Wednesday, July 28, 2004


I’m sitting in a capacioius room in an old home in Port Townsend as I write this to you. The window is thrown wide open, the breeze ruffling the curtain. I’m listening to Keith Jarrett on my iPod, waiting for Kristin to return from her vocal class. When she does, we’ll venture into the sunshine for a long walk down the beach, taking rapid-fire and laughing. Then drive to town (all of five streets--Port Townsend has only 8,000 people, like Sitka), for lunch and the post office. And whatever else might happen.

Yesterday, I sat in this room for half of the day, listening to music and writing for hours. And then the same all afternoon, except I was on the porch outside, gently rocking in a wooden chair. It’s amazing how little it takes to make me happy these days: hours to write; good music on the heaphones; a lack of longing; a clear day; and the chance to see good friends.

Oh, and dark chocolate.

Last night, Kristin and I ate dark chocolate with raspberries. It made our evening. And this, after dinner at the Silverwater Cafe--seared ahi tuna with lavender pepper and gorgonzola rotini. Isn’t it odd how words rarely connote the experience? Not even close. Because gorgonzola rotini really should be: warm sunlight pouring through the window on our shoulders, a loving conversation about experiences about camp passing between us, warm crusty bread already in our bellies, glasses of red wine half drunk on the bar before us, and the rich, stinky cheese, mingled with salty walnuts and wilted broccoli, filling our mouths and making us close our eyes at the same time, confirming once again that we are friends, because we are equally grateful for this experience. And that’s a long sentence. But it’s not long enough. Because all of those sensations, tastes, and emotions are layered upon each other to make up a densely complex experience. But we all agree to speak in shorthand--gorgonzola rotini.

And that’s enough.

And then we went to see Fahrenheit 911, which was playing at the quaint Rose Theatre. Thank goodness we had all that good food in our bellies. Holy shit, that film devastated me. I knew it would. That’s why I have been resisting it for the last month. It’s not that I don’t care about what the film shows. It’s that I care too much. We live in such a miserable time of denial and lies. And it’s all right out in the open, for everyone to ignore. All of the facts Moore presented? I had read them in the Guardian or the Economist or the New York Times, these past few years. Given that I teach a 20th-century Humanities class, and that I’m involved in politics (because I’m fiercely interested in the humanity of this world), I feel a moral responsibility to keep current on the news. But still, there’s only so much that reading can do. And besides, I’ve assiduously avoided listening to W these past few years. When I hear him start to make a speech, I turn off the radio. His voice makes me feel a little nauseous. But there was no avoiding him in this movie. And besides, seeing mothers weep over the loss of their sons teaches far more. As the film proceeded, I just sank farther and farther down in my chair, completely absorbed and horrified. And I cried and covered my eyes at times. When the film finished, I couldn’t say anything for long moments. As Kristin and I walked down the darkened main street of Port Towsend, toward my car, we agreed: we’re done worrying out our own petty concerns, because we’re both so wonderfully spoiled; and we must all do something about this election in November. You guys, we have to DO something.

And now I’m home, typing this up and ready for bed. Tomorrow, Nick arrives for a five-day visit. I’m excited to see him--it has been since October in New York, another lifetime. He has never been to Seattle before, so we’re going to explore. Driving to Mt. Rainier for walks through meadows of wildflowers, hikes through old-growth forests, dinners at Wild Ginger, and maybe even sailing on Puget Sound. We don’t have many plans, just to be together. No expectations. So I’m sure that the week will sing and yield more stories. And that I won’t have much time to write here. But I will, when I can.

And thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

fast impressions of a full summer

These days have passed in a happy blur. Here are some of the moments that stopped long enough to show up in clear outline.

--Long Lake with Tita. Every summer, we go for one, indolent day. We met on the Southworth ferry terminal, at the junky general store at the end of the dock. Coffee granitas and string cheese in hand, we drove off, down the curving roads. Set up our towels near the tree, the food on a picnic bench under the shade. Peeled off our clothing to reveal our bathing suits, then sauntered into the lake. Swimming in the lake was like a nostalgic dream of summer as it happened. The water silty with algae, everything porous, like memory. And looking down, I could see my arms stretching forward in brown-green water, like a daguerrotype. Like an archetypal swimming memory. Like a photograph of my life. And then laying in the sun for fifteen minutes at a time, to dry our skin. And then food. Conversations about art and why it feels imperative for some people, and why others can leave it on the side of the road as they drive into the next part of their lives. Catching up on every person we know in common. And the ones we know from past stories alone. Silence. Grinning. Looking at the silver-green leaves glimmering in the trees. Childhood stories. More swimming. And at one moment, every year, we stretch our arms out to find each other and say, "You know, you feel like a friend from grade school. You feel deep in me, like I've known you forever. You're the one friend I know I will always have." One of us says it, the other says ditto, and then we return to the water.

--Carrying Elliott on my shoulders as Andy and Dana walked us around a property on Vashon that they want to buy. Nothing but madrona trees, pine trees, soaring sky, and cleared field. Heaven. As they showed it to Jim, and he offered suggestions of where to put the dream house they want to build, I just felt my steps in the uneven grass and held onto Elliott's legs. And he reached down with his hands and patted my cheeks while we walked.

--Leaping like a little frog in the Magnolia pool, the sunlight hot on my head, bodies surrounding me, and I feel alive.

--Walking away from Uptown Espresso, back to my car, Meri and I talking slow and calm. A woman approached us, muttering, I thought at us. She wasn't talking to us. Tight velvet pants, cinched up to her waist. All her hair tumbling down onto her face. Contorted, the lips in a snarl. And she shouted, her voice increasing in volume with each sound, "I'm going to find a fucking hammer and smash him in the head myself, murder him." And she was sobbing, I noticed, as she passed us. We stopped to look after her, then moved on, shaking our heads. Poor woman.

--Elliott dancing, all the fans blowing on the hottest day of the year in Seattle. He's wearing only his diaper, and he's perfectly happy. His dad is there, and his grandparents, and me. Missing Mom, these are the most important people in his life. All watching him, perfectly content to be there. Andy put on this disc of West African music he found, all double-time beats and surging rhythms. I picked up Ellliott and began dancing him around the living room on my hip. And he pumped his body up and down in time to the beats. This kid has been listening to eclectic music since he was two days old. (When he was really little, and had colic, only Gamelan music from Bali would soothe him. And Andy started playing him the Hoosier Hot Shots from his first week.) He arched his back, which meant he wanted me to turn him upside down at my ankles. So I did. And all I could see was his chin and wide grin. Andy picked him up, to dance. Elliott threw his arm in the air, pumping his fist in exultation, perfectly in time with the music. We all laughed and participated, even my mom from the chair. At one point, Elliott asked to be put on the floor. He sat, cross-legged, and watched us dance. I started stamping my bare feet on the rug, in time with the hurly-burly music. One foot in the circle toward him, and then the next. Back and forth, foot forward, music propelling me forward. For a few moments, I felt like I was back in the days before the car accident, when I spent every Sunday afternoon in African Dance class, shaking off the thoughts of the day, and any sense of self, losing myself in the music and the feeling of my feet on the floor. And Elliott watched my feet, studied them, so he would know what t do when he stood up. He stood up. Shook his hips. Moved his feet. Waved his arms. And looked as happy as I felt.

--And in just a few moments, I'm about to climb in the car with my suitcase, a bunch of cds, and snacks. Time for a little road trip. I'm off to Port Townsend, to spend a few days with Kristin Korb. "AAAAHHH!" we always shout at each other when we see the other for the first time. And then lift each other up for a big bear hug. One of my dearest Sitka friends, she's going to be in PT for a music camp. And I'm going to camp out with her for a few days. She'll work during the day, and I'll find a suitable coffee shop in the small town and work on my novel for hours at a time. And in the evening, we'll break open bottles of wine, bars of dark chocolate, put on dvds, and laugh until late in the night. Life is good. I'm going to stop at Easy Street records first, and buy the new Magnetic Fields cd. And drive with the sunroof open, the wind blowing through my hair, singing along to the songs I'll know soon. Leave everything else behind me, as much as I can. I love road trips--even three-hours ones. So I won't be writing here for a few days.

But I'll be back with new stories soon.

Friday, July 23, 2004

for those of us who have somehow forgotten


Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel into the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

--Mary Oliver

(Thank you to Gabe for reminding me of this poem.)

