“Road Trip” Author Interview

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A stack of books teeters on my night stand—there’s so much good reading, I always have multiple books going at a time. One that I just finished is Road Trip, by Seattle author Mark Rozema. I first encountered Mark when I served as nonfiction editor for Soundings Review, and the journal published his personal essay, “Sacred Places.” It’s a lovely essay about, well… latrines, mountains and forests, a dog, and what is holy or sacred.

book cover road tripMark and I met in person briefly at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program’s residency last August; I was thrilled to learn then that “Sacred Places” was to be included in Road Trip (Boreal Books, 2015), Mark’s collection of autobiographical essays.  In Road Trip, Mark reveals much of himself—his loves, his questions, and his certainties—as he takes us to the places he treasures and where he explores family and friendship and change and loss (including losing his father to Alzheimer’s disease), all with humor, generosity and a spirit of adventure.

There’s something for everyone in this slim collection; you can read a sample from the book’s opening essay, “Wherever the Road Goes,” at Red Hen Press. I admire Mark’s writing and wanted to learn more; here’s what he had to say in response to my questions.

Iris: You include much sensory detail about the places you write about. Do you journal when you travel?

Mark: I do, but if you looked inside one of those travel journals, you’d find cryptic little snippets, descriptions of a mushroom, common and Latin plant names, sketches, place names, things like that. I have a dozen journals sort of like this. And I don’t bring the journals on adventures that are physically demanding. I just try to pay attention and remember things well.

When I’m out in nature, I find the notebook a distraction. I’d rather be in the moment. To record the moment as you are in it is to add a layer of distance, of interpretation. I find that when I’m fully in the moment, it’s not so hard to recall it later—especially if it is in a landscape that I know well because of repeated immersion in it.

 On a trip, what I read is as important as what I write, and for me that includes things that will help me know and understand where I’m at a little better. So it includes things like field guides and maps—lots of maps. I want to name and identify things.

 Iris: Music and sports are important in your life, and they show up in many of your essays (sometimes in the same essay, as in “Make a Joyful Noise”). I’m impressed with how you bring readers in to both of them. What are some of the techniques you use to help readers “hear” the music and experience the challenges on the track and climbing mountains?

Mark: If you spend time among athletes, you’ll know that they tend to be articulate about their particular sport. They may not be writers, but they are carried away by the love of their sport, and they know it intimately—both how it feels in the body and in the spirit. They develop a particular sport-specific vocabulary. For instance, if you hang out with rock climbers, you’ll hear delightful verbs that precisely capture the nature of movement, to make distinctions between different kinds of movement—“crimping, stemming, jamming.” A sprinter has at least a dozen ways to precisely describe a pain in the hamstring.

I think the same is true of musicians, the way they talk among themselves. Obviously, they use specific musical terms, but they also use “ordinary” language in ways that personify their instrument. Jazz musicians talking about the different ways to get music out of a horn might use language that is furious, gentle, funny, sexual, spiritual—the whole emotional range.

 I don’t know if it’s a technique, but I think good writing about sports and music comes out of the realization that the language has to move in a similar way to how the breath moves, how the body moves while in the midst of the action. So I suppose an awareness of sentence length—how it can vary to reflect the movement of the air and the body—is a technique. I don’t consciously think of this while writing, but I might try to accentuate it in a revision. When I look at some passages (such as one where I describe playing trombone in the Grand Canyon), I see alliteration and assonance, musical phrasing—things from the poetry toolbox.

Iris: One thread in your collection is your religious upbringing and how your spiritual path has evolved. What is it like for you to write about something so personal and which can be the source of much conflict among people?

Mark: It is actually kind of satisfying to do it, and the result has been gratifying. I’ve been touched and honored by the responses of some readers who don’t share my religious (or political) views at all, but felt a shared sense of values when I described taking care of a loved one with dementia, or feeling the urge to offer praise for the beauty of landscape.

Journeys are complicated. I enjoyed the opportunity to approach the issue of religion through storytelling—and to try to dial back the resentment and dial up the humor. I didn’t worry about how people would take it.

Iris: In this collection, you use a variety of forms for your essays (such as numbering sections of the essays and using white space for transitions). At what point in the writing process do you decide on the essay’s structure?

