Seattle, Day 2: Open Books, Pike Place Market, Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, and The Bureau of Fearless Ideas

(August 10, 2021)

My second day in Seattle, I focused on my business mission for the trip: exploring the bookish side of the city for inspiration on what I could accomplish with Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit I had acquired in the spring.

The press was founded in the late ’90’s by my undergraduate mentors, Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, who later became colleagues and friends. When I was a student intern there in 2006, we were university-affiliated, and we published only poetry–primarily by writers in the Southeast–though Mike and Robin had recently begun working with the Vermont-based writer and artist, Roger Weingarten, on the publication of his collection, Premature Elegy by Firelight. Little did I know then that my connections with Robin, Mike, and Roger would in many ways steer the direction of my life.

Fast-forward 14 years to 2020: I’d been an assistant editor with Longleaf for a decade and was appointed executive editor when Mike and Robin took early retirement at the start of the pandemic. I was floored, but the catch was that a few months later, I would also find out I was about to lose my full-time faculty teaching position of 11 years because the university was putting its writing program “on hiatus” and laying off all of the untenured professors therein. Since the press was university-affiliated, its future was uncertain, but the one thing I did know was that no one else had the history with Longleaf that I did or cared as much about it. So I asked to take it with me. To my surprise, my wish was granted, and thus began the hard work of re-establishing Longleaf as an independent nonprofit–something that never would have been possible without the continued dedication and support of Robin, Mike, and Roger, who banded together with me to form a board of directors.

I did what I often do when I need to regroup: got a rail pass and went wandering around the country by train. Since my job was no longer tying me to Fayetteville, North Carolina, I wanted to explore places I could potentially relocate and visit literary spaces to help me envision the future I wanted for both myself and Longleaf Press. I also seized on the opportunity to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, so when I decided Seattle would be one of my stops, I got in touch with Keun-Hae Lee, a friend I’d met in the creative writing MFA program at North Carolina State University. Though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, she graciously offered to give me a tour, starting with Open Books, a sacred little space on North 45th Street devoted entirely to poetry. We wait outside for a few minutes because they’re encouraging social distancing by limiting the number of patrons permitted in at once.

In the window, I notice a broadside with the Louise Erdrich poem, “Life will break you”:

When I step inside, I imagine one day having a community-oriented space where we could sell Longleaf Press books (over 30 to date already), host readings, and offer workshops. I’d never been in a store devoted entirely to poetry before; the closest approximation I could think of was the upstairs poetry room in San Francisco’s City Lights.

Browsing through a bin of broadsides, I also felt my desire reignited to one day have a letterpress to play on, fashioning poems into gorgeous art pieces for display. I’ve visited a couple of letterpresses–one at Red Dragonfly and the other at Horse & Buggy–and found them utterly enchanting. The letterpress appeals to that part of my brain that loves visual projects involving minute details–the same part that loves knitting gloves with hand-dyed, merino wool and weaving with itty bitty, Japanese Delica beads–impractical, expensive hobbies for a recently unemployed woman who grew up on government cheese, but something about focusing on such intricacy of detail makes me feel at peace.

Letterpress photo taken at Red Dragonfly Press in 2012

I lost my sense of time poring through the shelves and have no idea how long we were inside. I resisted the urge to mail home yet another box of books (as I’d done after visiting Birch Bark in Minneapolis, which–coincidentally–is owned by Louise Erdrich, whose poem was displayed in the window); instead, I settled on two: Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins and Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive, a memoir written by a poet I had the incredible fortune to receive some feedback from the year before she was appointed poet laureate. She was incredibly kind to me–not to mention incredibly helpful with my poems–so I follow her work closely.

