Those Who Wander Find Themselves: Three Peculiar Days in Alaska

wander10/26/14 Train from Anchorage to Talkeetna

Despite the early morning departure, drunken revelers in full Halloween costume fill my train car. Not quite in the mood for their unapologetic reverie, I retreat to the dining car.

Silver landscapes slide by my window – snowfields boxed in by white-capped mountains, rivers gray and still as steel, pale slivers of fog stream between stunted evergreens.

“Moose on the left! Moose on the left!” says the conductor.

I swivel my head to catch sight of mama moose and almost full-grown calf galloping away from the tracks - that odd gait that looks more like falling down but still seems to move the beasts along awfully fast.

I order a signature scramble, which arrives as a glorious heap of eggs, bacon, potatoes, onions and cheese. The concoction sends off a delicious steam than fogs my window and turns the world outside a lighter shade of dreary.

Back in Seattle, my husband’s truck won’t start. I didn’t think to leave behind the keys to my car. His anger sparks and we volley back and forth in texts. He rails against my late-paying clients, about our apparent poverty. When he says that all I do is stroke male egos for a living, I swear at him and tell him not to text me again until he calms down and is ready to apologize.

I put my phone to silent and try to ignore it, shoveling big spoonful of cooling breakfast into my mouth. My phone thrums and vibrates. A quick glance at the messages tell me I still don’t want to talk to him, so I put my phone on airplane mode. I can still snap pictures of the scenes outside, but I can now pretend that this little world around me is all that exists.

I hop off the train at Talkeetna, a small town that serves as base camp to Denali. At the river park, the ice slides by in the water making a sucking scraping sound. Cheeks red with cold and fingertips starting to tingle, I make my way to my log cabin, drop my backpack and call my husband. We growl at each other first, but soon soften and yield. We manage to end the call with love; such is the luxury of a young marriage.

At dark, I steal away to the Fairview Inn bar, chat with bearded men, order a $5 local stout and retreat to tall table to capture lines in ink. When the man in a flannel shirt hauls in a stand-up bass, I know this is going to be a good night. A flyer on the wall says that a girl will sing – Hannah Yoter. My guess is she’s the brunette in the corner with the red lipstick the earrings that dangle. That’s about as dressed up as you get here – aside from my person, with my carefully contoured make-up, manicure and white furry vest. It suddenly dawns on me how ridiculous my fitbit is here. At least I had the good sense to order a local beer instead of a red wine. Of course, later I want a bourbon, but a smart girl paces herself.

In the span of a single song, new people have packed this bar wall to wall. My quiet writing retreat transformed into party place. I feel so conspicuous with my tall table to myself and my journal open before me. The barkeep has removed the big round tables from the main floor. I watch a girl standing on the edge, balancing a drink in each of her upturned palms. I should leave. I’m not really a party person. Or a crowd person. Or a girl alone in a party bar person. I jostle the young people around me for space to put my coat back on.

Miss Yoter starts in on a Doc Watson song that I love and stuns me still. Doc Watson? She follows with “Valerie” and I take my coat back off and hang it on my chair.

The violinist’s girlfriend asks to join me. She’s alone, save for her new boyfriend on the stage. I watch the singer moon at the violinist, the violinist moon at his girlfriend, and his girlfriend jump into the arms a yellow-bearded man that appears out of nowhere and yells her name. The violinist looks everywhere except for at his girlfriend. The singer smiles, takes her voice a little lower.

A young bush pilot buys me a Crown Royal. The second time his hand touches my back, I turn and face him full on. “I am about the farthest thing from single a girl can get. Sorry.”

“Damn,” he says. “Oh well!”

“I’m sure there are lots of single girls here. Saturday only comes once a week. I won’t feel bad if you go talk to someone else.”

“I’m talking to you! Cheers!”

When the band breaks, we chat about choosing life in Alaska, about reading Into the Wild, about how sometimes the things that seem the most insane to others are the most sane to you. He shows me pictures of his plane, pretty little thing painted blue and white, with a name I’ve sadly forgotten.

We’re interrupted by two brunettes who want to know if the book on my table is a guest book and if they should sign it. Yes, I say, you should definitely write in this book. Here’s what I find when I check the pages later:

We’re here!

We’re queer!

The Hulk sisters wuzz herr!

Their names are Kelly and Chelsea. From Palmer. I tell them my name is Kelsye and they scream in delight. Kelly composes a secret handshake on the spot, ending will a finger wiggling move she calls salmon spawning.

“Salmon spawning sisters forever!” Chelsea takes a staggering, half-step back, right into the arms of the bush pilot.

I slip out unnoticed, hunting aurora borealis. A faint emerald glow appears on the Northeastern horizon, rising as though green steam from the black forest. If it reaches the intensity so often seen in photographs tonight, it won’t happen for many hours. I wrap my arms around my chest and walk back to my cabin under a sky crowded with stars.

10/27/14 Talkeetna to Anchorage

I take the once a week train back to Anchorage. The members of yesterday’s Halloween party stand like zombies on the platform, red-eyed and remarkably quiet. A few minutes before scheduled departure, a pretty little blue and white plane buzzes the depot, tips it’s wings. I leap, wave and whoop. The pooped partiers send icicle sharp glares my way. A woman still wearing her curly Victorian wig, but with ski parka instead of gown, puts her hand on her head and whimpers.

I laugh and leap and wave again as the plane loops around. This is my life right now!

This is my life right now.

Darkness falls in Alaska. When I look out the train window, my own reflected image blurs into the shadowed landscape. The evergreens are scrubby here, as though malnourished dwarves compared to the towering giants of my beloved Washington. Birch trees stretch tall, like naked white legs standing on overgrown lawn.

