Early fall midnight at ten thousand feet, and a lot is happening. The stars are out. Their glimmers make me sit up and put my glasses on, then stand and look into the night at the half-circle of changing aspen. An owl is also wide awake and who-who-who’ing. I’ve never seen this owl, but my mind’s eye tracks her season after season. I lie down again and listen hard. After all, it’s not as if I can really expect to really sleep, anyway.
A few who-who’s later, I drift off, then wake to a soft mammalian whistle. What animal is making this snurfling sound. Elk? An elusive bobcat? Ah, just the husband’s breath, sighing him in and out of a dream. My favorite animal, this man who, like me, will one day take a last breath, and maybe in this very cabin. A wakeful thought, that.
And a part-time job, this sleeping, and not sleeping.
I move to the couch at 4 and stargaze, waking to the whoosh of moving water. I think, rain, rain, rain! and am dunked in gratitude. Alas, only the coffee maker gurgling, telling me it is 5:30, officially morning. I close my eyes again.
Then. Three women doing dishes in semi-darkness. I pick up a big ceramic bowl and see a hefty toad there—lumpy, wide-eyed, and miraculously ugly. I lift the bowl and walk to the door. I want to set him free, but his container is empty. I understand the toad will be back. All I need to do is keep his water fresh. Later, this writing dream has me christen a fresh black notebook Toad. My pen drops blue ink on page after page. I remember, and deeply, the stillness and clarity of the silent creature and the harmony of the night-time women. Doesn’t a dream sometimes cross over into a prayer?
A month later, flakes fall fast in the city, where I write under a down comforter, struggling to stay awake after a solid night’s sleep. This old house is full. I can almost hear my young people all breathing the hush of their own dreams. All the beautiful ins and outs, all of the dreaming that will go on after me.
Mile markers slide past the passenger window on a June morning. Colorado. Nebraska. Nebraska some more. A bit more Nebraska. The husband and I unwind memories of the first time we drove to the Indiana Dunes together. We marvel at the year that a full moon rose over central Illinois as three little boys shared the back seat, a big white poodle spread out across their laps. Thirty-plus years of road trips, of picking rest areas and sharing stories. At dusk, the rolling hills of Iowa glow with summer’s deepest greens and warmest yellows.
Above Lake Michigan’s white sand beach, we sleep in the small downstairs space still called “Nanny’s apartment” decades after her passing. In the 1940’s, she and my Grandpa fell in love with this spot, set back on a small hill above the lake’s southern shore. My grandparents drove from their home in Norwood Park with my father and his seven sisters. Everyone who could helped carry groceries or building supplies a half mile down the beach. Three generations later, their descendants take turns sharing this memory-soaked refuge. We park our air-conditioned cars only two flights of wooden stairs above the back door. On these three longest days of the year, the water is cold and the weather blistering; we lie awake at night until the lake breeze cools us, shushing us to sleep with the murmur of small waves.
We drive on to Washington DC, where I was born and where my adored niece is getting married. At a picnic by the Anacostia River, Icelanders meet Israelis meet Canadians; Coloradans chat with Iowans and hug Marylanders. A band offers up some Stevie Wonder, some Lizzo, and I want never to stop dancing. As the musicians pack up their instruments, I step briefly into Icelandic with my sister-in-law, with my niece and nephew. Soon, sitting at an ice cream shop, we see the groom walk slowly past, shoulder to shoulder with his father. They are speaking quietly in Hebrew, the love between them a near-palpable glow.
On Sunday, I arrange lilies and mums, baby’s breath and daisies into five big vases for the reception. I wind white peonies together into a bouquet. Reader, will I surprise you when I say the bride is beautiful beyond beautiful? That the Rabbi is wise? That we cry and we laugh and we dance?
I hug sisters and nephews and a newly married woman goodbye. Thanks to my own husband’s pandemic-delayed fellowship in Connecticut, I drive back to Indiana alone. At a quiet hotel in Ohio, I stretch out for a long, unbroken sleep. This, almost certainly, is where bloodthirsty battalions of bedbugs conquer wide swaths of territory: my right shoulder, my belly, the tender tip of my big toe. As often happens, only days later, when the bites begin to itch and swell, will I know that anything happened at all.
