HARVESTER ISLAND WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
SEPTEMBER 3 – SEPTEMBER 10, 2016
Registration is OPEN!
Guest Writers - Jeanne Murray Walker and Luci Shaw
Workshopping Poetry, Playwriting, Creative Nonfiction
Discussing: "The Faithful Artful Life"
Jeanne Murray Walker
AND JULY 22-27, 2016
SPIRITUAL RETREAT WITH SCOT MCKNIGHT
Here's a glimpse of the 2015 Workshop. It was a grand time as you can see by the slideshow above.
REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN FOR 2016. THE 15 SPOTS WILL FILL QUICKLY!
CALLING ALL ADVENTUROUS WRITERS!
Harvester Island is a stunningly beautiful island off the west coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska offering refuge and adventure, contemplation and activity, solitude and community. It's wild, remote (population: no one but us) and a remarkable place to grow your writing. Leslie knows: she has written most of her books here over the last 38 years as she's lived and worked with her family in commercial fishing.
2016 Guest Writer: Jeanne Murray Walker
Jeanne Murray Walker is a writer and teacher who was born in Parkers Prairie, a village of a thousand people in Minnesota. She lectures and gives readings extensively in places ranging from The Library of Congress and Oxford University to Whidbey Island and Texas canyon country.
Jeanne has written eight volumes of poetry, including Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems, A Deed to the Light, and New Tracks, Night Falling. Her poetry and essays have appeared numerous journals, including Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Century, The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, Image and Best American Poetry. Her scripts, which have been performed in theaters across the United States and in London, are archived in North American Women's Drama, and are published by Dramatic Publishing Company. The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer's, Jeanne's memoir, tells the hair-raising, often funny details of the decade she and her sister cared for their mother.
Jeanne is a Professor of English at The University of Delaware, where she heads the Creative Writing Concentration. She also serves as a Mentor in the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts Program.
She has appeared on PBS television and is frequently interviewed on the radio. Her work has been distributed across Pennsylvania on posters by The Center for the Book and has appeared on buses and trains with Poetry in Motion.
An Atlantic Monthly Fellow at Bread Loaf School of English, Jeanne has also been awarded a Pew Fellowship in The Arts, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, eight Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships, and The Glenna Luschei-Prairie Schooner Prize.
For 20 years she was the Poetry Editor of Christianity and Literature. She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Image and Shenandoah magazines.
Jeanne is a collaborating editor with Darryl Tippens of Shadow and Light: Literature and the Life of Faith, an historical anthology of literature. Image magazine called it the current "stand-out, single-volume" on the subject of spiritual questing.
Jeanne lives with her husband outside Philadelphia. They are the parents of two children and the grandparents of three.
2016 Guest Writer: Luci Shaw
Luci Shaw was born in 1928 in London, England, and has lived in Canada, Australia and the U.S.A. A 1953 high honors graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, she became co-founder and later president of Harold Shaw Publishers, and since 1988 has been a Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.
Shaw is a frequent retreat facilitator and leads writing workshops in church and university settings. She has lectured in North America and abroad on topics such as art and spirituality, the Christian imagination, poetry-writing, and journal-writing as an aid to artistic and spiritual growth.
A charter member of the Chrysostom Society of Writers, Shaw is author of ten volumes of poetry including Polishing the Petoskey Stone (Shaw, 1990), Writing the River (Pinon Press, 1994/Regent Publishing, 1997), The Angles of Light (Waterbrook, 2000), The Green Earth: Poems of Creation (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), has edited three poetry anthologies and a festschrift, The Swiftly Tilting Worlds of Madeleine L’Engle, (Shaw, 1998). Her most recent books are What the Light Was Like (Word Farm), Accompanied by Angels (Eerdmans), The Genesis of It All (Paraclete), and Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination & Spirit (Nelson). Her poetic work and essays have been widely anthologized. Shaw has authored several non-fiction prose books, including Water My Soul: Cultivating the Interior Life (Zondervan) and The Crime of Living Cautiously (InterVarsity). She has also co-authored three books with Madeleine L’Engle, WinterSong (Regent), Friends for the Journey (Regent), and A Prayer Book for Spiritual Friends (Augsburg/Fortress).
Shaw is poetry editor and a contributing editor of Radix, as quarterly journal published in Berkeley, CA, that celebrates art, literature, music, psychology, science and the media, featuring original poetry, reviews and interviews. She is also poetry and fiction editor of Crux, an academic journal published quarterly by Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.
She and her husband John Hoyte live in Bellingham, Washington and are members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. She loves sailing, tent camping, knitting, gardening, and wilderness photography.
SPIRITUAL RETREAT 2016 WITH SCOT MCKNIGHT
"LIVING THE CHRISTIAN LIFE THROUGH THE APOSTLE PAUL"
JULY 22 - 27, 2016
After a leisurely breakfast, mornings will be spent in learning and discussion. Scot will lead us in considering the many ways the Christian Church revolutionized the Roman Empire. Paul’s mission was to create a community that crossed all boundaries, a"fellowship of differents," that made invisible people visible. How can the Church today live up to this still-revolutionary kingdom design?
Afternoons will feature optional activities: whale watching, wildlife viewing, mountain and beach hiking. Each evening we will prepare our own fresh seafood dinner, followed by readings and special events: literary, cinematic, and Alaskan.
For more information, email Leslieleylandfields@gmail.com.
Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author or editor of fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. Dr. McKnight has given interviews on radios across the nation, has appeared on television, and is regularly speaks at local churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries in the USA and abroad. Dr. McKnight obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham (1986).
McKnight is the author of the award-winning The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete, 2004), which won the Christianity Today book of the year for Christian Living. His books include Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us (Paraclete, 2005), The Story of the Christ (Baker, 2006), Praying with the Church (Paraclete, 2006), The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Paraclete, 2007), A Community Called Atonement (Abingdon, 2007). He broadened his Jesus Creed project in writing a daily devotional: 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed (Paraclete, 2008). His studies in conversion were expanded with his newest book, Finding Faith, Losing Faith (Baylor, 2008), a book he co-authored with his former student Hauna Ondrey. Other books are The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008) and Fasting (Thomas Nelson, 2009).
His other books include a commentary on James (The Epistle of James, NICNT), One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan), Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP, 2013), A Long Faithfulness: The Case for Christian Perseverance (Bondfire/Patheos Books, 2013),The Sermon on the Mount ( Zondervan, 2013), Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos), andThe Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth about Life to Come (WaterBrook, 2015).
COST: Five nights, 6 days, all inclusive (food, lodging, wilderness excursions) $1500.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author/editor of ten books, including Surviving the Island of Grace (Thomas Dunne), The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Cascade Press), Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Thomas Nelson), and her forthcoming book, Crossing the Waters: Front Alaska to Galilee Following Jesus Through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas. Her books have been translated into German, Chinese, French, Korean and Polish. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Orion, Best Essays Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and many others earning her Pushcart nominations, the Virginia Faulkner Award, and a Genesis Award. She was a founding faculty member of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA program where she taught creative nonfiction for six years. Previously she taught Literature and creative writing at the University of Alaska. She is on the Editorial Board of Christianity Today; a national speaker addressing topics of faith and culture at conferences, retreats, and churches; and a popular radio guest with more than 200 interviews on stations around the country.
Mornings, 9:00 - 12 pm, will be spent in classes and workshops with intensive and supportive guidance from Jeanne, Luci, and Leslie, both award-winning writers and veteran teachers. Jeanne, Luci and Leslie will team-teach a class and discussion, then we'll break into workshop groups. Poetry and playwrights will meet with Jeanne and Luci. Creative Nonfiction writers (memoir, essays, spiritual writing) will meet with Leslie.
Afternoons will feature optional activities: whale watching, wildlife viewing, mountain and beach hiking. Each evening we will prepare our own fresh seafood dinner, followed by readings and special events, both literary and Alaskan.
"The workshop was a grand success! What a hospitable, magical place! Leslie opened her life and home to us in an astounding way. I cannot imagine a better place for productive work." ------Joni Powers, author of Lifespace
"Thanks, Leslie, for well-planned, fun, informative workshops. Your warm hospitality,interesting guests, tasty food, skiff rides, hikes, outhouse and banya all made for a great Alaskan experience." ---Dan Cecil
"Thank you for such an impressionable, calming, spiritual, exciting experience. Your two islands were great places to sleep, reflect, grow and be me."------ Rita Fleet
"Meals were bountiful! Love the local flavors, the special treat of salmon, caribou and crab. . . . Gina was very sweet in giving me special (writing) stuff that she wanted me to have. I was amazed at the breadth of knowledge both Leslie and Gina had."-------David Cecil
"It is by far one of the prettiest places on God's green earth. Thanks to Leslie and Duncan for sharing their home, their island, their family and their life with us."----Karen Winkler
"I cannot thank you enough for our week on Harvester .. ..it really opened my eyes to how the Kingdom should look on earth---arms and heart open wide." ---Carey Christian
Alaska, American, Delta all fly into Anchorage. From Anchorage, Alaska Airlines and Ravn fly into Kodiak. Leslie will meet you in Kodiak. From there we’ll take a bush plane across the spectacular wilderness of Kodiak Island to the village of Larsen Bay (approximate cost $280 R/T) where we’ll take a skiff or barge 30 minutes to Harvester Island.
ACCOMMODATIONS and FACILITIES
New, clean, comfortable heated rooms, all with mountain and ocean views, double occupancy for all but the dockhouse, a cabin that sits literally over the ocean, which sleeps 4. Do Please remember, though, this IS a wilderness island! We use an OUTHOUSE and BANYA. The banya is a Russian style wood-fired steambath in a separate building. Banya-bathing is available most every night. And both outhouses are clean and new, offering the best outhouse experience you've ever had---I promise! Still, if cleanliness is next to godliness for you, this may not be your workshop!
The wilderness can’t be scripted! The weather can be wild and dramatic, preventing air or water travel at any time. If your schedule is sacred, and missing a flight due to weather is devastating, this is not your workshop! An attitude of cheerful flexibility is the first necessary attribute to making the week spectacular, through sun, rain and storm.
We’re in a remote area far from medical facilities, and some activities may be rigorous. Because of this, all applicants must be physically fit and in excellent health.
The cost for 7 nights, 8 days is $2,400 including room, board workshops, final one-on-one meeting with Leslie and Bret, excursions (bear viewing is extra), and tours. (Note: the average cost for most lodges in Alaska is $800 - $1000/night)
*If you're interested in coming but the airfare to Alaska seems prohibitive, I have an idea or two to significantly defray that cost. Please write!
Contact me here: email@example.com
PRIVATE WRITING RETREATS
Nothing is as exciting as the group workshop, but those dates don't work for everyone. It's possible to come on your own, or with a friend/s or spouse for a private retreat, with all the same amenities between June 10 and August 15.
