Saturday, July 31, 2010
But after this week, I don't think I'll ever feel alone in that one certain way again. I have finally found my people.
On Sunday night, the organizer of Iowa Summer Writing Festival spoke to us about being among our people, our tribe, as we gathered for the first time. Maybe a couple hundred writers all there to improve their craft, to share their work, to learn from each other.
In an e-mail shortly after that, Walt wrote, "You belong with these folks. These are your people."
And I was reminded of that in a hundred different ways all week long. Running into a couple of women who shared our table that first night everywhere we went and greeting each other like long lost friends. Standing next to a perfect stranger at the book store and having a wonderful conversation about writing books. Strolling campus and town, catching the eyes of people never seen before and exchanging smiles of recognition.
The Elevenses lectures each day in a small auditorium, watched over by two huge periodic tables, provided endless opportunities to hear my people share their writing, their insights, their questions. Whether I was sitting with Carrie, or alone waiting for classmates to join me, I felt such a sense of belonging. Sometimes starting up a conversation with the woman sitting behind, or the man sitting in front, and sometimes just absorbing the fact that I was sitting in this amazing world.
There were twelve people in our class, in addition to Hope who is everything I could have wished for in a teacher and more. I'm not sure whether it's because it was a memoir class, or the magic of our particular combination, but we found an even deeper level of our people in each other. By Tuesday we were attending Elevenses together (all twelve sitting in the front row that day to hear Hope speak), and eating lunch together, and going to dinner after class. Not all twelve every time, but different combinations.
I fell in love with my classmates, and their stories. Everyone has a story - it's what makes us human. But one of the things that makes writers unique is our willingness to put our hearts on the page and in the world, our determination to find truth and bring it into the light. We are the tribe's storytellers, candles in the darkness, painters with words.
At that first Sunday night dinner, I noticed a woman at another table. I'm not sure why she in particular stood out in a room full of interesting and new faces, but I couldn't take my eyes off her, and as I always do in these situations, I wondered about her story. So later when she walked into the small room that would become our nest for the week, I knew she would become important to me. As her story emerged throughout the week, I learned that "my people" is an important theme for her as well, in those exact words. While one of my people in the larger sense, she's also become one of my friends - a friendship I hope grows beyond this magical week.
"My people," times three.
Like the puzzle pieces, a clear message delivered gently. In the weeks ahead as I sit at my computer and work to give birth to the next book, midwifed by powerful new knowledge and insights, I'll have the comfort of knowing I'm truly not alone. I'll hear the voices of my people offering encouragement and empathy. And I'll have a dozen new people to reach out to when my flame flickers again in the winds of doubt and fear.
The doves and grackles have been cooing and singing wildly for a bit now. Morning is fully arrived. It's time to finish packing, maybe give myself the gift of one more walk in this sweet town, and then to head for home. Changed. Charged. Certain of my calling.
Four classmates, including Carrie, are missing from the picture, taken at last night's farewell dinner. That our utter and bone-deep exhaustion doesn't show here is testament to the magic of this week and our bond.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The first thing Carrie and I did on Sunday morning, our first in Iowa, was to head out for an early morning walk. We found ourselves at a footbridge spanning the lazy swirls of the Iowa River, and as we crossed I noticed a puzzle piece on the ground. Odd. But nothing more than a momentary blip - until a few feet farther on I saw a second one. That stopped me.
I scanned ahead on the path and saw a scattering of more a few steps away. We started looking for them and discovered a trail of puzzle pieces leading us to the other side of the river. Because of earlier flooding, the trail wouldn't allow us farther, so we had to turn around and go back, which provided us the pleasure of following the little cardboard breadcrumbs again.
The next morning, we walked in the opposite direction, only to find another sprinkling of what seemed to be intentionally scattered puzzle pieces on the sidewalk. This time I picked one up and tucked it in my pocket as a reminder, a talisman.
While we won't ever get to know the real story of that puzzle, the pieces are the perfect metaphor for this week.
I came here looking for answers, missing pieces to the puzzle that is the telling of my story.
