Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey, menagerie, Uncategorized, Words for Food

Culture Shock.  

It’s taken me two weeks to really get readjusted. Yet another thing I’ve never done before, this adjustment back–like grieving where you’ve been, its uniqueness and how impossible it is to both explain and replicate.

I returned from my month-long writing retreat in Ireland to a whole new ballgame. Really, it’s like I was playing golf and now I’m playing cricket.

I left my nonprofit work with a hard stop, spent four quiet weeks hibernating in the hills with the cows and kitties and fairies. And then I returned and within a week had a new gig as a social media/marketing wrangler, a new professional identity as a freelance writer, said the words “I’m working on my novel” out loud, put finishing touches on MFA applications, re-budgeted, reassessed, reconsidered…recovered from a kick ass headcold…

Here’s what I miss about my Ireland adventure:

Peppers--the writing annex, where everyone knew my name and what I was working on.

Peppers–the writing annex, where everyone knew my name and what I was working on.

  •  Druid Cottage
  • Brown bread
  • 2 hour-long walks in the country
  • Peat fires, specifically mine.
  • Silence
  • Simplicity—from food to routine, everything was barebones, accoutrement free
  • Walking into Peppers and feeling like I belong
  • Wind howling around the eves of my cottage making me feel strangely secure and cozy inside.
  • Not ever knowing what day it was or what time it was.

Here’s what I am so glad to come home to:

Here goes...

Here goes…

  • My menagerie
  • My new (fully functioning!) oven and it’s various culinary adventures (which may or may n to include baking brown bread).
  • OAK! The best burgers in Seattle. The best cozy winter bar. Happiness abounds.
  • Public transit (yes, really—it’s nice to not have to drive everywhere)
  • The right side of the road.
  • My new gig with these fun, creative, shit-kicking folks, Team Diva Real Estate. Taking buying, selling and renting to a whole new level. I love their commitment to relationships, neighborhoods, to knowing the quirkiest spots, to snark and pink.
  • IPA’s, especially this one. Guinness is oh, so good, but I’m a Northwesterner at heart.
  • Esquin and the Saturday wine tasting—what you’ve never been to Esquin? Best wine shop in Seattle. Nicest staff. Best back room with phenomenal deals.
  • A new adventure as a freelance writer (stay tuned)




Where Writers Write

my studyI sit at the brewery around the corner from my house—I am lucky enough to have a brewery around the corner, it’s one of the blessings of living in the PNW— with my notebook, my newly acquired fountain pen and a glass of IPA. I could write for days in these conditions. It is blissful, nestled into my corner with the sun streaming in the windows. I would stay for days.

I read a book or an article somewhere once a few years ago about where writers write. It was fascinating to read and look at photos of my favorite (and least favorite) writers and their requirements for their writing space. I learned this: we are a particular breed; we all very particular in what makes our space conducive to put words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Some people need silence and solitude, or a certain paper or pen or music. Some are peculiar only in their need for nothing particular.

I have been writing stories since I could put sentences together. My first memory of writing something for others was in 3rd grade. Mrs. Smith handed out bat-shaped, lined paper, about 5X7, and told us to write a Halloween story. I knew instantly that those six lines weren’t going to be enough for me so I asked for more pages. Mrs. Smith studied me closely and then handed over 2 more sheets of purple mimeographed bats paper.

I took my assignment home so that I could focus all my energies on the creation of my Halloween story. I spent several hoursn the project. I didn’t sit at my desk, the cute, child-sized cherry wood number that my dad made specifically for me when I was old enough to start bringing homework home. I never wrote or drew or read at that desk. Primarily it served as a space to house all my various supplies: my pencils, my crayons, my colored pens, my notebooks and cards.

My favorite spot to read and write was curled on the heating vent behind my dad’s easy chair. The vent was as old as our 1920’s vintage bungalow, heavy cast iron just feet above the furnace in the basement. I’d curl up with a blanket and roast my little behind on that heating vent with my books and pens and notebooks.

This particular story-writing project, however, took hours because I didn’t have enough bat-shaped paper, which meant I had to cut my own. Then, in order to make the paper look legit, I drew lines in purple colored pencil with a ruler. In retrospect, I tell this story and people ask “why didn’t you just write the rest of your story on notebook paper?” This never occurred to me. I don’t think I was trying to be precocious, or a brown-nosing student. Quite the opposite, in fact. I thought that maybe I could sneak this one by Mrs. Smith. I thought I’d be able to tell my story the best way possible (with more pages) and that maybe she wouldn’t notice that I used twice as many bat-shaped pages as she’d handed out. I was actually more worried about using more than the allotted pages, that I’d be in trouble for disobeying.

