Featured image —“Typeset” by Paul Hudson — licensed under CC-BY 2.0
These are my first words.
There. I’ve made them. That’s a relief.
I’ve hardly written in years. There has been no big block, no reason one way or the other. But COVID happened, and shortly thereafter my return to work after more than two years spent primarily mothering. And somehow the combination of the return to work and parenting my child combined in a way that kept me from writing. So after years of being a writer, I suddenly found that I wasn’t.
Some months ago, shortly after my dad died, a man I know who’d also recently lost a parent suggested that I might turn to words to process my grief. Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me. And the fact that I hadn’t occurred to me drew me up short. There were years and years of my life during which reaching for words were my primary way of processing things. How was it that this had not crossed my mind?
For the last several months I’ve been sitting with this question — with the feeling of being a not-writer. But it seems the easiest way to begin to remedy could simply be to begin to write.
From the corner of my couch, the view out the picture window is a perfect artist’s study. The window gives view onto a giant mountain, two lovely trees at two different distances from my house. A beautiful full bush in the near foreground. Foxgloves and ferns rising into the view in the near foreground. There is a footpath leading from my house away to the street at one angle, a road and sidewalk that intersects it at another angle. Across the street my neighbor’s picket fence adds a slim element of structured verticality. Phone and power lines dip across the center of the view. Our arctic entry, with its wide clapboard covering fills about one-quarter of the view, with a trellis for our clematis on its side, framing a window, with crisses and crosses like a Japanese arbor. And in the upper lefthand corner, a spray of a soft-spined pine dips across the triangle of sky not blocked by the mountain.
The composition is nearly perfect.
This evening I sat looking out this window and decided I wanted to attempt to sketch it. With so many points of intersection, bounded by the panes of the window, I felt I had enough guideposts to possibly render it on a page. It was a challenge in “seeing.” Could I make note of all the places where lines crossed and give it some feeling of truth?
In my mind’s eye, I held the image of Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi from the amazing 1997 French film, standing before a framed grid beside her easel on a beach, learning to paint perspective. I tried in my imagination to impose that grid over the view I was seeing, to allow the lines to flow at the correct angles, and the point where mountain crossed roof line, and power line crossed ash tree, to fall on that grid.
Not surprisingly, it was all wrong from the very first strokes. I tried to understand the window frame first, then fill in from there. In my first attempt I drew in the lines for the panes, then the entryway with its hashed trellis, before realizing that the mountain, which takes nearly 50 percent of my view frame, had nowhere to fit. Next I tried Drawing just the vertical lines, then the points of intersection (roof crossing left hand edge of the center pane at the midpoint, mountain crossing the lefthand edge of the left pain at a similar point. But quickly I realized that the maple tree, which stands in front of nearly half of the mountain, was being squished into a tiny wedge.
I stopped there, with light and hours of the day fading. But I realized that many more experiments on this image would be possible. What if I started with the points of intersection, and no window frame, and built out from there? What if I threw aside the pencil and just made dashes of color with paint that approximated the portion of the image that each element takes up? And what if I used a grid, right here in front of my eyes, to learn the language of perspective?
This entire étude was inspired by the first pages of a paper called The Art and Science of Looking Up, which was recommended by a fellow member of a learning cohort of which I’m part.
It has been a pleasure to spend the last forty-five minutes looking up in this manner. Though I’ve ultimately pulled my computer onto my lap to describe what I see, rather than render it on paper, I’ve largely done so with my eyes out my window, watching the day slip into dusk and the clouds move across the precious gift of blue sky, granted to me on this lovely evening as a brief respite in weeks upon weeks of rain. I feel a calm that has eluded me for many days, and I give thanks for that. This, then, is perspective.
About million years ago I heard about a writing challenge. The idea of it was to write 50,000 words in the month of November. This, it was figured, was roughly the length of a draft novel. Pull it off in whatever way you could, and you’d have a draft to work with when December 1st rolled around.
My signup confirmation from the organization that runs the challenge arrived in my inbox in January of 2008. I The first-ever reference to it in my email is from nine days earlier, sent from my old work email account. It just has the URL for the organization, Nanowrimo, which is shorthand for Na(tional) No(vel) Wr(iting) Mo(nth).