*A lovely private studio over the ocean, with a full kitchen, internet, bird's eye view of a pair of land otters who lump past every afternoon at about 3 pm, a sea otter who paddles back and forth about every hour, whales visible most of the time, with yourself as the sole resident.
The Studio, all yours! And--all new! Modern kitchen, comfortable living/dining room and bedroom.
*Food and meals provided. Fresh seafood, wholesome homemade meals! You are welcome to eat as few or as many meals with us and our family/crew---or you may choose to eat alone in your studio. You're also welcome to join me in meal preparation or any of the other food work I am doing (making smoked salmon, jams and jellies, etc.)
*One-on-One professional guidance/feedback with me, discussing your work, as you choose. Up to 2 hours a day. You may simply want space and time to work, but if you desire any kind of feedback or guidance, I'm there.
*Adventure: walking, ocean trips in the skiff, beach combing. Your choice on activity and adventure vs. writing time.
*Getting there: You would fly into Larsen Bay on the mail plane (R/T $250). I would pick you up in the skiff at Larsen Bay for a 25 minute skiff ride to the island. Or you could fly straight to the island on a float plane (at about double the cost).
*Cost: $300/day, with a minimum of 3 days, maximum of 10, (or as the retreat schedule permits.
Write for more details:
“Nice piece on that Huge Famous Blog, Allie,” you say to your friend, sincerely.
“Oh yeah, that thing. I just dashed that off, after two other pieces I wrote that day.” She tosses her perfect hair and regards her French nails.
“Really? How long did that piece take you?” you say, curious, but knowing you’re about to feel sick.
“Oh, about 37 minutes. Of course posting it all around the world took a bit longer. And then answering all the fan mail. That took about 3 days.”
“Yeah, I hate it when that happens.“ Weak smile trying to hide your nausea and the fact that it took you all day to write one short piece. You leave smiling, stomach roiling.
I confess: I have been Allie a time or three, but I’m mostly the other. Which is a problem. This week, for instance, I have four articles due in the next two days (Yes, this is one of them.) Not to mention a sermon to write, and three other presentations. It was the same last week. I’m not alone in this kettle of fish. A Facebook friend messaged me saying she couldn’t talk—she had three articles due that day. Others tell me the same.
So here we all are hunched over in emergency mode every day, madly chopping and grinding, tossing posts and articles and reviews out into the void. We’re generating twice as much content as we used to, in half the time.
What’s happening? We all have Facebook pages we’re trying to fill. Many have daily blogs they’re trying to fill. Surrendering that impossible task, now they’re filling them with other writers’ work. So now we’re all writing for our own blogs, plus our friends’ blogs, plus all those other publications we want to be in. And the book we’re writing? Oh yes, we’ll get to that, as soon as we finish this last little post. Behind all this is fear . . . a lot of fear. That we’ll disappear if we’re not on stage all the time. That we’ll be forgotten. That we’ll be invisible. That our platform won’t be big enough. That we won’t land another book contract.
Enough. I’m about to revolt.
Here’s what I’m preaching to you and me today. And I’m sorry I’m not saying it beautifully or lyrically with a grand metaphor that lights it all on fire. That’s what happens when you write too fast. Here’s the message: Slow down. M a r i n a t e. Wait. Sometimes even—-stop. Sometimes even—-say No.
We’re losing our way when nothing matters but the deadline. We’re losing our way when nothing matters but the byline. We’re wasting words. Sometimes we’re writing junk we don’t mean. Sometimes we’re just writing junk. We need to quit saying yes to people just because we want to fling a new piece out into the world for its five minutes of fame, if we’re even that lucky. Write to raze hearts and inflame lives. Mean every word you say. Stake your life upon it. Make your words worth every minute of your reader’s time. Anything less is ashes you have no time for and the world has no need of.
Take this, for example. I needed to write this in an hour, with a dash and a pinch of salt over my shoulder. Instead, against all intentions, I have taken three times longer. Not for the craft of it (apologies), but for the heart of it, which did not find me until the second hour. When we don’t give ourselves time to wander and to wonder, we’ll lose the truer words that want to be found and must be said.
Someday soon I hope the conversation will go like this:
“That was an amazing piece you wrote, Allie. You really nailed that review. I’m going to buy the book.”
“Really? That’s great! Yeah, it took me a week to write that. I just had to marinate in it for awhile.” She pulls at her frizzy hair and nibbles on her nails.
“Wow, a whole week! Good for you!”
“Oh, I don’t mean to brag or anything.”
‘No, that’s okay. That’s really inspiring,” you say. You think a moment, then blurt out, “You know, I’m going to ask for an extension on my essay. I think I need a little more time on it.”
“Of course! They’ll give it to you. You’re one of the best writers I know. They don’t expect you to be fast!”
Will you join me in this revolt?
This week snow fell–again, about a foot, on top of already knee-deep layers. I strapped on skis and went off into a spruce forest near my house, my tracks the first marks on the page of the world.
Starting a new writing project, a book or an article, even a blog post, feels much like this. I see something falling outside my window–an idea, a passion, a glimpse of something true and maybe beautiful. I eagerly strap on metaphorical skis and go out, wondrously lost in a world made strange again. I am confident that I belong here, that I will apprehend something of value and meaning. But the going gets hard. The surface of the snow changes. The skis get stuck. I fall. I discover dozens of tracks before me on the trail, most more graceful than my own. Why am I here?
Doubts track me down no matter where I am. I have learned not to dismiss them. They force me to consider and reconsider. Does the world really need one more story?
Today, I give three responses: two from others, one my own.
1. Your story can bring “healing and illumination” to others.
Katherine Paterson, prolific Newbery award-winning author, says with genuine humility, “I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers and theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil . . .” But here’s what we can do, she says, “we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image, in simple narrative, there are, in the words of Barry Lopez, both ‘healing and illumination.’ Here I see a word of hope and possibility.”
2. Writing your story can preserve your life.
When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband says of her new work, “It’s been said better before,” she responds, “Of course, it has. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said, by me, ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try, to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.”
3. Writing can move us toward the city of God.
If we pursue our stories, honestly and truly, they will send us on a pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, from a land of unknowing and darkness, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible . . . but the writing inexorably, day by day moves us closer to clarity, to wisdom, to the very city of God, if we allow it.
Don’t waste your doubts. Use them to move you forward into that forest, into the pages of that story that you must write—for yourself, for God and for others.
We write for so many reasons. As we write, we experience many rewards in the writing process alone, but those personal rewards can sometimes obscure the deepest reason of all to write: to love our neighbors. In our case, our neighbors are our readers, those with faces just inches from our words, their minds and hearts living in the very houses we have built.
How can we love our readers as ourselves? It’s become increasingly difficult to find our way forward here because of our postmodern culture’s obsessions with fame and the self, but here are a few steps forward:
1. Love your readers by writing beyond yourself.
Write from the self, by all means, but don’t let the primary subject be the self, even if you’re writing memoir. Many of us write to attend to the fragments of our lives and to make something coherent and meaningful from them. It’s a noble enterprise, to pursue wisdom from the chaos of our real lives. We are writing our way home, many of us. “We are lost in a dark wood and we need stories to help us find our way home,” Scott Russell Sanders writes. But don’t forget that this is also the reason readers read, not to find the way to your house, ultimately, but to find their way to their own true home. Our purpose in writing must be more than self-fulfillment. It must be God-and-neighbor fulfillment.
2. Love your readers by living a genuine faith-ward life.
God’s truths are not just propositional and communicated by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational. Our first job as writers is to write from a faith that we ourselves are trying to live in and live out rather than a faith that is simply pronouncements, words on a page. As Joy Sawyer has written,
“And without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the ‘clanging symbol’ of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. . . . . our deepest joy is experienced when the poetry of our lives begins to be expressed, as the apostle John said, not in words alone, but in deed and in truth.”
3. Love your readers by not preaching at them.
We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered. Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages: plowing, sowing, watering, reaping. Think of your writing efforts as a lifelong endeavor rather than a tell-it-all right now.
4. Love your readers by loving the world we’ve been given.
Though I do indeed want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known. And because He is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not just freed but compelled to discover and then reveal Him through all the lovely, hideous, fascinating and stultifying things of this world, which are, after all, His. “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur has written, and our love for our reader will call us out into this God-made world as well.
And so, I end here, out of love for you, dear readers! I want to preach 100 more ways to love our readers—but let us return to the lives and words we’ve been given, aiming toward a poetry of truth, word and deed!
What is one tangible way you will choose to love your readers this week?
In her much-anthologized essay “Living Like Weasels” Annie Dillard locks eyes and brains with a weasel, launching an essay on calling. Weasels teach us how to live, Dillard writes, embodying an instinctive mindlessness, all energies pointed toward their “one necessity.” One weasel latched onto the throat of an eagle and never let go, even in death, its skeleton attached to the eagle’s chest. The essay ends here:
“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot tear you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”
It’s a stunning close to an inspiring essay. But the beauty of the language disguises the horror of the scene. The weasel latched onto the wrong bird. His actual death was not likely very poetic. As writers and as people of faith, we’re not as horrified as we might be: death is not our final fear, and we understand the larger metaphor of death. But we needn’t seek it out. There are so many ways to die as a writer already; I’d like to save us from an unnecessary demise or two with a few simple words:
Choose the right bird. When you discover you’ve chosen wrongly, let go.
This is a simple way of saying that as writers we labor under more than one calling, more than “one necessity.” There is the calling to write, the sense of being appointed a wrestler with words, a storyteller, even a prophet at times. But there are callings as well to particular projects and subjects. When we don’t distinguish between the two, we’ll find trouble, maybe even death.
In the last twenty years I have let go of a number of essays-in-progress, articles, even book manuscripts. Despite seeking God’s direction—and feeling that I had found it, two book projects I felt very “called” to pursue, ended up withering. As each atrophied, I latched on yet harder, spending costly attention and effort trying to revive them—to no avail.
I did not expect success to meet every writing endeavor, but some losses hit hard. We question our worth as writers; we question our very calling. But we often ask the wrong question. Rather than asking, “Am I really called to write this novel (this essay, this book) right now?” we often ask, “Am I really called to be a writer?” In these moments, we’re not so much rising on the wings of eagles as we are devoured by our own insecurities and disappointments. We may even stop writing altogether. This is the second death—and the least necessary.
The weasel operates by instinct alone. We can do better. We can’t see into the future to know whether a project will ultimately succeed, but we can follow our given passions, testing them thoroughly with research, prayer, and rough drafts. If a project falters, as all seem to do at some point, we persevere until—-we cannot. Then, we pry ourselves loose and let it go. Not easily, and never prematurely, but our bones will stay hinged, and our musky flesh will live to choose another subject, another day, one that may indeed send us soaring.