My trip will come to a close. I must exit solitude and kneel again at the altar of my computer. Calendars. Meetings. Deliverables. A gnawing terror scrapes at my heart. My official work in Alaska done days ago, I could return home tomorrow, but I choose to stay a few more days to prolong the strange. I must work, connected to the Internet and clicking away at the my laptop at the far end of the hostel dining table. But when work ends, no dogs will whimper for food, no kids will text for pick-up, no laundry will lay about in piles for me to ignore.

Instead, I have a date with my new Alaska friends to go to a roadhouse that specializes in bacon and bourbon. In other free hours I will layer on faux fur and quilted down, pull on gloves and boots, head out to wander down frozen streets. I will take my meals in cafes where I will order local standards unknown to me (reindeer sausage?) and drink countless cups of coffee from thick-walled ceramic mugs.

Suddenly it is dark, dark in Alaska. An inky black presses against the train window. Forward motion may only be assured by the bump and sway of the rail car. We may have launched into a Miyazaki film, the train rolling through a tunnel into the populous spirit world for all that I know. A pleasing sensation.

10/28/14 Anchorage

Back in Anchorage, I fail intentions to wake early to catch up on email and sleep a full eleven hours. My anxious mind and unceasing ambition make it so I can rarely rest completely. Sleeping late is out of the question. Naps, though highly desired, end up fitful and unsatisfying. Yet in Alaska, I have found sleep. Even with the time zone change, I sleep through my alarm. Come afternoon, I may lay back down and slumber another hour or three.

The girl sharing my bunkroom at the hostel is a champion sleeper. I wonder if it’s her gravity pulling down my eyelids, and pinning me to my bunk. All rockets must fire before I may break orbit and escape our warm room.

I take a late breakfast at Gwennie’s Old Alaska café – the place where they leave the entire pot of coffee on my table. Glorious. Turning to client work, I open my journal to a blank page and mark down my task list. A chorus of opinions negotiates in my mind, padding and stripping my to-do list. Anxiety gnaws at my stomach. How will I get this all done? My hard-earned peace from this long, wandering weekend slips away from my spirit with frightening speed. Panicked, I sit straight, tell myself to breath. Look around.

Prince’s “Doves Cry” plays on the speakers positioned behind the stuffed bear and fox diorama. Two grizzled, bearded men at the corner table mumble the words and bob their heads.

I smile. This is my life. This is my life.

A few select photos from my trip to Alaska...



Finding My Footing

finding_my_footingI fail being alone.

Camper in the woods – just my dogs and me. The fates occupy all members of my immediate family with business trips and family trips. My mother grants me the use of her splendid white camper perched on white steed of a Chevrolet. I retreat to an abandoned corner of a state campground with one purpose – I will finish my book proposal revisions.

The transition from racing publishing diva to quiet, thoughtful writer does not go well. I’m a wreck. I don’t want to start working. I do everything else instead. I walk the dogs. I eat. I nap. I throw the ball. I drink tea. I drink wine. I play a game on my phone. I walk the dogs.

I start up my computer, then power it down, terrified. Perhaps my brain is broken. Or what if I’m just lazy and lacking in character?

I lock the dogs in the camper to walk alone. My camp is near a small river, at Rainbow Falls where the opposing riverbanks bend together like the thighs of a modest woman, forcing the water through a turbulent triangle. I walk alone to hear my own feet clop along in rain boots, steps heavy as a cow. I walk alone to quiet any nagging needs, to stand perfectly still and listen for croaking frogs and dropping leaves.

“You’ve completely forgotten how to be alone and unoccupied.” There's no one around. I say the words out loud like a crazy person.

When I return to the camper, I go to sleep, dogs pressed in on either side of me. I don’t work that evening, but I no longer look at my phone, or eat, or pace. Ten hours I sleep.

Come morning, I wake my fine fellows and walk them out on the trail I spotted yesterday evening. Wide and straight, an old railway bed turned public trail, the path fades into infinity before and behind the spot where I catch it at “Dryad’s Rest” crossing.

A different world from the golden autumn I enjoyed last night, silver fog swallows the view. Dewy spider webs drape over branches like Christmas garlands. I clip-clop along behind my dogs, the companion thud of my rain boots against the back of my calves again make me think my steps sound like a giant, lumbering cow.

My 100-pound dog with the useless back legs follows his spritely brother down a ravine. While the younger dog climbs the slippery slope back to the trail with bounding ease, my big, black dog slides on the grass and mud and lands squarely on his rump at the bottom. He whines.

“You went down there. You can get back up.”

I walk away, assuming my fading steps will compel him to rally and figure his way. This doesn’t happen.

He shrieks and whimpers like a toddler, delicate, high-pitched cries I’ve never heard come from his rough throat. I stomp back and peer over the edge His eyes shine at me like yellow diamonds.


I find my way over the edge and down the slide. It’s the damn marsh grass, wet with dew. The entire side is slicker than buttered plastic.

I say a little thanks for my cumbersome rain boots as I land with a splash at the bottom of the ravine in half a foot of muddy water.

“Come on, Zeus,” I say, wedge my palms under his haunches and heft his weight up and forward.

Once on top of his feet, he makes the climb with minimal shoving and pushing on my part.

At the top, back on the trail while I wipe the muck off my hands onto my jean, I look across to the pasture on the other side. Three rust-colored cows stare at me. They stand so perfectly aligned and spaced that I expect them at any moment to take a slide-step to the left, say ooooo, and start a do-wop routine.

“Hi, cows.”

