A Voice Lost, then Found

 

On December 15th, six hours after submitting Hooked’s final revision, I lost my voice. Literally. All these years a devoted disciple of the “tell your story” gospel, and, upon surrendering that story for my editor’s review, I couldn’t manage a rasp of a whisper. (Dear Universe, must you be so heavy-handed in your metaphors?)

 

I won’t lie: the six weeks leading up to that deadline were rough, reminiscent of the final push to get through the fishing season, when Joel, the Nerka, and I all stagger into September, hanging on by threads of winter promises. I made similar promises for all the things I’d do after the book was sent off, lining the kitchen table with a sheet of butcher paper and, whenever I walked by, scribbling vows to neglected friends and responsibilities. Oil change. Renew driver’s license. Dinner w/ Mom. Call AB. Haircut. Trim toenails. Our roof started leaking, weeks of heavy Pacific Northwest rains distilled to a steady drip from the kitchen light. I taped the switch off, spread towels across the linoleum, and went back to writing. My left eye developed a twitch.

 

Those butcher paper promises ended up being just that – paper promises, further IOU’s. As soon as the book was out of my hands, I collapsed into bed for days. Honestly? Losing my voice was a relief. My loved ones wanted to celebrate this long-anticipated landmark, but I didn’t feel celebratory. I felt unmoored, missing the companion that had so long anchored my days. This was a side of writing a book that I hadn’t foreseen: the loneliness when it was gone, the uncertainty of what would take its place.

 

(A week into this feeling, I came upon a post by Dani Shapiro that perfectly named it. Bereft. As if to balance out the ham-fisted smack-down of stripping me of my ability to tell any story, the universe proffered just the right reassurance at just the needed time. I may have been sad, but I wasn’t alone.)

 

My voice returned, but I stayed quiet. Subdued. I’ve shared deeply personal writing over recent years, yet it wasn’t until submitting this final offering that I felt truly exposed. I didn’t want to do anything but hunker down with Joel and retreat.

 

But Joel wasn’t having it. He insisted I’d achieved a major life goal – a dream! – and that deserved recognition. “You’re the one always telling me we choose how we feel. You can spend these weeks waiting and feeling miserable about what might be, or you can be proud of what you accomplished and enjoy this time we have together. It’s up to you.”

 

In my book and in life, Joel always has the best lines.

 

So I took his advice. That means re-appearing in my life, turning my energy outward. Giving back to you who so generously carried me all these months. It means celebrating what is, while trusting what will be.

 

And it means being able to say yes to invitations I would’ve had to decline earlier this winter. Opportunities like Wage Slaves: the 78 Cents Edition. I’m honored to join Sonya Lea, Storme Webber, Michelle Penaloza, and Jean Burnet in this January 19th reading about work, hosted by Seattle’s Hugo House and presented in collaboration with Hedgebrook.

 

Following that theme of work and writing, I’m excited for the Young Fishermen’s Storytelling Workshop in Juneau on January 30th, a class sponsored by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council that I’ll be co-teaching with Alaskan author Miranda Weiss. (If you’re thinking about attending the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit 2016 that week, go ahead and plan on staying one extra day to join us – we’re going to have a fantastic time!)

 

FisherPoets Gathering, of course, is just around February’s corner, the 26th – 28th this year. The schedule will be out soon, and there’s already an impressive line-up of veteran favorites and first-timers. (Especially thrilling: Belly Meat, Sitka’s favorite bluegrass band, is making the trip down to Astoria!)

 

Finally, at the AWP Conference in Los Angeles on March 31st, Christine Byl, Eva Saulitis, Susannah Mishler, Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez, and I will talk about how physical labor provides the lifeblood for our creative work, on the panel, Women at Work: Labor and the Writing Life. If there could there be a more appropriate capstone to this winter’s themes, I can’t imagine it.

 

That’s what’s going on here, friends. If you’re able to make it to any of these events, I’d love to see you. Meanwhile, thanks for leaving a light on – it feels good to be back with you, and I’m eager to hear how you’re doing. How’s 2016 treating you so far? What are you celebrating, where are you focusing your energy, what are you choosing to trust?

Read More

The “Me” Within “We”: Soliciting Stories

Last June, my editor’s response to Draft #2 arrived on our doorstep just as we were preparing to head north. If there can be a good time or place to face the fact that your book needs major revisions, I found mine in the Nerka’s pilot seat, alone on my wheel watches while Joel slept, the promise of Alaska ahead. My manuscript was heavy in my lap as, removed from the world within this pocket of suspended time, I read it from beginning to end. All 323 pages, many of the margins dark with penciled edits. Then I read it again. Comments that stung the first time through merited contemplation on the second. By the third read, I agreed with most of them.