A few days later, after I’d slyly turned in my doorstop-like short story to Mrs. Smith, my worst fears were realized. Every day after lunch, Mrs. Smith would read a chapter to us from a book that we’d decided on as a class. It was my favorite time of the day, quiet and reflective after lunch, easing into the short afternoon before school was out. On this particular day, Mrs. Smith decided instead to read our short stories aloud. Simultaneously my stomach dropped and my heart began beating faster. I was thrilled with the idea that others would hear the words I slaved over, and terrified that I’d be called out on the carpet for my over-achieving, prolific words. I was proud of my story, desperately, anxiously seeking positive feedback, but the idea of everyone in the room listening to my words, critiquing them, possibly (probably) making fun of my overachieving sent me into a panic.

I waited until I saw my stack of pages up next—you could tell by the sheer size of the stapled pages—and asked to be excused to the bathroom. Mrs. Smith obliged, but my timing was off and by the time I slunk back into the room, she was just beginning to read my story. She joked about the weight of the manuscript and from then on, I was unable to hear anything else. I vaguely remember my classmates clapping at the end, but I only heard mocking. It wasn’t until later, in my bed that night, that I was able to absorb both sides. This was—is—typical for me. Unable to feel in the moment for fear of inappropriately emoting, I’d carefully place my experience in a box, wrap it up nicely and save it for later, when I’d open it up and allow whatever emotion it evoked to envelope me in the privacy of my own space.

My whole life I’ve tried to write at a desk. Because that’s what real, disciplined writers do. They write every day, at a desk, as though it’s their job. They diligently slave over their words in silence, without distraction. Every single place I’ve ever lived I’ve carefully crafted a study that reflects all the things that will inspire me to write beautifully crafted sentences that turn to paragraphs that turn into stories. I have a very particular and indecipherable system for placing my favorite books on the shelves closest too my workspace. I want certain photos on the walls, a particular rock I once found on display, my pens placed in a certain mug, another very specific iron star balanced on the shelf.

And then, I go work somewhere else.

I write in coffee shops and on trains and in libraries. Mostly, though, I like to write in bars. I nurse a beer or two, or a glass of wine (or guzzle, I supposed, depending on how things are progressing) while I scratch away in my very particular favorite notebook with a certain brand of pen. I rarely use my laptop on my first drafts, preferring to edit as I transpose. My favorite places to land have a few defining qualities. One, they are steadily busy but not raucously crazy. I like the background noise, but would prefer not to write in the midst of a frat party.  Two, I can snuggle into a corner preferably at the bar, but sometimes at a table tucked away. I like to observe without being in the center. I like feeling like I’ve created a cocoon in the midst of a big noisy world. Three, the neighborhood joints are the best. The same faces comfort me; I like being a regular. Even more, I feel like they are the extension of my home, my study, my living room. I like when I can make small talk with the bartenders or other patrons, but they know that I am there to work. I like the distractions of my neighbors and friends when I’ve put away my pen for the night.

There is risk involved. There is risk of judgment, mostly. Why the hell do you come to a bar to write? Bars are public houses—the third place, the place we go as an extension of our homes, our comfy space where we engage. Why would you seclude yourself with your notebook? The answer is simple—it is the way I engage, it is the extension of my home. The act of putting pen to paper makes this space comfortable. And the risk pushes me to create differently. Putting myself out of my own home makes my brain work in a higher gear.

I live in a teeny two-bedroom bungalow in Seattle. Space is limited. My husband is a painter and we share one small bedroom of workspace. I’ve recently realized that I selfishly take up space in our teeny little “art studio” because I am afraid that if I give up my bookshelf and unused desk I will give up my craft. I learn that the space that is uniquely my own is that which I take and create. I’ll never write well at home. I should sell the desk and use the money to fund my bar tab.


Power of Honesty

He went in for a minor surgical procedure.  “No big deal,” he assured us.  We didn’t worry—at least, not in the front of our minds.  After all, none of us could picture a stronger, healthier fifty-five year old than my dad.  Years of physical labor kept him trim and fit.  Years of a diet of organic fruits and vegetables, and an absence of red meat and potatoes warded off the layer of gut hanging over the belt, the young skin and healthy teeth.  If anyone would get in and out without a hitch, it would be my dad.

