Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advance Praise for Among the Wonderful

"What a pleasure it was to enter Phineas T. Barnum’s fabled American museum, accompanied by tour guide extraordinaire Stacy Carlson.  AMONG THE WONDERFUL is a smart, big-hearted novel about the desires, difficulties, hopes and fears of the museum’s remarkable residents.  I enjoyed every page."

Karl Iagnemma, author of On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction and The Expeditions.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Digging It Up: Notebook For a Novel

I spent an hour this morning reading my old journals. I was looking for the account of a specific trip, but almost immediately I was sucked into a time warp that spit me out in a cozy little Dutch bakery in Ballard, circa 1999. In rushed the drizzly Seattle autumn, its golden October roses, ships coming and going in the city's many canals, and the essence of my old neighborhood with its docks and cobbled streets, and, always, that Seattle overcast warmed by the lights of a thousand coffeeshops twinkling in the distance...okay, perhaps nostalgia waxes a bit poetic...but all of it came back to me through my untidy scrawl, and with it came a profound appreciation for that time in my life, when I carried my journal with me most days, and I made time to scribble and dream in its pages. Usually tucked into a comfortable armchair in one of those coffeeshops, and espresso fueled, I chronicled daily life, sure, but also the process of writing my first novel, the unpublished Crescent. Everything about that book was rooted in the northwest, my ancestral home, and for a period of four years or so I dug into that fertile soil, read oral histories, spent weeks in the Skagit Valley, where the mythical town of Crescent lay, and pioneered my way through my first book-length manuscript.

In 2006, excerpts of some of my journals from that time were published by Impassio Press in In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, under the title "Digging It Up: Notebook For a Novel." Although the journal excerpts are now more than ten years old, I still recognize the voice, excited and daunted by the prospect of writing a novel, fascinated by craft and the flow of imagination. I have grown and evolved as a writer since then, of course, and I do not spend as much time in coffeeshops as I used to. I find that I produce fewer pages of journals, and more pages of fiction. This is fine, but I miss the intimacy of those old journals, and I'm grateful that a glimpse of that world is visible for anyone who might wish to dig into it. If you'd like to read "Digging It Up," it's available at Google Books. Just go here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Praise of Honey

Humans have been collecting and eating it for more than ten thousand years. It was written about in cuneiform, depicted as an elixir of life in 4,000 BCE, and over the centuries many cultures have considered it a sacred, numinous substance. It is made by the same industrious insects that pollinate our fruit trees and flowers, and, as they have done for 40 million years, in the process of converting it into a non-perishable commodity, the bees augment it with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. When we eat it raw, we receive those benefits, and we receive minimal doses of  the pollens local to where the honey was made. Eating local honey can boost our immune systems.
After living in close proximity to bee hives for the past year, my relationship with honey has bloomed, and the benefit isn't only in my taste buds. Like birding, bees connect me to my environment. I've spent hours speculating about where our backyard bees go during the day. Our landlord, whose bees these are, speculates they go to the Berkeley Aquatic Park, a greenbelt about a mile away. I plant bee-friendly flowers in my garden, and almost daily Jason and I watch the bees, whose hives are on the roof of an outbuilding behind our house. We watch them guard their hive, fly away in beautiful streams, buzz around our porchlight at night, and crawl slowly across our deck to die.
Of course we've incorporated honey into our home cuisine, over yogurt, baked in banana bread, used in glazes for poultry, and in various marmalades and jams. We eat it by the spoonful when we feel like it, and stir it into our tea. It is delicious, nourishing and somehow we can feel its ancient essence. With dear friends we've started a batch of mead using our backyard honey and plums. In nine months I'll tell you how it turned out.
Paul, our landlord, keeps hives at our house, at his house across the street, and on properties in the Sierras (that honey tastes of manzanita and blackberry), Pt. Reyes (tastes buttery, with less citrus sweetness than ours), and near Coos Bay, Oregon (we haven't yet tried that one). Through his honey I learn a little about those other environments.
A while ago I found Juliette Elkon's Honey Cookbook at the San Leandro Thrifttown, published by Knopf in 1955. It is a treasure. She collected recipes dating back to Medieval times that use honey as a primary ingredient. Here's one I haven't tried yet, but I plan to.