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Before Sunset

Gabe and I went to see Before Sunset tonight, before he left for New York again. Ah, and it was a sweet, evanescent visit. Sun-drenched, food-filled, lots of talk and silly voices. Movie script conversations and Hydro-fit classes. Music. Long nights of sleep. Watching his latest filmic creations. And songs. Sushi at Chinoise. Raspberries and peaches on cereal. Coffee with Monica. And a sweet, easy goodbye at the airport. I love him dearly, that Clown.

But the movie.

I never saw Before Sunrise. It looked awkward and adolescent. I've never been a big fan of Ethan Hawke. Too much the hipster with that perma-mark goatee. In fact, Gabe reminded me this evening that I saw Ethan Hawke standing outside a club in New York, the first summer I visited there, and I wasn't impressed. Scrawny little pipsqueak, I seem to remember saying. I saw him again, on 10th Street, sitting on the steps of his brownstone with his kids, as I walked toward therapy. But that's about it for Ethan Hawke connections for me. So I didn't really plan to see this film.

But the reviews have been glowing. And Gabe and I love going to movies together, since we have the same sensibilities (and about music and food. People too, most of the time), and we love debriefing afterwards. There isn't much good playing right now, since it's the vapid season for movies: lots of guns, jiggling breasts, and thinly written scripts. He'd already seen Fahrenheit 911, so no seeing that. (And no, I haven't seen it yet. I know, I know, I'm abrogating my liberal duties, but I just haven't been able to stomach the thought on these gorgeous days. And I know it's going to make me cry. So there.) So we thought we'd see this--it was playing at the theatre just down the hill. I expected slight and stretching, but a pleasant diversion.

I love it when I'm wrong.

This movie moved me more than any movie in a long time. It all unfolds in real time, so you have the sense of immediacy and excitement when two people are falling in love through their banter and silences. To quote a Lisel Mueller poem I found recently:

"...a gaze anchored
in someone's eyes could unseat a heart...
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility."

Why is it so hard to write about falling in love? And do it justice?

This film comes close.

The lovely banter dance when two people have chemistry, so they are both buoyed up by the play of conversation, and it doesn't really matter at all what they are saying. The way a single, casual touch on the arm can set off trembling in the bones. The small, beautiful specific details of two people in the same room, changing each other's lives, and too caught up in it to name it for what it is. And broken-heartedly, the way that one or the other can refuse to recognize it, because it feels too scary to make that leap.

The last half made me cry continuously, tears floating down my cheeks in a langorous stream. I could feel Gabe looking over at me and feeling it for me. It made me cry for clear reasons that I don't want to say here. If you don't know, then you can figure it out.

And the ending made everyone in the theatre gasp. I haven't heard that kind of visceral reaction to a film in a long time. I adored it. As with poems, the endings of movies have to be right. This one is.

Ah, I could go on. But I won't. I don't want to besmirch it by analyzing it. It just moved me. Gabe and I both left the theatre feeling quiet and connected with ourselves. I love how great films can put you in that space, where everything feels right for a moment. And everything feels like a possibility.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

It has been unswervingly gorgeous here these past few days: high blue skies, 80 degrees, nary a cloud, and fierce clear light. And I have to share with you that I am sitting by my window, typing on the laptop and the Olympic mountains are etched dark purple against the post-sunset-orange sky. Pure bliss.

This July giftedness makes everything more redolent of joy. This morning, I took my Hydro-fit class at the Magnolia outdoor pool, where I am most days at 11. Yes, it’s the old ladies water aerobics class, but you stop snickering until you have joined me there. It’s a hell of a workout. I can feel my body deepening, the muscles loosening and strengthening at the same time. Finally, the slow unraveling. Perhaps the last skein of pain. With yoga and long walks and the promise to do this every day, my muscles might just be letting go of most of the knots. There are no words for that gratitude. And knowing that I'm giving it to myself makes it all the sweeter.

And I love the outdoor pool. I feel six years old again, being there. Little kids run around the white cement, chasing each other and laughing. Two little girls with pink bathing suits walk slowly around, one with her eyes closed, the other guiding her. Small boys learn how to dive by flopping on their bellies, over and over again. Pregnant women, trim men ready to swim laps at noon, old women limping, and babies feeling the summer sun for the first time--we're all there. Everyone squirts on the sunscreen but manages to be berry-brown anyway. (You should see me with my bathing-suit tan. You'd never believe that I live in Seattle.)

I’ve made friends there, especially my 73-year-old friend, Mary. She's alive, feisty, deeply kind, and unswervingly fashionable. She's the one who told me where to find the best pedicures in Seattle. I adore her. Her throaty giggle fills the air above the chlorine-blue water every morning. This afternoon, after our watery social hour, she took me out to lunch at Ray’s Boathouse. She has been wanting me to meet her daughter, Maureen. A lovely person. Mary has told me stories for months about Maureen's daughter, who is a twelve-year-old writer. And she is. I read a couple of her poems, and I was moved. Immediately, I wanted to meet her, start working with her, start talking with my hands about the joy of writing and how it's okay to look at the world differently than everyone else. Mary also brought her friend Lee, who’s visiting from Tucson. Oh god, what a character. She had that wispy-thin, old-lady hair, and it had been dyed bright orange, like carrot soup. She wore these sunglasses that took up half her face, rose lenses and intricate, 18-karat-gold frames. Elton John would have tried to steal them from her. She talked about her husband of 58 years, who just died this year, whom she referred to as Papa. And how Papa took her jewelry shopping all around the world and never looked at the bills. She wore three or four gold necklaces, about twelve gold bracelets, and managed to have such a sense of humor about herself that I ended up adoring her too.

We were sitting at the outdoor cafe, in the sun. I had my back to the water, but I could see the vast expanse of Puget Sound behind me in the windows. The mountains gleaming blue, and white sailboats dotting the blueberry-colored water. And my arms could feel the sun. Now, I have a sunburn down the back of my arms that’s going to throb tonight. We drank gin and tonics, ate salmon with fennel and mashed potatoes, moaned at the citrus creme brulee, and laughed for three hours. And Mary wouldn’t let me pay for a thing.

Isn’t it amazing how people just drop into your life?

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

An Affair to Remember?

Yesterday, after taking Carlos to the airport, I returned home and crawled into bed. Roused myself up for a long yoga class, which turned into a private tutorial, since no one else showed up. Then I stopped at the video store, ambled home, and stayed in bed all day. I felt so decadent. Feeling sentimental, I rented An Affair to Remember, which I had never seen. Women sob about this movie. There's an entire motif of it in Sleepless in Seattle. Do you know it? Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell sob into their popcorn, talking about it, talking about how people just don’t fall in love like that anymore.

I don't understand. I mean, yeah, the bantering between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr was scintillating. Leo McCarey knew how to write. And it was thrilling to see a woman onscreen be as snotty and daring as I can be when I’m with a man I like. I’m relentless. So was she. But it was also over-sappy, saturated with color, and filled with strange musical numbers. At one point, after this off-screen accident, she becomes a music teacher, and the little children gather around to sing for her. In the middle of it, the two incongruously placed black children break out from the back and start doing a little dance. Goodness, was this 1958's version of equality?

Also, the ending is contingent upon her having been in a car accident and not wanting to tell him that she's paralyzed now, in a wheelchair. She’s trying to be brave, because she doesn’t want to be vulnerable for him. She doesn’t want him to feel like he’s responsible for her. But for godssakes, wouldn't you tell Cary Grant that you're disabled just to have him give you a back rub? Sorry for the rant, but that was really strange. It saddens me, really. God, falling in love is the most mysterious, gorgeous spinning experience, mostly beyond words. But so many of the archetypal romantic comedies are just plain dumb.

Monday, July 19, 2004

some highlights of my time with Carlos:

--Macrina Bakery, egg bialy sandwich loaded with smoky bacon. An array of baked goods lining the table. Coffee steaming hot. And we’re having breakfast on a summer day in Seattle.

--Strolling through the neighborhood on a slow morning, Carlos telling me about the chapters in his dissertation. I had been dreading the 250 pages to read, a bit. But when he talked, I could see the order in my mind. Editing is like that for me--deeply physical. It’s like unearthing ideas from a mound of dirt. It’s like whittling away everything that isn’t necessary to reveal the sculpted form below. And in giving this to a writer, I can see the liberation on his face. So four days of reading academic prose was worth it, entirely, for the joy in Carlos’ eyes.

--Walking through the PCC in Fremont, enormous windows pouring sunlight on the produce. Walking slowly, to smell everything around us. “Carlos, do you want some cherries?” He took one into his mouth, then closed his eyes, and moaned. I’ll take that as a yes. The cart quickly filling with rosy mangoes, black plums, sweet peaches, ripe blueberries, plump raspberries, and a dozen fresh vegetables for salads. God, the bounty of summer. Add to that, bright red wild Alaskan salmon steaks, a mound of herbed goat cheese made on Bainbridge Island, and blue cheese-stuffed Greek olives. I thought that Carlos would faint by the end of the store.

