While it is, apparently, a myth that habits take 21 days to form, I do feel a little bereft now that I’ve moved my furniture and my writing practice from the Central Library back to my own living room. I didn’t realize until today the many ways that this newly adopted theatrical sequence helped me become a better writer. Most days, I would travel up the escalator from Fourth Avenue, time that I used to get my head in the game. The ride to Level 3 was long enough to switch mental modes: I’m no longer at work. I’m here to write. I would check in with David in security, if he was on duty. I would stop to talk with Linda, Andrea, Misha or David at the information desk, if they were free — just a minute of banter before someone inevitably came by to ask about a book. I moved on, finding my key card in the zippered pocket of my purse. I swiped it across the red scanner to gain access to the back-of-house space where I stowed my coat and purse in a locker. Sometimes I ran a comb through my hair or ate a protein bar if I was in between meals — whatever was needed to be presentable or fortified for the task at hand. By the time I emerged from the black door and ducked under the stanchion rope onto the small stage, I was in character. My brain was ready to pick up where I had left off the day before. I took out my laptop and plugged in the power first, then the cord to the large monitor behind me. I booted up. I turned on music by Yo-Yo Ma, Tomo Nakayama or Todo Es to further clear the chatter from my head. These small rituals were like stations of the cross; I completed each of them, in order, before I began to write. Like all brief but intense experiences, spending a month as a novelist-in-residence at the library was transformative; it was difficult to quit cold turkey. For one, I miss my new librarian friends, but I also long for the accountability that came with showing up to write every day. (If you are ever looking for motivation, I recommend posting your writing schedule on a public calendar.) It also meant that my writing time was protected. For two or three –or sometimes six or seven– hours a day, my job was to focus only on writing. Yes, I can still write at home, and I can set daily word goals. Yes, NaNoWriMo is not a realistic pace that I can maintain long-term. My average daily word count in November was 2,600 words, which is a lot on top of a full-time job — or at least, it’s a lot for me. Still, of the many lessons I learned, one is that I am a slow writer in private practice. Typically, it takes me three to four weeks to write the first draft of a single short story (say, 5,000 to 10,000 words.) At the library, I was creating content in days that would have otherwise taken a month. When I write in normal life, I often edit as I go, which adds a drag coefficient that is not possible to sustain when you’re attempting to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Still, NaNoWriMo made me question whether I wish to continue working the same way. For, as painful as it was to lay down sentence after sentence without going back to smooth and polish them, I faced the reality that early editing is a means of procrastination for me. It also makes for uneven work. Some writers fear the blank page, but I fear the ugly first draft, so I take a long time to complete things (even blog posts like this) because I’m constantly refining the early parts before the piece is finished. I write as if I’m rolling out dough, starting over and over in the same place. Over-editing aside, I have spent the past week reveling in the ability to write without hesitation, since no one is watching me. A Novel Performance proved that the observer effect is indeed real (the act of observation changes the phenomenon or subject being observed.) I often froze up when writing romantic or emotionally complex scenes with a crowd of people standing three feet away, their eyes poised on the screen just about my head waiting… waiting… for something brilliant to appear. I found it difficult to experiment before an audience; I didn’t feel like I had the creative space to write something that I might not keep. When those moments arose, I channeled my inner Jo Ann Beard, composing, editing and re-composing sentences in my mind before typing them on screen. Slowly. Very slowly. This may be fine for Ms. Beard, but it turns out that I am the type of writer who thinks by writing rather than one who writes by thinking. For those who geek out on statistics, here’s a fun fact: it took me 20 days to write 50,000 words and only another 7 to reach 70,355 (the library was closed on Veterans Day and Thanksgiving; the final day of writing took place on November 29.) That means I was averaging 2,500 words a day in the first three weeks of the installation, but I actually increased my productivity in the last week to 2,905 words a day. Everyone kept asking if I was tired or ready to be finished, and I suppose that I said yes, but I would follow that with a disclaimer: even in the thick of it, I had not run out of ideas, and I was always eager to return to the couch. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, and the more ideas for other stories kept bursting into mind. Kamikaze writing (my term for this approach) was like learning a new sport: the first few weeks, your body is fatigued and full of fits and starts as it begins to understand how to work in a new way, however you soon get in a groove that somehow creates new energy from the effort. After that, you can go farther faster (or stronger longer) seemingly without end. During NaNoWriMo, I didn’t stop to plot or track my daily word average, but seeing the numbers after the fact substantiates the consistent flow of energy I felt, despite my creativity coming under unusual, intense and ongoing demand. No breaks. Just write. And I did. Since finishing, many people have asked questions I can’t answer fully: what happens next with the book? When will they see it in print? What am I working on now? Will I do NaNoWriMo again? An easy response to the first is that the book goes into a drawer for an indeterminate amount of time. My main squeeze, who stayed up late last night to finish it, gave “The Year of the Tiger” a thumbs-up as worthy for more work, so it passed an early test. It also means a hell of a lot more time and effort, and a residency or two in order to complete it. Only now do I begin to see the licking hell fires that my novelist friends have resigned themselves to; they are the ones who answer this question with, Well, I just finished my fourth revision… Their plight, now my own, makes me shudder. Yet, I must acknowledge that this is my second attempt to turn these ideas into a book. Part of my proposal for A Novel Performance was to examine the role of failure in literary art, as this current draft is actually the result of failure. The story was vastly different in 2012 when it was fodder for a memoir, so I have effectively written it over from the beginning two times — and much more work is needed. (I took what I learned from the first version as fuel for a completely fictitious cast of characters.) While I don’t imagine that my third draft will be a complete re-write, my hesitance in answering this question comes from knowing how much I’ll have to revise, which is a lot. Most novelists I know spend five to ten years on a novel; I’m still in year three — or year one, depending upon how you look at it. So, when will you see it in print? When (and if) it’s ever ready. This summer at the Tin House summer workshop, I asked literary agent Meredith Kaffel about the right time to approach an agent with a manuscript. I should add that I didn’t just ask this question, I asked tentatively. Meredith has an incredible presence — she appears seasoned beyond her years and presents the assured beauty of an Orange is the New Black-era Laura Prepon, her dark brown hair drawn to a long side braid, thick-framed glasses that make her eyes appear large and wise, bold red lipstick that contrasts with her pale skin. I posed the question and she immediately responded, “You’ll know when it’s ready.” She’s correct. The more I write, the more I know when my work is ready — and if I have to ask, it’s not. When you’re starting out as a writer, you look for validation, and so you send things to editors and agents before they should be sent, and they are summarily rejected. I’m still shopping a piece that I completed years ago when I had just returned to writing; it’s an essay about my father that I totally believe in, but I can’t seem to place it. In 2009, I submitted it to one magazine –The Sun– which was very optimistic. After waiting six months only to receive a hard-copy rejection, I didn’t do anything with it until 2013 when I gave it a spit-shine and started sending it out in earnest. It’s still looking for a home. If I rewrote that essay today as a more mature artist, it would turn out differently; this may be what I have to do if I really want to get it published. And thus begins my answer to the question of what I’m working on now. One major initiative is adapting NaNo lessons into my daily writing practice. For starters, I will take writing as seriously as I take my job and defend my writing time. I will show up ready to write and not wait until the mood strikes. I will not fear or attempt to avoid the messy work; I will get the first draft down sentence by sentence and edit later. I will not save up ideas in my mind, as if obsessively replaying their potential will somehow make them better. I will write outlines (perish the thought!) and perhaps even organize and rearrange the order of a piece before writing it. I will not fear that my creativity will dry up from overuse. Post-novel, I’m digging into several short pieces: an essay about my experience in the library, a short story about a wrongly-fired woman seeking revenge, a flash fiction piece about love and regret, and a series of linked prose poems about beauty and self-image. This last effort is part of a multi-media installation titled “Ugly Me,” which will open in July 2015 at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in the U-District. I’m also part of Project Home Poem, a temporary literary art installation led by artist Perri Howard for the new Northgate Sound Transit Station. Then, there is the matter of this novel. I’m applying for grants and residencies… we’ll see how it goes. As for NaNoWriMo, it depends on what’s cooking next fall. It is no easy thing to write 50,000 words in a month, whether you’re doing it in public or not. In fact, the latter is more difficult, I think, as the joys and pains are private, and so is the motivation. I feel unbelievably fortunate to come away from NaNoWriMo with not only the first draft of a novel, but new friendships, a keener sense of the role that our library and librarians play in the community, and many newly-formed habits –and a more confident artistic voice– that I hope will grow stronger with time. Finally, my deepest gratitude to the library staff who made me feel inspired, welcome and safe every day; to 4Culture for their support of this project; Paul Constant of The Stranger and Rachel Belle of KIRO FM for their thoughtful coverage of A Novel Performance; Seattle Public Library for hosting me as a novelist-in-residence so that I could create this work; Nick Spang for his beautiful documentation; Jeff Sandler, whose assistance in relocating my living room was invaluable — and to my friends who supported me in countless ways over the past five months, especially those who took time to show up at the library. THANK YOU.
The title question is perhaps best answered when accompanied by another: “Are writers really introverts — or do we seek to shroud our craft in mystique?” And perhaps a third redux version: “What the #$%^ am I doing?”
In addition to providing a rich palette of human diversity, the first day of writing a novel in the Central Library surely tested my inner introvert. In the hours after building a stage upon which rests a scene from my living room –yes, in the middle of the library– I was finally faced with answering a question I’ve been dodging for months: Can I actually do this? As a first-time WriMo (someone who attempts the NaNoWriMo challenge) had I had bitten off more than I could chew?
Over the last few months, I’ve studied all the NaNoWriMo tips, deciding that I was somewhere in between a Planner and a Pantser. In reality, I skew more towards the latter, despite my planner nature in all things non-literary. Two weeks ago, under great duress, I wrote a chapter outline and composed half-hearted character sketches for only two principal characters. The whole set-up process felt false to me — how am I supposed to know who these characters are and exactly what they’ll do until I start writing them? My framework for this novel rests lightly on several trips I’ve made in the past few years, so I have a general sense of where my characters are headed… but trying to nail everything down ahead of time — I just couldn’t do it. After all, I was the young woman in design school who filled in her sketch book at the end of the quarter, the night before it was due.
Besides, the physical component of A Novel Performance and all of its moving parts, from van rental and signage design and production to approvals and installation, has kept me sufficiently distracted since July. For someone avoiding the moment where she has to face the task she’s taken on, this was convenient.
For those first few minutes, I sat, waiting. My fingers trembled as I started with the easy parts: title and chapter heading. I knew that the story would open in New Zealand, so I pictured what the beaches are like in November — blustery, wild, pristine. A few words trickled out. Starting with the first chapter, my heroine immediately departed from the script that I had given her. This was exciting if not a little terrifying. How was I -er, she- doing this? I realized that we were deepening the opening of the story together far beyond the initial framework I had set, but it was a good departure. I kept working. Slowly. At several points, people stopped to read the screen behind me; they observed sentence by sentence form (nothing like having a small crowd of people watch you misspell the word privilege three times…) Over the course of the afternoon, I tried to tap into the flow that always feels so easy at home, but it didn’t happen, not exactly. In between paragraphs, I kept asking myself: can I return day after day to do this?
