Coming home to writing


Omega is still on my mind. The land, its quietude with its open fields and gravel roads and lukewarm waters will forever be a part of me. I breathe it all in. Its sunlight warming my face, its grass under my bare feet. Its August summer wind. Even though it’s been two weeks since I said goodbye, the feeling I had when I was there is still in me – a calmness, an inner peace – I’m still carrying it. I thought by now the sensation would fade, and maybe it will. Perhaps it will evaporate from me slowly, slip away gradually the way anesthesia wears off after surgery.

I am looking at the world differently now. I am noticing details. The shape of clouds, the chimes on my porch, the sound of my dog crunching on her kibble. Everything seems so rich, colorful, alive, sharp, in focus.

This feeling is familiar to me. But it’s been absent from my life for some time. It was with me in my 20s, when I really plunged into writing. I wrote everywhere. The downtown library, cafes, my bed, under trees. I never left the house without my notebook; I filled handfuls of them. I felt so driven then. The whole world felt alive. There’s that word again “alive.” Everything was a story. I’d narrate the rain, the autumn air on my skin during my morning runs. I lived to write and wrote to live.

During my last year of college, I arranged an independent study with one of my professors, Pamela Gay. We’d meet once a week at her house. She’d make me tea in her kitchen and fix me something to eat. She nicknamed me “Skinnie.” I jokingly, but affectionately, called her “Fattie,” though there wasn’t an ounce of fat on her. We’d sit on her couch or her front porch, and I’d read my work aloud to her. She was teaching me fast fiction, but every time I wrote, prose poems came out of me. I discovered Ginsberg one afternoon wandering through stacks and felt inspired by his work. I revolted against fast fiction. I wanted more story, more character. Every time I read a piece of fast faction it left me wanting more. But Pamela made me stick with it. And I learned their power was in the details and the exactness of words.

My writing was young then. Most of it was about love and broken hearts and relationships. I read it back now and I cringe. I still have my black binder full of my assignments and Pamela’s comments. “I expect to see your writing in print!” she scribbled in pencil on my last assignment. I wonder if she remembers me; I remember her. She had black straight hair, perfectly symmetrical and blunt, hitting the middle of her ear. Her bangs were cut straight across her forehead. The last time I saw her was in a coffee shop in Binghamton before I moved to Ohio. I had just graduated and she told me I wasn’t ready to go to grad school to get my MFA in creative writing. She told me to wait. Write more. Even though I didn’t want to hear it, I knew she was right. I still had some living to do, and my writing needed maturing.

I remember she really liked one of my stories I wrote titled “Toothpick.” It was part fiction/part nonfiction. It was a story about a girl who was skinny and insecure and people commented on her weight a lot. Pamela asked me to read it at her art installation opening, a collection of work about body image; it was called The Fat Project. It was my first time I ever read a piece of my work in front of an audience. My best friend Heather came to support me, eagerly smiling in the wings. I thought for sure I would throw up during my reading. (I didn’t.) Afterwards, a few people came up to me to talk about my piece. I couldn’t believe they listened or let alone waited to talk to me after. Me. Me?! It was the first time a stranger responded to my writing. And it felt damn good. Pamela gave me a platform to share my work. What a gift.

I didn’t realize until now, 15 years later, how influential Pamela was in my writing process. She exposed me to John Updike, Ursula Heigi, Margaret Atwood and one of my favorite books, “Einstein’s Dreams.” I underlined my favorite passages in my reading assignments, and then we’d talk about it together. Why it works, why it’s moving. She taught me about setting, creating an arc in a story, the need for brevity. She made me seek out writing I loved, photo copy it and bring it to her for discussion. She’s the reason why I started carrying a notebook with me to capture overheard dialogue, details, lightning bolt moments of inspiration. “Ideas develop in ways that don’t occur when we keep our ideas silently to ourselves,” she said. I look back on that binder full of my first writings, my thoughts and her thoughts intertwined on the page, and I feel my excitement of self-discovery, like I was unlocking something magical within me.

