Doe Bay.

I’m sitting on Meditation Point, a promontory overlooking the sea, trying to decide where to fix my gaze. The unseasonably warm October weather has abruptly turned cold, and I’m shivering in my thin flannel shirt. I long for the puffy down jacket I left behind in the Retreat House, but I brush the longing aside, choosing instead to focus my attention on the rippling waters of Otter’s Cove, and the fog rolling over the tops of impossibly tall evergreen trees.

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A few minutes ago, as part of her workshop at Write Doe Bay, papercut artist Nikki McClure led us on a walk through the woods, instructing us to remain silent as we followed the forested trail toward the overlook. Rather than speak, we were meant to simply observe the natural beauty all around us, find a spot to settle in, and sketch what we saw.

As our group of writers trudged along, passing campsites, we encountered a middle-aged couple cavorting among the trees, the door of their yurt flung open as they enjoyed a morning picnic. They hollered “hello!” at us, and though I (mostly) obeyed the instructions to stay quiet, the pair’s unchecked exuberance left me unable to suppress a chuckle. I wanted to shout greetings back at them, but instead, I smiled. A smile that said, “I know just how you feel.”

I’ve been back from Doe Bay for just over a week, and though it was my second time attending Write, this trip was a markedly different experience for me. Sure, the teaching artists were different, as were most of the attendees. But one year later, I was also different. And it was this difference that I found to be the most striking.

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There’s a phrase that the founders of Write often use when referring to the workshop and to Doe Bay itself: The power of a place to unlock you. To underscore this idea, participants exchange vintage keys at the close of the workshop, placing them around each other’s necks on a string of suede.

But here’s the thing: if a person is going to be unlocked, they have to be willing to open up. And last year, I wasn’t. I came to Doe Bay fragile and frightened, hollowed out by tragedy, and desperately seeking some magic elixir to heal my battered psyche. I listened to the powerful stories of the other writers. I was moved. And I tried my best to be present. But if I’m honest, I wasn’t able to allow myself to participate in the workshop in any meaningful way.

Fast forward one year later. On this visit, waking up to the staggering sunrise outside the window of my cabin felt like nothing short of a miracle. On this visit, I found myself passionately curious about all of the attendees, wanting to connect with each and every one of them – even if only for a few minutes – in the short time we had together. And on this visit, the fear that churned in my stomach at the thought of reading my unpolished workshop writing or deeply personal stories from my life served as motivation to jump in and share, rather than something that held me back.

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During her workshop at Write, Jenny Feldon asked us to consider changing one thing upon our return to our “normal” lives. “Change one thing,” she said, “and believe that other changes will follow.”

One year later, with Doe Bay as my barometer, I can tell you that, for me, many things have changed. Maybe the island and the rolling fog and the space we share together over the course of those three days really are magic. And maybe I simply needed to try again, to come back to this beautiful place tucked away amidst the trees, to realize how much – over the last year – I have been coming back to myself.

The power of a place to unlock you.

Until next time, friends.

Doe Bay Fall 2015

The memory of a place.

We received a brief respite from the heat this week in Los Angeles – even a desperately needed bit of rain – before the mercury began to spike again, signaling the arrival of another sweltering September weekend. In all the years I’ve lived here, I always remember September being hot, but never quite as insufferable as the recent Sunday evening when I returned to L.A. after a two-week absence. Upon crossing the threshold of the little stucco box that is my one-bedroom apartment, I was greeted by a wall of heat so humid, so stale, and so oppressive, that it nearly immobilized me. As I began to unpack, giant beads of sweat dripping down my nose, I imagined I was back in my seat on the Amtrak Cascades, gazing dreamily out the rain-kissed window at Puget Sound, the train pressing steadily onward toward British Columbia.

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Is it possible to feel homesick for a place that was never really home? While it’s true that sandwiched between my youth in Anchorage, Alaska and my adult life in Los Angeles, I did spend four years of high school in the Pacific Northwest town of Olympia, Washington, that was merely a blip, and the late 90’s were so long ago. Over the course of my life, I’ve been less of a resident of the Pacific Northwest, and more of a frequent visitor.

Still. Nearly all of my family – at least the family members that I know – live somewhere between Anchorage and Medford, Oregon, with most of them tracing their roots to Washington State and Oregon. And while Mom and I joined Dad in Alaska shortly after my birth at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, Mom never fully settled into life in Anchorage. The Pacific Northwest was in her blood, and we returned there often. Many of my childhood memories are hazy mental photographs of my grandparents’ home on Beach Drive in West Seattle: playing catch in the long driveway, Grandpa’s rose garden, the living room with its seascapes and sea gull décor, the blond shag carpeting and terrier (Benji) to match.

And then of course there’s the Beach – the property on Case Inlet in Southwest Washington that I wrote about at length in my last post. That place is not only where several of my close family members reside, it is forever entrenched in my history.

As beautiful as the Pacific Northwest is, it has been difficult for me not to feel a bit haunted whenever I return there. Amid the inlets and elbows of Puget Sound, the tall evergreen trees, the gorgeous views of Mount Rainier, are memories of people that are no longer living, and a life that’s no longer mine.

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But this time – and I’m not quite sure why – the ghosts of the past seemed to peacefully coexist with the experiences of the present. The familiar was no longer haunting; it was a source of comfort. The Pacific Northwest was markedly different, yet ever the same.

The tree-lined drive along Highway 3 into Shelton – where I took my driver’s test –this time made in Grandpa’s ice blue Honda CR-V with the handicapped sticker hanging from the mirror. The same, yet different.

Olympia. The loop around Capitol Lake – where I would walk so many times, rain or shine – and the Capitol Building, with its dome that I used to photograph for the school paper. This time, a walk downtown for lunch with one new friend, then coffee with another on the Capitol campus, where she works. The same, yet different.

Seattle. Echoes of my mother’s laughter all around Westlake Center. The flagship Nordstrom where we’d spend an afternoon lunching and shopping for shoes. The Paramount Theatre, the site of one of my first concerts – Garbage – now hosting the band Hall and Oates. The waterfront – and the arcade where we spent our high school grad night – now mired in new construction. This time, I stop to ask a handsome police officer if he can point the way to Ivar’s restaurant. He laughs and directs us through scaffolding and over a rickety wooden walkway. Ivar’s – the place I’d feed seagulls and watch departing ferryboats as a child– now a spot to enjoy a leisurely lunch with my sister Marion, sipping wine and planning our trip to Bainbridge Island. The same, yet different.

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The border crossing into Vancouver. That same Amtrak train – number 510 – departing daily from King Street Station, with its iconic clock tower and cavernous marble lobby. This time, sitting on a wooden bench, ticket in hand, waiting to board and remembering the summer I drove across the border by myself, just seventeen, in my maroon Toyota Rav-4, receiving endless harassment from the border agents. The same, yet different.

Vancouver’s West End. The condo on Nelson Street where my sister and brother-in-law lived when my niece Nora was just a toddler, before my nephew Quinn was born. Now, Quinn is in high school, and Nora is away at University in Montreal.

It’s all the same, but it’s all so different. Yet for the first time that I can remember, the differences don’t seem to bother me. They don’t feel tinged with sadness like they usually do.

Perhaps it’s me that’s different, and not these places. Perhaps the change is simply the result of the passage of time and the slow healing that comes along with it. Or perhaps love of place has finally been able to transcend the pain of all that’s missing.

But whatever the reason, this time, the ghosts stayed at bay. And I was able to make new memories. Good ones. Memories that I will hold on to, dreaming of the gentle breeze off Puget Sound, until I’m able to return again.

Until next time, friends.

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