Five-Acre Almanac: Feeling Reflective

Bishop’s Beach 12/02/2021

Week 18:

Sometimes writers need to write about writing and so that’s the subject of this week’s post. I think it fits with the Five-Acre Almanac theme because it’s a good part of what I do here. Writing makes me go through life differently than I would if I didn’t write. In that way it’s a part of who I’ve become, not so much because of the words on the page but because of how I move through my days searching, looking for connections, asking myself questions and trusting that there will be an opening. I’ve learned that once I go through that opening there will be surprises on the other side.

I felt compelled to start the Five-Acre Almanac posts at an unlikely time. It was August and besides going to work every day I was busy with party planning and gardening. In addition to the time constraints there was also the problem of planning. I didn’t have a fully fleshed-out road map or well-defined theme. The timing was all wrong, yet there was a persistence I couldn’t ignore that was telling me to start it anyhow. And so I did.

Now I’m eighteen weeks in and enough time has passed that I can reflect on the experience of showing up and writing each week. When I started out I had a personal goal of doing this for a year, but I didn’t want to put that in writing because I wasn’t sure if I could follow through with such a commitment. I didn’t want to set myself up for failure and so instead of being specific in my goals, I remained vague about how long I would be doing this.

My determination to meet my goal of showing up here every week has been solid, and that’s new for me. I seem to be able to work through my self-doubt and trepidation in ways I haven’t in the past. That’s not to say I don’t experience both or that I’m not continually talking myself out of giving up, but there’s a drive that keeps me going. I’m working on identifying what’s fueling that drive.

Why am I doing this? Why am I staying committed to it? Why does it matter so much to me?

Writing reflects who I am more honestly than anything else in my life, at least when I’m doing it right and not falling into the trap of writing for praise or for profit. This week when I was driving into town and I was asking myself some of these questions, these words came to me:

“Your job is not to impress.”

This left me wondering, what is my job then? The answer that came to me, which might be different than the answer that comes next time, is that my job for now is to show up.

When we commit to a relationship with another person, we have no way of anticipating the hardships and joys that we’ll face with them. When we commit to a job, we don’t know all of the challenges that will arise. When we commit to any kind of practice, we don’t know what’s going to be there for us on the other side or what we’re going to learn along the way.

Writing each week for the Five-Acre Almanac is the same way. I don’t know what it is supposed to be. I don’t know what it’s supposed to become. I only know that whatever I’m meant to discover along the way will only be discovered if I show up, if I honor the commitment I made to myself when I started.

I made this evolving project a public one, which is both motivating and terrifying. Motivating because I push myself to do better than I would if I were just writing in my journal. Terrifying because my uncertainty about what this is meant to be is on display.

“Your job is not to impress.”

Then what is my job here? What is the purpose of this self-imposed, public writing practice?

It is to get better at articulating the experience of being alive. Not because my experience is any more interesting or important than anyone else’s, but because language is the gift that gets me closer to articulating the experience than anything else I’ve discovered so far. And the experience of being alive is something to behold.

So I post here every week about something I’ve seen or done or witnessed in the natural world, and I try to tie it to something that is beyond myself. But like an iceberg, the part that is seen, the part that comes through in an 800-1000 word blog post is just a tiny piece of the bigger picture. Underneath there is a mass that includes everything else I’m trying to make sense of—my family, my hopes, my fears, my trying to understand the bigness of the world and my place in it, my gratitude, my uncertainty about the future, the terrible unfairness and hardship that exists right alongside so much beauty and wonder.

I turn to the natural world with all the questions that make up the entire iceberg of my existence, and the answers reveal themselves outside of the realm of language. The Five-Acre Almanac posts are my attempt to tune myself in to whatever it is that I’m meant to learn and turn a small piece of what I discover into words that make sense. The hope is that the writing will surprise me.

***

Scruffy.

Five-Acre Almanac: Winter Ready

Week 11

Today has been a chicken-soup sort of Sunday. The two inches of snow that we woke up to is turning to slush in the rain and while that’s the sort of weather that’s not welcome in January, I’m just fine with it in October. Most likely we’re going to have plenty of snow for several months and I’m not in any hurry for it to pile up. Plus I’d still like to rake some leaves and dried grasses to store in the greenhouse for chicken coop bedding.