I don’t recall how that November’s efforts went. I know I had quit my steady job earlier that year, in order to pursue writing. I had a book burning inside of me about the “rationalization” of the crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. My book was going to be about how “crab ratz” was a local expression of a much larger and slow-rolling catastrophe playing out across the United States, pushed by federal policies that used economic justifications to privatize giant resources held in common, and grinding the working people of the land and sea under their heel in the process. My hometown was being gutted by the policy, and I was on fire with desire to share the story with the world. My plan was to do contract consulting part time, and write in the other half of my day.
But I also know that by the time November rolled around I was deep into the most significant mental and emotional crisis I had (and still have) ever experienced. I’d parted ways with my longtime boyfriend that the summer, and it had kicked off an almighty crisis of being un-homed, uncoupled, unemployed, and totally lost. I think I recall that I only consumed grapefruit and listened to Bon Iver on repeat for most of a month, and I think that month might have been November. I do not think I wrote 50,000 words of a draft novel.
But, hey! There’s always do-overs! This past November, in a manner typical of my extreme tendencies, I took a hiatus from the rest of life and diligently banged out 50,000 words. Laundry, sleep, and harmonious domesticity be damned, I was going to get my words.
Well, almost. I actually had fragments from previous writing that I called in for cut-and-paste a few times, when crazy toddler bedtimes and exhaustion were going to keep me from my 1,667-word daily quota. But at the end of it, I had…. well… 50,000 words. Unfortunately, I had no book draft whatsoever. I was about 1/4 of the way into something, and it was changing shape all the time, and I had completely lost the thread on where it was going. I was exhausted and deflated, even with the goal having been met. I never opened the document again after the evening of November 30th.
A couple of weeks ago I remembered about it, though. And I thought, “Huh, interesting.” Because the draft is about a community of people in the time after a great catastrophe. This is no surprise, because I’m a fangirl for dystopian fiction. But I wondered if there might be anything in there that felt relevant to our current moment.
I’ve skimmed the writing a bit today. And I’m pleased to observe that, while it’s still a totally tangled smash of about three plots with nothing near an end or even a clear driving narrative, some of it actually doesn’t suck all that much! This feels like an accomplishment of no small significance.
I’ve been working through a worksheet on creativity in recent days, tasked with identifying my creative “domain” and medium. I won’t bother with all the why and what of that exercise, but there’s a question in there about creativity that is “that is ‘nice to have’ versus that which is essential for your well-being.” When I re-read what I’ve written in that worksheet, I notice how much I hedged when describing the importance of writing — even though the worksheet is for me and me alone to view. I’m not certain whether that is authentic, or self-protecting. At once point in there I’ve jotted down that the “wanting comes in waves, as they say.* I’m not sure this is something I need in order to feel fulfilled in life. By the same measure, though, it’s something that never goes away and is always nagging at the edges of my desire.”
Looking back on it, I wonder where my uncertainty or ambivalence comes in. Even though I’ve never “become a writer,” I sure enjoy writing all the time. And I’ve done it for many, many years now!
And with that, another evening has been chewed up…. writing! Time to retire and hopefully do a bit of that other half of the equation. Reading!
For as much gardening as I do, I’m pretty crap at it. I manage to grow lots of dark leafies every year, and typically some carrots. A few radishes in a brief window. Those are my reliables.
Then every year I’ll try something new, too. Last year we did squash, and they grew amazingly well in our climate change summer. Two years ago we had some great cabbage.
But I can never pull off all the things consistently. Meanwhile, my neighbors at the community garden have (already!) giant squash plants, giant beet plants, giant carrot fronds. Mine are all measly at best.
I could chalk it up to my distance from the garden and the work of getting out there regularly, but a woman in my neighborhood has a neighboring plot and her stuff is amazing.
I could chalk it up to the 3-year-old. That’s probably a pretty good bet for at least a portion of the failed potential. Also the summertime-absent partner.