When we arrived in Sitka, I reunited with my friend Mary. She, like too many people in my transient life, is someone I’d like to share more time with. I suspect we’d uncover much common ground, given the opportunity, but abbreviated shore leave has limited us to Facebook exchanges and parking lot huddles. And to this moment, two women stepping out of a cluster of male captains to nurture a seasonal connection on a bustling dock.

She asked how my book was going. I told her what I’d just realized, seeing through my editor’s eyes: I’d lost my hold on the story.

“I wandered over here,” I flapped my right hand toward the breakwater, “into issues of sex and monogamy and fidelity. But that wasn’t the core narrative.

“It’s here,” palms together, heart-center, “in the tension of being together and separate. The struggle to maintain your identity as a strong, independent person, while in partnership with someone else. Being dependent on each other while staying true to the person you want to be, all within the confines of a boat. What that looks like.”

Bobbing her head, Mary’s eyes grew shiny. “Yes, yes – oh my god, yes!”

That affirmative response was a gift. She was the first person I shared this renewed direction with, and her enthusiasm helped me trust I was on the right track. That I could wrestle the narrative back to where it needed to be, and that this tension between self and couple was the point of connection between author and reader. It was the place where my story could become bigger than myself.

 

IMG_2747

 

I don’t write on the boat. I’m on deck working eighteen, seventeen, fifteen hours a day, for weeks at a time. In the cabin, Joel and I are always within six feet of each other. Our town time is chore-focused, rushing through tasks to get back out as soon as possible. If bad weather grants us an unexpected day off, I just want to sleep. (I am so, so fortunate that Riverhead gets this. In gracious deadlines and tolerance for an author who’s incommunicado for months, my editor has demonstrated her value of my fishing life and this book.)

I don’t write on the boat, but I do think about writing. My friend Andrea says this counts. She calls this mulling over character development, metaphor, and just-right sentences “composting,” and says it’s an essential part of the writing process. I agree. I spent a lot of time composting this summer, thinking about that dockside conversation. Surely Mary and I couldn’t be alone in our experience of doing work we loved, with the person we loved, knowing the wondrous fortune of our lives – and still nursing a quiet fear that we sacrificed some essential part of our self along the way.

Were there more of us?

I put a card in the mail to a woman I love and respect, someone who was once in the same boat as my friend and me, having gone to sea with her male partner many years earlier. Joni began fishing in the 1960s. I asked how it had been for her, what she recalled of that experience, what it meant to her now.

When her response arrived a month later, I didn’t read it. I wanted to wait for a quiet, solitary space, a time when I could give her words my full attention. Space and time: the two things that don’t exist on the boat. It was only within the past few days that I finally opened her email. I’m still trying to pick myself up off the floor, so moved by the generosity with which she gave her story.

Joni’s story is not mine to share – and yet, her story is mine. You know how the cliché goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Together, we span six decades in fishing. I think about how the harbors have changed – more female deckhands, more couples running boats together, more women running their own boats – and then I hear a voice in my head, whispering questions of identity, belonging, invisibility. And I can’t tell whether it’s Joni’s voice speaking, or my own.

 

Sunset Through Hawsehole

 

This is why I read and write memoir: because I want to light these places we don’t often reveal to each other. Vulnerabilities we mask, doubts we’re not supposed to acknowledge. In placing a higher virtue on silence than on trust, we commit to our own alienation. We build our walls higher, failing to see that the experiences that leave us feeling isolated are the very ones with the power to bring us together. I tell my story because I want to know yours.

My hunch is that this issue isn’t only a women-on-boats struggle. For many of us, the challenge to preserve some sense of “me” amongst a “we” is simply an effect of growing up as a girl-child in America, socialized from Day One to put ourselves second. So I wonder if this speaks to you, and if it does, how you’ve navigated the tension between self-identity and partnership. What the rewards and sacrifices have been. If your definitions of “reward” and “sacrifice” have changed over time.

And I wonder, too, what these questions bring up for Hooked’s male-identified readers. Many of you originally started following this blog for the fish stories; that you’ve stayed through meditations on gender and self-identity means a lot to me. You’re infused with cultural expectations different from those I grew up with  – different; no less powerful. I wonder what you identify as the leading messages of your life, how you internalized them, and how those messages have impacted your life and relationships.

While I searched for the right thought to close this post, yet another inspiring woman from the fleet provided the words I was looking for. Thank you, Erin, for sharing this quote right when I needed to hear it.

