Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hallelujah Chorus sung by hundreds surprises shoppers in San

Now For Something Different

What are these unsuspecting folks, just grabbing a burger or a taco at the local food court of the Santa Rosa mall to sustain themselves before launching back into frenetic Christmas shopping, about to experience?

My post on Dec. 2nd (scroll back a little ways), dealt with the disappointment of a dream interrupted. Sometimes in life, we’re lucky enough to have what we refer to in therapy as a corrective experience. I had one of those.

Like many great ideas that catch on and spread like wildfire, someone posted a “flash-mob” (a pre-arranged, but impromptu-appearing gathering of a bunch of people for a particular reason—sort of like guerrilla theater back in the 60ies) on YouTube of Handel’s Messiah. These folks gathered at a mall and broke into song to the delight and astonishment of shoppers milling about.

Michael, a local DJ in Santa Rosa figured if the east coast can do it, surely we--out here on the west coast--can pull it off. Word spread through various choirs throughout the city; it spilled over to random singers in the community. We were told not to refer to it as a “flash-mob” for obvious mall security reasons, and began referring to it as Project Messiah. It was a well-guarded secret that couldn’t be contained due to the enthusiasm it created. Word spread, and spread. It leaked to Facebook. “Just show up at the food court at the mall at 2:20; don’t ask me why,” was a common buzz phrase about town.

I dug into my music file and extracted the Hallelujah score. I carried it, along with a huge amount of excitement, to the Monday rehearsal preceding the big event. We reached the last page, the last stanza, the last measure, and—what? No highest note? Surely there must be a mistake. I didn’t miss anything the first time around? At all? What a revelation, and how strange to feel let down by something I didn’t miss.

Regardless, the rehearsal sent the hundred-plus singers gathered in the music room sky high. It was amazing, and promised to be even more amazing when we (and others who would join us) appeared interspersed amongst the crowd of shoppers and munchers to sing one of the most beautiful pieces of classical music ever composed.

Saturday afternoon around 2pm, familiar faces appeared in the mall, hanging out, trying to look casual. Many of us, myself included, just don't "do" mall. That much energy in one place makes my teeth itch. We glanced at each other, gave quick nods of recognition or conspiracy, or a brief smile as we melted into the crowd. My friend Trudy was among the throng and agreed to video the event. I’m sure the food court has never housed so many people milling about, not eating.

It was wonderful when, on cue, we all burst into song! Even without that elusive last note from the past, this was a highlight of my holiday. The very best to you and yours as this Christmas season unfolds.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Never Say Never

As a therapist, I often discourage my clients from using global-type words, like never, always, no one, everyone—as in no one has ever liked me; I’ll never be any good at anything; everyone thinks I’m incompetent, etc. It sets off a chain reaction of futility and hopelessness. And, it’s usually not even accurate. I mean, surely someone in all your years on the planet, has liked you; you must have, at one time, been good at something; and most likely not everyone you know thinks you’re completely incompetent. Really, why tell yourself things like that?

There is one exception, however. I’m NEVER going to make another dessert as long as I live—never. I’ve had it. I can’t do it; I never could; I’m lousy at it. And I defy anyone who knows me to think of an exception to those claims.

Let me walk you through my day. Actually, it started a couple weeks ago with an on-line search for tortes—something yummy for the holidays. I found it: a layered caramel, chocolate torte lightly sprinkled with sea salt and topped with dollops of Chantilly whipped cream, sprinkled with a special chai spice blend. Does that send chills down your spine, or what?

I priced out torte pans at Williams-Sonoma and other fancy-schmancy places, and decided just to borrow one from my friend, Trudy. I mean, how many times a year do I make tortes? Never before. Oops, there’s that word again.

My writer’s group has been on sort of an extended holiday season hiatus; with so many distractions, no one has had much time to write. Two months had gone by without meeting. One member had reached his tolerance peak, and suggested we have a combined Chanukah and Christmas potluck meeting. Ah, a perfect opportunity to try out this new recipe.

What was I thinking? Had brain fog settled in like the marine layer that drifts inland from the ocean, obscuring my memory of all desserts past? Somewhere in the far reaches of my awareness, I heard a small voice saying, “at least don’t attempt the crust—they make perfectly fine pie crusts now that you could use.” Okay, I could cheat a little. The recipe is pretty complex and will demand most of my attention. No use worrying about how a lousy pie crust will turn out.

I assembled all the ingredients, the measuring spoons and cups, the various sized pans and plates that I would need. I fought my way through the mental cobwebs that seem to string themselves across my mind whenever I try to follow a recipe (or directions on how to assemble something, or program something).

Meticulously, I measured out just the right amount of sugar and water. I cooked it just until it began to turn caramel colored, as the directions said. I added the cream ever so slowly, whisking to blend it just so, and added in just the right amount of sea salt before setting it aside.

The ready-made pie crust had baked the appropriate amount of time and was golden brown. When it was cool, I oh-so-carefully poured the caramel layer onto the crust, and put it immediately in the refrigerator to “set.”

Twenty minutes later, I checked my creation. Not only had it not “set,” it had leaked out through a crack in the crust and was pooling onto the refrigerator shelf. This did not bode well. I shut the refrigerator door. Maybe another five or ten minutes and it will be firm? At least not ALL of it had leaked out. Perhaps the crack had sort of plugged itself up with gelatinous filling.

Ten more minutes, and I peeked again. Okay, it was sort of firm; maybe firm enough to gently add the next layer of heavy cream infused with chocolate malt Ovaltine and melted bittersweet dark chocolate bits. This layer was gloriously rich, shiny, luscious. I slid the partially filled crust carefully from the shelf, and mopped up the sugary goop that had oozed out.

V-e-r-y carefully, I began to drizzle and spread the chocolate on top of the caramel layer. Every now and then, I had to stop and breathe. The next step was to return the whole thing to the fridge for another half hour to continue setting up. The chocolate was mostly staying on top of the bottom layer, but threatened to overflow the edge of the crust. I was so focused on not tilting the torte, that I caught my sleeve on the handle of the saucepan in the sink.

Have you ever had the experience of a moment when time just stops? It just plain stands still in honor, or horror, of whatever irreversible thing is about to happen. The whole torte, in slow motion, began to slide off the plate and into the sink. In my attempt to intervene in fate, I over corrected, causing the torte to break in half. One half landed in the sink in chunks and blobs, the other sort of landed on the counter and spread in an ever-widening circle of slushy caramel and chocolate. A piece of crust fell onto the floor, as if to make a point, and crumbled into granules that defied retrieval.

Well, what can you do? Cry, scream, throw things? I thought about those as viable options. I checked the clock. Still enough time to bicycle up to the bakery and pick up some dessert. I cleaned up the mess, hopped on my bike, and arrived at the bakery counter all without shedding a tear. There in the glass case were four mini-chocolate espresso tortes with wells in the middle that just begged to be filled with that chai-flavored Chantilly whipped cream that I hadn’t yet dropped or ruined—or made.

Come on—whipped cream? How hard can that be?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I did that once...

So, I notice I haven’t written anything for a couple weeks now. I had something—honest I did—but it’s gotten lost in wherever one thinks one saves things then finds out there’s nothing there. I've replaced it with a video of Handel’s Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus—the sing-along version.

I did that once many years ago, the sing-along Messiah, and it was amazing. I picked up my many-paged sheet music a month in advance, studied it a bar or two at a time, following along my part as best I could. I was stupefied at the way the music wove in and out between the parts. They don’t call those guys the Great Composers for nothing.

We gathered in a large sanctuary, the several hundred of us who were to sing this piece together. There was much anticipatory anxiety, clearing of throats, rustling of papers, sipping of water, and even a few vocal exercises around and about—the kind where you make bubble sounds with your lips. I was wedged I between a teenage girl in a Santa hat and an elderly woman sporting a festive Christmas tree pin on her blue woolen coat. I found myself distracted by the pin—if you pull on a little chain, which she did as a nervous tic, tiny lights on the tree would twinkle. I took a deep breath and reassured myself that if a kid and an old woman with a funny pin can do this, surely I can make it through to the end. I found out later that the “kid” was a musical prodigy and the old woman had been an annual participant in this sing-along for as far back as it had been sung.

There was a whole orchestra on stage warming up, flipping through their music, setting up stands, stretching. Stretching—that should have been a clue as to what we were getting into. Behind the orchestra was a choir of maybe sixty who tried not to fidget once they found their spots on the risers. The orchestra finished tuning up, the lights blinked to signal the audience that we were about to move together into this musical experience. There was a collective inhale as the conductor stepped smartly onto the stage, took his position in front of the orchestra, turned and bowed to us. I suppressed the urge to bow back and instead, joined in a round of applause for what was sure to be a riveting experience.

