The Power of Isolation

In my youth, chilling temperatures and changing leaves brought about a rise in anxiety, as autumn’s approach meant a return to school, and I was never a fan. For the past six years, however, autumn has meant a warm remembrance of my time on Orcas Island, providing an opportune time to tumble down a rabbit hole of memories.

The other day, I revisited writings from my three-month stint on Orcas, reliving my adaptation to island life, the pain of editing, and the need to find free activities, as well as two significant turning points: when I began to lose my mind and when I fell in love with a dead man (I have a hunch those two are related).

The time I spent on Orcas was the most creatively productive of my life. This may be because I didn’t see boredom as an option. I imagine this is true for many writers. How can one be bored when there are stories to tell, worlds to create, and characters to bring to life? Any moment spent languishing in a state of ennui is a wasted opportunity. And on Orcas, such a thing was simply not possible. The natural environs, teeming with life and beauty, would not allow it.

Come winter, though, it was time to return to the mainland and commune with other humans. My mind is far too full of fantasy to stay in isolation for long. If I had remained on Orcas past the three-month mark, my grip on reality may have floated away entirely.

This could have been my new best friend. She does seem awfully sweet.

Six Years of Separation

At this time six years ago, Libby the Dog, Sid the Cat, and I were halfway through our three-month stint on Orcas Island, and I was 100 pages into Aret. By the time we left Orcas, I’d written a raw first draft, though it was more of a blurry blueprint than a book. Four years later, I published a better version. The other night, I completed a MUCH better version. Now, it’s in the hands of a group of editors, and I get to step away from revision-mode, which is a huge relief.

My youngest nephew is three. When he attempts a task without immediate success, he pitifully cries, “I can’t!” But because he’s a resilient little guy, he keeps trying, and when he succeeds (usually within about five seconds), he joyfully exclaims, “I did it!” That 180-degree emotional shift is something I experienced about ten thousand times during Aret’s grueling rewrite. I’d hit a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that stopped me dead, decide I was the worst writer in history and a complete idiot to think I could write a whole goddamn book, and seriously consider smashing my computer. Then I’d keep trying, fix the problem, and think, I did it! I do know how to write! Yay!

When I finished Aret’s first draft, if someone had mentioned how long it would take to complete the final edit, I might’ve thrown the manuscript in the trash. Six years is quite a stretch of time, and a lot has changed since 2012. Loved ones have been gained and lost. Much of my hair has turned white. My husband and I have begun the debate I remember my parents having throughout my childhood: You’re Going Deaf vs. You’ve Started Mumbling. A wrist brace has been added to my already super-sexy nighttime routine (mouthguard + earplugs + wrist brace = HOT). And I’ve gone from watching bald eagles outside my cottage on Orcas to having a Harris’ hawk perch on my hand.


Several weeks back, when I mentioned to my sister that I was editing Aret, she replied with this text: What. Are. You. Talking. About. Why oh why would you do that to yourself???  She had a good point. But now that the travail is over, I feel like my nephew with his beatific smile, glorying in an accomplishment that once seemed impossible. I suppose that’s another thing that’s changed since 2012: I have a new role model who’s three years old.


[P.S. ~ If your takeaway from this post was: Hey, I want a hawk on my hand, too!  and you happen to be in Western North Carolina, you can experience an afternoon of falconry here: It is truly amazing.]

The Forest Dragon

[Disclaimer: In general, I am not a woo-woo person. However, this is a woo-woo (yet true!) story. If that sort of thing makes you gag, you may want to leave now.]

The first time I saw the forest dragon was on 11/11 in 2012, when I took a visiting friend on my favorite hike in Moran State Park. It was a chilly day, and by the time we reached the summit of Mt. Pickett, it had started to snow.

