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Writing

After graduating as the top English graduate at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Tamara Lang went on to write for The Jeju Weekly in South Korea. Upon her return to the states in 2015, Tamara self-published Upstream: A Written and Photographic Journey up the Los Angeles River in collaboration with photographer Glenn Lewis. She now works on tour boats based out of Seward, Alaska, where she runs a blog series known as “Deckhand Diaries” while writing creative nonfiction between whale sightings.

Click on the title to learn more, and explore Tamara’s blog posts about writing below.

    Framing my Rejection Letters

    “You’re not a real writer until you have a drawer full of rejection slips.”

    My pen had stopped on the track of its lined paper. I remember wondering how to phrase the speaker’s sentence into my spiral-ring binder of college notes, their contents color-coded, painfully comprehensive, and now stacked in a storage tub in my family’s garage. In the midst of an education of constructive criticism and the nuances of Anglo-Saxon poetry, this guest speaker spoke not to the dreams of this classroom of young writers, but to our realities. Writing was a way of seeing, a way of thinking, honesty and hope and struggle coalescing to expose the thrumming depths of existence. It also rarely sold.

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    The Girl Beside the Hammock

    Once upon a time, I saw an image on a travel blog of the writer sitting in elephant pants in a hammock, at just enough of an angle to show that she was well-accustomed to sitting on hammocks, with an open macbook on her lap. The hammock sliced through the frame diagonally, faded red stripes against the hot jungle green, fabric and palm fronds forming an "X" in the center of which she sat in casual solidity, smiling as if just interupted from a sunny storm or words.

    Not this girl, and not this hammock, but let's pretend.

    Not this girl, and not this hammock, but let's pretend.

    When I think of writing abroad, this is the image that hovers in the back of my mind: the hammock and the writer, circling each other in still motion, their closeness enough to spark motion into the end of her fingertips, to propel her stories forward. All that is needed for success is a hammock and a view, and the time to write. X marks the spot. If I had this, I thought, the full stories would come. If.

     

    Yesterday morning I stepped out of bed bloated with the sensation of feeling lost. My Australian work visa had not come through, and I had no idea how I would last on my summer savings until the time came for me to return to Alaska to work in the spring. My plans of forming a life around learning from the reef I had dreamed of since childhood had dropped away one by one, first as the jobs I had anticipated dissolved, second as the visa that would have allowed me to pursue other jobs evaporated. The ocean home I had hoped for disapeared before I even had a chance to step inside. Every road in the world was ready to usher me away, and for the first time in my life, that openess did not fill me with excitement, but only with dread.
    There was nothing to do but to keep moving. In the full sun of Cairns noon I stepped into the welcome airconditioning of a free hostel shuttle that would take me to Port Douglas, Australia, a town centered between a rainforest that hearkens back to the ancient days of Gondwana and the Great Barrier Reef. This was the place I had hoped to make my home for the next several months, but without a job I wasn't so sure what to hope for. The drive was the most beautiful hour of the 2,000 kilometer drive Michelle and I had just finished while moving a free campervan between Brisbane and Cairns, with a blue sea that stretched flat between the jungled sand and the sunstruck horizon where the reef waited unseen.

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    Port Douglas itself appeared as a tree-lined street that cut across a point between a marina shadowed between rainforest hills and a 4-mile beach that I glimpsed shadowed through the far trees. Within ten minutes I had settled into my room, in 30 minutes we were chatting with the receptionist on our way out to the beach where locals compared crocodile sightings, and an hour from the time we stepped into Port Douglas we had an arrangement to work for accomodation at a lovely backpackers with a pool, spaciousness to fill with words, and two large hammocks.
    I have a hammock now. I have a keyboard for my kindle. I have all of the time that I choose not to fill. I have every component of the image of my mind of the girl with her lapop open to quite success. For the next several months, this is where I am. Here where five bats and three white-and-yellow cockatoos have flown above me in the space it has taken me to write these words, where lorikeets last night spun in a cloud between the sunset and the Veranda bar, where the crocodiles I consider it my duty to come to love lurk unseen in shaded streams. Where the reef that I cannot begin to imagine shifts in color below the horizon.