The baton was raised, the music began, my finger lay ready just under my first note. Just at the moment I didn’t think I could contain myself any longer, the choir, the hundreds of people around me, and I burst forth in song. It was so explosive, my knees threatened to buckle and I lost my place for a few bars. I glanced at the kid and the old woman to relocate myself on the musical score; they, too, were following along with their finger. Page after page we filled the auditorium with joyful noise. My heart pounded with anticipation as I waited for that really high note at the end—you know the one if you’ve ever sung this piece of music. Could I? Should I even try? My finger kept moving through the music. Occasionally, I’d stop singing so I could hear what was happening around me, but my finger tracked the notes like a hound dog on the scent. It was powerful, magnificent; we rose and fell like the waves of the ocean. I fully expected sparks to shoot out of the end of the conductor’s baton, or the heavens to open up, or something even more magnificent to happen.

We were getting closer to the end. That impossible note beckoned me like a seductress with a dark sense of humor, daring me to push beyond my comfort level. Yes! I was going to go for it. “Ha-lle—lu…” (here it comes, the last note) “Cough, cough, hack, cough,” the woman next to me wheezed into her fist. I turned my head to see if she was all right as the final and highest note was sung out “…jah!” And I missed it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Just in case you missed it…

I know art is in the eyes of the beholder and is hugely subjective in nature—I’m remembering the large white canvass with a red square in the middle and a black dot within the square that drew attention when it was labeled art and hung in a museum. All forms of art, however, are creatively inspired. Someone had to have had a vision.

Jason de Caires Taylor’s underwater sculptures are truly inspired works of art. Part of their allure is watching the way the underwater environment works on them, how they age over time and become coral reefs. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but I encourage you to Google him for more information on his process and a full gallery of his art.

I remember the first time my friends Joan and Trudy took me snorkeling and I was able to see for myself the wonders of the under-water world of fish and coral reefs, dolphins and eels, all manner of life. I’m sure anyone on the surface end of my snorkel would have chuckled at the oohs and aahs coming from the tube. Imagine swimming into a de Caires Taylor scene! Surely I would have inhaled the ocean.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Creative Abundance at CSLSR

November is my favorite time of year at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa, CA; it is the month we celebrate creativity and the arts. Wildly talented, often completely unknown artists display their art forms, including short films. There’s a section for children as well.

There are gasps of recognition as people wander through the free-standing walls displaying oil and pastel paintings, found-object composition and installation art, photography, quilts and fabric art, jewelry, pottery—the list goes on. Overheard snippets of conversation: “Oh, she’s in the choir; I had no idea she quilted;” “He taught my Foundations class this year—who knew he was a photographer;” “I know her from the usher group—I didn’t know she did such beautiful jewelry.” This is creativity in community and it excites my heart to be part of it.

Our One Heart Choir is filled with quietly creative beings such as Cyndi Cunningham, whose first-time entry quilt hung proudly on the wall. From her story, I recognize the time/space distortion of complete immersion in your craft: “I get lost in the process,” she writes. “When I get started I have to set a timer, or the whole day will disappear and I will still be in my jammies in front of the machine.” Here is Cyndi’s story.

“My grandmother was a crafter, and my mother sewed garments. I seem to be somewhere in the middle, quilting—the clothes I make are not really fit to wear.

“I started when I was 28, taking classes at the new quilt shop down the street. I sew mostly because I love to make things, it give me a place to be creative, and the ability to give gifts to those I love is so special. It takes a lot of time which is a precious commodity.

“At this time, I have not sold anything because those I have finished have been gifts. I do have several quilt tops that need the attention of the long arm quilter to finish. They remain unfinished because they do not yet have future homes. The name of the quilt in the picture above is ‘buggy barn hearts.’

“In addition to quilting, I do several different crafts: jewelry, scrap-booking, and Japanese hand bound journals.

“My full-time job, up to 60 hours a week, is as a Unit Supervisor at the Developmental Center in Eldridge. The clients I serve are in many ways my family, and I love my job—most of the time. It is stressful work, and the ability to carve out some time at home to be creative really helps to keep my life in balance. It’s something that I give myself. Quilting is also a social outlet; I tend to be a homebody, and a bit of a loner. Taking classes, shopping for fabric, and going to retreats gets me out of the house and involved with other people.”

Have something you’re good at, or have just discovered you have a talent for? Send me a photo and your story so I can share it here (

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Creative Contributions

Happy November, a time to focus on thanksgiving for the abundance of good in our lives. A quick update--my song, Sundowner, was beautifully performed by the extraordinarily talented jazz singer, Claire Victor, at the 2010 Choir Showcase at CSLSR last month. The process of writing songs is a gift of creative endeavor in itself, but to hear that music brought to life in performance is another whole kind of experience. I am immersed in thanksgiving.

There are so many ways in which we can contribute in life that sometimes I get overwhelmed and do nothing. In days gone by, political activism was important to me. My focus has become more on creative expression at this point in my life. When someone makes it just plain simple and effortless to contribute in a meaningful and creative way, I just can’t pass it up.

I drink orange juice—every morning. I go through cartons of the stuff each month. When I found the following website from Tropicana, a way in which I could contribute to saving the rainforest with no more effort than typing in a ten letter/number combination found under the cap on the carton, it became a welcome ritual. To date, I’ve contributed to the care of close to 2,000 square feet of rainforest. Not a lot, but it’s a start. You can make a difference in the next three months. The program ends Feb. 28, 2011, so don’t delay. Here’s to good stewardship and the ecological health of our world.

Just cut and paste: and then click on “Rescue the Rainforest”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Is it just me, or does this bush look like a pig?

Sometimes creativity is inspired and spontaneous; sometimes it’s the result of hours of planning and intricate execution. Sometimes it’s just plain accidental and perhaps only in the eyes of the beholder. The pig took me by such surprise, I almost fell off my bicycle. Then again, I see pictures in clouds, so you decide: was this pig topiary or just shear accident?

I came across a video by Brenda Walker that explores the use of technology in the area of creativity. For those of you who know me, you’re probably laughing hysterically. I’m more or less known as a techno-dinosaur. It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate those who have the skill. Check it out: then type in Brenda Walker 2020, Creativity and Technology, Shaping Ideas.

The next couple of months are going to be crazy-busy. Instead of weekly blogs, I’m cutting back to a monthly entry for a little while. Please check back in November. May you enjoy the shift of seasons.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Just Because You Don’t Know How

…is no excuse not to try. I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I’m not creative; I don’t really know how to do (this or that, fill in the blank).” Most of us didn’t have a clue how to walk when we were infants, but at some point the desire to get somewhere fast overcomes the fear or clumsiness or outright pain that often accompanies those first few steps. Most of us didn’t give up because we tumbled over the first few attempts we made.

If there’s something you’ve yearned to do, but lacked the support or courage to try, or feared looking ridiculous, or failing, this blog entry is for you.

I’m thinking back to the things I would have missed that have enriched my life if I’d given into the belief that I didn’t know how to do them. Have I done them all well? No, not all of them; but there was joy in the doing and in the walking through the “I can’t(s).” I’m thinking here of my first sewing project when I was pregnant. I come from a long line of quilters, tatters, knitters, crocheters—women who created family heirlooms that have been passed down and treasured through generations. Not being a real eye-hand kinda gal, it wasn’t until I was pregnant that the heirloom treasure bug bit. Not being in the possession of a sewing machine, I was determined to make a welcoming gown from the prettiest, girliest, softest flannel, by hand, for my daughter that would be passed down to her children, and their children, and so on. And I did it. Well, sort of. If she’d been born 18 lbs, maybe 26 inches long with a pin head, it would have fit her perfectly. We didn’t get a lot of use out of it, but I loved every stitch in that garment. Fortunately, she had twin boys.

The point is, I tried. I’d been looking for a way to sort my thoughts and share some things I was learning about altered states of reality back in my late forties. Friends said, “You should just write a book.” Write a book? Are you kidding? I don’t even have an MFA; I don’t even spell all that well. “That’s what editors are for,” they insisted. Editors? How do you find an editor? The task seemed daunting. What if I wrote a book and it didn’t sell? (Don’t get ANY writer started on that one) I figured out the structure by reading other books in that genre. I asked a million questions of other writers. I found out how to locate and work with (and pay) an editor, and the value of having someone in that role. I learned about query letters, synopses, marketing plans, agents, and how to receive rejection letters without disintegrating. I tried different genres: short stories, novellas, screenplays, non-fiction, blogging. It literally opened up a whole new world for me. After years of efforting and reams of paper, I’ve even been rewarded by having a few things published.

Then, songs started floating into my head—songs that were waiting to be written by me, it seemed. But I don’t know the first thing about composing songs, I complained. I read music, I sing, I play a little piano, but writing music is a whole different animal. I couldn’t possibly… People do it all the time, I rationalized; how hard could it be, really? Okay, so it’s hard. There’s a whole lot to it that I had to learn by trial and error and humiliation and feeling totally stupid. I asked a million questions of people who were doing what I wanted to be doing. I figured out how to use a music composition program on the computer that turned my creations into sheet music that could be printed out or played back on the computer. How cool is that? After more years of efforting, and reams of paper, I’ve actually had some of my songs performed by professional musicians. The reward of hearing something you’ve created brought to life by performance is mind-boggling.