I fall in behind my dogs and we clip-clop back in the direction of our camper trailer.

Back inside, peeled free from boots and raincoat, I sit at the little table with my coffee and my laptop. I feel better somehow. I open the file, scroll to where I left off, and begin to type.



Do I Really Have to Move Today? Crafting Challenge in a World of Comfort

crafting_challegeI am a runner, so are so many other writers. Perhaps we run for clarity, or concentrated problem solving, or even for the lovely void of thought that may open and swallow us whole after a certain timespan of feet pounding on pavement. I run because when I do, suddenly I have arms, I have lungs that fill and burn and push and pull. I have legs and they are strong!

Not training properly for my recent half-marathon might have been a sub-conscious strategy. What would happen if I faced a challenge that wasn’t easy? What would happen when I hit a wall, or when I felt real pain?

Comfort infuses my life. I wake at reasonable hour, push button for instant caffeine, slip on whatever for the five-minute drive to drop kiddo off at school. Entrenched in my cushy chair in my home office, gazing out a window at golden morning light, probably not even wearing pants, I push the button to power up my screens. Snacks on my right, coffee on my left, big dog plopped over my bare toes. Hours pass.

How easy it is to forget you dwell in a body when you make a living using solely your brain, with occasional interfacing with the physical world through minimal hand movements.

My husband and I each bought those Fitbit bands to track and encourage daily movement. A minimum of 10,000 steps sets the bar. No sweat. A couple walks around the neighborhood gets that done licitly-split. If I make it out for an actual run, I’ll soar past the goal.

Imagine my horror when I discovered that some days I didn’t even come close to the goal of 10,000. After a day of click-clacking away, a casual check of my steps revealed that I barely broke 2,000. In fifteen waking hours, I’d only walked the equivalent of four laps around a high school track. No wonder my flesh seems to be filling and softening. No wonder fatigue comes over me so easily.

Regular runs help, but still fall short of some primal need. Yes, better fitness habits and routine improve not only my body, but also my mental health and over-all productivity. The tightened muscled in my thighs and calves provide much pleasure and pride. But soon those neighborhood jaunts feel ho-hum. It’s difficult to reach the void, to push hard enough that those little anxieties and concerns quiet down so that breathing may receive the full attention it deserves.

“I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing the blind, deaf stone alone with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.”

From Into the Wild

So I sign up for a half-marathon, even though I’ve only been running four miles at a time. The day before the race, some strange compulsion overcomes me. My plans for eating lean proteins and fibers falls flat. My husband brings home a box of day-old donuts for the kids. Cutting out 1-inch “tastes” at a time, I somehow manage to eat two entire maple bars, a jelly donut and a bear claw. In the evening, I drink two glasses of red wine. I do remember to hydrate, sucking down water whenever I think of it. I’m not a complete idiot.

Morning of the race I realize my horrible food choices have completely backed up my system. Oh well, I’ll just have to carry it with me.

I squeeze into hard-working compression pants, wrestle a sports bra over my torso and make the drive into the countryside for the race start.

Can I do this? I think I can do this.

Alone in the tightly-wound pre-race crowd, my nervous thoughts ping-pong around the corners of my brain. There is no guarantee. It will be entirely embarrassing if the aid team has to carry me off the course.

The race begins. I force myself to plod, to not let insecurity or intimidation spur my pace to match those of the runners gaily lopping by me.

This is easy, so easy. But I’ve only gone two miles. Eleven more to go.

At the five-mile marker, I’m certain a mistake has been made. Surely this is about halfway, more like seven, right? My GPS confirms 5 miles, but my legs beg to differ.

At eight miles, after I’ve passed the much anticipated turn-around point, my earlier insistence on plodding pays off. The crowd around me thins and slows. No one passes me anymore. I pass runners one by one.

At 12 miles, my legs feel like spaghetti noodles, but still keep cycling. I pass everyone – fit or flabby, male or female, young or old, gliding along on endorphins and relief. You made it this far, just don’t think about what you’re doing or how you feel and soon you’ll be at the finish.

There it is! The clapping crowd, the giant arch, the man with the megaphone. I kick hard, knock off a couple more runners before crossing the line, just because I can.

Walking somehow seems more difficult than jogging. Standing is worse. I can’t even think about sitting down. Another runner hands me a big red cup of water.

“Good run,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “You too.”

But really we’re saying, I just did that! You did that too! Wow! Life is amazing! Wow! Everything is awesome! I am awesome! Wow!

After I’ve stuffed myself on halved bananas and sample protein bars, I limp back to my car to head home. When I get out of my seat after the hour drive, my legs barely bend. I hobble like the tin man up my front steps.

My husband and kids nod at me, say good job. I don’t think they understand the depth of what I’ve just accomplished. The endorphin high I shared with the other finishers clearly does not transmit through proximity. I feel as though returning from war. There was this thing and I didn’t know if I could do it. I tried and it was really hard and then I did it. Everything is awesome!

I go to bed at 7 o’clock, very well aware of my body and still delightfully incapable of deep thought.

The week comes. I sit again at my comfortable desk. I plan, strategize, implement. I market, compose, organize. I think. I click, click, click.

Thursday morning my skin crawls. I can barely sit still. I can’t focus at all. I go for a run, eight miles. Ahhh, that’s better.

As an encore event, my husband signed us both up for a Tough Mudder the very next weekend, a 12-mile course containing 20 terrifying obstacles. I haven’t trained properly. My legs are strong now, but I have no idea if my arms can lift anything heavier than a venti green tea. Can I do this? I don’t know. I think I can do this.