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . “

— Frederick Buechner (Telling Secrets)

 

I’m asking big questions at a busy time, friends. Hooked’s FINAL final manuscript is due this December. Between revisions and managing all our own fish marketing for the first time, I’m out-of-my-head swamped. Forgive my belated response to the conversation. Trust that I’m reading – I hear you – and I’m grateful to know you. Love and appreciation to all. 

Read More

On Missing the Boat, Speaking for Salmon

Joel and I went to a movie the other night. We finally saw The Breach, an award-winning film I’ve been anxious to see since its 2014 release. Described as a love story for wild salmon, it’s a love story in all the truest ways – risk, betrayal, loss, resolve, hope. It took my breath away.

 

(You can watch The Breach yourself here. Please do. Please.)

 

After the lights came up, director Mark Titus joined commercial fishermen Melanie Brown and Marsh Skeele, Anchorage chef Rob Kinneen, and Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell for a discussion hosted by Sitka Conservation Society. They spoke of new threats: Canadian mines cleared to start work in the Transboundary headwaters of Southeast Alaska’s biggest salmon-producing rivers. Joel and I left the theater feeling equal parts terrified for the species we love and inspired to work for their protection. “We have to get more involved,” we vowed.

 

Which is why I’m disappointed today, upon the publication of an interview I did with Grist on what it means to be at home on the ocean. Friends shared the link with warm reviews. Journalist Eve Andrews has my full respect and appreciation. My disappointment is with myself. Given an opportunity to speak directly to the very audience whose help we need to protect Alaska’s wild salmon, people predisposed to care and act for environmental issues, I missed the boat.

 

Hearing this, Joel jumps to my defense. “Of course you feel that way now, since we just saw that movie. You weren’t thinking like that then; we were just trying to get out of town, go back out fishing.”

 

Go back. Go back to July 14th, the final half-hour in town, when I charged down a slippery dock, evading piles of dog shit while jockeying a cart piled high with two weeks’ worth of groceries packed in cardboard boxes quickly losing their integrity in a torrential sideways rain. My gait was off, my silhouette oddly misshapen, as I pitched the disintegrating boxes onto the Nerka’s deck, scrambled to return the borrowed truck, and rushed back to the boat, all with phone pinned between ear and shoulder. Joel had already fired up the engine and unplugged the shore power. I rifled discombobulated thoughts for a semi-articulate closing while yanking dock lines free, thanking Eve for our conversation as rain ran down the cabin roof, straight down the back of my neck.

 

(In retrospect, it’s remarkable that Eve was able to get anything useful from our interview. That the resulting article reads so smoothly is entirely thanks to her, not me.)

 

At the time the chaos struck me as funny. A ludicrous illustration of the barriers to thoughtful conversation, to anything requiring external consciousness, when the struggle to make a year’s livelihood in a matter of months consumes us. Now, realizing too late the opportunity I squandered, I’m regretful. They give us so much, salmon. I wish I had given them my voice.

 

But you can’t do anything about what’s done, Joel reminds me. “What can you do, moving forward?”

 

Which brings me here: another wet day in Sitka, this time tucked within the Nerka’s warmth, cup of lemon ginger tea at my side. The engines are off; no pressure to leave for another two days. Rain plip-plaps against the roof, a reassuring lullaby, and for the first time all summer, it’s just me and the page. Free to focus, free to gather my thoughts. Free to try again.

 

This time I introduce the fisherfolks I know, deeply conscientious women and men who embody values confusing for many outside our world, where killing isn’t cavalier and there’s no cognitive dissonance in feeling love for the lives we take.

 

I caution that saving wild salmon requires more than responsible fisheries management. Lacking equally focused efforts to guard their freshwater habitat, “sustainability” is superficial. An illusion.

 

I celebrate the work of Salmon Beyond Borders, uniting sports and commercial fishermen, tribal and First Nations members, business owners, community leaders – everyone invested in defending the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk Rivers from some of the largest mines the world has ever seen.

 

I push words around the lump in my throat, thinking of Petersburg writer Chelsea Tremblay’s essay, Survival is Insufficient. “Love is what makes a community more than just a group of people living in the same space. It’s the collective cobweb, invisible until you run into it.” Gathering strength from her words, I pause.

 

This time, asked what it’s like to be at home on the ocean, I look beyond my walls, beyond the windows of my own harried mid-season experience, and consider the silver bodies finning past. Home is knowing your neighbors. Looking out for them. Salmon begin their lives not on the ocean at all, but deep inland. Land-locked. In this way, being at home on the ocean is no different from being at home on land. Look carefully enough, far enough, salmon are our shared neighbors. They need all of us.

 

 

Read More