Sing Your Sorrow, Dance Your Joy

I was in the center of downtown Portland for our yearly Galaxy Dance Festival with my family and we watched with admiration each performance. They all swirled and implored, flirted and defied, brought an emphatic ending to one line of music and started anew with a flourish. The costumes and faces were infused with color and feeling. Stories unfolded, frenetic and quiet, subtle, intense.

And there were the women of India, their peacock majesty, each face strongly defined. Their beauty alone stuns. The dances tease and taunt, demand our attention, even with the tiniest movement of fingers and eyes. No one can say they are not illustrious and rarified in their offerings.












There was a youthful modern dance group dancing in the fountain, leaping and strutting. They made the spouting water another partner in their choreographic designs. I watched a child of four or so jump in with them, body quick and at ease, her movements mimicking their own. She is a dancer already, and she was without fear or constraint and strained against her mother’s hands when pulled back.










The tango always mesmerizes me. I see the romance bloom in each small gesture, the angle of heads, the subtle shapes made with legs and arms, their feet quick and elegant as the couples turned and slid around the floor. The music, poignant and distinctive, beckons one into another world, another time.

But, in the end, it is the flamenco I most come to see. Duende, spark of life that gives us tears and laughter, unfurls before us. I hear it in the cantaora’s voice as she sings cante flamenco, feel it in the complex clapping of hands or palmas, the stomp and whisper of feet. Each bailora’s body and face hold the energy of the world together for those brief moments.

Cante flamenco speaks to me of the terrible sweetness of love. It brings the laughter of youthful dreams. The music and dance tell of hope gained and lost. The women and men, old and young, share their tales. Birth and death play out on this terrain, and also there is both compassion and passion that keep our lives moving from start to end. Flamenco is a light in the confounding darkness. Incandescent. Powerful. It is not for everyone, but it speaks to me. I yearn to join them but call out encouragement, whistle and clap., my feet drumming on the hot concrete.

I grew up dancing. I am not speaking of dance classes; I went to those for years but recall little of them. Dance came to me like running came to others–and I loved to run and tumble, too. I danced in the yard, in the living room, with or without music. Exulted in creating forms with sinew and soul. When I was fifteen I attended a renowned summer arts camp. The dance building overlooked a green lake and when I danced I felt as though I had left the room with mirrors and leapt above water and pines. I was that happy. But I had gone to Interlochen to study voice and cello, so dance was one of the secret doors to freedom. I savored every class and performance and held them close in order to take them back home for the long winter months.

In the novel I wrote, the main character is a dancer. She cannot speak a word of traumatic events, cannot move beyond the damage done. After months of inertia she finally finds her feet again–she dances the sorrow until it transmutes into joy. It speaks for her and she is saved, in part, by dancing her way through the barrier of grief and into life. Her body and soul reawaken.

I worked with Native American women in residential addictions treatment. Though I was the only white woman amid their community of fragile recovery, I saw that they needed more besides lectures and attentive listening. They had been betrayed and battered by life and people, had suffered some of the worst experiences I have ever been told. At the time it occurred to me they needed to share music in their own languages and tell stories old and new. This was good, but there was more to be done. There was too much memory of pain lodged in muscle and bone. The women were so taut with anger or they were bowed over with weariness that they forgot their bodies were their friends.

So, we stretched until they grumbled. And then we danced. We snaked around the room and down corridors where my co-workers stuck their heads out the doors. We shouted and clapped unison rhythms and danced into the field behind the treatment facility. And kept on dancing. This became a weekly happening and many more women joined us. They came not for therapy. They came for joy.

I would like to dance flamenco before I am too old. I have a tricky heart that won’t always do what it should despite several medical interventions. I would just like to pound my feet into the forgiving earth and shape air with my hands, move hands and hips as though every movement matters. I want to dance, as well as live this life, from my center.

We will see if I can find my way to learning flamenco. It could be that cante and baile are too much for this woman. I might swoon from the effort of it, and the crazy fun. Meanwhile, I dance around the house, across the street, under the trees. I dance with music blaring, alone, because it matters to my life. And if I ever happen to die dancing, my heart overcome with the wonder of it, I will be happy.