A friend joked, “Is there anything you don’t do?” Widows, I replied. Then again, how hard can that be? Two final words of encouragement, just try. I’d love to hear about your experience.

Until then, here is some inspiration to hang onto—a moment in the life of someone who refused to believe she couldn’t: Enjoy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Non-Ordinary Reality

A client recently recommend a book for my bookshelf called, Are You Getting Enlightened or Losing Your Mind? How To Master Everyday And Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences, by Dennis Gersten, M.D.

I thought this synchronistic because in my adolescence I was fascinated by the question, what’s the difference between psychic and psychotic, since they share so many features. In the book, Dr. Gersten says, “One of the only things that saints and schizophrenics have in common is the fear of being ridiculed and called ‘crazy’ for their visions.”

As an adult clinician, I’m uncomfortable using diagnostic terms to label a client’s symptoms or experiences. It often seems limiting, reductionistic, and hurtful. I have psychic friends and acquaintances. They’re not ‘crazy’; their lives work well for them. I also work with people who have experienced what is normally considered psychosis (a break with reality often accompanied by hallucinations), whose lives don’t work so well.

After all these years, I still dwell in the gray area. Is the difference really whether you can make it work for you or not? My first attempt at writing non-fiction was a book I called Raven Stories and Other Non-Ordinary Tales. Here are a couple of excerpts from that manuscript:

Sometimes we just don’t know how to file or make sense of experiences we have. Ours is a cognitive culture.

For several weeks, my friend Marsh called in alarm to report a recurring eerie, bone-chilling, dream. In the dream she experienced a particular event as if it were actually happening to her, yet she wasn’t in the dream itself. She recounted sensory perceptions in vivid detail, unique in all her experience. A month or so later I received another panicked call. She had just read in the newspaper an account of her ‘dream’ as having just happened to someone else.

“Sounds like you’ve had a cross-over experience,” I said, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “This is when you experience something in your body that is actually happening to another individual.”

“This just can’t be real!” she replied. I was sure she was shaking her head in disbelief on the other end of the line. “It doesn’t make sense, it can’t be proven,” she protested. Her grasp on what she defined as reality was being shaken.

“It’s real because it happened,” I said. Not much consolation for her, but the best I could do. I pulled out a quote for back-up: “Such vision is for those who see with the Soul’s sight—and at the vision will rejoice, and awe will fall upon them—for now they are moving in the realm of Truth.” Plotinus, Enneads

In a chapter called “A Child’s Way of Knowing,” I relay this story:

My daughter’s friend, twenty-two year old Alice, remembers her childhood guide, Almaden. She describes him as “a knowing, a presence” inside her head who spoke to her without words. She first became aware of him when she was eight years old, standing beneath a cedar tree in her Sierra Nevada mountain homeland. He guided her through the forest, told her how to find a creek, and to gather certain stones with holes to string for an amulet bracelet to keep her safe. One day she and her sister were playing in a circle of trees they called “the camp.” Books, bags of cookies, an old woolen blanket, and a woven basket of treasures gathered from earth (pine cones, rocks, bird feathers, etc.), were strewn about. Almaden told Alice that he would straighten up the camp while they were gone, and she passed the good news on to her sister. When they returned shortly, the camp was clean!

“It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t hear him,” Alice said. “He just sort of was—it never seemed like anything unusual or worth mentioning to anyone.”

As a child growing up in semi rural Iowa, my very own invisible playmate, Mary Ann, and I had wonderful conversations over my miniature china tea set in the playroom. My parents tolerated (the idea of) her until my father accidentally sat on her. I let out a blood-curdling shriek which catapulted my father from the couch and raised his blood pressure several notches. I don’t remember Mary Ann visiting much after that.

The world of children is rich with intuition and magic, though it appears so ordinary to them. As writer Anne Lamott says, “When we listened to our intuition when we were small and then told the grown-ups what we believed to be true, we were often either corrected, ridiculed, or punished. God forbid you should have your own opinions or perceptions—better to have head lice... So you may have gotten into the habit of doubting the voice that was telling you quite clearly what was really going on. It is essential that you get it back.”

I also remember walking through the redwood forest one autumn morning a few years ago. My pace quickened against the chill in the air. Suddenly, I had the experience of elongating, growing taller, longer of limb. I felt my arms swinging in time with my steps which had become slower and more rhythmic as if I’d fallen into a pattern over a long distance. I felt the earth beneath my bare feet (which in ‘real time’ were clad in tennis shoes) as I strode. I was in a male body, like one of the plains runners in Africa in a documentary I’d seen recently. I’d never before experienced the perspective of someone seven feet tall until that moment.

Dr. Gersten refers to this phenomenon as identity transformation, where the individual feels she has become someone or something else without the terror of losing her own personality. The experience lasted only minutes, and when I came back into my own body, my first thought was, “Well, that was rather unusual.”

Are these “real” altered state experiences or merely brain chemistry at work? I’m no closer to having formed an opinion about that than I was back in adolescence; but I’m still fascinated by the question.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I’m genetically predisposed to be a words person. My mother collected words that fascinated her by their sound or spelling or unusual length. She would repeat these words with reverence, carefully enunciating each syllable as if they were her personal mantra. Onomatopoeia, the formation of words by imitating their sound, like buzz; tintinnabulation, the ringing sound of bells; palindromes, words that are spelled the same or series of numbers that are the same whether you start from front or back, like mom and 103212301; anthropomorphize, the representation of objects as having human form or traits—the words would roll off her tongue and be absorbed by my hungry little ears.

She had an uncanny ability to tell you immediately how many syllables were in any word. It became a game to try and stump her—never happened. Elephantitis, we’d say; and she’d say five before we even finished the word. After she died, and my siblings and I were clearing out years of her life stored in boxes under her bed and crammed in closets, I came across several notebooks with pages of words that seemed unrelated except for this fascination she had with the words themselves.

One morning this week I awoke with the word anthropomorphize stuck in my head. You see a lot of this on television, especially in advertisements. Little squares of cereal dance about a child’s backpack excitedly celebrating the first day back at school; happy cows in California crack jokes about their bovine companions; crows cackle with mirth as a homeowner smacks into a sliding glass door that’s been cleaned to spotless transparency; M&Ms stand stubbornly on the shelf and refuse to jump in the snack bowl—the list goes on.

Not only do we ascribe traits to inanimate objects to sell products, but we use this tactic to teach morals. In my day, The Little Engine That Could taught me about fortitude, hanging in there (“I think I can; I think I can”), giving it your best and being greatly rewarded for your effort (“I thought I could; I thought I could”). There’s a character now called Sponge Bob Square Pants—I had to consult with my daughter about this one—a sponge that lives under the sea in a pineapple (?). He’s good natured, eager, and passionate about life. As do humans, he occasionally frustrates the heck out of his friends. Taking people as they are, perhaps developing tolerance and an appreciation for idiosyncrasies may (or may not) be the message in this cartoon. As you think back over your lifetime, I’m sure myriad examples come to mind.

What is this anthropomorphizing all about? Is it an extrapolation of Carl Jung’s writings on the animus mundi, or world mind? Is it a modern day example of the philosophy that we are all One, united in spirit? I have a feeling that a child in Africa, or China, or India would get a good chuckle at the antics of Snoopy or Woodstock, and would shed tears over Bambi losing his mother. Human traits we can relate to, ascribed to inanimate objects, brought forward by that wonderful word, allow us to connect in a greater community beyond the limitations of our daily lives. I guess that’s worth something.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hands-on Learning

I learn about writing music by sitting at the piano with a 12-stave notebook and a pencil. Then I take that raw form to my computer, open up my Finale music program, fine-tune the math so that the notes fit in the measures, and voi-la! Music.

I learn a lot about writing fiction from reading fiction. Recently I read in The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve, that the etiology of the word fiction comes from the Latin “fingere,” which means “to form.” I like the thought of giving form to the stuff in my head and calling it fiction. So much more literary than calling it chaos, anarchy, absurdity, or any number of other descriptive words for what floats around up there.

I learn about poetry mostly from listening to my poet friends read their word pictures aloud. For me, poetry is also a way of giving form to thought, working with words to create imagery and emotion. It’s more personal; in fiction, you can say almost anything and ascribe it to someone else. In poetry, there’s not much hiding from the fact that these are the poet’s sentiments.

I’m concerned about the ecology of our planet, more so now that I have grand-babies, and therefore a greater attachment to the future beyond where I step aside. The poem below gives form to some of my more bleak ponderings.