    Last night's sunset, minus the sound of the lorikeets

    Last night's sunset, minus the sound of the lorikeets

    But does this mean I can write?
    I am not sitting in the hammock. I sit across from it, in a wicker seat, on a second-floor balcony with a tree rising behind me like a throne and a cup of coffee on the table. I look at the hammock, with red and white stripes fading in the sun that slices across the fabric, and it is not only the sun that keeps me sitting upright. I cannot write in the hammock; not yet. I am not the writer in isolation, self-contained, with words that flow from themselves and the jungle as a mere tapestry to my back. I cannot write from the hammock while I am still living the story it will someday tell. There are lorikeets above, and their slicing speed screams the quiet loss inside myself I still seek to understand. The reef still shifts through its kaleidescopic identities, and I have yet to dwell in their midst. I have not yet moved past fear to love a crocodile for its own self. I still don't like vegemite yet. I haven't lived this world enough to understand how it weaves together in the same ocean and the same air as the glaciers I loved in Alaska. I am motion now, and not static, writing a thousand sparks of sunlight on the waves until the day my words come to understand the slower story of currents below.

     

    Someday, perhaps, I will sit in the hammock. Someday I will rise knowing and elegant and craft currents with my words. Someday I will pause life to understand it.

    But there better not be mountains outside.

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    A Note as Aialik Glacier Crumbles

    When glaciers calve they calve in moments, contained within the thunder of falling ice. Here is one such falling moment from Aialik Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park, scribbled on a notepad amid a sea of ice, beside the first calving to truly take my breath away.

    Stay and go and hold and crumble — this is the closest I come to praying. I crave the loss of what I love, stare into the depth of blue in untouched mist, the sheen of light-glazed ice, and I clench with the hope of destruction that runs deep as a pressed crevasse. And the hope and pain and savage joy I feel when the ice finally lifts in reverse into the sea, a falling noiseless as flight — that feeling crunches like the weight of many snows, tears into rags like seraks, mirrors within my mind the tangled exultation of fallen beauty.

    https://www.facebook.com/tamaraannlang/videos/1765725293666307/

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    Alaska Is Bigger Than Words

    Two weeks ago, I saw the most gorgeous square I had seen in all my travels combined. That square was an airplane window, with an unwatched movie to the side and a baby crying behind, framing an ice field that hung still and silent behind the rounded glass. Ice ran like water, stony and still. Mountains cupped motion. In the twist of frozen movement the ice splintered into blue, pooling into the darker blue of a glacial lake, so true that I could name each thing nothing but itself. Mountain. Snow. Ice. My words fell short of pure reality.

    Flying into Anchorage

    The view from the window. Insanity.

    I stared into the window, completely undone by the fact that the most beautiful thing I had seen on my life had come, not on a hike or a backcountry road, but on a standard flight into Anchorage, with a Twix wrapper on my lap and a neighbor napping beside. Such, I was to learn, is Alaska.

    I have lived in Seward, Alaska, where I will spend the summer working on a whale watch boat, for nearly two weeks now, and every series of steps sets a new record of beauty. I came to Seward to capture beauty in words, but the mountains pierce so high that I fall silent beneath their shadow. How can my words possibly touch the perfect sheen of slopes shouldering off winter snow, or the layered shades of islands above water splintered by the otters at my feet?

    The answer is that they cannot. Instead I will treat each moment like an island, and use these words as the boat.

    One such moment: On the bow of the Glacier Express, arms wrapped into the wind chill, the blow of a bull orca hanging high above glassy water. He slides down into water like a window, and I lose all thought as I stare into the perfect solidity of the white oval on his face, the tall angle of his black fin, his body narrowing towards the perfect shape of his fluke as it disappears under the boat. I am dissuaded from the axis of my world. Sight turns upside down, swiping through the deck of the bow until the orca appears to port, his breath a bridge to a world cold with mystery. And I cannot stop smiling, because this is a world that I share.

