With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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It’s been almost a year and a half since my book of poems was accepted for publication by a small press. This spring, I got a call informing me that the book would come out in the summer. Now, with only a few days of summer remaining, I am getting discouraged. Impulsively, I pick up the phone to call the publisher for news of my book. If I thought about it for very long, I wouldn’t call. I fear that maybe he has lost interest in the book or changed his mind.
The warmth of the publisher’s voice eases my doubts. We have never met and have had only a few brief conversations by phone. “I have a surprise for you,” he says. He tells me the book has been selected to receive an important award. “You must keep it a secret,” he says, “until the announcement in December.” He tells me that the committee of judges this year was initially unable to agree on a winner. Then he offered them my manuscript to consider, and they all liked it. He says something about reviews, a reading at a festival in Seattle next year, a gold seal on all the books.
I hang up the phone in a daze, feeling as though the conversation took place in a dream. The news seems so wondrous and confusing, I am almost afraid to believe it. I suddenly perceive what a fine and perilous line there is between reality and illusion. I hope I haven’t crossed it.
This summer has been a time of self-doubt. Despite the appearance of my work in several magazines, I have found myself growing weary of the arduous process of sending out my writing. For the first time, I have imagined not submitting my work anymore. It was only a fantasy, but it felt freeing. Then a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who is a painter. She was longing for her paintings to receive more recognition, and I told her of my own realization that recognition doesn’t really help; it only awakens a fathomless desire. And yet to think of the award is daunting. It has fulfilled some desire so deep I never knew it existed.
In the days that follow, I say nothing about the news, though I’m sure it would be all right to tell my children and a few friends not involved in the writing world. My heart longs to call my parents, who died years ago. They admired and saved all my publications and talked proudly of me to their friends. And yet they had some dream for me that I was never able to achieve.
I live in a small cabin on an island in Puget Sound. For many days, I have been nursing a twenty-five-year-old cat with a hurt paw — not my cat, but a neighbor’s cat who has adopted me. I have to mix antibiotics into his food and soak his paw in hot water twice a day for fifteen minutes. He resisted at first, but he didn’t struggle much, and mostly we sat quietly together on the floor of the small travel trailer that serves as my bathroom and kitchen: a brief morning and evening meditation. Now his paw has finally healed, and, with that and the news of the award, I am ready for a celebration. I decide to pack a bag and travel to another island for a few days.
On a warm afternoon, I sit on the deck of the ferry, watching the deep green islands and the blue sea. Once in port, I take a room at my favorite inn and then wander around the town. In the window of the local bookstore, I see a book bearing the dignified gold seal of the award. I’ve seen the seal before, of course, but I’ve never closely examined it. As I imagine how my own book will look, that feeling of unreality sweeps over me once more. I ask the bookstore owner what she knows about this award. Not much, she answers, only that the committee is a small one, and they often have difficulty reaching a decision.
As the days go by, I find I am treating myself more generously. I feel more self-respect. And I begin to write again after a silence of almost a year. I imagine telling people the news, confiding it to them. I think my friends will be glad for me. I know what jealousy is like — both to feel it and to be the object of it — but somehow I don’t think that will be anyone’s response. This news is too extraordinary for that. I wonder if my friends will mind that I waited so long to tell them about the award. Am I lying by omission? Yet I cherish this time of being alone with the knowledge, of slowly learning its shape and feel. My first grandchild will be born shortly after the announcement. This waiting feels like another gestation, a time of carrying something new and precious within me.
My dreams become vivid. I dream my mother and I are alone, and the mood between us is tender. She is showing me a slim volume of poems — her poems — that has just been published. We sit side by side and read the poems together. They are quiet and deep. One is about a boat trip with my father. Another is about my brother as a boy.
I never thought of my mother as a writer. I have always connected my creativity to my father, who painted whenever he could find the time. And yet now I remember that I have a box of my mother’s letters. In the year before her marriage, she wrote to my father every day. The letters express her love and longing in such a captivating way that I have sometimes thought of publishing them.