The Night the Stars Go Out

We have used up the world.
The ancestors frown from above.
Orion’s Belt drops from the southern sky
And sinks with a thud onto the western horizon.
The Big Dipper runs dry of its celestial stew
Like a ladle in an abandoned soup kitchen.
The ancestors frown from above.
The night the stars go out
A dim smear of rouge like a whore’s makeup
At the end of a long night
Replaces the red planet of Mars in the darkened sky, and
The night owl cries “Why?” “Why?”
The ancestors frown from above.
The night the stars go out
The Seven Sisters die a virginal death in mass suicide;
The Milky Way turns to sand and rains a dark desert.
Scorpio, like an Ouroboros, turns on itself and consumes stinger and all.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

From the Other Chair

I write a lot of stories that are motivated by my life and experience as a therapist. It’s an odd job. It occurs to me that unless you are a therapist, you might not know that. The work has an impact not only on the client, but on the therapist; there are dual relationship issues, lack of anonymity in a small town, secondary traumatization, something called compassion fatigue, as well as larger-than-life projections on who we are as people. The following is reprinted from an article I wrote for Psychology Today in February, 2003.

I live in a community where it is likely that several times a week I will cross paths with current or past clients from my psychotherapy practice. They show up at choir practice, the local organic grocery, next to me in line at the bank or the post office on a Saturday morning, often when I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, my favorite mud-stained tennies, no make-up and my hair in errand-running disarray. Processing the client’s social discomfort of such meetings can take up space in therapy for two or three weeks. Processing my own discomfort focuses on not becoming hyper vigilant about leaving the house.

At the grocery I worry about a quart of Ben and Jerry’s and a cut of steak in my shopping cart offending a bulimic, vegetarian client in line behind me, or a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc losing me credibility with a client in recovery who just got promoted from stock boy to cashier.

There are few guidelines for managing the ambiguities and oddities that occur within the therapeutic relationship.

Last winter, I joined the local women’s gym to offset the sedate lifestyle of daily therapy. I gave up my membership when I passed a towel-clad client on my way to the shower.

Back in my office, parades of psyches sit for the fifty-minute hour on the couch across from me.

They tell me things they wouldn’t tell another living soul: tales of humiliation, pain, psychic torture, irrational beliefs, fears, ruined hopes and dashed dreams. I remember the story of the sin eaters of ancient days, the nomads who would wander the countryside and absorb the pain of the villagers only to be chased away, taking with them the pain and sorrow, leaving the village purged.

There’s something sacred about the process of accompanying someone on their descent to the underworld of their soul-journey, holding the belief that they can return healed, and witnessing their struggles along the way. James Bugental, in The Art of the Psychotherapist, writes, “We are privileged, more than most, to peer into the well of life’s mystery.” Privileged—yes. And, there’s something burdensome about it as well.

In addition to the secondary traumatization of hearing hour upon hour of human misery, there are expectations that come with that intimate sharing.

Clients often expect that I will retain the details of their lives and hold them in this sacred space for years to come. My menopausal mind is greatly challenged by this expectation.

There’s a closeness and trust that forms in the confines of the therapy office. Because we’ve been through so much together, the assumption of friendship seems natural.

It is true that I attend to them and hold them in highest regard, as would a good friend. I believe in them and nurture the unfolding of their potential. I mirror for them the wonderful person they are underneath life’s circumstances. I share their highs and lows, and hold the knowledge that without a doubt, they have a place and a purpose in the universe. And, I remind them that they are unique and valuable, and no one else can be as good a them as they can.

What they don’t have to do in return, is listen to my problems. We can’t meet for tea, go to a movie or a walk on the beach to continue our conversation after the therapy hour. The container of our time together remains my little 8’ x 12’ office.

How do we as therapists show up, day after day, year after year, in intimate and authentic relationship to another where our needs are not addressed?

And how do we handle those growth experiences called negative transference, where emotionally charged verbal tirades at the unfaithful partner, the acting out child, the abusive parent, are hurled at us as though we’ve suddenly shape-shifted into the offending party right before their eyes?

Stress-related disorders, insomnia, anxiety, depression, addictions, and a variety of neuroses are common among therapists.

In consultation groups, small informal social gatherings of peers, and therapy groups for those in the helping professions, my colleagues and I share our stress reduction tricks.

I often use an imaginary shield (or psychic wet suit) that allows me to hear and feel with compassion, to be affected without being infected by psychically assaultive energy.

Having friends who understand, working with a good therapist, and developing your connection to Spirit helps. Give yourself plenty of creative and expressive outlets, read, and spend time alone. Create peer support, laugh, eat healthy food, and make your home a nurturing environment. Play, listen to music that moves you, exercise, and dare to dream. Most importantly, remember why you’ve chosen this particular path.

I marvel at what a strange profession this is. But, is there anything else I’d rather do? Absolutely not.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Been Busy

Autumn is in the air, the days are shorter by an increment, the sun slants with just a hint of summer gone by, and students mull about schoolyards during recess. Summer passed way too quickly for me—whether it’s my mindset or global warming, I can’t tell. My internal thermostat from growing up in the Midwest tells me that winter is just around the corner. Forty years in California has not yet re-calibrated my sensors. I can feel the pull to store food in my cupboards, pull out the flannel sheets, see if my winter clothes still fit. It’s eighty-five degrees outside today.

I am busy at work this month compiling three novellas into a collection, working title Best Laid Plans. That’s my excuse for not having a blog entry for you this week. I’ve also been working on two new songs—a bluesy piece about taking charge of your life, and a song for my twin grandsons about being an individual—and polishing another song, Sundowner, for performance in October at the Center For Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa.

Here is what I hope you can anticipate in the near future: Best Laid Plans: A Collection of Stories

The First Step: Jenny and Shalese, unlikely players on the stage of life, become victims of circumstance, pawns embroiled in a mission masterminded by an underground society of the wealthy and privileged led by Florence, a sociopath oldster. Shalese’s life dream begins to unravel as Mab, a three-hundred pound lesbian bartender by night, P.I. by day, uncovers the society’s sinister plot. (cozy mystery category)

Grapevine: A California Family Tree: follows the twists and turns of relationships between members of the Harding and Flynn families. May Harding clings with a death grip to her dream of a “normal” life as she is catapulted into a future she hadn’t imagined. May battles her internalized homophobia as well as an abusive, alcoholic husband, a run away teen age daughter, a gay son, and her best friend Etta who knows things about May that even May doesn’t know. (family saga category)

Sojourner: is love story with a reincarnation twist. Claire and Andrea, ahead of their time in Victorian England, are kept apart by Claire’s brutally controlling brother, and die of unrequited love. In alternating chapters, we fast forward to current day California where Calle and her lover Ande are compelled to complete the relationship that was begun centuries earlier. (timeless love story category)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Books as a Gift of Love

Every time I walk into the local library, I almost weep with gratitude for the abundance of books that are there at my fingertip. Since childhood, libraries have been a place of refuge, opulence, escape; a place where my mind can soar. Even in communities where there are no formal libraries, there are Bookmobiles.

I’ve come to take for granted knowledge in the form of the written word. For me, books are a way of life. Not everywhere, however.

One of our Sonoma County jewels, writer Regina Ramos Hooker, has taken her love of the written word and her belief that everyone deserves the gift of being able to read, to Africa. Please visit her website to read about the work she is doing there, and to contribute in a way that will enrich and enhance your life as well as the lives of others.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I never know when a story idea is going to spring into my mind. I was sitting in my therapy office, waiting for the arrival of a new client, a young man, wondering what sort of experience this would be. From his intake form I noted that depression and anger were his primary issues.

It was ten minutes until the hour. Sometimes I let my mind wander and play with the possibilities of how a new client will look, sound, how they hold their body, what manner of speech will they use--mental entertainment. A smile played on my lips as I imagined an adolescent voice saying, "Doooood," in that elongated, stoned sort of way. The story began to unfold, but was interrupted by my client's arrival. I supressed a grin as the young man before me in no way resembled the client in my head.

Over the course of a week, the following story emerged:

“Dude,” he says by way of greeting.

“Dude,” I say as I step back and motion him into the 8 x 10 cell that passes as a therapy room in the psychiatric clinic where I spend my daylight hours. Feeble sunlight filters through a slit of window.

He eyes the sofa, and then my chair.

“Mine,” I say. “Yours,” I point to the couch that matches the colors of the art on the wall behind it.

“Dude,” he says again as he settles his gangly frame onto the couch.

I can’t wait to see how this is going to turn out, I think. So far we’ve transacted business and established turf with one-syllable words.

“I’m Alice,” I venture two syllables, using my first name over the more off-putting “Doctor” that six years of schooling affords me.

He nods. I already know his name of course. I’m holding his chart. I put it on the spindly wooden table next to my chair.

“Drugs,” I give a nod towards his chart.

“Drugs,” he says and gives a what-can-you-do shrug.

