My first day back in the Evergreen State after returning from the first residency for my MFA in Creative Writing, I went for a short hike in the Cascade foothills.
As I headed up the trail, I glimpsed a cliff through the woods, and hearing voices, stopped to look. Of course: a climbing group was gathering at the base. I couldn’t make out their words, but I assumed they were talking about routes, or gear, or who was going to try what. Since I’m a hiker, not a climber, I headed on up the trail, silently wishing them safe fun.
Then it hit me: that giddiness from the steep learning curve of my first residency? That wasn’t just fear of inadequacy or excitement over reaching new levels in my art–though yes, it was also both. That curve is even steeper than I’d thought. And what’s really happening is, as a writer, I’m trading hiking for cliff-scaling.
For the past 25 years, I’ve been step-by-cautious step, trudging up a marked path…
…but now, I’m going vertical. Straight up. I’m trying things I’ve never tried as a writer, and I’m all in. No more dabbling, fitting writing in where I can, taking whole seasons off. No more excuses. I’m learning craft, and my teachers are going to expect craft back.
…that same cliff those climbers were preparing to scale. And I gave myself this little pep-talk:
“Yes, you’re spending a huge amount of money and time to learn to write the kind of book you most want to read. But you have new tools and a crew now, you’re all roped up, and you get to spend the next 2 years discussing routes and gear and who’s going to try what. Yes, you might fall, but you won’t die, and your crew will help you find your way back up.”
If you look closely at the bottom of that cliff, you’ll see them there: my imaginary writing crew.
Now imagine me halfway up that cliff, scared to death, but finding my route. Here we go.
The first afternoon of my shiny-new Masters in Creative Writing residency in Culver City, a worried-looking man at the bus stop I was walking past stopped me, in halting English, with a question. Based on his appearance, I guessed he had immigrated from central Africa…but when his English failed, he tried a nice, fluent Spanish–and there we found a common place to converse about bus routes (and the fact that I, an out-of-towner, knew less than he did).
“Now that was an LA moment,” I thought. And that’s why I’m here: for the writing instruction, yes–but even more for the moments I cannot experience via Zoom.
Greater Los Angeles is a stunning place, in all the meanings of that word.
Since I’m here in full Writer Mode, I’m noticing every way that I’m being stunned, mostly on my 2-mile, twice-daily walks between the campus of Antioch University Los Angeles and the wonderful friends who are hosting me. Starting with these astounding ficus trees, planted down multiple Culver City streets…
…whose roots are painfully constrained by concrete, and yet–they tower.
Since I’m entirely on foot, thanks be, I only have to deal with traffic when I cross the street. But this vehicle caught my eye as an embodiment of SoCal culture:
Antioch U itself is housed in a stunningly corporate-looking building, one of a cluster offering office space to such stunningly _____ (insert your own adverb here) corporations as Tik-Tok.
I’ve never worked in a building like this, but this scene through a window on the ground floor tells me that at least someone in there has a good sense of humor:
Being, y’know, corporate and all, the building-cluster is thoroughly landscaped…
…and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I found this Pacific Northwestern sister, this madrona tree, literally chained to a concrete block.
I have no critique of Angelenos or anyone else who chooses to live in a megalopolis. There’s just so much here here, it takes my breath away. So I’m finding special comfort in whatever feels familiar–not in that creepy, chained-down-madrona way, but like these adorable turtles…
…in the grotto pool of the Catholic cemetery I cross through on my walks to & from campus.
In the end, everyone wants to feel at home, whatever home means, right? Which is a good thing to be pondering as I launch into a brand-new writing project with some brand-new helpers who come from places so very, very different from my little island. In the end, we all want comfort, whether that means a shiny sports car, an untethered tree…or just a sweet cat to lie on our tummy.
A question—really two questions in one—came from a woman attending my most recent author event. It was about hope, specifically whether my research forWriter in a Life Vestmade me feel hope about the Salish Sea and the climate crisis, or whether my study prompted hopelessness.