Years ago I crossed the Sahara desert the back of a truck. No GPS. No roads, no signs—we followed the train tracks. We did have a crude map with water holes marked. We’d get to the hole or the well—and it would be dry. We’d set out for the next one—and it was dry. Our water supply got lower every day and was closely rationed. At one point we were lost for three days. And we were on deadline—we had to get to Kenya before the rainy season started.
That’s what the writing life can feel like at times, yes? The stations of usual refreshment aren’t open; we’re getting drier and drier; the manuscript is withering. We’re plain out stuck. Here are some sources of “stuckness,” and suggestions to get you moving back to the watering holes!
*You’re STUCK because you’ve been seduced by your own luscious language.
You’ve followed a trail of language, lured by its sound, rhythm, maybe even its profundity. Soon—you’re sunk. In love. In a trap. No water. No trail, no way out.
*Get UNSTUCK by leaving the page. Free yourself by taking your core idea (or character) off the page and walking it out in the world. Wrestle with its logic, its meaning, until you can articulate the concept clearly in new language and out loud. You’ll find it much easier to break your “engagement” with your sand trapped manuscript.
*You’re STUCK because there’s dissonance between form and content.
Maybe you committed to a form or a genre or a particular structure too soon before fully exploring your content. (We do this when hurrying under deadlines!) When we externally impose an ill-fitting form upon our material, we’ll soon find ourselves and our manuscript immobilized.
*Get UNSTUCK by returning to the exploration stage and really listening to the work itself, teasing out from its deepest levels the organic form/genre/structure that best illuminates its meaning.
*You’re STUCK because of the limits of your genre.
Every genre is an attempt to discover and construct some form of knowledge. But every genre has limits. Narrative finds meaning through sequence, context, causality. By its very definition it reveals order—and potentially meaning—from the disorder of our lives. But sequence and causality don’t tell the whole story. Poetry relies heavily upon metaphor, imagery, the moment, sensation, but poetry may miss the truths that narrative can discover. Each needs the other at some point.
*Get UNSTUCK by changing genres (for a short time). We need to stay open to new truths as we write. If you’re stuck on the chapter in your memoir about your mother’s death, write a poem about the day she died. If your poem is stalled, try writing a short story or a vignette about something related that happened to you. You will see, hear, and process memories in new ways when entering a new genre.
Let’s admit it—writing is an unnatural act. Sitting at your keyboard for hours on end every day is like crossing the desert. You have to find ways to rehydrate and rehumanize this most glorious of labors. So I end with these final admonishments:
*Ask for an extension. Believe it or not, most writers do this at some point. There’s no shame in it. Your editor wants you to produce the best material possible. It’s not always possible, but getting a little more time can magically create a breakthrough.
*Go to bed early. Eat. Exercise. Drink yummy beverages. Be nice to yourself.
(The end of my Sahara story. We made it out, but I never wrote about it—just a single poem. I was too parched to write.)
“The only books worth reading are books written in blood.” –Frederick Buechner
When suffering strikes, we are often silenced by pain. In such times, the act of writing may feel frivolous, exploitative, or irrelevant. Yet it is these dark, raw places of our lives that most demand our full attention, our most artful labors. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. We may remain silent in the midst of it, but at some point we must write. Patricia Hampl reminds us of the responsibility that comes with our experiences: “We do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”
Dan Allender, in “Forgetting to Remember: How We Run From Our Stories,” tells us what happens when we ignore the hard events in our lives: “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.” How then do we begin to write from within our afflictions? And how might the practice and the disciplines of writing offer a means of shaping our suffering into meaning for both writer and reader? Forgive the brevity and oversimplification, but here’s what NOT to do and why:
1. Don’t write to heal. Our therapeutic culture urges us to write into our pain as a means of self-healing. Newsweek’s article, “Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Heal?” rightly questions this cultural assumption. I have mucked through some hours and days of writing that were hellish. Re-living an experience with language and full consciousness is sometimes worse than the original event. Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing. Healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.
2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation. We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened. Our job is not to bring beauty out of suffering but to bring understanding out of suffering. Poet Alan Shapiro argues that “…the job of art is to generate beauty out of suffering, but in such a way that doesn’t prettify or falsify the suffering.”
3. Don’t write for yourself alone. This is not just about you. You are working to translate suffering to the shared page. Buechner reminds us of the universality we should be striving for: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us share? Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
Writing can begin here, in the self, but should consciously move us beyond ourselves, to place our story into the larger stories around us, and ultimately, into the grand story that God is writing. The most powerful work comes from a “self that renders the world,” as Hampl has said—not just the self that renders the self.
Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning. Don’t miss it. I pray for you the strength and faith and wisdom to begin to enter those hard places and to translate your suffering onto the pages we share—for the good of all, and for His glory.
How have you been able to translate your suffering into your writing?
This I Believe was a series of wildly successful radio broadcasts hosted by Edward Murrow from 1951 to 1955. Murrow introduced the series this way:
“’This I Believe. By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all
walks of life. In this brief time each night, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common
than integrity—a real honesty—will talk out loud about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.”
What are the rules we live by as writers? What are the “basic values” in our art? Few of us have taken the time in the midst of our writing lives to identify what we believe about writing, about our work as writers, about its place in the world. I had been writing for decades before I began to form my own credo. Almost immediately, I discovered it was a powerful antidote against the many discouragements we face as writers. And the tonic begins the moment you start composing. But wait! There are rules to follow as you begin.
1. Have fun with it. This IS about ultimate things, but it’s NOT about perfection–grammatical, linguistic, or otherwise.
2. Don’t worry about originality. Many other writers have expressed brilliant thoughts before us. Beg, borrow, and steal from them (with attribution, of course!).
3. Consider it a living document that will grow, deepen, and re-shape as you move further into your art and your faith.
4. Post it somewhere you can see it, so it can prod, re-focus, and inspire you as you work.
That’s it. So here is part of my ever-changing manifesto. I share it with you simply as an illustration. Each writer’s credo will bear the marks of her own passage and thought.
* There is no part of human experience that is not worthy of attention, illumination, and restoration.
* I commit to writing not simply out of curiosity, out of delight in words, or a desire to entertain. All these are good enough motives, but will produce lesser works. My best and most honest writing will be done where my skin meets the world in the thinnest, rawest places.
* Writing is a vocation, a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible, but the writing inexorably, day by day, moves us closer to holiness, the city of God.
* Words contain power to slay and to resuscitate. Every work describing the world as it truly is will do both: there cannot be resuscitation without death; there cannot be death without resuscitation.
* Writing is a response back to a word-creating God who invites us–just as he invited Adam–to name all that is, to complete a creation that is still undone, still unfinished. We speak back because creation was intended to be a conversation, not a monologue.
* Writing recognizes that faith and spirit are not disembodied abstract ideas, but are incarnated in the world around us. Our faith calls us to the things of this world—to mud and fish slime, to huckleberries and stingrays— to love them, to speak their names, to find in them the glory that was spoken into their very cells.
* Writing from faith is not an attempt to contain or explicate God, to unravel mystery, the wonders that surround us, but rather to articulate mystery, that it may draw us, first, to the edge of his cloak, then closer . . .
Enjoy the process! And count us in! Share at least one of your own writing beliefs with all of us here. Perhaps we’ll add yours to our own!
Like many of you creative writerly types, I have a new book or essay idea about once a week. Any casual observer will know when this happens. My eyes gain x-ray vision, I will wear mismatched clothes for a day or two. I’ll start pulling books from my library, organizing them into Useful Research Piles, and I create a new folder on my computer, into which I start shuttling and dumping uncountable necessary articles and links.
But it is not long before the writing deadlines I am already under reassert their authority. I follow meekly to my office to tending my previous fires that once sent me into fevers, but with a new light gleaming from my forehead.
Some of those gleams turn into books, essays, and blog posts. But some of them sputter into oblivion, snuffed out by the realities of life, the most pressing of which is—There Is Never Enough Time.
The question we all face is: Out of a plenitude of possibilities, yet with limited time and energy, what do we choose to write about? How do we decide?
The stakes are high. If it’s books we’re talking about, for me it’s at least 2 years of immersion in the writing, and then once the book is released, several more years follow of spreading the word. So I had better love it, believe it, and be willing to soap any box with its message.
How do we decide, then? I have followed a simple rule most of my writing life: TENDER YOUR “BURDEN OF WITNESSING.”
The phrase here is not mine. I’ve lifted it from Patricia Hampl’s wisest of words, “ . . . For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”
What has God entrusted to you? What “burdens of witnessing” have been given to you? Start here. My first book of prose was about commercial fishing women, because there I was, in the midst of a life I was trying to live and understand, mostly unsuccessfully. I moved to memoir next, writing about my life on a wilderness island in Alaska, then onto other topics I had “witnessed”: motherhood, unplanned pregnancy, the spirituality of food, forgiveness of my schizoid father. I have never regretted a single project.
When you write as a witness from these hard places, you immediately avoid one of the greatest weaknesses of beginning writing, and even “successful” writing: writing without “mattering.” Over the years, I’ve met students and writers who can fashion beautiful sentences in their sleep—–but talent and beauty alone does not make them “matter.” Without heart, without an urgency that comes from deeply lived experience, your words on the page will only be words on a page. (And, take note: Because they matter to you doesn’t automatically make them matter to your readers. You must make them matter to the reader as well.)
There is yet another reason for doing this. And forgive me now for going sermonic on you, but I pull it out now because I know you are reluctant to excavate the stash under your bed and in your closets. One of the graces of believing in a God who inhabits the hearts of his people is the certainty that all events—celebrations, dirges, dangers, and feasts—come to us through His hands, and they are hands with purpose. They are hands that intend our trials to be tended and eventually tendered for the good of others. The New Testament spells out the program: God, who is the “God of all comfort,” comforts us in our troubles for this purpose, “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” Pass it on, brothers and sisters.
Don’t worry if there’s blood. As Red Smith has written, “For my money anyway, the only books worth reading are books written in blood . . . “ [Red Smith].
Write about what you MUST write about. Write about what has been entrusted to you alone. Write about what matters most to you. Write about the things you cannot turn away from. Write about the hurt, the cheating, the doubts, the hopes, the comfort, the sickness. Our time is short—make it count.
Tender the witness you’ve been given.
I write this on the airplane, flying home from Arkansas then Boston, exhausted from long days of travel and speaking, but also light with the joy of so many embraces with strangers now friends.
But when we travel among friends, relatives and strangers, even sitting at home at our desks, we are given so much conflicting news, even about ourselves.
What do we do? What do we believe? Try this:
So you discover this morning from a reputable source that a grand nephew twice removed through divorce and adoption--thinks your writing (or your sculpture or your music or your novel) is second-rate and your last book was “whiny.” You don’t know him, and he doesn’t know you, but your relatives who know him a little bit nod sagely at his words and believe him, though they’ve never read what you’ve written or only read certain parts, the parts they are sure about them.
