I’m at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula. Just landed, or rather, drove in. About to go read and talk with other writers, with people. So thrilled to be here. Started my morning off by walking to my car at 5.45am and finding a mountain lion standing there, under a massive moon. I’ve never seen a mountain lion, though I know they are around. I backed away quickly, back into the house. Nerves and awe all through my body.
This is Bozeman, Montana specific (for now), but I can’t contain my excitement so wanted to share broadly. My friend Kelsey Sather and I have launched Thunderhead Writers’ Collective.
We believe in “thunderheading”– in the powerful build up of creation. The way a crack of lightning might or might not lead to rain; how inspiration rolls in to town and then out of town and then back in. Thunder is nothing more than the expansion of rapidly heated air. Let. Us. Expand.
Based in the vast Gallatin Valley of Montana, we are two writers who have come together with a mission. We want to create a supportive place for people to play with expression, fine-tune craft, and exchange ideas. You need not be a professional writer. This is for anyone who wants to put pen to paper. Whether you want to dip in for one workshop, partake in our Incus Nights, or dive in completely, we welcome you. Writers need inspiration: surges of electric creativity. So often that charge-up comes from community.
On Monday, I holed up in the public library for five hours to catch up on work. I wanted to hammer out a few essay ideas/pitches. I chewed on my pen. I shut my computer. I opened it again. I roamed through the magazine aisle for 10 minutes. My words felt stuck. I sat there anyway, stared out the window at other people jogging, lying on picnic blankets, conversing. It was my only full child-free day for the week and here I was, wasting it. Sit back down. Still, nothing more than scattered notes. I ended my day early, telling myself that it’s okay to be unproductive.
The next day, I strapped Eula to my back and we sloshed through the creek behind our home for two long slow hours–walking from one bridge to another. Cold water flowed across my ankles. I concentrated hard not to slip on the slippery rocks. We paused to watch how sunlight over water is different than shade over water. A fawn rustled out of the grass and sprang across the creek in front of us. Birds dipped down and flapped their wings. When we climbed over two massive fallen trees, Eula grabbed onto my triceps. We took a detour through grass up to our ears. She didn’t squirm at all. She just watched.
Back at home, I put her down for her nap and, within seconds, my ideas started to appear. Minutes later, I typed up the essay pitch I’d been laboring over for hours. Then the glitch for my new book idea sorted itself out (at least for now). Then I had an explosion of many more ideas. All because we walked. I am reminded, again and again, of the wisdom in movement in nature. It releases what is lodged. Thank you.
I’ve been wanting to write for ages about giving Eula my last name (and the surprising reactions we got from our open-minded community). Finally did here, at The Hairpin.
The dialogue back has been amazing and educational. Many people were given their mother’s last name. A woman from Sweden wrote that it is common practice to do so. Many have a blended name. Equally as many wished that they’d thought to do it for their own kids.
In the piece, I write about how we didn’t feel revolutionary when we named Eula.
I realized by writing the piece that it would be a revolution if 50% of the world’s population has their mother’s last name. Imagine. That’s word I keep coming back to. Imagine, imagine, imagine how that would change so much–for women and for men.
If you are a writer, gather with writer folk. It’s important. I just had the privilege of attending the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference, where I got to 1) connect with old writer and editor friends, 2) present a craft class on my two beloved topics, body & landscape, 3) listen to Justin Torres talk about his book We The Animals, one of the books that inspired me during my own writing of my book.
We are all many iterations of many things. Somehow, through the great good luck gods, my friends Chris Martin and Mary Austin Speaker were there too, as poets/humans extraordinaire. Mary’s book Ceremony is the only book I read aloud to my daughter while she was in utero. Chris and I share an obsession with animals and weather (check out his collection Becoming Weather). He showed me, and a room full of poets, a video of an octopus that makes me either want to be an octopus or write a poem about one.
Then this happy note from Sandy, a college friend of my father’s. Look what she found! A woman I don’t know reading my book on the NYC subway.
Been thinking about efficiency–the crystalline nature of it, the mess of it, the need for it, how worry is a waste.
This was one of my favorite interviews for The Map of Enough, with Cherie Newman on The Write Question, Montana Public Radio, NPR. We talk about grounding, overwhelm, the dome, and boundaries.
What is a boundary?
I’m constantly redefining that for myself.