This morning, I used our extra fall-back hour to document yesterday’s work. The prose isn’t beautiful yet, but I can see a portal, albeit a small one, opening up into a new world. This is encouraging. It is hard not to edit, something that I enjoy far more than banging out rough drafts, but that’s also part of the NaNoWriMo challenge: if you’re going to hit 50,000 words in a month, you can’t go back — only forward.
As I prepare to head back to the library today, I continue to ask myself why I’m doing this. Underneath the obvious –I want to produce a novel– there is something else: as artists, we need community. Writer Richard Hugo, for whom Seattle’s beloved Richard Hugo House is named, put it best: Writing is hard and writers need help. Within the word help, I see the words connection, relationships and support.
Sometimes, watching someone do something a little crazy is all a person needs to feel emboldened to take on a challenge in her own life. This week, Tina Hoggatt at 4Culture invited me to write a blog post about A Novel Performance which allowed me to revisit this question –why am I doing this?– and reaffirm my quest. Indeed, writing is hard, but thanks to everyone who has already voiced support, be it on Twitter or in person, I can feel the strength of the writing community behind me. Support is what writers of all levels need. My profound thanks to 4Culture and Seattle Public Library for supporting A Novel Performance — and to everyone who I will meet along the way.
For more on the origins of A Novel Performance, read the 4Culture blog post here.
While it’s been many years since I’ve shared the cost of rent with someone, this isn’t to say that I haven’t lived with other people.
Years ago, after my ex-husband and I separated, I rented a condo in downtown Seattle, thrilled with the prospect of re-discovering city life. The architect who designed the building, a crusty old gent known for his stylish spectacles as much as his cantankerous wit, referred to my new abode as “one of the bread-and-butter units.” (He still resides in the penthouse today.) He croaked this observation before sweeping out for dinner with his wife, leaving me agape and blinking at the community mailboxes, unsure whether I should be insulted since the condo wasn’t actually mine.
Like all of the multi-family buildings I’ve lived in, we tenants didn’t interact much, at least not directly. The guy below me, whose third-floor unit had an expansive private outdoor space, loved to host parties during the crystal blue summer months, blasting Madonna til two in the morning while his guests guzzled Cosmopolitans. (Sex and the City was still big back then.) Instead of knocking on his door in my jammies, I called to concierge to ask him to quiet down.
Over many sleepless summer months, I grew to despise my fun-loving neighbor, though I didn’t even know his name. At that time in my life, I probably would have enjoyed his shindigs if he had invited me, but instead, I continued to call the concierge every time he partied past midnight. Instead of a relationship, we lived in a kind of denial that either of us existed. He didn’t think that he was disturbing anyone, and I would listen while he informed his disappointed guests that they had to tone it down, as if the edict came from someone else because, technically, it did.
After a few years in gritty Belltown, the economy took a downturn, and my employer cut our salaries. Twice. I broke up with my then-boyfriend. Twice. I was feeling thin in all sorts of ways –spiritually, economically– so I decided to move into a classic brick building (read: more affordable than a condo tower) on the south-facing slope of Queen Anne. So much for the bread-and-butter life.
It turns out that this beautifully restored apartment was exactly what I needed. It was too small to host the gatherings that my condo held, and there was no balcony or view save for the peek-a-boo of the top of the Space Needle from my living room, but it was peaceful and dignified. More than that, it was really, truly mine. During my tenure, I’ve rarely entertained, save for one or two friends or the occasional date, none of which lasted into the throes of boyfriend-dom and the requisite detritus that comes with having a man squatting part-time in one’s apartment. If I was at home, I was generally alone, and it was exactly what I needed.
My one-bedroom aerie was also perfect for writing, which I began to do quite a lot of after I moved in. With the sun streaming through the wood-framed windows on Sunday mornings, church bells pealing in the blissfully silent air, I put my feet up on the ottoman and formed a weekend ritual that has fueled this blog, and many other pieces of writing, for the last five years.
That is, until he moved in. Our tumultuous relationship began as many do, born of misconceptions, pride and a twist of fate that brought us together on a stormy November evening last year.
I had been through many neighbors by then, both above and below, all of whom stayed about a year. By sound alone, I came to learn their habits, hobbies and relationships over the last five years, thanks to the thin ceiling and floor membranes that comprise this 1930s building. There was the couple who had a baby shortly after I moved in; for months, all four of us woke in the dark for 2 a.m. feedings. There was the Seattle Pacific University student who hailed from eastern Washington, joined on weekends by her Spokane-based boyfriend who came to argue and make love with her in alternating shifts. Most recently, a diminutive thirty-something techie lived above me; meek and shy, he fancied playing electric guitar occasionally in the evenings and on weekends, about the same times I liked to write.
I drew upon my network of musician friends, all of whom independently agreed that I should ask him to plug into headphones during his practice. When I did, he thought for moment as I shifted uncomfortably on the other side of his door. “I’ll turn it down, no problem, but I don’t like headphones. The sound isn’t right.” He paused. “Maybe you can just come tell me when it’s too loud.”
His offer was not acceptable, but what could I do? He was always pleasant and responded immediately to my requests. Defeated, I shuffled downstairs to my apartment and rested back against the tall wooden door of my unit. Begrudgingly, I noted that he had turned down the speaker volume; in fact, I could barely hear him playing. It was almost pleasant, except that I could hear it, thin as ghost music, and the very fact that I could hear it was irritating. I flounced onto my couch with a frown, drawing my warm laptop on top of my thighs, the notes of his guitar distracting me like sirens through the single-pane windows. I said out loud to no one, “But I don’t want to have a relationship with you.”
Wasn’t that it? I didn’t want to tell anyone what I needed, especially if it meant admitting displeasure or asking for something that could be declined. It was easier to be independent, to rely only on myself to make or cease things from happening. I didn’t want a relationship with my upstairs neighbor or anyone else, not really. Wasn’t that why I was alone in this otherwise quiet space where no one asked or was invited to visit? He was disturbing the pact that I had unknowingly created by settling down with Peace and Quiet once and for all, ready to live happily ever after — alone. While I went out almost every night with friends for drinks and dinner, or to shows and art openings, when it came time to leave, I secretly loved coming home to absolutely no one.
My sequestered private life was, of course, in diametric opposition to my oft-advertised and seemingly earnest search for love. Over the years, I went on many dates, some of them bad or at least memorably uncomfortable, which fueled my get-togethers with florid stories of the horrifyingly ridiculous man-creatures I met both online and in person. With enough knee-slapping stories to fill a chapbook, it’s no wonder I didn’t find love. I wasn’t really looking for it, and if it had found me, I wouldn’t have been able to ask for what I needed anyway. While I hate to assign him too much credit, my new upstairs neighbor has had a hand in changing this.
The weekend before I was to leave for Austin to visit friends at Thanksgiving, I spied several young men gathered around a moving truck in the back parking lot. The dull pounding of dropped boxes and hard-soled-shoe-wearing twenty-somethings clodding on the wooden floors above heralded the departure of my reasonable, guitar-playing neighbor. It was then I realized that, other than the notes from his guitar, I had never actually heard him or his girlfriend inhabiting the space above. I suddenly regretted my vitriol-infused tweet strings about him that began, Dear Neighbor… He might not have been reading or heeding them, but the universe had, and it was going to afford me with a new perspective.
Impossibly loud noises –heavy thunks, galumphing steps– rained down from above until midnight. It was Sunday and I had to wake up at five for the gym, followed by work. This whippersnapper was going to learn a lesson, and I was going to teach it to him. I zipped up my sweatshirt and flew upstairs, fueled by righteous indignation. When I rapped on his door, expecting to cow a college boy into respectful submission, I was greeted by a fifty-something man who appeared intoxicated. When I tried to explain in an apologetic, tit-mouse voice that he was keeping me awake, he suggested it was the locksmith who had been there earlier.
“Well, actually… I heard you just now… You know, this is an old building, so sound travels. If you take your shoes off inside, it might help a lot.”
“I’m not wearing shoes,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.
We stood there for a moment silently, facing each other like two gunslingers, he in his stained T-shirt and boxes strewn down the hallway, me in my wonderment of how this arrangement was going to work. The next night, drunken and cavorting with what looked like a barely legal girl at two a.m., my query would be sealed with an answer: it wasn’t going to work. After being asked to quiet down, he threw a fit, slamming the door and absconding with his nymphette down the staircase, which ran along the north side of my unit. “No f’n bitch is gonna tell me what to do!” he boomed, his voice echoing off the walls. “I pay thirteen hundred god-damned dollars a month in rent – no bitch is going to tell me what I can do in my place!”
After another late-night incident a week later, which left me curled up in bed, heart racing with anxiety, I notified the landlady. Our building does not have an after-hours monitoring service, and there was no way I was going up there to talk with him again. Ever. She promised to speak with my new neighbor, which prompted him to leave an ugly flower basket on my doormat one afternoon. It was the kind that men with no taste buy for women they don’t know. The card was addressed: “To Better Future Encounters.” Inside, he wrote, I will do my best, within reason, to accommodate you. My intentions are good.
In the seven months since, his words have proven untrue. It is even more ironic that these words were written by an English teacher who works at a private Seattle school. An English teacher?! As a writer who holds her own English teachers in the highest regard, my neighbor feels like an insult to the profession. That, plus the fact that he regularly smokes pot and gets drunk with young people who can only be former (and hopefully not current) students, adds further insult to the archetype of the Insightful, Caring, Sensitive English Teacher Who Can Be Trusted. On the other hand, how many literary men and women have drinking and substance abuse problems? Maybe his behavior isn’t so surprising or far out there as it is incredibly annoying to put up with.
Thankfully, I won’t have to bear it much longer.
My upstairs neighbor isn’t the only reason I’m moving, but his never-ending blunderbuss did wake me up to a few things. The regular panic I began to experience at hearing his booming voice from above brought me back to my childhood. I realized that, in the face of angry confrontation, I was still thinking and acting like a vulnerable child when, in fact, I am not. I didn’t have to be scared into silent acceptance anymore. I began calling my landlady in the wee hours when he kept me up. After a period of halting improvement followed by relapse, I wrote a formal letter addressing the round-the-clock noise problem. As soon as I began to stand up for myself, at least in my own eyes, I stopped having anxiety attacks at the sound of his thudding feet.
And, when it became clear that my landlady was delivering lip-service rather than actual assistance, I took matters into my own hands and decided to move. It was satisfying to hear her sputter apologies when she received my termination notice, pointing out what a good tenant I had been all these years. “I should have served him with a ten-day notice long ago,” she lamented.
I murmured my agreement and feigned regret, assuring her that there was no way that I could stay, as I had already put down a deposit on a fabulous new place with an in-unit washer/dryer to boot (“But we have a top-floor unit coming available… I guess I should have told you that last month…”) The truth is, I am ready to leave. Nothing she could have promised or said would have changed my mind.
In my complaint letter, I cited the fact that I can even hear my upstairs neighbor urinating, he does it so loudly, not to mention the fact that his tromping footsteps wake me up almost every night and make it generally impossible for me to exercise the quiet enjoyment of my space. In disrupting my sanctuary, the lughead gave me a reason to face and voice what was hurting me, and from that, I was driven to communicate what I needed to others, and ultimately, myself.