He’s twenty-three going on fourteen, dressed in baggy black pants and an oversized sweatshirt with a sports logo on it. Large feet in expensive running shoes with laces undone tap out a rhythm my ears don’t hear. A mop of shaggy hair the color of corn silk brings out the boyishness in his features. His eyes are dark amber, flecked with mahogany. He twirls a baseball cap on his finger as he takes in the room, risks a glance my way.

“Shamus,” I try out his name and wait a beat. “What isn’t working for you right now?” I anticipate a clip remark or a smartass retort heavily laden with denial.

A deep sigh, full of troubled years, disappointments, fears, and frustrations preludes his answer. “Life, man,” he says finally. “Life isn’t working for me.”

“Oh no, not another one,” Sylvie said with a roll of her eyes as I walked in and tossed my briefcase on the étagère.

“What?” I said, embarrassed at being so transparent.

“You’ve got that “rescue sad puppy” look. Another kid? Abused? Abandoned? We have our quota—one dog, one cat. That’s it.”

She knew me well. Sylvie and I had been living together for six years. The first of those years we were lovers. That didn’t work out. We make great family and take liberties with each other we’d never dream of taking with friends. Sylvie saw me through my clinical social work program during which she survived years of neglect and misdirected frustration, although she may not have noticed as she was doing her residency in pediatrics at that time.

“Let me remind you of GeriAnn, over whom you grieved for a month, unable to eat, sleep; you’d burst into tears at the drop of a hat, you could barely function at work,” she said, her eyes holding mine in a “don’t go there” mandate.

“She overdosed,” I complained. “It didn’t have to happen. We failed her,” I pleaded.

“Bullshit, the girl was a drug addict.” Sylvie’s tough love approach to the heartache that came with the territory of working with troubled teens was belied by the quiver of her bottom lip and the break in her voice. I loved that about her.

The next week Shamus sat on the couch in my office, his eyes fixed on a point outside my window.

“What are you looking at so intently?” I asked.

“Wind,” he said, as if it should be obvious.

“You mean the effect of wind—like branches blowing, clouds drifting…” I clarified.

“No; just wind.” He brought his attention back into the room, squinted at me as if gazing through a bank of fog, and allowed me to finish the intake form.

I relayed the eerie quality of Shamus’ session to Sylvie during dinner that night.

“So, did you ask?” she said, giving me that piercing look that suggests I’ve missed an incredible opportunity.

“Did I ask what?”

She sighed. “What wind looks like, of course. Aren’t you curious?”

“Wind doesn’t look like anything; it’s invisible,” I said, sounding oddly defensive even to myself.

“I wonder if it looks different than breeze, for instance…” she mused, lost in thought.

The following week, Shamus sat looking at the floor.

“Something on your mind?” I inquired. “You appear to be avoiding eye contact with me,” I observed aloud.

“There’s too much stuff in the room…” he said.

I glanced around the room; there was the same amount of “stuff” as there was the previous two weeks—sofa, chair, desk, small table, lamp.

“…between here and there,” he said, gesturing the distance between us.

Sylvie’s voice rang out in my mind, “Did you ask?” I leaned slightly forward in my chair and asked,

“Can you tell me about the stuff you see?”

He raised his chin slowly; his eyes seemed to refocus like when you come from the sunlight into a darker room. A hint of a smile played on his lips and his shoulders relaxed for the first time since we’d met. The next moment, it was as if a dark cloud had moved in suddenly and shrouded him. He turned away, lips pressed tightly together.

“Shamus, what just happened? You were going to tell me something, then you stopped yourself,” I shared my speculation.

“You wouldn’t believe me; no one does,” he said, his voice a mere murmur.

“I want to understand your experience, Shamus,” I said, noticing for the first moment that I really did want to know what was going on in his mind. At that moment I wanted to know so badly that tears were brimming in my eyes. I blinked to clear them.

It’s a common phenomenon in therapy for the therapist to actually feel the feelings the client is unable or unwilling to feel. I took a big risk and said, “I’m feeling incredibly sad right now; I’m not sure why.”

When he turned his head to face me again, tears rolled silently down his cheeks. He put his hands to his face and patted the wetness as if unsure it was coming from him.

“I’m thinking you’ve been holding onto something way too long,” I shared. “Are you ready to take a risk and tell me about it?”

A moment passed, then he said simply, “I see space.”

I merely nodded, prompting him to go on.

“Between solid objects, where other people see only emptiness…” he looked at me to see my reaction.

I kept my face neutral and nodded again.

“I see molecules; billions of them, smaller than the ones that make up solid objects. They’re in constant motion. They’re everywhere—there’s nowhere that they’re not.”

“My God,” I uttered, overwhelmed by the very thought.

“I used to think I was crazy. It wasn’t until Science class in the fifth grade when we learned about molecules, that I understood what it was. I must just have really, really good eyes.” He folded his hands in his lap and stared at them.

This young man has had to create a different language to explain his experience of life, one that no one else shares. There’s no respite. How do you even keep your balance when the world is in constant motion around you? Shamus, indeed, saw air. Now the drugs make sense! The isolation of living a life like this tore at my heart. I was speechless. I put my hand over my heart and patted it gently.

Shamus looked up, took note of my gesture; he raised an eyebrow, and with a shrug he said, “You asked.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Happy Anniversary

One year ago today, my editor at the time strongly suggested I develop a “web presence” for “social networking.” Being quasi-computer illiterate, the words made no sense to me. That, however, has rarely stopped me. With the help of my nephew, Matthew, and my sister, Sus, we launched a blog site dedicated to the rather broad category of creativity.

Thank you to the 1457 visitors who have checked in from all around the world (there’s actually a statistics function that tells me such things) in support of my blog. In celebration of creativity, please check the following website to enjoy the transformative art of Erika Iris Simmons from Atlanta, GA:

Keep coming back!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Food As Creativity

I lived in Berkeley, CA in my mid-twenties. It was wonderful and the inspiration for many of my stories. I shared a big house with a bunch of people; we’d have spaghetti dinners at two a.m., long lazy Sunday brunches where we’d munch on lox and bagels while scanning the New York Times and the Berkeley Barb.

One of my housemates, Les, was an incredible cook. Beef Burgundy and French Chicken were his specialties. Looking back, the household was loosely organized around food, the preparing and consuming of rather large quantities of it. I learned to eschew the scant portions and irrational focus on presentation of California nouveau cuisine. A good jug wine sufficed—no pretentious labels or conversation about bouquet and palate in this household.

Chez Pannise had just opened over on Shattuck Ave. It was the be-all-end-all must-try place for anyone-who-is-anyone in the Bay Area. Alice Waters was becoming an upscale household name. We had to check this out. I took my personal scorn and sat across from my housemate, leaning my elbows on the white linen tablecloth. I couldn’t hide my disdain (and as a twenty-something year old, I had plenty of disdain) at the “salad” I’d ordered. Give me a flippin’ break already—this is a lettuce leaf, or leaf of endive, if I’m to be accurate—with a cube of something, a scallop perhaps, and with some other unidentifiable substance drizzled over the top in a decorative “z” pattern. I rolled my eyes over that for months.

Thank goodness we grow up, expand our awareness and our palate, step out of our self-important lives and take in some of the bounty of what culture has to offer or I would have missed one of the most exquisite experiences of my adult life. Some years ago, my friend and I, my daughter, and a friend of hers drove over to Yountville for a late night reservation at The French Laundry. There were seven courses—thank goodness they were all minuscule—each bursting with flavors to die for, beautifully presented, and paired with just the right wine. This was culinary art at its finest, and its most expensive. It was a glimpse of heaven on earth and set in my soul a craving for fine dining.

Give me a raw oyster bar and a good chardonnay, or an exquisite chocolate mousse and a fine cup of coffee and I’m a happy camper.

All this is a lengthy introduction to an excerpt from my story, The First Step, which illustrates how I call upon my life for background material in writing. In this chapter, Shalese, a no-nonsense, blue collar social worker from south side Chicago meets Jenny, a trust fund baby for whom fine dining is a given, and Florence, a wealthy octogenarian obsessed with power and control, at an upscale wine bar in northern California. Shalese’s goal is to create a half-way house for female ex-felons of which Jenny is. She’s also beautiful. Florence has more money than God to invest in a project that will further her own hidden agenda.

In the tiny parking lot of K Syrah there was an open spot next to Jenny’s silver Miata—a car that smacked of white privilege in Shalese’s book. She eased her old Honda in, turned off the ignition, and sat listening to the chatter and laughter of the early crowd on the patio. She unbuttoned the top button of her shirt, took a deep breath, slung her dressy jacket over her shoulder, and gently opened the car door, hoping to avoid the usual skreek of the hinge. Skreek. “Damn,” she muttered.

The old stone building looked like a place where you’d find big bosomed wenches draped over fat squires drunk on ale. The cobblestone pathway led to an intricately engraved oak door that opened into a dimly lit bar. Small red shades dripping crystals hung over low watt bulbs giving the bar a womb-like feeling. Wine glasses glinted overhead suspended upside down from a light oak rack. Soft music, something mid-eastern with zithers, gongs, and chimes subdued the clink of glassware and china.