As Keun-Hae and I were checking out, I squealed a little when I caught sight of Raising Lilly Ledbetter on the anthologies shelf. “I’m in there!” I told her, delighted to find one of my own poems in such good company with all the others in this magical shop. It gave me a sense of belonging and strengthened my feeling of reconnection to my writing life–something I’d put on the back burner, in one part due to the demands of teaching four composition courses a semester and in another part due to some mental health challenges that had arisen during a difficult divorce several years before. Though Keun-Hae and I hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, she had been kind to me through the worst of it and had written periodically to check in. I was grateful for that, and grateful also when she plucked the anthology off the shelf and added it to the stack of books she’d already intended to purchase.

Then hungry, we headed to Pike Place Market, where we wandered through bustling aisles lined with stalls selling everything from earrings to fish. I wisely followed Keun-Hae’s lead and ordered a pork bun from one of the vendors, and we sat outside by the water, catching up and enjoying the sunshine. When it came time for her to pick up her daughter, we hugged, and I stayed behind to sample the elote I’d spied at one of the outdoor food carts.

Pike Place Market

With a full belly and a happy heart, I sat by the water to tackle the travel pickle I was in; from Seattle, I’d intended to take the Coast Starlight south to San Francisco, but shortly before I set out on my rail pass adventure, the Lava Fire in Northern California had burned a prominent railway bridge. So there was no way I could get to San Francisco by train.

I’d wanted to drive the northern part of the Pacific Coast Highway ever since I’d done the southern portion from San Diego to San Francisco in 2007, so I decided to rent a car. The problem was that there was a rental car shortage, and before I left home, the car rentals out of Portland had been hundreds of dollars less expensive than the rentals out of Seattle. So I went ahead and reserved one, figuring I could just catch a bus from Seattle to Portland to pick it up; however, sitting by Elliot Bay, nibbling on my elote and looking at bus schedules, I realized that getting to Portland before the rental car company closed at 5 PM would mean waking up around 4 AM and taking this bus to that bus to the other–not ideal for a lifelong insomniac with a history of sleeping through alarms. Luckily, when I checked Budget’s website one last time for rentals in Seattle, I found one that was only $30 more than the one I already had reserved in Portland. Problem solved.

Then I decided to walk to the Chihuly garden because I’d been mesmerized back in 2017 by a Chihuly exhibit in the gardens at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The Chihuly garden in Seattle was much smaller, but it had great views of the Space Needle. The indoor portion of the museum was the real gem in my opinion.

A few photos from the Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum

Outside, I watched a glass blowing demonstration and was pleased to learn that the pieces made during the demos were sold in the gift shop at the Space Needle, and the proceeds were used to help fund the arts in Seattle. It got me thinking about things Longleaf could do to raise money as we waited for approval of our nonprofit status from the IRS (a process that usually takes around six months).

Later, on the bus back to my host’s house, I caught a glimpse out the window of a place called The Bureau of Fearless Ideas. Curious, I googled it and found out it’s a community writing and storytelling center geared toward authors aged 6-18. Like many of the places I wanted to visit on this trip (The Loft in Minneapolis, The Hugo House in Seattle, etc.), they had suspended in-person programs during the pandemic, so I couldn’t visit; nonetheless, I was intrigued by their mission and decided to add it to the list of models Longleaf Press might look to for ways to integrate into a new community.

That was the moment that sparked my desire to start a writing mentorship program for under-served youth: a goal I continue to work toward by researching grants Longleaf Press can apply for when our nonprofit status is granted, by seeking donors who might be interested in supporting such a program (contact longleafpress@gmail.com for details), and by coming up with fundraising projects such as the collaboration between Longleaf Press and Coconut Cream Soap “to bathe you in books this holiday season.” (In other words, we collaborated on holiday spa sets containing Longleaf Press books alongside handmade, 100% vegan, coconut milk soaps, lotions, facial serums, and other personal care products–awesome gifts for the book lover in your life who likes to read in the bathtub. Please consider preordering yours today to support a small press, two women-owned businesses, and a writing mentorship program for under-resourced youth!)

Couchsurfing in Seattle

(August 9)

The westbound Empire Builder train into Seattle runs along Puget Sound.