Iowa, Hope, the Offerer of the Breadcrumb Trail - all are showering me with small bits of color and shape and texture that are beginning to sort themselves into a clear picture.
This is not like a standard jigsaw solution: find the edge pieces, do the frame, sort by color and follow the picture on the box. It feels more like the image is forming in the center and growing outward, the design a mystery unfolding on its own, much like the feeling of warmth that radiates from a heart in love.
In the same way I'm getting to know some amazing people. Twelve of us, plus Hope, sat in a circle of tables for the first time on Sunday. We offered the puzzle pieces of our names, one or two bits of information and whatever people might gather from our appearances and voices. As the week has progressed and we've talked and begun to share our stories and experience each other's writing, each person's picture becomes clearer and clearer. My new friend, Nancy, likened it yesterday to a polaroid photo as it develops.
Today marks the halfway point of the festival. If it were the last day, I'd feel like the puzzle was complete enough. I can't begin to imagine what the next pieces will add to the picture. I can hardly wait to find out.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Last November Carrie hosted a salon in her home for Hope Edelman. Later we talked about how cool it would be to take a class with her. One thing led to another to another to another and we decided to go to Iowa for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival to spend a week as Hope's students in memoir writing. We registered the very first day we could, had all the details ironed out by March, excited to have until July to anticipate with relish the adventure waiting for us.
We had to have pages sent to Hope by May 15. At the time we registered, shortly after the first of the year, I was confident I'd have at least a polished draft of the rewrite of my book completed by then. As the weeks went by, my confidence was replaced with many things, none of them hopeful. I couldn't find a frame for the rewrite, couldn't find my voice, couldn't figure out why I ever thought I should be a writer in the first place.
Doubt moved in with huge trunks and a ferrety little pet with a wicked bite, prepared for a very long stay.
In those weeks and months I considered the possibility that I took a wrong turn a year ago - perhaps my life's purpose was in a different arena altogether, even though I had absolutely no idea where that arena might be or what might be in it.
However, I had paid mostly unrefundable money for the July week, and Carrie was counting on me. So I decided I'd go, maybe I was meant to go, if only for the adventure. I love being with Carrie. I've never been to Iowa. I admire Hope both as a teacher and a writer. And even blockaded by doubt's baggage, the thought of spending a week with writers sounded like the most fun I might imagine.
The week of May 15 I wasn't even sure I'd have pages to send, or be able to write the cover letter explaining what my book is about. When Carrie reminded me I only actually had until the 13th because we had to send our work via snail mail, I had a few hours of that dark and sinking feeling so well remembered from school where an assignment is due and there is no human way to get it done on time.
In a sweet bit of miracle, a conversation with my brother, Mark, gave me just enough direction that I pulled stories that might become chapters, wrote the cover letter without consulting my brain or giving myself the chance to judge it, and got the packet in the mail on time.
And then put the book on the back burner. I wish I could say I put it out of my mind, and while that was my intention, my story had other ideas. So it's been incubating, stewing, growing in the shadows - waiting for this day.
At the moment this post appears, Carrie and I are on a jet headed for Iowa City (via Salt Lake City and Minneapolis - a long day, all the more time to enjoy everything). Our week starts officially Sunday night.
I'm excited. Confident this week will be full of adventure, joy, and miracles both large and small. Certain that whatever happens next is exactly what I'm going to need to travel the next leg of my journey. Eyes open. Heart wide. Smile ready.
Full of hope.
Photo from Flickr
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
One hand was wrapped around the stems of full-headed, fragrant phlox, the other held scissors. My bare feet cooled in the grass as I leaned in to gather Shasta daisies and purple spikes of catmint for a fresh bouquet to fill my new favorite vase. A telltale buzz of wings told me one of our resident hummingbirds was in search of food.
She zoomed by my head and went straight for the bee balm only to be confronted by another buzzing blur of tiny avian energy. As they faced off just feet from my now frozen body, I got a glimpse of emerald Oz green feathers and a tiny ruby spot on her throat. The attacker was more rust, less glitter, a male deciding he wanted the whole flower bed for himself. They chased each other across the yard into the trees. She returned alone just seconds later.
