Far and Near

Tomorrow I’m driving to Anchorage to retrieve my sister, Marla, who has been traveling around South America for the past four months. She went by herself, which to me is incredibly courageous. It helps that she makes friends easily and I’m willing to bet she didn’t spend much time feeling lonely. I’ve never done anything like that, and I suspect I never will. I admire her fearlessness, or maybe it’s not fearlessness as much as it is a willingness to conquer her fears. Either way she amazes me.

Before Marla left, my family tried to think of something practical to give her for a Christmas gift. We decided on a couple pairs of Smartwool socks. They were something she could use, something she could carry and hopefully as she was trekking about South America they would sometimes make her think of us.

Over the course of her journey she’d send me emails telling me of her adventures. I sometimes struggled to write her back, not because I didn’t want to keep in touch, but because my life seemed pretty darn boring in comparison to hers. One email in particular stood out.

She wrote:

I want to write you a story of how I lost one Smartwool sock that you gave me for Christmas.

I rode a bike down a big mountain, through recent land slides and rivers knee deep, got soaked, but did not lose my Smartwool sock.

I rode in the back of a huge dump truck on a precariously narrow mountain road, and feared for my life as I peered down the steep cliffs to the river below. The wine in my backpack spilled and soaked all of my clothes and still I did not lose my Smartwool sock.

I went on a rafting trip and the raft flipped. I was trapped in a hole for a moment, panicked, swallowed too much water, the guide had to punch me in the chest to get me to breathe again, but not even then did I lose my sock!

I hiked for 10 hours in the sweltering jungle heat, with mangos and avocados falling from the trees and rotting on the trail. I had the stinkiest feet of everyone in the group, and blisters the size of quarters, but not even then did I lose my Smartwool sock.

I hiked for 6 hours in the rain, walked across hanging bridges and was ferried across the most raging river in a hand pulleyed tram, was delayed for 30 minutes by the President of Peru, and not even then did I lose my Smartwool sock.

I climbed 10,000 stairs to the top of Waynupicchu, to overlook Machu Picchu, the most incredible sight of my life in the most incredible place I have ever witnessed on this planet. On my way back, I got sick (food poisoning) and puked 4 times on the mountain. A very kind Chilean boy with large eyes and a big heart kept me company, taught me Spanish and talked to me of his catholic faith, of love and joy as I threw up. He was an angel or a saint. Even then, I did not lose my smartwool sock.

I threw up one last time, violently on the railroad tracks, just before boarding a train for a 3 hour trip back to Cusco, and not even then did I lose my Smartwool sock.

But, when I boarded the bus, doing everything I could to focus on not puking on the bus, I stashed my bag in the overhead compartment, and we hit a bump, my shoe went flying, hit a poor man in the head, and I could not get up to retrieve it for fear of puking on the poor man who was hit in the head by my very stinky shoe. Later that night, when we go to Cusco, I managed to retrieve my shoe, but it was then that I lost my Smartwool sock. I am a bit sad. But had a great adventure!

Really now, how does one write anything of interest in comparison to that? Over the next few days I kept thinking of my own seemingly mundane life. What could possibly be interesting about going about my routine; making lunches, going to work, reading, writing, going for an occasional walk on the beach? I started doubting my legitimacy as a writer. Could I ever write anything that people cared about if I never had my own adventures? I wanted to write back to Marla, tell her of something fabulous that had happened, but I kept coming up empty.

Instead I wrote to her about my ordinary life; changes at work, my applying and subsequent acceptance to graduate school. I shared with her some of my poems and a short story I’d written. I kept her updated on the happenings of my teen-aged children, which is rarely boring. At times I wrote to her about my petty, day-to-day frustrations, but also the small, joyful things like sitting outside on a windless, sunny afternoon and listening to the trickle of snowmelt down our driveway.

Sometime, over the course our exchanges, I realized that I was happy for Marla to be off having the adventure of a lifetime, and at the same time I was feeling content to be at home. I loved hearing of the people she met, the mountains she climbed and cities she explored, but I wasn’t pining to be there with her. Sure I missed her, but I was enjoying my life here in Homer, Alaska, in the middle of winter, which is really saying something.

For most of my life I haven’t felt content, so this is new way of being for me. We had a lot of sun this past winter, which certainly helped, but I’m trying to identify the other things that are making me feel this way. I’ve come up with a number of contributing factors: My kids have moved out of their stage of near constant bickering with each other. I’ve done a lot of “letting-go” in regards to parenting my son over the past couple of years and in the process have realized that he is more than capable of making good choices for himself. My job is relatively interesting. I have the things that I need; my health, good friends, a warm home, plenty of food, a close family and lots of nature around me to help keep things in perspective. I have music at my fingertips, which can always lift my spirits and keep me challenged. And I’ve got my writing.