--Perambulating in Parsons Gardens, listening to Carlos talk about his job. And even though I care, I’ve heard him complain before. And those roses in the northwest corner are threatening to explode. So I lean down, close my eyes, and smell. Thoughts stop. I’m there.
Later, Carlos said, “I thought you were going to gobble up the flowers on that walk.”

--Bouncing in the pool and trying not to laugh in Carlos’s direction. Gamely, he was in Hydro-fit with me, at the outdoor pool. The sun shining on our heads. And Carlos nearly drowning. His waist belt wasn’t working, and he was flailing. He wasn’t naturally comfortable in the water anyway. But he was trying. And he was still talking. So he’d try to say a sentence, over the din of the senior citizens babbling to each other, and the inappropriate hip-hop music, and his head would bob backward. His dark curly hair was soaked. And suddenly, the water crept up above his mouth. He’d spray water everywhere and awkwardly thrash about until he was above the surface. And then do it again. When I pointed out that he could try these exercises in the shallow end, he moved like a drunken chicken toward the north end of the pool. And when he hit solid ground, he said, “Oh thank the lord in heaven!”

--Introducing Carlos to the joys of Unclefucker. I told him about the South Park movie, which he had somehow never seen. (And if any of you reading this has still not seen that movie, shame on you. Run and rent it now.) And the joys of listening to this song outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin with Sharon. So I found the mix cd in my case and slid it in to listen. And we laughed our full-throated chuckles together through the fart medley. And hit the button to play it again. We played it again and again. Walking through the house days later, Carlos would be softly singing, “Shut your fucking face, Unclefucker.” I made a mix cd for him, with that as the first song. And every day, we drove down 99 with the sunroof open, shouting the lyrics at the top of our heads, laughing.

--Stomping in the squishy black mud of the tidal pools with Elliott, on Vashon. He smeared himself with mud--all over his green shorts, his bare arms, his cheeks. Andy and Dana didn’t mind. Everything can be washed. So the little boy (clearly, no longer a baby) felt the mud between his toes, the squirt of clams beneath the surface, and the spray of water in his hair. And I was there to dance him around. Twirling him, his head and body spinning out, and all I can see is the wide smile on his face.

--Eating lunch at Fred’s Homegrown on Vashon, my brother and Carlos talking about the ease that being in a loving relationship with someone for years can bring. And listening to them both, instead of feeling jealous of their experience, all I could feel is how much I love them both.

--After dropping off Carlos at Tita and John’s, I drove Andy back to Lisabuela to join Dana and Elliott at the picnic. One last hug from the little guy. And then I’m on my own, for the first time in days. Driving the roads I once knew so well, the back roads of Vashon. And I turn up the music and roll down the windows, and drive back to Cove Road. Green trees and winding roads, houses only occasionally dotting the fields, and long minutes without any sign of human beings. Just arching trees and sky. For the first time in months, I’m enjoying driving.

--Dinner at Wild Ginger, Saturday night. Carlos and I talking about the people we both were seven years ago, when we met in that terrible graduate school class at NYU.

Introduction to American Studies. Eighteen turgidly written books in twelve weeks, which no one read. But everyone “interrogated” them, for hegemonic tendencies. And not only that, but every week, we had to answer the question: “What is American Studies?” Arrggh. It was like setting two empty mirrors against each other and watching the echo.

Carlos has said that he knew he wanted to be my friend on the last day of class. Our professor asked us to discuss, once again, “Just what is American Studies?” As we went around the circle, people spewed (and yes, I use that word deliberately) toadying statements about counter-hegemonic interrogations, questioning heteronormativity, and other mumblety-pegs I have blocked out deliberately. When the professor reached me, I looked up from the paper where I had been writing, and said, “Well, American Studies seems to me like an 18-year-old having an identity crisis. Full of wonderful, questioning energy, but lacking the solidity of an adult who knows who he is.” And then I went back to my crossword puzzle. The professor simply looked at me agape. Several students glared at me as though they would fling some of those turgidly written books at me. But I had spoken my piece. And thank goodness I gained Carlos’ friendship out of it.

So we talked about who we had been those early autumn days of 1997. And who we are now. God, I love being in my late 30s now. The calm. The quiet. The lack of need to impress. The way that watching the world feels far more important than watching myself. I can’t even imagine how great the 40s are going to be.

Oh, and the ahi tuna bruschetta was fantastic. And have you tried the lychee nut martini?

--After yoga classes, long hours of editing, Top Pot doughnuts on a sunny day, talking into the night, a party on Friday, brunches and dinners, laughter in silly giggles, and endless conversations about the dissertation, it’s time for Carlos to go home. Comfortable silence in the car on the way to the airport. One more Unclefucker at full blast as we approach the check-in drive. Long hugs at the curb. And the deepest feeling, of how vast and loving my life has become. New York, London, Los Angeles, Sitka, Seattle--these are my homes. And they have all been populated with people dear to my heart. Carlos, and a dozen more, in this summer alone. And the moments just keep coming. How much I have been given.

--Driving home, exhausted, looking at the schmutz in the sky from too little rain, sunroof open, Seattle in the distance, music blaring, and nowhere to go but home. The full pleasure of five days with Carlos. And now, time alone.

And now I can go back to my novel.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Party at my house

Carlos has been visiting since Tuesday night, which is why I have been silent here for days. More about his visit later. About the chance to introduce him to the joys of Seattle summer food. Or the mind-bending work of editing his PhD dissertation (hey! I'm on summer vacation! but he's my dear friend. There's no other choice but give when it comes to my friends). And today we're headed to Vashon.

But last night, I had a party in his honor. The most people I've had in my home at one time since returning from Sitka. It was a good party. Carlos is so fucking hilarious, and the two of us set each other off. After listening to us tell our stories of taking the Hydro-fit class (in which Carlos nearly drowned, but I'd have to do the physical gestures in person), or him trying to adjust to a yoga pose this morning, or just wildly gesticulating as we described my editing his dissertation, my friend Amy said, "I wish I could just have a videotape of the two of you walking through your day. It's like a Seinfeld episode." (And damn, that was a long sentence.) I love introducing all my friends to each other. It's one of my favorite activities in life. Eric brought frozen Tombstone pizza (!), but he had thought of bringing pigs in a blanket. And then he proceeded to make me laugh so hard that I nearly burst my spleen. Typical. Jim arrived unexpectedly from Chicago, and he pontificated from the couch. Tamara showed off her new red shoes and talked with Carlos about the history of the Dominican Republic. And then they figured out that they both just finished the third book in the Proust series, yesterday.  Annie, Pattie, and their friend whose name I never caught  (but it's something like Jarsheesh? Is that possible?) begged me to tell Pierce Brosnan stories, and Eric was so eager to hear the Grey Owl one again that he nearly begged. Amy and Paul brought over Maui Sweet Onion chips, and we stood in the kitchen talking and reaching and decimated that bag in five minutes flat. My neighbors from downstairs came up, bearing platters filled with homemade bruschetta and this fabulous heap of linguine with fresh mozarella, zucchini, succulent tomatoes, and kalamata olives. (Damn, I live in the right place.) And three people I only barely knew--they were all Tuney's friends, but she's golden with me, so whatever--showed up at 10:45. We practiced trying to balance on my exercise ball, spontaneously. And then we played Apples to Apples (have you played this? genius.) while lying on the floor on our stomachs.

There was much laughter. Of course. And no one got drunk. And they all left at midnight. Perfect party.

Well, of course, except for your absence.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Bad pain day.

I remember when I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, this wacky weatherman named Dr. Arthur Fishbeck used to come on television on certain summer mornings. In his tweed jacket and bow tie, his wacky Groucho glasses, and his wild gesticulations, he was hard to take seriously. But still, he determined my fate for the day. Because on certain summer days, this hammy man came on television and said, “Today’s going to be a red flag smog alert day.” Groan. The sky was always grey in those days, in the Pomona Valley in the 1970s. I don’t remember it ever being blue, except on a few days of October. Even then, it was pale blue. But during the summer, the gunk in the air covered the mountains, which were only forty miles away. The air breathed brown. And on those red-flag smog alert days, Dr. Fishbeck said, “Don’t go outside, unless you absolutely have to.” And so, I was stuck in the house, trying not to breathe. I lay on the floor, reading books, or listening to the Beatles on the headphones, not moving, staying away from the windows. Only in the evening, after the sun had set, could I move into the backyard, and slip into the pool.