    And then my mind moves up the slopes of the mountain that is always to my back, Mount Marathon, where I hiked last week with my coworkers Sarah, Megan, and Brandon on an afternoon of rare sun. Brandon knew both the trail and Alaska, so Megan and Sarah and I followed as he walked with (very) quick steps toward the trailhead. At the bottom of the trail I stopped to look up, vastly intimidated. The trail gutted the hillside, steep and pebbled, shale crunching beneath Brandon’s boots as he sprinted up the path.

    Seward Harbor, clear and sunny

    Mount Marathon from below (i.e. where I now work)

    Keep up, I thought sternly to myself. Be strong and be capable. I flung myself into motion behind Sarah and Megan, forcing each step into speed. Breath tore as my boots plunged. I am not ready for this, I thought. I should retire to the city and satisfy my mind with squares of trimmed geraniums. I should stay in the low places where my muscles belong. I cannot match his pace.

    And then, as my steps continued to fall short and my head warped and my breath caught on the edges of my lingering cold, a thought spun me to my senses. I could never catch up to Brandon’s pace. I had no choice to walk within my own feet.

    Pressed by that thought, the print of my boots became my own space. The air in my lungs fed my own muscles. I was myself, extending outside the name “capable” just as the mountains rose above the words with which I shaped them. The mountain and I were real and true and intimate, alone among company, sharing each other through each step. Now I looked around me and I saw, saw the ribbon of trail, saw the blue sky, saw the mountains that glowed through the trees with such intensity that they hurt my eyes.

    This place is real, I thought, and it is beautiful.

    On Mount Marathon with Sarah

    With my roommate, Sarah! Photo by Megan Shapiro

    What came next was pure joy. Crossing old avalanches. Following Brandon’s pointing finger to a ptarmigan far up on the mountain. Lifting our hands up into the first line of golden sunlight. The point above a white bowl filled with sunlight, where we stood in the snow and looked over the smallness of Seward laid out like a toy. Forest. Lake. Ocean. Mountains. Icy peaks. Their truth eclipsed their names.

    On Mount Marathon with Brandon

    Enjoying the view with Brandon. Photo by Megan Shapiro.

    On the walk down, a moose blocked our path and we walked carefully behind the trees as Brandon talked it away, speaking moose. At the bottom of the hill we walked past sea otters and over streams that would soon hold salmon, our path swept above by the wings of bald eagles.

    Alaska remains the most beautiful place I have seen. I don't understand it at all. And these months remain for us to name each other true.

    Resurrect Art Coffee House with Sarah

    Which I am currently doing at this awesome coffee shop. Photo by Megan Shapiro

    Have your own stories of Alaska outpacing language? Comment below!

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    Christine's Coffee with a Writer, Featuring Upstream

    Last week I had a chance to meet with one of the most inspirational people I know: Christine Marie Bryant, founder of Coffee House Writers' Group and an incredibly astute critic of writing, with whom I shared a cup of coffee and a great conversation about the story behind Upstream. Of course, few conversations with Christine are less than inspirational — if you don't believe me, check out her Facebook page!

    Christine's Coffee with a Writer - Featuring Tamara LangChristine's Coffee with a Writer - Featuring Tamara Lang

    Posted by Christine Marie Bryant on Friday, May 6, 2016

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    Chapters of the LA River Trek

    In just a matter of days, Glenn and I will stand atop our bikes beside the calm stretch of water where the Los Angeles River meets the ocean, about to start the LA River Trek. On our left, the black hull of the Queen Mary will censor the sky. Lorikeets from the Aquarium of the Pacific will puncture the air with their bright calls. Crackling loudspeakers of Harbor Breeze Cruises will remember yesterday’s whales. We will look out past this shining world from beneath our helmets, bags on our back, faces pointing inland. Ahead of us will stretch 52 miles of the Los Angeles River, and the tributaries beyond. And we will start to ride.

    LA River Bike Trail Sign

    Why are we spending a full week to bike and hike up the Los Angeles Watershed?

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    Vienna, Budapest, and the Dancer in Yellow

    On Thursday, I was destroyed by a ballet.