Writing_Pamela Gay_bookendspost_090516

Before Omega, I wasn’t writing much. Not like I used to, and definitely not like I was in my 20s. Sometimes there are moments where life is too painful to write. I didn’t have the desire to pick up the pen because I feared I’d write about the thing that was causing me the most pain. But after Omega, I’ve realized that writing is too important to me to let it drift away. Omega left me full – my heart, my mind, my soul. My writing feels different now. Freer. Deeper. I carry my notebook everywhere with me now. Any 10 minutes I can grab at the doctor’s office, waiting to meet a friend, waiting for water to boil, I fill in the spaces between with writing.

Now, when I write, I write furiously, like my pen is on fire. Never lifting off the page. Each time I feel like I’m writing for my life, to save myself, as if my life depended on it. It does depend on it. Writing has come home to me. Or maybe, I’ve come home to writing. We have a new relationship now, cemented by my experience at Omega. I will never write the same again.

Sometimes, my hand cannot keep up with my thoughts; they fill my notebook. I run out of ink. I am all over the page, writing outside the lines, making marks on the paper that I may not be able to decipher weeks from now when I reread my work. And this voice inside my head keeps urging me, “Don’t stop now. Keep going.”


Searching for my true home

A ranch on a gravel road in Clinton, N.Y.

I dreamed of New York last night. I was in Ithaca, where I first went to college, and the first place I lived on my own. In my dream, Andrew and I were living there. I was in grad school. Andrew found a great job. It was summer. The sun was shining, but the air was cool. All I can remember from the dream was the downtown square with its cobblestone streets and lots of sunlight. I woke up at 7:40 a.m., surprised to find myself in our apartment. The dream felt so real. I should have been in Ithaca.

What is home? Is it a place or a state of mind? I’ve been in North Carolina for almost 11 years now, and it still doesn’t feel like home. But this is where my community is, my friends who have become family. This is where friends have laid flowers at my doorstep or brought me homemade chicken soup when I was sick.

The day after I found out I miscarried, two of my dearest friends came by just to be with me. I was on the couch wrapped in a blanket and wearing black stretch pants and a hooded sweatshirt. It was February. I hadn’t showered all day. My eyes were still puffy from crying; they felt scratchy. It was a no contacts kind of day.

Miriam brought me Chinese, pork lo mein. My favorite. She always tries to feed me when I’m depressed. She knows how I reject food when I’m grieving. She sat on the couch next to me and just listened. I don’t remember what she said, but I know that she made me feel better. She knows me in a way that not many do. She sees me straight down to my core. That’s home.

My best friend Addy arrived at my door with a tiny square box tied with a bow and containing truffles. She also brought Kleenex, the rectangular size, with blue and white splatters like an abstract painting. It reminded me of my grandma’s house; she always had the larger, rectangular Kleenex boxes. Addison sat with me for hours. She let me cry. She held my hand. Somehow, she managed to make me laugh.We binged on “Barefoot Contessa” episodes and talked about how Ina needs to be friends with us and invite us over for dinner every night. We took a selfie and sent it to my mom in California to show her I was OK. I was in good hands. That’s home right?

The best of friends will sit with you and your grief and see you through your darkest moments.

Maybe home isn’t a place. Maybe home is people, your village, the ones who lift you up in your darkest moments.

But in New York , when I was there last week, it felt like home to me. I miss it. I miss the feeling I had when I was there. It felt familiar. Being with my sister. Sipping white wine from stemless glasses. Giggling together, crying together. Gina is home.

Every day, I drove from my sister’s house in Albany to the Omega Institute outside of Rhinebeck, N.Y. where I was participating in a week-long writing retreat. I never minded the hour and 15 minute drive. It was peaceful. It gave me time to ease into the morning and space to decompress and digest the day on the way home. It gave me time to ponder and time to observe this beautiful land around me. Every day I crossed the Hudson River twice; it was my favorite part of the ride. The Hudson is breathtaking. It’s wider than most rivers I’ve seen and, damn, the light it’s just magical there. Most of my drive consisted of two-lane rural roads that careened through the countryside of fields and ice cream stands and rivers and golden sunlight and wildflowers and mountains and open roads.