Mark: I decide on form pretty far into the writing process. For a long time, it’s like a puzzle that I haven’t pieced together. When I have tried to plan things early in the process, it seems that the writing itself leads me away from my plan. It wants to do its own thing. I discover what I want to say in the act of saying it, and I discover the form only when the content is pretty clear. I think this is because there is sometimes an underlying theme that is layered beneath a more obvious theme or thesis, and the decisions I make about structure might be determined by the underlying theme.

Iris: Do you write only creative nonfiction?

Mark: Yes. It’s what I enjoy. I got my MFA in poetry, but it is for the best that my thesis never became a book. Once upon a time I wrote a story that was sort of okay, but, my goodness, it was a lot of work. More trouble than it was worth. And I wrote a play that was terrible—but I learned to respect playwrights. Of course it takes practice to become good at anything, but I think nonfiction suits my temperament.

Iris: Please describe your writing process.

Mark: I don’t follow a repeated, systematic approach. Each essay probably is born in a unique way. But I do have habits and conditions that make it more likely for good work to emerge. I have to be relaxed and in a physically comfortable position. Sitting is actually not so good. I need to move around. I might, right in the middle of composing, feel a need to go for a run. When I come back, things flow better.

I start with a pen and notebook—a purple or green gel pen with a nice fat line. Somehow, I am more free to explore and discover what I want to say when it’s with a pen. I can’t abide the sound of machinery, like a lawnmower in the neighborhood, but rain on the roof is good for my process. Good coffee and a dog curled up beside me are helpful as well.

 Iris: What are you reading now?

Mark: Like you, I have more than one book on my nightstand. Right now I’m reading: The World Is On Fire, by Joni Tevis; Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh; Quench Your Thirst With Salt, by Nicole Walker; Reclaimers, by Ana Maria Spagna; The Best American Sports Writing of 2013; Spillover, by David Quammen. I recommend all of these.

 Some writers I return to over and over again—for inspiration, edification and enjoyment. Among my favorites: Wendell Berry (both poetry and prose), Pattiann Rogers (a really great poet), Oliver Sacks, and David Quammen. I want to say something about those last two: It is a rare thing to find writers who can unfold science to the general reader, with humor and compassion and imagination, and in language that is lively and accessible. I have learned so much about the world from these two authors.

Iris: Thank you, Mark. I’ve learned much about the world—and writing—from you!

bookshopLopez Island readers can hear Mark read from Road Trip at Lopez Bookshop on March 18 at 7 PM. Mark will be joined by poet Holly Hughes.

 

 

 

Refocused

A few weeks ago, my registered nurse license renewal notice arrived in the mail, and for the first time in forty years, I didn’t automatically send in the fee to maintain it. Before the end of May, I have to decide if I’ll keep my license active (requires a certain number of nursing practice hours and CE—continuing education—hours), move to retired active status (requires significantly fewer practice hours and the same number of CE hours) or inactive (no CE requirement, and I couldn’t practice nursing).

WritetoHeal poster

I’ve been discerning this step ever since I renewed my license a year ago. Then, there was no question, as I was still working as a nurse. But a month after last year’s license renewal, I left my school nurse position. I’m not looking for another nursing job. Instead, I’m seeking a publisher for my memoir, starting a new writing project—BOUNTY — about farmers on Lopez Island, and submitting proposals to teach writing workshops.

Some people say I’m retired, but this doesn’t look like the “retirement” I saw when I was growing up. Instead, I think the term a friend uses­ describes this phase of life more accurately. I say, “I’m refocused.”

Regardless of what I call it, I do feel I’ve reached a milestone. My friend Nancy thought so, too, and she offered to host a party to honor it. When I walked into her living room, a dozen or so friends—most wearing white nurses’ caps on their heads and stethoscopes draped around their necks—greeted me. One male friend guzzled beer (I trust) from a urinal and escorted me to the beverage table. Catheter bags dangled over it, one bulging with a pale yellow liquid and labeled Pinot Grigio, another filled with a dark red Cab-Merlot.

“White or red?” Nancy asked as she reached for a plastic urine specimen cup from the stack on the table.

nurse pic

Few of these friends had ever observed me in my role as a nurse, and none had seen me dressed as I was at nursing school graduation. Since moving to Lopez Island nearly twenty years ago, I’ve worked as a nurse in other locations—around the country as a Head Start reviewer, throughout the state of Washington to train child care health consultants, from my desk in my home office to write manuals and handbooks for nurses, and most recently on another island as a school nurse.

quilt

That night, these friends seemed eager to hear stories from four decades of my career. We laughed at photos from my school of nursing yearbooks—so many earnest young women wearing blue-and-white checked seersucker uniforms, starched white aprons buttoned to the waistbands. I unfurled the queen-size quilt made of squares my mother and grandmother had cut from those dresses and aprons.

