Author of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, a memoir, and Half-Moon Scar, a novel.
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Recently, my brother went to Vancouver for the World Cup, where he watched Canada beat Switzerland and England beat Canada. To keep costs down, he camped on the edge of the city, spending one night in his car and taking a “bath” in a lake.
I’m not that kind of camper.
But I don’t need the full-on glamping experience, either, with a personal chef tossing my lime-cilantro cabbage slaw outside my teak-furnished yurt.
For me, a Eurovan Weekender parked in the forest of Fort Worden during the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference is the perfect blend – call it cultured camping.
Arline got the urge to buy a Eurovan last summer, and after a series of conversations in which I attempted to keep my mind open (“You want to do what?”), we found a 2003, cherry red Weekender on Craigslist, and this summer we have had our first opportunities, not counting one night last fall, to camp in it.
Unfortunately, the first planned excursion – my birthday weekend in Prosser, Washington, at the Wine Country RV Park – had to be cancelled due to temperatures forecast in the three digits. No amount of wine tasting at Vintner’s Village next door to the camp site was going to distract me from 111 degrees; I would have wilted in a dehydrated haze.
Instead, we spent our first two nights in the van at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. It’s painful to confess how distressed I was to find, upon dropping into my camp chair after we arrived, that not only did we have no LTE internet access in the park, but no cellphone service at all. What’s camping without checking my email and posting photos on Facebook? But I did swim every day in the lake, and Arline was able to test her bin organization strategy. The bonus was chocolate muffins at Brown Bear Baking in Eastsound.
About a week later, we drove to Port Townsend, set up our camp site at Fort Worden, and settled in for five days of the writers’ conference. Now, this is my kind of camping: a lodge with tables and Internet access for rainy mornings; writer friends dropping by the camp site in the afternoons for glasses of wine; dinner with Nyla Dartt and Marcia Perlstein of KPTZ radio, who had interviewed me a few weeks before; readings by Pam Houston and Luis Urrea in the evenings. We walked to Pane D’Amore in Port Townsend for bread and drank beer at Sirens, overlooking the Sound. Not really “getting away from it all.” More like: eating, drinking, hanging out with cool people, and taking a walk on a beautiful beach.
Our next camping trips are in August: Mount Rainier and the Oregon Coast. No guarantee I’ll be able to check Facebook from the Mount Rainier campground. But it looks like we can walk from our beach camp site to Manzanita, Oregon, which I know has a wine bar. Salud!
On a screenshot of Google Earth’s Idaho, yellow thumbtacks mark the sites where the writer Richard Brautigan traveled in 1961. Arline and I found some of these places when we followed in his footsteps on a literary pilgrimage described in my newly published memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. Now that years have passed since the pilgrimage, the place names have taken on a mystical quality: Stanley, Little Redfish Lake, Worswick Hot Springs.
For Brautigan, too, his Idaho trip receded into nostalgia. Early in his book Trout Fishing in America, he says, “O, a long way from Idaho, a long way from Stanley Basin, Little Redfish Lake, the Big Lost River and from Lake Josephus and the Big Wood River.” This sentence appears in a chapter called “The Autopsy of Trout Fishing in America.” Brautigan’s travels into the wilderness are over, and nothing remains but the dissection.
I’m drawn to nostalgia. It’s tricky because it can make us romanticize the past. But nostalgia can be more textured than that. It’s part yearning, part grief, part reckoning with complicated feelings. I’m feeling nostalgic these days about my book project coming to fruition. I poke through my computer folders, remembering how the project started. A file called “original chapters” has some that made it into the book and some that didn’t. Here is a passage that didn’t make it: “And so we went to Idaho. Two women with different accents in one car with no incriminating bumper stickers.” I liked those sentences, but they didn’t fit. My folders contain half a dozen versions of the book with the chapters in different orders. A scene that now appears late in the book was in the first chapter of the first version.
I remember, too, bringing sections to my writing group. Donna Miscolta, Jennifer D. Munro, and Alma García were honest about what was working and what wasn’t; regardless, they expressed enthusiasm for the project, and that kept me going. One of them suggested the book start with the departure for Idaho. What seems an obviously good opening now just wasn’t then.
By fall 2013, I was querying Ooligan Press, and the editors requested a proposal. Three months later they wanted the manuscript. When a member of the acquisitions committee emailed to say the committee had voted to accept it and the manuscript now was going to a vote of the entire press, I held my breath for five years — or was it five weeks? — until they offered me a contract.
Over the last year, I have worked closely with Ooligan staff on revisions, copyediting, permissions, and marketing. Now the book is available online and at select bookstores. Already, the journey of writing and publishing the book is receding into nostalgia: O, a long way from Idaho; a long way from my desk in the attic dormer of a house where I no longer live; from critiques and revisions; from queries and proposals. Now the journey begins for readers.