Before I spoke with the publisher and learned about the award, I had been planning to spend time this winter at a small Buddhist monastery. Now it seems even more important that I do this. The monks often speak of impermanence. Everything arises and ceases and is not self, they teach. And one should remember this not only in times of pain, but also in times of joy.
I look up from my typewriter just as the sun is about to set behind the islands. The sky is cloudy, but the Olympic Mountains in the distance are rimmed with light. I wonder at the words that have been pouring through me in the last few weeks. It was many years ago that I wrote the award-winning poems. Then, too, I had just undergone a long period of silence, perhaps my longest.
I had been living on the island for many years and felt it was time to go. So I packed up everything I owned, found my cat a good home, and left the wonderful waterfront cabin I had been renting. I drove down the coast slowly, stopping in town after town to look for a place to rent. After driving fifteen hundred miles without finding anything, I checked into a campground on the beach and set up my small, dome-shaped tent. One evening at sunset, I watched dolphins leaping into the air. I built a small campfire each night and gazed into the flames. After a few weeks, the weather began to turn chilly, and I got in my car and headed north.
When I reached Carmel Valley, I rented a room at a Korean Zen monastery. It was a bare room. I brought in a sleeping bag, a pad, a pillow, and a battery-powered lamp. It was enough. I sat by the river, allowing the peacefulness of the monastery to enter me. I meditated. One evening, a monk spoke to me. “Who is watching?” he asked, and laughter bubbled up from within him. “Who is it that is watching?”
A few evenings later, I telephoned Mark, a friend from the island I had left, and told him where I was. I asked if he wanted to fly down and then drive back up the coast with me. I had decided that if he said no, I would remain at the monastery. He called back the next day to say he would come.
I said goodbye to the monk, knowing his question would stay within me. Then I met Mark at the airport, and together we slowly made our way north. We drew closer while walking the long, sandy beaches and watching the waves sweep in. I had loved this man for many years, and, for the first time, it seemed possible that we might find a way to be together.
As we got within a day or two of the island, Mark grew very nervous. He sensed that he had to get home quickly, but he didn’t understand why. When we reached his home, he called his parents and learned that his father had died. Mark and I held each other and cried, and in the morning he flew across the country for the funeral. We both knew he wouldn’t be coming back for a long time.
The cabin I had left was still available. I built a fire and gazed out at the sea and the rain. The long northern winter had arrived, and I was back in the place from which I had departed. I felt emptied of feelings. I surrendered deeply. There was nothing else to do. Who is watching? I asked my self. Now and then, I had a fleeting glimpse of something mysterious and new.
A few nights later, I woke up trembling. I sat up in the darkness and wondered what was happening to me. In the morning, I sat down in front of my typewriter and wrote the first sixteen poems of a new manuscript. They flowed forth while I watched in wonder. The next day, another seven or eight poems emerged. The process left me filled with awe.
When I felt the outpouring was over, at least for a little while, I got on my bike to ride around the island. But after only a few moments, I had to stop at the cafe to borrow a pencil and paper, because the poems kept arriving. When I wasn’t writing new poems, I was working on those already written, discarding parts, changing a word or a line. Driving to town a few days later, I had to keep pulling over to scribble quickly on a note pad. It took a few weeks for the poems to come to an end. Their order in the manuscript was already determined, for each poem seemed to emerge from the last, a gift from some unknown source. I felt humble and deeply grateful.
As the days go by, the award still seems unreal. At times, my fantasies run wild. I wonder if I will be invited to give workshops and readings. The thought evokes excitement, but also anxiety. When I think about the book’s being reviewed, my first response is fear. And yet, if the judging committee liked the manuscript, it’s possible that reviewers might like it, too. I apply for a grant and find myself imagining I will receive it, though I’ve always been convinced that my poems are too quiet to win.
Once, in the seventies, someone made an astrological chart for me and then explained what it revealed. The second half of my life, she said, would be much easier than the first. I would receive a good deal of public attention. It sounded as if she were speaking of someone else.