Luckily, the air in Seattle is infinitely more clear. Unfortunately, my body is not. And today, in my body, it’s a red-flag alert day. I’ve been feeling tender since I returned from Sitka. My back is still creaky, my shoulder still aches, and my left knee is kinked up from all the limping. Great. It’s like I’m back in March. But when the sun outside is limpid, and the air so warm that I want to be waterskiing on Lake Washington (not that I ever have, but you know. I could.), it’s harder to sit on the bed than it was in March. I moved slowly for the first week back, silent and happy. But in the last three days, I’ve been seeing people in droves. Dinner with Daniel and Jeff in the garden, pizza and beer in the twilight, hugs on the driveway at the end of the night. Vanessa for coffee, with lots of happy babbling on both sides. School people, whom I love. But the thought of school returning makes me feel a little ill. All that bustle and responsibility. All that noise. And the noise in Victrola today drove the headache up. Another headache. Welcome back.

And I’ve been doing Hydro-fit at the Magnolia pool or walking through Discovery Park or doing yoga in the living room every day, sometimes twice a day. Trying to make my muscles strong, so everything doesn’t feel so tenuous. But maybe it has been too much. And I spent most of the day cleaning, preparing for all my lovely visitors. But maybe it was too much. Because I’m done now.

Nobody wants to hear about the pain again. I don’t want to talk about it again.

Suffice it to say that I couldn’t work on the novel all evening, because my arms hurt too much again. I suppose that I’ve been writing too much. God, but after six months of not being able to eat a word, it’s hard not to gobble them up for hours. And here I go again.

But I know how to listen now. To turn off that insistent voice that says, “Go outside. Jump! Play! Leap and be free! Or at least take a walk around the neighorhood.” Instead, I’m on the bed, watching movies, trying to rest. Again.

And if I can't gobble up words.... Well, I bought a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Cherry Garcia. Why not.

Just so you know--as beautiful as my life is right now, and as much as I appreciate the moments as they come; it’s not all sweetness and light around here.

This is hard work.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

"I don't know where I'm going. But I do know that I'm walking."

This afternoon, I took an unexpected, magic walk in Discovery Park. I love this place, this expansive park on the edge of the water in Seattle. Seven years ago, I went there for the first time. Blown open by grief about something potent, I drove there, blindly, moving my body to hug the curves of the road. And I hiked along the bluffs, into the trees, and found a bench not covered in rain water. And wrote, for hours, about something I had never been able to tell before. Since then, it has been one of my sacred spaces.

So why am I not there every day?

Now that I live in Queen Anne, it’s only a twelve-minute drive to the entrance of Discovery Park. And yet, I have only been there a handful of times in the last three years. A walk with Meri, her sister, and brother-in-law, in the rain, when I was heartroken about a relationship that just broke up and nearly incapable of speaking. A picnic with my family, years ago, just before I moved to New York, and every one of them angry with me and not able to say it. Picking berries with Jessica and Brian until our hands were stained purple and our calves covered in scratches from the thorns. A glorious, stumbling run in the early autumn, when I was just starting to run seriously, dreaming of a marathon for my fortieth birthday, before the car accident cut short that dream.

This afternoon, I had been writing. But there was also the house to clean for Carlos’ visit on Tuesday. (yea, Carlos!) And phone calls to return. And a nap, possibly. But mostly, my body had started to hurt. No Hydro-fit this morning. No yoga. An indolent morning instead. And my neck began its achy, seizing dance. (“Reber, I need a neck rub.”) Within an hour, I knew I’d have the migraine sprouting from the muscles bunching densely in my neck. And so, I needed to move.

I’ve been walking around my neighborhood for days, slowly dropping into my space. But this afternoon, the sky loomed enormously blue. The air warm as baby’s breath. I just couldn’t be around people. I wanted to be in the woods. So, without thinking about it too much, I let the car drive me to Discovery Park.

I cinched up my sturdy, Salomon hiking shoes, the ones I didn’t wear in Sitka this year, improbably. There, I dressed up every day. Here, I’m wearing my Moroccan pants, the baby-blue tank top, and my hiking shoes. Nearly everywhere. I had my iPod, of course. And when I stepped out of the car, the warmth of the air caressed my shoulders as I turned on the music.

I downloaded Rufus Wainwright’s new ep from iTunes, and I listened to it, over and over, the entire walk. (I still don’t understand how this works. I open a page on the web--and I don’t know how that exists either--press a button, and within fifteen minutes, there are four new songs on my computer. I connect this slender white cord to my computer and wait. After a few moments of it dangling from my keyboard, I have new songs I can carry through Discovery Park. Really, the world is amazing.) I love his music. Lush and honest. Deeply harmonic and simple lyrics. Self-conscious and cutting through it at the same time. Solemn and funny. And I can tell when certain songs are going to seep into my consciousness, because I have to listen to them ten or fifteen times in a row until I know every word.

So I took off walking, at my own slow pace, in no rush at all. “I don’t know where I’m going. But I do know that I’m walking. Where? I don’t know. Just away from this love affair,” Rufus was singing in my ears, and I was nodding, already moved. And not just by his voice, his lyrics, and the eerie ability of music to match exactly what is happening in my life. But also by the trees above me. Ten minutes from a parking lot, and I’m hiking uphill, my muscles already loosening, slowly. I look up, and I can’t see the sky for the dense interlacing of leaves, entangled with each other, stretching across the path. And I’m in the middle of a city.

Another few moments, and the path circles around the park, within it, skirting away from teh city. But to my left, jumping out from among the trees, are white tombstones on a green field. It’s always there.

But after a few more moments, and another turn through the songs, I’ve stopped thinking. I’ve entered the part of the path with ancient, enormous trees. They stretch far into the sky, their many limbs branching out toward the ground with far more grace than I can ever muster. No matter how slowly I am walking, and thinking, all my turnings and wonderings feel frantic next to their girth and silence. They make a patch of shade as large as my home. I want to curl up under one and fall asleep, safe in their arms. Or just look up at the broad green leaves, overlapping and making darker green shadows, fanning themselves out against the rich blue July sky.

I’m smiling, now. I’m starting to sweat, the muscles in my back relaxing.

Within another few moments, I turned a gentle corner and opened into an enormous vista. On the right, blond-wheat-grass-colored hills, gently sloping down, toward the bluffs on my left. Abutting the water. Puget Sound, sparkling and blue, waiting. Blue water, white sails, and a large cruise ship just taken off, probably headed to Alaska. And the Olympic mountains, rising craggy and blue, above the blue-grey land.

I stopped walking, for a moment, spinning around and around, trying to take in the entire sky with my eyes. I couldn’t. I just felt my mind grow wider and wider with each turn.

And in the distance, a small black kite, like a hawk, soaring and dipping in the sky.

I walked even more slowly, running my hand along the tall grasses along the path, feeling their soft scratch in my palm.

Enter into the trees again, after that patch of dazzling sun. And here, dozens of low-lying bushes along my legs, with glossy green leaves. Pale purple blossoms where the blackberries will be, a month from now, just after my birthday. And the smell of summer hits me: days of warmth, acrid green leaves, a slight sweetness, and everything refulgent. Except refulgent means light, the way something can shine from within. Is there a smell version of this word? If so, I would use it here, the way the smell of everything offers itself up to those of us passing in the moment.

And it’s quiet. All the fast people have passed me. And it’s just me and the trees. And Rufus Wainwright walking with me, the soundtrack to my own life. Sometimes, not being able to hear everything makes every sight more potent.

Almost to the parking lot now, about three miles in. I pass a little family: a mom and dad my age, or a little older, looking harried and happy. Oldest boy with a walking stick and Australian hat, feeling important as the first of the line. A little girl in pink, maybe three, holding onto the straps of her dad’s backpack dangling down, saying Hubba Hubba over and over again, just to play with the sound. And as I pass, I see the little boy in the backpack, just over one, looking at me intently. And when I smile at him, his face breaks open in lovely joy. And he waves at me.

Sometimes I feel so in love with the world. It’s physical, not an emotional decision at all. It’s along my entire body. And when I am that in love with the world, as I was in those moments of walking toward the parking lot, I feel like my heart will burst. And I welcome it. Finally, I can remove that final skein that separates me from the world.

I’m moving slowly now, but this time to feel the juicy openness of all my muscles. I pass the last open field. Two men throwing a red frisbee, their arms loose and bent toward each other. A little girl in the middle, wearing Mickey Mouse sunglasses, and grinning at everyone going by.

I know how she feels.

And as I walk toward the car, I see pair of pale white feet hanging out the window of a long green car, bouncing to a song on the radio.