“Yes,” I replied.
That night at Third Place Books, all the chairs were filled with longtime friends, family, and a number of folks I didn’t know. I’d been interviewed by writer friend David B. Williams; he’d asked me to describe the book, we discussed the variety of essay forms I used, and he prodded me to talk about my stint as Writer-in-Residence on the Washington State Ferries.
David also asked me to read from the collection, specifically the essay “Salish Sea Account.” It’s one of the first pieces I wrote as I studied the 7,000 square miles that comprise…
Yes. Hi. Me too. There’s a bunch of us in this…boat, this space, this era.
I want to share two things I’ve been leaning on a bit when the pressure of words and feelings builds up.
Number One: I try to capture magic sensory moments in my day. This morning it was the unexpected scent of wild roses on my walk. Yesterday it was the gentle breath of the air when the wind finally dropped. And a couple of days ago, at the Dump, it was this stunning image inside the glass dumpster:
Someone–maybe one of our community’s glass artists?–had dumped a large pile of crushed glass on top of the usual bottles, and then, in a fit of artistry I guess, added a small glass sea star on top.
I took that photo, then got everyone else at the dump to take a look themselves. Voila–instant joy, in a dumpster.
Number Two: You know the game Bananagrams? It’s lovely, and I recommend it. But my sons and I play a variation on the game that we call Scramble. I won’t describe Scramble here, because it’s as fast & furious as it sounds–lots of fun, but not at all restful or comfortable. But SOLITARY Scramble is both. Here’s how it works.
Dump all 144 Bananagrams tiles out and turn them blank-side-up. 2. Turn 4 letters over and try to make a word. If you can’t, keep turning over tiles until you can. 3. Once you have a word, continue turning tiles, one at a time. But (HERE’S THE FUN PART) 4. Try to fit each new letter into an EXISTING word before creating a new one.
A few rules, of course. Adding letters to existing words requires re-arranging the word. You can’t just make something plural, change “bask” to “basking”, or “world” to “worldly”. You CAN change “bask” to “basket,” or “world” to “whorled.” Or even “latrine” to “relating.”
Unlike regular Scramble, where you’re trying to use letters before your fellow players do, Solitaire Scramble is deliciously slow. Deliberate. No backsies–whenever you’ve used a letter, you can’t later move it to another word! So take your time.
Hint: pay attention to “ING” and “ED” and “TION” possibilities. If you find the 4-letter-word minimum too challenging, start with three.
And if you’re both careful and lucky, you might just end up with a PERFECT ROUND, using up all 144 letters:
Now THAT is comfort: a good 45 minutes spent on nothing but language.
Anyone else? Comforting little moments to share? My spirits will thank you.
Hyperbole alert: my parents have given me and my sisters uncountable great gifts over the past 6 and a half decades, starting with, y’know…life. Nurturing. Education. That ol’ stuff.
But this one? This one’s right up there, beyond bicycles and maybe even musical instruments. It’s a slow-mo gift, for sure, but it…has…begun: my parents are starting to divest themselves of Things.
I can’t call it “de-cluttering,” because most of it is great stuff: sports equipment, books…more books, more sports equipment…OK, that’s pretty much my family in a nutshell. They also have a lot of art, but I don’t think they’re giving that away just yet.
Most specifically, my mom startled me this week by mentioning the “bare shelves in the living room.” Now, I knew of my dad’s plan to donate all his science books to the Duke Bio-Sci Building’s Student Reading Lounge–a place dedicated to the delicious art of book-browsing, a practice that’s gone the way of the card catalogue. But I didn’t realize he meant to donate them, like…now! So I got my mom to send me some pictures.
Here’s the “before”:
And here’s, well–now:
Clearly, there’s still one shelf to go…but I kind of hope it stays there as a reminder of all those decades.
To give a sense of the history of our house’s book-walls, here’s me and my mom and sisters with our grandparents back in…let’s say 1964.