She worked the bee balm and the lipstick plant, back and forth, with me doing my best to be invisible in between. At one point she hovered, looked me right in the eye - I was sure she was going to sample the flowers in my hand - then continued dipping her tiny pollen-coated beak into each tiny magenta flower of the lipstick plant at my feet. Finally sated, she whirred away, leaving me standing in awe.
The hummingbirds this summer are tamer and more abundant than I remember from previous years. They fly right up to our faces, hover over the big bird feeders like children in search of playmates, do raucous three-way battle in the air almost close enough for us to grab them from the sky. We sit on the patio in the afternoons and admire their Lilliputian bodies in a constant swaying dance from fuschia bud to fuschia bud, impossibly small feet tucked into thumb-sized bellies.
One of my favorite children's books, Peter and the Starcatchers, a story of how Peter Pan came to be Peter Pan, explains Tinkerbell as a magically transformed hummingbird. It's almost impossible now to observe one without thinking of her. The spirit. The feisty attitude. The unimaginable energy.
I have a faded memory of my mom telling a story of a hummingbird that landed in my small girl hand when we lived in Montana in the time before hope died. I would have been five or four, maybe three. This woman who rarely spoke in stories, let alone happy ones, seemed to find great pleasure in this one. She couldn't quite get over how tame the bird was, how calm I was, how comfortable we seemed with each other. At some point she grew concerned it might poke my eye out and shooed it away. Every time she told the story I tried my hardest to remember the feel of a nearly weightless spark of glittering magic in my hand. I never could.
Edith Wharton is often credited with the quote, "I dream of an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird." As I heard the story, she meant to illustrate how difficult it is to turn brilliant ideas into powerful words on the page. I get the idea, but love the picture of eagle transformed to hummingbird too much to be able to connect with the thought that anything lesser is occurring.
As small as it's possible for a bird to be, smaller than some insects, hummingbirds possess a powerful, compelling presence that no eagle could ever match or beat. Lighted gemstones adorning summer flowers, tiny flames burning the air, wonder propelled by whirring wings. Magic measured in ounces, like fairy dust.
Top photo, mine. Bottom photo from Flickr.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Forty years ago today I was a pregnant eighteen-year-old - alone, ashamed and frightened for my future.
I believed I had another month before my baby arrived, another month of enduring the discomfort of carrying the weight of her, another month before I would have to do the unthinkable, unbearable right thing. I had only just called my mom and told her I was pregnant and garnered the promise she'd be there for me when the time came. I had just been to the doctor - the old gruff man who never looked me in the eye, who expressed concern about how swollen I was, who had just left for vacation.
My social worker, Karen, the one bright spot in the bleakness of my life, had promised everything would be okay. Told me over and over again that giving up my baby would be the most loving act possible - for us both. I didn't believe her, not really, but knew that keeping that child would mean the end of any possibilities of a future for me, and the almost certain guarantee of a life for her no better than the one I so desperately wanted to escape.
Forty years ago today I found myself in a neighbor's apartment. Her room only slightly larger than mine, and no cooler - one of three carved out of a second floor in an old house owned by a little Japanese woman who was scandalized to know the plump girl she rented to was actually an unwed mother. The neighbor, Kathy, and I had met in the narrow, dimly lit hallway on our way to the shared bathroom. Just a year or two older than me, she seemed wise and she cared.
So when my water broke on this night forty years ago as I sat on her floor talking to her and her boyfriend, they took me to the hospital. Where my daughter was delivered from my unconscious body very early the next morning by a young doctor on call. Where my caseworker couldn't get away from her schedule to visit. Where my mom promised over the phone to come get me when everything was over, but wouldn't leave her husband and sons to travel the hour and a half when I'd be leaving the hospital the next day. Picked up by my new friend, Kathy.
My daughter. Forty tomorrow. Unheld by me until she was twenty-four, in a reunion full of more love and redemption than I'd ever experienced before. We knew each other instantly. She came overflowing with love and hungry for her first mother. We devoured stories and histories and pictures like the starving women we were.