Birch tree in full yellow

Earlier this week I started making a plan for myself for the winter. I don’t typically get depressed or experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but that’s not to say that six-month long winters aren’t hard. It doesn’t hurt to go into the season with a few intentions.

One thing I’m going to do is try to get outside every day for at least twenty minutes. I realize this doesn’t sound like much, but it can be tricky when it’s dark before and after work. And it’s so easy to be a wimp when it’s super cold, or raining sideways, or when everything is covered in a sheet of ice, or when the snow is too deep, or when it’s just gray and dreary and I’d rather be inside by the wood stove. But I always feel better with fresh air and often it’s not as bad outside as it looks like it’s going to be. And even when it is bad, I think it’s good to experience a little weather now and then. It can wake me up, shift my energy, change my mood.

Same birch, a day earlier.

The next tool I’m going to use to help me through winter is yoga. I’ve tried doing yoga in the mornings but between a cold house, demanding dogs, and a job I have to go to, evenings work best. It feels good to put on some music and stretch out on the floor in a cozy living room after a long work day, and it almost always leads to a good night’s sleep. I’ve done this for the past couple of winters and now it’s a part of the dark season I look forward to.

One of the simplest and most satisfying aspects of recent winters has been incorporating the food and herbs that we’ve grown or foraged during the summer into our daily lives. Whether it’s adding black currants to our oatmeal, drinking a cup of nettle tea in the afternoons, or simmering garlic and hot wax peppers in chicken broth for a good long time like we did today, we’re able to take in good Jing from the garden with nearly every meal. It’s satisfying and nourishing on a deep level. It keeps us feeling connected to our land during a time of year when it’s easy to fantasize about selling it all and moving down south to where winters are short and where a day’s light and darkness are more evenly balanced.

Fermenting carrots/good jing.

There are other things that help with winter. A couple of hours of standing around a fire pit with friends can reaffirm that we’re glad to live where we live. Taking Vitamin D regularly keeps us from wanting to sleep all the time. Music can change the atmosphere in the house, which is especially helpful during long, dreary stretches of being mostly indoors. And after the frenetic summer season I appreciate that winter offers time for deep dives into things more cerebral.

Midday fire in mid-October

I’ve been learning about herbs for the past couple of winters, and this year we’ve got a new one to try. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen which means its main medicinal purpose is to assist the body in adapting to stress. According to Beverly Grey’s informative and comprehensive book The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, it’s also supposed to help with fatigue and depression and can “bring relief to people who live in extreme climates.” In nature it grows in harsh alpine conditions and for the past four years we’ve had some that’s been growing and thriving in our dry and often-neglected hugelkultur bed. It takes a few years before Rhodiola is ready to harvest, but finally this fall it was time. We pulled its long and tentacle-like roots out of the soil, chopped it and dried it, and now for a month we’re going to engage in a little citizen science and drink a cup of it daily to see if we can see any noticeable effects.

Rhodiola rosea in a gloved hand

Rhodiola rosea’s roots are yellow and they smell like the wild Sitka roses that grow around here. The decoction that’s made from simmering the roots is rose colored with a mild citrus flavor. It’s a little dry too, like dry wine. Because it’s so tasty it would be easy to drink too much of it, which I think I might have done earlier in the week because for three nights in a row I woke up at 3:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. When I cut the amount of tea I was drinking in half I slept fine.

Learning about herbs from books is a good place to start, but I’m equally as interested in the traditions and stories that go along with them. Trying them out on myself is a lesson in paying attention to subtleties, asking questions, making adjustments, and still not knowing definitively if a specific herb is having a specific effect on me. But it seems like a good way to practice honing my intuition and getting to know specific plants. If I were truly committed to scientific testing I’d give up coffee and just drink the rhodiola tea to try to isolate its effects, but coffee is another thing that helps me through winter.

For now I’ll study the two together, and I’ll try to get enough sleep and exercise. I’ll try to consume plenty of good jing but hopefully not too much. I’ll keep showing up here every week too, because writing this feels like movement, like I’m heading somewhere new. And sharing it feels like I’m throwing out a net, gathering people to travel along with me for a while. I can’t have you all over for a cup of coffee or a pot of herb tea, but I can write you here. And when we’re done with our imaginary drinks we can put on our rubber boots and rain jackets and head out into the storm. I’d love nothing more than to show you around.

