Letter from the North Cascades: Week Four
Hi friends –
A month into my time with the North Cascades Institute, I’m thinking that a writer’s residency is something like a fishing season. As on the Nerka, I rely on routine here in Dogwood 2. Instead of getting the gear in the water at first light, though, I’m working at each day’s opposing end, tap-tapping my way into tomorrows. I’ve second-guessed this process – you’re supposed to get up early and working first thing in the morning; all the Real Writers say so! – and trust me, sweeties, I’ve tried. But my words are nocturnal creatures. If writing memoir is to roam murky trails of memory, casting a light for those stories that glimmer and wink back through the darkness, perhaps there’s a grace in sitting with words long into the night.
An admission: my first full week up here, I didn’t walk a single trail. Not to check out the waterfall at the top of Sourdough Creek Trail, not dainty quarter-mile Deer Creek Trail, and I didn’t even know about lakeside Peninsula Trail, just out the dining hall. I told myself I was here with a book to write, no time for walks! That, too, was like the fishing season, when we fling ourselves at the July king opening until our bodies must impose their own limits. We leave them no other choice. Now, after too many days of sitting, I take time to appreciate these surroundings. Hopeful of seeing another bobcat, I move slowly, testing each footfall for stealth. (And succeeding, when I accidentally scared the poor Christmas Bird Count gentlemen the other day.) Thanks to writer friend Suezy, there’s always a rainproof notebook in my back pocket, waiting to corral the ideas that inevitably appear when you step away from your desk. Today I walked in the snow. It didn’t stick – none has, yet – but turned my hair white and refreshed an early memory: pressing my face against the window to watch enormous flakes surge down, stunned to learn that snow could steal the black from the night sky.
Late at night, when I don’t think I have anything more to give, I step away from the desk and curl up on the little green loveseat on the other side of the room. If you’ve sent a letter (and I’m so grateful to those who have!), this is when I open it. At the end of the day, as a reward. Even if we’ve never spoken and wouldn’t know each other’s timbres, your voice fills this little haven. The voice of a friend. I lean into your pages like a conversation, then, with Amy Gulick’s Salmon in the Trees as an inspiring desk, I write you back. It is a conversation, and like any good visit with a friend, I feel renewed when we say goodbye. Envelope sealed, stamped, and leaning against the jade plant on the coffee table where I can’t miss it, I go back to the desk and write one more thing.
It’s been said in so many ways: writing is lonely, solitary work. No one else can do this for us. Whether in moments of triumph or despair, we’re all staring at our screens, our notebooks, alone. Yet I don’t feel alone. From the work of favorite authors lining the kitchen counter (“Your literary bloodline,” novelist Jim Lynch has called them), to the postcards brightening the fridge, I feel you here with me. This, too, like fishing: it’s when we’re able to step away, tossing phones into a drawer and stashing laptops in their cases, that I feel most connected to my surroundings, the people in my heart, myself.
Be well, friends. Happy Winter Solstice to you and yours.
PO Box 429
Marblemount, WA 98267
About mail: Your letters go to a post office that’s a half-hour drive away. I don’t leave the campus; mail moves from there to here by the grace of Caretaker Tom. Likewise, my responses wait patiently in the office’s Outgoing Mail basket, until one day, thanks to some kind delivery fairy, they vanish. If you don’t hear a response as soon as you’d expect, trust that it’s coming. Just a pause in the conversation, a moment to consider a bit longer before speaking. Not such a bad practice, really.