I stake out three days to write at a BNB near the Dunes cottage, determined to work out my book’s outline–the confounding, dreaded, avoided outline. I sit and sit and I sit. I drive to the grocery store to pick out mauve and teal and yellow sticky notes. I have lunch. I sit down to color code my outline, then give up. The weight of discouragement behind my eyes is too thick for tears.
On the third day, I sit down to work on my outline in the three columns suggested by my teacher: Icelandic, Mamma, The Body. I stare at the columns until they make sense. I stick scenes under the headings, clustering them into sections. I keep going.
I read outside at dusk and marvel at how many mosquito bites I can get without a single buzzing in my ear. Overnight, I am awakened by itching that will not stop until I get home to Denver, where an urgent care doctor will prescribe turbo-charged steroid cream and nuclear-powered antihistamine.
But first, I hear that my baby cousin is at the Dunes cottage. I sit on the shaded deck as a group of relatives settle in on the beach. “Excuse me,” says a voice from on high. My baby cousin looks down at me through a screened window, her girl face stern as she asks who I am. I would know her anywhere, her confidence and brightness, my father’s bright blue eyes. I tell her who I am and add, “You look just like J!” “That’s because I am her daughter” comes the serious reply. I know, of course, that this is the baby of my baby cousin, but I am still startled by the passage of time. I play in the lake with her little sister, tossing back and forth a plastic pony she has named Sunshine.
Sitting on the sand, I contemplate a line of three red bites on my shin. The “breakfast-lunch-dinner” pattern of bed bug bites gives me a sickening jolt that is immediately squashed by stiff denial. Alone, I drive west, trying not to scratch the clump of welts on my shoulder. Five hours later, passing Des Moines, a strip of hives rises on my arm in threes.
Anxious and anxiouser, I call my cousin, my BnB hostess, a bedbug specialist. Sorry and sorrier, I drive on, refusing to stop in another hotel. I fine-tune my strategy to keep the monsters out of our house and to roast any car-lurkers with the heat of a 100-degree day.
Rain lets up with just an hour more to drive. Suddenly, the burnt orange sun breaks free below a bank of turquoise clouds. My heart calms as I breathe in the richness of this Colorado sky like no other. To the east, a massive double rainbow domes the prairie, pulsing higher and wider as the sun sinks below the horizon. And I am gentled. I am welcomed home.
A December email from Alisa Golden, editor at Star 82 Review. She wrote: “Yes. I love it.” An acceptance! Da, da, da da DAH da da!! I skipped through the dining room, past the Christmas Fern, singing the I Love Lucy theme song.
Kiddo, kiddo, kiddo! I chirped to my grown son as he came down the stairs. I caught my breath and announced: I got an acceptance from a magazine I’ve submitted to five times!
Way to wear them down, Mom! Funny man.
Not really. I just had to send her something good. In fact, I’d submitted to Star 82 Review not five, but eight times, over three years. After seven kind rejections in a row, I feel lucky the editor opened the last submission. Rejections pile up over time, of course, given my determination to keep sending things out. This time, I made the cut. It feels good.
I will try to do at least one slow, celebratory twirl when the next “thanks but no thanks” hits my in-box. Like all the others, it will remind me that I’m committed to the process, with its rare orchestral celebrations and its long fallow periods. Meanwhile, the publication of Beginning of the End of the Dream Job is a lovely reminder that the more I write, slowly but surely, the better I write.
Wherever I am, every day is a tug-of-war between cranky anxiety and inner peace. It’s more than quiet here, the husband says, as dawn lands in shining patches atop the Buffalo Peaks. We watch from the cabin couch as pink sky brightens to clear blue. December already. We’ve been kept away from this sanctuary for many weeks by his bruised ribs–mountain biking giveth and mountain biking taketh away–and by my lingering bronchitis. We’ve missed these wide-open views and sheltering circles of aspen. Even in this retreat, the quiet morning harmony is not guaranteed to last, not if I’m involved.