Notes: This post was inspired by this brilliant piece by Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal). The half-marathon was the Beat the Blerch. Very fun. Do it with me next year! The 12-mile obstacle course was Tough Mudder. We finished moderately intact. Three days later, I'm still blowing mud out of my nose.


Six Lessons about Memoir Writing

lessons_about_memoir_writingThis is a guest post by bestselling memoirist and friend Abigail Carter.

Abigail attended a writing workshop in Sonoma hosted by Theo Nestor, author of Writing Is My DrinkWhat follows are the lessons she learned about memoir writing at this retreat.

1. Ask the questions

One of the things I was reminded about in the workshop, and the reason I was there in the first place, was to formulate the basis for the book. It really comes down to a couple of pointed questions. The tip that Theo provided was to “adopt the attitude that your life is important and ask the question, “If you were really important, what would you be writing about?” What is the most essential thing you need to share through your story?

When I think about what I should be writing about in relation to the house, I think about what it is the house means to me, which I can more or less summarize in one word:


I get lost in another time reading Betty’s books and visiting her house (weirdly, I still think of it as her house and not mine) provides me with a similar escape. The moment I enter the house, it’s as if I have opened the door of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, into a whole different world. I can physically feel myself relax. I get excited about cooking, and writing (with pen and paper), about curling up on the couch to read a real book.

In my regular life, I spend hours behind my computer only to stand up after hours of addictive-like behavior feeling dazed and foggy, and my only reprieve comes in the form of a small dog who incessantly leaves her toy at my feet for me to throw.

I refuse to hook up Internet access at the house because I know the moment I do, its magic will be lost. I need Vashon to remain my escape from a plugged-in world into a time where life was simpler, or at least lived in real time.

2. Dance into your writing

Tanya Taylor Rubinstein was one of the day’s speakers and she speaks from the perspective of a solo performance artist. My favorite moment of her talk was when she began to wiggle around the stage, doing what a writer might call a “five minute write” but in oral story form as she waved her hands around and did a little twirl and a wiggle. “It’s a whole different way of coming at the story, and if you’re stuck it might help you.” She then had us find a partner, look them directly in the eyes and tell that partner a story about a moment that changed our life. To stay in the moment, I told my partner the moment I found the Vashon house and she shared with me a powerful story of the moment she discovered she had breast cancer. By the end of five minutes I knew I had made a new friend.

3. Be “Passionately Confused”

I also liked Theo’s idea that you must be “passionately confused” about your topic. Here the question is “what is the obsession that is imbedded in your story?” What are you curious about? It is this questioning that will make your memoir compelling because as you discover answers, your reader will as well. This is the crux of memoir, the transformation of the narrator. The narrator at the beginning of the story cannot be the same as the narrator at the end and you must be clear about what that shift is. Candace Walsh, another of the speakers backed this idea up when she advised to “live the questions now. Live your way into the answers.”

As Theo spoke and the other speakers, Candace Walsh and Tanya Taylor Rubinstein continued their workshops, I began jotting down ideas about what the themes in the book might be: slowing down, motherhood, spirituality, my relationship to money, healing, food, feeling overwhelmed by life, marriage, sex.

4. Let your subtitle frame your subject matter

Another of Theo’s points was that the subtitle of a book often frames the overall idea embedded within the book, kind of like a thesis statement in an essay. It sums up the essence of what a memoir is really about. Examples of this include: “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” and “Poser: My Life in 23 Poses.” I’ll be living my way into writing the subtitle too, it seems.

5. Fame/writing memoir won’t change you

The excitement of the day was a talk by Anne Lamott, who shared her own brand of wisdom. I have long admired her work – poignant, humorous, thoughtful, and slightly sarcastic, and maybe it was because she was recovering from the flu, or something else is going on with her, but I found her words to be threaded with sadness. She told us to not expect the writing to change us, or perhaps it was to not expect fame to change us, it wasn’t quite clear. I do believe that the process of writing memoir does change you. If you follow Theo’s wisdom on the matter, writing memoir is all about the transformation.

So perhaps it was the fame thing. I have never cared about fame, and if anything I shun it. What I seek is the change in a reader who has read my work. A transformation, a comfort, a healing. It struck me as I sat in that huge hotel ballroom how many stories were represented there – hundreds of big, tragic stories that each sought an outlet. To be a memoirist of Ann Lamott’s fame must take a certain amount of strength of spirit, a sense of responsibility to those stories. What came across to me was how fragile Anne Lamott is, and how fame must be debilitating to her in a lot of ways.

6. Carry a pen and paper at all times

I did like her advice to always carry a pen and paper wherever you go and was charmed by the idea that she writes on her hand and then “transcribes her hand” when she gets home. I am horrible with writing little things down, maybe too busy living in the moment, to remember to stop it and jot it down on a piece of paper and so I felt somewhat lacking without my Moleskin and Montblanc.  Still, I so admire her turns of phrases, her metaphors and no doubt, her jotting is where they come from. Time to get a notebook and a pen!

And so, I came away from Petaluma percolating with new ideas and resolutions to jot, which was my goal for the weekend. I also made some lovely new friends who I look forward getting to know, at least inside this screen, my little virtual 2014 world.



Manufacturing Authority for Fun and Profit: Three Moments of Misplaced Belief

authorityMy daughter’s recent and traumatic first day of seventh grade has me again pondering how we accept authority. My perspectives on this topic have been shaped by three distinct epiphanies.

Moment of epiphany number one.

When I was in college, I took a course called Citizen Artist that taught me how memes, information and presentation impact society. We completed an exercise on manufactured authority that I still think back on frequently.

