Death by Butterfly

In Staunton State Park, a haven of hiking and biking trails near Conifer, Colorado, Elk Creek becomes Elk Falls in one precipitous cliff dive. Smooth dirt trail winds through majestic evergreens, then transitions to connected squares of hewn rock swirled through with reds and grays, as if from an artist’s brush. Expertly etched into the hillside, the trail is wide as a sidewalk and rides like a dream. On a recent Sunday, I gripped my handlebars and pushed hard into my pedals, then relaxed to coast a gentle downhill with stunning views.

Suddenly, my mountain panorama was bisected by the dazzled flight of a butterfly. It floated upward and to my left, shimmering with the bright yellow of fleeting summer. My inner five-year-old sang out, Butterfly! Look! Ooh! Beautiful!  My front tire was instantly way too close to the edge, but a surge of adrenalin powered my handlebars up and my left foot down, preventing a gritty shoulder grind into the trail. A no-fall wake-up call.

Oh, the perils of daydreaming—that creative drift so essential to a writing life, and so perilous to life on the trail. The more I write, the more awake I am; conversely, the less I write, the less connected I seem to be to the world and what I am doing in it. If I’m not working making things, all the biking in the world won’t bring me focus or peace of mind. This has been my lesson of mid-summer.

In my notebook and on my bike saddle, I ask, Am I here yet? Trying to gauge whether I’ve dumped my distractions and self-criticisms sufficiently to have a date with creativity. On the bike, I instruct myself aloud: Right here, Right now!

On downhill rocks or in writing slumps an uncluttered mind offers the body a chance to do what the busy mind can’t conceive.

A few days after my near-death by lepidoptera, I get another, gentler, wake up call. Near our cabin is a short, steep forest road that I use as a timed fitness test, challenging myself—obsessively this year–to shave five or ten seconds off the quad-burning climb.  Today, the husband asks me, Are we busting your personal record today? And I tell him, Nope. Today, I’m going to see how slowly I can ride it.

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Another day, another trail

I switch gears and steer a wide arc to avoid smushing a caterpillar that lumbers blindly across the dirt road. Last year, with drought everywhere and wildfires not far off, I don’t remember seeing a single caterpillar. But now, a small white butterfly ambles from right to left in front of my tire and slips through the spokes of my slowly turning wheel. I keep this insect-friendly pace and look left and right as I make the steep climb. I see for the first time how a flower-filled meadow is shaped like an arrow, pointing down toward the light-layered hills of South Park. My slowed breath scents wild rose mixed with pine, as if a mountain-sized flower has just opened all around me. Life after death by butterfly.

May Stillness

It’s a three-season week in Denver—technically spring but with a recent day close to 80 degrees and snow in the forecast for tomorrow. Above my back-yard fence, recently unfurled aspen leaves touch each other in surprise, too soft to make a sound as the breeze floats their fresh green in slow cirlces. The fountain tinkles water into the bird bath, and a bee buzzes past—a cliché of this season I can’t resist. The goddess Nyx, regal in her shimmering black coat, steps dainty paws onto the mulch behind the blooming crab-apple. She eats a blade of grass then retreats to the shade of the house.

The sun over my left shoulder tosses shadows from my damp curls onto my notebook paper. If I look inside the dark loops scattered across the page, rather than at them, I see moon shapes and slices of pie. I tilt my head, and bright oblong footballs give way to a constellation of marbles, light circles planets plopped onto a newly discovered cosmos. Half a block away, a chainsaw jets raw noise into the stillness, and suddenly the magical universe of miniature shapes becomes just shadows on paper.

Dogs bark next door. My hand moves over the page, determined to find dreamy stillness again.

nyx

The hundred-year-old maple across 24th Avenue has only the faintest green on its twig tips. With age comes caution. The mass of its old trunk holds as much wood as five of these quaking aspens, with their heart shaped leaves. The sun heats my arms into beaches and sandbars. On goes the chainsaw, then off again. Vroom.  Quiet. VRROOM. Into one lull drops the click of a fence latch as another neighbor steps into her yard. A mourning dove coos, supplicant and charming.

The more I write, the more I appreciate the variety of stillness and interruption in all of my favorite places. Peaceful mountain meadows erupt into thunder claps, or into the  rattle of disturbed grasshoppers. The loud stare of a moose stops quiet thought faster than any city siren. She might as well be yelling as your eyes meet on the muddy road: I will bash you. Just give me an excuse.