In November, I went to DC and to Connecticut, soaking up time with some of my favorite people. One day, my morning Course in Miracles lesson is “Let all things be exactly as they are.” This message speaks directly to my perfectionism, my hyper-criticality and impulse to control. So I do it: I let all things be exactly as they are. I sit up in bed and breathe deeply, cradling my cup of coffee like a chalice. Yes, I will remember this one. This one is perfect, my mind crows. And then. And then: other people, the news, bronchial irritation. I am annoyed by not having slept well, bothered by how quickly my caffeine high fades. I write a little, but hate the sentences I produce, then I scan the headlines and seethe. What ails these politicians? Why do people make the simplest things so hard? My jaw clenches as I wonder if I will ever sleep without a cough again. A typical morning–basking in serene intentions at dawn, then falling flat on my spiritual face by nine am.
Setting my notebook aside, I drive along streets overhung with fiery maple and birch leaves to the Cornerstone Athletic Club in West Hartford. I sigh with pleasure as I lower myself into the hot tub. I relax. Then a slender young woman, blonde hair cropped short, annoys me. In response to an older man’s question, she says My ballet background informs my yoga teaching. Just two people making friendly conversation. I blend Yoga and Astrology and Art, she says. Oh, please! I think. I fight down the disdain, the eye roll at all things new age. This person needs to just stop: stop being so young, so well-rested, so graceful and sure of herself. Oops. Then I remember: let all things be exactly as they are.
I shake my head at myself and plunge into a deep swim lane dappled with sunlight. Quickly, the sheath of warmth cloaking my body dispels. I move through cool quiet, watching bubbles form under my fingernails as I push my hands forward. There is no quiet like underwater quiet, no view like underwater sunlight. My jumpy mind stills, and on I go. Back and forth in the pool, back and forth between my wandering thoughts and my steady beating heart. Every day, I set peaceful intentions, then forget that serenity exists.
Today, I meditate and look at the mountains. I write a sentence I don’t hate. I breath in the beauty, then criticize my privileged self-indulgence. Back and forth, back and forth. Even quiet that is more than quiet doesn’t guarantee peace. And while I’m deep into my post-religion adult life, I can’t help think of an illiterate Jewish peasant, his egalitarianism so threatening to the authorities that he was murdered, his calls for justice and connection so compelling that his friends somehow kept his story alive. I’ll go up to the mountains (forgive, forgive, forgive), down into the water (back and forth, back and forth). I’ll do the small things I can for my loved ones, for strangers. And as I used to sing in church every Sunday, I will ask: let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Japanese beetles are iridescent green, shiny–and beautiful. I admire the engineering genius in the strong grip of their tiny claws and the protective shell of their winged backs. I murder them because they feast on all my favorite garden plants: Virginia Creeper vines become laced skeletons; rose and hibiscus blooms are hollowed out before they can unfurl. Day after day for three summers running, I killed the destructive fliers by the hundreds–shaking them into drowning bowls of soapy water.
This summer was bountiful, disorienting, and full of noxious invaders. Covid 19 seemed to be exiting stage left while we adjusted to socializing and the smiles of strangers, then—well, you know that story. Between visits from long-missed friends and during breaks from clouds of wildfire smoke, I was on the couch or on a bicycle. My write-ride-repeat summer plan quickly became a ride, read-a-little, ride-some-more reality. Then all of a sudden, there was snow on the deck, and I hadn’t written in what seemed like forever.
I had fought a losing battle with hungry beetles in the city, and with noxious knapweed in Fairplay. Knapweed is a thistle that sprouts in soft green tufts in the spring only to morph into two-foot high shrubs holding hundreds of needle-sharp seed heads. It has been my enemy roughly since the time that my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was around the same time that my mother was dying. My therapist then heard a lot about knapweed. And she once asked me to say out loud the names of each person I loved who had died over the previous eighteen months. I only made it to four, about half way, before losing track and crying. But I pulled a lot of knapweed that year, grateful for one thing that I could destroy back.
