Friday, December 31, 2010


General Petraeus tried to Skype me. I’m not kidding. Perhaps he needed my advice on exit strategies. As I don’t trust myself with the nation’s peace plan, I blocked him from ever contacting me again.

I now get regular updates on what fast food establishment provides nutrition to my husband’s cousin in Arkansas. I fully expect reports on what she ordered and how much she left on her plate in the new Facebook rev, that should be happening in, say, the next two minutes.

Facebook commandeered information from my profile and now Bob Dylan is my pal.

My favorite TV programs ping me regularly with mundane chat about things like what Alicia is going to wear to court next week. (It got about 30,000 thumbs up. That many people care? I hope they aren’t on the General’s contact list.)

We were very patient during the elections with the dinnertime phone calls from Mike Huckabee and Ronald Reagan Jr. (Who calls my liberal friends, I wonder.) I was even a bit intrigued bya live town hall meeting that left a recording on my telephone answering machine. How else would this misplaced city girl ever hear about the irrigation woes of my central valley farmer neighbors? And how interesting that Meg and Carly knew so much about what the farmers were talking about.

The latest is that my son sent me a recording he made; I clicked on it and it played in iTunes and then iTunes invited me to ping – follow my son’s recordings, I assumed. But no; I clicked on ping and got invited to connect to the music loving universe. Scared that I might spend the rest of my days with soundtrack accompaniment not of my choosing, I shut down my computer.

I wonder, where will all this go in 2011? I love being connected. I hate being invaded. I think there is a good Pixar animation movie in here somewhere.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Resolution? Not!

My sister, who should learn how to leave a comment or get her own blog, sent me an email response to my posting on resolutions that is too good not to share:
New Year Resolutions? Made to be broken.

List of Goals? Perhaps; most of us are fairly goal oriented and probably have a few to do lists hanging around anyway.
List of last year’s accomplishments? Oh my, no, that sounds prideful.
As Christians, we are quite adept at listing our shortcomings and failings. But how often do we list our accomplishments? and even, heaven forbid, share them with others? And yet, James reminds us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights… .” Accomplishments in my life are certainly good and perfect gifts. And, lest you think I have taken this phrase out of context, the chapter begins with a discussion on the result of perseverance: “…let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” That sounds like a pretty good definition of “accomplishment” to me.

So this New Year’s Day I’m going to make a list of my accomplishments from 2010. I might even share my list with someone. And just so I don’t stray too far out of bounds, perhaps I will make a list of what I would like to accomplish in 2011.

My list of accomplishments from 2010:
  1. Established the habit of daily scripture reading
  2. Learned more about effective prayer
  3. Made some headway towards not complaining as much
  4. Continued to maintain healthier weight and good diet
  5. Walked 3-4 times a week

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Be it resolved

I am a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions. It always surprises me how many people pale, throw their hands up in front of their faces in self defense and back away when I ask, “What is your New Year’s resolution?” I think that’s because they hear a different question: ‘What have you purposed in your heart that you know the minute you verbalize will come to nothing?”

I can’t help myself. Just like people who have SAD, a seasonal affective disorder that depresses the spirit when the sun takes a hike, I have SID, a seasonal intention disorder that compels me to set quarterly and annual goals. Over the years, I’ve found ways to frame these resolutions in ways that produce life change instead of persistent defeat.

Choose a mantra

Choosing words to live by for a year can help you focus on areas in which you’d like to grow. They are easy to remember. You can use them to decide which life adventures to pursue and what might need purging. Here are some examples:

Compassion, charity, courage, clarity

Simplify, purify, magnify

Rest, refresh, renew

Face a fear

One year my job went south. I was still employed, but I had nothing to do. Believe it or not, collecting a paycheck for doing nothing is stressful. That’s because the organization will either find a place for you in the new normal, or at the end of the day you will be unemployed, but there is nothing you can do to affect the outcome. So I decided to do something scarier than hanging out in limbo. I took lessons to learn how to land an airplane and landed the Piper at San Jose International. You can’t think about anything else when you are setting up for a landing in a plane you don’t know very much about. Now, every year, I look for a big scary challenge.

Give it a year

Years ago, I got tired of beating myself up for all the ways I fell short. I decided to take one year off guilt. I told myself that if it didn’t work (if I began to sink into an abyss of self-indulgence), at the end of the year I would reinstall the guilt program. That was the year I learned how to say “no.” (No, I’m not good at that. No, I don’t’ want to do that. Thanks for asking, but no.) I was a freer, happier person at the end of that year.

Establish a habit

Will Power is a character with poor motivational skills. He’s a task master who exhausts easily, a parent who yells and then leaves the child alone in a room with temptation. Any resolution needs a plan to establish a new habit that supports a new behavior. Are you thinking that 4 p.m. glass of wine to settle your nerves is only making you too sleepy to cook a healthy dinner? Will Power can scream “don’t do that anymore,” all he wants in your face, but facing Will just makes you feel you actually need two glasses of wine to get through the witching hour. Maybe make it a habit to have a refreshing assortment of teas and a special tea cup or mug available. Find a favorite corner and stash some short reads there, or your iPod dock or your Sudoku book. I made an investment in a fuzzy bear footstool with real lamb’s wool. The minute I put my feet up on Griffin, I relax. It’s getting to be a habit.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shopping Blues

Our 87-year-old mother was quite the shopper in her day. It wasn’t very long ago that I wore out in the mall before she did. She lives in a small town in the Ozarks; a highlight of her yearly visits to us used to be the opportunity to refresh her wardrobe. No more.

In Arkansas, a lady dresses for church. She reluctantly adopted the polyester pant suit when dresses went out of style but she’s not descending down that slippery slope any further. Complicating the situation is the fact that she wears a size 6 petite and eschews dark colors.

Admittedly, we live in a shopping deprived region. We walked into the petite section of Kohl’s in Sonora and she announced, I’m looking for a pant suit or a dress. I literally threw my hands in the air and said, “you won’t find that anywhere is California.” Two days later, we took her to the mall in Pleasanton. By then, she had narrowed her hunt to ‘a dress.’ Unless you are going to a cocktail party or a prom, you will not find a dress in any store I know of.

Fellow shoppers, sensing my frustration, offered advice. “She wants a ‘frock,’ said a sympathetic Indian woman. Of course she does. Sales women trotted out smart two-piece suits, all is red and black and grey. Our mother shook her head. It must be a light color with long sleeves and a high (but not mock or turtle) neckline. That’s descriptive of the dresses our Mennonite neighbors wear, but that won’t work. It also has to be fashionable.

“I won’t cry,” she said as we left the mall empty handed. She won’t cry, but I might. An 87-year-old woman deserves to have something new, comfortable and attractive to wear to church. That’s how I felt when I used to leave the stores empty-handed after looking for something for my now deceased parents to wear after they moved into an assisted living community. I’m not alone. If you want sympathy, bemoan this situation in any clothing store and you will gather a crowd of equally frustrated adult children of parents who have aged out of the clothing industry.

I have two thoughts about this situation. First, the apparel industry is missing a big opportunity. We children would pay money to make our parents comfortable and happy. Second, I wonder if this is what is really behind the push for assisted suicide. Maybe the last straw isn’t a bad medical report but the dawning realization, “I haven’t got a thing to wear.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010


We watched an old 1953 movie, Hobson’s Choice. It’s British. It’s old-fashion. It got to me. Briefly, Hobson owns a cobbler shop. He drinks and depends on his three grown daughters to keep it all together for him. The oldest has just turned 30. She takes it upon herself to get herself and her two younger sisters married. Her motivation appears to be personal happiness and economic stability. How old-fashion is that?
Recently I read that 40 percent of Americans now choose not to marry. Instead, they choose from a multitude of options to form and reform families. Single woman choose to mother without a father present; gay men choose to parent without a mother present; an Asian billionaire creates male triplets to pass his empire to, no female required beyond egg donation and womb for rent. Some observations:
  • This seems to work better for the rich than the poor.
  • The jury is out on how well it works for the children.
  • Traditional marriage is now under siege. 
Back to Hobson’s Choice; the older daughter sets her sights on a cobbler in her father’s shop who is skilled, hard-working and underprivileged. Combine those attributes with her business saavy, family legacy and faith in her chosen’s potential and by the end of the movie the couple has a happy marriage, a profitable franchise, siblings with a future and a redeemed patriarch.
Today, after a few sessions with a therapist, the older daughter could find good reason to dump the old man. And why spend time getting her sisters settled in good marriages? She is not her sisters’ keeper. They are not grateful. And how risky is it to emotionally invest in Casper Milquetoast? Today, he would not recognize the value of a Proverbs woman, who “rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household,” who “considers a field and buys it; and with the fruit of her hands plants a vineyard.” Instead, he would bemoan his loss of personal freedom.
 The most precious moment to Hobson’s Choice is when the young cobbler, who has recognized his good fortune in being loved by a woman who believes in him, takes his wife’s advice. Against his instincts to devalue himself, he claims his role as the man of the family. As a result, all members of the family thrive.
Without passing judgment on other people’s choices, I believe there is something to be said for the partnership and commitment of a man and a woman to each other. In his Oratio El Nino, performed by the San Francisco Symphony this year, John Adams explored the passion and commitment of Joseph to Mary. Mary chose to be vulnerable to Joseph’s reaction to her pregnancy. Joseph chose to bend to the will of the Almighty and be a husband and a father in the face of ridicule. The result was a legacy of hope for the world.
What legacy are we leaving for our children?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Annoying Sister