So. Let this be a lesson to me. What lesson? Pick one: Never too late to divest yourself. Never too old to surprise your children (my parents are about to be a combined 179 years old). Never too old to make a difference in this world. Or just to finally do what they made us girls do, and Clean Your Room!
What’s next? Stay tuned. My Amazing Parents continue to amaze me.
When it comes to the state of the world, be it locally, nationally or globally, everyone I know–and probably most I don’t–has felt like this a good deal of the past five and a half years:
Most folks I know–and even more I don’t–have also found sources of inspiration to get themselves up off the floor and stay positive, or at least productive. Staying within my immediate circle of control is my go-to: cooking a meal for someone; spending time with an elder or a child; sometimes just contributing money.
But for me, real hope takes larger-scale action, and I would like to share my personal “hope-workout” of the last few years: Common Power.
Originally named Common Purpose and founded by UW Communications professor David Domke, “CP”s goal is “to foster, support and amplify a democracy that is just and inclusive.”
Even better, in my book, is the way CP goes about their work. I was first introduced to their three-part mindset when I attended a standing-room-only (obviously pre-pandemic) meeting in Seattle back in…2018, I think. This image speaks for itself:
Since joining, most of my “work” has been calling elected officials or phone-banking in “red” or “purple” states, which, no, I do not love. (Who does?) But most of that calling hasn’t been about trying to convince people to vote a certain way. It’s simply been working with in-state, non-partisan organizations (like NC’s You Can Vote) to give folks information they need to register, or to get their ballot accepted, or find their polling place. Do we target traditionally sidelined or disadvantaged voters? Of course. That’s the point. And as a result, those folks we do reach are, often as not, more grateful than grouchy.
Besides providing me with an escape ladder from the Pits of Helplessness, CP has also become a source of inspiration, learning, and even joy.
Close to home, when I can, I attend AJ Musewe’s Lunch and Learn series midweek, where the delightful AJ explores themes like the history of redlining, or little-known democracy pioneers. (When I can’t attend live, I listen to them recorded.)
The monthly meetings (fully accessible now–no more trips to Seattle!) begin with music and good news, and always leave me pumped up about the next event, like…the inauguration of the newly-expanded Institute for Common Power, coming up June 4! That one’s in-person, so I don’t know if I can go, but maybe you can go, and personally mingle with some civil rights heroes, compatriots of the late Rep. John Lewis, who survived the campaigns of the 1960s.
CP enthusiasts are also encouraged to join state “Teams” to focus their energy on one of seven states where democracy is both imperiled but also salvageable. Of course I chose Team North Carolina. And while I’ve limited my participation to online and phone work so far, I intend to travel next fall with Team NC to my home state to do the most effective GOTV work of all: knocking on doors, connecting with people. I CAN’T WAIT.
Best of all, for my teacherly soul, CP’s emphasis on next-generation leadership means that my NC fieldwork will be directed by leaders younger than my own kids. They’ve all been through CP’s Action Academy–a completely rad organization in itself; maybe you’d like to contribute, or recommend a youth to attend?–and I also CANNOT WAIT TO WORK WITH THEM.
Can you hear that hope-muscle working? Does your own hope need a workout? I invite you to check out Common Power.
There is a word…but not in English. Here’s one to add to your list, along with Schadenfreude and Cafuné (Portuguese for running your hands through the hair of someone you love, according to 41 Fascinating Words From Other Languages We Should Definitely Import to English) :
Dayenu. Or, as it says on our refrigerator magnet,
Jews and other folk who participate in Passover will recognize this word from the Seder ceremony. In Hebrew it means, roughly, “It would have been enough…” with the added connotation of, “…and yet, God did even more! Wow!”
Passover may be behind us for this year, but the season of Dayenu is just getting going, at least here on Lopez Island. Our normally gorgeous woods and fields have somehow become even gorgeouser (hey, I just invented Word #42 for the list) with wildflowers.