This August, while I was obsessing about beetles and knapweed instead of writing, Sunlight Press published an essay of mine that included more about bipolar disorder in our family than I’d written before. Encouraged by the journal’s editor, and with the full blessing of my son, I connected the dots between my mother’s illnesses, my own first major depression, and my son’s bipolar diagnosis. (Have a look if you missed my post about it on Facebook: https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2021/08/22/colfax-and-monroe/).
The more I write, the more I learn to write about (if not publish about) the hardest things. I step into those memories and experiences not out of self-pity, but because they are the truest stories I have. They help anchor me to my current happiness, providing contrast, expanding my gratitude. Maybe those stories also have the most potential to help others.
I chose to become a therapist many years ago because I wanted to be part of transformational conversations, and to be genuinely helpful. Maybe I was most helpful on days that I felt like a failure in my own life, when I was blind to the generational patterns that look so obvious in retrospect. Maybe the counseling I offered on days when I showed up to work confident and energized were my least helpful days in the profession. Possibly, the days I needed to cry in the parking lot for an hour before I could walk into my office were my days of most lasting service to clients.
No shining cosmic memo will tell me that something I did as a therapist or wrote since that time made a real difference to another person. But, like the genuine practice of psychotherapy, a genuine writing practice shifts me away from my petty, narcissistic side and toward a vision of a better world. Beetles and knapweed and bipolar and all. Looking deeply inside ourselves and telling the truth about what we find there, is, I believe, inherently healing. And the more I write, the more of that I want.
So what are you working on today? My writing friend asks over zoom the other morning. Oh, I’m working on my shame list. You know, things I’ve been hating on myself about, just a couple of small things that I can get done. The list had two items: re-post the Dunes memoir essay that had gone out via email but not “stuck” to the blog site, and write for ten minutes about the weather. Notebook weather reports are a “way in” when I’ve not been writing, my word boat becalmed. The currents of a reopening world pulled me into travel and bike rides; the weeds in my garden begged to be pulled before the heat of the days set in.
That recent morning, though, I managed to repost the essay and write these sentences in my notebook (lightly revised—I’m compulsive that way):
The weather is so hot! The sun beats down from an ozone sky, orange sunrise bakes the back yard by 7:30. Hot light seeps in through the edges of the kitchen blinds and bounces off the shine of the counter top. Weather is what happens outside but it feels personal. It feels like an assault, this heat, like a pummel. Like someone is holding a magnifying glass between the city and the sun. And soon the dot of magnified heat will move to a dry stick west of here and the conflagration of parched forests will begin.
End of writing day. Two things are marked off the shame list, but self-loathing remains.
The next day, after not writing at all, I text my friend, I’ve been feeling mildly brain dead on couches. Maybe it’s a mood thing or ozone pollution or not having a job? Or just something to wait out? Blech. And then, Maybe it’s Covid. Maybe it’s menopause. Maybe it’s Maybelline! I hug a blue couch pillow and say to the husband, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. He laughs, familiar with my dark side. We both know that his patient laugh is medicine.
I start to text that same sentence to my same friend, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. Suddenly, I’m afraid of how depressed, even suicidal it sounds. I’m not depressed, I add to my text, or suicidal, but I appreciate that you would ask meif you thought I might be. I delete the text—it feels like too much. I wrap my arms around the pillow and roll over on my left. I think about failure. If I hug this pillow long enough, I ask the husband, will I start to feel like a person again? His response, so admirably calm: Probably.
I don’t want to be a mood ball. I look at my ups and downs and wish I were different, wish I were steadier, more reliable and responsible. When I can see my moods dispassionately, I appreciate their relative mildness. I wrote here a while back about how I never “qualified” for a bipolar diagnosis, which is true. But over the years, I qualified for plenty: General Anxiety Disorder (my therapist at the time found this diagnosis less stigmatizing than PTSD), and my two post-partum depressions were officially Major Depressions. All this before the genetically-driven family pattern of bipolarity became clear.
When I’m down, every small thing feels effortful. Not doing my laundry makes me sad, makes me ashamed. But I can’t put my whole neurology on the shame list. Because, really, there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a human with a messy and beautiful brain. Almost everyone has felt this way at some point. If you feel this way today, I salute your ability to feel, to be exactly as you are, right now.
