Monday, June 30, 2014

Afterthought #29 - The Case for Hope in Writing

Early in June I heard the writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. I left Town Hall Seattle with three of her books and have just finished her essay collection, Men Explain Things to Me.

While the essays focus on some of the ways we continue to wrestle with gender inequality, Solnit also makes a case for hope in writing; I turned over the page corner and underlined this:

“…you don’t know if your actions are futile…you don’t have the memory of the future…the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be…in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate the most.”

On those dark days—so many of them—when I wonder if my work as a writer is of any help in the world, I’ll return to Solnit’s words.

“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Commute

These days, it’s warm enough to keep our bedroom door open at night. The rising sun wakes me just after 5 AM, and soon after, the hum of a ferryboat lulls me back to slumber. Two days a week, though, I have to resist the soothing thrum of the vessel carrying passengers from the mainland so that I can join other Lopez commuters who work on neighboring islands. For the last five years, I’ve been among them, leaving Lopez shortly before 7 AM for the half hour sailing to Orcas Island and my job as a school nurse. (see Nov. 2010 post Ferry Boat Meditation).

Lately, my commute has been the stuff of Hollywood movie sets. We’ve had a painter’s dream of clear skies and crystalline blue water, contrasting with the jewel-like greens of the shore. 

At the Orcas Landing, the red roofs of the market and the 110-year old Orcas Hotel welcome our arrival.

As I sip coffee from my travel mug, I chide myself for wanting to sleep in; I know I’d receive no sympathy from commuters on car-clogged freeways.

Today was the last day of my commute—not just for the school year, but forever. After forty years as a nurse, I’m retiring. Or, as I prefer to describe my departure, refocusing. I’ve thought of this day often, especially in the winter months when I’d rise, get dressed, and drive to the ferry landing in the dark. Those mornings I’d have preferred to succumb to the ferry engine rumble and tunnel under the comforter for another hour of sleep. 

Some days, though, I’d be rewarded for not hitting the snooze button, making it to the landing just in time to see the ferry approach the dock, the sunrise glinting off Mt. Baker’s peak.

Now I’ve learned that the M/V Evergreen State, the ferry that has carried me to my job on Orcas, is retiring, too. Or, in ship lingo, is being decommissioned. The Evergreen State was the first vessel custom built for Washington State Ferries in 1954. 
It will make its final run on the interisland route this Friday afternoon; if I were more sentimental—and didn’t have another commitment—I’d make an extra trip to Orcas just to say farewell to this vessel that’s one year younger than I am.

M/V Evergreen State will be replaced by M/V Klahowya to carry passengers and vehicles on the interisland route through the San Juans. The boat’s name comes from a Chinook Indian term for "greetings." I suspect I’ll spend some time on this vessel; I learned during my commutes that the ferry is a good place to write. Perhaps in the coming years, some of my “greetings” to you will have their beginnings on the Klahowya. But next week, I plan to just listen for the sound of its engine from my bed.

Do you commute to work? I’d love to hear your commuting stories—whether they’re current or from the days before you were “decommissioned.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Taking the Plunge as a Writing Teacher

There are hundreds of reasons I love the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. First, there are the forty other students enrolled there, about double that number of alumni, the dozen or so faculty and staff, and the droves of guest faculty who teach at the residencies twice a year. Then there are the thousands of beautiful and inspiring words I’ve read while a student there—many of them written by classmates and teachers. Those are all cause enough to boast about this unique low-residency program, but there’s more. Started by writers, for writers, the Whidbey Writers Workshop is willing to tap its students and alumni to teach classes at the residencies. I’m honored to be included on the schedule in August (writers have until June 15 to register for the residency-only option) as Guest Faculty and to respond to NILA’s…  


1.  What's your favorite thing about teaching writers?

Unlike the Polar Bear Plunge (see the BONUS Question at the end), I’m just dipping my toe in the water of teaching writers. The little bit that I’ve done so far has been invigorating and inspiring, and teaching pushes me to dive deep into the content. Plus, writers are generous and adventurous; I end up learning a ton from them.

2.    How would you suggest students approach a writer, agent, or editor they admire?

Scott Russell Sanders

Plunge in! That’s the advice I received at the very first Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA residency I attended; I was testing the waters (sensing a theme here?) as a residency-only student before I’d applied to the MFA program. Another student encouraged me to talk to guest faculty Scott Russell Sanders, an essayist whose work I adore, and even prompted me about what to say. I was sincere in my questions about writing in this genre, and he was equally sincere (and supportive) in his response.

3.    How about a sneak peek of what we can expect to learn from you in your sessions at Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA?

Throughout history, people have explored questions of faith through music, painting, dance, photography, and writing. In the session Writing About Faith, Spirituality, and Religion, classmate Cynthia Beach and I will examine characteristics of this subgenre, described by Philip Zaleski, editor of America’s Best Spiritual Writing series, as “poetry or prose that deals with the bedrock of human existence.”

We’ll explore examples and publishing opportunities across a wide range of spiritual traditions. The session also will include time for writing and contemplation—something we expect people will welcome on Day 6 of the 9-day residency.

4. Tell us what "literary community" means to you. 

If we’re lucky, there’s a ripple when we cast our words to readers. A literary community, like the one we have at Whidbey, sometimes is a net that gathers us close. Sometimes, it’s a life preserver.

5. When not teaching or working at your day job," you can be found...

walking my yellow lab/German 
shepherd, Buddy

           making hand-bound journals and
           artists’ books 

                     picking, procuring, preparing and sharing meals with friends and family.


The MFA residency includes a FREE POLAR BEAR PLUNGE in which we all jump into the lovely, refreshing waters of the Puget Sound. On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most likely, how likely are you to participate?

1 – The way I’m most likely to be in “the lovely, refreshing waters of the Puget Sound” is snug in my kayak, wearing a spray skirt and neoprene gloves. 

However, I rank a 5 on the scale of how likely I am to be on the dock, cheering the swimmers on and handing out dry towels.