However distasteful and thoughtless, we sometimes need these catalysts in life, especially in the face of immense changes like moving… and turning forty. An expensive transition lies ahead this week, but one that I have been building up to, yet not ready to exercise until now. My very private and [mostly] serene apartment was meant to heal me, a Fortress of Solitude where I could quietly pen my memoirs as I figured things out. Subconsciously, I chose it because it reminded me of the cliff houses in the Cinque Terre; halfway up the steep incline of Queen Anne hill, it was protected and remote, two words that describe my lifestyle over the past decade, despite my sanguine personality. It catered to my hidden desire to get away from it all, from everyone.
As I approach my fortieth birthday, my friends continue to assure me that I will come into myself, feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have, and I believe them. For me, the past decade has been about piecing together things that were rendered asunder for most of my life — the kind of stuff that a person does by herself in an apartment like this. From what I sense about the coming decade, more light and space are necessary; this new decade of growth is not done alone in the dark but in partnership and with witnesses.
I cannot help but chuckle (and rankle, just a bit), as my upstairs neighbor thuds back and forth across my ceiling like Frankenstein as I write this post. The sun is shining through my living room window, and he’s blabbing so loud I can almost make out the words as he paces back and forth. Then, his voice quiets uncharacteristically and the disturbance shifts into rhythmic thuds and bedspring squeaks that can mean only one thing: it’s definitely time to move.
With only a week left here, my hallway is starting to become full of boxes, just as his was when he moved in. I’d like to think that, even in my transition, I won’t disturb the woman who lives below me, who I’ve never met, who has never come upstairs to ask me to be quiet. She and I are strangers, as most of my fellow tenants are, all of us together pretending that we are living alone.
That premise won’t characterize my life for much longer. The other twist to the new home awaiting me is that I’ve decided to share it with my main squeeze. The timing of his career and life circumstances came together with mine as unexpectedly as our relationship, and everything that we’ve both learned from each other in the last year. I’ve concluded that, as with all major boons, you must to be willing to enter the contest, present to win and open to accepting the gift when it comes along, which is often not at a time of your planning or preparedness. That’s why I simply said yes and continue to be surprised at how not-terrifying it is to pass through this great window of change, which once seemed gargantuan and impossible to navigate.
In the end, it’s not my bonehead upstairs neighbor who I credit for spurring me into action, but the universal forces that brought him into my life. They provided the circumstances for me to realize that it’s time to go, that there’s another life waiting for me — a relationship that I am, after all this time, finally ready to engage in. Mere days away, our new life is located on the top floor of a brand-new building that faces onto a green courtyard with a fountain. We’ll have a private balcony and even a rooftop terrace where a group of friends can come gather, outside, together, all of us collectively at once in the light.
It’s taken me twelve years in Seattle to swim in an indoor pool. Or, more accurately, it has taken me thirty-five years to return to one.
In Arizona, where I grew up, no one had indoor pools. In the desert, the primary point of water is cooling more so than sport or recreation, though they follow closely behind. The only rightful place for pools in Phoenix is outdoors. The 300-plus days of sunshine and fair weather ensure they will be used virtually year-round whereas in Seattle, ninety days of traditionally defined summer is a tenuous proposition hardly worth the expense.
While I shuddered to imagine daring an outdoor swim here on a frigid, rainy December night, I also balked at the idea of swimming indoors. It was simply unnatural. Each time I longed for the water, I conjured the acidic stink of chlorine held captive by a cavernous brick building rather than set free into the sunny blue sky. No thank you.
My first indoor pool experience happened in Michigan where my mother took me for swimming lessons as a toddler, determined that I would learn things she never did. While I didn’t mind being in the water, I refused to put my cherubic face under. For weeks, my mother and swim teacher cajoled and begged with no success. I would wade and dog paddle, but not submerge. I was plenty nice about it, no fussing or crying, but there was no way I was going under. Then someone brilliantly suggested bribery. One flip of a shiny quarter into the water, followed by a guttural glug! as it submerged, and down I went.
In my defense, twenty-five cents was a worth a lot more back then.
After we moved to Arizona, I was thankful that mom sprang for those lessons, since most of my friends had pools. I went to so many birthday pool parties growing up that my fingers are still pruny. Those of us who didn’t have our own pools gathered frequently at neighborhood pools in our master planned community. They weren’t quite public pools –they were only for residents and guests, and were well maintained– but they weren’t luxurious, either. The metal gates and restroom cabanas had been painted beige far too many times, and the palm trees that provided scant shade had seen enough seasons as to be gangly. There were always too many kids splashing around to do anything useful, like swimming laps; mostly, we went to get tan or flirt with boys, or practice underwater tricks like handstands.
The gentle baking sensation of the sun drying beaded water from my skin goes hand-in-hand with swimming, even today; without the sun to warm me, it seems daft to swim inside. It’s a lunacy akin to driving to the gym in order to walk on a treadmill. Each morning, I think, Really? but it’s 5:30 am and dark and rainy and cold, so I do it, just like I drive myself to the community pool at night, bundled up in fleece. As soon as I arrive, I head for the dry sauna rather than shiver on the sidelines as they pull the lane markers across the water.
Not only has my swim venue shifted in adulthood; so have the outfit and accessories. In Arizona, I wore an off-the-shelf suit where today most one-pieces are designed to be alluring rather than functional. Nothing like noticing parts of oneself floating by to send a girl to the Speedo department pronto. Back then, no one bothered with shoes, which were usually left outside someone’s back door. Our hair flowed free, growing more brittle and light each summer as our eyes reddened from whatever hazardous chemical cocktail they shocked pools with.
Today, I wear a swim cap, which is essentially required in a public pool. What a hilarious dance it is to get my shoulder-length mane inside the tight black cap, something I attempted for the first time ever in December. After minutes of desperate tucking, I looked like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman at the end of Batman Returns, frizzy strands poking out every which way from shreds of black rubber hugging my face. Somehow, she managed to appear crazy-sexy while I looked deranged and old, the cap pushing down my forehead into a stack of Shar Pei wrinkles above my eyes. I snapped a selfie only to realize later that I looked like aged elephant seal. (To be fair, Michelle had lipstick and eyeliner working for her in the movie.)
Then, there are the goggles. No one wore them when I was a kid, except for Olympic athletes on TV. We wore cheap, leaky plastic masks for a few seconds in order to explore the bottom of the pool, then quickly ditched them to play Marco Polo. Wearing contact lenses as an adult, there is no way to swim without goggles. At least I don’t stand out, since everyone wears them in Seattle, even kids. We look like a hive of near-sighted soggy bees buzzing back and forth to the hive.
To top this off, I can’t forget the hot pink Croc flip-flops with massaging soles. While I cringe at wearing anything by Croc, I really cringe at contracting ringworm and foot fungus. I stand on top of my Crocs even while changing, fearing diseases that friends have caught in gym locker rooms from going without footwear. In Arizona, we ran barefoot across the Kooldeck with abandon, but here, I won’t step on the concrete floor until the last minute when I am forced to leave my shoes next to my towel before dashing into the water. Admittedly, I live by a bizarre and wholly unscientific five-second rule by which I am safe if I madly tiptoe-dance across the surface because surely ringworm takes at least ten seconds of full-foot contact to set in.
This is a lot of effort for the actual amount of swimming I do, which is about forty minutes. Of course, when I say forty minutes, it’s closer to twenty-five, given all the panting and pausing between laps. In the last few months, my friend Amie and I have given a new definition to the SLOW lane, urging the septuagenarian who had clearly claimed it for his own to join the MEDIUM lane next door. On our first night, grandpa lapped us several times over; on our second, he tried to pass me on the inside, only to face a near head-on collision with the portly side-stroke floater going the opposite direction. Frustrated, he splashed under the lane marker to the MEDIUM lane, which is where he now remains, shaking his head when he looks over at us.
Our strokes are another matter entirely. The teenage staff guffaw as we slap our hands into the water like geese downed by jet engines. On our first swim night, the sixteen-year-old lifeguard suggested that I not lift my head out of the water so much during my crawl stroke; I nodded and thanked her, thinking, When was I doing the crawl? Had I inadvertently mastered a new stroke? At home, Google told me that the crawl and freestyle, which is what I thought I was doing, are the same. I studied the diagrams, not sure that I had been doing anything that resembled any of the images.
The next time I swam I wanted to explain to her, Just so you know, I keep my head up too long because I am close to dying each time I gasp for breath between strokes. It turns out that swimming is much more of a workout than I imagined. As a kid, I remembered being pleasantly tired coming out of the pool before gorging on hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and soda served by someone’s mom after hours of play. Swimming laps back and forth as an adult is altogether exhausting, and quickly so. I can barely catch my breath at the deep end before turning around. With each lap, and I use that term loosely, I alternate strokes –breast stroke or freestyle, er, crawl– so that I can make it back to rest on the shallow end. Sometimes, I use a kick board for alternating laps, my tired thighs becoming slabs of veal, smooth and creamy, without an ounce of short-twitch muscle in them.
Anyone who shares our lane is thoroughly confused, wondering why Amie and I spend so much time huddled up against the wall at the shallow end, panting. We seem awfully polite, smiling and nodding, Oh no, you go ahead, as the other swimmers splash forward with their fluid strokes and fancy kick turns, going back and forth across the water like skates. Last week, the eight-year-old Chinese girl who swims under her parents’ watchful eyes paused and tilted her head at us, close to asking why we never take our turns as often as we could. I wanted to say, Hey kid, it’s not that we’re all that nice, we’re just old and tired, but I think that my outfit gives that away already. At least Amie has a pink cap so she looks like a cute water ballerina next to my tar baby seal head.
When you start out swimming, your body is inefficient. Without synchronous mastery of the strokes, you’re working harder than you need to, working against yourself to go the same distance that an efficient swimmer like my auntie can cover in shorter time with less effort. Watching the Seattle Pacific University men’s swim team in the FAST lanes reminds me of this, their lean Michael Phelps frames gliding gracefully back and forth across the water like mer-men — zip, zoom, paddle, kick-turn, zip, zoom, paddle, kick-turn, zip, zoom, paddle, and so on, like it was nothing. Conversely, my moves consist of push-off, ka-blam, ka-blam, gasp, pause, ka-blam, ka-blam, spit, gasp, pause, ka-blam, ka-blam, sputter-spit, gasp, ka-blam, ka-blam, oh-thank-god-I-made-it-to-the-deep-end. Occasionally, Amie and I look over at the boys in their Speedo briefs, not an extra ounce of flesh on them, and feel like Mrs. Robinson.
There is no sweeter moment than when we call time, high-fiving each other for showing up, tossing our kick boards onto the pile before huddling into the hot box to warm up, our reward before we hit the showers. After listening to us discuss our struggling performance, one denizen suggested that we practice our kick turns, insisting that they would be game-changers. After he left, we laughed, agreeing that we first needed to be able to swim back-to-back laps before kick turns would be of any use. I pictured us executing perfect kick-turns before sinking to the bottom, out of breath. On the plus side, maybe the SPU students would give us mouth-to-mouth.