My sister emails me every day I don’t blog. She thinks I’m her personal entertainment system. Because blogs are public I will not comment on the details of her personal life that compel her to seek distraction in this way.
To nudge me into action, she has sent me a request list of blog topics:
  1. Candy…Cookies…Pies and other Sweets
  2. One year shy (of a significant birthday)
  3. The NEW 12 days of Christmas
  4. Life after 50,000 words
  5. What I want for Christmas this year
  6. Why is my sister so annoying?
  7. Retirement and other myths
  8. Blogging to Bulgaria
  9. When I’m on Oprah’s Show
  10. Orphanhood
  11. My personal top ten list from 2010
  12. An alternative to NY Resolutions 
There are some good ones here. I’m always trying, with little success, to get people to comment on my blogs. So I’ll throw it out there. If I get any votes for any of these topics, I promise I will blog on them. Or, suggest one of your own. If one of these topics inspires your inner blogger, be my guest. Please do share a link to your musings.

 But I digress from the topic. Why is my sister so annoying?

 Top 10 reasons why my sister is so annoying

 1. She is misdirected. Get a blog, sis!

 2. She has brain freeze. Didn’t I tell her not to move to Detroit? It’s cold in Detroit. Maybe I forgot to tell her.

 3. She misses our mother, who was always happy to hear the boring details of our lives. Now the only person she has left to bore is me. The kids just stick their fingers in their ears and chatter, “la, la, la, la, la.”

4. She suffers from sister envy. I graduated, married, had kids, had grandkids and retired first; born second, always #2, so she has to try harder. Being my sister is admittedly an annoyance.

 5. She’s in the wrong time zone. She actually lives on Capitola time and suffers from constant cravings for lattes from Mr. Toots. It can make you nuts.

 6. She works too hard and pays too many taxes. Stop. Just stop. If you aren’t making any money, you don’t have to pay taxes. It’s that simple. It will be years before the bank repossesses that underwater condo. May I refer you to Laura Lee’s blog, Broke is Beautiful?

7. She has an overactive inner cynic, nicely tempered by Christian charity.

8. She pokes me until I make her laugh. I’m black and blue.

9. She has too much imagination and not enough time. See #6. Then see #1.

10. I wouldn’t have wanted to be my younger sister either. It’s a tough gig.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


It distresses me, invitations to cookie exchanges. I wouldn’t ask you to write a novel; why would you expect me to bake cookies?

I want to be neighborly. I want to brighten the holidays for the bereaved with ‘lovin’ from the oven,’ but dang, I’m just not very good at it. Truth is, I’m not a ‘sweet’ person. Sweet things make my teeth feel like they’ve committed a crime for which they will be executed. Sweets electrocute my teeth with a buzz that plunges through my tooth enamel and zips straight through the root canal to the bone. Not the bliss I hope for when I filch a second toffee bar from the plate.

I figured there must be other cookie junkies looking to go clean, so for this latest cookie exchange, I googled “spice cookies.” It’s a simple recipe. After overcoming my fear of the behemoth Mixmaster I inherited from my mother, all seemed well. The machine mixed the ingredients into some semblance of cookie dough. Like champagne, it needed to chill, so I chilled it and poured myself a glass of champagne.

Three hours later, I plunked a hunk of dough on the counter and attempted to beat it into submission. The dough appeared to suffer from tension and stress, so I massaged it vigorously with a rolling pin. It warmed up a bit and relaxed enough that I could cut shapes with the only cutters I have – a little spice boy and a candy cane that looks like a golf bag.

The best thing I can say about these cookies is they emitted a lovely aroma that filled my kitchen. It smelled like the wise men came through with bags of cloves, nutmeg and allspice. My first clue that something was wrong was when I took them out of the oven and they looked the same as when they went in. Then I dropped one and it didn’t break. These cookies are like concrete, smooth, heavy and bland. I’m thinking maybe I should glaze or frost them but Joel, after he stops laughing, decides they need faces and belly buttons, so he goes to town on the next batch. They look so cute;I think maybe we’ll just hang them on the tree instead.

I arrange a plate to take to the cookie exchange and plop an undercooked spice boy in the center. When you take them out of the oven at 12 minutes instead of 15 minutes they wrinkle a bit when they cool, so this guy looks like Old Spice man with a lecherous grin. That ought to cheer someone up.

I’m not expecting anyone to ask me for the recipe.

Cookies-to-go was a lovely event. We assembled 36 plates of cookies and took them to people in the community who needed a special touch. God bless the Free Church Ladies and heal the hearts of those who hurt, mourn and grieve at this season.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Joel and I pulled booth duty in the See’s candy shack. We wiled away the morning trying to ignore the allure of molasses chips and key lime truffles wrapped and stacked on shelves behind us. Allure was all around. A doe sprinted across the parking lot in front of us, a six point buck in hot pursuit with a hopeful adolescent tagging along. ‘Tis the season.

How long could you sit in a See’s candy shack before you stuck $6.20 in the till and opened a Mini Holiday Fancy box of six delectables? I went for the dark chocolate truffle. Joel bit into a California Brittle and generously offered me his second bite. (California Brittle? That could describe our state’s economy!)

Confess – is it not your fondest desire that Saint Peter will meet you at the gate with a welcome gift – a See’s nuts and chews assortment and a steaming cup of cappuccino?

Manning the candy shack is a meditative experience; plenty of time to slowly suck a butterscotch lolly and gaze at the pine trees framed by the booth window. It’s early in the candy selling season. We are well stocked. Our neighbors come to the booth window in ones and twos, knowing what they want – peanut brittle for a holiday recipe, boxes of pops and chocolates to ship to friends and relatives. Our last sale was a 50-cent lolly pop to a hiker who happened by. Everyone give me plenty of time to count the change on my fingers.

We benefit from years of candy boothing that has gone before us – this is a well buttered machine, right down to the Yahtzee and cards on the table in case it rains and our trade dries up completely. No wi-fi though.

Half way through our time commitment, three pieces of candy still nestle in the the 4 oz. Holiday Fancy box we paid for and opened. Joel says we should save two for his mom, so I have a decision to make.

Imagine being alone in a candy shop to do your Christmas shopping at your leisure, no fellow shoppers to poke you with their overstuffed shopping bags, no waiting in line...If you’re on my Christmas gift list, guess what you’re getting this year!

Monday, November 29, 2010

NaNoWriMo Fever

Writing a novel in a month is like taking a lover – it creates a buzz in your community and it makes your husband jealous. My husband retaliated by getting very cozy with his metal lathe down in his shop, so it worked out well.

I learned a lot in the NaNoWriMo adventure:

Keeping to a vigorous writing schedule; pushing your story out of the weeds – the boring stuff like endless description and interior musing – out to the middle of the lake where the action is; it’s hard work so it must be worth it, right?

I learned to push my characters overboard and leave the in the wake of danger to see what they would do. One day I had this conversation with myself:

Me: This story is boring.
Self: Burn her house down.
Me: I can’t do that! I love that house!
Self: Burn it down NOW! I’ll get the gas can. You light the match.
Me: Gulp. Okay.
Boy, was that ever fun! There’s nothing like a house on fire to get a story moving again. Creating mayhem for my main character to deal with was so entertaining that I mugged her daughter in a subsequent chapter.

I learned that good friends will tolerate conversation about your plots characters far longer than they will listen to stories about your grandchildren. They offer ideas on plots, you steal their ideas and put them in your novel, they are delighted and everyone wins.

It’s fun to open up your email see a message of encouragement from Lemony Snickett.

Writing a novel on a deadline gives you a perfect excuse to stop grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning the house, doing laundry, all the chores that sustain life, because you no longer have a life. It’s a terrific time management tool:

Me: Okay, where do I have 4 to 6 hours in my day today to write my 1,667 words?
My Calendar: Sorry toots, you have 3 meetings scheduled today. Not happening today.
Me: Reaching for a red pen: That one goes, that one goes, Ah there’s the time.
The only downer is the inevitable question from people who don’t write novels. Right up there with the “I’m sorry your baby died, but you can have another one” response is this: “Do you have a publisher?” I wrote a decent draft in a month. It takes about three years to get a book published I’m told, but we’ll see. That’s the polite answer.

I finished the first draft of my book last night. I promised myself I would wrap Christmas presents today. But here I am. Like an alcoholic who has to have a drink to face the day, I am compelled to exorcise my demons and darlings before I’ve even combed my hair. If you don’t get a Christmas present from me, that’s why.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Finished my draft. Got the "attagirl." Here is Father Mike's spiel about courage.  Not going to give away the end.  Do the twins meet? Do Roger and Dee get married? Does Valerie choose Peter or Gibert...or, late development...Andy? Do I rename Roger because Peggy hates his name? You'll just have to wait til it's in book form, (however that is going to happen).

