My empty office…

CAM00313~3Leaving my tenure-track teaching position at Everett Community College is right up there with the most difficult things I have ever done. Today, at my husband’s insistence, we drove up here with a stack of empty boxes and we cleaned out the remaining files. I kept quite a few. I tossed quite a few. I kept finding bundles of student letters (my creative nonfiction students wrote a self-reflective letter, to themselves, at the end of each quarter and turned it in with a self-addressed envelope; I have now sent all of them back — sorry for the delay!) and those had to be dealt with. I wrote notes on the first batch, and then gave up and just stuffed them in envelopes and put them in the mail.

In Thinking Like Da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb advocates writing lists. So here’s my list of the most difficult things that I’ve done in my life.

  • Adopting my daughters–especially the first adoption, which came on the heels of a failed adoption and was, thus, emotionally fraught, but the second one, too, when it really seemed (at age 43) that I was too old for a newborn.
  • My Ph.D.–particularly the writing of the dissertation. Exams were right up there, too, now that I think about it. I remember feeling as though a committee member might lean forward and say, “Isn’t your dad a logger? Aren’t you working class? Why are you here?”
  • Leaving my restaurant career…
  • Getting married, and staying married… (let’s just leave it at that).
  • My decision to get an M.F.A. rather than a teaching degree (despite my husband’s opposition).
  • My dad’s death in the summer of 2010.
  • My mom’s illness this summer.
  • I can definitely put “parenting teenagers” on the list, though parenting my twins as preschoolers can’t really be topped for difficulty.
  • Writing a novel and seeing it…almost…through to completion.CAM00264

What I notice when I look back over this list is that I wouldn’t give up one of these, that I am, in fact, grateful for them. The really hard things, it turns out, are the things that have made my life my own. (I’d rather my dad were still alive and my mom, still healthy, but would I choose not to be present with the death of a loved one? To not be there now for my mom? No thanks, I’d rather be present.)

I remember a poet some years ago–this was at the University of Washington back when I was on the Watermark Reading Series committee–telling us that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she told herself, “I am going to survive this, and I am going to write about it.”

I have mixed feelings–still–about leaving my college teaching job. But I already know that I am going to survive it, and I am going to write about it. The two things are (for me, at least) intimately related.

So, what are your hardest things? What’s the hard thing that you’ve been putting off doing?






Reading List…

trees3One of the things I do lately is drive from my home in Edmonds, north of Seattle, to Olympia, to Chehalis, to Olympia, and home again. One of the things I do when I drive is schlep books around. One of the books I’ve been schlepping around (schlepping? is that right?) is Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion.  Here’s a passage I copied out in my own notebook (in it, she discusses the work of John Brantner, a professor at the University of Minnesota):

“Even though we have been told by saints and sages that there is a dark night, that we will lose ourselves in the woods, we may still be shocked and surprised to find ourselves there. It is part of human nature to hope that spirituality will save us from the experience, that we can combine enough luck and faith not to suffer.

“In Brantner’s worldview, not only is this not possible, it’s not desirable. He defined despair as an integral part of human maturity, an avenue of learning that should not be avoided….Despair is such a nearly universal experience among people who have chosen consciousness that you and I would do well to accept it, name it, and prepare ourselves as willingly as possible to submit to the process. ” (93)

Then, from Madeleine L’Engle, this:P1050357

“The world tempts us to draw back, tempts us to believe we will not have to take this test. We are tempted to try to avoid not only our own suffering but also that of our fellow human beings, the suffering of the world, which is part of our own suffering. But if we draw back from it…, [Franz] Kafka reminds us that ‘it may be that this very holding back is the one evil you could have avoided.’

“The artist cannot hold back; it is impossible, because writing, or any other discipline of art, involves participation in suffering, in the ills and the occasional stabbing joys that come from being part of the human drama.” (Walking on Water68-69)


My Two Cents…

Okay, here’s my 2 cents on blog roll 2014…

Several weeks ago when J. I. Kleinberg (obviously a more organized person than I) on Chocolate Is a Verb tagged me, I had just gone down the rabbit hole created by my mother’s first, small stroke. I told Judy that I would love to, but to give me a few days. Since then I’ve lost days and days and not come one iota closer to having a post for this. So, this is what I’m going to do: I will paste in the four questions, and I’ll answer them. Right now. I hope it will be coherent, and not have too many typos.

What am I working on?

Years ago I opened a fortune cookie and found this advice: “Try not to shoot off in all directions like fireworks.” I try, but I still have moments when the fireworks overwhelm me. This summer has been one of those times.

#1. With my mother so ill, and so up-and-down (gravely ill one day, sitting up and joking with her grandchildren the next), I have been a) scattered, and b) attempting to write some notes (some poems) about being here.

#2. I have, since May 5, been at work on a new novel, tentatively titled Reuben, Reuben, set in a Pacific Northwest timber town between the world wars. It has become a repository for family stories that I — growing up in the house my grandparents built — was steeped in all through my childhood.