The assignment was to create a history museum display of a false event or character. We were to present invented stories as complete fact, using such mediums as design, language and false evidence to convince viewers. I made up a character I named Teirny Flaxwell that was killed during the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. I created a plaque of commemoration by Mother Jones. I built a slick display that even featured crushed pottery from her trampled camp (purchased on sale at Value Village). I found images online of a sullen girl, ran a Photoshop filter to age the portrait and printed it out big.

My display measured five feet tall and three feet wide. It looked worthy of any history museum. Thank God for Photoshop skills and museum board. When the class came around to critique my project, I felt damn smug. How shocked I was when one of my peers snarked, “Yeah, but it’s not fair that we use her display as a comparison. She found such a good historical figure to use.”

Murmurs of disgruntled agreement rolled through the group.

This shocked the daylights out of me. We all had the same assignment. They all knew I was inventing facts. Yet, even with this insider knowledge, my well-educated, authority-suspicious peers were easily swayed into belief by my professional application of graphic design, assumed authority and found images.

“Teirny Flaxwell is not real! I made her up!”

Cutting looks told me they were certain I’d cheated.

Moment of epiphany number two.

I walked off the stage at the San Francisco amphitheater trembling and relieved. Having just pitched my startup to a panel of silicon valley VC’s in front of an audience of about 600 and not forgotten my speech or bombed out, again I felt that lovely smug warmth. Awesome! I can’t believe I just did that. I would have done an end zone dance if not still in view of the crowd.

I stepped out in the hall to check my twitter app on my phone and see the audience’s reaction to my talk. One tweet stopped me cold. They tweeted a picture of me gesturing grandly at my market size slide, captioned with the words “PUBLIC EDUCATION FAIL”. I squinted at the slide. What?! What was wrong?

The math. The math was horribly wrong. In giant numbers, projected about ten feet tall on the stage screen, my slide displayed that 750 thousand self-published books times 2,500 spent in services equals 18 billion a year.

Actually do the problem in your head. The answer is not 18 billion. It’s 1.8 billion.

Shame and embarrassment washed over me like a bucket of ice water. Holy crap. I can’t believe I didn’t catch that. Neither did my partner. Neither did the ten or so mentors that reviewed our slides. Neither did the empirically critical event director that made me run through my presentation five times for him. Neither did any of the earlier round judges or the hundreds of internet public that first voted our pitch through to finals.

The equation was presented with authority on a slide and all of us simply accepted it as fact, rather than take a single moment to think it through on our own.

Moment of epiphany number three.

My petite daughter took extra precautions her first day of seventh grade in order to not be mistaken for a lowly sixth grader. She’d recently cut her hair into a stylish bob and colored it purple. She refused a backpack and instead took a messenger bag. She selected a calculated cool outfit of zombie t-shirt and worn jeans. I watched her walk into the school with confidence. She waved at friends, didn’t even bother to turn around and say goodbye to me. Piece of cake.

About an hour later I got a garbled message from her telling me to please come home right now, that she was terribly sorry, she’d take any punishment and it was all a big lie.

I raced home to find her sitting on the floor in the middle of the living room crying while our big dogs nervously circled and sniffed at her head.

I swooped down immediately and held her tight. “What’s wrong! What happened?”

“It’s all a lie!” she moaned. “I can’t face my friends. I am so ashamed?

“What?! What?”

She told me how she went to her first class, homeroom… for sixth graders. At first she thought it might be a mistake. But there was the correct classroom number on her schedule. There was her name carefully handwritten on a name tag on the teacher’s desk. There was the teacher, telling her she shouldn’t be scared and that she was going to love the sixth grade.

She suffered through the class without saying anything. As she exited at the bell, she saw her friends in the hall. The thought of them seeing her with the sixth graders brought on a full blown panic attack. She fled, right out the door of the school and the entire mile back to our house.

I assured her it was surely a mistake. She shook her head, despondent.

I called the school and they told me she had been assigned to the wrong homeroom. She was most definitely a seventh grader and hadn’t been secretly flunked back.

I brought her back in time to catch the last two classes of her schedule. Again, she smiled as she left me, but was still obviously shaken, as though any moment someone would tell her this was the mistake and she didn’t belong there.

If she had simply raised her hand in class and said she was a seventh grader, the whole episode could have been cut off at the start. If after class, she had walked to the office and had them double check, the mistake would have been caught.

Those things didn’t happen. A figure of authority told my daughter she was something less than what she thought and she accepted it point blank.

How terrifying.

What the hell does this all mean?

When you learn how easy it is to manufacture authority, you may easily do so for personal gain and entertainment. Fake it and other people will believe it. Most people. Whether you choose to use this power for good or evil is up to you. Do with it what you will.

Yet even knowing this, are you aware of the authorities and judgments you’ve accepted in your own life that have been manufactured by someone else? Just as you may invent authority, you also have power over which authorities you accept.

Sometimes, the authorities that impact our lives do not have our best interests in heart. They may even actively seek to belittle or diminish us. Think of the judgments you accept, those from your family, your peers, the people who look at your work. It’s not too hard to see personal bias in these moments. Now scale your view up. What judgments do you accept from your society, your government, your God.

These things that we think as fact may, in fact, be someone else’s very good story.


What Happens to the Love We Forget?

love_we_forgetWhat happens to the experiences we forget? If we forget a day, or place, or a love, is it as though it never happened?

Years ago, I stopped taking photographs. As an avid photographer, one who even built a darkroom in her father’s basement, this change of behavior felt akin to a divorce, or a death. One day I took photos, the next day I didn’t. As sudden as a car crash. The constant pull to frame and record experience and vision in a lasting medium exhausted my soul. Everywhere I looked, I saw edges, thirds and lighting. I could no longer see my surroundings without mentally filtering for shots worth snapping.