It’s a nice idea, though, that some day this might be easier. Some day, Amie and I will be the old ladies making a big splash, ducking under the floating markers to the MEDIUM lane. I bet you’ll marvel at our kick turns.
You know those large, illuminated maps in shopping malls, the ones bearing a big red dot with the words, YOU ARE HERE? As she does each week, Beth opened our Saturday yoga class with a parable that prefaced the morning’s lesson, employing one of those signs as a metaphor.
Typically, the theme of class ranges from softening judgement on our limitations, like how flexible we’re not, to investigating the need for sensation beyond what’s necessary, known as cranking the dial to eleven. Most often, it relates to being mentally present in our physical bodies, an uphill battle if you consider how early we’re conditioned to drift. As youngsters in school and church, we spend the majority of our childhoods distracted, gazing out windows, picturing ourselves somewhere else. As adults, we zone out in meetings as co-workers drone on about mission statements and the quarterly budget.
From television and digital devices to old-fashioned daydreaming, we live our lives in a constant undercurrent of escape — that is, until we show up for yoga class where we are reminded to be present. We pay spry bodhisattvas to center us in the same world that we seek to avoid the other twenty-three hours of the day. Decidedly undisciplined, we insist that it’s too hard, that we caaaaan’t meditate, can’t focus. Yet we keep showing up, keep paying people to remind us to be present.
YOU ARE HERE, Beth said firmly as we shifted from one asana to the next. Reach up to the ceiling with both hands and lengthen into a gentle backbend. You are embodied. What does that feel like? Bring your hands together over your heart and close your eyes. Fold forward, uttanasana, standing forward bend. Can you fan your feet to feel the edges of each toe on the mat, the outside of your heels in contact with the earth? Step or spring your feet back, adho mukha svanasana, downward-facing dog. Can you feel the places that are tender where you might need to back off? Is it possible to accept those sensations as a moment in time? This is what it’s like to be here now, alive in your body. Do you have to fight it? Judge it? Come forward into plank pose and hover for just a minute.
Plank is a love-hate pose, especially for those with shoulder problems, because it calls for upper body strength. You’re hovering above the ground, realizing just how strong Jean-Claude Van Damme actually must have been to pull off those movie stunts. All the while, you’re negotiating how much longer you can hold the pose (Ten seconds? Five seconds?) Your mind springs into action, the pose becoming a contest to outlast your neighbor instead of an effort to inhabit the form with your body in all of its vulnerabilities.
Is the twanginess in your shoulders more about weakness from disuse, which can improve, or is it the calcified remains of injury? You plunge into the past, replaying circumstances of the hurt, the months of therapy, remembering how easy this pose used to be, how potent you felt. When will –or will it– heal? Maybe you’ve been babying it when the shoulder actually needs to be strengthened. You consider changing your weightlifting routine and off you go: disengaged, disembodied, a rat’s nest of thoughts instead of an integrated, present human being in plank pose.
Beth reminds us, “YOU ARE HERE.”
It’s unusual to turn forty and not have to contend with several minor injuries. You trade these grumbles like baseball cards with middle-aged friends: I’ll swap your corns and bone spurs for shoulder impingement, a torn ACL and a detached retina. Some of you no longer ski or snowboard; others have stopped running. You’re not even old yet and you’re shuffling around like there’s a disabled parking spot out there with your name on it. When a whipper-snapper complains about being almost thirty…in two years…you wish you had a cane to club him with.
It’s hard not to compare and contrast the state of your embodiment today with what it once was; the vigor of your twenties and thirties happened only moments ago. Still, you can no longer press 200 pounds with your legs, at least not without creaky knees or tendons. The college students sharing your lane at the community pool lap you with whip-sharp kick turns like it’s nothing. You mistakenly assume that the high level of function you knew is normal, meaning a baseline for the present and the future, rather than a short-lived pinnacle that comes early in life. You begin to reason that, if you take care of yourself and you’re lucky, the downward slide will be gradual, but underneath you suspect that you don’t get a say.
The fragile decline of embodiment can seem depressing when laid out like this, but it’s funny, too. I tittered as I took hold of the pink box of Phillips pro-biotic pills emblazoned with PROMOTES COLON FUNCTION on the front. It screamed YOU ARE HERE… IN LINE AT BARTELL DRUGS WITH SOMETHING THAT SAYS COLON ON IT FOR EVERYONE TO SEE.
My doctor had sent me in search of meds after the second severe flare-up of fever and abdominal pain, concerned that I might have picked up a parasite or bacteria in Colombia, or that the effects of January’s food poisoning were lingering. While we waited for answers, I had to allay this severe intestinal distress. Grimacing, I waited in line until it was my turn, keeping the box tucked in my hand. “Hello, ma’am, how are you?” the check-out girl asked cheerfully as I placed it on the counter.
I narrowed my eyes and nearly demanded, “Do you see what I’m buying here?!” but instead opted to stew about her calling me ma’am. Doesn’t matter what you purchase –cough drops, lice combs, yeast infection meds– they ask you the same question in that same chipper voice. No wonder why old people are grouchy. We drag ourselves to the store to buy expensive crap to keep our faltering human bodies going, and they’re asking us how our day is, like they don’t see the ailments that we’re plunking down in pharmaceutical form before them. No one buying an enema kit is having an especially good day, even if the kit is for someone else –the implied assistance is worse than the procedure itself, gauging from the couple next to me in line– and by the way, calling us ma’am adds insult to injury.
Then, it sinks in: I’m the same age that my mother was when I thought she was too old to relate to. She was a ma’am, an adult. She had a mom car and a mom purse. She no longer wore cute shoes with heels over an inch high. As I paid for my colon pills in my flat Timberland boots (“Would you like a bag for that, ma’am?”) I realized two things: one, I had forgotten to buy denture cleaner for my night guard, and two, I owned a mom car (still under 40,000 miles after nine years) and a mom purse (damn you, Garnet Hill.) Worth noting that, while I may have backslid into wearing leggings, there is not a power in the universe that can force me to don mom jeans.
So, which was worse, the fact that denture cleaner AND colon medication made it on my shopping list, or that I had forgotten the denture stuff, which might indicate an early onset of senility? Was it the fact that I was buying this stuff at all? And when had I become ma’am to everyone? This week alone, three people asked for my career advice which, I realized, is only something people do when you’re old enough to actually have advice to give. One of them was half my age, which sets me squarely in ma’am territory.
This wouldn’t be the only time that I would leave a place chuckling absently, shaking my head. My symptoms demanded that I produce an –ahem– sample to determine the nature of their origin. I emailed my physician about the dilemma of retrieval. “Dear Dr. X, As a command performance at the lab is unlikely, are you thinking that I should collect the sample at home? Should I use a plastic bag? (Sorry, this is so gross.) Any suggestions you can share are welcome.” As I hit send, I laughed nervously, feeling embarrassed yet entertained by the ridiculousness of my questions as much as the predicament itself.
The elderly deal with these effects of embodiment all the time, which is why health as a discussion topic trumps weather any day. I made this comment to everyone who asked how I was doing. Let me tell you about my digestive tract and how I came down with fever, not just once but twice. I think it’s from the food poisoning, but I might have a little intestinal hitchhiker. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or if it’s just stomach cramps, but I’ve got to eat something, you know? The pro-biotic drinks I usually take aren’t as good as these colon pills (I highly recommend the Phillips brand.)
The joke continues to be on me, of course, wondering when my insides are going to feel “normal” again. I read that, sometimes after a severe event, people develop lactose intolerance or IBS. Someone likened it to upsetting all of the furniture in your apartment – you need to give the good bugs time to settle back in, find their right place between the sofa and the coffee table. While they do, this unsettled sensation is the new normal. YOU ARE HERE, I thought, so get used to it. Despite my attempts to focus, I soon became lost in thought, devising how to collect, package and transport my sample, concerned that I might have to take it with me on the bus.
In all my worry over logistics, I psyched myself out for a few days. There was nary a specimen to be had. On the plus side, it gave me time to get comfortable with my plan as it developed. If things started moving on Friday, was there enough time to stop at the lab before work? I imagined being discovered on the aptly-named Route #2, as several riders had dogs who find me out immediately. Instead of the bus, I could take Car2Go during the week. Maybe I should aim for an evening drop-off when my schedule is more relaxed and I could drive over? The weekend would be best –I could get street parking if I went early– but was the lab open on Saturdays?
In plank pose, hover your knees just about the floor and take three breaths. Now gently bring your knees to the floor and lower yourself without letting your belly touch first. Bring yourself down in an integrated manner; go slowly and don’t allow your core to shut off. YOU ARE HERE. Lengthen your legs, bring your arms to your sides and lift up, arms and legs, into shalabhasana, locust pose. Breathe.
Watching my mother develop a terminal illness when I was a child is one cause for my underlying angst at growing older. It isn’t so much about vanity, although don’t get me started about wrinkles and creases. It’s more about scary math, like how many years are left before I’m the same age that she was at her diagnosis, or how many years until I’m the same age she was when she died. Today, those gaps are narrower than ever. It makes me hope with the kind of fleeting hope that you hope you never actually have to hope with that I will escape her future, the seemingly small complaints that metastasize into a massive and uncontrollable ailment.
Instead, I whip out funny stories and let the gross-out factor guide me. Better to employ humorous revulsion for the task at hand as a means of garnering advice and attention at a time when I don’t want to think about that possible future. This is avoidance, I remind myself. I listen for Beth’s voice: YOU ARE HERE.
So began my Saturday. The scientist in me felt confident with my established protocol: turn off the water to the toilet and flush the toilet until the tank and bowl are empty, yielding an unimpeded surface for sample collection. Have a disposable transfer device at the ready, as well as a makeshift containment system. While untested, I believed that my three-part system would hold — it had to, since I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up a sterile kit from the lab ahead of time. These items were laid out at the ready like surgeon’s tools.
A phone call revealed that the lab opened at 8 am, giving me plenty of time to drive to yoga after dropping off the sample. As I handed it to the young woman in the white smock, she looked puzzled and tried not to laugh. “I’m not sure this is going to work…” From a brown paper sac, she removed the labeled Ziploc bag with the disposable Tupperware container inside. “What time did you collect this?”
“Six-thirty this morning.”
She furrowed her brow, but it was apparently an acceptable time frame, so she left to ask the technician if they could use it. I waited in the stiff phlebotomy chair where they’ve drawn my blood before. For once, I wasn’t nervous to sit there.
It was kind of funny, after all, how much I had dreaded navigating this sequence of events, completing this extra chore whose doing I resisted more than the actual knowledge of what might be wrong with me. Like in yoga, the mind flees to fields of distraction rather than remaining present with sensation and discomfort. I had fretted for days, which made it all the more anti-climactic when the woman returned to say that it was going to work out fine. “Good thinking to use a clear container!” she praised.
From downward-facing dog, raise your right leg behind you and bring it forward between your planted hands. Bring your back heel down and raise your arms into warrior two. Feel into the edges of your feet and your back heel. Square your right knee above your toes and roll your right buttock underneath you. Enliven your left leg — don’t let it become an inert kick stand. YOU ARE HERE. Soften your gaze and feel your strength streaming out through your arms. Lean back and open your chest to the sky, as if the person behind you is providing support. Give thanks that you are healthy enough to practice today.
