One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wildwood and Wild Woods (and My Apology to Fantasy)

I’ll admit it. Fantasy is not my favorite genre. Oh, I love a little bit of magic realism, I love wondering where the line between real and imaginary just might lie, but the full step-out-of-reality-and-into-a-new-one is not my cup of tea.

(Actually it is just like a cup of tea, which I always think I want but then I take a few sips and realize what I am really craving is coffee…)

But I just finished reading Wildwood, a new fantasy middle grade novel by Colin Meloy (the lead singer for the Decemberists) and—well—let’s just say I drank my tea and liked it. Yes I did. The story takes place on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, in a fantasy woods its inhabitants call Wildwood, but it is based on the real Forest Park, which is a 5000 acre woods just outside of Portland. Here—in this real/not-real place—is a world where coyotes, owls, rats and many other animals talk, where humans and animals live side by side like equals and where plants and trees can communicate with them all.

Maybe it is because I have been away from fantasy for a while. Or maybe it is because Colin Meloy does it so well. But as I read Wildwood I found myself looking out my window—past the street, past the park, past the river—and into the wooded hills on the other side and wondering…wondering what other world might exist there within the thick pockets of pines.

A memory came flooding back to me. When I was a child, a huge tree sat outside my bedroom window. I could lie in my bed and stare right at it. There was also talk of tree snakes, fat as fence posts. And so—you guessed it—I would lie in my bed and stare at that tree and see, truly see, what I thought was a snake. What did it want? What did it want with me? Could it talk? Would it talk to me? That incredible blurring of real and imaginary.

And another memory. Our first rented house here in Vermont sat at the edge of the local university’s research forest. I loved exploring it. The quiet of the red pines, the mysterious hut in the clearing, the swimming hole at the bottom of the hill. In one section, the woods opened up onto a pathway lined, perfectly symmetrically, with a couple dozen birch trees. That pathway felt ceremonial to me. Did deer celebrate there when one of their fawns came into the world? Is that where bears declared their love for one another? Did mediations between the squirrels and the skunks unfold there? That pathway held magic for me.

Standing by my window, years later, after reading Wildwood, I remembered that I had always wanted to write a story that took place on that pathway in the research forest.

I stand humbly corrected about fantasy.

Maybe I should make myself a cup of tea and sit by my window and sip and imagine and sip and write—about the very day my tree snake arrived on that magical birch-lined pathway…

Tam Smith

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Breathing Inspiration

Every afternoon, after I’ve attempted to satisfy my writing goal for the day (500 words, 1000 words, finish the chapter, get a handle on a secondary character or just sit and punch letters into my keyboard for a given amount of time) I close my laptop, feed the pets, slip a harness on my canine companion and head out the door.

Most often, we climb Taylor up to Ina Coolbrith Park, a tiered garden with steps and switchbacks to accommodate the steep hill, established in honor of California’s first poet laureate, Ina Coolbrith. Parrots, hummingbirds, crows and a red-tail hawk are frequent visitors, along with locals and tourists who come for the view of Alcatraz, Coit Tower, North Beach and the Bay Bridge. In one corner is a bench and a large piece of serpentine embedded with a bronze plaque that reads Poet’s Corner. When my youngest daughter was quite small, (like four years old) we would walk our other shy (better behaved) Sheltie up to the park and Zoe would always say, “Someday, I want to be a poet and come sit on this bench.”

After envisioning the romantic life of a poet, we would cross the street, climb another set of stairs and switchbacks to the top of Russian Hill, where another small park crowns the vista. Right next to the park is a beautiful gabled, arts and crafts house built in 1892. My girls loved to peek through the fence, not only to catch a glimpse of the chickens and the apple tree, (a farm in the city!) but also because Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived there for a period of time. The thought of being so close to the adored author was thrilling to us all!

Continuing our little circle walk, we pass the house where Gelett Burgess wrote I Never Saw A Purple Cow, (I never hope to see one, but I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one) a poem so delightfully silly that it is hard to imagine it was penned by a grown man over a hundred years ago.
The last bit of our walk takes us down Macondray Lane, the setting for Amistead Maupin’s Tales of The City. At the end of the lane is a house that reportedly came around the Horn in the 1800s. Ina Coolbrith (who the park with the poet’s corner is named for) is said to have lived in this house and entertained such literary luminaries as Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller. She was also a mentor to Jack London and Isadora Duncan. Years later, it was the home of the writer Oakley Hall who taught both Michael Chabon and Amy Tan and founded the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop.

Scientists tell us the air we breathe is the same air, the very same molecules, inhaled and exhaled by all breathing creatures from the beginning of time. As I take the evening circle walk, I always try to imagine that I am breathing in some of the air that once moved through these amazing and talented people who have walked these paths before me.

And that daughter who wanted to be a poet? Turns out, she knew what she wanted. As a junior at Sarah Lawrence College, focusing on poetry, fiction and literary theory, she’s well on her way.