Worried, you decide to try therapy to make sure you’re not harboring ingratitude or a pathetic victim mentality. Or, as a cheaper option, you consider hiring an editor for your next manuscript to eradicate any possible language that might be interpreted as “victim-y.”
After this decision, which you feel good about, you think, you get an email from a woman who says your last book is the best book she’s ever read and she wants everyone in the world to read it or at least to see it stocked it in all the airport books stores, and would you send some more books with your autograph and maybe even a family photo? You smile, breathe deeply, read the email over several times and block off time to do this.
Later that day you hear that someone thinks the scarf you wore at last night’s event was “derivative” and rumor has it that you might have even looked fat in that purple paisley dress when you gave your presentation. Stricken, you drop the scarf in the trash, a bit sad because you did like it, after all, and at dinner an hour later, you eat only salad because you know it’s not just the dress.
While picking at your salad and checking your email, you stumble across a comment on your recent essay condemning you because you were a bit too mystical to see God in that heap of dirty laundry. You vow to deepen your theology, maybe even enroll in an online degree from a Reformed seminary. And just before you leave for your evening event, you check Facebook and discover that some friends are angry with you for not including them in your latest writing project and others who asked to be in your manuscript are bitterly complaining about their inclusion.
Saddened, you head to your seminar that night, after carefully choosing slimming clothes and a plain scarf. You speak with all the passion you have left after such a day and some people cheer and cry, and afterward a woman tells you you’re better than watching a movie, while an elderly man in the back row falls asleep in the middle of the most dramatic part.
And after many such days, you lie awake on your pillow finally knowing what the unforgiveable sin is---or, rather, the unlivable sin and you vow you will no longer do it, you will no longer commit the terrible sin of belief. You will no longer believe rumors of madness and mysticism, rumbles of inadequacy and girth, nor reports of laud and praise. You know they are all true in some way, and they are all false in some way as well, but mostly, you know, they will kill you with redirection and indecision.
In such times, you dose yourself with Ann Lamott:
"Yet, I get to tell my truth. I get to seek meaning and realization. I get to live fully, wildly, imperfectly. That's why I'm alive. And all I actually have to offer as a writer, is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine. As I've said a hundred times, if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better."
“My pastor said last Sunday that if you don't change directions, you are going to end up where you are headed. Is that okay with you, to end up still desperately trying to achieve more, and to get the world to validate your parking ticket, and to get your possibly dead parents to see how amazing you always were?”
And you suddenly know it’s true: the world will not validate your parking ticket so give it up and return to the life you’re supposed to be living. Your one “wild and precious life” given to you not to be hoarded but to be given away. And when you give it away, however kind you try to be, and whatever form it takes---a painting, a song, a poem, a knitted scarf, a letter, a wooden box----because the world is a crazy place, this will always be true: Someone is always waiting to shoot your moon. Just know that some will be angry, some will bless you, some will betray you, some will be mean and small and some will be grateful and love you for life, till death do you part.
In all the betrayal, admiration and lights, here is what you do:
You work at loving them all, and you keep on writing (or singing or sculpting or knitting or designing).
You will not be hushed, not by hurt or by hate; you keep on writing.
You will not keep trying to satisfy insatiable people; you keep on writing.
You will not listen to critics in the shadows afraid of their own lives; you keep on writing.
You will not let praise erode your stability; you keep on writing (and rewriting.)
Don't let anyone shoot down your moon. Tell the truth. Please God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. And for the sake of us all,
Whenever an emissary from another world showed up in all its effulgence, men and women fell down terrified, overcome, filled with God-brilliance and self-loathing. Our own writing projects, delivered by the other-worldly muse, can inflict and inspire a similar terror at times (Woe is me! Why did I think I could write this novel?). When you’re visited by these angels of brilliance-and-woe, (and you will be!), remember what usually came next, after the Visited fell facedown in the dirt: “Fear Not!” And then words of hope and direction were given to the stricken to lift them to their feet and their new purpose.
1. Fear Not!—-That you’re not qualified to write this material. You’ve chosen this material, or it has chosen you, for reasons deeper than anyone knows, including you (unless you’re purely market-driven). Your desire, your interest, your life experience, your questions, maybe even your prayer life may have something to do with this insistent need to address this subject. Trust your choosing and chosenness.
2. Fear Not! —–That you have nothing new to contribute to the world. Listen to Madeleine L’Engle:
“My husband is my most ruthless critic. . . Sometimes he will say, ‘It’s been said better before.’ Of course it has. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said; by me; ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notes, or we die.”
3. Fear Not!—–That the article, short story, memoir, sonnet, sci-fi trilogy, whatever form you’re writing in, feels too difficult. Fear is the perfect response before something this grand and complex. This is partly why you’ve chosen it. If it were easy, you wouldn’t grow as a writer.
4. Fear Not!—–That you don’t have enough time to write. Of course you don’t. No one does. But if you are serious about this project, you will find a way to re-order your life: stop watching TV, write while the kids are napping, get up 2 hours earlier than everyone else, take your manuscript with you on vacation. Yes, it costs you ( and it costs others too, you must realize). Did you think otherwise? Count the cost to everyone. Then, if still so moved, cut and carry on.
5. Fear Not!—-That you don’t know where your novel, trilogy, even your memoir is headed. No one you know informs you of the outcome of their lives, do they? How many of your friends know where their lives are headed and how they will get there and who they will be once they’re there? You will not know this for your characters or story until they do. Keep writing day by day, keep listening to them, and you’ll find out what you need at the right time. The writing itself will get you there.
6. Fear Not!—–That you’re not a good enough writer to accomplish your goal. None of us is good enough to finish a project when we start. Some of us aren’t even good enough to start! By the time we finish, though, we have become more than good enough. The struggle, the long hours and the word-wrangling and prayer-wrestling will all get you there.
7. Fear Not! —-That no one will read your work. Someone WILL read your work. Maybe a few friends, the ones you really care about, maybe thousands of strangers. No one knows this when they are writing, and it has nothing to do with the writing. Just get on with the world you are making, and trust that your creation will find the people who need and cherish it the most.
BONUS: Because fears often multiply, one more to put to rest: Fear Not!—-That when this project is done, you will exhaust all your words and ideas. Not so. You may be temporarily exhausted, but never fear! Your best writing keeps the muse coming back. And when she does, return to this list, pick yourself up—-and turn a new page.
For my first eight years as a publishing writer, I had a hot New York agent. She hung with me through high times and low—until the day I sent her my new manuscript, which was overtly faith-based. She dropped me like a potato on fire. I knew that would happen. But I had to obey God and offer explicit Scripture-based hope. Most of my subsequent books have done the same.
I never wanted to be a “Christian writer.” I never wanted to be confined to “Christian readers.” I wanted to write for ALL people, and I still do. But I also know my faith can turn people away. Here is our dilemma: how do we write the truth with integrity, yet speak to all people, regardless of faith? Here are some thoughts that guide me through the thorny “Christian Writers” thicket.
We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we thought we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered, paradoxical. Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages: plowing, sowing, watering, reaping. We need never feel that we have to roll out the entire plan of redemption in any one novel or memoir to make it “Christian.” There’s time. Think of your work as a body of work over your lifetime.
Though I want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known.
Because he is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not only freed but compelled to discover Him and make some aspect of His being known through twig, creek, moonrise, miscarriage, forgiveness, cyclone, salmon, burial, and supper.
Belief in Christ’s truth-claims do not narrow our art. Christians are accused of being “narrow-minded” because they subscribe to Christ’s radical and exclusive truth claims (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.”) Belief in this claim does not confine, exclude, or narrow our art: nothing and no one is more capacious, more inclusive, more imaginative, more original than Christ himself, who created all things, who is before all things, who binds all things together, who can be found in every cell of creation.
I intend to write only out of calling and passion. I seek that from God, not my agent, not the market, not editors, or even my publisher. This guarantees a wobbly path rather than a sure career. But, face it: there is no sure career in writing except the career of writing from faithfulness, obedience, and joy.
God’s truths are not just propositional and communicable by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational. I desire to write from a faith that I am trying to live in and out of, rather than a faith I am simply pronouncing. Without lived-in faith, our words truly are noisy gongs. As Joy Sawyer has so brilliantly written,
“ . . . without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the “clanging symbol” of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. Just as a poem can scarcely exist without images, we most fully express our poet-God by daily allowing ourselves to be crafted into the image of Christ.
I end here. I believe that writing is a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible—-but the writing inexorably, day by night, moves us closer to the city of God. And if we write well and true, we will not be traveling there alone. Others, at first reluctant, will slowly move with us, following our own feet and our words, drawn to the brightness of a city with open gates and lights that never dim.
I stand in the stern of the skiff and Naphtali is in the bow. “Mom, could I run the skiff for the rest of the pick?”
“Sure,” I reply instantly, my internal eyebrows rising. Finally, it’s happening. “Wanna take it now?” I shout over the engine., careful to keep my face neutral. We are heading to the next net, the bow plunging between waves. She nods her head yes and makes her way back between the totes and skiff sides.
Naphtali, 14, now stands in my place in the stern, I move to the center of the skiff. She has been commercial salmon fishing with her father every day of every summer since she was nine, but she has resisted this move to the stern. Running a 60 horse outboard means you pilot a 26 foot aluminum skiff around swirling nets on the open ocean. It takes finesse, fearlessness and strength.
She grips the outboard handle tentatively, and uses her body as I do, as a stabilizer for the left arm. The men don’t need to do this; they have enough body weight and mass to absorb the intense vibration and the force of propulsion. As we approach the next net, she slows.
We come in for the landing on the net and I see we won’t make it. The wind is pushing us over the line.
“Sorry!” she calls as she reverses.
“That’s okay! Let’s go again!” I reply, facing out to the water, not watching her, giving her room.
We approach again. She slows the engine, idles us close to the corks, and shifts into neutral for me to lean over the skiff side and lift the net out of the water, but we are still five feet short.
“ARRRGG! Which way do you turn this for reverse, mom?”
“The other way. Turn it the other way!” She turns the arm sharply toward herself, but we turn the wrong direction.
Again we miss. Just feet short, the wind blusters the bow over the other side of the corks.
“Mom, maybe you should do it!” Naphtali calls, frustrated.
“No. You can do it. “ I will not tell her again how to do this, I decide. This is a knowledge that comes not from language or shouted directives; it comes only through the hands, the shift of her feet. Her body must begin recording all the ways of moving a craft through the waters she will face.
For me, this started when I was twenty, when I married a fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska and stepped into this ancient, new world of salmon and fishing. That was twenty-eight years ago. I wasn’t taught, I simply did it because I could, because my help was needed in the crush of fish, because the question of who I was---woman, girl, man, wife, fisherman---didn’t matter then.
When we are done with our final net, Naphtali makes one more request; “Mom, can I take it to the tender?”