Morning tea beside the old birch, a day before the snow.

Five-Acre Almanac: Never A Straight Line

Week 9

What I write and what I want to say don’t always come together easily, and yesterday was one of those days. Yesterday I sat writing on my couch for almost the entire day, and in the end I had fewer words than I started with. I’ve made a commitment to myself to post something every week, but I don’t want to write just for the sake of writing. I want to write something I like.

Yesterday I didn’t like my writing, and it felt like I was wasting time. As the day went on I grew increasingly frustrated and I was hard on myself, and while Dean worked to get a bunch of things crossed off of our to-do list and was infinitely patient with me sitting on the couch for hours writing, I felt guilty. Late in the evening I finally gave up. I’ve learned that trying too hard is counterproductive, and I was definitely at that stage. Today I’m starting over.

One of the many things Dean accomplished when I was writing.

Today is Sunday and the sky is mostly blue with a few wispy clouds. Our daughter called and I told her of my dilemma with writing yesterday and she said I should just go outside and work on something for a while and then write about it. So that’s what I set out to do.

I’ll start from the beginning.

After coffee, and my phone conversation with Adella, and a piece of toast, I decided it was time to go outside, but first I needed to change out of my sweat pants. When I went to put on some clothes I remembered that I needed to switch over a load of laundry, so I did that. I didn’t want to take the time to fold the clothes from the dryer so instead I took them to a chair in the spare bedroom. Out the window of the spare bedroom I saw a spruce grouse in our driveway, so of course I wanted to go get a photo of it.

I slipped on some shoes, grabbed my phone and went outside. I followed the spruce grouse around and managed to get a couple of pictures, but not good ones because my phone camera isn’t the best and the grouse kept moving. When I was about to come back in the house, two of my chickens showed up. These two particular hens have been perching outside at night lately, and they were locked out of the coop. So I went to unlatch the door so they could get in for some food. While I was there it made sense to check for eggs. There were four of them.

I didn’t have a bucket, so I put two eggs in the pockets of my sweatpants. As I was latching the chicken coop door I looked down on the outside of the coop. Two days ago Dean dug up a bunch of dirt from the chicken pen to add to one of our garden beds and I looked down at some of the holes he’d dug and found a giant portobello mushroom growing in a crevice. It was huge, and I had to get it, so I spent the next five or so minutes carefully extracting it. I carried it back to the deck, set it outside so the dirt on it could dry, brought the eggs in the house and remembered that I needed to start another load of laundry.

Soil rehab: Layering up with chicken coop dirt, straw, and grass clippings.

I finally got dressed and headed outside. It made sense to start with the greenhouse since it was warm. My task was to empty all the tomato and cucumber pots into the compost bin and stack the empty pots in our garage. As soon as I set the pots on the ground outside the greenhouse, the chickens flocked to eat the fresh chickweed that was growing in them. And because the chickens were enjoying their buffet I couldn’t empty the pots quite yet so decided to find something else to do for a while.

Sauerkraut is on my list of things to make today, so I went to the front yard garden and harvested some cabbage. We didn’t get a bumper crop of cabbage this year, but we did get two excellent heads, one purple and one green. Then I went to the back garden to pull some carrots that I’ll shred into the kraut. On my way to the carrot bed I noticed our chrysanthemum plant finally looks like it’s done for the season. We bought the plant from Strictly Medicinal earlier in the summer and they told us to give it a nice deep mulch before winter. So I went to find some straw. While I was at it I thought I might as well get enough for the lavender plants.

Dean started the lavender plants from seed last spring, and seven of them survived and are doing well. But depending on our winter, they may or may not make it. In addition to mulching them, I decided to dig one up, put it in a pot, and bring it in the house for the winter. All of that required finding some soil and a pot.

I got the soil and the pot and set them on the deck. Then I went to get the straw, but before I actually got the straw I saw some tall nettle plants that I decided to cut down so that I can extract some fiber from them later when I have more time. I cut the nettle plants, found a safe place to stash them, then got the straw.

I grabbed Dean’s hori hori knife for digging up the lavender plant. I mulched the plants I’d set out to mulch and dug up one of the seven lavender plants. But before I headed back to plant the lavender in its new pot I saw the two beds we harvested potatoes from the other day. They were empty and the soil was exposed and now that we’ve changed to no-till gardening I have this thing about exposed soil and I had to cover it up. So I used the hori hori and cut down a bunch of fireweed stalks and mulched those two beds. Then I remembered to pull some carrots for the sauerkraut.