Life can be a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s about traveling the world. Other times the adventure of it all unfolds gradually in a life of going to work, raising a family and paying the bills. It’s all meaningful. It’s all valid. All of it is a crazy, dangerous, exciting journey.

What’s it all about?

For the past several weeks I’ve been working diligently on my application for graduate school, and just yesterday I delivered it to the post office.  I decided quite a long time ago that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing but I needed to take care of a few things before I could go through with applying.  Most importantly, I needed to wait until the timing was right for my family.  And on the more technical side, I needed to finish my bachelor’s degree, which was unfortunately a little more complicated than it should have been.

Now I have earned the elusive psychology degree (they tell me the actual diploma is in the mail) and I can pursue the MFA.  Although I’ve been writing for quite a while, I believe this next step, assuming I get accepted, will allow me to really immerse myself into a writing community and grow, something I’ve been craving for a long time.  And as far as my family goes, well to them I feel infinitely grateful.  They have supported me in every possible way, from listening to me fret over having to take statistics to not taking it personally when I’ve had to lock myself away for several hours at a time.

One of the requirements for the application was to write an essay with an explanation of why I write.  Since I’m about to invest a tremendous amount of time and my family’s resources into writing over the next few years it’s good to consider just why I’m doing it.  Every time I ponder that difficult question though, I seem to come up with a different answer, and each answer feels a little vague.

Sometimes writing feels like a very selfish act.  After all, it’s time consuming.   And time spent with my notebook or computer is time that’s not spent on tasks that are also important, like working at my job that helps pay the bills, or cleaning the house, or sometimes spending time with my family.  In fact there are times when there are about a million things I feel like I should be doing instead of writing.  And what makes me think I could possibly contribute anything of importance in a world where there is so much information out there, in a time when we already have to filter through so much junk in order to find something meaningful?

Answering the question of why I write could easily make me lose heart.  But last June, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Nancy Lord in her closing talk gave some advice that has helped me when I start feeling guilty for spending so much time on writing.   She said to think of writing not as something selfish but as a gift to give.  She said, “The time you put into writing is not self-indulgence, not navel-gazing; you will write something to share with others, even a small number of others, even one other person, that will present a fresh idea, brighten someone’s day, help create empathy, be simply beautiful.  The time needed to create such a gift needs no defense.”

I’m not using Nancy’s words of wisdom as an excuse to neglect my family or all of my responsibilities, but I am using them to give myself permission to prioritize writing.  I can only hope the things I write, or the gifts I give, reach people in some way.  Each piece of writing has the potential to connect me with someone else, and ultimately, at least for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Full disclosure

I learned a couple of years ago in a memoir writing class that it’s good to put some time and distance between certain incidents in your life and when you attempt to write about them.  My instructor said that you would get a sense when you started writing as to whether or not you’re ready.  I’m thinking that twelve years is enough, and I can finally write about the time I got arrested.

I’ve told the story dozens of times, each time laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole event, but something has stopped me every time I’ve attempted to write about it; probably because it was humiliating.  Putting it down on paper just makes me remember how awful it felt to see the neighbors drive by as I was handcuffed on the side of the road, how stunned I felt as I sat in the cold, barred-off back seat of the trooper’s cruiser and how angry I felt when my name appeared in the local newspaper’s police blotter the following week.

I hadn’t thought about the incident for quite a while, but it came back to me recently when I watched the video of a reporter getting detained by the security guards hired by a certain Alaskan politician.   The two young security men in the video  were trying to keep other members of the press from talking to the hand-cuffed reporter.  Their buzz-cuts and their determination to look official reminded me of the trooper, (I like to call him BabyTrooper as he looked like he was about nineteen years old) that decided to cuff me on the side of the road all those years ago.

Before I go any further I should reassure everyone that I am not a criminal.  Really I’m not. And I wasn’t at the time of my arrest.  I was a stay-at-home mom trying to finish up my Bachelor’s degree.  I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten class.  I took my three year old to play group and I looked after the neighbor kids on a fairly regular basis.  For fun I was learning how to knit and how to make awesome homemade bread.  And no, I wasn’t one of those moms that lived an “after hours” life of partying and carousing around town.  My evenings were spent doing things like reading and watching movies.