Another feeling I’ve had a lot of lately: gratitude. At the book launch, I asked people to stand up and be recognized: my parents; my partner; my writing group; the photographer of the author photo; the Ooligan staff; friends, colleagues, members of my writing community. I thanked Elliott Bay Book Company for hosting and Hedgebrook for sponsoring the reception. Finally, I asked lovers of books to stand up, too. All those people standing? That’s how many it takes to make a book. We all do it together.
So thank you. And thank you.
We’re just weeks away from launching The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. The first review is in, I’ve been interviewed for a web site call Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the reading schedule is shaping up. Important things to think about: What will I wear at the book launch reading? Do I need a new pen for signing books? You know, crucial decisions.
I turned thirty in Minneapolis. I wanted to celebrate with my girlfriend-at-the-time on the patio of the Loring Park Café, where a musician played saxophone from the roof. But it rained that day – a pummeling thunderstorm – and we ran from our apartment across Loring Park to the restaurant. We were seated at an inside table, and I ate, damp and miserable.
Nothing was going right. I didn’t want to be in Minneapolis, but my girlfriend had taken a job there. I didn’t have much to show for my Master of Fine Arts – no publications, certainly not a novel worth sending to agents or publishers.
I made myself cry over and over that year listening to Iris Dement’s song about her father’s death: “I’m older now, and I’ve got no time to cry.” I had lots of time, and I did cry, abundantly.
Recently I attended a writer’s conference in Minneapolis, and several writers – Cheryl Strayed, Barrie Jean Borich, and Amitava Kumar – appeared on a panel called “The Past is a Place: Former Minnesotans Remember.” They had given themselves a task. Upon arriving in Minneapolis, each had gone to a place fraught with feelings for them and written an essay. All of them had been up the night before the presentation, writing. Their pieces were vivid impressions of isolation, missed connections, and loneliness.
I only lived in Minneapolis for two years, so my fraught places there are few. Still, I visited them while attending the conference. They cluster around Loring Park: the apartment building on one corner, a short block of businesses on another, and, across the freeway, the Walker Art Center and its sculpture garden.
The first year in Minneapolis, my girlfriend and I argued more than we ever had. After about six years together we had developed some resentments, and my new resentment – moving to this city — leaked into every discussion. Eventually, we found a counselor, and every week we walked from our apartment to her office, spent an hour talking with her, and then went into the sculpture garden. In the winter, it was often too cold to be outside for long, but the glass conservatory was warm and humid. We would sit and talk on a bench in the central room, where a huge glass fish arched toward the sky, and little trees in pots bore tiny oranges.
Now I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the freeway and saw the glass roof of the conservatory. I had forgotten all about it. Here was the tunnel through vines, the pots of ferns and lillies, and the glass fish, designed by Frank Gehry. The orange trees were gone, and the space was duller without them, but the air was still pleasantly warm on this early spring day, making my glasses fog as I walked in. I sent my ex- a photograph of the fish: where am I? But she didn’t know.
It’s easy to want to send consoling thoughts back to that thirty-year-old: don’t worry so much, don’t cry. There will be other birthdays on other patios in the sun. You are learning how to communicate with your partner, and those skills will help you collaborate in your future job and work things out with the woman you will someday marry.
But, on this trip to Minneapolis, the one where I was now past my fiftieth birthday, I was having new worries. Not the existentialist crisis of a post-MFA, temporarily employed thirty-year-old, but the kinds of worries that gnaw and bother and make me have to wear a mouthguard at night. Everyday worries about living up to obligations and dealing with conflicts and finding time for myself and my writing. More consequential worries – about a world where another Black man was shot by a police officer and where most panelists at the conference sessions were White.
So I didn’t send a consoling message to my young self. Instead, I sat in the conservatory and admired the overlapping glass plates that are the scales of the fish. I consciously breathed the humid air and relaxed my jaw. I thought of my friend Jennifer Rose, who tells me to take the time to breathe deeply for two minutes every day. Because our life is lived in breaths, and mine tend to be shallow and inadequate. The conservatory had, decades ago, been a place of warm respite, and I wanted to take that in, to hold it and release. For two minutes, that’s what I did.
“Since you left Minneapolis” is from the Lucinda Williams song, “Minneapolis”
You can now pre-order The Ghosts Who Travel with Me from Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You have the option of having the book mailed to you or picking it up at the store. Faculty and students get a 20% discount but must pick up the book at the store and show identification.
The Gettysburg Review has published my essay, “Twenty Hours and Ten Minutes of Therapy,” in the spring 2015 issue. In 1985-1986, as I was coming out, I spent about six months in therapy. It was almost thirty years before I could bear to listen to the cassette tapes of the sessions. This essay is about that experience.