Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dementia: Moments of Grace

For those in my age category of slightly over 60, losing your parents is something you’re probably familiar with. My family just passed our second Christmas without my folks.

Shortly after my mom died of cancer last year just before the holidays, my father, a frail but otherwise healthy eighty-five year old, simply came undone. He couldn’t tie his shoes. He didn’t remember if he’d eaten lunch that day or not. He’d spend long moments in silent conversation with his brother who had died years prior.

It was my siblings’ and my job to find whatever version of reality in which he currently existed and join him there. Phone calls and visits would often end in tears (ours) and placid detachment (his).

There were moments of tiny miracles, periods of grace, a lifting of the fog:

“Hello, Dad? It’s Jody.”

“Oh? Well, how are you?”

I pause, not falling for the new trick. Anyone else might be suckered into continuing the conversation. He used to compensate for his hearing loss by nodding and smiling. People actually thought he had heard and agreed with them.

“Dad, do know who this is?”

“Uh, I believe you said…”

“It’s your eldest, Jody, your daughter, in California,” I reel off the qualifiers that might jog what’s left of his precarious memory. Swiss cheese, his doctor explained. Some things fall right on through; some things stick. I’ve fallen through this time. My heart hurts though I’ve learned not to take it personally.

“My daughter?” the holes reduce to colander size.

“Yep. Jody.”

“Oh, well Jody, how are you sweetie? What are you up to today?”

There he is; there’s my Dad. I breathe fully for the first time in minutes. Tears puddle behind my eyes. If I were there, we’d both be crying now, he in frustration with the fathomless fog that separates him from his family, and me in the sweet agony of capturing fleeting moments of my father.

We talk a while about family, work, those things of the moment. Then I refer back to the past where the fluidity of his mind is more able to find a rock on which to anchor. I remind him of a time when I was eight years old and I won a game chest for writing the best essay in the ‘My Pops Is Tops’ category of a contest sponsored by a local magazine. My Dad has always been my hero. I remind him of this and hear his soft chuckle.

“If there’s a bright side to all this,” he said as we were winding up the conversation, “it’s that I get to discover over and over again that I have a daughter who loves me.” A tear slid down my cheek. “It’s like unwrapping the best Christmas present, without having to wait until—when is it that we have Christmas?”

“December, Dad,” I smile.

“I knew that. I was just testing you. Love you, honey. Call again soon. Ten, fifteen minutes should do,” he chuckled.

“Love you, Dad. Bye.”

This memory is in honor of my Dad who died just short of his 86th birthday.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On Mirrors and Metaphors

In a recent Sunday talk at the Center for Spiritual Living where I recharge my spiritual battery every week, Rev. Edward Viljoen retold a story from Robert Fulghum that used the metaphor of the mirror to explore life’s purpose. Ever watchful for stories that will fit under my umbrella of creativity, my eye is always snagged by a good metaphor. I couldn’t find a little round hand mirror, so the picture above is the mirrored coat tree in my living room. You get the idea—it reflects light into dark places. May your light shine.

A Greek philosopher and teacher ended a lecture asking, “Are there any questions? In the audience was Robert Fulghum who asked, “Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”

Fulghum relates: “The usual laughter followed, and people started to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. ‘I will answer your question,’ he said. Then taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into it and brought out a very small, round mirror, about the size of a quarter. Then he said, ‘When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and e lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found several broken pieces of a mirror from a wrecked German motorcycle. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would not shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

I kept this little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.’

‘I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have, I can reflect light into the dark places of this world – into the black places in the hearts of men – and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’ “And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my hands folded on the desk.” Robert Fulghum’s Official Website

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Tin Man

My sister Sus, who lives in Connecticut, meets the most remarkable people. In childhood, as her older sister, I taught her to share; so I benefit from her being out there in the world. Let me introduce you to Charlie Lucas, otherwise known as the Tin Man.

Charlie is known in the Outsider Art world. He takes little bits of not very much that he finds here and there and creates amazing works of art that reflect his heritage and his unique perspective on life. He’s a soft-spoken southern sweetheart with an unassuming manner that belies his brilliance. Please take a moment to check out his website (don’t forget the video tours). It will make you smile.

If you like the website, sister Sus designed it. She can be reached at

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Garlic Press and a Book of Stamps

Who knew that a phone conversation with my daughter regarding Christmas plans would result in a moment of clarity about the importance of the little things in life? It goes like this:

“So, Mom, is there anything special I can get you for Christmas this year?” Her voice has that here we go again edge to it.

“You know, I’d love a garlic press and a book of stamps,” I answer, without a moment’s hesitation.

“Oh, Mother! A garlic press isn’t something you ask for for Christmas. And stamps you buy every week.”

“But, honey, I want a garlic press. I want that more than anything!” I try in vain. “And I’m tired of having to buy stamps every week--that would be a great gift!”

She sighs. “Look,” she says as reasonably as her frustration allows, “suppose, just hypothetically, I could buy you a house. Would you still want a garlic press more than anything?”

“What kind of a house?” I ask. “I wouldn’t want just any old house, just any old where,” I add.

“You’re kidding, right? You could sell it if you didn’t like it.”

“Why would I want it if I was just going to sell it? That’s too much trouble.” I hear a low groan on the other end of the phone.

“Forget the house. What if I could buy you a car? Would you want a garlic press more than a car?” she continues to try and make her point.

“What kind of a car?” I ask.

“Mom! It doesn’t matter what kind of a car—a car is a car is a car.”

“There are some cars I wouldn’t drive—too big, you know?”

The conversation continues with my daughter’s voice becoming more strained by the minute.

“Honey, just send a card. Really, a card would be lovely.”

On Christmas morning, I retrieve a small package from under the tree with a tag on it that reads, ‘To Mom with love. Merry Christmas’. It rattles in its box. There is hope. I unwrap it slowly and savor the possibility.

I find a lovely box of assorted incense, and a beautifully wrapped bar of imported lavender soap, my favorite.

I call my daughter and thank her profusely for the wonderful Christmas gifts. She knows I have a penchant for incense and soap.

Then, I open my Day Planner and make a note on Saturday’s page. Errands: post office/stamps; grocery/garlic press.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Art You Can Sit On

Art You Can Sit On

I’ve always admired functional art, whether in clothing (kimonos, beautiful velvet scarves), dishware (hand-thrown one of a kind pottery), furniture (antiques with inlaid wood, beautiful hand-crafted curves and fitted corners), or jewelry (dangling beaded earrings). My city has a program called the ArtStart Bench Series where local artists, including children, beautify the downtown park benches. I had lunch the other day on Salvador Dali. Alfred Hitchcock was nearby. The fanciful musings of creative minds have made park bench sitting a gallery experience. Whether people watching, pigeon feeding, or just hanging out reading a book, you become part of the art. To get an up close and personal look at the benches above, click on the photos.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Quilt of Souls

Over the years in my day job as a psychotherapist, I’ve heard thousands of ‘stories’, none of which I can share outside of my consultation group; stories of courage, of heartbreak, of inconceivable suffering and loss, of creative growth and transformation, all of which have moved and molded me in some way.

Occasionally a client’s story will continue to haunt me. Even though the therapy has terminated, the images linger in my consciousness. As a way of processing the material while maintaining confidentiality, I turn to fiction, my favorite form of creativity.

Quilt of Souls is a story of five pages. I’m going to post it all in one sitting, so this will be a long one. The picture above is a painting that I found at a garage sale years ago (artist unknown). It speaks to me of many things, but perfectly illustrates this story. Welcome to my world:

Quilt of Souls

“Shhh, baby, baby, Momma’s sleepin’,” crooned seven-year-old Natalie to baby Landry wailing crocodile tears from the folds of her cradle. Natalie brushed back frizzy, dry hair like September wheat, from her own face and tucked it behind a delicate ear as she bent to free the infant from her swaddling. The back of her hand felt the wetness of soggy cradle sheet and her palm moistened with baby pee.

The room was hot and stuffy like the inside of an old trunk. There was not enough light to avoid tripping over the bottles strewn about the carpet, leaking rank fumes and amber liquid.

Landry continued howling like an alley cat in heat, her face red and swollen, her body reflecting the hot summer day. Natalie peeled off layers of blankets and threw them across the room in the general direction of the bucket. Baby pee didn’t smell so bad, she thought, as she laid Landry on a mostly clean towel. Not like the pee that puddles up under Momma. Dang, she wished she were at the swimming pool with Adele and Shank.

Out on the street she heard Butch, cussin’ out some poor bastard who happened to park in the curb space Butch considered his very own. She shook her head, the way a wet dog does, to try to get the sound of his voice out of her. When he had turned that shout on her, she had pulled so far inside she had near disappeared.

“It’s okay, Landry, I’m not gonna disappear on you,” she reassured the baby and herself. “You and me, someday we’re gonna get outta here. Open us up an ice cream store. Sell balloons and kites, too,” she sang the familiar mantra of better days ahead.

The baby, quiet now, stared up at her with eyes like saucers of fear and dread. Her tiny mouth sucked silently on her thumb as if it offered sustenance and protection from the evil so small a being should never have known.

