43 years ago today, Debbie and I went on our first date. I was already smitten. It’s nice to think about love, and how strong it can be, in times when hate keeps bullying its way through the door.
The highlight of this past weekend was a camping trip on the banks of Oregon’s beautiful Metolius River. It could very well have been the last campout of autumn. It was fantastic — tamaracks and vine maples full-on yellow and red, the afternoon light at my favorite slant, roaring campfires, frosty mornings, and a daily writing session — but the snow line is working its way lower in the Cascades, and skis are calling from the basement corner; time to shift gears.
Part of the seasonal shifting of gears is not about outdoor adventure, though. Cooler temps and cloudy skies turn me inward, and I see a nice stretch of uninterrupted writing sessions ahead. Sure, I’ll still go for trail runs, and spend time with family and friends — a balanced life works for me, not against me — but “normal” will be weighted heavily toward my YA novel. As poet Sharon Olds said: “All that wanting to seem normal in regular life, all that fitting in falls away in the face of one’s own strange self on the page. Writing or making anything — a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake — has self-respect in it. You’re working. You’re trying. You’re not lying down on the ground, having given up.” Yeah, time to shift gears.
Writing is portable . . . thankfully. Three weeks into a four-week road trip, and I’ve been able to get in a solid session on my novel every day except one. True, these sessions have been squeezed in before or after hikes, depending on the heat of the day, and long talks with my wonderful wife, Debbie Birdseye, my amazing sister, Ann Birdseye, and her pie-loving husband,Robert Raffield, as well as my warm and welcoming writing friend Kate Ferguson. And my usual office niceties have been missing — no desk, or countertop to spread notes, or shelves lined with books. But through it all the backdrop has been amazing: the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, Dinosaur National Monument, the Devil’s Tower, and several thousand stunning highway miles in between. Setting matters, both within the story and in the way it soaks into the brain of the storyteller. I’m not going to become an itinerant writer, but it’s nice to know that I can take to the road and still get after it. I am a very lucky guy.
Today I am supposed to be celebrating a successful summit of 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Instead I’m sitting in the Corvallis Clinic Radiology Department waiting for a MRI of my left foot. A stress fracture is suspected, or torn ligaments. Either way, the bottom line is the same — doctor’s orders, no climb.
Besides feeling frustrated by this plot twist — I trained for months to be ready — I have had moments of feeling . . . well, old. I recently turned 65, which is a benchmark year. In my youth, benchmark years were measured in pluses, positive additions to my life: 16 and I could drive, 18 and I could vote, 21 and I could legally have a beer with dinner. Then, at some point the value-added benchmarks became more vague, ambiguous. A first career-type job, for example, can happen at a variety of ages. Ditto for a longterm relationship, buying a home, having a kid, and so on. But turning 65 is neither vague nor ambiguous; it is a benchmark that loudly proclaims in a brutal reality-check: “No matter how you slant it, dude, you ain’t young any more!”
And yet, despite this fact, and the hobbling injury to my foot and resulting no-go from my doc, plus the Medicare card I now carry in my billfold, the moments of feeling old are far outweighed by something an MRI doesn’t detect — gratitude. Gratitude that I will heal, and be back to try Mt. Rainier again. Gratitude for 42 years of marriage to Debbie, who lights up my life in countless ways. Gratitude for my amazing daughters, Kelsey and Amy, my son-in-law Alex, and my new grandson Griffin Thomas. Gratitude for extended family, a wealth of friends, and my job teaching creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. And gratitude that I get to pour myself into writing stories for kids and young adults.
Bottom line: I am a very lucky man, living a life of privilege stacked upon privilege. Hopefully I do this gift justice — that is the summit I push for every day.
My first Research Road Trip (RRT) was generative — immerse myself in my main character and see what scenes would come out of it. The second (RRT2) was to confirm, narrow, and hone the scenes that stuck to the page. But the third (RRT3), which I just returned from, was different — I had a complete draft in hand, literally. I was able to walk through each scene, then sit and take in sensory detail, nab overheard background dialogue (I’m a thief), and see if the feelings I was trying to convey on the page matched my simulation of the real thing. So productive. So much fun. Not bad scenery, either.
Woke to find a present at the foot of my bed: the one-and-only April 30, 2016 I’ll ever get. Mary Oliver wrote, “That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning: Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” Yes, I would . . .
Think books don’t matter? Think again.