reflection

Pathways

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Lately my mind has centered in on the places where I could’ve taken different pathways and what that might have meant for me. With our Costa Rica retreat coming up in January, it occurred to me that one of my divergences happened here at the young age of 24, recently out of college and feeling directionless and lost.

That year I had worked a temp job to scrape together the money for the three-week interim course on tropical ecology. I carried with me more than a suitcase—emotions I couldn’t sort out, rendered sleepless and raw, as I often am when traveling, though this was my first solo out-of-country trip, the first that put me far outside my element. The first away from my husband.

Like my mix of emotions on that trip there were terrible and beautiful things everywhere. Scorpions and tarantulas and a 16-foot boa constrictor captured in a swamp we were supposed to walk through. There were long bumpy roads and watery food and endless treks and mud and tiny tents and sleepless nights and fear of the unknown we had yet to encounter.

The magic flower.

The magic flower.

 I wanted to absorb all of it. Howler monkeys groaning in the treetops. Colorful hummingbirds, feathered jewels that buzzed around us like fairies. A walking palm, a tree whose roots grow on the outside, allowing it to slowly move itself to a place where it can get more sun. There was a magic flower that popped open into splendor if you removed the covering that hid it from sight. The beauty and magic were speaking to me, sending messages about turning my face to the light.

 One night we camped on a beach, waiting for sea turtles, and in the no-moon darkness we followed each other’s flashlights to a place where an endangered leatherback laid her eggs, surrounding her in a circle as she labored in a trance. In the depth of her concentration, we were invisible to her. We were invisible to time and place. I felt like a ghost haunting another world.

Out of my element, I found something. I couldn’t fully interpret what at the time, but something took seed and began to grow in that lush rainforest environment. On the dry side of the country, the winds blew strong, fanning an inner flame. I had come with a mission, fresh out of college and working at a suffocating job, trying to figure out my next steps, complicated by a young marriage and all of the expectations that came with it.

 I had this idea that I needed to choose between a pathway of journalism or one of fiction writing. Being far away from my life and sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the setting sun, swirling around Roca Bruja (Witch’s Rock), I also had the nagging yet unreconciled sense that I shouldn’t have to choose. I became overwhelmed with the idea that the world was large and untamable and that I had locked myself away from it. I had the first true inklings that the cracks in my marriage were only temporarily patchable, that the roots of whatever was growing would eventually wind themselves in and pull everything apart, and it was too much for me at the time to accept.

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Practicality won out at the time and I returned to school for journalism classes that eventually led to an internship and then a career. Whether or not it was the right pathway, it was a pathway, and I’ve become a fiction writer regardless. The marriage fell apart regardless. Perhaps it’s telling that I chose to write a series of poems instead of a long report as my ecology class project. It was bad poetry but it was a beginning. Then I wrote a bad novel, but it was a beginning. I stumbled and lamented through much of this trip, but it, too, was a beginning.

I had gone to Costa Rica as a way to begin to repair a broken pathway, the lost dream of taking a semester abroad in college, and, whether conscious or not, to reclaim my lost self. Sometimes we know where our pathways broke off and sometimes we don’t but I think they want to turn and twist and converge to bring us back to where we belong.

Step out of your element with us. We’re headed to Costa Rica in January-- join us for 7 days/6 nights as we settle our body mind and spirit into the magical bounty of the Costa Rican Rainforest.

Fat by Eline Van Wieren

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My stories for Wide Open Writing so far, seem to all start with either coming home or finding a piece of mail on the doormat. Today’s story starts with both. Coming home and finding mail on the doormat. And for some reason, that makes me feel like a cheater. Like I don’t have the imagination to think of something more interesting to start with and so I’ll just go for what I know. But here we are. I come home and I find a package on the doormat.

I take the package in to our living area, where three of my roommates are. One of them is cutting vegetables for dinner at the kitchen table, another is sitting on the other side of the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. The third is laying on the couch, reading a book and listening to music. Coming home to this is something that has become so familiar to me, that I feel like I don’t need to describe anymore details to you.

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The package contains two things. A book and a small cardboard box. The book is written by a woman who I’ve never met in real life. But we follow each other on Instagram and we shared two long phone calls. Short excerpts from those phone calls ended up in the book that I’m now holding in my hands. The title of the book: Knap voor een dik meisje. (Which translates to: Pretty for a fat girl.)

In the cardboard box: a necklace made of gold string and a white ceramic plate. On the ceramic plate, in bold golden letters, is the word: ‘fat’. (In Dutch: dik.)

I laugh and blurt out, ‘Look how cool this is!’

I put on the necklace and show it to my roommates.

‘Fuck yeah,’ says the one cutting the vegetables and puts both of his middle fingers up in the air.

It is now the morning after opening the package. I just had a shower, after which I put on a plain black t-shirt on which the white ceramic and gold letters of the necklace proudly stand out. Fat.

It is also about an hour after I finished reading the book. My body is alive with recognition. This book has put to words some of the thoughts I didn’t even think were worth putting on a piece of paper. And now that they are here, that I can hold them in my hands, something has softly dropped within me. Something, I realize, that I’ve been holding up for quite a while now.

I think of a quote of which the last sentence every once in a while finds its way back in to my mind. Even though I can never really grasp its meaning. It goes like this:

“I explained to Warren the difference between male and female monsters. ‘Female monsters take things as personal as they really are. They study facts. Even if rejection makes them feel like the girl who’s not invited to the party, they have to understand the reason why.’

…Every question once it’s formulated, is a paradigm, contains its own internal truth. We have to stop diverting ourselves with false questions. And I told Warren: I aim to be a female monster too.”