An ambulance careened into the alley. The scream of the siren cut through the summer dusk scattering children playing Kick the Can, neighbors catching the first waft of cool evening breeze from rickety fire escapes, and stray cats rubbing against overflowing garbage pails. Bodies dispersed only to reconvene in morbid curiosity as the paramedics rushed up the steps of the brownstone.

“Stand back, folks,” Ed Fontaine used his bulk to clear a path through the onlookers to the open door of Number 11. He usually worked crowd control, leaving his partner La Rue quick access to triage. Ed never developed a stomach for being first on the scene.

“Oh, pee-euw!” said old Mrs. Hickey from across the hall. She reeled against her doorframe and covered her mouth and nose with the back of her liver-spotted hand.

From the far reaches of clouded consciousness, Cora heard Butch’s voice full of venom hiss, “Go on bitch, die. Do the world a favor.” Then, from nearer, “on my count, one, two, three...” and her body was shifted onto a hard surface. Then blackness all around.

In the ambulance, La Rue called in their ETA along with the alcohol and barbiturate overdose of 54 year old white female, Cora Buckley.

“Amen,” whispered Marvel as she finished her daily prayer for Jazelle’s soul and blew out the white candle on her altar. A slow drip of molten wax worked its way down the candle and melded into the silk scarf she used as an altar cloth.

The acidy sounds of The Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit blared from the shabby speakers balanced on a warped board that served as the dining table. They never ate at the table as Jazelle preferred a collection of TV trays that she’d decoupaged with pictures of bejeweled, toothy actors and actresses from her movie magazines.

Jazelle exhaled sweet, pungent smoke from her nose, leaving vapor trails in the air. “And the ones your mother gave you don’t do anything at all,” she sang in a sultry Grace Slick impersonation. Her big gold hoop earrings bobbled against her chin as she shook her head, flinging her sleek black hair over her shoulders and back again. Enough of all this gloom and doom, she was having herself a par-ty.

Baby Landry’s red-eyed gaze looked detached and far away through the cloud of smoke, but she was quiet now.

“Would you like to light a candle and pray for anyone, Natalie?” Marvel offered. “I’m praying for Cora. I figure she could use all the prayers she can get, locked up in that hospital.

“I don’t have much use for prayer,” Natalie said, keeping her voice even. “What kind of God would let this happen anyway?”

“Saint Marvel probably has an answer for that, don’t you Marvel?” asked Jazelle in a dreamy voice, swaying to the music in the middle of the room with the baby in her arms. The infant’s limbs hung limply and wobbled to the beat.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Marvel’s voice was full of quiet conviction. “I believe She’s working through us right now, to bring strength and hope to Cora,” she said.

Across town, in a dimly lit back room of the Psych. Ward at St. Boniface, Cora stirred in the muss of sheets, wet with sweat and tears. Her own stench made her nauseous.

“Damn, that was a stupid thing you did back there. You could’ve burned the whole place down with that lit cigarette that fell on the floor. What a cow,” Butch spared no mercy.

“Shut up! Shut up and go away. Leave me alone,” Cora managed to rasp out through a parched throat. Her scalp itched and the skin on her face burned. Every muscle felt as though it had been stretched taut then let go. She took the fear and despair she felt, loosened a brick in the wall of her emotional well, stuffed the feelings in, and tamped the brick back securely in place.

“You wouldn’t last a day without me, you idiot. Who the hell you think takes care of things when you’re shit-faced? I don’t know why I bother with the likes of you,” he harangued.

A young nurse with pale blonde hair pulled back in a long braid that swung as she crossed the room, scribbled notes in a manila chart and checked the white paper cup the pills came in to make sure it was empty. She made no eye contact, didn’t speak. Cora sensed that the woman was holding her breath.

“Could I get a drink--Cait?” she asked, noting the nurse’s name badge.

“Yeah,” whispered Butch, “just throw a liter of whiskey in the bag. Heh, heh. Cait,” he smirked just loud enough for Cora to hear, “not K-a-t-e, but C-a-i-t. Sheesh. Must be from California.”

Cora’s head was pounding. Cait Plunkett, LVN, answered in a voice that felt like Graham cracker crumbs in the bed. “Ice, you can have ice,” she said, looking at Cora’s chin. She turned abruptly and left the room.

“Flo Nightengale she ain’t,” muttered Butch.

“Leave me alone!” Cora shouted, pressing her temples and squinting against the pain.

“You don’t speak to me like that, woman.” Butch was on her like a junkyard dog. Before she knew what was happening, he had yanked her by the arm out of bed and onto the floor. She heard a soft thud on her way down as her head met the corner of the drawer that had been pulled out from the bedside table. Blood oozed down the front of her white hospital gown. Her vision blurred and a searing pain finally caught up with her.

A keening cry that Cora didn’t realize was her own, brought an attendant on the run, followed by Nurse Plunkett. Butch had vanished.

Back in the apartment, Natalie sat on the edge of the bed, rocking back and forth. “She’s not coming back, I know it,” she cried. She had used up all of her patience trying to calm Landry who had kept up a steady wail for the last hour. Her nerves were shot. She was scared.

“Oh, she’ll be just fine,” Jazelle patted her leg. “Have another brownie. You want more Coke?” she asked as she reached for a tube of lipstick on the nightstand. With a deft hand, she applied a layer of ice-pink over her lips, followed by another, and another. She flashed a butter- cream frosting smile at the mirror.

Natalie felt the mattress indent as Marvel curled up behind her, wrapped her arms loosely around her and whispered in her ear, “Pray with me.”

“Oh for heaven sake, Marvel, why don’t you pray that baby shuts up pretty soon or we’ll all be in the nut house!” Jazelle said.

As if plugged into an invisible battery, Landry launched into an even more vigorous outpouring of ear-splitting, raw emotion. Natalie sobbed quietly. Marvel began a “Hail Mary.” Jazelle reached for her nail polish.

In his own private world far away, Butch swore under his breath, “I’ll show you who is boss. Next time I just might kill you.”

An attendant wheeled Cora into an office on the second floor of the hospital. “Good morning, Cora. I’m Doctor Morgan Craul. You may call me Morgan. I’ll be your therapist for the next few weeks.”

“Okay,” Cora mustered. She couldn’t keep her mind focused. Why was she here?

“Do you know where you are, Cora?” Morgan asked. Her voice was calming. She seemed genuinely concerned. Cora nodded.

“Could you tell me where you are please,” Morgan was more specific this time. She looked into eyes that shifted like sand in the dunes. She knew that look.

“Damn, lady, if you don’t know, you’re in worse shape than I am.”

Morgan blinked at the deep voice, the hostile tone. She drew in a slow breath, settled back in her chair and said, “Hello, I’m Morgan. What may I call you?”

“You may call me a cab so I can get the hell outa here,” Butch answered. “She doesn’t need you, so why don’t you go do your do-gooding somewhere else, okay?” He leaned forward, hands braced on the seat of the couch, as if readying himself to lunge.

“Who else do you speak for?” Morgan asked. “May I speak to another?” She waited and watched the shift of energy, the carriage of the body, the melding of the eyes from one personality to another.

Unguarded tears ran from the eyes of the exhausted child who appeared before her.

“I can’t make her stop crying,” she said in a small voice. “I don’t know what to do,” she sighed, and pulled her legs up onto the couch, hugging them close to her body with her arms.

“How old are you, and what may I call you?” Morgan asked softly.

“Natalie. I’m seven. And I have to take care of baby Landry.”

“That’s a terribly big job for a seven-year old girl. Do you have any help?” Morgan prompted.

“Jazelle is supposed to be watching us. And Marvel.” Natalie blew her nose with the Kleenex Morgan handed her. “But they’re really not much help,” again, a jagged little sigh that sounded like a whimper.

“I’d like to be of help, if I could,” Morgan offered. “Do you suppose I could speak to Jazelle or Marvel? And, I’d like to talk to you again in a bit, if that would be okay.” Morgan wondered what trauma had left a seven-year old in charge of the system.

The gate was open. It was unusual to have so much revealed at the first session. She wondered if Cora had any idea.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Everything is Fair Game

I’m thinking back to my second earliest memory of crouching over a mud puddle in the dirt driveway—I must have been three at most. The rain had cleared, and the sun shone on this mini-pond of water where oil residue floated from the family’s old Chevrolet.

I distinctly remember trailing my pointer finger through the puddle rearranging the rainbow that danced and swirled on the surface of the water. If I tapped the surface gently, little ripples of color spread in concentric circles. In my memory, I was there for a long time (it could have been minutes in child-time), experimenting with different media—a piece of gravel dropped from standing up height, a leaf floated on top. To a child (and I’m hoping to some adults), the world is a big canvas and everything is fair game for art.

All these many years later, the surface of the water in my hot tub when the moon reflects there making beautiful kanji that shape shifts with the slightest movement fills me with the same child-like awe and wonder.

Cloud art is still a favorite pastime from childhood. Ever shifting, what may appear as a princess on a camel at one moment turns into a cat eating an ice cream cone the next. Do you see the salamander in the cloud picture above? Click on it to make it bigger.