Roger and I did not have the ‘where is this relationship going’ conversation before he left for the East Coast. I moved my boxes into his spare bedroom and he sublet his apartment to a co-worker who is getting divorced. Our agreement is that we will share the details of our new lives on the phone regularly and meet up in San Francisco and New York for occasional long weekends.

“Assignations,” Father Mike says humorously, when I explain the arrangement to him. “Dee, you little devil.”

“Father, you are making assumptions,” I waggle a finger at him. “It does sound like a Hollywood movie, doesn’t it?

“Seriously though, I want to thank you for advising me to get Valerie involved in the Bakersfield deal. I have a feeling some good will come of that.”

“Dee, I wish you could see your face.”

“I look at it every day in the mirror.” I’m having to get a little too artful with the Revlon pencils and pots. I don’t like spending the time I could be working on my collages arranging my own face.

“I mean, the changes I see,” he says. I grimace.

“Oh I know, we’re both getting older. But the little lines I see in your face – and my dear, they are little – are from work and wisdom, not worry and resentment. You’ve done good, working all this out.”

“It’s not completely worked out.”

“True – you don’t know whether this new arrangement with Roger will keep the spark going. You don’t know whether Alaya – joy – will ever return.”

That’s a new thought. I always assumed that if there were ever to be a reunion, it would have to be initiated by me.

“Dee, keep asking the big questions. Keep seeking truth in your art and in your life. Keep knocking on the door.

“This business of knocking – it’s in Matthew and in Revelation – my reading leads me to believe that the doors to our hearts malfunction. Our Lord opens doors to understanding, but it helps if we knock on those doors a bit ourselves – prime that pump you got in there with love and compassion for others, and for yourself. Ask God to help you do that. Then it will work easily, as it’s supposed to.”

“Keep the door open. I will.”

I’m off to Carmel to unstick whatever doubts I’ve had about starting this new venture.” A visual of misaligned doors on rusting hinges pops into my head. I think I have a new theme for a collage series.

“You give me courage, Mike.”

“We all need a lot of that in life, don’t we?”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A broken engagement

Turns out, Gibert is a bit of a playboy and Peter isn't going to make the cut either. Remember, it's 1954 and Valerie is cresting the matrimonial hill...

Late into the night Peter and I discuss likely scenarios and in the end, I give him back his ring. I cry. He has tears in his eyes too. We agree that we love and care for each other, but that the life of a rookie baseball player is no life for a young family. It’s a short career, and when it’s over...when it’s over I will be too old and too set in my ways to start a family but, if his plans work out, he’ll be in a perfect place to marry and have kids, just not with me. Life is so unfair! At 23, he has years to play around before he settles down. At 25, I don’t.

At dawn, Elazar drives Peter to the airport in Barcelona, where he will start the long flight home. Alaya wanders into the kitchen in her bathrobe and makes us coffee. I have an awful headache from being up half the night and crying my secret distress into my pillow. My mouth is cotton, my heart has a stiletto stuck in it, and my stomach is empty and sick. I’m a mess.

My aunt sets a cup of coffee in front of me. I struggle to my feet, tuck one crutch under one arm and pick up the cup with my other hand.

“Alaya,” I say, “you and my mother are going to have to work out your relationship yourselves – or not. I can’t fix everything.” And I hobble back to my room and swing the door closed behind me with the tip of my crutch.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More secrets revealed

From the Sheepwalker

He asks about what I’ve been doing since my last trip to see him. I tell him about the fire. He’s very concerned that I don’t have a place to live.

“Dolores,” he says in a pitted voice. He reaches over and pats my hand. “You don’t have to worry about not having a place to live. I won’t be around much longer. I’m leaving my house to you.”

Oh God, no! I think. I don’t want TWO houses to worry about. A burned out lot in Los Altos and a retirement house in Bakersfield. Two properties to be responsible for and no place I really want to live. Of course, it has never occurred to Iban that this would not be my dream.

“People here will take care of you.” What can I say to him? I don’t want to be taken care of anymore than my mother did. That’s a revelation, I think, but it shouldn’t be. Apparently these ways of thinking are grooved into us over generations. Who knows who the first woman in our family was who refused to follow a man, or the first man in the family who left to follow a calling to pasture, or commerce or war. And how do I come to be seated so naturally beside the deathbed of this man I hardly know?

“You know, I saw you and your sister come into this world,” Iban is staring at the ceiling when he says this, recalling an event or searching for an invisible face, I’m not sure. “Alaya first, and then you. It was the happiest day of Alonso’s life. He loved you both so much.”

“He must have been very upset when she died,” I say. I’m on the verge of asking him what happened when he starts to cry. “It’s okay, Uncle Iban,” I take his hand and hold it in mine. “You don’t have to talk about it.”

“I have to tell you, Dolores,” the old man says. The tears stop. “I have to break a promise I made to your mother and father.

“This is very hard,” he looks at me with eyes that plead for forgiveness. “They are both gone, Iban. What is it you need to tell me?”

I can hardly hear him when he says, “Alaya didn’t die. Alonso took her back to Spain with him.” I’m confused:

“My mother kept me and my father took my sister?”



“Your mother couldn’t start a new life with two little girls to take care of. I offered to help, but she didn’t want to stay here. The two of them came up with this plan. It was a way they could guarantee that you would both have a good life.”

“So, Alaya didn’t die here, she died in Spain.”

“She didn’t die. She’s not dead.”

“She’s alive? In Spain?”


“How do you know?”

“Pilar keeps track of her. Alaya keeps track of us. All of us.” He looks at me and I can see the crafty young man he once was. I’m not feeling so sympathetic now.

“I have a twin sister who has always known about me, but has never made any effort to let me know about her.” He is silent.

“Everyone knows this story, but me.” He closes his eyes.

“Why?” He is gone.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Setting the house on fire

The power was off all day today, so I burned down Dee's house.  It was good for 2,891 words!

I decide to drive through hills on my way home. The sun is setting earlier these days and I sense change in the air. A season is passing. Something is coming and something is going. How much say do I have in what gets left behind and what takes its place? I’m thinking about my collages now, how each step in the process alters the character of the piece. Cut too much away and context has no power to help define theme. The piece is flat. Allow too much in and...I round the car into the lane and see flashes of red and blue lights shooting like sparklers in the night sky. They shoot too high to be coming from a police car. Above the rotating lights the sky is thick and glowing. In the dim light, I can make out figures standing in the middle of the street, and yes, that is my house they are standing in front of – my house is on fire.

This can’t be. It’s like someone has turned on the lights in my head, one sense at a time. Now I smell the acrid smoke. The old wood house is burning like a fall bonfire. Now I hear the whistle and crack of the fire. I throw the car into park in the middle of the street and forgetting to cut the ignition, I open the door and stand in the street with my neighbors, completely stunned. My pepper tree looks like the burning corpse of a woman with her hair on fire. The back part of my house is black and chewed, exposing its bony skeleton. The front of my house chokes in the smoke, trying to live but losing the battle. A few firemen shoot water into the melee from the ground, while others stand on the rooftops of my neighbor’s homes, watering down everything in the wake of the blaze. A fireman comes over to talk to me. Gently, he says:

“Is this your house?”

“Yes, this is my home.”

“Your neighbors said you live here alone?”

“Yes, is that important?”

“No one was in the house, then?”

“No, no one. Just everything I own in the world, but no, no one is in there.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to tell you this, but the house is a total loss. At this point, we are working to save your neighbors' houses.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Purse Snatching

Attacking your main character is always a good way to stir up the action!

Did Alaya make the right decisions? I can’t say. I do know that I will make different decisions. I am mulling this over on a Monday morning, walking through the plaza on my way to Esteve’s office when a disheveled young man runs smack into me, catching my shoulder with his. The impact spins me around and I fall into the street with my leg twisted up underneath me. He bends over me, to help me up I think, but no. He grabs my purse and takes off running. It all happens so fast that people walking by see only a girl stunned by a fall. If anyone notices the purse snatcher, they don’t react. A businessman stoops down to see if I’m okay. I’m not. I feel an intense burning sting in my ankle that demands my complete attention. Black spots float in front of my eyes. Like the click of a camera shutter after it’s let the light in, my world goes dark.

When I come to a few seconds later, I hear a siren. I’m sprawled in the street and I can’t get up. I try to float my thoughts above the pain, which is nearing the top on my pain register. I hear someone say,

“She’s in shock.”

The next time I wake up, I am immobile on my back with a cast on my leg that runs clear to my hip. I’m so drugged I think pleasantly about the items in my purse that I will never see again – my passport, my identification, my travelers checks, my favorite lipstick. Then I think about what I didn’t have in my purse – my manuscript, my address book, my engagement ring from Peter. As groggy as I am, I feel I am having my first moment of clarity since I left California. I actually let Peter give me an engagement ring before I left for Spain, knowing that I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted. Before meeting my mother for lunch, I took the ring off my finger and put it in my briefcase. I told myself it was because I wasn’t ready to tell anyone yet, and that I didn’t want to attract attention. The ring is showy, to my way of thinking, with a large, brilliant-cut center diamond and two side diamonds set in white gold. I was shocked when Peter slipped it on my finger just before I got in the car to leave and said, “Don’t forget to come back.”