    Michelle and I stood in the dresses we'd dug out of our backpacks, watching the well-dressed patrons of the Vienna State Opera house from the balcony vantage point allowed by our 3-Euro standing tickets. We had already taken pictures, wandered through the chandelier-lit drawing rooms, and mentioned several times how posh we felt. Now we stood as the lights dimmed and the orchestra gathered below. There were to be three performances, choreographed to the music of three different composers. The first story to be told by music: That of Bluebeard and his wife.

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    (My hazy idea of the story of Bluebeard, as told to Michelle earlier that day over strudel in a Googled Viennese coffee house: Bluebeard was a man-possibly a pirate, more likely with a blue beard- who told his new wife she could go anywhere in his mansion except for one room, which she naturally entered. There, she found the corpses of all his previous wives who has made the same mistake. Michelle had frowned. "I would definitely have gone in that room." I had agreed.)

    Now the curtain lifted to show a stage dominated by angled wall panels and looming doors, framing a table where Bluebeard sat in dark blue across from his wife, dressed in yellow. He danced to himself, a strange dance full of angles, and she danced out her own unwatched eccentricities before they came together in a choreographed coupling as charged with sex as it was lacking in connection.

    He danced his way through many different women, each duet painfully earnest and empty, until finally meeting the woman who had hovered in the corners of the stage, odd and birdlike and dressed all in black. She danced, oddly, and he joined in with a first show of genuine feeling.

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    Throughout this the wife in yellow waited on the side of the stage, entering each dance with Bluebeard as though the word "trying" existed in subtitles in the blank space above her head.

    But then she walked through the forbidden door, and my heart broke a little.

    What she found inside was not the bodies of Bluebeard's former loves, but their repetition, their formula, the stark knowledge that all that she was externally was the same set of movements and motions as every other dancing body. Passion was a process with well-rehearsed steps, the love into which she has tried to dance herself was the same that had always been danced before. Choreography in unison, cruel and faceless, and though she tried to dance herself into some unique mix of arms-back-legs-feet her attempts were beat down by the terrifying unison of what was meant to be unique.

    And dancing through it all, the odd birdlike motions of the woman they all worshipped, who I saw now was not a woman but a concept as close to the dancers' hearts as to my own: the lie of individuality, framed in walls and doorways to deliver the harsh truth that they were not special.

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    I've heard that human minds are designed to find faces in random patterns. I suspect that tbe face we find most often is our own.

    Traveling is hard sometimes. There are moments of startling uniqueness - the architecture of Poland,  the Easter traditions of Slovakia, any mountaintop - but it's easy to get absorbed by the sameness. Our species favors formulas, it would seem. And then we get stuck on the backpacker track, lured by cheap hostels and beautiful cities, and settle into the sameness of hostel conversations and coffee-breakfast-lunch. Our conversations fall into a well-worn track: where are you from, where have you been, where will you go, what did you study, and so on, until days can go by before an original sentence occurs. And I begin to wonder if original can even exist, or if it has ever existed.

    Perhaps the problem lies with the single unifying factor in every conversation: myself. I know that the other sides of these conversations are full of their own special beauty, but the tragedy lies in my ignorance of how to access that hidden beauty. And that is the loneliest place to be: surrounded by the thing for which you starve.

    Saturday night was Halloween. I painted my face like a sea turtle and sewed a cape-like shell from a Slovak thrift-store shirt ("Not-a-Mutant Normal Turtle," was the tag line), and Michelle wore a pink dress and braided her hair like Rapunzel, and we went off on our first pub crawl of the trip. There was beer, Budapest bars, and a final club with an indoor tree, but when I woke up this morning the memory of the night felt so empty. We were dancing in unison, playing at being unique, doing the things one does at clubs. But all I could do was miss how it was when going out was a way to celebrate the people that I loved, to have joy instead of fun, to dance poorly instead of layering choreographed sentences. And it scares me that this might just be life.

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    The woman in the yellow dress fought. She was different, her body read: she was original, strange, desperately bizarre. She was alone. She was herself.

    And then, for just one moment, she was not alone. And she was still herself.

    The curtain closed, and we clapped our way back into our own separate lives. But I caught at an idea, which just formed itself into a thought as I walked through the streets of Budapest yesterday afternoon while Michelle slept off her hangover: Art is our weapon. Art can cut through the formulas to the mind underneath, to free the dancer in yellow. I have to believe that she exists, somewhere, beneath all of our cultured conversations and Saturday nights. She exists, and she dances.