Like our woodlands even needed decorating–let alone by hot-pink orchids that look like something invented made by fairies…
…or golden-blooming succulents whose leaves want to get in on the color wheel action themselves:
And those are “just” the wildflowers. Then there are the lilacs planted all over our island, some 100 years old. Don’t get me started on lilacs. Or better yet, do–then read about them in this blog post I wrote some years ago on that heavenly-scented topic.
Extra color, extra scent, in a place which makes daily work of overloading our senses, year ’round? What else is there to say? At a loss for ways to express the feeling, I wrote this song–again, “some years ago.”
Had the rising sun not overwhelmed me…Dayenu.
Had my humble daily bread not filled me…Dayenu.
Had your arms not simply held me…Dayenu.
Had the lilacs never breathed so sweetly…Dayenu.
Had the wild fawn not leapt so neatly…Dayenu.
Had you not loved me so completely…Dayenu.
It would have been enough,
It would have blessed us to the core.
Had this morning been our only gift,
We would not have needed more.
Had the sunset not shanghaied my breathing…Dayenu.
Had the starlight not adorned the evening…Dayenu.
Had you not promised never leaving…Dayenu.
So my “Dayenu” these days–apart from my Mate–is spring flowers, wildand tame. What are yours? What’s better than sharing a cup that’s runnething over?
Okay, “kismet” sounds a bit too Greek. How ’bout serendipity? (Wikipedia tells me its origins are…Sanskrit?!) But I love the sound of the word, and I love that I get to re-start this blog in its post-travel mode (done with Road Trips for now!) with a happy nod to…serendipity.
One week after our return from Road Trip XI, with my to-do list nicely underway (groceries purchased–check; garden prepped–check; car vacuumed–check; washed & waxed? Nope, too much pollen in the air)…
…I EMBARKED UPON A NEW NOVEL.
That’s how it felt, honestly: caps locked & loaded. Normally, I’d take months or years thinking through a plot idea, then writing some character back stories, dallying with questions about theme, before diving into a very…thorough…outline. No actual writing, no scenes, until, you know…it was TIME.
But come June, I’m kicking off the pursuit of my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My plan is for the rigor of that program to compel me through the production of a brand-new novel at a speed I’ve never contemplated before. Which means that by June 1, I need a 20-page (max) writing sample for workshopping purposes.
During that first week home (while vacuuming the car and weeding the garden), I let the raw ingredients of plot and character, theme and narrative device roil freely around in my brain. Then, one week ago I sat down at this computer and began spooning the resulting chunky soup onto this screen.
Four days later, a friend loaned me her library copy of a book I’d never heard of: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. “It’s due back on May 21,” she said, “so read it fast, or just go ahead and return it if you don’t like it, okay?”
I noticed the book was written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel I did not care for. But I trusted my friend’s recommendation on this one. Cue the serendipity.
Turns out, far from being a novel, this book is a master class for writers. Especially writers at the beginning of a project. Especially me. Yes. This book, I’m pretty sure, was written for me, right now.
Already, only a third through his book, Saunders has given me new perspective on every important facet of writing. Here are some of my notes on what he says about character:
…he says that the more thoroughly the reader knows a character, the less likely she is to judge her harshly. The writer becomes like God, substituting love (empathy) for judgement. I love that idea.
“Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.” (p. 153)
…about theme and narrative device:
“…that’s what an artist does: takes responsibility.” “The writer has to write in whatever way produces the necessary energy” to move the reader. “It’s hard to get any beauty at all into a story. If and when we do, it might not be the type of beauty we’ve always dreamed of making.” (p. 105)
…and this bit about narrative voice that pierced me–in a good way, if you can imagine that:
“…how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be…This writer may turn out to bear little resemblance to the writer we dreamed of being. She is born, it turns out, for better or worse, out of that which we really are: the tendencies we’ve been trying, all these years, in our writing and maybe even in our lives, to suppress or deny or correct, the parts of ourselves about which we might even feel a little ashamed.” (p. 106)
It’s way, way, WAY too early to say what my next book will become. But the fact that I was given a master teacher in its very first week feels like an excellent sign.