I guess it makes sense. He is graduating this year and I’m 25 years old. Most of my girlfriends are already married, which is why I spend so much time with the undergraduates I teach.

I’m going to have a lot of time to think about this. Gibert has been by to see me. I’ve sustained a nasty break in my ankle. I’ll be in some kind of a cast for months.

A hospital volunteer arrives with a vase of flowers. They are from Peter. Phone calls have been made and the word is getting out. The card on the flowers informs me in the flowing script of a florist’s pen that Peter is flying to Spain this weekend to see “his girl.” Gibert stops by my room once again. This time he has a telegram:

What can we do to get you home? Stop. Mother.

If the United States had dropped the bomb on my life, this could not be worse, I think. Then I feel guilty for thinking that. What is a little broken ankle and two lovers about to collide compared to such a horrific happening? I’m wondering how fast and how far I might be able get in a hip cast when the nurse brings me drugs that make me pass out and sleep for 18 hours.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Keeping Secrets

For those who wonder if I'm still nanoing...

Alaya turns to me, “would you like to come out to the farmhouse this weekend? I’d like to introduce you to my husband and my children. You can ask your questions then.” Esteve, knowing that Gibert has rounds this weekend, offers me the use of his car. I am elated.

I am also unsettled. My work here is almost finished and I have decisions to make. What will I say to my mother? I don’t want to be the one to tell her she has a twin sister, who is alive and well. How will she feel about me if she finds out that I guessed that she had not been an only child, and then made up a story about it that turned out to be nearly true? Now I have to ask myself, how do I feel about having done that? Like a child who has spun elaborate stories to entertain her friends and been caught in the truth.

What about Alaya? Apparently she’s always known about having a twin, but she’s never done anything about it. That’s got to be as bad as what I’ve done. I’ve always hated secrets, and here I am, caught in the mother of all secrets, and not the only one, either. Of course Gibert doesn’t know about Peter and Peter doesn’t know about Gibert and I have four weeks to make a decision. Do people keep secrets because they can’t make decisions? My head is spinning. I check my watch and see that it’s time to meet Gibert for tapas.

26,721 words!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Of Hamburgers and Helpers -- The Sheepwalker

“Where did you get that big dent in your car?” If we talk about her, she might not notice I’ve been crying. Even so, I’m concerned that she has probably run her car into something. She seems accident prone these days. And that’s exactly what she’s done, she explains. She ran up a curb and hit a post office box in San Bruno.

“What were you doing in San Bruno,” I ask. She hardly ever leaves Santa Clara County anymore.

“Well, I want to tell you about that,” she says.”But let’s get a table first.”

I can smell those burgers on the broiler, so fresh they must have been cows an hour ago. At Clarkes, you smell the beef, not the grease. The meat juices baste your chin; it’s like you eat heaven on a bun with your whole face. I am going to miss this.

I munch through my burger like a ground squirrel digging to China while my mother goes on and on about the hours she is spending at the National Archives in San Bruno. Huh? I start to listen.

“So this library is where you can go to do research on your family, and there are lots of records from the central valley,” she is so electric that the hairs on my arms start to rise like little magnetized wisps of wheat in a polarized field. “And I’ve figured out that Iban was likely Alonso’s brother and that something happened that caused Alonso to disappear, but I’ve got Iban’s phone number now and I’m going to call him this weekend.

“I found an item in a Bakersfield newspaper on microfiche, about an incident that involved some sheepherders and some cattle ranchers. Iban and Alonso are mentioned, but the photograph is fuzzy and I can’t make it out, so I’m just going to call Iban and ask him. Or, maybe I will just get in the car and drive to Pine Mountain Club, that’s where he lives. But I will probably call first.”

“Whoa, whoa,” I put my hamburger down on the plate and wipe my chin with my napkin. “Who is Alonso?”

“He’s your grandfather,” she says triumphantly. “He’s my father.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Birth and Death

I’ve sat by two death beds. I’ve watched the births of my two grandchildren, and birthed two children of my own. It seems to me that birth and death have similarities. Both seem to take an inordinate amount of time. Both involve hard work on the part of the person who is coming or going and helpless attendance on the part of those who gather to witness, encourage, comfort and support.
     Birth and death are messy, painful processes, suspending the traveler betwixt and between for a time. The one who is being born comes through a dark birth canal where there is no going back. Thrust suddenly into the light of day, the baby responds with tears of outrage. Memory of a dark warm place subsides and a new world of wonder beckons...sight, sound, smell, touch, taste – and love, the new normal.
     Similarly, the dying one travels through a dark place, moving toward light, we are told. Tears are shed, but not usually by the traveler. Does death pull the curtains on life as we have known it and direct our attention forward? Do we leave earth’s womb and burst joyously into eternity?
     Someday, we will know.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Questions -- from The Sheepwalker

“Leora was not a good mother.”

“She was not a bad mother, either,” Father Mike places a rough skinned hand on top of mine. I stare at the reddish blond hairs on his muscular forearm. As always, he is wearing a black shirt and clerical collar, but short sleeved in celebration of our mild spring weather. Celebration, it seems, is so much a part of this man’s life. It has never been part of mine. Even birthdays, growing up, were not cause for celebration but for reflection on how close I was getting to becoming employable.

Father Mike continues to warm my hand with his own as he brings my darting eyes to stillness with his piercing gaze.

“Dee. You have a litany of grievances against your mother. You tick them off religiously like telling the beads, but it brings you no peace.

“Dee. Ask your question.”

“What do you mean? What question?”

“Let’s assume there is a God. What is the one question you would like to ask Him?

“Why did my mother...” he stops me right there.

“Not a question about your mother, a question about you.”

I think about that for a minute. What is it I really want to know? Then it comes to me.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Excerpt from The Sheepwalker

I park my bike next to Pete’s and lock it. Through the window I see him sitting at our table, drinking a Coke and talking to a couple of girls who don’t seem in too much of a hurry to find their own table. I sure hope he doesn’t invite them to sit with us. I slow down and look at some jawbreakers in a gumball machine. I spot a blue one and the inside of my mouth moistens. My lips feel raw on the inside just thinking about sucking the sugar out of one of those beasts until they go numb and puff to twice their normal size. I look up and see that the girls have moved on. 

I know I shouldn’t do this, but I swing my hips slightly as I walk toward Pete, coming up behind him to run a finger along the back of his neck and tease it across his short clipped hair a couple of times. He turns to me, a slow crooked smile breaking across his face, but it’s his eyes, his eyes that draw me in. Deep set sparkly blue, half shaded by blond-tipped curly brown lashes that catch the light in eyes and invite me in.

“Hello baby.”
He says this in the practiced way that always reminds me – this is a man who knows the effect he has on women. I don’t care. I’m just gone on him. He pats the bench next to him and I drop in.
“Guess what, GUESS WHAT, Pete?”
He raises a finger and signals to the waitress to bring me a Coke. Then he shifts his body to face me and says seriously,
“I’m all ears.”
Then, he wiggles his ears.

I’m awed, as usual.
“How do you DO that?”
“But we digress. What’s your news?” he volleys back.
“I just got the word. My book is going to be published in Spain.”

Monday, November 1, 2010


The normal condition of man or woman is one of health.
 So says Swiss medical doctor Mary Ries Melendy who published Vivilore in1904 and presented her work as: Life-knowledge as learned through a generation of professional service, dedicated to humanity and its progeny. How delightful to find this book included in an international Nabu press project that brings back into print culturally important work.

Everything old is new again: this delightfully informative book offers an old spin to postmodern angst. The first chapter describes the life centers of the body (I think we call them chakras in the yoga studio.) Here’s a sampling.

The brain is the organ of the mind. To keep it healthy, change your mind every day. Don’t get into mental ruts. Form new mental images. Don’t revisit the same mental landscape repeatedly. (Apparently that not only makes you a bore, it bores holes in your brain!) Vary your mental outlook as often as you change your clothing. Prolonged worry, study, illness or monotony lessens brain function, creating a feeble mind. (I wonder what texting and excessive internet searching does?)

The heart is the seat of affections. The cadiac plexus is a knot of nerves near the heart. Emotions such as love or anger transmitted through the sympathetic nerves quicken the heart beat, fear stops it and grief causes it to beat irregularly. Serenity born of loving and being loved causes an even heart beat quickened only by increased vitality and strength. (Getting a dog must be good for your heart; walking your dog, even better!)

The solar plexus is the sympathetic nerve center behind the stomach. It is what you know in your gut. Some people are lifters who radiate soul-shine that encourages others. Some people are leaners – chronic helpless whiners who sap the strength of those around them. To strengthen your solar plexus: breathe deeply pure air and sunshine; speak to yourself affirmatively and follow up with action. Act as if you believe what you tell yourself.