But I know the real culprit. I am incredibly impatient! I also think I have a good dash of A.D.D. For example… this year I actually planned my beds. Planted in them. Then wrote what was planted in a book. But the book is somewhere I can’t put my finger on. And though it would likely take me all of 5 minutes to find it, instead I think I may have pulled out all my beets today thinking they were weeds.
Similarly, when it comes to watering, I can’t stomach standing around for the time it takes to give it all a good drenching. I bought a sprinkler this year, which has definitely upped my watering game. But I still get bored and can’t hang around for the time it really needs.
Yes, in fairness to myself, the toddler. That’s a real thing. He’s a champ about going to the garden. But he can’t hack it for very long. So I’m always rushing and getting pulled away.
But I think that, in the long run, learning to slow down in the garden would be a great practice for life.
We got this cat back in April. His name is Phillip. He was our COVID foster. He is now our COVID adoption.
Phillip is a lynx point, which apparently is cat fancy for “Siamese mix.” The lady at the shelter told me this (about his Siamese-ness) when I spoke to her in a hurried fashion prior to bringing him home. What did not compute for me then is that Siamese mix means loud.
Phillip is like a dog. He wants to be where we are. Interestingly, he wants to be where Auggie is. This is despite the fact that Auggie has him trapped in a strangle hold for much of the day. Phillip also wants to be where I am. (And where Chris is, when Chris is home.)
When Phillip is not with us, he lets us know. There is a low “mrrrowwww” that escalates quickly to “rrrreoowwww” and then “yeaaaowwww.”
I have been on edge since he arrived.
As I write this he is sprawled across my lap in a warm, breathing, delicious blanket of cat. But can I revel in that? No. I’m on alert. Waiting for the moment when me might spring to life and go meow outside Auggie’s bedroom door.
This on-edge-ness is spot-lighted by Phillip and his presence in our life. But I’ve also started to see and understand since his arrival that it’s a feature of the basic construction of my own, particular nervous system and patterns of worry. Stressful though it has been, this process has been instructive. I’ve been able to see something that I previously couldn’t — my tendency to lean into the what-if sequence, and get worked up about it when nothing has or necessarily will happen.
This is in contrast to Chris, who is constantly encouraging me to lighten up. Which infuriates me and also inspires me.
Phillip is here to stay. The little guy is going to teach me things about letting go of control. I’m glad for him.
I’m tired, and I should be turning my lights out. Two weeks ago I had incredible “sleep hygiene.” The same wakeup time every day, a very early bedtime, a solid commitment to 8 hours of sleep.
COVID-19 has upended all that. Sure, part of it is the unhealthy media diet. (Binge, binge, binge.) Some of it is trying to figure out how to do my job around the waking hours of my son. Some of it is the need to do more, more, more.
So I ought not be posting. But I feel I should. Because looking back in a few days or a week, it may turn out that this was Day 0 before everything went insane, and I want to memorialize it.
So here’s what happened in my life today, in no particular order:
Auggie and I snuggled in bed and hid under the covers together for 45 minutes
Chris showered and went to work
We made pancakes
I worked a bit while Auggie watched some PBS
We went to see 2 baby goats, 2 mama goats, 2 horses, a pony, and two donkeys
We stopped in work to get my plants and my computer plug before calling the office “closed”
We had a walk up by the governor’s mansion and down the staircase to Willoughby
We ate quesadillas with greens
Chris did more late-night Costco shopping for random things
I worked on my laptop
Auggie and Chris went for a run
I talked to my brother
I wrote an email to the borough and the school district asking them to close down school buildings to all people (read: teachers) and to start putting firmer restrictions on other workplaces
Auggie and I went for a walk at Lena Beach
I just wanted to write some of those things down because I think it’s possible I’ll look back soon and realize how simple life’s pleasures were today.
Ridiculous how hard everything is. No one is immune. Everywhere I look someone is suffering, angry, breaking up, dying. Including me. (Not the dying part… at least not imminently.)