And my body feels alive.


I'm having an indolent Sunday morning. That's one of my favorite words of the moment: indolent.

I woke up after almost nine hours of sleep, naturally, with no alarm clock. I slowly shift my body in the bed and let the breeze coming through the window open my eyes. Such a humane way to live. That way, I remember my dreams. And there have been some vivid ones lately.  

I made a full pot of coffee as soon as I talked myself into rising. I used up the last of my Raven's Brew from Sitka two days ago, and I miss it. But this Caffe Vitta blend from Macrina Bakery ain't bad either.

I unrolled the Sunday New York Times. Now, this is one of my peculiar habits. One of my favorite moments of the week is opening the enormous pile of papers in the Sunday New York Times, then sorting the sections. I go through and throw all the sections I'm not going to read (mostly the business and sports sections) to the right of me. And then I go through all the rest of the sections and pile them up in placement by the order I want to read them.

Styles section first. Yes, silly, I know. But they have this weddings section, with photos of the couples and details of their lives, that usually shares good stories of how people met. And you know me and the stories. I like the improbable ones best. That section is also the most tongue-in-cheek of the entire paper, which suits me just fine. It's also my fix of silly New York doings. After I'm done reading those stories, I feel happy that I don't live there anymore. I'm also happy that I had the experiences I did so I know what I'm disdaining.

Arts and Leisure next, which is a whopping big section on dance, theatre, movies, television, and music. I'm usually inspired by one of the artists, inspired enough to write down a quote in my idea book for later perusal. This morning, it was Mark Morris, diva dancer and choreographer who adores music. "With my company, sometimes I say, 'That's nice, but it's not inhabited.' I tell them that it looks like footprints painted on the floor. Learning the steps is only like learning the notes, but I want more."

And then I write down ideas for the novel in my little idea book for the next half hour.

At this point, I'm on my third cup of coffee and have eaten my chicken sausage and five-grain cereal. And this morning, nearly half a pint of organic raspberries I bought at the farmers' market yesterday. They were so damned good. When I ate the first one, while standing by the coffee pot, waiting for it to finish dripping, I spontaneously rose to my toes and shouted. Ah, pure sweetness with enough tartness at the end to make me come back for more.

And also at this point, my fingers are blackened from the newsprint, so I have to rise from the bed to wash my hands. Magazine next, which is glossy paper. No hint of stain. But also the more serious news, the longer pieces, the ones that make me wince about the world. Since I read everything thoroughly, it's quite the bulk of information. But since I read fast, it has only been an hour and a half. Time for a break.

And so I'm writing to you.

I might go back to the book review, the travel section, the front page. Or I might let them languish on the floor next to my bed for the next couple of days. It's time to move into the world now. I'm going to take a long walk downtown, slowly, while listening to music. (Maybe the Beatles this morning.) I'm meeting two of my favorite Seattle students, who both graduated a month ago. They're brilliant and talented and spazzy, two of my favorite people in the world. Eager to see me, and me them. I know they'll have stories. So we're meeting at Top Pot doughnuts, which makes, undeniably, the best doughnuts in the city. If not the world. Seriously. If you ever come visit Seattle, I'll take you there. There will be hilarity and serious conversations both.

And then I'll come home on the bus, opened by the contact with other people. And write for a few hours. Then feel utterly alive.

So I'd better go and start that.

Oh, and I really have to clean my kitchen.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

I'm slowly coming back to myself, and even more slowly entering my world in Seattle. Everything here feels too big, too loud, too much. But not quite as much as it did last week. Funny how we change, all the time. Four years ago, I was living in New York, the country's capitol of concentrations of color and swirling bodies, noise, fast-damn pace and everything important. NOW!! When I came back to Seattle for my first visit after moving there, my brother kept saying, "Slow down. Stop walking so fast!" But I had adjusted my heartbeat to that city's pace, and it moved fast. But that's the funny thing about New York. Everything moves so fast, even the need for that city. By the time I moved away (three years ago, this month), I had just about drained my desire to live at that pace. I missed seeing the sky. I missed hearing birds in the trees. I missed the sound of quiet out the windows. And so I left. Seattle seemed like such a sweet little town in July of 2001.

But everything changes. That's the only truth I know.

Because here I am now, thinking that Seattle is just much too loud for me. There are too many people, too many smells, too many choices. At heart, I'm just a small-town girl, more and more as I grow older. Which is funny, because I've only lived in one small town. Grew up in Southern California, where the car reigned supreme. But even as a little kid, I knew something was wrong. Even though I had never seen that many of them, I longed to see trees. And really, should the cement of the sidewalks and the color of the sky be the same? Then I went to school in Tacoma, which smelled perpetually like a wet paper bag full of sauerkraut. At least this time there were pine trees. And then New York. Where life is like dog years, so even though I only lived there for four, it feels like 28. It's where I grew up, actually. London for a year--another big city. Sleepier, certainly. But still, that choking smoke from exhaust pipes and strangers on the street. Time in Europe. More New York. And now Seattle.

There were the five years on Vashon, and more and more, that place is calling my name again. It's the same size as Manhattan in width, and two miles longer. Only nine thousand people live there. Not one of them a single man, unfortunately. That's part of what drove me away when I was 30--because I'd never meet a man who didn't mud bog on the weekends and lived with his mother unless I moved. And I also left because I had never really lived by the time I was 30. This, another story. I'll never regret my time in New York.

But I love the fact there isn't a single stoplight on the entire island. There are four or five stop signs on the main highway, but that's it. People know each other there. That's part of what I hunger for, again. The way people care for each other. I remember two summers ago, when Sharon and I were on our cross-country trip, and we had stopped in Pierre, South Dakota for a day. We stayed with her childhood friend, Stacey, who had lived in that fairly small town for most of her adult life. I asked her if she ever minded it, only knowing so many people, and she looked confused. "No. I like it. People can't cut each other off on the road, because they know they're going to see each other at the grocery store the next day. And you want to stop and talk to the guy who runs the gas station, because he's your only source for fuel." She talked in a low, soft voice, which came from deep in her body. Her two children were asleep inside the house. We were sitting in the backyard ingesting enormous root beer shakes, which had cost $1.89 at the local ice cream place. And we were watching shooting stars dance above us in the night sky.

That's what I want now. I've had more excitement in my life than most people. You'd have to be patient enough to sit for days and days, just to hear the stories. And I love the stories. But mroe and more--and maybe it's because I'm closer to forty--I don't really want to live my life for the stories anymore. I don't have anything left to prove. I just want to live in a place that's quiet, to match the quiet in my mind.

So Vashon's calling again. Of course, Andy, Dana, and Elliott are over there, and that's a lure. Tita and I could walk together every evening along Cove Road and never run out of conversation. Julie and I could sit in her beautiful kitchen trading notes and cooking for days and still not be bored. And I could write my novel on KVI beach. Maybe I'm ready to give up on the search for the man anyway. There have been a bunch of men since I moved to New York--serious relationships; funny flirtations; long-distance crushes; and some inappropriate stories. But Seattle doesn't seem ready to reveal my match. And I think I'd rather have that beach than any more blind dates.

There's Alaska, too. Ah, Sitka, my second home in the world. There's something about it that calls to me, in a low, soft voice, deep in my body. That vastness. The shifting water. The trees, those green trees, that I dreamed of as a kid. And more. But that would be a big leap of faith, to move to Alaska. I've done it before. I live my life by leaps of faith, and I always feel more alive by the time I reach the other shore. But I don't know.

Mostly, I don't know. That still seems like the most honest statement in the world.

What I do know is that I'm here, in Seattle, the night sky dark midnight blue out my window. The cars have stopped racing down the street. Queen Anne has become a sleepy small town for the night. I've been out all day. Bobbing in the pellucid blue pool in Magnolia, with Jessica. Walking slowly through the farmer's market: fresh basil goat cheese; just-picked Rainier cherries; organic dill; beet greens; squeaky cheese curds; a bunch of sweet peas. Meeting Meri for cinnamon doughnuts and coffee, at the place just down the street from her new place in Capitol Hill. Eating crab crepes with avocado sauce, while drinking margaritas, with Tuney and her two friends. And then attending a fabulous dance performance at the Paramount, with one of my students on stage. Five soon-to-be-seniors ran up to me in the lobby, smiling and calling my name, and I almost didn't recognize them. Too soon to think about school. But I gave them hugs and asked about their summers. Then moved away. The day ended with a concentration of color and swirling bodies, people up on their feet in the aisles, and my hips swaying to the beat. "Celebration....." Everybody singing. Everybody dancing. And for a few moments, no thoughts. Just joy.