I begin thinking about the possibility of building a small house on my land. I have two ten-by-twelve-foot cabins with wide windows looking out on the sea. Each cabin has a wood stove, and one has electricity. And I have the small travel trailer. I bought this land about five years ago. The process of having trees felled and the land torn open to put in a well and septic system and electricity was so disturbing that I haven’t been able even to consider doing anything more.
My small cabins allow space for only a few shelves of books. My files are under my bed, my manuscripts in stacked boxes on a shelf above it. Even my electric typewriter takes up too much room to be left out. It stands on the floor beside my small desk until I need it. I’ve been striving for simplicity, and this style of living is only a few steps removed from camping. I spend most of my time outdoors. A large fire pit edged with rocks is really the heart of my land.
Although I like living this way, I am beginning to long for a study with a wide desk and my files and books in order all around me. The winters here are cold and rainy, and a house would make them easier. I wonder whether the award is influencing my thinking, making me feel I deserve more. I am aware that there would be an enormous loss, as well. I would be insulated from the stars and the moon and the sound of the sea.
Autumn in the Northwest comes suddenly. During the last few days of Indian summer, I decide to take a short trip with a friend before the rains begin. We drive to Tofino, a small fishing village in British Columbia. I am deeply stirred by the dense, virgin rain forests and the coves and inlets and islands. Small Indian villages hug the shores. I go out in a boat to watch gray whales at their feeding grounds, their huge bodies rising from the water and diving back into the deep.
In Tofino, I dream I am beginning a profound love affair. I give a different name each time my lover and I meet. Now I am about to meet him once more, and I realize it is time to tell him my true name.
When I return home, a monk from the monastery where I am planning to spend part of the winter calls to arrange the dates with me. The monks will be on a three-month retreat, and I will be one of the laypeople who assist in running the monastery while the monks meditate from dawn until night. We will join them when we can.
I haven’t spoken to him for about six months, and it is a joy to hear his voice and to receive news of the monastic community. Just as we are about to say goodbye, I find myself telling him about the award. “Mazel tov,” he says, and the Yiddish words from a Buddhist monk make me laugh. “How many people have you told?” he asks, and I admit I haven’t told anyone, because I’m afraid it isn’t true. He, too, is a writer, and we have shared our work through the years. He seems to understand all my feelings of delight and surprise and nervousness about the changes the award might bring. He agrees it is just the right time for me to come to the monastery. “I offer you mudita,“ he says. Mudita is a Pali word that is often translated as “sympathetic joy.” It is the opposite of jealousy, a rejoicing in the good that befalls others.
When I hang up the phone, the award seems a little more real, and I find myself growing afraid. There has always been an easy flow to my life as I’ve moved from place to place and remained as long as I liked. I wonder if the award will bring new responsibilities that will hinder my wanderings. I wonder if people will treat me differently. How will I know whether it is me they are fond of, or some image of me that the award confers? What if it awakens in me a desire for more and more recognition?
And yet below all of these fears is a sense of peacefulness. I realize none of these things matter. My yearnings and fears and doubts flow by. I watch them arise and cease.
I go into town to do some errands and stop by the bookstore. Inside, there’s a special display of prize-winning books. My eyes light on a slim volume about the award I have won. It lists all the winners and finalists from the time the prize originated. I buy the book and chat about it with the man behind the counter, who tells me the award is the most prestigious in the country. On my way home, as I wait for the ferry, I read through the list of poets who have won. I am certain I must have misunderstood, or else I have slipped over into a world of delusion. It seems impossible that I could be so honored.
I call the publisher again. I have to ask him if this is truly happening. For a moment, he pretends he has never heard of me, but then he laughs gently and assures me the award is real. I tell him about finding the book on the prize, and he agrees that it is a very impressive list of winners. Then he asks me to look over my manuscript to see if there is a word or a line I want to change before publication.
I begin worrying about how ill-prepared I am. I have been living in remote villages in Washington and northern California and the Greek islands, and haven’t given a reading or taught a writing workshop in a few years. I haven’t even conversed with other writers.
