Coming home to writing

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.

Rendezvous with grace

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Last night I met a rock star. Well, not in the traditional sense of the term but in my world, a supernova.

I met the author Anne Lamott. She was speaking at Lenoir-Rhyne University as part of their Visiting Writers Series and before the program began, she simply walked out into the audience – no introduction, just started strolling down one of the aisles, shaking hands, signing books and posing for photos.

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Anne Lamott. I love this face. Illustration by Jillian Yamaki, The New York Times.

She was in the section reserved for VIP’s but my friend, Lyz, and I broke ranks and slipped in for our close encounter with grace. There I was standing right in front of one of my very favorite authors and I, the clever one with all of the witty retorts, just froze.

Actually, I melted – into a puddle of salt.

Before you write me off as a post-menopausal ninny or worse, a literary stalker, let me give you some context for my emotional tsunami.

I’ve known about Anne Lamott since 1994 when I read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s an amazingly personal book about, well, writing, of course, but so much more. She shares her approach to writing but she also writes about her life – warts and all – in a remarkably honest and often wickedly funny way.

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My well-worn copy.

She says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

I do hope a few of you are squirming nervously now.

No, really, I don’t hold grudges. (Insert Muttley laugh.)

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Be kind to your writer friends.

I dreamed about being a writer back then and I was mesmerized with her words. Mesmerized but not motivated to really write. I was in my late 30’s in a long-term relationship and had a loving and supportive family, premium cable and a good job that I liked a lot. I was leading a happy but seriously unexamined life.

In short, I didn’t have much to write about.

Be careful what you wish for.

A decade or so later, after losing my parents and my partner and perhaps a bit of my mind, I returned to Anne Lamott. And there she was – just like a trusted bestie you would share your heart with over coffee at the kitchen table.

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Oprah loves Anne, too.

I picked up her book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, and it was a balm to my scabby soul. I kept that book by my bedside and read it and reread it as I navigated my way back to myself – and to God.

I clung to her nuggets of wisdom like a seagull to a Cheeto. Pearls like this, “Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.”

And this, “I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.”

Yes. I remember reading that passage and thinking that that’s exactly how I was feeling. “Me, too.”

And last night, this was Lamott’s advice to writers – to write what you would like to come upon. Write what is the best medicine for you and maybe through a little grace, someone reads your words and says, “Me, too.”

This was certainly the case for me and her book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. This book taught me how to pray. Maybe taught is not the right word. This book gave me permission to pray in my own way – my own messy unorthodox way.

Disclaimer: I’m an Episcopalian and we don’t really talk much about praying. That’s why we have the Book of Common Prayer chocked full of liturgy to follow. We don’t go rogue.

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This became my book of uncommon prayer.

Lamott writes, “You might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, ‘I hate you, God,’ That is a prayer too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you have had in months.”

I read these words and thought, “Me, too.” And my aching loneliness seemed bearable in that moment.

Her words made me feel heard and there is no possible way to teach that in a writing class.

So when I found myself standing before this dear friend who I had never met but who had been with me through some of my darkest ugly cry hours, I crumbled. It was like having a reiki session in front of 1500 people, only Anne Lamott and I were the only ones in the room.

I really did panic for a moment when I couldn’t get my mouth to form words. She took my hand and I think I managed to gurgle out, “Thank you.” She looked into my eyes and smiled sweetly and held my hand for what felt like a long time. And then I felt my other hand raise and gently touch her cheek.

To her credit, she did not scream for security, she just softly nodded like she knew exactly what I was thinking in that moment.

It was as if she were saying, “Me, too.”

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When Addy met Anne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connecting to place

It’s a cloudless, sunny day – the kind that doesn’t feel much like January. Coats will be worn, but unzipped. Gloves will be off, but tucked in the coat pockets just in case. When I take my dog to the big open field by the middle school in our neighborhood, I un-clip her leash from her collar and she runs into the wind, smiling. She too feels the shift in the air.

Molly

By Carla Kucinski

It is my day off, and I’m spending it writing, reading, reflecting. Though I will confess, I spent the morning working on a presentation for work, but I did it in my pajamas and slippers, and therefore, it felt less “work-like.” But I surrendered at noon, not allowing it to take over my entire day.

I am in my living room, sitting on the couch, notebook in my lap, sunshine streaming through the French doors, warming the room like an oven. My dog lies on the living room floor in a patch of sun the shape of a rectangle. She is breathing softly through her nose, the way dogs do when they first drift off to sleep.