As I walked out of the lab, the young woman called after me, “Have a nice weekend, ma’am.” I turned to thank her, ready to begin my day but not ready for the title that everyone agreed to confer upon me –ma’am– or the lot of humanity embodied within it. A developing self-image takes time to actualize, if not practice.
Those who didn’t venture near the Washington State Convention Center in the last four days are likely unaware that over 10,000 writers converged in Seattle for the 2014 AWP national conference. (Although, if you found it impossible to enter your favorite bar —or it was out of booze— you may have had a hint.)
Walking over to pick up my badge, I couldn’t believe it: never before had I heard people on the corner of 6th & Pike talking genre, developmental editing and small presses—and I don’t mean for coffee. Someone had opened a Pandora’s Box of nerdy writer speak, topics I don’t usually discuss outside of Hugo House (because… um, why?), which drifted between countless strangers wearing lime green lanyards and canvas tote bags. Some were Writers and others were writers, the strangers noted, but what struck me was that they came in all shapes, colors and sizes, most of them from outside Seattle. Maybe it was my head cold, but I smiled at the dizzying diversity and sameness among them, thinking, These are my people.
My fellow scriveners may not have felt equally enthusiastic about me, as I likely infected everyone I sat next to with my cold. (I keep waiting for Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman to come looking for me dressed in fatigues and masks.) Still, I had purchased a one-day pass and there was no way I wasn’t going to use it.
In the end, the virus saved me from another epidemic, one of blistering hangovers, though I didn’t feel much better on Saturday morning than if I had downed two bottles of wine and stayed up late talking about plotting the realist novel or women’s travel writing. Still, tweets like Tired is the new drunk, Ready for my power nap – this spot of carpet looks ideal and Saturday at AWP: where ‘hungover’ is a perfectly acceptable answer to ‘How are you?’ made me feel like I both missed something and did not.
One of few to emerge seemingly unscathed was Roxane Gay, who tweeted: There is vomit on the sidewalk outside of the Sheraton. Be careful out there. (Not mine. I am grown.) only to find a note and a ‘complimentary amenity’ from the hotel as thanks for the warning. If we are to believe countless blogs, tweets and articles about AWP, including Peter Mountford’s chuckle-worthy round-up for The Stranger, it seems that what makes a writer is not only the ability to write well, but the capacity to struggle, sulk, pine, drink copious amounts of alcohol, attend readings, wax narcissistic about one’s writing career—and repeat. (And, for poets, to be crazy-awesome at sex. Peter, do tell.)
It’s hard to argue with this comical yet sloppy caricature of writers because, from a certain standpoint, it’s true. Many writers I know can out-drink the construction workers I know. And they do suffer and pine (the writers, not the construction workers, whose physical labor boosts their endorphins and helps sweat out the booze.) In the past five years, I’ve come to know more writers than I’ve ever known and I’ve been surprised at how little common ground we sometimes share, perhaps because I, too, am a sufferer and a piner and a loner, and often feel misunderstood (okay, a lot) and, let’s face it, writers are kind of weird, me included. When we’re wrapped up in our own stories, it’s hard to bridge the gap more than superficially.
Yet, the weird-loner-boozy-writer myth is only as powerful as we make it. We embrace that illusion because it loosely fits and it seems cool and because we, frankly, are not. Our fears, not only of failure but, more pointedly, of mediocrity and anonymity, drive us to conjure the spirits of Hemingway and Stein, Plath and Proulx, imagining ourselves living hard-scrabble lives on remote ranches (Ooh – a perfect writer’s retreat! How do I apply?) or yearning to down a fifth of whiskey, believing that it will help us conjure works that are brilliant and life-changing (Breadloaf Scotland, anyone?)
We like the idea that there is a reward (publishing, fame) for our suffering, because what human who lives doesn’t suffer? As writers, we are tempted to let our insight into that universal suffering overtake us, and in doing so, we scout with wicked, solipsistic anticipation for ways to jab our own heads into hot ovens. Anything for a juicy life experience -er- story that will sell millions of copies of our navel-gazing survival journey through it. That’s print and digital, by the way. And film rights. Finally, all of those people who didn’t believe in us will be sorry, sorry, sorry. And jealous. And then we’ll win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Posthumously, but still.
That word, solipsistic, was spoken at nearly every session I attended. Like fashion, language is cyclical, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear this word-cum-meme bandied about at a writer’s conference — a place where we, as artists, assert that we represent the common person when we really represent ourselves in the guise of the common person. Whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry, writers translate the world through sullied lenses, even as we try to distance ourselves from the voice of our narrators or the slant of our story angles. As authors, we are urged to separate from our works, especially in memoir, where we must rise above our own suffering, humble ourselves fast and brutally, and search for something higher and richer while still keeping it entertaining. The few arts that aim to do this –to definitively separate maker from medium, rather than leverage the artist’s identity and art as one– are based on the written word. No wonder why writers drink — and attend conferences in the hopes of finding fellowship with writer-friends who drink.
Each night, I watched them come together at AWP events happening throughout town via social media from my tissue-littered couch. There were too many to attend even if I was well, from a pajama party with Chuck Palahniuk at Elliott Bay Books to readings by my favorite writers at every bar on Capitol Hill. Two more days of panels would have been fun, but these gatherings are what I’m truly sad to have missed. (Is it too early to sign up for AWP15 in Minneapolis? Maybe I can nab an Amtrak writer residency on the trip there…)
Though I didn’t see vomit-strewn sidewalks or writers napping on patches of carpet, I still feel like I had a good taste of AWP. Typically, half the reason for attending a conference is to explore a new city; in this case, AWP helped me see my home town from a different perspective. For one, I was able to witness our brand outside the Pacific Northwest debated constantly: I can’t believe how many Starbucks there are in Seattle – the hype is real! and The sun has been out for two days straight. We’ve been lied to. When someone on a panel euphemistically referred to his employer as “a very large technology corporation,” I whispered “Microsoft” to the confused Kentuckian next to me. In a day filled with insider lingo, at least I knew the local dialect.
That was my biggest takeaway from AWP: as a writer, I am a part of a larger community — not just Hugo House, but bigger. I’m still learning, but I speak the language. The challenges of its people are also mine. We share a common code. The self-perpetuated loner-writer mantra makes us forget that and, other than providing much-needed quiet necessary for writing, only does us a disservice. Being alone (as in lonely) is not cool, and neither is drinking alone, even less so when done in the presence of drugs or shotguns. Or ovens. If we, as writers, are made to open windows into the facets of humanity through the power of story, then we must embrace our nature as a social species: we can’t just write about people connecting, we must make a point to connect. This means pulling a comb through our hair and leaving the house occasionally. It means talking to the person next to us on the bus or at the coffee shop… or the conference. If we’re to write about people with any accuracy, we need to risk relating with them, including other writers.
Every session I attended —from panels on genre to memoir (my favorite: How to Spill Your Guts Without Making a Mess)— underscored the importance of human connection as equal to or greater than craft. While the titles of each varied, the message was the same: Rise above thy [solipsistic] nature and connect. Search for the universal truth, not singular suffering. Keep it simple, keep it real. Be patient. Resist the temptation to submit on the first draft. Other pearls included:
Who is the right person to tell the story—the person at the center, or the edges?
Don’t get caught up in writer’s problems (form, ego) over the driving question, the point of the struggle/story itself.
Memoir is not autobiography: it’s not full disclosure and it’s not about spilling guts. That’s a journal.
Writing that is worthwhile has consequences.
Four rules: Treat people with dignity. Be harder on yourself than anyone else. Never write to settle scores. Write beautifully – it invites its own forgiveness.
Data is not information is not knowledge is not understanding is not wisdom.
Think of plot not in terms of events but cause and effect. What will your characters do to complicate their lives? Plot is a connective tissue rather than a series of milestones; it’s the long answer to a short question that we all wonder about.
Beware making writing too beautiful too early; certain passages will become unmalleable and lend themselves to breaking entirely before the work is done.
Memoir is a response to the silences we encounter: the family memoirs of the 1970s are a response to the “perfect” families of the 1950s like the motherhood memoirs of today are a response to the have-it-all 80s.
Only the shallow know themselves. (Oscar Wilde)
You’re writing to bridge, not to highlight yourself. Allow some room on the page for everyone who isn’t you. Keep your own suffering in perspective.
In the eight years that I’ve worked with architects, I’ve heard many people sigh, I’ve always wanted to be an architect. I’ve heard an equal amount wish to be writers, including a few architects. My answer to both: No, you don’t. If the lawyers who wanted to be architects knew how many late nights they’d work drawing window details for low pay, their notions of cape-flinging bow-tied fame would disappear with a puff of e-cigarette smoke. Likewise, if those who dreamed of being writers knew how many hours it took to write a blog post or a shitty first draft of a short story –or the ten, twenty, fifty drafts between that and the finished piece– likely for no pay even if it was accepted by one of the forty publications they submitted it to, they would reconsider their wistful plea.
The difference between the wishers and the doers is exactly that. Some of us are up past midnight sketching or marking up that fiftieth draft because we can’t not do it. That’s what the solipsistic part of me insists, the part that feels only her own struggles, the side that wants people to know just how hard she works — the small, mean person who wants to flick those who take her life’s endeavor lightly through their boastful wishing: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I should write a book.
It’s because of those innocent fantasies and greedy myths —the bohemian author tripping the life fantastic awash with big ideas and interesting friends slurping booze in a Paris salon— that even writers have trouble seeing what it really takes to be a working literary artist. Rather than a life of leisurely boozing and dining, it means a separate career during the day, whether you are Charles Dickens, Charles Lamb, Richard Hugo or contemporary authors like Peter Mountford or Frances McCue. Each time any of us wishes aloud to be Hemingway or Stein, Plath or Proulx, we’re selling ourselves on a fiction, hastily convincing ourselves that writing comes easy for those meant to write, and that, as writers, we are owed a moody fantasy life that simply doesn’t exist.
Being a writer isn’t about notebooks or laptops or coffee shops or master’s degrees or agents or even best-sellers, but a relentless drive to create, no matter the cost or how long it takes. It’s about rejection, which means that you’ve attempted something. It’s about accepting risk. It’s about failing. More importantly, it’s about the desire to connect, if only we can get out of our own near-sighted way.
That’s why it takes a few turns at AWP, and a few decades of getting our hands dirty actually writing, to really get it. Some people’s careers take off early in life, and they are the exception. We need to hear that loud and often: writing takes work, it takes giving and receiving support from other writers, and it is mostly unglamorous. However, if it’s what you love, then writing is its own reward; it will, in its own right, eventually give rise to the universal truths that we all seek. If you really are a writer, not just a wisher, then by definition you cannot stop writing, and thus, you will not be able to avoid happening upon them.
One panelist quoted advice by Annie Dillard that stuck with me: Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
In other words, let’s get it right, let’s tell it true. Get to it –how can we not?– but don’t rush.
Scene: A small theater in the early morning hours. A bank of empty seats faces a scuffed black stage framed by red velvet curtains. A single spotlight illuminates the stage, raised three feet above the main floor. Dust motes dance in the air.
Enter a WOMAN with shoulder-length brown tresses. She takes the stage, a thick book in hand.
