Saigon Dreams

I’ve been meaning for over a month now to write about Vietnam, but every time I sit down to do so the words slip away. Maybe I need time to digest, I told myself. The trip needs to coalesce, to firm up.

But it never did. When I think on Vietnam, all I see are fragments, moments.

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Maybe that’s because of the force of nature that is Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City—a never-stopping sea of people and scooters and red flags and little plastic stools on sidewalks. The smell of herbs and frying pork and sugar, of exhaust and day-old rain and heat.

Oh, the heat. Walking out of the airport close to midnight, I thought, This isn’t too bad. Yes, it was heat you walked into, a dampness you could feel wrapping around your skin. But it felt like Maui, like Florida, like any other tropical climate. It felt manageable.

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The next day we walked out into the city… and there was the heat. Inescapable. A weight slowing you down. By the end of the first day, after a long walk back to our apartment, sweat dripped down every trail of my body. It was like I had stepped out of an hour-long hot yoga class. (According to locals, this was nice weather. Not too hot, not too muggy. Of course.)

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The afternoon rain storms did nothing to break the heat. Neither did the thunder, waking us one morning by shaking our entire apartment, the metal patio door rattling.

The metal patio door, kept closed, keeping the heat out and the AC in. But through it every morning you could still hear the swish swish swish of the woman outside, sweeping the sidewalk with her twig-tied broom. As the morning wore on, honking scooters and lottery ticket vendors added their cries to the mix. Still, over those sounds, that broom. Swish swish swish.

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These are what stick in my mind—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. No distinct moments, no momentous events. Daily life in Saigon was about the little things. Sitting on plastic stools in an alley, drinking iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Watching the neighbors come and go, greeting each other. A restaurant owner instructing us how to mix our vegetables into our broth. Watching the city go by from the back of a scooter, wind hitting my cheeks.

The more time passes, the more Vietnam seems like a dream seeping into my consciousness. Less memory and more of a feeling, a longing—for slowly dripping coffee, for complex, confounding, astonishing food. The rows of tamarind trees, high above the streets. Even the heat. All a hauntingly written story; once you’ve read it, you can’t ever really get it out of your mind.

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‘Tis the Season

Things I dislike about this time of year:

  1. Dropping temperatures. I got home the other night and said to Byron, “I just realized I’m entering five months of never being warm again.” He agreed that yes, that was probably true.
  2. The serious financial budgeting that this time of year entails. And, I totally know, we’re fortunate that we CAN afford it. I’m sure it’s much more stressful for others.
  3. The decreasing daylight. Right now it’s 7:20am and just starting to get light outside my window. And that’s actually pretty good. Talk to me when it’s 8am and still pitch black out.
  4. Trying to figure out a new skincare regimen to combat my increasingly dry skin.
  5. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Green Tuesday. Which I’m pretty sure is actually a thing now and not something I just made up.
  6. Having to pretend like I watched last night’s football game.
  7. The fireworks that go off in our neighborhood to accompany last night’s football game.
  8. Not being able to work in the yard as much, because a) cold, and b) dark.
  9. All the holiday obligations. Our December calendar is already booked. I don’t think there’s a free weekend on there.
  10. Wearing two layers of clothing around the house because I’LL NEVER BE WARM AGAIN.

Things I like about this time of year:

  1. Lighting candles in the living room as soon as I wake up in the morning, and as soon as I get home in the evening.
  2. Grapefruit. Satsumas. Meyer lemon.
  3. Trying to figure out a new skincare regimen to combat my increasingly dry skin. (Yeah, it’s on there twice. Because it’s annoying, but also… playing with beauty products!)
  4. Eagerly awaiting the annual Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog.
  5. Reading a book in front of the fireplace with a cat. Preferably two cats.
  6. On those rare days when daylight and sunshine and free time collide–grabbing the gardening tools and going out and breathing in the smell of wet dirt.
  7. Finding out what my top 10 Instagram photos of the year are #narcissist
  8. Watching the dog snuffle around in fallen leaves on our morning walks.
  9. Dinners with friends and family. It makes for a busy month… but gathering over homemade food is always time well spent.
  10. Pies. Cookies. Scones. Basically having a really good excuse to bake ALL THE THINGS.
  11. More time indoors = more time for writing.

Between Ease & Effort

A few months back I started taking yoga classes to get some sort of activity in my life that is not dog-walking. The other day, one of the instructors was talking about the space between ease and effort: how every pose should be a balance between those two. We should be pushing ourselves to be better (the effort), while also finding the comfort and joy in each move (the ease).

On our recent road trip though Montana, my brain mulled over this concept. We were on a long straight highway, clear as the eye can see. Looking at the world stretch out before us. A valley between sharp hills, west of the Rockies, with conifers clustered in gullies. Early morning sun making long shadows across tall grass, the occasional hawk poised overhead. A sky so big and blue it hurts the eyes.

The more I see of it, the more in love I am with the world. Why would anyone think there is anything better than right here, right now, this beautiful perfect earth that we have?