The years since have been a roller coaster ride of reaching out and pulling back on her part. The rhythm matching mysterious tidal tsunamis in her brain that make balance of any kind a near impossibility.
Forty years of an unconventional motherhood.
Learning to love the child who was me, who alone, made the biggest and most difficult decision of her life. Holding her in forgiveness. Thankful for her spirit, courage, and unwillingness to quit.
Accepting and believing in my right to love the daughter I signed away into the arms of a family who loved her the way I knew she deserved, and who are there for her still as she struggles to keep her head above the chemical floods that threaten to consume her.
Forty years of quietly spending July 18 in mourning, celebration, and gratitude. Not once spending the day with the daughter whose birth blesses me now and whose difficult life I wish I could ease. Always holding hope for healing that might give us both the day, and so much more, to share together. Always loving her.
Loving my daughter as she is. Over miles both geographic and internal. Grateful for her existence and her tender spirit and her presence in my life.
Happy Birthday, Kathleen.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Tired, happy and overflowing with the day - over seven hours of wandering through hundreds of antique booths with my brother - I spotted the vase as though the sun had just broken through clouds, and made a bee-line for it.
Not only was it the particular bright and happy yellow that says American pottery, in this case McCoy, but it was a lovely shape and had birds on the front. I started collecting these affordable and deeply satisfying pieces on a winter excursion to an antique store when the only sunshine to be had was in the form of a golden receptacle for flowers. This vase was the most amazing piece I'd seen so far.
Mark stood back as I carefully picked it up and examined it for flaws and found only the perfection of a simple household object whose sole purpose is to hold color and joy. Only then did I check for the price, confident after a successful day of negotiating lower prices for the treasures we'd acquired, that I'd be able to work the same magic here. Mark is a skilled antiquer, and I'm a quick study. His easy smiling way of approaching vendors with, "Is this your best price?" worked every single time. I had enjoyed watching him engage in the dance of the deal all day, admiring the pleasure he created in the interaction. And I'd been practicing with pleasure and success myself.
I cradled the vase as a weary middle-aged woman whose conversation with a friend we were interrupting approached and I smiled up at her hopefully. "Is this your best price?"
"Yes, it is. I've already marked it as low as I can. It's a fair price for a vase in that condition."
The price was higher than I felt right paying, although I told Mark as we walked away I might have allowed myself the luxury of the vase if she'd come down even $5.00. I looked back at what I'd already begun to consider my vase several times as we made the turn for the last aisle of the show. We stopped at the booth again on our way out while I pondered whether I could somehow justify spending $45.00 on a vase I didn't need at a time when I'm not earning any money.
I walked away again. We pushed through the doors into the late afternoon heat, arms aching and full of treasures we'd both found, my head full of the vase. Should I go back? Would I regret not buying it? Was I being silly to want it so much? We decided to wander one last aisle of booths outside on our way to the car, tired enough that our shopping had become cursory, but treasure hunters enough we weren't willing to leave just yet.
I spotted its glow on a table in a tent that looked more garage sale than antique display. My vase. Same shape. Same birds. Same heart-singing yellow.
My hands trembled a little as I examined it for chips or cracks. Nothing. Dirt and grime, but no flaws. And no price. I carried it to the two men sitting in a corner talking about man things, waited for a break in their conversation and made a joke about the vase probably not being free although it had no tag. The guy in charge took the vase from my hands, turned it over a couple of times in his hands and then said, "Would $20.00 be okay?"
My beaming, enthusiastic reaction startled him, and he might even have backed up a step. I wanted to hug him, but didn't. I just thanked him repeatedly as he wrapped my new treasure and handed it to me with a bemused and slightly befuddled smile.
As Mark and I left the tent, my step light, my heart soaring, I reveled in the miracles we'd just been blessed with. The day itself was a miracle - happy hours spent with a beloved sibling whose company has become one of my greatest pleasures. The brain-tickling joy of learning about the Victorian era through their silver and porcelain - sardine forks, cheese scoops, chocolate pots. The unrestrained fun of interacting with people who found joy in the sharing of their wares with treasure hunters.