I created a beautiful portfolio of images, evidence of a life well-lived, of incredible places, of self-portraits capturing moments that proved I was beautiful and young. I would flip through these images as though examining the life of a stranger. The cumulative impact of the pictures, despite literal renderings of my life, displayed an untruth. I could not remember who I was with that day I captured the shot of the willow in the Japanese garden. I have no idea if that somber mood shown in the shot of me glancing over my shoulder was authentic or posed. A panic built in me, one that hissed that by focusing on capturing my life in images, I was in fact forgetting, even re-writing it.

I stopped taking pictures.

My husband pointed out recently that there are no photographs of him in my office, no pictures of our family or even our dogs. There is only a picture of the dog I had in my childhood, and a few images of myself in various countries, all taken before I hit twenty-five. That’s it.

“You’re so vain!” he said to me.

I hadn’t noticed until that moment that I had surrounded myself with pictures of myself. But I also saw what he couldn’t see. Those aren’t pictures of me, those are memory anchors. Not only do I have photographs, I display objects as well. A postcard from Japan with no writing, no explanation, but that reminds me of a long ago weekend with a lost love. There is a dinosaur toy given to me by an employee when once-upon-a-time I was a corporate fancy pants. There is a badly framed picture of a fish, a rendering of someone else’s art studio, a wooden box in the shape of the moon, a tiny cast-iron typewriter, tickets to a baseball game that occurred a few years back, a print of a poem.

Those pictures I keep aren’t so I can look at myself. That shot of me on my balcony in the French Quarter is meant to remind me that once I lived in a hot state, that I didn’t have children, that there are people who live entire lives dancing about on cobblestone streets, working at bars and writing gothic poetry. The picture of me on the rooftop in Tanzier is to remind me that once I saw a world where women are regulated to spaces set aside and apart from the street level stream of daily life, that once I halted an entire crowd of menacing men by standing my ground and shouting the one word I knew how to clearly pronounce in the their language, shame.

These things remind me that once I carried bibles. Once I slept with gangsters. Once I lived in the woods. Once I was strong. Once I was weak. Once I went up a mountain and the heavens opened and I learned the name of my future daughter. Once I was a drunk. Once I was a leader.

I still worry about it. If I loved you, and it was true, and I forget our time together, does it mean I never really loved you?

If even love can be forgotten, what possible purpose can pull me through my weeks.

I have read and reread the book Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. The concept of the river compels and soothes me. If time is a river, one we are constantly moving down, our position in the stream has no impact on the existence of the flow before or behind me. Because I can’t see it, or touch it, or hear it, does not mean that it is no longer. All things exist at all time. Just because I left you behind in different waters, does not mean you are gone from me forever. We’re still drenched by the same passage of time.

“This is you,” I said to my husband, pointing out the poem tacked to the wall. “This is you,” I said, picking up the baseball tickets, the little typewriter he gave me. “You’re all over my office.”

I stood and wrapped my arms around him, kissed him. “This is you, standing with me right now, just how I prefer to have you.”



These Blues Will Get Me Through

blues2The struggle is one eternal and relentless, the one of woman and man versus house and finance, versus each other, versus children and laundry and summer vacation, versus unfinished manuscript.

In an attempt to strike a cease-fire, my husband takes me to a blues club. We watch a middle-aged man with bright blonde hair and BBQ joint t-shirt stretched over rounded belly belt out songs from south Florida. I squint, narrow my focus so I can’t see the jeans and fleece on the patrons around me, try to pretend that it’s not a Thursday night in Seattle where suddenly it’s rainy and cool even though we just hit the ides of August.

My husband orders me a bourbon on the rocks, coos platitudes. Lean on me. I’ll be the glue that keeps you together. You can count on me.

“Leaning is the last thing I want to do right now.” I sit with stiff back, stiff shoulders, unmoved by his warm hand on my back. “I just have to get stuff done. I don’t need you to hold me. I need you to stand up.”

A couple at least fifteen years older than us, maybe more, slink and side-step across the dance floor. They press close together, pause on cue, move again, dip, separate, join. Both keep their eyes closed. We’re all watching them. Even the band is watching them. The lead singer gives a signal and the bass kicks in low, thumping, dominant. The couple dip a little lower, no longer separate and join, just join.

I look back at my husband, his face warmed by candlelight. He’s giving me that smoldering look. Damn, I think, and take out my phone to snap a picture.

He can hold a mood even when faced with a lens. I cannot. I become aware of people not in the room. People I can’t talk to, people that will make a judgment on me from a single, immutable frame. Not my husband. His smolder deepens, a tiny smile playing on the edge of his lips.

I snap a few photos and sit against him so he can see me scroll through the results.

“You always take such good pictures of me,” he says.

“Hm,” I say, sigh, and drop my phone back into my bag, turn my attention back to the stage.

The drummer is the only woman on the band. She’s also the only black person. I wonder how in the world she hooked up with this group of aging Parrotheads. Cock-sure, the blonde front man struts the length of the stage, howls, asks the audience to howl with him.

“I’m ready to go, “ I say. “I have a 9am meeting. Sorry.”

“Of course, love. Whatever you need.”

We’re halfway to the door when the drummer starts to sing. The blonde band leader has pocketed his harmonica and brought out a saxophone. Music that pounded, beat on the door, hammered the planks, gives way to melody that slides, that runs fingers across bare necks, that moans. And over it all, the woman sings, these blues will get me through.

