By Lisa Connors
(Non-fiction with an asterisk)
An open letter to my beloved Rainier Writing Workshop Cohort 11, the magnificent RWW Community, and Explorer, Literary and Literal Eco-Activist and my Mentor (thank Rick and the Gods), Gary Ferguson.
Thursday, August 14, 2014. 9:44am. Chicken and I have been awake for several hours. Tucked in this 240 square foot cabin perched on a hill, grounded, solid yet through the bare window of the alcove cradling the bed it appears we are hovering in this thick stand of Alders. We are 1.2 miles from the Goose Community Grocery on South Whidbey Island, a twenty minute ferry ride from Seattle and ten more by car, but the siting of the cabin, and the utter silence are such that I feel like I’ve slipped through a curtain, arrived on some other side I hoped existed, bereft of the gift to describe it for you. I remember Gary Ferguson’s gentle counsel from early last week, Monday I think, “The first time I write it down, it is never as good as it was in my head. Don’t worry about it.” He said. So I won’t, or I’ll try anyway. And while Chicken’s crazed eyes and gawking, silent-scream mouth would suggest otherwise, he/she sits serenely, and worries not one bit. Gary wasn’t my official mentor when he offered those words about crafting story on paper, but I have been learning, in a rush, fiercely, hungrily, from him since January of this year when I discovered his books and essays, out of all of the faculty’s auspicious work, calling me, not only as a writer but an explorer and even better, a daughter of this vast wilderness called Earth - belonging and thus bearing the responsibility of living into the laws of a co-active community that as a human member I struggle to both understand and live up to. You try. And forgive yourself when you don’t get it right, when what you believe in loses something in translation from your heart to your head and again through your hands as you pull more toilet paper off the roll than is sufficient. Then you try again. We are awake, Chicken and I. Wide awake.
My bid for Chicken at the fundraising auction Tuesday night, the last event of the ten-day sprint called Residency, was a bid to belong. As the youngest of three kids, transplanted when I was midway through kindergarten by city-raised parents who dreamed of a farm into a tiny rural village in Southeast Michigan teeming with Baptists and combines and cousins and dynasties whose names were plastered on the grain mill and shops, belonging was something not granted to me in the ways ‘most people’ get. My family shed our religion (Lutheran) back two generations, and our European ingredients are so varied that sifted together over our bodies and sensibilities we were simply coated in flour bleached white. My grandparents stayed behind as my folks followed wanderlust and my Dad’s job with Sears, along with the pictures and stories and mealtime rituals bequeathed to the few cousins I have. As I have moved into the middle lands of my lifetime I work to slip out of the cloak of not-needing-anyone-much I stitched for myself, squatting in the lean-to I built out of small rotting tree trunks. That last is not a metaphor, although it is metaphoric I guess. Between the ages of five and ten, after which magic wears thin, I ruled the slight stands of scrap trees and burry brush behind our house, the crown princess of the forest and the fields beyond, assisted by my little dog, Bertha - half Black Lab and half Dachshund. Not a mix one would choose for beauty or speed, but unmatched for devotion and squeezing under fallen down things. I belonged without question to the land and myself. A cast of imaginary animal friends, (including a raucous black bird named aptly if not elegantly, Dum Dum Dee Dee) were my clan. I watch the world of people thrum by from the edges while I pretend to be one of them. So Cate (G) I argued against your bids for that piece of ridiculous rubber, not to compete, not even to give cash for the cause, but to take one more step out of the shelters I’ve made.
It is now 11:23 am, still Thursday I think, and I am still laying in my pajamas in this white cloud of a bed, down stuffed and draped with deep red plushy curtains, nowhere to be, reading and writing and occasionally sipping tea, and thus padding into the bathroom I share with no one, five steps away over polished wood floors, tamping my toilet paper usage down to a minimum. I say this not to brag, I am keenly aware of the gift of this space against the work and the families and the sprouted potatoes and the NOISE you all face now, but to make the comparison and follow some thread back to Gary’s example in his life and his work that is helping me name just what it is I need my writing to be in the world. And then I ask you, in the name of Chicken our Muse, to share more of your story and who you are becoming with me as you find the time and inclination. Perhaps inspired, as I assuredly am, by the mere presence of Chicken. I have to pee. Back in a minute.
On the way back to bed, just a step or two in, I pause in the kitchenette to make a yogurt parfait. Yes, there is decadence in this cabin I highly recommend. As I spoon yogurt into a wine glass, then layer in organic vanilla granola, then blueberries then start over again, I am reminded of Gary asking us to notice how skilled writers spoon out bits of story. I an drawing spoons in the margins of his 2003 book “Hawks Rest,” eyeing the dollops of personal history, eco-imperative cause, good-plain-folk language, lyric interludes, science that makes one feel smarter - not dumber, character quirks and philosophies, and flat out action-adventure in quantities and textures measured and chosen to draw certain types of readers out of their own encampments, (la-z-y-boys worn against large bodily masses and rent vinyl or perhaps even leather patched up with duct tape; downy white beds in cabins on islands in sounds off the coast of real life) to join an expedition as part of an American legacy of defining self and collective against the harder edges of the outdoors. Chicken is eyeing my parfait and AWKs at my choices. “Sprinkle on a few bugs.” He/She suggests. Chatty now, having heard that a rooster is up for grabs in the wilds of Pennsylvania he/she asks lustily to visit Cate (H) next. “Who knows where that might go?” He/she croons, through a throat ringed with pearls. The arrow shot through the tramp stamp quivers just so. In a pinch might this serve as one of my critical papers? If I edit out the tramp stamp part? 1:32 pm Thursday, August 2014. The first day of something I will write my way into, but right now it’s time to shed the comforts of this beautiful cabin and rub up against some hard edges.