I live essentially in three rooms in my condo: the bedroom, the kitchen and this room. These spaces occupy the majority of my time. It’s been a few months now since we moved into our condo. I like it here. It’s cozy and compact, but not in a claustrophobic way. I like that I can talk to my husband in the living room while I prepare dinner in the kitchen and we share moments from our day. I like that when I step out onto the balcony, which seems to always be bathed in sunlight I can look out over the tree tops and roof tops, and watch the seasons change. Sunsets from here are spectacular in their various shades of pink.

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By Carla Kucinski

What’s not fun is hauling three bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, and the dogs next door that bark every time we set foot on our doorstep. But it beats raking a yard full of leaves. In any case, you get used to it. Sometimes, you grow to love it, even the force of the train a half-mile down the street, whose blaring horn slices the dark and stillness of the night. There’s comfort in knowing someone else is awake early in the morning.

We drove by our old house the other day. It felt strangely foreign to me, as if we never lived there. Everything about it was the same, except for a pair of white lace curtain hanging from the front window. I never hung curtains in that window; they would have blocked the view.

I’ve realized that I’ve learned to adapt easily to new surroundings. I can quickly turn a house into a home. Start from scratch. I dream of one day owning our own house, a quaint bungalow with a forest for a backyard and a front porch for swinging. I can picture the house, but never the place.

Angel Oak Tree by Carla Kucinski

Angel Oak Tree by Carla Kucinski

All this moving sometimes makes me feel rootless. Without roots, there’s no commitment. I’ll always be searching for the next thing. Owning a home both terrifies me and excites me. Owning keeps one from moving, which is the part that scares me. Renting gives one flexibility, prevents you from getting stuck. But wouldn’t it be nice to paint the walls the color I want?

“It is difficult to commit to living where we are, how we are. It is difficult and necessary. In order to make art, we must first make an artful life, a life rich enough and diverse enough to give us fuel. We must strive to see the beauty where we are planted, even if we are planted somewhere that feels very foreign to our nature.”

These words struck me today while reading Julia Cameron’s “The Sound of Paper.” She goes on to talk about how while living in New York she had to “work to connect to the parts of the city that feed my imagination and bring me a sense of richness and diversity instead of mere overcrowding and sameness.”

Perhaps that’s what’s at the heart of my “rootless” issue. I am not connecting to the parts of my city that feed my soul. Instead, I’ve felt very reclusive lately, drawing inward but not finding inspiration and thus blaming my lack of imagination on my environment. Cameron says we become victims if we aren’t willing to connect to the place we live to feed our imagination.

Foggy Morning Walk by Carla Kucinski

Foggy Morning Walk by Carla Kucinski

Photography has always connected me to places, moments. It helps me see the beauty in everyday life. Maybe I need to see more of my city through my lens or put it down and actually experience it instead of observing it.

“We must, as the elders advise us, bloom where we are planted,” Cameron writes. For if we don’t “our art dries up at the root.”

What an evocative image.

What feeds your imagination? What parts of your city do you connect to that feed your imagination? How do you connect?

By Carla Kucinski

By Carla Kucinski

How to push through a creative block

Hello, world.

I feel as though I’ve been absent for some time now. The thing is, September and October were a complete blur for me and my need to write was extinguished by a series of, well, craziness.

We packed, we moved, we unpacked. Then, I discovered I had not one but two ovarian cysts. This news was followed by a brief walk through a patch of woods that left me covered front to back with poison ivy for three weeks; it was a nightmare. And then, my dog chased a squirrel into the woods and got speared by a tree branch in the process, resulting in a puncture wound and emergency surgery. My poor girl.

In retrospect, these series of events could have been great fodder for blog posts, but I’ve been unable to create lately. I’ve been feeling blocked. And if I’m being completely honest with myself, I haven’t been feeling like this for just the past two months; it’s more like the last year – or longer. I’ve journaled about it, reflected on it, read books and articles on the topic, but I could not figure out what was at the heart of this creative wall.

To help me uncover what was at the core, a few weeks ago, I turned to an online writing series facilitated by friend and poet Jacinta White. Becoming Undone: Unpacking Life’s Weight helped me identify the things in my life that are weighing me down and keeping me from moving forward. My “A-ha” moment came during the first writing prompt, where we had to write a list poem that began with the line: “Daily I carry … ” Without hesitation, guilt was the first word I scribbled in my notebook.

Photo by Carla Kucinski.

Photo by Carla Kucinski.

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