Russian Honey Beet Jam
1 pound beets
2 preserved ginger roots, minced
almonds, sliced
Wash, peel, and cut beets into 1/2-inch slices, cook, and drain. Add one cup honey for each cup of beets and cook until thick.Flavor with ginger root and almonds. (Serve with cold meats.)

There are a lot of exotic honey recipes in the Honey Cookbook, but I have to admit that a few simple classics are very tough to beat. A toast to the glories of honey!

Photos of bees taken by Jason Swecker.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Among the Wonderful has a cover designer

My novel, Among the Wonderful, will be published in August 2011 by Steerforth Press. The seven-year preamble to that sentence was a wild, encompassing journey, one that is fodder for a future blog post. But right now I am overcome with a particular glee, one that celebrates the embodiment of a specific, strange aspect of the book: the cover. Among the Wonderful is still ethereal. It exists in zeros and ones, on virtual paper, saved somewhere inside a square icon with the file extension .doc. I know there are thousands (millions?) of Kindle users and other e-book connoisseurs who already accept the electronic medium for literature, but....not me. I dearly hope I never lose the passion I nurtured as a kid in the old Shorey's Books, in a subterranean corner of the Pike Place Market. I blew my allowance on books that just felt good in my hands: a biography of Emanuel Swedenborg with a particularly smooth leather cover; a mid-century edition of the Cupid and Psyche myth, complete with lithographs sandwiched between onion-skin paper; an oversized, cardboard-sleeved Pudd'n Head Wilson. My point is that a book's physicality mattered a great deal to me then, and even more now. I suppose during the seven years it took me to write Among the Wonderful, the book's amorphousness was sometimes a point of frustration. I couldn't hang it on the wall and invite my friends to behold it. It wasn't even propped on an easel, a tangible work-in-progress. Sure, people read parts of it, but it was just weird how invisible the whole project was. And of course I daydreamed about what the cover might look like. I came up with some ideas myself, but mostly I thought about how amazing it would be to see what imagery someone else's imagination would conjure upon reading the story. Now, amazingly, I'm on the brink of finding out.
Last week, my publisher wrote me a terribly nonchalant note to let me know that John Gall, artistic director at Vintage, will be designing my cover. (Here's a portfolio of his work.) It is one of those developments where each time I forget and then remember this amazing news, a sensation kindred to Christmas morning when you're seven years old comes over me. I am honored, thrilled, and grateful. Huzzah! Gall's covers are modern, surprising, and clearly the work of an inspired mind. I can't wait to see what he dreams up for the book. Stay tuned for more news on the book's journey into print.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I put down my Paul Harding novel for two minutes and some wiseacre in the den got his hands on it.

Monday, July 12, 2010


A waterfall of effusive praise spills across the first four pages of my paperback edition of Vendela Vida's novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Compelling. Economical. Lush. Spare. Unflinching. Precise. Searing. It is a somewhat confusing thesaurus (how can something be both economical and lush? Perhaps this is a failure of my own imagination) and for some reason it left me skeptical. It was as if all the praise roused my inner contrarian and I wasn't on the book's side at the beginning. Ultimately, I liked it. I didn't love it, but there is so much to admire in Vida's skill as a prosodist that it balanced out the elements of the story that strained my credulity.

SPOILER: Here's the basic plot outline, minus the climactic finale: Clarissa's mother abandoned her when Clarissa was 14. Clarissa is now in her late twenties. After her father dies she finds out that he wasn't her biological father. Then she finds out that her fiance knew about that and didn't tell her. So she goes to Finnish Lapland to find her biological father (without telling anyone back home). Turns out the person named on her birth certificate as her father isn't her father either. Turns out her mother was raped and the rapist is Clarissa's father. Turns out Clarissa, too, was raped (when she was a teenager). Clarissa discovers she is pregnant with her fiance's child. Incredibly, Clarissa finds her long-lost mother in Lapland. Her mother ignores her and, when forced to acknowledge her, reinforces what she made clear when she left in the first place: she doesn't want to be a mom. And on and on the story goes, in a tight spiral that reiterates its favorite theme after every revolution: Major Communication Breakdowns Hurt and Define Clarissa.