Shalese spotted Jenny and Florence at a corner table. Introductions were made and the usual small talk gotten out of the way while they squinted in the dimness at the over-sized menus. A New Age Earth goddess named Brie guided them through the specials and returned shortly with the first round of wine and a variety of tapas to begin their evening. Shalese felt like she’d stepped into an ad in one of those pretentious California living magazines, but Jenny seemed quite at home, as did Florence in her matching sweater set and pearls.

Florence swirled her Cabernet, checked the color and clarity, and took a sip. "Mmm," she moaned, "when you start with the best, where else is there to go? So tell me dear, how did this dream of a halfway house come about?" She leaned back in her chair, hands folded in her lap and looked at Shalese in the way people watch pigeons from a park bench.

Jenny was absorbed in spreading soft smelly cheese drizzled with truffle oil on a crisp of bread, her mouth puckered in concentration. She wore a serpentine green sleeveless dress the color of her eyes, and her long blond hair was caught back in a casual bun with wisps curling along her cheekbone.

If I were in the desert, she’d be one long, cool sip of water, Shalese thought. She unglued her eyes from Jenny and with difficulty fixed them on Florence. "Long story short," she said, "a friend of mine was married to an abuser. When she recovered from the latest near-death beating, she bought a gun and shot him in the…well, crippled him for life. Went to prison, and a week after she got paroled, he hunted her down and killed her." Shalese sat back with a sigh, reached for her chardonnay, and then changed her mind, unsure that she could swallow right then. Memories of Vanessa’s petite body lying in a pool of blood on the living room floor came rushing back. She shook her head slowly. "She never had a chance to start over."

"So, that's what you want to do—give women a chance to start over," Florence said, "create a different life for themselves." She forked a bacon wrapped scallop into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Shalese nodded.

Jenny swallowed a bite of butternut squash orzo and smiled. She fingered a strand of small amber beads that hung around her neck and looked at Shalese from under long blond lashes. "Where did she go when she got out—your friend? Where did he find her?" she said, joining the conversation.

"My house. I was at work. I couldn't protect her. Will you excuse me for a moment?" Shalese said, blotting at her eye with the corner of her cocktail napkin as she left the table.

"Oh dear, that poor girl," Florence said.

"Shalese or her friend?"

"Both," Florence said and took another sip of her Cabernet.

My future plan is to combine this story with two other novella-length pieces, Grapevine: A California Family Tree, and Sojourn, into a collection that will be called Best Laid Plans, dealing with the undiminishable spirit of women as they navigate the challenges of life. Watch for it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I Probably Need To Get Out More Often

In a recent e-mail, my brother Bill writes, “I've been told before that I'm easily impressed.” I can relate, which weighs heavily on the nature over nurture argument, since he was only 11 or 12 when I left home. One of my favorite activities as a young, and only, child was to watch the tar bubble in the streets on one of those unbelievably hot Iowa summer afternoons. I’d poke the little bubbles with a stick until they’d pop and run (precursor to adolescence, no doubt). This could entertain me for an insane amount of time.

My brother continues, “Comments like ‘You need to get out more often’ have been hurled at me in the past. But today I was impressed. Brooke and I were watching an ant carry a dead beetle. This beetle had to be 10- times bigger than the ant. We watched it go at least 15-feet. He (the ant) would stop every once in awhile to (we surmised) catch his breath.”

I also remember from childhood, the beautiful rainbow puddles left on the concrete driveway after a rain. I knew they were magic, gifts from the rain gods left for me to play with, to swirl my finger through and enjoy the ripple of colors. My parents said they were from an oil leak under the car. What did they know; they were just adults.

To be able to see the world as an adult through child eyes is a rich gift. For me, it’s the genesis of art and creativity. Dare to be young.

p.s. the photo above is from my vacation in Belize. It's a gnarled tree root that had been chopped off. When I passed it, my child eyes saw it and gasped, "ah, look--a monkey!" Do you see it?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Other Shoe

Where do they come from, these shoes abandoned along the side of the road, in a muddy field, in the middle of a busy intersection, floating in the rushes along the bank of the creek? They’re everywhere. Where’s the other one? Does it go home to live a short life as half a couple thrown in the back of a dark closet until it meets its fate in the garbage bin? What does one do with one shoe? Hop?

I get disconcerted about things that others seem to take in stride. Like mucus. This last allergy season was horrific. Every year I pledge to invest a huge amount in Kleenex stock. I remember that unfulfilled pledge each summer as I’m purchasing my umpteenth-zillionth box of tissue to accommodate an unending supply of mucus. I mean really, where does it all come from? No one should be that prolific.

And mosquitoes! Don’t even get me started. What a total waste of creative energy. I see absolutely no purpose for mosquitoes. I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so.

There are a plethora of smaller nuisances that barely deserve mentioning—colors that clash badly, poor grammar (I am my mother’s daughter after all), scented hairspray, bad breath, shoes with no arch support… You perhaps have your own list.

Am I overlooking the really, really big stuff, like war, poverty, famine, disease, injustice, cruelty? Not at all. Those are abundantly addressed in our society. This is a mere respite, a light-hearted blog, a breath of fresh air to rejuvenate us so we can go back out there and fight the good fight, love bigger and better, shine brighter and stronger. Live on!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

More Bits and Pieces

Update: Occasionally I get feedback on my posts—I love it! Regarding my July 10 posting on Spirit Guides, my friend Nancy down near Los Gatos writes, “I loved reading this! Did you know that scientists have found that when cats & dogs look at you intently like that and then consciously blink, they are acknowledging a connection to you? It's like the animal kingdom's way of saying "Namaste."

This morning’s bits and pieces, those moments I try to capture before they’re gone in a flash (see July 3 posting), is about my bicycle. I got it from my grandparents when I was seven, and through many seasons of cousins learning to ride on it, several paint jobs (thanks brother Bill), and years of retirement in my folks potting shed in Colorado, we were reunited a few years ago. We are inseparable now, as we were in my childhood.

I pedal my antique Schwinn through midday autumn. The scent of burnt wood from fireplaces wraps its invisible tendrils of smoke around currents of air. Against a backdrop of cloudless blue hang orange, gold, green and crimson leaves that glitter hypnotically as the sun teases the shadow branches. An updraft of breeze at my back hurls a tornado of colorful leaves that spin crazily about my head, around my body, through the spokes of my bicycle wheels. Clickety, clickety, clickety—like the playing cards fastened with clothespins from a childhood over five decades ago. I laugh aloud. A crow cocks its head from a telephone wire at this old lady on her bicycle. Caw, it chortles.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Three Little Words That Work!!

I’ve always considered myself a relatively polite person. I hold telemarketers with compassion, knowing they’re just doing their job—and that you couldn’t pay me enough to do that particular job. In the past I’ve terminated the conversation early, after they’ve obliterated the pronunciation of my name, by saying, “Is this a telemarketing call?” That seems to stun them into silence or babbled excuses. Then I merely tell them I don’t accept telemarketing calls, thank them for understanding that, and I hang up.

There are days, like when the car won’t start, or my hair looks like I’ve slept upside down, or I can’t find my keys, or—any number of things—when I’m feeling less charitable. I don’t want to be bothered just as I sit down to dinner, or walk in the door after a long day. I’m not feeling particularly compassionate at those times. Woe to the next telemarketer who calls me on a bad day now that I’ve received the following e-mail:

(1)The three little words are:*'Hold On, Please...' *

Saying this, while putting down your phone and walking off (instead of hanging-up immediately) would make each telemarketing call so much more time consuming that boiler room sales would grind to a halt.

Then when you eventually hear the phone company's 'beep-beep-beep' tone, you know it's time to go back and hang up your handset, which has efficiently completed its task.

These three little words *will help* eliminate telephone soliciting.*

(2) Do you ever get those annoying phone calls with no one on the other end? *

This is a telemarketing technique where a machine makes phone calls and records the time of day when a person answers the phone.

This technique is used to determine the best time of day for a 'real' sales person to call back and get someone at home.

What you can do after answering, if you notice there is no one there, is to immediately start hitting your * # button on the phone, 6 or 7 times as quickly as possible.* This confuses the machine that dialed the call, and it kicks your number out of their system. Gosh, what a shame not to have your name in their system any longer!!!*

(3) Junk Mail Help:*
When you get 'ads' enclosed with your phone or utility bill, return these 'ads' with your payment. Let the sending companies throw their own junk mail away.

When you get those 'pre-approved' letters in the mail for everything from credit cards to 2nd mortgages and similar type junk, do not throw away the return envelope.

Most of these come with postage-paid return envelopes, right? It costs them more than the regular 41 cents postage 'IF' and when they receive them back.