407661_298845693559735_1354252694_nLibby’s snowy head

Snow falling onto a carpet of green moss is quite lovely, but as we descended the trail towards the Twin Lakes, the snow turned to sleet, then rain. My friend and I hurried along the path, our wool hats and sweaters growing heavy in the downpour. At one point, I noticed an upturned root system that resembled a giant dragon head. I wanted to stop and take its picture, but given the weather, I chose to continue down the trail, knowing I could come back another day when conditions were more favorable (and less likely to ruin my camera).

On November 15th, I returned to Moran in search of the dragon. Soon after I left the summit of Mt. Pickett, I saw a root system that was vaguely dragony. I stopped and stared at it for a long time. Although it wasn’t anywhere near as cool as I’d remembered, I chalked up the discrepancy between my idea of the dragon and its reality to my deplorable visual memory. With a profound feeling of disappointment, I took a picture of the sort-of dragon, then continued down the trail.

About twenty minutes later, I came upon a section of forest that was so ethereal, it brought me to a dead stop. As I scanned the path before me, I noticed my shadow encircled in a rainbow of light.

546995_300074756770162_760503568_nI couldn’t quite capture the rainbow aura, but you get the idea.

I began to fan my arms through the air, which made the light glimmer all around my shadow’s circumference. That looked incredibly cool, so I continued doing it for…I don’t know…ten minutes? (This is what happens when someone like me lives alone for too long.) When I’d finally had enough, I glanced to my right, and there, shrouded in mist, was the forest dragon.


No shit. It was right next to me. If I hadn’t been halted on the trail by rainbow-encircled Shadow Me, I would’ve marched past it, especially since I wasn’t even looking for it anymore, as I’d convinced myself that I’d already found the dragon from the other day.

I was beside myself. I did a happy little dance on the trail (again – too much time alone), then climbed up to the dragon, gave it a hug, clamored around on spongy soil to view it from the other side, and saw this:


I took one shot and knew I didn’t need another. When I sent the photo to my husband later that day, he wrote back: “That should be the cover of Aret.”

Now, almost four years later, it is.


I think about that dragon a lot. I wonder what it looks like now. I hope it’s still there, looming on the side of the trail, perfectly intact, waiting for me to come back and visit.


Special Treat Day


When I went to live on Orcas Island in the fall of 2012, I knew it was time to make some changes. In a recent moment of self-reflection, I’d come to understand that I’d placed myself on a psychological hamster wheel several years before, and it was time to leap off. So the second the ferry docked on the island, I thought, Okay, I’m making two personal commitments. One: I will abandon worry. Two: I will practice self-care. Easy enough. Then I laughed in my head for a really long time.

As a professional, I had focused on self-care for years (to be clear: other people’s self-care. Not my own, silly). I was even invited by a variety of community agencies to conduct trainings on that topic, which I secretly found hilarious since I didn’t practice what I preached AT ALL. During the trainings, I’d hear the words coming out of my mouth and think, This woman makes sense. I should listen to her. But I didn’t.


As it turned out, Orcas was a magical wonderland, so the first step – abandoning worry – was easier than expected. Worry is both uncomfortable and counterproductive, so my rational self kicked it to the curb with relative ease, despite a lifetime of honing the art of fretful self-torture. Whenever I caught myself envisioning a series of potential worst case scenarios (I am extremely skilled at that), I engaged helpful mantras like, “That’s not gonna happen,” or, “Stop it, Kelly. That’s a bad Kelly.”

I was similarly structured about the self-care commitment, in that I scheduled it in on a weekly basis. Every Thursday was designated as Special Treat Day, and I allotted myself $20 to do with as I wished. For the remainder of the week, I spent money only on groceries and gasoline. My stomping grounds were the woods, the waterfront, my house, the local animal shelter where I volunteered, and the library.

527506_284064841704487_1019327406_nLibby & Shadow Me on the Eastsound waterfront

But on Special Treat Day, I explored non-free ventures. The San Juan Islands are touristy and expensive, so the $20 didn’t go too far, but I still had opportunities to eat food I hadn’t prepared myself and sip fancy coffee drinks, and it felt downright luxurious. Sometimes I didn’t even spend the $20. I’d just grab a cookie at Teezer’s and travel to parts of the island that were outside of my normal routine.