While I did find the plot a bit too taut (everyone, from the shuttle bus driver in Helsinki to the dudes Clarissa meets in the mini mart have a pointedly meaningful role to play) and melodramatic, and the evocation of Finnish Lapland was patchy, Vida's prose is mesmerizing. In Clarissa Vida has created a voice that is direct, unwavering, and brazen. I read the book in two great gulps over the period of two days, and part of the reason I couldn't put it down was because Clarissa felt like that girl in sixth grade with black fingernail polish who talked back to teachers and dared me to go up to boys I didn't know and ask for their phone numbers. Clarissa must navigate an unthinkable situation. She takes powerful, direct action, action with high-stakes consequences. She strides through the novel with a force that is daunting and delicious.

The other reason I didn't want to put down the book was the charm of Vida's similes. Here's my favorite: Recently, everything around me felt familiar yet amiss, like the first time you ride in the back seat of your own car. It is a simple, perfect simile. It illustrates exactly why writers should continue to employ them. It points straight to something unmistakable. After I read it I was almost embarrassed by the intimacy I suddenly felt with the author, because I know exactly the feeling she references. So did my boyfriend when I read the sentence aloud to him - he smiled and nodded, and so too would any car owner who has found himself in that weird backseat position. The novel is littered with such jewels. Collecting them is the novel's primary pleasure. In the end, it is a pleasure well worth the read.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Maybe it's because I've been knitting the same lace stole for almost three years and I am grateful that the process has taught me the virtue of patience. Maybe it's because the feeling I get while I'm sitting at my Ashford spinning wheel, pedaling with one foot and practicing the short forward draw, is one of peace, integration and a sweet kinship with the spinners of past centuries. It could be because I just finished writing a novel and I'm suddenly, impossibly, gleaning lessons learned as I move ahead to my next literary endeavor. Or maybe it's because you just can't beat the sense of satisfaction that comes when you give a friend a handmade gift. Whether it's plum jelly or a hand-knit scarf, there is  something fundamentally life-affirming about making. Whatever the reason, lately I've been relishing the ways that craft is part of my life, and enjoying some new twinges of understanding about it.

I've always been uncomfortable calling myself an artist. As a novelist, I understand my "art" not so much as the numinous kernel at the heart of every painting, sculpture, poem, and novel, but as the perseverance, the doggedness it takes to build a form for that kernel to live in. For me the word art implies magic, and while I am the first one to admit that there is something inexplicable and nourishing (not to mention gratifying) about those moments when something unexpected and spontaneously right spills onto the page and becomes a touchstone leading me forward, most of the time I am working on my craft in a decidedly un-magical way. I am a craftsperson.

That said, sometimes the word craft is unsatisfying. There is that pesky division we've created between high art and lower craft. Craft smells faintly of stencils and crocheted stuffed animals. Or, it can imply purely utilitarian objects. Often, when I put down my "real work" of the day and amble out to the workshop to spin fiber, knit, or dream up a sewing project, I feel just a tiny bit frustrated to be moving "down" to handiwork, and that downward movement implies a departure from the world of ideas into something not quite as valuable. For years I've demoted all the crafts I practice. In this way of understanding things, I've denied the myriad ways that craft integrates and transforms my consciousness.

A Way of Working: The Spiritual Dimension of Craft is a book edited by D. M. Dooling (1910-1991), the founder of Parabola magazine. So far I've only read three of the essays in this slim volume, but already they've lent a crucial hand in reconciling my mistake in splitting art from craft. I sense a profound consequence for me personally in mending this rift. To be able to see my work as knitter, spinner, and designer as kindred in some way to my work as a novelist, and not "lower," is a great step toward inner unity, one that I am eager to take. From the introduction to A Way of Working:

"Craft" originally meant "strength, skill, device," indicating at its very inception the basic relationship of the material, the maker, and the tool: the opposition of thrust and resistance and the means of their coming together in a creative reconciliation. The artist must be a craftsman, for without the working knowledge of this triple relationship subject to opposing forces, he has not the skill to express his vision. And if the craftsman has no contact with the "Idea," which is the vision of the artist, he is at best a competent manufacturer. Art and craft are aspects (potential, not guaranteed) of all work that is undertaken intentionally and voluntarily...Both art and craft must take part in any activity which has the power to transform.