We moved back into the yurt a few days ago. Astonishing to stand under the tono (skylight) again. To sleep there again. Even though the yurt is down by the creek now–less windy, more bushy. We are different people than we were when we built it. That is no surprise. We will be different in a few months also. But the past 1.5 years in particular have awoken the underbelly.
This is now yurt living with a child. Eula woke up the first morning, crawled into bed with us and said, “Waooowww,” her version of Wow, which has come from me because I say Wow about almost everything. She couldn’t stop pointing at the lattice walls or tono and wanted us to spend hours stroking her nose with a bird feather. Now we wagon her back and forth from yurt to cabin. For water, food, baths. Same old, in a way.
When we finally admitted that our house wouldn’t be done until August (Chris is building it himself), I might have stomped around a bit. “I just want to put my clothes in something that isn’t a suitcase,” I said, and then added, “But you are amazing and thank you for building us a house, I know it’s hard.” The man is making us a home. THE MAN IS MAKING US A HOME. Thank you, Christopher Kautz. We’ve been essentially living out of a suitcase for five years, so this situation shouldn’t phase me. (It is also a choice we have made.) But something about parenthood has changed that for me. As a dear friend explained, “When I was pregnant, I felt this strange unease and anxiety until I had my baby’s room semi organized. But you don’t even have a room for Eula, or a consistent bed, or a place for her clothes. That’s crazy making.” What’s stunning is that Eula has learned to say hello and goodbye to the few places we’ve lived in her first year of life. When we left the garage (where I had labored with her, where she spent her first months), we walked around and said goodbye to the giraffe and the fan and the windows and the red stove and, eventually outside, to the trees. And she wept. I don’t mean baby crying. I mean goodbye sadness. I really mean that. She knew we were leaving. We moved in with friends in town. Why doesn’t everyone live communally? It was outstanding to watch our children interact, to drink wine and unload and laugh together. But then we knew we had to go back to The Land. Our pup Bru needed us back. We needed ourselves back too. The yurt was waiting.
This is what happens there: time stops and you have conversations with your husband you haven’t had in too long a time and rain beats hard on the canvas at 3am and it gets cold at night and everyone sleeps soundly and owls hoot and coyotes yip and nothing seems as urgent. It’s that quick. I’ve never been more grateful for the yurt. It feels like a friend.
I talk to it. It witnesses.
I often say that I never set out to be an Emily Dickinson. Sage though she is, she never wanted to share her poetry with anyone. Said and done. Fair enough. I write for myself too, but I really write as a means of connection. Writing is also my medicine. I cannot not do it. BUT before the dialoguing with others, comes the doing. We cleaned the yurt out this weekend (getting ready for summer inhabitation with 1-year-old) and I discovered these written-over pages of my manuscript for The Map of Enough. Such a good reminder of the work, because these pages constitute one of seven, eight, twenty rounds of editing.
Folks have recently asked what it’s like to have my book out there in the world. WONDERFUL! I finally get to talk to The People! Any person out there who has read it and resonates with some part of the story, or who asks the same questions, or who loves the natural world or is scared of it, or wants to know it more, or even the woman who told me the detail was way too much for her but she liked the book anyway (gotta love sheer honesty).
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting up with two book clubs–one in Bozeman, the other in Gardiner, at the mouth of Yellowstone National Park. One of my favorite questions was, “You’ve made this book and now it’s permanent and so that’s the story. That’s you in the story. You can’t change anything about the way you tell it. Does that feel strange?” No, I’m happy to have documented a time that meant so much to me, especially now that that mode of life seems far away. Though I didn’t know it when I was writing it, The Map of Enough truly marks the end of an era, the era of radical self-involvement. I will never stop asking questions or looking within, but now I’ll be doing it with the constant and beloved presence of my daughter. It’s different and those of you who are parents understand without me having to explain anything.
