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)

How Not to be Depressed

Don’t tell anyone. Smile through it and look okay. Put on mascara while wishing you were asleep again. To not be depressed, tell it to stop, even though you know that fighting only feeds the long shadows. To not be depressed, stop crying every day, just stop.

Or try this. Try telling it in words. Try writing it out as clearly as you read out a favorite poem, as slowly as you search a lover’s face. Try lacing up its shoes while it sits on the bottom step, late for school, again. Try telling it You don’t have to go. You can stay here, while remembering with every breath:  this is not me. This may not have me.

On Thanksgiving, try sitting up and letting a shaft of morning sun hover your pen over the page. With a lump in your throat, watch the light land on the coverlet. Trace its brilliance across the wrinkles of blue fabric heaped around your knees.

Try spinning in reverse up a hill you coasted down in summertime.

Try not caring. Then, tell the weight that heaves inside your chest and marbles onto your belly to be welcome, to have another cookie.

To not be depressed, do not see the fur of the cat standing needle bright in that same ray of sunshine. Slow your breath to the pace of the dog’s dark rib cage, and imagine inside its cave the pure beating of her heart. Accept that one day she will die, and you will die, and the planet will die. And today? Today. Today’s mug of coffee rests on the winter belly. Today’s fresh notebook sits wrapped in cellophane with her sisters, three sets of blank pages sealed together. Try cutting through the clear plastic, pulling one away, and beginning.

To not be depressed, think of calling the kind therapist of decades, but don’t. Think about sleeping through the afternoon dusk. But don’t. Think I understand why people give up. But don’t. Don’t give up.

IMG_9730Stand near a sunny window and look at the succulent jade. Think of your mother, and try shopping. See her lines on your face. Love them into deeper grooves.

Try remembering that you might miss this depression when it’s gone. You may long for this very morning, and crave the comfort of warm animals on your bed.

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.