It all happened because I didn’t deal with a fix-it ticket.  Two years before my arrest I had been pulled over when I was driving home from Soldotna because a headlight was out on my Subaru.  I got the light fixed within a few days, but I failed to take it back to the Alaska State Troopers office to have them check it off as having been repaired.  And for that oversight they put a warrant out for my arrest.  Little did I know that the next time I would be pulled over for a minor traffic violation (yes, another headlight out on the same Subaru) I would end up getting hauled down to the station until my husband could pay the $40.00 to bail me out.  (And before you start to imagine me behind bars please know that it didn’t go that far, thankfully.)

Now, I understand the importance of headlights.  I realize they are significant safety features on cars.  And believe me, I’m quick to get broken headlights fixed these days.  But honestly, is not dealing with a fix-it ticket an arrest-able offense?  Apparently it is.  I do believe that BabyTrooper could have handled it differently though.  Perhaps he could have asked me to follow him to the station, or at the very least he could have let me ride in his car without the handcuffs.  But I think he got a little charge out of humiliating the hell out of me.  And I blame him for the split-second of panic I still feel whenever a trooper drives past.

I’ve learned a lot from this incident and I hope in my writing about it I can pass on some of my hard-earned insights.  First of all, if you own a Subaru that was manufactured anytime between 1983 and 1995 just know you’re going to go through a lot of headlights.  It might be a good idea to keep a few spares at home.  And, should you get pulled over for having a headlight out, don’t forget the very crucial step of driving it over to the police station so they can officially make note of its repair.

Also, it’s a good idea to have an open mind when reading the local police blotter.  When the Homer News and the Homer Tribune reported my particular crime to the general public they didn’t explain that it was all over a minor traffic violation.  They left out the part about how the trooper, fresh out of trooper school, was trained to follow protocol but had not an inkling of common sense.  All it said was:  Teresa Sundmark, 29, arrested for outstanding warrant.   Which leads to the most important lesson I learned from the whole getting arrested event; sometimes, even though you’re a law-abiding citizen and all around good person, people will treat you otherwise, and at such times it’s helpful to hold your head high and not let the bullies and the uninformed make you feel bad.  And if they do, just tell the story lots of times and laugh about it a lot.  Then, when enough time has passed write it all down and hope that you can finally put the whole thing behind you.

Halfway through summer

Somewhere in the early days of this blog I think I wrote something about trying to post something at least twice a week.  In retrospect it may have been a little too lofty a goal.  I seem to be doing well to get something out twice a month at this point.

There is always the hope that somewhere in my future I will find more time for writing and reading.  Realistically the six to seven months of winter we get here could work to my advantage.   During the long season I go to bed early and therefore find it relatively easy to get up at 5:30am and take advantage of a quiet house.   Summer in Alaska is a different story.  There is this climate-imposed pressure to fit as much into three months as others in a more southern locale could spread out over as many as six to eight months.   The garden needs tending, firewood needs stacking.  There are fish to catch, berries to pick and recreation to be had, all in addition to the regular household chores and my job.    I’ve heard people talk about “lazy summer days” but honestly I haven’t experienced many of them in the 18 years I’ve lived here.   Perhaps we’re programmed to keep moving until darkness settles in, which this time of year is around midnight. It’s a rather manic existence and I can sustain it for a while, but just lately I’ve reached the part of the summer where my concentration is low and my attention span is short.

Lately I’ve been craving some serious couch time.  The other day I found myself fantasizing about catching a summer cold that would force (allow?) me to sit still for a while with my books and my laptop.  When my reading and writing habits become mucked up in the long daylight portion of summer, I feel a little out of balance.  A sort of literary mania comes over me.  The problem is compounded by the fact that I work in a library.

It starts with me checking out more books and magazines than I could ever possibly find the time to read.  Then, when I start feeling bad about taking so many items out of circulation for the public use I begin digging through the book donation boxes in the back room.   My stack keeps getting higher and in my attempt to make up for all the years I spent reading Glamour magazine and listening to 80’s pop music when I should have been reading the classics I start having thoughts like, “How can I possibly be a good writer if I’ve never read Moby Dick, or anything by Steinbeck?  I must remedy this situation right now.”   The guilt I inflict upon myself is emotionally exhausting and by the time I actually have time to sit down on my couch with my oversized stack, (usually around 11:30 pm) I’m overwhelmed by the choices.   I do a lot of page flipping and a little reading (remember the short attention span I mentioned earlier) before I find myself too tired to think straight.  Then I fall into a hard sleep for about six hours.

