At my family’s camp Up North in Wisconsin, one of the most beloved traditions we still follow today takes place far outside Birch Trail’s property lines. Our beloved BT sends out nearly 65 wilderness trips each season, taking the campers climbing on the granite bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, hiking in the Isle Royale National Forest, paddling down the mighty Namekagon river, or from lake to lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Some of the most beautiful scenery to be found on all of god’s green earth.
I never took to backpacking as much as I did to the boating-oriented trips because, to me at least, it always seemed rather silly to carry a week’s worth of camping gear and food on one’s back when a lovely little canoe or kayak could manage the heavy lifting for you instead. Though most of our days during those canoeing and kayaking trips were filled with talking, laughing, and singing (there is a whole lot of singing and cheering that goes on at Birch Trail) our trip leaders would inevitably institute another long-held Birch Trail camping tradition: the silent paddle.
There isn’t much about silent paddling to describe that you wouldn’t already assume; enforcing an hour or two of total silence as the canoes, kayaks, or sailboats cruised across the water allows a young person the opportunity to really notice the exquisite beauty and quiet of their surroundings, as well as to go inward and notice what those surroundings could make her feel. As a deeply imaginative and introspective kid, I truly relished those silent paddles, and they include some of my fondest memories.
On my sea kayaking expedition with NOLS in 1999 along the southeastern coast of Alaska the summer after my senior year of high school, I was surprised and much delighted to discover that silent paddles were a tradition among their ranks as well. Though I often found myself battling rainy skies versus the sunny ones of my summer camp days, and struggling against powerful swells and strong currents of unprotected ocean waters much more challenging than the gentle rivers and lakes of my Midwestern wilderness sojourns, there was still something comforting about not having to talk.
Do not be so sweet that people will eat you up, nor so bitter that they will spit you out.
-Pashto folk saying
It’s been a great week, full of some damn exciting developments: I’ve purchased a brand new car and landied a hard-earned promotion at work, and yet I’ve had an awfully rough go of it all. That might not make much sense to some of you, but to those who have come to know loss and grief, it makes perfect sense, because you know that after suffering a life-changing loss of someone close to you, all good things become bittersweet rather than purely sweet. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, my old Volvo wagon blew her tranny and is now going to the great Volvo lot in the sky. She served me well and kept me safe on the road for the last five years, and I was sad to see her go. I was pretty certain about what kind of car I would buy next, how it would all go down, and indeed the decision has essentially made itself. I considered and drove a few different cars, sought advice from several knowledgeable folks, and did a good deal of research on Consumer Reports. My big brother, Gabe, held my hand from 2,000 miles away and helped me through every single step of the process. In the end, I settled on a new 2013 Subaru Forester, with not many—but just enough—of the niceties to make me feel like I’ve gotten something pretty fancy-pants. I got a great car at a great price, and I cried the entire way through it.
I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to the annual AWP Conference (the Association for Writers and Writing Programs) , and am proud to say that I’ve yet again survived the thrilling ordeal. It’s taken me two days, three loads of laundry, about six servings of pasta, and many hours of sleep to recover and recombobulate after the exhaustion and overstimulation of the chaotic, 12,000-attendee conference, but I am once again walking and talking like a human being.
This year’s conference was almost like a homecoming, in a way: I caught up with old friends, signed and swapped books with said friends, reminisced over the silly foibles of my not-so-distance youth in this industry, and looked back at the distance I’ve traveled thus far in my writing career. When I first attended the AWP conference in Chicago five years ago in Chicago, I was fresh out of my MFA program and had no idea what trajectory my career would take. I had only submitted my work to a handful of literary journals, and had only been published in one. I certainly never dreamed that in a matter of years, I’d be editing one of the industry’s most reputable literary magazines, and would have published my debut memoir, A Real Emotional Girl by a New York-based publisher of substantial prestige (In hardcover! With a photo insert!).
I’ve neglected this blog for far too long, friends, and I apologize. I hope the absence is forgivable in light of what I was busying myself with the last few months: the upcoming release of my book!
The last 60 days have been tough, but incredibly rewarding. Having never sent a book off to be published before, I suppose I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, and I certainly knew the process wouldn’t be easy, but the reality was actually even more grueling than I could have ever anticipated. In the end, I managed to make some pretty significant—and incredibly beneficial—edits to the manuscript in an awfully short window of time. Every day for nearly a month, I would wake at 6, work a full day, come home to walk and feed Mona, and then I’d sit down in my home office for at least 6 or 7 hours of editing, only to start the whole exhausting routine all over again the next day. It wasn’t easy and the lack of sleep definitely wasn’t a good look for me, but I’m rather proud of the work I did. I never thought I could say this, but I know with complete confidence and calm that my book is absolutely the best I could possibly make it.
When the day finally came for me to approve the last few remaining revisions and send off my little brain child for typesetting, I was anxious about really being finished with something that has taken me 10 years to create. The moment approached in an anticlimactic build-up, and I felt like I needed to do something that would signify or commemorate this momentous occasion. So as I made one final sweep of my manuscript, dedicated it to my father and my family, I turned on my dad’s favorite movie, “Jeremiah Johnson”. I half-listened to the movie, only registering key plot points of lines of dialogue intermittently. There were moments when I stopped to reflect on the landscape of the film, or to let one of those iconic lines of dialogue resonate in my mind; at times it almost felt as if my father were speaking to me through the movie.
Many hours later, as I pressed the “save” button one final time, I felt a sudden rush of weightlessness, almost dizziness. I instinctively placed my hand against my heart and felt the heavy burden of this opus leave me. And then it was finished. Finished.