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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Monday, October 31, 2005

I love this kind of favor....

So these old friends of BMC own a "war canoe," a 25 foot ten seater, and they needed to paddle it over from upper Blue Lake to the BMC Boathouse on Eagle Lake for the winter. So a bunch of us drove up there and paddled it back. What a trip! This thing is a gorgeous, hulking old canoe that used to belong to the US military in the 1930's. We paddled through two lakes carrying Oakley, the golden retriever who sat placidly in the front. At one point Tom said, "Everyone turn around now so we can take a picture!" and we all sat there, paralyzed. Nobody wanted to upset our balance. Even though the snow has melted, that water is still freezing cold.

It's really winding down now. Four more days. I'm trying not to think about it too much.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Snowman Melts

The sun is coming out. The snowman is dripping. It must almost be time to go home.

Friday, October 28, 2005

This is not just the Weather Channel..

I'm actually writing too. And reading.
One of the best gifts of being here (and there are so many) is the time to read, and really read, immersing into books and stories. I’m learning from many mentors: Alice Munro about slowing down, really understanding people from tiny small gestures and moments. Russell Banks is helping me veer away from sentimentality -- I’ll never write like him but I need a shot of the darkness and despair he captures so well. My own friend Michael who writes with such heartbreaking beauty, long intertwined stories that can take a disjointed week to read at home, but here, I can just sink in, take a whole morning, and absorb so much.

A few people have begun to leave early. The snowman who was born during the blizzard is melting down. There is less than a week left and I’m feeling simultaneously urgent, bereft and glad to be going home.

Meanwhile, it has taken me this long (weeks) to fully immerse in my own work, to wake up and feel inhabited by the story all the time, to feel like finally know it, know what I’m supposed to be doing.

I think I will do NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), just to try and keep up some sense of momentum when I get back. We begin next Tuesday, November 1st although I’m not starting a new novel on that day; I’m just going to keep going with what I’m already doing. Any other takers out there?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Well, a little snow was thrilling. And a lot of snow is: mindboggling. Yesterday and last night it came down, and kept coming down, and kept coming. It’s still falling, like sifted flour. Everything is completely covered now, every tree branch, everything. Several trees have completely keeled over from the weight of snow. There’s nothing but white out there. And I don’t know if it’s Winter Wonderland, or The Shining. The power keeps going out and last night we had an eerie, beautiful dinner by candlelight. The generator got pumped up in time for the presentations (incredible, illuminating and quite dramatic talk on the history of Social Security, and then a poet/paramedic who is one of the founding members of Ground Zero Rescue Workers for Peace). Both fantastic and we sat around talking for hours afterward.

I have 58 minutes of power left on my laptop and after that I guess it will be the old fashioned pencil and paper. I don’t mind. I’m not sure when the power will come up long enough for me to post this. It’s just gotten more and more dreamlike. (“I fell asleep, and when I woke up the entire landscape had disappeared…”) I guess I’ve seen snow like this in Tahoe, but I expect it there. I can’t believe that two days ago I was out paddling around on the lake. Today it’s snow-tubing down the hill behind the big house, and building lots of fires.

2:21pm: they powered up the generator and I juiced up my computer for a little while. I’m back up to two hours of writing-time. There’s a line of people waiting to use the Internet. The pay phone still has no dial tone.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

It's a Rainy HBO Kind of Day

Pouring rain again. After feeling kind of limp after my presentation last night, I played major hooky today and watched an episode from Six Feet Under’s Season 4. (which I missed first time around; what was I doing that whole year?) Thank you, Netflix. God, I love that show. I watched it with the director/writer’s commentary and it was so fascinating, getting that insight into the development of story. (OK, can I count this as work?) One thing he said was that in storytelling, you always want your audience to be asking “Why?” and saying “Oh NO.” That’s a new one and got me percolating on the current piece I’m working on. I need to develop some more “oh no” moments. But I am so continually moved by the totally human situations in SFU and the subtleties of relationships between people. This is the best of what writers do: remind us of what it is to be human.

The presentation last night felt good. I was unbelievably nervous in the last half hour before it began: I came upstairs after dinner and just paced around like a tiger. Tried to listen to calming music but my heart was going at about four times the normal speed. I think it’s because the bar has been set so high here. I jumped. I think it went well. Several people wanted to talk about various aspects of my writing this morning and said they’d been thinking about them late into the night and today. Good sign.