That was the front of our minds. In the back, however, concerns lurked in shadowy corners. I’d spent most of my twenties bouncing from apartment to apartment in several Midwestern cities before setting out for the big open skies of the West. My visits were less frequent, and each time I returned, I was surprised. I could never quite put my finger on what it was—but something was different as if he’d lost a certain gusto.  He was tired an awful lot.  He moved slower and with less confidence.  My sister and I casually chalked it up to age, stress, or years of hard work. We assured one another that when he finished the next job, relaxed, took a vacation, or heaven forbid, just generally slowed down, he’d be back to the Dad we were familiar with. Then, one day, I saw him stumble on a ladder—after thirty years working dangling precariously on ladders and roofs, this shouldn’t have happened.  He didn’t know I saw, and I never mentioned it, but I knew something was wrong.

I’d returned to the banks of the Missouri River, where I’d grown up, ostensibly to pursue graduate study.  I was determined to attend the university in the town closest to my hometown.  I’d made the trek back across the country earlier that summer, leaving the mountains and ocean at my back as I returned to the soft, grandmotherly folds of corn fields and the quiet rush of that big, muddy river.  Perhaps those nagging thoughts had gotten the best of me, pushed me to choose that university, that program, above all others. I was determined to come home.

And then he went in with an enlarged lymph node that the doctors had repeatedly assured him was nothing to bat an eye at.  He went in for nothing and came out with a diagnosis that none of us could confidently say or spell, but uses a C-word, the C-word, the word that sounds like a curse, and causes people to grimace as though you’ve struck them.

I stood in the field of clover that bordered the local farmer’s market, trying to process what my mother was telling me as we headed out for our weekly shopping trip.  It was as if the sticky, humid August air suddenly got thicker and as she continued to speak, she was sucking the breath from my body.

“He has cancer, Sarah.”  Her eyebrows were knitted together in that look that I’d grown up knowing meant trouble and should be avoided at all costs.  That was the look that as a child sent me out on my bike for afternoons upon evenings. Twenty years later, she didn’t cry; she put her arms around me as I very publicly, and very uncharacteristically trembled and cried and gasped for air.  We stood that way for what seemed like an eternity as the other marketers, our friends and neighbors, politely averted their eyes.

Emotions and crises are funny things.  No matter how self-aware you are, they are unpredictable, thereby impossible to prepare for.  Dad’s private nature and stubborn pride insisted on sharing minimal details and discretion.  My very reactionary younger sister, still living states away, calmly and reasonably asked for the details, then began making plans. My mother, steady as always, began directing us all in her easy, gentle way.

I have always been a bit of a firecracker.  When I was younger, my older co-workers affectionately called me Sparky. I have rarely been known to say no to an idea, preferring to instead figure out to make something outlandish work.  After recovering my breath, I found myself screaming obscenities until my voice was raw in my car, windows rolled up against the world.  And then, I retreated to the cool darkness of my apartment equipped with my books, a load of DVDs and a bottle of wine.

I thought of all the things I’d done to cope with heartache before: exercising away the stress of overwork, writing through lost friends and talking devastating break-ups to death.  I’d always cried in the shower, believing a wise woman who once told me that the shower would wash away all the tears.  It didn’t work this time.  First there were too many, and then as the shock wore off, they wouldn’t come at all.

For days I was unable to speak to anyone—I could hardly conjugate verbs.  When I wasn’t doing pointless research on the Internet, I was exercising my remote control muscles.  I called in sick to work; I thanked God when it began to rain.  I read two books in four days. I watched innumerable episodes of teeny-bopper television shows.  I left the house to run every day, rain or shine, hoping somehow that when the thunder storms moved in, they’d shock something out of me.

All of this is uncharacteristic behavior.  Words are my friends and have regular dialogues with my cat.  While I appreciate the quiet of my home and my bedroom, I also need the chance to verbally process. The last time I was this reclusive was probably in utero.  Day after day, I tried to find a way to voice it, expel it, release it, hurl it away from me, and the only thing I could say was “they found cancer.”

A friend emailed my parents testifying to the power of positive thinking.  Everyone talks about this concept differently; some endorse prayer or visualization or “staying positive” or even, “having a sense of humor.”  Some stress the physical connection between positvity and the body’s chemical composition.  I believe that, I do.  And yet, no matter how much I embrace the importance of keeping a positive attitude, I couldn’t help feeling broken.

How do you find a balance between optimism and truth?  How do you feel sad and betrayed and still allow for hope?  How do you honor your hurt feelings or distrust and still believe that things will get better? How do you feel like shit and manage to frame it in an affirmative way?  As I’ve navigated through life, I’ve learned to embrace how I feel, to own those feelings and allow them to power me through to something better.  I’ve found that the moments I was the saddest, angriest, most damaged to ultimately also be the most triumphant.  How, then, do you allow yourself to feel what you feel and still be a better person, inside and out?

