Thursday, October 24, 2013

The New Home Office

My husband worked in corporate America trapped in a cubicle for more than twenty years, and for another five divided his time between a desk facing a wall at home and a windowless office in a massive building. (My home office looked across the street to a small orchard and Betsy, the neighbor's cow.)

Now, though, in our self-employment venture, Kevin's office looks out on the waters south of Agate Passage in Puget Sound. He has stationed a table, printer, and his laptop computer in the upper room of the house we are remodeling to sell, and has been spending his days at the new home office since August.

He can tell you how high the tide is within six inches, at what depth the large rock off the shore will be submerged, how this translates to the water level against the bulkhead, and how the sounds we can hear of water slapping against wood vary with the tide. He watches the inland sea expand and contract each day, the sunset go pink over the water and the moonrise over Bainbridge Island, and catches the top of Mt. Rainier on clear days.

Each day he watches clouds and fog roll and lift and birds fly and float: seagulls that flock by, blue herons who fish from the shore and perch on the large rock, cormorants who roost all day on a floating dock a few hundred yards north, spreading their wings like bats for minutes at a time when they need (I speculate here) personal space, and with some regularity, bald eagles gliding by.

I don’t work at the project house often, we’ve hired professionals and laborers as befits a business, but I’ve spent time there kayaking, picnicking, spending the night by the beach twice, visioning with Kevin and offering my opinion on the latest plans, and gardening.

I’ve spent a lot of time there this last week, picking sticks and plant debris out of the hillside, cutting off dead branches of native salal, and trying to remove the roots of Himalayan blackberry (curse you Himalayan blackberry). The eagles have been out. One afternoon I kept hearing lots of distinctive chatter, and dropped what I was doing to scan the sky, but couldn’t quite locate it. Finally I saw the eagle fly by with a soft cedar tip in its talons. I guessed it was building a nest.

Kevin tells me that my entire demeanor changes when I hear an eagle, and it’s true. I enter a state of heightened awareness, listening intently, looking up and up and around, and evidently my jaw drops and my eyes sparkle and I’m alight. When Kevin’s nearby, I call to him, “Bald eagle,” and he lopes out of the house, down the hill to where I am, looking at the sky.

Yesterday, Kevin, who has been working outside near the water, saw two eagles making their presence very visible, taking over the cormorants’ dock, flying together over the neighborhood. He phoned me with an eagle report; he is as rapt as I am, and I am glad we are delighting in this together. I don’t know if we’d feel the same if we were born and raised here, but we weren’t and I pray that the novelty never wears off. (Watch a video of the eagles.)

I think we have a mating pair in the neighborhood establishing a new nest, and today I heard the telltale cry and looked up to see a bald eagle flapping furiously in pursuit of a seagull. The eagle caught the gull in its talons and plummeted to the water. As they hit the surface, the gull broke free, but for long minutes, the eagle continued to chase it. I called to Kevin and together we gaped at something akin to silent aerial road rage. It was fascinating and a bit frightening. Finally, the eagle, energy spent, returned to a tree out of sight, and the gull dropped to the water, bobbing peacefully.

I returned my attention to gardening, thankful that I’d looked up. An hour later I watched a seagull in the shallows dive to the bottom three times, catch a crab, walk to shore, and eat it one bite (and I thought they only mooched French fries at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk).

 I think about the people we will sell this house to, and I hope that they too, will drop whatever tasks occupy them to witness the wildlife dramas in their midst. There is something transformative about working in this environment, the intricacies of nature played out before us instead of in a Nature documentary that shifts our manual labors from work to gift.

There must be moments when my husband wonders how he fell so far off the corporate ladder, and I too have fleeting thoughts of a time when I was recognized in town and respected by the church and its elders. Our circles now are so much smaller, some days encompassing only the two of us plus our cats.

And yet this radical change in circumstances has allowed us to connect with each other and with the natural order in ways that participating in corporate hierarchies and church institutions simply cannot.

For this time in this new home office, I give thanks.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Daily I Fall in Love with the Demolition Crew

It's not everyday that I can combine remodeling and poetry. That happened tonight at my writing group thanks to this poem, our prompt: “Daily I Fall in Love with Waitresses” by Elliot Fried. (Teaching friends, this is really fun to use in a class.) Here's my version with poetic license—they all might have all their teeth.

Daily I Fall in Love with the Demolition Crew

Daily I fall in live with the demolition crew
with their white dust masks
and steel-toed boots.
I love how they bend over sheetrock
sweeping debris.
Their flannel shirts unbuttoned above hammers
t-shirts peaking out like Mt. Rainier—
a frozen volcano.
I feel their fingers
calloused inside their nitrile gloves
pat me down.
Their biceps and well used bodies
keep moving so…
pounding and ripping so seamlessly
that I am left weak and panting.
Daily I fall in love with the demolition crew
with their can-do deconstruction.
They tell secrets by the dump truck
and I want them.
They carry wallboard posts nails lino
their legs are crowbar strong.

