March, 2010

When I’m closing in on the final chapters of a manuscript, I tend to have very vivid nightime dreams that I remember in detail when I wake up. They usually have nothing to do with the book I’m working on but they DO have a kind of intensity that my friends shake their heads at when I tell them of the dreams.

“You don’t get much sleep at night, do you?” they say.

I do actually get good sleep but it’s busy sleep.

Last night I dreamed that my husband and I were in the witness protection program and that at any moment people would come to us – in the hay field, while I stood in front of an audience, while in the kitchen fixing spaghetti for supper -- and say we had to leave, right then, no time to take anything with us but what we wore. Adding to the uncertainty and frustration was that I couldn’t remember my email address whenever we landed at a new site, no way to tell anyone that we were safe. Maybe that’s part of the rules of witness protection, you don’t get to say goodbye.

Some of you know that at Christmas time my emails were a terrible mess that my new webmaster figured out how to resolve so they haven’t been an issue. But why would I dream about that!

In my sleep, I’m living in a world that can be swept away and changed in a moment. It’s almost a kind of death dream, where one moment I’m here, the next I’m gone and not allowed to say to anyone I’ve left behind how much I loved them, nor finish anything not yet complete. Am I needing protection from the reality of death?

Maybe. That’s pretty deep though. So maybe it’s more the idea of being a writer and the exposure that writing invites. It’s such a blend of risk and caution, of standing out and pulling one’s neck in. Maybe my dreamland witness protection people show up to keep me from exposing too much of myself or getting in the way so my characters aren’t overshadowed and can tell their stories their way with me learning to let them go, be whisked away to new settings and new lives.

Or it could be that I’m entering the double phase of both writing and promoting two different books. An Absence so Great comes out in two weeks. My publisher has put together a 250 blog tour of people who will be reading and reviewing the new book on line. Random House has recommended the book to libraries around the country as a good book for book groups and if the librarians and bloggers like it that could be a huge boost to sales. (Of course my loyal fans drive the sales better than anything! Thank you!)

I’m also gearing up for radio interviews and blog interviews that have me talking about a book I finished last summer and to put to the side the book I’m deeply involved in writing right now! It’s a double world of sorts: writer and promoter. Maybe I need the witness protection program to keep me clear about which book is the one that “matters at the moment” and to teach me to let go, head out with just what I have instead of trying to hang on to what is no longer possible to hold onto.

But it’s also possible that those protection people arrive in the dead of my sleep to take me away from writing at all and move me toward rest and relaxation. I have to say that while we were in Mexico for two weeks, I discovered some activities that protected me from anything related to work or worry about relationships and life.

Snorkeling was magical. I had no idea that swimming with schools of blue fish in the Sea of Cortez could be so all consuming and relaxing. At first I wondered if I could do it, hold my head under water and breathe through my mouth but I soon got accustomed to the rhythm and sound of my breath and fell in love with the underwater rock formations, the tiny fish flitting in and out of rock bridges while iridescent multi-colored fish kissed their way before my eyes. I’d pop up every now and then to see if my friends or the guide were close by and they were. I’d heard stories of people snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef being left behind….

Another day, my friend Sandy and I parasailed and while we were up there high above the sea, we watched whales breach and blow. It was quieter than I’d imagined it would be with just a whistle of wind pushing past our ears. We could carry on a conversation as though we were sitting on the deck of our rented condo. Someone in the boat took our pictures, got our email and sent them along, a memory to cherish. (Hey, maybe that’s why I was worried about my email. I wanted to be sure I could get the picture!)

But the real other world experience I had in February was when I went swimming with a dolphin. It was grand! While waiting to meet my dolphin, I spoke with honey-mooners from Venezuela. The new bride had spent a year in Eugene, Oregon so we found our small world connection within minutes of meeting.

Then I got to meet the dolphin. She was 38 years old with the name of Aqua (easy to remember). I got to hold her fins and lie on her belly as she pulled me through the water. Five of us sat around her while the trainer told us how to pet her (flat palm, no fingernails) and what she liked and didn’t like (don’t touch her head or eyes). In the water, I watched as this 700 pound mammal slipped between us like a little ell, rushed to us to give us a kiss and allowed us to press our lips to her hard jello skin lips. To be so close to such a large animal and to hear her chatter and occasionally swim off to visit her children in nearby clusters of dolphins and wet-suited tourists, was a humbling and connecting experience. I never once thought of Jerry or our friends sitting in the gallery watching. I didn’t worry about how my hair looked (really bad!) or that I couldn’t see as much as I’d like because I couldn’t wear my glasses. For 45 minutes I was totally engaged with that dolphin and nothing else mattered. I’d swim again with her in a minute!

“There is ecstasy in paying attention,” Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation.” That’s what I felt that day with the dolphin

There’s an irony about my swimming with a dolphin, too. Nearly 34 years ago, Jerry and I drove to Baja on our honeymoon. We camped along the Sea of Cortez near Baja de los Angeles, a little fishing village about four hours south of Ensenada. Every day we’d swim in this protected cove where no one else came (except one day when despite the entire beach, a camper pulled up next to us. They were from California and probably thought the space between us was more than enough).

One day while swimming in our private cove, these dark-finned beings swam to where we were and I remember fleeing, certain they were sharks. They came back every day, sometimes twice a day and showed up whenever we were in the water. I always got out and stood on the white sand and watched as they danced across the water on their tail fins, chattering then swishing and swimming with their friends. I think they were willing to swim with me but I was too frightened.

Swimming with Aqua redeemed my fleeing. Half of a dolphin’s brain sleeps while the other is awake. I hope the awake part heard me tell her how sorry I was to have feared her friends. And that she heard my thanks for keeping me from thinking about my book, about the impact of e-publishing and bloggers on promotion and sales. I didn’t worry about Jerry’s health or how we’d deal with the demands of the ranch this next year as we transition from making hay to reseeding the bottomland for good ground cover for birds; or how to keep the trees watered so they’ll lend shade to the river (and thus help the fish) and lend resting places for deer. Maybe someone from the witness protection program will sweep into our newly planted fields and take us to that new place where we’ll discover a sea where swimming with dolphins is an everyday occurrence.

I suspect that many of you live dual lives that you might like to be swept away from at times. Working long hours might keep you from the joys of things you’d rather do. Maybe like me despite how much I love writing, you have trouble making time for rest and respite. (For my birthday, someone I love gave me a book called “For People Who Do Too Much” with photographs of animals showing the difficulties that come when we don’t learn to rest. It’s a little disconcerting to receive such a book because the symptoms are way to, well, me!

But I also recognize the symptoms among many of the women I write about including my grandmother who graces the pages of An Absence so Great. March is Women in History Month, a time that always sings to me as I attempt to recover the lost stories of women and hopefully bring them to life. Many of those women – Emma Giesy, Jane Sherar, Marie Dorion – to name a few, stand the test of time as women who carried many plates on their serving trays as they met the needs of their families without losing themselves in the process.

Maybe that’s what my nocturnal witness protection team really had in mind as I slept: to remind me that working isn’t all there is and that I must be ready at any given moment to leave it behind and go explore something else wonderful in God’s creation, something meant to enjoy, to fill up with, to inhale. And not to worry about the email addresses. Whatever must be told of whatever happens, well joy has a way of being heard without this electronic texting age -- if we just let it sing.

Please don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter on the site. Enjoy and explore the changes in my website and check out my schedule. I’d love to meet you in person and of course I hope you’ll love my latest book. Meanwhile I just thank you for making room in your lives for my stories.

Warmly, Jane