A Notable Essay!

Recently, my essayist friends were posting on Facebook about the new Best American Essays, due out any day. A certain online retailer allows you to virtually page through books, and my friends were searching the back matter for their own names. Twenty-three essays are published in full, the “best” of 2015. But many more are listed in the back as “notable” essays. These essays are the runners up, the honorable mentions — and it’s quite an honor to be on the list.

A day of Facebook posts scrolled by before it occurred to me to look for my own name. I had to search a few times; the pages available for preview change with each refresh of the site. But then I found it, the page with the “Gs.” And my own name.

I am beyond thrilled that my essay “Twenty Hours and Ten Minutes of Therapy,” originally published in The Gettysburg Review and reprinted by Utne Reader, is a notable essay of 2015.

I spent much of the summer of 2013 writing that essay, which emerged after I listened to the cassette tapes of my therapy sessions when I was coming out over a quarter century ago. While I knew what I wanted to say in the essay, finding the best structure was a challenge. My writing group’s feedback made all the difference, and when it was finished, I knew it was one of the best — if not the best — pieces I’d ever written.

Among the notables are some of my biggest influences, writers like Bernard Cooper, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Rebecca Solnit, Ira Sukrungruang, and Ander Monson. It’s an honor to be in their company.

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The Last Night

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Whiteley Center Cottage

I’m typing at the dining room table of my cottage at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island, where I’ve been writing for a week. This last night, the sky slowly darkens behind the darker firs, and the first evening lights shine from town across the harbor. Inside my cottage, the gas fire flickers, and my books are stacked on the coffee table, the two I read and the four I didn’t get to. I know that my writing friends, Donna Miscolta and Jennifer Munro, are nearby, writing or reading or packing for our return to Seattle tomorrow.

I always look forward to writing residencies; they give me the time and solitude to dig deep. But I never know quite how the time will go. Will I meet my goals? Will I get diverted? Or will I discover that what seemed like the right project was not?

This time I had a more specific goal than usual. I wanted to add about 6,000 words to my memoir. My manuscripts are always on the short end of what’s typically expected by publishers, but this one was short even by my standards. Another twenty pages would make it a more respectable length, and I thought some additional information would enhance the book’s themes.

From Monday through Thursday, I wrote five to six hours a day. A post-it note on the refrigerator recorded my progress: 2,674 words, 1,312 words, 1,496 words, 918 words: 6,400 words! Not all of those words were written at Whiteley. Some were pulled from folders, left over from previous revisions. But many of them were new and all of them needed to be incorporated into the manuscript so they didn’t seem patched in. Sometimes I spent three hours on two paragraphs.

Having reached my goal, I spent Friday and today on other projects. Now, as the trees recede into complete darkness and my reflection blurs in the window, I’m spending my last writing hours of the residency on this blog post.

This is my sixth or seventh visit to Whiteley, and I’m fairly sure that on most visits my schedule has been the same: writing from about 8:30 until early afternoon, then perhaps an hour again after dinner. But another writer doesn’t remember it that way.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet and other books, was writing in a cottage nearby in October, the last time I was here. She wrote a blog post about that time, claiming that she saw me writing from 7 a.m. until late into the night! Yes, I am the Neighbor in this story. But no, that’s not how I remember it.

Funny how different writing processes can be. Some say they write every day for at least an hour. Some write when they can. Some write steadily; some write in bursts. The best writing process is always the one that works for you – the process itself shouldn’t get in the way. If it’s stressing you out, it’s not working.

I am always experimenting with process. Long ago, I gave up the idea of writing every day. My life isn’t organized for that. So I write a lot when I can, on vacations and residencies, and, recently, I’ve been writing once a week on the Seattle-Bremerton ferry. Whatever works.

And now this blog post is done. It’s not even 9:30. See, not writing all night. Goodnight, Lyanda. Goodnight, writers everywhere.

 

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Anguish Time

Wooden alms box with paintings of saints

Alms Box, Church of Saint Francis, Porto. Photo by Arline García.

In the Church of Saint Francis — Igreja de São Franciscoin Porto, Portugal, believers once dropped coins into alms boxes, whispered prayers, and hoped that someone was listening. These painted wooden boxes are now nailed to a wall in the catacombs of the church with a helpful explanatory sign. The English translation says, “Alms-Box: Where anonymously, the requester, puts in Money, the promise done in anguish time.”

The Portuguese phrase “hora de angústia” could have been inconspicuously translated as “hour of anguish” or “time of anguish,” but unexpected translations often take on the crooked aptness of poetry. “In anguish time,” we make promises and prayers, offer what we can, and hope for salvation.