Leaves that float along the edge of the creek in a pattern that suggests a story, textured plaster on ceilings and walls (what do you see in the white picture above?), the arrangement of moss on a tree, are all sources of art expressing itself if you take time to look.

The water-trickles on the glass door of my shower have become a favorite canvas. I stumbled on this accidentally. Reaching for the towel I’d tossed over the rim of the shower, I splashed water on the steamy door. The splashes trickled down in an odd pattern. As I watched mesmerized three little children took form. I used my little finger to fill in some detail and found to my delight they were holding hands dancing in a circle. Not being an artist (my sister got that gene), I wasn’t able to recreate the picture once I was out of the shower. But for a moment, serendipity and I created a sweet piece of art there in the shower stall.

If you let your mind be a playground, you’ll never be bored. Creativity is free, and you don’t need anyone else to play.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Spirit Expressing

Midweek update:

In my blog dated 10/27/09, I mentioned that the month of November is dedicated to creative expression in its many forms at the Center for Spiritual Living . A regular contributor is Monty Monty , a found-object composition artist (see heart art above). Each year I wait excitedly to see what marvelous creation he’ll pull together using the most unlikely pieces of unrelated material.

That’s sort of like community; a lot of unique and (seemingly)unrelated people come together to experience the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, and who know that when we gather, something wonderful is created which is dependent on each and every individual. Without one, the outcome would be a whole different 'piece of art'. I wish for you a good balance of individual and community expression that will enrich your life and the lives of those around you.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Part 2 Housemate From Hell

Continuing on from my last post:

A week before the Ronald event, I set my alarm for six A.M., turned off my light and watched the ten o’clock news from bed. By the time the automatic timer clicked the T.V. off at ten-thirty, I was sound asleep.
Just after midnight, Deirdre pounded on my door.

“Sharm, Sharm...did you call me?” she hollered through the closed door. Her voice had that hysterical edge to it.

I turned over, fumbled for the bedside light.

“Sharm? Are you in there?” Deirdre demanded. Bang, bang. “I heard you call my name.”

I pulled myself to a sitting position. “I didn’t call you,” I hollered back at the bedroom door.

Deirdre opened the door and stuck her head into the room. “But, I heard someone call my name and you’re the only one here,” she insisted.

How do you prove to someone that you didn’t do something? Was it even worth trying?

“Deirdre, go back to bed. I didn’t call you. I was asleep until you woke me just now,” I tried to keep my voice steady.

Hands on hips, Deidre insisted, “But I know it was you.”

“GET OUT OF MY ROOM!” I yelled, shaking my fist, and yes, even baring my teeth.

“Well!” Deirdre said, her voice huffy. “You don’t have to be such a bitch.” She yanked my door shut with such force the walls rattled. A framed picture of Quoin Yin, goddess of compassion, fell with a crash, tossing shards of glass into the carpet like Pick-Up-Sticks.

A week later, at 3:30 A.M., Deirdre burst through my bedroom door and switched on the overhead light. The door slamming into the telephone stand and 100 watts flooding the room yanked me from a deep sleep.

“Get the fuck out of bed and come clean up your mess!” she screamed, red faced, eyes bulging.

I sat bolt upright, shook my head, blinked a few times and said, “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Oh, yeah, like you don’t know. Get up, asshole!” she demanded. She shook her clenched fists and took a menacing step through the doorway. “You flooded the toilet with your feces and waste just to mess with me. I know what you’re trying to do.”

It was like a scene out of Mommie Dearest, and it took everything in my power to remain rational. I had a choice here. I could watch her psychotic break from the vantage of my bed and hope she didn’t hurl herself at me, or I could drag myself into the bathroom and unclog the toilet which was, indeed, overflowing with toilet paper and excrement. Deirdre stormed back into her own room, slammed the door, all the while muttering about conspiracies.

“Did you call the police?” Beth asked the next morning.

“And tell them what? My housemate plugged up the toilet and blamed me? Yeah, right. I’m sure that would be high priority, right up there with armed robbery and rape,” I grumbled.

I waited for the next step. Blevins promised me a process server would contact Deirdre in a few days to inform her she was being evicted. I worked later and later at the bank to avoid having any contact with Deirdre. It didn’t work.

“Well, you’re finally home,” Deirdre sniped at me as I opened the back door that led into the kitchen.

“I just wanted to tell you I’ve taken the mail box off the porch and asked the carrier to slip all the mail through the slot in the front door,” she whined.

“Why on earth would you do something like that?” I said, appalled. I’d hung the expensive, handcrafted, artsy mailbox that color-coordinated with the freshly painted porch just before I began showing the place. Curb appeal, Beth had called it.

Even worse, the front door was part of Deirdra’s rental. I had no access to the room that was now receiving my mail, which made me completely dependent on the good will of Deirdre.

“That’s, that’s--unacceptable,” I searched feebly for the right word for this latest insanity.

“Well,” Deirdre simpered, “I know you’ve been stealing my mail, so I’m just taking control of the situation. I’ll bring your mail into the kitchen in the evening,” she said with a little pout.

Deirdre’s mail consisted of movie magazines, coupon offers, and a handful of bills, which went upaid.

“It’s mail fraud, or something, isn’t it?” Beth asked during our nightly phone conversation.

“I don’t think so--not unless she withholds my mail,” I said. “She’s crafty. She walks just on the inside of the line. I don’t know how much longer I can last,” I said as tears welled up.

“Five days max, right? She’ll be gone,” Beth said, trying to reassure me.

“I suppose,” I said sighing deeply.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, I sat at my office desk staring at the computer. Words swam incomprehensibly on the screen. I placed a call to Blevin’s office.

“That woman--she’s still here. Why is she still here?” I pleaded.

“Can’t serve someone who’s not there, can ya?” Blevins replied. For this I am paying a dollar a minute.
“What do you mean she’s not there? She’s home every day, all day, sleeping.” My grip on rationality began to slip. I paced my cubicle.

“Process server says no car in the driveway, no answer at the door. Can’t get blood from a turnip, girlie,” he summed. “If she comes home…”

“I’m telling you she IS home; she’s just not answering the damned door.” I could feel my face burn with fury.

“As I was saying,” Blevins continued slowly, deliberately, as if addressing a slow child, “if you know she’s home, call the process server at this number right away. They’ll know what to do.”

I hung up after jotting down the cell phone number and sat glaring at the receiver as if it had somehow betrayed me.

“Jen, can you cover for me? I’ve got to run home for a moment,” I called over my shoulder to my secretary.

“Somethin’ to do with your crazy housemate, honey?” Jen asked. I don’t like mixing my work life with my personal life, so had kept the details minimal when Jen asked about the dark circles under my eyes.

“Yeah, sort of,” I said, grabbing my jacket.

“Hoo-eee,” Jen shook her head, “you can’t get rid of one and I can’t find one. Life’s unfair, that’s what I’m tellin’ you,” I heard her rant as I headed out the side door.

Traffic was light, and in five minutes, I pulled up against the curb in front of my brown-shingled bungalow on Foxwood. The driveway was empty of the usual powder blue Escort that marked Deirdre’s territory. Deirdre had taken over the driveway when she moved in, just as she’d taken over the front porch, the back deck, and the mail box. The driveway had been a concession due to her claim of a hip injury that made walking distances difficult. The resulting hostage taking of the deck and porch, were of the give an inch, take a mile variety.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I muttered. “I know she’s in there.”

I shifted into first gear and drove to the corner. Impulsively, I turned left, deciding to circle the block. Left at the next corner, and there it was, in the middle of the next block, nestled between a mini-van and a Dodge pick-up.

“Ah ha!” I yelled. An older man in a tattered green coat walking a beagle raised an eyebrow as he hurried on past. I gripped the steering wheel to steady my shaking hands. I felt a rush of heat move from my belly, up my neck, and flood over my face. I clenched my teeth to stop them from rattling. My whole body vibrated with rage.

I screeched into the driveway and slammed through the back entrance of the house. I charged over to the phone that set on the night table and punched in the number Blevins had given me.

You’ve reached John ace process server. Leave me a message and I’ll call you right back, the recording went through the usual litany. I didn’t know if he meant John, ace process server, or John Ace, process server. And did it matter? He wasn’t there. I left my number, a two-word message, “Call me,” and hung up.

“Great, now I can’t leave.” Again, I felt that sense of being a captive in my own home. I reached for the phone to call Jen to let her know I’d been detained. What if John tries to call while I’m on the phone?

I sat, imprisoned in my chair staring at the phone. “Right back, right back,” I chanted, as if saying it would make it so.

Half an hour later, the phone’s sharp ring jarred me out of a doze of boredom. John would be right over. “All right, let’s get this show on the road.” I smiled as I hung up the phone, filled with hope, knowing the end was in sight.

The front door slammed at just that moment. I bolted for the window in time to see Deirdre bustling down the sidewalk in the direction of her car.

“How could she have possibly known?” I whined to John on his cell phone.

“I know; it’s uncanny, isn’t it?” he sympathized. “Listen, just call me, day or night, when she returns.” He hung up.