As I read over and over the list of past winners, I am swept again by waves of disbelief and awe. On impulse, I call my ex-husband. We’ve been talking often by phone lately, and I’ve even told him I have a wonderful secret. Now I reveal the whole story to him. He recently retired from teaching literature at a Midwestern university, and he shares my wonder at the company I will be among. We talk about how others will respond, about the ways my life will change. But he keeps returning to a feeling that something is wrong. He asks again about the way my manuscript was submitted to the judging committee. He doesn’t believe the award process could be that informal. Finally, gently, he tells me that there must be some mistake.
The next day, I call the research librarians in a nearby city and ask for any information they can find on the award and on the press that will publish my book. They mail their findings out to me, and I pore over them. The award process, I learn, is quite formal, and none of the dates my publisher has given me seem to jibe. As I read the information on the press, I discover that it offers a prize with a very similar name. This must be the award I have won.
Tonight the wind is tossing the fir branches. I leave the windows open and dream the wind is blowing through me, cleansing me. I wake to a feeling of emptiness, peacefulness. In the afternoon, I wander down to the small island library. On the counter is a packet of gold seals, awards for a contest for the island’s children. Seeing the seals makes me feel very foolish.
I browse the bookshelves and notice a new edition of the I Ching, a book I haven’t thought about in many years. I surprise myself by checking it out. At home, I review the instructions, then toss the coins six times to determine which hexagram I should read. Its title is “Adornment”:
Leaves the carriage and walks.
It is in accordance with his position
that he should not ride.
Leaves the carriage and walks.
It is in accordance with his position
that he should not ride.
The humbleness it calls for seems fitting, as does the hexagram it changes into: “The Mountain,” which counsels meditation and stillness.
The days become foggy and gray. The sea is as calm as a lake. The cat I’ve been caring for seems to be fading away. He can no longer follow me to the trailer at dinner time. Instead, he just watches me from his bed. I bring him his favorite food, and he takes only a lick or two. He is slowly growing weaker, but seems peaceful and not in any pain.
I receive a card in the mail with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Happiness is not an individual matter.” It seems an apt reminder. There has been far too much focus on myself these last few weeks. I think of my aunt who is in the hospital with an infection. I think of a lovely nun who suffered an aneurysm and may need surgery, and of a friend whose niece is dying. I think of my grandchild preparing to be born in only a few months.
Still, my thoughts sometimes return to the award. I feel strangely grateful for how much I have learned. For almost a month, I was the winner of a major literary award. It could have been true. This kind of thing happens to writers, a sudden honor that lifts one to fame. The experience seemed complete, with its lilting joy and excitement. I feel like a traveler returning from a journey to a faraway land.
Yet, in my reveries about the award, I missed a simpler way of being. There is a feeling I have had sometimes in Greece while walking for miles down sunlit mountain roads with the blue sea gleaming below. The only way I can describe it is that I am flying: I know how to fly. But when thinking about the award, I felt a weight on me, a new mantle of responsibility. It seemed my calendar would soon be filled with engagements, that my life would grow more complex. I felt my wings being clipped.
I return to the present, I return to the here and now. I sit on the rug beside the wood stove. The cabin is lit by candlelight. The cat is curled on his bed outside the door. The night is still, and a half-moon is rising over the trees. “This is enough. This is good enough,” the Thai Buddhist master Ajahn Chah used to say. I have been feeling this often since I realized there would be no award, a simple gratitude for all that I have.
I admire Judith Azrael’s humility and candor [“Winning and Losing,” May 2000]. It takes courage to write about the emotions connected with being on top, then being brought down a notch.
I recently applied to two schools in hopes of obtaining an MFA in poetry. I desperately wanted to attend either one. When I received the first rejection, I held out hope for the second. When I was rejected a second time, I experienced a brief burst of anger, followed by an amazing calmness. A few days later, I identified the calmness as relief. Some part of me knew that graduate school was not my path.
I remain a writer, despite the rejection. Azrael, too, is a remarkable writer, despite not winning a major award. I give her a gold star for her humanness.