My recent trip to Europe was a time of both delight and anguish. I had never been to Paris, and my first sight of the gargoyles and flying buttresses of Notre Dame made me giddy. Arline and I ate tarts as beautiful as jewelry, paid homage to Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust at their graves, and stilled our breath in the Musée de l’Orangerie, where Monet’s water lilies float on blue ponds.

But the day I took a photo of the inscription “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” on the Palace of Justice in Paris, police in Baton Rouge killed Alton Sterling. A day later, police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, killed Philando Castile. Arline and I rode the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, returned to our rented apartment, and scrolled through anguished Facebook posts and online newspapers.

The nauseating tango of joy and horror continued. We were listening to pennywhistles and bagpipes at the World Celtic Music Festival in northwest Spain when the man drove a truck through the celebrating crowd in Nice, killing and injuring hundreds. I avoid watching violent news video, but there it was on a television screen in the tavern where we ate the next day. I forced myself to focus on the table, letting the incomprehensible voices of the newscasters wash over me.

In a theater the next night, listening to beautiful music — concertina, saxophone, bagpipes, and flutes — the tears came. How can we humans build both stunning cathedrals and systemically racist institutions? How can we practice both musical scales and terrorist attacks? How can we live with ourselves?

I remind myself that the cathedrals were the products of oppressive systems. Upstairs from the alms boxes, the interior of the Church of Saint Francis is stunning for its Baroque ornamentation. In the 18th century, elaborate, gold-plated carvings of flowers, leaves, and animals were added to the Gothic structure. The surfaces are so intricate and so blindingly rich in color that they’re hard to take in. The gold came, of course, from Portugal’s colony, Brazil, and much of the labor that produced the gold came from enslaved Africans, but little of this story appeared in the brochure the clerk handed us as we paid our euros to enter. Throughout our European travels, Arline and I frequently found ourselves supplementing brochures and plaques with asides to each other. In the Army Museum in Paris, for example, a map depicting political boundaries at the onset of World War I claimed that, at this point in time, Africa had not been explored. By whom, we said to each other.

It seems to me that if we don’t translate the official narratives into more accurate ones, into stories that fully account for the terrors and exploitations of history, we are doomed to perpetuate them. The murders of Sterling, Castile, and the people of Nice are horrific in and of themselves, but they are representative of thousands more similar deaths. Even as we cradle in our hearts the names of the dead, we have to see the patterns, the systems, and the structures that enable such suffering. We have to challenge the narratives.

Writing is my alms box, and it’s what I turn to “in anguish time.” So this is the promise and prayer that I make: to tell a fuller story. This is my coin, its small rattle in the wooden box.

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Ferry Writing

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Seattle from the Bremerton Ferry

Every Saturday for the last five weeks, I’ve gone to Colman Dock in downtown Seattle and bought a ticket for the Bremerton ferry. Usually, my colleague Avery is there when I arrive, and we chat about department politics and stacks of grading we are, temporarily, ignoring. Seagulls reel and call, tourists snap selfies, and finally the rust-stained ferry, usually the Kitsap or the Hyak, floats between the pylons and into dock. Avery and I trundle behind the other passengers. On board, he peels off to one table, and I take another one a few seats down. He told me the first time that the tables on the right side of the ferry are better for avoiding shafts of sun on the laptop.

We take the Bremerton route because it’s the longest ride – an hour. Arline asks me every time I come home: “Did you see a whale?” But my gaze during that hour is mostly directed down, at my laptop and notes. Hopefully, if a whale were to breach nearby, the captain would come on the loudspeaker and tell me.

Twenty-two years of teaching at the same community college have accustomed me to a yearly rhythm. Fall quarter: teach writing; winter quarter: teach writing; spring quarter: teach writing; summer: write. As soon as grades are turned in, I waste no time getting to my desk for three to four hours of writing every morning. But it has always been hard to write during the school year, although I have managed some. Most notably, in fall 2008, I got up every morning at five and worked for an hour on what would become my second book. But typically, my brain is too focused on email and that student who needs to meet with me and the next committee meeting to do my own creative writing.

So when Avery told me about ferry writing, I thought: what a brilliant idea. A cheap office — $8 round trip – and a defined period of time away from distractions. I had no papers to grade that first weekend, so I joined him. As I opened my laptop and watched the Seattle skyline drift past the window, my heart sped up. Sometimes my brain tells my body to be anxious when it should be happy. Don’t waste it, my galloping heart was telling me. I didn’t waste it. I wrote nonstop to Bremerton, then for another hour in a coffee shop, then back to Seattle. Three full hours of writing. I disembarked as buoyant as if the ferry still floated beneath me.