Coherence returns, for a while at least, after a good sleep, so that’s when I try to write, even if it only amounts to a page or two in my notebook.   Some would say that journaling is a waste of time but I find that it’s a valuable tool for helping me keep my wits intact.   A while back it led me to a most obvious solution to my reading and writing problem of late:  short stories.  I’m working on a short story of my own, and what better way to learn the workings of the genre than to read a bunch of them?    And beautifully, I can manage complete works of fiction that are only 5-12 pages long, even during this crazy time of year when daylight lasts much longer than my brain’s ability to stay fully engaged.

And as for this blog, I still aspire to post more often, and maybe even liven it up with pictures once in a while.    In the meantime I’ll do what I can, and continue to enjoy the process.  I think I’ll also try to slow down a little and savor some of what summer has to offer.

Thanks everyone for reading.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support!

The Low Down on the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (so far)…

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is underway, and I’m feeling lucky that such an event happens right here in my home town.  World class authors come here, to me, making it just so easy (and affordable) to learn from them.  I get in my car, drive about fifteen miles, make myself comfortable in the conference room at Land’s End Resort, and people like Michael Cunningham, Dinty Moore, Bill Roorbach, Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord and Rich Chiappone (to name just a few) offer workshops, answers to writing questions and expert advice.   It’s pretty cool.

Although I’ve been dabbling in writing for several years, I’m a newbie to the writing world.   The KBWC is a good way to get a sampling of what it’s all about.  Jennifer Pooley, a senior editor from HarperCollins imprint William Morrow is here, as is agent April Eberhardt.  It’s been nice to meet both of these very approachable women because they remind me that agents and editors are real people; something I’m guessing that most of you already knew.

Here are a few morsels I’ve gleaned from the offerings so far:

  • I use the word “I” way to much in my writing and I think I’m going to have to start looking for alternative ways to talk about myself so as to not bore the poor readers or sound like a narcissist.
  • Bill Roorbach says to call writing “work” and not “writing,” because the guilt-ridden side of us won’t let us skip out on work and it’s easy to decline social engagements when you say, “Sorry, I have to work.”
  • Dinty Moore’s workshop on miniature nonfiction validated my love for keeping things short and gave me some great ideas for future projects.
  • Michael Cunningham says it’s important to stay engaged with a piece of writing by visiting it every day, even if you don’t have much time.  He also says to “write smarter than you are.”
  • Listening to Peggy Shumaker read from her new book, “Gnawed Bones” reminded me that I love poetry, especially when it’s as accessible and beautiful as hers.
  • And Bill Roorbach says that gardening is writing.  I love that.

A Break

My last blog post was on April 22nd, two days after the oil platform Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.  At that point I was writing one or two essays a week for the History of Psychology class I was taking, and that particular blog post was a way for me to escape the pressures of my class for a couple of hours. I noticed the headline about the oil platform sinking and eleven crewmen missing on that day as I was researching school lunches but honestly my mind was on other things and I didn’t give it much thought.

I took a break from journaling and blogging late in the semester in order to finish the term paper for my class. And in my attempt to stay focused on the task at hand I didn’t pay much attention to the news, but on May 6th, the day I submitted my final project, I heard that the oil leak in the Gulf was spewing close to 25,000 barrels a day, a much bigger number than the 1000 barrels it had been estimated at in the beginning.  The burden of a semester’s worth of deadlines was gone and I could finally think about the trip to Colorado I was leaving for the next day, but that number, twenty-five thousand, stayed with me.

My sister and I flew out of Anchorage on Saturday, May 8th.   The route took us over Prince William Sound where twenty-one years before, the Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels of crude oil.   When that spill occurred I was three years out of high school, at a time in my life when keeping up with current events was the last thing on my mind.  But I had this dream of moving to Alaska and I watched the spill unfold on television with a heavy heart.  What I didn’t understand at the time was that the images of oiled sea birds and otters were only a small part of the story; the lost livelihoods, the damaged ecosystems, the profound hopelessness experienced by those affected, those are the stories that aren’t as easy to cover in a headline, or with a picture.

I spent my first day in Colorado, Mother’s Day, at my step-mom’s house.  Three of my five sisters were there along with four nieces and a nephew.  She prepared for us a delicious meal of shrimp scampi and just before we sat down to dinner we checked CNN and found out that BP’s first attempt to cap the spewing oil with a containment dome the day before had failed.  If I’ve done my math right, the Deepwater Horizon had already surpassed the Exxon Valdez in the number of barrels of oil leaked by Mother’s Day.  But unlike an oil tanker with a finite capacity, nobody knows how much oil can escape from a hole that is drilled 18,000 feet into the ocean floor.   Nobody knows how many fishing families will be put out of business, or how the Gulf of Mexico’s sustainable shrimp industry will fare, but it doesn’t look promising.