I smile casually, as if I didn’t know what this means. “Sure, go ahead.” She tightens her grip on the outboard handle, stands straighter and rounds the corner of the island, face set in stoic confidence, the “stern face” her father wears, her grandfather wore, all the men wear as they command their vessel from the stern. The face I wear as well.
We head for the Sierra Seas, the larger boat that takes our fish and delivers it to the cannery. The other skiffs from our fishing operation are there, six of them, with two crewmen in each, all tied together waiting to offload their fish. We see them before they see us. This is it---center stage. I glance up at Naphtali, frozen in an inscrutable aplomb. Then they hear us, and glance in our direction. She is ready. This is her debut, her coming out. The Alaskan fishergirl’s equivalent of a southern girls’ debutante ball. It’s public now---Naphtali is running the skiff. Everyone sees and knows. She is no longer a child or a crewman or a girl; she is a fisherman.
What am I giving to you, daughter? I wondered that day. Though most of her training has been under her father’s eye and hand, I am part of this too. What am I passing on to her? A skill that will bring her deeper into the heart of fishing than she has ever been. There is a sense of foreboding, perhaps what all parents feel as they begin to teach their teenagers to drive a car. You know that you are giving your child the means to grow up, get a job, be independent, but it is always so much more than that. You are giving them the keys to death, to accidents. In their two hands, for the first time, they will grip space and time on a wheel, and they will test all that can be done in these dimensions.
Out here, the consequences are no less. Running a skiff makes you captain of a small ship, presiding over one or two crewmen. It means you earn the right to travel your piece of boat straight into a convulsed, tide-ripping storm of ocean and in the midst of that storm, to fish and work as if there were none. It means you will hold other people’s lives in your hands. It means you will work eight to fifteen hours every day through every summer. It means you will be a girl in a world of men, and expected to work like a man no matter your size. It means that just as you are becoming a woman, Naphtali, you are becoming a man.
I don’t remember which day I became a woman on the water. The years blur together. But I became a man first. It happened in a blow, piloting a small skiff alone through 50 knot winds. Or maybe when the nets were so full of fish we could not lift them from the water. We picked them in the water, then, throwing hundreds, thousands behind us into our skiffs for days, until we could no longer stand. Or on a night when told to drive a skiff full of fish around an island and a reef in the black dark, not knowing where the rocks were, and still going. Or the times I refused help from a crewman though I desperately needed it, my body near breaking. On the nights we took up our nets, me, the smallest, choosing to pull the lead line, the heaviest line of all.
Then, one day I became a woman again. I don’t remember the day. Maybe when out in the skiff with a baby ashore, my breasts filling with milk as the skiff filled with fish, knowing there was a helpless other who needed me more. Maybe when I started accepting help, then asking for it from my 6’2” crewman who was twice my weight, choosing to preserve my back for all its other uses. Maybe when I looked beyond the fish to the crewman beside me to ask him how he’s doing with this work. Maybe when I cried that night alone in the dark, running the skiff around the reef, praying for help. Knowing then that anything I did was not done by strength at all.
Growing up in New Hampshire, if I had thought about being a mother someday and passing a heritage onto my daughter, I would not have imagined this----the two of us out in a skiff, in orange raingear, slimed by fish guts, blood and kelp, the mountains and ocean rising up around us. I would not have imagined us killing fish instead of garnishing them; snatching salmon from watery jaws, shouting sea lions away from our nets, picking kelp at midnight, assessing a man’s worth by body size and strength. Though I grew up in the unisex 60’s and 70’s in a nearly genderless household—with three brothers and two sisters and a mother who built houses, fireplaces, and furniture—somehow, in a rosy glow, I place the two of us in the kitchen. There we are, within warm buttery walls, surrounded by appliances with dash boards and buttons just waiting to be controlled by the lift of our fingers. Engines that whirr to life with a touch rather than a full-body yank on a six-foot pull cord. We are wearing matching aprons instead of matching raingear. Standing side by side while I demonstrate the roll of the pin, the fold of the dough instead of the slashing of kelp and the roll of jellyfish from the nets. Betty Crocker is there. We speak of literature, The Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things as we braid a mound of challah. I teach her the science of yeasts and pie crusts, the brilliance of Indian curries. She learns to savor the artistry of food as I do, the unending beauty of colors and textures and flavors---this, the only domestic art that I love.
None of this has happened. Naphtali, like her brothers, enters the kitchen only to eat. Instead, when I can leave my other labors, writing and the work of a house and children, I gear up, join her, and head out to sea.
Naphtali, now 15, and Noah, my oldest son,13, are my crew tonight. Though they both run skiffs now, I’m taking Duncan’s place on the water and in the stern tonight while he works ashore on the generator. It’s a long run down to Seven-Mile Beach, the furthest of our eighteen nets. The water is troubled by a NE wind, the sky grey. Noah sits quiet, head bobbing in the bounce of the waves, but at peace with this work. Naphtali has a headache and closes her eyes the whole trip down. I think her period has started. She is tired and grumpy. This is their third pick of the day; they’ve already worked eight hours on the nets this morning and afternoon. I wonder what kind of mother I am. I want to send her home and to bed with an aspirin and hot chocolate instead of taking her back to the salt mines. I wish I were home myself. But this is our work.
Halfway through the nets, she perks up, and between fish, we manage a small skirmishing dance, arm-waving steps on the fish-slippery floor of the skiff. We sing songs from Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, “The rain in Spain . . . to da da da da,” urgently redeeming the time, transcending the work, its slow mind-numbing drag across our spirits. Noah does not sing with us. He does not need to.
Later, after delivering our fish to the tender we find out the guys in the other skiffs called us “the cute skiff.” Naphtali is angry to be singled out, to be seen as different from the men. Mostly to be seen as what she is: young, pretty, a girl. None of which has anything to do with her competence on the water. She wants only equality right now.
“Naphtali, be cute as long as you can,” I advise her, knowing in my own body the tyranny of equity.
She glares at me.
“I’m tired of being around men all the time,” Naphtali complains. I go out with her on the next pick. She is 16 now, takes her place automatically in the stern, which makes me crew. Her face is deeply tanned from weeks out on the water; her cheeks are red, eyes a vivid green. I sit in front of her on the seat, partly protected by a chest-high plastic tote that holds our fish and ice. I feel small beneath her. She is taller and stronger than I am now. I gave up arm wrestling her last year. Our catch so far is a paltry dozen or so red salmon, beautiful and rich to eat, but hardly enough to pay for our gas this day. We have plenty of time to talk. We talk about the books we are reading. She has just finished Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country. I tell her about The Myth of the Perfect Mother, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. We decide to trade books if the fishing stays slow. Above us the mountains of the Alaskan peninsula hover like clouds over the water. The sun has warmed the wind to a gusty SW 25, just a day breeze, but enough to riffle the waters and peel their waves to white. Spray sluices us in languid, regular splats. A rogue wave suddenly hits us with fervor, a full face and shoulder wash for both of us. Naphtali turns her head and expertly hawks and spits a mouthful behind her. “I’m getting better at spitting,” she announces. I nod my head, understanding.
She is the only female out on the water every day, at all hours. At 16, she trains and gives orders to new crewmen five to ten years older than her. I watch her as she works, how quickly she surveys the way the net is hanging, the position of the running line, the tidal currents, the wind . . . In an instant she knows what to do and tells me in clipped sentences what she expects of me. “Don’t’ roller it—tides’ too strong. Put the longer pole in the bow. Grab the running line.” I comply, do all that she says. She is the expert now; I am the dilettante who comes out only as needed. No one would know we were mother and daughter, or, if looking from afar, would reverse our identities. Perhaps would even think, father and son.
When the nets are finished, we join our compatriots, the six other skiffs of brothers and hired crewman. Upon some signal invisible to me, all seven skiffs move from a lazy circling to a full-bore race to the tender. Naphtali leans forward, starting off in second place, bouncing over the top of the waves, then slicing through the troughs with that same mix of urgency and calm, while the other skiffs edge beside her. She wins, two minutes later raising her fist in the air hooting in triumph as she sails into the anchorage. I sit beneath her wondering, how has this happened so quickly? And how much of this is my fault?
Sixteen years ago I carried a newborn up the gravel path to the house we were still building. A house on a remote island in Alaska, with no running water, no plumbing. An island inhabited only by my husband Duncan and I, and now this baby. Until then if anyone had asked me to describe “helpless”—I would have reached for a metaphor, helpless is like...But now I held the meaning itself in my arms, the word incarnated in the flesh of this being. And in service to her, I had given over all my strength to become this as well: I was her food, her arms, her legs, her sleep. My body was hers, my mind, my heart----all hers.
Several times a day I would lay her on her stomach. She would strain to lift her head a few inches to gawk about her, holding her bobbing gaze as long as she could, then collapse into a wail of frustration. I would let her cry for a minute, then move her on to the next “station”---an infant seat, where she would bounce content for three minutes, gaping at the gallery of cut-out magazine faces, until the next cry and the move to the next station, on the floor above the Sesame Street gym. The rotations were interrupted only by nursings, walks on the hillside, where I could watch the men out on the nets, my former life, whatever other diversion I could devise.
By the fourth week of motherhood, both my concept and practice of Strength had changed utterly. Competence and muscle were nothing against this baby. Time felt the enemy, the ever-lengthening barrier between this helpless infant and who I hoped she would become someday: an upright, articulate, fully capable being. I began to glimpse then what was required to deliver her to that state: nothing short of a long slow courage to persevere through days, minutes, years of minute attendance.
Through these long hours alone, with Duncan out fishing, and no roads or cars, no escape from the house and the island, no contact with the outside world, I wished for magic, some kind of Faustian exchange that would re-write the laws of the universe and spin us forward, effortlessly leapfrogging the exhausting work of love. The outcome seemed so distant and theoretical. How did I know that this baby would become a girl and then a teenager and then, unthinkable, an adult---a woman? And what would that mean? That she would stay with me here on shore or that we would fish together, she and I, or that she would be my younger self, and work side by side out on the water with Duncan? I didn’t know.
Neither did I know then that she would be the only girl. That over the next fourteen years there would be five more---all boys. Had I known, would I have taught her differently, so she would not scorn the kitchen, a life onshore tending babies and gardens instead of wrestling saltwater and killing fish?
This summer Naphtali turns seventeen. I don’t know how many more summers she’ll return with us to this island to fish. I chose this life; she was born into it. The thought of being alone here with all boys and men saddens me. When she leaves, what will she take with her? What do other mothers pass onto their daughters? Great-grandmother’s china, Aunt Mary’s handmade baskets, family recipes. I have none of these.
I want to give her something that is hers, and ours, alone, that cannot be given to my sons, that was not given to me. Something distinctly female, that will ease and further her way down the path of womanhood. It has taken me a long time to become a woman out here; I had to find the way myself; a winding path between nursing babies, gutting fish, changing diapers, and spitting into storms. I wish its benefits and joys upon her much sooner than they came to me. It is not fishing that I want to give. It was never really mine to bestow. It has always been Duncan’s. And it is much more hers now than mine; it is already her lifelong work, even if she stops tomorrow. If she continues, she will have to sort out how to be a woman in this world and work, and decide how much it matters. I have struggled with this for almost thirty years.