They are a husband his wife her grown son
and my husband.
They are tear-it-down tricky—
they know how tiles crack.
Their missing teeth frame missing walls
and single-paned Sayonaras.
Daily I fall in love with the demolition crew.
They are sledgehammer inspiration
but they never stand still long enough
as they wreck wreck wreck. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Do You Have a Book?

 Tell people you’re a writer and their response almost always is, “Do you have a book?”

I hope that most people ask about a book out of a sense of curiosity and excitement  (thinking “how cool is it to meet a real author?”) rather than from a place of judgment (thinking “you’re not a real writer unless you’ve been published”) because writers judge themselves critically already.

Identifying as a writer is tricky. How and when do we decide to call ourselves writers? What credentials do we need to accumulate? Must we have a book?

When I first began writing I was desperate for publication—and not ready for it, and thankfully in the days before self-publishing was cheap and easy, didn’t receive it—I craved validation from some vague and anonymous source (a publishing house? a reader?) to prove I was a writer.

“A writer is someone who writes,” is a core tenant of the AmherstWriters and Artists writing workshop methodology that I trained in as a facilitator. But very rarely does someone who comes to a weekly writing group or class and finishes writing projects at home and writes religiously in her journal call herself a writer—either in public, or to herself. Instead she says, “I like to write.”

A few years ago as part of the Upper Room’s Companions inMinistry program, I was part of a small group of writing pastors. Everyone, except me, was ordained, and of those two words writer and pastor, their primary identity was as pastor, even though much of their time was indistinguishable from the days of a writer: reading, writing, contemplating, and speaking.
Companions in Ministry Writing Group

I identified as a writer who happened to be a pastor—because I’d been writing for ten years by then, five years longer than I’d been an official minister, because I hadn’t pursued formal theological education, and because I felt God called me to writing but not to parish ministry—and by our last gathering, I had “retired” from church ministry to finish my MFA in creative writing.
Phyllis Mayfield and Sunshine Johnson at my ministry farewell party.
I had been writing poetry for church, and short stories (thanks to community college classes and a critique group) for fun, and more than a dozen were published in literary journals, but I wanted to study craft more seriously. And a small part of me also wanted the legitimacy I thought a degree would give me.
With one of my classmates, Tim Anderson, celebrating our graduation.
I’ve since earned my MFA and relocated from California to Washington, and most of the time when I meet someone new and s/he asks “what I do,” I answer with “I’m remodeling a house with my husband,” or “I have a retreat for writers,” and tell them about the studio and my airbnb guests (who over this busy summer were invariably tourists not writers, but I’m happy to host them as we need the money).

My studio retreat for writers. 
I don’t usually introduce myself as a writer.

In the last two months we’ve put our home remodel on hold to begin a new business, and have purchased a project house to fix and sell. The planning and brainwork have fallen to my more qualified husband, and nearly all the physical work will be done by licensed professionals, so I find myself once again thinking about how to spend my time, what I can contribute to the community, and how I should introduce and define myself.

The first project house of our new business.

I’ve looked into leading writing workshops, but without connections through the church and local community like I had in California, they haven’t materialized (yet?). So I thought: if I can’t offer the opportunity for people to write outside of my studio, what can I offer? The answer: the words I’ve written.

I sat down with my laptop last month, scrolled through my writing files, and spiritual poetry leaped out. Written over fifteen years, nearly all the poems were written in the container of the United Methodist church, through experiences like the Academy for Spiritual Formation and Clergywomen’s Retreats, and with one or two exceptions, the poems have not appeared beyond those gatherings.

That will all change early in 2014 thanks to the Christian press eLectio Publishing. My poetry collection, which is titled after my poem, “Was That You Jesus?” will be introduced in both paperback and eBook in January or February.

For me, the book is a memorial to years of fervent spiritual growth, of an identity formed around serving God through the church, a gift of time and place that will not come to me again. The book is also a thank you to each person—and there were so many—who made my journey possible, clergy and parishioners scattered throughout the country who encouraged me and gave me every opportunity imaginable to grow in and express my faith.

Twice in the last week, I’ve been able to answer the question, “Do you have a book?” with, “Yes, my first book will be published early next year.” I’m pleased with the speed and ease from which this poetry collection has gone from idea to signed contract. It’s also nice to offer a straightforward and positive answer to the book question.

But it’s not the absolute wow I fantasized about when I first took up the pen. I ’ve come to see after my long apprenticeship and faithfulness to this vocation, that the book reflects, rather than defines who I am: A writer.