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.

16f51-iris2bgrad

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.

Writing Attitude

It’s residency time again at my MFA alma mater, Whidbey Writers Workshop, and it started out a little rough for me. roughI was plenty happy to see classmates and faculty who have become friends. But I slid into the familiar pit of self-doubt as we settled in to study accomplished writers, several of whom (Ryan Van Meter, Nancy Rawles, Andrew Lam, former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken among others) had joined us as guest faculty. During free time, I returned once again to Chapter 1 of my memoir-in-progress, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, for yet another round of revision. The critic sneaked up behind me, whispering that my words are nowhere as “good” as those of my classmates, my teachers, my favorite writers. Even though this program granted me a Master of Fine Arts degree, I was feeling far from being a proficient writer.

Then I went to Bill Kenower’s session about a different kind of mastery for writers—emotional mastery. “Once we learn craft, we rarely forget it,” Bill says, “but a writer can forget where his or her confidence resides at any time.”

kenwerIn those first days of the residency, it seemed my confidence had remained at home. Bill’s talk, and his new book Write Within Yourself, helped me brush off the critic and resurrect my confident writing attitude.

Writing is work—work in the fullest sense that theologian Matthew Fox describes as, “that mystical, awe-filled rightness” people feel when engaged in meaningful work. As with any kind of work, writing requires mastery of skills—the craft that I come here to study.

Sound tedious? Perhaps. But anyone who has produced the balance of crumb and crust in a loaf of bread, or has pressed feet against the wall of a pool at the precise moment to propel into the next lap, or has set a nail in a piece of wood with three swings of a hammer, knows the satisfaction of both the trying and the achieving.

Along the way to mastery (if anyone ever really does arrive there), I believe writing can be fun, enlightening, frightening, rewarding, and healing. It’s a craft that tolerates—even demands—experimentation. Novelists tell a story from one point of view, then try it again from another. Poets break lines and stanzas in one way, then a different way, then perhaps scrap the stanzas all together. Essayists—the very word essay means “to try”—seek meaning from many angles in an effort to get to deep truth.

In a few days, I’ll return home and will resume my daily practice. I’ll arrive at my desk in early morning,  set the timer for twenty-five minutes, and write. When the chime signals, I’ll step away from the keyboard for ten minutes and brush the dog, stoke the wood stove, fold laundry, or stare across the bay. bayThen I’ll go back to the chair, reset the timer, and return to the words. On a good day, I’ll repeat this cycle until noon, trying to make sense of life through rough (usually really rough) drafts, second drafts, revisions, and more revisions and more drafts. It’s that unraveling of the deep truths that is the reward for me as a writer. And it’s the gift that I receive over and over as a reader —whether through fiction, poetry, or nonfiction—because writers remember where their confidence resides and have done their work.

One of the Lucky Humans

Nine of us sat in the front row of seats at the Coupeville Performing Arts Center last Saturday. We wore wrinkled black robes.  Tassels draped over the left side of the black mortarboards perched on our heads. On the stage, faculty, staff, and board members of the Northwest Institute of Literary Artswore similar regalia. Behind us, family and friends held cameras ready for photo opportunities. We were all there that warm, August afternoon to mark the milestone of completion of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing.

Nearly a year ago, the Class of 2014 began the process of selecting a graduation speaker. We were delighted when former guest faculty member Elizabeth Austen accepted our invitation. We had no idea that by the time the ceremony rolled around, Elizabeth would be Washington State Poet Laureate. 
Lucky us.
Elizabeth’s address, “The Hour of Fulfillment,” is posted at the Washington State Poet Laureate website.  Elizabeth reflected on some of what she’s learned in the dozen or so years since she completed her own MFA.  She began with this advice:
… stay focused on what really nourishes you as a writer, as one of the
lucky humans for whom language is a form of freedom, an instrument
of transformation rather than mere transaction.
On this day of celebration of our accomplishment, Elizabeth urged us to define “success” for ourselves:
Don’t calculate where you should be based on your age or where your classmates are or some other external measure.  Don’t discount, or let others discount, the things that you have decided constitute “success.”
Tune inward. Find and defend your quiet places.
Iris & Elizabeth Austen
in full regalia
I felt as though Elizabeth was reading my mind as she talked about her struggles with another element of the writing life—self-doubt:
  When I finally turn to confront the doubt, to engage with it and     dig underneath it, sure, there’s fear there. Fear that my best efforts will be inadequate or, worse, boring and foolish. But when I confront my doubt I’m also faced with the depth of my desire to make something astonishing, a poem that will startle me into new awareness, a poem with the capacity to provoke or nourish, to help someone grieve, or maybe even begin healing. Self-doubt is intimately connected to the desire to go further, risk more…At its best, self-doubt keeps us from becoming glib and complacent. Just don’t let it have the last word. Don’t let it silence you.

                                           
Fortunately, Elizabeth hasn’t let self-doubt silence her. She shared this poem from her book, Every Dress a Decision, that again seemed to speak directly to all of us.
 The Permanent Fragility of Meaning
Why persist, scratching across the white field
row after row? Why repeat the ritual
every morning, emptying my hands
asking for a new prayer to fold
and unfold?
                    Nothing changes, no one is saved.
I walk into the day, hands still
empty and beg
to be of use to someone. I lie down
in the dark and beg to believe
when the voice comes again with its commands,
its promises—
                                Unfold your hands. Revelation
is not a fruit you pluck from trees. This is the work,
cultivating the smallest shoot, readying your tongue
to shape the sacred names, your mouth already filling—
I lie down in the dark.
I rise up and begin again.
After our thesis advisors draped velvet hoods over our shoulders, we each walked across the stage to receive a hand-carved walking stick.   
One of the lucky humans
Once we returned to our seats, we switched the tassel to the right side of the mortarboards while the President of NILA, Allan Ament, waved a glittered star wand.

That day, I had no doubt that I’m “one of the lucky humans.” My thesaurus lists these synonyms for “lucky”—blessed, fortunate—even better words for how I feel about being a writer.