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.”
This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.
AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle). But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.
Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.
I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.
When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.
Somehow it’s already October & as I watch deadlines fly by somewhat akin to the leaves blowing off trees, I realize it’s been weeks (months?) since I’ve written a blog post. I could blame the volume of reading I have to do for Grad School “comps” or the hundred manuscripts I have to read or the heavier workload at my “day job” this semester, but really, it’s this “non-writing” thing that’s been happening since August. I’ve gone from writing a “poem-a-day” to maybe one every couple of weeks. I haven’t written a word of fiction since August & the only non-fiction I’m writing is of the academic variety: dry and focused on exposition and argument, not image/character/plot/rhythm. For a while in September, I was creating “erasure” poems from various texts and that was fun but it didn’t stimulate my writing the way I’d hoped it would. Much of my energy these days is focused on keeping up with the workload(s) and getting my body moving again post-surgery. I’ve done a couple of hikes & I’m walking to/from work again most days (about 1.5 miles each way). A walk that can be both freeing and irritating (cars blasting through crosswalks, bicycles on sidewalks/blocking crosswalks/ignoring red lights, tourists, people glued to phones). My commute takes me from the West Village to the East Village and this time of year, everything is decorated for Halloween except the banks & that hideous IBM tower in the midst of Astor Place. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday & this year is no exception. I’ll be celebrating in various ways: a séance at the Merchant’s House Museum, two episodes of Radio Theatre NYC’s HP Lovecraft Festival, and maybe a spooky movie or two. I may even go see The Damned. Every few years I attend the Village Halloween Parade but last year it was such a crowded mess, I’ll likely skip it. There’s something about the season that brings on a certain post-Goth nostalgic-melancholy that is both uncomfortable and oddly pleasurable. I miss dressing up. I miss going to see “scary” bands with my scary Goth friends. But seeing the new Clash-inspired film London Town last night I was reminded of just how dirty, cold, and brutal London was under Thatcher. I lived there at the height of the London Goth scene and while it was a formative year for my very young self & rife with positive new experiences (Joyce’s Ulysses, punk rock/Goth boyfriends, Sisters of Mercy/Virgin Prunes/Nick Cave-Bad Seeds/Neubaten) I also have a strong memory of ALWAYS being cold. Freezing in fact. London was damp and everywhere I lived suffered from poor heating and terrible water pressure (when there was running water). It’s not much different in NYC. Although I have a door that locks, a toilet that (mostly) flushes & a shower that (nearly always) has hot water, and at least an expectation of heat at home and work, I’m still cold. And maybe that’s a lesson I learned all those years ago living in my own version of Halloween Town, all the beautiful words & books & all the loud music in the world won’t keep me warm. Sometimes writing eases that deep, dark cold inside but sometimes it serves only to open another door into that well of nostalgia and melancholy from which much bad poetry emanates. Still, I’ll celebrate the best holiday of the year & maybe I’ll even write a line or two in celebration.
The week before Memorial Day Weekend, I went to my doctor to see about an ongoing sharp pain in my left foot. She sent me for X-rays, told me I had a fracture and sent me to an orthopedic specialist. I was told I had a “Jones” fracture in the fifth metatarsal of my left foot. I don’t know how or when or where this happened but I’d been walking on it “for a while.” The X-ray showed some “self-healing,” I was fitted with a massive orthopedic boot and told I should not walk distances and could not run, bike, or swim in the ocean for the next two weeks.
That weekend I spent in Cape May at a beachfront Victorian. I hobbled around, sat on our deck drinking beer, listening to metal and staring at the ocean. We went out onto the sand twice. Both times, I sat in a chair under an umbrella and stared at the water while my friend swam. I’m not someone who goes to the beach to sit in chairs under umbrellas. I go to the beach with an old Mexican blanket, a towel and a paperback. I like to swim out past the break and stare at the sky. I’m a strong swimmer and I usually let the waves take me where they will. And then I swim back in and read and bake in the sun and listen to Black Angels for a while and and repeat it all many times. But this trip, I sat in the hot sun and watched the waves and tried to read but could not. We packed up soon enough and went for drinks.
