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.