She didn’t return that night, or the next. Instead of the good night’s sleep I hoped for, I was hypervigilent, waiting for any sound that would suggest Deirdre had snuck back into the house.

Walking down the driveway Monday morning, I cast a glance at the front door to see if there was any sign of life in the front half of the house. The large window to the left of the door caught my eye. The curtains were gone.

“What the....” I turned and took the front porch steps two at a time. With my nose smashed against the window glass I stared in disbelief at the empty room.

I tried the doorknob that turned easily in my hand. As if moving through a fog, I stepped into the vacant room. The bedroom was also empty. In the middle of the floor there was a tattered piece of paper with a scribbled message:

I find you too abusive to live with any longer without risking my health. I don’t know why you’re so mean. I know rent was due last Friday, but I need that money to find a better place to live. You can return my deposit to my post office box. Deirdre.

“When hell freezes over,” I shouted.

“The nerve of her, leaving me like that,” I said to Beth from my office phone.

“Hey, didn’t you say you wanted her out at any cost?” Beth said. “You didn’t blink an eye at the retainer Blevins charged you...”

“Yeah, yeah,” I cut her off.

“She’s gone. That’s what’s important. She’s not in your life anymore. You’ll never have to cross paths with her again. Let it go,” Beth admonished.

“Thanks for the reality check,” I said. “Talk to you later.”

I sat staring at my desk calendar, pondering how fate had dealt me an unexpected hand. Beth was right, it was worth any amount of money lost in bills or rent to be rid of her. I felt my shoulders relax for the first time in months as I stretched my neck and rolled my head around in a slow circle.

“Gone, really gone,” I said, smiling.

“Say what?” Jen called from the door. “You talkin’ to yourself again?”

“Jen, you’re not going to believe this...”

“Hey, my news first,” Jen interrupted. “This is God in action, I swear,” she said, raising her hand in the air.

“You’ll never guess what happened. I just rented my spare room! After a month and a half, I was so desperate, I’d have rented it to the Devil,” she grinned. “Poor woman said she was leaving an abusive landlord situation.” Jen made a tsking sound and shook her head. “What’s this world coming to?”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Housemate From Hell - part one

Life as fiction. Uh huh, you know what I’m talking about. It’s when something so horrendous happens that you can laugh, cry, have a nervous breakdown, or turn it into a story. I’m offering this story in two parts. I’ve still not mastered the short story genre. My short stories are too long, my novels are too short…somewhere in there I’ve tried a couple of novellas and seem to find comfort in that length. Housemate from Hell is a longish short story. Part One:

Housemate from Hell

“What do you want?” demanded the hunched-over demented looking little man peering around a metal file cabinet in the narrow reception room. The man’s nose was cross-hatched with red veins and his eyes bleared a nephritic yellow.

“I’m looking for ‘Show-no-mercy Blevins’,” I said. “Would that be you?” I could hardly contain a smirk at the thought that this character out of The Brothers Grimm could be the eviction lawyer Beth had raved about.

“Who would you be...and why would I be interested?” he sneered, sidestepping my question.

“I’d be Sharmalyn Burrell and you’d be interested because I have a check for $500 made out to Paul Blevins,” I said, not missing a beat.

The strange little man smacked his thigh and chortled. “I like your spunk, girlie,” he wheezed, as if sixty-some years of tobacco smoke had swathed his lungs and now rattled up through his larynx in a phlegmy cough.

I weighed the value of challenging the ‘girlie’ part and decided to put it on the back burner.

“So what’cher problem?” he hacked a mustard colored glob into a tissue he pulled from his trouser pocket.

I shrunk back slightly as the repugnant old geezer slammed the file drawer shut with his elbow and ambled my way. Suspenders. He was wearing plaid suspenders over a dingy white shirt. I shuddered and wondered briefly if this was his Court appearance attire.

“Housemate from hell,” I said, “crazy as a loon. I can’t stand it anymore.” My spunky demeanor began to dissolve and slide along with the tear that made its way down my cheek. Damn, I hate crybabies.

I flattened myself against the wall as Blevins squeezed past me, diffusing the scent of dirty underwear, and followed him down the short hallway to a small, dimly lit room that served as his law library. A battered wooden table filled most of the floor space. Six chairs upholstered in burgundy vinyl with stuffing escaping through tears in the fabric were slammed up against the table in a claustrophobic attempt to create the illusion that important meetings were held in this room. Dusty shelves crammed with color- coded law books ran ceiling to floor on three walls.

“Sit down, girlie, we’ve got papers to fill out,” he pointed to a chair. “You do what I tell ya, and we’ll have her candy ass out on the curb in a week or less,” he said, slapping the table with his pudgy palm. “Show-no-mercy Blevins, huh? Hah! That’s a good one.” Another cough rattled his chest.

Six months ago, Deirdre, mid-forties, shaped like a wine barrel, hair dyed ebony, came into my life. With three days until rent was due, the slightly anxious woman had seemed a godsend.

“I’ve been living in a motel for several months,” she’d confided in her breathy, asthmatic voice. “I simply must find a permanent place where I can stay forever,” she simpered.

I focused on the intent, not the content. Permanent renter, no more days of advertising my share rental, screening calls, interviewing loonies who were looking for housing because no one else would rent to them. No more dips into savings to cover the rent. So the woman was a little anxious. I could handle anxious.

“Sign those, at the “x” there,” Blevins slid a pile of forms in front of me, snapping me back to the present.

“What are they?”

“Don’t worry about it, just sign ‘em,” he said, busying himself with another stack of papers he’d extracted from his battered leather briefcase, mended with duct tape. “Trust me, I’m on your side, girlie,” he wheezed and spat once more.

I was not comforted by this.

Blevins asked questions and filled in blanks with a curiously childlike script.

“Here’s what’cha do. Follow these directions,” he handed me a short list. “You think you can follow three simple steps, girlie?” he fixed his jaundiced gaze on me.

“For god sake, I run a branch office of a bank. Yeah, I think I can handle three steps,” I said, my patience with Blevins having hit the wall.

“There’s no room for creativity here. Just follow the directions. One. Two. Three,” he ticked off three fat fingers in front of his face. “Then call me. Leave a message that you’re done. Got that?”

“I think I got that,” I said, my sarcasm was lost on him. “And then what? I mean, how soon will she be out?” I hated that my voice cracked with desperation.

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll tell you whatcha need to know when ya need to know it,” he said, gathering up papers and shoving them back into the briefcase.

I needed air. I slid the check across the table and left the library.

“What a nut case,” I muttered to myself on my way through the reception area.

“I beg your pardon?” queried an elderly receptionist with frosted hair who had been nowhere in sight when I arrived. She arched a penciled-in eyebrow at me.

“Uh, I said, glad he’s on my case--Mr. Blevins, that is.” I offered a feeble smile and slipped out the front door.

The sun was warm on my face although the temperature wasn’t expected to reach fifty. I sunk behind the wheel of my orange VW Bug and felt as flat and empty as a blown tire. My stomach rumbled. Visions of corndogs danced in my head. I started the engine and headed toward The Doggie Haus.

“No more veggies, ever,” I swore. For the last week, to avoid crossing paths with Deirdre in the kitchen, each evening I had armed myself with a bag of veggies and box of Ritz crackers I munched in my room with the door closed. There was a limit to the amount of broccoli I could consume. Breakfast wasn’t a problem, as Deirdre didn’t rise until four or five in the afternoon.

As I pulled into a parking spot and turned off her ignition, I noticed the stack of Deirdre’s unpaid share of the bills I’d forgotten to leave with Blevins. “Ugh,” I grunted, as much at the oversight necessitating another trip to Blevin’s office, as the memory of confronting Deirdre about the gas, garbage, phone, and water bills.

“Gee, I just don’t seem to have enough to cover those bills,” she’d simpered. “Maybe you could just pay them since they’re in your name. Wouldn’t want you to get in trouble now, would we?” she’d giggled. She had actually giggled.

I shoved the door to The Doggie Haus harder than was necessary banging it against an overflowing wastebasket. An array of dirty paper products streaked with catsup and mustard tumbled out onto the floor.

At the counter, a pimply-faced youth dressed in a weenie uniform took my order. As I carried my tray toward an empty corner table, a girlish voice called my name. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Deirdre waving wildly from a booth along the window.

“Sharm, Sharm...over here,” Deirdre called.

Without turning my head, I set my tray on a table in the corner, and feigned returning to the condiment hutch for catsup. I passed the hutch and walked on out the door, nausea chasing me like a bad doggie.

If I drove home quickly, I could commandeer my veggie bag and cracker box before Deirdre returned. I felt like a fugitive in my own home.

“Why don’t you call the police?” my neighbor Beth’s voice demanded on the other end of the phone after hearing the latest housemate horror story.

“Beth, it’s not like she was stalking me. We both just wound up at the weenie place at the same time. It just creeped me out is all,” I sighed.

It was Beth I called after each incident to get a sanity check. It was Beth who suggested eviction. It was Beth who referred me to Paul Blevins. The closest I had ever come to interacting with the legal system was watching Law and Order on late night television. I tried to think of life with Deirdre as possible script material—woman found strangled in suburban kitchen.