So where will I be this time next year? I don't know. Where am I right now? Here.

Friday, July 09, 2004

I'm sitting in Macrina Bakery in the late afternoon, taking a break from the novel for a sip of my soy latte. And the chance to write to you. There are crumbs of my buttermilk biscuit on the table. And dollops of strawberry jam. Gathering rainclouds outside.

I have no wild strawberries to share with you.

I have only hours of sleep, quiet conversations, and time to think. But my writing has come to life again these past few days, after months of it being dormant. I feel as though my wings are unfurling from that tight ball, and I'm just learning how to fly again. I've been writing for six or eight hours a day, the words pouring forth in some kind of deluge of grace.

I'd like to say that I'll be done with the novel by the end of this summer, but I've learned my lesson on that. Life interrupts you when you announce your plans firmly. Last year, after camp, I promised myself---swore to myself--that I would be done with the first draft by the time I went back. I imagined carrying the fat manuscript to Sitka, with pages to edit and scenes to flourish at people. I didn't imagine crumpled green metal, shooting pains in my head, an ache in my arms so bad I couldn't lift them, and four months without being able to write for longer than fifteen minutes. So I have no way of knowing what this year between camps will bring. I won't even try to imagine it.

But I do know that this life has changed me, unutterably. And I'm grateful for it.

So I'm trying to practice, in writing and loving, what I have learned from meditation: there is no goal. The path is the goal. The tough practice of staying open, remaining loving, writing, no matter what happens--it doesn't lead me anywhere but to more of the same. That is my work. And so I have decided to write, in this small, imperfect space, with a leaky blue pen. Write to say that I miss you. Write to let the words pour forth, not needing to know what they are forming. Write as a way of walking the path, stumbling along the way.

And the more I write, the more writing appears. And the more I love, the more love blooms open. The more life blooms open. My nephew giggled his face and showed me an entire row of white teeth when I picked him up this morning. We walked Seward Park together, me pointing out the looming green trees and floating ducks and raindrops on his hand. And he repeating the words back, in his baby voice, practicing the sounds. And later, he snuggled onto my shoulder and fell asleep.

Right now, outside, there's a small girl in a striped-red shirt, wearing a long blue cape, and carrying a turquoise light saber. And one green mitten. She's kneeling down to pet a small, shivering dog, which is tied to a metal table. There's such love in her eyes, as she scratches him behind the ears. And at this moment, nothing else exists, except watching this girl, and loving the world.

And sharing it with you.

All my love,

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

I finally feel like I'm home. It has been a balm to return to hours and hours of alone time. After the last, packed days of school--with dozens of voices calling “Shauna. Shauna? Shauna!”--and the densely packed two weeks of camp--with artshares and conversations in the elevator and teaching more students--I’m finally alone. Just me, in the house. Nothing to do but read. Or write for another hour. Or take a nap. Finally. It's finally summer, and my body is going to heal more fully.

I'm still missing Sitka, although I probably have more time to miss it than most of my colleagues do. They have rushed back to their office jobs (I’m sorry, you guys. And have you seen The Office yet?) or family vacations, or more camps ((Kristin's halfway through a bass camp in Oakland, right now). One of my friends wrote to me today, saying, “I can’t believe that I just saw you last week. It feels like years ago now.” Not for me. But because I didn't have to rush back to work or move onto another camp, I've had time to really digest my time there. I’ve had days to chew on those moments, savoring the sweetest ones, then letting them go. I feel cleansed.

One of my friends, Jessica, said this morning, of the montage I sent out (and posted here this evening): "My god, the images you have held in your head. I can't take that much in, much less keep it." But that’s me. Wide-open eyes. Everything an experience. If I want to be here, it’s all beautiful. This morning, I walked too quickly past my kitchen counter and brushed against the container of almonds I had forgotten to close. With a loud flourish, dozens and dozens of brown almonds fanned out against the white floor in slow motion. I looked back at it, and laughed. I know that other people might have been annoyed. I might be too, in another moment. But in this one, I just laughed. So I kneeled down to pick them up. And then I slowed down. Instead of rushing to have them all off the floor, why not feel each one as I was picking it up? Call it the five-minute rule, instead of the five second. So I felt my knees on the hard floor, felt the shape of each almond as I picked it up--chipped or sheared in half or furrowed diamond--and felt the breeze coming through the window at the moment on my right cheek. And in the middle of it, I slowed down enough to feel this: This is life. Just one of these moments after another. Picking up almonds could be a sanctified activity, if we only remembered to experience it.

And then I stood up, because my knees hurt.

Strangely, the more deeply I focus on the images of my life, the more quickly they pass through me. The ones I don’t look at it are the ones that tug.

“The only way out is through.” --Albert Camus

And when life feels slow like this, I’m walking around feeling almost broken-hearted. I don’t mean that in the romantic way of Cole Porter songs and easy-to-hum pop songs. I mean, broken-open-hearted. I was trying to tell Reber about this in Sitka, on one of the first days I could walk again. I don't know if he understood. When I’m walking slowly, I feel it all. I’m not rushing to impress or do the work I think will give me more stature with people or ticking off the perpetual to-do list in my head that never diminishes. Those are all just a wall against feeling, a way to convince ourselves that we don’t have time to listen. Listen to that little empty ache at the bottom of our stomachs, the ache that means we’re not truly loving or doing the work that makes us feel most alive. When I’m walking slowly, I’m just here. And when I’m here, everything breaks my heart. In the feeling-the-connections way. In sensing the ephemerality, the sweet evanescence, the way it’s more gorgeous for the fact that it’s all going to end soon way. And the pure absurdity of life way--how we strive and strain and hide from ourselves. And how easy it is to see when you’re just walking slowly.

Since I returned home, I've done as close to nothing as possible. Hours to write. Long walks in the evening. Sleeping for nine hours a night. Talking with friends on the phone. Hydro-fit classes with my 70-year-old friends. Indolence in the afternoon.

This morning, I thought I had the germy viral infection my brother had on Saturday. Slightly queasy. A little fever. Logey. So instead of pushing it, I sat up in bed, propped up on pillows, back on the heating pad. Why not? And I watched Return of the King, over the course of six or seven hours. God, I love that movie. I had to keep stopping, for food or naps or a break from the violence. Since the car accident, I’m such a ninny. I feel every act of violence I see. I felt so invigorated from watching that film, though, not only because it’s fucking awesome (there’s good writer language for you), but also because I sensed all the love and determination and courage it took for all the artists to finish it that way. I cried and cried, especially when Sam said, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” And he muscled Frodo onto his back and lumbered up that mountain, slowly, out of pure love.

Yes. That’s what I want. That’s how I want to be in the world.

When else am I going to have an entire day to watch one movie and ponder it for hours? I love summer vacation. A real sense of rest.

Why is it so hard for us to rest?

But mostly, after these days of lying low and processing, I feel like I'm back. The novel is taking over my life. When I read Jessica’s comment about how many images I hold, I wanted to giggle. What I wanted to say was, "You should see the images in my head that I haven't told you yet." Letting go of Sitka is opening the door for my characters to come flooding back in. And oh, are they talking to me again. In urgent voices, filled with passion.

In fact, I have to stop writing here now, so I can listen to them.

So I'm good. Feeling alive and whole. Feeling profoundly changed, in some way, after Sitka. And feeling like I have no way to name that change. That's okay.

I'm just here.


I’m tired almost beyond recognition, but I still have to write a few words, since it’s my first night in Sitka. I love this place so much that there really aren’t any words. Walking around downtown, being in the Back Door, landing among those green-brown dots of islands amidst the water--it all feels like home. This place has become so much a part of me that I cannot find the words. But of course, I’m still going to search.

Staying in the nursing home, the windows overlooking downtown Sitka. Korb and I are sharing a bathroom. This is going to be trouble. We’re not going to get any sleep for the talking.

At dinner the first night, I felt this wave of melancholy go over me as people began introducing themselves. I didn’t feel alienated. Quite the opposite. I felt enlivened and loved, as we all talked about the love we feel for this place and each other. Instead, I felt the pain in my shoulders and neck anew. Looking out at the blue-grey mountains, I could remember the way I felt in my body this time last year. I felt good. I felt exuberant. I felt unscathed. No more. I don’t have my usual energy. I have had such a hard time. And here I was, at this dinner with people I love, and I had to leave early. Last year, I had all this crazy, bounding energy. I felt alive and shrieking much of the time. Now, I feel quieter. More at ease, certainly. But not able to open my jaws so wide to smile. And I can’t quite capture that back

All the faculty seated in a wide semi-circle of chairs, in front of the students sprawled out on the floor. And as each one of us stood up to talk  (to say our names, and where we’re from, and any camp story we have), I fell in love with the camp all over again. There are plenty of creaky places here--staying in the nursing home is not much fun--but nothing will stop me from enjoying this place. Especially now that classes have begun. And so, we defined ourselves, and the experience of the kids, by talking in exultant tones of love.