It’s pouring rain again. I think some people are definitely showing signs of cabin fever. Not me though. I think I am showing signs of wanting to be a total hermit. I don’t miss driving a car, or going to stores, or answering the phone or any of that. I miss my people though. I miss them a lot.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Eagle Lake, finally

I finally got out there today. It was overcast and cold, but it wasn’t snowing and it wasn’t raining, so I grabbed a leather biker jacket and a funny wool cap with a pompom on it, and went down to the boathouse. Mary and I paddled the green canoe down Eagle Lake to the big airplane hangar. Paddling is one of those activities that is simultaneously strenuous and relaxing. It gave me all sorts of happy flashbacks to my 21-day canoe trip through northern Quebec when I was fifteen. We fished, paddled, slept under the northern lights and listened to loons crying every morning. We traveled through a nearly uninhabited place called Chibougamau, and now every time I get in a canoe I am filled with such happiness I can’t stand it. I do fantasize regularly about getting my own canoe, but I’d have to have a quiet lake in the wilderness to go with it. Somehow I don’t think paddling around Lake Merritt would have the same effect.

Tonight I am giving my Presentation to the group. I feel a little bit nervous, but mostly ready. I had a nice little breakthrough re my novel this weekend, and I’ve got some fresh new pages that feel pretty good. Mostly, I’m looking forward to sharing a bit of myself with the people here. It’s been incredible to see what other people are working on here. One day, they’re just some nice person who passes you the salad dressing at dinner. After they do their presentation, they’re suddenly transformed into some awesome artist or writer. I’ve been duly humbled and inspired by everyone who has presented so far, and I’m looking forward to putting a little bit of myself out there.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


It's beautiful! It's wacky! It's surreal! Snow in October. We got 2-3 inches last night and it is still, wildly, coming down.

I might never get that canoe ride in....

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Settling In/Settling Down

Things have settled into a kind of rhythm here. No longer writing with the kind of intensity as the first week, but I'm not totally stuck either. It's taken a while to figure out what feels comfortable. A little bit of nonfiction, some reading. A little bit of fiction. I'm trying not to push too hard.

I'm staying up very late these days, and sleeping late. It's great to have the luxury of being the night owl I naturally am. Last night was the first clear night since arriving and we took a foray down to the dock to look at stars. I think it was about twenty degrees out and I lasted about five minutes. Beautiful, but boy that winter is coming in. My persimmon colored fleece gloves just arrived from LLBean, and just in time.

A few people went away for the weekend, or had visiting friends, and the dinner table felt "empty" with only a dozen people instead of twenty. It's a quiet weekend.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Rain Rain Blah Blah

Is it the incessant rain? (Which I still find pretty, but it makes the hiking trails very soggy) Is it the one-week blues? I don't know. I wrote for several hours today and then sat back and said, This sucks! It all sucks! So I'm in one of those blue moods. I was going to out for a canoe ride but then it started raining (AGAIN) so I went for a walk instead. I was not inspired during my walk.

One thing that has been inspiring is the evening presentations by fellow residents. These people are damn amazing. And I love Blue Mountain for bringing them altogether. First there was Paul Rucker, an amazing musician who blew us all away with his cello playing and also his exhaustive knowledge of heartbreaking Tuskegee Experiment. Then Robert Arnold, a really talented photographer and documentary filmmaker. Richard, who has spent his life working with community organizers who do "popular education" with Brazilian street children, Cambodian farmers, Ethiopian girls who are trying to resist female genital mutilation. Rachel: a mindblowing poet who lives in Israel. Norma, who translated for community groups visiting Nicaragua during the 1980s (she translated for my first healthworkers' delegation back in 1984, which feels like a lifetime ago), now working on a novel in prose poems, heartache, relationships, secrets, politics. It's all so powerful. I feel both inspired and humbled, and a little lost.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Leaving the Sanctuary

I am totally immersed in my work. It is not at all comfortable. This morning I wrote nine new pages. I don’t like this story and I wish I hadn’t lived it. But I did and at this point I feel that the only direction I can go is forward, to release myself at the end of it. I have to keep going.

It’s raining again. Today a group of people returned to the Adirondack Museum and I leaped at the opportunity to go. I needed to get out of my head, out of these words, this story for a little while.