It costs them nothing if you throw them away! The postage was around 50 cents before the last increase and it is according to the weight. In that case, why not get rid of some of your other junk mail and put it in these cool little, postage-paid return envelopes. *

One of Andy Rooney's (60 minutes) ideas. *

Send an ad for your local chimney cleaner to American Express. Send a pizza coupon to Citibank. If you didn't get anything else that day, then just send them their blank application back! If you want to remain anonymous, just make sure your name isn't on anything you send them.

You can even send the envelope back empty if you want to just to keep them guessing! It still costs them 41 cents.

The banks and credit card companies are currently getting a lot of their own junk back in the mail, but folks, we need to OVERWHELM them. Let's let them know what it's like to get lots of junk mail, and best of all they're paying for it...Twice!

Let's help keep our postal service busy since they are saying that e-mail is cutting into their business profits, and that's why they need to increase postage costs again. You get the idea!

If enough people follow these tips, it will work ---- I have been doing this for years, and I get very little junk mail anymore.

Again, I’m just sharing an e-mail I received. Please, don’t shoot the messenger.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spirit Guides

I certainly have those. Author Hal Zina Bennett* speaks of spirit guides in the imaginal realm of invisible reality. I referred to them as my muses or ancient ancestors in my June 12th blog, Music as Creativity. I also have guides in the present, manifested in body, that are a source of safety, wisdom, inspiration, and guidance. Let me introduce you to my turtle guide.

In October, 2005, my friends Trudy, Joan, Joan’s brother Marty and I vacationed in Maui, HI. Everything about island life suited my soul, the warmth, the moisture in the air, the trade winds, the vibrant colors. We’d wake at sunrise with the sound of tropical bird, so much brighter and louder than their mainland relatives, have fresh fruit smoothies, don our swimsuits, throw flippers and snorkel paraphernalia over our shoulders and head for the beach.

Joan, Marty, and Trudy grew up near the ocean and are strong, confident swimmers. I grew up on the Mississippi River where activities such as skiing, boating, tubing were on top of the water. It was so grungy you didn’t really want to swim in it. My friends are natural athletes, good upper body strength from years of tennis. I remember playing tennis somewhere back in junior high for a few months. They are strong hikers. I stroll.

Our first morning there, Joan showed me the snorkeling ropes in the 3 foot end of the condo pool. I’m a nose breather and not big on having my air supply blocked, and the concept of spitting on my goggles to keep them fog free unsettled my stomach. And flippers—how the heck do you stand up in the water with those on your feet? She was a very patient teacher.

The first day I stayed near the beach, wandering maybe fifty feet from the water’s edge to bend over and stick my face in the ocean, hoping to see some form of sea life as my companions romped and played in the waves, shouting and signaling to each other when a coral reef or an amazing school of fish were found.

My second day, I ventured a little farther from the beach and actually tried out those flippers. Wow. There’s a whole world under the water that I’d never seen. I curbed my natural tendency to gasp with joy and amazement after inhaling a bucket load of salt water down my tube. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of clamping off the tube to dive deeper.

By day three, I was fearless. Well, tentatively fearless. We were in a cove known for dolphin visitation at a particular time of morning. They swim in to play with the tourists for half an hour or so, then swim back out to sea—it’s an amazing display of inter-species connection. Joan, Trudy, and Marty were far enough from shore that I used our bird-watching field glasses to enjoy their cavorting about with the dolphins. The dolphins would jump high into the air, spin around, and dive back under. My friends would swim in between them, laughing, throwing their arms up in glee. They waved at me, gesturing for me to join them. It sure looked like they were having fun. They sure were a long way from shore. I had about twenty minutes left to decide. I walked to the water’s edge, donned my flippers, and awkwardly waddled out to the deeper water.

The warm water felt delicious and the sun glimmered on the ocean floor beneath me. Small schools of fish slipped around my body as I swam slowly in the direction of my friends. I skimmed over beautiful patches of coral and sea grasses. I’d mastered the art of keeping my snorkel above water and breathing regularly through the tube in my mouth. Every few moments, I’d lift my head to assure myself I was headed in the right direction and making progress. I still had an awfully long distance to swim when I got a cramp in my foot. Reflexively, I looked back to shore. Uh oh, I was farther out than I’d thought. The water was cooler here and I noticed I felt a little chill in my body. I scooted my goggles to the top of my head so I could breathe through my nose for a moment as I bobbed up and down in the water. With one flipper in my left hand I massaged my foot with my right hand. Where is a camera when you need one?

Cramp gone, flipper back on my foot, goggles in place, and tube in mouth I headed again towards the dolphins. Oh no, they seemed to have moved farther out. My friends were swimming after them. One turned and motioned me back to shore, too far for me. The bottom of the ocean was no longer visible out here, nothing to place my feet on to feel safe. My body tensed, my heart rate sped up, and I began to panic.

I thrashed about aiming for shore, convinced if I just powered through, I’d make it. I raised my head to check on my progress. I was farther out than I was a minute ago. I must be in one of those cross currents. My mind reeled—what are you supposed to do? Swim to the side? I couldn’t remember. I thrashed harder, kicking as if my life depended on it. I was tired, scared, cold, and confused. Something to the left of me caught my eye and I turned my head slightly.

It was a giant gray-green sea turtle. I know water distorts, but it look at least three feet wide across its shell. Its head turned slowly on its thick neck, and with huge eyes, it regarded me flopping around in the water. Something like a patient smile turned its lips up slightly at the corner. Mesmerizingly slowly, its eyelids closed and then opened in a knowing blink. The very presence of this turtle instilled some sort of hope in me and I stopped gasping in air. The turtle stayed right next to me, its huge arms moving in slow motion back and forth in the water. It would turn its patient blink my way as if to say, “Try it this way.” I did. I regulated my breathing, put my head face down in the water, and slowly waved my arms back and forth at my side instead of the pell-mell, over head grasping at water that had worn me out. I turned to check my progress with the turtle that nodded ever so slightly and continued by my side. Instead of flapping my legs like a crazy woman, I used the flippers as they were designed to be used, in a slow, regular motion that propelled me through the water with much less effort.

We traveled on, side by side, turning our heads and nodding at each other. At one point I risked a smile and took in some ocean water. I decided I’d just smile with my eyes from that point on. I raised my head to see how far we’d come. The beach was in sight. It was reachable. I felt a rush of energy as I put my face back down in the water and discovered that in just a few moments my feet would reach bottom. My heart pounded, but this time in joy and gratitude. I righted myself on my flippers and turned to thank the turtle. It raised its head from the water, gave one final blink, dove under the water and swam off to the left.

From that day forward, I have acknowledged turtle as another of my wonderful spirit guides.

*Reference: Bennett, Hal Zina Ph.D., Spirit Guides, Tenacity Press, CA, 1997, p. 65 Meeting Your Spirit Guide

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Bits and Pieces

For years I’ve carried a pad of paper in the back seat of my car and a tiny notebook in my tote bag just in case I stumble upon a moment I want to remember. These moments are often so small and seemingly insignificant they risk getting lost in the clutter of my mind, yet they speak to a place inside of me that recognizes “special” even in its briefest form. I can only liken it to the sensation when a butterfly lands on my finger for a just a heartbeat, or a hummingbird stops inches from my face to stare me in the eyes and then is gone in a zip of wings.

Here are a few such moments:

Spider: The tires of my dusty orange VW Bug flatten dried oak leaves that carpet the parking lot. The leaves crackle and snap like blazing kindling. I park in the shade, turn off the engine, and roll the window down to capture a trickle of breeze. The scent in the air jogs a potpourri of olfactory memories from childhood, a mixture of the spray starch my mother used to use when ironing that made a scorched smell, and bubbling tar, and dust, and rhubarb snapped fresh from the garden.

Tumbling from an overhanging branch, a small brown spider drops with a soundless plop onto the hood of my car. Gathering herself together into a wobbly stance, she glares through the windshield at me with an “I meant to do that” stare, and staggers off on long spindly legs.

Ant: As I bend down to the water arcing from the fountain at the end of the trail, my eye fixes on a small cluster of twigs, the color of autumn wheat in Iowa, caught in the drain grid. There is a black spot on one twig that I imagine is a nothing more than a clump of dirt.

The cool water ripples over my dry lips and quenches my hiker’s thirst. Drawing back, I notice the speck of dirt move, showing itself to be an ant. I apologize to the ant for my mistake. It shrugs its minuscule black shoulder as if to suggest it is used to being mistaken for a bit of dirt, and slips quietly beneath the spongy end of a twig. I feel curiously saddened.

Flower Power: They sway in the breeze, three sisters sharing a communal terra cotta pot, Coral, Rose, and Angora Sweater Pink. Like wrong-colored daisies, they reach, bend toward the sun, and beckon a low-flying iridescent hummingbird, seducing her with their vibrancy.