Traveling overnight on the Empire Builder train from West Glacier to Seattle, I slept most of the way. Normally after sunset, I take my inflatable sleeping pad to the observation car and stretch out in the narrow space between the seats and the windows, but on this particular stretch, I was so exhausted from hiking the Highline the day before that I dozed off in my seat. I woke the next morning a little groggy and stiff, but right outside my window, the Puget Sound glittered off into the horizon. It was my first time back in Washington state since my 2017 writing residency at Willapa Bay AiR, and it felt good to be back on the West Coast, though I also felt a bit somber on account of it being the birthday of my older sister, Chelsea, who had died of cancer when I was 16, just before she would have turned 23.

Chelsea and I, probably 1984 or 1985

Seven years older, Chelsea looked out for me, especially during the volatile years prior to my parents’ divorce. My memories of early childhood are mostly violent and upsetting, but she did her best to shield me from what she could and to teach me how to fight. When I was five or six, she instructed my younger sister and me to stand on our parents’ waterbed and showed us how to protect our faces with our fists, bouncing from foot to foot so as not to become an easy target. Then she showed us how to jab, hook, and uppercut. These skills came in handy years later, when I was a freshman in high school, and a bully in her senior year decided she didn’t like me. For months, she called me names every time I passed her in the hallway, and then one day, she was waiting at the top of the stairs after lunch with several of her friends. I was by myself and certain I was about to be jumped, so I dropped my books and immediately punched her in the face. Her friends stood back and watched, and after that, no one messed with me. Earlier that year, Chelsea had been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma. The doctors couldn’t find the primary tumor and thus could not stop it from spreading.

We lived in rural, Southwest Ohio and never had cable, but when Chelsea’s health had declined to the point that she spent most of her time on the couch, we got a satellite dish so she could watch boxing matches. Her favorite was Lennox Lewis, and she would yell at the TV whenever he was fighting.

Like most of the adults in the area at that time, my mom had a factory job at Airborne Express, and one of her co-workers knew Aaron Pryor, who had recently been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. When Chelsea was dying, he came to our house, and we all talked at length about what it means to be a fighter. He signed a glove for her, and we buried her with it. Until a few years ago, I had completely forgotten that when she died, I wrote to him, but my memory was jogged when I came across the response he had sent back to say how sorry he was.

Chelsea with two-time light welterweight world champion, Aaron Pryor. I think this was early 1998.

It’s a strange thing to go from being a middle child to the oldest. For one thing, I lost the person who had looked out for me when I needed it most, and beyond that, her death shifted some of the most fundamental aspects of my identity. All of the stakes felt higher because my older sister was no longer there to rely on if I faltered, and my sense of responsibility was profoundly amplified. I helped my mom choose a casket, a dress to bury her in, and flowers. Then four years later, I assumed custody of my youngest sister when it became clear I was the person in the family best equipped at that time to do so. In many ways, I feel I’m as functional as I am now only because Chelsea looked out for me in those early years, and that knowledge carries with it–not guilt, exactly–but an enduring sorrow.

On any long journey, there are times when weariness subsumes you, and Chelsea’s birthday was the first such day on my trip. I felt it from the moment I woke up on the train and knew I was in for a challenge. After the Empire Builder arrived on schedule that morning in downtown Seattle, I found an ATM, withdrew some cash, and bought a coffee to get change for bus fare. I’d lined up a Couchsurfing host in advance whose home was a 45-minute bus ride north, but because I accidentally navigated to the Northeast portion of her street instead of the Northwest, I had to catch another bus and reached her neighborhood an hour later than anticipated. Her house was a steep, downhill walk 20 minutes from the bus stop, and in addition to battling fatigue from poor sleep, I was wincing along on legs that still throbbed from the 17-mile hike I’d taken two days before. Every step with my 30-pound pack reiterated my soreness and exhaustion, and to top it off, my skin was coated with a sticky layer of dust and sweat that had accumulated over five days of camping.

“I apologize in advance for the way I smell,” I texted my host before my arrival.