And this final, unexpected miracle gift of a wish granted for no other reason than to show me it's possible to want and receive, that abundance exists in surprising places, that love glows sunny yellow. I have the vase now to help me remember in winter.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Making potato salad yesterday, I found myself enjoying my mom's company. Her breathing body is in a nursing home 300 miles north and her spirit is hidden so deep within that the fiery spirited woman I feared and longed to please is no longer available to any of us. Still, she was present as I stood at my denim blue counter chopping and stirring.
Potato salad is one of those foods that can carry mythic status. Every family has their own variation of what is a very basic combination of potatoes, eggs, pickles and dressing. And often, maybe because it's a summer dish, potato salad has the power to transport a person to the past in the way of a holiday meal.
It was the potatoes themselves that brought Mom into my kitchen. As I peeled the cold, whole, boiled Yukon Golds, then cut them into chunks with practiced rhythm, I pondered how different my salad has become from hers, yet how it retains the same essence and feels like just a better version of my childhood salads.
Potatoes were a staple in our 1960's dairy farm household. By today's standards we lived at the poverty level (maybe below, we didn't know, didn't think in those terms). Spuds were cheap and filling - and we lived in Idaho. The pantry always held at least one 25 pound bag of brown scaly Russets, like plump knobby fists.
And so the first and biggest difference in our salads. Mom's started with what was available and cheap, and sometimes what was leftover from the boiled potatoes we had for dinner the night before. I choose each potato carefully from the bin at my favorite farmer's market, Yukon Gold or red, depending on what's freshest and firmest.
As I peeled and chopped, enjoying the give of the cool firmness beneath my knife and the deep earthy smell, I allowed her to be with me, keeping friendly company. Whether I invited, or she just appeared, we seemed to be enjoying our kitchen time on a hot July afternoon.
We laughed a bit at the fact that I search for the kosher dill pickles that she used, not really knowing why they were her choice. And of course Best Foods as the base of the dressing, nothing else will do. I remembered the time I added celery, thinking to improve on her recipe, and how hurt I was that no one appreciated the change. I could see her smile, transformed finally from smug satisfaction at my failure, to gently understanding at my lesson that some things just aren't meant to be messed with. Another lesson in acceptance that I refused heart and soul then because I simply could not be anything like her.
While I enjoyed the crack and crunch of hard boiled egg shell in my hands, Mom reminded me of her chickens and my first experiences with eggs. A coop full of Rhode Island Reds; the slightly acidic, strongly fertile smell as she handed me eggs still warm from the nests; my five year old pride at being allowed to help. Maybe my first potato salad then, with eggs from our own fat hens and potatoes from the rich Montana soil of the last place I remember feeling loved by her and happy with her.
No chickens on the new farm in Idaho. I only now wonder why she wasn't allowed to have another coop. Probably no time in the desperate need to make the dairy work and the demands of caring for four kids, the oldest seven, when we moved. Grocery store eggs were cheap, but neither of us ever really got used to the uniform white ovals that replaced the works of art produced by hens we'd raised from chicks delivered each year in late winter, the first sign of spring.
I've always bought brown eggs, even knowing that nutritionally it makes no difference at all. I'm comforted by the soft earthen tones. White eggs, like brown potatoes, feel like sadness and poverty to me. As they must have felt to her all those years ago. When I can now, I buy my eggs at the same farmer's market that is my substitute garden. A carton of these eggs offers a palette of color ranging from barely blue to cinnamon toast to cloudy sky. It also offers a sense of closeness to the source and to the Source. More importantly, it offers me a connection to the woman whose company I truly enjoyed in my kitchen yesterday.
When I was done with the chopping and blending and tasting, adding the final sprinkle of paprika which I learned from her, I felt like this potato salad was much more than part of the dinner I was preparing for my brother's visit. This family tradition, made mine with practice and now mine to carry as the eldest, held what's common between my mother and me. A sharing I can finally embrace and appreciate for the tremendous blessing it truly is.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Summer arrived with a vengeance yesterday. Relatively speaking, it wasn't that hot, a mere 85 degrees, but in a year when June has been renamed Junuary, and when the high temperature the day before was almost twenty degrees lower, it felt really hot. Today is even hotter, with a scorching east wind offering a tease of relief but feeling like the air stirred by the fan in a Bikram yoga class.