Eyes closed, the neighbor’s tiger-striped cat bats gently with soft paws at dream birds in her sleep as she lies curled around the pot on the warm brick patio.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Forgotten But Not Gone

Twelve years ago, I submitted an essay to a woman enthusiastically engaged in compiling an anthology of women’s invincible spirit as they move through the challenges and obstacles of life’s journey. It was a daunting task. Many agents and publishers were approached only to find the book “wasn’t a good fit” for their needs (a recurring theme for all writers at some point in their career).

Eventually, I let go of anticipation and figured it was another good idea that bit the dust. Years passed. This weekend I retrieved a package from my mailbox. The return address sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it immediately. I opened the package to find a paperback book, Potpourri For And About Women. Nice, I thought. I wonder who sent it to me.

Under the front cover was a lovely note from the author, thanking me for my contribution to her book. This was a copy in thanks and recognition. What contribution, I wondered. I read on. She pointed out the story name and page number of my submission. Oh my gosh; I’d forgotten all about that piece. I scanned the list of contributors, and there was my friend Marsh’s name too.

I e-mailed Marsh about my literary faux pas at having forgotten I’d even submitted a story. She wrote back, the chuckle obvious in her words. She, too, had forgotten she’d submitted a piece twelve years prior, as had her friend, Susan, whose piece was also in the anthology.

In the author’s preface, she states, “Sharing our secrets and personal life details with others is also one of the primary means by which we humans “connect” with one another.” With that in mind, I offer you my (rediscovered) piece, “She.”

She is an observer—that is the way she participates. She witnesses; she records. She walks along the beach close to the water’s edge.

A sea otter, bobbing in and out of foamy surf, tracks her. A gray pelican dips its wings as it skims the water. The waves lap at the edges of her shoes. Fat seagulls eye her in search of food. She carries only feathers and sand speckled stones gathered from the beach.

A couple meanders by holding hands, enveloped in that aura that separates them from others. She is not part of a couple. She is a woman alone. She tells others she’s become too set in her ways, values her solitude too much to relearn the art of partnering. She tells herself she is withered from aloneness and no longer believes she has what is needed to share. She is left with a quiet longing and the ability to observe.

She parks her chaise lawn chair on the very edge of the water. The surf at high tide comes rushing, swirling beneath her, surrounding her in gray foam and motion. She lets her fingers dangle in the Pacific. She is on an island, a tiny oasis of dull green and weathered white woven strands of porous nylon that holds her inches above being swept away by the pull of the receding water. She smiles as her mind drifts out to sea.

Sitting at the water’s edge, she shares the crusts of her sandwich and a few stray grapes with a seagull. Gulls, feathers puffed in anticipation, beaks agape in expectation, besiege her. She throws her whole sandwich onto the beach and covers her ears at the cacophony that follows.

A walnut colored sea otter floats by just off shore. With whiskers twitching, it arches its sleek back, dives serpent like into the waves, and disappears.

A gray pelican, head, neck, and body forming a flying “Z” skims the surface of the water. He retreats to the peak of a barnacle encrusted volcanic rock and preens himself in the sun.

She rises and plays a game of chase with her bare feet inching her toes ever closer to the receding foam and skip-jumping backward, just in time as the surf breaks and rushes forth to capture lost ground. She loses. Icy water swirls about her and she sinks ever so slightly, as the sand shifts beneath her weight.

She hadn’t noticed a family walking toward her inland along the beach. They’ve come for the day, or perhaps forever—it’s hard to tell. They are laden with beach paraphernalia. A small girl child trails slightly behind wearing a quality of God about her tiny frame. Shiny dark hair hangs straight to her thin shoulders; her skin is the same walnut color as the sea otter. Her sun-browned feet leave miniature prints in the sand. She appears like a tiny packhorse carrying a bulky burlap sack in each arm. A brightly colored serape is thrown over her shoulders, its tattered corner trails behind her in the sand.

The family passes, taking no notice of the woman at the water’s edge. Their voices speak a language unfamiliar to her ears. The girl child pauses to consider the woman. Her almond shaped brown eyes sparkle—or maybe it’s the sun glinting off the cornea of her eyes. A shy smile reveals three dark spaces where teeth were perhaps weeks ago. The woman feels vulnerable and exposed in the girl child’s steady gaze; a chill passes through her, and then her heart warms and softens. She looks away from the child and then back again. The girl says something in that foreign tongue that sounds like, “it’s okay, lady.” A tear slips form the woman’s eye. The girl child walks on.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Art by Babies

Long week, short entry. Something I find immensely creative is refrigerator art. Have you noticed how your eyes are drawn to your friend’s or relative’s refrigerator door when you’re standing around in the kitchen? What does it say about us as a culture that we cover our refrigerator doors with snapshots, art work, cartoons, magnets with social/political/spiritual messages, theater tickets, etc.?

If I could figure out how to post more than two pictures on a blog, I’d do a study of all the refrigerator doors in my world that I spend long moments gazing at, looking for faces I recognize or memories I share. “Oh, I remember that party.” “I can’t believe your dog was ever that little.” “Aging hippies against the bomb? Right On.”

I digress. What I wanted to write about today was the one piece of art on my refrigerator door that stakes my claim in the Grandma Club. The grand twins, Linc and Ev, now go to a daycare center that keeps their little hands and minds busy all day with movement, music, games, and art (they also catch lots of colds, but that’s just the trade off). The butterflies at the top were their first art project—finger painting. They were eight months old at the time. I mean, I didn’t finger paint until kindergarten!

Some very brave teachers put out sheets of paper and let the little critters smear colors and goo all over (including themselves). Then the teachers cut shapes of butterflies out of the finger painted areas, mounted them on paper and sent them home to the proud parents.

I love having a picture of the outcome to add to my refrigerator door. Even more, what I would love to have had is a picture of the process!

Now for a SPECIAL TREAT (thanks sister Sus for forwarding this), please check out this video by Ilana Yahav who does fantastic sand art. Truly mesmerizing.
, sa

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Music as Creativity

In my Sept. 4, 2009 blog, I wrote about my journey as a song-catcher—how words, images, tunes come to me in a way that I just have to stop whatever I’m doing and write them down. I’m convinced an ancestor has found me and decided I would be the vehicle for her/his thwarted musical expression.

The song, Sundowner (if you click on the picture above, it will enlarge), came first as a title. When I lived in Berkeley several decades ago, I read a lot of Doris Lessing. It was a phase. They were always having sundowner parties with cocktails and friends chatting. I loved the word, sundowner. One afternoon last year, it just popped into my mind as a song title. So where’s the rest of it? I asked of the muses (ancestor?) that occasionally mess with my head. Silence. No fair! I complain. I sense a smirk from somewhere in the ethers.

Months pass and I’m on my computer checking e-mail. A tune drifts into my mind. Hmm. Where have I heard that before? I search my memory for bits and pieces of music from my personal history, tunes from childhood, etc. We were a musical family prone to singing obscure songs none of my other friends knew, like K-K-K Katie, and Doodley Do. But, I can’t place this tune.

The tune repeats itself. Oh—right; this is one of those run to the piano moments and write down the notes. I transfer my pencil scribbles onto music notation paper and grapple with the math of getting four beats per measure including rests. Why does music often come to me in a key with four flats? I change keys and try again. One sharp—that’s do-able. The music takes one and a half stanzas. Well, it’s a start. I wait. I wait some more. I give up and go back to my e-mail.

Weeks pass and I’m vacuuming the living room. Just another sundowner light inspired song… I turn off the vacuum and listen. Do these words go with the tune I wrote down last month? I go to the file I keep on my piano and search through the bits and pieces of paper. There it is, Sundowner. The lyrics fill exactly two measures and one note of the music, leaving over four measures of music wordless. Looks like I’m going to have to effort to fill in the lyrics for the remaining notes. Then of course I’ll need more notes—lots more notes, and more words. Oh, my. The photo on the right shows a few incarnations the song went through on its journey.

It was a long journey stretched over the better part of a year of adding music and lyrics, a little here, a little there. Some of it was provided (thank you honored ancestor), some of it was just plain elbow grease. I took my finished song to my very skillful mentor, Melissa Phillippe, for a tune-up when I’d done as much as I could. “It needs structure,” she said. “Songs have a structure.” She proceeded to draw a chart illustrating verse, chorus, bridge, refrain and how they all fit together to create a song. Sheesh, who knew? Back to the drawing board.

What I wound up with is a short song that I actually like enough to share with you. It says a lot about my spiritual philosophy without being overly wordy. Is it structurally perfect? No, (although it’s less embarrassing than when I first showed it to Melissa) but that wasn’t my goal. Did I feel completely immersed in creative flow while I worked on it? Absolutely. That’s what lights me up. That’s what’s important: Do what lights you up.

Post Script: There is a good chance this song will actually be performed in October in a Talent Showcase format, sung and played by jazz musician/singer extraordinaire Randal Collen. I ask you, does life get any better than this?

PSS: check out Melissa's website at