She respond to say that I was in luck because her bathroom had “the greatest water pressure you’ve ever experienced unless you’ve been doused by a firehose.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. I messaged A first from the list of possible Couchsurfing hosts in Seattle because 1.) her accommodations included a detached, private room with a real bed, and 2.) other surfers had spoken so highly of her in their reviews. When I arrived, I knew I’d made a good call as I walked into a small, gated compound and was greeted by two adorable Yorkies. From the time I was little, I’ve felt a strong connection to animals, and being around pets tends to make me feel at peace. So when the two tiny furballs emerged from the main house, snorting softly with excitement and wagging their tails so fast their little butts wiggled, I forgot my weariness for a moment and felt a wave of joy.

A walked me to a toolshed off the garage that she’d converted into a Couchsurfers’ paradise. On one counter, there was a bowl full of snacks, a book of house rules, maps, brochures for local attractions, and lots of memorabilia from and about Couchsurfing, including a funny New Yorker article and a book by Gabriele Galimberti called My Couch is Your Couch. The opposite wall was lined with what looked to me like every tool imaginable–“In case you need to fix anything,” she said. Beyond that was a door that led to another narrow room with a twin bed positioned between rows of shelves lined with hat boxes.

I plopped my pack on the floor, and A told me to get settled and come find her in the house when I was ready. “So I can show you your bathroom,” she said, handing me a set of keys.

After she left, I skimmed through the house rules, which among other things, instructed me to tell the neighbors, if they asked, that I was a friend visiting from out of town. I’ve gotten similar instructions from a few other hosts over the years. A lot of people just can’t comprehend the ethos of Couchsurfing, to the extent that one time, a woman told me that what I was doing was “incredibly stupid.” Another host’s father referred to his Couchsurfing guests as couch potatoes–a description that, although it made me laugh, I don’t find to be at all accurate. A, for instance, was a successful entrepreneur who had opened a men’s clothing store in Seattle in the 1960’s and then branched out into several other successful endeavors that had left her quite comfortable. Other Couchsurfers I’ve crossed paths with over the years include an inventor who made a small fortune improving some aspect or another of tractor design, a tech genius working who was working on driverless cars for Apple, and a business executive at Lionsgate.

After I familiarized myself with the rules, I mosied into the house with my shower bag. A was sitting behind a computer, crunching numbers, but she took a break to show me a luxurious little bathroom I’d have all to myself and the laundry room, which I’d read that I would be permitted to use once during my stay. (It was a good thing, too, because I was down to my very last clean pair of socks and underwear.) I gleaned from our short conversation that she would be busy with work most of the day and then out for the evening, and that meant I could shower at my leisure and then take a nap, which I desperately needed. Getting to know my hosts is normally one of my favorite parts of Couchsurfing, but in this case, I was grateful that A was busy. I scrubbed the grime from my skin, returned to the shed, and collapsed into a dreamless sleep for a couple of hours.

When I woke, it was late afternoon, and I walked a path I’d read about in A’s book down to Puget Sound. I texted a friend from grad school who had moved to Seattle a few years back and made plans to meet up with her the next day. Then around dinner time, I walked to a nearby shopping complex for ramen. The restaurant had spaced the tables out to follow social distancing protocols, and as I would notice in most places along the West Coast, people were following the mask mandates a lot more strictly than they had been back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Patrons removed their masks only to eat and then put them back on if they got up to use the restroom or leave the building. Having been vaccinated back in March, I felt relatively confident that if I did get a breakthrough case, it probably wouldn’t be catastrophic, but since I also knew I would be crossing paths with plenty of unvaccinated people on my journey, I was glad to see reasonable precautions being taken.

That night before bed, I put a load of laundry in the washer, and A showed me where to find the coffee, granola, yogurt, and berries in her kitchen for breakfast in the morning. I fell asleep in gratitude for the safe haven I’d found at A’s and got the best night of rest I’d had in recent memory.