390112_298845763559728_98026084_nLike the lovely Olga Pier, for example

When I found out that walk-on passengers could ferry from island to island for free, I began to plan Special Treat Days off Orcas. The best one took place on Lopez Island, a sweet little place where everyone waves from their cars (you can find this information in every article ever written about Lopez Island). It was 4 miles from the ferry landing to town, so I had plenty of opportunities to exchange waves with passing motorists as I walked along the beautiful, bucolic terrain.

223208_284065208371117_1843583133_nPracticing the Lopez Wave upon arrival

When I finally got to town, I discovered that both of the places I’d planned to go (a cafe and a vineyard) were only open on weekends, but I didn’t care because it was Special Treat Day, and being disappointed on a day with that name is unacceptable. Instead of having sad feelings, I changed course and decided to take a different route back to the ferry. While I tried (and failed) to find a trail to the beach, I came upon a herd of adorable, horned fuzzballs.

149614_284065528371085_2089998726_nWho needs a beach when you’ve got wooly cows?

I also found a cool park and a really nice mushroom.


So it turned out to be a good day, anyhow, and since then I’ve dreamed of returning to Lopez Island, ideally for a few months, to wander around, wave at strangers, go to that vineyard, and write the third book of Aret.

546995_300074756770162_760503568_nShadow Me (bottom left) on a Special Treat Day in Moran State Park

If it’s at all possible, I highly recommend incorporating a regular self-treating experience into your life. If you can’t manage every week, try for once a month, or however often is feasible. Looking forward to something – even if it’s just a cookie – can have a marvelous effect on one’s mental health. (I now say that from experience, not just as a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do trainer.)

However, if you should happen to name your self-treating venture “Special Treat Day,” I do not recommend ever abbreviating it. I did that once in my journal, and…that didn’t happen again. The day really loses its magic when you see the words: I’m so excited for my STD.

Dragons & Shrooms


Over the years, many quotable people have made statements along these lines:  if you strive for something, it will remain hidden from you. When you’re ready, it will reveal itself. And while this lesson may prove true time and time again, it’s a hard one to learn.

Wrapped up in the “striving won’t serve you” idea is a healthy nod to the virtue of patience, and patience can be a doozy. A chronically restless friend once asked me, “What good is patience? If you have to be patient, it just means you’re waiting. Waiting sucks.” I told her, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Patience is its own reward,” to which she replied, “Ew. I hate that. Did you just make that up?”


When the story of Aret was being developed, lots of questions needed answering, from big ones like Who are the main characters? to little ones like How do you say blue in Aretian? During this time, I was living alone, and the only creatures I had to bounce ideas off of were Libby the Dog and Sid the Cat. Their reactions were predictable. Libby thought everything I said was amazing, and Sid thought I should be quiet and let him sleep.

After one particularly frustrating morning of pacing back and forth in my little cottage, striving for answers and finding nothing, I went outside to escape the computer and found this adorable little mushroom cluster on the front lawn.


I went back inside, grabbed my camera, and commenced a mushroom family photo shoot. (Mushrooms may not offer much in terms of an emotional range, but they are quite good at staying still.) At some point during the process, the answers I’d been searching for all morning popped into my head. Poof! And my brain, which loves to draw lines between obvious points of connection, told me this:  When searching for answers about dragons, look to the ‘shrooms.

So I did. I’m good at listening to my brain.


For the remainder of my time on Orcas, I spent each morning working on the book until a mountain of unanswered questions pushed me out the door and into the woods, where I searched for mushrooms, took pictures of them, and told them how lovely they were. (They really are.) By the time I returned home, I had answers to all of the morning’s questions, and I spent the rest of each evening writing. It was the perfect formula for ongoing creativity.

The meditative state resulting from my daily mushroom hunts opened the door to all kinds of answers, and not just about dragons. One night, I wrote in my journal:  Today, while I scanned the forest for mushrooms, I figured out some things for my book and also about my life. Mushrooms are magical like that. They offer a lot without asking for a thing in return.