It’s 7:45 pm, time to ready for the evening pick. Naphtali is going out with Emily, her best friend, here for a month. A respite from her usual company of men. Naphtali’s bathroom ministrations for fishing usually mean a business-like slathering of sunblock on her face, her hair wound and pinned up beneath a plastic shower cap then a bandana around it as protection from fish slime and blood. Her wardrobe: a thermal undershirt, sweatpants, wool socks pulled up over her ankles. Then the step into rubber hip boots, the pull of clownish orange and yellow bib rainpants, a foam lifejacket zippered over the top, vinyl gloves to her forearms. All body shape erased.
This night both girls emerge from the bathroom with the usual wardrobe, but with their hair exposed, in pony tails, their faces transformed with rich red lipstick, huge hoop earrings, gypsy scarves, thick mascara and eyeshadow. Laughing at this exaggeration of their own beauty, and laughing at where they will take it---out into the skiff, where gender is stolen---they trip down the hill to the beach, steps light with anticipation. Under her arm, Naphtali carries a digital camera and an unopened box of tampons. She has told me what they are up to. In honor of her birthday, they are designing their own digital cover of Seventeen Magazine. They will feature an outhouse contest, a fit-and-fabulous exercise routine, and an article highlighting the tampons: “Menstruating in a Man’s World.” Out on the water, they take turns standing in the bow for the photo shoot.. Behind them, kelp dried on the skiff sides, fish at their feet, they flash a glamour-girl smile, finger pointing to the tampons.
It is just what a mother hopes as she carries her newborn daughter home from the hospital—that her daughter will exceed her. She is stronger than I am---she is becoming a woman sooner than I did. I pray for her the courage to stay strong; the resolve to keep singing when everyone else is silent, to dance in the skiff. She has this already. More, I pray for her what she has not yet dared: the courage to be weak, the courage to ask for help, to cry when she needs, to bleed when she must, to work beside men as a woman. And most of all, if she cannot, for the courage to walk away. I will help her pack. And I will bear her absence---alone now in a world of fish and men---with all the strength of a woman.
“Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘what is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” ----Dostoyevsky
"How did I get so lucky to have my heart awakened to others and their suffering?" ----Pema Chödrön
When my father dies, I may not know about it for days. The people at his housing complex in Sarasota, Florida don’t know that he has children---six, actually. He has not told anyone about this fact of his life. When he collapsed on the sidewalk last year, it was at least a week before I heard. I am practicing now, writing about him, venturing out onto a vast glacier, knowing that day is coming. He is 86, I think, with diabetes, phlebitis and smoker’s lungs that heave his chest for every breath. We will not have a service. The cessation of his breath will not be enough to draw us together. No one would cry. I don’t want to go to a funeral where no one cries.
I flew down from Alaska to see him twelve years ago, six years since my last visit. He was living on a sailboat then, moored in Captains’ Jack’s marina. He had lived on the boat now for three. His lifelong dream had been to sail around the world. Books and magazines with sailboats floated on our tables and bookshelves for most of my childhood. It was sunny, humid. We stepped into a peapod dinghy that barely held the two of us. We had two inches of freeboard, his end sinking heavily into the still water. He was mid-seventies then, still strong, rowing with grunts and concentration. He did not talk. The sailboat was a 28’ ketch, dirty white, the miniature cabin sunk with magazines, ash trays, with hardly a spot to sit or stand. I was polite, tried to say nice things about the boat, which was now everything he owned, the container of his life. He was able to buy the boat when my mother divorced him and sold the house. He had never had an income, except for the last ten years working in a shoe factory throwing hides onto a stamping machine. He got to keep 5$ a week, which he spent on cigarettes and coffee. The rest he handed over to my mother, these the only paychecks she saw in 27 years. She gave him enough money from the sale of the house to buy this boat---to land his dream. I found out later that he couldn’t sail it. One trip out of the harbor he had crashed into another boat; the other, the coast guard had to tow him back in.
I watched him closely this trip. He had been living on his own for three years by now. Who was he here now that he was freed from the prison of his family? People who hung out at the marina knew him--- the waterfront crowd, most past middle age, long hair, lots of tattoos, some toothless, all inhabiting vessels as wrecked as my fathers’. Their amazement at my presence was clear. “Who’s this, Howard?” they asked, in a sly leering way, like, “you old dog you!” already reassessing what they thought they knew aobut him. When we ate breakfast in the marina café, the waitress greeted him by name, then asked the same: “Who is this, Howard?” I watched his face each time someone spoke to him. Would he look them in the eye? Does he see them when they speak to him? He looked away, or glanced at them and me with the flattened eyes I knew so well. He never said my name or introduced me. “This is my daughter. She’s from Alaska,” he would answer with a slight grimace and a mocking tone, his head bobbing slightly. What little he knew about my life was usually echoed back in this same tone, like a challenge or a joke. “How many kids do you have now?’ he might ask at some point, in that same voice. Or, “so you’re still fishing, I suppose?” or, “I suppose you still believe in God?’ Always spoken as if it were an indefensible activity, performed against all sense and reason. My answer never really mattered.
I left after three days of trying to talk and be nice. He hadn’t changed.
When I was nine, I remember him standing in the den, his dark suit on, his hat, a grey overcoat, the clothes he wears when he drives off everyday. A traveling salesman, like his father. But his jobs never lasted for long. He was always fired. My throat caught as he stood there, suitcase in hand. He was leaving; my first memory of his many banishings. I was sad. He looked so pathetic standing there, my father, and I felt for a moment as though I understood. He and I were the same, we were both locked into something we couldn’t escape. It made us weak and small. And it wasn’t our fault. I think I hugged him. I may have even cried. When I was in eighth grade, he left on his own. We had a little money left in the bank from the sale of our last house 3 years before that we were living on—less than a thousand dollars left. Our cupboards had always been sparse, but now we were down to 27$ a week for food, eating canned mackerel for dinner, boiled chicken necks, or cracked eggs that we bought for 25 cents a dozen. On one of these days, my father drove to the bank, withdrew all that was left to fix his car and then motored off. We found him one night, a month or two later, all of us in the car. He came back, promising that he would keep a job; he would show interest in his family; he would care about his children; he would smile and laugh and be sad and show feelings; he would be a husband and a father. I never wondered why he did not do any of these things.
He had lived with his parents until he was thirty. He was handsome, dark skin and jet-black hair, perfect features, a muscular body. He met my mother through a cycling club, the AYH, American Youth Hostel. I do not know how long they knew each other before they married. In the one photo, taken after the justice of the peace pronounced them husband and wife, my father was blank. He would change, my mother thought. He had wanted to be a writer. In the two year business college he graduated from, he was editor of the newspaper. He tested smart, had a high IQ and spent whatever time he could reading---science and boating magazines, newspapers, classic novels, a few of which now stand in my own library. Heart of Darkness, The Magic Mountain, a Charles Dickens Reader. I had read some of his short stories, long hidden in a manila folder. The stories weren’t good, but the sentences were long and fluid. He liked words, like me. When my first book came out, I sent him a copy, but he never answered. I did not send him any of my work again.
Without an income, my mother eventually found some means of provision. Our family work became restoring old colonial houses, most in disrepair, beginning with whatever house we were living in. Following my mother’s lead, we labored through weekends, after school, summers, tearing down walls, sanding pine floors, tarring barn roofs, replacing rotten sills . . . We lived in houses heated with a single woodstove through New Hampshire winters, our rooms below freezing most of the time, and in houses with wells that went dry through the summers. When the house was done, we attempted to sell it, though it sometimes took years, our funds from the previous sale dwindling to nothing. My father was there for some of this, the heavy work, but mostly it was us. After hot summer days whacking stands of Chinese bamboo with machetes, or scraping the dried paint off the massive edifice of the current house, if my father was with us, he was the one who asked for ice cream, an astonishing luxury. We held our breath awaiting the verdict, and when it was yes, we were glad he had been with us.
He fought in the war. His high scores landed him in navigation school, but he flunked out and was moved to another rank and school. He failed there too and, with nowhere else to go, joined the infantry, a foot soldier. Of his year overseas, he told one story, if asked. He was sitting on top of a tank somewhere in Germany. The others were sitting in the grass, taking a break. Suddenly he knew he had to get off the tank. He jumped down and within seconds, a mortar blast hit the tank right where he had been sitting. “So, you wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t gotten off the tank.” He says, in summary, his face expressionless, lips drawn into a line. “Don’t you think that was God? “ I asked. “I suppose,’ he shrugged blandly.
He had been Christian Science for awhile, then nothing, then an atheist, with special enthusiasm for UFO’s. He watched for them every clear summer night, standing out on the grass, surveying the dark tent overhead. When we were younger, we watched too, sometimes. He told us of spaceships he had seen, close-up, of fireballs shooting at him right there on our back road in New Hampshire—his conversion experience. He never wavered in his belief after that. Except one year, twenty years ago. I was living in Anchorage then. A letter with his tight scrawl showed up in my mailbox, the second or third letter he had ever written to me. He had read all the way through the New Testament, he wrote. He believed in Jesus. Would I forgive him? I cried bitterly for two days after that letter, because I had had no part to claim in his scandalous redemption. I had never even thought to pray for him. And I was not sure I could forgive him, my persistent invisibility, the times he made me touch him while tucking me in at night, the poverty and the work . . . A year later, after a flurry of letters between us, he wrote his last letter for awhile, tucked inside a box of all the books I had sent him, along with magazines with aliens and spaceships on the cover: “Dear Leslie, don’t call me daddy anymore. I am returning all the books you’ve sent, I don’t have room for them on my boat. Don’t talk to me about God or church. I’m sending you some magazines you should read.”
Two years ago we all flew down to Florida, my husband and children, ten years since my last visit. We would do the usual vacation things, but mostly this was a trip to see him. He was 84 then. This would be my children’s only chance to meet him. They had little curiosity about him, and he knew nothing about them, but I had learned from my husband and children what fathers might be for. I wanted them to know who he was for themselves. Someday they would care. I warned the older kids, 16 to 9 years old, that he probably would not look at them or ask their names or ages. They shrugged, accepted this as routine. I worried about the two little boys, who were 1 ½ and 3, who thought a grandfather was like their grandpa back home, an old man who wanted you to sit on his knee, who played hide-and seek with you, and asked you questions and gave you hugs. I just told them this man was my father.
When we pulled up to the VA housing complex in Sarasota, Duncan, who was driving saw him first.