That brings me up to right now, and after spending a whole day writing yesterday I can’t afford to put much more time into this post. I’ve still got sauerkraut to make and pots sitting out beside the greenhouse that need emptying. And as you might guess, the odds are high that I’ll find something that’s not on my list that I’ll want to get done.

Mushroom, cabbage, carrots, hori hori.

Five-Acre Almanac: Mid-September

Week 7

It’s Wednesday night and finally after sitting on my couch bundled up in a blanket for an hour I decided to build a fire. There’s always some denial when the weather cools down to the point of needing a fire every day, but we crossed that threshold this week. I’m not sure if the denial is out of stubbornness, as there’s a certain amount of work in burning wood for heat and I’m not fully prepared to add that task into my daily life again, or if I’m just trying to hang on to summer as long as I can. Either way the house is cozy now with a fire crackling, and there’s comfort in knowing it won’t be frigid when we wake up in the morning.

Tonight, for the second time this week, we had trout for dinner. Last weekend Dean and Dillon borrowed a canoe and drove north to spend the day on a lake. Alongside the trout we had purple potatoes and sliced cucumber from the garden. I wasn’t expecting cucumbers, but a few pulled through for us despite the cool summer. We’ll have potatoes and carrots well into winter, but we’re in the last days of our zucchini. Clear skies are predicted over the weekend, which means we’re likely to get frost, which means we need to pick the peas, pull the green tomatoes off their vines, and pick as many of the herbs as we can and get them drying. The kale will be fine with a light frost, and the carrots will just get sweeter.

A few frosts will turn the rose hips bright red and we’ll be able to harvest them for several weeks, even after snow falls. A couple years ago I discovered that chickens love rose hips. I toss them a handful a couple times a week and hope that it gives them a healthy boost that will help them get through another long winter. Like heating the house with wood, keeping chickens through the winter in Alaska is work. It requires a bit of resolve to slog through rain, snow, and oftentimes ice in the dark for months at a time to make sure they have what they need. I find myself apologizing to them for having to be cooped up for so long and questioning my decision to keep them. Our seven year old rooster looks a little tired these days and last week one of his spurs fell off. I’m not sure what that means, but I have a feeling it means he might not have another winter in him.

There have been moments, usually around 4:00am in the middle of summer, when I’ve been frustrated by his wake-up calls. Overall though I’ve been happy to have him as part of the flock. Besides being handsome, he acts as spokesman when food runs low and crows hello when we get home from work. He sounds off when he sees one of our neighborhood eagles circling overhead or peering down from the top of a nearby spruce tree.

The nesting eagles have had their eyes on our chickens all summer. We had one close call, but so far we’ve had no eagle casualties this year. The area around the coop is better protected than it used to be now that the trees and foliage have grown in, and the chickens can easily take cover.

Unfortunately the cover didn’t protect them from the bears that came through when we were in Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. When we returned from our trip we found a door to the pen that had been torn from its hinges, eight piles of bear scat surrounding the coop, and two fewer hens than we had before we left. A neighbor told us that there had been a bear with cubs spotted walking down the road around that same time. We fully expected that they’d be back since they successfully acquired food from our place, but thankfully they haven’t returned. It would be bad for us and our chickens if they made a habit out of coming here, but ultimately it would be bad for the bears.

In addition to building a fire again every day, this week also marked the beginning of headlamp season. I dusted mine off and don it daily now when I take the dogs out in the mornings. It’s still light well into the evening, but the morning darkness comes on fast this time of year and I find it a little disorienting. I’ll wake up and have no sense of whether it’s 3:00am or 6:00am. Soon enough I’ll adjust, but right now when the time between sunrise and sunset is shorter by over five minutes each day, my internal clock is a little out of whack.

Living in Alaska where the movement from one season to the next is anything but subtle, I’ve learned to take notice of how my own waxing and waning throughout the year is tied to the earth’s journey around the sun. It’s true for the plants and for all the wild animals, and so of course it’s true for us too, but it’s easy to believe that our humanness makes us immune to the forces of nature. In the springtime when we’re gaining daylight, my energy levels are surprisingly high. This time of year though I’m tired and my mood tends toward melancholy.