Plus, a library book is a whole lot cheaper than an MFA.
Just kidding. I’m still going for the MFA.
Curious, though–anyone else out there have one of these joy-striking examples of serendipity to share?
Road Trip XI …by the numbers: 8 weeks. 10,000 miles (best guess). 26 states. 62 far-and-dear friends and family members. 14 national parks/monuments. 20 state parks. 6 post-season Tarheel men’s basketball games (5 victories + 1 almost!)
…and by the category:
Best hike: Custer State Park, South Dakota, Needles region
Best bike ride: Colorado National Monument rim road
(Honorable mention: Bizz Johnson trail in Susanville, CA …but it doesn’t win because it gave The Mate a flat tire)
Best waterfall: Sioux Falls…even though conflicted feelings arose when I read about its blasted, quarried history
Best trees: California redwoods
Best wildflowers: Rogue River National Recreation Trail, near Merlin, Oregon
Best wildlife: tie between javelinas in Arizona…
…and [not pictured] wild burros spotted in Utah off I-70 (a first for us)
Best sunset: outside our Virginia motel on our loversary
Best restaurant meal: sushi in Chapel Hill with my parents
Best home-cooked dinner: our friend Ben’s roast lamb with chimichurri
Best gift from our hosts: kumquats/avocados/oranges from our Hollywood cousins’ trees
Biggest detour: dropping south all the way to Las Vegas in order to avoid dangerous, truck-toppling winds
Best silver lining: getting to hike & clamber in Red Rocks National Preservation Area (or whatever it’s called) just outside of Vegas, just before the winds hit
additional bonus to silver lining: the desert in bloom!
Longest day’s drive: Moab to Las Vegas (460 miles)
Scariest drive: crossing the Cascades on snowy lil’ Rt. 89 past Mt. Lassen in California
And now for a couple of less-traditional categories.
Best basketball game: UNC vs. Duke in the national semifinal (81-77)
Best dog: Ramses in Olympia
And finally, the Grand Travel Blog Award for Best New Discovery goes to…Oregon’s Rogue River Trail!
We’re already talking about how to get back there.
…but for now, oh my goodness–it’s good to be home, safe and sound and grateful as all get-out for this long, LONG getting-out.And now, as Wing’s World morphs back into its non-travel mode…thanks for traveling with me anyway!
What camping enthusiast wouldn’t enthuse to camp near this?
That’s exactly the problem, as The Mate and I began to learn a few years ago, and now, in the post-COVID travel boom, multiplied by ever more active Boomers actively booming around the same places we like, we’ve discovered a basic flaw with our mode of road trippin’: it doesn’t work any more.
But let me back up to where I left off a week ago. Knowing we were in for some dangerous winds, we veered south from the Black Hills and holed up in one of our favorite mountain towns, Estes Park, CO.
Estes Park is uber-cute, and probably a complete zoo in high season, which we vowed always to miss.
EP is so cool, it has its own elk herd!
While the trails of Rocky Mt. National Park (just up the road) remained inaccessible to folks without snowshoes, we were able to traipse up to my favorite Gem Lake with only a little bit of scary ice & blow-you-down wind.
After two days in Estes–which included watching our beloved Carolina Tarheels come within inches and seconds of winning a national championship they were never supposed to be in the running for, taking the game down to the wire and giving it their full hearts and ankles (so proud of those guys, can you tell?)–we decided to move our trip a little further on, while still waiting one more day for the winds to abate before crossing the Rockies.
Luckily for us, we have friends in Denver (one of whom had just returned from watching the Final Four in New Orleans!). They invited us to stay. We enjoyed them nearly as much as we enjoyed their charismatic dogs.