#3. Two weeks ago I was very gently dumped by my agent, and — simultaneously — enrolled in the Pacific Northwest Writers Assoc. conference in Seattle. I was a finalist in two of the PNWA competitions — short story and mainstream novel — and I took second in both categories! This was a big deal. There were about 900 entries over all, and eight finalists in each category. I was invited to an after party (for first and second places, agents, editors, other judges, and so forth) and as a result I now have several new invitations to share my novel. I’ve turned back to that ostensibly finished novel, Pearl’s Alchemy, printed the damn thing out again, and I am rereading it and doing some thinking, strictly on the run. This no doubt sounds defeating to other people, particularly to my friends who have read the novel and love it, but I find it kind of…exhilarating. For one thing, I have three sets of notes from readers (from my former agent) and I want to take those seriously. How can I make this novel UNASSAILABLE?

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Sheesh. I have spent so much energy trying to imagine where I fit within contemporary novelists that it’s scary to imagine the flip side of that question. (Hello, Geraldine Brooks — are you out there?)

I have a mission statement that I wrote about 5 years ago and recently revised. Something like this:

While supporting my daughters in their quest to become independent and productive adults, I write every day into the heart of my own deepest desires, memories, and dreams.

think that it’s the particular, peculiar intersection of my life and art that make my work different, not that a desire to balance family with work is alien to any woman. But Pearl’s Alchemy (the “finished” novel) is drawn from my years of working with and worshipping at the altar of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (the heart of my doctoral dissertation). Braided into that is my work with the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, and braided with both of them is the simple (or not so simple) truth that when I was writing my doctoral dissertation I was a new, adoptive mother of twin daughters. My circumstances — of falling in love with these little girls who were no biological relation to me — made me see Hawthorne’s villain, Roger Chillingworth, in a light that changed the novel (and has changed it for all of my students over the past twenty years). Hawthorne got it, too, but you have to be quite a detective to disentangle this reading from all the other available readings of this endlessly ambiguous book.

At the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth arrives, with an Indian, to be “redeemed.” At the end of the novel, Chillingworth dies, leaving his entire estate to little Pearl. Pearl’s Alchemy is my story of why. 

My poetry and the new novel (and the stories, from a small collection called Heartwood) is perhaps more obviously personal. I’m always, always writing out of my childhood. Even when I’m writing about my teaching and my own mothering, my childhood has a way of infecting everything. It was a wonderful, complex, painful, joyful childhood. I’m happy to be infected by it.

Why do I write what I do?

I have been writing stories since I was seven years old. If you locked me in a box, I would bloody my fingernails tracing out words in the dark.

Much to my daughters’ disappointment, I am never happier than when I’m reading a book. I would spend my last dollar on a book (ask my husband). Why do I write at all — that seems to be the real question here.

How does my writing process work?

I love this question! I could write an essay about it. But I’m out of time and so I’m going to tell you in a few sentences.

  • I usually read something to warm up. Right now I’m rereading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. I often read other poets.
  • I write in a journal, a big fat one, before I dive into more creative work. In my journal, I set down the goals for the day. Sometimes I work out the particular problems — or challenges — I want to tackle in my creative work. But even when I’m pulled in a million directions, even if I do no other writing, I write in my journal.
  • I write early in the morning, before anything else can interfere. When my daughters were tiny, and I was teaching at the University of Washington, I colonized the early morning hours for my writing.
  • If I don’t have time to write, if I think I don’t have time to write, I write for 15 minutes anyway. No one will miss 15 minutes. The worst boss in the world has to give you a break once in a while. You can write if you really, really, really, really, really want to.

So, that’s it for this post! I have a feeling I will return to these topics and tell you more (particularly about my process and how it evolved).

I’ve tagged three other bloggers. Carla Shafer is my old and dear friend and the director of Chuckanut Sandstone, a readers series in Bellingham, Washington. She has several poetry chapbooks, and recently had a poem, “Elixir of the Solar Spectrum,” turned into choral song (a performance I was lucky enough to attend).

Joannie Stangeland is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Into the Rumored Spring and In Both Hands. 

I also tagged a PNWA friend, Cherie Langlois, who I hope will take time out from her farming, gardening, and writing to join us. (Great blog with great pictures.)

Sunday Morning

Chocolate Is a Verb today…

My brother visited Mom yesterday, for several hours I understand, and will be back today. I’m taking the weekend off from Mom-duty, and I had this fantasy that I would get some writing done, and some laundry.

Instead I slept, went to a movie (The Grand Budapest Hotel) with my husband, took the dog for a long walk through the woods, had dinner — at home — two nights in a row, and — did I already say — slept?

I watched Netflix (Warehouse 13, mostly) with Annie. I watched Upworthy videos and played Spider Solitaire. I meant to do my blog roll post, but instead I reread everyone else’s and…veged.

I think I needed to vege.

It’s a beautiful, sunshot Pacific Northwest day. Earlier this week we thought my mom was (again) dying. We were told that she is in renal failure. She couldn’t talk to us, she scarcely ate anything, and she never got out of bed from Sunday evening to Thursday. On Friday, when I arrived very early in the morning, I found her sitting up, smiling, eating. Over the last two days she has continued feeling better, is talking more clearly, and she is able to work with the physical therapists. My sister and I this week will look for a facility closer to one of us, one with a private room.

As Kurt Vonnegut says, “And so it goes.”

My good friend Madelon, when I (quite a long time ago) confessed that I was wasting a lot of time playing cards on my computer, said, “That’s probably what you need to do.” She’s a behavioral therapist with more than one doctorate, so I believed her then (my kids were small) and I am going to channel her now.

CAM00323I am going to trust that the writing will be there (yes, I am still journaling) and the blog roll post, and send outs…

And, today, I will do some laundry.