“That girl is bad news. Why you’ve let it go this long is beyond me,” Beth said when I told her about Ronald.

Ronald was Deirdre’s boyfriend, an older guy, skinny as a rail and half the height of a telephone pole. Ronald drove up from the City every weekend. Deirdre would reimburse him for his gas-guzzling old Desoto. The rest of the weekend, she would berate him for being a lousy excuse of a man, and he’d cower and apologize. Go figure.

One Saturday night, around ten o’clock, Ronald banged on my bedroom door.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” he began. “Can I borrow ten dollars from you? I need to get out of here,” he looked back over his shoulder toward the kitchen. “She’s crazy--she won’t give me gas money to leave. She pulled out a can of mace,” he said. He spread his hands and shrugged hugely.

I gave Ronald a ten and wished him good luck. I never saw Ronald again.

A week before the Ronald event, I set my alarm for six A.M., turned off my light and watched the ten o’clock news from bed. By the time the automatic timer clicked the T.V. off at ten-thirty, I was sound asleep.

Just after midnight, Deirdre pounded on my door.

“Sharm, Sharm...did you call me?” she hollered through the closed door. Her voice had that hysterical edge to it. STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO…

Saturday, October 31, 2009

It's More Than Just a Charlie Brown Moment

It’s Halloween and the autumn leaves crunch beneath my feet as I shuffle down the sidewalk, kicking little puffs of them up into the air and listening as they land with a soft thip, thip. The air is filled with the fragrance of hearth fires, candle wax, and singed jack-o’-lanterns. Orange persimmons hang like heavy globes from the trees and pumpkins grow among lush vines in the garden.

It is the time of the harvest. In my neck of the woods, the grapes are being harvested from the vineyards. Large, succulent, and sweet, they fill lumbering gondolas with varying shades of purple and green.

It is a time of honoring our ancestors, celebrating the Day of the Dead. The veil is thin and spirits cross over. Tonight I light a candle on my altar, chant a blessing to those family members and friends who have died this year. Blessed Be to you and yours.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Nature as Art

When it comes to creativity expressing itself, you just can’t mess with Mother Nature. She’ll win hands down every time. That said, in November at the Center for Spiritual Living (, the whole month is devoted to art and creativity. I’m always humbled to be amidst the mysterious and beautiful expressions of art in all its forms. People who may pass anonymously among the throngs all year suddenly hang a watercolor or weaving, place a carving in wood or marble, present a collection of unlikely objects put together to solicit a chuckle or a whisper of awe, or play a piece of music that brings tears to the eyes. Stunning and fantastic jewelry, pottery, quilts, poetry by young and old fill the social hall in a riot of color and texture. The room takes on the crackle and vibration of creative energy.

Toward the end of September each year I feel my body being lulled into the suggestion of winter. I yawn more; I eat more and exercise less. There’s a thickness that begins to settle in my bones and an ache to find my cave and crawl in for the long months ahead. This shot of adrenaline every November jars me out of my stupor and jump starts my own creativity. I pull out my box of clips from magazines and assemble collages on recipe-sized cards, or shop for interesting ingredients to make an exquisite and hefty stew. Those heavy, minor chord songs seem to find their way into my mind and down onto paper during the dark months, or I might take a piece of writing from my own personal slush file and rework it with a concentration that sometimes eludes me in the spring. My favorite thing of course is to fold myself into a comfy chair with a blankey over my lap and read myself into blissful oblivion, cozying up to someone else’s creative expression.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Isn't It Great When Things Just Work

Short post this week. I’ve been pondering how a series of small events, each unique in its own right and perhaps not an obvious part of the whole, can nonetheless impact the outcome. Without each piece in place, the outcome would be different. Sounds like life, right?

As I look back over my journey from childhood in a small semi-rural town in Iowa, to finding my place in a larger city as an adolescent, through individuating and launching myself into adulthood by joining VISTA, moving back and forth across the country, then marrying, moving, divorcing, moving again, marrying again, beginning a new career, having a child, completing my education, divorcing again, changing careers, coming out as a lesbian, partnering several times, stepping out as a writer, singer, actress, songwriter, and now moving into a new role as grandmother…all of that, the good and the challenging, made me, well, me. Some of the experiences were discordant and I couldn’t see how they were all going to fit into what I’d hoped to create as a fulfilling life. Some of the experiences I might have chosen to bypass at the time, but that would have altered the outcome.

Being a visual person, I’m offering yet another amazing video (thanks, Sis) that illustrates this point. In another lifetime perhaps I’ll try advertising. This IS creativity in action. Know as you watch that if just one piece were removed, the course would forever be altered. “Isn’t it great when things just work”:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Co-create With Me

In my post of 9/24/09, On Music and Miracles, I spoke about my journey as a song catcher/writer. In September I still lacked the skill to know how to add pictures to my blog. With every month, my grasp on computer technology grows about a millimeter (unless there’s a smaller measurement), and I now can add a photo here and there. Today I’ve added my recently finished song, If You Don’t Like the Music You Don’t Have To Dance. If you click on the photo, I think it gets bigger so you can actually read it, maybe even play it if you have a keyboard or piano.

I’ve been thinking about collaboration lately--not just with my “muse” who drops songs on my head like a pigeon with a sense of humor, but with actual people. YOU are actual people. Want to collaborate? I’m stuck on a song. Mostly I do minor key, dirge sort of Baltic sounding music that’s vaguely spiritual in nature. Lately, some bluesy, jazzy, cabaret sounds have found their way into my consciousness (see above).

The next song is similar, but the lyrics aren’t flowing. Want to play? This is creativity in action. So far I have a tune, and some lyrics. Again, the idea is that we are in charge of our lives, and nothing is going to happen to make things different if we keep doing the same old thing. I need an additional verse or two, or a rework of what I have. And I need a final Chorus with an actual resolution to this dilemma:

V-1: Sitting at the stop sign, waiting for the light to change.
Got my foot on the brake, waiting for my life to rearrange.
They say don’t push the river, and you can count on Fate,
But surely there’s a way in which I can participate.

Chorus: Just sitting at the stop sign, watching my life pass by.

So, if you’d like to lend some lyrics, go to the bottom of this post where it says “comments”, and click on it. If you add your e-mail, I can respond directly to you. This could be fun. I look forward to your input.

PLEASE try this: My sister sent this musical staircase link, and it’s one of the more creative ventures I’ve seen. If you’re not a FaceBook member you might need to create an account (which you can then close) to see it, but I promise, it’s worth it!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Art is in the Eyes of the Beholder

Art is in the Eyes of the Beholder

I work with psychotherapy clients around artistic blocks, self-esteem as a creative artist, issues of self-definition. At what point can you consider yourself an artist, a writer, a playwright, a photographer? Is it external acclaims—a gallery showing, a publishing contract, an opening night, or is it a state of mind? Who gets to say when we’re “there”? And who gets to decide what art IS anyway?

I remember walking through the University Art Museum in Berkeley years ago after the installation of an abstract art exhibit. I stood on the ramp, a few yards away from the largest piece so I could observe the reactions that others were having. Actually, I was looking for validation for my judgments. THIS is art? I wondered. A huge canvas painted black filled most of one wall. Dead center was a round dot of red. Yup, that was it.

“How inspired,” a young artsy woman in a beret said to her colorfully clad friend. “Have you ever seen anything like it?” No, I thought.

“What the…” a professor type pushing a toddler in a stroller muttered, shaking his head has he passed by. Score one for my side, I thought.

I stood for maybe half an hour watching people related to it or not, loved it or hated it; there were no neutral comments. The piece was just a piece. It didn’t get better or worse depending on who was viewing it. It just was. It didn’t suddenly become art. It stirred emotion, speculation, associations, and judgments. That’s what the creative process does.

Extrapolating from that, sometimes you don’t even need a canvas, photograph, sculpture, or book to inspire the creative eye. I was having lunch at a new sushi place with two friends last Sunday. Not only was the food good, the service quick, and the price reasonable, my friend said she also liked the art. She was looking at a blank wall with four holes where once upon a time a picture surely resided. I chuckled, remembering the art museum thing.

We’d been talking about friendships, acquaintanceships, time management, busy lives, only so much energy to go around to so many worthy people and things. I was talking about how I’d let a friendship with a former colleague drift because trying to fit one more thing in was just too overwhelming. Eventually I stopped returning e-mails and phone calls.

“Sort of like the art,” my other friend said, nodding again at the blank wall. “That’s you,” she said, pointing to the largest of the four holes where a bolt once was, “and the other two are orbiting around you,” she said of the 6 penny size hole an inch or so below it, and the 4 penny size hole just below that. Down a few inches was the smallest hole where a screw had been removed.

We all three stared at the wall. “What about that last one, the one at the end of the orbit?” I asked.

“Too far away,” she commented. “That one got screwed.”

* A note about the picture at the top. I went back to the restaurant today to photograph the wall with the holes. No holes. In its place was the arrangement in the photo above. Nice, but it didn’t inspire depthy conversation.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Life as Fiction

When my daughter was born, I knew I didn’t want another child. When you receive perfection, where else is there to go? Also, I didn’t know if I could ever love another baby as much as I loved this little creature that had completely captivated my heart. If you’re a parent, you probably know this sentiment. We’re not supposed to have “favorites” among our children, though I suspect people do.