“My sorrow I express in song

For singing is crying

My joy I express in dance

For dancing is laughing!”

from Language of the Gypsies

What Circles At the Edges of the Story

The room was large enough to seat hundreds but there was only one more person I was seeking. I headed to the left until I spotted her name on the table. She was checking her phone. I breathed deeply and composed myself. My mind was stilled and all I could see was her blonde head. As soon as I approached, she gave me a welcoming smile, then spoke my name. As I would at any important interview, I held out my  hand and returned the favor.

But it wasn’t an ordinary interview, not the sort that might land me a nice job. It was a pitch, which essentially is a sales pitch of a writer’s book. I was attending Willamette Writers Conference for the third time; she was literary agent number five.

It had once more taken me weeks of rumination and a couple of days of intensive, systematic work to prepare a two paragraph summary of an entire plot. It had to interest her enough that her eyes would not glaze over and her mind wander. Enough that she would ask for pages to read.

I had finally boiled it down to a few choice sentences that introduce the two protagonists, Sophia and Cal, what they need and what they had to rise above to get it. That wasn’t impossible, just challenging. I know my characters so well after years of writing and revising that they live their lives vividly in my waking and dreaming. Sophia is a dancer and choreographer who stops speaking when her husband, a respected biologist, drowns one night in a lake near the village of Snake Creek. But no one knows what really happened except one witness, her dog. Cal is a successful photojournalist who returns to Snake Creek after his friend and mentor disappears in the Amazon jungle. He has lost the desire to take photographs, and lost himself in his risk-taking, globe-trotting lifestyle. Then he runs into Sophia crossing the street.

So, I tell this to the open-faced, encouraging woman sitting across from me, but with the quiet passion I feel for this story. For it isn’t just about two people who meet and become catalysts for change. It is about dreams lost and found, about the power of speaking the truth. It is about domestic violence and addiction and the myriad ways people can and do recover and heal from great loss. It was written in part because I believe that trauma and the resultant grief and pain one feels does not need to defeat people, or stop them from living happier, fulfilled lives. Instead, a process of reinvention can occur through creative activities, spiritual nourishment, and the balm of nature’s wisdom. Connection to a caring community can become a lifeline, a safety net. And forgiveness happens even though the world tends to believe justice is often tied to revenge. The justice that Sophia and Cal discover rises up from courage and compassion.

But I don’t have time to say all this. She asks me some questions and I fill in a few details, climactic scenes. And then she asks: “Why this? What qualifies you to write about these subjects?” So I tell her. It is my life work; my specialty is working with women and men who have been beaten down, even brutalized, and seek relief in alcohol, drugs and other addictions. And I have seen them get better, stronger and even laugh again.

I want to say: I, too, have been there. I know how the dark can make you blind or grant you night vision if you choose to learn and adapt, and how the faintest glimmers of light finally bring you to your feet and out of the maze of misery. But I am too circumspect and this is not the place for this, perhaps.

So I say: we all suffer. No one is immune to sorrow and rage over life and what it can bring. And yet we usually go on. It is worth writing about.

I only have ten minutes and time is running out. Still, we are suddenly talking about books we like, authors we admire, and when the timekeeper comes by, the agent with the soft smile and clear blue eyes gives me her card which I look over as she asks for twenty-five pages.

“I am intrigued,” she says, “so I want to read more. If I like those pages, I will request the whole manuscript.”

So, I left with excitement and joy in my heart, right? Not so. I left with a sense of one tiny step forward. I have gotten this far before and nothing came of it. I have submitted many stories, poems, and creative non-fiction over the years; a handful have been published. Every writer knows that it is a crap shoot, that what an editor or agent likes is likely to be something other than what you have to offer.

But this novel is another thing. I have worked on it for twelve years, in between and around other projects. After getting home from ten long hours of paid work, at night, with dinner plate by the computer. On my days off. When sick and tired. It has undergone at least ten revisions. It is still too long. I always see something that can be improved. But I do not tire of Sophia and Cal and their lives in the woods surrounding Ring Lake. Or of the village of Snake Creek, the residents’ adventures, failures and triumphs.

