It was fall. Warm, brilliant sun on my arms. We were on a weekend trip to Orcas Island – a two-hour car ride, a one or two hour wait for the ferry, and a 45-minute ferry ride over to the island, then the winding drive from the dock to the place where we stayed on the other end of the island – rolling up and down through hemlock-thick forests and opening onto pastures of grazing sheep and cows.
All the way around we traveled to Doe Bay Resort with its shamble of cabins and handful of camping spots. This was our first visit of what would be many – though we eventually upgraded to a nearby house. Despite its rundown, hippie-simple style, the place was graced with Location. Hugging an inlet, it looked out onto Puget Sound, the view dotted with smaller, uninhabited islands. At the most curved in part of the property – the inner most part of the C-shape on the inlet – were hot spring-tubs in an open-air Japanese “house.” This little quiet spot was alone worth the drive, worth sleeping bags and leaves for toilet paper.
On our second morning there, I took a notebook and sat in a chair out on the point and began to write. For several hours, bathed in the sun, I put down words on the yellow legal pad, crossing some out here and adding others there. I’d transfer them to a computer later, but for now, I just let my hand go.
Though I’d written plenty through college and graduate school, the latter only a few years behind me, they had been all academic papers. I’d typed reams on the meaning of certain speeches in Shakespeare or images of “home” in 19th century American naturalist writings, but I hadn’t written anything for me, anything playful, anything … DRUMROLL … creative.
But there it was. Plainly appearing on the page in my loopy cursive that my mother said had stopped evolving about 7th grade. An essay about the abortion clinic where I’d been volunteering. Stories about women I’d met. Stories from my memory. Stories that – as they became loosened and rested on the page, were fitted this way and tilted that way, until they finally sounded “right” – clearly resonated deep inside me. This writing, which was coming so freely, was helping me to make sense of my recent life, helping me to create a sense I didn’t even know I needed.
That’s what I didn’t understand that day sitting in the chair overlooking the Sound: that I was starting to live.
A few weeks ago, my daughter commented that I don’t have a career. Piecing together jobs and freelance work, a book here and another there, baking and laundry – I guess that doesn’t look like the stuff of a career to her. I understand. I’m not sure it does to me either. Writing, rather, is living.
That’s what I didn’t understand that day sitting in the chair overlooking the Sound: that I was starting to live. At a time in my life when I was almost perpetually confused and often Depressed (a definite capital “D” there), I was embarking on a practice in meaning making that would be with me the rest of my life. The fact that I was also starting to meditate and take yoga classes at around this same time hardly seems a coincidence to me now, but I didn’t understand then the point of union of all these activities.
I still have days – plenty – when very little makes sense. But it now makes no sense with the help of writing and yoga and mindfulness. There’s something comforting about bringing these tools to bear on the world’s chaos and sadness. Even if I sink them deep into the ocean and the hook comes up empty, I’ve still gone through the familiar practice, I’ve made an effort toward meaning making – and that alone takes me somewhere, moves me forward.
The piece I wrote that sunny fall day sixteen years ago was published – amazingly. It was even reprinted as part of a book. Beginner’s Mind, you might say. When that occurred, and even more so when I published my first book, I believed that I was now A Writer and if I kept working at it I could only improve and succeed. I didn’t appreciate the vagaries of publishing and its quixotic nature. I didn’t foresee what having kids would do to my creative cycle. I didn’t yet even fully appreciate the demands a family would have for a steady income. I was just so happy that I’d figured out what I wanted TO BE. I’d found my career.
I hadn’t, of course. Rather, I’d found an inner way of being with the world that would serve me more steadfastly than any briefcase or black suit, than any corner office or retirement fund. I think of my writing now a bit like a wise old woman with whom I live – or who lives in a hut down the lane steaming tea and mixing tinctures. If I visit her faithfully, I find answers. When I stay away too long, she closes the shutters and keeps her wisdom to herself. So I go, just as I go to my mat, with faith.