“There he is,” he tipped his head to point. I recognized his head, nearly bald, distinctively square, with a barely visible neck, dark skinned. All as I remembered. But heavy, maybe 40 pounds heavier than the last time I had seen him. He was wearing shorts and a jersey, the jersey tight over his belly. I stared at him, suddenly frozen. What do I do? How do I play this scene? Loving daughter greeting long-lost father? Kind daughter bringing her children to meet their invisible grandfather? The van stopped. I got out slowly, the side doors opened and the kids piled out, one after another, like some silly cartoon about an unending stream of people spilling from a tiny car. My father stood there watching, looking past the kids, not seeming to see them. I suddenly knew what to do. I smiled and hugged him lightly, patting him on the back.
“Hi, how ahh ya?” he asked in his Massachusetts accent. He smiled a little, showing most of his teeth broken or gone.
“Good. We had a little trouble finding this place,” I say, with false brightness.
He walked us around his apartment complex, and then up to his room. “I cleaned up for you,” he grimaced, waving around the room, showing us the results--- a box of a room awash in old newspapers and stacks of magazines, ash trays, a bed and a couch taking up most of the floor space. He showed me his refrigerator and the contents of his freezer—mostly cheap TV dinners, and ice cream. My brother told me he had eaten ice cream before bed every night of his life since the divorce. Coffee in the morning, cigarettes, ice cream at night, UFO’s. That was all he needed.
We loaded into the van, nine of us now and drove to Crystal Beach on his suggestion. I had no idea what to do on this visit, and felt saved by this beach. It was blindingly white, as deep as it was wide, massed with bodies fervent with languor. I walked slowly with him out onto the beach,--he walked like the old man he now was. Duncan and the kids ran ahead into the water while I staked out a stamp of ground for our blanket. “Can you sit?” I asked, looking up at him as he stood above me. No, his hips were bad—he couldn’t lower himself onto the sand. A man nearby heard our dilemma and jumped up to offer own folding chair; I felt a sudden bright heat—yes, kindness. I understood as I set up the chair. Later I got him a hot dog, then an ice cream. I could pity him. I could feel pity. And I could pretend that this was all of my grief, simply the diminishments of age.
We sat there in the white sun on the white beach, just he and I. He sat in that chair just as he had sat in that one living room chair in all the houses we had lived in. He had no discernible waist or neck---his head and body were welded together. Heavy, always an oppressive heaviness about his body that pulled at me like gravity---so little to animate the weight of his own limbs. This was my last chance to know who he was, to find a fissure, something to take me down into that frozen stillness. I asked him about the war, about his mother and father, about his childhood---I knew so little. He didn’t remember much, answering in short vague sentences, spoken sideways, eyes always away. I was bothering him, He wanted to sit in the sun, watch the water and be quiet. I kept asking questions, tried to store some of his words in my head to write them down later, but they evaporated almost as soon as he spoke them. Two hours later, we were headed back, the day at the beach already exhausted. I was quiet and grim. Did we really spend all this money to fly down here for these two hours? He hadn’t asked the names of my children or spoken to them, except to ask the older ones about the weather in Kodiak. Just before we left the soft-serve stand, I told Duncan to take a photo. I wanted to remember this moment, the last time I would see my father. He sat at the wooden picnic table with a slight smirk, looking utterly content. I stood behind him, deciding not to arrange my face. I would let it be. My lips taut, mouth clamped shut, containing as much emptiness and want as I could hold. And anger at myself and him---how could I still want?
The pictures done, we dropped him off at his building. I got out of the car to say goodbye, my body leaden, ready to drive away. I gave him a quick hug, shoulders only, not wanting to feel his body against mine. As I pulled away he held on and looked me in the eyes his face just a foot away from mine, and said, ‘You’re amazing.”
I startled, not believing what I had heard, what he was doing. “What do you mean?’
“Up there in Alaska, fishing, with six kids, writing. You’re amazing. You’re a success”
I blinked, aghast. He had thoughts about me? I patted his shoulder, pressed my lips into a smile and ducked down into the car, quick, before I could want him to say anything more.
This is almost everything I know about my father. Every day this week I have left my own family to march out onto that white open beach, the blankness of these pages needing to know, interrogating that heavy presence, waiting for answers, wanting a name. I had no intention of ever writing about him—how do I inscribe emptiness on a white space? But an email came last week from a friend whose father had died. She sent the essay she wrote at his service. It was beautiful and mournful, filled with all she would miss without him. Hours later, I began to write, and I could not stop. I wouldn’t be satisfied with a pat and a fake smile this time. Not Until the pages are filled, until a name is given---any name.
I began with a guess, searching on the Internet for information on schizophrenia. I read pages, scrolled through every personality disorder until I found it, from the American Psychological Association:
“A pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:
neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family
almost always chooses solitary activities
has little, in any interested in having sexual experiences with another person
takes pleasure in few, if any, activities
lacks close friends or confidents other than first-degree relatives
appears indifferent to the praise or criticism of others
shows emotional coldness, detachment or flattened affectivity.
Why have I waited until I am nearly 50, to find this name---Schizoid personality disorder.
One last question. I return to the little white box on the screen and add one more word: “treatment.” My face blanches waiting for the first entry to open. Then I read a second, and a third. They all say the same. There is no treatment. There is nothing that could have been done. Except to know. Which could have changed, yes, everything. I cried.
I cried most of the week I wrote this. It was not hard to cry. I have cried a lot these last few years. In church nearly every week; this spring, at the Washington National Cathedral I sat behind a grandmother and mother and daughter all holding hands during Evensong. I could not stop weeping. I cry for Michelle savaged by untreatable mental illness, for my starving brothers, for the floods and droughts of motherhood, my neighbors who saw their 5 year old son drown last month, for Ben’s mother with Alzheimer’s, for Mindi’s children . . . I lament this weight of tears, my sure presence in the house of mourning---my stuttering in the house of parties, but now I have found my own true name, too--- Mercy. What mercy is this, to be given life from one who cannot love or cry and to be granted such aches and loves and the glad burden of others’ sorrow? How do you live without memory and grief and sadness? You sit on a white white beach, under a creamy sun and eat vanilla ice cream while your daughter you haven’t seen in ten years sits famished, dying beside you, and this day is the same as any other, but the ice cream is pretty good.
I am not sure that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. I have lived in the house of such a man. His face is almost heavenly-----content, his visage unwrinkled and untroubled even at 86, a sure tranquility without the complication of remembrance or regret. And he has loved. It is never a question of not loving---it is only a question of what is loved. He loved what little he could.
Maybe I will go back when the call comes. Maybe I will go sooner. I could fly down and take him back to Crystal Beach, that sparkling plain, this time with a folding chair—no, two chairs. I would sit next to him. I would see what he sees---the vast white sand, the sun, the quiet water. I would buy an ice cream for him and for me too this time. I wouldn’t ask him questions or want anything from him. I would be grateful for that one moment he saw me and almost spoke my name-----No, this is not enough. This is not the ending I can write or live. I have to want. I have to believe that fathers should love their children; I have to remember and write all that was done and lost and missed. And if, each time I remember, I can cry for him, for me, for all of us, maybe this is love.
No Exit: Guest post by Leslie Leyland Fields
I push through the doors of the Ted Stevens airport, the last door on the strip. I am late, of course, but I am not worried. This is ERA I am flying, after all. I’m just going home to Kodiak. No airport security, just fly through the check-in 20 minutes before the flight, show a boarding pass and ID and walk the tarmac out to the prop-winged bird. But it is Frontier Air now, I remember, yet another airline re-shuffle in these unstable times. I check in and find out that the Frontier departure gate for Kodiak has been moved and is now at the other end of the terminal. I buy some crackers for dinner and roll my carry-on down the new hallway.
The tunnel is distant, twisting and empty; it is Kafka-esque, I decide, and I wonder, as I’m eating my crackers and rolling my suitcase, if some grotesque metamorphosis is even now rearranging my cells. But when I reach the end, I change my mind. A sudden city of people has appeared, crammed and clustered in a narrow cell of a waiting room. They all look strangely settled, as though they’ve been here for an age. I decide Kafka is out---and Sartre is in, in this chillingly accurate replica of “No Exit.”
I find out the weather in Kodiak is bad. That the last two planes, the Frontier dash-8 and the Alaska jet both flew gallantly all the way to Kodiak, looped successive ellipticals, in hopes of a fissure in the impenetrable fog and clouds, then defeated, circled back. This city in the cell, then, is populated with returnees, Loopers, fatigued but dogged people, trying again.
I know that feeling. I’ve done the Kodiak Loop too many times myself in my 32 years here. (My husband may hold the record, though---five loops, five tries to Kodiak before he finally touched ground.) Tonight, I just want to get home, rest my swollen cheek and throbbing jaw, from root canal surgery done the day before, on my own feather pillow.
I sit next to two women I know. We compare weather reports from our families back home. All reports agree---the weather’s getting worse. Heavy rain, heavy clouds, heavy fog, and winds coming up. A voice from the ceiling speaks, “We’re waiting on the weather to board, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll see what the weather wants to do. We’ll let you know as soon as we know if we’re going.”
Debbie and Christy and I decide they should just cancel. We should all go back to our hotels, go out to a really nice dinner (Orso’s, say Debbie and I ) and return to Kodiak tomorrow---well-fed, rested, swooping home in a single declarative flight, no questions (will we board? Will we land?) hanging. Fifteen minutes later the voice announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the weather has improved enough to launch. If it doesn’t get better while we’re flying, we’ll land in Homer to refuel, and then take another look at it from there. We’ll be boarding in just a few moments.”
We roll our eyes at each other. It’s good enough to launch, but not likely good enough to land. Neither place, Anchorage or Homer is home, but getting stuck in Homer is worse than getting stuck in Anchorage. We slowly reconstitute ourselves, get up and dumbly, reluctantly stand in line. We all know we’re players in Sartre’s theatre after all, but we have to follow the script. We have to try, at least.
On board, the seats are full. No one bothers to look out the cloud-blinded windows. My seatmate mutters to herself, “This is why I don’t live in Kodiak anymore.” I entertain Debbie across the aisle with another flight story, this one of a three hour flight delayed in Seattle, then an unexpected midnight landing and refueling in Yakutat, in case we had to circle extra long before landing. We don’t talk about the planes that have crashed.
Fifty minutes pass. We’re past Homer now, surely. We’re going all the way, then. We feel the plane descend, hear the engine straining at another pitch. The landing gear drops mechanically; my seatmate and I exchange hopeful, nervous smiles. All eyes strain at the windows, trying to pierce the curtains of fog. We lean forward in our seats, pressing toward home, but still no sign of earth below. Someone behind me, across the aisle says “Look! I see some cliffs!” Hope stirs , the plane buzzes louder, our stomachs drop, a runway appears and we fall onto it gracelessly but beautifully.