Some people I know fixate all the time on the catastrophe of it all. Others find some sort of off-switch. Hide behind TV or exercise or some sort of activist organization. Me, I think we’re all fucked. And spend each day trying to make magic for my perfect boy while warding off the swooping bats (demons?) of my own despairing, black-and-white nature.
My memory is utter garbage. All the work of maintaining (composure, hope, face, focus, organization, control) wipes out every available space in my mind. So yesterday’s conversation (argument?) is un-recallable. The memory palace of my daily life still holds strong, though. Ask me where that sock is and I’ll know. (Tucked behind the book about bear cubs in spring. Pair in dryer.)
A family member is dying tonight. In this storm. Or maybe it won’t be tonight. Maybe they’ll hold until Tuesday. Or not. It doesn’t matter except it’s all the world. Bright thread of life.
It’s all so achingly hard. The illusion of bright tomorrows has been long annihilated. Maybe by other deaths. Maybe by divorces and car crashes and cancer and that fucking glacier, that shrinks and shrinks every day.
No matter. Life is and has always been suffering. The TV lies to us but our stomachs know the truth. Thank god we’re in good company. Every fellow traveler walks the same path with us.
It’s impossibly hard to sit on the edge of my son’s bed, delighting in the trilling word games that are the genius of his growing mind, his language acquisition, his exploding consciousness, and feel the hard stone of the climate crisis sitting in my stomach. We play together with lion’s roar, stinky toes. He mouths rhyming words silently as I repeat them to him again, again, again. He beams with pride. I sniff him, inhale him, brush lips on his temple and hair. I tell him I love him; that he is precious to me. “Precious boy,” he replies.
We all are mortal, each of us. So it has been since the dawn of our days, so it remains for we who stand here on the brink of this great unraveling. My love for my child is no less, no more (though of course infinitely, incomparably, unbearably more) than that of any, every mother who has come before or after me.
Still, the joyful worlds I weave for him, of lush forests and creatures of the jungles and savannas, feel like lies. When my mother read me stories in my youth, did she confront the same sense that they were untenable, unreachable? Did the simple, pastoral landscape of Frog and Toad feel achingly ancient, lost to her? She is gone; I cannot ask her. But I wonder.
The magic of my son is my gift and my burden. His coming hardship, his living in this too-hot world, is an agony for which I have bargained with the devil. “Please, allow me this child.”
I fear that my bargain was too selfish; that he will pay its rising price. Yet we laugh together with such true, pure, mystical glee. Please, God, let that joy be tender for the debt.
I labor determinedly in our garden, seeking to re(dis)cover lost knowledge and skills. Each seedling’s struggle through soil to light is a celebration. I want to save him. I want to save myself. I pray I cultivate in him this wonder, fleeting or hopefully durable. Wonder is the only thing for which I feel honest hoping in these days.
I have traded my life for his. Each parent, all parents, only lucky enough to do so. Have I also traded his life for mine? For this, the love that bursts inside of me? This thing, so sweet, so crippling, so precious, that he has gifted me.
Before my mother died the cancer in her abdomen became like a stone. A heavy rock setting inside her. Each morning in the last weeks of her life she and I would rest beside each other in the pre-dawn birdsong and she would love me, her only daughter. In the fleeting moments before her pain took over she would breathe me in, brush fingers on my temple. I would call her Mama.
We are mortal. We are doomed. But I will take my child out each day and live. I will cultivate. I will seed wonder, tend our garden with him alongside. I will eventually tell him we all will die, or he will discover it himself and, with luck, I will comfort him through its dark revelation. I will be sure he knows the gratitude I feel for his unwitting agreement to pay the debt of my love for him; of my bringing him into this unimaginable world. Forgive me, I will ask. I love you so much.
This effort continues. A few days ago one of my advisors sent me some musings on structure, and suggested that one format this work could take might be a “series of blog posts… to your friends and colleagues… about or stemming from The Salmon Project.” He may not have meant the idea literally, but I’m going to experiment with what it would feel like to use this space to help put form around my thoughts. I’ve been working from an outline for weeks, but it keeps getting bigger and more complicated, and what I may actually need to do is write a series of small essays that can gel into something larger.