Friday, June 18, 2010

An Important Message from Unknown Inuit Elder

My imagination is spiraling northward toward the arctic. Ever since I encountered the landscape of the far north for the first time in the summer of 2004, I have been thinking about it, first through the prism of my experience there, and then through the lens of my craft, fiction. Regarding the fiction aspect, at first I was horrified. My feeling as I hiked across the tundra, among the cotton grass and moss campion cushions, among razorwinged jaegers, gyrfalcons, and rock ptarmigan, as I glimpsed cross foxes and grizzlies, as I walked breathless in the slanted light of a summer solstice midnight, I realized this: fiction is completely irrelevant to this place. When you have watched a wolf amble across the tundra and swim across a braid of the Canning river to raid a gull's nest, when you have observed this creature free in its natural domain...and when you have lain in your tent and feared, on some level, for your life, and wondered if it was possible for a post-millenial urban human being to end up grizzly prey (and felt a certain rightness about human as prey), artifice falls away, at least it did for me. Experiential knowledge trumped art in every significant way. The far north is wild, magnificent, sublime. To describe it, I thought, does it an injustice, because how could I not taint and temper its power by my own weakness (as a writer, as a vessel of human perception). The truth is, being in the arctic just about re-calibrated the artist right out of me.

After a while, I began to think about it differently. An old adage ran through my head: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Just before I went to the Alaskan arctic I had graduated with an MFA in fiction. When I returned from that hiking and rafting trip north of the Brooks range, I wondered if my schooling had been in vain. I felt like 12 days in the arctic showed me more about the creative process than those two years in school.

Luckily I've changed my view somewhat. One day I was complaining about all this to my boyfriend, and he said: "So don't describe it. Create it." And somewhere in those two short sentences I dug in my heels and grabbed hold of the thread of an idea, the end of a guide rope, let's say, and began to follow the spiraling path into my next book.

When I began to research arctic narratives, I encountered expedition after expedition, and while accounts of egomaniacal captains and very bad 19th century planning intrigue me no end, and I love the macabre dynamics among the men on those ships, I leaned away from the expeditionary tales. What I'm leaning toward is still mysterious, but it is unfolding itself over time: the Russian Orthodox ascetics of the north, the tales of the Pomor hunters, Salomon Andree's journals, and most of all Spitsbergen, the great archipelago that no country claimed until almost the 20th century. This place, this icy terra nullis, has become the most fertile and bountiful imaginative landscape to me.

A few weeks ago I was reading an essay and found a quote that speaks directly of the arctic and the creative process. Typical of arctic narrative, there are many layers to the quote's authorship. It appears in a book called Echoing Silence: Essays on Arctic Narrative, in an essay by Aron Senkpiel. In the essay Senkpiel quotes Knud Rasmussen, the Greenlandic polar explorer and anthropologist, who in turn quotes an unknown Inuit elder from Pelly Bay, in Canada's Nunavut territory. This person, this unknown elder, is speaking of the creative process, and for me this quote is incredibly useful and inspiring as I take one slow step after another northward, to write about the arctic.

A person is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. Your thoughts are driven by a flowing force when you feel joy, when you feel fear, when you feel sorrow. Thoughts can wash over you like a flood, making your breath come in gasps and your heart pound. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep you thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel even smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want shoot up of themselves-then we get a new song."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thanks again, Frans Meijer

In our age of declining biodiversity, it's difficult to imagine a time when the US Department of Agriculture regularly hired explorers to hunt down new fruit and vegetable varieties across the globe. But this is exactly what Frans Nicholaas Meijer was hired to do in 1905. During his stint as a USDA agricultural explorer, he traveled all over the world and returned with many new species that went on to be widely cultivated in the States. He is best known for his Chinese imports, including Gingko biloba, soybeans, and Chinese cabbage, among others. Apparently afflicted with a severe case of wanderlust, he spent his adult life traveling, sometimes on foot across vast distances. Sadly, in 1918 at the age of forty-three, he drowned in the Yangtze river.