As I writer, I admit, I have favorites. Paddle, whom I referred to in an earlier blog, is a version of my young Iowa self launching herself from adolescence into adulthood via a long, strange journey. As a fiction writer, I’m able to take all sorts of literary license adding a dab of truth here and there embellished by plenty of creative detail.

In the following excerpt from my collection of short stories, Returning, Paddle has met and is fairly infatuated with Lucas Plum, a new age hippie goddess type who arrives in her battered VW bus at Ginny Hawk’s Blue Hawk Diner in the bayous where Paddle works. Lucas is the embodiment of the world beyond Paddle’s sheltered life. For those of you who have experienced shamanic journeying, especially if you’ve been with me at the time, you’ll recognize snippets of the experience through Paddle’s eyes.

“You staying at the Dew Drop Inn?” I asked, knowing that it was the only place in town to rent a room except for old Miz Hatcher’s place, and that’s haunted.

“Stayin’ in my bus, right out back of the diner. Ginny said I could use the facilities since I’m taking all my meals here,” she grinned. “Yes sir, nothing like rain on the roof when you’re living in a bus.”

At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be vagabonding around the country in an old beat-up bus, pulling in to strange burgs, checking out the locals, sleeping with the sound of rain pelting overhead. Happy as an ant on a cupcake, I’d be.

“I’ve been thinking of journeying tonight, Paddle. Care to join me?” She leaned against the back of her stool and stretched out legs that seemed to go forever. Occurred to me, I didn’t know how tall she was since I left first and never saw her upright all the way.

Before I could answer, Ginny returned with the milk, set it down with a splash. A white puddle smirked up from the counter. “Leavin’ already? You just got here,” she said with a whine in her voice.

My own heart took a brief time-out.

“Not that kind of journey, Ms. Hawk. I’m talking about a shamanic journey, where you look for your spirit guide. You know, drums and all,” she said, as if we had any idea of what on earth she was talking about. “Maybe you’d like to join us?”

Lordy, I thought, and shook my head.

“Only drums we got around here are the set Pepper Frank plays over at the Moose Club for the annual Winter Wonderland Ball,” Ginny chuckled.

“Oh, I travel with my circle drum, made by a shaman down in Santa Cruz, California...special elk skin since Elk is my power animal,” Lucas said.

I was reminded of one of those tent meetings that come to town every couple of years where the Holy Spirit fills the preacher who starts talking in tongues, babbling away so you can’t understand a word he’s saying. Shamans, spirit guides, power animals...what the? I had to admit, I was more than little curious.

At ten o’clock, Ginny hung the Closed sign on the door. I straightened the chairs and swept up while she did the deposit. We turned off the lights and followed Daemon out the back door.

There was an eerie glow coming from Lucas’ old bus, and a funny smell, kind of like burning mattress. We looked at each other, then back at the bus door.

“Well, go on,” Ginny whispered and gave me a little shove, “knock or somethin’.”

“Hey, Lucas,” my voice cut through the quiet of the dark alley. “It’s Paddle and Ginny, come to journey,” I said, as if I knew what that meant. I could feel a knot in my stomach, and my armpits were starting to odor-up on me.

Lucas’ face appeared in the window, and she slid the side door open and stepped out into the night surrounded by that pungent odor.

I covered my mouth and coughed through my nose as quietly as I could. I knew Ginny was uneasy. She had a mean grip on my elbow.

“Welcome,” Lucas said, all serious. She was holding something that looked like a smoldering bunch of weeds bound with string. “First we’ll smudge, then we’ll enter,” she said, as she fanned the smoking bundle up and down, head to toe, and all around first my body then Ginny’s.

“This is sage,” she said, “to purify you, to open your consciousness up to receive the gifts of Spirit. May you be blessed.”

Ginny sneezed, and then giggled. “Bless me, indeed,” she said. I tried to look solemn for the occasion so Lucas wouldn’t think we were making fun of her.

“Come on in and find a place to stretch yourself out. There are some pillows to rest your head on,” she said.

Was this like a slumber party, I wondered? There was one candle sitting on a wooden box that cast enough light to see all the seats, except for the driver’s, had been removed. It was like a little room on wheels.

“Well, isn’t this just cute,” Ginny babbled.

A big mattress covered most of the floor. Toward the back, there was a collection of feathers, rocks, dried flowers, more candles and some pouches arranged on top of a silky scarf. Long, orange colored curtains were drawn over all the windows, and when she slid the door shut, the rest of the world just disappeared. Must be what being inside a mother’s belly was like--quiet, and soft, and warm.

Lucas was sitting propped up by several big pillows leaning against the back of the driver’s seat, a circular drum as wide as her body resting on her lap. A light colored animal skin stretched real tight covered the drum and reflected the candlelight.

“You both comfy?” Lucas tamped out the smudge bundle in a big mother-of-pearl seashell next to her, and picked up a stick with a thick padded end covered in soft leather. The candle flickered shadows that danced quietly along the curtains.

Lucas told us that she was going to keep a steady beat on her drum for a while, and we were to close our eyes and imagine finding a place in nature where we could enter the earth.

“Like a rabbit hole, or a tree stump, or maybe a pond,” she said, her voice soft and far away. And we were to imagine ourselves just letting go and falling down, down, down, farther and farther into the earth until we landed somewhere.

“What if we wind up in Hell?” Ginny said with a nervous giggle.

“You’re perfectly safe,” Lucas assured her, with what I thought was a great deal of patience. “Just listen to the drum and let it guide you.”

She finished her instructions about looking around and asking whatever we saw if it was our power animal, and when the drum beat quickened up, to bring that being back with us in the palm of our hand.

“They put people in the funny farm for things like this, don’t they,” Ginny joked.

“Ginny!” I hissed at her. Honestly, sometimes she acts so dumb, she embarrasses me.

Lucas didn’t seem to mind though. She picked up her drum and began a regular beat with her padded stick. I closed my eyes, shutting out the warm glow of the bus, and looked around behind my eyeballs for that place where I could go down into the earth. The drumbeat made my whole body feel heavy, like it was sinking.

A picture came to my mind of a tree stump I found while hiking in the timbers outside of town. Good a place as any, I figured, and I imagined myself throwing a leg over and easing down into the burned out hole. I could hear the drum, soft and regular, like an anchor so I wouldn’t get lost. I worked my way down past old roots, climbing down farther into a tunnel that just seemed to go forever. Funny, I thought, it’s light enough to see down here under the earth.

When the soles of my feet landed on soft ground, I looked around for a clue as to where I might be. Sand, warm, soft and creamy colored, spread as far as I could see. In the distance, the dunes swept up to meet a robin’s egg blue sky. Not a cloud in sight, or anything else. So quiet, all I could hear was a faint drumbeat from another land.

I squinted my eyes and scanned as far as I could for any sign of life, let alone a power animal. Getting kind of discouraged, I drug my toe through the sand leaving a lazy trail next to my foot. I looked around behind me wondering how I was going to get back, feeling kind of lonely and edgy. Turned back around to see grains of sand starting to shift and scatter, like something was trying to come up from under. I stared at that spot, watching the sand rearrange itself, not sure I wanted to see what it was...the only other living thing in this strange place.

Then the head of a snake, the size of my foot, came poking through the sand, followed by a long sleek body that just kept coming. It was about as long as two brooms handles. This was no normal snake, no indeed. It was the color of sunset, all coral and pink with slices of gold and purple wound through it. It glowed in a way that made the sand shine all round it. Two dark beady eyes turned themselves on me and a golden tongue flicked in and out, tasting for my fear.

We just stared at each other. I tried to blink, but couldn’t. Then I remembered Lucas’ words, and though I couldn’t even move my little toe, I managed to croak out, “Are you my power animal?” And please don’t kill me if you’re not, I added to myself. My throat felt as dry as the sand I was standing on.

Without breaking eye contact, the snake began a slow slither my direction and just before reaching my feet began to coil around and around on itself, making a swirling sunset in the sand. Long beams of color shot out in all directions, splashing me, and the dunes, shooting rays up into the sky.

From the center of the coil came the words, “Step into your Dessssssssstiny.” I swear that snake smiled at me.

My jaw hung open like a broken screen door. Then I heard it, the drumbeat, quickening, louder, insistent. Come back, come back, it called. How was I going to bring the sunset snake back with me in the palm of my hand? Surely, I’d die trying.

I bent my knees slowly, quietly as I could, and leaned forward, bracing myself with my left hand in the fine grainy sand, and reached real careful-like toward the snake. Swirls of color splashed over my hand and arm and up my body making me tingle.

Just as my hand touched the coiled body, there was a pouf and bright sparks of color shot every which way. Then there were only glistening embers of color, a glowing coil of ash where the snake had been.

The drumbeat was louder and more insistent now, demanding my return. I reached out and grabbed a handful of cool, colorful ash mixed with grains of fine sand.