Part Two of the answer is…Sure, the Molly who lives in the book is 30-years old. When I hear her voice, she sometimes drives me crazy. I want to poke her and say, “Why is everything so intense for you? Puh-lease… try having a baby and then not sleeping for a year.” But that wouldn’t be nice, would it? Because I’m sure the 50-year old me will look back at me now and say, “Why did you think the first year of your daughter’s life, despite being so heart-crushingly beautiful, was hard, hard, hard. Puh-lease… try going through menopause.” I have to love the Molly from the book. I have to love the woman I was then. And the child I was. And the teenager I was. And the woman I am now. It’s a difficult practice. It’s one I continue to revisit. Daily. Point being that talking to The People makes texture out of life. Makes me laugh and try to source that self-empathy. In some ways, it reiterates that the book is no longer “mine”; it’s on its own, doing its own thing. When I talk to people, I get to #1 hear about their lives, and #2 be in the audience with them, to witness what was happening or not happening, what that woman who was me thought/felt/did during that 1 1/2 years. As if she is a friend, or a stranger.
**Interviews are also the best. True dialogue. I especially loved the off-air of off-script chatter–great laughter. Here are two. This one from Out of the Fog: Empower Radio, discussing technology, living with a thin membrane, the drive for more. And this one from The Hairpin, on what it was like, the yurt and all.
When my cousin Lauren and I strolled my daughter through the streets of NYC, two separate strangers said to me (about my daughter,) “Wow, she looks angry.” I took a peek. Nope, she was simply furrowing her brow in curiosity. That’s what she does when she is wondering about a person, a place, a new vista. My husband does the same thing–it’s what I call his “study face.” In the early days, I used to apologize for her. Everyone–grocery store clerks, public library staff, even extended family–had something to say about her serious, intense, frowny face. I would stroke her head and say “She’s just shy” and then feel stomach sour about it all. Why the fuck was apologizing for whatever she was, or saying she was shy when I don’t know if she’s shy and I certainly don’t want to start labeling her with anything–shy, outgoing, any of it?
It’s got me fired up about how people expect babies to smile at them. And when they don’t, when they just stare, it disarms a person, makes that person feel too “seen” or maybe unlovable, or who knows what. The only two things I do know for certain about Eula is that #1 she is a hyper-observer and #2 she doesn’t bullshit. When she stares at someone she is wondering about them. Eventually, once she’s hung out with them a bit, out comes the wacky, playful, hamming-it-up, giggle-monster Eula. But that’s not her starting point. So far at least.
Mostly, it got me fired up about how we, as a culture, expect everyone to smile. We applaud outgoing and smiley and “leadership” without realizing that we need all sorts to make a dynamic society work. I have directly benefited from this because I have been outgoing, smiley and “leadership” my whole life. What if my daughter isn’t? I feel a fierce mama protection about it. I want to make sure she can be whoever the hell she wants to be without that expectation. Of course, I can’t protect her. I can only love her and never apologize for her again. [Even writing about it here feels strange, like a permanent observation.]
Worse, we pigeon-hole and categorize. I do this all the time. I would like to do it less. I would like to shake up my perspective, just like Rebeccca Solnit did in the map above–mapping murders and cypresses on the same map. Who would have thought of it?
And then there’s this, from a review of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex in the Wall Street Journal.
[Plato] would also promote “flourishing,” which she describes as stepping outside oneself and learning about the world, over pursuing happiness…. ‘The thing that made me change my mind about [Plato] is that he’s always changing his mind, and that’s the thing I most respect about him.’
Plato.. whuuut? Flourishing sounds like the exact thing I want to do with the rest of my life. What strikes me the most here is Plato’s mind changing. I did not know this about him because I am not well read on him. It’s radical to consider a life where you are willing to have your mind changed, truly willing–instead of holding your ground, holding your rightness, holding what you perceive to be your truth. I hope to be open to changing my mind about Eula, about myself, about others, for the rest of my life. It’s hard to imagine this when I think of my politics or my belief in human rights. I can’t imagine those beliefs ever changing, but maybe it is evolution instead. Don’t tell me this is right and this is wrong. Don’t tell me she is right or she is wrong. Instead, tell me she is something and that anyone’s something is always transforming.
What people ask…
1. Bozeman: One woman in the crowd asks, “What is the yurt now?” Of course, I tell her like it is… “Well, it’s our storage unit right now” and when my sentence ends I see the disappointment occupy her face, quickly, unapologetically, the way it does when someone’s image of someone else’s life has been shattered. “Life is messy,” I add, proud of my messy life, and when I say that, I see about 1,000 smiling faces.
