Seven years ago, I picked up a rental car in downtown Seattle and drove five blocks toward Interstate 5, which would take me north to catch the Mukilteo ferry. I went up a steep hill and pushed hard on the brake at a red light, the car sloping at a precipitous 45 degrees. I was nervous, so I was being extra careful. You're nearly there, I told myself. Just hold on.
The journey to that rental car started on the other side of the country in a New York City subway full of commuters. The air conditioner was broken, and I was trapped between a briefcase and someone's sweaty armpit, listening to the conductor apologize for the delay. Outside the window was a dark tunnel and I thought: I have to get out of here.
At the time, things weren't going so great in my life. A love affair had ended badly. Several family members had been diagnosed with cancer. I had three jobs but struggled to make ends meet, crossing my fingers each month that the rent check wouldn't bounce. Nights and weekends I worked on a novel about a group of factory girls at the turn of the century that was as lost as I was. Deep down, I knew that the characters were flat, that the story had no spark. But for two years I had sweated over those sentences and even tried to publish them, revising and getting rejected over and over, tap-dancing for editors who shook their heads.
I'd done this before, at jobs and in relationships, believing that if I changed myself enough, I'd be accepted and recognized. Do you like me now? Do you like me now?
Clinging to the pole in that smelly subway car, stuck between stations, something broke in me, and I had a vision of exactly where I needed to go.
Ten years earlier, at age 26, I'd quit my job, sublet my apartment, and traveled to a place called Hedgebrook. Located on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle, Hedgebrook is a writing retreat for women. Its mission is to strengthen female voices from around the world, and its advisory board includes visionaries like Sarah Jones, Eve Ensler, Ruth Ozeki, Suheir Hammad, and Gloria Steinem. I could write a whole column about all the ways that Hedgebrook has changed my life, but I'll sum it up with this: Before Hedgebrook, I did not call myself a writer. After Hedgebrook, I did.
When I was finally sprung from that subway car, I went home and looked up pictures of Whidbey Island. The dramatic cliffs topped with pine trees. The bleached driftwood lining rocky, misty shores. The woods covered with bright green moss and layers upon layers of ferns. It was perched at the edge of the country, but it might as well have been the edge of the world. That night, I reached out to Hedgebrook, and the next morning they reached back. The staff was entirely different from when I was there ten years before, but they kindly helped me find a cabin to rent for the week, and even offered to let me stay for free in an empty cottage on the property, so I could tack on a few precious writing days. I put the trip on my credit card, flew across the country to Seattle, picked up my rental car, drove five blocks, and there I was, idling on the corner of First Avenue and Wall Street, waiting for the light to change.
The light turned green. I slowly eased off the brake and put my foot on the gas, sliding back for a moment on the hill before inching forward. And then, halfway through the intersection, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something blue hurtling toward me.