The Museum is a scattering of buildings over a beautiful campus overlooking Blue Mountain Lake. There is an exhibit of Adirondack boys’ and girls’ camps, which I loved, an exhibit of gorgeous rustic furniture, much of it made from birchwood. A stunning display of boats – canoes and kayaks and little lake yachts. I dashed through the rain from building to building.

After walking around I felt overwhelmed and stunned in the gift shop. I haven’t had to buy anything in days. At first I felt like I had to buy gifts for everyone in my family, whether they needed anything or not (they really don’t). So I walked around with my arms full of stuff. Then I retraced my steps and put things back. Did I really need to buy another sweatshirt? I ended up with some postcards, a pen and a pencil (both of which I had forgotten to bring). I got a nice little Adirondack luggage tag for my suitcase. Now I’m huddled back in front of the fire feeling like I’ve just spent a week in the big city: shellshocked. I could live like a hermit for a long time.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Sun! The Sun!

...came out for about ten minutes today. Everyone went crazy with glee. One resident leaped into Eagle Lake, screamed and then scrambled back out. Katy and I went for a three hour hike during which we got happily lost. The ground was very squishy and our feet got incredibly soaked. She wore a BMC-supplied raincoat that made her look like the Gorton's fish stick man. We saw beautiful mushrooms and leaves everywhere. For a while it poured. I came home completely starving and exhausted. Had to take a hot bath and then passed out. No work today.

After dinner, a group of us played a hilarious game of Dictionary. Do you know the definition of keedog? It's a covering made of an old sack, used to protect the head and shoulders during rainy weather. We sure could have used one of those this afternoon.

It's now 9:00pm and perhaps I will try and do a bit of work.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Work Feels Good

It was pouring rain all day today, so I got a heck of a lot done. I read about half of a book about plot, then wrote seven brand-spanking new pages (yeah!), then ate lunch, then read most of a New Yorker, then read a three hundred page book manuscript about open adoption and made notes toward writing a forward for it. I’m pooped now, and ready for dinner. I definitely need to play games tonight (Scrabble? Dictionary? This is the kind of wild life we have here). I can’t work anymore.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Shuffling through the Leaves

It has actually been kind of a blessing to have “lost” my iPod (John found it, and my clogs too, and they will probably arrive early next week). For months now I have relied on music to keep me motivated to walk, to up my speed to running at times. I truly felt that I was incapable of exercising without it. But today I went for a good long walk in the silence, along Eagle Lake, with no sound but my feet in the leaves and the whispering, hushing trees and at the end, raindrops tapping on the hood of my jacket. It left a lot more space for thinking, and contrary to what I believed, it did not slow me down: I think I actually walked a lot faster than usual. I was totally sweaty when I got back to the main house.

Today there was a field trip to the Adirondack Museum, which is an incredibly cool place, but I didn’t go. It felt too soon to leave, since I just got here yesterday.

I spent the afternoon reading through five years of old journals, notebooks I hadn’t looked at in probably ten years. It was emotionally exhausting. I had to take a big long nap afterward. And I realized that James Frey is right: the biggest reason not to write this book is fear. It’s a lot of fear.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


I am finally here at Blue Mountain. I arrived by Amtrak train to the miniscule town of Fort Edward, New York, and one of the Blue Mountain staff, a great young woman named Jessie, came to pick me up and drive me to the Center.

The 90 minute drive was stunningly beautiful. I had not, as I had feared, missed the turning of the autumn leaves. Some trees that we passed were so breathtaking that they brought tears to my eyes. They made me think of Annie Dillard’s “tree of lights” that shone so perfectly gold and red that looking at it made her feel as if she were a bell being struck. The weather was overcast and gray, sprinkling a little bit, but absolutely perfect. It was the weather of a northeast autumn. The smell of wet brown leaves, a little dusky and sour, was the smell of my childhood. I wanted to hang my head out the car window like a dog and inhale it and just cry.

We came to Blue Mountain Center and as we drove slowly up the long driveway I could feel my heart jumping in my throat. It was the feeling of coming home to one of the most perfect places in the world, a place of happiness and quiet and good work. I had been afraid it would feel different; that it would not feel as good but being here in October feels possibly even more exquisite than being here in the summer. Jessie told me that it is not too cold or too late for canoeing and that a 12 mile paddle is planned for this week. I had tried to prepare myself for the possibility that I would not be able to canoe so late in the year. I love canoeing. I remember when I came home from Blue Mountain two years ago, I wanted to buy a canoe.

