Categories
Memoir Writing

Not Just Quiet, But Peace

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.

Categories
biking Memoir Writing

Beetle Murder & Bipolar Disorder

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.

View from an evening ride.
Looking toward Kenosha Pass
Late summer sparkle.

Categories
biking humor Writing

Shame List

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 me if 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.

Before

After

Categories
biking Writing

Publication Number Two!

Down in the Dirt Magazine liked my piece “Nothing Bad Happens” well enough publish it in their May 2020 issue: http://scars.tv/cgi-bin/works_e.pl?/home/users/web/b929/us.scars/perl/text-writings/g8964.txt

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.

Downhill is differently wonderful. Last summer, near Keystone.

Categories
Skiing Writing

Refuge

Inciting Email

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.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Katzel and Kinnell

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.

Returning to work from a funeral to find flowers and love on my office desk.

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?

Geriatric poodle of old.

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.

Categories
biking Writing

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.

img_1118
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.

Categories
Writing

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.

Categories
Writing

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!

Categories
Writing

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.”