The reproductive organs are holy ground, an ever continuing creative process with vital, recuperative power, as much mental as physical.

So, now you know.

The author then delves into the four temperaments, recommending balance. A strongly developed temperament has advantages; its disadvantages can be modified.

 The body is after all the obedient though untrained servant of the mind through which each life can by degrees learn to control its own destiny.
In a nutshell:  
  1. Think good thoughts, lots of different ones.  
  2. Seek to love and be loved.
  3. Breathe deeply and carry a big set of good intentions. Act on them. 
  4. Marvel at creation. Participate. 
Kings David and Solomon said all of this in their poetic books. How nice to hear it echo down the ages.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Story board

The Sheepwalker
Does family history matter? It is 1953 and it matters to recently widowed Dolores Moraga – Dee for short. Dee has just lost her mother, Leora, who took secrets to her grave about her daughter’s identity – secrets her granddaughter Valerie guessed at and wrote about in a novel she has just published overseas, a story she hopes her mother will never read.

Set in a bucolic town near emerging Silicon Valley – and across the world in the hills and valleys of Narvarre – Dee sheds her rigid self-control as she searches for answers about her shadow family, Iban, Alfonso and Alaya. When Valerie’s book becomes a bestseller and is scheduled for publication in the U.S., Val will have to come clean with Dee about what she knows, but not before Dee discovers the truth about the one person who is the source of her yearning. Ever dispassionate, Dee will discover a new path and a new passion -- in work and in love.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Yoga, prayer and fasting

I’ve thought long and hard about why I believe I can be a faithful Christian and a yoga practitioner in the same breath. Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University (and author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter – think I’ll pick that one up) wrote on this subject in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. Here is what rang a bell for me:

1. Western practitioners need to acknowledge that yoga has its roots in an Eastern spiritual practice. “Religious traditions have long been mixed and matched,” he says. “Christians have always been pulled in two different directions – the Jewish and the Greek — on issues of the body...”

2. At issue is the how we view our bodies: attempts to connect the body with the divine divide Protestants and Catholics over issues of baptism and the Eucharist; separating the body from the spirit produces heresies such as Gnosticism (the body is bad, therefore Jesus could not have had a real body.)

We studied fasting in church this morning, and then we went home and practiced it. I fail to see how fasting is not encouraging a physical state (weakness, dependence on Christ for strength and focus in prayer) as a means to connect with God.

In yoga, I use my mind to train my body to relax and focus, which helps me deal with stress and distraction that make my prayer life less effective. Imagination plays a role also. Prayer involves both mind and body. How can it be otherwise?

Namaste means, I am told, “the light in my heart acknowledges the light in your heart, and when we are together, we are one.” I can go half way on that one. If Jesus is the light of the world, and he is in my heart and in yours, I acknowledge that. If you are not my sister or brother in Christ, you remain created and loved by His Father, and I acknowledge that. “We are one”, however, is an issue of unity. Unity is a high calling, and I believe it is Jesus Christ who issues that sacred and powerful call. Merely being together does not make us one.

It’s something to think about.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Challenge

I’m taking the NaNoWriMo challenge. I’m going to write a novel in 30 days; 50,000 words in 175 pages; 1,666 words and 5.8 pages a day; I wasn’t going to do it until I read the rules and found out it doesn’t have to be a GOOD novel: quantity counts, not quality.

I try to do something scary every year as an antidote to fear. The scariest thing I ever did was land my husband’s plane at San Jose International Airport. I took landing lessons to distract myself from the fact that I was likely losing my job. Losing a job loses its alarm when losing your life is on the horizon.

The point of this exercise is to beat my internal editor into submission; banish her to some netherworld in my brain; tame her insatiability for my words which she likes to chew on like a cow on cud.

I will give my words to NaNoWriMo’s sightless word counter instead. Better isn’t better, more is better! I believe that as much as I believed I could bounce that Piper Warrior to the ground and live to tell about it.

I sent my husband to his shop and told him to come back in a month, when he has to dig his way through a pile of metal shaving he’s produced teaching himself how to lathe. He took the challenge, packed up his computer and moved to his man cave.

We will Skype.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Ahwahnee Spotted Grass Tussler

Happy are we who have a National Park in our backyard. The squall of tourists has calmed and so we ventured forth. Why take your daily walk to the mailbox when you can walk a horse trail from lower Pines Campground to Mirror Lake?

At lunch we observed through our tableside window the Ahwahnee Spotted Grass Tussler, the house ground squirrel. We noted that a white ruff circling the neck and shoulders is this year’s fall fashion. Collaborative behavior, not so much. If I have an acorn in my mouth and you have a bigger one, I want mine and yours too. I will roll you, pummel your chest with my tiny forefeet, grind my back feet into your furry tummy and box your ears to get what you’ve just stashed in your cheek – you cheeky bastard – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too!

Do you think they might be Democrats?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prior Condition

As we play musical chairs with our health care, scurrying to keep a seat in the game whenever the media sounds an alarm, some of us worry we will be shut out by a prior condition. In a sense, we all have a prior condition. If the Bible is to be believed, we all carry within us the effects of sin and the seeds of death. It’s just a question of how and when the condition presents itself.

Some of us believe in preventive care. Others rely on the miracles of modern medicine and still others stuff tobacco in a cheek, reach for a second donut and decide: life is short. Let’s not worry. The end is the same, dust to dust, though the journey might be different. Or not: the health-conscious person can end up in a hospital bed and the ne’er-do-well can end up on the news celebrating a centennial birthday.

Don’t stop reading, it gets worse. There is the issue of pain. Sometimes I like to go to Jesus about as much as I like to go to the dentist. When I had braces on my teeth I made regular visits to get them adjusted. The adjustment itself didn’t hurt, but for days after my mouth was a maw of pain. Teeth move in miniscule increments. The vision of these small calcified soldiers lined up to form the perfect bite kept me going, though. Attitude adjustment is similar.

I know that I need a more perfect view of justice. I know I need to make major lifestyle changes to be the writer I want to be. Putting myself under the yoke is asking for pain.

It occurs to me that Jesus knows about my prior condition and is willing to offer me insurance anyway, if that’s what I want. The policy itself is free, but apparently there are co-payments for some of the services, confession and prayer to name a few.

You can probably think of more.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Like the genie, are some things better left bottled? I loaded Family TreeMaker last night and began to blow through the family legends.

The infamous half-aunt wasn’t born in Spokane, WA to a mother gone under the wing of her deceased young husband’s family, as we were told. No, L’s birthplace was in Illinois and there seems to be no trace of a father, deceased or otherwise. What was my maternal grandmother doing in Illinois, having a baby alone?

The paternal grandfather who took his origins to the grave out of hatred for his birth family admitted to being born in 1891 in Illinois on the 1920 census. (What is it with this Illinois connection?) True to character, he left two big blanks for the names of his mother and father but did own to the fact that they were from California.

This isn’t family history we are tracking, it should be called family mythology.

Some mistruths are literary license. My maternal great grandmother writes that she lost her husband and was left to support three penniless young children. In fact, she lost him in a divorce that she initiated.

Then there is the list her children – my grandmother O. N. Scott, my uncle J. W. (or H., depending on what record you believe) Scott, and Catherina L Stark...who is that? I was looking for the third sister who allegedly drank creek water when she was a young woman and died of typhoid. I expected her to be a Scott, though.

So, genie, here are my three questions: What are the names of my paternal great grandparents (and why were they so hated?); Who was half-aunt L’s father? And how about that legend that we are descended through the Carter line from Jacques Cartier and an Indian woman he married in Canada? All my research shows he had no offspring. No Indian wife to speak of, either. But that was a favorite story of my great-grandmother, who used “Cartier” as a pen name.

My husband will probably divorce me for staying up late at nights puzzling over all of this, but I have a strategy. I’m going to set him down in front of the computer with his notes and let him see how far he can get verifying that story about the silver mine in Arkansas.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bill Manville on falling in love with writing

My friend and writing teacher Bill Manville has requested guest space. (He tried to post this is the comment section to one of my blogs on writing and wasn't able to...some of my friends have difficulty posting comments and others don't, I don't understand why; it happens to me too.) From Bill:

What do New York editors, publishers and agents look for in new writers? I'm Bill Manville; my last thriller, “Goodbye,” published by Simon & Schuster, was a BOM Alternate; my last non-fiction, "Cool, Hip & Sober," was published by Forge New York. I also write a weekly column for the New York Daily News, and teach "Writing to Get Published" online for both and Temple University. The principal text for both courses is, “The WTGP Student Handbook.” I give it to my students at the beginning of each course, Here's a passage I hope other writers will find relevant to what they may be trying to do:

How early as kids do we develop a sense of justice? As yet unwilling to accommodate selfishness and greed, “It isn’t fair!” we cry out to each other at some petty instance of bias;-- one of the most powerful arguments childhood can summon. Commenting on the Peloponnesian War at the end of the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Thucydides noted:
The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.
Not only does he record a fact of war but does it with an irony of language that says to us, Oh, no—it isn’t fair, it isn’t just. And the noble child who lives in us still – the one who reads a lot and may even aspire to be a writer --resonates to the unspoken message: Amen! we answer back—which is why Thucydides is still read 25 centuries later.