I didn’t follow the news much for the next ten days or so.  I knew the oil was still flowing into the ocean but thinking about it couldn’t change a thing, so I went about enjoying my time with my mom and my sisters.   It’s a powerless feeling to care about something and really not be able to do anything tangible to remedy the situation.

I returned from Colorado a little over three weeks ago.  Since then I’ve resumed my normal life, which is mellower in the summertime.   With the kids out of school I’m able to sleep a little later, and the extra daylight after I get off of work allows me to get outside and work in the garden in the evenings.  The peas and beets are beginning to sprout already, and potatoes and carrots will soon follow.  So far all of the green vegetables that we transplanted seem to be surviving, so maybe this will be a good gardening year.  Hopefully by the time I’m harvesting vegetables this fall the technology to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico will have been found and put into use.

I still check the headlines every day to see if there is any good news at all in the Gulf of Mexico.   I haven’t heard any yet and it’s been about fifty days since the initial explosion.  It’s a sobering thing to know that we can cause so much harm; that the advantages of our technology can at times be outweighed by the damage it can unleash.  I feel it’s a problem that must be recognized and considered with each advance that is made, but out of self-preservation I can’t let myself get overwhelmed by things that go so far beyond my own control.  I can’t stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico but I can tend my garden, my family and my soul.  I can get back to writing and I guess that’s better than doing nothing.

An elusive Psych degree

I recently discovered that the bachelor’s degree I thought I had earned back in 1999 is incomplete.  You see, eleven years ago I was under the influence of raising small children; I was just trying to stay afloat in a world filled with diapers, play-dates and sibling squabbles.  It’s not surprising that  somewhere during that time frame I missed some important paperwork.

After I finished all of the coursework I needed to complete my BA in Psychology I took my exit exam and never looked back.  I went about my life.  Besides being a mother, I worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and as a skills trainer for the community mental health center before I landed my current position at the Homer Public Library.  On each of the resumes I submitted for those jobs I proudly added that I had my bachelor’s degree.  But it turns out I was wrong.   A certain detail kept it from being official.

I had failed  to submit the proper paperwork to the Psychology department when I changed my major from pre-nursing; a little thing, but big enough to throw my bachelor’s degree into a state of limbo for many years.  Since I thought I was done it never occurred to me that there was a problem and since I didn’t go through the graduation  ceremony I never really thought about the fact that I had never been given a diploma.

I could have blissfully gone through my life never knowing of this problem but about a year ago I decided that I would apply to the University of Alaska MFA program.  The advisor at the college, who also happens to be my husband, went through my transcripts and discovered the discrepancy.   Enough years have gone by that the Psychology department has different requirements than it used to and in order to actually get my degree I found out I was going to have to enroll again as a student, this time in the correct program, take a couple of classes and reapply for graduation.

At first I was in denial, “Surely they will make an exception for me,” I thought.  Much time was spent whining and exchanging emails with registrars and department heads but soon enough I realized that although my case was unique, it didn’t warrant any special treatment.  If I wanted to officially graduate then I had to go through the motions.  That’s when I got angry.  I didn’t want to go back to school and take classes that are irrelevant to where I want to be in my life.  For a while I thought about just giving up on the whole MFA idea.

My obstinate attitude started to subside though when I attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference last summer and went to a discussion about the pros and cons of getting an MFA.  It turns out that there aren’t many cons.  If I want to improve as a writer, if I want people to take my writing seriously, then the MFA will only help me.   The low-residency program makes it possible for me to work towards the degree and stay at my job.  And the real clincher is that my husband (remember him, the academic advisor) works for the UAA system which offers tuition waivers for family members of employees, thus making the whole thing affordable.  Really, it’s a no-brainer.

So once again I’m working on my bachelor’s degree.  This time though, I’m making sure to follow all the rules.   Tomorrow I’m off to my Psychological Statistics class and next week I’ll start Systems and History of Psychology.   No, I’m not thrilled about the fact that for the next few months I have to spend so many hours working on courses that are essentially meaningless to me, but I’ve come to a place of acceptance about the whole matter. Really, I have.   And who knows, maybe the statistics class will give me lots of new, interesting things to write about.  I’ll be sure to let you know if it does.