Of writing & islands; grief & Le Guin

This year started with a week at the ArtSmith residency on Orcas Island. I spent the week writing, reading, thinking about writing, talking about writing, walking in the rain (and the not-rain), and learning more about the work of the other fellows at the residency. It was surprisingly difficult for me to focus on my writing – maybe because I’m so used to having to write in the midst of NYC and all that quiet was daunting. Or maybe it’s because I was forced to confront the intense loss I feel whenever I return “home” to the PNW; even more so as January was one year since my father died. Much of my fiction contains elements of the PNW and its trees, air, water, and particular shades of darkness (and light) hold sway in my imagination in ways other places I’ve lived never will. Some of my work draws from my father’s stories, his family, the spaces and places he lived and it is difficult (if not impossible) for me to separate my nostalgia/longing for the PNW from my grief – both for my father and, always, for my brother whose death in the 1990s was part of the impetus of my family moving away from all those rain-dark days. With the recent death of Ursula K. Le Guin, I’ve been thinking more about her work – how much it meant to me in my earliest reading years and how I continue to come back to her words throughout my adult life. On a visit to Orcas Island Pottery I was struck by how much that place/space seemed to come out of one of Le Guin’s story-worlds. There’s a depth of beauty in her work that I found reflected on the island. How this week of trees and rain and quiet conversation will bleed into my writing this year will prove interesting and, hopefully, fruitful. I’m sending out an odd little short story I wrote one afternoon sitting in the library at ArtSmith’s Kangaroo House. I have no idea if it will find a home but sending it out into the world is a part of a promise I made to myself in January – to write more stories and to risk the sharing of those stories again. It is important to remember Le Guin’s words: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

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writing may not save the world but it might help you feel better

In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, I find it hard to stay focused on the myriad projects with deadlines looming (or already passed). But one thing I learned from those horrible days in september 2001 in NYC when the dust was everywhere and sirens became a part of our daily soundtrack is that there is a way through and for some of us, that way is with words. I write to understand the world. I write to understand myself. And when I can’t understand either, I write because I have to. That may sound pretentious or self-involved (aren’t all humans by nature self-involved?) but I really believe in the healing power of art. For several years I volunteered as a writing workshop facilitator at the Brooklyn Vet Center leading workshops for veterans with PTSD. They didn’t write about combat all that much and (with a very few exceptions) they were positive, mutually supportive and wonderful writers. The opportunity to write with them every week was one of the high points of my writing life. While that workshop ended due to a mixture of organizational dis-organization and my own PTSD making it difficult to take the subway to/from Bklyn every week, I still draw strength from that time spent writing with men and women who have witnessed horrors I will (I hope) never see. To be real, no one is “safe” and there is no such thing as “normalcy” (a word thrown around a lot in the days and weeks after 9/11 in NYC).  But I can’t live life worrying every minute about when the next attack will come. And on those days when I just can’t see how we will ever get through this, how humanity will ever become “humane” on a global scale, I know I can’t do much but what I can do is write. And whether that writing helps anyone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that it helps me: to process rage, sadness, guilt, and confusion. So my advice to you: take some time this week, this month, this year to write, to read, and to write some more. Art does matter. Writing does matter. Even if you are the only person who sees it, it matters.

of shifted sacrums and writing residencies

epiduralImagine your sacrum. Now, imagine you’re a walker/hiker/runner taking your sacrum for granted (as most of us do). Now, imagine your sacrum shifts and suddenly: you can’t walk any distance without pain, you can’t run at all, and hiking is a struggle at best. This past January, I was having severe lower leg pain (anterior tibialis) and stretching and rest didn’t help. I tried for two months to fix the pain on my own. Then I went to my doctor. My doctor sent me to a specialist who sent me to get an MRI. The MRI showed “major issues” including a narrowing of the opening where all the “big nerves” go from the spine down the legs. This narrowing along with a fused vertebrae and a shift in alignment of my sacrum was squeezing my nerves – not dissimilar to sciatica. All my life I’ve lived without back pain or only minor pain easily relieved through stretching and an Advil or two.  I was prescribed a short course of steroids and weekly P.T. Now, five months later, I often can manage my chronic pain and although I walk to & from work every weekday (20 mins across town), sometimes I have to stop and wait for the nerve/muscle pain to subside enough to continue. I still can’t run (doctor’s orders) and this fall’s hiking season may well pass me by. One of the suggested solutions: an epidural injection into the pocket where the nerves are held. I haven’t yet made the decision to do this but I have mountains yet to climb and miles of cities to walk so it’s likely I’ll have no choice. Meanwhile, the time I would love to be spending running and climbing and walking I’ve instead been spending reading, writing, and working toward my Ph.D. Given my work/school/work schedule, I don’t always have the time for my writing that I’d like to have. This summer in addition to taking French 1&2 and two graduate classes, I’ve been writing, editing, and prepping work to be sent out into the world. During this process I saw a notice for a writing & fine arts residency in a “dream” location: Orcas Island (WA State). I pulled some writing together, wrote an application essay and submitted everything right before the final deadline.  Some weeks later, I got the AWESOME news that I was accepted and will be traveling to one of the most beautiful places on the planet this January to do nothing but write and sleep and look at the water. Sometimes good things do happen. Despite or because of wobbly sacrums.

the oncoming onslaught of another semester or, summer’s end

While seemingly most of the city is out of town on vacation, there are those of us who work in Higher Ed who are slogging away at all the myriad tasks that are required for a new college semester to get rolling. Full-time faculty are returning, as are administrative colleagues who were away on research trips. People ask me about my summer. My summer has been spent (mostly) in the city working and aside from one quick jaunt to the Adirondacks planned for Labor Day, is now over.  Next week I head out to the wilds of NJ for my new Ph.D. program’s Orientation & my classes start the day after Labor Day. Meanwhile, my writing suffers. I still write a poem-a-day during the week (sometimes more) but all the stories I started this summer remain in first or second draft – some likely to remain there for months. Sitting with a long-time artist friend over tea this past weekend, I listened to her talk about a documentary film she’s starting and catching up on her various other output (hard cover book of her illustrations, an installation, etc.). On Friday, I met up with two musician friends – one of whom is playing shows as part of a music-inspired-by-books series before heading out on a UK tour. The other has started a small press and is launching her own line of soaps and perfumes while continuing to play live shows and put out a song a week. Both have full-time jobs. Then I think of all the many creative people in this town who talk more about doing creative work than actually doing the work and I find myself happy to have such accomplished friends and hope that their ongoing creative work will give me the kick in the butt I need to finish my wayward stories and send them out before the pressures of maintaining two jobs and a Ph.D. program swallows all my mental energy. There is a plethora of articles (and books) on how women write when they have kids – maybe it’s time someone wrote about how women create while working full-time, part-time and trying to survive one one income in NYC.