I woke up one morning and put on jeans and a tank top.  I washed my face and pulled my hair out of my face.  I looked in the mirror for the first time in days—and it was a sight to behold.  My face, browned from a summer of landscaping work, was grayish and pale.  I looked saggy and old.  My eyes, though, were blank, empty.  And it scared me.  I looked like a drug-addicted creature of the night that had crawled out from beneath a rock.

I practiced smiling in the mirror until I could see something I recognized in my reflection.  I ate a healthy breakfast and said good morning to my roommate and returned to my work in the sun, and somehow, that sun illuminated the corners of my brain where the shadows lurked.  I rediscovered the things I new to be true, the things I truly believed in.

I believe in the power of honesty.

To be honest, I don’t want to brainstorm solutions to this quandary.  I don’t want to discuss options with everyone who thinks they’re an expert or think too hard about what this all means.  I don’t want to find fault or re-examine everything.  I don’t want to hear about all the other people who have had it, beat it, and lived with it.  And I certainly don’t want to hear about the people who have died from it.  I don’t want to stop eating peanut butter or cheese or shellfish.  I don’t want to be a vegan or start practicing yoga.  I don’t want to worry about my drinking water or my shampoo or what cocktail of genetic predispositions my unborn children might possess.

What I want is to laugh.  I want to hear the completely inappropriate joke and to hear the really good “I caught one thiiiiis big” stories from the old men smoking unfilterned cigarettes when I paying for gas.  I want to marvel at the beauty of the white fencerow against the green hills and purple twilight, all the while holding my nose against the smell of pig shit.  I want to let the phrase “y’all” slip back into my vernacular and chuckle when I hear it.  I want to eat a steak off the charcoal grill while sipping a glass of wine while I watch the sunset. I want to run because it makes me feel bigger, better, stronger with every step, not because it will ensure I won’t be struck with an incurable disease thirty years from now.

My mom drew a picture she calls “Healthy Marty” after my dad. It was her way of being positive—a childlike outline of a person filled with sunshiny yellow and a big smile.  First she made copies for my sister and me to post on our refrigerators to remind us that things would be okay.  Then her co-workers asked if they could have copies to post around their offices.  Dad swiped the one off the fridge at home and took it to his doctors who immediately asked for more. My sister had copies professionally printed, fifty of them, and express mailed them to my parents’ house.

It was like the rural American version of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. If enough people think enough grains of good thoughts, if they’re reminded every day to send just one thought Dad’s way, maybe we can all cure him together.

A few weeks after we learned the not so promising prognosis and just before he began what would be a hellish regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, Mom and I hung 50 Healthy Marty posters all over the house, the yard, the garden…anywhere he might turn, he’d be faced with a goofy smiling yellow Marty. It was like a protective shield around him.  We giggled like children when he came out of the house and looked around. He shushed us at first, a little embarrassed by the ridiculous attention.  And then he joined in.  We sat out in the heavy heat of late summer in Missouri and looked at the Healthy Marty’s dancing in the wind.  It felt strangely celebratory and cathartic.

That night, I drove home through the fields of hay, back to the stone walls of academia not far down the road, spent.  I was ready to sleep through the night again.  And as I drove, windows down, wind whipping, I whispered it to the world over and over again.

My dad has cancer.

And so far, we are still laughing.



Driving with Dad


I was never a daddy’s girl. My dad didn’t treat me like a princess, or even an expensive doll, and I refused to act like one.  He talked to me like he’d talk to anyone else, straightforward, with a slow Midwestern drawl.  He was, and still is, a great storyteller. His stories would meander with a rhythmic flow, illustrated with specific details—what someone was wearing, what they drove–and then suddenly, cut straight to the punchline.


There are a variety of reasons why I wasn’t a Daddy’s girl. First off, my father didn’t go in for the clichés; his way of connecting to his daughters was to share knowledge. It might be how to plant green beans or properly and thoroughly sweep the sidewalks, but he had a method for everything and that was his gift to us. While I appreciated not being treated like a porcelain doll, in my own quiet way, I wanted to do it myself.  As a child, and even today as an adult, I often find the best way to beat being afraid of something is to do it anyway. As a kid that was scared of everything unknown, this was a feat unto itself.


This independence clearly rubbed against my father’s way of caring for me. Really, it rubbed against his deep-seated fear that I would suffer a hurt that he couldn’t fix. I was a difficult teenager, not because I experimented with drugs or got poor grades. No, I simply didn’t take his advice. I can hear my father’s plaintive yell echo in my head “You never listen.”  I never really understood what the big deal was—if you told me not to jump off a cliff because there were rocks at the bottom, I’d figure out how to do it anyway, just to find out.  It wasn’t spite, it was the spirit of facing the challenge.  In my self-centered teenaged world, I couldn’t fathom why it would make any difference to anyone else whether I tried and failed or not. My dad, however, was imagining my broken body at the bottom of the cliff, the horrific tragedy that could be around any corner and my unwillingness to listen was infuriating.