On those drives, I felt a longing that I could not explain. It felt like home to me, even though I didn’t live there. Often during that week, I would catch my throat tightening or my eyes welling up with tears as I drove, taking in the landscape and all its beauty. At first I thought it was a side effect from all the intensive, personal writing I did during the day at my retreat. But this was more like a deep sadness, and I realize now, looking back, that what I was feeling was homesick.

One evening, I got to watch the sun set on my drive home. As I turned off the Taconic Parkway and headed north, the sky revealed a beautiful sunset of orange and pink dotted with clouds in various shades of blue. The Catskills looked like giant blue shadows along the horizon. Their presence was a permanent fixture, grounded and unmovable. Now I understand why so many painters have fallen in love with the Hudson Valley. Its beauty made me weep. Why do I feel such a deep connection to this place?

Somewhere along Route 9 in New York. (Photo by Carla Kucinski)

I’ve been sad since I’ve been back from New York. Tuesday night at the dinner table, I burst into tears. “I miss my sister,” I told Andrew. I choked on each word as it tried to leave my throat. We had just come from looking at a house to buy. We’ve been unsuccessfully house-hunting since July. That night we toured a split-level with green shutters, tan vinyl siding, white columns holding up the front porch. It’s in a great neighborhood — actually, one of the neighborhoods we want to live in. It’s woodsy, quiet.

As I walked to the front door of the house, I saw a dad teaching his son to ride a bike. Images like that still have the power to break me. Inside, the house was beautiful. But way too much house for just the two of us and our dog. It hit me that night as I cried over my ratatouille that we don’t know what the future holds. Even looking for a house makes me sad. As we walk through each new home, I count bedrooms, I imagine where the nursery will be, if the yard is big enough for a child, if it’s in a good school district. And then I think: “What if there’s no baby in the picture?”

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be pregnant again. The concept feels so out of reach. It feels impossible, deep down in my gut. This feeling has replaced the hope I’ve been carrying all these months. I don’t know where it went. It just slipped away.

“Your true home is in the here and now,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddist teacher. “Your true home is not an abstract idea; it is something you can touch and live in every moment.” He says home is in your body, in your mind, in your present moment. But what if in the present moment all you’re feeling is anxiety and fear and questioning everything? Then what?

Greensboro was supposed to be a temporary stop. I thought I’d be here for three or five years. But then I bought a house, got married and got divorced all in that order. This was 2010. I wanted to leave North Carolina and go anywhere, live anywhere but here. I wanted to run from the present and start a new life. I could have left then, but my heart already endured so much heartbreak and change that the idea of picking up my life and starting over scared me. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends; that would have been another loss too difficult to bear. They had become family. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived my divorce.

And then, Andrew came into my life. I fell in love. He reopened my closed heart and showed me how to trust again. He gave me hope. That was 2011. And now it’s almost 2017, and I still feel like I’m straddling a line – one foot in North Carolina and one foot out.

“Don’t think about leaving,” I told myself the morning I was flying back to Greensboro. I usually start crying much sooner before I get to the airport, like in the shower or while putting on my mascara, my lashes damp with tears. Saying goodbye to any of my sisters is never easy. Last time I left, I cried so much that the TSA agent came up to me in line to make sure I was OK.

Gina and I are partners in crime. The magpies, my dad called us. We’re two years apart. She’s the middle child; I’m the baby. As kids she gave me piggy back rides around the house. I was afraid of jumping onto her back for fear she wouldn’t catch me. (I have control issues.) She’d sit on the edge of the bed and let me crawl onto her back, and at the end of the ride, she’d return me to my bed as promised and let me roll off her back like I was falling backwards into a lake. She’s always looking out for me, even though we’re both adults now. I still need looking after.

Last night I came across an old journal entry from 2006. As I read my own words, I could feel my sadness and desperation. I was lost. “What’s my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here?” I laughed as I read the questions aloud. Ten years later, the questions haven’t changed. Will I always be searching? What is this void that I continue to carry and can’t seem to fill? Has this feeling always been there? Maybe the answers are waiting for me in New York.

Gina and me toasting to my last night in New York. The picture is blurry because we were having so much fun.