So why, a week after the conference, do I sit here and write a blog post instead of further cleaning up the manuscript and sending it off happily? Because it is still mine as I examine and savor it again. It speaks to me as an old companion. It came from a place deep within, where what really matters to me lives free. I have cut and tossed out parts many times, a word here, a paragraph there, using the sharp knife of a rational mind, trying to make it shine even more. I have worked with other writers for months who have given excellent feedback. But it may not be excellent enough yet. It may fail to inspire the agent enough that she has to know what really happens to Sophia and Cal and the village that shields secrets while designing hope for the future.

So there is it: in my hands this novel’s life is still safe. Once sent out into the world of the publishing business, it may falter, even sink. As I write this post, there are wraiths of doubt slinking around the edges of this novel. There is still my lack of ironclad belief that someone will read it and be glad of it, then help it arrive in print.

It seems part of the creative life, this terrible self-doubt that arrives despite hard work and denial of it. But no risk, no gain is one of the elementary rules of life learned and I know it to be true. We just keep creating. Besides, if the story was enough to keep me writing all these years, it surely will be enough for someone, some day, to take a chance on it.

I will get down to business this week-end and scrutinize the first twenty-five pages to make certain they are the very best I have to offer. Finally, I will send them off while I start work on a short story. Or a poem. A new novel. In fact, I look forward to being taken on a new journey with yet-unknown characters who are searching for something that remains hidden from me only until I place words on a clean sheet of paper. There is just no greater task–and  joy–if writing is in your blood.

The Light, Water, Flowers, Buskers and Boats of Vancouver Island

I missed a post last Friday as we were  on vacation. We have driven up and around the Olympic Peninsula several times, and this trip to Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, was our fourth. As you might imagine, there are good reasons for this.

The Olympic National Park is only the glorious beginning of things.

As the ferry emerged from thick, chilled fog, the light presented itself as a passageway through which we seemingly sailed from one dimension into another. Everything was vivid and  bright, the beauty so palpable that people braved the winds on deck, riveted by the study in blues.

We rounded coastal land and moved into the inner harbor of Victoria, a city deemed British in style but accented by many delights. The yachts lined up by cheerful yellow water taxis and sailboats, and the Empress Hotel seemed to proudly rise from the earth behind them.

I have come to think of the inner harbor as a stage, and have enjoyed countless performances by buskers there: musicians, fire eaters, jugglers, comedians and acrobats. As ever, the mammoth Government Building was imperious, hinting at all sorts of important work within. Everywhere the sidewalks and streets were filled with congenial energy, people speaking excitedly in many languages. Laughter wafted through the sunny air.

After we checked into our perfectly situated hotel–we could see the harbor, the Empress and were within three blocks of downtown–we headed out for dinner. I lingered at the end of Trounce Alley  and spotted a brightly lit Tapa Bar. I had a vague memory of reading about this Spanish style of eating and was ready to dig in. Sitting at our outdoor table, I felt as though I had truly left Portland and possibly North America to dine with Marc at a lively European cafe. The service was exceptional; the food, perfection. I left, satiated, a devotee.

It was with reluctance that we finally walked back to the hotel but sleep came easily and I slept soundly, the night sounds of the city left far beyond our casually elegant room. There was a loose plan for the next four days, the primary objective being rejuvenation physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  When we awakened the next morning we stepped onto our balcony and took in the glorious, clear light once more, the cool air so inviting that we sat with coffee and breakfast in hand, letting our  eyes roam over the stately buildings and sapphire water. It was hard to believe that I had nothing more pressing to do than simply breathe and be happy. Below are a handful of highlights from our trip (I took 700 pictures) to that lovely lady, Victoria, and the island where, I discovered, there is a greater concentration of bears and cougars than anywhere else in North America. The wilderness called me, as always. And at the end of five days: bliss. Come see a  bit of what we found.