As my three months of extreme solitude wound to an end, I started to panic a bit, although I knew it was time to reintegrate into society and speak with humans again. During my last week on Orcas, I wrote:  When you get teary at an 80s movie’s super cheeseball Christmas-themed ending, you have officially been alone for too long.

But I was worried. Without the cozy set-up I had on Orcas, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to find my answers anymore, as if my imagination would cease to function the moment I hit the mainland. The idea was horrifying, especially since I had two more books to write. And those are just the books about Aret.

But you know what?


As it turns out, mushrooms are pretty much everywhere. And it’s a good thing, too. My dragons and I have come to depend on them.

The Passage to Aret


Before moving to Orcas Island in the fall of 2012, I’d had two dreams about dragons. The first featured a woman storming across a bar to confront a man who’d been glaring at her. I remember him as foul and sinister, reminiscent of the Purple Pieman from Strawberry Shortcake, and when she looked down at him and growled, “What the hell is your problem?” he replied, “You, Dragon.” That was the whole dream, but it was enough to inspire a brief note in my journal – something like, “Had a dream re: dragons. Should write a book about it someday.”

In the second dream, I noticed a little hole in my arm, poked my fingers inside, and pulled out a long, thin, dormant dragon. After inspecting it for a moment, I realized I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just let it slide right back through the hole and into my arm. And that was that. There were no feelings of fear, pain, or disgust – only a sense of acceptance. “A sleeping dragon lives in my arm. Good to know.”

I lived on Orcas for 3 months. My intention for that time was to finish a novel I’d been working on for the past year, and, more generally, try to get my head on straight. As it turns out, I picked the perfect place for both. Before I moved there, a long-time resident told me, “Orcas will either work for you, or it won’t. You’ll know its answer right away.” She was right. The island welcomed me with open arms. On my first morning, a river otter ran across the front yard, and bald eagles swooped through the air in front of my little house. On my third night, as I sat journaling on the waterfront, I looked up and saw this.


Fiery meteors shot through the sky each night. The woods where I took my daily hikes were magnificent, carpeted with thick, green moss and exploding with foxgloves and incredible mushrooms. Even the tree stumps were friendly.


What I discovered as a newly-unemployed person living all alone was that there are lots of hours in a day. After three weeks, I’d reached the end of the novel I’d gone to Orcas to finish. I sent it to a group of people for feedback, then experienced about thirty minutes of satisfaction before I thought, Huh. Now what am I supposed to do?

One of the ways I’d used all those daily hours was reading the journals I’d kept over the past 15 years, and when I rediscovered my dragon dreams, I decided to revisit the bar scene. Who were those people? Why was that woman a dragon, and how did the Purple Pieman know? So I began to write the story of Aret, and the woman grew younger, feistier, and became Diana Scarlett, and the man softened, developed three dimensions, and became Sien Dolsmati.

In truth, Orcas Island handed me the story of Aret. Whenever I had a question about a character or plot point in a story that became more rich and complicated each day, I set myself on a hiking trail or planted myself by the water, and the answer appeared. I’ve always been imaginative, but when it came to Aret, it didn’t feel like I was using my imagination. It felt like I was figuring something out – something that was already there, floating around, waiting for someone to notice.

Soon, there were dragons all around me – in the forests, on the waterfront, and in the clouds. At first, I took a picture of each one.





But eventually I stopped. There were too many of them. Instead of getting out the camera each time one presented itself, I simply smiled and waved. Yes, hello. I see you. I’m writing your story.

By the time I left Orcas, Aret was written from beginning to end, but it was only a story, not a book. Now, three years later, after much revision, feedback, and more revision, Aret is a true book. And it’s my favorite kind of book, too – the kind that sweeps up its readers and lets them get lost for awhile.

Now all I have to do is publish it.

And write the next two books, because, as it turns out, Aret is a trilogy.

It’s a good thing days contain all those hours.