When I got back to NYC, I got used to hauling myself up the five flights to my apartment. I got used to taking taxis everywhere. I knew it would be over in two weeks so it was okay. I couldn’t go out much so I tried to write. I failed. I felt like my brain was somewhere else, I felt like my skin was too small for my body.
Two weeks passed. New X-rays showed my foot had not healed. The orthopedist sent me to a surgeon. He showed me the gap between my bones and explained the surgical procedure. I spent the next few days readying my apartment and my life for the post-op two week period when I would be unable to leave my apartment. I selected a stack of books t0 read and two blank journals for writing and put them near my favorite chair. If I had to be stuck in a chair for two weeks, at least I could get some reading/writing done.
The surgery was on June 16th. I won’t write the details here. In post-op, I was told to keep my weight off my foot completely and given a pair of crutches. The nurses told me I’d have to go upstairs “on my butt.” I got myself up into my apartment through sheer force of will, and strong arms & shoulders. I crawled on my belly to my armchair. A good friend helped me get situated and then I was alone in my apartment, too full of drugs to care.
The next two weeks I could barely eat much less read or write. The litany of stories that often fills my brain was silent. The TV was on, of course, but I rarely followed one show from beginning to end. Friends came and went, ran errands, kept me company. I lived in a world full of fog and few words.
Before I knew I’d be spending my summer with a broken foot, I’d signed up for an online non-fiction writing class (I work at a University and can take classes for free). I was also taking French 2 and an undergrad class on the mystery novel. Two weeks into my recovery, I spent one day catching up on all of my homework: I read, I wrote, I conjugated French verbs. It was exhausting but also made me feel like I might still have a functioning intellect.
After the two weeks past, I got myself downstairs and to my surgeon’s office. X-rays showed healing and I was fitted with another boot. Crutches were traded in for a cane. I made plans to go back to work and I ignored the 4th of July.
I spent the next two weeks in the boot: the first week I had to sleep in it. My walking was awkward and for very short distances. Every day started with the challenges of a shower, getting dressed, and making it down five flights of stairs. I made myself walk the single block from work to CVS or the block and half to Rite Aid. It was exhausting.
My writing consisted only of the single essay I had to write each week for class. The teacher’s comments were less than helpful and the assigned readings rarely inspiring. I’d taken the class because I wanted to spend more time working on creative non-fiction. I’m comfortable with my fiction writing skills and my ability to churn out an excellent academic paper but felt a bit wobbly about my creative non-fiction.
This past Friday I met with my surgeon again and he said it was time for “next steps.” The boot came off and I’m starting PT today. On Saturday, I put on my left running shoe for the first time since that week before Memorial Day. With a friend, I walked (slowly) through the Cutter Arboretum on Long Island but my left leg muscles have atrophied and walking is difficult.
My surgeon gave me clearance to swim, do recumbent bike, and to walk. “But don’t swim in the ocean.” Although this last instruction seems particularly cruel as we head into August and prime beach weather, he did say I can expect to start running again “in about three months.” I’d thought maybe next spring, if at all.
So far this summer has been one of immobility. In the past, when I walked, I’d listen to music and tell myself stories in my head. Stories I’d later write down. It’s something a lot of writers do. Immobility hasn’t silenced me completely. I’ve written three passable essays in my summer class, maybe one powerful one. I don’t think I’ve learned more about creative non-fiction in this class except that I don’t think it’s what this particular writing teacher thinks it is. I do think I’ve learned something essential about myself: I need to move to write, I need to move to be who I am, and when I can’t walk, when I can’t move every day, my voice becomes strained, less easily accessible. It’s still there but like my leg muscles, it needs motion to be healthy, it needs movement to be strong.
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.
Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time. I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.
While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.
Imagine 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.