A few months earlier, while traveling home to Kodiak from somewhere far away, I limped up to the ERA counter at the Anchorage airport. Almost home. One leg remaining. I was tired. I handed my commuter coupon to the woman behind the counter. There was a problem. She studied my coupon, reads my itinerary aloud to herself, “Okay, let’s see, Anchorage to Yuck, Yuck to Anchorage”.
I looked at her through night-flight eyes, blinked slowly, incredulously, then asked. “What did you say? Did you just call Kodiak, yuck??”
She laughed unselfconsciously. “Oh yeah. We all call it that. It’s the worse place we fly. That and Dutch Harbor. It’s always causing problems—wind, rain, fog, so hard to get in and out of. What a pain.”
She did not consider the fact that I might live there. She wanted me to feel sorry for her.
I have ten trips to make Outside these next few months, for speaking and teaching. I try to show up on stage at conferences and colleges and perform as though whisked in by my own Lear jet. As though I did not miss my other connections because I couldn’t get out of Kodiak, as though I had not flown all night and the next day to get there. As though the passage from this island to the rest of the world were not exhausting and harrowing every time. I try not to talk about it, this endless subject. And I try not to feel like a martyr for living in a place nicknamed “yuck.”
I’m not always successful. I don’t want to play the martyr---or the fool. Kodiak Island is not a stage, but I’m acting out what is most of all, true in this world--- we only imagine that we direct our lives. Our comings and goings, our entrances and exits are fragile, our intentions and desires controlled by winds and clouds and waters whose own travels are measured and announced, but largely unknown. I yield to this, in my own stubborn way, relieved to know the out-there world is so beyond my one self. I am glad to be here at all, to have any part to play in this stunning, wind-and fog wrought theatre.
I say that in my best moments. In my deepest heart, I want my planes to take off and land by my own perfect script. When they don’t, I know nothing else to do but this: to sit by the window, rehearsing my lines---again.
“But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted.” ---Wendell Berry
More than a dozen bears are ambling and gobbling their way out of the hearts of Kodiak residents. There’s a couple in my neighborhood too. One was shot and killed while raiding a chicken coop not far from my house.
Removal of the bear shot while raiding a chicken coop.
We live on an island of more than 4000 Kodiak bears, the highest density of bears in the world. Most of the island is a federal bear refuge (everything in green on the map).
Our high school sports teams are, of course, “The Bears.” Part of our fishcamp is on Bear Island. We teach our kids what to do when they see a bear (photo) . We’re on the alert out there for bears swimming over to our fishcamp island. We have guns loaded on gun racks ready for a marauding bear. When we hike we fasten a canister of bear spray to our belts.
But we’ve not had so many frontyard bears before. The reason? A new garbage system. Central dumpsters have been replaced, inexplicably, with garbage cans (“rollcarts”) placed out on the streets, creating an irresistible temptation
to the bruin population.
Blame is being slung as fast and harsh as hash and hard tack. No one is blaming the bears. Everyone is blaming the garbage; more specifically the ones who voted the new garbage system in.
Into this mess of blame and hash, I feel no need to defend the bear. The bear is himself an overwhelming fact of nature who can defend himself better than most (though not against guns). Nor can I defend the planners who passed this plan despite vociferous and prophetic objections.
I offer instead a few words in the defense of garbage, which cannot defend itself.
We hate it, of course. We despise even our own garbage. We lily-wrap it in scented bags (I predict floral garbage bags will be next) that lock, snap and tie like a noose to choke out any possible leakage. We whip it out our doors, out of sight and smell, as if it carried the bubonic plague.
But garbage tells the truth about us. It has wisdom to impart. It reminds us that are not independent, self-sustaining creatures. We must eat, drink, wear clothes, and clean up to stay alive and well. Our lives, our breath and our body costs other beings, requires other lives and resources. We cannot not create waste. Even without wrappers or fast food, the cleanest foods, even water will turn to waste in our bodies. There is always something left over. Only the dead produce nothing.
But we are wasteful in our waste. We tire of our clothes sooner than they wear out. We chuck our clunky-heeled shoes, no longer in style. We stuff the can with the turquoise coat too gauche for our taste this year. We serve ourselves too much food and throw away the rest. We throw too much away because we buy too much. We buy too much because we don’t know the difference between want and need.
And even what we throw away other creatures want and need.
I am not much different than most people. I’d like to consume less---less of everything, especially plastic (but maybe not shoes and clothes—which I buy a lot of, but mostly used--Phew!)
Two thousand years ago, when Jesus turned a boy’s sack lunch into a feast for 5,000, despite his ability to produce infinite resources, he threw nothing away. When all had eaten and marveled, he told the disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments. Let nothing be wasted.”
Those words, both their spiritual and their literal application, are enough for me. “Let nothing be wasted.” Don’t waste pain, or fear or time or strength or resources or any of the gifts you’ve been given. Don’t even waste your waste.
Reduce it if you can. Don’t refuse so much of your refuse. At the least, let it remind you of the cost of life, what costly creatures we are.
Knowing this, don’t spend more: value everything you hold for all it’s worth.
And sometimes, don’t let go.
Our freezer is nearly empty. We’ve eaten all of last year’s fish and meat, which constitutes a near emergency. Tomorrow I’ll close my computer, ignore my writing deadlines and head back out by bush plane and boat to an island in the Gulf of Alaska where I’ve worked in commercial fishing with my family for 35 years. We were so busy with the commercial season this summer we didn’t have time to put up our own fish for the winter, the wild salmon that will feed us luscious Omega-3 saturated flesh weekly through a long season of dark. We also harvest berries, venison, halibut and sometimes caribou. Putting up our own food stores, which goes by the shorthand term “subsistence,” is a normal and necessary part of most people’s lives in rural Alaska.
“Subsistence” is defined as “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” In Alaska, however, where a subsistence lifestyle is as common as wool socks, it’s evolved into almost the opposite concept. We don’t hunt and fish and grow and harvest simply to live—we engage in subsistence to live well. We have access to cellophane-wrapped factory-farmed meat like everyone else—but it is expensive, saturated with antibiotics and hormones, and has been shipped a very long way to get here. We prefer to harvest wild-grown meat from our own piece of the land and sea. It’s one of the reasons we live here.
This last week I began another kind of subsistence: I started re-reading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s wise and extraordinary novel. Her profound musings on the worth of life, as spoken through John Ames, an elderly pastor, remind me how empty my writer’s pantry has become. The authors who have sustained me through the decades—Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggeman, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson—have become strangers of late supplanted by blogs, social media, and research for other writing projects. These are all quick, short reads full of good information, but I’ve been achingly hungry without knowing it.
I realize that my writing life is little different than my food life. I’m often so busy on the commercial end of the work—the marketing, creating the next book proposal, the social media—that I forget to do the real subsistence work. While I’m as tempted as anyone else to spend my time feeding on strategies to garner audiences and master social media, ultimately, I’ll starve on such a diet. Fifty-seven Ways to Grow Your Platform, while helpful, will do little to awaken mystery, stir my imagination, provoke paradox, unearth wisdom, deepen my humanness, all of which is why I began to write in the first place. I realize if I maintain a steady diet of techniques, I’ll soon be setting an impoverished table for not only myself, but also for my readers, who come themselves needing sustenance.
Subsistence work is not easy. Rather than grabbing cellophane packages of meat and fish from the meat counter, I have to go out into boats, I have to use knives and muscles, I have to cut off heads, pull out guts, spill real blood.
It’s a physical engagement with the material world. Reading the best writers is not unlike this. It takes more effort to read longer works. Blood will be spilled there as well as we wrestle with the deepest, hardest and most profound stories of dying and living. But this is how we will subsist and be sustained as writers for a very long time.
When I sit down to my first meal of grilled salmon this winter, I will remember where it came from, how it felt in my hands. I will be so well-fed, I will want to write about it, and will set the table for others to join me in the feast. I hope my work will feed others as well as I have been fed myself. With some labor, and yes, some blood, it can happen.
What kind of reading are you returning to for “extravagant subsistence”? How can we make more time for this kind of reading (and for sustaining physical labor)?
We're overworked, stressed, constantly on the move. More than 90 percent of Americans stay connected to their mobile phones—which is to say, to their office—24/7.
Old news. In 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life (Tyndale), Matthew Sleeth, M.D., dashes off a prescription that is 3,500 years older: a return to the fourth commandment ("Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy").
As someone who has taken the dose, I have unexpected news to report. Halfway through, I felt so convinced of Sleeth's arguments for rest (and so exhausted from my previous Sabbath), I took a nap. Without guilt. My testimonial, then: 24/6 works!
Sleeth makes a winsome case for a return to Sabbath "rest, renewal and reverence." As the director of Blessed Earth and the author of Serve God, Save the Planet, he brings his dual expertise in eco-theology and medicine to the subject. A Sabbath, after all, is given to the land itself, and who would know more about workaholism than a former ER physician?
His diagnostic skills are on full display. We take comfort from our work obsession, he notes, because "[i]f work is the meaning of our lives, then more work equals more meaning." To balance hard work, we engage in hard play. But there's a biblical solution to our collective freneticism: work hard—then stop, a rhythm where "the work takes on more meaning and the stopping takes on holiness."
God's holiness is the very ground of the fourth commandment, the longest and most detailed commandment of the ten, Sleeth reminds us: "He rests because he is holy and everything that God does is holy …. Rest shows who God is."
He does address the usual issues around Sabbath-keeping: Which day? What constitutes work and rest? Does Jesus' grace nullify the commandment? He sketches these issues helpfully without getting stuck in the usual ruts of legalism or, on the other side, a casual libertinism that reduces the Sabbath to any personal moment of diversion.
For all this good, I confess to a few queasy moments along the way. The subtitle itself threatens a Joel Osteen-like "live your best life now." The vibe continues in the preface, which highlights a business owner who closes his store on Sunday and ends up, yes, a multimillionaire. Thankfully, Sleeth makes few prosperity promises beyond that lapse, but he clearly knows it will take some pragmatism and marketing to sell the Sabbath to a horde of workaholic pragmatists. Overall, though, the theologian in me is slightly disappointed. More should have been done to address the sacred/secular divide that the fourth commandment appears to establish and sanctify. The seventh day is named holy; does this imply the other six days of work and commerce are not? It's not until the last third of the book that the author enlarges the Sabbath from a single day to a "sabbatical way of life," but even to the last, I sense a dualism that isn't fully reconciled.
Admittedly, it's easy to find gaps in a small book that tackles a weighty topic. In the end, Sleeth made the right call. In resting on the seventh day, he notes, God showed restraint, which is "not doing everything that one has the power to do." The doctor has shown a similar restraint. Would an exhaustive theological treatise on the Sabbath urge fatigued readers toward a fuller life of reverence, balance, and faith? Not likely.
I expect and hope the doctor's prescription will lead to ditched cell phones and outbreaks of walks, family dinners, naps, and a furious shuffling of to-do lists, which may feel a lot like work at first. But not for long.