What I try to teach my students is that good writing starts with that community of values between writer and reader, an unspoken meeting of souls between-the-lines. A feeling very much like falling in love.

From "Writing to Get Published." If you’d like a free copy – over 150 digital pages, email and ask. No strings; results do not vary; yes it’s free.

Postscript from Sydney:  Thank you Bill. And, gentle reader, if you can shed some light on how to leave a comment that doesn't disappear into cyberspace, please do.  Let's have a comment blitz to this entry. No advertiser will call, I promise.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Flash frame

When I’m on my yoga mat, my mind often flashes to other happy places: I see the sun squinting soft and friendly at me between pine tree branches as it sets outside the window where I used to do yoga in Los Gatos; I smell a pleasant glow of beeswax off the hardwood floor in a spacious studio in Traverse City, MI.; I feel the warm sun and welcome breeze on my skin on a grassy knoll near the Stanislaus River.

When I stand before our congregation with our small praise team leading worship songs, I try to focus on the meaning of the words we are singing. I try to pray those words: Yes, God, you are my King; Yes, Jesus, make me a servant; Yes Holy Spirit, give me a stronger heart.

In the pauses of my mind, images flash like the new Cozi screen saver I have installed on my computer. When my computer isn’t in use, a template of attractive frames pops up and randomly selects images from my picture file to display in rotation. My mind does this too. Pop! Pop! Pop! Here they come – an image of the island church where my daughter and her family worship. I see their musicians praising God with flute and violin; an image of my son and his wife worshiping in their church on the coast. I see their rapt faces; older images appear randomly. I see the hymn choir at the now defunct Christ the King Anglican church in Campbell – the faces of old friends – and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus at Christmastime. Then I feel angels step up to join us and my heart and my voice are stronger. I feel unity.

I do not believe that those who have passed are much involved with those who remain. I do wonder, though, if there might be a really big screen TV in heaven. I wonder if my mother and father glance at it occasionally, see our images rotating on the screen, remark to each other that we seem to be doing well and take pleasure in that. I believe we have a high-tech God, so why not?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Slam Poetry

More for my writer friends – Slam Poetry is a poem that reads like a story. I took a Turn Your Prose into Poetry workshop from Sarah Zale. The value of turning your prose into poetry is that you can give your story more power. Challenge yourself to tell a lot in as few words as possible. Here are some tips:
  1. Tell family stories or make observations, with a twist
  2. Line breaks are important
  3. Use techniques such as lists, rhythm and music, but not necessarily rhyme – try slant rhyme or close rhyme such as assonance (rhyming vowels within a word)
  4. Bring your readers into your story by letting them make choices as to what it all means; let your reader figure out the feelings
  5. Repetition is effective in poetry
  6. Make sure your language matches the voice. If you write from a child’s perspective, use a child’s words.
  7. Build a poem around a quote or write from a persona

Here is a short poem I wrote in the seminar, based on words I carry in my heart.

Bad News

After midnight phone calls come

at all hours of the day:

Mom, my life is over

Mom? He’s still alive

Sydney, I can’t get up anymore

alarms go off that have not been set

noise clangs silently in ears

dark closes the shades on eyes

bellows suck air from lungs

ribs press painfully into a heart grown huge

with an infusion of bad news.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Weekend Writer Warrior

I had an inspired weekend at Write on the Sound in Edmonds, WA and I want to share some of my treats with my writing friends. Remember Natalie Goldberg? Writing down the Bones; Wild Mind – she started a creative writing movement back in the day when people started movements (what movement would you like to start today?) Natalie’s thoughts on writing:

Writers care about something that the rest of society doesn’t care much about.
A timed writing practice gives you a chance to say what you really want to say and find out what your true obsessions are.
Writing is an athletic activity.
All those journals you have? Re-read them; then throw them away. They aren’t precious.
And from Paula Coomer, English professor at University of Washington. Her thoughts on writing in the absence of commercial success:

The devil trades in immediate gratification, not eternal consequences. Writing has eternal consequences.
Writing is about Mystery – not knowing what is going to come out of the end of your pen, being amazed at the grace of it.
Writing is the act of setting down your thinking as clearly as possible.
Walk softly and carry a pen and a big notebook.
And from Robert J. Ray, teacher, author and Goldberg convert:
Now write. Go.

Monday, September 27, 2010


I look out the window of our boutique hotel in Berkeley, across the commons to the windows of a U.C. Berkeley dormitory. Forty years ago, I walked past the front door of this same dormitory on my way to classes. I didn’t think about windows, I thought about doors. Behind the doors of that dorm I envisioned students plugged into dorm rooms like bees in a hive -- tightly packed, indistinguishable from each other, throbbing with activity. My dorm was WWII-era temporary housing on top of a hill -- smaller, cheaper, but rooms with a view of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco.

Tonight I see the students’ world through windows. A girl paces on a terrace, talking on her cell phone. Below, a boy skateboards alone at dusk, as students stroll in twos and threes toward the back entrance of the building carrying cartons of food, but no books. I see lights in the windows above them. It’s early in the academic year, and unseasonably hot. But I’m not here to wonder at a new crop of students. I’m here to wonder at the world I used to live in and how it’s changed.

Even though renovation excuses the absence of coziness in the Bear’s Lair, my personal landmarks are relatively unchanged – Wheeler Hall, still has no air conditioning and the hard stone staircases that took your breath away when you climbed to reach your classroom and counted it a privilege.

Privilege is the window I looked through this evening from our perch at Chez Panisse in North Berkeley. “Have you been here before?” the waiter asks? Not even in my dreams 40 years ago. Then, I didn’t attend to the larger community that surrounds the University. Now, the classroom experience only makes sense within the context of the larger community.

Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage or favor. I was given the right to an education. Over the years, I have taken time to gaze through many windows: from my ESL classroom in Germany, across the square to a gargoyle’s gothic posture on a cathedral spire high above the streets of Ulm; from a Left Bank pensione in Paris across the boulevard to an apartment window where young Parisians entertained friends in an elegant dining room – taking time to look out your window and appreciate other worlds, past, present or yet to come, with some measure of understanding is a benefit of education.

“Do the students look different to you,” a Venezuelan woman at our hotel asks me? Yes and no. Behind the doors, I imagine they are different in their study habits, less interested in changing the world than making their way in it. Through the windows, they look not much different, reaching for connection, for recreation, for respite from dorm food.

Those were good years. I would not go back.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Travel Days

If you want to teach your kids your values, go where you love and take your children with you. My nephew Ryan said that. My children are grown now, teaching values to the children they gave birth to and the children they work with. We trot along behind – to an island in the Puget Sound where we enjoy nature and Native American culture with our grandchildren, to a 6th grade classroom in Soquel where Joel performs science experiments at the Science Fair for our son’s students.

These are our travel days. Largely unencumbered now by small children and aging parents, we have vowed to make pilgrimages to the places we have come to love – Ashland, Oregon, the Mendocino Coast -- and visit places we think we would love – Glacier Park, the San Juan Islands, a sweep across Canada by rail.

One thing I notice when we travel – I constantly embroider the present with plans for the future. On a recent walk in Lithia Park I plunked down on a bench to watch ducks be silly in a pond and thought about a park bench Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Why not keep my focus on the beautiful garden in front of me?

In my mind, I wander down another garden path into the streets of the City of Light. My soul stretches luxuriously to absorb the history and beauty of the architecture like a sea sponge expands in the warm scented water of a perfect tub bath. A duck waddles around behind my ankle, tucked under the bench I am sitting on and I bring my thoughts back to focus on the present moment.

If I were in Paris now, would my focus turn as easily from arches and spires to a Mediterranean shore I’ve yet to visit, only to return to the pigeons in the street?

If my body and my mind wandered on the same path, would that be the travel experience I am seeking?

Go where you love, and take all of you.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Voices from the Gold Country

The Sonora Writers' Group has just published their first anthology, Second Saturday. I wrote the introduction to the book, and here it is.

You were expecting blissful accounts of life in the hills? Bliss may be the nuggets we hoped to mine from our conscious streams, but like the prospectors of old we came ill-equipped. Perhaps we weren’t as ready as we thought we were to let go of a job, a paycheck, daily involvement with our grandkids, Whole Foods, Trader Joe and Designer Shoe Warehouse. Perhaps our expectations were too high.

It’s not quiet here, it’s noisy! But, it’s different noise. These days, twittering birds wake us early. Twitters, blogs and emails still beckon, but our computers sulk darkly, no longer first to get our attention. We hear rocks spilling into a quarry below, dogs barking and voices drifting up from the cove. Live in the mountains and learn that sound rises.

