gratitude, read Jake’s beautiful poem, Grace, here, “because meals are memorials that teach us how to move.” And his poem, Abide, here, because we can never know how long love’s light has traveled to reach us.

Jake’s poem Letter Already Broadcast into Space, printed on one of his memorial fliers, is tucked in the back of my notebook. I keep a stanza from a Kahil Gibran poem in the same notebook. It asks:

What is it to work with love?

It is to change all things with a breath of your own spirit

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you

and watching.

Rejection, and Cursing the Drought

The more I write, the more rejection emails I receive. I feel a keen joy hearing back from editors who have read something I wrote closely enough to turn it down. My longest and most kindly-worded “no thanks” came from Brevity Magazine for the time-sensitive, thrice rejected piece below. (Four rejections for this one, if you count the deafening–and understandable–silence from a Colorado on-line newspaper that prints personal essays.)

Thanks, as always, for reading! Please do subscribe via email, post a comment, or just go on quietly with your day. I’ll be here writing and submitting and writing some more.

Cursing the Drought

Summer solstice wind rushes over the roof of our South Park cabin as the husband sleeps. I lie in bed and worry; there will be a fire soon, and it will be bad. On the carpet, our poodle Nyx has a bad dream—she whines and twitches. The wind calms, but before I can drift off to sleep, I suddenly overheat. The searing sensation moves through my lower back and climbs the knobs of my spine until it reaches the base of my skull. A florescent light flicks on in my head. Nighttime hot flashes are like sleeping on a soft electric skillet with a broken switch.

I curse the drought and demand rain.

In the morning, sunlight pounds the field where wildflower buds have hardened into dismal husks. So goes my mood. Seething wind chases me from room to room and chair to chair. Writing outside is impossible—the paper words blow away. I re-latch windows and sit on the bed, my jaw clenched, willing the gusts to stop and water to fall from the sky. But the rain won’t land. Stingy clouds drop only enough moisture to dampen dust into tiny mud balls. Brown splotches land on the deck and windows.

I curse the drought. I demand rain. I glower at the heavens.

June 29th, a spire of white smoke lifts straight into the sky just south of our place. I call 911. The operator tells me that if the fire is up toward Weston Pass, it’s been burning since yesterday. She sounds relaxed. We watch as helicopter-wasps buzz over the fire, fire for blog 2dropping mammoth buckets of liquid. Soon, hot air moves fast from the west, and the smoke darkens and reddens. I put down my binoculars and step out the back door, determined not to watch, not to worry. Nyx sniffs the air and refuses to walk with me, panting in the shade as a gust rattles dry aspen leaves. I go watch again:  the smoke has become its own swirling black hillside as desiccated conifers combust. We throw our bags into the car and drive back to Denver.

Rain, dammit, rain! I curse. I complain.

The internet offers a photo of the Weston Pass Fire, red flames licking through doomed trees as Jones Hill is consumed.  The fire took two hours to grow from a 50-acre lightning strike to a 1500-acre inferno. Two days later, it triples in size. It doubles yet again the following week, topping out at over 13,000 acres. Our cabin is just outside the mandatory evacuation zone, in a defensible field without evergreen. But I am obsessed with worry. I check the website hourly, day after day. I hate my privileged self-absorption, and I hate my helplessness. I don’t sleep. I can’t cry.

Here’s what happens when your prayer for rain becomes a profane demand: a bit of helpful moisture lands on the fire, but it brings with it a rare high-country tornado. Your peaceful retreat becomes a news video of a funnel cloud touching down in the middle of a raging wildfire.

Here’s the other thing that happens when the afternoon monsoons finally return:  the rain falls in torrents, and rocky mudslides block recently re-opened roads. But the fire is contained—we return in time to see the firefighters’ trailer-camp being towed away. The helicopters fly off into a wet afternoon sky. All summer, the air holds a gauzy curtain of haze from hundreds of western fires. Thirteen thousand acres burned in the local forest I love; a million and a half acres are scorched in California.

Walking near our cabin in August, I am startled by the sight of a white mushroom the size of a bowling ball. I sleep again, and I wake one morning to watch a herd of elk grazing green shoots. A burst of yellow appears at the top of an aspen. In September, more hot wind chases the rains away. Taking in our view on the fall equinox, I see the burn scar without flinching. I want it to snow this winter, but I request it gently, without cursing or demands. I know the heating planet will outlive me. Today, I’ll write in peace and hope to leave something good behind.