-       From: I love Dick, by Chris Kraus

 I aim to be a female monster too. This sentence has something to do with the thing that just softly dropped within me. It has something to do with the idea of a universal truth. A truth that I am prone to believe does not exist. We all live under different circumstances, with different bodies and different memories. Different things ahead of us.

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It is easy to forget that under all those different circumstances, we long for the same things. Something that is maybe summarized easiest as: wanting to be seen. And the programmed thought that always follows after that undying desire to be visible: I must show less of myself in order to be seen as a complete human being. How weird is that?

How weird is it that I am a writer and that time and time again, I find ways around asking the questions that are most obvious to me? Because I tell myself they are too obvious. Because I’m scared that if I ask them, I will find that everyone but me already knows the answers. Because no one will understand what I’m talking about. Because, because, because.

Reading ‘Knap voor een dik meisje’ has been a fucking grounding experience for me and in my eyes Tatjana, its author, is a true female monster. We need these monsters. We need to come home, once again finding a package on the doormat. Opening it. Carefully looking at its contents. Going out into the world, wearing our necklaces. Writing about it.  

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Why Writers Need Field Trips/ by Ann Hedreen

I thought I was going to take a quick stroll down the beach. Instead, I walked straight to the water’s edge, sat down, took off my shoes, and waded into Puget Sound. My toes dug happily into the dark, kelpy sand. My calves were electrically, perfectly cold. After a few minutes, I backed up and sat down where the tide could still lap my toes. I lifted my face to the sun and the breeze, both newly freed from the summer wildfire smoke that had blanketed Seattle for days.

I felt like I’d come home, after a long time away.

None of this involved thinking. All of it simply happened, as if some irresistible magnetic force was pulling me. As if I knew with my body, not my brain, that at this particular suburban Seattle beach, Richmond Beach, the thing to do was to get yourself right into the water the minute you got there.  

I never go to Richmond Beach. I live in southeast Seattle, and it is northwest of the city limits. But just over the hill from Richmond Beach was the home where I lived from zero to five. That much I do know, though all I remember of those first years are slivers and glimmers of our life in the little ranch house on NW 183rd Street; a jumble of memories that include only the briefest flashes of this shore.

But here I am. And here my feet are, wiggling in the cold water. And here now is this feeling washing over me, of utter contentment; a feeling that the shape of this beach and this sky and this driftwood and these train tracks all feel—right. Mine. Home.

I’m a memoir writer, and I teach memoir writing at Seattle Central College. I often tell my students to take themselves on field trips; to go back, if they can, to where they grew up. To be anthropologists, journalists, and study their own lives. I acknowledge that it’s easy for me, because the places where I grew up are not very far away.

The problem, of course, is that those places have changed: like me, they’ve grown older. Or they’ve disappeared. Or, if it’s a house, someone else now owns it and they’ve remodeled or painted or replaced the rhododendrons with drought-tolerant grasses.

This summer, I was invited to read at the Richmond Beach Library. The minute I put it on my calendar, I began to plan my post-reading, memory-lane field trip, first to the beach and then to 183rd Street. I had no specific writerly questions to research; I just wanted to see how it felt to be where I was in the very first years of my life, the years before reading and writing; the years in which every memory was sensory. Personal. Not complicated.

The author with her mother.

The author with her mother.

We lived on a street of then-new ranch homes, just a few miles inland from the sweeping public shoreline. At the end of our block, there was a tangled green patch which we called “the woods;” I knew from previous drive-bys that it was long ago covered with more houses. I remember riding my tricycle into the woods with a neighbor boy named Bruce, my very first friend my own age, and watching, astonished, when he unzipped his pants and peed. I remember he and I got into trouble once when we tried to walk by ourselves to the nearby Tradewell Supermarket.

The beach was way too far for us to even think of walking to by ourselves. And there were those train tracks. My older brother and sister knew all kinds of scary stories, told by kids even older than them, about crossing those train tracks.

But when we drove to the beach, and walked from the parking lot right over the train tracks on the overpass, me holding tight to my mother’s hand, and then kapow! —that huge, sky-filled world opened in front of me—I didn’t have words for it then, and I still don’t. I just knew I wanted more of it. To this day, I want more of it.

More huge sky, more water, more beach. More wildness.

After I left the beach, I drove over to our old home. My route zigged and zagged around the ravines that run through the neighborhood. And then there I was, on our block, staring at a one-story, light blue rambler (it was red when we lived there) that I wouldn’t have recognized if I didn’t know the address.

There were two cars in the driveway, so I didn’t feel like I could linger and stare. But I took in the shape of the house. I knew which window had been my bedroom window in the room I shared with my sisters. I walked from room to room in my mind.

And then I drove away, back to the neighborhood I now call home, through a grueling Seattle traffic jam that no one could have imagined when I was five.  

I don’t know whether or when my Richmond Beach field trip will find its way into my writing, but I know this: for one fleeting afternoon, I remembered a bit of what it felt like to be two, or three, or four years old. I felt that sensory ecstasy, unfettered by thinking, thinking, thinking.

Maybe someday that feeling will find its way into my writing. Maybe I just need to let it wash over me for a while, like the tide washed my tired toes on an August afternoon.

Ann Hedreen’s memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, won a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award and her blog, The Restless Nest ,  won an honorable mention from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.   Ann earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Goddard College. She is currently working on a second memoir,  The Observant Doubter.

Ann Hedreen’s memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, won a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award and her blog, The Restless Nestwon an honorable mention from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Ann earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Goddard College. She is currently working on a second memoir, The Observant Doubter.