Woman: [clears throat] He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, will yearly on the vigil feast with his neighbors and say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.” Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars—
Ghost: You didn’t write that, you know.
Woman: Huh? [WOMAN turns around, scanning backstage] Of course not.
Ghost: You’re reciting it like you did.
Woman: It’s fitting to read Shakespeare aloud, given the setting. Who are you?
Ghost: A ghost.
Woman: Where are you? [Turns to scan the empty seats]
Ghost: In your mind. That’s how I know you’ve never been in a fist fight, let alone a war. Saint Crispian’s day, indeed. Why not read something more your speed?
Woman: Maybe you’re right. [WOMAN shrugs, flips through book] To be… or not to be, that is the question—
Ghost: Oh, please. You have about as much in common with a mad Danish prince as Miley Cyrus.
Woman: [Grumbles and turns pages] O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Woman: [Eyes narrowed, her rapid page turning rips the onion skin paper] There would have been a time for such a word, tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. [WOMAN pauses, anticipating GHOST’s interruption, then continues] Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Ghost: You didn’t write it, but it sounds familiar.
Woman: Gee, thanks. So, why are you here?
Ghost: It’s two-thirty in the morning and you’re pacing on the stage of an empty playhouse reading Shakespeare. Cue the ghost. You tell me: why am I here?
Woman: To be or not to be… [WOMAN shrugs, sets down the book] I want to be that good. I want to make something that gives people chills when they hear it in the dark.
Ghost: You want fame? Adoration?
Woman: Not exactly. I want to get it right. With one sentence in a hundred, maybe two, I really hit it. I can feel it when I’ve made something good.
Woman: Those moments are few and far between. I’ve received so many rejections that I could wallpaper my house. If I was really good, wouldn’t I have an agent or a book deal? A essay in Modern Love?
Ghost: The best writers in the world are rejected thousands of times, just like you. Are they really untouchable geniuses? Or maybe they wanted it more than you? Enough of the bard. Where’s your material?
Woman: Not ready yet.
Ghost: So, how’s anyone going to hear you?
Woman: Point taken.
Ghost: I mean it. Get to it, girl. We could both use some sleep. [WOMAN scrapes the toe of her shoe on the stage] Well?
Woman: I’m capable, but it’s harder than I thought. That’s a sign, isn’t it? I write for hours and my work is still filled with cavities of stupid and mean. Some nights, it feels like I’m so close, like if I could just throw off this heavy thing, I could fly… [WOMAN steps to center stage under the spotlight] You have dreams growing up —everyone has to be good at something, right?— and this was it for me. But being good isn’t enough. Maybe I’ll never be anything more than a woman on an empty stage reciting someone else’s words because they’re always better than her own.
Ghost: That’s only true if you don’t write them.
Woman: What if they’re never worthy?
Ghost: I guess that’s up to you.
Like most high-performing self-made individuals, I believed writing would be easy when I finally did it my way. My Midwest work ethic also said that I would find success through diligence, like in my daytime career. I mean success in the sense of a progression of upwardly mobile milestones, such as title, salary and responsibility — things tangible to others besides me. I only needed to show my work to be discovered, and thus, promptly rewarded with a book deal that would transform me into Stephen King or Anne Rice.
In preparation, I read books on craft and the philosophy of writing. I attended workshops, submitted work to literary journals and applied for residencies, grants and fellowships. I read contemporary authors, something I had never done in college, and got to know some of them personally. In the last four years, I laid the groundwork, waiting for a defining moment, some sort of coronation that conferred a title: Writer. I didn’t realize that, in my actions to become a writer, I was making myself into an artist. (And that I would write and edit more drafts of my work than I had imagined possible.)
To me, the title of Artist was equivalent to mystic celebrity. Artists had styles, grappled with taboo issues, rattled off statements of purpose, experimented with processes and implements that no one has considered before. They worked all night. They appeared on magazine covers and event listings. They had fans and websites. They won commissions. A turn of phrase overheard at a party could inspire a brilliant series of paintings or new book heralded as genius. It looked effortless for them and impossible for most everyone else.
To make a plan that yields an established artistic career as if it were a tin of muffins is unrealistic. There is no formula, no how-to book. You can read a thousand interviews to suss out a common strategy, but all you’ll find is that artists are simply people who absorb what’s around them and are capable of getting lost in it. Their work is rooted in observing, exploring and reinterpreting their experience as embodied beings. They use this process to understand the world, posing questions that many of us don’t stop to ponder, let alone identify. First lost, then found. That’s where the hard part really comes. Artists spend an awful lot of time wading through with no promise of an answer, let alone one others agree is correct or worthy. They allow themselves to be fascinated, obsessed. They ask, they try, they risk, they learn, they share, they repeat.
In between, there is a lot of failure. It’s not easy, not for anyone, including the masters. When, after hundreds of hours spent on a single piece, the artist realizes it is intrinsically flawed, that it will never be born in its current incarnation, that the only way to save the good parts are to pick them out piecemeal and use them elsewhere, or never—but she can’t stop making the art because she learned something in failing—that is hard. The risk and process of failing makes it difficult for some to view art as anything but idle play or a waste of time. After all, if a goalie missed more balls than she deflected or a lawyer lost more cases than she won, would either keep her job?
Like many, I grew up believing in rules, order and safe choices. I was raised to be obedient not expressive. I was not encouraged to challenge the process, empower others besides myself or pursue an artistic voice; I didn’t think the former or latter was possible, frankly. Thus, my greatest challenge as a writer is to ignore the Swiss watch that powers my thinking. My lizard brain doesn’t like tiptoeing through tulips or doubling back on blind alleys. Those activities are not efficient and ultimately distract from a short path to success.
For a long time, I didn’t understand that the diligence my parents drilled into me —the planning, checking and back-checking, the persevering work ethic— doesn’t contradict with an artistic life, but support it. It’s what holds the tiptoeing together rather than restrains its expression, unless I let it. I was under the misconception that “real” artists did far more luxurious exploring, receiving bursts of brilliance on command. They knew which alleys were dead-ends without having to traverse them; to be creative meant already knowing the answer. Imagine my surprise at learning that artists actually use struggle to discover things — that the outcomes often surprise them, that their work comes from training and rigor rather than ease?
Since my re-start as a writer in 2010, I’ve been so focused on establishing legitimacy and success (again, whatever that means) that my practice evolved without me realizing it. My goal —get published— spun off unplanned experiences that helped me develop as an artist. Turns out that, by writing, I became a writer. In four years, I’ve written and self-published a book. I’ve started this blog. I’ve learned spoken performance. I’ve sold a fiction story that will be published this year. These are tangible outputs. Yet, underneath it, writing is the hour equivalent of a part-time job, most of whose activities will never meet the light of day. Am I succeeding or failing? How will I know when I’m there?
I asked myself this throughout our Leadership Tomorrow Arts and Culture Challenge Day earlier this month, which we spent in the Cornish Playhouse (formerly, the Intiman Theater.) Listening to the wisdom and performances of professional artists and arts administrators, it felt like I was still at the beginning. They discussed with confidence the importance of story to leadership, taking us through kinesthetic exercises that illustrated the dynamics of teamwork, creativity and trust. We heard live performances from musicians and writers whose abilities conferred on them the title of Artist. Did someone tell them that they were worthy, or did they just know it? Did any of them feel that they were there yet?
As artists, there is always more to do, not in the sense of winning, but uncovering new territory through both intuition and stumbling in the dark. It also means clarifying one’s perspective. What questions are worth exploring, and what unique stance do we take to yield focus to that questioning? Life is art is life, which becomes more interesting as one’s perspective changes over time. Age and experience supply us with new material, and hopefully, enough vision and fortitude to make something from it. Art can grant us purpose and drive, but we have to risk staking a claim, or it’s useless.
That’s where there is. There is risk. There being in flow. It’s not knowing an answer as much as it is knowing how to explore and translate a question, whether into a play, a sonnet, a glass bowl or a song. There is not forcing the process to happen in a given time. It means accepting failure in plumbing these depths when impenetrable bedrock forces us to find another way. There is the pure love of making, whether someone applauds or agrees or not, whether you get picked second instead of first every single time—or not.
In a risk-averse world that prizes completion and consensus, artistic pursuit –and failure– can seem pointless, perhaps even shaming. We fear being fired, losing friends, getting dumped, being laughed at, making public mistakes and being wrong. We sometimes fear living as much as dying. We fear not knowing. It’s a squalid mess in which to find inspiration, unless we see how fertile the squalid mess actually is and fearlessly embrace it. Artist, know thyself.
When I entered the Cornish Playhouse, I saw a cover of CityArts on display featuring Tomo Nakayama, lead singer of Grand Hallway. I was first introduced to his hauntingly beautiful music at a Hugo House Literary Series event a couple years ago. That weekend, when I ordered a latte at my neighborhood coffee house, I realized he had also been my barista for quite some time.
Since then, I’ve watched Tomo’s talent unfold into a host of new venues, including Lynn Shelton’s latest movie, Touchy Feely, both as an actor and a singer. Now focusing on his solo career, he’s making an album and touring while balancing other jobs, a common phenomenon for most working artists. (Consider how many gigs has Stephen King worked in his lifetime.) Each time we chat, I feel proud to see a truly talented and hardworking local artist make good. It gives me hope.
Does Tomo think he’s there? I bet not. Something about there indicates an end, and there’s never an end for artists, just evolution. There holds a false mystique, like once you’re an artist you don’t have to work anymore, or that art is effortless, something that every writer, musician, painter or sculptor that I know continues to prove otherwise. Being an artist doesn’t mean you get to take a vacation, but actually work that much harder—deeply, searingly, achingly. I suppose the difference between art and having a j-o-b is that you don’t mind when it keeps you up until two a.m. In fact, you’re so energized by what you discovered, that you feel exhilarated rather than drained. Then you go back to work the next day.
Last week when friends asked about my writing, I found myself explaining why I don’t have a book after traveling and working towards it for the last two years. The resulting 70,000 words may form the basis of future essays and stories, or they may simply be necessary tulip tiptoeing. I often return to the nearly-completed draft manuscript (a series of essays collectively titled The Year of the Tiger) to borrow passages. It’s a touchstone rather than a polished gem. I cringe while reading some paragraphs but feel compelled to use others. One or two sentences in a hundred are good, and I’m okay with that.
This back-and-forth sewing of material is certainly not what I had planned to produce, but from it I’ve forged a writing practice. I’ve learned to leave some things behind. When I feel relief rather than regret, at doing so, it confirms that they were not for me. Other times, I lift up a rock that I had passed by a thousand times only to unearth something beneath it that I hadn’t known was there. These smaller treasures are turning out to be worth more to me right now.
As I return to my writing each day, I’m finding stronger themes beginning to emerge, particular viewpoints not born from a static plan but the ability to leverage past experience to inform the questions I’m interested in and ready to explore today. It’s less a rule book and more of a florid tip-toe-tulipy dance, which is to say that, while I haven’t arrived, I’m getting there.
Picture this: TSA agents staring slack-jawed at monitors, screening for dangerous weapons like guns and suntan lotion in bottles larger than 3 oz. A factory worker pulling a defective toy from an assembly line so that a child doesn’t choke on the loose piece. A business manager reading a request for proposal, evaluating the cost of pursuing the project versus the fee it pays. We live in a world where every employee is hired to mitigate risk, from the guy who places the wet floor sign over a spill to the asset manager who oversees our retirement funds.