I am particularly grateful to Meijer for bringing us the lemon that now bears the anglicized version of his name. Thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, the round, thin-skinned Meyer lemon has a delectable floral scent and taste, and is less bitter than a Eureka or a Lisbon. There are two abundant Meyer lemon trees in our yard, and this yellow jewel has provided us gallons of lemonade, (often infused with rosemary), quarts of marmalade (honeyed and vanilla bean), limoncello galore, and Moroccan style preserved lemons, not to mention untold squeezes over salads, poultry and fish. But there is one recipe that stands above all the other lemon-oriented delicacies I’ve made, a recipe so heavenly, so wickedly and perfectly decadent that the people who eat it swoon off their chairs. It is something I would have loved to make for Frans Meijer in gratitude. My landlord, the man who planted the trees in our yard, handed me the recipe very casually a few months ago. Let's just say my response upon first tasting the result was anything but casual. I would describe it more as a joyful seizure. It is Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie. Yeah. It is insanely good. This recipe is from Sunset Magazine. There’s no date on the photocopy my landlord gave me, but the short article is by Elaine Johnson.

Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie

Prep and cook time: About 40 minutes, plus two hours for chilling.

Makes one pie.

10 (about 2/13 lb.) Meyer lemons

1/3 cup cornstarch

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup whipping cream

1 baked, cooled 9-inch pastry shell, or one homemade baked, cooled pie crust

1. Grate 2 teaspoons peel from lemons. With a zester or Asian shredder make a few long strands of peel to decorate the finished pie. Squeeze one and one-third cups juice from the lemons.

2. In the top of a double boiler (I use a makeshift boiler using two saucepans and it works fine), mix the cornstarch and sugar. Stir in the lemon juice and grated peel. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with 1 inch of water. Place pans over high heat and bring water to a simmer. Stir until the mixture isthick and shiny, 8-9 minutes. In a bowl, whisk eggs to blend. Whisk in about ½ cup of lemon mixture, then return all to pan. Stir until mixture is very thick and reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove top pan. Place it in a bowl of ice and stir often until the mixture is cool to touch, about 6 minutes.

4. In a bowl, beat the cream with a mixer (or with a whisk, if you’re me) until stiff. Fold in lemon mixture, then spread evenly in pastry shell. Scatter reserved strands of peel on top and chill for a couple of hours. I’ve used rosemary blossoms, raspberries, and blueberries on top of the pie.

Thanks again, Frans Meijer!

Bibliography: here and here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Djerassi and Home

I just returned from a month at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Now that I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, my perspective on the time I spent there is coming into sharp focus. I am deeply honored to have been invited to share a month of writing and shared life with nine other artists – seven invited artists and two talented Djerassi program managers.
Creatively, I spent the month moving between two worlds. I wrote some new material for the ending of Among the Wonderful, and throughout the month corresponded with my editor, Roland Pease, on various minor revisions. This process was a joy; after the years-long quest to find a publishing home for my novel, engaging in conversation with someone as eager to discuss my book as I am is a gift I won’t be taking for granted anytime soon. I also plunged further into the research for my next book, The Gyre. This involved plowing through a couple of volumes of Russian and Russian Orthodox history, mythology, and folklore, arctic narratives, and of course, Salomon Andree. A full month to write, read, wander across the Santa Cruz hills amid redwoods and sprawling oaks, above the fog and among large-scale art installations, and share meals and evenings with artists from all over the world? Whew. The hardest part was staying open to all the beauty and inspiration around me; overstimulation was the only peril. Here is some information about the amazing artists I lived and worked with:

Mariko Nagai
Josh Beamish
Jutta Strohmaier
Molly Bain Frounfelter
Lauren DiCoccio
Tra Bouscaren
Eduardo Caballero
Csilla Babinszky
Kristofer Mills

Of course, as the weeks went on I missed home, and that particular homesickness was itself a tremendous gift. I missed Jason and our country life in the city. While I was away, J harvested fava beans, chamomile, and lettuce. He watched the raspberries ripen and the blueberries emerge in dense clusters out front. Our sunflowers grew four feet. At the community garden the potato patch sprung up and the pink-lemonade climbing rose went wild. I missed riding my bike and hanging out at Actual Café. For the first time since we moved here two years ago, I missed Oakland.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Thrift Store Bookshelf: James Salter's LIGHT YEARS

I shop at thrift stores for everything except underwear and books. The former needs no explanation; the latter reveals some snobbery. Thrift store bookshelves are crowded with ragged Reader’s Digest editions and the type of mauve-jacketed women’s fiction that serves as a force field to keep me away. I have no problem pawing through aisles of sweaters in an obsessive hunt for cashmere, but I wouldn’t be caught dead searching the bookshelves.