I unpacked my things and realized a few more key items that I had forgotten. (printer paper! My comfortable clogs, and PENS. What a writer!) I went for a walk along the lakefront in my less-than-comfortable shoes, took some pictures of leaves and shuffled in thick piles of them as often as possible.

Dinner was great. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and nice and seemed genuinely happy that I’m here. “Now we’re complete,” someone said. We had delicious potato leek soup, salad that had been plucked from the garden this afternoon, good bread and something called zucchini-crust pizza that I think I remember from the first Moosewood cookbook. After dinner a few of us played a very intense and cutthroat game of Scrabble which I missed winning by two points, only because I had extra tiles left over.

Just as I was about to head up to my room, I spotted a few sheets of paper that someone had left on a table in the living room. It was left by one of the former residents who said it was an essay she’d found online by James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces. I sat down and read it and almost started crying. It really gripped my heart and gave me the courage to do here what I came here to do. It was the most perfect thing to read on the first night of this residency.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Transition is Hard

My daughter just asked me if I'm excited about going to Blue Mountain. It was a hard one to answer. It feel so surreal right now. I feel like I've been a bit in denial, getting ready for her birthday, wrapping things up at work, doing a million last minute errands (smacking forehead: I need to go back to Rite-Aid to get my prescription refills), that I haven't been able to think about it much. I wish I had two more days to get ready. Instead, I have to be at the airport at 6am tomorrow. My next post will be from Blue Mountain.

Watching the forecasts at Weather.com have made me nervous. It looks like ten straight days of rain coming up, and temperatures down into the forties. But maybe that's what I need: a little rain so that I will cozy up inside, so that I won't be distracted by canoeing on the lovely lake or taking long hikes. Maybe I will just turn inward, to the story and the words I've been away from for so long.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Baby's Growing Up

I can't believe it, but I am typing this while simultaneously hosting a sleepover birthday party for twenty-something fifteen year olds(I honestly don't even know how many of them are up there). The first two hours were deafeningly loud, with pizza and candy and cake and music and shrieking and laughter. I thought, how will we get through this? But they are now all quietly huddled together and watching Chocolat. It's very quiet. I wonder how many of the ten movies my daughter picked they'll watch. I wonder how many will fall asleep before midnight, and how many will sleep at all. (including me) I can't believe my girl is almost fifteen years old. Sometimes it feels like she's been here for a hundred years, and I'm two hundred myself. Other days I remember the moment she was born like it was this morning.

When she was two, we had a homemade play-dough and plastic wading pool party. (weird, same time of year, and it was about a hundred degrees outside) When she was four we had a teddy bear party at Piedmont Park. They played in the sandbox. There were bees but nobody got stung. We've had a Cinderella princess party at Fairyland, a tumbling party at Gymboree, a dress-up-like-puppies party, a miniature party, and several sleepovers out at the youth hostel in the Marin Headlands. Last year she just wanted a dinner with her friends at the Cheesecake Factory on top of Macy's. This year, it's facials and pedicures with her many girlfriends. A few weeks ago I was driving past Toys R Us and realized I hadn't been in there in years. My girls don't play with toys anymore. They're growing up. This is both wonderful and sad.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

To Nano or Not to Nano?

Long before the iPod Nano, there was NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month (always in November). I did my first (and best) NaNoWriMo in 2002. I speedwrote my way through 175 pages in 30 days. Sometimes typing furiously in coffee shops with other NanoWriters, and sometimes just eking it away at home. I got down the first draft of the novel I'm still wrestling with, trying to finish and polish now. It was a great discipline, watching my word count go up like a thermometer, competing invisibly with other people in my neighborhood, my city, my state. I remember the day I ranked #9 in the city of Oakland. Happy day.

I kind of assumed I'd never go in for such madness again. But this November I will be away at writing residency, four days from coming home. Maybe it would be a good place to start NaNoWriMo again, to jumpstart myself so that I keep my momentum up when I return to "normal" life.

I'm thinking about it. I haven't signed up yet. But oh what a heady rush that was. Those wordcounts! Those pages! And many of them not half bad.