This is an experiment, but I’m going to move ahead with it and see what takes shape.
I just opened up an old saved draft and found this post, below. Written when A. was only 5 months old. And I’m startled to find that the observations and the end of it could be written today. There’s something humbling in that, to recognize that I am consistently me. To see that with all my work and effort, the words that spill from my fingertips describe a steady state of being. One characterized by self-doubt, some ego, and a set of passions (writing, for example) that show up again and again. But also, that same sense of weariness of the repetitiveness of my worries and my own mind. But I have to say, reading it made me smile. This is the money quote:
The ping-ponging is one of my signature characteristics, and I’m happy/sad to see it return… The heavy cycling on a certain set of thoughts or beliefs—this is a hallmark of, well, me.
There’s something that tickles me about this. It’s like slapping my own self on the back and saying, “Hey old girl, there you are again. Gotcha!” (The fact that I even can be tickled, rather than break down into tears, is due, for sure, to the fact that the daylight is back, and with it my stable emotional health.)
It’s also interesting to see how my focus has shifted. In the seventeen months between when I drafted this older post and today I’ve settled in certain ways. I was tormented for a very long time about the “where” part of my equation. And while I still have hopes of living overseas with Chris and A., and while we still talk of traveling, I feel more like Juneau is the home base. Though I’ve yet to really dip my toes into the community, outside parenting circles, I am in a constant churn about what I want to do and how I want to engage here in this place. So my mind is calling Juneau home. And is a difference.
The other thing that is not present in my writing below is my deep sense of concern about the future of our little blue planet, and the implications of that concern for the choices I want to make, personally and as a family. I think that part of the reason I actually feel at home in Juneau is that I feel this place—or at least coastal Alaska—is a relatively good place to be as things get more difficult. This is in contrast to other places that had my attention, like Oregon or Washington. Watching the summer of fires rip through the west really cooled me on the idea of living there. That and the 100+ temperatures.
One hope I have for this blog, should I be able to start practicing and succeeding on its pages a little more than I have, is to begin to explore some of the questions, ideas, readings, and themes that come to me on this subject of climate change and A.’s future. But again, this morning, I’m still just exercising the muscle. So again, I’ll just hit publish. So that this post doesn’t languish for 17 months.
In six days A___ will be 5 months old. I just had to go back and delete and re-write the second half of that sentence because I am so used to referring to him as “the baby” that it spilled automatically out of my fingers. And yes, he’s still a baby. But 5 months is something different and new. He’s full of attention and curiosity and laughter and the light bulbs go on daily for him. (Two days ago he learned to play peek-a-boo. Yesterday he figured out how to find and insert his pacifier in his mouth all by himself.) So while he’s clearly still “the baby” and will be for some time, he’s a different kind of baby than the little ones that are so dependent and so intimately attached to you at all times. When I put him in his jump-up he knows to jump—it’s no longer an accidental behavior. If I stick him in his car seat and pop the pacifier in his mouth he spits it out and gets mad because he knows that I’m actually about to ignore him for some period of time. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that he has an intellect and understands sequences of events, as well as cause-and-effect. It’s lovely.
At the same time that he is developing, I feel I am finally coming up out of water. Lots of things are different in my life. Gone, for example, is my sense that I can always maintain a baseline of cleanliness around my/our house. Also, I find that I need very little clothing. (I’ve been rotating the same 5 striped shirts since A___ was born.) But despite the changes and differences, I’m getting aspects of myself back—good and bad. I find that I’m beginning to fret some of the same old things that I’ve always fretted. What do I want to be when I grow up? Should I run for some sort of political office? Can I write a novel and actually finish it? Should I go back to school? Can I live a rooted life and also experience the adventures and travel that I’ve always craved? These questions are back in my head, ping-ponging around. The ping-ponging is one of my signature characteristics, and I’m happy/sad to see it return. Happy because it means I’m thinking about a different set of things than the immediate needs of my infant. Sad because they’re characteristics of myself that I find tiresome or tiring or that I wish sometimes would go away. The heavy cycling on a certain set of thoughts or beliefs—this is a hallmark of, well, me.