That was all well and good until I spied a copy of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union among the Maeve Binchy at the San Leandro ThriftTown. The unmistakable turquoise and red cover caught my eye while I was in the checkout line, and, while I have already read that lovely book, seeing it over there triggered a doubt about my dismissal of thrift store book sections. Who donated Michael Chabon to the thrift store? What other treasures might be out there? On my next trip to ThriftTown I went straight to the book section.

My most recent foray yielded James Salter’s 1975 novel, Light Years. In typical thrift-foraging fashion, I noticed the Salter book first because of the color of the spine, a soothing creamy yellow. I then had a vague positive feeling about James Salter…perhaps I had read something by him? Had he been quoted by someone else in an epigraph? I picked up the book. I think what clinched the purchase was the fact that the paperback edition had a dust cover. Cool.

At first it would seem that Light Years was a miss. It considers the lives of very beautiful people, and they are too refined, too delectably gourmet, too alien in their Westchester country home, too perfectly lovely, smart, and tantalizing. They spend too many summers in Amagansett, and they indulge in too many affairs. They are Nedra, her husband Viri, daughters Franca and Danny, Jivan (Nedra’s lover), Marcel, Kaya (Viri’s lover)…on and on in an unwinding spool of linen, expensive wine, drives to the country, delicate frowns, and highly educated angst. I mean, come on! These characters seem totally exempt from a mundane existence, and so they are irritating. Or maybe they just make me feel gauche.

Strangely enough, after about a hundred pages, I was taken in. The lives of Nedra and Viri, she the untouchable beauty, he the average architect, entranced me, and the reason is because the book is written very lightly (as the title explicitly states). I do not mean it is lighthearted or flimsy. There is darkness in these characters, and plenty of it. But Salter chooses to remain in the realm of their lightness, so that their darker sides, while barely explicitly considered, come through with a graceful poignancy, in sentences like this: “Their friends that year were Marina and Gerald Troy.” Their friends come and go; they are annual trends in an unending pattern of covetousness. Throughout, the book reminded me of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in which he says in reference to Ovid, “…everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world.”

Salter’s achievement in this novel is his employment of a subtle first-person narrator whose presence establishes a graceful distance between the reader and the characters. That distance is plenty of room for Salter’s assured, omnisciently-leaning observations, which work in concert with an almanac-like movement through time and the seasons.

Salter’s prose is unhurried and unabashed in its repetitive, short declarative sentences. It is hypnotic, with its predictable rhythms and endless catalogues of the accoutrements of New York mid-twentieth century aristocracy. And while you may, like me, roll your eyes more than once at the angst of the very privileged, and marvel at how, exactly, to stay engaged with so many scenes of people lying on beach towels, seemingly able to take every summer entirely off (and use it to ponder their existences), in the end the book is, well, as delicious as an hors d'oeuvre of cold meats and French cheeses. A main course it is not. Here’s a short excerpt:

“She had trimmed the stems of flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives. On her shoulders there was perfume. I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge, and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse…clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints. She is careful and hard to approach. Her life is concealed.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My volcano

Thirty years ago today, On Sunday May 18, 1980, at 8:32 in the morning, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered the largest debris avalanche in history and a pyroclastic flow of magma blew off the side of Mount St. Helens. There was an ash column 12 miles high, over a million tons of sulfur dioxide, and within twenty-four hours the citizens of Edmonton, Alberta, were brushing ash off the tops of their cars. I was five years old at the time, and I was seventeen miles away from the mountain when it exploded.

The details are apocalyptic and beautiful: Stones the size of quarters rained down from the sky. The morning turned darker than night as the ash blocked out the sun. I swear I saw a web of something like lightning snake across the ground. The sky fell. This cataclysm, with which I had an intimate and hair-raising connection, was on TV for weeks. I was famous by association. I had a great story to tell for the rest of my life. The eruption became part of my creation myth, my identity. The volcano was mine.