I read an excerpt from my memoir, Hiking Naked, that traced my path as a new graduate in a surgical intensive care unit at Indiana University Hospital, nursing people following open heart surgery, radical neck surgery for cancer, motorcycle accidents, and small bowel resections. Then I told of my transition to a visiting nurse agency, caring for patients in their own bedrooms and sitting with them at their kitchen tables to count out doses for their pill containers. I checked their blood pressures and listened to their lungs in their living rooms instead of in sterile exam rooms. Elderly patients told stories of the children and grandchildren whose framed photographs lined fireplace mantles and bookshelves. I read, too, about how I eventually found a home for my passion in public health, caring for pregnant women and their children, promoting health and preventing communicable diseases, and shaping public policy to promote safe and healthy childcare. Finally, I spoke of my realization twenty years in that, like so many others in helping professions, I had burned out.

For two years I wrestled with whether I was being called from nursing to different work. I railed on the pages of my journals about the changes in health care since my early days in ICU and my disappointment when the public health system succumbed to the same focus of hospitals and private providers on the ledger sheet’s bottom line. That clear leading blurred and I despaired over who I would be if I weren’t a nurse.

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Ultimately, I discerned that while I was still drawn to serving others as a nurse, my spirit needed other forms of creative expression. For nearly another twenty years, I found ways to use my nursing skills and expertise part-time and to pursue book arts and writing. Now, having earned an MFA, it’s the writing that receives most of my attention.

~   ~   ~

license

At the end of my “retirement” party, I refolded my quilt, the puckered seersucker under my fingers a symbol of the strength, care, and memories of this work. A flag of sorts to honor nurses still at bedsides. Today, I picked up the license renewal form and circled my status—inactive—though I’m tempted to rename it. For me it should read, refocused.

Bicycles – Protecting the Soft Underbelly

bike2The garage sheltered my bike through most of the past three rainy months. Now, daffodils nod in the March breeze and invite me back to this mode of transport. Bicycles have been a constant in my life, and I used them as a protective framework in a personal essay a couple of years ago. “Cycles” was published in Issue Two of Spry Literary JournalI’ve reprinted it here, along with a link to Spry editor Erin Ollila’s interview with me in which I describe the “hermit crab essay” form that I used to explore the “soft underbelly” of fragile emotions about my mom.

Cycles

Tricycle

Circles me around the block of a suburban Chicago neighborhood. Dad’s broad hand, steady after a few shots of whiskey, braces my two-year-old spine. Mom watches through the picture window, her lips silently calling, “Be careful.”

Training wheels

Wobble down the driveway and into the street. Chuck, stepfathering in after Dad died, unbolts the wheels and lets go of the bike seat. Mom clutches Chuck’s elbow.

Stingray

Roams with me and my cousins and grade-school friends around a little town and farmland in Southern Illinois. Banana seat. Butterfly handlebars with streamers. Chuck and Mom try on country life. Soon the Stingray rests in the barn, my exploration confined to hospital hallways and an incision on Mom’s bald scalp. Her tumor, benign. Her fear, incurable.

Blue Schwinn

Swerves through first job (proofreading at the local newspaper for the editor—Mom), first kiss, first chair in the flute section. Rusts in the garage through nursing school, first apartment, hospital jobs, Chuck’s death, and Mom’s grief.

Yellow Columbia

Wheels a Visiting Nurse bag and me around my inner city neighborhood in Southern Indiana. Chained and locked to dilapidated wrought iron handrails, always there when I returned. Companioned with my true love and his blue ten-speed. This work, this neighborhood, this marriage add to Mom’s losses.

Shogun

Cranks up the hilly streets of Seattle. Shimano components, three chain rings, and eighteen gears fuel the Burley trailer I pull. My twin toddlers’ helmeted heads bob to the rhythm of the wheels. On the phone, I describe this place to Mom, now in Florida with new love Steve, and three thousand miles from her only grandchildren.

Cannondale

Transports me to graduate school classes at the University of Washington and training rides for 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic. Shiny black, all-aluminum frame rides out mental and physical tests. Mom and Steve visit our non-smoking house. Mom puffs cigarettes on the porch, exhaling smoke into the misty air.

Yellow Rock Hopper

Glides into a new job at the county public health department. Bumps through visits to pregnant teens and colicky babies with diaper rashes and irregular sleep and drooly, toothless grins. Grinds gears with measles outbreaks, deaths from E. coli, and downsizing. Starts anew, pedaling to a bakery job and family hikes in a North Cascades village at the end of a lake. Spirals in the wilderness for two years with questions about work. No phones here. My hand-written letters assert new directions. Mom’s typed replies register qualms.

iZip

Spins me to town and back on an island in Puget Sound. Copper-colored, electric hybrid model eases the strain of hills, headwinds, and rains on my stiffening back and weakening knees. Now my desk calls to me. Words on the page, on the screen, seeking to make sense. Mom’s ashes swirl in the icy bay.

~ ~ ~ ~

The current issue of Spry includes an essay by Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA classmate Heather Durham. “In My Hands” is another example of how writers reveal tender places that invite us to explore our own. I recommend it.

Wanted

bookWe all yearn to feel wanted. Many of us receive that message from family, friends, work, and organizations—spiritual and otherwise. Some, though, only experience that sense in the form of WANTED posters that hang in post offices and courthouses or show up on Crime Stoppers websites. And those are the people whose stories Chris Hoke tells in his first book, WANTED – A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jails, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.

Chris Hoke signing my copy of “WANTED.”
Chris Hoke signing my copy of “WANTED.”

I met Chris in February at the Search for Meaning Book Festival at Seattle University. He’s part of Tierra Nueva (New Earth), a Christian ministry based in Burlington, Washington, that serves “people on the margins (immigrants, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless) and mainstream people.” His book had come out just three weeks earlier, and, just as he did in his writing, he spoke only a little about himself and much more about the men he works with as a gang pastor, jail chaplain, and co-founder of Underground Coffee.

WANTED has been described, aptly, as “a mix of true crime and spiritual adventure.” In it, Chris writes about bringing the teachings of Jesus into his daily experiences and encounters with gang members, men addicted to drugs, and “outlaws” like Ricardo (Richard) Mejia. Chris weaves Richard’s story through the book in chapters titled “WANTED.” Here’s how “WANTED I” begins:

Someone called the cops on Ricardo Mejia as soon as he was born. As soon as his fifteen-year-old mother had finished ridding him from her body, she slipped out of the Skagit Valley Hospital and left him there. When the nurse came in and saw the squirming newborn on his own in the clear plastic bin, she made no move to pick him up or cradle him. Instead, she picked up the phone and called the police.

Throughout the book, Chris reveals the story of the unlikely friendship that developed between him and Richard and of how they taught and learned from each other. In other chapters, Chris writes about many other men and of their gangs and crimes and of a world that I can’t imagine. The mini-lessons from bible studies Chris and inmates led put me back in touch with the teachings of Jesus and his example of love for the unwanted in the world.

Essayist and novelist Brian Doyle describes Chris’s storytelling well: “I never read a book so tender with its ears and so honest with its tongue.” This honesty and humility is present throughout the book as Chris also weaves in the story of his own faith journey. He writes that ever since his teens in suburban Southern California, when he “came most alive” in the late night, he’s been drawn to the kind of awareness that monastics encounter in the pre-dawn hours. “Maybe we were just coming at it from different sides of the clock,” Chris says. He divulges his own dark times and admits that the crimes he hears about from the men he meets in jail don’t alarm him—“to threaten, steal, destroy, cheat, evade, rage, attack, smother, and self-medicate are all impulses I recognize in myself.”

Chris’s stories make me think of my own reactions—compassion, often mixed with anger and frustration—toward the women I used to visit as a public health nurse. Some of them were the wives, girlfriends, sisters, or daughters of men like those Chris works with. I realized as I read Chris’s book how little I understood of their lives and of the broken systems that pushed them toward all the wrong places in search of feeling wanted.

coffeeA package of Underground Coffee fresh-roasted beans arrived at my door the other day. As I sip a cup of the rich brew, I reflect on a leading I’ve felt for a while to work with women in prison. I have a lot to learn about how to do that, but Chris’s experience reminds me of one essential skill—listening—which we Quakers feel easier with than many people. I don’t know if the way will open for me to put that to use in a prison, but Chris’s stories about Richard Mejia and the other men he serves as pastor show me the power of listening for that of God in everyone.