After our cooler-than-average, wetter-than-average, and unsettlingly weird spring, the sudden shift into full summer only adds to my sense of unease. I understand why I've been affected by the lack of sunshine. That's a no brainer. I talk myself through the dense grays of January and February with the promise of the brilliant summer blues to come. Like a hibernating bear who barely survives the winter months on stored sustenance, I come into spring ravenous for light and warmth.
That the only blue this year has been how I've felt, or the color of the water pouring from the felted sky, seems like a broken contract somehow. And that seems odd - to be taking strange weather to heart this way.
Now that the real, promised brilliance of summer has arrived, I'm grateful, and cannot get enough of it. But the shock of sudden heat, along with recent weeks of being promised one kind of weather and waking up to an entirely different kind, makes me wary.
When I was a child, growing up on the farm, barbed wire fences patch-worked our eighty acres. Some were electric to keep our herd of Holsteins from pushing them over to get to the greener grass in the next field. In our summer wanderings my brothers and I were careful to avoid those hot wires, each of us having experienced the bite from trying to slip - unsuccessfully - through strands without touching. Different fences would be electric at different times, and we always knew which ones to look out for.
Or so we thought. Every once in a while, I'd forget or not listen or not pay attention. There's nothing quite like the shock of grabbing a strand of barbed wire to lift it out of the way to crawl through the fence, expecting nothing but the feel of cool metal and being met with the fiery surprise of enough electricity to change the mind of a thick-skulled cow.
The physical pain ended the minute I released the wire. The feelings of stunned disbelief and betrayal lasted much longer. That fence was supposed to be off. I had been sure of it. How could that happen? And for a long while after, I didn't trust any fence, no matter what. I often convinced one of my younger brothers to test the wires until enough time passed for the memory of the shock to fade.
That's how I feel about the weather this year. Like a trust has been violated. The fact that no person has any true meteorological power, or that whatever larger purpose might lie behind the changes is not about me, or that there have been even weirder weather years recorded - none of that lessens this sense of unease.
I understand that the only moment we can trust is now. I know a loving and benevolent Divinity. I've worked hard to be accepting of the fact that control is an illusion, security is a myth, and change is the only certainty. Apparently the weather this year is offering me the chance to learn those truths at a much deeper level than I had access to before.
I think for now I'll go sit in the shade of my patio, soak up the heat, and be grateful for this glorious day.
Photo from Flickr
Friday, July 2, 2010
I have a new camera. My first. I took it on my Toby walk earlier this week, tucked in my back pocket, and felt like I'd entered a new dimension as I looked for things to shoot. I found myself thinking about the nature of seeing as first one thing (sun-dappled blackberry blossoms), and then another (a cluster of three perfect mushrooms) presented themselves to my eye.
The old saw about finding what you look for holds so much truth. I wasn't looking for anything specific – did not expect to find a dragonfly resting on a stone, or the lizard trying to look like stone, or the shot of Toby with an impossibly huge stone mined from the riverbed. I was looking for surprises and beauty, which I found in abundance.
A good balance between light and dark is essential to a clear picture. Too much of either one can be blinding and make sight impossible. It can take a lifetime, perhaps longer, to learn how to find that balance.
I spent a very long time trying to create life bathed in nothing but light, believing that to be the only way to compensate for earlier years that seemed to hold nothing but darkness. What I'm only now beginning to understand is there was always some light present, even in the blackest of times. I might not have been able to claim or understand it, but it was there.
And of course I learned it's impossible to eliminate darkness from anything, and in trying so hard to do so, I managed to miss the full experience of much of what light there already was in my life. What you focus on is what you see, even if it's your intention to eliminate the subject of your focus. And that picture becomes its own reality.
Which leads me full circle to the knowledge that I create the realities of my life. Not the events themselves necessarily, but certainly which aspects of those events I choose to focus on and capture as the most important to the essential truth of what's being offered. Light and dark are both true. The acceptance of that, real heart-deep acceptance, has the potential to change everything.