When I turned around, the tunnel that had deposited me here reappeared. I followed it through the dim light, forward and up, finding footing on roots and rocks and dark, rich earth. Sky laced with overhanging tree branches and leaves came into view as I poked my head back up through the stump.

Just then the drumbeat stopped. I blinked and looked around me. The candlewick flickered and sputtered quietly. The smell of sage lingered in the orange glow. I heard a long, low snore coming from Ginny, stretched out, mouth open, just to my left. Lucas sat still as a goddess, a beautiful smile on her face, drum resting in her lap.

“Welcome back,” she beamed at me. “What do you have in your hand there?” she asked, nodding at my right hand, all balled up and resting on my chest.

I rolled over on my left side and pulled up to a sitting position, my right hand still curled, guarding my treasure.

“Sunset snake ash,” I said, not knowing what else to call it.

“Well, Paddle, if Snake came to you, that’s powerful medicine, all right,” she said in just above a whisper, nodding her head. Her coppery curls bobbled and dangled, and reflected the candlelight.

Then she said, “And if she left her skin, that’s a sure sign that a new beginning is on its way.” A tingle shook my body like a draft of cold air on the back of my neck.

Just then, Ginny snored, sputtered, coughed and woke herself up. She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles and rolled over on her side. Through a huge yawn, she said, “D’I miss the party?”

I swear, some people are just hopeless.

“Nope, you’re just in time,” Lucas grinned at her, as she pulled out a round chocolate cake from next to the driver’s seat, and a bottle of red wine with the cap already unscrewed.

“To the ancestors,” she said as she tossed some cake crumbs on the floor of the bus. “To the Mother of us all,” she said as she added a drizzle of wine to the crumbs on the floor. Then she passed the cake and bottle around. We each took a big hunk of cake followed by a swig of port.

“If this don’t beat all,” Ginny said, through a mouthful of chocolate.

The rain tapped out a steady rhythm on the metal roof of the bus as the bottle of port made another round, and then another. I don’t know when I’d ever felt so pleased with myself.

To read the complete story in the context of the collection, please hold a good thought that the agent in Ohio sees the value in this story and offers to find a publisher.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Random Acts of Creativity

Random Acts of Creativity

This week focuses on everyday creativity, those small precious acts that could easily go unnoticed. At the counseling collective where I spend a great deal of my time, we collect our client fees and keep them in envelopes until our administrator does the deposit. I’m not sure who started the process, but I’m guessing it was a therapist sitting idly through a late cancellation hour, drumming her fingers on the desk, wondering what to do with the unexpected hour, perhaps distractedly doodling on her money envelope. Often creativity comes just like that—unintentionally, and from that place just beyond conscious thought. Anyway, the envelop wound up back in the cash box. The next therapist rummaging through the cash box to find her envelop noticed the “art” and decided to add something unique to her own envelop, and so on, and so on.

What was once rote, lifeless action--stashing cash in a white envelope--has now become a means of self expression. When my money envelope disintegrates from use, I set aside some time to create a new one that expresses something unique about myself, my thoughts at the moment, or my feelings. It has become a meditative process that takes on a life of its own. The cash box has become a sort of impromptu gallery with rotating “art.”

If, as I believe, money is an energetic means of exchange, it should be given due respect—perhaps even blessed before being sent on its way into the universe. And while it’s being housed, why not give it a beautiful home? Perhaps small acts of random creativity as do random acts of kindness, have a ripple effect in consciousness. I would love to hear what everyday creativity looks like in your life. Please leave me a Comment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Creativity Resource

This is a mid-week mini-blog to pass along an incredible video by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love--which I finally finished now that it's not "the thing to read"--only to find out, it truly IS the thing to read!

In this video clip, she talks about the process I was trying to describe in an earlier blog about "catching" music and being uncomfortable with the idea that I write it. For any of you who struggle with this, the video is a must-see. No, let me remove the qualifier, it's a great clip for everyone to see.

Truly, a wonderful investment of 20 minutes of your life. Give yourself the gift.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Satellite People

I spent the better part of today at our annual Book Fair...sellers, publishers, writers, and performers gather to celebrate the written word. Authors read from their work in this public forum enticing listeners to sit for hours in the blazing sun to hear one more story. The event takes over our local town square with tents, booths, and tables. Each year I have the sense of displacing the Square's residents for a day of literary madness. This is where, on a normal day, many of our satellite people spend their time. I passed some, on the fringe of all the activity, unsure as to how to best navigate their way through the throng. I started thinking about Bunker Man, who I haven't seen for years.

Satellite People

This is not a story about outer space. It is, perhaps, a story about inner space--that space between my consciousness and my heart, where some people dwell. They are those people on the perimeter of my urban life whose faces are as familiar to me as relatives who live across country. They are not the folks I’d ask over for dinner or to a movie. Yet, I count on them. Somehow, they shape my reality.

Bunker Man molds his body into an “L” shape, with legs stretched out on the cold cement stoop and back flat against the side of the faded brick building. A tattered ski cap the color of mildew covers his graying hair. A faded pea coat, like the ones we wore back in the 60’s at antiwar rallies in D.C., is his cover, his bedding, his tent.

Every Saturday morning I walk into town to mail my bills at the post office and deposit my checks for the week at the bank. I could mail my bills from home and bank on-line, but it’s my way of shrinking a large city into a small town, like where I grew up.

Each Saturday I pass Bunker Man, holed up, keeping an eye on the streets. We never speak, but we nod in recognition. His pale blue eyes sparkle, incongruent with the flat affect of his body. Or perhaps it’s the sun glinting off the leaves of the crape myrtle overhead.

I am consumed with curiosity about his life. Does he have children? Has he lived anywhere other than against the brick building? What has life presented him with that he sits, day after day, watching? I will never ask. The rains have come and the temperature dips low at night. Where has Bunker Man gone?

Then there’s Jean. I don’t know why I think of her as Jean, no one ever spoke her name in front of me. Jean walks. In her natty old black ankle-length trench coat, she walks the streets of the city with her zombie-like gait, eyes fixed on the pavement three feet in front of her. Her straw-colored brittle hair is covered with a non-descript scarf, faded and jagged at the edges, knotted under her chin.

Her mouth works itself in a tartive sort of way, soundless, mysterious. People shrink back slightly as they pass her, their nostrils narrow a bit as if readying themselves for a sour smell.

I smile when I pass her at one end of town or the other, marveling that she arrives on foot before me at the places I drive on the hottest, the coldest, and the wettest of days. She does not return my smile. She does not know I take comfort in the familiarity of her, or that I worry about someone harming her.

Jesus walks about town wrapped in a white sheet and little else. His beatific smile and golden curls remind me of a Renoir painting. His eyes are large blue saucers fringed with delicate blonde lashes. He carries a leather-bound Bible and blesses people. “Thank you,” I say. You can never have too many blessings. I wonder, in the cold months, will he don shoes and a coat? Does Jesus wear long johns?

For several weeks of my Saturday trek into town, Bunker Man hasn’t been on his stoop. The first week I thought perhaps he’d scraped together enough spare change to step out for a cup of coffee. The second week I looked around his “spot” for clues of his presence there, and found none. This, the third week, I stick my head into a small shop next to the stoop.

“The guy who lives just outside your shop on the stoop...” I begin.
“Oh, yeah,” the shop owner smiles, “he’s gone.”

My heart pounds. What fate has Bunker Man met, and why is this callused man smiling at his absence? Glad, perhaps, to be rid of another piece of urban blight next to his doorway? I set my jaw and narrow my eyes.

“Yes, I noticed that. Do you know what happened to him?”

The shop owner walks over to the door and leans against the frame. “His family came from Oregon. Brother and Mom, I think. Said they were going to take him home...that they had a trailer on some land for him. They’d been worried about him so far from the family.” The shop owner’s eyes are moist, and a soft smile plays on his lips. “I kinda miss the guy,” he says.

“Yeah,” I swallow around the lump in my throat, “me too.”

We stand for a moment, there in the doorway, honoring the memory of an enigmatic soul who’d been brought back into the folds of family. Instead of mourning an ending, we celebrate a new beginning. May life be well for you, Bunker Man.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Birth as Creative Expression

This week, my daughter delivered twin boys. They have had to fight for their right to be on this planet as they landed about a month early. I gaze in their eyes now as they explore and experience the universe...faces and voices that smile and coo, arms that hold, hands that stroke and touch, mouths that make kissy noises on their sweet little heads, nipples that provide sustenance, and all manor of beeps and blips from monitors and wires that poke into their fragile little bodies.

I was reminded of the saying, "It takes a village," as I watched doctors and nurses hover and skillfully minister to my grand babies those first hours of their life when they were so vulnerable that they couldn't even be held and loved by their mommy and daddy and grandma.

This is when I call upon my spiritual practice to know that this is God in action...these infants are an out picturing of the Divine, a creative expression of life itself in a unique and wondrous way. Nothing I could say or do or write or sing could even come close to THIS miracle of creative expression.

