It’s my birthday and I’m spending it at Teen Writing Camp with a dozen 12-to-18-year-olds who’ve voluntarily chosen to sit in a stuffy library meeting room at the Port Orchard Library each afternoon this week to write and learn about writing. We’re opening our last session with thirty minutes of silent writing time before the conversation will range wildly (and may include zombies) and it’ll take all my quick thinking to keep up with their questions and stories.
These dozen are full of enthusiasm and ideas and a penchant for the absurd. Half of them are writing novels, some are writing trilogies. They live close to their creativity.
It’s been twenty years since I began creative writing for “fun” though I’d had the impulse for at least a decade and had squashed it thanks to my inner critic—a rule following responsible adult who told me my time and imagination were better spent taking care of my family. (Though I did make up elaborate bedtime stories for my children many nights, I never wrote any of them down.) And now, I have the privilege of helping a crop of young writers claim their gifts of creative genius.
What I love about being with these teens is that no one has yet convinced them that their imaginations need to be reined in, that creating fantasy worlds and inventing characters is a waste of time, or that they lack the talent to be “real writers.”
A writer is someone who writes, and these teens write—in their heads, on paper, on devices. They invest scads of time and brainpower inventing characters, world building, and crafting elaborate plots.
On my birthday, my husband often asks me what wisdom I have to impart now that I’m a year older. Usually I don’t have much. But, this year, inspired by interacting with these teens, I’ll share a few words of wisdom gleaned from them that apply to writing and life:
Our writing time is winding down and soon we’ll be eating birthday cupcakes (mine’s gluten-free), listening to the stories that have been woven in this half-hour, and discussing how to stay motivated for the long haul. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the gift of another year well lived.
The view from the Port Orchard library parking lot!
The red rhododendron in my new front yard burst into full bloom seemingly overnight yesterday. After months in bud, some unseen signal orchestrated an explosion of color, a riot of red on green branches.
These days, I'm feeling a bit like a budding rhododendron. After four moves in just over six years, my husband and I have settled into a home and community where we'd like to stay beyond our previous two-year-ish home renovation and sale endeavors.
Planning to be in one place for the foreseeable future, I'm feeling the desire and finding the courage to branch out and develop a place for myself in the local community, "to bloom where I'm planted," as I've seen on gardening gear.
I have a devoted prayer partner and a rich personal spiritual life, but I've been without a worshipping community for four years and knew it was time to find one. I am an introvert, small talk is difficult for me, the thought of church "hopping" or "shopping" has little appeal, and I always have anxiety in new churches about whether or not I will be able to participate in the Eucharist/Communion, since I cannot eat gluten (wheat).
The last church I attended was Episcopal, and as a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest, the constancy of the liturgy was exactly what I needed when nothing else in my life was familiar, except my husband! And so ten days ago, I emailed St. David of Wales Episcopal church in the nearby (13 miles away) town of Shelton and asked about the Eucharist. Yes, they had gluten-free wafers available (though previously reserved for shut-ins, they made a change to accommodate me—and others like me). This morning they began a class between services on the history of Anglicanism and I was one of three who joined the priest around a table in the fellowship hall.
Today we celebrate Pentecost when the Holy Spirit whipped in like a mighty wind and burned bright as tongues of fire, inspiring thousands of strangers from all over to hear God in their own language. It's a day I've observed in the past by dressing in red, swirling streamers in worship, singing the Spirit Song, and writing poetry.
This year I observe a quieter Pentecost, a day where the Spirit has come on a gentle breeze, late afternoon sun warming a cool day, where I have come to a new place and heard God speak in a language that welcomes me into Communion, conversation, and study.
A detail I love: St. David of Wales is not just the patron saint of Wales, but also the patron saint of poets! In his honor, I close with one of my poems:
We can’t outrun Pentecost
Hot breath of God on our faces
Spirit scorching our hair
One day it will singe off our eyebrows
and throw us into the street
on a tongue of flame
Pentecost comes to set us on fire
to brand what we know on our skin
to clean us to bone and sinew
The dove circles overhead
alights on our crowns
dares us to expose the spirit of things
How do we tell the world
we have been burnt down
blown away and recreated
How do we open our mouths
and let tumble out what we know
Someone has survived the burn
and danced in the ashes
This someone will stand with us
and keep sacred the space
at our center
It is the very emptiness that fills us
this void alive with fiery whirlwind
sweeps us into tornado dance
Shake up our lives
throw us off balance
refuse to set us down
until we arrive at Pentecost
Today I handed over the keys to the Wauna (Gig Harbor) fixer-upper my husband and I purchased on the Key Peninsula in June 2015. Fully renovated, it’s been given a new lease on a long life, sold to a couple who love the final result, and Kevin and I turn our attention to our new home in need of even more care and restoration than the last.
When we arrived on the Key Peninsula with our keys to a foreclosed property, we knew we’d be moving on after a few years, but we didn’t know where. For the past few years we combed The Key for possibilities including a red-shagged funhouse on the cliff above Henderson Bay, to a foundationless cabin at the tip of narrow road outside Lakebay, to a sturdy ranch at the southernmost end of Longbranch, all with incredible views of Mt. Rainier. But none of those possibilities were feasible.
We were under contract on a short sale in Gig Harbor, then a bank-owned home on Fox Island, that never materialized, so we widened our search, following the ribbon of Hwy 302 from the Wauna curve to its terminus at Hwy 3 in Belfair, then along Hwy 106 hugging the Hood Canal, west past the hamlet of Union to a rickety home on the waterfront facing the Olympic Mountains where we’re undertaking another transformation.