Without speaking, we slide into empty seats. The woman’s voice lifts high in twirl, then flattens out wide and deep. Her fists pummel the drums, sticks flying, yet her face remains still and drenched in thoughtful calm. My husband slides his hand over mine, squeezes. I squeeze back, do not release.

No one is watching the dancers. No one is drinking. It’s eternal, this struggle, this one of woman and man versus moment, versus the last the bar of the song, versus the sun that will no doubt rise again.


Collateral Damage: Causalities of the Girl I Used to Be

collateral-damageThe crimes of my youth surfaced with the arrival of my old friend in my city. I first met Josh the summer I worked at the Old Faithful resort in Yellowstone Park. I was 19, dauntless, with deer-like legs on which I bounded through my shifts at the restaurant and right out onto the trails when clocked out. Josh was my best friend that summer, my safe friend, the one with whom I could share a back-country tent without a single concern as I considered him as one might a brother.

Josh is a country boy. He’s still lives in the house he grew up in on his parents dairy farm in Wisconsin. He works maintenance at a local hospital on the night shift, then spends his days helping on his parents farm. I don’t think he sleeps. He’s married now, with three kids.

15 years passed without us meeting again, but occasionally I’d get a pack of cheese curds for Christmas, a comment on a Facebook post about my daughter or my recent doings. His trip to my city to visit nearby relatives was only the second time he’d ever been on a plane, and the first time he’d ever been in a “big city”.  Not long ago, I got a message from him out of the blue, could I pick him up at the airport. Could I take him to the Space Needle?

Of course, I replied. I’ll also take you out to dinner and to my house to meet my family.

Every day leading up to the trip he’d send me another message. Did he need to dress up for dinner? Was I taking him to my favorite place? Would my husband come with us? Did I have that same butterfly feeling in my stomach?

Cute, I thought. He’s really excited about this.

He arrived a bundle of nervous energy. Since I told him he didn’t need to dress up, he walked off the plane in shorts, a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves cut out to make it a tank top, and a huge goofy smile.

“You look exactly the same!” He said. “Except your hair isn’t as messy as it was in Yellowstone.”

I laughed and gave him a great big hug.

He couldn’t possibly remember the places I took him that day. I don’t think he was aware of our surroundings at all. He told me back-to-back stories about that summer long ago and wanted to know all about my life since then. In the midst of all this, I took him to the waterfront to eat local clam chowder. I showed him the Space Needle. I took him to meet my kids and my husband.

Late in the evening, we started the long drive north to where I would deposit him at his aunt’s. The stories he recounted in the car filled me with joyful remembrances. I could actually feel again what it was like to be 19 and out in the world for the first time. I sat straighter in my seat, excitement building as he helped me remember adventures I hadn’t thought of in over a decade.

He asked me question after question. Did I remember swimming in the Yellowstone river, did I remember the time we hiked three days to summit a mountain, did I remember the steakhouse and the name of the ice cream shop on the West entrance to the park?

Yes, yes! Now I remember!

He asked me what the happiest time of my life has been since then. I told him three short stories about different moments in my life. He became quiet. I must have driven a few miles before breaking the silence.

“And you? What was your happiest time?”

“For me it was that summer,” he said. “It was always that summer.”

“Yes.” I sighed. “It was rather perfect.”

“Do you remember the time I jumped in front of the buffalo and saved your life,” he said.

“No.” I laughed, smacking his arm. “That didn’t happen! Now you’re making stories up.”

“Yes it did,” he said. “Do you remember when you moved to Japan and I kept trying to call you, but couldn’t ever get the call through? Jeepers. I spend a hundred dollars on calling cards, but never got through.”

I stopped laughing, concentrated on the road ahead.


“You were the only friend from that summer that ever kept in touch with me,” he said. “Do you remember a couple years later when you had broken up with your boyfriend, we were on the phone and you said I should move out to the west coast?”

I looked at him. “I did?”

“Yes, but I had never moved anywhere. I was scared. My whole life was on the farm. I needed more to move. I didn’t know if you were asking me as a friend.” He looked out the window. “Or something else.”


Suddenly I remembered so much more about that summer, about myself at that time. Straight as an arrow, I didn’t drink, I didn’t mess around. In the park, I attended every Christian bonfire to sing the songs and say the prayers. Also, the product of not one but four parental divorces, I hungered for attention. I wore tiny shorts, bared skin and laughed with abandon. I wouldn’t go out with any boy working there, but made sure they saw me around enough to want me. Josh was by my side that entire summer and absorbed the full force of my desperate need for love.

Josh said, “You were always moving around then. I thought I’d move out west for you and poof, you’d just disappear. I never knew how you were asking me.”

I took a deep breath. I couldn’t let a single minute pass by with him still holding that thought. “I think I was careless with my words then.” I glanced over to see if he understood, but he wasn’t looking my way. “Moving was a hobby for me, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was for you. If I asked, it was definitively as a friend.”

“That’s what I thought all this time.” Josh said the words so quickly after mine it was like I hadn’t spoken at all.

I looked at him, tried to catch his eyes before I needed to look ahead at the traffic again, but he never turned to look at me.

After I dropped him off with awkward hug and a promise to not go another 15 years without seeing him, my mind churned the entire the long ride home. My stomach turned. I felt the years close around me and drove fast, anxious to put miles between me and the girl I used to be.


How Do You Become a Writer?


When do you know that you're a real writer?

Is it the first moment you pick up the pen and scratch out a sentence, or is it back when you are thinking about wanting to write. Is it when you get an agent, or when your first book is published? If you publish traditionally, are you more of a real writer than if you publish independently? Is it when you sell a hundred copies, or become a bestseller? Perhaps after your win a big writing contest you'll be a real writer. Maybe it's when your mom introduces you, "This is my daughter. She's a writer."