As animals, we are bred to avoid physical danger long enough to propagate. As sentient beings, we create families who will care for us emotionally and physically in our dotage. We buy houses or businesses and insure them against the cost of their replacement in case they are destroyed. Day to day, we are encouraged to avoid risk, whether by choosing to use a crosswalk, marrying a spouse with a high-paying job or having an annual physical exam. These tactics are effective for staying alive, but not necessarily for living.
Travel is one way to break free of this paradigm, if only for a few moments. As adventures are wont to do, foreign circumstances help us grow, at least until we learn to overcome and eventually predict inherent traps like lost reservations or pick-pockets. If humans are good at nothing else, it’s adapting to our surroundings, even if those surroundings are constantly changing. This means that we are always upping the ante, knowing that risk is only a teacher until we conquer it.
Trouble arises when life becomes about moving chess pieces (this job or that one? this house or that one?) rather than testing mental boundaries or exploring psychological terrain. For artists, this mindset heralds creative decline. Built to filter options, if we can only imagine solutions rather than quandaries —if we cannot allow ourselves the space for legitimate threat or the real possibility of failure— how can we create compelling art? Who wants to write, let alone read, about characters who don’t take chances, whose decks are stacked, who must merely follow the smell of cheese to find the end of the maze?
Yesterday, I met with Peter Mountford, the writer in residence at Hugo House, for commentary on the first draft of a short story. From the start, he counseled me to incorporate more risk in my work. He suggested that I allow my main character to be weaker, more diminished at the start to afford her the ability to transform rather than handing her a defensible position. While my main character is not me, I do identify with her; ultimately, the way she faces her predicament is more reflective of my own mindset about risk than hers.
What is risk, then, but an exposure to chance, to loss, to injury — a manmade concept based on attachment to physical conditions that are truly beyond our capacity to govern in the first place? Though the impact of loss is a mental construct, it’s none the less powerful enough to affect our behavior and our unconscious thought as well as our creative expression. Win or lose, the way we process risk affects the underlying nature of our existence in all its forms.
It’s not just choices like running a red light or traveling to developing nations; we believe that we can run statistics on everything. This is why the realities of middle age hit us hard. Life is a game of odds, and that is where our streak begins to fail. We think that we are in control of our bodies, for instance, until we face disease or injury in our 40s and 50s. The reality is, no matter how we maintain our physical form —with alcohol, fried food and cigarettes, or through regular exercise, an organic diet and drinking eight glasses of water each day— each of us will die. Despite efforts to avoid it, all of the yoga in the world can’t thwart this fate, although they could probably bend you into a smaller coffin.
Thus, we grow to believe that we control our careers and finances with smart, considered choices (until the economy tanks and we are laid off), or our marriages and relationships (until we divorce or move away from our friends) and the very course of our lives (until that thing that we couldn’t see coming suddenly happens.) We define risk by the fear that life will elude our projected notion of control, that we will “lose everything” if we open our bodies and chattel to chance. Is this true? Or is it more true that risk is all around us, inside and outside ourselves and our homes, if we would only acknowledge it?
For those living in Syria or Afghanistan, leaving the house is risky; do they stay inside for the rest of their lives? In China or North Korea, speaking one’s mind is risky; should entire countries remain silent? In places of civil or military strife where tensions are heightened and visible —where daily loss of limb, liberty or life is sure— risk is an easier choice in that it is unavoidable. By facing it, these people inspire the rest of us; the Dalai Lamas and Nelson Mandelas of the world are the ones we write stories about. Everyday life, in all of its chance, becomes an opportunity to do what the rest of us might only do once or twice in a lifetime: find and profess what we believe is worth risk. Usually, it’s not a suburban tract house or a Toyota.
I admit that I am thankful, as only a pampered Westerner can be, for the brand of risk we have in the United States, the luxury to be sated and unsatisfied at once. Still, there is a spectrum of threat here. You don’t see me quitting my job in Seattle to start a business in Detroit or New York City even though the scrappiness of the idea appeals to me. You don’t see me walking alone though the Central District at 2 am even though I’m curious what happens there at night. You don’t see me spending my retirement to travel the world, even though that’s exactly what I’d do if I money wasn’t an object. Am I a coward? A hypocrite? Wasting my life?
How many would say the same: that if money (read: the illusion of security) was no object —if there was no perceived risk to their standard of life or wellbeing— they would not live as they do today? Does this mean that we should quit our jobs and become explorers or vagabonds — and that anything less is settling? Should we give away our possessions or renounce the institution of marriage? Would we feel any more fulfilled in these scenarios than the ones in which we currently live?
In the end there are fine lines between commitment, attachment and value. I think it’s possible to honor society’s norms —jobs, marriage, family, commerce— without becoming slaves to them. One can enjoy the fruits of labor without being so inured to physical possessions that their absence makes life unlivable. As adaptive creatures, I also believe it’s possible to survive without needing as much in spite of the fact that our species falls prey to pleasure and a widely held belief that possessions are the source of it. Assigning value to such things is unwisely risky if you ask me (and there I go, evaluating): a house or a car do not signify worthiness, and their absence doesn’t confer failure. Yet when we lose things, we bring ourselves low.
Family and relationships are similarly burdened with expectation for producing contentment. As I watch my friends propagate, buying first and second homes for their expanding broods, I naturally question my own choices. Settling down and raising a family seems wisely selfish from a certain perspective, not the least love. Sometimes, I envy what they have, or at least, I can feel the value of their choices. Should I make a point of starting a family so that I don’t miss out on motherhood? Will I be sorry that I didn’t do what most everyone else is doing? Will I be more alone at the end of my life if I don’t have children? In those moments, I pause to confirm my own priorities. In the happy times, their lives look attractive, but in practice, I don’t want it enough. Maybe that’s being wisely selfish, too.
In reality, either path involves risk. There is no eluding it when people or possessions are involved, and I certainly have both. Call it a soul or an essence, the spirit inside is the only thing that cannot be lost or destroyed and is, if anything can be, the only thing we have dominion over. This is the gold.
For me, risk resides in this third place, the domain between experiencing, loving and losing — the space where resilience lives. A chasm surrounds it, breeding greed and desire in its depths, the illusion that it’s possible to govern our physical world, or that doing so will lead to fulfillment. This is where mindless habits arise, where ego and expectation thrive. Distracted by bus schedules, grocery shopping and perfunctory affection, we lose our way to the core of ourselves, and with that, a genuine connection with others. How many times do we say, “I love you,” as automatically as we say hello? The charm and benefit of risk is lost when we resign ourselves to everyday distraction.
Risk is about being awake, of not accepting things as they seem, of finding passages that deserve our energy and effort to navigate. We are not the authors of our lives but the narrators. Our power resides in revealing character, in shifting the point of view and in translating dialogue and action. We cannot be so attached to the story —especially not the story we tell about ourselves— that we cannot adapt when the plot shifts, when our characters become lost, when calamity levels everything in its path. As narrators, we cannot hold tight to a single perspective. We must learn to inhabit multiple viewpoints, or wind up trapped and oblivious to the rest of the cast and the story.
More so than gambling or eating day-old sushi, riding this wave is what’s risky, if you ask me. We may find that we don’t know ourselves, that we have a thin support system; we may discover that we have a lot of work to do if we truly want to change. While risk is different for each of us, it’s hard not to cling to what we own and know, no matter how positive or dire our circumstances are. Life without chains is unthinkable, it seems. Even as we seek liberation –by this, I mean freedom from fear– we have come to rely on it; even when we’re successful, we find it difficult to release burdens that we call ours.
Maybe what’s risky, then, is to search in the first place — to try and fail again and again to find what is true for ourselves rather than accepting what is true for others — to attempt to rise above both peace and war, to search for the unfamiliar, whatever and wherever that is, every day of our lives. As narrators, we should seek characters capable of shedding preconceived notions in all the forms they take. There is not a single right answer as we are taught to believe; we can learn from them all.
In training ourselves to question rather than accept, to meet rather than defray risk each day, to embrace its shiny Janus head for the good of ourselves and others, perhaps risk will come to hold a different meaning, and with it, so might our experience of the world.
Today, my friend Kim leaves Seattle to return home to Ohio. It felt important to talk on the phone one last time on West Coast time before she headed back. When I asked about the final packing and cleaning, she noted that her daughter didn’t care for the echo in the empty rooms, a sound that I agreed is eerie, whether one is coming or going. I think it’s the ambiguity — the hollow tones of an unfurnished space denote change, and with all change comes uncertainty.
Afterwards, I thought of the places I’ve lived and the transitions that came with moving, including the space I reside in now, a lovely 1930s building with built-in shelves, cabinets of dark wood and grand closets with heavy doors. It’s the most favorite space that I’ve laid claim to, perhaps because it’s also been the most mine. It’s warm and cozy (how I love boiler heat on 19 degree days) and surrounded by greenery. From my living room, I can see the Space Needle, which now sports a headdress of lights in the shape of a Christmas tree at night.
With well-stocked bookshelves and mango wood side tables, the microsuede green couch and the cocoa brown wood dining set, my apartment feels substantially settled. Like all new homes, it didn’t feel this way when I moved in four years ago, greeted by tenuous echoes in every room. Would I be happy or lonely here? It was hard to say. I was so hell-bent on extinguishing those vaulted tones that I stayed up until midnight each night for a week until everything was in place, right down to the last wooden spoon and pair of scissors.
Much has happened since –jobs, travel, friends, writing, love, loss– that I might have lived here a decade. Today, things continue to change so dramatically and quickly that I feel surrounded by transiting footfalls even though I haven’t moved. Rites of passage are everywhere: friends getting married and having babies, moving across the country and to foreign countries, coming and going at work. Sometimes, I consider the greatest gift to be the few hours I have alone in my apartment to pause and consider all of this rapid change because it would be easy to be too busy to notice.
But how often do we ever know what’s going on inside someone else? How often can we see a person and still not know what rounds out the rest of her life, let alone her mind? This year I’ve become friendly with a kindergarten teacher who works out at my gym. We talk each morning about weekend plans or what’s happening at her school; it’s not a close friendship but a regular exchange. Over the summer I ran into her at a catered dinner, only she wasn’t attending, but serving the food. When our eyes met across the room, she smiled and walked over. “Hi, it’s S– from the gym.”
“Hello! Yes, I recognize you, but…”
“Oh, I cater during the summers. Actually, I work another job part-time, too.” I thought back to what she had said about teachers’ salaries, feeling tongue-tied as she went about organizing the silverware. It was like seeing one of my own teachers bagging groceries. Three jobs?
As she laid out wine glasses on the white linen, I felt like I should offer to assist. If we were anywhere else, I would be helping her, not expecting her to serve me like a princess. I felt guilty about my misplaced embarrassment –after all, there’s nothing shameful about working a catered event– yet I couldn’t help but think about the economic divide that had her working at the same dinner where I was an invited guest.