I get the feeling of seeing it all for the first time, the first time, as if no other eyes have devoured this landscape. Greedy. It fills you with such joy and such loneliness. It is good to look at rocks and realize how young, how small you are to this place. I could drink in all the world and never get enough.

2016 has been a big one for me in terms of trying new things, putting myself out there. Hedgebrook, going on my first-ever backpacking trip, making the decision to take the leap and leave my job… I couldn’t have foreseen how this year has gone. And I’m glad for that. I always want to see like this: filled with wonder at what the earth created.

This is how I want to live my life: full of adventure and a just a tad bit of uncomfortableness. Between ease and effort. It’s the balance between those two where you really shine.

Here There Be Giants

Four years ago for our honeymoon, we traveled to the Grand Teton National Park. I fell in love with the Tetons immediately, head over heels. Teeth rising straight out of the earth, fierce and abrupt, like a hand simply slipped underneath and pushed. Yet the Tetons were familiar in their own way–like how a child would draw mountains. Flat land, series of triangles, nothing in between.

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Glacier National Park isn’t that way. We drove out there a few weeks ago, prior to a friend’s wedding. I’d done my research on the park, knew what to expect…yet I still felt myself warily circling it as we drove, hiked, explored. Glacier feels raw, wild–like, actually wild, not a tamed human version of wild. (Even though technically, yes, it is.) When you first enter the park, the ranger hands you a brochure with a close-up of a snarling grizzly, its muzzle covered in blood. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but it does get the point across: you are not the top dog here. Not by a long shot.

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The Tetons are the same range as Glacier, all the Rockies…yet the mountains here feel different. No child drew these. In Glacier, you can see the giant, ancient, mind-boggling powerful forces that shaped this land, carved it, curled it into bowls and peaks and valleys. The tiny remnants of those forces remain; from the road, you can see Blackfoot and Jackson and Salamander Glaciers. Seeing those, then imagining their size and scope when they created this…

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To the Blackfeet Nation, this was holy land. You still feel that. But this doesn’t necessarily feel like a benevolent deity, one shaped in man’s image. This feels deep, potent, a giant slumbering under the earth. A force that doesn’t care much for the humans on it–at least, not any more or less than anything else that scampers and crawls and flies across its surface. It feels like it would open one sleepy eye and say, “Oh, you,” before casually flicking you away. Which is not to say it’s evil or mean. It’s just indifferent. Which is sometimes nice, sitting near a power so much larger than us, that doesn’t care if we stop and mind the view.

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We spent almost a full week in Glacier and still I don’t know it. How can you know something so ancient, so old, when to it you are simply passing through, like dust in the night?

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What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

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An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)

Summer, Summer, Glorious Summer

High hot days and cool windy nights. Twilights that never end. Bats zig-zagging in the dusk, feasting on flying termites. Blueberries. Huckleberries. Blackberries, still warm from the sun. One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me. Fingers stained a permanent purple.

Sticking your head into a dinner-plate-sized rose and breathing in the pear scent. Crunching toes in dry grass. Listening to the bumblebees lumber from salvia, hyssop, lavender, collecting bright yellow pollen on fat black legs.

Sitting on the edge of a mountain-fed river, strong and tired and hungry from swimming. Hot rocks warming wet swimsuit, the sun dry on your back. Listening to nothing but the water catch and fall on rock. Remembering this warm summer moment for the winter ahead, storing it as an insect for the dark months to come.

Mint picked and pressed into lemonade. Five o’clock and the smell of charcoal filling a neighborhood. No reason, no reason at all to go inside and go to bed. There is no work, there is no tomorrow. There is only summer.

Pinch Me

About a month ago I got some exciting news that I keep meaning to share on ye ol’ blog. And then…I didn’t share it. And didn’t again. And then I realized I kind of didn’t want to share it, lest it actually be a fragile thing that would dissolve under the harsh daylight of reality. It’s not even that big of a thing–but to me, it feels impossible. I’ve confirmed dates and exchanged emails and sent in paperwork so apparently the impossible is happening and I don’t need to worry about frightening it away.

You remember Hedgebrook? I was accepted to one of their Master Classes. I applied back in February thinking I probably wouldn’t get in–but hey, no harm in applying, right? (My general philosophy for life: “Might as well give it a shot!” Success rate is mixed.) In April I was told I was on the waitlist…and a day later, I was in. This particular Master Class requires a work-in-progress, so I’ll be focusing on the Never-Ending 2nd Draft. In June it’ll be 10 days on an island in the midsummer woods, with my own little cabin, sharing the time with five other writers and an instructor to guide us all along.

I’m excited and nervous. This’ll be the first time in almost 10 years that I’ve devoted a large chunk of time solely to writing. And even the last time I did that–in college–my time wasn’t 100% devoted to writing. There were other classes to attend and papers to write and jobs to sit through and card games to play and Grey’s Anatomy to binge watch.

At Hedgebrook, it will just be me and my writing. No cooking, no dog walking. No internet, no TV. Nothing to distract from the words on the page. Which is TERRIFYING. Nothing to distract from “this is working” or “this is all garbage burn it now quickly burn it all down.”

I said I’m a writer. Now I’m putting those words to the test.