Bliss is hard work! But we’ve found friends to adventure with, fellow writers to appreciate where we are on this journey, and good yoga teachers. And now, there are no more excuses. For most of us, age and place dictate that this is close to the last stop the train makes, and what a stop it is! No more waiting to retreat to a paradise where we can write; we live in paradise. No more waiting to retire; the economy grew tired of us. Like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, we can step out of the other side of the carriage that is rolling toward a destiny not of our desire. Instead of heading into “retirement,” we’ll explore a world without “work.”

With the exception of two of us still in tune to the work/life or school/life balancing act, finches are our alarm clock and seasons suggest the daily routine. There are no more paychecks to live between. Instead there are old relationships to nurture and new ones to cultivate. In this world without money, we’re told that five dollars will disappear from our wallets as easily as $100 used to; the difference is that now we must account for it in QuickBooks.

Happy are the hours we spend writing, encouraged by our time together the second Saturday of every month. We are the Sonora Writers Group.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Learning to Learn

This essay has been published on the AARP website.

Home ownership has always been the traditional American dream, dating back to the early settlers whose first actions were to form community and build shelter. Creating space where they were free to pursue their own endeavors fueled westward and immigration movements. Although I cherish the home that I own, my American dream is different. My dream was lit in my heart by my Kansas-born grandmother.

Opal Nellie Wolff left home at 16 to become a dancer in New York. A widow in her twenties with a young child to support she established a dance studio in Oregon, weathered depression and war, and fought poverty much of her life.

In her tiny cottage in Northern California she entertained me with stories of her life in New York, but always ended them with a caution. “The one thing I regret,” she said, “is that I did not get my education. There is so much to know in life. Promise me that no matter what you do, you will get your education.”

I grew up in the shadow of Stanford University and attended school with children whose parents were professors and founders of tech companies. It was assumed that they would go to college, but no one had that expectation of me, except Nana. When I told my father I planned to go to college, he told said, “That will ruin you for being a wife and a mother.” Then he got me a summer job in his office and helped me open a savings account. If I were going to college, I would need to pay for it on my own.

Two things made my days at U.C. Berkeley valuable. I realized that I was buying a degree, so I had to make the most of my time, but the thrill was getting an education. I didn’t know what I would do with my education, but that didn’t matter.

In college or university, you learn how to learn. Life-long learning helps you build on experience, figure things out for yourself and appreciate every stage of life. I have used everything I learned in my career in communications and my multiple roles as wife, mother, volunteer and grandmother.

The American part of this dream is that, despite dire headlines, education is available to all. A house can be repossessed but no one can take away your education. Nana told me that.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Letting Go

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

by Mary Oliver

My friend Sharon sent me this poem. I’m thinking about the process of letting my mother go. It’s time. My sister, husband and children, in the company of our pastor and his wife, buried my mother on Friday. Words of appreciation for her legacy were spoken. Strums on a guitar provided comfort, accompaniment for her journey.

The earthly tether of daughter to mother, mother to daughter, now is broken and we are both free. When the mortal coil is shuffled off, love doesn’t leave but the constraints of relationships – the responsibility of parent to child, child to parent, fall away. I do not believe that my mother any longer concerns herself with what I am thinking, nor is she privy to my thoughts. Maybe the biggest adjustment is that she is no longer “mom,” she is Shirley.

It comforts me to realize that she is no longer stuck at the end of a life she increasingly lost interest in because it was consumed by pain and loss. I believe she is now at the beginning of a new life that compels her entire focus. No looking back, and so I will live the rest of my mortal life without looking over my shoulder for her. That is, as soon as I can break the habit of reaching for phone to “call mom” to check in and keep her up to date.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Leaving the Stage

I’m feeling the truth of Shakespeare’s words –the world is a stage and we are the players.

Driving down the grade yesterday morning I had a vision of my mother’s final exit. Stoic until the end, fighting a lonely battle with life, she drew people in and pushed them away at the same time. She embodied all the mystery of life, fighting for autonomy while holding death like a secret within her. The feistiness that so often seemed to us to be misplaced endeared her to the staff that cared for her in her final days. Feisty woman, perhaps, was the role life assigned her.

Feistiness is a touchy and quarrelsome reaction but also a spirited one. Much of what my sister and I said to my mother ignited unintended, often shocking, responses. In retrospect, she cared deeply about things we didn’t pay much attention to. Things like politics, nutrition, privacy and family history.

Mom took her last breath early on the morning of August 1, 2010. In her final year, she grew more accepting of the love people offered her. Although we were by her bedside much of the time, I suppose it is fitting that we were not there when death finally came. By choice, she fought most of her battles alone.

In my vision, mom leaves the stage to join those behind the curtain – the producer, director, stage manager and technical crew who create the play. “Good job, Shirley,” they tell her, and they mean it. She has played the role she was cast in, interpreting her part to the best of her ability. She has served as a foil for others on the stage as they developed their parts, not an easy role but apparently critical to the success of a good play.

I look forward to the day when I can sit down with the real Shirley and we can share the good things in life everlasting. Will we reminisce about the life we lived in front of the dark glass? Who was the audience we couldn’t see? It is written in Psalm 8 that we are made a little lower than the angels. We know that they watch us. I think they surround us – a technical crew offering help and support and season ticket holders, appreciating the mystery God has wrought and the part we play in it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


These days I feel as if my biggest contribution in life is to the landfill. I have thrown a lifetime of my mom’s stuff into the dumpster. As I heave and toss, I calculate the number of boomers who are doing the same thing times the number of bags they are tossing and my body starts to feel like ... garbage.

A sympathizer asked my sister and I yesterday if we had any of the symptoms of anxiety my mother has always shown. Shocked and speechless, we looked at each other. Later my sister told me that counting is a symptom.

I go home and survey my house, trying to look at it through the eyes of my children who will one day have to go through this same exercise. I get a roll of garbage bags and start filling them up. My sister follows me through the house, picking things off of shelves (a carved wooded frog, a toastmaster trophy, a bronze pineapple) and I hold out the bag. I argue for some of the detritus – the cute made-in-China, vacationing moose couple holding cameras and maps that we bought at the iMax theatre outside Yellowstone. “Oh puh-leeze,” she says. And we’re done for the night.

Is this a project I can ever finish?

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I walk down the hall to my mother’s room with a cup that contains a small amount of mashed, tangerine-flavored slushie laced with morphine and anxiety medication. For a brief moment, I consider taking a spoonful of it myself. My mother is dying of an illness she has concealed from everyone. Her stoicism in refusing pain medication (not my word, but a kinder word supplied by others) will not allow her to relax and die peacefully, as my father did a little over a year ago. Instead, she will die as she lived, with her jaw clenched against the pain of life.

It is my sister and I, supported by the network we have put together, who will not allow her to meet death screaming in pain. It is the one thing we can’t handle. Without a reservoir of pain medication built up in her system, a last minute dose of morphine will have no effect.

Having reserves, planning for contingencies, these are important life skills that eluded my mother and so it falls to my sister and I to manage the end-of-life details. How many of our generation have said, “This is not the way we are going to do this.” Our parents chose not to burden us with their pain. Consequently, many of them have ended up in untenable situations and we have had to step in. We will be more open with our children, we say. We hope not to burden them with difficult decisions. Undoubtedly we will burden them in some other way we cannot predict.

I wanted to title this essay “Helping Mom Die” but my sister says I’m likely to invite prosecution if I do that. For the record, then, no lethal doses are involved. Her wishes were not to have her life extended with extraordinary measures and so our job has been to help her deal with what she already knows. She is dying.

We asked her grandchildren to send email farewells we could read to her. We printed them out and read them to her, beautiful testimonies to the legacy she is leaving them. This brought her peace and acceptance. Blessedly, she now will accept pain medication and we can drop the charade.

In nightly dreams, we process the shock and horror that has invaded our lives. My sister dreams about stepping in to help the mother of a black baby who has been kidnapped by five men. The men are torturing the baby but finally they return the infant, crying but seemingly unharmed. We analyze this strange dream at breakfast. Baby – the arrival of something new; a black baby – something foreign to us; kidnapped – snatched from life, beyond our control; five men involved in torture – the host of people we have to deal with who give us conflicting messages; and finally, the return of the baby unharmed – like birth, death is painful, even tortuous, but out of the process new life emerges.

In my dream, I have returned to college for a reunion and the possibility of taking some seminars that interest me. No one else in my party seems interested, so I change my clothes and go off on my own. I wander the campus, looking for a bathroom. I can’t find one that offers any privacy. My friends catch up with me and I am suddenly aware that I have dressed in a ridiculous fashion, one beige knee high stocking and one black one. They laugh at me. I feel shame and disappointment. No surprises here. Shame is the subject of the novel I am writing. My disappointment at having to cancel attendance at the Iowa Writers Conference feels like the death of a dream – eliminated, down the drain.

People who take care of my mother speak to me about the sacredness of this death watch, and they are right. It pains me to be forced to confront my selfish desire to do what I want to do. Death has inconveniently gotten in my way. I think about the sacrifice that Christ made. I think that in the Paschal preoccupation with the crucifixion, the church doesn’t tell its most compelling story. I can sympathize with being nailed to a cross; I cannot empathize. The real story is not the way Christ died, but that He gave up his life without complaint for such unworthy people. People like me, who try to dress up for the occasion but are found wanting in their hearts. People like my mother, who took such good care of the face she presented to the world but let illness to run rampant in her body and her mind.