Maybe it’s the angle of the sun and the way it filters through the yellows and reds of autumn that makes me feel this way or maybe it’s that I’m worn out after a fast paced summer. Either way I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel pensive. I just need to remember to be easy on myself. Do what I can and don’t expect to get it all done. Allow myself time to move slowly. Take comfort in the things we’ve accomplished.

Yesterday afternoon after a week of rain and cloudy skies, the sun broke through. I spread a fresh layer of straw in the chicken coop and washed off the potatoes that Dean harvested earlier in the week. Seeing them spread out on the table drying in the sun filled me with a kind of satisfaction that’s seldom matched, and our dinner of baked potatoes topped with stir-fried veggies from the garden gave me some comfort that I needed.

Now it’s Saturday morning. The sun is up and it’s time to get out in it. The first thing I need to do is save the potatoes I washed last night from the Steller’s Jay that’s undeterred by the blanket I covered them with. It’s flown away with two in the last ten minutes. After the potatoes are safe I’ll harvest carrots and enough greens for another batch of pesto. I’ll work on getting one of the garden beds tucked in for the season. I’ll bring a few pepper plants in the house and start picking green tomatoes. Maybe this evening we’ll build a campfire. Standing around a fire is a good way to soak it in—the colors, the crisp air, the quiet, the bigness and the wild of all that surrounds us. It’s a good way too, to feel the wild that goes along with being alive in this world, and surrender to it for a while.

Not as scary as A Thief in the Night

Earlier this week I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.  Normally I don’t feel compelled to own a book—I’m usually content with borrowing a copy from a friend or the library, but this is one I want to buy.  As Sugar at The Rumpus would say, Lidia writes with humility and surrender, with resilience and faith, in other words she “writes like a motherfucker.”  Lidia’s story is interesting, heartbreaking at times and filled with drama, but it’s her writing that pulls me in—her ability to cut right to the point, her ability to turn the story of a life into a piece of artwork.  I want to own her book so I can refer to it when I need some inspiration—which is often.

I was telling my daughter about this book.  She’s sixteen and her love of books kicked in later than many of her friends, but to my immense satisfaction she’s now an avid reader.  Two summer’s ago she was hooked by The Hunger Games series.  Now she’s reading The Virgin Suicides. When I was telling her about The Chronology of Water (don’t worry—I left out the sexy parts) I made a comment that my life has been too boring to ever write a memoir as interesting as Lidia Yuknovich’s.  She told me that from what she’s heard of my childhood, I have plenty of material.

It’s true I suppose.  My parents divorced when I was very young, which meant that I had to deal with stepparents and the dichotomy of being raised in two separate households.  And there’s the whole religion business.  My daughter has been to church only a few times in her life but I spent a good portion of my childhood in Sunday school, sitting through sermons and crying at the altar—pleading for forgiveness for the sins I’d committed.  (And aren’t all elementary-aged children terrible sinners?)  It’s true that living in a non-stop Pentecostal fear-fest certainly makes for some interesting stories.

Most of the hours spent at church—the First Assemblies of God Church on 4th and Grand Avenue in Grand Junction, Colorado, to be specific—blur together.  I couldn’t tell you the specifics of any one sermon.  The church itself though, with its long white-tiled hallway, its labyrinth of classrooms, its red carpeted sanctuary and its dimly lit balcony will forever be associated with a whole host of mixed up emotions in my memory.

One of the things I do remember—with horrifying distinction—from the church of my childhood, is a movie that was made in the early 1970s called A Thief in the Night.  It was the story of a woman who had been left behind after the rapture.  She realized early on that although she was a good person she’d made a terrible mistake by not taking Jesus Christ as her personal savior.   Without taking the time to tell you the entire plot line, (I’d need to refresh my own memory,) I can say in all honesty that nothing in my life has scared me as much as that movie.   I’m talking nightmare, wet the bed kind of fear.  I’m talking crying and screaming upon coming home to an empty house kind of fear.  One scene depicted a child being sent away to a guillotine. (Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have an actual video of the scene that traumatized me for years to come.  To understand my terror please see the attached YouTube video.) Other scenes involved torture and executioners.