I can see this time, having been here twice before, how much we create our own experience. In the first meetings and dinners, we comment on how much we love it, those of us who have been here before. And in doing so, we set the tone for what the camp might be like for everyone else. Now, two days in, we’re already confirming what we thought that first night. And every time we do, we just build that sense of goodness more and more. By the end of the two weeks, it will be a frenzy of love and admiration. And we’ll leave, exhausted, and ready to re-create the place again next year. It’s amazing how much we choose our own moods.

Early morning at the nursing home, the attendants talking loudly at 5:30 in the morning. There will be no sleep in this place. So instead of fighting it, I open my door to the hallway and walk toward the babbling, happy noise. “Kiran!” I squeal, and run toward her to pick her up for a hug. Muesli and coffee for breakfast. Yoga stretches. Talking with Jessica, again and again, as I straighten my hair, and we debrief on the day before, anticipate the day to come.

Back in Sitka, and I’m in love again. Already, this fiction class moves me, and we’re laughing. There’s nothing like being with a bunch of new kids, their faces already familiar after a few moments, and knowing that they will soon be burned indelibly into my brain. 19 students in my fiction class, all of us gathered around three round tables placed together in the upstairs of the library. Every one of them participates. They are all telling stories, listening to each other, laughing, and writing. They're filled with enthusiasms, snorting when they laugh, funny as hell, and the most generous kids I've ever taught. Here it is, summer vacation, and they're all writing, every day.

Drew is 18, and blind. His eyes are peeled back in his head, pale pink and opaque. He’s filled with confidence, all the same, but he’s clearly lonely in there. He likes to interrupt all the time.He wants to make a connection with whatever anyone is saying. He’s not socialized. But he will be soon. That’s what this camp is about, after all. Alison and Kristina and Jessica and Maya and Acacia are back from last year, but most of them are new. We share the same space, creating a community of writers, disparate people bound by the compulsion to put words on the page. What that is, I still don’t know. But what I’m going to share with these kids, which I have learned fully this year: writing is a way to be utterly alone, in my own experience without outside influence, but still deeply connected to other human beings. I’m sure it’s the same with all the arts. In this way, it’s the perfect metaphor for being alive. It’s about reaching deep inside for something you know is there but can’t name yet. And then bringing it out into the light and watching other people’s faces light up at the sight of it. Because they recognize themselves in the image you have just created. And in seeing the look on their faces, you see it yourself.

There’s nothing like it.

I’m still moved to tears every time I hear a new group of kids talking about why they love to write. My role as teacher drops away, and I’m simply one of them. And in a way, I’m like a kid who has been lonely all her life finally finding friends. Finally, some people who think like I do, who understand the way my mind moves. It no longer matters that they are infinitely younger than I am, or that I’m supposed to be in charge. They are merely beings, and I am one of them, together. I love this gig.

Finn, my curly-haired, sweet-as-honey, favorite student (except for Maya, who is in her own category), who writes like a dream, produces his own radio show in Sitka, listens to everyone around him, gives hugs liberally, and laughs with his entire body? Finn's in my fiction class. On the first day of classes, I asked everyone to talk about why they write. Do you know what Finn said? "I write because it reminds me. It reminds me that even though there is violence and sadness in the world, nine times out of ten I think that the beauty of the world is more potent." He's 15. Everyone else in the class around him nodded.

I adore the other members of the faculty. They are some of my dearest, deepest friends in the world, and I only see most of them these two weeks out of the year. So these weeks are like a connection extravaganza--every conversation goofy and meaningful, loving and alive. I’m so glad Jara is back this year. I’ve missed her caustic kindness. And Christi? What did I do without Christi last year? We eat bad cafeteria food together, and complain about the lack of vegetables, mildly. This year, we're staying on the top floor of Sitka's nursing home. Don't ask. It's weird. There are beeping alarms and old women in wheelchairs with blue bows in their hair and heart monitors attached to the wall alongside our beds. But we have the entire third floor, and every time I open my door, I see someone with whom I want to talk, someone whom I hug. About forty-five hugs a day. Every evening, we gather at the ArtShare, in which someone, or several someones, presents his or her art. It's astonishing. And it always makes me want to work.

I love looking out the window and seeing all the masts of sailing ships in the harbor, bunched together in front of Mount Edgecumbe. And the blue, blue sky outside, on this glorious, unusual day.

Aren’t they all unusual?

Hot today. A little muggy. I ran all the way back to town, when I had nearly reached campus, because I suddenly remembered that I had left my wallet on the little shelf beneath the pay phone, outside the outdoor clothing store. I panicked, because I have all the cash from the faculty for the bonfire tonight, all of it tucked in there. Ack! And of course, I can only run so far. But when I finally reached the foyer, panting, I found it lying there, with a newspaper I had been reading. Not only that, but tourists were swarming the area, and no one had lifted it. So I love humanity again.

That view from Reber’s beach is truly one of the most, if not the most, beautiful sights I have ever seen. Green water, made deeper green when the sun hits it right. Dark fir trees topping little islands. We pointed out sunlight streaking the green water, eagles on wooden poles, shafts of light among the trees, pointed them out to each other.  And there were bald eagles and black birds calling outside the window, diving down to the water and soaring up on widespread wings. The eagles, when they land, keep their wings tufted up until they balance in the top of the tree, then let their feathers settle softly. A snow-covered mountain out his living room window. It just moves me to tears.


And on top of that, add bonfires, back rubs, smores, and roasted bananas.

Could there be anything more beautiful?

God, I love my job. This is an endless well of happiness. Kristin and I were talking about this at lunch, over bad food and too-sweet cake--how creative teaching is. When you move away from the rote expectations, you trust the process. Have a rough outline, and then let the moments determine themselves.

Goddamn it, Reber beat me at Scrabble again. I claim bad back pain as a distraction. Rematch next year.

A kid named Marley told a hilarious story about his hippy mom picking up a hitchhiker, and somehow connecting it to a local man who had cremated his wife. “He turned her ashes into these wacky beads. He put one on top of a mountain. He wanted to put one down the throat of a lion, one down the throat of a baboon. And he gave one to me.” He’s a natural. He had us all rapt and laughing. And for a twelve-year-old kid, that’s pretty great.

Dancers flashing across the stage in a tumult of energy and listening to each other.

Life moves too fast. I can’t keep up with it. I have one wonderful conversation after another with people I love here, new students who have bloomed in my mind, and there are only twenty or thirty minutes a day to write it all down. I have to let it go.

We’re all exhausted. No one is sleeping more than five or six hours a night, which is terrible for the health. The past few days, and yesterday in particular, I was exhausted. I walked around campus in a daze yesterday, utterly spent, punch-drunk, but more creative for it in my teaching. And I keep falling asleep now--my body just can’t take it anymore. I’ve been running it into the ground. The food is always lousy here, so I’m not complaining, but little to no vegetables or healthy food plays its part as well....

A grey day, finally. The fog has rolled in, and I’m happier. Sitka feels more real with the clouds above my head.  

Oh my god, the steak at Ludvig’s--with the creme fraiche and dungeness crab slathered on top--is beyond compare. Of course, the two bottles of wine probably helped too.

Mary won the Scrabble game tonight. And she feigned beginner’s luck....

Laura tirelessly tugging at the heavy screen onstage at Centennial every night. I’m glad the kids roar their approval for her, because she’s working hard. And Simon! My god, poor Simon. And Reber taking pictures every night, after teaching a full day of classes. We all work too hard at this camp.

I’m trying not to complain, because I’m at camp, and I love this place. But I’m exhausted. This is the ninth straight day that we’ve had classes, and I don’t know how we’ve made it through. Part of me would like to go home right now--for my warm bed, my music playing, and the sunlight coming through the living-room windows. But I also know that as soon as I return home, I’ll miss this place. I’ll wish that I was sitting on the second floor of this library, Maya’s feet propped up on the orange upholstery chair where mine are resting. All the children writing away, just because I asked them to try.

Reber and I driving by the dock full of people, waiting to leave for Berry Island, waving hello, then deciding we had time to drive to the P-bar to pick up more wine, so peeling out of the parking lot. Laughing.