I say goodbye to The Key, thankful for patrons of the arts like writer Jerry Libstaff, and his wife Pam, and their incredible hospitality hosting Words & Music and Watermark Writers. It was wonderful to mingle with local writers like Key Peninsula News reporter Irene Torres (who invited me to write for the paper), and Ted Olinger (former KP News editor) at poetry readings and book signings at the Blend Wine Shop & Bar, thanks to Jerry’s organizing, and Blend owner Don’s generosity.
I leave inspired by people like artist, writer, and community activist Carolyn Wiley (who seems to do everything, and well); by Larry & Annita, who have a ministry of providing free firewood to veterans and struggling families (we donated the trees, and the labor to split them, that we removed from our property); by the husband selling his wife’s jams between Lake Kathryn Food Market & Cost Less pharmacy to raise money for the fire department (though I can’t find Lake Kathryn anywhere)—and many others who share their gifts with the community.
I leave especially thankful for my neighbors, who put up with a yard full of tools and lumber as we renovated our home and appreciated our contribution to the neighborhood health.
I take visual memories as well: The two polka-dotted boulders near mile marker 8 on Hwy 302 that remind me of giant dice. Semi-trucks barreling toward me as we traverse the narrow Purdy Bridge. The SUV I followed over the bridge, its side-view mirror scraping the guardrail, sending off sparks. Men and women clad in waders and headlamps harvesting oysters during the late night low-tide in Burley Lagoon.
And most of all, the elusive glorious Mt Rainier (which I wrote about in a newspaper column): backlit at sunrise on certain mornings, wreathed by lenticular clouds in midday, glowing pink at sunset. The Olympics have their work cut out for them.
This year has been difficult for me and so many I love (as you can see from my last post "The Difficult Gifts"), so it's not surprising that RESILIENT was the word that introduced itself for 2018 one morning in early December when I was showering.
Resilient seemed fitting, a continuation of my desire to remain open and graceful in the midst of life's challenges, most especially my mother-in-law’s illness and death in 2017, and the continual changing of our deadline to finish and sell our house—our main source of livelihood.
The resilience I seek to emulate isn’t just mine, it’s something I witnessed (and still witness) day in and day out as those I love coped (and continue to cope) with job loss and changes, moving, lack of housing, family strife, illness, death, and all the self-doubt and challenges to faith these circumstances stir up in us.
I participated in Abbey of the Arts’ free online “Give Me a Word 2018” mini-retreat and nothing rose to replace resilient, though I got clarity on the type of resilience calling to me. I’ve seen my share of resilient flooring at Home Depot, and I’m not interested in bouncing back unchanged. I’m intrigued by resilience in the way Psychology Today looks at it:
Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make someone resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after misfortune, resilient people are blessed with such an outlook that they are able to change course and soldier on.
Resilience seemed not only fitting but sufficient, until I awoke in my own bed on December 31st after a week of Christmas travel spent sleeping with my husband on a wiggly air mattress. My eyes flitted open and closed as I anticipated sunrise, looking to see if the skies would be clear enough for Mt. Rainier to be visible. I plumped my pillow and slumbered in the growing light, glancing out the window, every time I regained consciousness.
That’s when the word INTENTIONAL dawned in my brain as clear as the looming mountain. I would live 2018 with intention—who needed resilience?—and I’d get a day’s jump start. So as soon as I finished eating breakfast, I set about doing something in my skill set to help finish our home renovation: touch up painting.
In retrospect, I remember that my husband mentioned something about being unsure of paint sheen as we gathered brushes, rollers, and paint trays, but his words scudded by like a quick moving cloud in my eagerness to be intentionally productive. I painted some glitches on baseboards then tackled the entry walls, scuffed up from our recent floor tiling.
After lunch I returned to the entry to find swaths of shiny paint all over the walls. I’d used semi-gloss, and the walls clearly were not that sheen. The entire room would need to be repainted—maybe the entire main level of the house. And when I had that realization, I completely lost it.
Why had my husband set me up with the wrong paint? If he’d only warned me to paint one inconspicuous spot, I wouldn’t have gone wholesale on the walls (as if I’m not responsible for my own actions; as if he has to supervise everything I do). I sarcastically commented about throwing away time and money, and my husband sarcastically commented back that yes, that’s exactly what he loved to do.
I stomped to the bedroom, thrashed on the floor, huffed and puffed and cried until my anger was replaced with the heavy weight of sadness and shame. Intentional? Hardly! I hadn’t even paid attention to what my husband told me. I hadn’t asked questions, or made sure I understood. Resilient? Rolling on the floor wallowing in self-pity is only resilient if that’s the type of flooring you tantrum on.
When I skulked downstairs and tried to talk about it reasonably, my husband told me that someone—maybe me, maybe one of our crew, no one knew—mixed up our paint finishes during one of the many weeks he was out-of-town caring for his mother, and that in fact, we’d discovered it when I’d touched up the kitchen months ago, and the same thing had happened.
How had I completely forgotten? Probably because back then we were preoccupied, and rightly so, with love and loss, and everyone was simply doing the best they could for and by each other in the midst of a poignant and sacred season.
In helping my husband to care for his mother in her last months, I was intentional, and resilient. I know this about myself: I am better able to focus on the big picture and attend to the big things in life “that really matter.” Yet I know the small things of daily life, and how I respond to them, are great in their impact. It is the mosaic of such moments that comprises our lives creating the image we have of ourselves, and the impression we leave on others.
The great paint debacle of December 31st is simply one example (of too many, I’m afraid) of precisely why I need INTENTIONAL RESILIENCE as the words to guide my life this new year; and always. What words will shape you this year?
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.