The Last Night

Whiteley2016

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.

 

Posted in Writers, writing | Tagged | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Death and dying, Justice, Racism, Travel, writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Ferry Writing

IMG_3060

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.

Posted in writing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Essays, Literature, Writers | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Love My City

Lovecitylove

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.

Posted in Aging, Death and dying, Uncategorized, Writers | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Conjuring Hurston

IMG_0987

Fort Pierce, Florida

When loved ones die, we think of them, talk to them, ask their advice out loud and in our dreams. We conjure them, not only because we miss them, but because we need them.

Alice Walker needed writer Zora Neale Hurston, and in the famous essay that appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1975, “Looking for Zora,” Walker imagined her back into existence after much of the world had forgotten. Walker visited Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, and found her unmarked grave in Fort Pierce. She ordered a headstone, wrote the essay, and sparked a reappraisal of Hurston’s work. What Walker had needed was an ancestor, a literary ancestor who, as she says in an American Masters documentary, could show her what was possible. Hurston, she says, wrote of black people “as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” I can imagine how crucial it was for Walker to find Hurston’s work.

Thanks to these efforts, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college about seven years later. Ever since, I have retained an image of the opening scene: Janie, whose truest love has just died, saunters back into her former town in overalls, her long black hair “unraveling in the wind like a plume.” And I have remembered Hurston’s unusual story: she left her small-town Florida life for an education at Howard University and Barnard College, worked with Franz Boas, became an anthropologist, and traveled the Caribbean and the South, collecting music and stories. She wasn’t a major influence on my writing, but she was a vision of a daring, literary, independent woman, the kind of person I wanted to be.

So when Arline suggested we visit St. Augustine, Florida, during our winter break, I was eager to make a Zora Neale Hurston pilgrimage. We didn’t make it to Eatonville, her hometown, but we stopped in Jacksonville, where Janie marries Tea Cake in the novel; found the house in St. Augustine where she finished her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road; and took the tour of Fort Pierce that can be taken virtually on the city’s web site.

IMG_2635

Garden of Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce, Florida

In Fort Pierce, informative kiosks mark places like the library named after Hurston, the school where she taught, and the office of a newspaper for which she wrote. The cemetery has changed greatly since Walker waded there through waist-high weeds to find the grave-sized depression that suggested Hurston’s burial place. Now, two pillars with copper impressions of her face mark the path to the grave. The grass is cropped, the headstones tended. Arline and I stood quietly, trying to imagine the living woman as she might have been. A wreath and dried flowers on the grave testified to her continuing existence in someone’s memory.

The house of a friend of Hurston’s was poignant in a different way. Most of the marked sites on the tour are in modest residential neighborhoods of small, concrete-block houses. This is where Hurston lived, worked, and died, so poor late in life that she had to move to the county “welfare home.” But the friend, white artist A.E. Backus, lived in a large gabled house, and, as we drove east from the other sites toward this last stop on the tour, it was clear we were crossing to the other side of the tracks. Hurston told great stories at his parties, Backus said, and the kiosk in front of his house claims that she “must surely have enjoyed the lively and stimulating atmosphere.”

IMG_2644

House of A.E. Backus, Fort Pierce, Florida

I don’t know much about Backus, a self-taught painter. But I know the street is now named after him and a museum nearby sells his works. What I’ve read online suggests he didn’t die in obscurity and his reputation didn’t have to be revived. I wonder what it was like for Hurston to walk from her tiny concrete-block house to his house and studio near the ocean, where the salt air wafted up the avenue. And walk back home.

Still, Zora Neale Hurston is larger than life now. She has been conjured back into existence for all those who might need her.