I polished the story over time, sometimes at the expense of the truth...or what I remember of it. What I usually say at this point is, “Yeah, and it was my first time away from home.” That gets a laugh, and it’s true. My little elementary school was off on one of its semiannual camping trips, at Camp Cispus. Thirty-two kids running around with and a handful of parent chaperones, and our two teachers, Billie and Sharon. But lately what I really want to ask is, “What in the world were those teachers thinking?” By May 18, the mountain was decidedly active. The northern side was bulging and steam rose from the top. Billie and Sharon had either gotten bad advice from someone, or else they had no idea the mountain was getting ready to blow its lid as we all packed up into vans and parents’ cars and drove south from Seattle. It was 1980, for chrissakes. No internet, no USGS Recent Earthquakes notification list, no fresh experience of tsunamis/hurricanes/floods (at least for me). But still, how did we end up there? I guess it doesn’t matter. We were just a bunch of five-to-eight year-olds out in the woods. And I’m glad we were there, no doubt about it. If we hadn’t been, I would’ve just been a spectator, the volcano would be a story that had nothing to do with me, and I wouldn’t have it up my sleeve when I wanted to make someone say, “Wow, that’s amazing!”

So here’s what really happened: I was sitting on the steps of my forest service cabin waiting for breakfast and I saw my brother (or was it another kid? I always say it was my brother but now I’m not so sure) throwing a stick up in the air near the side of another building that had a fire alarm bell attached to it. I thought, “He’s really going to get it if that stick hits the bell and it goes off. Wouldn’t it be exciting if he got in trouble?”

I was making my way toward the mess hall when the alarm went off. My first reaction was glee, but then the sky did something unexpected. I heard the sound of what I thought might be hail (did I know about hail at 5?) bouncing off the car roofs in the camp parking lot. Then a pellet hit me and fell to the ground. I picked it up. It was a rock. That was really scary. In a matter of seconds the sky darkened past “storm” to “night” and I hadn’t even had breakfast yet. By the time I ran into the mess hall everybody was standing at the window, but we couldn’t see anything because outside it was totally black.

The next thing I remember is sitting in a van clutching my little backpack. I don’t remember the panicked conversation among the parent chaperones and teachers, wherein they debated whether to stay put or leave Camp Cispus and try to make it to Randle, the nearest town. The story I heard years later (and which I usually tell with a straight face) is that the grownups were evenly divided, half wanting to stay and half wanting to leave, and the deciding vote was cast by a girl’s mom who wanted to be back to Seattle that evening in time for a date.

At the end of the story, I usually say, “It’s a miracle I ever left home again!” and people laugh and laugh. The truth is I was utterly terrified. I never mention that on subsequent camping trips I had anxiety attacks and seemingly inexplicable angst. So there I was, sitting in the backseat of the van next to Julie Bowden, crying my face off with a damp strip of t-shirt pressed against my mouth so I wouldn’t inhale ash. We were inching along the road at 2 mph and at one point we passed an abandoned car pulled off to the side of the road that still had its driver-side door open. Julie Bowden leaned over to me and told me to shut up. The image of her bespectacled face when she said that is the second-most vivid memory of the whole day.

When we finally reached Randle, we took refuge in a church. They gave us small cans of Tab and white bread with margarine. I don’t usually say so, but these items comprise my most vivid memory of that day. Soda pop? White bread? These were things I never got at home. I guzzled and munched and asked for more, sitting on a folding chair set up right in the middle of the church. What I barely noticed at the time, but what has since taken center stage at this point of the story, is the fact that there were a bunch of ash-covered bikers (Hell’s Angels, I usually say) lounging around with us. It is such a cool image, these bikers, stretched out on pews in their leather and denim, waiting out a volcano. I wish I’d noticed them, I really do, but all I remember is making myself sick on Tab.

Eventually we made it back to Seattle. I don’t remember my mom and dad embracing me, or the looks on their faces as we stumbled out of the van. In recent years, that’s the part of the story I find myself thinking about, not my volcano at all, but theirs. What could they have felt, knowing their children were out there somewhere, trying to get home in the middle of a volcanic eruption? My volcano makes a great story, but theirs is more traumatic by far.