I feel pretty confident that everyone in my family recollects the years I was in high school as one long, tense argument. My dad wanted to show me the way and I was pointedly taking my own route. There were times in my adolescent years when my family and I were able to table that mutual exasperation for one another.  My mother and I would take long walks.  My sister and I usually managed to digest whatever disagreement we were having while baking.  But perhaps the most pivotal time for me was driving with my dad.


Aforementioned independent streak might have something to do with my obsession with having my own wheels (or at least being able to borrow them on occasion).  I took the permit test the moment I was able, passed, and was ready to learn.  My mother couldn’t stomach the process. She’d white-knuckle the door handle and gasp dramatically when I turned a corner.  The job then fell to my father.


It was a far more appropriate job for him anyway. Every Sunday it became our routine.  We’d eat breakfast and I’d sip my tea and read my book while he finished reading the paper or whatever household project he’d undertaken.  He’d then stand expectantly in the door and say “Sarah, I need to go to the hardware store,” or “Your mother needs us to pick up something for dinner.”  He’d dangle the keys and I’d take them delicately, and we’d be off.


Uncharacteristically, he never gave me too much instruction.  He’d recline the seat as much as he could in the little four-door Corsica so that he could stretch his long, tired legs.  Every so often he’d offer a pointer, “treat the accelerator like there is an egg under your foot. Slow and steady.” We’d talk about politics or some other local issue, or we’d sit in comfortable silence as I maneuvered the car through the neighborhoods of our small town, past the city limits and onto the winding back roads.  The further we got from town, the more relaxed I felt, like I had melded into the upholstery and was cradled in the chassis of the vehicle.


When I finally got my driver’s license, driving was like flying. I was free.  I drove when I needed to think, when I needed to cry or yell; my cars have seen more tears from me than most people.  The car continues to be my vessel for emotion.


While my father instilled in me the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, he gave me more than that in those Sunday driving sessions. Or, perhaps they were instilled much earlier, but awakened as we drove down the open road together.  Whatever the case, I have the same itch to wander than he has.  He taught me about the beauty of the journey.  Years later, I’d meet and marry a man that had a love affair with every part and parcel of driving—the mechanics, the skill, the systems.  He taught me to drive a stick shift and how to drive fast on the curvy country roads—where to brake and where to accelerate through turns.  We bonded over our mutual affinity for driving. Unfortunately, the relationship eventually died a slow, painful death. It was poisoned by a difference in philosophy: he loved the machine and I loved the act of going somewhere and the challenge of getting there.


I came into this philosophy naturally.  A wanderer himself, my father spent a number of years in his youth traveling across North America.  Even after settling into his family and career, our family vacations as a family reflected this mantra.  We’d pack up the car for a week and head out for points unknown.  Usually there was a vague destination in mind, but the course itself had yet to be plotted; my parents rarely made reservations anywhere. If my sister or I inquired, my father’s response invariable was “You don’t need to worry about it.  Look out the window and enjoy the scenery.” He would ruffle at our concern—he’d take care of us, not to worry.


When I lived in St. Louis, MO, my sister lived in Denver. I drove the twelve hours from St. Louis to Denver fairly often; my friends thought I was crazy for driving at all, and certainly for going it alone.  As I drove through the vast openness that is the Kansan plains, I was nearly brought to tears by the stark beauty of the landscape.  The golden fields, the turquoise sky, both occasionally dotted with the sharp shadow of a hawk flying low. I was astounded that so many people complain about the monotony of the drive—I thought I was the only one that thought this way until my mother chuckled and said “Your father loves that drive.”


As I grow older, I find that my fierce independence as an adolescent has tempered and serves me well.  I continue to feel anxious and unsettled when I go too long without the open road to open my eyes to new and different vistas.  The older I get, the more I realize that those Sunday drives were the impetus for so much more. My father, who never treated me like a princess with kid gloves, but still harbored a small flicker of fear that I’d be hurt somehow, trusted me.  He trusted me enough to recline in his seat and let me take the wheel.  As I’ve gone through my own trials and victories, he continues to worry, but for the most part is content to stand back and watch me maneuver my way through.  He has faith in me.  As I’ve grown more adept at listening and making my own decisions, when the hint of doubt creeps in, I find solace in that faith, and a sense of pride when I’m able to look out at that open road, and the bends in the distance and feel secure.