City quiet, though, is especially rare, an almost inner hush as traffic sounds and background rumbles miraculously cease. The multitude of neighborhood children all sigh into contemplation at once, daydreaming in unison. An hour west, the mobbed spring ski hill also silences unexpectedly. As the crowd swishes down a popular run and the chairlift creaks overhead, I take one short turn toward that pair of pines, and a celestial mute button silences everything but pure light, inside and out. In high volume motion closer to home, as I cycle next to a tumbling creek, perfect silence descends, startling as the cry of a blue jay in this sunny back yard.

A squirrel clacks and squawks at me from the top of the magnolia. Its tail twitching over its head, it spends its outrage then offers a friendlier noise from low in its rodent throat, its contrite little heart telling a story all its own. The chatter of the world meets my determination to making something in stillness–despite or in harmony with this creative symphony of interruption.

Will I learn to listen to the noise and the quiet? I crave motion and distraction as much quiet contemplation. I fall in love with the messy world all over again in the spring, my attention leap-frogging to the next season. It’s easy to be infatuated with summer when it’s not here yet, roasting both city and forest. It’s easy to be happy now, as a white butterfly slips through the holly-spikes of the mahonia bush laden with blooms. I marvel at the tender clematis vine threading itself into the air above the fecund earth. Yesterday’s heat has singed the late tulip petals and sent the hyacinth into retreat, but I’m in love, falling into spring with all of the irrational anti-gravity of romantic bliss.

A baby cries across the fence, his first warm season begun. In my house, the husband clatters a baking sheet into a drawer, jarring yet more sound to me through the open window. Voices take up conversation in the front yard. I crank open the green umbrella for shade, but keep the right half of my body in the white-hot light.

Spending it All

Down Elk Creek Road from the Buck Snort Saloon and a few miles outside Pine, Colorado, the North Fork of the South Platte River winds its way toward a popular mountain biking area known as Buff Creek. (What fun hog has time to say Buffalo when they can say Buff, after all?) This recreation mecca offers over fifty miles of flowing trails that roll through historic burn areas and offer views of the Continental Divide, or that meander in lush creek-fed forests. The Baldy Trail scoops riders over granite humps and tours them under the hat-shaped dome named Little Scraggy.  For me, the place is a reminder of how my riding life overlaps the writing life.

On a recent mBuff creek in backgroudorning, I stood in the Buff Creek parking lot with a group of very fit mountain bikers–mostly women and mostly racers. My friend Mary—gregarious, blonde, and seriously strong–made introductions. This is Jenny-Lynn. She is an amazing writer, she said. Even when spoken clearly, rider and writer sound almost identical, so I quickly clarified that my kind friend was talking about writing, and that, as a rider, I would do my best to not slow down the group. Seriously, don’t wait for me, I said. I’ll be fine.

As I chugged behind them all up the Nice Kitty trail, four miles of climbing through switchbacks and over small rocks, I felt an old temptation to conserve my energy, to hold back my breath and power. I answered it out loud: Spend it, Jenny-Lynn, spend it!  I’d read an Annie Dillard comment some time ago that also fits the bike riding life: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” She goes on to say, “These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.” Athletic and creative efforts share this trait of filling from below, I remembered, as I caught sight of Mary at the top of the hill. She’d had enough time to adjust a setting on her bike and have a leisurely snack while the group waited for me to arrive, red-faced and sweaty.

I have fought a temptation to hoard my stories, to save the most compelling or difficult ones until later. On a bike, I hear the same fearful voice advising me to hold back, to save my legs for another section or for another day. But strength and suppleness do fill from below—we need to empty ourselves over and over, to spend the spins of the wheel, to tell the stories as best we can right now, every all-out effort making us more generous, freer spenders.

Don’t save it, I remind myself, go, go, go. Pursue the conversation with the novelist, brave the anxiety of the workshop class, schedule a coaching session even though—or precisely because—the story you are grappling with is bringing up spend-able tears.

I’ll squander copious gratitude now on my “Getting it Done” pomodoro method teacher, Mark Springer and his Fiction Unbound portal into the world of speculative fiction.  And joyful appreciation to my neighbor and bike-repair consultant, Josh Mattison, who gathers the voices of Colorado’s creative community on his Denver Orbit podcast and always has a kind word. Always. Congratulations galore to Joy Roulier Sawyer, compassionate teacher and beautiful poet, for her recent Pushcart Prize nomination. Check out her new book, Lifeguards. Kudos as well to  Dreamers Magazine (the kind Canadians who published my  essay, I Don’t Speak Icelandic) for their recent inclusion in Reedsy’s list of the best magazines of 2018.

Sweet trail and rewarding narrative to one and all!

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.”

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/

 

 

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)