Still, I hear my mother’s critical voice telling me I am spoiled and lazy, lazy and spoiled. And I may be spoiled and lazy, but I’m not bad or wrong or morally flawed for losing time to moods. I say this today. Two days ago, I felt unworthy of personhood.
Whatever shame said to me that afternoon, I was able to kiss the couch goodbye for an hour and ride my bike under trees clothed in baby-leaf green. I was able to feel sweat gather at the ends of my hair, and to stop for breath while looking at clear sky. I came home feeling better, tired in a different way. This morning that sky is indeed smudged with smoky haze from distant wildfires. And this morning, I’m writing again. Shame be damned.
Thanks to them, and thanks to all of you for your kindness as I slowly build my writing skills, which I couldn’t do without the blog’s self-imposed, twice monthly deadlines (loosely enforced as they are). More important, the rewarding jolt of attention from you, dear reader, makes my inner four-year-old very happy.
My adult self, meanwhile, has been drawing inspiration from my biking life. Several years ago, I stood in a friend’s driveway as he chatted with his neighbor about the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, a grueling hundred-mile, high altitude suffer fest. Registered for the race, he told us With two little kids and a job, I have no time to really train. But I’m not worried. I have a deep base. He’d raced in Leadville before, and spent years grinding out impressive mileage. I heard from my friend that his neighbor finished the Leadville 100 in only nine hours. For weeks we riffed about the deep base. I could ride that again, no problem. I’ve got a deep base. Writing muscles, like leg muscles, must be worked, then worked again, each repetition contributing to that under-girding structure.
The more I write, the more I realize that my writing base has only begun to be built. I wish it weren’t so. I wish the habit of writing was as ingrained as the pressure of my feet on bike pedals and the instinctive turn of my eye to the top of the rise. It took me years to learn the simple truth that the trick to riding all the way up a steep hill is to not get off the bike. The secret to writing, in the inimitable words of Annie Lamott, is to simply stop not writing. Get and keep your butt in chair. But I’ve been mountain biking—with a few lulls—for over twenty years. And I’ve been writing for only a few.
Well before the pandemic reared its ugly head, I struggled to keep consistent writing hours. And I agonize over finishing pieces. Self-criticism screams at me to stop, but I am learning to roll my eyes at myself and just keep going. I only learned to stay on my bike on those climbs after I realized how hard it is to get back on it, to re-gain purchase on a gravelly incline is more work than slogging slowly along. I made a commitment to write because the satisfaction of making something beautiful has no equal.
I’ll have my deep base as a writer, eventually. The only way to fail at this is to stop and not start again. I may not be the most ambitious or self-disciplined person in the world, but I don’t know anyone more stubborn. My impatience and dis-tractability mask a mean resolve. I’ll keep pedaling. I’ll blog imperfectly, submit relentlessly, and take class after class. Every hour in the chair will be another mite of progress building that elusive base.
After being cooped up too long with a cold, looking out at a brown Denver January, I drank coffee and quickly skimmed my email. The day was set aside for writing, to get one revision closer to finishing a stalled essay I’d started two years earlier. My brown backpack leaned heavily against the back door as I scanned my messages. Joy! A powder alert from Arapahoe Basin ski area! My favorite playground had gotten six inches of snow overnight, and ten inches in the prior twenty-four hours. I threw my skis into the car and tucked a small notebook into my pocked. It would be a different kind of writing day than I had planned.
I drove west on 1-70 and an hour later crested Loveland Pass, where blue sky outlined the majestic ridges of the Continental Divide. In the hundreds of times I’ve seen that 360-degree panorama, it never looks the same. With every fresh look, it stalls my anxious thoughts, deepening my breath from chest to belly.
Two hours after leaving the house, I was on the two-seat Pallavacini lift. Below me, expertly curled powder tracks on steep rocky terrain; above me, shafts of sunlight on sparkling evergreen boughs. I skimmed along the aptly named Cornice run with its views of the Ten Mile Range, then made my way to the Loafer trail. Powder flowed over the top of my ski boots as I glided through the widely spaced tree trunks along its flank. I stopped and angled my skis against the slope to look uphill, where a dark band of boulders offered a bounty of snow back up to the open sky.