2. Airport (aka What I ask): Long layover in Chicago O’Hare. As we pace up and down the long stretch of gates, I complain to Chris about how iPhones have ruined everything, including spontaneous meet-ups. “Will we ever feel free again?” I ask. And then one of my dearest friends, Courtney Martin, appears in front of me, with her daughter and husband. I haven’t seen her in a long long while. We shriek at each other. We might even do the chicken dance there on the slick marble floors as urgent travelers weave around us. Thank you, gods.
3. Maine: Eula eats frozen blueberries. Eula goes crazy-town-monkey-legs-arms-flung-high and I feel like there is nowhere I would rather be than with her. At the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, students lean forward in a cozy red room and one woman asks, “Does it ever go away?” She means the wanderlust. “Of course not,” I tell her. And I want to hug her. I want to hug everyone there.
4. Middlebury: Shit gets complicated. We sit in our friends’ driveway for 45 minutes assessing Eula’s runny nose and rattling cough, her worst sickness to date, to decide whether we can bring her into the house of a newborn. No, we can’t. It’s a quick decision. It’s a decision a parent makes, because, oh, we are parents now. Sadness lodges in us because these are close friends, dear friends, and we want nothing more than to move in for a few days, meet their wee babe and drink wine with them. But we aren’t sad for long because our daughter is sick not dying, and that’s all that matters. A professor/friend swoops in and we land in her home, what she calls chaos and we call stunning human chaos. At 3am, when my baby can barely breathe and my exhaustion is complete, my rage takes over and, even though I will myself to repeat “I release the need to blame others or myself,” all I want to do is pound blame into the person who gave her this cold, which is irrational and unfair, but sometimes I am irrational and unfair. I stroke her sweaty head. I hold her to my chest. I worry about her. I am awake all night, convinced that we should get on a plane tomorrow, call the whole thing off, and go home. But we don’t. The next day, we arrive at my reading, and as I’m paging through my book to pick a passage to read, Chris realizes that we are out of baby wipes and then we both step into a puddle of mud and then we split ways–so that I can go read and so he can go tend to our girl, whose eyes are watering from stuffiness, who is still so game for this, such a trooper, so enamored of every new thing anyway. After the reading, a very serious and endearing college student stalks up to me, whispers: “So is it the yurt or The Land?” It takes me two seconds to tell him it’s the land and then, right there, as Eula tests her voice in the hallways, as old professors of mine mill about, I miss the land bad, badly, bad, bad, bad.
5. Burlington: Images. Drinking tangerine juice in an ancient stone house with a friend I haven’t seen in six years. Eula feeding me mashed-up pieces of zucchini and laughing at me laughing because maybe she’s getting better and because it’s funny to feed your parent, isn’t it? Breakfast and evening with old friends and two boys and a grandmother and a dog. The true pleasure of being 1 of 5 writers at a reading and getting to listen to words from other people. Still blown away by Angela Palm’s short story about bullets and tumbleweed and girl friends. How does someone craft fiction? Wow, oh wow.
6. New York: Drove seven hours, and we felt like masterful animals because somehow the naps aligned with the drives (sort of) and the stops led to new discoveries–like a boy scout group giving out free hot dogs at the Connecticut welcome center off I-84, like a chained-off river that we thought about sneaking down to and then never did. Kissing our beb/papa goodbye after he drops us in Long Island City and heads to JFK to fly to his work situation in Milan. All in a day. Now I am staring out a window at a gorgeous city haze and drinking hibiscus tea made by the one and only Katinka Locascio. Eula on the mend. Love my love people.
It is well past her bedtime, but she is working something out in her 10-month old body. The carpeted stairs are friendly. They belong to our friends, the ones we are staying with for a few weeks. So far she has only had a week with the stairs and maybe now she wants a whole night with them. What is she doing in the dark? Lifts one leg, looks down, picks up a foot, as if willing it do something. Next she arcs her back, reaches up into nothingness and talks about it, moaning and groaning and goo-gooing—some dadadadadadada message for herself. This goes on for an hour. This marionette; this march; this modern dance. She is becoming a bear cub. She is becoming, perhaps for the first time, completely unaware of where her mama is. Then, with a sudden bolt, she crawls up three steps, pauses for an instant, realizes what has happened and then quickly slides back down, retreats back to the safe space. And this, yes, this is how it works for all of us, I think, sitting there, my back against a dark wall in the dark, watching my daughter practice what it feels like to ascend.