So breathe and dream. You never know what’ll happen.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Landscape of the Mind

I just finished reading Mockingbird. Extraordinary. Kathryn Erskine gets inside the landscape of Caitlin’s mind the way an archeologist gets inside the earth. Digging carefully and deeply around the treasured object.

In Caitlin’s case, the treasured object stuck and hardened inside her mind is emotion, I believe. It is trapped by her idiosyncratic behaviors and coping mechanisms: isolating herself, her lack of social skills, her inability to define anything that isn’t literal. On the outside, Caitlin’s actions and reactions appear disconnected. I understand this, as a reader, because Kathryn has created many scenes between Caitlin and other characters. But what I also understand, as that same reader, are Caitlin’s thought processes. I am privy to the way she thinks and the way she strings information together and the conclusions she draws. Chapter by chapter, Kathryn hunkers down and journeys just a little further into that rich and muddy earth of Caitlin’s mind. She doesn’t walk away into someone else’s perspective. She doesn’t look away, even for a moment. She is focused and determined and, more than anything else, she excavates with a loving hand.

When my running partner, Kara, and I stop at the edge of the river trail to let the dogs swim—when we look out on the rock ledge that bridges the trail and the water, when we watch the sun hit the water and turn into tiny sparklers of light, when we gaze beyond the river to the pine forest hillside in the distance—we are, more or less, seeing the same landscape. More than that, we are feeling the same landscape. Feeling the same heat of the late morning sun, feeling the same drops of water on our ankles when the dogs bound out of the river and shake, feeling the same burst of energy from the momentary rest and recharge.

But we—none of us—can see or feel inside the landscape of someone else’s mind. We can try. And I believe it is, perhaps, the most important thing we can try. But it is hard work. It is murky and thick and hard to navigate.

Kathryn Erskine gives us a critical lesson in Mockingbird.

A tool that can help bridge the space between one mind and another.

One heart and another.

Tam Smith

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Islands of Sanity

I haven't always lived in the city. In my early 20s, I lived on an island, Orcas Island, in the San Juans off the northern coast of Washington State. I refer to it as my homesteading period. 

I had gone from a tiny private high school to a huge university and by the middle of my sophomore year, I was feeling overwhelmed. When a missed tuition snafu made me lose my registered classes, I dropped out, rented a lovely hand built cabin on Orcas, went to the pound and chose a canine companion, talked an ex boyfriend into loading up all my stuff into the back of his pick up truck, and moved.

My life on Orcas felt perfect. I made friends with the librarian and planted a garden on half an acre of her five hundred acre plot. I read and wrote and crocheted backpacks (!!!) to sell at the local gift shop where I worked. I cooked a goose in my wood burning stove and made goose grease cookies. I made sour dough bread, filled up dozens of sketch books and fell in love with a boy who was a wood carver and kept us fed on abalone and venison.

I was barely twenty-one when the librarian told me she was ready to retire. She offered me the job ( it was a teensy rural library and didn't require a degree) and then she and her husband amazingly, generously offered me a hundred year lease on five acres of their land at a dollar a year, if I wanted to built a house. I could raise goats, something that sounded great to me at the time. But. I hadn't finished school. I hadn't really lived much of my life yet. This generous, tempting offer felt suspiciously like early retirement.

And so, once again, I moved, this time to Bellingham where the college appealed more to my comfort level. After finishing up my degree, I moved again, this time to Portland, a little bigger, but still a city with a human scale. And then I moved to San Francisco, where I eventually met my wonderful husband, raised my girls and learned to be an urban dweller.

I still need my islands, quiet places where the city hum fades away. We're extremely fortunate to live in a place where the wild, windswept Marin Headlands are less than twenty minutes by car, the Mt. Tamalpais watershed just over half an hour drive. 

But I also have a number of 'islands of sanity' that I visit daily, weekly. Every morning, I walk my Sheltie three and a half blocks to Michelangelo Park, a sweet haven of grass and garden tucked into the middle of a quiet block of apartment buildings. Often, we're the only ones there besides a group of chattering wild parrots.

Strawberry Island in the middle of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park is another of my havens. The city recedes as we climb the dirt path that circles up to the top of the waterfall; the loudest disturbance is my crazy dog, Emma, who is convinced there is a gurgling monster that lives in the bottom of a cistern by the pond.

I make monthly pilgrimages to the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral four blocks from my house. On certain afternoons, the practicing organist is the only other corporal presence, as I slowly wind my way in and out of the meditative path.

And then there is the DeYoung Museum. On the second floor is a sacred space, a room filled with old masks, wooden gods and mysterious, numinal relics from other worlds. There is a particular silence in this dimmed space that calms and nourishes me.

But the island that is my real haven is my work space at home. When I sit down at my desk to write, the busyness outside stills and I am completely immersed and transported to my world of words and story. The traffic noise, the fog horn, the cable car, the voices and barking dogs, all dissolve. In fact, I was so 'lost' in a scene I was working on a few months ago, that I failed to notice the movie shoot outside my window. It wasn't until I got up to make a cup of tea that I glanced out and recognized Jude Law with a plastic helmet on his head! (Sanity or insanity?)

Where are your islands of sanity?