God have mercy on our souls, and grant us Your peace.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


What did my mother mean when she said, “Sydney, I can’t do anything,” in my 7 am wakeup call?

“What do you mean, you can’t do anything?”

“I can’t do anything.”

“You can’t get out of bed and get to the bathroom?”

“That’s right.”

Alarmed, we were at Skyline Assisted Living Community within the hour.

“Can I help you to the bathroom, Mom?”

“No, I’m okay for now.”

How can that be? I have to figure out what it is she really wants. Does she want me to cancel my vacation? I have the sense that this isn’t that kind of manipulation, though it is clearly manipulation of some kind. After meeting with the Wellness staff, that is clear. They say they saw her up and dressed and walking around just two days ago. But today, she says she’s done.

Part of the difficulty is being sandwiched between two communication styles. In my parent’s generation, women talked on the phone for hours and never really got to the point. My kids, on the other hand, are alarmingly direct and apt to text me, “Getting a divorce. How R U?”

With the parents, I’ll know how they feel, but not what they want. With the kids, I’ll know what they want, but not how they feel. (Caveat, to the best of my knowledge, neither of my children is getting a divorce.)So I am left wishing for a little less information from my mother and a little more information from my kids. I couldn’t even begin to analyze my own communication style.

A call at 7 pm this evening confirms that we really do have something to worry about. Mom is now on a two hour watch and if they don’t like what they see, she is off to the emergency room in an ambulance. If she doesn’t die from an undiagnosed illness, she will die from embarrassment.

I’ve tried to honor her express wish to have no medical attention. Now I have to shield her as best I can from the result of that decision. She has no primary care doctor so no one knows what is really going on with her. She wants to be made comfortable, but we don’t know how.

Finally, I think I understand what she is trying to tell me.

“I’m scared. I’m sorry things have turned out this way. It won’t be much longer. Will you be there?”

Yes mom, I’ll be there.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Grand Jeep Cherokee

“The things we make, make us.” That is the glib 2011 Grand Jeep Cherokee marketing slogan that popped up on my Facebook page. Now I’m not a car fan, but I own an old Grand Jeep Cherokee and, admittedly, it makes me feel like Mountain Girl. And I confess, the Wall Street Journal’s review of this new jeep caught my attention. It apparently combines my two loves, luxury and adventure, into a new car with a decent price and excellent performance. Be still my heart! Mountain Girl with panache!

“The things we make, make us.” Of course they somehow know that I drive a Jeep Cherokee -- I don’t even go there. I do wonder at the over 500,000 people who “Like This.” Should I apply for this job – visiting websites and registering my thumbs up?

“The things we make, make us.” Not a very spiritual message. I grabbed a pen and jotted down some thoughts in response.

The things we make, make us rich.
The things we make, make us crazy.
The things we make, make us who we are.

“The things we make, make us.” As I was making dinner tonight, I had an epiphany. Our God is a creative God, and when He made us, he enlarged Himself. (Okay, at this point I realize I will probably lose some evangelicals here.) Creation is being. Perhaps that is why we lost heart when the things we make went overseas. Who are we, if not the creation of our hands, blessed by God and told to go forth and multiply?

If I win the lottery, I am definitely buying a 2011 Grand Jeep Cherokee.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fox News killed my mother

Ha! Made you look! Mom isn’t dead (yet), but she has declared that this is the end of the line for her and taken to her bed permanently. A steady diet of Fox News has so depressed her that she can think and speak of little else but “that evil man” who has ruined our country, and it’s killing her.

In its unrelenting quest to “make us look,” Fox News pundits and other alarmists pump out doom and gloom messages that, bookended with the mute video of oil spilling ceaselessly into the Gulf, is most depressing. For a generation of people who thought they would never have to go through the hell of watching the world fall apart again it is too much to bear.

Of course, there are other channels and a power switch. Mom chooses to swill a poisonous dose of tainted information. That is giving “that evil man” way too much control over her life, I point out. She believes that the government is set on confiscating the house she owns free and clear, emptying out her bank account and cancelling her health insurance. She will die first.

Sadly, I have no argument that things aren’t bad, probably worse than we know. Focusing blame in one direction doesn’t seem productive and my pleas to her to consider the lilies of the field or think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy fall on deaf ears.

“You raised us to take pleasure in the simple things in life,” I say, but pleasure seems to her a poor aspiration -- Nero fiddling while Rome burns. She feels bankrupt, although in fact she has a family who loves her and a pension my father worked all his life to provide for her.

She is convinced that I just don’t understand what we are losing. I am deeply aware that I have had the privilege of living through one of the most prosperous periods of time the world has ever witnessed, and that men died to make it so. But clever riposte won’t save us. While my mother finishes her days watching the thrust and parry of self-appointed talk show titulars, I mourn her loss of hope. That is an even greater thing to lose.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Writing Process

Writing is at once a religious and a spiritual experience: religious in the sense that its practice is pursued with zeal and conscientious devotion; spiritual in the sense that the process involves intangibles that affect the soul.

As I introduce and develop my characters I find a parallel to what Karen Armstrong speaks of in her book, The Spiral Staircase, My Climb Out of Darkness. For those who are unfamiliar with the author of A History of God, the author failed to find faith in a convent, but discovered God in her study of world religions. Some of her observations in the final chapter of Staircase can be applied to writing.

...editing out ego is—I now realize—an essential prerequisite for religious experience.

We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.

How true. The process of bringing my characters out of darkness is indeed a spiritual experience. I have to leave myself at the door when I enter the places they inhabit, and that has been a joy.

But the ability to sense those possibilities also requires the writer to leave personal bias at the door.

If you are bent on proving that your own tradition alone is correct, and pour scorn on all other points of view, you are interjecting self and egoism into your study, and the texts will remain closed.

Here the author is referring to the ability of a scripture or a poem to speak to a reader, but she may as well be describing the terms under which a character will develop and grow and tell his story to the writer.

On the four hour drive home from my retreat, I studied my character and allowed him to reveal his next move, which had far more integrity than what I would have written for him. That’s the beauty of the art.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach, CA
Just as I’ve settled into a comfortable routine and am feeling startlingly at home here – able to navigate Hwy 1 on and off ramps in a single bound, it’s time to leave tomorrow. Either that or I will have to put an offer in on the kids’ house. That’s tempting. My own little beach pad.

I had a productive morning writing once I quit distracting myself following website trails. A friend called at noon and asked me if I’d like to meet at Sunset Beach for a walk so I altered my plans a bit and drove out Larkin Ave through the strawberry fields. We walked for about two hours and then had an early dinner at Sanderlings at Seascape resort. It’s a warm, clear evening. Beach traffic has been light which has upped the relaxation factor.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Harry Potter, uncloaked

I tested the theory of losing myself in anonymity. After a productive morning plotting my novel I headed to Peet’s for coffee and a sugary walnut cranberry scone. Settling into a comfy chair with a neglected copy of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I deliberately made no eye contact with any co-coffee afficionados.

Shortly, a distressed voice hovered in front of me like the winged golden egg in a game of Quidditch, and then darted over to a man just outside my peripheral vision.
“Did either of you put something in my cup while I was gone?” the voice inquired in fearful alarm. I looked up to see an unassuming looking middle aged woman. I shook my head and the man answered “no.”

“You can’t be too careful, especially if you’ve been hit by a hit-and-run-driver,” she said, collecting the suspect cup of coffee and making a hasty exit.
A thought bubbled up in my head. I forgot, I’m seeking solitude in Santa Cruz. What was I thinking? I returned to my book.

Shortly, a darling little girl flopped into the chair next to mine. I glanced at her, noting that she was about the same age as my granddaughter and just as cute, but did not do her the courtesy of an engaging smile. I returned to my book.

“I like your earrings,” said the five-year old. It became quickly apparent that this truly charming child had the skills of a talk show host. We discussed her wardrobe, her social schedule and the sugar glaze on her cookie. When her grandpa showed up, I kindly offered up my chair so he could sit with her and headed out the door.

I spent the rest of the day on the Capitola Wharf reading, watching the ocean and letting the waves of other people’s conversation roll over me. At Paradise Beach Grille I sipped a Grey Goose Pear Cucumber martini and ate a Castroville artichoke and bay shrimp salad (I could get used to the writing life!)

At the next table an attractive dentist and a wine broker were getting to know each other. “I’m too old to work this much, and my dog is sad,” she said, having explained that she might have to add a day to her four-day work schedule. I had to sneak a peek at her as I left. Okay, big dark sunglasses hide a lot of crow’s feet but I swear she wasn’t a day over 35. Apparently there is still hope for this economy.

Now I’m back at my beach retreat. The clouds parted at 6 pm, just as I was leaving the beach. I feel warmed by the sun, inspired by what I’ve read and amused by my fellow travelers.