Heavy with a story I yearned to tell well, I soon ascended the Beavers lift and made my way to a tiny restaurant named Il Refugio, a sanctuary at 12,000 feet above sea level. Resting my tired legs, I drank tea slowly, and started to write—again–about that time in my life when I hovered between the wisdom of innocence and the scarring messages of a shame-based culture.
As I wrote, Frank Sinatra crooned out of a hidden speaker, You make me feel so young! You make me feel there are songs to be sung. I looked out at the view and smiled at the sleight of hand that is time, the healing refuge that is beauty.
Galway Kinnell’s slim poetry volume, When One has Lived a Long Time Alone was Printed by Knopf in 1990. Tracy L. Katzel—or someone else—tossed her copy in the dumpster behind my house over twenty years ago. Her signature slopes across the inside cover in faded blue ink. I found my first book of Kinnell’s poetry atop a pile of trash at a time in my life when I was a stay at home mom who didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I knew how privileged I was to have the option of delaying finding a paying job, but I was also afraid of claiming a more defined life of my own. Overwhelmed, I was lost in the tedium and the transcendence of raising three boys.
I soon memorized a poem by Kinnell titled “Prayer”: Whatever happens. Whatever/what is is is what/I want. Only that. But that. I journaled and read Kinnell in the bathroom. I went to therapy and scraped dried playdough off the cracked linoleum of the kitchen floor. Wait, Kinnell writes. You’re tired, we’re all tired, but no one is tired enough, and the need for new love is faithfulness to the old. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, what I loved besides my family life.
I worked part-time for a temp agency, then for a non-profit. I thought about divinity school, but instead chose a graduate program in counseling.
Jotted inside the back cover of my dumpster-found poetry book is a phone number I called to ask for an internship at a substance abuse agency. I was turned down, but called again a few months later and found someone willing to supervise me. That internship became a paid job. I’d gone from wondering what I wanted to stalking goal after goal—a degree, credentials, experience. I savored time with my clients, unwinding their stories together, listening as they engaged with their own heart-held wisdom. Within a few years, I was hired full-time at the university counseling center where I had trained. It was my dream job, with an incredible team. So much waiting, fulfilled.
And then. Then I learned in a different way that dreams come true and change shape and give way to other dreams. Almost five years ago, I stood by my desk with my cell phone pressed against my ear and my pulse racing—another family health crisis, out of the blue. At the same moment, a colleague appeared in the doorway, alerting me that it was time to help our new batch of counseling trainees with role plays. From the middle of my forehead down through my torso, I felt pulled apart. One arm reached toward my office door and the other kept the tearful voice of my loved one pressed to my ear. In that moment, I knew I was leaving that job. At 49, I resigned my position, and began the long round of goodbyes with clients.
I had no plans to write, just a commitment to a more balanced and peaceful life. I savored open days of reading, of geriatric dog care and of waiting for my youngest, a high school senior, to walk in the door. One of my son’s teachers asked me, So, you’re just a housewife now?
I bought a used copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening at the Tattered Cover book store. I’d last read it as an undergraduate and had never forgotten the term “mother-woman,” Chopin’s phrase describing women who offer not just their lives, but their very selves to their children. Caught up in the story of Edna Pontellier coming to her senses, I turned a page and saw a speck of black between the pages, a hard crescent of sunflower seed husk. I smiled at the startling artifact of another reader’s concentration and pleasure.
Kinnell woke me to poetry when I was a mothering woman (if not the self-sacrificing “mother-woman” Chopin disparages). But the desire to write came to me slowly after I left the formal work world. It was consistently fed by those years of reading Galway Kinnell. He died in 2014. A few years later, a hefty tome of his complete works arrived at my door–a gift from a writer friend whom I had told about my dumpster-found treasure. As I wend my way through Kinnell’s body of work, my love for the healing power of words continues to grow.
Whatever what is is, is what I want. Thank you for that prayer, Galway Kinnell. And thank you Tracy L. Katzel, wherever you are.