On the boat headed toward Berry Island, away from Sitka, away from classes after nine straight days of teaching. Away from the alarm sounds (boop, boop, BEEEEPP) of the patients calling out for help in the nursing home. Away from it all. Through the dark grey water, threading through the dark green trees and islands, the breeze on my face, the wind roaring in my ears. My mind felt quiet.

The green amazed me, as always. But after a few moments of meandering among the tables laden with beautiful food, and talking with people, I headed over to the far cabin by myself. I wanted the hot tub. No one else was there. I peeled back the first half of the hot tub cover with a thump, then stripped off my clothes and slipped in. Eagles flew overhead, their wings unfurled, floating slowly above me, toward their rest on the other side of the island.

Alon ate a dozen sushi rolls in a row with enormous gusto and no sense of shame. Good for him.

Ravenswood wine. Foot rubs in the hot tub. Laughter always in the air.

We heard their excited cries as they came up for air. And then we all laughed as we watched these two naked men swim out for the other shore. On red head and one dark head. We all waved and laughed, shouting, “You’re crazy!” And they clambered up the rocks, glorious, and thrust their fists into the air, in a triumphal yawp of a moment.

Neck rubs on the cabin floor, in the middle of Roger telling the kayaking story. Smoked salmon. Rhubarb cake. Dawn watersking with elan. Pablo trying hard to stay up. Twirling Kiran above the green, green grass, in spite of my tender back. And as we pulled away from the dock, a burst of fireworks in the sky.

The sound of Jessica and Gary and Lynne laughing in the faculty lounge, wafting down the hall. Kristin coming home late from Minneapolis. And in spite of my tired mind, I can’t help but call out, “Come sit on my bed and tell me stories!” She does.

Dancing to the big band concert, at the feet of all our musician friends, felt like joy in physical form. Everything easy.

Alon in a yellow shirt, red fez, and bare feet, lumbering across the stage to the piano. Roblin, nimble and lithe, doing frenzied jumping jacks as the music sped up, faster and faster. And my laugh left my body in waves of joy, louder and louder, watching the two of them play together.

And by the way, if you haven’t bought a copy of Mary Fettig’s cd yet, you’re just dumb. That woman rocks.

Jessica’s kids in that searing play, the one that made me gasp out loud as it ended. Beverly’s mask kids, one of them holding up the sign, “GASP!” Roblin’s clown kids, cavorting in full extensions of themselves.

The last number of the last concert of camp. The jazz band playing a cha-cha Summertime, everyone taking a turn, almost everyone in the room up and dancing in the aisles. All that life and energy, fulminating, the exuberance of the last two weeks expressing itself in jumping up and down. Wide smiles. Sweaty faces. And people holding each other, close, sweetly, knowing that it’s all just about to end.

All of us gathered at Ludvig’s,  the last night, the happiness filling the room. Roblin tries to take good pictures on Kristin’s camera, but Reber keeps closing his eyes. One last try. Roblin laughs so hard--eyes shut again--that he falters back in his chair. Then kicks out at the table to catch himself. And knocks over the almost-full bottle of wine, which spills all over the table, then all over Reber. I laugh so hard that I dive headfirst into the kitchen. Let this be a lesson to us all. Keep your eyes open!

One last, lingering coffee at the Back Door. A sad trip to the airport, then the plane lifts away. And I’m gone.

So that's camp.

I've been thinking of this phrase often, these days. "The readiness is all." (Shakespeare, of course) It feels as though I am readying myself for something, clearing away layers of habits and langugage that I no longer need. This time in Alaska felt more profound and loving with each passing day. So I don’t know everything that this time in Sitka has taught me. I just know that it is profound and loving, once again. And it will take me the rest of the year to know it fully.

And I have all of you to thank for it. In spite of what was said, in haste, at that last, strange faculty meeting, there will never be another Mark. There will never be another Julie or Kevin or Amy or Hannah or Bob or Laura or Scott or Jamie or Mike or Charles either. There will never be another group of people like this. Thank you for being there, all of you.

See you next year.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

As I write, the honey-colored sunlight is arching through my Tibetan prayer flags and dancing along the white living room wall. It’s the evening of the fourth of July, and I’m at home. Somehow, this year, I couldn’t participate in any of the big Americana activities. Usually, I peal with laughter, like a little kid, at the sight of fireworks exploding in the night sky. I stand on my tiptoes and clap with glee. But this year, I just can’t do crowds and noise. My time in small Sitka has ruined me.

I had a hard time returning this year. Every year, when the plane descends after two hours of flying away from Alaska, I peer down at Seattle below me and think, “Turn back! This is wrong.” Especially this year. Everything looked brown and overpopulated. Squat and impersonal. Too large. I don’t think I can live in a city much longer. So the first day back, I stayed in the house. (Except for a slow walk to Macrina Bakery, for an herb baguette, olive tapenade, half a roast chicken, goat cheese, fresh fruit, and a bing cherry tartlette. No more cafeteria food for me. I had a picnic on the floor by myself.) Connecting with friends on the phone. Unpacking slowly. Writing for hours. And it was the first time at home, since the car accident, without the constant nagging feeling of needing to do something productive. An entire day of silence, without responsibilities. A good way to be.

Yesterday, I spent the day with my nephew. He grew taller and more confident in my absence. He smiled wide when I entered the door. We spent the entire day playing. I read him a dozen books, then a dozen more. We bounced on the orange ball. We practiced walking. (He’s learned how to do pratfalls, just to make me laugh.) I watched him watching the world, sitting with him in silence, not needing to be anywhere else. And then we ate grapes and watched the breakfast sequence from PeeWee’s Big Adventure. My brother and I shared it all, and laughed.

In the evening, my friend Tita and I walked slowly through a secluded nature reserve on the island, a couple of miles of narrow path cut through green trees. It reminded me of Sitka, and I could feel my center of gravity drop. She had been in Wisconsin, for the funeral of a family friend. And the death had hit her hard. I listened to her talk, holding her by the arm in silence, then holding her when she cried. We sat in front of Fisher pond, in the white plastic chairs someone had left there for us, and listened to the emerging symphony of bullfrogs amidst the lily pads. White egrets nestled into each other in the distance. The sun set slowly, leaving us in golden light, and chilling air. I felt at peace with her. I felt at home.

And today, I started work on the novel. It’s surging through me, after Sitka. I have to finish it. No choice. And there are so many images swarming out of me, into the blue ink on white paper, that I’m dancing in my mind today. Three or four hours a day, every day, and I’ll be somwhere else at the end of summer than I am here at the beginning.

This evening, taking a break, I took a long, slow walk around the neighborhood. I’m walking faster than I was on those walks back to the library after lunch. But not much. Nine or ten hours of sweet sleep every night since I returned has relaxed my back even more. And I’m determined to heal. So I’m walking, among the leafy trees, the broad sweep of blue water and mountains to the right of the old boulevard, among the white tombstones in this beautiful cemetery above me.

And as I walked, I watched. I watched the sun glinting off the silver windchimes on all the porches along 6th Avenue. The wilted red roses flopping down toward the ground. The fat lilac blossoms bouncing in the small breeze. And when I put my nose to them, that indolent smell of summer. Small boys playing basketball on their cement driveway. A guy in a tank top, leaning over his car. The streets mostly empty of people, everyone off to a barbeque or picnic. And just outside the cemetery, the sweet evanescence of honeysuckle, filling me, singing with me.

When I returned home, my downstairs neighbors called to me from their rooftop garden. They invited me up for dinner, spontaneously. Barbequed chicken, roasted corn, fried oysters they had caught at Deception Pass the day before, and seaweed salad, from seaweed he had picked at Lincoln Park this morning. It was all so unutterably good. And lovely, to sit on the roof and talk with people I barely know, but who were being so kind.

At the end of the cemetery walk, I always smile. A large brown tombstone, with the family name: Livengood. It reminds me, every time. Living is good. As soon as I remember to let go of what I’ve had, life comes rushing in with every breath.

p.s. As soon as I finished writing this, I heard the boom of the fireworks outside. Two shows in Seattle, at Myrtle Edwards Park along the waterfront and above Lake Union. I listened to the hissing and thumps out my window, thinking that would be enough. But then I noticed a clump of people standing in the middle of the crosswalk beneath my window, shouting and looking east. I ran outside, in my shorts and flip-flops, into the cool night air. And there were the Lake Union fireworks, framed by the the trees along McGraw. Thousands of people had waited all day at Gasworks Park, and not one of them had as good a view as the ten of us in the street. A little community, oohing and aahhing at the weeping willow golds and enormous red thrusts. And of course, I ended up laughing and dancing on my toes, even in my flip-flops. See what I mean?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?