IMG_2629

Zora Neale Hurston Library, Fort Pierce, Florida

 

Posted in Death and dying, Faith/belief, Literature, Travel, Writers | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

New Publication: “What to Pack”

Deep into a revision of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, I wrote a short essay about my struggles with introducing my partner, Arline, and myself as the book opened. The result is “What to Pack,” which has now appeared in Waxwing, a gorgeous journal whose mission is to promote “the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation.” My gratitude to editor Erin Stalcup, who made a great suggestion for improving it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Publication: “Testimonial”

Thanks to Jennifer Niesslein at Full Grown People for publishing my essay, “Testimonial.” This online journal is full of great essays about the “sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Oregon Trail

Greenlakeheron

Green Lake Heron in Winter

Most every morning on sabbatical for the last three months, I’ve crawled out of bed after Arline has left for work. I’ve put on my sweatpants, ground coffee, and set up the iPad on the dining room table to read the news (confession: Facebook news first, newspapers second). After coffee and oatmeal, I slide my slippers over to the computer to read or write or do research. At lunchtime, I stop to check email and get some exercise. Then I’m back to the project.

It’s relatively quiet here in the co-op where we live, although city workers are often blasting leaf blowers at the bike lanes by 7:30 in the morning. Children come from the day care down the street many afternoons to play in the park. Tethered to each other by hands and string, they shriek and laugh down the path on the way to the playground. Sometimes a door opens and closes in the hallway, and footsteps cross the floor above me.

Mostly, these sounds are comforting backdrop to work that has been far from comforting. I’ve been reading U.S. history I never knew and writing about white privilege. One of my first questions was about my great grandparents, who homesteaded in Montana in the early twentieth century. Whose land were they occupying? I wondered. Turned out it had belonged to the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation. This led me to a memoir by Alma Hogan Snell, who grew up learning the stories and skills of her grandmother, Pretty Shield, and to a book of Apsáalooke history by Joseph Medicine Crow.

This example set the pattern: I would start with an ancestor and use that person’s time and experiences to launch my research. I used Ancestry.com to make a family tree, and one of the first surprises was that a set of great great grandparents had taken the Oregon Trail. I read a history of white-Indian relations along the trail and diaries by women emigrants. The recently published Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States gave a broader context. Along the way, I found the story of George Bush, a black man who took the Oregon Trail with his white wife, and, denied the ability to settle in Oregon because of racist exclusion laws, turned north and settled with friends and family in what was then the Washington Territory and is now Thurston County. Even then, he had to get a special provision from the government to own the land he was homesteading because noncitizens couldn’t homestead, and African Americans weren’t citizens.

Bush’s white friend, Michael T. Simmons, helped Bush get approval to own his plot. He was one of many whites I found in my research who were sympathetic to people of color and who actively challenged racist laws and policies. Many more whites actively engaged in racist behavior, like William Boeing, founder of our famous aircraft company, who had an explicit whites-only hiring policy until World War II and who included a covenant for his housing development in Shoreline that excluded people of color, unless they were domestics working for whites.

I kept wondering, as I read: Where did my relatives lie between these poles – just and unjust, racist and anti-racist? My Oregon Trail ancestors were following in the literal footsteps of hundreds of thousands who had walked westward before them. Did they think about the damage the migration was doing to Indian communities? Did they see their complicity in reducing independent Indian nations to colonized subjects of the U.S. government?

What I was really asking was this: How complicit am I? What is my Oregon Trail?

The days have grown shorter and gloomier since my sabbatical began in September. Something inside me is gloomier, too, facing this history and the realization that there is so much more I still don’t know. At the same time, the work has kindled an urgent need to act. I just read a book on the Japanese American community in Seattle before World War II. The author quotes Aki Kurose, famous for her teaching and activism, on her community in what is now called the International District, the only area in which Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and African Americans were allowed to live when she was a girl in the 1920s and 30s: “My dad loved to bake, so every Friday evening he’d make jellyroll and then all the neighbors would come in to have jellyroll and we’d just have a good time, listening to music and just being social….And the neighborhood was very diverse. And there were many Jews and a Chinese family, and several black families, and we went in and out of each other’s homes all the time.”

As I read about this family sharing jellyroll with their neighbors, I felt the dread of what was coming: in another decade, Kurose and her parents would be imprisoned. What, I thought, did white people do to stop imprisonment then? What more can I do to stop the injustices now?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment