It’s a Performance

In the past five months since the release of my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ve organized nearly twenty events to promote the book. I learned with my first book, Hands at Work, the importance of book readings and signings to introduce readers to my work. As I wrote in Afterthought #67, I took seriously guidance I received about author events, particularly regarding my “costume.”

Organic cotton T-shirt by Naked Clothing


Elizabeth Austen “performing”

The more I give readings, I gain stronger appreciation for the advice to think of it as a “performance.” I learned that at the first workshop I attended on the art of the author reading, and again at a workshop by former Washington State Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen. Her poetry (Every Dress a Decision, The Girl Who Goes Alone, and Where Currents Meet) is exquisite, and Elizabeth’s work in theater and radio is evident when she “performs” her own poems and those of others. Here’s some of her advice that I believe applies to readings of all genres:

  • Select what you’ll read with attention to breaking the ice, developing an arc, and leaving the audience with what you want them to remember.
  • Let the audience have a moment or two to breathe between parts you read, especially if you’re making a big transition or you’ve just finished an emotional section [I’ve found this is the perfect time to take a drink of water; it gives me a break, too].
  • uo2Practice and time yourself so you can be respectful of the audience and fellow readers.
  • Wear shoes that allow you to feel the ground and stay balanced.
  • Performing gets easier with practice—read for an audience as often as you can.
  • Remind yourself that nervousness is simply the energy required to do this special thing, and that the performance requires you, but it’s not about you.

I’ve found that the Question and Answer segment is always rich, and although I never know what people will ask, I follow Elizabeth’s advice here, too, about how to prepare:

  • Think about what I’d do for an interview.
  • Ponder what I want to leave someone with.
  • Consider the stories I want to tell about the book and my process.

I’ve had some surprises at readings, and so far, they’ve all been a delight. For example, an entire book club came to a recent reading and sat in the front row.

CJW cover hiresAt another event, a woman in the audience told me she’d seen advertising for my memoir at a bookstore where she’d just read. I was thrilled to learn that her book (Crown Jewel Wilderness, conveniently displayed on the shelf behind me), is a history of North Cascades National Park. Danner-author-photoIn March I’ll host Lauren Danner for a reading at Lopez Bookshop.

Another time, a young man around my son’s age claimed a front row seat and jotted notes in a spiral notebook throughout the reading. He asked a thoughtful question about relying on memory when writing memoir, so when he came up for me to sign the book, I asked if he’s a writer. Turns out he’s studying writing, and his instructor assigned students to attend a reading (I LOVE this teacher) and write a report about it. At the same reading, an audience member brought her journal, along with my book, to the table where I was signing. After she had a friend take a photo of her with me, she told me she has journals devoted to author events and asked me to write a note on the page she dedicated to my reading. I’ve also been moved by health care providers telling their own stories of burnout and questions about their work.

I now have my own list of author event do’s and don’ts:

  • Always take extra books.
  • Always have water.
  • Don’t worry about silence when you ask who has a question. As a Quaker, I’m quite comfortable with waiting for people to be ready to speak.
  • Remember—if people close their eyes at readings, they’re probably not asleep. That’s just how some people listen.
  • Be prepared to learn something about your own journey through the questions from the audience.
  • Send a thank you note to the event host.
“Goode Ridge” by Jean Vavrek

Perhaps the greatest joy is when I receive comments about my book from people far away. Recently, a friend emailed that while she was on vacation in Mexico and reading Hiking Naked, she met another American from Seattle who knows me but didn’t know about the book—so my friend filled her in. Another email came from a woman I met in Stehekin when she was a teen. Now a midwife, she resonated with my experience of burnout and is planning a sabbatical from that role.

god section

A text message showed up from a friend of my son who had spotted Hiking Naked in a bookstore he visited.

book in cafeAnd just the other day I received a photo and Facebook message from a woman who was reading my book in a coffee shop in Great Britain and wondered why she got some funny looks!

Now I offer some suggestions to those of you who attend readings about how to support the author who has not only written the book but has prepared for this performance:

  • Applaud!
  • Buy a book.
  • Thank the author after the reading (even if you don’t buy a book).
  • Recommend the book to others personally, through social media, and reviews such as on Amazon and Goodreads.
  • Thank the venue for hosting the event.

As I plan for more events through 2018, I look forward to more performances.

iris reading2

If you’re an author, what advice would you give to writers preparing for readings?

If you’re a reader, what is it about readings that you enjoy?



Stehekin Christmas

Writing a memoir requires mining memories, and I did plenty of that during the 15+ years I worked on Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.  This year, I’m recalling vividly my family’s first Christmas in Stehekin, WA in 1994. The following excerpt and photographs will give you a glimpse of Christmas, Stehekin-style.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Roof-alanche!” Matt shouted as a slab of snow slid off the steep metal roof and thumped to the ground, creating a wall outside one of our living room windows.

“That’s what Mr. Scutt called it when the same thing happened at school the other day,” Rachel said.

Rachel, Jerry, and Matthew building the igloo base

For days we’d watched the layer of white that glazed the rooftop like cake icing grow deeper. Temperatures had seesawed between the single digits and the low teens and then crept up to the thirties, turning the snow into a wet, leaden coating. Now, with the window blocked by a curtain of white, our place looked like the Alaskan Eskimo houses Rachel had studied for her “Living Environment” assignment at school. Matt and Jerry bundled up in snow pants, boots, gloves, down vests, and hats and went to work digging out the snow. When daylight once again streamed through the window, Rachel joined them outside, all three of them piling snow into a dome shape to construct their version of an igloo.

We’d decided to make most of our Christmas gifts, both out of necessity (no malls in Stehekin) as well as a desire to simplify and personalize our presents. I sewed quilts and potholders. Rachel and I used our new skill carving linoleum blocks to create a dozen images that I printed and bound into calendars. Matt knitted hats and whittled miniature wooden black bears and cougars. Jerry sanded and glued dowels and bases for the wooden “Stehekin Slicer” bagel holder I’d designed. Stehekin might have insulated us from the Christmas shopping frenzy I’d witnessed when I was downlake, but just like everyone else, we were counting down the hours to the holidays.

“Sir Arthur” getting a rest in the snow; the Suburban did the heavy hauling in the winter

The same fluctuating temperatures that had caused the roof-alanche earlier in the month challenged our hunt for a pine to cut for our Christmas tree. I thought back to years when the kids were little, squeezing between rows of stacked, compressed Douglas firs, blue spruces, and white pines in the lot at Seattle’s “Chubby and Tubby’s” hardware store on four-lane Aurora Avenue. This year, a hike through pristine, unplowed snow in a mountain valley just minutes from our home sounded blissful.

My vision of the tree search derived from watching too many Walt Disney films and episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” rather than the reality of propelling our knees and thighs through a mile of three-foot snow drifts coated with a layer of ice, the winter air chapping our cheeks. Sweat seeped from under my wool cap as I huffed to the first tree I came to.

“How about this one, guys?”

Jerry and the kids trudged yards ahead of me, pausing at a tree, rejecting it, and moving on to another.

“No,” Jerry shouted back over his shoulder, “I see some better ones up ahead.”

“But what’s wrong with this one?” I called out.

“Over here,” Matt said.

Just as I caught up with the three of them, I heard Jerry say, “It’s pretty, but I think it’s too big for the living room. Let’s keep looking.”

“What about the one we just passed?” Rachel asked. “It was nice and round.” Her rosy cheeks were coated with sweat, and every time she took a step I could see the marks of melted snow on her pants.

“Let’s just go a little further,” Jerry said. “I like trees that aren’t so bushy. It looks like there are some good ones not too far ahead.”

“Just remember, once we cut it, we have to haul it out,” I said.

“Dad, I’m getting tired,” Matt said.

“Come on,” Jerry said, “where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Da-a-ad,” the kids said in unison.

“Okay, okay. How about this one?”

“Great!” I shouted.

“Perfect,” said Rachel as Jerry took the first swing with his axe.

The trudge back to the Suburban was slower going than the way in as we jockeyed for handholds on the tree trunk and dragged it over the snow. “I never realized we had such different preferences for Christmas trees,” I said. “This one’s pretty, but I think I would have been just as happy with the one we saw when we first got here.”

“But that wouldn’t have made nearly as good a story, would it?” Jerry said.

Later, revived by warm showers, dry clothes, and mugs of steaming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, we adorned our fresh tree with the ornaments and a string of lights I’d pulled out of storage. Finally, I was able to take in the splendor of the day and the satisfaction of the hard work we’d shared.

Boris enjoying the quiet of the snow

The next morning, Matt and I woke up before Rachel and Jerry to find another foot of fresh snow. I hadn’t imagined the quiet could become even quieter, but all sounds were muffled as gray clouds continued to dump fresh powder. I lit candles, Matt turned on the Christmas tree lights, and we slid a CD of Christmas music into the boom box. This was exactly what I’d hoped for in this season usually frantic with buying and consuming. I expected the mood would change when Jerry’s family arrived in a few days, but in the stillness of the morning, I savored the tranquility. Soon, the entire household was awake, and Jerry fired up the Suburban to drive the kids to school for their last day before the winter break.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Much has changed for me and my family since that first Christmas in Stehekin, including a new home on a rural island, some gray hair, more facial hair, the addition of partners, a different dog (though I’m still wearing the same Sorrel boots). But our love for the Stehekin valley and its community has only grown deeper.  Early next year, Matthew and his wife Jenn will add to the clan with the birth of a daughter (and our first grandchild). We look forward to telling her stories about our time in Stehekin and to introducing her to this place that shaped her dad, her aunt, and her grandparents.

Stehekin Christmas 1994. L to R:  Rachel, Iris, Jerry, Matthew, front:  Murphy



Stehekin Christmas 2015. L to R: Kylan, Rachel, Iris, Jerry, Matthew, Jenn, front: Buddy


To Share Moments of Beauty

If you’re a writer, or you regularly attend author readings, you’ve likely heard at least one anecdote something like this: “My publisher sent me a mock-up of the cover of my book about a river in Oregon. I was shocked to see the cover was a photograph of someplace in Florida!”

Such stories make me realize how fortunate I’ve been to have stunning photographs and designs for my books (see my previous post on book covers). And it’s why I’m especially grateful that Homebound Publications encourages authors to give input on book design and even suggest cover art.

Hiking Naked Final CoverBefore I signed the contract for Homebound to publish Hiking Naked, I knew that I wanted a Stehekin artist’s work to be considered. My publisher advised a color photograph. I suspected that Nancy Barnhart likely had plenty to choose from; she’s been photographing people and places in the Stehekin Valley ever since teaching cross-country skiing there in 1973. Almost without exception, when people pick up Hiking Naked, their first comment (after a chuckle about the title) is, “Beautiful cover!” They’re right, and it’s thanks to publisher Leslie Browning’s design work and Nancy’s color photograph of the Goode Ridge Trail.

NB_Photos on fabric
Photographer Nancy Barnhart

Although I’ve known Nancy for a couple of decades, I’d never talked with her much about her art. Recently, we had an e-mail conversation (there still are no telephones or cell reception in Stehekin) about what inspires her photography.

“As a preteen,” Nancy says, “I had an Instamatic camera and would take it on family trips to document outings and adventures.” Since then, Nancy’s clicked her way through a Rolliflex and several Nikon models. “I now use a Nikon D800, and I’ve used Mike’s [her husband, Mike Barnhart] medium format RB67 some as well.

Her interests in art and the outdoors go back to her childhood. “I grew up in a suburb of Boston, with a very active, outdoorsy family,” Nancy says. She also remembers always loving art. “We had a drawer in our kitchen filled with crayons, pens, paints and all sorts of utensils for decorating plain or colored paper. We were encouraged to write thank you notes and make homemade cards.”

That cross-country skiing teaching job in Stehekin influenced Nancy’s art—and her life—more than she likely ever imagined. Her boss was Ray Courtney, uncle to Mike Barnhart. After two winters in the valley, Nancy settled in and eventually married Mike (“a master at black-and-white photography”). There they raised two sons as well as Mike’s daughter and son from a previous marriage. They left Stehekin for a few years while their children finished high school, renting us their beautiful home at the end of Company Creek Road during the school year, and returning each summer. Numerous scenes in Hiking Naked, as well as warm memories, center around that house, decorated with many of Nancy and Mike’s framed photographs. In 2005, Nancy and Mike moved back to Stehekin full-time.

Fall Flow
Fall Flow by Nancy Barnhart

Nancy explains that she’s drawn to photography, “…because I can record the precious natural environment that surrounds me and catch moments of beauty to share. As our planet grows increasingly threatened by so many forces, the meaning of a pristine scene expands. It is a lasting memory and a personal impression.” Nancy stays open to unusual compositions in the natural world, and she’s especially drawn to color. “It excites me,” she says. “Knowing when precious light can be found and where it will fall is an absolute pleasure.”

Sometimes, though, it’s the unexpected that thrills her. She describes one autumn photographing a bridge and positioning herself exactly where she wanted to be to frame the image.

“A bear crossed the bridge!”

Was she scared? “No —I wanted to get a photo! I already had my camera on my tripod so I had to lift all of it and shift my body towards the bear. Unfortunately, he/she was faster than me and disappeared into the bushes. It was exciting!”

Nancy enjoys photographing both landscapes and people. “I love capturing candid, emotional photos of people. In my landscape photography, I like finding strong compositions with stunning light and color.” And always, she strives “to keep preserving the beauty of this fragile planet we live on.”

Morning Bright
Morning Bright by Nancy Barnhart

Did I mention Nancy is “a complete fan of color?” No surprise she hopes to do some photography in Cuba. “There is so much color there!”

 As vivid as her photographs are, Nancy finds, “Photography is often too flat a medium to me. I love sculpture,” she says, so sometimes she prints photos on fabric so she can bend, wrinkle, sew, insert wire, and manipulate the image in ways she can’t do with a flat paper print. “I can mesh the two creatively and often present a feeling of whimsy and delight with my work.”

Awash by Nancy Barnhart

Obviously, all those years of camera practice honed Nancy’s skills. Now, she explains, her biggest challenge as a photographer “…is how to make my work stand out and represent ideas and techniques that are unique to me, and how to create images that are fresh and haven’t been created before.”

Nancy Barnhart is a standout in my book.

Hold On… and Let Go

weather screen shotRain is in the forecast today and for every day but three of the next eleven. Such predictions aren’t all that unusual at this time of year where I live in the upper left corner of the United States. But twenty-two years ago at this time, I lived a bit east of here on the Stehekin River in Washington’s North Cascades, where most of the winter precipitation is in the form of snow. As I write in my new memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, the Stehekin River was a powerful teacher for me during the two years my husband Jerry, our children Rachel and Matt, and I lived on its banks, along with eighty other people who treasure—and respect—the beauty and the power of the valley.

That year, 1995, snow came to the valley floor in early November, followed by warmer temperatures and then days and days of heavy rain. Rocks and boulders in the summer-dried riverbed disappeared as the river swelled. What had been a tranquil trickle of flowing water just days before was now a roar we could hear whenever we opened the house door. As we prepared for Thanksgiving, we kept close watch on the river inching up its banks.

River flood1Now, the river that usually serenaded me with its quiet, soothing flow, echoed the sounds of tumbling boulders and the splash of hundred-foot tall cedars and pines, their roots torn from the banks by the pressure of the current. Late one afternoon midweek, the river exploded over the bank at the end of Company Creek Road, and gushed through the foundation of the Avery cabin just beyond our house.

As full-sized cedars rumbled past, I wondered how one of my favorite trees was faring. Early in our relocation to Stehekin, I spotted it just beyond Harlequin Bridge and called it my “lean into it” tree. The cedar stretched its lower third over the riverbank before curving the rest of its height gracefully up toward the sky. Five roots, as thick as a grown man’s thighs, sprawled from the tree’s stringy-barked trunk and clawed into the soil. Half-a-dozen branches reached out across the river as if in a tug-of-war with the roots to keep the cedar upright and anchored. Could it survive the thrashing water now gnawing at the banks of the Stehekin?

“Hey guys,” Rachel said as we sat down to dinner, “it’s stopped raining.”

“Yay,” cheered Matt.

“I wouldn’t get too excited yet,” Jerry said. “The river is so full we’ll need lots of days without rain to make a difference.”

That wouldn’t happen for a while, as the rain returned during the night.

The next morning, Jerry, the kids and I ventured out in the gray, walking down Company Creek Road to see the effects of the night’s deluge. After about half a mile, we could go no further. Water had burst over the embankment.

I shuffled back a few feet from the raw river edge, keeping my eyes on the new arm of the Stehekin surging down the middle of Company Creek Road. The same road that wound from our house for four miles beside the Stehekin, then across Harlequin Bridge to connect us to the five miles of paved road leading to the ferry landing, the head of Lake Chelan, and the rest of the world. Now, this link had been split by a torrent of mud-brown, churning water, so deep I couldn’t see the rock roadbed that surely lay underneath. Cut off from friends, neighbors, the school, mail, and groceries, I huddled with Jerry and the kids, all of us staring at the galloping currents.

The power of this force humbled me. How many times had that river flooded, reminding the residents of its valley we had intruded on its home?  We might think we know best where roads should go or houses should be built, but the river follows its own wisdom, has its own idea about its course, and thus ours. I had come to Stehekin to wrestle with both my need for control as well as the ways I’d disengaged from the world to protect myself from urban overload and work stress. The flood’s fury reconnected me to the earth. The water frothing between the banks carried the rains, the melted snows, the ancient glacial melt that forced the Stehekin to escape its borders and eat away at the bend in the road. Now a big chunk of road joined this flow of history, mingled with old and new waters, mixed with boulders and pines that rushed down the swollen river, to the head of the lake, bound to get to Chelan, the Columbia, and the sea before I would. While the Stehekin raged a record 19,000 cubic square feet of water every minute, there was nothing for us to do but wait, stranded at our end of Company Creek Road.

Along with the boulders and trees, the river washed away power poles and lines, leaving us without electricity during the flood’s climax. Fortunately, we had heeded the wisdom of our neighbors and filled our bathtub with water in anticipation of the loss of our electric pump for the well. We had plenty of firewood for the barrel stove that warmed the house. A full tank of propane fueled our cooking stove to heat the food we kept cold in an ice chest on the front porch. Our days were filled with basic survival chores as well as monitoring the river’s course, so it didn’t matter that the sun disappeared around four in the afternoon. After dinner preparation, cleanup, and a little reading by the light of candles and kerosene lamps, we were all ready for sleep.

Three days after the road disappeared, the water receded enough for a neighbor to drive his bulldozer into the woods beyond the washout to punch out a temporary road between the trees. Now crews could get in to replace the missing power poles and string new lines to restore electricity. Life began to return to normal.

When we received permission to drive across the temporary road, my family and I enthusiastically piled into our 1973 Suburban. Jerry drove slower than usual down the narrow, winding road, not knowing what hazards from the river’s rampage might stop us. Its surge had created gullies, cleaned out fall debris, and scattered firewood, toys, barrels, shovels, rakes, and ladders far from their homes.

River flood2We had heard that the approaches to Harlequin Bridge had taken a beating. I held my breath as we neared the bend just before it. The sky was blue, but the coffee and cream-colored river bubbling past like soup at a hard boil still taunted both sides of the road and the bridge’s underside. My eyes focused to the left, just beyond the bridge’s span, to the bank across from us. Still “leanin’ into it,” my cedar clung to the river’s edge, reaching toward the sun while remaining firmly rooted in the rock and soil of home. I let out my breath and leaned a bit more into life’s requirement to both hold on and let go.