Thursday, when it finally felt safe, we joined the semis crossing the 11,000-foot pass on I-70, marveling as ever at the peaks and wishing that downhill skiing had less of an impact on them. [Not pictured: marvelous Rocky peaks]
After dropping down, down, down, down, we aimed for Colorado National Monument, a gorgeous hunk of sculpted rock erupting above the town of Grand Junction. Knowing we had no reservation for a campsite, I kept my fingers crossed: Please let there be one! Please let there be one!
We got lucky that time–thanks to having a tent, not an RV, and arriving on a Thursday, and, oh yeah–it’s the Colorado National Monument, NOT National Park. Huge difference.
It’s always hard to stop taking pictures of rock formations; bear with me.
Of course you can’t put railings around an entire canyon, but this particular railing seemed designed just for me…because OF COURSE all I wanted to do was crawl out onto that ledge, a.k.a. that flat-topped, nearly free-standing pillar of red stone.
After a happy camping night–first time since early March that we’ve been able to camp on this trip!–we continued on down toward the town of Moab. Again: no reservations, so we had no hope of camping in either Arches or Canyonlands N.P. BUT we knew there were several BLM campgrounds strung along the Colorado River, which operate on a first-come, first-served basis. It was Friday; we didn’t love our chances. But once more…
We got the very last one, at 10:45 in the morning. (Then we spent the afternoon & evening hours watching disappointed would-be campers like ourselves drive by, turn around, and move sadly on. We felt for them; we were them. There are so many of us now!) [Not pictured: dust from cars of disappointed would-be campers.]
Since we only had a half-day to recreate, we opted for Moab’s famous bike trails, saving the hiking for next day.
We celebrated our special spot that night by sharing an enormous microbrew from the Black Hills.
We could have opted to stay another night. One of the curses of the BLM system is also its blessing: once you’ve pitched your tent, you can stay up to two weeks, $20/night or $10 for seniors with passes. (Two more years till I get mine!) No wonder there are never any spots during high season.
But the winds were picking up again, and we wanted wifi & showers (BLM sites are pit-toilet only, and BYO water). So we reserved ourselves a basic cabin in town, and took ourselves to Canyonlands–the 30-miles-distant part, not the 85-miles-distant; Canyonlands is VERY spread out!–for a day of hiking.
Because there are too many types of rock to choose from, we opted for several shorter hikes. First up: Aztez Mesa. Yep–right up to the tippy-top…
I love cliffs, remember? And ledges? Turns out I DON’T love ledges that look like they could crumble beneath your feet. This trail sent me scrambling to the left.
Next up: smooth red slickrock.
From the up-close to the faraway, this view of the Green River’s work, etching itself through layers of time:
Same theme, different view:
One last look…just not quite believing it’s real:
And just to throw one other rock formation into the mix, here’s Upheaval Dome, a mysterious , rainbow-colored pile inside a crater that geologists are still arguing over.
Need a break from all the red rock? How about some red Paintbrush?
We left Moab feeling both grateful and a bit deflated. Now we know that, if we want to nestle into that amazing habitat anywhere closer than a commercial room, we’re going to have to do the P-word: PLAN. Plan WAY ahead, like 6 months at least. One of the best parts of our road-trippin’ is its haphazardness, but that luxury seems to be evaporating.
But we found a silver lining.
Next morning, hopping back onto Interstate 70 West, The Mate & I were treated to three and a half hours of almost nonstop geological wonder. Starting with…
We kept turning to each other in confusion: Hold on. Have we not driven this stretch before? Wouldn’t we remember this if we had?
The above photo I took at a viewpoint, where we parked. All the following, I simply snapped as we drove past.
The colors changed with every curve or hill.
I think we saw every color except blue. Even black got into the mix.
The colors and formations simply Did. Not. Stop…till eventually we bumped into I-15, and that, my friends, is where I-70 ends (after starting in Baltimore; we looked it up).
So my takeaway from the past week is this: if you find yourself one of those disappointed, non-planning-ahead would-be campers…don’t whine; find your blessings where you can. Take a hike, and then go drive the interstate! #silverlinings #redrocks #istilladorecliffs