She and her co-worker stood at the back of the room, attentive yet clearly bored, as the evening dragged on. There too much wine to fuel our bourgeois conversation about writing, the art world and the new director’s condo. We waved at each other when I left, but haven’t spoken of that evening since. I was going home to my apartment to relax for the weekend; she stayed late to clean up after us (me), then worked the next day at a retail job. This was how she spent her summer vacation.
That night, my heart sank at seeing how poorly we compensate our teachers. I also realized that I didn’t know her very well at all. That disappointed vacancy, I realize, is similar to an apartment or a relationship in transition. The bittersweet inevitability of letting go, of acknowledging how things are, catches one’s breath. One might have feigned happiness or adapted to certain constraints for years, a tacit contract with an equally yoked partner, but when the arrangement no longer works, the physical proof is undeniable.
It was that way when I separated from my husband years ago. Our last day in that ill-fated house, which needed far more work and money than we could provide, we felt like we had failed. It wasn’t something said aloud, but a shared chorus of a dusty A-minor chords lingering inside. After a decade, we had given up and let each other down. The house had represented what was happening inside all along, though we didn’t want to let that truth be realized; it took several years to arrive.
Friendships, on the other hand, don’t always have a shared space to use as a mirror. Instead, there’s a vague feeling of displacement when one person pulls away without indicating her intentions. Suddenly, it’s too quiet. She’s packed up and moved her boxes without notice. One day, her friend comes home to find nothing but a bare lightbulb suspended from the ceiling and no forwarding address. Sometimes, we’re changing so fast that we don’t even realize it ourselves, each of us moving on, slowly drifting away until the emotional distance is too far to bridge, even if the person lives a few blocks away.
As I prepare to say farewell to Angela, who is moving to Melbourne, Australia at the end of the month, I realize that I need to be more mindful of what’s happening in all of my friends’ lives. Maybe it’s the product of living in a busier, more distracted society, but it feels like we are charging forward, me included, without sharing more than a Facebook status or update over text. We may learn details via technology, but no longer feel the impact of our friends’ growth and development in visceral ways.
The other day, my bus was technology-shamed by a Brit who crisply asked her four-year-old daughter, “Look around right now; can you tell me what everyone on this bus has in common?”
The curly-haired girl took a minute to peer down each side of the articulated bus, then said, “Mm-hmm.”
“That’s why we have rules about computers and phones at home. Let’s have a conversation instead of staring at tiny glowing boxes, shall we?”
Fine, I thought as I checked work email, give me my &*%$ scarlet apple to pin on my jacket. Though I wanted to stick my tongue out at her, she had a point. Friendships, as much as general consciousness, are hard enough to maintain alongside careers, family and one’s personal routine; add email, social media and Scrabble, and the quality of our interactions –the human quality– shrivels into a thin veneer before we know it.
As the New Year approaches, I’m thinking about what I hope to experience and try in 2014, not just on my own but with my friends. Like a new apartment, the bright side of change is a clean slate, the possibility of moving our familiar qualities into new configurations that weren’t possible before. With different and changing conditions, we can add elements that we couldn’t previously accommodate and discard elements that no longer suit us.
Perhaps instead of echoes, the sound of vacancy is more about openness and expansion, like a pealing bell whose rich reverberation reaches farther than the original notes could have on their own.
For only children, friends are everything. When I was young, I wasn’t able to articulate this –I didn’t necessarily call my besties by the name of sister– but that’s what they were. Since we didn’t share a common blood line or a bathroom, these relationships took on a cordial quality that doesn’t exist between real sisters at that age. We didn’t fight over clothes or privileges but instead spent our hours collaboratively at play, which translates in the present day to meeting for cocktails or getting our nails done.
Our play dates were all shades of pleasant, long enough for satisfying exchanges without getting on each other’s nerves. Sleepovers, which involved bending the rules for pillow forts and living room camp-outs, were special enough to merit our best behavior to ensure they happened again. Even today when my girlfriends stay over, the occurrence is so few and far between that we create only the best of times, seeding our relationship with candy-colored memories. Rarely do we feud, and so, my closest friendships have a certain sweet politeness that isn’t necessarily present in my romances or professional relationships.
In primary school, my BFF was Jennifer. Our friendship sparked in an era when the most popular girls shared her name, but she was different from the others in our class. One year, there were four in room of thirty, but my Jennifer had a certain je ne sais quois. Like me, she loved mysteries and science rather than dolls like most other girls. (A candidate for social services, my orphaned Barbie was poorly clothed and lived a neglected life in a dark, tattered box.)
During our six years together, Jennifer and I invented board games that involved derring-do and unfortunate endings for our hapless cast of players who often fell into spiked pits or had their heads removed by guillotines. We snuck around on elbows and bellies during reconnaissance missions, attempting to spy on our parents and report back the secrets we learned. We created greeting cards for sale under the imprint The Cuckoo Company, peddling our wares door-to-door to neighbors. We both played the flute and were in the SAGE program for accelerated studies, which meant that we researched subjects like marine biology or paleontology rather than taking regular lessons a few times a week. My parents dubbed us The Bobbsey Twins because we spent so much time together; the irony is that we couldn’t have looked more different, as Jennifer was Chinese.
To me, such things mattered little. Like accepting any customs from another family, the traditions of her house were equally foreign, except for one: we both had grumpy fathers. Neither Mr. Lin nor my father liked noise, so we spent much of our time attempting to restrain our spirited play, finding ourselves constantly shushed no matter whose house we were in. Mr. Lin smoked Winstons whereas my dad smoked Camels, however Jennifer didn’t develop the same asthma I did.
When Mr. Lin was out of town on business, Jennifer’s mother, Grace, whose Chinese name was Minghao, would call my mother for American recipes. If I came over during these times, I’d find my mother’s pasta sauce or Steak Diane on their plastic orange plates instead of stir fry. Mr. Lin forbade Grace from cooking anything other than traditional Chinese fare when he was home. I always wondered if he could detect the underlying aroma of beef stroganoff when he returned, or if the spicy smell of Mrs. Lin’s kitchen covered over any trace of my mom’s buttery influence.
Jennifer had an older brother, but for as much as he ignored her, she might have been an only child like me. We were thick as thieves until junior high; even at that age, the irony wasn’t lost on me that she ended up becoming best friends with another girl named Jennifer. Both of their parents had more money than mine –Mr. Lin worked for IBM– so it made sense that their friendship should blossom at a time when it was important for girls to have things like Guess jeans, gymnastic lessons and family vacations, all of which my parents could only spottily provide.
At the time, I felt betrayed, watching us grow apart bit by bit as the Jennifers went to concerts or the mall. If Jennifer were my real sister, I probably would have yelled at her, but without siblings to practice on, I didn’t know how to do such a thing. I soon made new friends, many of whom lasted through high school and a few into college, two in particular, who helped me get into more trouble than I could have found alone. These relationships were more mercurial and eventually fizzled in adulthood.
There is a season for everything, especially love and friendship. Our relationships begin from shared experiences –we are attracted to people who are like us in some aspect– but as I grow older I am beginning to understand the ebb and flow inherently within. We are growing and changing all the time at different speeds, which affects how compatible those shared experiences remain to be. Add the dynamics of marriage, children, jobs and relocation, and the possibility of sustaining these friendships remains much more precarious without intentional work.
This past week, two of my besties announced they are leaving Seattle in December. These exits seem to happen in clusters, as it was the fall of 2010 when both Brad and Laura departed, one for Bogotá and the other for Buffalo; two years later, it was Jessica and Aaron. I saw Kim yesterday for the last time before she leaves for her family home in Ohio. For years, our bonding ritual has involved pedicures at Frenchy’s Day Spa, which I have done alone on occasion. It’s never as fun as when we’re together.
Kim was a candidate for friendship from the start. We’re both from the Midwest and we’re survivors of employment at Skyway Luggage (and survivors in general.) Not since Jennifer have I had such giggle-fests, the kind that cause the well-coiffed ladies in Frenchy’s to give us piercing looks over their bifocals. In addition to a tiara collection and a powerhouse craft practice, Kim also has a big heart. I have friends who give me tough love, which I appreciate from time to time, but when I need someone to share my internal messiness with, someone who doesn’t carry the threat of an existential kick to the side of the head, she is always there. More often than not, she has been there herself.
In spite of its inherent challenges, I believe that our friendship will survive the coming distance, like my ties to Jess and Aaron, Laura and Brad. We don’t talk every day, in fact, months pass without a real conversation, but when we do talk, my faith is renewed. We are still growing and changing, becoming more interesting as we push ourselves into new territory. It’s like reuniting with a college sweetheart after years apart only to find that their experiences have leveraged the things that you loved about them into something even better. Their achievements make you proud and make you consider the state of your own life; their courage helps you become more courageous yourself.
This isn’t always so, of course. Sometimes, there’s just evolution and the weaker offshoots die. People move, or just move on. They grow apart and that’s that. Jennifer and Jennifer didn’t last long; I don’t know who she ended up becoming besties with in high school. We were so socially distant by then that she didn’t even come to my mother’s funeral junior year.
Expectations change, too. If I get a text or Facebook tag from my far-flung friends, it’s as welcome as a phone call or letter. We’re thinking about each other, and it’s enough. Little nudges can actually have a great impact on friendships that span thousands of miles. In the advent of mobile communication, the interwebs are actually promoting connectivity just as their proponents promised long ago during the days when email was considered a cop-out.
At some point, even in the best relationships, we stop becoming obvious to each other with distance. Once removed, our friends pass out of daily thought and routine; new people fill their places, but it can take a long time. It’s harder to find and maintain true friendships in mid-life, so we do it cautiously. I find this especially true for those of us who don’t speak the lingua franca of offspring, making our truly deep friendships that much more important and rare.
The desire for connection is something we downplay at a time when most forty-something professionals walk around with No Vacancy signs around their necks. Spouses, children and couples dinners fill our dance cards, driving those with openings for new relationships to better themselves through group activities like pottery workshops and exercise classes. Yet, if well tended, these branching off points make new opportunities for growth in our personal networks, including travel adventures that might not otherwise have happened. (Bogotá, here I come!)
In eighth grade, my new best friend, Christal, moved back to Georgia. We cried when she left, wrote frequent letters, talked for hundreds of hours on the phone, then lost touch after a year. Deep down, I knew that her leaving meant that we wouldn’t see each other again. Yesterday, as Kim and I hugged goodbye in the parking lot, I was sad but not afraid, feeling hopefulness for her future and resolve for ours. Certain relationships are stronger, the connection deeper than most; given changing conditions, they may wane in intensity but not break.
I was surprised, pleasantly so, when Kim took my hand as we sat in the big puffy leather chairs having our feet massaged. It’s rare to have a grown-up friend who wants to hold your hand in public. We sat there squeezing palms for several minutes, sharing a silent prayer that she can weather all the changes of the coming weeks and months and a promise to stay connected despite the miles.
On my way home, I felt bad for not crying when we parted, but I realized that I don’t consider Kim’s move as the end of our friendship, like I did with Christal or Jennifer. It’s the next chapter, yes, but not the conclusion. We’ll stay in touch through technology and sometime in future, we’ll see each other again. When we do, we’ll feel proud of what the other has accomplished during our time apart.
That’s the thing about having sisters, I’ve discovered; you don’t have to say something to be understood.