So often we wait for external validation to confirm the identifies we long for. We may wait a really long time.

I first admitted out loud that I wanted to be a writer when I was 21 years old. I was living in the French Quarter of New Orleans, furiously scribbling away in black journals while sipping sugary coffee at back alley cafes. My favorite writing spot was right next to the William Faulkner house. My lines dripped with imitated southern gothic sentiment. Certainly I was an artiste, even if I kept a day job at Shell Oil and hadn't actually published anything ever.

When my daughter was born a few years later, it became clear that if I expected her to follow her dream, I better damn well follow mine. To move this whole writer fantasy out of the dark alleys and into the light of day, I signed up to finish my four-year degree at The Evergreen State College, my concentration listed as writing. Here I learned that writing is a craft, something that may be learned and improved upon. Excellent mentors such as Bill Ransom, Steven Hendricks, Bruce Benderson, and Leonard Schwartz taught me how to evolve my prose to something both meaningful and readable.

After a couple brief years of admittedly dramatic improvement, I deemed myself brilliant and ready for the world. I self-published a book of short works and queried at least 50 agents and editors. Thumbing through one of the 500 copies of my book I had printed in advance of certain fame, I realized that perhaps I could have benefited from the assistance of an editor. I found quite a few grammatical errors. Oh well, surely a few spelling errors would not diminish the overwhelming genius of my work, right?

Not so much.

I received about 20 rejection letters, the rest simply ignored my queries. With no distribution, platform or marketing channels, the error-ridden books I paid for with my limited fund simply rotted away in my mother's barn.

Too soon. I went out too soon.

Disheartened, but a tiny bit wiser, I took a job teaching English over seas. Life in Japan inspired me to start work on my first novel. I wrote with abandon. Most importantly, I also read and lived with abandon. I collected experiences and authors as though storing up a great war chest - my writer's war chest.

Ten more years I worked on my craft, starting my own writing group and getting regular feedback, reading across genres and periods, learning about the business of publishing. When I compare myself now with the writer I was when I was twenty-five, I can see how far I've come. I know also have a sense of how very far I have to go. How do you become a writer? You write, read and live. Repeat.Street art by Eddie Colla.

"If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission." - Eddie Colla

No one will point at you and say, "You are a real writer." It's not their job. It's your job. You declare, "I am a writer." And then you write and you learn and you read and you write.

I had stopped waiting for permission when finally an agent knocked at my door. Youthful impatience be damned, it was all those years working on my craft and learning about the publishing world that made me suddenly a beacon for those I once considered gatekeepers. When I had my author platform built, when I had well-written (and professionally edited) stories self-published and available on Amazon, when I was out in the world joyfully working on publishing projects, that's when I got the call from the agent.

Here's the secret...

 There is no gatekeeper.

There is only what you do and what you don't do. It doesn't matter if you want to be a writer, or an entrepreneur or an airplane mechanic, the path is the same. Name your dream. Practice. Learn. Live. Repeat.


How Not to Get What You Want: The Agony of Expectation

agony_wantThe grass is always greener on the other side.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

How many times have you heard these sentiments, telling you that what you think you want may not bring the happiness you imagine?

I have wanted a great many things.

I wanted a great big, joyful family. Once married into one, I learned about great big, hurtful family politics and the impossibility of pleasing everybody all the time.

I wanted all of our kids at our house full-time for the summer, only later realizing my quiet days working at home are key for maintaining my focus (sanity).

Once I wanted to leave all corporate jobs behind and only work for myself. That was before learning how having clients can be like having a herd of bosses, all with different quirks, styles and reliability in payment.

Then there is the case of the rising rent.

Our landlords decided to raise our rent by $100 a month. This may not sound like a much, but the rent already knocked soundly against roof of our budget. My husband and I decided to see this an opportunity to finally make a move into a home that would allow me to lessen my client load and spend more time writing. Perhaps we could even find a bigger yard, or a shorter commute for him. This could be great!

We spent an exhausting week deciphering the secret code that property managers use to favorably describe the remarkably flawed properties they are trying to pass off as desirable. We sacrificed an entire Saturday to visiting homes deemed unsuitable by me or my husband.

We learned that if the ad describes a large yard, natural setting and classic stylings, we'd encounter house marooned in a sea of unkept wilds, with popcorn ceilings and brown shag carpet.

We learned that if the ad talks up granite counters, fancy appliances and walk-in closets, that this likely means that the house is a brand new townhome construction, smashed awkwardly against no less than eight or so other townhomes with slightly different paint schemes, a shared driveway, no yard at all and window that look directly into your neighbors rooms. If I pressed my nose to the glass at the same time as the neighbor, we'd be just six inches from kissing, glass not withstanding.

After ten houses, two-drive through meals and an almost complete collapse of marital harmony, we decided to call it quits and head home.


Oh, our yard is small, but look how cute and easy to care for. Look at our lovely living room with the furniture we just bought with our wedding gifts. See how welcoming my office looks now that I've finally gotten around to hanging the pictures. Oh, and look at how much crap we have every where that I certainly don't want to put into boxes.

Collapsed on the couch, clinging to each other, tired of bitter compromises and disagreements carefully disguised as rationales, I said to my love, "$100 really isn't that much. Once new project a month would more than cover it."

I looked up at my husband, watched his left eyebrow arch as he regarded me.

"Now," I said. "I like how things are right now."

He squeezed me and kissed my forehead. "And aren't we lucky to know it?"

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