I can make time for writing during the school year after all. In the weeks since that first ride, I’ve found that the prospect of weekend writing has motivated me to get more of my grading done during the week. I even cleaned the bathroom on a Wednesday once, so I wouldn’t have to do it on Saturday. Those ferry writing hours now feel like sacred time. I’ve written blog posts and, the last three weeks, revised a manuscript. Ferry writing has improved my teaching, too, I think. I’m more relaxed in the classroom, knowing that those three hours are ahead of me. Now I get to be both writer and teacher: whole.

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New Anthology: Memories Flow in Our Veins

Pink rhododendron blossom

About twenty years ago I got a letter from Calyx, a literary journal with pages of amazing writing by women and covers like works of art. The editors liked my story but asked for revisions. I did my best; it wasn’t good enough. Although I was disappointed, the Calyx feedback helped me write a better story, and that story helped me write the next piece and the next, until eventually I had written a novel worthy of publication.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that I would eventually write something even better, an essay that would appear in Calyx in 2012 and, miraculously, in the fortieth anniversary anthology for the journal, which was released last month by one of my favorite presses, Ooligan. Memories Flow in Our Veins: Forty Years of Women’s Writing from Calyx has poems, stories, and essays by such luminaries as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I feel so honored to be included.

The anthology is a delightful conversation with friends, acquaintances, and admired strangers. I have listened to Donna Miscolta read portions of her story “Strong Girls” in recent readings, and it was a pleasure to re-read the whole story. It’s about wrestling girl twins, about allegiances and betrayals, about how we carry our bodies through the world. (You heard it here first: Donna is writing a novel based on this story.)

Charlotte Watson Sherman’s “Killing Color” was another story I had read before, although so long ago that it was completely new. Like the narrator, I wondered why the stranger, Mavis, had come to the town of Brownville to stare at the old courthouse every day as if willing justice to be done. The ending is satisfyingly mysterious.

I also couldn’t stop reading the story of a woman who leaves a pig’s head on a platter in the refrigerator until her family finally stops taking her for granted. The head in Monique De Varennes’s “Cabeza” reminded me of that decaying rabbit in the 1965 Catherine Deneuve movie, Repulsion, but whereas the rabbit symbolized the Deneuve character’s breakdown, in De Varennes’s story the pig head seems more symbolic of the family’s dysfunction than the woman’s.

Marianne Villanueva’s “The Decedent Is Initially Viewed Unclothed” is one of the most oddly compelling things I’ve read lately. The story begins with descriptions from the autopsy of a “well-developed, mildly obese Filipina female.” The hepatic vein, we learn, is “speckled a rich nutmeg color” and the hands are “atraumatic.” These descriptions launch an elliptically heartbreaking story of a woman’s grief over her sister’s death.

So many great pieces. I think I’m especially drawn these days to work about aging, like LeGuin’s poem about women over fifty and Divakaruni’s memories of her mother braiding her hair.

Last month, I had the honor of reading at a celebration of Calyx and another important literary journal, Sinister Wisdom. I read from my essay, “Ratification,” which describes my experiences growing up during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. I only had time to read a few pages, so I joked to the audience at the end that they would have to read the essay to find out whether the ERA passed or not. A girl in the audience turned to her mother, who shook her head: no, it didn’t pass. For that girl, the ERA is ancient history. Her mother, it turned out, was once part of the Calyx editorial collective. How wonderful that the journal continues to inspire, educate, and enthrall a new generation of writers and readers.

It takes a village to make a writer. Thanks, Calyx, for being such an indispensable part of our village.

 

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Love My City

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Photo by Suzanne Bottelli

Last night Seattle residents celebrated, remembered, and waxed poetic over the places we once loved that are now long gone. For me, it was Pizza and Pipes, a restaurant at 85th and Greenwood where organists rocked a huge Wurlitzer organ. Jennifer Munro remembered Harvey’s Tavern, which, it turns out, bought the lacquered wooden tables from Pizza and Pipes when it closed in the late 1980s. So Jennifer and I probably sat at the same table, decades apart. I hope diners are still sitting at those tables in some restaurant in Seattle, living the moments they will sigh over many years from now.

Thanks to Jaimee Garbacik, who invited me to the party. Her project, The Ghosts of Seattle Past, has more surprises in store. Stay tuned.

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New Publication: “Different Love”

Thanks to Mary-Kim Arnold at The Rumpus for publishing this essay, “Different Love,” on queer identity. I wrote it in a fever the summer I turned 50 and married Arline.

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