Wednesday Wisdom: Writerly Catch-Up

OK, I know I don’t divulge too much about my writing project(s). The reason is: The status changes every day, every minute, every time a new idea seems like a good idea. (Seemingly too often, the good ideas aren’t as amazing as I imagined they were at 3:00 a.m.)

The craft of writing is a whorl that can only flow one direction. Fight it, and the resistance takes you down. Go with it, and you will inevitably end up somewhere unexpected but the ride was free. The process hates control freaks. It takes a very open-minded soul to trust their own subconscious mind to create the story.

I’ve been honing the skill of letting go. I’ve let go of how many versions? 47? Hundreds? Who knows? Keeping score is not a good idea. It only serves to stress the emotional freedom that is the sacred space of creativity.

I’ll take a tangent here. Currently, I’m reading a book called ‘A Girl With No Name’. It’s the true story of a five-year old girl kidnapped and dropped off in the jungle of Colombia. For five years, she survived the terror of the jungle by observing, then adapting, into a troop of capuchin monkeys. The monkeys treated her as one of their own. The girl learned to communicate through their categories of screeches, laughter, warnings, and plain old hijynx. When a monkey died, they grieved together. When the girl ate poisonous tamarind, Grandpa monkey shoved her into a pool of filthy water which she forcefully swallowed, then vomited. The old monkey saved her life.

The story chapters are organized through the girl’s discoveries. One example of this was after two or so years in the jungle, she had found a shard of mirror. Her reflection scared her, as she hadn’t known she didn’t resemble the monkeys. With the mirror, her entire sense of identity was shattered. The prior experience had become so absolute in her mind, and her body so adapted to the patterns of the monkeys, that she had no concept, no language, for what she was. And yet, she harnessed the emotional apex that the monkeys had accepted and took care of her anyway.

This story has so much significance. Creatively, emotionally, we can easily be lost in a terrifying world. But when we pause and observe the productivity surrounding us, when we recognize the break-down of skill and experience and care that sustain us, we can arrive at the apex of the human condition to feel heard and be seen. Nature is slow. So, too, must we create.

Wednesday Wisdom: Family Ghosts

Many gaps exist in my family story. In trying to piece together my parents’ younger years for my memoir, I am befuddled by the complexity of mistaken timelines and the absence of information. One example that surprised me was the fact that I had always believed my mother was twenty-three when I was born. I have done the math. She was twenty-four.

What difference does this make? A lot. The mind relies on every bit of information as one navigates the world. My stories have built me and I process life through the filter of my understanding. Finding an error in what I have believed to be true means I must recalibrate my truth to a different and unfamiliar understanding. Seeing things differently forces me to step back and question my own beliefs and preconceived notions of how I fit into the world.

With more gaps than I had previously realized, I have to question how much I know my family. As I’m seeing it now, it seems to be very little. The more I delve into photos and years and events, the more wary I become of my relationship to the people who raised me. Certainly, if I don’t know a lot about them, then there must also be a lot they don’t know about me. It is evident to me now that many of my childhood struggles circulated around the feeling of ghosted by family.

Writing is a process of discovery. We write to learn about ourselves, but finding the truest meaning of ourselves also means discovering the truest meaning in our relationships. Merging into this territory is dangerous, difficult work. Now, I am able to do this because I have a strong support network which has taken years and courage to build. My husband and the world of creativity are the backbone of my emotional health. It has taken commitment to my own well-being and letting go of previous truths to undergo this process, and I am so grateful to have people to hold me up when I want to crumble. My fortitude has grown with the belief that my story matters, because even with loneliness, no person’s story exists in isolation.

Perhaps I was called to writing because I never felt understood. Or, maybe I always wanted to be known on a deeper level. Humans need connection. Like so many of us, all of us, in fact, the layers of identity are deep and tragic and uncertain. Loneliness is a trap we can release if we take the initiative to identify what we seek. Generating creative work provides meaning in an otherwise shallow life and illuminates our blind spots. Still, I am realizing that the gaps in my family story were never there to be filled, but to be examined. It’s through the existence of an incomplete that I see myself more clearly as my parent’s daughter. Stubborn. Hard-pressed to finish what I start. I’m finding my connection to them as I write. Present or not, they are here with me.

My paternal grandfather, Robert Wallace. A grandfather I never knew.

Fall Happenings

I wasn’t going to submit the application. One part of me felt hopeless about making the cut for a fall residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Because I had only one published work, I filled a pithy resumé of writing classes I had taken, most of them online, for the goal of writing my memoir.

On the day of the deadline, a notification sidled into view on the screen telling me I had three extra days to finish the application. I groaned. This meant compiling twenty-five pages of work and finding two nice people to send a letter of reference on my behalf.

Weeks later, I was accepted into VCCA. Not only was I fraught with tears because of the unlikelihood of being accepted, but my submission was chosen for an honorary  fellowship. Every year, one person from Montana is awarded a free residency at VCCA. Out of our huge state, I am that one.

I’ll be heading to Virginia in November for two and a half weeks. There, I don’t need to cook, or walk the dog, or do the family laundry, or shower. OK, I will do that, but the rest of the time I will write.

The validation comes in the form of knowing my story meant something to someone I have never met. Although it was a cobbled together sample, my excerpt spanned the years from childhood to adulthood. The writer hovers over a younger version of herself, watching as a girl overcomes fears, speaking words once blinded by innocence with a deeper perspective. One who sees not just a sheet of stars in the sky, but thick layers of them, heaped like the matter of a cellular body.

This fall, I will also be reading from my first publication during the Montana Book Festival. The lyric essay, Small Towns, published in Bright Bones: Contemporary Montana Writing suggests the importance of crossing from one place to the next. There is some irony there, as my writing launches me into the next phase, from isolation to a sharing of long-held secrets.