    And I am so excited to someday see her dancing in people again.

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    The Haenyeo Dictionary

    Muljil means “water-work.”

    On Jeju Island, South Korea, this word refers to the work of the haenyeo, the elderly diving women who live as the real-life mermaids of Jeju's volcanic coast.

    Or so muljil means on Jeju, at least. Dropping the phrase 물질 (muljil) into google translate, I get the word “substance.”

    The same phrase in google images brings up a picture of an atom in motion.

    But when I add the word “Jeju” to both of those search bars, my screen shifts into a patchwork of blank blue underwater space.

    Like so. Note the pictures with mermaids...I'd guess the local aquarium has the word "muljil" in the name of their haenyeo presentation

    Note the pictures with mermaids...I'd guess the local aquarium has the word "muljil" in the name of their haenyeo presentation

    Muljil is work, motion, and substance. It is the substance of a sea conch carried up in pace with rising bubbles. It is the motion of energy in waves, seen as a ceiling of shifting light. It is the work of hauling a heavy taewak up from the ocean that, on most days, is less a vision of beauty than it is a cold assumption of life.

    Muljil contains the life of Jeju’s haenyeo.

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    Manifesto

    It seems ironic to begin a travel blog from home, but I can’t think of a better spot to center future explorations than the place that taught me to explore.

    I write this sitting a few dozen feet from the high-tide line of the Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, California. The wind is insistent for this early in the afternoon, and swimmers’ wakes overlap inside the buoy line as the current condenses their strokes. In the last few minutes I have counted three California least terns, an endangered species that nests in the nearby wetlands, the sharpness of their flight splintering into a long drop into water so shallow I can see the sand beneath.

    This is the same beach where I learned that sea slugs pee hot pink, and where I first swam the marathon 25 feet to the buoy using nothing but the power of my own arms.

    That same buoy floats in front of me now, and from it runs a yellow rope. If you follow that line around the curve of the bay called it leads to the base of a peninsula. Swim along the inside of that peninsula, and you will come to a channel. Weave your way out through the sailboats and powerboats leaving the channel, and you will leave the civilized harbor behind.

    Before you will be the ocean. Beneath the whitecaps another world pulses, canyons twist into darkness, sea turtles trace the contours of ocean basins. A whale’s song from a hundred miles away winds through the ocean in your body and continues to find an answering call another hundred miles down the coast. Plankton divide, blossom, leave their own light to sink into darkness. Gulls knead shape into the air as pelicans waver along the fringes of the sky. In the midst of this rolling life your own hands scoop microcosms of color, your feet treading the cusp of another world.

    In this water I have seen the green-white bodies of 100-foot blue whales darken with depth. I have discovered sea turtles a full mile up an urban river. I have spent five summers on the beach as an ocean lifeguard, and I have learned to write by giving voice to the letters of foam on the backs of breaking waves.

    My home has taught me that beauty is a discovery, an imperative. I cannot leave that knowledge behind.

    Place is more than just an accumulation of sand, water molecules, uplifted seafloor or gum-spotted sidewalks. Place shows us what it means to be a human being, with a body made of water molecules and melanin, and feet that measure distance by the scorch of a summer sidewalk.  Place introduces us to ourselves, to the beauty that thrills differently behind each set of eyes.

    This power of place drives me to travel. I want to discover beauty in new places, in the shadows of mountains, in the touch of kelp and the whir of a coral reef. I don’t want to leave life unseen. I want to give voice to all of the life and color that defines our world.

    Traveling, ultimately, is not about the eye behind the camera. Traveling is about the place itself, about the respect and the joy that our world demands. This joy should be reciprocal—when I leave a place I want it to have been honored by my presence, and I expect to have been made stronger by its beauty.

    To travel is to expand our idea of home. To be fully present at home is to expand our idea of travel. Adventure lies everywhere, shadowed beyond the next mountain range and wrapped in the chrysalis in my front yard.

    So let's go discover the world.

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