     Ironically, at the time they showed those films during the evening services, I wasn’t allowed to go to movies because they were “against our religion.” Somehow though, the church officials thought it was okay to show A Thief in the Night to children.  The graphic, disturbing images were justified because they would hopefully lead to conversions.  And let me tell you, the altars were busy on those nights.   Jesus became the personal savior of many a kid after those showings.  It was a strange combination of Jesus loves you unconditionally and if you do not accept him as your personal savior you will burn in hell. 

This is how I was raised.  It was the backdrop to all of the other mixed up stuff that was going on with my two-part family and my adolescent body.   I guess my daughter is right. I do have a few stories to tell.  So does everyone.

As much as I wish I could remember more specific details of my childhood, most of my memories come in the form of emotions.  The last time I visited the 4th and Grand church was for my father’s funeral.  My emotions were already out of whack before I walked through the doors, but being back inside that building, seeing so many of my relatives that I hadn’t seen in years, being around the Jesus lingo again, using the same bathroom I used to retreat into as a kid when the pressure of the place became too much—it all reminded me of how I felt throughout the majority of my childhood.  Inadequate.  Small.  Fearful.

So, as usual, (forgive me) all of this comes back to writing.  When I applied to the MFA program over a year ago I chose fiction as my genre to study.  But I’m questioning that choice lately.   When I sit down at my computer it’s the true stories I want to tell—they seem easier to come by because my memory and my experience limit where I can go.   But I believe in fiction.  I believe that some truths are best expressed when we’re forced to step outside of our own lives.  It’s just that when I sit down to write fiction I feel inadequate, small, fearful all over again.  It’s not as fear-inducing as A Thief in the Night—nothing is as terrifying as that, but it’s scary just the same.  The good news is that if I got over my fear of the rapture I can get over my fear of writing fiction.  It takes practice though—a lot of it—and faith in the process.  I may not know where I’m going with a story, but worst-case scenario is that I have to scrap an idea or start over.  That’s not nearly as bad as thinking you’ll be sent to hell if you screw up.

Reveling in the mess

view from home
Moon above the pushki meadow by Dean Sundmark

I rolled into town last night after attending a twelve day creative writing residency. Today I’m wandering around my home taking note of what has changed and what has stayed the same while I’ve been away.

My nemesis plant, locally known as cow parsnip or pushki, the one that left me with burns all over my arms a few days before I left, has grown nearly three feet taller in my absence and is now in its full flowering stage. Looking out my window and seeing how it’s taken over the paths that lead to the chicken coop, the yurt and the garden, overwhelms me. I wish I could take a machete and start hacking away at it, make everything orderly again, but since I have such a strong reaction to the plant’s juices it’s best if I just leave it alone, surrender to its tenacity, maybe even find a way to admire its steadfast ability to reclaim more of the yard each year.

Trying to process all of the conversations, classes, insights and emotions from the residency has me feeling a bit overwhelmed as well. So much happened in such a short amount of time that making sense of it all isn’t an option. Yet I find myself wanting to write something that sums it all up, lines it all out and puts it in tidy, manageable rows.

When I look back on my experience of the residency and the notes that I took over the course of the twelve days, I can see that I was all over the place. I had moments of feeling confident in my writing, followed by languishing self-doubt. The sense of community that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people was palpable at times; so was the stabbing loneliness that I felt at night in my dorm room. At times I was moved to tears. On one occasion I struggled to contain my anger and ultimately ended up leaving part way through a reading.

I’ve always been of the mind that writing is a means for making order out of chaos and I still believe that to be true. But now I’m questioning that tendency within myself to always be looking for a straight way out of a jumbled up world. As a writer I might need to spend more time reveling in the mess. I might need to write all over the place, let the words and ideas take me places that feel overgrown and too big to manage.

It takes courage to dig into questions for which there may be no answers. I might emerge with nothing more than a bunch of burns and bruises. But I feel like being a part of this MFA program is giving me the freedom to go there for a little while. I might not have anything marketable at the end of my three years, but along the way I’ll learn to push myself further than I thought possible.

Creativity seems impossible without a certain amount of surrender. I’m wanting to use these few years to let my writing grow into something bigger than I’ve allowed it to be thus far. I’m wanting to resist the urge to hack it down into tidy little cubes. I’m wanting to get lost in the dishevel. Hopefully in my digging I’ll find what needs to be found. Hopefully it will be good.

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.