I’m hoping to grow gracefully in this new space. There is room for everyone in the creative world. I hope to find you there.

 

 

A Year of Writing

When I was a little girl, the humid, bitter cold of Lake Erie winters rattled in my lungs. Every year, I wheezed, gasped, and fevered my way through bouts of colds, flus, chicken pox, or some other childhood rite-of-passage illness. Once, flu and pneumonia compounded into a three-week hiatus from school. I was six years old. At its onset, I negated the cold outside with a fever so hot that I felt like I could toast bread by placing it on the skin above my ribs. Of course, I would have been unable to eat the toast. Nausea kept me from eating for weeks, and the ever-present thermometer hanging from my mouth obstructed the way.

When my mother came to read the lines where the mercury fell, I moaned, aching for comfort. “Why me,” I  asked.

These simple words were loaded. I fought my willingness to tackle the predicament not by wishing it onto someone else, but by wondering what I had done to deserve it, hoping for its course to run faster, doubting my strength to persevere. These concepts and my six-year old vocabulary didn’t align. I was, as we all are in youth, muted by age.

Forty years later, I can look back on the event and see its beauty. In the space between thought and words, a world of unknowns transpired. How did my mother feel? Why did I choose to say these words? Was I really aching for comfort, or was there something else, bigger, less immediate, that I needed? And it begs the question: Why do I choose to write about it?

If you want to burrow inside my brain, these types of questions circulate on an incessant track, day and night. I am plagued by curiosities, motivations intrigue me, and I am no longer mute. To uncover the possibilities of why I do what I do, I must write.

 

Christmas Nest
Christmas Tree with Nest

 

This past year of writing has brought me closer to my goal of finishing my childhood memoir, although it is nowhere close to where I would like it to be. Each scene, each description, is like one tiny line on the thermometer. A book-length work is comprised of these dashes, settling into place only after the fever burns. For my truth to manifest, I must get comfortable being uncomfortable, enduring each moment with hope that my words will truly express me, not my intentions, but my humanity.

I am persevering by letting go of doubt, the judge, the critic, that sits on the balcony of our life-stage and haggles us with inane commentary. The way I see it, the world is our critic. My only job is to continue the show, which I plan on doing when I send my messy manuscript to an editor in January. I trust her to take its temperature, read between the tiny lines, tell me where it runs hot or cold.

In the meantime, I can look back on the year’s progress with a sense of accomplishment. I’ve made some dashes, increased the mercurial importance of my story, settled into its heat. Despite the vast world of unknowns, I wrote. It’s warm in there. I think I’ll stay.

 

 

 

Mother is Scared, But…

This summer I felt my first earthquake while sleeping in a teepee. A loud boom erupted in the distance. My first thought was that train cars were connecting on the railroad on the other side of the Jefferson River where I was camping, but it didn’t make sense that railcars were active in the middle of the night. The mountainous landscape was dry and sparse, a synchronous description of the activity along the wide river’s valley.

The earth rocked beneath me—really deep beneath me. Later, I would learn it was a 5.8. Zipped inside a puffy sleeping bag, I shook like a cocoon in a breeze. I sat up and said, “Earthquake”. It was more of a statement than a warning. My two daughters, and Charlotte, our French exchange student for a month, formed three-fourths of a ring on the ground and I wanted them to know the cause of the rattling. For them, I wanted to pretend that I wasn’t afraid.

I was, of course, very afraid.

I waited for them to respond. Aileen, my oldest daughter, twisted her head to look at me.

“Did you feel that?” I said, probably a little too emphatically. My heart was racing. The other girls hadn’t moved.

Aileen nodded, sleepy-eyed. I waited for her to react appropriately, to tuck her head beneath her arms or something like that, to show that she was just as scared as me.

“I have to pee,” she said.

I groaned inside. Then came the dreaded question.

“Will you go with me?” she said.

I wasn’t excited to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night with my sixteen year old, but I did it anyway, because I knew she was afraid. A mother intuits her child.

Teepee
Teepee, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, MT

My sleeping bag completed the fourth part of the ring. I had taken the girls to Lewis and Clark State Park for a night under the stars. The next day we would tour the caves that snake through the depths of limestone rock like secret passageways to a hidden world. It was supposed to be an adventure, and with a bright waxing moon in the sky it would become a night-day mix-up, a transversal of daylight’s stretch stopped within the gaping mouth of limestone that continued to a nighttime world.

I walked with my daughter to the outhouse. Rain began to fall in quiet, little drops on my shoulders. After we climbed back into our sleeping bags, two aftershocks waved through before I was able to fall asleep. Meanwhile, the rain pinged the canvas walls with a softness that only happens in summer. Lightning flashed overhead.

It wasn’t perfect. I was afraid of entering the caves the following day. Despite knowing I had no reason to worry about a teepee catastrophe, I imagined being deep in the caves during another earthquake. The worst part was that I imagined bringing the girls to their doom.

After an unrestful sleep, I had to make a plan in the morning. Do I go? Do I not go? Do I let them go without me? Certainly, they were old enough.

But what if they were inside the caves without me and an earthquake struck?

While waiting for hot water to boil on a propane burner, I chose the ultimate job required of parents–—I sacrificed. A hiss formed the background noise while I consciously solidified my life’s prerogative: I was willing to die for my children.

Like the fourth arc in the ring of life, having a clear initiative transcended the fear. I felt complete. I wonder now, how many times have I initiated out of fear rather than love? How often have I disappointed rather than embraced? Is it really that hard to sacrifice?

That morning, with the hot morning sun burning our skin through our shirts, I walked into the dark mouth of the cave with my daughters. It was day. It was night. I walked into the cave with my daughters because it was the right thing to do.