So, that's it for this week...perhaps I'll have recovered my words by next week.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Let Me Introduce You

I’ve written about how I receive or “catch” songs that seem to be traveling through the universe in search of a composer. I’d like to introduce you to some of the wonderful characters who appear and ask me to write their stories. My short stories and novellas are mostly character driven, the plots unfold as the individual shows me more of her/himself. Eventually, I’ll post snippets of my writing so you’ll have a sense of these folks in context of their stories. But for now, there’s:

Cory, who came to me in a vision of a small boy standing alone in front of a large mirror in the hallway of their family mansion. He’s wearing his sister, The Ice Queen’s, fuzzy pink slippers and a pair of flannel pajamas. Cory drapes long strands of shimmering, silver tinsel over his blonde hair and smiles at the reflection of the most beautiful little girl looking back at him from the mirror. Gotta love him, right? Who is this child? His story becomes one of a brave transgender woman in “Waltzing With the Azaleas,” available as an on-line read at

Then, there’s Jenny, who plaintively told me, “I hadn’t planned to kill anyone when I left the house that morning.” Her life took a major reroute in a split second, and kept unfolding from that point on. She is one of the characters in “Best Laid Plans,” (still in process).

In “The Three Muses,” Winnie is about to check out with an overdose of alcohol. Her life just isn’t working and she’s tired of the struggle, until three witches/muses/hallucinations/spirits/angels (?? I still haven’t figured out exactly what they are) step in. Gwynyth, a bag-lady like visage in a ragged housedress of faded indefinable print and a tattered musty sweater several sizes too large for her scrawny frame had aimed for Winnie’s porch, but missed and landed behind the Hoover attachments in the utility room. By way of introduction, she merely states, “I’ve been sent,” and that Winnie can consider her a guardian angel. Winnie, however, is a “big job” requiring the assistance of Gwynyth’s pals AfroDidee and Fate. These three loveable apparitions entertained me by their antics throughout the whole story.

Occasionally, I choose an event from my own life that I want to fictionalize. It’s almost like a cast call—when I form a loose idea, all of these amazing characters show up to audition for the parts. By who they are, they take over the story line and do with it as they will.

Paddle, a young girl pushing chili in a roadside cafĂ©, meets Lucas Plumb, a new age hippie mystic who passes through Paddle’s life and introduces her to life beyond the bayous. Paddle hitchhikes to California where her life is turned around forever. Along the way, she meets Arizona Pancake and Kiowa Sue Lafner who sign up for the zany adventure of life in Berkeley and San Francisco. “Paddle” is one of the stories in a collection called Returning that is being circulated for publication.

The amazing thing about this story is that I started with the idea of writing about a cross-country trip from California to Colorado with my friend Gerry where she lost her wallet and we wound up staying in a mission overnight. Fortunately, the “cast” allowed me that little snippet within the larger story.

If you write, please let me know HOW you write. Are you disciplined? Is it anarchy? Who is in the driver’s seat? How much control do you exert over characters? Are you plot focused? Truly, I’m fascinated and would love to hear. My e-mail is if you can’t figure out how to leave a comment on this blog. Best to you…write on.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Introverts Unite

I just stumbled upon a quote from Anne Lamott in her wonderful book Bird by Bird, in which she says "If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining."

For me, this is why "social networking" seems so counter-intuitive to my introverted self. I was embarrassed to ask people to read my blog. I felt like a two year old hollering "look at me!" (which is appropriate for a two year old). If this is true for you, and it's held you back, let me share the next piece with you.

I've received e-mails and comments from people saying my words have touched them in some way, helped them to see the world a little differently, to feel a little more compassion, to understand something familiar more deeply. THAT'S why it's important. We all have something hugely important in our own way to share with the world, whether we stand there quietly shining or yelling from mountain tops or anywhere in the green field of possibilities in between. Social networking is just another means of sharing that presence with one another. It took me about a decade to get that; I hope I've saved you some time. Do let me know your thoughts.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On Music and Miracles

If you’re a product of this culture, you’ve probably had the experience of explicitly or implicitly being asked, “Who do you think you are to… (fill in the blank)? Perhaps you’ve internalized that question and have let it stop you from doing/being the best you can do or be.

This came up for me years ago when I decided to start writing songs. I have no formal training in music, play “survival” piano mostly for my own therapeutic enjoyment, have a good ear thanks to genetics, and am a believer in, and happy recipient of, magic in my life. I figured that qualified me to write music.

Like most things in my life, I learn by doing—sometimes by doing poorly and making many adjustments as I take in new information. I’m not good at reading how-to books or studying manuals, then applying the knowledge as are a lot of my friends. Yes, I’m envious, but I’ve learned to make friends with my own learning style which has become the key to unlocking the stranglehold of “who do you think you are” in my life, and has allowed me to at least try things that call to me.

About five years ago I was driving along the highway to the coast, through acres of rolling vineyards spotted with redwood groves--the best Northern California has to offer—when my eye was caught by a raven cavorting around in the sky, glistening black against a blue so pure and bright it made my eyes water. The way this large bird caught the air currents, coasted, dipped, dove, and sailed entranced me. I pulled off the road on a gravel turn-around.

The moment I turned off the ignition, a tune began drifting through my mind, a beautiful, haunting tune that I couldn’t place. As I watched the raven sail over the vineyard words started appearing somewhere just behind my eyes. It was the strangest phenomenon. I truly felt this music was being channeled from some place other than the moment, right through my mind and body, and it was imperative that I write it down. Write it down? On what? I read music, but I don’t write it (or so I thought).

I fished around in the back seat of my car for some table paper, found a pen under the front seat where I vaguely remember it falling several weeks ago, and began madly jotting down symbols to indicate where the melody went up or down, where there were pauses, what the feeling tone of the music was, and the lyrics as best as I could capture them. I was a woman possessed. Totally focused, totally in the moment. I have no idea how much time passed. Now that I think of it, it was similar to giving birth--same all-absorbing event that takes over your life completely as it passes through you and leaves you altered forever after.

Unlike giving birth (for me anyway), that experience was to be the first of a series of song-catching events that has led me to a collection of over forty-eight songs to date. Sometimes they spring on me in the shower, sometimes in the middle of a conversation, or while sitting in the hot tub, or stopped at a red light. If we’re in conversation and you notice that glazed look come over my eyes, I’m not bored, I’m probably hearing a new melody. If I start tapping my foot, it’s a dead give-away.

I didn’t make it all the way to the ocean that day. I turned around, came home with my sheet of notebook paper in hand, and sat down at my daughter’s little Casio keyboard. I figured out which notes went best with the scratch marks I’d made, drew five lines of a music staff, and placed the notes in their proper place. I struggled some with the math—how do you get the right number of beats per measure, where do the rests need to go? And what the heck key is this in? It was a feeble attempt at manifesting a miracle, but I did it.

What I want you to know is that there is nothing special about me. You could do this too, whether you catch a song or create it from your innermost self that wants expression. You don’t have to know HOW to do it already. I’ve taken my raw material to “the experts” who’ve smiled lovingly, praised my efforts, and told me that music actually has a form. A form? Yes—there is a particular way in which you structure how the verses, chorus, and bridge appear. And there needs to be congruency with the lyrics. Well, I’ll be darned. Who knew?? So, now I’m learning that. Someday, I will have my music available so that anyone could sit down and play it. I may even figure out how to transfer it from my music file onto a blog page. Who knows, I might even try a CD, or a music video. The sky’s the limit.

Who do I think I am? I’m just me, doing the best I can at allowing creation to express itself through me. Who do you think you are? Please let me know. And, know that I already believe you are a miracle expressing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I wanted to talk a little bit about music, but it's going to have to wait. Some things just crowd their way into my brain and insist on attention. I'll get to the music thing another time.

I’ve known since I was in elementary school that there was something different about how I perceived the world visually. The awareness was especially clear when it came to reading aloud in front of the class. My teacher would point out with growing impatience that I was adding words that were not there.

I was a diligent reader as a kid, pouring over books from the small town library. Each sentence would be slowly consumed, filtered (somewhat like a chicken’s gizzard’s job, I imagine) for altered perceptions, then digested. Words that jumped up from sentences below, or squeezed in ahead of their predecessor, would need to be put back in their original place. Letters that scrambled themselves about like a Chinese fire drill, had to be sorted out and reassembled. Reading was a process of discovery that required slow, patient attention and a tolerance for delayed gratification. It took me weeks longer to read my way through the Summer Reading List than my cousins who would replenish their stacks of books each week at our musty old public library.

In adulthood, I’ve gained an appreciation for the dyslexic quality of my brain as it takes in information from the environment in addition to words on a page. It brings me a smile, an eye roll, and even an occasional belly laugh at the absurdities in life revealed by a differently-wired brain.

For example, this morning as I listened to the traffic update on the news channel, I heard that traffic had slowed along Highway 37 earlier, due to six ghosts that were running along the highway. Hmmm. It never occurred to me that ghosts ran. An odd visual of ethereal beings moving in an exaggerated marathon-in-slow-motion played itself across my inner visual field. I had a good chuckle.

Then, in a matter of seconds, the little brain synapses, or whatever controls such things, realigned themselves, corrected my information processing wiring, and repeated the information: six goats were running along the highway. Oh, goats. Well, that wasn’t nearly as funny.